Journey With Words

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SOMETHING I AM NOT, Chapter One, Cher Gatto, YA Contemporary Drama


Chapter 1- TKO

 

     I blamed my father for it. For the mounting rage within me. That unrelenting surge that sought to consume. That turned me into something I was not. And I knew I was not. For there was something else. Something I could not get a hold of. Something that was not my father.

      

     Headlights criss-crossed. Vying for a spot in the warehouse’s dirt parking lot, the cars rolled in one by one. Blue sedan. Old Impala with a broken taillight. Marty’s white pickup truck. He never missed a night or wasted a moment in sobriety.

     Loose gravel grated and popped under the ceaseless line of rubber tread. The forest of oak and maple surrounding the parking area offered seclusion from Main Street, the hub of Wilcox, Pennsylvania. Population 13,000. Quaint and colonial, yet progressive.

     My father had done well purchasing the abandoned warehouse with every last penny from his winnings, every drop of sweat, and every broken bone that got him there. He poured out his lifeblood to remodel the old building and transform it into Wilcox’s most occupied watering hole, aptly named TKO. The sign flashed in fluorescence over my head and above the door jam in broad strokes. Smaller letters spelled out the acronym, Technical Knock Out, for the unversed in boxing idiom.

     “You better tuck that shirt in, Billy, before Max sees you.” The hefty bouncer at my side chucked me on the shoulder.

     My dress shirt hung loose over faded jeans. Sleeves rolled up. A meager attempt to push back. I made no move to sharpen my attire but stretched on my stool in the open doorway and supported my back against the frame. Loud country, cranked up a notch too high, reverberated through the walls behind me and released its strains into the night air.              

     Scanning the line that formed down the sidewalk, I caught sight of two kids from high school, Tom McKinley and Nick Schroeder. They bounced on their heels, checking and rechecking the length of the line. They wore college sweatshirts to look older. I thought of leaving them to the bouncers, but they had seen me. I nodded and looked away.

     When they reached the entrance, they jostled one another back and forth to hand me identifications of each one’s older brother.

     “Cover is ten bucks a piece.” I handed back their IDs.

     “What? Come on, man, it’s us,” Schroeder said. “Let us in for free.”

     “Or not at all. Ruby’s down on Main Street has no cover. You could always go there.”

    “But that guy just got in for free.” McKinley pointed at Marty, the town drunk, who shuffled past, forfeiting the long line.

    “He lives here.”

     Twenty bucks slapped into my hand, and the two melded with the crowd.

     When the file of newcomers dissipated, I left the job to the bouncers and entered the mayhem inside. An occasional hand reached out to ruffle my hair as if I were still eight, or to ask me if I had seen my father within the last few minutes. Someone always looked for him, and most of the time I had no idea where he disappeared.

     TKO set itself apart from the other pubs in town and drew a steady stream of locals and outsiders. Not because of the massive bar in the center of the room managed by a team of bartenders every night of the week except Sunday. Nor on account of the scantily dressed barmaids scattered about, the amateur live bands, the billiard tables, dart boards, or large screen TVs. Not even the food could be accredited with its success, though the cook was a renowned chef from some acclaimed French school I could not pronounce. No, the big draw, unlike any other sports club of its kind—at least not anywhere near Wilcox—was the small indoor boxing ring my father had built the day we moved in. I supposed the fight would never be shaken from the man.

     A bald-headed patron with a large paunch known only as “Tac” sidled up to me. His gray rayon suit gathered and puckered in all the wrong places. He rolled back his arms and shoulders to loosen the constriction and addressed me in a throaty timbre.

     “What are the odds on this one, kid?” With a meaty hand, he swiped at his forehead, pushing back hair no longer there.

     His toxic breath rolled my stomach.

    “Ten to one. The house wants the New Yorker.” I lied as I had been instructed to do. “He’s fast on his feet and packs a wicked uppercut. Pound for pound, he’s your man.”

    “Great. Count me in.” He shoved a roll of cash into my hand and waddled away.

     I recorded his venture in a small notebook I drew from the front pocket of my jeans and forced my way to the edge of the bar. Outright gambling was illegal in Wilcox, but no one contested a friendly wager. In fact, the retired chief of police owned his own bar stool and possessed a keen eye for potential victors.

     Once a month, TKO invited a prizefighter of some repute, a friend or acquaintance from my father’s past, who could put on a good show. Admission and drinks were doubled, with standing room only on those nights.

     On all other subsequent evenings, in place of karaoke, the club extended the privilege for “open” fight and landed some drunk or boxing wannabe in the ring to be knocked senseless. Tonight’s no-name fight unexpectedly packed the house, emptied the bottles, and filled the till.   

