Joseph D. Martin
Call Triple A
Thursday night and Bents Gym was packed to capacity; all women, all wearing spandex shorts and tank top t-shirts that clung like saran wrap, hugging every curve. They also wore heavy boxing gloves, punching the air in strictly regulated syncopation. Arthur Arteaga was putting them through the paces, counting to ten through a NASA ground control looking device stuck to his head. His voice went into a straw-sized microphone, then boomed out of the four corner speakers which were already vibrating from the God-awful pop music these chicks listened to while they exercised.
Bentley Cone watched the women jiggle from the air conditioned comfort of his fish bowl office. They started kicking now, Christ, lifting those unbelievable legs at least sixty degrees apart. Bentley breathed deeply through his nose, as if he could smell the collective stench of their sex. He shuddered as he exhaled. They stopped kicking then Arthur took them to the mats and worked their abs; crunches - knees to elbows in sets of ten. Bentley pushed himself away from the glass wall and swiveled his chair to reach his desk. He pulled a cigar from the top drawer and chomped on it, accidentally breaking the paper and filling his mouth with bitter tobacco. He puckered his lips and spat the leaves out like watermelon seeds.
Sure as cancer, these bitches were killing him.
* * *
Three years ago Bentley had pinned all his hopes, and a considerable amount of his money, on getting Arthur a shot at the middleweight title. Arthur Aristotle Arteaga, fought as Triple A which lent itself to a catchy slogan: "Need a fighter broke down? Call Triple A". Bentley had come up with that one himself and beamed like a proud father when they used it on FOX Sports during a televised preliminary in Chicago. Arthur won that fight and was getting a fine reputation as a box-office boxer. People loved to watch Triple A because he was pretty. He moved pretty, he threw pretty punches, and damnit, if he just wasnt a pretty guy. He smiled for the camera and dyed his hair, blew kisses to his mother after hed won. . Oh, youd better believe the ladies loved him. But the best thing about Arthurs racket was, just as the ladies loved watching this olive-skinned, chiseled, handsome devil strut his stuff, the guys loved watching him too because they couldnt wait to see some pug ugly SOB pound that fresh face into tapioca pudding.
Arthur was way too careful to let that happen, however, and thats also why he never got a shot at the belt. As he worked his way up and the quality of his opponents improved, the more he relied on dancing. If you dance with a real fighter for ten rounds youll getting creamed on points, even if you do manage to keep all your pearly white teeth and your nose in the middle of your face. They booed him in Atlantic City when he spent thirty minutes back pedaling from the heavy fists of Chubby Brown. After the fight, Bentley had been furious, storming around the locker room, sorely tempted to smash Triple As face with a brick to take the "pretty" factor out of the equation.
"Stick and give! Stick and give!" Bentley yelled in Arthurs face. "Jesus Christ, was I watching a boxing match tonight or a marathon race?"
Arthur scooted away and picked his tie up from the aluminum bench, smoothing it out with his hands. "I had a bad night, is all," he said in his soft Hispanic accent. "Ill make it up to you in Vegas."
Bentley turned away in disgust and took a seat in the corner. He grabbed a loose brick off the locker room floor and passed it from hand to hand, glaring at Arthur with hooded eyes.
Arthur fixed his tie in the mirror, checked all his buttons and zippers and blew Bentley a kiss as he opened the door and stepped into the hallway. Bentley saw the flash of a dress, then the door slammed shut. Distinctly female giggling faded as his prize fighter left for a wild night on the town.
Bentley let the brick fall from his hands. You dont get to Vegas after being booed in Atlantic City. You dont get to Vegas by saying, I had a bad night, is all. And you sure as hell dont get to Vegas by having a merry time with some dame after loosing, LOOSING, a fight. Arthurs only chance at sin city was to make it as chorus girl. He certainly had the legs for it.
Bentley paid the hotel through the weekend, left Arthur an envelope full of money, went to the airport and bought a ticket for the redeye back to Houston. After landing, he took a courtesy shuttle to the downtown Hiatt, tipped the driver five bucks, considering it one hell of a cheap price for a ride that would have cost forty in a cab, and walked the ten blocks to his gym which was on the north side, well past the homeless shelter and the twenty-four hour newsstand. He unlocked the security gate, opened the steel door, looked around to make sure Lonnie hadnt totally let the place go to hell, then retrieved a cigar from his desk and summed up the past two years with Arthur Aristotle Arteaga in one sentence:
"Fuck it all to hell."
* * *
Six months later Triple A returned to Bents gym with a big money plan to turn the joint into an aerobics center. Bentley was cordial with him, they caught up on old times, no hard feelings and all that, but Bents gym wasnt going coed, not for any amount of money.
"I just want to pay you back," Arthur said, acting very contrite, "I know you put a lot of money in me ."
"Forget about it," Bentley tried to smile, but his lip started twitching so he let the scowl shine through. "Besides, I dont see how you figure itll make money. Look at this dump. No dames gonna want to come up here. Plus, you know how boxers in training feel about women." Bentleys scowl deepened, "Id loose all my customers."
"Customers ." Arthur scanned the gym. Lonnie was leaning against the center ring, reading a comic book. And a bee was knocking against the glass, trying to get a better look at the free wall calendar Bentley got from the Chinese take out restaurant. It had a picture of a pink lotus flower on it, the only bright color in the whole room. There were no customers to be found.
"Things pick up after six," Bentley assured his old friend.
"Right," Arthur flashed his lady-killer smile. "Listen, Bent, Im telling you its a gold mine. You heard about that Tae Bo shit?"
"Bunch of bullshit."
"Right, but you should see the place that motherfucker opened on Post Oak!" Arthur gestured wildly with his hands, "The place got to be three times the size of your gym, all mirrors and glass, looks like a science fiction movie. And does he pack them in? Ho, shit! Hes turning them away! Hes got big screen TV monitors hanging from the ceiling so the suckers in back can see him kicking air. You wouldnt believe it!"
"I run a boxing gym, Arthur. You know that."
"Hey, times change man. Boxing aint boxing anymore, its business. Even Holyfield started box-aerobics classes in his gym out by Silver Creek."
Bentley leaned back. "Now thats a lie."
"Serious as a heart attack. He doesnt teach it, you understand. Hired Paul Lauderdale and Killer Bill to run the courses. But he knew a good thing when he saw it and now hes making money."
