Kid walked through Times Square. Earlier in the day, he had sparred with this up-and-coming welterweight in Brooklyn. A Spanish guy. Named Carlos. He forgot his last name. Short-term memory. He had dinner in Little Italy. Some people knew who he was and wished him well in his upcoming fights.—Let’s hope it’s at the Garden, one of them said, against Lutrec Spears.—Then he came uptown to see a movie. He was tired and felt good. He walked north toward the park. He had money in his pocket and he hadn’t been hit much. Not too much anyhow. No cuts on his face. No lumps on the body. A couple of tiny bruises, here and there. But you get used to that. It was part of the business. Goes with the territory. His sparring partners were plenty tough. Billy and Mike wanted him sparring away from Sticks and Leathe, down in the City. They wanted him to get used to the distractions. The media attention. The night-life. The hustle-bustle. Also, they wanted Kid sparring with quality partners, up-and-comers themselves. Different weight classes. Different angles. Speeds. Kid liked sparring in Brooklyn. He had been born in Brooklyn, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, St. Mary’s hospital, like all his brothers and sisters. Even though he hadn’t grown up there, he liked Brooklyn.
The movie was good. But he couldn’t remember what it was about or who was in it. He thought it was either Diesel or Denzel. His memory sucked, but even before boxing it was not very good. He remembered things from long ago. Stuff that just happened was harder to conjure. But he did remember that the movie was a futuristic job. Super-heroes. Too bad life didn’t have any of them. There were lots of special effects. The actors stood there, and looked good. They probably made a lot of money. A lot more than the Kid got for his own line of work, which didn’t even pay his rent and electrical bill.
No matter what the universe threw at them, the actors looked good. Their clothes were clean. Their hair was neat. Not that he worried about his own clothes or hair. He dressed simply. A nylon gym outfit, cross-trainers, good socks (only a hole in one toe). A few gold chains, a gold ring with a black stone and a small diamond, a gold wrist watch. He wore a Kangol hat backwards. Bad-ass. He shaved his head once a week. But he wished life were as simple as the movies. If the world threw something at you and if you didn’t duck, you would get hit in the face. Protect yourself at all times, the ref said. Don’t lead with your chin or drop your guard, his trainer Billy Faherty told him.
He walked north through Times Square, and around Fiftieth Street he remembered that Jack Dempsey had a restaurant here. At least that was what Billy told him. The Kid was too young to know who Hurricane Jackson was much less Jack Dempsey. He watched DVDs of all the great fighters, and that’s how he knew who they were, their styles, their flaws, their peculiarities, and strengths.
Then Kid crossed the street, and there he was. The Champ. Not Dempsey. The King. The Greatest. That’s what they called him, and they were right. He was the greatest.
The Champ no longer shouted.
—I am the Greatest!—
His movements were slow, and he shook.
The Kid said to himself, I’ll never get like that. I’ll get out before it is too late. Billy Faherty always says you only have so many fights in you, and once you reach the limit, it is time to get out.
He stood in a crowd of about one hundred people, shouting and calling to the Champ. No one noticed the Kid because he was small and quiet and dark. He blended right into the crowd, part of the scenery of Times Square.
The Champ—the frail, human, broken, fallen champeen—waved to them. Then he surprised everyone. He did the famous shuffle. Only slo-mo. Champ started to spar with different people in the crowd, and people all around were hooting and hollering and laughing. You could feel his good will toward them. He was like a god still. You could still see the good looks under the fallen features, the stumbling legs, the hunched shoulders, the puffy cheeks and the swollen eyes.
The Champ went up to a toddler in her mother’s arms and he pretended to spar with the baby.
His handlers, his bodyguards, his entourage, they all looked on, used to the Champ still acting for everyone. The crowd was silent except when they let out a roar of laughter. Like now. He did a magic trick which had everyone shouting and hollering at him, waving in his direction. Then the crowd got silent again as the Champ moved among them, like a pope dispensing blessings.
The Champ shook all over.
Yet you could tell it was still him. You could tell by how he balanced himself. They say that the legs are the first thing to go and the punch is the last. But Billy Faherty taught the Kid something else. His trainer told him that the old timers—the great old ones from the past—had something else besides legs and punching power.
—Balance, Billy Faherty said.
—Balance? The Kid asked.
—Balance, he said again.
Even with the shakes, you could see the Champ still had great balance. Some might call it grace. But Billy once said that
—grace is only part of it—
The Champ moved through the crowd as gracefully as a ballerina.
