Short Story: The Towel

I think (because it all gets a little hazy) this was the second boxing story I wrote after Bayamon, 1978 and the first piece I ever had published with the boys at Storgy. My boxing stories usually begin as simple writing exercises then they take on a life of their own. This is a great example. Enjoy.

The Towel

“You’re up on points. Don’t be a dumbass.” Big Bill’s leathery hand slapped his son Billy upside the head, making his head ring, which was more than Mendoza had been able to do through five rounds. The Mexican in the other corner was old and slow and looked like he wanted to get the hell out of there.

Billy “Bad News” Mallory was happy to oblige him.

Eight rounds was a big step up for a kid only nineteen years old, but so far it had been an easy night. If he worked the body this round, he should be able to soften him up and put the ugly old bastard away. The network would love that, they loved knockouts. The young welterweight knew precisely what it would feel like, and saw himself at center ring, his hand raised, thanking God and the promoter.  Big Bill’s nicotine-harshed baritone brought him back to reality. “Ya hear me?”

Billy hadn’t but nodded anyway. He knew the drill.  And the only acceptable response.

“Yes sir,” then he sucked his mouthpiece back into place.

The bell clanged twice and Billy leapt to his feet. Chuy, his cutman, pulled the stool away and shouted, “Vamonos,” despite the fact that neither of the Mallorys spoke Spanish.

“Go get the sonofabitch.” Big Bill tried to ruffle Billy’s hair, but the fighter ducked and shrugged him off, bouncing in place to get the adrenaline flowing. He pounded his gloves together twice and looked across at his opponent.

 Diego Mendoza had fifteen years and twenty-five fights on Billy, and he’d lost a bunch of those lately. He’d been a solid pro once, but now he was nothing but a professional opponent, designed to be an easy introduction to eight rounds, pad a young prospect’s record, and maybe take him the distance, or at least give him some tough rounds. “Deep water,” they called it. Everyone seemed alright with that notion except Diego Mendoza.

As Billy bounced forward, the Mexican’s dark eyes blazed and his smirk transformed into a full-blown sneer. Mendoza shifted his weight, planted his right foot directly in front of him, and turned his body away from the younger man. He was going Southpaw and Billy grinned. When an orthodox fighter was getting plugged too often, it was sometimes a good idea to fight from a lethanded stance.  It threw your opponent off, especially young guys.

Young guys who hadn’t been trained by Big Bill Mallory, maybe.

Billy hated frigging southpaws, but he knew precisely what to do. He’d sparred, practiced, and drilled until the voice in his head sounded more like his old man’s than his own.

Only three things a Southpaw can do to get at you if you keep your guard up. First, is they’ll back up…

But the stubborn Mexican wasn’t going anywhere. Too dumb or too slow, it didn’t matter as long as Billy kept the jab going and kept him in range and with his back to the ropes.

Maybe he’ll try to punch his way out…

Try was the operative word. Mendoza threw a couple of pathetic looping left hooks, but they bounced off Billy’s younger, stronger arms and the old man was panting already. That meant…

If nothing else works, he’ll pivot into you…

Billy brought his guard down to protect himself against a bodyshot he knew was coming. That was when the brightly lit ring became a black hole with a lot of stars shooting across it. It hurt too much to be a punch and Billy felt himself wobble and leaned against the ropes for balance. Sure enough, when he opened his eyes, he saw Mendoza rubbing a bright red spot on his forehead and the referee giving him crap for a headbutt. Should have deducted a point for that one, but he’d been warned at least.

The referee turned to Billy and the older man’s eyes widened. “Jesus, kid. You okay?” It seemed an odd question, but when Billy ran his glove over his hair and pulled it away, it was covered in blood. A lot of blood. His blood. The ref took Billy’s head in his hands and inspected him. “Shit,” was all he said. “Can you go on?”

Of course he could go on. It was Rule One. First time he quit, the old man would stop training him. No televised fights, because who wants to see someone surrender in front of the world? To Big Bill, there was nothing more pathetic than a quitter. Real fighters fought, even if they had to be carried out of the ring. Champions didn’t let a little blood stop them. Or a lot, for that matter. Billy nodded. “Yeah, ‘course,” and wiped his eye with the thumb of his glove. A lot of blood.

The ref called time in, and Mendoza stepped to the left and just vanished. Before Billy could fathom where he’d gone, a poleax of a right jab hit him over the eye again, and he never saw it coming. Okay, the blood is over my right eye. That means I need to keep him on my left, his right… His head snapped back from a weak but well-placed jab before he could finish the thought.

The crashing wave of crowd noise had changed, too. Where there had been cheers and applause, there were now “ooohs” and anger. He couldn’t focus on that. He listened for only one thing and backpedaled and clinched until he heard it. CLACK  CLACK CLACK. The clacker pronounced there were ten seconds left.  Billy grabbed Mendoza and pulled him in tight to hold on until the blessed ring of the bell. Miraculously, he guessed the right direction and walked directly to his own corner where Chuy and Big Bill were already waiting. Someone shoved a stool behind his knees forcing him to sit.

