“You’re blowin’ it, son, you’re blowin’ it!”
His manager’s hawk-nosed face pushed up to his own, it was hard to think with things happening so fast. Breath was hard to catch, yet he was in great shape—the bell rang again.
He hurried out into the middle of the ring to hear at once the sound of wind and the dull “thunt” in his face, again and again. He tried to lever his own arms into their rhythm, but they seemed slowed in jello, hitting often, but with never the bossdom he expected. All arms and elbows, and in return “thunt,” “thunt,” “thunt.”
“Thunt,” “thunt,” “thunt.”
All night long, that rush of air and that “thunt” sound. Half-sound, really, and half-felt on the sour mash that was his face now, after eight or nine rounds of it. Ten rounds? He’d lost count, but his legs felt like two bars of pig iron stood on end. Roll one forward, then another, only to be met by that “thunt.” Then, smack, and he was down. Smack.
The round was over, there was time, but he didn’t have any time, anything left in his pig iron legs and pig iron arms. Sitting there, dazed, amazed by the loss of that good feeling he’d just had just a little while ago, all he could hear was that bell about to ring, and that Northerner manager screamin’ into his head, “You’re blowin’ it, son, you’re blownin it!”
Sometimes, when we run on a summer morning, I look up at the trees and feel like I can see the veins of leaves flicking in the slow air. I see little green dots of chlorophyll marching through them, just like the films show at school. It makes me slow down, of course, and my daddy yells back at me then, “C’mon, there, Ellen, c’mon, keep it up, keep up the pace, you’ll never be a champ without keepin’ up.” I run a little faster and he goes on telling me how he woke up last night again after the dream. I look at him like I’m paying attention until he looks ahead at the route. Then, I slow down a little bit to look at the pistils and stamens of the flowers, and the big, old bumblebees inside them, wiggling their fat behinds like an old lady rummaging through a closet. In the fall, I like to listen to the squirrels rustling through the brown leaves. In winter, I look forward to when the creek’s iced over, like something out of a peaceful Christmas card. Right now, spring is peeking just around the corner.
Daddy’s dream is never different, so even though I don’t listen all the time, I hear him just the same. He sweats it out just like he did twenty years ago, a long time before I was even born. He remembers it every time like he was there right now. Two times, really, whupped by Waban Wilson twice. Daddy can’t forget it, and here he is, running and jumping rope, sparring, and hitting the bags, heavy and speed. I watch him tap that speed bag around, pitter-patting it back and forth, up and down, whacking it against the wood up top faster than an eye can see. Daddy’s good at it, even though he’s old, now. His red hair’s kind of stringy and he has a round belly, too, maybe from beers. His big old legs are white, never getting any sun because of his carpenter’s pants. But, his face is red, like inside a watermelon, and he has lines and bags. Still, his chest and shoulders are big, his arms are big, and he does real damage when he hits the heavy bag, taped all around the middle to cover rips from his body punches. That was his specialty, knocking the stuffing out of guys, Arliss “the Body-Breaker” Truitt.
Except, he could never catch up with Wilson. Wilson ran, Daddy told me, all around the ring backwards, throwing his right jab enough to keep the Body-Breaker away. Later on, when Daddy got tired, Wilson hit him with both hands until the ref called the fight on account of blood. Fights. The two times they fought, Wilson won both by decision. Decisions.
I’m a boxer. Momma had me, then cut out. Daddy took care of me alone, so when I grew big enough, he started to teach me the Sweet Science. That’s what people call it, he said. I didn’t care one way or the other, we just spent a lot of time together running and training. He got me these little gloves and shorts, and boxing shoes, too. I had so much fun with him, though he used to tell me he was going broke buying me new gear every six months. When I’m in the ring, I’m announced as Ellen “Blossom Gold” Truitt. They say Blossom Gold because of my yellow hair, I suppose.
Some people say Daddy wanted a son, which is why he teaches me how to box. I don’t think that’s all that true because I’m as good as any boy, though I’m no body-breaker. I just have to punch them a lot of times, keep them off balance so they can’t bull rush me. When they get tired, I start pouring it on them, one, two, three-shot combinations, and they quit. Of course, after a couple of fights like that, no one wants to box me. Too embarrassing to be beat by a girl, I guess. But, I keep training, waiting for another chance, but mostly having fun hanging around in the gym with my dad. He says he plans on setting up the old barn out back with a ring and bags, still leaving enough room to park his truck. He hasn’t gotten around to it yet.
