THE LATE ROUNDS
“Sometimes, I can’t even remember my own name.”
Boxing was a game of inches. That’s what Billy Farts said. He heard it from Whitey Bimstein, the legendary trainer. A fighter only had to move an inch to slip a punch. Step one inch to the right, and you are not where the other guy expects you to be. Then you are ready to do your own damage. The other guy is trying to figure out still where you are or where you went. At least that is what Kid Coole remembered Billy Faherty saying. Kid might have misunderstood his trainer. He remembered Billy saying: A fighter only has to move an inch to slip a punch. Well, even if Billy didn’t say it, Kid remembered it that way, and that’s how he put it into practice, that is what his muscles told him, what his bones said. Move an inch, slip a punch. Billy Farts also said that his fighters were every inch a king. He told them: I didn’t learn that from Whitey Bimstein. I learned it from Shakespeare. Kill all the lawyers, Billy also said, and he also explained to Kid that he was once again quoting from William Shakespeare. Billy Farts was a classy guy. That’s why Parnell Coole trained with him. It was Billy Faherty who came up with the name Kid. At first he wanted to call Parnell by the name Irish Kid Coole. Billy even wanted to get Kid to change his name legally to that, kind of like how the middleweight Marvin Hagler changed his own name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler. People then started to call Parnell by Billy’s new name for him. Kid Coole. It stuck. And Kid liked it. But he didn’t change it legally the way Marvelous Marvin had changed his own name. Kid was his nickname. His family still called him Parnell or Parnie. No one called Billy Faherty by his nickname—Billy Farts—at least not to his face. Billy had been around the block a few times, the old trainer liked to say. The trainer had been around boxing a long time, going back to his tutelage with people like Whitey Bimstein and later Cus D’Amato, before they had a falling out. That’s how Billy Farts wound up upstate. Cus had dragged him along to Catskill, and then they had their famous falling out, and Billy had moved on to Sticks and Leathe, opening his two gyms and training fighters on his own. Nowadays he only talked about Whitey Bimstein. It was Whitey who told him that boxing was a game of inches. But it was Billy Faherty who said that his fighters were every inch kings. Parnell Coole was not yet a king. In order to be considered a king in Billy’s world you had to be a serious contender, a champion or a ranked fighter, and Kid Coole was moments away from being either of those. You are on a journey, Billy told him, and you are about to arrive at a place where you will become every inch a king. The journey had begun. That’s what got Kid out of bed every morning before the sunrise. That’s what got him to work, to the gym to work out, back home to eat properly and get enough sleep. Kid ran four or five miles nearly every day, rain or shine, hail or sleet or snow. He got up and went out, and he ran, he did his roadwork. He ran around Sticks, this little community on the Hudson River, deep in the Hudson Valley, midway between New York City and Albany, just across from Leathe and the Catskill Mountains. Every mile that Parnell ran he approached the status of those kingly inches Billy Farts spoke of. Every step moved Kid towards those royal inches. As he ran, he heard his trainer’s voice urging him on. As Kid Coole ran, he threw punches through the cold night air, the steam of his breath pouring out of his nostrils and mouth. He threw real punches at imaginary adversaries, and every once in awhile, he would stop, throw a five-punch combination, dance around sideways, slipping imaginary counterpunches by an inch, by a hair’s breath, by kingly degrees.
Kid sat in Gladiola’s living room, watching the fights on television. Antonio Goya was fighting Lutrec Spears. Both lived in Miami now. Goya was Dominican. Spears, Haitian.The fight was boring because they neutralized each other, and it made it a hard fight to call. But Kid usually could tell when something was about to happen.
An accumulation of punches in a certain place of the body suggested that events were about to change.
A constant tirade of left hooks by Lutrec to Antonio’s liver told Kid that Antonio was about to lower his right elbow to protect the sore liver. The fighter did lower his right to protect the liver. Thus a chain of events was set in motion.
Instead of protecting his temple and jaw with his right hand held high by the ear, Antonio dropped his guard to help the sore liver.
Lutrec jabbed at the head. Then he unloaded a big left hook there. He hooked again.
When Antonio raised his hand, Lutrec pounded the sore liver.
It was the liver shot which dropped Antonio to one knee. He claimed a slip. His corner said that the canvas was wet. Their fighter slipped. They asked the referee to mop up that part of the ring. The referee told Antonio’s corner to shut up.
