They left the arena and went into the locker room where Kid showered and changed into a new white nylon outfit of pants and zip-up jacket and a new pair of white trainers. He tucked a short white terrycloth towel around his neck and put on a white baseball cap with the New York Yankees insignia. Over his sore nose he placed a very light pair of sporty wrap-around sunglasses. He packed his gear into a big duffel bag and he met his corner outside the locker room, and together they all walked the couple of blocks to the garage where Mike parked the van. Then they drove home.
The drive back to Sticks went smoothly. When you win, the ride back is quick.
—Am I good? Kid asked Billy.
—You’re good enough, he said. You could be better. You could listen to me more. You could be less predictable. But you are good enough, Kid.
—Am I tough? he asked.
—You’re tough enough, Billy said.
—Oh, he’s tough, Mike White observed.
—He’s tough enough, Ralph Half-Dog added.
Ralph was Kid’s seat-mate. Mike White drove. Billy sat in the killer seat up front. Ralph and Kid always got the back-seat of the van.
Kid fell asleep in the back of the van. Usually Billy was alert enough not to let this happen. You never want to fall asleep until everything looks okay neurologically. Mike or Billy will ask him who he is, where he was born, who his parents are, where he grew up. What year is it? Who is the President of the United States? Count backwards from 100. But Billy was tired, and he was not paying attention, so the Kid fell asleep. He dreamt about moving backward. When he woke up, they were almost back in Sticks. Billy said, as though finishing a thought that Kid Coole did not hear.
—As long as it is to your advantage.—
—Right, Mike White said.
As they drove up the hill past the prison, Billy turned toward the Kid and said:
—You didn’t fuckn fall asleep, you fuckn asshole?—
—Nah, I was dozing, Kid answered him groggily.
—Who are you? Billy asked.
—You heard me, he said. Who are you?—
—I’m Kid Coole.—
—Where were you born?—
—Saint Mary’s Hospital in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.—
—Count backwards, Billy said, starting at one hundred. Count.
—One-hundred, Kid said, 99, 98, 97, 96, 95...—
—There you go, Ralph said, laughing. I don’t think I could do it myself, Kiddo.
They turned down Third Street and into Sticks, and home.
And then they pulled up in front of Kid’s boarding house on Poe Street and let him out, giving him his gear and telling him to rest and take a few days off, get back into the gym when he was ready. As the van pulled away and the Kid walked down the gravel driveway toward the back of the big old house where he lived, he saw sets of eyes in the backyard, the deer coming to forage in the backyard. When they heard his footsteps, they scattered.
He fumbled for his keys on the back landing, still counting. Eight-five, 84, 83, 82...
Up the stairs, around the corner, down the long dark hallway, and fumbling again for his keys, he entered his room, put his gear down, and lay on the bed in his white nylon outfit and his new white trainers and his white Yankee baseball cap. He kept counting, 51, 50, 49...
Then as he drifted off, the numbers reversed themselves, starting at one and going toward ten. One, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8... At eight, he woke in a cold, clammy sweat on the bed, his nylon suit soaking wet, his head aching. His body ached. He groped in the dark for his mouthpiece, but Kid couldn’t find it, and he didn’t hear the referee counting anymore. Then he remembered that he was home, not in the ring.
Kerry broke away from her mother and ran into the back of the house where her room was. She slammed the door hard, and the house shook from it. Kid could hear her, from the living room, in the back of the house crying.
Kid got up and went into the kitchen and made some dough, letting it rise overnight. In the morning, he would make bread. Eating bread, that was good. Running in the mountains was good. Being alive was good. Being in love was, too. Being a teenager was no good, though. It sucked. That was a kind of pain he didn’t want again. He would rather hurt from punches. Hurt from broken dreams and love. He did not want that pain of being a teenager ever again. That was the most painful pain of all. It was worse than jealousy. Worse than black eyes and broken noses. Broken hands and cracked ribs. A fractured jawbone. Fractured arm. Broken skull. Fractured spine.
As the bread rose, he sat on the couch. The cries had diminished to simpers. Gladiola was in another room crying herself. Well, it was better than being at the ocean. He watched the sports channel. A lightweight contest. He did not like either fighter. But he felt this feeling inside of himself. A boiling point in his gut. He was better than those two. Why were they on television, making money, being written about the next day, and he was here in Sticks, waiting to be ranked when he knew he could take out either one of them in a few rounds?
