(Originally published the Sycamore Review.)
When Chester Purdy was twenty-seven he drove up to Charlo in his beat-down Chevy and robbed the Northfork Truck Stop with nothing but his hands. He had a gun with him, a little .22 pistol in the glove box, but left it in the car when he went inside. Chess only used the gun to shoot gophers and magpies, he didn’t have the meaness in him to turn it on a person. At first the buck-toothed cashier in the truck stop smiled at him and blinked like the whole thing was a joke. Chess hit the guy with a straight right, bloodied his nose, and told him to put the register money in a plastic sack. He drove east, and the Highway Patrol pulled him over before he even made Ovando. At his trial, the county attorney argued that because of boxing Chess’ hands should be considered deadly weapons. The judge wouldn’t allow it and Chess was charged with aggravated burglary instead of armed robbery. He was grateful, but the boxer in him didn’t take it as a compliment. He got five years at the state prison in Deer Lodge, served eighteen months.
After prison he worked lumberyards and oil fields, fishing boats and pulp mills. On a farm in Eastern Oregon he spent days cutting alfalfa into rows behind the wheel of a giant swather. Field mice and pikas were always getting caught up underneath the swather. Sometimes they would come flipping up in front of the windshield — scrambling, confused to find themselves airborne — and Chess would watch them claw the air with their tiny feet before they dropped out of sight into the blades. He’d think, you and me both, brother. He saved his money until he had enough to move back home to Arlee and buy an old warehouse, which he turned into a fight gym.
There were problems with the permits. He had about a year left on his parole and the state athletic commission wasn’t crazy about an ex-con working around kids. Chess called in his last favor. Clete Saunders, a black man who was the preacher at one of the biggest churches on the rez and one of Chess’ last friends, wrote him a recommending letter and made some calls to grease the wheels. Chess had to sign a paper swearing all over again to uphold the stipulations of his parole — no alcohol, remain in the state, weekly meeting at the court house. It worked, and just before Halloween, the gym opened for opened for business.
Clete Saunders also brought Chess his first student, a skinny kid with a big nose and a long braid named Johnny Kills On Top. Johnny dated Clete’s daughter Sissy and he looked maybe six-foot-two, but couldn’t of weighed more than a buck-sixty in logging boots. He had the longest arms Chess had ever seen. Kids at school called him Monkey Man, Johnny said, because his hands hung down below his knees. They also cracked on Sissy, calling her an Oreo. Johnny said he wanted to get those kids. Shut them up. He made shaky fists when he said it and Chess stared at the kid’s reach. If he could teach him, get him to drop a few pounds, he wouldn’t exactly be a giant at welter, but he’d be bigger and longer than most guys.
“We don’t learn to fight here,” Chess said. “We learn to box. Any of my boxers fights anywhere but in the ring, he’s not one of my boxers anymore.”
It was just a line a trainer fed to him early on, but Johnny nodded and that seemed to please Clete Saunders. Clete was a big man with a giant smile and a flat-top haircut flecked with gray. When he left them in the gym he patted Johnny on the shoulder and Johnny blushed, clearly scared shitless of his girlfriend’s old man. Chess followed Clete out the front door of the gym to thank him for bringing the kid in. Clete was leaning against the rusted-out Cadillac sedan everybody on the rez knew he drove.
“Boy just needs direction,” Clete said in his preacher voice. “Positive place for his energies.”
Other boys and even a few girls began to show up at the gym. They trudged in out of the muddy-drab Arlee winter and learned, with wind sprints and free squats, to wipe their boots on the rug. Some of the equipment was new — gloves, headgear and jump ropes purchased out of a discount catalog — but a lot of it was old stuff that he had put in storage while he did his time. The heavy bag was wrapped with duct tape to keep it from leaking sand. There was one speed bag and the kids took turns. He set up his own ring in the middle of the room, four hip-high plastic PVC pipes lassoed together with old garden hoses as ropes. The middle was just a stained wrestling mat donated from the high school.
