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 crisscrossed. Loose gravel grated and popped under the ceaseless line of rubber tread. 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.
The forest of oak and maple surrounding the parking area offered seclusion from Main Street, the hub of Kingston. Population 12,000. 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. He poured out his lifeblood to remodel the old building, a relic from Pennsylvania’s industrial revolution, and transform it into one of Kingston’s most occupied watering holes, aptly named TKO. The sign flashed in fluorescence over my head and above the door jamb 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 your dad sees you.” The hefty bouncer at my side chucked me on the shoulder. “You know how Max feels about uniform.”
I made no move to sharpen my attire. My white dress shirt hung loose over faded jeans. Sleeves rolled up. I stretched on my stool in the open doorway and supported my back against the frame. Country music, cranked up a notch too high, reverberated through the walls behind me and flooded the night air with sound. The line that formed down the sidewalk pressed forward to get into the club before the fight. Tom McKinley and Nick Schroeder from high school bounced on their heels, checking and rechecking the length of the line. They wore college fraternity sweatshirts to look older. I thought of leaving them to the bouncers, but they had seen me.
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 apiece.” I handed back their IDs.
“What? Come on, man, it’s us,” Schroeder said. “Let us in for free.”
“Ruby’s down on Main Street has no cover. You could go there.”
Marty, the town drunk, shuffled past, forfeiting the long line.
“But that guy just got in for free.”
“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, nor on account of the scantily dressed cocktail waitresses, or 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 Kingston—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 pulled 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 wad of cash into my hand and shuffled 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 Kingston, 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 I suppose, the club extended the privilege for open fight, where inflated machismo offered itself to the crowd 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 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.”
The circle of faces around the bar pushed in for more. Across from me, 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 alone 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.” The noise in the room swallowed my voice.
“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?” Max broke in, serious and stern beside me. His grip pinched my upper arm as he jerked me from her. He frowned at her and cocked his head in silent command toward a well-dressed man near the back of the room. Her smile faded, but with a swirl of her skirts, she danced off in obedience.
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. The odds are in our favor and we can’t afford to lose.”
My father always tensed right before a match, and despite his cool demeanor, the lines deepened 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 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 face as I wrapped his hands in the locker room.
“Do you know my opponent?” He spoke in thick Brooklyn, his attention fixed on the encircling white tape. Dark, sunken eyes with overly long lashes set above gaunt cheeks. A faint scar indented his brow. His taut lips pressed a pale line across olive skin, like a strung bow ready to snap.
“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.
“Keep your head guarded. Don’t drop your hands. 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.” Although we were alone in the room, I scanned the space to be completely sure. Leaking information like that was forbidden. No exception. No excuse.
“Do you think I have a chance?” he asked in a hushed tone.
He was out of his league, having never been in a ring, but I searched hard for something optimistic to say.
“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. It’s open fight. I’m sure there are a bunch 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—”
“Ten minutes, boys.” My father’s manager appeared and disappeared from the open door.
Bobby Russo pulled out of my grip. “You wouldn’t understand. Thanks for wrapping me up. I should be good from here.” He stood and left the room.
I did not find out then what compelled Bobby Russo that night. It was a nasty fight. One I would not soon forget. Bobby never saw the punch coming. But I did. It struck violently, and his head snapped back with a crack. I heard it, like the snap of a branch. He fell and did 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.