The bell rang, and Petey stood up, knocking back the stool with his calves. “This is the fifth,” he thought. “Gotta watch for that left.” He flipped his forehead to the left to flick off the sweat, and banged his gloves together, his routine, his ritual, that made every fight okay.
The kid was big and deceptively quick. He had reach on Petey, too. “Stay outside,” Petey mumbled through his mouthpiece. Unnoticed, the blast of noise from the crowd slowly faded from his awareness as he got into the rhythm. The world shrank down to the brightly lit ring, the kid in red trunks and the puff of his own breathing in counterpoint to his heartbeat. Jab, jab, shuffle to the left, quick combo off the shoulder, back! His sweat-soaked trunks slapped soddenly against his leg as he ducked and slid back. The kid was fast!
The fifth round already, and no more time to decide. Mr. Torrelli had said early in the sixth. Early in the sixth and make it look good.
Petey knew nothing but fighting. He was a near orphan, and had grown up in Rex’s place. He had been a scrawny kid, knocked around by the older, better-fed boys in the neighborhood. The pugs looked like heroes to him. At first they tolerated him, giving him a nickel to run errands, for Pall Malls or a Baby Ruth. But he always knew their names, learned their styles, paid attention. One day, bored, Danny Piper, “The Irish Choirboy” showed Petey how to count-out the speed bag, to breath with it and pace it so that the bag flew almost by itself. That night Petey hid under the big ring when Rex locked up and snuck out to spend the night practicing. By the time Rex’s brother Angelo came in the next morning, Petey could make the speedbag dance like Donald O’Conner.
Petey learned to read at Rex’s, what reading he could. He learned what it meant to be a man, how a man talked, how a man fought. He learned that a fighter had only himself and his name, nothing more, and to trade away or sell your name made you nothing.
Twenty-one fights, eighteen wins, a draw and two losses. A good record, but the losses were important ones, and he would go no further. Mr. Torelli had managed him for the last eight, bought his contract after Rex had his stroke. Mr. Torrelli had been good to him, paid him well, never asked him to do anything but his best.
“Early in the sixth. Make it look good.”
A fighter has only his name. Without it he has nothing.
The bell rang. His cornerman Wayne doused him, wiped his forehead, squirted cold lemon water into his mouth, held the bucket as he spat. “Remember,” Wayne whispered. “This is it. Mr Torrelli has been good to you. Don’t let him down.”
The bell rang, and Petey decided. Up on his toes, flick the sweat, bang the gloves. He would never be a contender, but he would always be a man. Mr.Torelli was dangerous, might even have him killed. He would probably have to duck out after, run, maybe to Florida or even California, someplace warm. He had a few bucks saved.
The kid slid forward. Petey drifted to the left, jab, overhand right. The kid caught the left on his shoulder and slipped the right, hammered a right of his own into Petey’s ribs. He caught him on the rise, and Petey’s whole side exploded into pain.
Petey covered, stumbled back, ducked his chin. The kid pattered him with blows, looking for an opening, nothing with the force that the body-blow had. Petey tried to make his breathing even, but the kid wasn’t letting up.
The canvas slapped him in the cheek, and he could taste blood in his mouth. How had he gotten here? The canvas stunk of old shoes, sweat and bleach. He could hardly breath, and there was a sound like a train engine screeching in his ears. Far away, the ref counted. “Six, seven.”
He hadn’t taken the dive! He hadn’t! He had to get up. A fighter has only his name.
He managed to get his head up and one arm to lever his body, but it was too much, and he slipped back to the canvas. His back was cold with his sweat and fear.
Through one swollen eye he could see Mr. Torelli in his ringside seat by the radio announcer, smiling at him. “I didn’t take the dive,” Petey wanted to yell, but it didn’t matter. No one would ever know, and if he told them they would never believe him. In the clarity that comes from concussion and despair he suddenly realized that eventually, even he wouldn’t believe.
Michael Ehart‘s stories have appeared recently in Ray Gun Revival, The Sword Review, Every Day Fiction, Flashing Swords and Fear and Trembling, and in anthologies including Damned in Dixie, Return of the Sword and Unparalleled Journeys II. His book The Servant of the Manthycore from DEP is considered by several critics to be one of the best fantasy books of 2007. You can find out more about what he is up to at http://mehart.blogspot.com.