"ONE PUNCH"

By Peter Stone

©Peter Stone 2014

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Ted Grant stands on the balcony overlooking his nightclub, sipping twelve-year old scotch splashed with water from a glass, clear, thick and so indented at the fingers that it reminds him of honey flowing around his hand. Below him, people move about anxiously like bees in a hive, agitated by liquor instead of pollen. Some stand in one place and seem to vibrate with excitement, while others move quickly through the crowd with an innate sense of purpose. Perhaps lust. There are many beautiful women below, each dressed carefully to attract the attention of all. Diamonds sparkle across the room below, like moonlight reflecting off the choppy waves of the Hudson on a brisk winter night. There are also politicians beneath Ted Grant’s balcony and athletes, criminals and maybe even a few cops. Ted’s pretty sure he saw the police commissioner talking to the District Attorney earlier. It is Saturday night, after all. And this is Manhattan. And while it may not be the Stork Club, Ted Grant’s K.O. Klub brings in the secondary tier of celebrity, aching to see and be seen by each other. Broadway stars prefer the short walk from Seventh and Eighth Avenues to the West Side of Manhattan after their late performances to the longer cab rides uptown where there is no guarantee they will gain admittance to the swankier clubs. Here at the K.O. Klub, there’s always room for a few more. Of course, there’s also the draw of seeing the world famous Ted Grant.

It’s a far cry from the clubs he used to inhabit when he was a teenager. There was usually a comedian on a small stage followed by a bored burlesque lady with too many sequins on her dress and too much make-up on her face. Ted, growing up in many of those dives, some in the basements of buildings, swore that he wouldn’t create that same atmosphere when he decided to open a club.

As he tastes the charcoal-aged liquid on his tongue, swirling it briefly across his taste buds as the cacophony of laughter, conversation and live music inundates all his other senses, he thinks about how young he feels. Thirty-eight is not old in any place in the world except perhaps in the eyes of children or the arrogant gaze of teenagers who know they are capable of doing the things their elders could not. But even those groups know thirty-eight is but the beginning of “age” and not the end of a life. The end of life and happiness is reserved for number far exceeding forty or fifty or sixty, even. When the body fails and the mind slips and when memories are a place far more appealing to reside in than the real world. Old age is reserved for family gatherings, hobbies and grandchildren, not the constant struggle of the young to stay one step ahead of poverty.

Ted Grant, at the age of thirty-eight and a few months, feels like he has somehow lost twenty or thirty years, skipping ahead in his lifeline to his place as an old man even though his body feels fresh and young and restless. He feels as if he has already achieved the purpose of his life and that he has done so far too early. He is left with a hint of youth without anything to do with it. Perhaps all men feel the same way he thinks. Only the smart ones, who picked a career that does not rely on their physical prowess, can remain active and working into the later years of their life. Bankers, lawyers, businessmen, actors. Those are the men who do not have to retire when the pains start up in their joints. They can continue making money, doing the thing that they were put here for, well into their sixties. Not Ted Grant, though. He was done five years ago. When he retired from the fight game.

One of the only places where thirty-eight is not only old, but also ancient, is the world Ted Grant inhabited almost all his life. Certainly all of his adult life. It’s where his money came from, his fame and all the privileges he has enjoyed. Professional prizefighting, the fight game, Championship Boxing, pugilism and a thousand other monikers echo through Ted Grant’s head, but his reality was anything but a game and the money was not present in the combat square they call the Ring. Ted had no illusions when he ducked under those ropes. It is the last arena that harkens back to the gladiators and an age when men proved themselves by the power of their sinews and their will, their desire to conquer another man. It was a battle of survival, with a purity nothing else in his life ever had. And he was the best. At least for a while.

In the world of professional boxing, thirty-eight might as well be a thousand. If a fighter manages to get into his thirties without a major injury or a major loss, it’s considered an almost unbelievable victory. Then, when the fighter believes he’s at the top of his game, the season of his strength turns and the fall of his career settles on him. The fighter doesn’t notice at first, but suddenly all the sports’ writers start using the phrases every fighter hates to hear.

“He fought well for a man his age.”

“He’s lost a step or two, but managed to keep up with the younger man.” “He’s a tough older guy.”

“Age versus experience.”

“Mature.”

“Nearing the end.”

“He’s had a brilliant career.”

Ted Grant heard all of those comments and more. He read them in the newspapers, heard them on the radio and some men even had the gall to repeat them to his face. But Ted refused to believe it. He was the special one, the one that would survive where no one else could. He would continue his career into his middle, and even late, thirties. At thirty-three, Ted Grant had been in the best shape of his life. He could run for miles without tiring, go a hard three rounds with a younger sparing partner, jump rope until his trainer fell asleep watching. But he knew there was something missing. A stumble here, a missed opportunity there. Little things. But then, boxing was all about the little things. Then there was the fight with the “Gargoyle”. A tough, younger man hooked solidly into the mob. Their fight at Madison Square Garden was a legend. Fifteen rounds of punishment for both men, but mostly for Ted. The Gargoyle was the perfect opponent for Ted “The Wildcat” Grant. He could take Ted’s best punches on a jaw that was smelted, not grown. His reach was longer than Ted’s, allowing him to punish Ted with sharp, angry jabs whenever he slipped a punch. He was young enough to be able to fight hard for ten rounds whereas Ted had to take every other round slower or lose his wind completely. When the war ended, Ted was lucky to be alive and he was the winner. The next day he retired from boxing with a speech on the steps of the New York Post Office headquarters, a building that overlooks Madison Square Garden.

Ted pushes those thoughts away, draining the rest of his glass. The noise from below hides the tinkle of ice, but he slips one of the cubes into his mouth and crunches it savagely into bits. He surveys his domain and decides that it’s time for his nightly grand entrance. A mirror to his right tells him that the bow tie at his neck is straight and even. The tuxedo was a pain to wear, but people like to see him dressed up like a celebrity. For two months, every night he had to have one of the girls tie it for him because he refused to learn how to do it. Finally, he learned to do it for himself by osmosis. He does miss the laughter from the waitresses when he wandered down the stairs, looking helpless with the tie around his neck looking like it had been attacked by the a wild dog. The girls would flock around him until one of them would jockey into the right position and wrap her long arms around his neck. Being alone and single for several years now, just the scent of a pretty woman’s perfume was enough to send him reeling.

Ted strides down the stairs from the balcony, checking the little things. The jazz band on the small stage is playing an upbeat tune and all the members are present tonight. A few weeks ago, the drummer was picked up by the cops on a drug charge. Ted bailed him out and then fired him, replacing him with a less-talented man but the patrons weren’t really listening to the music. As long as it’s hot and fast everybody will remembering having a good time. The “ring girls” as he’s dubbed them dart in-between dancers carrying heavy trays of drinks, never spilling a drop. They’re all dressed in long, slender gowns, the style of the girls that hold up the round cards at some fights. Ted briefly considered one-piece bathing suits, but almost immediately dismissed the idea, since he had seen what those girls endured in-between the rounds at a fight. Roaming hands, accidental contact and endless one-liners. Add alcohol to that and Ted knew he’d have trouble every night. Celebrities are human too, as much as they would like to deny it.

Tables and booths for diners surround the large dance floor, which is polished every night so it always shines invitingly under the bright spotlights. Couples spin smartly, showing off for their friends or tantalizing their dates by showing off with others. The ring girls make sure everyone has a fresh drink in their hand, each one a pretty young thing who is trying her best to catch the attention of a Broadway producer or one of the big time actors who drift through once in a while. The bar, a shiny wooden and silver fortress, is manned by sharply dressed men who spin bottles quickly and efficiently, filling solid shot glasses, hearty mugs and graceful champagne flutes constantly. It’s a footrace all night to keep the customers on the edge of sobriety without pushing them over the line to drunkenness.

Ted nods to the bandleader right before he breaks into a complicated trumpet riff. The solo represents Ted’s arrival to the patrons. It’s a little tacky, but Ted doesn’t mind the showmanship. The once-heavyweight champion of the world deserves music to announce his arrival. Ted puts both hands up over his head in a display meant to signifying victory.

