As I think I've mentioned before, I dabble in fiction writing and have been published by a few on-line literary journals in the past. The now-defunct site E2K published a poem of mine entitled "Thirteen Pianos" back in 2002 and the site New Works Review published my Star Wars-themed story "A New Hope" several years back. (I posted that story here). And now the literary journal Canadian literary chapbook Tickled by Thunder has published my short story "TKO." The story was actually published last winter, but I just last week got my contributor's copies. It's funny; this is hardly the big time (I'm not sure what Tickled by Thunder's circulation is, but I'm guessing low hundreds, if that), and yet seeing for the first time a story of mine in print - even if it's photocopied, stapled print - is quite the thrill.
If you go the the website, you'll see that they don't publish stories on-line, so for the curious, here is my first "published-on-paper" story, "TKO."
Samuel lay on the slightly springy floor of the ring, blood running into his right eye through an open cut directly above the eyebrow. Through the currently swelling left eye, the one not being overrun with blood, he could dimly make out the ref’s hands dramatically demarcating the final ten seconds of his long and uneventful career.
He still remembered the first time he had gone to a gym with his father. In his twenty some odd years as a professional boxer, he’d talked with a lot of other fighters about their first memories of the sport, bullshit sessions in dank and moist bars buried in the pits of cities too numerous too remember. Most of them said that their first memories were of the sound. That incessant thwap-thwap of the bags around the gym being hit. But for Samuel, it was the smell. Even now, thirty three years later, every time he walked into a gym that particular mélange of sweat, dull and basic, like weak ammonia, mixed with just a pinch, a barely-there memory, of the coppery sharp penny smell of blood, brought him back to that first day with his father.
“Stick with me, Sammy, just stay right here, you hear?” Sammy didn’t need to be told; he knew enough, even at five, to be intimidated by the half-naked, glistening men that ringed the room like notches on a numberless clock. Primarily, it was the harsh and painful-sounding grunts they made as they punched bags, each other and the air itself; the room sounded dangerous, sounded like something Sammy instinctively knew he wanted no part of. Walking across the crowded floor to the ring, Sammy couldn’t help but imagine, hard as he tried not to, what it would feel like to be hit by one of those punches, what it would feel like if it were his face at the other end of the glove instead of the bag. With the shuddery delight familiar to all five-year olds attempting to torture themselves, Sammy tried to figure out exactly what such a punch would feel like. Would it sting, like the time last month his mother had slapped him for trying to grab a pot of boiling water off of the burner? He had been surprised then by the stinging quality of getting hit; it was almost as if he had been to the doctor and gotten a shot, only in his cheek instead of arm or ass. Or would it be more like the time he had fallen and hit his head on the stairs? A dull and aching pain that throbbed instead of burned?
As these ponderings passed through his young consciousness, Sammy passed relatively close to one of the boxers hitting the bag. To most other boxers, never mind five-year olds, this one would have been huge; from Tommy’s vantage point, weighing in at 3’9 and at barely fifty pounds, he was gigantic. Perhaps the numbers were inaccurately inflated by the sheer difference in scale, but Sammy guessed that he must have been about 6’8 and at least 275 pounds. At least. The route he and his father were taking toward the ring brought him close enough to this large boxer to make out details, and while he couldn’t tell you anything else about the boxers present that day, how many there were or what they were doing, even with his consciousness graying there on the mat, seven seconds at the ref’s count away from retirement, Sammy could still see every detail of Rudolph that day in the gym.
His hair was shaggy and unkempt, a dirty blonde that seemed truly a dirty blonde, twisted into dreadlock-like strands by the sweat of his workout. The stringy ropes hanging down his neck were streaked different colors not by a lifeguard’s bottle of peroxide, but by sweat. Sammy would have looked over his face without incident, not noting the brown eyes, large vertical forehead or incongruously long and dainty eyelashes at all, were it not for the man’s nose. It had been broken, two or three times at least, but Sammy didn’t know that. All he knew was that it looked like someone had taken it off and put it back on wrong, as if a game of “got ‘yer nose,” that kid’s game he sometimes played with his little sister, had gone horribly awry.
In any case, nose or no nose, it was really the punching that had so captured Sammy’s attention. The man holding the large, duct-tape-patched bag for the giant was a small, older man; many years later Sammy would be sitting in a dark movie theater, slowly snaking his hand down his girlfriend’s blouse, when he would be spooked by the uncanny resemblance between Burgess Meredith’s character in Rocky and the old man with the giant that day. What had so grabbed his attention was that the small old man was being lifted clean off the ground, almost two feet into the air, with each punch of the bag. The giant’s arms were monstrous, and as he pounded the bag Sammy could only imagine what a punch like that would feel like. Perhaps his head would explode. Sammy grinned slightly at the thought, at the idea of his head just cracking apart and splashing the ring, his father suddenly covered with Sammy-brain and Sammy-blood.
