UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The old man’s looking himself in the mirror, pants down and all, when the
“Mr. Leary, sir” the boy says, “My name’s Nick Jones.”
“Give me a minute, Nick,” the old man says. He stands naked in front of the mirror for another minute, looking. He ticks with his tongue. “Ts-ts-ts,” he ticks. There is nothing in the office except for the mirror, and a desk and a chair behind the desk. Oh yeah, there is this nail on the wall and a pair of beat-up boxing gloves on the nail. Plus, the old man’s put some newspaper articles in golden frames by the gloves.
“You know you’re old,” the old man says, “when your dick looks like this.”
He pulls his pants up and turns around. He looks at the boy.
“You’re a boy,” he says, “I don’t work with boys.”
He walks to his desk and takes out a bottle of scotch. He pours himself a glass. He leans on the desk. “You still here?” he says. The boy’s standing at the doorway, crumpling his hat. It’s an ordinary hat all right, but it looks too big in his hands.
“Mr. Leary, sir,” the boy says. “I need a match.”
Mr. Leary drinks his scotch. He takes out a cigarette and lights it. He puffs. He watches. This boy, he’s young. His face is fragile – I mean his nose is just fine, and he has these thin lips, and his cheekbones are kind of sharp. He’s wearing a black coat that’s drooping at the shoulders and the coat is strapped closed with safety pins instead of buttons. “Why do you need a match?”
The boy crumples his hat.
“You need money?”
The boy crumples his hat.
“I don’t work with boys.”
“Mr. Leary,” the boy says. “Sir.”
Mr. Leary takes a sip, smacks his lips. He’s eyeing the boy. “All right,” he says, “I’ll give you a match. You son of a bitch, I’ll give you a match right now.” He goes behind the desk and picks up the phone. Did I say there was a phone on the desk?
“Manuel,” he says, “I have this boy here, this Nick Jones guy, he’s a boxer. He says he’ll knock you out in the first. He says your mother’s fat. Manuel’s mother, he says, she’s fat.” The old man laughs. He drinks scotch, takes a drag, writes something on a piece of paper.
“Manuel, baby,” he says. He hangs up.
So, the match is on. The old man’s checking the ring, leaning on the ropes, making sure they’re stretched right. He’s whistling a tune and thinking to himself like this. Son of a bitch, why does he want to box?
The warehouse is pretty full already. They’re all there – your usual – gamblers, drunks, bored old men. There is this guy from Texas, tall, lanky, three rows behind, and he’s waving his cowboy hat. “Yeeha,” he’s yelling, “Yeeha.”
The old man looks at his office. The door is half closed, but he can see the boy, as he takes his coat off and hangs it on the chair. He takes off his sweater, then his undershirt, folds them and lays them on the chair. He takes off his pants. He folds them. He lays them on the chair. He puts on the shorts and the t-shirt the old man had given him. He tries to brush off a spot on the t-shirt, but sees it’s an old blood stain. He kneels by the chair, closes his eyes, knits fingers together.
Why is he praying? Son of a bitch. He’s just a boy.
The ropes shake and the old man turns around. “Manuel, baby,” he says.
“Mr. Leary.” They hug. Manuel drops his robe and stretches. He’s not a big guy or anything but he can make your face hard to sketch.
He’s just a boy, Mr. Leary decides to say, don’t hit him too hard.
“He’s a boy,” he says.
Mr. Leary’s helping Manuel to put his gloves on when the boy steps in the ring.
“Yeeha,” the Texan yells. Mr. Leary goes to the boy.
“Is it for money?” he says.
The boy says nothing.
“Is it for fame?”
“Son of a bitch, why do you fight?”
The boy puts his gloves on.
“How old are you anyway? Sixteen?”
The boy kisses one glove. Then the other.
“Ah,” Mr. Leary says. He steps off the ring to collect the bets. Everybody in there’s betting on Manuel. They’ve seen him box and they know he’s a fine boxer. This boy – who the hell is this boy?
Meanwhile, Manuel stretches. Jumps up and down, paces in circles. The boy’s standing in his corner, looking at the tips of his shoes. Manuel boxes the air, his punches hiss.
“Look at you,” Manuel says. He laughs, spits on the deck. The boy looks at his shoe tips.
“Alright,” Mr. Leary comes back. He waves for them to get closer, then gives them the mouth guards. “You box nine rounds,” he says. “No biting, kicking, punches under the belt. You lose by a knockout. Or if you’re too beat up to keep going.”
The boy and Manuel look each other in the eye. The boy blinks a few times, wipes his sweaty eyebrows. The crowd’s pretty excited now. Everybody’s screaming, cursing. Mr. Leary raises his hand. Box, he shouts.
Right away Manuel lands a blow, but nothing serious. The boy’s holding himself nicely – high guard, quick pacing across the ring. He punches forward, Manuel ducks, the boy’s punch meets air. High guard again. Quick pace.
They’re cautious, the old man’s thinking. Each is taking his time. Each wants to see what the other can do.
So they spar for a minute, and then bam. The boy hits him. Manuel staggers nearly down, comes up to scratch, smiling, makes a feint, but the boy throws another punch, one-two and drops him. Manuel hits the deck.
Son of a bitch, the old man’s thinking. Son of a fucking bitch. The crowd’s booing now. The bastards want their money and so far, the money’s slipping away.
Manuel gets up, shakes his head.
“You alright, baby?” Mr. Leary says. Manuel shakes his head.
