(Original version published in Sou’Wester)
One day a crippled guy shows up on Charles Street wanting to fight Jamie Halsey.
Jamie has been working the same street corner downtown for almost two years, but he’s never seen this guy before. Usually his customers are business geeks looking to blow off some steam after work. They pay him five bucks for three minutes of his time. He puts their money in a cigar box while they strap on a pair of old sixteen-ounce boxing gloves. He sets an alarm clock and when he says ‘go’ they try to punch him in the face. They chase him around flailing like crazy. He ducks, he bobs and weaves. They turn purple and take off their jackets. They punch like girls. He doesn’t punch back.
He has a cardboard sign propped up that says: Knock Me Out, Get Your Money Back.
It never happens, he hardly ever gets hit.
He wears trunks and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He’s getting fatter now, almost two hundred fifteen pounds and a little gut starting to pooch out over his waistband, but his arms still look strong. He wears his old boxing shoes, white leather with red tassels. He doesn’t wear a cup or mouthpiece.
Some guys come just to watch. They make side bets, cheering and taunting each other. The ones who have the guts to give him a try fiddle and stare at their own feet as they hand over the money. Jamie takes the cash and wears them out. He slides and jukes, he makes them look like fools. They eat it up. They all say he’s the best street performer they’ve ever seen, way better than some hippie with a saxophone. Nobody asks his name, or where he’s from, or how he got here.
For Jamie, it’s not the same as the old rush he used to get from boxing, but it’s pretty good.
Back when he was fighting for real he had slick feet and a piston jab. He was good enough to win a piece of the world title at cruiserweight, but lost the belt in less than a year because he bled too much. Jamie has sharp bones in his face, so he got cut a lot. The doctors said it was ruining his nerve endings, that if he kept it up his face would start to puff and sag like a monkey. He retired from fighting before he was ready and moved back to Baltimore with lumps and lumps of scar tissue around his eyes, all stretchy and brittle like a spent balloon, his skin covered with little white zippers that will split open and bleed for no reason at all.
But anyway, so this crippled guy. He shows up out of the blue one afternoon, hobbling up with a five dollar bill in his little claw hand saying he wants a turn. In his other hand he carries a cane, a pretty woman with strings of blonde hair that come to her shoulders walking with him, clutching onto him. For a second Jamie just stands there looking past the guy, eyeing the woman, making it obvious and not caring if the guy notices. The woman has a wide, tired face. She’s wearing a long wool coat and the kind of high-heeled leather boots that rich ladies like. Jamie gives her a smile, but she looks away, back to the crippled guy, her mouth pressed tight like she just saw a dog run out into traffic.
The guy shakes his money in Jamie’s face. He’s a little wormy guy, young and dressed up in a suit and tie just like the others, but he’s got a face like a ferret and one half of his body is twisted and shriveled up.
Jamie says, “No way.”
You can’t do the dance with a cripple. It’s a no win. It’s like fighting a woman who thinks she’s tough. Jamie tells the guy to get lost. He looks up and the woman is staring at him, her face asking him not to embarrass the guy.
The guy frowns. He says, “You won’t do it because I’m impaired.” That’s his word, impaired.
Jamie says, “Look. You could get hurt, and I don’t need the headache.”
The guy leans against his cane while his claw goes back into his pocket. He pulls out another five, but Jamie tells him no dice. The guy goes to twenty, then fifty, and the money starts to change Jamie’s mind. The woman grabs the guy’s good arm and says, “Honey let’s go.” Her voice dry and crumbling. Jamie tries not to wince, realizing the woman is the crippled guy’s wife, not his nurse.
He takes the money and puts it in the cigar box. He tells the little guy, one minute only. The guy gets the woman to hold his cane while he pulls the gloves onto his hand and his claw. Jamie sets the alarm clock. He says, “Let’s get this over with.”
The guy comes after him, hobbling, and Jamie starts with his hands down by his hips. He glances over once and the woman is watching, her eyes moving over him. The crippled guy takes a poke that Jamie dodges easy. The guy’s squinting, webs of concentration snaking from the corners of his eyes. He takes another couple of cuts that don’t even come close and he’s already starting to make little grunting sounds. Jamie says, “Easy partner.” The guy throws a surprising little jab-cross-jab combination and clips Jamie on the shoulder as he skims out of the way, his hands coming up out of instinct. He didn’t expect that from the crippled guy.