All around him on the walls are pieces of memorabilia connected to his boxing career. It used to bother him when he saw the belt over the bar or caught a glimpse of the poster of his very first professional fight, Cormac “The barbarian” Flynn versus Ted “The Wildcat” Grant. It was a three round bout that Ted ended with an uppercut as Flynn was moving forward to throw a right hook. Closest to the entrance is a huge poster of Ted’s biggest payday fight, Gregory “Iron Jaw” Scott versus Ted “The Wildcat” Grant. Scheduled as a fifteen round bout, but it ended in the ninth after both men had endured tremendous punishment. Ted keeps it there to remind himself of that fight and how he felt after it.

On the other walls are photographs of Ted in his prime, shaking hands with movie stars, musicians and politicians. Many are beautiful women. There is a series of photos dedicated to Ted’s work with children in the inner city. Ted serving food at a local church. Ted sparring at training camp. Ted getting a kiss from Lana Turner. Hanging around the club are various gloves Ted used in his fights. Some are battered and ripped but some look like they have never been used, a testament to Ted’s knockout percentage. Pinned to the walls all around the club are other single gloves, signed by famous and some not-so-famous boxers. Sugar Ray Robinson stopped by one night when he was in town to fight Jake LaMotta. The next night, Jake came by, his face looking more like a catcher’s glove than a human being. Sugar Ray had taken back the title in a vicious battle that left both men staggered. They were scheduled for another fight in just a few weeks and Jake was sure he’d emerge with the title again. Ted hung both men’s gloves next to each other. Joe Louis signed two gloves so Ted put one alone and one with Ezzard Charles, the man he beat after being in retirement for two years. Carmen Basilio, Beau Jack, Ike Williams, Bobo Olson and tens of other less famous or unknown boxers had their names scrawled across the heavy leather of boxing gloves. Ted gave any boxer a place on the wall, spending time with the younger men when he got the chance. There were too many pitfalls in the world of professional boxing for a young man to pass through without making mistakes. Ted simply tried to cut down on the number of mistakes the kid made. Few listened, but once in a while Ted found somebody willing to learn from an old dog.

Four steps from the bottom, Ted stops and waves his hands for silence as a trio of brilliant spotlights illuminate him and the house lights are dimmed. From the ceiling, dropping with all the noise of a hand across the curve of a velvet dress is a microphone in the style of ring announcers. It’s heavy, with grips on the back and Ted enjoys the weight in his hand. He brings the mike to his lips, still signaling for the crowd to stop cheering. He gives them his very best smile, showing off the reason the sports’ columnists used to say he was the best-looking heavyweight in years.

“Hey, folks! I forget, what is tonight anyway,” he asks, knowing the words by heart and barely hearing them anymore.

The crowd, knowing the routine, happily cheers that it’s Saturday night. “You know what that means, right,” Ted continues. “That means it’s fight night at the K.O. Klub!” Turns out that “fight night” is also any night that ends in a “y”. Except Sunday. Even a boxer needs a day of rest.

“Drinks are half-price until the bell rings at eleven and ladies can get a free photo with the champ! And who’s the champ?” The crowd roars that he is. Wildcat Grant! Ted raises his arms and his head to the ceiling as if he’s just won a fight, letting the microphone slipping out of his hands and into its resting place at the ceiling. The spotlights blink off and the house lights come up again. The band breaks into a lively tune popular on the radio as Ted makes his way to the bar. Jack, the bartender, has his drinks ready, two straight shots of single malt, which Ted swallows quickly before facing the crowd. It gives him the fortitude to get through greeting his adoring fans, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. At least that’s what he tells himself.

In these moments walking through his club, Ted stills feels the rush of power and fame. He can stare openly at a beautiful woman, his eyes saying everything he wants from her, and have no fear of a jealous husband or lover. No one would dare insult him. He could sweep her onto the dance floor and whisper is her ear while the palm of his right hand on the small of her back is six inches lower than is proper. He can insult the local politicians, calling them whores or worse and watch as they laugh with him. He can sign autographs for tourists as he charges them five times what their drinks are worth. He’s the toast of the town, the ex-heavyweight champion with a golden smile and a sharp wit. A celebrity as great as any in a town that turns them out like so many pennies.

His club is a hotspot, to be used as a place to be seen. Photographers are allowed inside but only the ones Ted likes. Young starlets like to pose in the middle of his miniature boxing ring, giving the ex-champ a kiss on the cheek. Broadway stars and city politicians get their picture snapped as Ted pretends to knock them out. Ted knows the matre de gets slipped a couple twenties a night to let the big name paper photographers in. Not just anybody gets it. The Post, the News and once in a while, the lower end scandal rags all have to pay for the right to get a snap of Tinsel town’s latest female celeb snuggling with the Yankee slugger who won the game with a three run shot to the upper decks. Or the movie star with a pair of showgirls on his arms, drinking until he has to be carried out to his limo.

“Mr. Ted Grant,” calls a handsome man in a double-breasted suit. It’s no wonder he’s running for D.A. next month, with his record of convictions. Most of them are set ups, easy convictions fed to him by the men who donate money to his campaign. Standing next to him, arm linked is his, is an attractive woman easily fifteen years his junior.

“Mr. David Hitch,” Ted responds. “How goes the prosecution business? Looks like pretty well.” Ted eyes the woman, making her blush.

“Just fine, indeed,” Hitch says with a smile and a firm handshake. “Thanks to your endorsement in the News. I just came over to thank you for the kind words.”

Ted laughs much more than he feels. “Just calling it as I see it, Dave.”

“A no-no-nonsense prosecutor. If I were a criminal, I’d tremble with fear if I knew he was after me. A real crime fighter,” says prospective D.A. Hitch, quoting from memory. “That was so good I put it on all my posters. Probably put me over the edge against that swine Damato.”

“Can I quote you on that,” Ted teases with a wink to the girl. She blushes again and Ted wonders if she’s old enough to be in his club. Then again, she’s with the biggest lawyer in town so she must be legal, Ted laughs to himself.

“Absolutely. All except the swine reference.” Hitch pulls the girl closer, his hand on her hip in an obviously possessive male gesture. Ted considers teasing Hitch further, slowly pulling the girl away from him with stories of his epic battles in the square ring. She’d be fascinated, easily amused and more than friendly by the end of the night. It would be child’s play to take her away and send the DA home alone and frustrated. But Ted has no interest in the girl. Despite the low cut dress and the dry martini in her hand, she’s still a child who has yet to see or understand anything about life yet. She has no idea that the man massaging her hip paid a third party to get that wonderful quote from Ted Grant. She has no idea that in return, Ted demanded that his club be put on the list of establishments not targeted for underage busts, liquor license infractions, or known criminal hangouts. Of course Hitch agreed and later on that same third party delivered an envelope with a number of bills inside. The girl also has no idea that the third party who delivered the envelope of cash has been linked to a powerful organized crime family based out of a social club in Brooklyn. Ted wonders what she would think if he told her that Hitch received more than a quarter of his campaign dollars from that same organized crime family. In exchange for future “favors”, of course. No, Ted thinks. She doesn’t deserve to have her illusions shattered so quickly. Let her date the married man until she realizes he’s not leaving his wife. That’s punishment enough.

“Good luck next month Mr. Hitch. And call me if you need any more quotes. I have a thousand of them.” Ted turns to the girl, who smiles sweetly up at him. It’s a smile that says she knows who he is. “Delightful to meet you. Come by the ring later if you’d like a photo.” He touches her arm in an overly friendly manner just to let Hitch know he could take her away. Ted’s smile fades the instant he turns from the couple and he wishes he had a drink in his hand. The two drinks he had upstairs combined with the two shots at the bar don’t seem to be dulling his senses enough tonight. The alcohol is just making him mean. There was no reason to torture Hitch, but he just felt like it.