The building filled up with the rhythms of boxing and it gave Chess the familiar adrenaline in his gut and legs. During open gym he bobbed from station to station and gave the kids pointers on footwork and posture. Some of the younger kids didn’t know right from left. He showed them how the thumb and forefinger on his left hand made an L and told them to circle away from their opponent’s power. There were classes that he broke up by weight — little tikes in the morning, older kids after school let out. Chess would make them lie down on the floor as he walked the line, hitting them in the stomach with a medicine ball while the kids hissed through their teeth. He’d float around the edge of the mat and yell like crazy, feeling his blood finally starting to pump again. The gym scraped by, but after groceries, gas and rent on an old trailer by the highway, there was no money left over to save.
Johnny was his ace, agile and smart, and they worked together after hours. He was a quick study. Sissy would come to the gym and watch, hanging back in a corner snapping her gum or studying schoolbooks with her brow knotted up. Chess knew her from before prison and she hadn’t changed much. She was tall and skinny like Johnny, with not much of a body to speak of, but she was pretty in the face.
A couple of days a week she waitressed at the Pink Penguin, an old-timey drive-in along Highway 93. She carried trays from the take-out window to the running cars. Chess forbid Johnny to eat there during his training, kept him on brown rice and vegetables. After her shift Sissy would catch a ride to the gym, usually from her father, and sit in the corner and do homework while Chess and Johnny finished their workout.
Chess didn’t like having her around the gym during training and he said as much to Johnny. Women could take your legs, he said. They’d run your gas tank down to nothing and put your head a thousand miles from where it ought to be.
“I like having her,” Johnny said. “If she can’t stay, maybe I don’t wanna be here either.”
He slapped Johnny hard on the back of the neck and made him run wind sprints until he puked in the wastebasket, but he let Sissy stay. A personality test he took out of a book in the prison library once told him people like him had trouble saying no to things.
He warmed up to her sooner than he thought he would. Sissy was good-hearted and smart. She made Johnny happy. Chess thought that was fine, so long as she didn’t try to control him. He liked working out with Johnny but felt like Johnny didn’t always have his head on straight when Sissy was around.
Just for fun, Chess had Sissy throw a few punches at the heavy bag, but saw fast that it was a lost cause.
“I think I broke my knuckle,” Sissy said, cradling her hand after a few taps at the bag.
Sometimes there was a boy who dropped her off at the gym. A white kid, the son of the guy who owned the Pink Penguin. Chess knew the kid from around. He was fat through the middle and always wore a red baseball cap, dark curls poofing out under it. When they pulled up in front of the gym they sat in the car for a minute in their matching pink polo shirts. The boy had his collar turned up. Johnny watched them from the window.
“I wish he’d come in here,” Johnny said. “Just once.”
Chess stood behind him, focus mitts hanging on his hands. “Him?” Chess said, tapping his belly with one of the mitts. “He ain’t even in your weight class.”
After a few months, Chess took Johnny to a show Missoula and he whipped a bleach-blonde college boy all over a red, white and blue ring for three one minute rounds. They were on stage in an old theater. The place was packed and drunk; the kind of show where the fighters got paid in $100 “training allowances” so they could keep their amateur status. White people chanted Johnny’s name. Sissy sat in the front row and smiled like she was trying not to look scared. Afterward, Chess split the money with Johnny fifty-fifty and the three of them went up the street to the Oxford Bar, where he let Johnny order the biggest cheeseburger on the menu. Chwaa smelled the beer and cigarettes in the air and celebrated with a Cherry Coke. Johnny couldn’t quit smiling, sitting there with Sissy nestled up under his arm.
“You gotta move your head more,” Chess said. “A real fighter would tear you up.”