"Wait here, Sammy. Just sit and don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
Lost in his thoughts, Sammy hadn’t noticed his father talking to the man by the ring. He watched as his father hurried off towards the back of the gym, lime-green gym bag in hand. Doing as he was told, Sammy sat down in one of the old aluminum chairs next to the ring, choosing one that, not coincidentally, gave him a clear view of the giant working out. Sammy found himself entranced by the way the sweat flung off of the giant’s back and shoulders as he moved; in the way it was effected by his repetitive movements it was almost dance-like. Sammy found himself trying to predict when the next splash would come, when enough sweat would have trickled between the fighter’s shoulder blades to be thrown off in a sprinkler-like spurt. It was while Sammy was deep within this particular pondering that his father returned. He was dressed in nothing but a pair of red boxing shorts with a white stripe down the sides and a pair of gleaming white sneakers; that is, unless you counted the black headgear he wore as clothing, which Sammy did not.
“You ready to watch your old man kick some ass?” The question startled Sammy - the trip to the gym had not been explained. His father had merely said, as Sammy sat watching Spider-Man do whatever a spider can on the TV, “we’re going to the gym, let’s go,” and, of course, Sammy had went. It hadn’t occurred to him that his father would be fighting.
“I thought you were old enough to see a little sparring up close kiddo, you know, see the old man in action. Thought you might enjoy it.”
Silently, Sammy nodded. He didn’t know quite what to think about his father fighting. It could be exciting; on the other hand, and this last was not quite a conscious thought, Sammy realized that if his father were to lose this “sparring match” he might not be the most pleasant companion for the rest of the afternoon. After all, if he got angry enough to shout and curse at the TV when a fight he was watching wasn’t going the way he wanted it to, what might he do if he was the losing fighter?
“Rudolph – you’re up.” The giant that Sammy had been so studiously observing stopped his frenetic bag workout and stepped into the ring.
“You’re fighting him!” They were the first words Sammy had spoken since entering the gym.
“Yea, you don’t think I can take him?” Sammy’s father was grinning and Sammy just shook his head.
“No, Dad, I know you can take him.” It was the first time Sammy could remember deliberately lying to his father.
They were well into the third round of the match and his father was getting pummeled (Sammy had no idea how many rounds there would be; he just hoped that there weren’t that many left). Even with the protective headgear, his face was cut up and raw in a number of places. He was breathing heavily, with sweat coating his entire body, not in the healthy sheen Sammy had noticed on the other boxers, but in an oddly greasy looking layer of sludge. Rudolph hardly looked as if he had been fighting for three rounds; his breathing wasn’t anywhere near as labored and strained-sounding as Sammy’s fathers. Sammy just sat and watched, cringing with each blow that landed. His father was by no means a small man, but even he looked miniature next to the giant. Most of the blows that Rudolph landed staggered Sammy’s father enough so that he took a few steps back; Sammy could only think of the old man being lifted into the air.
And, then, without warning, Rudolph managed to land a solid, square blow. Not quite an uppercut, it nonetheless lifted Sammy’s father into the air and sent him crashing onto the ring floor.
Sammy screamed. In the noisy gym, with all the shouting, grunting and hitting that was going on, not to mention the loud outburst that had erupted at the blow from the small crowd that had gathered to watch the sparring match, no one heard him. And it was a short scream, as soon as it had started Sammy stopped it, knowing that his father would not approve of such a reaction. Sammy cautiously looked down to the mat to see how his father was, afraid of seeing blood, or worse. Instead he saw his father leap to his feet and charge at the giant.
He had a look on his face that Sammy was thankfully not too well acquainted with - he was furious. Sammy looked on in awe as his father reached the giant in two long strides and started hitting. Taken by surprise, the larger man let a few of the early blows land clean, big haymakers squarely hitting his head and face, and in the end those few were enough to do him in. Had he been able to fend off one or two of those early blows, no matter how furious Sammy’s father had been, he wouldn’t have been able to do much damage. But, with those two or three landing clean and hard, Rudolph, slightly dazed, wasn’t able to screen out all of the rest of them, and with each furious, hard hit, he got a little more dazed. Within a minute of the knockdown, a minute in which Sammy’s father let up for not even one second, Rudolph was down, to the astounded cheers of the gathered fight fans.
Leaping off of his chair and smiling broadly, Sammy cheered along with them. He had never seen a display like that, especially from his father, and he found it indescribably thrilling. Without even realizing it, he had clenched his little five-year old hands into tiny fists, and he shook them as he jumped up and down. It was quite an introduction to the sport of boxing, and many times throughout his career, Sammy would reflect on what an insidious gift that one day was. After all, without such a thrilling and emotional introduction to the sport, would he have kept with it for all of those years, would he even have tried it out in the first place? Who knew? All Sammy knew was that, in the end, he had.
Sammy lay bleeding on the mat, waiting for the ref to finish the interminable count, and realized that there would be no heroic late charge from him. He had spent the last twenty years trying to relive that one feat of his father’s, and had gotten beaten harder, and knocked out more times, because of it than he cared to, or even could, remember. So it was with a certain amount of peace and resignation that Sammy closed his eyes.