Ted shakes the hands of the owner of a high-end car dealership and his wife, a smartly dressed man whose name he never catches, a beautiful woman who Ted assumes is an actress and groups of people who are just fans. Ted signs his name hurriedly on a couple of cocktail napkins. Finally, Ted emerges from the forest of people gathered around him, shaking a last few hands and receiving many congratulatory slaps on the back as if he were best friends with everyone there. Ted finds himself suddenly alone on the dance floor, grateful for the respite even though to get back to the bar he would have to endure the clambering throng once more. He should really make the rounds of the booths and tables where the VIPs are seated. Ted spotted the Yankee slugger who won the game against the Braves today. He’s good for a couple hundred dollars in drinks for him and his group. Tonight, Ted notices that group includes a couple other ballplayers, several unknown men and a bevy of women, none of them wives. On the other side of the dining area is a crooner whose current hit is on everybody’s radio. He prefers the dark booth in the far corner where he can spend time groping the young lady he’s brought. He’s another one whose total reaches into the hundreds of dollars simply because he likes very expensive champagne to impress his lady friends and at least 18 year old single malt. He buys by the bottle and sends drinks to the other famous groups who have gathered at the K.O. Klub. Finally, there’s a group of quieter men and women who prefer not to be in the spotlight as well, but at celebrities in their own right. Several of the men at the table carry guns under their flashy jackets and the women wear beautiful gowns and too much make-up. One man in the back receives visitors of all kinds. Hitch has already made to journey to that table and the singer has sent an expensive bottle over, which is half empty already. Ted snags a ring girl as she scampers by and tells her quietly to ask if the singer would like to send over another bottle. Perhaps some champagne this time. She nods and darts away.

Ted follows her into the crowd, then catches a glimpse of someone staring at him from near the entrance. He turns his head slightly and sees his hostess watching him. A long black dress, her hair in a bun and a string of bright pearls at her throat. The outfit represents a touch of class, he was told by Tracey Mantez when he hired her. The waitresses could be dressed up like ring girls, she said, but Ted should want the customers to get a moment with an elegant woman as they were seated. Ted asked if she was an elegant woman and even though she said nothing, her eyes spoke volumes. Tracey Mantez, with the history of Spanish royalty in her features, fit the bill perfectly. The other girls, they were pretty and smiled nicely and didn’t mind too much when they found a male hand where it shouldn’t be. However, no one would dare cop a feel of Tracey. She has a look that freezes men cold and withers them below the belt. She has to have something to survive the movie stars, athletes and rich men who believe they can have anything they want. They may not ever get Tracey, but they do come back to watch her stride her way gracefully to their tables. Ted was never sure if Tracey had any idea how beautiful she truly was. She would arrive for work every afternoon in a plain skirt, a neatly ironed shirt and a sun-hat when it was hot out. In the winter, she wore a long, almost formless coat that hides almost every hint she is female. Sometimes she wore white gloves, sometimes black leather. On the streets, she was just another girl, striding purposefully towards a job that paid for the small apartment she kept in Queens and maybe a new pair of shoes when she wanted to splurge, but here, inside his club, she’s something quite different.

Tracey, actually Ms. Mantez for quite some time until she finally insisted Ted call her by her first name if he insisted he be called by his, had a razor sharp wit and had no problem using it on the unwary. Her hint of a Spanish accent made Ted think she was unfamiliar with the language or didn’t quiet understand the series of words she just put together, but he learned quickly she was more fluent in his native speech than he was. Ted thought she was serious the first time she teased him because her face never cracked even the hint of a smile. It wasn’t until she said in a deadpan voice that she was joking did Ted realize there was a vicious sense of humor underneath the ice-cold exterior. She never pranced or swished like the other girls. She ‘strode’. She had a purpose. Tracey was not working to get a husband. In fact, Ted had no idea what she was all about. A foreign princess washed up on his shores who deigned to associate with the common man only because she had to. Ted was never able to penetrate that foreign demeanor with his charm as he was so used to, but he knew one thing. When he caught the rarest sight of all, her smile, she was devastatingly beautiful. More so perhaps because he saw it so rarely. Customers were never graced with her smile, just a curt nod if they were lucky. Ted catches her smiling once in a while when she doesn’t know he is watching her and she might be remembering something pleasant. It vanishes as quickly as it appears, leaving just her cold exterior. Tracey Mantez’s face could be a mask for all he knows. Sculpted in marble by an ancient Spanish master, perfectly smooth and cold to the touch with the aloof superiority around the eyes of ancient woman who had ruled a great empire centuries ago, had Ted not seen her speak. Even the other people working the club, the waitresses and bartenders, stayed away from her after brief encounters with her biting comments and cold, humorless stares. The Mexican busboys had given up speaking Spanish to her since she seemed to believe they spoke different languages. Even so, Ted couldn’t ask for a better hostess.

Despite her professionalism, she had made her dislike of boxers well known. She considered the sport to be unnecessary, brutal and savage. Men died in the ring for absolutely no reason. Young men were injured and they wouldn’t know it for thirty years. Men who had only enough education to make an “X” on a contract were given money to try and kill another man. And then there was the industry that boxing generated. Gambling. Once money was involved, the danger increased tenfold. Rumors of illegality on every level disgusted Tracey Mantez whenever the paper covered them. She tried to keep her opinions to herself, but she often lived up to the stereotype of the fiery Spaniard.

Tonight, Ted catches her gaze full on and, even knowing that Tracey tolerates him, he is withered by the distant, ice-cold glare. As always, Ted is struck by the porcelain beauty of this ethereal woman, the distance she can achieve with a simple glance. And even so, he is drawn to her eyes, wishing to get past the impassivity and obvious hatred of boxing to see what she is like when she feels safe enough to smile more often.

Much to his surprise, one corner of Tracey Mantez’s mouth curls ever so slightly upwards and she nods her head at an angle towards him. A greeting from an employee to her employer in the midst of a busy Saturday night. Ted winks back as he is suddenly jostled by a drunken dancer and when he regains his footing, Tracy Mantez has already turned, dealing with the next patron in line.

Ted dodges his way to the raised dining area that rings the dance floor, starting his rounds with the most important table, where Roberto Marcello, Jr. sits with his crew. While certainly not the most important, dangerous or powerful mafia captain in the five Boroughs, he is still hooked into the Gambino crime family quite securely. And always will be as long as he keeps making money for them. His source of income is the same game that Ted was so excellent at, albeit Marcello Jr. approaches from a different angle. He has absolutely no legal connection to any of the fighters he “represents”, but he tells them what to do, when to fight, who to fight and when to fall down. Ted is intimately aware of Marcello Jr.’s skills and abilities when it comes to muscling fighters or setting up fights because Ted had to deal with the bastard years ago when he was an up and coming fighter.

“Teddy,” says the heavyset man in the back of the largest booth in the club. One his left side sits a pretty, Mexican-looking woman. She’s short enough to fit comfortably into the short man’s arms, especially if she doesn’t wear heels. On Marcello’s other side is a much taller, threatening creature. He’s the one wearing the gun under his suit. Ted might not be able to spot it if he squinted his eyes, but otherwise, the Colt .45 is quite obvious. In the tradition of the male warrior class, Ted and the thug eye each other, both wondering who could take who in a dark alley without knives or guns. Ted knows the answer and it’s not the thug. The thug remains confident as long as he’s got the automatic under his arm. On the outskirts of the table are three other men, each one dressed in suits with wide lapels. Ted knows one of them from his monthly visit to the club. Ted always has the cash ready and waiting so he doesn’t have to talk to the man any longer than is necessary. The cash goes right to Marcello. The price of doing business.

Marcello reaches out to shake Ted’s hand, but he doesn’t lean forward. It’s Ted’s job to make sure Marcello doesn’t look short. Ted leans across the table and shakes the man’s hand. It feels like warm cheese left on the counter for too long, a bit wet and soft. “Have a drink with us, champ.”

Ted gratefully swallows the singer’s scotch, straight up and neat. “Thanks, ‘berto. It’s been a week.”

