THE MIDDLE ROUNDS
“They all want to become champion. But reality sets in and then you start to become an opponent. And then after you become an opponent, you become a sparring partner.”
When he woke in the morning, Pearly was gone. There was a knocking in his head. It was the door. A knocking at the door. His head hurt, like a hangover. The day-after a fight. Headaches. Always headaches. Migraines and pains in the muscles. Aches. Like an old man’s aches. Like an old woman’s. Like having flu. The day after. The day after the fight.
He got up and answered the door.
—Come on come on, Billy Faherty said. Get the lead out of your ass. We got to drive all the fuckn way back to Sticks, Kid.
—Give me a minute, Kid told him, and packed up his gear. That girl…
Kid put everything in his duffel bag and said he was ready.
—Let’s go, Billy Farts said.
They both woke in the middle of the morning. Got up, drank some water. Afterward, they talked:
—You know what my greatest figure is?—
Her tits, her ass, her...
—I don’t know.—
—I’m in Mensa, she said.
Kid thought of blood flowing from her. But there was no blood flow.
—It’s an organization for geniuses, Pearly said.
—You’re a genius? he asked.
—I have a 180 IQ, she said.
—Is that good?—
—I never met a genius, Kid said.
—Now you can say that you fucked a genius in Atlantic City, Pearly told him. I graduated with a three-point-seven-nine grade-point average in Communications Disorders from Rutgers.—
All of this was beyond Kid.
—Dean’s List, she said. Summa cum laude.—
Then they fell back to sleep.
—Your arms are long, she said.
—I have a sixteen-inch neck and a thirty-five inch sleeve. Everything else on me is compact.—
—You’re well hung, she said.
—I’m a Coole, he told her. We’re all well hung.
—You got brothers?—
—Have I got brothers!—
—Which one are you?
—Near the bottom of the litter.—
—The pile. The heap.—
Kid stood and struck a fighting pose, arms raised, knees bent, center of gravity low to the ground. He had welts and bruises on his face, on his head, his neck, his arms, his chest, his stomach. Big blotchy black and blue spots, making him look like a leopard. One eye was nearly shut, and the other was bloodshot. His nose had a lump on it, so did one cheek.
He grinned like an idiot in a cartoon. If Billy Farts or Mike White were there, they would correct him. It was not his stance but his position. His position was untenable, Billy would say. Kid was out of his element. He was winging it. He didn’t understand how to behave in such a position. He was with a beautiful naked woman, and yet he did not know how properly to woo her.
—Me, she said, ignoring him. I worry too much.
—I have a thirty-two inch waist, thirty-inch legs on my pants. My legs and my butt are deceptively thick, though my arms, while wiry, appear thin—
As he said this, he stood in front of the full-length mirror and re-assumed his boxing stance. That was tenable. His stance was right there. He realized that he had never talked so much in his life. It exhausted him in a way that physical activity did not. It crossed his mind that he was not following Billy and Mike’s injunctives. They had told him not to talk about himself but to inquire about the other person, to ask how she was and to tell him something about who she was. Now Kid had lost the plot. He hadn’t asked her anything about herself.
—You’re tall, he said.
—I’m almost five feet nine inches tall, she said, looking at herself in the full-length mirror on the closet’s sliding doors. I’m, let’s see, thirty-five, twenty-six, thirty-five. But I’m a showgirl. What else would I be? I’m, let’s see, I wear a thirty-two inch long pant leg.—
As she said these things, she stood in front of the long mirror in the door of the closet that was opened, and she assumed glamorous poses.
—You’re all legs.—
—No, look at my breasts. Touch them. Easy. Not so rough. Gently. Gently. That’s good. Now kiss them. Good. Not so fast, Kid. Easy, easy. Yes. That’s right. Easy. Put your hands on my butt. No, don’t stop with your tongue on my nipple. Yes. That’s good.—
—Are you gonna come again?—
—I didn’t come yet. Only you came, like a little boy, so fast and furiously.—
—I’ll come again.—
—Yes, you will come again, my friend. And so will I. So will I.—
Pearly turned Kid over on his back and she hopped on, placing his penis inside of her, and she rode him back and forth, back and forth, with him holding her butt and sucking her nipples, and she let out a big long scream, and then they fell asleep in each other’s arms, the air conditioning humming, the porn channel playing, the stereo playing one boy band after another. It was early morning but it was like night. Atlantic City had no morning and night, though, so it was all right.