There were amateur cards in Butte and Whitefish, smokers in Browning, Hungry Horse and Havre. Chess started to think that Johnny could maybe make a pro fighter. Chess had been a solid amateur, Gloves Nationals and all that, but a shitty pro. He had the speed and decent power, but not the meaness. Even in a money fight, whenever he caught a guy, hit him good and saw the hurt and confusion rush into his eyes, he backed off. The fights he won were all on points and he lost more than he won. Winnowing, his trainer called it. It happened to most guys sooner or later. Because he wasn’t a great finisher, wasn’t a killer, the other guys in his gym started calling him “Pretty” Chester Purdy. After a few fights somebody changed it to “The Chess Master” because it fit his name and his trainer said he was mostly a smart fighter. Later, as a pro, he changed it to Chess “Checkmate” Purdy, which always got him in the newspaper, win or lose. When it was all over Chess wound up spending days and nights at the Stockman’s bar on Highway 93, cracking his ruined knuckles until they were flat as quarters.
In the mornings they ran together. Five miles along the dusty highway, sucking exhaust and kicking dirt on the legs of their sweat suits, then up through the hills. If it came to a dead sprint, Johnny could always out kick him, long legs pumping, but Chess had him for distance. When Johnny would dog it, head down, chest heaving, he would jog in place beside him and shake his head. He would laugh and tell him that three rounds was shit. If they turned him pro, he’d have to be ready to fight eight, ten, twelve rounders.
“You sure as shit won’t stop anybody with your power,” Chess said.
Johnny said: “Pro?” Hands on hips.
Chess told Johnny the power would come once he mastered his technique. For now he was talking about out-pointing people. Use your reach. Move. A hand in the guy’s face every time he thinks he’s got you measured. Stick. Poof. Gone. Like a ghost, Chess said. Johnny “The Ghost” Kills On Top.
“The Phantom,” Johnny said.
“We’ll work on it,” he said.
Chess told him about the joy of punching a guy in the liver, chopping away at the gut until he couldn’t even sit down between rounds. The liver is full of blood and toxins. It stores them up every time a guy eats a steak or drinks a beer. A good liver shot knocks the blood backwards, he said taking on his wise trainer’s voice, stretching his know-how of anatomy a little further than one hundred percent sure facts. The blood backs up into the system where it shouldn’t be. The poisons the guy’s been eating for months get mashed out. Soon the guy can’t move, can’t think, can’t fight. No substitute for a great liver shot, Chess said.
They were taking it slow in the cool air, side-by-side up a knapweed hill a few miles off the highway. Johnny tossed his hair out of his eyes in the early January sun, which had chased away the snow a few months early. A day like this Chess used to find a patio somewhere, drink the middle out of the afternoon. Johnny cleared his throat and Chess glanced over.
“Me and Sissy need to get over to Spokane,” Johnny said.
Chess crooked an eyebrow, caught an embarrassed look on Johnny’s face and they kept moving. Johnny went back to watching his shoes.
“All the girls are going to Spokane for their dresses,” Johnny said. “On account of the tribal police dance. Next month.”
He said: “Dance?” It came out of his mouth like a curse word, though he knew the tribal cops organized it every year. A fundraiser and a way to keep the kids out of the meth houses.
“She’s been saving her tips,” Johnny said. “She’s got the money.”
“We’ve got Gloves coming up,” Chess said. “I need you focused.”
Johnny’s head came up, straight ahead, jaw set. “I am focused,” he said.
Chess scratched some sweat out of his eyebrow. “What about Trena Old Person?” he said. “She still sews outfits for the school plays.”
Johnny cut him a look like that was the most uncool thing he’d ever heard. It made him feel old, like he might as well have asked if Vanilla Fudge was playing the dance.
“You know those other bitches make fun of her,” Johnny said. “It’s important I guess.”
They ran another hundred yards. Chess pulled up near a barbed wire fence and leaned against it, stretching his calves. His lungs were cleaned-out and strong. His joints felt good tired.
“What about Sissy’s old man?” he said, almost a groan, letting the lactic acid squeeze out of his leg muscles.
Johnny shook his head. “He doesn’t even like us going to the dance,” he said. “He doesn’t want her wasting all that money on a dress.”
“Clete’s a good guy,” Chess said. “A little protective maybe.”
Johnny jabbed the air softly. “He should put one of those chassity deals on her, he watches her so close.”