"Holyfield wouldnt be caught dead in a gym with a chick. Not when hes working out."
"Yeah, well, you know, he doesnt use that gym for himself. Just puts his name on it. I think his wife actually runs it."
Bentley laughed and blew a stream of smoke. "Well I aint married to no heavy weight champion, thats for sure. What makes you think anybody would pay money to prance around this old place?"
"Thats where I come in," Arthur flashed his pearly whites.
"No offense, Arthur, but Holyfield you aint."
"Shit, I know that. But I am a pro boxer. I did win a couple of Golden Gloves. I took Chubby Brown the distance, something no other boxer has done since."
Bentley reminded himself to give Arthur a fucking medal for taking Chubby the distance. Jesus Christ.
"And thats the formula for success right there," Arthur continued. "A good looking pro like me, gets the ladies thinking they are doing something real. Half of them believe its self defense training. Now how are you gonna sit there and tell me you dont want to take their money?"
"Its easy," Bentley replied, "because I just dont need money that bad."
* * *
Two days later Lonnie was working out on the speed bag, mechanically thumping the leather bladder against the rebound board, when the anchors holding the contraption to the cinderblock wall came loose and the whole thing crashed down on his head. Bentley heard the commotion and ran from his office to find Lonnie pinned under the heavy wooden board. There was a bloody gash on his forehead and he looked confused.
"I didnt even hit it hard, boss," Lonnie said, apologizing.
Bentley flipped the platform away and helped Lonnie stand, telling him, "Forget about it. Not your fault."
Bentley inspected the two gaping holes in the cement. He chewed his lip and wondered how much it would cost to fix a brick wall, did he know anybody that did that type of work, and could he trust them? Thinking about repairs, he didnt notice Lonnie swoon, almost fall, barely catching his balance as new beads of sweat popped up on his face.
* * *
It took Bentley three days of calling around and getting estimates before he felt comfortable enough to hire a handyman without feeling he was getting screwed. He set an appointment with Stephen Ramirez to come by on Friday and repair the wall; one hundred and twenty dollars, materials included. After hanging up the phone, Bentley moved his cigar to the other side of his mouth and stood at the glass wall, watching the guys work out. The Hammond brothers were spotting each other at the free weights, Dan Fogerty luxuriously beat a heavy bag, and Lonnie was taking a break, leaning against the Nautilus machine with a hand on his lower back. Bentley considered the possibility that this Ramirez guy was going to screw him by buying cheap materials. Yes, the more he thought about it, that would explain why he was so cheap. Probably gets his material off the back of a truck in Stinkadena. Still, just cause its stolen, doesnt mean its low quality .
Bentley pondered the possibilities for a while and when hed finally decided to call Mr. Ramirez and cancel the appointment on moral objections, ??? he noticed that Lonnie hadnt moved from his spot at the Nautilus machine. He was still there, grabbing his lower back, swaying slightly. Hed been acting funny ever since the accident, moving slower, breathing heavy from the slightest exertion. But whenever Bentley asked him if he was okay, the good natured ex-fighter just grinned and said, "Yeah, Boss." Probably too scared to admit it, Bentley thought, thinking Ill fire him or something. Plus he had that old school mentality about pain you dont find in the new breed of boxers. For guys like Lonnie, pain was something you appreciated, worked through, came out the other side of that much tougher. The new guys, hell, they dont want to feel nothing unless it comes with a dollar. Like Arthur .
Bentley was gazing absent-mindedly at the gym, lost in regret over Triple A, when Lonnie collapsed, capsizing the Nautilus machine with a terrific crash. The cigar fell from Bentleys mouth as he dashed out the door to help his friend.
* * *
It was two in the morning before they finally allowed Bentley see Lonnie. They wouldnt let him in to the emergency room because he wasnt family, but that rule lasted until they had finished their examinations and started prowling for somebody to foot the bill. Only then did the terse-mouthed receptionist developed an interest in Bentley Cone, taking time out of her busy schedule to actually talk to the man.
"Hes your employee, Mr. Cone?"
"What insurance is he on?"
"Look, just let me see him."
"Is this your signature?"
"I signed it, didnt I?"
"Do you have a credit card?"
"Jesus Christ ."
A swipe and a signature and Bentley was allowed in the back room. He found Lonnie in a hospital bed pushed up against the wall, out of the way of the more important patients. Lonnie looked spooked, bloodshot eyes darting to and fro, anxiously watching the doctors and nurses bustle around in their white smocks. Bentley came to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
"You okay?" he asked.
Lonnie smiled a weak smile and nodded his head.
"Im going to get you out of here," Bentley assured him with a gentle squeeze. Just then a doctor walked up carrying a clipboard.
"Are you Mr. Cone?" the doctor asked Bentley.
"Yeah. Whats wrong with him?"
"What insurance do you have, Mr. Cone?"
Again with the insurance! Bentley fixed the good doctor with a steady glare. "I dont have insurance," he said, daring the doctor to try and do something about it.
"Yes. Well," the doctor stammered, "That is unfortunate because Mr. Walker is going to need surgery. Back surgery. Two of his vertebrae are irreparably damaged. Undoubtedly most of the damage happened a while ago; his recent fall just aggravated the injury. He has been living with pain for a long time now, Im sure. Rather stupid actually. Had he come to us sooner, we would have more options. Now, if he doesnt get the surgery, he may never walk again."
"How much to do the surgery?"
"Well, its not like buying a car, Mr. Cone. Theres the price of the hospital stay, rehab, drugs. It really isnt feasible to do it here without insurance. I would suggest you make arrangements to take him to Ben Taub. They have special financing plans there."
* * *
Arthurs class had finished their cooling down stretches and were milling about the place, sectioned off in groups of four or less, chatting about clothes, books, furniture. . shit that made Bentleys eyes cross. He was trying to get Arthurs attention but the former Golden Glove winner had been cornered by two women, and they were sorting though all the misinformation about no-carb diets to come up with a sensible plan for weight loss. They might as well been trying to figure out how to bring peace to the Middle East or land a man on Mars for the effort they were putting into the conversation.
"I agree," Arthur was saying as Bentley worked his way through the crowd to stand by his side, "youll lose a lot, real fast, if you totally cut carbs, but you wont have energy to do anything. You got to have enough energy to keep working out. Id miss you if you stopped showing up." He looked at the beautiful blonde, teeth flashing like pearls when he smiled.