The fight went on.
Antonio lowered his hands to help the hurt liver. Lutrec unleashed a stiff jab, followed by a left hook to the head. Then came a big right and Antonio went down.
He rested on his knees. He was trying to find his equilibrium. But he was counted out while still on his knees.
—Who won? Gladiola asked, coming into the living room.
—I’m going to be fighting Lutrec Spears for the lightweight championship.—
—Mozel tov, she said, matter-of-factly.
—The fight will be made in a few days. But I’ll have many months to prepare.—
—You’re gonna fight that nigger?—
—He ain’t a nigger.—
—Then what is he, boy?—
—He’s from Haiti.—
—And Haiti don’t have no niggers?—
—I don’t like that word.—
—Cause you ain’t a nigger, that’s how come. But since I am a nigger, it’s all right with me.—
—I’m fightn him soon.—
—Lordy, she said.
—Yeah, I’m real happy ‘bout it.—
—You don’t look real happy.—
—On the inside, I’m real happy.—
—Well, you coulda fooled me, boy. You look like your usual miserable useless self, Kid.—
—No, I’m real happy to be alive.—
After the fight Gladiola asked Kid to cook his healthy bowl. It consisted of tofu, vegetables (broccoli, string beans, carrots, sprouts), and brown rice. He cooked it in sesame oil with miso and soy sauce. There was garlic, some ginger, a scallion, and he cooked the brown rice in chicken broth. He learned to cook it from Sunny, Mrs. Kim, from the plastics factory down by the river.
As they ate Kerry came into the kitchen.
She flopped down in chair. Her legs spread across the linoleum floor. Her body took up more space than it needed.
Kerry wore sandals, even though it was freezing outside. (Snow was expected shortly.) She also had on huge, baggy bell-bottom jeans, and a psychedelic halter top that showed her new tattoo that surrounded her navel piercing.
—Mom, she said, I need some advice.
The day before she told her mother:
—I don’t need any advice from you, loser.—
—I’m on the pill, the daughter said.
—Great, her mother answered.
—And I had sex already with a guy.—
Suddenly neither Gladiola nor Kid were eating.
—Gary, Kerry said.
—He’s my new boyfriend.—
—Gary’s twenty-one, Gladiola said.
—He’s too old for you, her mother told her. You’re only fifteen.
—Almost sixteen, daughter corrected mother.
—Sex! Gladiola screamed.
—Well, it’s better than using drugs, right, ma? And I’m on the pill. I can’t get pregnant and wind up a teenage bride like you were.—
Gladiola looked to Kid for help. But his role was not clear. He was a friend of the family. Half the time the daughter was flirting with him. The other half the mother was.
—Your mother will have good advice, he said to Kerry finally. Listen to her.
Kerry looked at Kid like he was a gnat. Then she focused on her mother.
—I have a problem, Kerry said.
—I’ll say you have a problem, her mother responded.
—No, no, ma, I mean I got a mechanical problem.—
Kid could tell from the look on Gladiola’s face that she did not know what a mechanical problem was. Neither did he. When he fought the wrong way, threw a punch awkwardly or stood in a way that threw off his balance, his trainer Billy or the co-trainer Mike would tell him that he had a mechanical problem. That was a good problem for a fighter, he figured, but maybe not for a daughter. A mechanical problem was fixable. It was not like having a poor spirit, lack of courage, or even lack of natural ability. You could correct a mechanical problem, he thought. Unless Kerry meant a carburetor or a distributor cap problem, then he was lost.
—I’m dry, Kerry said.
—Dry? her mother asked.
—I can’t get moist inside.—
—What? Gladiola shouted.
—I’m not wet enough, Kerry said. It hurts.
—You shouldn’t even be fucking, Gladiola said. You’re fuckn fifteen!—
Out of nowhere—why, he didn’t know—Kid said—
—Have you ever heard of foreplay?—
Both of them looked at him. Their eyes flashed at him. Gladiola’s eyes were too wide. Kerry’s looked confused. Now her mother seemed to look angrily at Kid. Their faces softened all at once. The room changed its pressure. They breathed.
—He’s right, Gladiola found herself saying. You need foreplay to get wet.
—Christ, why am I telling you this fuckn information?—
—Foreplay? Kerry asked.