“Chastity,” Chess said. He laughed. “You learn about that in class?”
“Except for school trips, the only time he lets her out of his sight is when I’m fighting,” Johnny said.
Chess shrugged. “So,” he said. “He trusts you.”
“He trusts you,” Johnny said.
They walked for a bit and picked it up again, back toward the gym. A trip to Spokane was out of the question, Chess thought. He should say no way. Don’t risk it.
There were nights now when Chess didn’t sleep, but stared at the ceiling and made plans for Johnny’s career. The natural way the kid moved, his speed and length, Chess felt in his bones he could be a winner. It was a long way off, he knew, but he had seen a lot of fighters. He tried to put together in his head if he still had enough connections in the game to get Johnny on a real card somewhere. Seattle. Portland. Reno. It might be a couple years away. He told himself not to rush. By that time, the way Clete pushed Sissy, she’d be off to college and Chess and Johnny could do it the right way. No distractions. No snake promoter raking ten percent off the top. The two of them would split it up real even. Unless Chess was just bullshitting himself and Johnny didn’t have it after all. The kid hadn’t even fought anybody good and wouldn’t until he could get him out of state and into a legit fight. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe he was just thinking in circles. He shook it out of his head.
They were almost back to the gym, almost done with their run when he looked at Johnny and caught the shine in his eyes. The kid was still thinking about Sissy. Chess liked the way Johnny tried to look after her all the time. He didn’t have the guts to tell him a high school romance was just a fantasy.
“Okay fine,” he said. “We can do Spokane. But it’s your ass.”
They cooked up an excuse. A fake fight night in Great Falls. Far enough away to make for an overnighter, not far enough for Clete or anybody else to get suspicious. They hashed out a story in Chess’ office at the gym, while Johnny was supposed to be training. Chess said straight-up he had concerns. He could go and get back without his P.O. being any wiser, but they couldn’t just roll back into town with a new dress when they were supposed to be going to a boxing match. And who was going to pay for all that gas? Sissy said money wasn’t a problem and looked at her feet. Johnny suggested they hide the dress at the gym for a couple weeks and then put it in a box like it came in the mail. Sissy could tell her Dad she ordered it out of a discount catalog. The more they talked about it Chess started to feel sicker, every turn and fold in their story making it a bigger risk. He said it was crazy, they should call the whole thing off, but Sissy said it would work and Johnny smiled at him.
They loaded up Chess’ shitty car with gym bags and athletic tape. Snacks. Bottled water. Chess and Johnny picked Sissy up at her house and she ran to the car, lugging an overnight bag. She wore grey sweat pants and a matching hoody. Chess smiled at her over the back seat and waved at Clete, who stood on the front porch with a cereal bowl in one hand. For a week, ever since he called Clete to tell him the lie, Chess had been expecting Clete to sniff it out. Get on the Internet and derail the whole thing. But he didn’t and now he waved back and closed the door. Johnny stayed up front with Chess until they stopped for gas, then he jumped in the back and slid an arm around Sissy’s lower back.
“Your hands are cold,” Sissy said, squirming away.
The drive to Spokane took three and a half hours, a stretch of the Interstate where the mountain passes were treacherous with ice. Chess said it would be too dangerous to try to make the drive back after dark, so he’d booked a room at a motel. If they were supposed to be over in Great Falls, nobody would expect them to drive back the same night anyway.
The motel was called the Sweet Rest and was just across the highway from a neighborhood with a sign that called it Brown’s Addition. The streets were narrow and the houses sagging and beat-up in the arty kind of way that made white people still want to live in them. There were some junky apartment buildings sprinkled in too. Chess imagined college kids on skateboards mixing with crackheads like one big happy family. The three of them checked in a little bit after noon. Sissy was giddy and Chess fed her a tuna sandwich from a cooler he brought just to get her to sit still for a minute.