He still had that great rhythm of a champion, even if it was slow. The rhythm was very sure of itself. He was the Champ. That’s what his rhythm seemed to convey. He was the Champ, and they were his subjects. They were his court. He was the Greatest. They were just who they were, and nothing more. But he was the Greatest. The King of the World!
The Kid had a brother who was just a couple of years younger than the Champ. His brother had been a rising young middleweight, knocking out people, moving right along. He knocked out ten people in his first twelve fights. The brother was training in that beat-up, upstairs gym on Fourteenth Street. It was the gym run by Old Man before he moved upstate across the river in Leathe from where the Kid lived in Sticks.
The Kid’s older brother was sparring one afternoon, and Sugar Ray Robinson walked in. He was at the end of his career. After watching the Kid’s brother spar a few minutes, Robbie comes over to him, and he says
That’s all he says.
Sugar Ray kind of whispered it, the way old fighters talked, like all the words in the head had been boxed out of them.
After you’ve had two-hundred-and-forty fights, what good are words?
—Kid, his brother said, Walker Smith, a.k.a. Sugar Ray Robinson, was the greatest fighter of all time. I modeled my style on all the great fighters from the forties and fifties. Guys like Jake and Rocky—the two Rockies—Irish Billy, the Mongoose, who was one of my personal favorites. Carmine and Gene, and Willie. Sugar Ray was my idol, man. I tried to model my whole style after his on account I was a middle, almost six feet, okay, five-eleven and three-quarters—same height as Iron Mike—and I was long and seemed thin like Sugar Ray was. Having Sugar Ray say—all right—was not just all right, it was like a dream.
Then the Kid’s brother was in the Fourteenth Street gym run by the Old Man, and who should be there but Himself. The Champ. The Greatest. The King of the World! Only they did not call him the Greatest yet. He was the Olympic champion. He was not even the Champ yet. He had won a gold medal in the Olympics, and had had a couple of professional fights. The only person who thought he was the Greatest was himself. He was knocking out people everywhere. He was kicking ass and taking names later. He’d let God sort it out. He was the number one contender.
The Kid’s older brother used to say that you could see faster people than Sugar Ray. But they were in the lighter divisions, and they didn’t have his power. And there weren’t too many of them—no matter how light they were—who were that much faster than Sugar Ray. You could see bigger punchers in the heavyweights. The Brown Bomber had a punch like a thousand-pound sledge hammer. What Sugar Ray had was that he was just about as fast as any lightweight and he had a heavyweight punch, even if he was a middleweight. It was hard to find anyone finer than Sugar Ray.
Then there was the Greatest. The future Champ.
The Kid’s brother saw the future Champ in that gym downtown. Older brother told the Kid that he had never seen a heavyweight so fast. But he also never saw a heavyweight so athletic and graceful.
—He had balance like you would not believe, his brother said.
—The Champ was like a ballerina, Billy Farts once said, only he had that wicked jab and killer right.
His brother concurred.
—The Champ was as fast—and slick—as Sugar Ray. He also seemed to have a punch like Rocky or Brown Bomber, the two great heavies.—
Kid’s brother could aspire. He aspired to be like Sugar Ray. He might never get there, but it was within the realm of possibility, of a clear fantasy. But as he stood in the gym on Fourteenth Street, there was another kind of fighter in front of him. The future Champ. The Greatest. The King of the World! The Kid’s brother was supposed to be really fast with his hands. He could land a five-punch combination, lickety-split. But the Greatest was something else entirely. He was big. Deceptively big. He didn’t look big from across the other side of the gym or even across the ring. But up close he was really a heavyweight, only built like a middleweight. And he could move. He moved like Sugar Ray, only in a bigger package. He moved like a great middleweight, only he was a heavy. And punches? The Champ could throw two or three times the number of punches of the Kid’s brother in the same amount of time. How did he know? His brother told him. His brother had seen it close up, right there in the gym downtown.
His brother quit boxing that very day. He went off to the state teachers college in central New York, the one that was across the river and into the mountains and clear across to the middle of the state.
The Champ worked the crowd like it was the old days. The Kid had never seen a human being instigate so much love and human warmth. He could feel the energy all around the Champ. He could see what his brother meant when he said
—the guy fuckn baffled me—
Grace and balance and dignity and rhythm, and even unsteady in his gait, he looked you right in the eye. Looked into you, deep down into you. He put his hand inside of you and grabbed you by the soul. He shook. He moved. He shook again.