He would remember her name after they made love and lay in the bed afterward. She had long legs and beautiful breasts and he liked the way they—Kid and Pearl—fit together. She was easygoing, sweet and soft to touch. She was a Latina, a woman from the Bronx and Pee-Aye. He liked her sweet voice, a kind of purr. He liked the way she smelled of herbs and spices. He liked her taste. Lemony. Her breath. Sweet, like her. Her soft neck. Her soft arms, though under them he felt her lean, firm muscles. Pearl had muscles like some of those up and coming women boxers. Some of the women boxers had more muscles than the men. They were harder, though not as strong as the men, and some of them had stamina, but they were not vicious. None of them had that instinct Billy Farts wanted in all his fighters. What did Billy say? Yes, he wanted gentlemen with a killer instinct. That was Kid all right. He was a gentle man with this instinct to maim others in the ring. In a room such as this hotel room, with this woman Pearl, he lost all those instincts. She was memorable, Pearl was, and she had a significant name, full of jasmine and mango, lavender and oleander, a name of softness and light. She was hard, but he could tell she had no killer in her, no vicious streak, no finishing touch to put away someone. Kid would not forget her. He would not forget her name.
At the end of the evening, tipsy, she followed Kid to his room. He turned on the television to a porn channel, and put on the stereo. She did a striptease for him, only without feathers.
Her breasts were like inflated balloons, perfectly round and big. He’d never seen a woman’s body quite like Pearly’s, full of curves and incredible muscles.
As Pearly peeled off her clothes, she danced. When she was naked, he noticed that her body was exactly like all the dancers in her routine on the stage. Her breasts were big and hard and round and her ass was big and round and hard and her waist was tiny and she had rippling muscles everywhere, from head to toe. Her figure was like a woman he’d seen in a comic book. Her figure was like Wonder Woman or something like that. All she needed was a red cape and blue leotards. She was taller than he was, and he rested his head on her bosom as they slow-danced to the porn movie and the stereo music, one of them boy bands. He could not remember their name. Bands, other fighters, girlfriends. Names were hard to remember. He remembered things like jab. Jab. Jab. Hook. Straight right. Uppercut. He remembered the sound of a particular bird in a particular tree in the backyard of the place where he lived in Sticks, New York. He remembered the smell of the river when he ran alongside of it. He would remember Pearly’s smell, too. It had an herbal and a flowery scent, like rosemary, lavender, jasmine, and rose water. He never would forget how her breasts felt, and her nipples. He would remember a little hair in her ear. A mole on her neck. Freckles on her legs. He would remember her all right.
Afterward, Pearly returned. She sat next to Kid, giving him another kiss. She told him that she had seen his fight earlier, and how good he was. He was good, too, and as if she had read his mind earlier, she said that Kid was a kind of artist the way he moved around the ring. She said he was like a choreographer, and he asked her what a choreographer was, and she laughed, saying a choreographer was someone who created all the figures of movement that the dancers executed. Figures of movement that get executed. Now that was what he did in the ring. He severed the ring, breaking it apart, dissecting it in his mind, giving each position of the ring a letter of the alphabet, and in each space he did a different kind of violence to his opponent. He was a choreographer, too, Kid Coole was.
—Are you Cubano? she asked.
—I’m a fuckn American like you, he said.
That made her whoop with laughter.
—He’s a fuckn American like me, she said. I love this guy.
Pearly kissed him again, and Kid felt like he was going to burst.
—Where you from? he asked her.
On the drive down to Atlantic City, Billy Faherty and Mike White had told him that if he met any women, he should learn to make conversation with them. Ask them where they were born, where they were from, what they did for a living? Ask them how they were? Pay attention to them. Okay, okay, Kid thought, I can do that. Pearl was a dancer, so he didn’t have to ask her that question. He already knew what she did. But he didn’t know where she was from or where she was born, but he knew how she felt because she had told him. She felt good, she said. Life was beautiful. So where was she from?
—The Bronx, she said. Me and Jennifer Lopez.
—You know her?—
—Nah, I’m just sayin’. We’re both from the Bronx, only I moved away when I was a kid, and my family moved to Philly.—
—Philly’s a good town for fighters, Kid said. The Blue Lagoon, he said.
—Blue, no, it’s not called Lagoon.—
—Joe Frazier. Philly fighters are tough. They’re good.—
—After the Bronx and Philly, my father bought a farm in central Pee-Ay.—
—Pee-Ay, where that?—
She laughed and kissed him again.