“No problemo,” says Marcello, pouring the ex-champ another. The bottle’s almost empty, but Ted spots Julia, the ring girl, talking to the singer across the way. Another bottle will surely be on it’s way soon enough. “Wanted to talk to you about some stuff, kid. Have a seat.” Marcello leans across the Mexican girl who will never be introduced and smacks one of the other men on the arm. “Tony. Go pick up a girl or something. Let the champ sit down, for Christ’s sake.”

Tony slides out, followed by the other two men. The thug with the gun under his arm stays, but pretends to be watching couples dance. The Mexican girl leans into Marcello’s shoulder and looks vacant. Ted’s been here before. She’s doing her best not to listen to anything. Ted straightens his tie and unbuttons his jacket before he sits down, giving Marcello the time to finish off the bottle. “Jesus, where’s your girl, Champ? I’m dry here.”

Ted glances over and sees Julia moving towards the table with a fresh bottle, ice and glasses. Ted motions to her. She nods and moves a little faster. Ted flicks his head, sending her off to her other tables and he pulls the foil off the top of an 18 year old bottle of MacCallan. Ted fills two new glasses and drops a couple ice cubes in both.

“So, you seen this new kid,” Marcello asks after draining the glass. Ted fills it again for him.

“Which kid?”

“The one out of, I don’t know,” Marcello starts. “Albany or some shit.”

“Some kid from upstate? No. I don’t think I’ve seen him. A lightweight?”

“No way,” says Marcello, crunching ice. “This guy’s a heavyweight. You seen him?”

“I don’t think so. I watched Sugar Ray fight two weeks ago. He just keeps getting better.”

“Fuck. I ain’t gonna bet on him. That colored boy cost me plenty over the years. But I’m talking about this new kid. Wells, I think. Jimmy Wells. You seen him?”

Ted doesn’t say he’s tired of answering that question. “No, ‘berto. I haven’t seen him. He any good?”

“That’s what I’m asking you, champ! That’s exactly what I want to know,” complains Marcello. He smacks his hand on the table, making Ted think of a small child having a tantrum. “You must have heard of this guy!”

“Sorry. Nothing. When’s he fight next? I’ll go check him out.”

“That’s just it. He’s fighting in just six weeks. Big fight, too. Madison Square Garden and the whole thing.”

“Who’s he fighting,” Ted asks, sipping scotch.

“Your old pal, the Gargoyle.”

“Gavillan?” Ted’s eyes dart downward, trying not to remember being in the ring with John “The Gargoyle” Gavillan, one of the hardest punchers Ted ever fought. Ted was lucky to be able to stand afterwards. Gavillan cracked two ribs, caused internal bleeding, fractured his jaw and gave him a mild concussion. Ted staggered out of the ring a winner, but the sports’ writers had a field day with the right hook that put Gavillan on the canvas for good. They claimed it wasn’t hard enough. Gavillan looked fresh going into the tenth and Ted looked like a collapsed skyscraper, a big pile of rubble. “Yeah. Gavillan’s tough, all right. Whoever this kid is, I hope he has a good cornerman. Gavillan’ll open up cuts on his face all night.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” says Marcello. “But I’m starting to hear good things about this kid. Young, sharp and fast. Could be real trouble for the Gargoyle if the fight goes more than three.” What Marcello is not saying is that he owns Gavillan and wants to know what to do that night. Tell the Gargoyle to fight or tell him to take a dive. Doesn’t matter who wins, at least not to Marcello. Roberto just wants to place the right bet.

“I don’t know. I’d have to see the kid in action.”

“Right. I knew you’d want to help me out. His gym’s down on the west side. Fourteenth Street and Tenth Avenue.”

Ted finishes his drink, taking a hard look at Marcello who doesn’t back down. Marcello squeezes the girl’s thigh under the table. Ted can tell because she jerks just a bit in surprise. Ted pours more drinks while the girl slides out of the booth, indicating the ladies room. Marcello motions for the thug to follow her. Alone, Marcello pulls himself closer to Ted. “Why don’t you ask the guys who’s running this kid? I mean, I’m sure you’ve got the juice,” Ted starts.

“That’s just it,” Marcello says, cutting him off. “I don’t know who’s running this guy. They say he’s alone, no backers.” Backers meaning mobbed up guys.

“Alone? And he got a big fight at the Garden? How’d that happen?”

“He ain’t got the fight yet. I still have to approve it. And no way am I putting the Gargoyle in there if I don’t know what the story is. And, let me tell you, it’s pissing me off in a big way. None of our guys know who this kid is! Christ!”

Ted watches Marcello stew as he sips from his glass.

“Listen, champ. You know what to look for when you watch a fighter train. I send my usual moe-moes and I get nothing. I need a guy what knows what to look for. The real deal. Like how long can this kid last, what’s his best punch and,” he pauses, looking seriously at Ted. “Who’s running this kid. No one gets this far without somebody backing him. I don’t can if he’s from fucking Siberia.”

Ted looks away, pretending to scan his club for signs of trouble, but really he’s trying to find a way to get out of this. When he turns back to Marcello, he says, “I don’t like to get involved in this kind of stuff. You know that. When the fight’s going on, or after, I don’t mind talking about it. But before, it’s too much like, I don’t know, a scouting report. Like I’m setting this guy up.”

“You ain’t setting anybody up, Grant. I just want to know what I’m dealing with. Is this guy for real? Is he a paper tiger? Nobody knows the ring like you, Grant. Just help me out this once. It’ll be good for you. And the club.”

Ted’s pretty sure that’s a not so thinly veiled promise of future profits. Conversely, the other side of that promise is a threat of trouble he doesn’t need. What could it hurt to watch this kid train?, he thinks. “All right. See what I can do.”

“Yeah. Do that for me, all right?”

“I’ll do it.”

“Tomorrow,” Marcello says. Ted’s pretty sure it’s not a question.

“Okay. Tenth Avenue, right?”

“Yeah. Down on Fourteenth. Some gym I never heard of.”

Ted slides out of the booth as the pretty Mexican girl shimmies back to the table. She makes eye contact, saying all the things Ted has no interest in with her eyes. And those hips. I’m all yours, she says without a word but she reminds Ted of too many other girls who offered the same thing and lied as they said it. No one can own them because they barely own themselves. She doesn’t have to touch him going by, but she does anyway.

“Call me tomorrow. You know where. Tell me if I should let this one go. I gotta tell them by Monday night. And I’m dyin’ a thirst here.”

“No problem, ‘berto,” he says as the thug with the gun eyes him carefully. “I’ll send Julia. She’ll hook you up. No charge tonight.”

“You’re a pal, champ,” Marcello says, shaking Ted’s hand with both of his. “Saw you talking to the almost new DA. What do you think?”

Ted smiles big. “I don’t think he’s going to clean up this town, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Just what I thought. Call me. Tomorrow.” Marcello pulls the girl into him and she doesn’t fight, but her eyes flicker to Ted when Marcello messes up her newly applied lipstick. Ted turns away, trying not to be disgusted.

He stalks through the crowd, muscling past slow dancers and juiced up singles too drunk to know they’re making fools of themselves. Ted’s headed for the bar again when he gets cut off. A tall man with a suit he should have burned several years ago. Tommy Nevins. First rate sports’ reporter for the Daily News. Runs a column about the cruelty and corruption of the business of boxing. His editor keeps taking out the references to payoffs and rules violations, mismatches and broken state laws. Tommy doesn’t have a drink in his hand, reminding Ted how little he gets paid.

“What do you say, champ,” Tommy says quickly.

“I say you’re lucky I don’t throw you out, Nevins. It isn’t like I make any money on you. Only reason I let you in here is because of history.”

“Hey. I’m all about history. I give this place a sense of history. No one else here knows dick about boxing. Just you and me, champ. You and me.”

“Come to the bar, Nevins. I’ll buy you a drink if you don’t ask me THE question.”

“I promise,” Nevins says, his best scout’s honor hand signal in the air.

“Swear on your children,” Ted says.

“I swear.”

“All right. Come on.”

Ted leads the way through the crowd, finding his usual empty space at the far end of the bar. He signals and gets two straight up whiskeys. Downing his quickly, he turns to the sallow-looking reporter who is carefully sipping the harsh liquid. “I assume this isn’t a social visit, Nevins.”

