Short story, contest entry
There was nothing really striking about the man. I walked down the stairs from the men's locker room to the boxing and wrestling room - the room with the heavy bag in it - and I saw him wrapping his hands for protection as though he intended to go a round or two on the bag. He was about six feet tall, brown hair with a flat nose that appeared to have been broken a time or two, and maybe a little scar tissue around his eyes; and those eyes: kind of squinty, maybe a little cross-eyed too, you couldn't always tell whether he was looking at you or not - reminded me of a certain diminutive TV detective who was popular years ago. His body was unimpressive: strong enough, but a little on the flabby side and not all that powerful looking, neither broad nor thick. In fact, he was a pretty average looking fellow - fiftyish, I'd say - but he seemed to have more mileage on his face than that. His bag gloves were laid on the floor beside the wrestling mat. I remember thinking, Oh, hell, now I'm going to have to wait for this guy to do his workout before I can do mine. You see, I was rather busy at that time in my life: working overtime, fixing up my house, dating - looking for love in all the wrong places - and trying to squeeze in a workout when I could here and there.
I stopped and glanced at him with some curiosity. He continued wrapping his hands and wrists without seeming to notice me; but suddenly, without looking up, he said, "Wanta go a round on the bag? I'm not ready." I guessed that he must have noticed my bag gloves. He spoke politely, but with a feel of familiarity, almost as if he had known me for a while. I paused awkwardly without replying then walked over to the bag and put the gloves on without wrapping my wrists - I never wrap them. I glanced his direction; he was positioned with his back to me and he was still working; I then positioned myself on the other side of the heavy bag from him and started loosening up - kind of pawing at the bag and throwing a few soft punches. He continued to work on his wrist and hand. Something told me this guy had been a fighter, a real fighter.
Well, you see, I'm not really a fighter - not a real fighter - just a guy that works out on the bag, and occasionally spars with weekend warrior friends of mine. We just throw arm punches usually; we're not trying to hurt each other. Although with one of my friends once, I stepped into a straight right hand counter punch, trying to make a point that he was leaving himself unprotected, not trying to hurt him; but long story short, I broke his nose and he repaid me by not talking to me for a month. I didn't do it on purpose. He was my best friend, too. I'm used to punching a bag that doesn't punch back. I'm just saying I know my limitations, but boy can I make that bag move when I get going.
On this evening, his presence and something about him made me a little slow getting into my workout. I was a little self-conscious, but I slowly wound into it and started to throw harder punches and more combinations: double jab, jab off the hook, double hook, double right, left-right-left-right-right - you name it. I was working hard. I'd look up occasionally and see what he was doing, and he was always looking away, even after he finished wrapping his hand. He was walking around the room loosening up his arms and shoulders, but never looking at me. After three minutes, I stopped, and asked him, "You want to go a round now?"
"If you're through. I'm in no hurry."
"Go ahead," I said. "We can switch off."
He walked over to the bag, rolled his head to get his neck loose, shadow boxed for a few seconds, ducking and moving his head, moving his torso around to avoid imaginary punches; he showed some footwork, then grabbed the heavy bag, pushed it and went to work on it. He never looked at me once.
Boy, was he smooth. He didn't punch very hard; but every punch seemed to have a boxing purpose - not like mine, not showy, meant to make noise and make the bag move. No, sometimes he'd tap the body with a soft right then come upstairs with a much harder left. He was always ducking and rolling, feinting and moving his head around, moving in and out with agility and skill; and every now and then pow, he'd really lay into a shot. I kept looking at him; by now, I wasn't self-conscious about it since I was watching and learning from someone a lot better than me, and he must have known it too. He didn't act at all concerned about me. I could've stripped naked and he would not even have known it. I kept looking at him. I've seen this guy before; I'm sure..
We traded off after each round, and we each went four. I had only intended to go three, but I didn't want to be the one that cut out first. Each round was about the same for him or for me: I was wasting a lot of energy and punching really hard, getting winded by the middle of the round and leaning on the bag for rest here and there; he was smooth throughout - he seemed to be the same at the end of the round that he was at the beginning. Nothing about him was terribly impressive. He was just damn good. I knew, someone else might not have been able to see it; but I could. I'm not that good.
He was really a nice guy too. After each round, he'd say something: "Your turn," or, "Good work," or "Helluva workout." He'd smile slightly; and like I said, you couldn't really tell if he was looking at you or not. Then I began to notice, he had some odd little movements - twitches of the head and eye, even when he wasn't working out. He never uttered a very complicated sentence and there was a bit of a slur to some of his words - like a shlight shlur. And there was something else as well. His eyes looked a little like he'd just been knocked out, kind of a confused look, vacant. Also, his body movements were actually kind of slow - smooth, well-coordinated, but just a little slower than you might expect. Then it hit me. I knew him. I was looking at Jimmy Quinn. Really, I thought. That was Jimmy Quinn. What was Jimmy Quinn doing in Pocatello?
Irish Jimmy Quinn, title contender for years. One of my idols when I was young. He'd beat a half dozen journeymen, two or three contenders, maybe even an ex-champ now and then. He'd get a title shot and he'd lose. But he'd come oh so close, and he always had a good excuse for losing: a nagging injury that he chose to fight through this time, or too much scar tissue he acquired from the last title fight leading to a head butt opening his eye up again, or perhaps the referee stopped it too soon - just as he was starting to come back. His brothers were fighters, and so was his dad. Dad raised his boys to be fighters, started them young, hoped one would be the champ he never was. They were actually a middle-class family, maybe even pretty well off - owned a bar in California. Jimmy looked like a surfer boy when he was young; but, man, was he tough. The best fighters in the world tattooed him with punches that would knock out most men, and he never took a step back. Fifty, sixty fights over a twenty-year professional career, less than ten losses; but he never got that elusive title.
I stood and watched his fourth round even though I was through with my own workout. I wanted to say something to him before I went back upstairs, but I couldn't think of anything so I just stood around and pretended to stretch as he took his gloves off and undid his hand wrap and rolled it up. He glanced at me with that cross-eyed look, picked up his bag and put his gloves and wraps in it. He smiled and said, "Nice meeting you. Us old boxers gotta stick together." He made for the stairs before me. What was he doing in Pocatello? One of his early rivals was from here, another Irish guy - or at least he called himself Irish Tommy Foyle. Were they friends? I thought about what he had said, and I felt small and dishonest. Does he really think I'm a fighter?
Jimmy Quinn walked up the stairs from the bag room to the well-lighted locker room above. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched as he ascended, his steps slow and kind of tired. His shadow grew gradually until the shade of his head covered my feet. Then at the top of the stairs he turned to the right, and the shadow disappeared abruptly. He would die in two years of pugilistic dementia at the age of fifty-four. I work out every day still, but not on the bag anymore. I know I'm not a fighter - now that I've really seen the real thing.
Word Count: 1610