When the crippled guy makes contact the people standing around watching start clapping for him. Jamie mugs for the crowd and catches some boos. The guy closes in again, his face still all knotted up. He starts throwing big haymakers, looping shit, drunk punches. Jamie fakes one way and ducks out the other.
Just as he does, the guy’s gimped-up foot gets tangled up with Jamie’s foot. The guy trips, pitching forward on his face. Straight down. Not even trying to catch himself. Just, boom, onto the pavement.
As he hits the ground, Jamie’s heart makes the same noise in his chest. Flop. He knows this is trouble.
The woman runs into the middle of the circle, puts her hand on the crippled guy’s back. The guy groans and rolls over. His eyes are closed and there’s blood on his chin and smeared on the side of his face. The woman covers her mouth with her hand. A couple of the business men hurry over to help the crippled guy up. Of course, he’s just fine.
Once the crippled guy gets his legs under him he’s all in Jamie’s face, throwing off the boxing gloves. He says, “You tripped me.”
“You fell like a baby,” Jamie says.
He says, “You tripped me because I hit you.”
Jamie laughs at that. “No offense pal, but a cripple only hits me if I let him.”
The crippled guy flinches at the word. The crowd is murmuring, shifting on its feet, a couple of people whispering about calling the cops. The crippled guy fingers the cut on his chin and goes a shade whiter. He says, “I’m bleeding!” His voice on queer street.
“It’s just a scratch,” Jamie says, beginning to feel dread creeping up the back of his neck.
The crippled guy says, “I demand my money back.” Demand, that’s what he says.
Jamie says, “You’re gonna demand my fist to your face in a second.”
The woman pulls herself close to the guy again, on his arm, looking at Jamie with her mouth twisted up. She says, “Give the money back.” That same voice from deep in her throat.
“Drop dead,” Jamie says.
The crippled guy and the woman inch away, him not taking his eyes off Jamie. “This isn’t over,” he says. “You can expect to hear from my attorney.”
Sounding like something he heard in a movie. They move joined at the hip, limping and shucking, disappearing into the sidewalk rush. Pretty soon Jamie’s all by himself on the corner. He stands there for fifteen minutes without a sale and the whole time he can’t stop thinking about the crippled guy and the woman. The guy’s horrible face, his little badger eyes, that claw for a hand. Jamie lays odds in his head on whether the crippled guy will really call a lawyer. Two to one says he does it. That’s the kind of guy who shows up down on Charles Street wanting to fight a dude who doesn’t hit back. The kind that sues. It could get bad if the crippled guy calls somebody. Jamie doesn’t have a permit or anything like that.
The woman Jamie can’t figure. Her face already too old for the rest of her. The way she looked at him, like if the world showed her one more bad thing, she might bust into a million pieces.
Fuck it, Jamie thinks, deciding to play a hunch.
The Emergency room is packed and smells like sweat and foreign food. Jamie spots the girl straight off, sitting at a plastic table, hunched over a pile of papers. He goes over and sets his stuff down, the noise bringing her head up from the papers. He says, “Can I sit down?”
She says, “Haven’t you had enough fun?” Like he’s the kid whose ball smashed her window.
He sits, getting the guts to talk. “Maybe we got off in a bad way,” he says, putting a hand across the table. “My name’s James Halsey.”
She shoots up an eyebrow and goes back to her papers, filling in boxes on the forms with quick little pen strokes. Expert. Not her first time at the ER, Jamie realizes. He holds the hand out there until his smile feels plastic, like he’s one of those wax statues. He pulls the hand back. He says, “You know in Europe folks sit like this all the time. People who don’t know each other, I mean. If it’s crowded somewhere they just sit together, even if it’s two guys.”
The pen stops. She tilts her head to the side, annoyed. He can tell she thinks he’s lying. She says, “You’ve been to Europe?”
“I lived over there,” he says. “I was a fighter. I was a champion.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed by that?” She says, playing tough.
Her eyes make him fiddle in his seat. He reaches for his cigar box, opens it on the table and digs out the crippled guy’s fifty.