“Assume away,” Nevins says. “Wanted your reaction for a piece I’m doing on the rampant corruption in the New York State Athletic Commission.”

“What a surprise.”

“What do you think of the investigation into the death of Pancho Saenz last week?”

“I think it’s a good thing. The investigation, I mean. And that’s all I’m saying.”

“Doesn’t bother you that Saenz was way overmatched? He was thirty pounds lighter than DeReinzo, except at the weigh in. My source says Saenz had weights in his pockets so he’d make the weight and everyone looked the other way. Think that’s possible?”

Ted shrugged. “I wasn’t there.”

“Doesn’t bother you that a man was beaten to death in the ring? Don’t you think he never should have laced on the gloves against a mauler like DeReinzo,” Nevins pushes.

“Like I said, Nevins. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the fight. I don’t know these guys except by reputation. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Nevins leans in close enough so Ted sees the frustration in his bloodshot eyes. He grabs Ted’s arm, pulling angrily on the fabric of his suit jacket. Ted glances down and Nevins lets go as if beams of heat lanced out of Ted’s eyes. “I want you to say you give a shit, Grant. I want somebody,” he starts. “I want everybody to say this is wrong. Political appointments to the commission, payoffs to the judges, promoters and even the managers. Docs that don’t care and approve any fight for a quick twenty. The D.A. doesn’t care, the public doesn’t care and the boxers don’t care.”

Ted signals for another round. “That’s boxing, Nevins. Take it or leave it.”

“You didn’t always feel that way, did you Grant? I remember a time when Hiram Irving asked these same kind of questions. But that was before he crawled into a bottle. He knew the score and so do you.”

“Hey, Nevins. Every time a man steps into that ring, there’s a damn good chance he leaves on a stretcher. You got a real question, ask it. Otherwise, shut up and drink,” Ted snarls.

“Okay. I’ve got a real question,” Nevins says. He downs his whiskey in a single shot. False courage. “You ever fight a guy you shouldn’t have? That ever happen to you, Grant? Huh? You ever kill a man in the ring,” Nevins practically shouts in Ted’s face. “Oh, that’s right. You did.”

The punch that sends Tommy Nevins to the floor isn’t like the haymaker of a drunken bum who’s just heard his wife is sleeping around. It isn’t the punch of a guy who gets into fights once in a while on the weekends. It isn’t the punch of a street gang member, a mafia thug or a cop from crime-riddled streets Bensonhurst. None of those men could throw a punch fast or well enough enough to rival Ted Grant’s hand-speed and power. Ted Grant isn’t a boxer because he wanted to be one or because he worked harder than the next guy although those qualities made him into a successful boxer. The real reason Ted Grant is a boxer is because he was graced with genetics perfect for hand-to-hand combat. His hand speed is incredible, even five years away from serious training. He unconsciously plants his feet correctly, on his toes so he can swing his whole body into the punch. In Ted’s head, the entire world stops moving completely. If he were fighting another professional, maybe there would be a chance for that man to dodge the punch since Ted’s got a good half a bottle of whiskey interfering with his senses. But Tommy Nevins has no chance. In fact, he never saw Ted start moving, let alone finish the right cross that sends him spinning to the floor. A hairsbreath more focus on Grant’s part and Tommy Nevins goes to the hospital. Or to the morgue.

There’s a clatter of glass, the skittering of ice clubs from fallen drinks and the gasp of shocked women. Tommy Nevins doesn’t have a broken jaw, a concussion or a cracked skull, but that’s only because Nevins wasn’t facing Ted squarely.

Nevins looks up from the floor, the world spinning violently. He gets an image of scared women in expensive dresses, shocked men and a hulking monster approaching him with clenched fists.

“Don’t ever say that to me again,” Ted growls, a fistful of Nevins’ shirt in his left hand.

“Screw you, Grant,” Nevins mumbles defiantly. “I got a right to ask that question. It’s public knowledge. And you should care more. Boxing bought this place for you. You should care more.”

Ted drops him to the floor, afraid he’ll kill the reporter. He turns to the bar, gripping the wood hard enough to crack all the bones in his hands. “Give a round on a house,” he says grimly to the bartender. “And get the loudmouth some ice for his face.” The bartender nods. “Then get him the hell out of here before I kill him.” The bartender motions to the bouncer at the door, a large Mexican looking guy. The bouncer helps Nevins to his feet and towards the bar. The stunned reporter looks around for Grant as the strong hands guide him to a chair where a bowl of ice and a towel are waiting. He spots Ted moving quickly away, the stunned crowd parting before him.

“Grant? Why’d you retire Grant,” Nevins yells out. “Tell me why you retired, champ! Why don’t you tell me why? What are you scared of? Who are you scared of?”

Ted strides right past Tracey at the front of the club, jostling his way past the entering nightclub patrons. As he passes the hostess stand, he turns and looks right at her. “He promised he wouldn’t ask that question,” he says calmly but through clenched teeth. “He had it coming.” Tracey raises an eyebrow at him as he vanishes out into the night.

Outside, the cool night calms him down as he paces back and forth in front of his club. He stays away from the well-lit front doors in case Nevins comes out that way. The worst part about it is that he actually likes the bastard. Smart, intuitive, a good writer and he cares about boxing more than almost anyone. Certainly more than the promoters. They don’t care if it’s pig racing or championship boxing. As long as there’s people in the seats. He cares more than most managers and agents. They would be just as happy representing the pigs as the boxers.  And the government, they’re a joke. Donate twenty grand to the Republican party and you get to be a boxing commissioner. Thirty probably gets you the chairmanship, Ted thinks. Tommy Nevin’s is exactly what boxing needs, except boxing needs fifty more of him. With guns. Doesn’t mean if Tommy asks one more time about THAT fight that Ted won’t deck him again.

Down the street, Tommy Nevins staggers out of the club and, with the help of the bouncer, tumbles into a cab. Ted watches from the shadows along the wall as the cab drives downtown to Tommy’s apartment. Or maybe to another bar where Tommy can create more havoc in his quest for boxing purity. Ted wants another drink.

The rest of the night spins by to the tune of jazz, getting hotter and slower as the early risers get their coats and head home, leaving only the late night singles or illicit couples on the dance floor. The bandleader gives them more bass and less horns as three A.M. gets closer. Ted spends some time laughing with the Yankee slugger, who has to be carried home when 2:30 hits. He’s got a game tomorrow, the other players say, but he hits better when he’s half in the bag. Ted arranges for cabs to take the guys home as he nurses his eighth or ninth drink of the night. Maybe the drink total is in double digits, but he doesn’t remember. At three, he signals for the band to knock off and shoes the last dancers home. The new DA left hours ago and Marcello vanished at some point after midnight as well. The busboys hustle through the clean up as Ted sits on the stairs watching the clean up with a tired expression.

One of the girls slides by and pulls his tie out, much to his surprise. The rest of them laugh as they count their tips, but Ted just rolls his eyes. The bartenders wipe down the bar and fill up the bottles behind them. There’s the clatter of dishes from the kitchen, laughter and jokes in Spanish. Steam rushes out of the back, raising the level of chaos for the duration of the swinging door.

The band snaps their cases closed and as they vanish into the night, they make one more attempt to get the ring girls to go home with them. The bassist promises marijuana, but the girls just laugh and shake their heads. Maybe because Ted is watching, but he hopes not. After a bit the girls leave as well, like a flock of birds, tittering and staying close together for safety. They call good night to Ted at the door, who waves tiredly and tries to smile but he’s pretty sure it’s a dismal sight. Geoff, one of the bartenders, gives Ted the nightly tally from the bar handing his boss the carefully counted bills. Ted thanks him and locks the door behind them as they leave. After a while, even the Spanish jokes quiet down and the clatter of dishes stops. Ted drifts through the kitchen, speaking in halting Spanish that they should all go home. He doesn’t even get upset when they laugh at his Spanish. He pretends to box one of them and they cheer, big fans of lightweight Mexican boxing. The kind held in dark clubs in Spanish Harlem with no titles ever changing hands. Finally, the busboys and cooks leave out the back, slamming the door to the alley, chattering like hungry dogs all the while.