"I gotta talk with you," Bentley grabbed his arm and gave a tug.
Arthur clucked his tongue and excused himself, "Im sorry ladies, I got to take care of this. Tell you what, I come back, why dont we go out for a protein shake? Talk about this some more."
The two men walked around the gym to the office, Arthur taking time to smile and wave at his adoring fans. Along with his ridiculous looking lighting-bolt patterned spandex shorts, he wore a white muscle shirt that barely covered his chest, the bottom of which had bunched up while hed been stretching and his belly button peeked out of a rippling canvas of abdominal muscles. Bentley noticed the women looking at Arthurs stomach and points south as he walked with that cocky shuffle-step of his.
As if having chicks in Bents Gym wasnt bad enough, they had to be horny too. Bentley wondered if he could ever get the stench of estrogen out of the place.
"Whats up?" Arthur asked, wiping his face with a towel as he sat in the chair across from the desk.
"Put the damned towel over the chair," Bentley cursed, "You want to ruin it? All your sweat?"
"Ill buy you a new one, eh?" Arthur laughed. "You see it today? Almost didnt have enough room to hold them all. We maybe ought to think about expanding, buy that garage next door?"
"What the hell is this," Bentley changed the subject by pushing a bill across the desk for Arthur to read.
"Thats a bill for the mirror wall. Remember I said we need a mirror wall behind me, make the place look better?"
"Yeah, but you didnt say it would cost three thousand dollars!"
"Hey, its a bargain at that. These people, the ones that gonna install it, they are family. They are giving me a good price. You shop around and try to find anything less than five. Whats a matter? We dont have the money?"
"No," Bentley opened the drawer and retrieved another cigar, "No, we have it. I just dont want you spending that much without telling me first."
"Hey, thats fair. Im sorry, man, I didnt think it was too much, you know. Were making enough now."
"Yeah, I know."
"Whats a matter?"
"I also got to tell you, Im going to take a couple of thousand this week. Pay for Lonnies doctor. Ill mark it in the books as coming out of my half, so Ill put it back in when I get it. I just wanted you to know what Im doing."
"No sweat, man, thats what money is for, right?" Arthur sat forward. "Hows he doin anyway?"
"Ah, hes still in the chair . Hes back in the mens locker room, watching TV if you want to see him."
"Ill have to catch him next time." Arthur stood to leave, "You see those two chicks I was talking to? The blonde?" Arthur winked. "Ive got real special protein shake planned for her."
Bentley watched his business partner leave and leaned back in his chair. Three thousand here, two thousand there, Arthur didnt give a fuck. Why should he? He was making a living jumping around like a fool while getting his ashes hauled by the most beautiful pampered housewives and urban business women Houston had to offer.
* * *
Bents Gym was filling up for the six oclock box-aerobics class. Even on a Friday night Arthur could pack them in, fresh faced women in tight clothes, eager to get a little exercise before starting their weekend. Watching from his office, Bentley figured at least two of them to be titty dancers as they looked too perfect to be anything else. Unless they were married to a couple of those NBA or NFL players who lived out in Sugarland and could afford to keep perfect looking women. And here they were, in Bents Gym, giving the old man a show as they arched their backs and twisted their torsos, warming up for class.
Bentley bit through another cigar and tossed the whole damned thing in the trash. It wasnt that hed grown too old to appreciate sexy women, the sad fact was hed never appreciated sexy women. They had always been a distraction to his boxers.
Bentley saw one guy in the gym, a rather studious looking fellow there to accompany his girlfriend. They wore matching Rice University T-shirts and looked like they would be more comfortable in a lecture hall than a gym. The guy had shaggy hair and a pleasant look on his face as he scanned the room, appreciating the pretty women. His girlfriend pretended to be oblivious to the competition, chatting about something as she stretched out. The boyfriend held up his end of the conversation by nodding his head as he continued gawking at the babes. Bentley figured this was the first and last time Mr. Rice University would come to class. Most men didnt last long at box-aerobics, especially those with girlfriends.
Arthur burst through the locker room door and jogged to the front of the stage where he turned on the radio. Bombastic music flooded the gym and Triple A started firing up his class, yelling "All Right! All Right!" through the NASA microphone. Bentley turned from the glass and hunched over his desk, looking once again at the accounting book.
Jesus Christ, they were making money hand over fist.
It made Bentley want to cry.
* * *
"Come on! Come on! Dont worry about me, champ," Arthur teased as the young man hammered the mitts. "Keep it up! Thats right! Youre the man! You! Are! The! Man!" Arthur liked to embarrass the men who attended his class by taking the sparring mitts to them, riding them as they quickly punched through their woefully underdeveloped stamina. This was enough to keep most men from attending the class, as they were unwilling to be reduced to a quivering sissy who couldnt throw a punch twice. But Arthur had been standing before this kid for at least two minutes now, and the punches still sung his hands through the padding. And the kid wasnt even sweating!
"All Right!" Arthur took away the mitts away, looking for someone prettier to play with, but the kid hadnt finished his last jab yet. As Arthur turned his head, the kids gloved fist flew past the lowered mitt and landed square on Arthurs jaw, knocking him into a woman who fell to the floor with a tiny shriek. Everybody stopped moving to watch what was happening
Arthur reflectively assumed a fighters stance and was going to give something back when he saw the mortified look on the kids face. The boy was apologizing over and over again, stripping off his gloves to help the lady stand. His girlfriend stood to the side, giggling through her hands.
"Thats okay," Arthur smiled, a thin film of blood coating his lower teeth, "No harm done. Lets keep going! Come on! One! Two!" Arthur danced back to the front of the stage and started jabbing the air again, careful not to let any pain show on his face.
The kid apologized a couple hundred more times to everybody standing around him, then left the floor. His girlfriend stayed, however, telling him to wait for her. He walked around the gym to the small entry room and sat with his elbows on his knees, head hanging in embarrassment.
He hadnt been there long when a stoop backed old man with a cigar stub plugged in the corner of his mouth came over to shake his hand. "Im Bentley Cone," he said. "I own this place, and I want to buy you a drink."