“I want you to have your money back,” he says, the bill folded on the table.
When she sees the fifty she looks like she might smile at him, but catches herself. She snatches the money, sticking it in her purse fast like she’s afraid he might try to grab it back.
“My husband is getting eight stitches,” she says.
“It was an accident,” Jamie says, a little more whine in his voice than he wants to hear. “He didn’t have any business out there, being impaired and all.”
When he uses the crippled guy’s word she goes stiff, her eyes dropping, shuffling papers. “I don’t know if a judge would see things that way,” she says.
He reaches into the cigar box again, emptying it, scooping his whole take from the day, around forty more dollars, and nudges it into the middle of the table. “Take it,” he says. “Go on.”
This time she takes the money more carefully, stacking it slowly and tucking it into her purse, making sure not to drop any. She snaps her purse shut and gives him a softer look.
He tries another smile, aiming for harmless. “What’s your name?”
She folds her hands like she won’t say anything, then unfolds them. She says: “My name is Chloe Brands.” Quiet and short like she’s telling a homeless guy she doesn’t have any change.
Her name makes a tickle scoot down Jamie’s back.
At the far away end of the room, double doors swing open and the crippled guy comes out, followed by a potbellied nurse. The crippled guy’s smile is sheepish, laughing at himself, but when he sees Jamie he turns serious. Jamie can see a little black caterpillar of stitches in his chin.
Jame turns to Chloe Brands. He says: “Looks like he’s gonna live.”
One corner of her mouth turns up, the hint of a smile she can’t hide. Jamie collects his things and leaves quick, before the crippled guy can get across the room. He goes out through the clinic’s automatic doors, trying Chloe Brands’ name quietly in his mouth.
He packs his stuff back to his shithole studio in Highlandtown. The apartment is mostly bare walls and fraying carpet, a blanket folded on the couch where the springs are starting to come through. There are some fight posters taped-up, a few snapshots on the old refrigerator. One shows Jamie posing with the president of the biggest bank in the Czech Republic. They are outside the Prague symphony and there is snow falling around them. Jamie is wearing a suit jacket and has his fist up by the president’s chin. He’s making a tough fighter face and the president is smiling like an idiot. Jamie likes the way the arm of his suit jacket is hiked up, showing the Rolex watch on his wrist.
At a party the same night Jamie met a pretty ballet dancer with freckled shoulders and a mess of curly hair. She asked him to dance. Jamie said no on account of her being a professional. He said: “Would you fight me if I asked you to?” The girl laughed and stood close. Her tiny hand gripped his wrist and she looked him in the face while they talked. He watched her little thumb stroke the black face of the watch. He showed her the inscription — Custom made for the World’s Champion. After the party they drove along the river with the top down on his car.
While he drove, she talked about art and politics. He said he didn’t care much for either and she rested her hand on his forearm. Jamie could feel her looking at him and he kept his eyes on the road, trying to smile so she would know that he liked her and was having a good time. Her English wasn’t perfect.
“You get many women,” she said.
It caught him as a tricky thing to say. No right way to answer it. He gave her some of his eyes and kept the smile. “No more than the next world champion,” he said, a little show-off in his voice. She laughed and he began to relax, the spell between them not yet broken.
He told her about his bones. He told her that a reporter joked that a Jamie Halsey fight had more blood than your average butcher shop. The girl nodded along but he wasn’t sure she understood it all.
They found a spot and put the top up. She told him some about dancing. It was destroying her feet, she said, messing up her back. Jamie showed her what fighting had done to his hands. They leaned into each other and he kissed her neck. He smelled her skin cream.
In the morning they got rousted by a cop in an old commie outfit. Jamie dropped the girl off near the statue of Dvorak. He didn’t notice until later that his watch was gone. He thought about it, but decided not to go back to find the girl. Now he wishes that he had. He wishes he still had that watch.
In a week Jamie gets a letter in the mail from a lawyer. He sits down with it at his table and carefully unfolds it. The letter is on important cream-colored stationary. There is also a bill from the downtown clinic for one hundred, fifty-four dollars and forty cents. He mashes the letter, making it into a tiny ball, the sweat from his hands smearing the words. He grabs the phone and calls information. There are sixteen listings for Brands. The right one: BRANDS, David & Chloe, is out in Columbia. There is a phone number. Better, there is an address. Jamie takes the train.