I like to go outside on my own now and then. It’s kind of refreshing and relaxing, no school work, no hassle from boys in the gym where I’m by myself a lot, too. They won’t say anything to my face, even after I’ve tuned them up sparring in the ring. But, those boys don’t believe I belong. So, I do my workout with Daddy egging me on, I do my homework and get good grades, especially in English and earth science. Then, I head out to the woods down by Mill Creek. It’s about a mile from our place, so I do my roadwork out there. I sneak my way through the big oaks, the elms, and the hickories toward the creek. The big trees gives way to tall grass just before I get to the rows of weeping willows on the creek’s bank. Crickets fly in every direction bounding this way and that when I push my way through the grass.
I cross over the meadow and wade through the creek to the other bank just at the foot of Green Tree Mountain, which is part of the Monongahela National Forest. On the far side of the creek, I look around for a stump or a log to set on. Then, I keep a look out for water critters, frogs maybe, though they don’t show up much except in vernal pools at the beginning of the year. Turtles are pretty common, basking on stones or logs in the water, unless some kind of commotion sends them flapping into the water. Occasionally, you can see their wakes in the water, v-shaped trails as they swim below the surface like little submarines.
Daddy is a pretty darn good cook. He says he likes to cook, he did all the cooking even when Momma was around. It is true, however, that Momma was not good in the kitchen. I kind of remember when she was still with us, she sat and smoked at the dinner table while Daddy whipped up an omelet or a meatloaf. Momma didn’t seem to eat much, just sitting, smoking, and sipping wine out of a jar. Meanwhile, I tucked hard into Daddy’s vittles, I always looked forward to his tasty treats. He comes home from work nowadays and whips up something good in no time. We both eat fast and nearly always lick our plates clean. But we wash them anyway, Daddy hunching over the sink, he’s so tall. I dry and stack dishes for Daddy to put away.
Mrs. Burkhardt is my teacher, tall and boney, kind of nice brown hair, a pretty face and sharp, blue eyes but no bosom at all. Of course, I’m flat-chested myself, but I’m young and still might grow some. I think the way Mrs. Burkhardt is, though, is the way she’s going to be from now on. She’s really nice, nice to me and thinks I’m pretty smart. I get good grades and all, but she takes notice of me and spends more time. Once, she said I ought to be in junior high, not just the fifth grade. She wants to talk to Daddy about it, but he’s so busy working. It don’t matter much to me, though. I like school. I think I’d be pretty happy in any classroom. I like Mrs. B a lot, though.
Every Wednesday after work, Arliss headed over to the Mill Creek country store for a beer. He went inside and Holden got him one without asking, usually Horlacher Imperial Pilsner. Holden popped off the cap and passed the bottle to Arliss while he handed over a dollar. Then, Arliss turned to the barrel on his right, reached in, and extracted two pickles. He shook the cold water off of them, pivoted around and walked to the porch outside. Waban sat there in a rocking chair, sipping his beer and taking in the vapors, as he put it. Arliss handed him one of the pickles and plopped down in the rocker next to him, taking a long swig out of his bottle.
“How be you, Arliss?” Waban asked.
“I am fit,” replied Arliss.
“As a fiddle? I think not,” said Waban in a jocular tone, his eyes a bit crinkled from laugh lines. Arliss swung his head around and stared at Waban. His hair had gone grey, what was left of it, and his belly covered his legs, testament to his practice of drinking two beers to every one downed by anyone else. Always rolled up, the sleeves of Waban’s flannel shirt exposed the frayed edges of his faded long johns barely covering his ham hock forearms and thick wrists. Grey hair dappled his arms, too, while gaps between his shirt buttons underscored his impressive gut, more like that of the silverback gorilla at the Louisville Zoo.
“Look at the pot calling the kettle black,” said Arliss dryly, and Waban laughed out loud.
“True, I’ve added a few pounds, but I am in the pink.” Waban took a sip, then said, “So, how is Ellen?”
“Now, she is in the pink,” replied Arliss, “and I don’t mean girly pink.”
“Still beatin’ up on the boys, huh?”
“Most of ‘em stay away from her, now. Sometimes a new feller tries her out and gets a red nose for his trouble.”
“I’m sure he does,” Waban said. “A chip off the old block.”
Arliss frowned at Waban, “Now, you of all people know that ain’t true.”
“No, no, Arliss, you always had sand. Anybody climb in the ring with you had to run for his life, that for sure.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then uttered, “Excepting Ali, maybe, if he’d been around then. He is for sure big and fast now.”
“Excepting you, too. My puss don’t look like this for nothing.”
Waban scrutinized it and said, “That’s true I guess. Well, we don’t need to get into it again now. Just thank God Ellen don’t have your good looks.”
“Yeah, thank God. Got ‘em from her momma, I guess.” He paused, thoughts in the past for a moment. “Thank the Lord that’s all she got from her.”