Blue Rivers. He wanted to sleep. So he closed his eyes on the couch, and listened to the pulsing in his ears. Blue Rivers. Why? Why? Why? The pulse asked. Then it was only that name: Blue Rivers. Why? Why? His heart beat. Why? Jab. Blue. Jab. Straight right. Jab. Rivers. Jab. Uppercut. Jab. Hook. Hook. Jab. Cross. Why? Blue. Why did he win the match and why did Parnell Coole end up with one loss on his record?
—You gonna sleep on the couch? Gladiola asked.
—Yeah, he said.
And she turned off the television. Then she turned off the light and went to bed alone. He heard the sobbing from the back room, and then he fell asleep himself.
Kerry came home.
—Hey, how was your night? her mother asked.
—Oh, fuck off, Kerry said.
—Don’t talk to me like that.—
—You fuckn losers. Why don’t you both get out of my life?—
—I’m your mother.—
—You heard me, you fuckn loser.—
Whack. Then whack. Whack.
—Why don’t you kill me, you fuckn psycho!—
—I’m your mother.—
—Big fuckn shit!—
—You need to show some respect.—
They sat on the couch together, silently watching the movie on the television until a pizza delivery arrived. They ate the pizza without talking. It was a big cheese and tomato pizza. Pizza was his only indulgence as a fighter. Even then, he only ate it once every couple of months. He ate half and she ate half. Then the movie ended. Kid thought she would invite him into the bedroom. But then:
—Choose, she said.
—Me or her, said Gladiola.
—You high or what?—
Gladiola punched him hard on the arm. His bicep ached. But he laughed again. Kid loved pain. Pain was his friend. Billy told him that. He said:
—Pain’s the touchstone of spirituality.—
Kid wanted to laugh. He wanted to tell her that Pearl was gone. She liked the ocean. She was an Atlantic City showgirl.
—Well? Gladiola asked.
Kid had used more words in the evening than he usually did. Words were not his medium. Legwork. Fists. Bob and weave. Pound, pound, pound. Drift away. Set. Jab. Jab. Straight right. That’s what Kid knew how to do. He knew how to jab and move. Set and deliver a straight right. His straight right was very good. So was his uppercut. His left hook. His slashing right cross. But words?
—I love you, he said.
—You damn fool.—
—I do, he said.
—You fuckn idiot, she said. I ain’t axing you to say anything like that to me.
Her glassy eyes had water pooling at their edges.
—You a damn fool, that’s what you are, man.—
Now he figured he’d said too much.
Gladiola kissed him. They embraced on the couch. She cried. He never saw her cry so hard. She kissed him again. More intensely. Then she fiddled with his zipper and pulled down his pants. Took off her own. Hopped on him on the couch. They did it. They made love. Fucked. Fast. Furiously. Wham-bam. Thank you. Then she cried again, and he embraced her. She cried hard. So he cried too. Crying was easy for him. Life was short and painful. Why not cry? He used to cry himself to sleep in the holding cells they put him in before Mr. Patterson took him from Long Island up here to Sticks. He cried in his bed until sleep descended upon him. So crying with Gladiola was easy.
Then like that, they stopped, got up and went about their business in the house. She cleaned up in the kitchen. He watched the news, waiting for the sports to come on.
—What it is? Mr. Kim asked. It is plastic.
The customer held it up, looked at it in the light.
—It looks like glass.—
The customer stood in the office part of the factory that was located right on the river in Sticks.
Parnell Coole worked in the warehouse, moving pallets, sweeping, getting orders for customers. His bosses were Koreans, an old man who dressed like a cowboy and his younger wife who wore men’s work clothes. The wife used to be a stripper, and the rumor was that Mr. Kim was a retired intelligence officer.
The Kims ran a plastics factory on the edge of Sticks. Kid hauled palettes, took out garbage, ran errands from one end of the factory to the other.
Mr. Kim called the Kid,
Before the plastics factory, the Kims owned a hat-importing warehouse in Brooklyn, where Mr. Kim learned to spice his conversation with Yiddish words, particularly as the Hasidim from nearby Borough Park were his middlemen. The hat factory was in Sunset Park, down by the piers.
Over many lunch breaks in Sticks at the plastics factory, Mr. Kim or his wife Sunny had told the Kid about their hat business in Brooklyn. Mexicans in one part of the warehouse removed a label which read, “Made in China.” Salvadorans in another part of the Brooklyn building sewed a label into the hat’s sweat band which said, “Authentic Panama Hat.” Cambodians boxed the hats in a third part of the warehouse.