The Kid could tell how hard it would be to beat this guy in his prime. You sensed that kind of thing in another fighter, that unknown ingredient.
Everyone was in his corner.
Plus, he was much bigger than you realized. He was not a pumped up light-heavy the way Spinks or Foster or even Marciano or Mr. Patterson was. The way Evander was. This was a genuine heavyweight. Big bones. Thick limbs. Barrel-chested, broad-necked, wide-shouldered, ham-fisted, long-legged. Wide-hands, round-wristed. This was the real deal. A great lightweight fighter did not stand a chance next to such a human force.
The Champ plunged deeper into the crowd in Times Square, and his handlers seemed worried that he was going too far, getting too far out of their sight. They were paid to watch after him, make sure he was all right. He could fall. Have a seizure. Fall down dead.
The Greatest stood in front of the Kid.
He raised his hands to spar and snap a jab at the Kid’s head. The Kid slipped it. The Champ threw another, and the Kid ducked. Then the Champ faked a jab and came overhead with a big right which he held at the last second. But it didn’t matter because the Kid already slipped him.
The Kid was a lightweight, small and quick.
—All right, the Greatest whispered. All right.
They shook hands. They did it the way fighters shook hands, very softly, very respectfully of the other’s tool. He asked the Kid his name. The Kid told him
—I’m Kid Coole—
The Champ’s voice was only a faint whisper, but he said,
—Kid Coole, huh?—
—Yeah, the Kid said, I’m Kid Coole.
The Kid figured that if he said his name twice, the Champ would remember it.
—You cool all right, Champ whispered. You real cute, too.
Then he pulled the Kid off his feet, mugging for the crowd. Everyone was laughing and shouting and applauding him. The Champ fed off them. He mugged some more. He pulled the Kid to his chest and looked real menacing at the Kid.
—Well, Kid, he said, whispering, I’m The Greatest.
After The Champ dropped the Kid, he drifted away, almost as quickly as he sparred with the unknown lightweight from upstate New York in the town of Sticks, a Hudson River backwater, but now a Brooklyn-trained contender, and another face in the Times Square crowd, just another anonymous admirer. Maybe Kid Coole was going to be the next lightweight champion of the world. Now the King of the World was gone. He’d already gone back into the throng in Times Square, leaving Kid Coole in the back of the crowd. Kid was just another boxer one fight away from a championship.
The Greatest gave and received their love.
People applauded the Champ.
The Kid could see that the Champ was exhausted. His aids helped him to a limo. It was almost like that James Brown routine when he was so exhausted by his performance that a band member assisted The Hardest-Working-Man-in-Show-Business off the stage. Then James Brown came back, throwing off his cape, grabbing the microphone, singing like there was no tomorrow.
But instead of bursting back out of the limousine like James Brown, the Champ got into his limo with the blacked-out windows and he drove off into the night.
The Greatest never returned. He was gone for good, and the people drifted back into their lives, going off in different directions from Times Square.
—All right, Kid Coole said. All right.
The Kid whispered it as he drifted northward toward Central Park, and a long walk through it to God’s knows where for the night.
—I’m cool, he laughed. I’m Kid Coole. I’m not as fast as Sugar Ray or as powerful as the Champ. But I’m tough enough.
That’s what Billy Faherty always told him.
—You’re tough enough, he said.
He was. He is. Kid Coole’s tough enough.
The Kid walked northward, now up Broadway, past Columbus Circle, Lincoln Centre, Needle Park, Eighty-sixth Street, Ninety-sixth, One-hundred-and-tenth. One of his brothers would let him stay the night, and the next day he’d go back to Sticks, up on the Hudson, upstate, and train with Billy and Mike for his big fight shortly. Kid remembered what his trainer Billy Faherty had told him a few days earlier in Sticks.
—The next one is your big one, Billy Farts said.
—Auntie, he said, calling her at the other nursing home.
—Yeah, she said, tired and grouchy.
Kid started to cry.
—Did he pass? she asked.
—He died, Kid said.
He cried again.
—That’s okay, she said. It’s all right. He doesn’t have to suffer no more.
—Are you gonna suffer?—
—I’m like Sylvester the Cat, she said. All my life’s Sufferin’ Succotash.
A small man is never a threat. He cannot intimidate the way a big man can. What a small man can be is quick. Kid is that. Stinging. Yes, that, too. Irritating. Yeah. Relentless. True. A good small man is no match for a good big man. But a good small man is able to wear down almost anyone but a big man if you let the small one hang around too long. That’s Kid Coole.