* * *
Bentley sat across from the kid and poured two shots of whiskey into a pair of Dixie cups. He gave one to the kid and raised his for a toast. "To boxing," he said. Through the glass wall behind him the view was an ocean of women kicking their legs high, spandex covered ass cheeks flaring and contracting. The men touched cups and downed the alcohol in one breath. Bentley poured another round and smiled.
"Whats your name, kid?" Bentley asked.
"Jared. Philips. Thank you for the drink. Im really very sorry for hitting your guy. It was a total accident"
"Please, dont apologize," Bentley sighed with pleasure. "It reminded me of better times. When men actually came here to fight."
"I noticed the old boxing motif. I figured it was marketing, designed to make the place look authentic."
"Kid, you have no idea . Authentic? Did you know Jubal Stanley trained here? And Nicholi Wood? Shit, when I first opened the place, I even had a contract with Eternal Buchanan, but I made the mistake of selling him out to Jody Flush. That prick bastard."
Jared shrugged, smiling with amusement. "Im afraid I havent heard any of those names," the college boy said. "I dont follow the sport much."
"Yeah . Its all heavyweights now anyway. Maybe every four years during the Olympics people give a shit about the other classes. You cant see a featherweight fight these days unless youre dreaming, and even then you gotta have satellite TV."
"Ill be totally honest with you. Ive never seen one boxing match. Not even the heavyweights."
"What are you?" Bentley looked at him suspiciously. "A pacifist or something?"
"No, not really," Jared took a sip of his drink. "It just never interested me."
"Never interested you?" he asked, incredulously.
Jared shook his head. "No. I couldnt get into a couple of guys beating each other up. I couldnt see the sport in it."
"Well," Bentley nodded, "thats not the first time Ive heard that nonsense. Couple of guys beating each other up, sure. Like painting is a couple of guys slapping colors around, or math is like a couple of guys playing with numbers. Boxing ah, you either get it or you dont. I cant explain it to you."
"Oh, but I could explain math to you. In fact, even if you dont understand the mechanics behind the formulas, you have to appreciate the advancements made in society directly related to the practical applications of mathematics. How can you even compare that to boxing?"
Bentley eyeballed the kid, looking for a challenge. He was obviously one of those egg-head college boys who had to tear down the sport because the raw physicality of boxing scared the hell out of him. Probably had a big chip on his shoulder from getting beat up all the time as a child. Bentley wasnt dumb enough to step into that trap.
"Okay, kid, Ill tell you what makes boxing so great, but first you gotta tell me something. What did it feel like when you decked Arthur out there?"
"Yeah, the instructor."
"It was terribly embarrassing."
"No, not afterwards, not when everybody is looking at you. What did it feel like right before you connected with his jaw? Youre out there, pounding on those mitts, man, your blood is flowing, you get an opening andPow! You nail that mother right on the kisser. What was that like?"
"I dont know. It was an accident."
"Not good enough."
"It all happened so fast, I couldnt stop myself ."
"Well you think about it, play it over again in your head," Bentley slammed his fist on the table, spilling whiskey from his Dixie cup. "POW! You hammered that SOB and then he faced you, one moment, eye to eye with another man, both of you boiling over ."
"Yeah, sure it is." Bentley drained his cup and belched. "Anyway, Im glad you came tonight. I, for one, enjoyed the show, even if it was terribly embarrassing for you."
Jared sipped his whiskey, thinking about what the old man said.
* * *
"Did you see that little motherfucker belt me?" Arthur asked as he stormed into the office. He was trying to sound amused, like it was no big deal, but Bentley recognized the edge in his voice. "See, thats why I dont like men in my class. Trying to impress that ugly girlfriend of his."
Arthur kept touching a tooth, running his tongue over it. "He didnt hurt you, did he?" Bentley asked, smiling.
"What?" Arthur poked the tooth, jiggling it, "Nah, of course not. Surprised me is all. Ill tell you, he is lucky I caught myself in time. I was about to rip his fucking head off before I realized it was an accident."
"I dont know about that. He had some moves out there. Couldve taken you the distance."
"Very funny," Arthur checked his reflection in the glass, puffing out his lower lip. "Hey, I need some cash for tonight. You see that redhead?" He held his hands in front of his chest to emphasize the other characteristics Bentley might have noticed on her. "Im going to the theatre with her. Were going to see that Les Miserable show at the Wortham."
"Right. I dont know whats wrong with me. Its got to be the red hair. Something about red hair ." Arthur shrugged. "Or the tits. Something. "
Bentley had pulled the cash box from his desk drawer. "How much, you figure?"
"Say a hundred. Shes paying for the tickets. I just need cash for popcorn and soda, whatever. Maybe some drinks afterwards."
"You gonna see a dentist about that?" Bentley asked. Arthur had been fiddling with his tooth since he entered the room.
"Shit . Yeah, maybe Id better. Damn," Arthur said pushing the tooth with his tongue, "Id hate to start loosing teeth now. Im fucking retired, man!"
* * *
Jared Philips came back two days after hitting Triple A, sat in the same seat across from Bentley Cone and, with a lopsided grin on his face, asked how much boxing lessons would cost. It was stupid and kind of depressing, but Bentley agreed to teach the kid how to fight. Jared was already paying dues to take the aerobics class with his girlfriend, so Bentley refused his offer to pay extra for private lessons. The only thing Bentley demanded was that the kid make a schedule and stick with it. One missed class and its over. Go back to kicking air with the ladies.
They agreed to meet at five in the morning, every morning but Sundays, for a two-hour workout. Bentley was amazed when the kid actually showed up on Monday. Even more so when he discovered the kid was in excellent physical condition. "Im somewhat of a fitness buff," Jared explained as he easily finished his first set of fifty sit-ups, "It may sound pretentious, but I know my mind works better when my body is fit. My thoughts become much clearer when Ive purged all that excess energy."
A week passed and the college boy held true, showing up every morning and listening intently to what Bentley had to say about conditioning, moving, punching, diet, and concentration. He even nodded solemnly when Bentley dropped his voice to tell him, "Sex is death to a boxer in training. Pure death."
Arthur came by one morning and found Jared in the squared circle with Lonnie, practicing punches. Lonnie had locked the wheels of his chair in the middle of the ring and had his hands raised high above his head, holding the mitts while he called out combinations for Jared to hit; "left-left . left-right-left hook, great!" It was an absurd sight, Lonnies long arms flopping about as the college boy pummeled the mitts, a joyous smile on the cripples face, just happy to be back in the ring.