They drove into downtown after lunch and Chess paid seven dollars for all-day parking at some garage near the river. The garage was three or four stories, but Chess counted the other cars parked inside on one hand. They walked along the river and through the park where they had the world’s fair once. Sissy and Johnny held hands. It was sunny but still chilly and Chess had to make fists in the pockets of his jeans to keep warm. A couple of homeless guys in the park tried to talk Spanish to him, but Chess just smiled at them and kept walking.
The mall where Sissy wanted to go was right in the middle of downtown. Just a square block of shops that, to Chess, didn’t look any more impressive than the set-up they had over in Missoula. They went to a newer-looking department store where the lights were bright and the smell was like sunflowers. All the sales girls ran around on the floor looking like men dressed for a board meeting — black suit-jackets and white dress shirts. Sissy and Johnny wandered through the formal wear while Chess looked at a pair of soft boots made out of Argentinian leather. The price tag popped his eyes, but he could see himself wearing them, if Johnny could fight his way onto a big card. It didn’t take much these days in the tweener weight classes, just a couple of well-placed wins.
Chess panicked for a second when he thought he’d lost the kids. He found himself in the women’s department, swiveling his head and leaning against a rack of fancy underwear. The sales girl gave him the fish eye, like she was about to call security when Johnny and Sissy came out of a dressing room behind a bank of full-length mirrors. Sissy did a twirl in a silverish dress that sparkled in the fluorescent lights. Chess was near fashion illiterate, but he thought the color looked good against her skin. The neckline would probably pass a Clete Saunders inspection, but still showed off a little bit of cleavage down the middle of her chest. Chess did a low whistle, teasing, and Sissy pushed him on the shoulder. She said the name of a designer Chess didn’t know.
“You sure you won’t turn into a pumpkin?” he said.
Sissy said: “Belle of the ball, anyone?”
“It looks real nice,” Johnny said, and Sissy rolled her eyes at him.
A skinny sales girl who smelled like cigarettes and diet soda rang them up, looking at them like she suspected their pockets were full of perfume bottles and sunglasses. Sissy had picked out some matching shoes and the total was over four hundred dollars. She wrote a check and showed the sales girl ID. Chess didn’t even know a girl like Sissy had a bank account. The little leather book in her hand made her look grown up. He and Johnny wandered off and waited by a big sliding glass door. Chess cut a nod in Sissy’s direction. He asked Johnny how long she’d been saving her tips from the Pink Penguin to buy the dress.
Johnny shrugged. “Couple months,” he said.
Chess tried to do some quick math in his head. “I need to get one of those jobs then,” he said.
Johnny made a face. “Maybe longer. Three or four months.”
They ate dinner at a place that served fancy pizza with a cowboy theme. Chess ordered The Apache, which turned out to have no sauce and sliced tomatoes sitting on top of the crust. Sissy talked about the dress and her shoes and getting a handbag, which she said she hadn’t thought about before. Chess ate as much of his food as he could before it made him feel sick. He looked at Johnny and could tell he was trying hard to be interested in what Sissy was saying. Chess thought about the gym, where classes were cancelled for the day while he was on the road. When they got back they would tell everyone that Johnny had whipped another white kid with a name nobody could remember. Johnny escaped without a scratch. Chess wanted a beer, or a smoke, which had always seemed to make lying easier for him. Mostly he wanted to get home so he could teach his new fifth-graders how to wrap their hands and the right way to stand to make themselves skinny targets.
Chess tried to pay for dinner, but Sissy grabbed the check. She left twenty percent on top of what they owed. Chess looked at Johnny and Johnny stared at his fingers, drumming them on the edge of the table.
“When did you strike it rich?” Chess said to Sissy.
Sissy shrugged. She sang: “I work hard for my money.”
The motel room was just two beds, a table, one chair and a TV. The carpet was a wild red color that made Chess think it probably hadn’t been changed in fifteen years. They had HBO, some trendy shows Sissy wanted to watch later, and there was a pool across the parking lot in a building that looked like an airline hanger. There were water stains on the paneled ceiling, their window didn’t open and looked out over three square feet of grass and the retaining wall under I-90.