It’s now, after the club has closed, that the trouble sets in. When the dance floor is quiet, dark and lonely. It’s when he’s left alone in the middle of the monument to his success that he feels the demons creeping around the dark shadowy corners. The ones that whisper in his ear, telling him that he’s still a contender.

“You’re better than that twenty-three year old who’s holding the belt now,” they say. “You’re smarter than he is. You could take him in twelve rounds and leave him bloody. He’d never touch you. Three months of training and you’d be right back where you left off, powerful, fast and smart,” they whisper. “You left the game too early. You still have a lot of good rounds left. All you have to do is ask and they’ll give you a fight. People would pay a fortune to see you fight again. Ted ‘the wildcat’ Grant. That’s who you are!” “Don’t you remember the cheers, the oceanic swell of excitement of the Garden?”

Ted listens to the voices, feeling the hunger in his gut to raise his arms, victorious one more time. He longs to see his opponent humbled, bleeding on the canvas or slumped on the wooden stool with his arms hanging down like the boughs of a willow tree. He shadowboxes across the waxed wooden floor, dodging the tables and pillars with sharp motions. There’s no way anyone could touch him. He’s as fast as he ever was.

Upstairs, in his apartment over the club, the weight bag is calling to him. Even though it’s three in the morning, Ted feels like he could train for another three hours, practicing his famous right jab and his powerful left hook. He’ll go upstairs and he’ll sweat and punch and get his timing back. Then, tomorrow he’ll call his old crew. His trainer, Ben Moore and his manager Isaac Johnson. They’ll tell him he’s crazy, but he’ll throw money at them and they’ll do it. They’ll come back and get him into shape. Then he’ll get his belt back.

He just wants to get back into the ring. Just one more time. Just once more he’d hear the roar of the crowd. He’s not too old.

“Buy you a drink, champ?”

Ted turns. The lights by the bar have been left on and she’s leaning back against the polished wood, elbows holding her up. Tracey Mantez, watching Ted Grant shadowboxing across the dance floor of his club and looking like a fool doing it. Ted puts on his confident face, puts the spring back in his step and starts his best “happy-go-lucky” act. “Don’t you look lovely tonight,” he says.

Tracey Mantez regards her boss with narrowed eyes. “Save it for the shills, Grant. That act doesn’t get very far with me. First, you see me all night and second, I’m off duty. I’m tired of acting like I care about people. So don’t try to charm me and I won’t pretend I’m not exhausted. In answer to your next unspoken question, you asked me to help out with the accounting. Remember? Something about an extra fifty dollars a month if I can make those silly numbers match up.” If he listens carefully, Ted can hear her rolled “r”s, the faint Spanish accent making her speech sound exciting and exotic. It’s a shame she hates him.

“Tell you what. I’ll stop the act if you snap that knife back closed.”

“What knife?”

“That one you call a tongue,” he says, deadpan.

Tracey stares at him for a moment, then smiles. “Very good, Grant. How long have you been waiting to use that one?”

Ted shrugs as he slides onto a stool next to her. “Does it matter? Six months, a year? Who’s counting?”

“Is that all your jokes,” she asks.

Ted smiles this time. “Yeah. That’s it. Hope you liked it.”

“I was devastated. Excuse me while I go home and cry.”

“You promised me a drink first.”

She raises an eyebrow. “I did. So I did. What’s your poison?”

Ted considers allowing his slightly inebriated brain come down, but he knows he’ll crash into a pile of cranky and exhausted. So he points. “Single malt with just a splash of water, please.”

She spins a heavy-bottomed glass rightside up from a drying rack and expertly pours half a glass of the amber liquid with the precision of a high wire act. While she’s pouring, her eyes flicker to Ted’s and he raises an eyebrow in appreciation. “Before I was a high-class waitress, I was a low-class bartender,” she explains.

“No kidding. Any place I know?”

“If there’s a God, the place has been burned to the ground and the owner dragged through streets by his thumbs,” she says, turning to return the bottle to it place amongst the other crystal spikes.

“I’m sure you don’t really mean thumbs. My kind of place.”

“I doubt that, but it paid the bills.” She splashes water into the glass and slides it in front of Ted.

“Until?”

“Until I couldn’t stand the man I was working for and decided to move out of Brooklyn. Seems the owner thought I had an attitude problem.”

“You? An attitude? I find that hard to believe.”

She smiles quickly and Ted wonders if the lights were on whether her face is blushed with color. “I know. It’s shocking, yes? Oh,” she says as if remembering. “That and I wouldn’t go home with him. A friend told me about some boxer named Ted “Wildman” Grant who was opening a restaurant. I figured the pay had to be better.”

“Wildcat.”

“Hmm,” she questions with a raised brow.
            “My nickname was Wildcat. Not wildman.”

When she smiles, her pearls suddenly seem dull compared to her teeth. “I know. There are lots of posters on the wall,” she says, gesturing around.

It takes a lot to embarrass Ted Grant, but she does it with seeming ease. “Aren’t you drinking, Mantez?”

“You buying,” she asks with a slight shrug.

“Sure. Long week. Whatever you want.”

Tracey bends down and slides a bottle of champagne out of its holder where it waits for crooners and mob guys and actresses. She leans over conspiratorially as she unscrews the metal wire holding the cork tightly in place.

“You have expensive taste,” Ted says.

“I hear Grant can afford it,” she stage whispers. “Besides, I feel like getting a little drunk.”

“What? You not going to work tomorrow,” he teases.

“Sunday? Day off.” There’s a sudden pop as the cork explodes out of the bottle, zinging into the darkened club.

“You’re going to have to find that, you know,” Ted says.

“Ah. Grant’ll never know. Let some dancer twist an ankle on it,” she says, filling a graceful champagne flute perfectly. Ted thinks she was born to drink from nothing but beautiful glasses  and wear nothing but expensive clothes. The image of her bringing the glass to her lips sends his next sarcastic comment flying out of his head faster than the champagne cork. He’s content to watch her and she senses it.

“So what are you looking for, Grant,” she asks as he drains his glass, grateful that the dryness and exhaustion are sloughing off him with the added alcohol. Tracey fills the glass again as he remember she asked him a question.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

She leans just a bit closer. “Just wondering really. Why don’t you ever date anyone? I mean, you’re surrounded by beautiful women, actresses and celebrities, regular girls and debutantes. Who are you looking for, Mr. Grant?”

“That’s pretty personal, Ms. Mantez. And I thought you hated boxers. At least that’s what you say almost every day.”

She shrugs as she sips the champagne. “I don’t hate boxers the same way I don’t hate soldiers. That doesn’t mean I don’t hate war. And boxing. Men don’t need to kill each other,” she says, pausing. Then she lightens her tone and says, “And it’s three A.M. and I’m tired, which makes me bold and curious. Wait until I finish this bottle.” Tracey fills the glass again. “So. Is there some deep, dark secret that involves a torrid affair, secret payoffs and a dead body?”

“You think far too much of me,” Ted laughs. “Nothing so exciting. I’m just,” he starts, thinking for a moment, “A solitary kind of guy. What makes you think I need someone?”

She reaches over her head and pulls out the hair clips holding her dark hair in a bun. With what seems like a single shake, her hair pours down over her white marble shoulders like dark, velvet oil. She ignores the effect as if it means nothing.  “Everybody needs someone, champ.”

“Oh? How about you, Mantez? Why aren’t you rushing home to your sweetie?”

“Who says I don’t have someone?”

“How does he survive your rapier sharp wit,” Ted asks. “He’d have to be a bullfighter.”

Tracey almost laughs, a rare sighting for Ted. “Good one, champ. As it happens, I am not currently engaged in a fencing match with a member of the opposite sex.”

Ted drains his glass, allowing the alcohol to make him bold. “How about a member of the same sex? It’s not so rare these days.”

“Now you overestimate me. I’m just a simple girl looking for a simple boy.”

“Somehow I doubt that. I don’t think there’s a simple bone in your body.”