—I love you, man. Pee-Ay, it’s Pennsylvania.—
—Is that what Pee-Ay means: Pennsylvania?—
—Shit, Kid said. Live and learn.
—I love the way you fought. You remind me of the old-time fighters. I watch the classical matches on cable. With my uncles and brothers. I see all the fights in the casinos too. My father worked in boxing. He’s dead now. But he worked as a cut-man. Maybe you heard of him. Manuel Ortega Winters.—
—Hey, Mike White, you ever hear of Manuel Ortega Winters?—
—I knew him in New York. Manny Ortega. We was friends, oh, years ago. He died of a bad liver.—
—This is his daughter, Pearly.—
—Your father was a good man, Billy said.
—Thank you, thank you very much.—
Kid saw tears rising in the corner of her eyes. He patted her back. There. There. She put her head onto his shoulder. He smiled goofily at his cornermen who were lost on other matters entirely. They were talking about Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer when Pearly began to kiss Kid Coole with her tongue deep in his mouth. The cornermen didn’t even notice when she put her hand in his crotch or what he grabbed of her in return.
Pearl came down on a big crescent moon, legs kicking, naked on top, and became the central dancer, with all the other girls fawning over her. Her eyes were big and round, and her headdress was less feathery than the others, though she became naked faster than they did, in fact, became completely naked, and then ascended into the ceiling on the crescent moon, her back arched backwards, her breasts pointing skyward, and she looked right at Kid Coole as she ascended to heaven, blowing him kisses.
After Pearl disappeared into the heavens, Kid lost interest in the show, even though the other showgirls were still strutting their stuff. They were topless and in skimpy panties and red high heels. They wore the big feathery headdresses. It was like a work of art, he figured. They were works of art. Poetry in motion. Things of beauty. There was something mysterious to it. You could not summarize what it was you saw. He could tell all the dancers were well trained. They seemed athletic. Smart. How could a dumb broad remember all those moves? They must be rich. He thought they got paid well. At least they looked like they were enjoying what they did. They smiled in a pleasant way. Their teeth were white and spotless. He liked how smooth and long their muscles were.
The only time he really listened to music was in order to fight. That’s what Kid realized listening to the music now. He was not about to fight and he was listening to it, enjoying its pulse and rhythms. He rarely listened to it to soothe his feelings, make him feel good about himself. He never listened to music to dance or enjoy the beat. He listened to rev up, to get excited about doing violence to another person. The showgirls were different. He felt soft and gentle, kind and warm-hearted around them. He felt gigantic and good, a decent human being. Shit, he thought. What the fuck is happening? Did they spike the drinks? He was only drinking a club soda. But maybe they put goofer dust in his drink.
He stared at the naked women dancing only a few feet in front of him.
What they did was to dance around, never bumping into one another. They performed very elaborate dance steps. It was almost like seeing an ice capade show. Only they took off their clothes in Atlantic City. Here and there. Removed some clothes or took off one feather or another feather. The next you knew, they were naked. Without feathers. Still dancing. Still artistic as hell. Brilliant. They were like ballerinas. They did not look like hookers. Kid imagined someone like Pablo Picasso, the painter, drawing them in his studio in Paris, France or wherever his studio was. He imagined Michelangelo, the Italian artist, drawing them in his studio in Florence, Italy. They looked like college-educated, middle-class, wholesomely naked women. And Kid liked it. He liked it very much. It was good. It was very good this dancing around naked like they were models for a famous, great artist. Art must be like this, he thought, a roomful of naked showgirls on display in a dark night-room in Atlantic City.
Art must be as much fun as beating up people.
Frankie Cee introduced Kid to Pearl. He called her Pearly. She had been in the floor-show that they had been watching. It was a great show, Kid thought. A bunch of the women—all of them taller than he was—danced around to a Latin beat. The lights were timed perfectly to their swirling movements, the bounce and roll of their hips. Their costumes were great. Skimpy but very tasteful. And they came off so effortlessly. He wished he had a robe that could come off as easily as the dancers took off their clothes.
The band was doing a good imitation of Carlos Santana.
This was not the main stage. It was one of the smaller lounges. The performers were close to all of them. The room was littered with fight people and big-shots from New Jersey, government guys and commission guys, people in the construction trades, cops and firemen, bartenders and waiters off-duty. They seemed to be wearing lots of gold jewelry and silk shirts opened to their navels. Some of them wore white loafers and pale yellow slacks (more than ten of them, he counted), and even a Panama hat here and there. Kid had shown up in a new nylon workout suit, dark blue with a white stripe on the sleeves and down the side of the trouser legs.