But he also has a knockout punch. At least, on occasion, he has knocked out people. Not all at once. It was one at a time. He knocked them out fight by fight, not round by round. Nearly always it was deep into the fight when he had been quick, stinging, irritating, relentless, and Kid wore them down.
A big man might step into the ring and put the fear of God in an opponent. When Kid looked at tapes of Sonny Liston, he saw that maybe Sonny was that kind of fighter. Mike Tyson was that way early on in his career.
Kid Coole weighed one-hundred-and-thirty-five pounds. A lightweight. He was five feet five inches tall. He’d never had a muscular build. But he was wiry. He was not the toughest of guys. Not even a tough guy. He’d do terrible in a tough-man competition. He was not that strong, not that fast. But he was fast enough. He was strong enough. Kid’s quick. Kid’s resilient.
So he was not a tough guy. But he was tough enough.
What he had was stamina. Plus he was very stubborn. He had the will to win. He believed that he might topple buildings and collapse mountains with his will power. You’d have to kill him to beat him in a fight. He had a tremendous resistance. Kid was quiet but he also was intense. Though he was a good defensive fighter, he was also good on offense. He never gave up.
His teeth were terrible and always costing him money. It seemed that every time he saved a little money, a dentist came along and took it away from him, doing surgery, pulling teeth, making bridges or plates. Ultimately it would weaken his jawbone considerably.
He went to a periodontist because his gums were swollen and bleeding. He thought maybe it was the new mouthpiece he had made. But the mouthpiece was fine.
So the hygienist gave them a deep cleaning. As she scraped and talked to him, pressing his head into her chest as she moved here and there to scrape and then evacuate the spit, water, and blood, he began to think that all his relationships with women had disintegrated, including those he had with Gladiola and Kerry. He liked the hygienist’s voice. Her manner.
Her name was Della. That was what her nameplate said. Della. She was small and cute. Dirty blonde hair. She wore a dental smock of pastel green. Also, she had on matching pants, and she wore white leather sneakers.
Her dirty blonde hair was short. She was small and muscular. Beautiful teeth. Really nice pearly smile. Lovely green eyes. Must be Irish. At least a Kelt. Hell, she could be North Italian for all he knew. He realized he knew nothing about women. He knew nothing about anyone. He was a fighter, plain and simple. He had no skills outside the ring. He lacked charm, social skills, even a vocabulary to communicate.
But he asked her out.
She said, yes.
—Yes, she said. I’d like that, Kid.
—Great, he said.
What did she see in him? he wondered or even what did he see in her? Where would he take her if she wanted to come back to his place, that little, dingy room in the boarding house? He hadn’t cleaned his room in weeks. Hadn’t washed the sheets or made the bed or done his laundry. It smelled like a gym.
But she said yes and the next night he took her out for a pizza. They were going to see a movie on Route 9, but it was sold out.
—Let’s go to my place to watch a video.—
He nodded okay.
They drove in her car because he didn’t have one. He had a license, but he didn’t own a car to drive. She asked if he drank ever. He said no. Then he amended that. One night, recently, he drank, and got into trouble. He punched holes in a wall. He punched out a bartender. He hit some patrons. He broke some glass. Broke a mirror. Then he had climbed to the top of the Headless Horseman Bridge, joining Sticks to Leathe across the river. Police came. He went to jail. Did he leave anything out? Did it matter?
—That’s okay, she said.
But it wasn’t okay. He still had to go to AA meetings, and he was delayed in having his championship fight against Lutrec Spears.
—Have you heard of Lutrec Spears?—
—No, she said.
He explained who the Haitian fighter was.
—Well, good luck, she said.
Then she drove to her place outside of Sticks. A string of new linked townhouses in an old cornfield. Each townhouse had two bedrooms, a garage for the car, living room and dining room and kitchen.
She parked the car in the garage and they entered the townhouse through the kitchen door in the garage. He sat at her kitchen table, sipping a gingerale she handed him.
—I find all of this intriguing, she said. Your life. Not drinking. Your next fight.
—Yeah, he said.
—I find you a fascinating person, Kid.—
—You’re a good listener. Well, I’m a talker, she said. But you already know that from me doing a deep-scrape on your gums.
Della leaned over to him and gave him a kiss and he responded back to her kiss. They moved to the couch. Kissing some more. Embracing.
—Good, he said.
—Very good, she said.
—I’m good with my hands, he says again.