—Your boyfriend needs to kiss you. He needs to play with you. You know. Downstairs.—
—He needs to manipulate your clitoris.—
—Mom, Kerry said. I’m fifteen years old. What’s a clitoris?
Kid stood and said he had to go home.
—Sit down, Gladiola said, then shoved him back into his chair.
Then to her daughter:
—A clitoris? It’s right here.—
She pulled down her running shorts and showed Kerry.
—If you rub it gently it becomes aroused.—
—Oh, I’ve done that since I was a kid, Kerry said.
Then Gladiola went back to being a mother. She pulled up her shorts and sat down.
—Gary’s too old for you, she said, once again. Find a boyfriend your own age.
—Wasn’t Dad twenty-three when he knocked you up? she asked.
—And you were even younger than me, Kerry said.
—Yeah, her mother answered, and I’d be the first to admit that I made a lot of mistakes.
—Like having me?—
—You are not a mistake, Gladiola said. You’re the love of my life, sweetie.
Kid stood to go once again and slipped on the kitchen tiles. It felt like a knockdown. He got up from the floor. He said that he had to go home.
—Sit down, Gladiola ordered him.
—Sit, Kerry echoed her mother.
He sat down in a chair at the kitchen table.
—I want to talk to Gary about this, Gladiola said.
—It’s a free country, Kerry told her.
Kerry went back to sprawling in her chair. Her legs reached out over the linoleum floor. She slouched. The big tattoo around her belly button and her pierced navel filled the room. She popped a bubble with her gum.
From being a woman moments ago, Kerry went back to being a young girl, even a little girl.
Gladiola went back to being a very old thirty-year-old mother. Her hair was in corn-rows. She wore black nylon running shorts and sneakers. Her top was yellow. It was made of a synthetic fabric. The material was hi-tec. It moved sweat from the body to the outside of the shirt. Her presence filled up the kitchen.
—I want to talk to Gary, Gladiola said.
—I can’t stop you, Kerry answered.
Her mother picked up the telephone to dial.
Once again, Kid stood to leave. Kerry pushed him back into the kitchen chair. He had no balance. He fell back down.
His mouth was very dry. He needed to stay hydrated. He needed to sleep early. Run before sunrise. He thought:
I am not the husband. Not the father. I am an occasional boyfriend. One of many. Among men and women. I am a friend. I have to start going to the gym. I am going to fight Lutrec Spears for the lightweight championship of the world in two months’ time. I am not a father or a lover. I am not a boyfriend. I am a friend. I hardly know these people. They have their own problems to solve. I have mine. I need to work on my combinations. I need to work on my lateral movement, my eye/hand coordination, my foot speed. I need to get my twitch muscles fired up for action. I need to go home and sleep. What I know, they don’t know. I know how to fight. I don’t know anything about teenage daughters; I don’t know anything about girlfriends. I’m a fighter. I know how to fight. I need to go home to sleep. I need to get some sleep. I need to sleep.
Kid sat on the porch at the nursing home next to his Aunt Ella.
—You don’t like when I squeeze your hand, she said.
—I don’t care if you squeeze my hand, Kid said.
—Gimme, she said.
Aunt Ella took his hand and held it, tightening her grip gradually. Kid quickly pulled it away.
—See, she said.
—You don’t like.—
—I like, he said. I like.
He gave her back his hand. But she only patted it now. She knew. He did not like when she held it tight. It was her brother Tony who told her. He said that fighters didn’t like to have their hands held tightly. They made their living with their hands. Maybe it was the one delicate thing about being a fighter; they did not like to be squeezed. They liked a soft handshake.
Kid gave his Aunt Ella a kiss.
He had gone from Sticks to Leathe and then taken the bus to her nursing home on the Hudson River next to the cement plant that barfed out its black sooty smoke. Aunt Ella had become frailer, fully there in her mind and spirit, but her body was fading away.
—I love you, she said.
—You too, he said.
—Me too what?—
—I love you, Aunt Ella.—
As he approached her, she pushed him away.
—Get outta here!—
Then she did it again.
—Commere, commere. Then: Get outta here!
—You’re nuts, he said.
—No, you’re nuts, I’m crazy. Speaking of which, how’s Tony?—
—He’s old too.—
—You’re old. He’s old.—
—Thanks a lot, pal.—
—Even I’m gettin’ old, he said.
—You’re a kid, Kid.—
Aunt Ella laughed.