—Wait until the next act, Pearly told Kid. I get a showcase scene. You’ll see. And I’ll come to visit you again after the show.
She kissed Kid on the cheek.
—Oh, Mr. Bigshot, Billy Farts said.
—Pearl’s a lovely girl, Frankie Cee said, watching her go off to change.
—She liked you, Mike White observed.
—Go on, Billy Farts said. He said it the Irish way, as if he was saying, You’re full of it now.
The showgirls wore ballroom gowns and danced around. As the music became faster, they shed their clothes. Kid was not sure where the feathers came from, but there were lots of them in their headdresses. Feathers covered their body parts. Then feathers drifted away, blowing off them. They became featherless. Naked as the day they were born. Dancing on the stage even minus the G-strings. They were tall and naked and had perfectly shaped breasts, with big round buttocks. Their legs were long and sleek, and they moved with machine-like precision, dancing and stripping and now naked, humping and bumping, smiling, always smiling. Were they having half as good a time as I am? he asked himself. Nah, he thought. They’re working, and you already finished your work.
After the fight, the manager of the casino invited Billy Faherty and Mike White and Ralph Half-Dog and Kid Coole to the floor show.
—On the arm, the manager told them.
His name was Frankie Cee. Kid had seen Frankie Cee. He was often in Atlantic City, New York City, and up in the mountains, either in Sticks or Leathe, checking out the new generation of fighters. Frankie Cee scouted fighters for AC. He probably worked for other people, too. But no one ever mentioned anything about his other line of business.
—Guys with bent noses, Billy Faherty said, winking, once upon a time when Frankie Cee had visited one of their gyms upstate.
Now Frankie walked ahead of them down a long hotel corridor. He stopped and waited for Kid.
—You faced quite an opponent tonight against Rickey “Quickie” Santiago.
Kid could not remember who he fought. Names went in one hole in his head and out the other.
—I’m not good with names, Kid said.
—But Kid’s good wiff his hands, Mike White shot back.
—I forget most of the people I fight after it’s all over.—
—My kind of guy, Frankie said, hugging Kid. Hey, Billy Farty, remember those boxing commission hearings in New York State where Floyd couldn’t remember who he beat to become heavyweight champeen?
—Careful, careful, Billy said. Floyd was Kid’s mentor when he was young.
—With all due respect, Billy, with all due respect, Frankie Cee said, raising his hands like a bandit caught at the O.K. Corral or a bank clerk caught taking money from the till. Hey, Billy, you hear the one about the guy who got Irish Alzheimer’s? He forgot everything but the resentments. It sounds like you, Billy Farts. You’re gonna forget everything but the resentments, my friend.
—I don’t have any resentments, Billy said. So don’t make me start having them all the sudden.
—I love you guys, Frankie Cee shouted. I love you guys. You’re my kind of people.
They all walked single-file down a tunnel through the bowels of the hotel in Atlantic City, working their way to a nightclub in the hotel. The three men talked about Floyd again, and Kid could understand how Mr. Patterson did that. How he might forget the details of his fights, even a championship. Kid rarely remembered any of the other guys he fought. Sure, he would recognize them if he ran into them in a gym, on the street, or down in Jersey at the fights. What he did remember, when he ran into these people, was some quality about them. One might be the Italian, the other the Puerto Rican from the Bronx or the Cuban from Miami. There was the black guy from Syracuse, the black guy from Schenectady, the black guy from Troy, or the one from across the river. Some of them he only remembered as Mr. Low-Blow. Mr. Hip-Puncher. The Guy who stepped on his toes and broke the toe next to the big one on my left foot. Crazy-Eyes. The Guy who spit on him. The Biter, and there were biters long before Iron Mike. The Jewish Guy. The Guy with the Big Feet. The Guy with No-Teeth. Tony Baloney. Mr. Kidney Puncher. Mr. Headhunter. The only fighter’s name who Kid could remember was Blue Rivers, and that’s because Blue Rivers beat him. That was Kid Coole’s only loss. Well, he thought he had won. But later Billy said that Kid hadn’t done enough to win the fight. Kid would take care of that matter one day soon. Then he could forget Blue Rivers’ name, too. He would never have to recall that name again. Blue Rivers.