Chuy cussed in Spanish and squeezed half a tube of Thrombin into the cut, rubbing it in with a latex glove, then wiped a bunch of the white gunk away with a towel. “Jesus, this is bad, Bill. Maybe…”

“He’ll be fine. Motherfucker butted him, but he’ll live. Won’t ya?” It was a rhetorical question.

Billy nodded. “I got this.” Then, “Damn, man,” and hissed in pain as Chuy’s sausage fingers wiped a huge glob of Vaseline over the cut, trying not to get any into the swollen, bloody right eye.

Chuy kept muttering, “Estas bien jodido,” which didn’t sound good and made it hard to focus on his father’s orders.

Big Bill sniffed. “He’s okay. Two more rounds. Easy peasy. Okay kid, he’s gone southpaw, you know what to do. Keep your left foot outside his right, he can’t get any leverage that way.”

Yeah, if I could see where his right foot was. There was no time to argue the point because the bell clanged twice. Two more rounds. I got this.

Mendoza came at him fast, or at least as fast as the old bastard could move and Billy met him with a sharp jab that slowed him down more, giving him a chance to plant his right foot outside his opponent’s. Not that he could see it.  Keep inside so he can’t launch one.

Working inside meant Billy could punish the body without having to see very well- that soft brown torso containing the liver, kidneys and bruised ribs were right in front of him. But while Mendoza couldn’t get any leverage on his shots. It also meant that he could hold his glove up to Billy’s eye and grind away. If he clinched, he could actually put his hair against the cut and open it wider. The opponent was smart enough and mean enough to do both, despite the official separating them and shouting, “No clinching, break it up,” in English. Mendoza pretended not to understand and kept doing it. The ref let him get away with it.

Somehow, Billy managed to keep his left foot on the outside, although he stepped on Mendoza’s right once, just as he took a jab to the chest. The move made him stagger backward to a tsunami of “oohs” from the crowd.  He wasn’t at all affected by the slapping right, but it probably looked bad to the judges. You’re letting it slip away dumbass.

With about a minute left, Billy grabbed Mendoza’s shoulders and pulled him close.  The older fighter spun him around to get the advantage, putting his back to the ropes. Billy clinched again and risked a peek at his corner.

Chuy and Big Bill both stood at the apron pointing to the ref, shaking fists and shouting. Chuy in particular was screaming and carrying on in the Spanglish that got more incomprehensible the more upset he got. As a curtain of red descended over Billy’s right eye, he watched as his father shook a huge fist and banged on the edge of the ring with one fist. He held something in his other hand—a ragged white towel.

There was a look on Big Bill’s face he didn’t recognize. Not anger, although the old man was seriously pissed at the referee. Just before the world went crimson, they locked eyes and Billy recognized what it was. Fear.

He looked at the Old Man a second too long, and Mendoza began shoe-shining him. Ineffective headshots bounced harmlessly off Billy’s gloves, but they likely scored. Billy knew it was useless to guess what the scorecards looked like, but it wouldn’t matter if the fight got stopped. He gave thanks to God-or-Whoever when a loud clackclackclack signaled ten seconds left and Billy threw a series of combinations to where he guessed Mendoza’s belly was.

A couple of the shots landed, at least enough to back the other fighter off of him and give the younger man room to backpedal around the ring. Ten, nine, eight….Jesus, how many seconds are left? At last the bell provided an answer.

He headed towards a corner, only to feel the ref touch his shoulder and direct him to the right One.  His head buzzed annoyingly. None of it made sense, one flash of light or sound competing with the next. His father grabbed his chin and looked at him, then he felt his head being tilted somewhere else and a sharp beam of light was in his eyes. Probably the doctor.

“This is really bad. Can he go one more?”

Then Big Bill’s voice. “Course he can.”

Chuy. “Christ, Bill…”

Another lightning bolt struck his eyebrow. More Thrombin, and a lot more stinging Vaseline. A glob went into his eye and he blinked madly. He felt something hot on his ear and realized it was his father’s breath. “Do I need to stop this?”

Billy said something that was meant to be, “I got it.” It didn’t sound right to his own ears, but at this moment nothing did. The crowd, his corner, and the gravel-bass voice in his head competed for the attention of his unfocused brain. What he did hear was the bell.

His legs responded before his brain and he sidestepped a scowling, onrushing Diego Mendoza. He knows you can’t see out of your right eye, so that’s where he’s going.” Instead of ducking to his left, Billy took a long stride to his right. He felt the breeze of a left hook on its way to where he should have been standing.

Mendoza grunted in frustration and anger. He hooked his left hand around Billy’s waist and pulled him tight. Too tight. Their heads clashed again, and Billy’s vision exploded into supernovas. He staggered back, happy to feel the ropes against his skin.

The Mexican should have come at him, and it took Billy a moment to realize that the ref had his opponent’s gloves in his hands, lecturing him and signaling a deduction. About frigging time.