You’re a kid, Kid.
—Fighters age different than other people, she said.
—True, he said. They do.
—You’re okay, she said.
—I’m gettin’ better fights. Billy’s movin’ me to bigger events.—
—You really go to see Tony? she asked.
—I see him.—
—Once a week, he said.
—You saw him this week?—
—What the fuck, Kid.—
—When I have time, I go to see him. He’s okay. I mean he’s nuts. You know that already. But he’s all right in the way Uncle Tony is all right.—
—Don’t start that shit.—
—Hey, God don’t make shit.—
—I come over there and then you tell me to get away from you.—
—It’s a fuckn joke.—
—Ha, ha, hearty-ha-ha—
—I got to go, he said. You all right?
—I’m not all right. I’m old and I’m dyin’.—
—But you’re okay, right?—
—What the fuck, you got wax in ya ears?—
—You’re okay, he said. I can see you’re all right.
—Jesus, she said, I got one foot and two armpits in the grave.
—I gotta go, he said.
—You just got here.—
—I just got here, he said, but I also got to go.
Aunt Ella knew he was only coming for a short visit, to bring her a few items she wanted, and to leave. He had dropped off the tissues for her nose, the warm socks, the mittens, the knitted hat, the newspapers and magazines she couldn’t find at the home. It reallly was time to go. He had to catch a bus to take him back to Leathe, and then he had to figure out a way to get home from Leathe to Sticks. Maybe someone at Billy’s gym would give him a ride home. Maybe Mike White or Penny Half-Dog.
Fighting was a shitty business. It was a dirty, shitty business. But in this part of the world people did all sorts of things to make money, including dirty, shitty things. They worked with hazardous waste, in cement kilns that burnt garbage for fuel; they worked as steeplejacks on skyscrapers. They farmed, working from before sunrise to after sunset. Housewives trundled the kids off to school, then worked as porn stars on the Internet in order to pay bills. That was dirty business, too. Boxing, he figured, was no more dirty than any of those jobs.
Aunt Ella came out of her silence, and patted his hand.
—You’re a good boy, she said.
The Kid was not wild like other people in his family. That’s why Aunt Ella liked him.
The Kid leaned down to kiss her goodbye, and she pulled him down toward her, giving him a big, wet kiss on the lips. She slapped his cheek lightly.
—Il mio bambino, she said. You’re a good boy, sonny.
He said goodbye to Aunt Ella and he left the porch and walked down the path to the parking lot where he would wait for the bus to Leathe.
The bus pulled in, opened its door, and he got on. As it drove away, he could taste her lipstick on his lips, and still smell her perfume in his nostrils.
Kid got off the bus in Leathe, then waited for another one that took him back to Sticks. He got off the bus in Sticks on the side of town near the hospital, and should have walked the fifteen minutes back to his room. But instead of going home when he got off the bus, he walked down a side street where the freight train tracks ran through Sticks. Suddenly he found himself face to face with the tall, bald man with the shamrock tattooed on his big neck. He wore the long black leather coat that was shaped like a cowboy’s duster, and under the coat he wore a tight black tee shirt, tight-fitting jeans, and high black boots that reached almost to his knees.
An enormous fawn-colored pit bull was straining a lead which Shamrock held in his right hand. The dog was so powerful that Shamrock had to do all he could to keep the dog in place as it growled and menaced Parnell Coole.
—St. Vito, St. Vito, St. Vido, Kid prayed to the patron saint of protection from wild animals.
—We got some business to settle, Shamrock said. On my command, this dog is going to tear you limb from limb. But first I want to let you know what a mistake you made bothering me that morning in the alley. My business is my business, you little shit. Who the hell are you to tell me what I can or cannot do? Who are you to challenge me? I defy you to explain why you would throw a punch at me. You don’t even know who I am.
The pit bull growled and bared its teeth. Its pointy tail was tucked between its rear legs, and the dog hunkered down, as if to prepare for battle.
Then Kid saw movement in the shadows of the alley. It was Gladiola, wearing a black down coat and a wool cap, jeans and winter boots. She looked like a thousand other people in Sticks.
—He’s all right, she said, nodding towards Parnell Coole.
—Who the hell are you?—
—That don’t matter a goddamn who I am, Gladiola said. Who I am is none of your fucking business, fathead.
Then out of her down coat Gladiola pulled out a small automatic pistol, and pointed it at the man.