During earth science, Mrs. Burkhardt told us all about how big the world is, “vast” she called it, with more than four billion people all living different lives from ours. She talked about how each person had their own way of thinking and doing things, that some lived near the highest mountains, Sherpas, she said. Other folks moved around from one low lying island to another paddling canoes in the Pacific Ocean, fishing and eating fruit off of trees. She said that people ate different things— she showed us a picture of one black man smiling as he held a big worm above his mouth, and all of us kids yelled at how icky it was. Mrs. B said we shouldn’t act that way, because people everywhere do different things in different places just to get by.
Some folks don’t eat pigs, she said, because of religion. Mrs. Burkhardt explained then how ancient people used to get sick. After a while, they figured it was from eating pork, though they didn’t know why. So, their priests told their flocks that pigs were unclean and, to stay right with the Lord, they should stop eating them. What those preachers didn’t know, Mrs. Burkhardt explained was that pigs could get some kind of bug living inside them. Eating them caused people to get sick because of the bugs. Trichinosis, she called it, writing it on the chalkboard. That’s how I know how to spell it. Nowadays, we know how to keep these bugs out of the hogs, which is why we can eat bacon and chops without getting sick today. Then she told us that even though we know now that pork is safe to eat, billions of people still won’t eat it because of their religious beliefs.
That’s when the new boy raised his hand to ask a question. He’s kind of scrawny, not much bigger than me, with black hair sticking out all over of his head. His skin was pretty light with a few freckles on his face. He wore glasses, too, which didn’t help. But, he asked a question.
“Do all those folks live in one place, Mrs. Burkhardt? Like, on the other side of the world?”
Mrs. Burkhardt didn’t answer right away. Then, she said, “Well, Martin, that’s one of the good things about the world. As big as it is, you will find most people who are just alike living together in one faraway place. But you also can see some of them living right next door. America has a lot of different people living here—Orientals, Jews, Negros from Africa, Spanish folks from Mexico, Indians from India, and our own Indians right here in the US of A. Those Indians are different from each other, of course. See, America is a melting pot with folks from all over the world coming here to be free. Almost all of us right here in our classroom aren’t from here originally. Our ancestors moved here long ago from everywhere around the world. My family came from England and Germany. How about you, Martin, where did your family come from?”
“Ireland. My grandparents moved to Newcastle, and me parents came from there to New York. We moved down here for the work.”
“Irish,” Mrs. Burkhart said, “that’s what I would have guessed, Martin, from your last name. Collins is very typically an Irish name.”
Then, the new kid said, “Me ma’s ma was named Smith.” He shrugged, “She was German ‘til she married my grandad.”
“Well, there you are!” said Mrs. Burkhardt. “Smith is a common name in many countries!”
After lunch, I followed the kids out to the playground. I’m sort of a slow eater, so I’m usually last out at recess. It was a pretty nice outside, just past April Fools Day. The sun was out, and most of us wore our light spring jackets zipped up against the cool air. The playground is pretty nice, with maple trees lined up all around the blacktop, little green buds showing up on the end of their branches. Kids were jumping rope, some were sitting on swings, and a few climbed all over the monkey bars playing tag. A bunch boys stood over at the far wall in a circle. Still munching on my apple, I moseyed on over to see what they were up to. Boys always seem to have more fun than girls, I don’t know why. Maybe it was because they were allowed to wear pants.
When I got there, I heard them shouting, “Mick,” “Cat-licker,” “‘Tater-eater,” stuff like that. I peeked between the shoulders of two of them, and sure enough, the new kid stood in the middle, fists closed, his eyes running back and forth from one boy to another. He looked angry and scared at the same time. I looked around the circle of boys and saw just who I thought I would. Jesse Warner, the biggest of them, sneering as usual and doing what he was good at, ganging up on small kids. I didn’t like him one bit for that and a lot of other reasons. He was as dumb as a fence post, held back a couple of grades. That was okay, but he was mean, especially to kids littler than him. He kept it up, egging on the other boys, moving them in closer.
I wondered if I should go get a monitor, when the new kid said, “Ye’r a mighty fearful feller with your gang all beside ya’. Why don’t ya’ try me yerself?”
Jesse’s face turned red as a beet. He moved forward, growling, “Why, you little—” and the new boy jumped up and planted one right on his honker. Jesse howled like a stuck pig, covering his beak with both hands while the new kid punched him again and again in his belly. Jesse fell back, but I could see that the body shots weren’t hurting him much and I feared what would happen next. Sure enough, Jesse swung a round house that hit the new kid square, sending his eyeglasses flying. Jesse threw his arms around him and flung him to the asphalt. He quickly sat on him and started whaling with both hands.