They box again. The boy moves swiftly, high guard, real cautious, but here is what Manuel does – he nails the boy to the body, one-two-three, and then a right uppercut. And again, one-two-three, going for the liver, and an uppercut. Bam. Lands it straight on the chin. The boy hits the deck.
“Son of a bitch,” the old man’s thinking. “I’ve seen fights like this.” For a moment he stands there and remembers. He shivers.
“Let’s call it a match, boy,” he says. The boy’s already on his feet, adjusting the mouthpiece.
They box a few more seconds and then the round is over. The boy sits in his corner, Manuel in his. They drink water. The old man gives them towels. They wipe faces. Round two.
“I don’t like this,” the old man’s thinking. “The boy is fine, alright, but Manuel hits heavy.”
The boy throws a few good punches, works Manuel’s split lip, but then Manuel comes back and soon the boy is floored again.
“My God,” the old man says.
“Listen, boy,” he tells him, “Let’s call it a match.”
The boy pushes him aside and moves toward Manuel. His eyes are on Manuel, on his face. The boy throws a punch, but Manuel ducks. The boy’s forgotten his guard and Manuel lands a blow square on his jaw, drops him.
The crowd, you guessed it, is ecstatic. They smell blood, and they like the smell. That’s what the old man’s thinking as the boy gets up. These vultures, the old man’s thinking, I know them well. I’ve watched them all these years. They feed on young blood.
And as the boy once more attempts to hit Manuel, and as Manuel once more lands a blow in the boy’s jaw, the old man, once more, is reminded.
“I’ve seen fights like these,” he says to himself.
The boy’s face is a mess. His fine nose is no longer fine, his lip is split and his left brow is badly cut, bleeding. But second round and he’s still going, and then third, and then fourth.
“Boy, this is bad,” the old man tells him after round five. “Let’s call it a match. You’ve had your match.”
The boy says nothing. Blood and sweat get in his eyes, but he doesn’t blink. His eyes are on Manuel.
“You need money?” The old man says. “I’ll give you money. Let’s call this a match.”
The boy gets up. He moves slowly now, the guard is gone and Manuel hits him heavy in the nose. And again, Manuel hits him heavy, and again.
The old man’s watching, thinking like this.
“I’ve seen fights like this.” He’s thinking. “I’ve been in fights like this.”
Once more the boy is on the floor. The old man goes to him, kneels down.
“Sonny,” he says, “I got to call this a match.”
The boy’s lying on the floor, his eyes closed. Then he looks up at the old man. And the old man’s looking down at him, and this weird thing happens - their eyes meet. I mean really meet.
“Six-seven-eight,” the old man counts, but then the boy gets up. Stands tall. And the crowd – they’re cheering, they’re clapping, they’re rooting for him, for the boy.
“Just keep your guard high,” the old man tells him, “here sonny,” he says and helps him raise his hands. “Clench a fist, there, there you go. Now keep your guard high, and don’t let the bastard hit you in the chin. Go get him, sonny, go get him.”
And they box. Manuel is hitting hard, but the boy’s keeping his guard high.
“Don’t let him hit you,” the old man’s yelling. “Don’t let him, sonny. Fight back, you little son of a bitch, fight back. There my boy, there, just fight back!”
By the end of the match, the boy is a mess. He can barely stand on his feet, but he stands all right, while the old man raises Manuel’s hand. The crowd is quiet.
“Here sonny,” the old man says. He wipes the boy’s face.
Later on that night, the old man’s wiping blood off the ring. The warehouse is empty. All is quiet.
“There is more to this,” the old man says to himself. “He was just a boy. And he took a beating. My God, how he took it. And when I gave him the money, he didn’t count it. He slipped it in his pocket, and left. Son of a bitch - he takes a beating and leaves. There is more to this. There has got to be more.”
But he can’t figure it out. He wipes blood, alone in the empty ring. He’s old, he gets tired. He needs a drink.
“Some beating,” he’s thinking, in his office.
He downs a glass; his eyes wander across the room, rest on the boxing gloves. A thought crosses his mind.
He needs another drink.
“My God he took it well.” He drinks, leaning on the desk, eyeing the gloves.
He grabs the collar of his shirt and pulls, until the buttons pop. He tears the shirt and drops it on the floor. His chest gets big with air, he breathes out, shivers. He downs a drink.
He takes the gloves. Off the nail.
He staggers, walks out the room. The warehouse is dark, except for the ring which is bright in the middle of the dark warehouse. All is very quiet, as the old man steps on the ring. His back scrapes the upper rope. It’s good to feel the rope against your skin. He stands alone, in the middle of the ring. Looks at the dark.
“Some beating,” he says.
He puts the gloves on.
For a moment he moves not. He keeps his eyes shut and listens. The crowd is anxious. They want blood, these bastards, young or old, it doesn’t matter. They’re yelling his name.
“Swifty,” they’re yelling. That’s his name, his real name.
He throws a punch. The gloves are heavy on his hands, but he throws another punch. He moves across the ring, punching. His heart beats faster, beats faster. It hurts him, but he punches on. It really hurts him now, be he can’t stop, he won’t. He’s punching, one-two-three, going for the liver, one-two, and uppercut. Bam. Square on the chin. The heart, she always hurts. Keep punching. One-two, one-two and bam. Flat on the deck.Miroslav Penkov was born and raised in Bulgaria. Currently, he is an MFA student at the University of Arkansas. Two of his stories have appeared in The Southern Review and he just won the journal's 2007 Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction. The winning story will be featured in the 2008 Best American Short Stories.
© 2008 Underground Voices