—You ain’t gonna shoot me ’cause you don’t even know who I am.—
—You raped my fifteen year old daughter, she said matter-of-factly, still pointing the gun at the man.
—Put that gun away, Shamrock said, without a quaver in his voice, looking her firmly in the eye.
—I’ll shoot your fucking dog, Gladiola said, changing her focus.
She pointed the gun at the ferocious pit bull that lunged at her from its lead. She closed her eyes and shot the gun, hitting the dog squarely in its head, just between its eyes, and slightly upward on its forehead. A tiny hole opened up in the dog’s forehead, then exploded back through its brains, and exited the back of the head, spraying blood everywhere.
Shamrock’s leather coat was covered with the blood and brains from the dog’s head, and the dog lay quivering on the ground, its eyes blank and pitiless near the snowy ground.
—Why’d you do that? Shamrock asked.
Gladiola pointed the gun at the large, bald-headed man with the green shamrock tattooed on his neck.
—I’m in no mood for your lip, she said. Don’t fuck with me.
—That was the best pit bull I ever had, Shamrock said, not speaking to Gladiola, but to the universe at large.
Shamrock kneeled in the snow and pulled the lifeless dog towards him.
—He was my best dog, Shamrock said.
He kneeled in the snow with his dog and he cried.
Gladiola grabbed Kid’s hand, and together they ran down the alley, then weaved from street to alley, and back to street. Near the river, she told him to go ahead to the Locomotive, a bar in the center of Sticks, and she would meet him there. She was going to throw the gun into the Hudson River. Kid said he would wait for her, but she urged him to go on. She would meet him at the Locomotive.
Kid stepped into a bar off Harding.
Kid was not a drinker like his brothers or his mother or father. He did not like the taste of beer, wine, or whiskey. He did not understand the rituals of drinking. The last time he had had a drink was years ago. He forgot what it tasted like. Forgot what it did to him. Everything came undone inside of him.
The progression was an old family one. He took a drink. The drink took a drink.
Then the drink took him.
Kid stood at the bar, looking at himself looking at himself in the mirror. He thought:
It comes from the feet. Then it travels up the calves into the thighs. At the center of gravity which is known as the crack of your ass the torque pulls it in another direction up the spine, along the back muscles. It rotates into the cuff of the shoulder. Traveling from the biceps, it rolls through the forearm where it meets the wrist. Which is where it joins the fist, moving forward into an overhand right, a straight punch to the other guy’s jawbone, nose, or forehead.
Power gives and power takes. All power to God, the Almighty Savior, the One who makes it all possible. No God but the One God. Power to Him. Power to Me. Power to You. Power to Everyone.
Kid wished all life were as easy as it was in the ring. He liked the rhythm of things in there.
—Protect yourself at all times, the referee said.
But Kid was powerless over so many things. This drink, for instance. He could feel that he was no longer Parnell Coole but some other piece of human machinery—some piece of human misery. He was powerless over Gladiola shooting the dog or even Shamrock kneeling in the snow, holding his dead dog, the big man crying. None of these things had anything to do with Parnell Coole who was just a by-stander, a witness. He had no other role in all that business.
—People, places, and things, his trainer Billy Faherty said.
Billy was a recovering alcoholic, and he liked to bring that into the training sessions. He believed that winning was about spiritual connections, not physical ones.
—Let go, Billy Faherty said. Bend like a branch in the wind. Flow like water. Turn and flow. Don’t go toe to toe unless you’re going to trick the other guy. The other guy goes toe to toe, Billy said, you put him in a trance. Let him think you’re there for keeps. Then take one step, right or left, it don’t matter to me. Take a step. Create a new angle, a new perspective.
Kid looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. He ordered a beer. Then he ordered another. He drank a bottle of beer and asked for another. Then he drank that beer and had another. What did Billy Farts say the progression was? Oh, yes: you take a drink, the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes you. How many was that? Fuck it, Kid thought, who’s counting? I ain’t. What’s it matter. Fuck it. I’ll let the drink take another, then I’ll let the drink take me. What did it matter?
He looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. His face was clean, well-defined, chiseled, his cheekbones prominent, his nose twisted, his eyebrows full of ruts and imperfections. His bald head had nicks and cuts throughout. He smiled like an idiot back at himself.