Arthurs jaw dropped and he had to resist the urge to rub his eyes like a cartoon drunk seeing pink elephants. The college boy was learning how to box! Arthur howled with laughter then called out, "Hey Lonnie! Be careful with that one! Sometimes he dont see the mitts so good!"
Jared stopped and looked at Arthur. He smiled sheepishly, wondering if he was being insulted, but Arthur waved at him, made a finger gun, and shot him down before he could think of anything to say. "Taking it to the next level, huh?" Arthur asked Jared as he strolled around the apron, "Trying to learn the real thing?"
"I never realized the sport was so interesting," Jared replied, taking his gloves off, "until I took your class." They met in the ring and shook hands.
"Well, my class is one thing," Arthur clamped a hand on Lonnies shoulder, "You want to learn boxing, real boxing, you just listen to what this man tells you. He was the alternate bantam weight on the 1980 Olympics Boxing Team. And you couldve taken that wop bastard too, aint that right, Lon? Brought home the Gold?"
"I dont know about that, boss," Lonnie smiled up at Arthur, "but I know for sure you could have."
Arthur threw a couple of playful punches at Lonnie who dodged them, rocking his wheelchair side to side. "Seen Bent around?" Arthur asked.
"Hes back there," Lonnie pointed to the mens locker room.
"Thanks, champ." Arthur turned to Jared, "You keep it up, tiger, maybe someday we can do a little sparring outside of class. Nothing serious, you know, just to practice the moves."
"Id like that," Jared said, "Thank you for offering. And I wanted to apologize again for last week ."
Arthur laughed and slapped the college boy on the back, "Hey, dont worry about it. It was my fault for not paying attention. No harm done. Ill catch you guys later," Arthur chuckled to himself and started towards the locker room, running his tongue over his new enamel tooth as he walked away.
* * *
"When do I get to start sparring?" Jared asked while he worked the speed bag, talking loud to be heard over the drumming of leather against wood.
"Dont talk. Concentrate on the bag," Bentley admonished from the weight bench where he sat. He had a stopwatch in his hand set to buzz when Jared finished three more minutes of bag work. Then fifteen minutes of rope, cool off stretches, and that would be the end of their twelfth boxers workout. Twelve two hour sessions, twenty four hours total, and the kid wanted to step in the ring with someone. In a big hurry to get his head knocked off.
Sure, he was in excellent condition, and he learned quick, but Bentley had no idea how the kid would respond to a punch. He watched him work the speed bag; bright, blue eyes focused intensely on the hanging red bladder as his hands carefully manipulated its movements. Bentley wondered how he would react to a fist in the nose. Would he get angry? Scared? Or would he keep that calm, calculating demeanor and adjust to the pain and humiliation as if they were merely two more factors in an equation that needed to be solved?
It would be good to know before they went any further. Anger or calm Bentley could deal with, but he didnt want to keep getting up at five every morning if the kid turned out to be a coward. After all, what was the point of all this if the kid never stood across from another fighter? It would just be more bullshit exercise, like an advanced version of the hated box-aerobics.
The stopwatch buzzer sounded and Jared gave the speed bag one more hit before jogging to the wall and grabbing the jump rope. Bentley set the timer for fifteen minutes and watched his boy dance with the rope. After a minute of straight jumping, the kid switched it up, doing the boxers jig, the cross over, alternating left and right, moving like a pro. It was amazing how far hed come in such a short time.
* * *
Bentley sat behind his desk and ran the list of names through his head one more time. He was trying to think of a fighter, or an ex-fighter, he could bring in to spar with the college boy. It had to be somebody who could keep it clean and easy, a professional who wouldnt get carried away on a new fish. A journeyman with nothing to prove. Used to be Bentley could take his pick from a dozen good guys like that, but now the professionals were obsessed with money and the journeymen boxers all had loose heads, crazy like junkyard pit-bulls. You couldnt trust them to hold an egg.
If only Lonnie were on his feet. Lonnie had been the very definition of a professional boxer. When he was in a fight, hed come back to his corner and listen to everything youd say, then go in the ring and do exactly what youd told him. More than once Bentley had told him to move a certain way, work a certain punch, only to figure out too late that the opponent had anticipated that strategy and already made adjustments. Then Lonnie would get horribly punished by sticking to what Bentley had told him, even when it obviously wasnt working. A consummate professional, but loyal to a fault.
Yes, Lonnie was what they needed, but even the Special Olympics would frown on fighting a guy in a wheelchair.
A knock at the glass door brought Bentleys head up with a start, and he saw a young lady standing there. Bentley assumed she wanted to pay for her box-aerobics classes and muttered an obscenity under his breath before motioning for her to come in. Was there no rest from these aggravating women?
She looked annoyed, almost angry, as she entered the office and said, "Are you Mr. Cone? Bentley Cone?"
"Yeah?" Bentley answered with a question.
"I need to talk to you about Jared Phillips."
Then he recognized her! The girlfriend from the box-aerobics class. Well, no wonder she looked pissed. If Jared was as diligent with Bentleys instructions outside the gym as he was inside, this poor lady had been spending quite a few cold and lonely nights.
"Have a seat," Bentley motioned to the chair. "Whats on you mind, Miss .?"
"Lewis. Patti Lewis. And Im Jareds girlfriend."
"Is that right? Well, hes a very lucky man then," Bentley tried to impress her with his nicest smile. The effect was somewhat less than charming.
"I want you to stop teaching him boxing. Hes going to get hurt." She came right to the point, very aggressive, letting Bentley know this wasnt going to be a discussion. He leaned back and sucked his teeth. Hed never had much of a rapport with women, especially when they were upset. This could get ugly if he wasnt careful.
"With all do respect .I dont see how its any of your business what I do with Jared, Miz Lewis."
"Ill tell you how its my business. Jared is ." she looked at the ceiling and brought her hands together, "a genius. He is a National Merit Scholar, his math score was the highest in the nation, he is a winner of the Heisenberg Award, he had an article published in Scientific America last year ." She took a deep breath. "In short, he is much too good to be risking his health with this nonsense."
How smart can he be, Bentley thought, watching Patti Lewiss nostrils flare as she glared at him from across the desk. Look at who hes dating.