He finds the house easy enough. It’s a yellow two-story with white trim, set back a little from the street. There is a sweet smell out here he doesn’t recognize, something tickling the inside of his nose and making him rub his face with the back of his hand. The neighborhood is crypt quiet, no sirens, no garbage city smells. Nobody selling white Tees and do rags out of shopping carts. He goes up the walk and rings the bell, trying not to think about what he’ll do or say next. He tries to stay light on his toes. For a long time nobody answers and he’s about to go around the side to get a look in the windows when Chloe Brands opens the door and peaks her head out. She’s wearing a grey top and black stretch pants. When she sees him she tries to close the door, but he sticks his foot in the way.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the bill from the downtown clinic. He holds it up like a search warrant, a wanted poster. He says: “I ain’t paying this.”
She doesn’t look at the paper. “My husband isn’t at home now,” she says. “You can reach him at his office if you like.”
Jamie shakes his head. “I already gave you money. A lot.”
“It wasn’t enough,” she says.
“I don’t want any trouble,” he says. “But I’ll stand out here banging on this door all day if that’s what it takes.”
“Should I call the police?” she says.
It sounds empty and he doesn’t budge. He hears her puff her breath out loud. “Jesus,” she says, defeated. “Come in.”
Inside is all hardwood floors and big furniture. Glass tables, little statues, wicker baskets full of dried flowers. Everything expensive, everything fragile. Standing there with his fists jammed in his pockets, afraid to touch anything, he knows for sure that he hates the crippled guy. He feels it stirring his belly. Little motherfucker, who Jamie could kill with just his hands, living in a made-up world of offices and lawyers. Paying for all these things, this woman. There is a picture of their wedding on one wall. Chloe with her hair in a pile, the crippled guy in a tux, one side of the jacket drooping on his ruined arm.
“Your husband,” he says, keeping his voice level. “What happened to him?”
Shee looks halfway between sad and offended. “He wasn’t always like he is now,” she says. “He got sick. He almost died.”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie says.
“You’re not,” she says. “But I am.”
The front room leads under a big archway into a smaller place with a kitchen table and big windows. The table is the same wood as the floor. The backs of the chairs are painted white. Chloe goes to the table and sits down on the far side.
“I like your neighborhood,” he says. “It reminds me of some places in Europe. All green and everything.”
“Right,” she says. “You were champion of Europe.”
“Of the world,” Jamie says. “One of them, anyhow.”
“The world champ who can’t pay a hundred dollar doctor bill,” she says.
“I had money,” Jamie says. “I spent it.”
“All of it?” She says. “On what?”
“A lot of stuff I didn’t need,” he says, making a big show of moving his eyes over the trinkets in the living room. “A car. Clothes. Tickets to the symphony.”
For a second, she looks impressed. It gives him butterflies. “I had to quit on account of my face,” he says.
She says, “Pardon me?”
“My face,” Jamie says. “I got sharp bones under it.”
“How terrible for you,” she says, not meaning it. She shakes her head. She doesn’t get it.
Jamie takes a breath. “Let me show you,” he says.
He reaches out for her hand, feeling adrenaline in his stomach. She jerks away at first and he smiles like he understands. He says, “It’s okay.”
He goes for her hand again, slowly, gently pulling. This time she gives in to him. He brings her out of her chair, bumping her hip around the side of the table. She reaches out and touches his face, his hands on top of hers. He feels her cool skin. Fingers, little and breakable. He guides her hands over the zippers in his eyebrows, around the ridges of his cheekbones.
“Every fight I ever lost was stopped on cuts,” he says.
“Did it hurt a lot?” She says, squinting at the scar tissue. “Getting hit so much?”
“Only after,” he says.
She kisses him, her mouth warm and pleading. He kisses her back but keeps his eyes open, watching her face. She is pale, cheeks flushed. She pulls his shirt untucked and then leaves it, pulling her own over her head and tossing it away. He sees her ribs, small tits, suddenly a skinny girl in front of him, and puts his hands on the tops of her hipbones. She grabs his elbows and brings him out of the chair.