Chess and Johnny sprawled out on opposite beds. Sissy sat at the table and scribbled in a notebook. They surfed the channels and settled on the music station, so they could argue about the songs. Johnny asked Sissy if she wanted to sit on the bed, but she said she was busy, and could they please be quiet.
Chess felt tight through the back of his shoulders. He rolled over on the bed, digging in his pocket for some change. There was an old magic fingers massage box hooked up to the bed. He dropped three quarters in and the bed started to jerk and sway, making a grinding sound like somebody had started up a food processor. The motion of it made him laugh. It was more carnival ride than soothing. Johnny came over and jumped on the bed with him. They stayed side-by-side without touching and stared at the stains on the ceiling, laughing. Chess told Johnny about a guy he knew in the joint, a guy who made his living traveling around picking up the coins from massage mattresses like this one. His old man owned the company, he said, except one day the kid got so sick of it that he stopped bringing the money back in, stopped going home at all. He just traveled around with his master key, picking up quarters and spending them until he got to the next town. Finally the Dad talked him into coming home and when the kid got there, the police were waiting. His old man turned him in, Chess said, can you imagine? Only about half the story was true, but it made Johnny laugh.
“Can’t you please shut up?” Sissy said. She dropped her pencil on the table. “Please?”
“I’m telling a story,” he said. “It’s funny.”
“Don’t you have any stories that aren’t about prison?” Sissy said.
Johnny sat up on the bed. “You don’t talk to him like that,” he said.
Chess put his hands up, put one on Johnny’s shoulder. He said it was okay, everybody relax. He went to the bathroom and put on his one pair of shorts, saying he was going to take a swim. Johnny and Sissy weren’t looking at each other. He took a white motel towel from the rack in the closet.
The pool was milky green but when Chess dived in it felt good against his skin. He took long strokes until he got to the opposite side and grabbed on. It had been a long time since he’d been in a swimming pool. He couldn’t remember exactly when or where he’d done it last. Before prison, he knew. Before the robbery. There was no pool in Arlee. Chess liked swimming, felt strong when he moved through the water. Back in school, some kids took the bus into Ronan for swim team, but he was always busy with boxing and wrestling. He wondered if he would’ve made a better swimmer than a fighter.
The water loosened him up. He floated on his back for a while, then sat on a lounge chair with the towel on his face.
When he got back to the room, the door was locked. He hadn’t brought his key, so he knocked. There were sounds from inside but nothing more until Chess knocked again. Something moved behind the door, Johnny asking who was there. He said his name, going for a tone that said that was a stupid question and the door cracked open. He slid inside and Johnny closed the door and latched it behind him.
There was only one lamp on now, but the TV was still showing music videos. Sissy was sitting on the bed, she had her face up to the ceiling and she was holding the plastic bag from the motel ice bucket up to one eye. The other side of her face was wet from crying. After he closed the door, Johnny came over and sat on the bed, putting his arm around her. She leaned into him. Chess felt suddenly like someone had him in a bear hug. He tossed his towel on the bed and tried to swallow the dryness out of his mouth. Johnny had his hand on Sissy’s knee.
“We tried to take a shower,” Johnny said, shaky scared. “She slipped.”
Chess said, “Let me see.”
He took the ice bag off Sissy’s eye and put in on the bed. She could only look at him out of one side, the other was swollen shut. Her eyebrow was cut a little bit and leaking blood. She was purple in a circle from her cheekbone up to the place where her nose met her forehead. The side of her face looked like rotten fruit. Chess touched her face gently and pushed his thumb into the swelling along her temple. Sissy grunted and shifted away from him. Chess couldn’t tell a thing about her eye with it swollen up like that, but he knew enough to tell that the socket could well be broken. He touched her elbow with his free hand.
“You’re okay, honey,” he said, his voice sounding soft and queer. “You’re okay.”
He went to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet. Not because of Sissy’s face, really, he’d seen a thousand like it. He flushed, dropped the lid on the toilet and sat down on it, facing the door. The bathroom was tiny, white all over. He had the fan on and the noise felt good to him. He got up and rinsed his mouth in the sink. The counter around the sink was white with golden flecks. He put his hand inside the shower, which was dead dry. He had to call Johnny’s name a couple of times before the kid came to the door.