The Kid listened to either Mr. Kim or Sunny tell him about the hat warehouse in Brooklyn. He sensed that they liked hats better than plastics, and Brooklyn more than Sticks.
The Kims often invited Parnell Coole to eat lunch with them. Mr. Kim liked Kid ever since the young fighter told them that his grandfather, Thomas Mojo Moody, had been a haberdasher in Brooklyn before the Depression.
Sunny, the wife, also liked Kid because he reminded her of her two brothers who also had been boxers.
The Kid liked the food mostly, but he especially liked the barley and green tea that Mrs. Kim served them.
Near the holidays Sunny served barbecued beef or short ribs. Sometimes she and her husband ate fish heads. But Kid never joined them. He preferred a nice, clean filet. Once in a while Mrs. Kim served them mackerel. But Kid would decline it.
—In training, he said, patting his stomach. Need to get in shape for a fight.
They ate rice, fermented cabbage (kim-chee), strips of paper-thin seaweed, and beancurd. The food tasted good. He liked it. Afterward it gave him a lot of energy, though the beancurd always made him fart. Pizza made him fart, too. He tried to stay away from pizza before a fight. He knew the real reason why Roberto Duran said,
to Sugar Ray Leonard.
Duran had eaten too much Spanish food just before the fight and he needed to take a shit. All of Leonard’s jabs to Duran’s stomach made the Latin fighter feel as if he might crap his boxing shorts in front of those millions of people watching. So he said,
Pizza and beancurd were good things to avoid before a fight.
—We aren’t even dating, Kid told Gladiola.
—Who? she asked.
—Who are you not dating, Kid, me or her?—
Bubbles of anger. His friend. His girlfriend. He did not know it. Is she it? Muscles of anger. Anger’s rippling manner. The anger of the world. Concentrated into her. His friend. His girlfriend. He did not know it. No one told him, not even her, Miss Gladiola. She had seen the fighter walking around Sticks with Pearly from Atlantic City. Nobody in Sticks dressed like Pearly, not even the hookers. She looked like she had been poured into her jeans, and she wore a halter that showed her muscular midriff, even in the cold weather. She wore white cowgirl boots, and a big bright-colored scarf wrapped many times around her neck. She wore a oystery gray fur coat, and had on wrap-around sports sunglasses.
—Me or her?—
—Both, he said.
—Yeah, he answered her, thinking his answer pretty slick.
It was true that he met someone, even if Kid didn’t know that Pearl had already dumped him for good. Pearl smoked and drank alcohol, but was also a health nut like he was, only she had these contradictions. But it was also true that Pearly was history. Pearly was gone. How did you explain this to the human dynamo known as Gladiola?
—I’m your friend, she told him, and I’m a girl. I’m a woman.
—Yes, you are, he said, but I’m not your boyfriend. You was the one who told me that.
—You’re always over our house, baking bread in my kitchen, sleeping on my couch, taking my kid and me shopping at the malls out Route 9.—
—We’re friends, Kid said.
Her eyes were glassy with tears, but they also had a bubbling to them, like the surface of a pot of water just before it boils.
—And the bitch from Jersey?—
—Pearl is from Pennsylvania, Kid told Gladiola, and she works in New Jersey.
Philadelphia, Pee-Ay. Pee-Ay: that’s Pennsylvania. She lived on a farm outside Harrisburg. But she was born in the Bronx.
—What’s the bitch to you?—
—She’s my friend, he said.
—You ain’t doin’ her?—
—We did stuff, he said.
—I’m axing you a question, dufus.—
—You doin’ her?—
—I don’t see her no more.—
—Where she at?—
—She don’t like the mountains.—
He sat down for the first time. Put his feet up on the coffee table. Put his hands behind his head. Relaxed. Stretched out.
—So I’m your boyfriend?—
—Did I say that?—
—You suggesterly it.—
Kid could not pronounce the word correctly, and so he did not say it again.
—You crazy, man. You one crazy motherfucker if you think I’m your girlfriend, Gladiola said. Shit! I don’t even like men.
—Then why you act so jealous on me?—
—Shit, you crazy, Kid. I ain’t jealous on you.—
—I’m gonna be ranked soon, he said.
—Word, he said.