     “Can I get you anything, Billy? Soda or something?” One of the immaculate bartenders with a winning smile set a napkin before me. Appearances. Dressed identically in pressed, stark white button-down shirts and khaki pants, all six of them, like shiny brass pennies, flipped bottles and mesmerized the crowds.

     “Just water, Joe. Thanks.” My gaze swept the circle of faces pushing in for more. Across the bar, McKinley raised a glass of foaming beer and smiled wide. I turned away without acknowledging him and cursed his stupidity.  

     “Hi, sweet boy. You got plans later?” A silky whisper in my ear forced me to turn right into the arms of Isabella, one of the regulars since the beginning and one of my father’s many flings. He would sometimes leave me with her when he went out of town, hoping for some maternal influence. Isabella could not be further from the mothering type. 

     She flipped her over-processed mane to one side and wrapped her arms around my neck, brushing a strand of hair from my forehead. This close, her perfume overpowered me, and I coughed. As she moved against me with the pretense of a crowded room, her bracelets jangled, and my skin crawled.

     “Just say the word, Billy.” She batted her eyelashes and pursed her lips. “You know you’re even more handsome than that father of yours. And if he leaves me for too long... well, his son is a fair trade.” Her hand grazed my cheek with a feather-light touch. “Did he bring anyone home last night?”

     “Get away from me.”

     “Ooh, I love a boy who plays hard to get.” Her fingers drew through the hair at the back of my neck, and her words pressed close. “But you know that already, don’t you?”  

     “Isabella?” My father’s voice broke in, serious and stern beside me. His grip pinched my upper arm as he jerked me from her. He frowned at Isabella and cocked his head in silent command, toward a well-dressed man near the back of the room. Isabella’s smile faded, but she danced off in obedience with a swirl of her skirts.

     He turned his attention back to me. “Quit playing around with the ladies. We have work to do. What have you got?”            

     I handed him the notebook.

     After perusing the pages, he slapped it back at my chest. “Okay. Tuck in your shirt. You’re a mess.” He cuffed the side of my head hard with a forearm. “Don’t let this one get away, son. The odds are in our favor and we can’t afford to lose.”

     My father was always more tense right before a match, and despite his cool demeanor, I could see the lines deepen in his face as he measured the crowd. He looked older to me, worn and...desperate, maybe. As if some force threatened to snatch it all away.

     He slapped the bar with his palm, maybe in conviction, maybe for luck, or maybe just to signal the end of our conference. “When you’re finished with the bets, go tape that boy’s hands for the fight. And throw those minors out of the club before I slam you for it.”

* * *

     The young fighter’s name was Bobby Russo, in his early twenties and the son of an Italian immigrant. He had done some street fighting, but never in the ring. Fear registered in his eyes as I wrapped his hands.

     “You know my opponent?” He spoke in thick Brooklyn, keeping his eyes fixed on the encircling white tape.

    “Yeah. I know him.”

     “Is he any good? I mean is there anything I should worry about?” He fidgeted in his seat, but kept his hand still in my own.

     I paused to study his features. Dark, sunken eyes with overly long lashes set above gaunt cheeks. A faint scar indented his brow. His taught lips pressed a pale line across olive skin, like a strung bow ready to snap.

     “Keep your head guarded. Don’t drop your hands. He can be a mean fighter. He’ll jab with his right, but it’s the left hook you have to worry about. He’s a southpaw and it’ll come out of nowhere. Be careful.” I glanced behind me for reassurance that my father had not been in earshot. Leaking information like that was more than frowned upon.

     “You think I have a chance?” he asked in a hushed tone.

     Personally, I thought he was out of his league, having never been in a ring, but I searched hard for something optimistic to say. In the end, I decided on truth. “No, I don’t think you have a chance. And I don’t think anyone would care or even remember if you backed out now.” I stopped wrapping. “Look, why are you doing this anyway? You don’t have to. I’m sure there are a line of idiots waiting to jump in your place.”

     He frowned at me. "I do have to do this, idiot or not."

     “I didn’t mean—”

     “You wouldn’t understand. Thanks for wrapping me up. I should be good from here.” He pulled out of my grip, stood, and made his way to the ring to await the announcer.

      I never did find out until much later what compelled Bobby Russo that night. It was a nasty fight. One I would not soon forget. His opponent landed the punch that he never saw coming. But I did. It struck violently and the boy’s head snapped back with a crack. I heard it, like the snap of a branch, and I saw him fall and not get back up. I stood frozen in the center of it all until someone screamed my name. 

     Bobby lay in my arms convulsing, eyes rolling back in his head, as I futilely tried to soak up the blood that poured from his nose and mouth. The fabric of my clothing absorbed what the towels did not. His body shuddered and lay still.