I wrote this a couple of years ago. It’s a story I’m fond of so I’m publishing it again.
I DIDN’T WANT TO HIT HIM.
I had nothing against him. No malice, no hard feelings of any kind. He had done me no harm.
It surprised me when he took that first swing. His eyes wild, hopped up on something, sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes.
I leaned back a little, dipped to the right and easily dodged his looping attempt to take my head off.
It surprised me even more how quickly he took his second swing, this one coming from his left. It caught me in the neck and knocked me back. It didn’t hurt, but I knew right then I’d have to hit him.
He kept coming at me, wailing away as I covered my head, his punches landing on my arms. Then he stopped.
I peaked out between my arms and saw him standing there, his hands by his side, gasping for air. Some of the crazy had left his eyes. Sweating more than ever. I was hoping he’d just quit.
I dropped my hands. He picked his up and came at me again.
I was ready this time and started to move around the ring, slipping and dodging punches. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to hit me anymore. There was no way he was going to hurt me. But I also knew that because I hadn’t even thrown a punch, he was ahead on points.
I tossed out a gentle jab, tapped him on the forehead. He threw a wild right. Another jab, square in his face. And another.
Then he charged me. No pretense of boxing, just an all-out street fight. I tried to fend him off, but he ran right through my gloves and into my chest. He grabbed me in a bear hug and tried to wrestle me to the canvas, and in the process, he head-butted me and busted my lip.
So much for a fair fight.
I stepped to my left and swung my torso while I pushed him in the same direction. He stumbled away and almost fell out of the ring. My eyes were watering from the head-butt but I could see clearly enough. He got to his feet and glared at me, readying himself for another charge.
Before he could take a step, I stung him with a jab. A real jab this time, not just a friendly tap on the noggin. It stopped him dead in his tracks. Another one and he wobbled a bit. One more, with feeling.
And he was down.
I already knew what I was going to tell Kari. In fact, the lie had already been started.
I told her they needed me to work the second shift, which actually happens now and then. Of course I wasn’t working the second shift, or the first shift, or the hoot-owl, for that matter. I wasn’t working any shift. Demand was down, so production slowed and they had to let some of us go. And not just at Maysel No. 2. All the mines were down. So it wasn’t like I could just go somewhere else.
But I was doing what I could. I managed to get a few hours at the prep plant down in Boomer. Even filled in for workers on a road crew in Mingo. But work’s hard to come by right now.
I was hoping I might come out of the fight unscathed, but I had a lie ready for that, too. It’s dark in the mine and it’s not at all unusual to get a few bumps and bruises. A busted lip is a little different, but I could sell it. To Kari, anyway. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to lie to the kids.
She bought it. I think. She didn’t ask any questions when I told her I was off to work the next evening. She even packed my lunch pail.
That first night had been like a wild carnival, but those first round fights eliminate most of the drug-crazed loonies. But it was Saturday night and like the old song says, Saturday night’s all right for fighting and there was still enough crazy to go around.
Back in the locker room the handler slipped my gloves on and started to lace them up. The card said I was up against a guy from McDowell County. I asked the handler if he knew him and he nodded toward the guy at the other end of the room. He was already laced up and shadowboxing in front of the mirror.
I knew then that there was a real possibility that I might not make it to the money round.
Not that I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned from my grandfather. Learned about footwork. Learned how to use leverage to throw a punch. Timing with combinations. Defense. And reading an opponent. But that was a long time ago. Gramps had been dead four years now, but it had been even longer – fifteen years, maybe – since I used the skills he taught me.
Gramps fought until he was in his late thirties, just a little older than I am now. He was good. Black Dynamite, they called him. Never made much money. Never could fight his way out of the hollers.
He taught me because he knew I’d need to know how to fight. I wasn’t quite black, which would have brought it’s own challenges, but I wasn’t white either. Got just enough of my mother’s fair skin and my daddy’s brown to put me in my own class of outcast. Half-breed, they called me.
Gramps started training me early and when I turned sixteen, he signed me up for Golden Gloves in Charleston. I did ok, but more importantly, word got out that I was a fighter. Once I survived a couple of challenges by rednecks who just had to see for themselves, everybody left me alone.
Turns out the guy from McDowell is more style than substance. We both start out deliberately, because we both think we’re boxers. Proper stance and footwork, moving around the ring in slow circles. He throws a soft jab, not really meaning to hit me, just trying to get things started. He throws another one and his right hand is already dropping. He’s an easy target. He tosses another soft jab. I can see he’s scared. In over his head.