—Word, my ass.—
—I’m gonna be ranked, Gladdis.—
—Don’t you call me Gladdis, Kid. I’ll whop you upside the head so hard, you forget what day of the week you are in, and where you at.—
Pearly smoked another cigarette, took off her pants and had sex with him quickly on the little bed, and left Sticks for good, getting in her blue Toyota rental car, and drove across the Headless Horseman Bridge to Leathe and then picked up the New York Thruway, driving south toward New Jersey, picking up the Garden State, and then eventually heading to the Jersey shore, and going south into Atlantic City and her condo by the ocean. It wasn’t like it used to be, even if she didn’t know what it had used to be like. For now, it was okay. It was home. It was where she hung her hat. At least it wasn’t Sticks. At least it ain’t a hick town in upstate New York, she thought.
—Hey, he lives in Sticks, she said out loud as she drove. He’s from the Sticks.
You would not want to hang your hat in Sticks.
That gave her an idea: do a strip act to Joe Cocker or Tom Jones singing “You Can Wear Your Hat.” Was that the name of the song? “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Something like that. And when she stripped down to nothing, she’d wear a top hat or a bowler hat or maybe even a baseball hat. No, a very sexy straw cowboy hat, beat up and broken in. She’d be naked, only for the straw cowboy hat. You can wear your hat. You can leave your hat on. Yeah.
—Hey, Kid, she shouted, you can kiss my big pearly ass. Yeah. You can kiss my Cubana ass, man. Tú sabe, maricón. Coño. Tú sabe, coño. You can kiss my ass. You can wear your baseball hat when you do it, you hick from Sticks. She laughed hard. You clown from town. This is Atlantic City, man. This is where the best dancers dance. The best fighters fight. The best wiseguys come to be entertained. The best hustlers hustle. The best tits. The best asses. Yeah. You can wear your hat. You can wear whatever you want. You fuckn nobody from Sticks. You can wear your fuckn coat, man. You can close the door from the outside, coño.
—I prefer the ocean, Pearly said. Atlantic City has it all.
But in the mountains, Kid worked. The mountains, he told her, was where fighters trained. That’s the way it had been, and it was the way he liked it. That’s the way it was going to be.
Kid ran harder in the mountains. He punched through there. He moved faster.
—I like the ocean, he said. But I live in the mountains.
They had watched the sun rise over the boardwalk and beach and ocean a few months earlier. Now she was in his tiny room in Sticks, looking out its back window at a yard filled with snow and a few stray deer eating vegetation from the garden. Sticks was nothing like Atlantic City; it had no glitz, no rush, no action. It was as quiet and slow as an old man walking down the street with his little dog and balancing himself on a stick.
Pearl had visited Kid in Sticks and the mountains a few times, but confessed to being bored by it all. She told him it was a dull place.
—I guess if you had a lot of money for antiques, you could walk over to Harding Street and spend it. You could buy a nice piece of linen or a sweet-smelling candle. But what else is there to do? Eat a meal in a restaurant. Go for a walk. Jesus, Kid, what kind of life is that?—
She lit a cigarette: the first person to smoke in his little room.
But he did not object.
Pearl looked out the window at the deer in the back yard.
—A depressing place, she said.
It was not his intention to defend Sticks. If she did not like it, that was fine with him. Kid liked it. If it was dull or depressing, he did not care. It was a hideout, a sanctuary, the place where he trained to fight. He could walk the several blocks to the gym to train with Billy and Mike and Ralph. What did she know? She probably only knew a handful of things about boxing. How to position your feet. Balance. How to jab. Set up the big punch with the jab. Set up the jab with the movement. How to throw a straight right. The knockout punch.
—I got to get out of here, man.—
—So go, he said.
—What you say?—
—That any way to talk to me?—
—You don’t like it, he told her. Go.
—Hey, fuck you, Jack.—
—I’m just sayn you don’t have to stay here. You can go.—
—I’m axing you a question first. Why you like it here?—
—It’s where I train.—
—But what you do when you ain’t training?—
—I don’t do nuffink but train.—
—Hey, what can I say, he said.
—You weird, man.—
(One-Minute in the Corner)
That crazy need to win instead of his bein/ a winner, his gettin/ over instead of punchn through his opponent, of bein/ a star instead of bein/ a good fighter, all of this congealed in his head like toffee. The need to win drained the power out of his punch until there was nuffink left but his arm/weariness, a deep fatigue which sets into the mind of a fighter long before it reached his arms. They said later he had no heart. But they were wrong about that. He had a heart. He even had the will now. He had legs still. But he no longer had the punch.
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.