Unburdened of victory, and with it, expectation….
He medaled in the Olympics.
Silver, sure, but it was still a remarkable feat
for an American boxer to win anything,
At the height of that mad season, when everyone saw only yellow sickles and stars.
He didn’t have a lot of pop,
but his hand-speed tested what camera shutters could achieve,
so that his fists in motion better resembled hummingbird wings.
And he was handsome, too: a rara avis
of Irish and Mexican parentage, a West Coast clash that crossed
Ellis Island and Frontera sagas, branding him readymade
His mix gave him bronze skin and impossibly red freckles spread in smatters,
on cheekbones high yet sunken in impassive, Indio repose;
as a final devastation, his maker blessed him with brooding eyes and an unbroken, Roman nose.
He slicked his black pompadour with pomade,
so that his coif shined like a shellacked ‘45.
Whippet-thin yet vicious, he recalled Valentino, or maybe Errol as Gentleman Jim,
for a generation unfamiliar with those names,
but who had heard, “In like Flynn,” and understood the games played by the dandier snakemen.
He inked a deal with a promoter, who once worked as special counsel to a Kennedy.
The man had an eye for horseflesh, the soul of a slaver, and all the connections in the game.
It was agreed, that with the young buck’s killer looks and crossover appeal,
They should build a campaign based as much on beauty as fistic fireworks
(for again, the kid had ring generalship, preternatural speed, but a powderpuff punch).
He may have wanted to balk,
but the car keys and bezel-stuffed Rolex Submariner
changed what remained of his mind already fogged from its first dose of fame.
So he begrudgingly modeled the boxer briefs, blinked under
the bright foil umbrellas, tried not to trip on the coiled rigging hooked to the shining lights.
He flinched beneath the touch of the ponytailed photog who spoke only French,
like he’d never flinched from a stray blow in a hard Philly spar war
(even when cornered on a ring post in one of those 16 x 16
postage stamp rings, taking shots from a man fresh from prison, with no future
but a fine sense for the location of both liver and spleen).
He played the game, signed glossy headshots for the girls
as well as gloves for the boys down at the local PAL trading punches and dreams.
He even posed with a clenched fist (showing half-hearted menace
and a feigned scowl) for a photo in front of his cousin’s new carwash, downtown
(but at least he hadn’t let Stavi talk him into buying a piece of his suds-soaked scheme).
The promoter finally got him a dance partner for his debut,
a Nicaraguan journeyman with a losing record, and a literal ham & egg hunger
to go with his b-sider’s unfulfilled ambition.
The no-hoper wore tennis shoes in the ring, had an icebag instead of an Endswell,
boasted a rusty spit bucket, an ill-cast mouthguard, and few prospects
besides a looming stint in his country’s army, or a sidewalk selling dope in Bluefield,
waiting for someone even hungrier to roll up on a moped and bang his head
harder than any fist ever could.
On fight night, the house was packed from balcony to loge.
The lights shined as if a saint were about to get speared
and God had broken the clouds to add some glory to the gallery’s jeers.
Then the bell rang and the handclaps came from the stands in salvos,
to usher the milk-fed babyface from the amateurs into the pros.
He circled to his left,
the Nicaraguan let go an awkward, overhand right.
It barely grazed the temple, but it was one of those
strange equilibrium shots that makes the legs do the funky chicken dance,
a headless kind of praecox stagger it might traumatize a child to see.
Thankfully, though, our fighter had no kids
(or at least none on the books of which we can speak).
The kid wobbled, confused, as if fresh from his mother’s womb.
The Nicaraguan, shocked by his luck,
rushed forward, so stunned that his mouth hung open,
letting his cheap gumshield fall to the canvas with a wet, resonant plop, followed by a—Boom!
The former no-hoper unloaded a fusillade, moving his arms as if he intended to grow wings,
rather than just bash another man into the realm of the black lights,
or to cast him into that nest where squamous snakes writhed
(depending on whether you let Ali or Mike
act as psychopomp to the Land of the Concussed
to place Fistiana’s equivalent of Charon’s obols upon your punch-closed eyes).
The journeyman railed against his own pains,
projected at the end of his horsehair-stuffed gloves.
The kid went down and slept on a canvas that yielded to his failing body,
accepting him like sweaty water soaking into a wet sponge.
He awoke unhurt, except in weltered ego, and face.
He wept in the dressing room, ignored the massages, both literal during the rubdown
and that applied to his stung psyche by his promoter and the girls cooing like nightbirds,
yearning to sing his tears and wounds away with their words.
He thought of his father, how the man had forced him to hold that stance,
shadowbox in darkened rooms, while other boys played in the warm sun
or splashed in the bleary chlorine blue of summer’s shimmering pools,
as he drowned in the fug and liniment, flinching from sounds of slapping rope and beaten bag
hammered flat as mallet-tenderized veal;
A boy once given to reverie, now locked in a cloister meant for the most un-monastic penitents
constrained by bare need, and a sadistic, nigh-satanic creed.
He thought of how the man only hugged him to press his hands to his chin,
touched him only to kick his legs ‘til they framed the correct angle to stalk another father’s kid,
denying him routes of escape, whittling him down into a desperate corner for the kill.
And how, when he failed to keep the correct degrees with his feet,
his father tied his heels with twine to teach him,
and laughed with the other men in the gym
to see the kid burning in his raging waves of atomic red,
embarrassed, as if naked and in nightmare, and forced to give a speech.
Thinking of it now, the kid ceased to weep, and smiled instead
for the first time in a cool decade,
seeing the end of a lot of senseless pain
(not to mention pretty girls)
through the isinglass veil of useless tears, dripped impasto falling like a summer rain
and making windows smear.
Unburdened of victory, and with it, expectation,
after all those fear-filled years.
Joseph Hirsch is the author of many published books. His shorter works have appeared Terror House, 3 AM, and Bull: Men’s Fiction. www.joeyhirsch.com