“You never know. We all have secrets,” she states.

“I guess so.”

“So now you know about me, what’s your story?”

Ted sighs, watching her fingers curl around the long stem of the glass. “Do you feel like sitting in a booth? These stools are forcing me to sit up straight.” Ted motions to the booth where the ball players were sitting earlier.

“The special booth reserved for celebrities on their way up or baseball players on their way down? Am I worthy,” she teases.

            “We’ll see,” he returns.

It’s darker in the back of the club, the distant light of the bar on the shiny dance floor seems almost like the moon, throwing dancing sparkles across a smooth lake. Tracey lounges back into the deep, soft leather as Ted watches her relax and close her eyes. It’s suddenly like they’re in a small grotto somewhere, alone and enclosed. Ted can barely see Tracey in the light, just the sparkle of the light in her eyes. “I think you’re avoiding something. You didn’t answer my question.”

“Which one,” he asks.

“Why are you alone? I mean, there have been plenty of late nights. Just you and me. I mean, I don’t think I’m too hard to look at. Maybe a little tired in the eyes.” She rubs the space under her eyes with her fingertips.

“Nothing wrong with those eyes,” he says, but not getting a smile. “I’ve seen men whither and die under the steady gaze of those eyes. Myself included.”

“Oh, that’s sweet,” she says. “I’ve always wanted a man I can terrify at will. You’re still avoiding my question, though.”

“Maybe I am. But even you must admit that you’re exterior is a,” he pauses, thinking. “Prickly one given that I used to be the champion of a sport you claim kills men every day and contributes to the destruction of society as we know it. Your words, by the way.”

She laughs again. “Okay, Grant. You’re off the hook. I’ll stop prying,” she says, taking a shoe off and placing it on the table. Ted doesn’t remember that black high heel with the spaghetti straps being part of the outfit he approved. She starts rubbing the sole of her foot.

“Give it here,” he says.

“Hmm? My foot? I don’t think so. I’ve been on my feet for twelve hours. They’re probably swollen and ugly.”

“I’m an ex-boxer, remember? I’m used to swollen and ugly. Should I get some ice?”

“Don’t you dare, Grant,“ she barks, but immediately relaxes when his strong, still calloused hands start to massage her stockinged foot. In this soft lighting, Ted can’t tell if the foot on his thigh is covered in black stockings or whether they’re flesh colored. Her long gown stays carefully in place, not that Ted was thinking about that. Of course he wasn’t thinking about her legs. For long minutes, he kneads the sore muscles of her feet in silence, listening to the soft noises she makes in the back of her throat and the quiet breathing. “Thank you. Can I sleep here,” she whispers when he finally slows.

“No,” he says.

Tracey sits up slowly, gently sliding onto her knees so she’s facing Ted. His eyes notice the soft planes of her smooth cheeks in the bar’s light as she moves closer to him. “Am I really that scary,” she whispers in his ear.

Ted reaches out, touching the perfect skin of her throat with his hand, wishing away the roughness of his palm. “No,” he whispers back. “You’re all talk.”

“Oh, no. You guessed,” she smiled.

Ted quietly clears his throat. “This is not what I expected,” he almost whispers. “I thought you hated me.”

“No,” she mouths, shaking her head slowly. “I remain convinced boxing is a danger to everyone involved, but you seem to be an exception.”

“I’m honored.”

“You have every right to be,” she says, as he pulls her face towards his. He presses his lips to the long, elegant space above her collarbone, inhaling the almost lost scent of the perfume she dabbed on hours ago. There’s a shudder in her, like the rumble of a car engine quieting. Then she’s still. Ted kisses her neck, the perfect line of her jaw, the soft hair under her ear as he listens to the quiet rush of air through her mouth. A sound slides softly from her throat as Ted tilts her head slightly and their lips touch like billowy clouds coming together in the darkest hour of the night.

In the empty space of the club, violent gunshot sounds jerk them apart. Ted whirls at the booming echoes still bouncing around the vastness of the room, unable to figure out what just happened. The booming sounds again and Ted stands quickly. Tracey doesn’t realize she’s holding onto his arm until he touches her hands gently.

“Stay here. Okay,” he says.

Her marble cold exterior is shattered by the surprise and sudden fear. Enough so that her voice quavers just a bit. “Okay.”

Ted strides quickly across the dance floor, making strict clacking sounds with his shoes. Both hands outstretched, he bangs open the swinging doors to the kitchen without slowing his gait. At the back door, he throws open the locks angrily, then jerks the heavy metal door open in a rage.

Standing in the doorway, looking for all the world like he just stepped out of business office at lunchtime, is an older, well-dressed man. He looks like he’s in his late sixties or maybe early seventies. At first glance, he appears to be a neat, organized man who happened to be out too late. It’s the small details that allow Ted to know Hiram Irving has been drinking. His eyes are sharp, brilliant blue and barely bloodshot, but they dart everywhere as if he is trapped on a boat filling with seawater and he is searching desperately for a way out. He may have once been a handsome man, or he may once have been simply average. However he started, alcohol has taken its toll, turning the area around his eyes into a series of deep ruts and harsh lines. The pores on his nose have widened and deepened to the point of being uncomfortable to look at. There is a bright red tinge to the bulb at the end of his nose as well as to his cheeks. His lips are cracked and dry to the point to breaking open, but one has to look closely to see that. His hair started thinning at least a decade ago, leaving the remaining unwashed gray strands looking like the ribbon-hair of a child’s long abandoned doll. He combs it back in a style that makes one think he pays attention to his appearance, however he is in desperate need of a haircut. His hands are also a worrisome clue to his state of mind. Once, his fingers were long, graceful digits that could flow over the keys of a typewriter or the keys of a piano. Large than a normal man his height, his hands were part of any speech he ever gave. They paraded in front of him, danced into expressive forms to accentuate whatever it was he was trying to say. In the winter when he was a young man, he wore leather gloves that cost more than the rest of his outfit because he had to have them specially made. Today, the once-beautiful hands are twisted and gnarled like the roots of a century old tree. They no longer dance or parade. Now they struggle to straighten out and the pain accompanying their condition is dreadful during the winter months. Hiram can no longer afford gloves, having spent all of his money on bourbon and scotch and wine and whatever else his meager savings can afford.

The strangest part of Hiram Irving is his suit, an impeccable, neatly pressed and carefully maintained, double-breasted combination. The accompanying tie matches the pin-striped jacket and the white shirt underneath is clean and unstained. His shoes, while not polished, obviously cost a pretty penny when they were new. One of the laces, however, has snapped and been retied, spoiling the image. Hiram, long a believer in the appearance of a man, now continues the rote management of his clothes even when the hangover is crippling. It is one of the few dignities he refuses to let alcohol rob him of.

 “Hiram,” says Ted. “What the hell are you doing here? Do you know what time it is?”

Hiram blinks twice, licks his lips and straightens up a bit. It comes off as an attempt to speak clearly. “Yes, I know. It’s after closing time. Why else do you think I’m here,” Hiram Irving says, revealing yellowed teeth, something he can afford to do nothing about. His words slur just a touch and he speaks as if he’s running a third slower than the rest of the world.

“I’m not giving you anything to drink, Hiram,” Ted says. “You’ve obviously had too much already.”

“Now, Ted. You know that I don’t need anything from you. I was just inquiring as to your health and well-being. I am insulted that you would assume I was here for drink.” Td notices that Hiram is holding the doorjam in an attempt to stay straight.

“Of course, I would never assume that. I mean, what else could I assume at four in the morning? Right. It must be a social visit. Well, why don’t we sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk about the old times while the sun comes up,” Ted says.

“No need to be sarcastic, Grant.” Hiram tries to raise a finger as if to make a point, but the crooked digit won’t behave.

“No need to bang on my door at dawn either, Hiram.”

There’s a quiet moment as Hiram seems to be collecting himself again. “Very well. I’ll just have to find one of my true friends,” he starts, emphasizing ‘friends’. “There are many people left in this city who would be honored to have a drink with Hiram Irving.”