I didn’t have time to get anyone then, so I hopped over, grabbed Jesse’s neck with both hands from behind and squeezed. He stopped throwing punches to try and get me while I pulled him off. He turned, yelling what he was going to do, until he saw it was me.
“Cut it out, Jesse, leave him alone,” I said as I bounced away.
Up on his feet, now, he kept his distance as he said, “I ought to smack you, Ellen, for what you done.”
I nodded, “Sure, Jesse, because I’m little, too, just like the new kid? ‘Course, you didn’t do so good last time.”
“Yeah, but I’m getting’ to be a lot more, now, and you ain’t grown an inch.”
I kind of shook my head sadly, “Think that counts? I got to say, Jesse, you are the sorriest bully I ever seen. We can fight now, but if we do, a teacher will probably stop it. I’ll get sent home with a note, I suppose. I’m just a skinny little girl, right? But you? They’ll keep you after school no matter how bad I bust your puss.”
Jesse’s big round face got red again, the color of his big, fat sore nose. His eyes, all tiny and slit, showed how much he hated me. He ran his hand back over his mud-colored hair, then said, “You’re lucky, Truitt. I been held after school too much already. If I kick your butt this time, they might suspend me. I don’t want no beatin’ by my pop, so I’m gonna let it go for now. But I’ll see you come next Golden Gloves.”
I smiled, “See you then, boy.”
He and his gang drifted off back toward the building, since the bell was about to ring.
I guessed right that Jesse wouldn’t fight. He was bigger, no question, but still slow. could move around and jab him like I did back in January. But, if he bull-rushed me, it could be a problem. Well, that would be for later, I thought. For now, he left me alone.
“Ta’,” said a voice next to me. Surprised, I turned to find the new kid standing next to me smiling. “He’s a big boy, I thought I was a goner for a bit. I shoulda stayed away from him, I guess. So, t’anks for bailing me out.”
I stared at him. His glasses were twisted some but not broken. Up close, I saw that his eyes were blue-green, different from anyone I knew.
“Do you box?”
“Box? You mean fight? No. Me da’ showed me a few things, like always hit ‘em in the nose, make their eyes water so they can’t see. Hurt’s like the devil, too. That was a long time ago when I was little. He’s long gone, now. But b’geezus, I can’t see well enough myself without my goggles. Sad, too, kids are always teasing me about ‘em. You know, four eyes and all. Gets me into a lot of scrapes. Well, if I can’t fight, I can always run,” he laughed. I laughed too.
“Well, there goes the bell,” he said. “See you… what’s your name?”
He dropped his chin, “Marty Collins. Nice to meet you, Ellie.”
And off he ran.
They performed the cavity search and as usual found nothing on or in him. Robert Redding stepped into the gang shower with spigots all around hanging from blue-green tiled walls, the grout turned black from grime and age. The only one there, Redding crossed to the farthest shower head and twisted the lever to release a stream of cold water. He stood to the side, waiting until the spray turned steaming hot, then stepped in. He grabbed a bar of soap from a shelf beneath the spout and started rubbing it on his hair and face, then quickly moving to his neck and arms. As he scrubbed his arms and chest, one of the two guards called to him, “Five minutes.” Redding nodded and worked down to his torso and legs. He lifted his feet to wash them in turn, left first, then right. He placed the soap back on the shelf, rinsed quickly, and shut the water off.
One of the guards tossed him a towel, and he dried himself briskly. The other guard motioned him over outside of the shower. A clean orange jumpsuit lay folded on a chair along with clean shorts, socks, and a white t-shirt. Redding put them, on, slipped on his shoes, and stood up. The beefy red-haired guard named Teddy stooped over and put shackles on his legs. He stood up and cuffed Robert’s wrists. “Okay, inmate, march.”
They walked down the hallway, Teddy in front, and the other guard Leroy, a big black man, trailed behind. As they passed through one gate after another, stopping for another search at each one, Redding wondered why. Tall and lean, with stringy muscles and a concave stomach, he didn’t particularly pose a physical threat. True, others might dispute this assessment given his history and especially his recent sins. But Teddy and Leroy were experienced bulls who spent every day handling violent offenders. They weren’t fazed by him. So, what was it?
“No one wants anything to happen to you,” said Teddy when Redding asked.
“Now, how’s anything gonna happen. I’m in lockdown all the time. Even if someone is out for me, which raises another question, ‘Who?’ there isn’t any way they can get to me. How is anyone supposed to get past you and Leroy or anyone else on the job here?”
Teddy said, “It’s like this. If you was to off yourself in our custody, that would be bad for the warden, especially considering all the publicity and all.”
Robert scrunched up his brows in bewilderment. “How can he be worried about that? I mean, considering what’s going to happen to me, my choice.”