Where was Gladiola? Should he go out to look for her? But then she told him not to leave the Locomotive until she got there, so he had another beer and another one after that.
He felt tipsy, then he felt himself drifting away from his own body. He was elsewhere from where he was. He looked at the blur of his face in the mirror behind the bar.
Other customers stood there talking to one another, but no one came over to say hello to him. They did not know him. He did not hang around such places. He was not familiar with the easy way that people spoke about sports and the local news, the politicians in Washington and the world.
I’m not pushy. I’m easygoing. I live a simple life. I don’t need much. I live in one room. Everything I own I could fit into one, beat-up suitcase that my Aunt Ella gave me years ago. (I got to call her; she’s not well. She told me that her brother, Bushy Gilhooley was not well either. I got to go visit him at the fireman’s home.) The rest of the stuff—all my boxing gear—I keep in a duffle bag. I don’t own any art. I don’t even have CDs, just a portable radio and tapes. No television. TV makes too much noise in my head. No fancy suits or shoes. Boxing shoes for the gym. My boxing shoes, my boxing gear, tape, wraps, jockstrap, shorts, sleeveless shirts, socks. I got a pair of cross-trainers I use for walking around. Running shoes for roadwork. Work boots for work—the Red Wings.
Mrs. Kim, my boss’s wife at the factory, made me buy a pair of Red Wing boots. It’s her favorite brand. So I bought them. They are good workboots, very comfortable on my feet, and warm and dry.
I also have a pair of black loafers.
I got some gold chains and a gold watch and a gold bracelet and a pinky ring, and I also have a TAG sports watch with a rotating bezel so I can time my runs in the morning.
I got one fancy pair of slacks. A sports coat. One tie, a Nicole Miller that a sportswriter gave me. It has a boxing motif, gloves and ticket stubs from fights. I have a couple shirts. Some nice Italian sport shirts. Underwear. Socks.
I got a little Buddha. A photo of Archie Moore with three of my oldest brothers standing around him. The old man met Archie down the piers and arranged the photo op.
I got a one-volume encyclopedia. A dictionary. A short story collection. Some essays. A book of poems a brother wrote. I got a little blue notebook that same brother gave me.
—Write your thoughts in it, Mickey Mack said.
—I ain’t got no thoughts.—
—Whatever comes into your head, he said. Words, phrases, feelings you have. Remember how I taught you about the memory palace.
—Oh, yeah, the memory palace.—
Kid wanted to tell his brother that his feelings were in his body, not his mind. He told his brother that he had no words, no pictures, no ideas, nothing in his mind. His mind was blank. His head was empty.
—That’s it, the bartender told him. You’ve had enough.
Kid had just asked him for another beer.
—Finish up and let’s go, buddy.—
Kid picked up a beer bottle and threw it through the mirror behind the bar. The bartender, twice his size, ran around the bar and grabbed him and tried to wrestle him to the floor, but Kid squirmed out of his grasp. He pulled the man’s shirt over his head, and then hit him five or six times on the side of his stomach, until the fellow collapsed. Two more fairly big men jumped on him. He knocked out one of them, but he hurt his knuckles doing it, and he managed to hit the other guy with a straight right.
He was cut himself, maybe from a beer bottle, and blood streamed over his face.
When he came out of the blackout, he was at the top of the Headless Horseman Bridge that joined Sticks to Leathe. But he wasn’t on the walkway. He was hundreds of feet above the traffic lanes on the bridge, and hundreds more feet above the mighty Hudson, balancing on a steel girder. He had climbed up one of these steel girders to the pinnacle of the bridge. At the very top of the bridge, red warning lights blinked on and off several feet from where he stood. The wind ripped into his face and even through his gloves and his jacket. The bridge loomed up over the river, and he saw the water running past underneathe, hundreds of feet below. He thought of jumping, but then decided he wanted one more drink before going to his end. He came down off the girders, walked back into Sticks, and went back to the Locomotive. He asked for another beer. But the bartender refused to serve him one. So Kid left.
By the time he got to the door of the house where he rented a room, the police were outside, and they arrested him. He spent the night in the Sticks jail, in isolation. The next morning he was arraigned, and a lawyer whom Billy Faherty knew represented him. The lawyer got it thrown out as long as Kid made restitution to the bar owner and agreed to go to AA meetings.