"Yeah, well," Bentley said, folding his hands, "obviously he doesnt think so. And since it is a free country ."
"I had hoped I could come here and explain this to you. Jared is a very complicated man, and, oh, hes so easy to hurt because sometimes he . well, he doesnt think about things the right way. Thats the problem with being a genius; the world looks different to him. He doesnt understand things the way we do."
"Yeah? What do we understand that he doesnt?"
"We both know he could get hurt. Seriously hurt!"
"Look, lady, I appreciate your concern, but it aint your life. Its his life. He wants to box, let him box. Christ, youd think, if you loved the guy, youd stand in his corner. Give him some support, you know? Instead of filling him up with doubt and acting all stupid about it."
Patty Lewis looked at the ceiling and sighed, the edges of her eyes growing moist with tears, her nose turning an ugly pink. "If I loved him?" she said, her voice wavering, "How can you say that .?" Bentley had to put a stop to this fast.
"Dont cry honey." Bentley stood up and walked to the door, holding it open, hoping she would take the hint. "It aint you, its the way fighters get in shape. No sex while theyre in training, thats just the way its always been. Once he gets in fight shape, Ill let him back in your bed. Youll see ."
Miz Patty Lewis cheeks flushed crimson and her eyes opened wide with astonishment. She worked her jaw up and down, but couldnt find any words, so she bolted through the door and out of the gym, just like if her ass was on fire.
Well, Bentley thought, lighting his cigar, that could have been worse.
* * *
The next morning, Jared was waiting outside the gym when Bentley got there at 4:45. The street lamp in front of the building cast just enough pallid yellow light for him to be shadow boxing against the cinderblock wall. The headlights from Bentleys 1992 Cutlass bounced over the curb, chasing Jareds shadow away. Left without an opponent, the college student stopped throwing punches and faced the parking lot, bouncing on the balls of his feet, impatient for Bentley to open the gym.
"Youre here early," Bentley remarked as he got out of the car. He jingled his keychain, looking for the right one to open the security gate.
"Yes," Jared replied, falling in step behind the old man.
They entered together and Jared went straight for the mats, grabbing a twenty-five pound medicine ball to do his stretching exercises. Bentley smiled to himself as he moved around the gym, turning on lights and unlocking doors. Obviously the kid had a knockabout with his girlfriend last night, but the fact that lover boy was there for his morning workout was a good sign. Jared Philips v. Ms. Patti Lewis, round one. The winner? Dignity.
Bentley finished opening the gym then watched the college boy stretch, his head touching the mat between the V of his legs. He took a deep breath, the muscles on his back flaring like a cobras hood, and came up blowing wind through his mouth. Bentley could tell they were going to have an intense workout today.
"How you feeling?" Bentley asked.
"Good." Jared replied.
"Lets start you on the heavy bag this morning."
Jared nodded and went to the locker-room for hand wraps and gloves. Lonnie came in through the side door, backing his wheelchair over the hump, and they exchanged greetings. When Jared came back, Lonnie and Bentley each took a hand to prepare it for bag work.
While they were wrapping the knuckles, Jared cleared his throat and said to Bentley, "I want to apologize to you for yesterday. I understand my .girlfriend got upset."
"Yeah?" Bentley said, arching an eyebrow as he folded Jareds fingers over the canvas wrap, "hows that feel? Too tight?"
"Its good," Jared flexed his hand, "Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I talked to her and it wont happen again."
"Is that right?"
"Okay. Lets start with some left hook combinations. You need to work with the hook off the jab. Be thinking about that."
Lonnie moved from his wheelchair to an inclined weight bench where he could prop himself up to hold the bag. He got himself in position and nodded for Jared to start punching. It didnt take Jared long to forget about hooking off the jab and just start pounding the hell out of the bag, spit flying from his mouth as he grunted with exertion, fists moving like lighting bolts. Bentley breathed a sigh of relief. It was the first time hed seen the kid loose his calm, cool demeanor and he liked what he saw. Rage. Pure and simple. A necessity for any boxer.
Unfortunately Lonnie couldnt handle the abuse from the other side of the bag and was knocked from the bench, sliding off the raiser and landing hard on the concrete floor. Jared immediately stopped swinging and jumped down to help. Bentley ran around as well.
"Hoo, Lord!" Lonnie smiled up at them, rubbing his left elbow, "I feel sorry for your girlfriend, kid!"
* * *
"So," Arthur said between sips of his Smoothie King protein drink, "when are you going to let me test drive your new champion?"
"What are you talking about?" Bentley replied, writing out a check for four thousand dollars. The mirror wall had been installed, one thousand dollars over estimate, but he couldnt complain. Hed taken more than that for Lonnies therapy already, and they were still in the black.
"The college boy. The sucker puncher," Arthur made an annoying sound as he sucked the remaining smoothie from the bottom of the Styrofoam cup. "He wants to spar, right? I heard you called Martin Dorsey and offered him the job, but you didnt want to pay his rate."
"Jesus Christ. I bought a condom from Walgreens the other day, you want to gossip about that too?"
"They sell them in boxes now," Arthur let the empty cup fly, arching it into the trashcan with all the skill of an NBA player, "three to a pack. If thats too much for you, Ill find another guy and we can split the cost, 50/50/50."
"Here," Bentley handed him the check. "And dont ever hire your cousins again. They did a shitty job."
"Fuck you," Arthur folded the check and tucked it in his pocket. "And Im serious. Id like to get in the ring again, you know, just for the fun of it. I wouldnt even charge you nothing."
"Thanks but no thanks."
"What?" Arthur looked hurt. "Im not good enough for your boy?"
"No. I know you, Arthur, you just want to pay him back for that accident."
"And I dont want you hurting him for no reason."
"Cmon, Bent! I forgot all about that."
"Yeah, then why did you just call him the sucker puncher?'"
"That was just a joke. Ive got nothing against the kid, hes all right. Besides, dont you think I could teach him a thing or two?"
"Sure. Maybe you can buy him a pair of those spandex tights and a muscle shirt, teach him how to comb his hair so he looks pretty for the ladies."
"This is the thanks I get, trying to do you a favor. Its what I thought anyway. Youre not really trying to teach the kid how to box, youre just fucking around. Like you need a hobby or something."
"Whatever you say."