His mind flew back to the courtroom when the judge asked for his plea, and the utter surprise that crossed the magistrate’s face at his reply.
“Really? You sure you don’t want to consult with your attorney, Mr. Redding? You realize what you are asking for?”
“I do, your honor. What I have done,” he said, pausing to compose himself. “What I have done, I have done terrible things. I should never be allowed to walk free again, ever. But, I can’t spend another day in jail either, judge, I cannot. So, my only recourse is to request the ultimate penalty for my crimes, for which I am very sorry. I would like it to happen as soon as possible.”
His decision created a sensation, of course, which kept growing and growing every step along the way. He refused the ACLU’s offer to appeal and resented the many attempts by his brother and mother to have his sentence commuted. The headlines really exploded when instead of lethal injection, he chose execution by firing squad. Considering all this, why would anybody think that he suddenly wanted to commit suicide?
The whole deal dragged on, though, in spite of his wants. He had to go back to court a few times to say his mind was made up. Bottom-feeders showed up, too, reporters wanting exclusive interviews, eager with the questions like, “When you shot those young store clerks on the floor in the back of their heads, how’d you feel Mr. Redding? One of those young men was just twenty-one with a wife and a child. How did you feel when you learned that?”
Robert blew out his breath. The love of his life, Audrey had left him when she found his pistol. She took the kids and left him, and he proved her right by shooting those fellows. After he found her gone with the kids, he started drinking. He knew he was going to do something that night. She was right to go, which was killing him now. Why should he go through it all over again just so some lowlife can brag that he got the goods on Robert Redding?
The requests became more interesting when they started offering money. Suddenly, he needed his lawyer after all, to cut the deals. First, Look magazine stepped up, followed by a slicker who wanted the book and movie rights. Sure, he said, if the price was right. It killed time while he was waiting, and now he had something to leave to his mom and brother, and Audrey, too. The attorney got a will written for him, but until bleeding hearts stopped trying to save him, he was sitting upon a boatload of dough and nowhere to spend it.
Then, the letter arrived.
Arliss moved around the roof with a mouthful of tacks. He put a square of tarpaper in place and quickly extracted the tacks one by one, hammering them in a precise pattern until the paper was secured to the plywood. Once he’d finished laying down the tarpaper, he could nail down the wood shingles, overlapping them to ensure that snow and rainwater would run off. The house would be as dry as the desert in all kinds of weather, and he would get paid.
He liked working on rooftops in the springtime. From this vantage point on top of a house built into the side of a hill, he could see the stream and the mountain across the road leading into town. With just about a thousand residents, most of the buildings faced each other on the one main street. He could watch his neighbors strolling up and down the walks on their way to the baker, the bank, the hardware store, or the only car dealer just at the end of the north side. He just as easily could turn to Green Tree Mountain to watch hawks swooping down out of the sky, or buzzards floating above ready to deal with the leftovers. Add the sun and blue sky overhead and a person on a rooftop sometimes might feel like he lived in paradise on earth.
“Yo, Arliss.” A voice called from below. The owner Joe McElhenny stood gazing up, his hand in an informal salute to block the sunlight. “Can you come down for a minute?”
Arliss clambered down the roof side onto the ladder. He scooted down, hopping off the third rung from the bottom to face Joe. “What’s up?”
“How far you along on the paper?” Joe asked.
“I’ll be done before lunch, and ready to start shingling this afternoon. Why?”
A long man with a sandy mustache, Joe seemed a bit ill at ease.
“I got some bad news. Amalgamated just laid me off. They’re closing the Ripple panel. Don’t know how long I’ll be out of work. So, I can’t pay you no more.”
Arliss frowned. “You’re kidding me, Joe,” he said, even though he knew he wasn’t.
Joe swung his head, “I wish I was Arliss. But, I ain’t.” He stammered slightly, “I’m real sorry ‘bout this, Arliss, I really am. I wish I could pay up, but I can’t right now, what with Betty and the kids and all. I swear, as soon as I go back, I’ll pay you with interest. I swear to God almighty.”
He dipped his head while looking up like he was ready to flinch. Arliss knew that he’d never get paid, never mind interest. With a wife and four kids, no matter when he was called back, Joe would never have the money. He tightened his lips, slightly shaking his head.
“You ain’t mad are you, Arliss?” Joe ventured.
“No, Joe. I ain’t mad. This stuff happens all the time. Hell, that’s why I got out of the mines. Never know when they’d leave us high and dry.” Arliss sighed. “I’ll finish up the tarpaper. That’ll keep your roof dry ‘til you can shingle it yourself.”
“You got a big heart, Arliss. I’ll remember this.”