—You’re a boxer, she answered. You better fuckn be good with your hands, man.
—You’re not good with your feet?—
They sat on the couch at first. Now they lay on it, side by side, with Della slightly on top of him. The television played in the background. A movie. A video. And the stereo played in the background to the television. Something jazzy, moody, easy and light. They sat up.
—I’ve got good foot work, he told her.
Her legs were tucked under her buttocks. She looked really good on her couch. Small and compact, no fat, no nonessentials. Her smile big and pearly white.
—What’s the difference between roadwork and jogging?—
—Jogging you do to get in shape, he said.
But he was winging it. So he went on.
—Roadwork you do after you’re in shape and need to get in fighting shape.—
Della asked how much he slept because she had read an article about how much sleep fighters got.
—I sleep seven hours straight at night, he said, from nine to four in the morning. Then I get up and do my roadwork. I run for about forty minutes to an hour. I get home, take a shower, go back to sleep for a couple more hours. In the middle of the day I take a nap, sometimes for an hour, sometimes longer. Then I take another nap in the evening.——Before you go to bed?—
—Yeah. Like I said, I like to sleep.—
After he told her this, Della leaned over and kissed him.
—Your arm and neck are likes rocks.—
—I’m in good shape, he admitted, and then she unzipped his pants, pulled them down, and began to lick a bead of sweat that dripped down his abdominal muscles and into his crotch and then took hold of his cock and put it in her mouth.
—Oral hygiene, he said.
She laughed and then choked.
—I thought you weren’t into talking, she said. Don’t make me laugh, Kid.
—Sorry, he said.
but then she sat up, rubbed her mouth, removed pubic hair.
—You want to go into the bedroom?—
—Yeah, he said.
—Oral hygiene, she said. That was very funny. I have to remember that. I’m going to tell Doctor Ross that one on Monday.
—Hey, I’m a funny guy, he said.
—You really are, Kid. You surprise me.—
They made love.
Afterward, lying in the bed, under the covers, she said,
—I’m falling for you.—
But he didn’t say anything.
—Cat got your tongue?—
He began to cry.
—What’s wrong? she asked.
But there was nothing wrong.
—I’m crazy, he said.
Maybe it was from being hit so much. Or it could be from his genes. Kid came from a crazy family. So he’d been hit on the head too much. Plus he came from a crazy family. Now he was laughing. Then crying again.
—Crazy love, she said, laughing, too.
One cool morning when the colors were electric in the trees and the sky, he took the urn with his uncle’s ashes and walked to the river a few blocks away.
The river was tidal, and the tide was high. Steam rose out of the water, like fog, only the sky was clear and Kid saw the Catskill Mountains looming up in the distance on the other side of the river behind the city of Leathe. The mountains were red and yellow and tinged a light purple.
Never leave your wounded behind, Kid thought.
That’s what a Marine captain had told Parnell Coole when he came to collect Uncle Tony’s body from the home. His uncle had been a fighter, too, and won twenty-seven fights, eighteen by knockout, and was undefeated before going into the military. Six years later, four of them as a prisoner of war, Uncle Tony came home a broken man. He worked as a caddy on a golf course for awhile. He drifted around. Eventually Kid got him into the home just outside of Sticks, and that’s where Tony stayed until he died. Once in awhile, Kid visited him there. Then he would report to Aunt Ella about her broken-down brother. Always Kid lied, saying Uncle Tony looked good. But Uncle Tony never looked good. He was a drooly, empty, broken man.
Parnell opened the urn and let Uncle Bushy’s ashes catch the wind and drift down to the water. When this was finished, Kid tossed the urn in a public garbage bin and trotted down one of the alleys all the way to the other side of town a mile away.
He ran down the main street to the river, a mile away. Turned around, and ran up another alley. Kid did this for five or six miles. Going from alley to main street, up and down, east to west, west to east.
Afterward, Kid walked around. He kept asking himself why he was born and why he was here and what was it he was supposed to do.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
I danced away from the best of them in the ring. Then I set. I jabbed, jabbed. Hooked to the body, let fly with a vicious straight right to the head. I walked to the neutral corner, crazy music in my head, snarl on my face, in my eyes poison, in heart a poisonous leak, I sneered and scowled and clawed to get back in the fray, to make more trouble. Yet some things are never easy to predict or even understand once they happen. Take Iron Mike. He seemed like an invincible thug, and then he fell. When asked to predict the outcome of his next fight, he said: “I’m not Nostradamus.”
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.