"What else is there? You dont really want the kid to fight because youre afraid hell come to his senses and go back to taking my class with the rest of the pussies. Then you wont have anything to do. Listen, I talked to him, and he wants to fight me. I just asked you first because I didnt want you getting all pissed off."
"You talked to him?"
"Sure," Arthur put his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Bent, get real, what do you think? Im going to destroy the kid because he accidentally hit me? Hes a good kid, a little stuffy, but I like him all right. I just think it will be fun getting back in the ring, just some friendly sparring, thats all."
Bentley raised an eyebrow and looked at Arthurs smile. The dentist had done a good job, you couldnt even tell which tooth had been knocked out. A perfect smile, almost unreal how white the teeth were in that golden skinned face. Bentley sat across from that smile and felt like another stupid bitch about to be given a protein shake.
* * *
The very next day, Jared met Arthur in the ring for his first real fighting experience. Bentley spent more time telling Arthur what not to do than he did giving Jared instructions, but it turned out to be wasted breath. Arthur performed perfectly, holding back, taking shots, talking nice with the kid, telling him what to watch for.
Like hed said, he was just having fun.
They went ten rounds, and by the end both were exhausted but beaming like happy children. They laughed, hugged, then sat on the apron of the ring with their arms over each others shoulders. Bentley broke it down for Jared, describing what hed done well and what he needed to work on, then told him hit the shower. Arthur playful poked at Jareds head as he left for the locker room causing him to dodge and twist like a fighter, smiling up at his new best friend.
After Jared had gone, Arthur took a towel and wiped his face, chuckling to himself. "What are you lookin at," he asked Bentley who was watching him with his hands on his hips.
"Thanks," Bentley said, then turned and walked to his office.
* * *
Sparring Arthur became a regular part of Jareds workout and the improvement in his boxing skills was astonishing. When it came to absorbing knowledge, the kid was like a sponge, and putting him in the ring with Triple A was like dropping him in the ocean. He had the unique ability of seeing the fight from every angle, even when he was in the middle of it. There were times Bentley told Arthur to open up on the kid, and Jared would take a beating, but unlike most fighters Bentley had worked with, the kid didnt think it was some kind of fluke when he found himself tits up on his back. He played the punches over in his head and came back with an answer. Arthur never beat him the same way twice.
It got to the point where Bentley was seriously considering the upcoming amateur expo in League City. He asked Arthur what he thought the kids chances were.
"League City?" Arthur said, sitting on the corner of Bentleys desk, thumbing through a martial arts equipment magazine. "Never happen. The kid will be eliminated in the first round."
This was a rather glib response, Bentley thought, and most likely brought on by jealousy. It made him a little angry.
"What the hell do you know? Youre just sore because youre not a real boxer anymore."
"Well, youre right, Im not a real boxer anymore, but I aint sore about that. No, I figure Im better off where I am," Arthur showed Bentley a page from the magazine with a floor standing torso shaped punching bag. "I need some of these for my class. Only two hundred dollars each. Id say I need about ten. Look. Chuck Norris endorses them."
Bentley pushed the magazine away.
"Why would you say the first round? That kids got more skills than all those Bush-League City assholes. You won that competition when you went five years ago and you said yourself the kid was catching up to you."
"Yeah, but remember how I won?"
"The tattooed guy, yeah, what about it?"
"See, thats your problem, youre not in there, you dont know what its like." Now it was Arthurs turn to get hot. "You tell me the tattooed guy because thats what you remember, I remember him as the guy who used his elbows to rake my ribs and bruise my kidneys. I remember him as the guy who wanted to cripple me. Shit. I won that match by smashing the bridge of his nose with my chin when we were locked up and the ref couldnt see. I dont feel bad about it, hed have done the same had he been taller, but your boy wouldnt make it past round one with those hard motherfuckers out in League City. You want him to win a ribbon or a trophy or something, see if theyre still doing expos at the YMCA."
"Jesus, they fight those with full safety gear. That aint real boxing ."
Arthur shrugged and went back to his magazine.
"Hey, Arthur," Bentley pulled the magazine away his face, "I want you to do me a favor."
* * *
Jared met Arthur in the center of the ring, his face eager with anticipation. Lonnie rang the bell and they touched gloves then took to their stances, circling and throwing exploratory jabs. Bentley stopped pacing the floor and gripped the edge of the ring, accidentally biting through another cigar.
He was about to find out if the kid was a real fighter.
The first round served as a warning, with Arthur moving fast and hitting harder than usual. He was setting the stage for a tough scrap and Jared responded like hed been taught, countering the punches, dancing away, taking the heavier blows to his arms, basically letting Arthur run the show until he figured out a strategy. It wasnt until the end of the round that Arthur threw a wide hook, slapping Jareds face with his forearm then poking at an eye with the thumb of his glove as they broke apart.
Jareds face flushed red with anger as Lonnie rung the bell to stop fighting.
Bentley was waiting for him when he went to his corner.
"You gonna let him get away with that?" he whispered in the kids ear. "Dirty spic, never could win a fight fair. He always starts cheating when he feels threatened. You take it to him this round. You show him whos the better man."
Round two was even uglier. Arthur used every dirty trick he knew, raking the eyes with the coarse sleeves of his glove, throwing elbows, knocking knees . It got so bad Lonnie shouted "Foul!" when Arthur deliberately swept his foot under Jareds step, causing the kid to trip and fall flat on his face.
Jared bounced up and motioned for Lonnie to let the fight continue. Lonnie glared at Bentley who couldnt meet his eyes. He wasnt enjoying this shit either, but it was the only way for the kid to learn the hard lessons of boxing.
Jared finished the round with a flash of anger, swinging wildly at Arthur who easily dodged the flailing gloves. The bell rang and Arthur went to his corner, shaking his head at Bentley as he passed, mouthing the words "League City."
Jared threw himself on his corner stool, took his mouth piece out and said, "What are you doing?" staring directly at Arthur sitting in the opposite corner. Arthur just dropped his eyes and twisted his neck, loosening the muscles. He didnt say a word.
"Look," Bentley grabbed the kids chin and turned his head, "You dont know that man over there. Hes not your friend. And this is not some game. Hes trying to cripple you! And youre not doing a goddamn thing about it! Now I want to see you give some of that pain back!"
The bell rang and Bentley felt tension in the air as the fighters flew at each other. Now it was Jareds turn to be the aggressor, going for Triple A in a fury, not caring if he got hit in the face as long as he was able return the favor. Arthur found himself backing off, dancing away from the suddenly brutal college boy.