“That’s all right, Joe. Lemme get back up the ladder, get this done.”
After he finished tacking down the tarpaper, he climbed into his pickup and turned it over again and again a few times until it roared to life. A ’57 Ford, he’d bought it back then after his last fight, making his mind up never to go back into the mines or the ring. Rather than do either he decided he’d rather live hand to mouth as a handyman. What he didn’t know was that every time the mining companies triggered a layoff, he’d lose work. Now, he might be out of work again if he couldn’t find any with the miners being out. Some of them would offer cheaper competition, too. His line of work wasn’t rocket science.
That’s what finally spurred Millie to leave them. He couldn’t blame her, he supposed, she just got worn out by becoming poor again overnight. Though, it was wrong to leave Ellen without a momma, he thought. He’d done the best he could by Ellen, but she was growing up and there was plenty a momma could do to help her along now. And, he had no money coming in.
He pulled up to Waban’s store. Before he could go in to get the beer and pickles, Waban waved a bottle and a dill at him to show that he’d already fetched them. Arliss dropped into his rocker.
“You late, boy,” Waban said. “What kept you?”
“Oh, Joe McElhenny stiffed me. Amalgamated just closed the Ripple shaft, played out, I guess. Or maybe people ain’t buyin’ as much coal anymore. No matter, Joe don’t have the money. So, I’m stuck.”
Waban sat up. “You say Amalgamated called a layoff? You think a lot of boys be out of work, now?”
Arliss raised and dropped his shoulders. “The Ripple shifts, anyways.”
“Damn,” Waban spat. “That’s gonna hurt my trade.”
“At least you’ve got trade,” Arliss said sourly. “I’m getting stiffed, and all them boys will be looking for the odd job to keep things together. I’m double screwed. Your store ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
“You don’t understand. I’m deep in the red with the store.”
Arliss turned to look directly at Waban, his eyebrows knit, puzzled. “How can you be in the red? That store made you a rich man in this town. It is what they call a cash cow. Hell, you even own cows!”
Waban shook his head rapidly, “Not lately. All them big box stores around here now, they’re killing me. I’ve been puttin’ back into the store, hoping things will change. But, they ain’t and now I’m just about broke. Shit, I had to sell my cows!”
Arliss stared at Waban as though he was a madman. Broke? How could he be broke with his country store the place everyone went to for the past twenty years? Arliss always resented Waban and his store, bought with his winnings beating Arliss the last time. Here, I am, running a twenty-year-old, broke-down truck, he thought, while Waban had managed to screw up an ATM like the store. Just like the man says, who loses money owning a casino? If I’d had that money and opened a store, I wouldn’t of lost it no matter what.
Maybe he was being too hard on Waban. Situated right between the brick courthouse and the post office, the big chain store had changed things for sure. Anyone else owning Waban’s little convenience setup would have suffered. What really bothered him, Arliss had to admit himself, was dredging up the memory of losing the fight that many years ago.
He shook his head, “I don’t know what to tell you, Waban. Times are tough all around.”
“It seems they’re always tough all around.”
“That’s the truth, Waban, that it is.”
The new boy Marty smiled at me uneasily, sort of like he was guilty of something and didn’t want to tell me.
“Me ma and me are moving on,” he said.
I was surprised. “You just come here a couple of weeks ago. Why’re you moving so soon?”
He smiled in a silly way, “Me ma was let go at the diner. We have folks in Chicago, so we’re going there for work.”
“Yeah.” He smiled again, but didn’t seem to have anything more to say. I smiled back a little, and he said a quick, “Bye, Ellie,” and walked back to the classroom.
After recess, I saw him sitting there, looking at Mrs. B. for a while, then out the window. She was talking about mountains, how they were wrinkles in the earth’s crust, folded so they just about reached the sky. The opposite was true of valleys. One was called an anticline, the other a syncline. Marty seemed to be half-paying attention, and so was I. At the end of the day, he got up and walked out of the room and the school back toward his place down the street.
Waban didn’t waited for Arliss to get out of his truck. What now, Arliss thought. He’d been soured on everything since Amalgamated closed the Ripple longwall operation a month ago. The last thing he wanted to hear was Waban flapping his mouth. Of course, Waban had doubled his volume of flapping. While Arliss still sat in his pickup, Waban held a newspaper up to Arliss through his side window. Arliss rolled it down while Waban lifted the paper up folded in half to highlight one short article at the bottom of the page. “Legendary West Virginia Fight Two Decades Old.”