But Parnell Coole was sent to after-care at a halfway house on Muhammed Ali Way. His counselor made him keep a journal. Kid was not allowed to fight the match that would have put him in the championship bout. As a result of being arrested, he was removed as one of the fighters in the championship round.
—Consequences, Billy Farts said. You are responsible for your actions in and outside the ring. Now you’ve got three-thousand bucks worth of damages to pay. You threw some chairs, broke some windows, smashed a table, destroyed an antique mirror behind the bar. The next thing you know you are not a boxer but a jailbird. But you’re lucky, Billy said. The judge sends you to A.A. for 90 days. Now there’s one serious problem you have to deal with. The Boxing Commissioner has suspended you pending the outcome of your rehabilitation, so you can’t fight Lutrec Spears for the lightweight title. My advice to you is a simple one, Parnell Coole.
—Surrender, Billy said. It means coming over to the winning side. Look it up in the dictionary if you don’t believe me.
—I believe you, Kid said.
—Look it up if you don’t believe me. Either you surrender or you won’t be fighting again.—
Kid owned an American Heritage dictionary, and he looked up words all the time. Surrender did not mean coming over to the winning side. It meant giving up control because of a compulsion.
So Parnell Coole went to a meeting because he wanted to give up control of his compulsion and put the matter in the hands of some authority greater than himself. At least that is what Billy Farts told him to do, and what Billy said Kid Coole listened to.
The woman who ran the meeting said:
—Court slips will be signed after the Lord’s Prayer.—
That night Kid looked up the word power in the dictionary. It was the ability to act effectively. To exercise control. Forcefulness. He put down the dictionary next to his bed.
The Kid swooshed the mop back and forth over the elementary school floor. The children came out of their classrooms. Most ignored him, didn’t even see him there. Janitor was a forgettable character. Quiet. Trembly. He seemed to talk to himself under his own breath. He was small and dark and silent mostly. Not creepy. Not scary. He was nothing. A blank. This empty shell in the hallway, mopping the floors or cleaning the toilets in the lavatories or washing windows and or doing errands. He didn’t drink and didn’t smoke and instead of doing roadwork, he walked everywhere when he wasn’t working as a janitor at the school or an orderly at the firemen’s home or putting palettes of plastic transparencies onto a truck for the Kims. When he couldn’t find regular work, he worked for the antiques people on Harding Avenue. He was hard-working and quiet, never a bit of trouble from him. He lived in the rooming house, in the back of the big white house on Poe Street, down the alleyway, and up the back stairs. He was neat and silent, empty-headed and harmless.
Children teased him, but he ignored them.
He was sort of good-natured. He said so little. No one could remember hearing his voice. Did he even say two words?
He was dark and silent.
Not frail, not skinny.
Just small. Compact, maybe. He did not look strong. Everything about him was a deception. He did not appear to have a muscle in his body, and yet he was incredibly strong. His strength coiled inside of him.
One day he lifted a desk by himself, carrying it across the room for the nun. Another time he pushed the car out of the snow for the monsignor. He pushed the car by himself.
Some children made fun of him or teased him. But some of the children got the thought into their heads that it was not a good idea to tease the custodian.
—Hey, champ, a young boy called out.
He had not been taking care of his teeth. One or two were missing in the front. His smile was not pretty. It was crooked and dark across his dark face. His hair was short, and his head was nearly bald. His skull glistened in the lights of the hallway of the school. His arms were tight and hard and simple.
The boy who called him Champ wore the school uniform of brown pants, shoes, and socks; tan shirt; and green tie with the school insignia SAS.
—Hey, the janitor said to the young boy.
—The boy’s friend said, Hey, chump!
But Kid Coole did not hear him because he was involved in mopping the floor. Maybe he was listening to that funny music in his head. What do they call it? Oh, yeah, the music of the spheres, only with a boxer it was more like the music of the crazy brains, scrambled and gooey and not working the way they worked for other people.
He said aloud, but under his breath,
—I need to finish before Mother Superior comes by. But already I am too late—
because the nun who scared the Bejaesus out of everyone came stomping down the hall, her shoes clicking, her rosary beads clanging, her starchy habit whispering Evil Evil Evil.
Mother Superior inspected lockers, walls, and floors. She was a fearful woman to everyone, including Kid Coole. But luckily she did not even notice the janitor because some boys were fooling around down the hall.
—No horse-play in the halls! she called out.
The noisy hallway turned to silence.