“I’m sure. Why don’t you go home and sleep it off? Come by tomorrow and we’ll talk. It’s been a long week.”

“Long week, hmmm? Well, let me tell you I’ve had quite a week myself and I was simply looking for some human companionship and something to ease my thirst. If I’m not wanted,” he starts.

“Hiram. Go home. Sleep. Drink plenty of liquid. You’ll feel better in the morning. Then we’ll talk,” Ted says.

As quick as a viper, the old man’s demeanor changes. His eyes, once unable to maintain contact with Ted, suddenly bore into the younger man’s eyes. His cracked lips curl back into a snarl, revealing a missing eye tooth. He steps forward, looking up into Ted’s face and raises a gnarled fist as if he were going to strike the much taller man. “Fine! I don’t need anything from you anyway, you ungrateful shit,” he screams. When he speaks, Hiram yells as if he’s giving a speech to a thousand people and doesn’t have a microphone and almost every trace of drunkenness has vanished.

“I know.”

“I don’t need you, Grant! I don’t. I know people all over town!”

“I know, Hiram. But all your friends are asleep by now. Why don’t you,” Ted starts.

“Don’t you give me any advice, you punk! I’m older than you by decades! I was famous before you were even born! I’ve won more awards than you’ve had fights. I made you! Do you think anyone cared about a nothing heavyweight with a slow hook and a weak jab before I found you? No, of course not. How did you get your manager, your trainer, your big fights? Was it you? No. It was ME. ”

“Best damn reporter the Ring Magazine ever had.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Hiram says. “This club wouldn’t even exist without me! I should own this place and you should kiss my ass every time I see fit to set foot in here. I’d bring you more customers than all those fancy movie stars and ballplayers! People in this town know the name Hiram Irving and it’s respected! You should kiss my ass, boy!”

Ted doesn’t say anything he’s really thinking, but his teeth are clenched tight and his knuckles whiten on the door handle. He speaks clearly and slowly. “Why don’t you go home and get some sleep, Hiram? Tomorrow we’ll get you a new suit.”

“Why don’t you thank me, Grant? Why don’t YOU tell me that you’d be nothing without me? That you’d be fighting for twenty dollars a week in pool halls without me! I give you the world and you can’t even open your home to an old man when he’s tired and thirsty!”

“All the bars are closed, Hiram. Why not just go home?”

“Screw you, ‘champ’! I don’t need you! You need me!” Hiram grumbles obsentities under his breath and turns awkwardly towards the alley. He staggers once and then gets his footing, but can’t stay in a straight line down the alley.

Ted sighs heavily. “Hiram. Hiram, come back.”

“Fuck you, Grant. Can’t even help an old man out when he’s down on his luck.”

“Hiram! If I give you a drink will you stay here,” Ted calls after him.

“Not any more! I know when I’m not wanted,” the old man says, slipping on a wet spot and crashing to the ground heavily. He lies there in a heap, looking more like a pile of discarded clothes than a human. Ted strides quickly out into the alley to help him up.

“All right, all right. Come on. Let’s go inside. I’ll buy you a drink, old man,” Ted says, pulling the man to his feet from under his armpits. Ted, still a strong man, could carry the older man with one hand he weighs so little. “You’ll never get home in this state.”

“Fuck you,” the old man hollers. “I don’t need your help to stand up!” He pushes on Ted’s chest, but he’s no longer strong enough to affect the younger man. As he does so, Hiram’s legs slip out from under him again forcing Ted to catch him before he crashes to the ground. As he stands the old man on his feet, Ted sees that Hiram has tears in his eyes. “Fuck you, Grant! I don’t need your help! I’m still a man!” Hiram swings suddenly, throwing his right fist at Ted’s jaw but Ted anticipated the punch, slipping easily away from it. However, he’s let go of Hiram’s arm, sending the old man crashing violently to the ground. The pain of asphalt scraping his skin and his head bouncing off the pavement must finally get through to him because Hiram stays down, weeping quietly in a heap.

Ted lifts the old man gently, carrying him like a father might his child who’s scraped his knee after falling off his bike.

“I know I’m a pain, Ted,” he sniffles.

“You’re not a pain, Hiram. Just a little stubborn sometimes. Come on, let’s go inside.”

“You’re still a good kid, Grant. Still a good kid,” Hiram mumbles as Ted angles him into the kitchen.

Off the kitchen is a heavy metal door labeled “storage” which Ted pops open with a nudge of his back. Inside are racks and racks of dry and canned goods, lining three walls. Half of the fourth wall is taken up by a final metal shelving unit, but next to it is a small cot complete with sheets, a pillow and a blanket. Ted eases the old man onto the bed after he pulls the sheets aside. Hiram is like a rag doll, pushed and moved into any position Ted wants. He pulls the sheets and blankets back over him, silently thankful that tomorrow is the club’s day off. No one will stumble across him.

“What about my drink,” Hiram mumbles, barely awake and sniffling.

“Stay here. I’ll be right back. I mean it. Stay here.” Ted walks quickly to the bar, selects a half-full bottle of gin and dumps half of that into the sink. He fills it back to the halfway point with water and spins the top back on. He grabs a glass, knowing full well that Hiram won’t use it and returns to the storage room. Hiram is already asleep, snoring loudly. Ted shakes his head and sighs as he watches Hiram jerk fitfully in his sleep. He leaves the bottle and the glass on the floor next to the cot, knowing he’ll wake up in the morning, or in the middle of the night, with a thirst for it and Ted would rather not have him wandering around the bar where there is undiluted alcohol.

            Ted turns off the light and offers a silent prayer for his old friend, thankful that at least he’s safe for a night. He closes the door to the storage room and relocks the back entrance. Lost in his own thoughts of the possible truth of Hiram’s words, he walks to the front pulling his jacket off in an attempt to lose the encounter with the practically homeless old man. Behind the bar, he washes his hands and face quickly and realizes how tired he is.

            “Is he your father,” Tracey asks, walking towards the bar on cat-like stocking feet.

            “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to...Hiram is just, well, a handful. No. No, he’s not my father, but he filled the role nicely when he was younger. And sober.”

“You must really love him,”

Ted rubs his chin, feeling the stubble from the day there, as he tries not to be affected by her blunt question. “Yeah. I guess I do. We’ve been together for a long time.”

            She slides into a stool across from him. “How do you know him?”

            “When I was a boxer, he was the only writer who gave me a chance. Did a big story on me and how I came up. Got the world to pay attention to me. At least for a while. He followed me on the way to the title. A new story every month. Eventually he won all sorts of awards for it.”

            “What happened?”

            Ted jerks his thumb at the bottles behind him. “He got fired eventually. After I retired there was nothing for him. He crawled into several bottles and never got another job. He still hangs out at the gyms, talking to boxers and telling them how much better the old guys were. He’s got a whole network of old guys he hangs out with, but he doesn’t write anymore. Guess I feel like I owe him. It’s hard sometimes, though.”

            “Like tonight?”

            “Yeah,” he says, smiling at her as he ducks out from behind the bar. “It’s been a night all right.”

            “Why did you hit that reporter earlier?”

            Ted looks away and sighs. “He’s been after me for years to say something about why I retired. Seems to believe there’s some sort of conspiracy connected to me. Tonight he just said the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

            “Like what?”

            Ted thinks about it for a moment, but stays quiet. “Sorry this didn’t work out. Like you said, we all have secrets. Sometimes they pop up at the worst times. Listen, I can call you a cab. Won’t take a minute.”

“Toast,” she says with a smile as she slides off the stool. She stands next to him, suddenly several inches shorter than him without her heels.

“What?

“Toast with butter. And black coffee.” Ted arches an eyebrow in confusion as she takes his hand and raises it to her neck. Ted leans down. Their lips brush each other, almost not touching at all. Tracey’s arms quiver when he runs his hands up to her bare, perfect shoulders. Their second kiss brings them together, insecurities and tenderness fading quickly.

“That’s what I want for breakfast,” she whispers when they part.

© 2014 Peter Stone. Proudly created with Wix.com

  • Facebook B&W
  • Twitter B&W
  • Google+ B&W