Billy pawed frantically at his eyes, trying to remove the red velvet curtains that threated to leave his right side in complete darkness. For seconds at a time, he could focus. The crowd was standing. The doctor had one hand on the rope ready to jump in.

Across the ring, Mendoza’s mustached face was a mask of resentment.  He wanted to punish Billy. For making him look like a shot fighter. For the opportunities he would never have again, for having a future. Instinctively, Billy knew he’d rather go out with a disqualification than lose to a nineteen-year-old, and he would just keep coming.

“You good to go?” Billy lied and told the ref yes. “Time in.”

Here came Mendoza again. Billy bounced off the ropes and moved to his left. Just keep away from him. Three lousy minutes. You can do it.

Mendoza was relentless now. He just. Kept. Coming. Billy struggled to keep his guard up and somehow willed his feet to keep moving. It didn’t even matter where now. His left foot should move to the outside, but his right foot moved instead, taking him out of Mendoza’s reach but knocking him off balance. It was stupid, but it worked.

The voice peppered him with useless phrases drummed into his skull since he was a baby and painted on grey gym walls.

Winners never quit. Quitters never win.  A jab hit him square in the nose, backing him up.

Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion. Thunk. A right hook sent him reeling to the left, but he kept his balance.

Defeat doesn’t finish a man, quit does. A good body shot caught him just above the liver. Billy bent forward with both arms and pulled his opponent in, desperately pulling their bodies together. He allowed his weight to rest on Mendoza. It felt so good to just rest.

Over his opponent’s shoulder, his father stood statue still. The old man’s face was a blank mask. He held a white towel in his ham-sized fist. Big Bill looked up and his eyes met his son’s and raised the towel to his shoulder.

Billy shook his head. Don’t you do it. Don’t you fucking do it… I got this.

Before Billy could think about it, Mendoza slithered out of his clinch and swung wildly. Most of the blows had nothing to them, but they kept the younger man going backward, punishing him, mostly for not being Diego Mendoza.

Billy pawed at his eye again, but it made no difference. He couldn’t see anything on the right side of his body and wouldn’t for at least another minute or two. He hugged Mendoza again, desperate for the rest.

He needed time to breathe but the older fighter kept coming. Over and over. Each blow insignificant, but they added up. If he had a lead it was slipping away. He needed time and knew how to get it.

Bill bent his knees to put his weight into the punch and brought it down below his hip. Then, without being able to see where he was aiming, he relied on instinct and let it fly. The blow landed exactly where he aimed.

“Low blow… back away.” He grinned as the ref pushed him backward and checked on Mendoza, who was asking for a moment to recover. The official looked back at Billy. “Try that shit again and I’ll disqualify you.  Point deduction.” The little man in the bowtie instructed the judges to take away a precious point. The young man had never had a point deduction before. He was surprised to find he didn’t care all that much.

“Yes sir,” Billy replied, his grin nearly causing his mouthpiece to fall out.

He leaned against the rope, gulping down the sweet, blessed air. Turning his head, he risked a look at his corner. Big Bill’s arm was pulled back, the towel still in his fist but held in check by Chuy’s brown hand. Billy couldn’t hear what was said, but Big Bill glared and shouted at the cutman, who shouted back. Then his father nodded and lowered his arm though he didn’t relinquish the towel. He turned back to his son and the stoic mask slipped back into place.

“Time in.”

 Mendoza offered Billy the slightest nod and circled back to his left, keeping out of range. Whatever orneriness had kept the opponent going dissipated. They were just trying to survive now, and both men knew it. They traded weak jabs, but now it was a matter of finishing on their feet.

Screw the judges. What happens, happens.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

The audience screamed and counted down, “Ten, nine, eight…” Billy couldn’t hear the rest as he staggered back to the ropes and leaned back in relief. The bell rang and suddenly the ring exploded into chaos.

People were everywhere, jostling, pounding each other on the back. Billy felt someone grab him and thought Mendoza was clenching again, but it was Big Bill. The older man’s eyes were watery and bloodshot, but his thin lips barely moved except to mumble, “You did good.”

 “I told you I had this.”

Big Bill bit his lower lip and paused before nodding. “I know. You’re no quitter. I taught you right. Jeez that’s gonna need stitches, isn’t it?”

But you damn near threw that towel, didn’t you, you old fart?

His forehead damn nearly burst into flames as Chuy tried to clean out the gash on his forehead, patting it with gauze and pouring water over it before pressing a towel against his head. “You did great, Billy.”

Billy spit his mouthpiece to the ground, wrapped an arm over Chuy’s shoulder and pulled him close. “Thank you.”

The broad brown face pulled back. “For what?”

“You didn’t let him throw it. The towel.”

Chuy grinned and found a clean part of the terry cloth to wipe the fighter’s head with. “Don’t know what you mean, man.”

“Uh huh. Right.” 

Then “Bad News” Billy Mallory stood grinning and waited for the decision.

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