Arliss slumped a little back into the seat of his truck. He’d forgotten what day it was. Every year on this date and the other, he skipped Waban’s store, opting to fish or hunt instead. The layoff and his own worries distracted him this year, which gave Waban the opportunity to ride him again. Of course, his old foe wouldn’t let it go no matter what, not on the twentieth anniversary, not when it was written up in the Herald Dispatch. He’d keep it to wave in Arliss’ face as long as it took for him to return to the store. Hell, thought Arliss, if he got tired of waiting he might even bring it on over to his house. Why not?
“Waban,” Arliss sighed, “can’t you let it go? It’s long over.”
“Sure,” said Waban, “it’s over and done, but, look. We’ still famous around here, we’ still remembered by folks!”
“And you won.”
Aw, hell, Arliss it could’a gone either way and we did all right, got out of the mines, had ourselves some nice little lives, ‘til lately. But, look at this!”
He pushed the paper closer to Arliss, his finger under the last paragraph.
The last fight between those two young men born and raised in God’s Country will live forever in the memories of those who saw them battle. Their clash evoked the same fervor and commitment as any two brothers who met in mortal combat on opposite sides during the war to preserve the Union. Like those honorable opponents, Waban Wilson and Arliss Truitt shall not be forgotten. In fact, I warrant that many who saw these noble warriors fight then would pay good money this very day to see them reprise their magnificent mêlée.
“You see that?” Waban asked.
“Yeah, we threw down pretty hard,” said Arliss.
“No, no, Arliss, the last line. Many would pay good money to see them ‘reprise their magnificent mêlée.’ You know what that means? People would come see us fight again, they’d pay!”
“You’re crazy, Waban, no one’s gonna pay to see a couple of fat hillbillies go at it again. Why they probably be there just to see which one of us falls over first dead from a heart attack.”
“No, Arliss, they’d come. Like that computer fight between Cassius Ali and Rocky Marciano! Ali’s fat and out of shape while waitin’ for the judges to decide about his war objection, and Marciano’s so old they had to put a wig on his head.
“He was about our age then, Waban.”
“Maybe so,” Waban replied, “But folks still anted up in droves to see them fight. They’d come see us in Huntington again, Arliss, I bet they would!”
Arliss pressed his lips together in a pained expression. “I don’t think so, Waban. Why dig up all that again? It’s twenty years past and gone.”
“The money, Arliss,” Waban said, “We could make some money.”
“No,” Arliss said, “I don’t want to look like a fool out there.”
Waban said, “The money, Arliss. We can use that money, Arliss, I need that money or I’m going to lose the store. You need it, too, to take care of Ellen.”
Arliss didn’t reply, still skeptical, and Waban said, “You won’t look bad out there, Arliss. Hell, you been running and sparring all this time. You’ll be fine.” Waban paused, then said, “Listen, if you’re not doing too well, I’ll go down for the count.”
Arliss suddenly stiffened.
“It don’t matter who wins, Arliss, as long as we make a few bucks. You’ll need it, too, if they don’t open the Ripple panel up again.”
Arliss stared at Waban, his eyes steel.
“What do you say, Arliss?” Waban asked again plaintively.
“You set it up,” said Arliss, “I’ll fight you.”
“Well, okay then!” Waban said, smiling broadly. “I think I know a guy in Huntington. Meantime, let’s go get us a beer!”
“That’s all right, Waban,” Arliss said softly, “I gotta go pick up Ellen at school. We’re going to the gym to work out.”
With spring full on, school seemed to drag along, lately. Most of the kids took turns laying their heads on their desks covering their eyes with their arms, they were so bored. Even Mrs. Burkhardt had trouble keeping everyone’s attention. I have to say, even I wasn’t listening to her all the time. It was kind of embarrassing when she called on me to say something about what she just said, and I had no clue what it was. She seemed kind of hurt when I stumbled around trying to answer. So I decided to try harder and I made an effort. But, somehow, learning all that stuff just didn’t grab me right then. I don’t know why.
“All right, class,” she said. “We’ve talked about how people live in far off lands, and how we live here in the USA. Still, you really can’t learn about these folks or their countries without going there and meeting them. Naturally, that’s not possible right now. You all need to stay in school to learn your other subjects. But, there is a way,” she said, her eyes looking a bit naughty.
Mrs. Burkhardt stepped to her desk and picked up a pile of papers, which she started handing out as she strolled up and down the aisles.
“This is an information sheet from the International Society of Pen Pals,” she said as she walked. “It tells you how you can apply to find a pen pal anywhere in the world.”
“What’s a pen pal?” one of the kids asked.
“A pen pal is someone you write a letter to, and he or she writes back to you. If you like their letters, you can write to them again. They write back to you, and so on, until you become friends, pals—pen pals! So, if you write to someone in India, you can learn all about what school is like for them, what they eat, what they wear, their favorite things to do, and anything else about how they live. And, you can tell them the same things about yourself here. It’s fun and educational.”