Kid showered in the locker room, feeling good, a little sore, but nothing to worry about. True, he pissed blood. But didn’t he always piss blood after a fight? Didn’t everyone piss blood after they fought? It was no big thing. Sore ribs. Sore hand. Sore cheekbone. Sore head. But not a sore loser, a winner tonight, his first big fight in AC. He had a bruise under one eye, a cut lip, lump on his nose, a sore hand from clubbing the guy all night. It was one of those fights where Kid never really got hurt. The scar tissue over his eye never opened.
The early rounds are even. Then in the sixth round, the guy gets cute, tries to do some fancy footwork, and he starts jawing at Kid Coole, and Kid just hunkers down, and comes underneath him, leveling the guy with an uppercut right on the bottom of the jawline.
The bell saves the opponent—the other guy—and he stumbles to his corner where they try to revive him.
Kid looks over there, trying to see what’s going on.
—You forget about his corner, Billy says. This is your corner, sonny. No cute stuff, all right? You see what happens when a guy gets cute, he gets an uppercut on the jaw, that’s what he gets for being cute. You listen here, Kid Coole. You got to knock this guy out. The longer you let him stay around, the more dangerous he’s gonna become. You’re gonna give him confidence that he can beat youse. Who knows what might happen? I don’t want to see the fight go that way. His legs are wobbly. When the bell rings, you go out to the center of the ring. Touch gloves. Be kosher. But go to town on him straight away. Knock this fuckhead right out, Kiddo. You understand. Knock this fuckbag of shit out.
Bell rings to start the new round. Kid trots to center of ring. He touches gloves in the center of the ring at the start of Round Seven.
Referee tells them to fight.
There is no juice in the guy, no steam, so Kid sticks him with a jab. Then another jab. He whacks him good with a left hook on the jawbone again. He hits him on the other side of the jaw with a right cross. He goes downstairs. He whacks the guy’s sides with two snappy punches, a left to the liver, a right to the spleen. Then he goes upstairs again. He hits him with the jab. He jabs again. Then he unloads an in-close, nasty straight right, again on the jawbone, and the guy falls backwards on the seat of his pants, and the back of his head snaps on the lowest rung of the ring ropes, and the ref has to pull his head off the ropes and count him out cold.
Kid trots back to his corner. There is no war dance, no waving to the crowd.
—Good fight, Mike White says.
—Real good, Ralph Half-Dog tells him.
—You were all right, Billy says. But this is not the champeen of the world. This is a guy like yourself, someone trying to get a ranking. So let’s keep it in perspective.
Kid puts the hood of his robe over his head, and stalks out of the ring between Billy in front and Mike and Ralph taking up the rear. No grandstanding. No shenanigans. Billy had instructed him how to leave the ring when they were back in Sticks.
—Be a gentleman, he said. Keep your dignity. You ain’t a big shot yet. You’re a fighter from nowhere looking for a ranking. That’s all you are right now.
Billy Faherty affected a fight in Atlantic City.
—Pack your bags, he said, we’re going to AC.
—Who’m I fighting? Kid asked.
—Don’t worry who you’re fighting, Billy said, but it will be competitive, more action than you get in Troy. A better opponent than you’ve faced in Schenectady. You’ll be fighting someone who wants to be ranked too. He’s going to give you a good fight, and you need to be on your toes. You need a good fight under your belt. But you can win this fight. I don’t make matches that I think you’re gonna lose.
—You all’ll kick some ass, Kid, Mike White said.
—It’s no walk in the woods, Billy said. It’s fuckn Atlantic City, man.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
Though he was lack/luster, he built up to a 20 and 2 record until he got a title shot, where he seemt to lose his mind before he lost the bout. The punch seemed to be there. What was missin/? I ask you. He had the old side to side movement, bobbin/ and weavin/. Fame divided him. He cared too much about winnin/ than of his punch bein/ executed deftly, and back in Brooklyn out at the old gym, he had a punch to equal anyone/s. Now he thought more of winnin/ than punchin/—more of gettin/ the round than much fightn/.
The Rail is running Kid Coole as a serial from May 2015 through August 2016.
ContributorM. G. Stephens
M. G. STEPHENS is the author of nineteen books, most recently Occam’s Razor (2015), a collection of short poems. His other works include the novels The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and Season at Coole; the essay collections Green Dreams and The Dramaturgy of Style; and the memoirs Lost in Seoul and Where the Sky Ends. He recently completed a nonfiction work about downtown New York in the 1960s, with particular attention on the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Recent writings have appeared in the current issues of Missouri Review, Notre Dame Review, The London Magazine, and The Hollins Critic.