Kid Coole mopped.
Mop-mop, he said. But not aloud. To himself. He said, Mop-mop. Then aloud:
—Moppety mop mop mop—
When he finished mopping, he had to wash windows. Twelve big windows in every classroom. Eight classrooms in all. He would be washing windows until late at night. He heard that there might be a job in the plastics factory down by the river again sometime soon. It paid better than being a custodian in a Catholic primary school. Maybe he’d go there on his day off and speak with the Kims. They always liked him a lot. Didn’t Mr. Kim use to let him off when he was fighting? Didn’t he even come to some of the Kid’s local matches and cheer him on. Mr. Kim was an awfully nice guy. So was Mrs. Kim. She used to make him a lunch of rice and beancurd and seaweed and sesame seeds, soy sauce and hot mustard.
—I like the way the plastics factory smells, he said to no one in particular, especially since the hallway was empty now that the Mother Superior had cleared it of children.
After Mother Superior left and the students went into their classrooms, Kid found an empty room to begin the window washing. As he dipped the cloth in the soapy water, he said to himself, not to himself but aloud,
—Move to the right! Move to the right!—
—We live by such small degrees, Billy Faherty once told him.
One survives by such subtleties of action. An inch here. An inch there. Everything was an angle. Move. Move. To the right. To the right.
—Move to the right! he heard Billy Faherty shouting, and Ralph Half-Dog pounding the canvas in the corner to direct him into it, and old Mike White standing there with his bucket of ice and Endswell and the tools of his trade as assistant trainer to Billy Faherty, his lifetime partner in the cornerman business.
The Kid moved to the next window.
Finally Kid went back to the gym, hitting the heavy bag.
Billy Faherty came over.
He watched Kid throw punches at the bag, but said nothing for a long time.
—Fear is good, Billy finally declared. It just depends what you’re gonna do with fear. Cus used to tell us that. Fear is your friend in the ring. He once told me that he didn’t want to work with anyone who didn’t have any fear. I agree. You got to have some fear. It just depends what you are going to do with it. Are you gonna let it rule you or are you gonna let it help you, make you a better person?
—And power? Kid asks.
—You’re a lightweight, his trainer said. Power is not your game, Kid. It’s not everything. Did Barney Ross have power? Did Benny Leonard? Benny Leonard was as smart as Sigmund Freud. But he was a boxer, not a psychiatrist. I prefer an athlete with some brains. I like stealth, slyness, never back up unless it is to your advantage. That’s what I like. I like to work with someone who uses his head. Who thinks on his feet. I like a fighter that’s flexible. Inflexibility is a sign of mental weakness. It’s a sign of mental illness, too. And power? Power? You can get done in by your own power. It creates a false impression in your mind, Kid. An illusion. When I look into a fighter’s eyes, I want to see clarity, order, enthusiasm. I want a guy with a head on his shoulders. Give me Benny Leonard over Sonny Liston. Give me Ali over Ernie Shavers. Quickness and quick-mindedness over pure strength. Hell, George Foreman had one of the biggest punches of all time. But he couldn’t beat Ali in Zaire. Why? He was not flexible. He could not bend, Kid. His power created an illusion for him, and he believed the illusion. It told him that he was invulnerable. No one could stop him. Instead of will power, give me willingness. Give me a mind quick in the open field, Kid. Even Roberto Duran was much smarter than he was tough. But sometimes he was too smart for his own good. You got to be humble. Humility isn’t being small. It’s being right-sized. You’re a lightweight. You need to move quickly. Stick and move. Jab, jab. Then go. You need to think like a brain surgeon out there, Kid. You’re not strong enough to be dumb. But that might be the best thing about you.
Mike White came out of the office to tell Billy Faherty that he had a telephone call.
The lecture ended.
Kid Coole went to the locker room to shower.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
Amid all the ugly glitter, there was still a moment to ponder like it resembled some form of dignity, sometimes not occurring inside the ring, though Lord knows we have all seen these moments of grace (Ali versus Frazier; Aaron Pryor fighting Alexis Arguello twice; Basilio and Fulmer; Hagler versus Hearns or a pot-bellied Archie Moore just about anyone he fought, though I recall Yvon Durrelle and the Mongoose going at it when I was a young man), Billy Farts said. All this made me want to get it on with the best of them, jabbing, reeling, hooking.
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.