Chess put his right hand on Johnny’s shoulder. It looked like he had been crying. Johnny opened his mouth to say something but Chess shook his head no. Chess pulled him close and threw a tight left hook into Johnny’s side. A twisting shot, up under the rib cage, sinking it in deep, into the liver. Johnny made a sound like someone cut him open and his knees dropped out. Chess pushed him softly into the wall and held him there, saying “Easy, easy, easy,” until the wheezing stopped and Johnny opened his eyes. Chess put his hand on Johnny’s forehead to hold his head up. Johnny winced like Chess was going to hit him again.
Chess said, “You get that girl ready to go to the hospital.”
The Emergency room was slow for a Friday. The hospital people took Sissy back through a pair of big metal doors and after that Chess and Johnny weren’t allowed to see her anymore. The two of them sat side by side in soft chairs, muted 24-hour news on a wall-mounted TV. There were coffee and stale donuts but neither of them ate. They weren’t talking to each other and hadn’t since they left the motel. Johnny sat and punched his own knees with both hands again and again. After a while, a nurse in a purple smock came out and said that Sissy had suffered a fracture in her face. They didn’t know yet if her sight would be affected. The nurse asked about the accident, putting careful emphasis on the right words. Chess told her that Sissy had slipped getting out of the shower, hit her face on the edge of the toilet.
The nurse sat in a chair next to Chess. She asked who he was, exactly, and about his relationship to the patient. Chess said he was Johnny’s coach. The nurse nodded when he said it, but looked at him like she didn’t know what he was talking about. The nurse wrote it all down. She said the doctors might want to keep Sissy overnight for observation, that she’d keep Chess and Johnny in the loop. Johnny asked if he could see Sissy, how she was doing. The nurse said only family members were allowed in, that the hospital people would let them know when Sissy could be released. Then the nurse got up and went back through the electric doors into the operating part of the emergency room.
Chess was still wearing his shorts, still wet from the pool and this was all making him feel heavy and slow. He put odds on whether the nurse believed their story. They could still get out of this, he told himself. If the nurse didn’t call anybody and Sissy stuck to what they told her on the ride to the emergency room, they could get home and in a few weeks everybody would be healed up and everything would be fine.
He and Johnny sat and didn’t talk while Chess dripped dry. He smelled himself, like wet dog. They sat through the same cycle of news on the TV a few times over. Other people came in from the night and sat in the emergency room and stared at each other until they got their problems solved and they left. Johnny went to the candy machine and came back with two Baby Ruth bars. Chess shook his head no at the candy.
“I asked her about the money,” Johnny said when he sat down. “Where she really got all that money.”
Chess nodded. “From that boy,” he said. “The one at her work.”
Johnny looked at him and Chess patted him on the back of the shoulder. He wanted to get up and leave the emergency room and take Johnny with him. They could show up in some new town somewhere and make their way. It was the sensible thing. The thing any character in any movie or TV show would do. Instead he closed his eyes and breathed. He wanted to sleep but couldn’t.
He sat in his chair until he couldn’t remember if he’d fallen asleep or not. While he sat there, an old feeling came back to him. He used to feel it when he was driving the swather, back in Oregon and he imagined there was something out in the field chasing him. He couldn’t see it, but it was there. Stalking him as he drove in circles getting smaller and smaller. The feeling made it so he couldn’t sit still anymore. He got up and paced around the empty emergency room. It was the same coffee and donuts as hours before.
He told Johnny he would be back and went out through the sliding doors into the hospital parking lot. It was dark. He looked at the sky and realized he had no idea how long they’d been there. The air was cold on his face, maybe more snow moving in from the east. There would be ice again on the passes when they drove home. Chess walked across the street to a convenience store and went up and down the aisles for a little while. He didn’t know what to buy other than a pack of cigarettes, which cost him four dollars. The guy behind the counter was a college kid with a textbook open on the counter. He told Chess to have a nice night.