They make it to the bedroom and do it on the crippled guy’s bed. Jamie stays on top, holding himself up above her as long as he can. When his arms get tired, he slumps onto her chest. The sex is a letdown. He wants her to move more, do better sounds. She breathes sharply in his ear but she’s mostly quiet. He stares at the side of her face, her eyes pinched tight like prunes, her mouth reaching. He tries to do a good job, slow at first, building up to it. He’s fucking her hard and staring at her face when he bumps the side of his head against a thick wood bedpost.
He keeps going for a second, not noticing that he’s bleeding until a little splatter of blood drops onto her shoulder. Then another one down on the top of one breast, this one running, trickling down toward her nipple. Jamie watches it, following the curve of her body, his blood bright red on her. He guesses it takes not even a second for him to get his hand up to his face to stop the bleeding, but it’s too late. She opens her eyes and screams when she sees the blood, not loud. He rolls off of her and she sits up on the bed, turning away from him. He gets up and moves to the door, looking only at the floor. One hand against his face.
He finds a bathroom, just as white and bright as the rest of the house. Some of his blood goes onto the carpet. In the drawers by the sink there are some Bandaids. He uses two little ones, makes an X over the cut. It stops bleeding soon enough.
When he comes back she is still on the bed, laying sideways, knees tucked up by her chin, half her face in a pillow. A bloody towel on the floor by the bed. Her expression is back to the hard and tired look he saw on the street the first day. The thing that made her want him is gone now.
“Please leave,” she says, her voice muffled in the pillow.
“I’m not paying that money,” he says. “I can’t pay it.”
She doesn’t respond.
The weather starts to turn for a windy Baltimore winter, which is shit for business. Jamie has to jack-up his hours. He even tries to work outside football games on the weekends, but ballgame crowds blow and he barely makes bus fare. He still gets most of his regulars on Charles Street, but he doesn’t feel the same rush as he used to making the business guys look silly.
On a cold evening, he’s doing the rope-a-dope on this guy from a big company. Everybody knows this guy’s company, they make aspirin and fertilizer and bombs that melt people to the wall. The guy’s a skirt, huffing and puffing his way through three minutes. Jamie’s barely sweating, but lately he’s been letting guys hit him more than usual. Leaving his chin out there a second too long, not moving his head or his body like he should, barely circling. The company guy, who’s got a graying beard and little glasses, pops him twice in the face with little jabs. He doesn’t really feel it, but the couple of guys standing around watching clap their hands. The guy hits him twice more before his time is up, once in the gut and once with a wild haymaker behind the ear. When it’s over the guy strips off the gloves and gives him a little smile like he expects Jamie to say ‘good job.’ Jamie just glares until the guy takes off.
When he turns around, the crippled guy is standing there at the front of the crowd. He’s wearing a different business suit, with a green tie, and his hands are shoved in his pockets. He’s looking up at Jamie and squinting his eyes. The cut on his chin is healed. Jamie tries not to look surprised to see him there.
“Your face,” the crippled guy says. “You’re bleeding.”
Jamie dabs with his fingers and finds a little bit of blood coming from under one eye. He lets it bleed and starts packing up his gear, pretending the crippled guy’s not standing there.
“You got time for one more?” The crippled guy says.
“I’m closed,” he says, stacking the gloves and folding up his sign.
“How about a hundred bucks,” the guy says. “For one minute.”
“I don’t think so,” Jamie says.
“I know you were at my house,” the crippled guy says, “and I think you should pay that doctor bill, or this might turn into more trouble for you.”
Jamie meets his eyes then. “I already paid all I’m going to pay,” he says. “I gave the money to your wife.”
He picks up his stuff and starts walking down the block, away from the crippled guy. The blood is sticky on the side of his face, just a little trickle. He glances over his shoulder and the crippled guy is following him. The crippled guy’s face is getting red now, his eyebrows scrunching down over his eyes. He’s saying something, but Jamie can’t hear him with the downtown traffic is in his ears. He rubs blood from his face onto the back of his hand and tries to go faster. He gets a sick feeling, swallowing, trying to keep his stomach down. He drops his stuff onto the sidewalk, hearing the alarm clock split on the sidewalk and the stool clatter over on its side. The crippled guy is still back there, still yelling something at him. After a few more steps, Jamie starts to run.