I sting him with a jab and his eyes water up. Another jab and he rocks backward and covers up. I give him a chance to get his head together. Then he tries another jab, this one with a little more velocity, but not nearly enough. I come in over his his right hand with a left hook and it’s all over.
I hear the crowd. A collective ooh. I walk back to my corner, my head down.
I’m in the money round.
Gramps killed a man in the ring.
He told me about it after I had quit fighting. Boxing’s supposed to be a sport, but it can get you killed. All it takes is one punch.
I don’t want to have to live with that.
I want this night over. Never again.
My next fight was an hour later. If I win, it’s worth $500. That’s why I’m here.
This time I don’t ask about my opponent. I know he’ll be tough. You don’t get to the third round without knowing what you’re doing. I see him for the first time when I step into the ring. He’s at least two inches taller than I am.
Now I’m the one who’s scared.
This fight starts like the last one. Circling, jabbing, but when he throws a jab, he’s not tentative. He’s meaning to hurt me. I slip the first two but the third catches me on the side of the face. I throw a couple of my own but they don’t connect. He throws two more then follows with a right, which I barely duck. I felt the leather skin across the top of my head and I know I’m going to have a burn.
He peppers me with more jabs, each one coming closer to a square hit. He tries the combination again but I’m ready for it this time and have no problem avoiding it. But I can’t get through his gloves. My jabs just meet leather. I try a right cross with the same result.
He flicks another jab. This one on the mouth. He breaks open the cut from last night. I had told Kari that John Boy had poked me with the wrong end of a shovel. I could tell she didn’t believe me. She sure won’t believe John Boy poked me again.
This is not going to end well.
I didn’t see him load up his right hand and it catches me square on the side of my face. The next thing I know I’m looking up at the ref, who’s looking down at me counting. He reaches six and I start to get up and I hear the bell.
I make it to the corner and reach for a towel. Not to wipe my sweat, but to throw it to the ref. I’m outmatched and I could get hurt, really hurt. And if I get hurt, I can’t work.
The second hands me a water bottle.
Go to the body, he says. His hands are so high, you can pound his body all night.
How did I not see that? I wipe my face with the towel.
The bell rings and he thinks he has me. More jabs, which I knew were coming. And the right. This time I go under and step forward. A right to his gut. Then a left and another right. I hear him grunting, trying to push me away. I step back, throw a couple of jabs, then here he comes again.
I step inside and start pounding. He cusses and I know I’m hurting him. I get maybe five or six really good punches before he pushes me away again. Now he’s mad.
Before I can get set he catches me again with another right and down I go. But I don’t feel it like I felt the first one. I’m back on me feet at three. The ref dusts my gloves and I wait for the barrage.
Here it comes. Jab. Jab. Right.
Again I duck under and go to work. His elbows drop to his side and I move toward the center of his stomach. His sweat is dripping all over me, but I keep hitting before he finally clinches and holds my arms.
The ref breaks us up and I step back. His arms are down. He doesn’t want me to hit him in the gut anymore. And I know he can’t throw his jab with his arms down.
I fake a punch to his stomach and he covers up. I launch a left hook. Then a right cross. He’s reeling and I follow up with a perfectly leveraged left hook to the head. The best punch I’ve ever thrown in my life.
And he’s down. He’s not moving. Out cold.
I’m caught up in the sport of boxing, enjoying the moment of victory, the successful strategy, the physical triumph. The crowd is roaring. It feels good. No, it feels great.
He still hasn’t moved.
The referee is kneeling beside him. The ring doctor is there, too. Someone is fanning him.
He still hasn’t moved.
I start to pray. I didn’t even know it at the time, but when I replay the scene in my mind, I was praying.
He still hasn’t moved.
How was I going to tell Kari? How was I ever going to be able to face my kids?
Then I see his eyes flicker, then open slowly. He looks around and they pull him up to a seated position. A couple of minutes later, he’s on his feet.
But that’s it. Five hundred is enough for Christmas presents. I forfeited the championship match.
I got home after midnight. Kari was waiting on the couch, the television on, the tree in corner, no presents underneath.
Junior called, she said.
Junior’s my boss.
Said to come back to the mine on Monday night if you want to work the hoot owl.
She knew all along. I could tell. She looked at my bruised face.
Did you win?
I pulled the envelope from my back pocket and handed it to her.
For you and the kids.
We got to do something else, Jimmy. We can’t live like this.
I nodded. There weren’t a lot of options. It wouldn’t be easy. But she was right.
I sat on the couch beside her and she leaned her head on my shoulder.
Somehow we’d figure it out.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird
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