He was walking back across the street to the hospital when he saw Clete Saunders’ big Cadillac pull off the freeway, onto the street and then into the emergency room parking lot. Chess stopped walking and moved back into the gloom of the sidewalk. He watched Clete park and get out of the car. His big shoulders rolled under the street lamps. Chess noticed he was wearing his leather coat, but with pajama pants and slippers. He hadn’t even put on shoes. Chess swore to himself under his breath. After he watched Clete walk through the sliding doors, he went across the street and stood in the darkness of the parking lot for what felt like a long time, packing the cigarettes against his thigh.
The inside of the waiting room was lit-up in the dark and Chess could see Clete and Johnny through the windows. Clete was in Johnny’s face, pointing, until some guys in uniforms came out and calmed him down. Chess could tell Clete was asking about him by the way Johnny kept shrugging his shoulders and looking around. The uniformed hospital cops finally took Clete in to see Sissy, leaving Johnny alone in the waiting room. Chess walked over to his own car and sat on the bumper. He watched Johnny, who didn’t move, just sat with his head down and his hands folded. Chess tore the cellophane off the pack of cigarettes. In a few minutes, Clete came back out into the waiting room and paced around, not saying a word to Johnny.
A police car pulled into the parking lot and two white cops got out and walked in. The cops interviewed Clete for a long time. Chess opened his box of cigarettes and took one out. While he watched Clete talk to the police he twisted the cigarette in his fingers, unraveling it and spilling the tobacco onto the cement. He made a little pile at his feet. The two cops and Clete and Johnny all talked until Chess couldn’t imagine what else they had to say to each other. When the cigarettes were gone he crumpled the empty pack and tossed it.
He looked up into a street light, burning yellow in the dark and it reminded him of waking up after a knockout. A crowd of officials on their knees around him, the doctor putting a pen light in his eyes, asking him questions about his name, the year, the President of the United States. This happened after the worst beating Chess ever took in his life, on an under card in Reno. A money fight, but a stupid fight — short notice, moving up a weight class. He shouldn’t have taken it, but when his manager told him how much he would get paid and said it would be on TV, Chess couldn’t say no.
The fight was against a guy who eventually won a piece of the world title. Chess remembered his name, but the only thing he could see about him now was that he wore red trunks with a stripe down the side. When the guy hit him it felt like he had cinderblocks taped to his fists. If Chess tried to jab, the guy slipped and hooked to the body. If Chess tried to counter punch, the guy’s shots exploded through his defense. When he ran, the guy pushed him into a corner and threw combinations all day.
Chess took four rounds of it. At the end of the fourth he told his trainer he was through. The trainer just pushed him down onto his stool, tugged the lip of Chess’ trunks out away from his stomach, and told him to breathe. The cut man used a cue tip and bitched that he couldn’t stop the blood. When the bell sounded to start the fifth, Chess didn’t get up off his stool. He told his trainer to throw in the towel. The trainer looked at him like he’d said he liked show music and women’s panties.
The referee yelled it was time to go. The trainer slapped Chess hard on the back of the neck and ducked-out through the ropes, pulling the stool out from under his ass. He stood up so he wouldn’t fall. The trainer gave him a hard look.
“He’s got me beat,” Chess said.
The trainer put his face close to Chess’ ear. “Then go out there and get your beating,” the trainer said. He couldn’t remember anything about the last round.
He stared at the streetlight until he had to look away. Inside he could see Johnny sitting in the same chair and the cop and Clete leaning against the table with the coffee machine on the far side of the room. The cop had his hand on Clete’s shoulder now. The cop was saying something into the carpet while Clete nodded along. Chess got up off the bumper. He breathed slow and then kicked the empty cigarette wrapper just to see how far it would go. He walked back toward the emergency room door. With the lights on inside they couldn’t see him through the glass. The automatic door slid open with a hiss and he walked inside, keeping his head up and his shoulders square when everybody turned to look.