Some Mama-san brought her junior in — the kid had been getting his lunch stolen or something. She paid her money, so we put the kid on the bag, no wraps, no gloves. He’d just work to the timer set for the guys who were sparring or hitting the speed bags. After a couple-few weeks he’d torn his hands up, so we figured we’d better show him something before Mama-san wanted her money back. Teddy asked the kid what his name was. The kid said, “Charles.”
“No ‘Charleses’ in this sweatbox,” Johnson said. “You’re Chuck. Now lemme see them hands.”
Johnson put wraps on the kid’s hands, then gloves from the lost & found over them. Both gloves smelled like they’d been left in the sauna with a dead baby bird in them. Did they have ringworm? Staph? No way to know.
We laced up the gloves, didn’t bother taping the cuffs. When we were done tying them, Chuck looked at his hands and tried not to smile.
“What’re you doing?” Johnson said. “Bell just rang. Get your ass back to work.”
Chuck nodded and banged the gloves together. Some stuffing snuck out a hole in the stitching. Then he trotted back to the bag and started punishing it to the body.
When a guy was prepping for a fight, we’d shark tank them. They’d fight eight or 10 and we’d throw a fresh guy in against them every two or three. Eventually, we started working Chuck in as a shark. Chuck would press the guy, keep making them work, which was what was needed. Plus Chuck went hard to the body, which reminded guys why they did situps and took medicine balls to the core.
One time, early on, we put Chuck in to give Marco some work, and one of the corpses who sat in the stands smoking cigars and reading the racing form noticed him.
“Who’s the Oriental?” this mummy asks.
“What the fuck did you say?” Morales said.
“Who’s that slant in with Marco?”
“That’s Chuck, old man,” Morales said, not used to talking to a corpse, maybe surprised they could speak. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Chuck?” the mummy asks. “Like ‘chucking leather’? Throwing gloves?”
“When I was a kid and wouldn’t move my hands, the trainers would slap my face between rounds and say, ‘Hey!’”
The mummy shot his right hand forward. Sparks and ashes flew off the tip of his cigar.
“‘Hey! Get your ass out there and chuck leather, will ya?’”
On a Friday after Gurrero had won at the Lotus Theater, we were celebrating in the gym’s back office with stuff Herschibolt’s sister had wrapped in plastic, covered in Vaseline, and mailed from Oaxaca. None of us remembered Chuck being there that night, but he marched into the office, daring us to look him in the eye.
He said, “I want a fight.”
“You fight every night, Chuck Leather,” said Castillo, an ex-fighter who now made extra money as a cutman.
“I don’t wanna fucking spar,” Chuck said. “I want a fight.”
Glassy-eyed looks went around the room. There were enough nods and resigned shrugs to get the thing done.
“Okay,” Castillo said, “but Mama-san comes in and okays it. And it’s just four rounds on the next smoker.”
“Okay,” Chuck said.
“Hey, Mama-san talks to me,” Castillo insisted. “Not Johnson, not any of these other mooks. Me.”
“Okay,” Chuck Leather said, smile fading.
“No Mama-san,” Castillo said, “no fight.”
The next night, Chuck Leather pushed through the gym door with Mama-san behind him. We hadn’t expected her until after training. Chuck headed for the locker room and Mama-san climbed the stands and sat among the corpses, who were puffing their cigars like smoke stacks at the least productive factory ever.
Everyone trained distracted. Everyone had an eye on the stands to watch Mama-san, or an eye on the door to see when Castillo would arrive. Thursday nights were inventory at the auto parts store where Castillo worked, and he was always late.
Finally, about 10 minutes before the gym closed, Castillo came in and headed right for Mama-san. She stood to shake his hand and he motioned to the office. She followed him back there.
The timer rang and someone turned it off, even though we had two more rounds. We drifted into the office. Castillo sat behind the desk and Mama-san took one of the two chairs across from it. No one took the other one. We leaned against the walls, crouched on our haunches, and sat Indian style, toweling ourselves off. Chuck Leather tried to enter last, but Castillo held up a palm, then pointed back to the gym.
“Sit this one out, Chuck,” he said.
Chuck turned and left.
“I don’t want my son to fight,” Mama-san said. It seemed like she had practiced the words.
“Neither do we,” Castillo said.
“But he wants to.”
“You know the han-kook fighter who died?”
“Yes. Kim Duk-Koo.”
“And you know Charles’s father died in Bae-tuh-nam? Fighting with the Americans?”
“Yes,” Castillo said. We all knew, though nobody remembered Chuck ever saying it.
Mama-san inhaled sharply and shook her head. Then she took her handbag out of her lap, stood up, and asked, “When?”
“Week from Friday,” Castillo said. “Here.”
“I will be here,” she said. “I will tell him.”
The bell rang. Chuck Leather shuffled across the ring, guard tight, shoulders loose, like we’d taught him.
In the mostly-empty first few rows we splayed and sprawled across two and three seats each. When the bell rang, we held our breath.
Mama-san watched until the first punches landed then lowered her head. She watched the ring’s canvas floor after that. Her left hand moved into Castillo’s lap. Castillo took it between both of his hands, held it tightly, and sighed.
Then we waited for our son to come home from the war.
Tom Hoisington is a journalist living in Kittitas County, Washington, with his wife, daughter, and cats.