Arthur continued fighting dirty, opening a cut over the kids eye with his elbow, but Jared wasnt easily deterred. He simply used the back of his glove to smear the blood from his eye, painting the right side of his face a gruesome red. He continued the attack, pushing his opponent into a corner with a flurry of punches. Trapped in the corner, Arthur locked Jareds arms in a hug to stop the abuse.
Arthur brought in his elbows to slap them against Jareds ribs, but had to jerk away when he heard a snapping sound beside his head. Ho shit! The kid was trying to bite his ear off! Arthur pushed away from the post and ran to the opposite corner. Jared followed him like an intense sheepdog, catching him with a glancing blow to the kidney. Arthur staggered from the pain and tried to get Lonnies attention to stop the fight, but Jared was all over him, forcing the former Golden Glove winner to dodge and dance like a ballerina. Arthur could see it in the kids blood stained eyes. The college boy wanted him dead.
Dangerously close to being trapped in the corner again, Arthur used a head fake and Jared fell for it big time, swinging wildly at the spot where Arthurs face should be. Catching nothing but air, Jared lost his footing and stumbled forward. Arthur saw daylight under the kids chin and smiled around his mouthpiece as he brought his shoulder down for the uppercut. It was the type of hit most boxers only dream of making. Arthurs entire body coiled like a spring then exploded, all the kinetic energy his middleweight body would ever have was released in one powerful punch.
The impact brought Jared off his feet, tossing him through the air like a stunt man in a bad movie. He landed on his back, bounced once, then lay perfectly still with his arms outstretched at his side. Arthur turned away and walked to his corner. His chest heaving from exertion as he sat on the stool and took off his gloves. Another hard win for Triple A.
"Goddamn it," Bentley said, crawling onto the ring. Lonnie wheeled around for a better view, but couldnt see anything except Jareds legs, sprawled out like a drunk on the sidewalk, twitching every so often.
"Hey, kid, get up ." Bentley stood over his fighter, wringing his hands like a nervous mother. "Jared, son, can you hear me?" He knelt down, old bones popping at the knees, and started fanning the college boy with a towel. Jareds eyes fluttered open and he tried to say something but his jaw wasnt working, so he just moaned. Bentley used the towel to wipe blood from the kids face, growing more concerned when he saw how dilated his pupils were, like black marbles with a faint blue edge.
Bentley kept wiping blood away until he realized it wasnt coming from the cut on the kids forehead. A thick red stream of it was seeping out of Jareds ear. Bentley felt bile rise in his throat.
"Jesus Christ," he whispered, then looked at Lonnie. "Call the hospital . Call an ambulance! Goddamn it! Quick! Call an ambulance!"
Call Triple A .
* * *
Bentley looked at the number printed on the bottom of the letter from Davis and Elkins, LLP. It was a dollar amount for what they would pay to buy Bents Gym from him. It was a large number.
Arthur had already sold his interest in Bents Gym to the lawyers, specifically his right to teach box-aerobics there, and they were using that as an excuse to expand the business, knocking down the garage next door to build a bigger, better facility.
"Take the money and run," Arthur had told Bentley after betraying him with the fucking lawyers. "This isnt your business anymore anyway."
Bentley crumpled the paper and tossed it in the waste basket. He heard the noise of the construction crew working next door and reached for the bottle of whiskey in his desk drawer. He unscrewed the cap, took a pull, and set the bottle in front of him. It was almost empty and hed just bought it yesterday. Too much booze, he thought, then took another, long drink.
When he set the bottle down, he was startled to find a young lady standing across the desk. He hadnt heard her come in over the sound of the construction and when he recognized her, the warmth hed felt from the whiskey in his belly vanished in a split second. He wasnt nearly drunk enough for this right now.
"Miss Patti Lewis," he said with a sad smile, "how nice to see you again."
She didnt speak for a long while, just looked at him with cold hatred in her eyes. Bentley took advantage of the silence to drink some more, greedily sucking the brown liquid down until there was barely enough left in the bottle to fill a shot glass. The consumption of too much alcohol too fast blurred his vision, which was convenient because the look of revulsion on Patti Lewiss face would have devastated a sober man.
"Do you care? Do you even want to know?" she hissed, shaking with rage. "He had to go back home, back to Maryland, so his family can take care of him. He has headaches which last for days, he cant read, he cant watch TV, the only time he doesnt hurt is when he lies flat on his back ."
Why doesnt she leave, Bentley asked himself. He looked past her to the gym floor where Lonnie was limping around on his crutches. He wished Lonnie would come over and help him explain to this bitch what it was all about. Lonnie knew what it was about . Lonnie and his goddamn crutches .
"Goddamn you!" She exploded, slamming her fists on his desk, sending papers flying to the ground. "You dont even care! You destroyed him, you ruined him, and for what? For boxing? Dont you know what youve done? Dont you know what he could have been?"
She fled from the room, crying. Lonnie staggered aside to let her pass as she ran out of the gym. Lonnie looked at Bentley through the glass wall, but Bentley just shook his head and waved him off. There wasnt anything Lonnie could do to help now.
Bentley sighed, then finished the last of the whiskey. He would have to stop by the liquor store and get another one. He started putting his desk back together slowly, scooping papers off the floor and halfheartedly stacking them on his desk. He was too drunk and depressed to sort through them; besides there was nothing very important anyway. He reached in the trashcan and retrieved the offer letter from Davis and Elkins, LLP. He smoothed the wrinkles by rubbing it on the edge of his desktop. The number at the bottom hadnt been hurt any by the harsh visit to the trashcan.
Bentley thought back to the first time hed met Miss Patti Lewis. What type of woman tries to control her man like that? Conspires against him with his own friends? Maybe she was right, maybe he had destroyed Jared Philips. But Bentley was an old man now and he didnt have the heart to do it again. Miss Lewis was young yet and Bentley was sure she would ruin plenty of men in her own way before old age forced her out of business.
* * *
Joseph D. Martin has written a number of screenplays and acted as a script consultant for independent movies produced in the Houston area. His first novel, Cactus Grove, is scheduled to be published by Neshui Press in the Fall of 2003. He has an MBA from the University of Houston and makes a living developing web applications for a national law firm.