Some of the kids groaned, but Mrs. B. hushed them up and explained how to fill out the form and write to embassies for pen pal names. Most of us didn’t know what an embassy was until she told us. Kids complained so much about how much it would cost sending letters so far away that she said we could pick people in other states. My guess was that most of us would do that.
I went home after school and wondered about who I would write to. I didn’t really know because I didn’t really know anyone except my daddy and some of his friends. I liked Mrs. Burkhardt, but I only saw her at school. Daddy wasn’t home, so I laid on the couch, thinking. After a while, I figured out that I couldn’t think of anyone and I felt kind of lonely about it.
I swung myself up and saw a newspaper on the table that we ate on and where I did my homework. I opened it and paged through, looking for something that might get me going on this pen pal project. The front page headline warned about something called stagflation, and I had no idea what it meant, maybe a buck breaking wind? I read a little, and got lost in percentage forecasts and unemployment rates. The article next to it listed upcoming 4-H contests with a picture of last year’s winning hog, a big Yorkshire. I kept on looking, but there really wasn’t much there. So, I turned on the TV to see what it had to offer. I saw one of the commercials about the Olympics up in Canada. They showed all these great American athletes, runners, jumpers, and some boxers. Someday I’m going to fight in the Olympics, I thought.
The afternoon news came on, starting with a story about the peanut farmer from Georgia winning some kind of caucus. I remember my dad and Uncle Waban laughing together, talking about how after all these years it looked like a good old boy, one of their own, was gonna be president of these United States. Some more stories went by, not much to interest me, though. Then, halfway through the show, a story came on about a man who killed two other men in a store. He shot them dead, and was convicted of murder for it and sentenced to die. I never saw anything like it except on detective shows and the like. I never thought that people really could kill other people like that, and for it that they would be killed themselves. It bothered me so much.
The newsman said that the killer was very sorry and wanted to be executed by firing squad, something of a shocking choice, said the newsman. The show switched then to this fellow, tall and skinny in a gray jumpsuit, his hair a horsetail falling all over his eyes. He pushed it out of the way as he talked, “It is my right to decide whether to live or die for what I’ve done, and I have made my choice. I am forever sorry for it, I deeply apologize to their families and take full blame for their pain. Therefore, I have determined to leave this earth, and I object to any and all attempts to delay this happening.”
I stared at his long, yellowy tan face, scarred up with pock marks, and his snaggly teeth. Then I noticed his eyes, shiny gray and sharp set in eggshell white all around them. He looked sad to me, lonely.
Waban stopped off at the house, a simple clapboard place, one floor, four rooms, and a bath. Arliss stood inside, the screen door opened a few inches.
“You ain’t gonna believe this, Arliss, but it’s happening! We’re gonna fight on June 10th in the old Huntington Fieldhouse, the main event! They’re planning on a few bouts before us, a couple of amateur matches, and one pro fight featuring the town’s favorite son. After that, we’ll square off. And the money, you ain’t gonna believe it, a guaranteed ten grand for the winner, seven for second place, plus three percent of the gate! This could solve a lot of our problems, Arliss.”
Arliss said, “Two months. Think you can get in shape in two months, Waban?”
Waban seemed a bit disquieted. “I don’t know, who cares? The money’s guaranteed.”
“That’s good,” Arliss said, “but you might want to do some training. You never know what might happen in the ring. You know, ‘protect yourself at all times.’”
Waban’s smile slowly disappeared. “Okay,” he said evenly, “that’s always good advice.”
“I’ll be seeing you, Waban,” Arliss said.
He examined the envelope, noting that it came from Mill Creek, West Virginia, the writing big and carefully neat. It was addressed to him also in large, fastidious script, Mr. Robert Redding, Utah State Prison, Utah. A simple address, yet it got here.
Usually, he took one look at letters and threw them out without opening the envelope. This time, he tore it open.
Utah State Prison, Utah
Dear Mr. Redding,
I am an 11-year-old girl living in West Virginia. I read about you in the newspaper and I must say I do not understand why you did what you did. Everyone I know says that life is precious and you should not kill. I can understand that when I run down by the creek and see all the animals and birds and how pretty they are. But we kill lots of things to eat. I saw a 4-H pig that won last year and he probably was slaughtered to eat. It is wrong to kill people, but in some places cannibals eat people who they have killed.
I don’t know why you murdered those poor men. You said on TV were sorry and if you really mean it our reverend says Jesus can forgive all sins. You look lonely, too and I know how that feels sometimes. Sometimes I am lonely but my daddy and his friends make me feel better a lot. Maybe you don’t have a daddy or other friends to help you. I don’t know if that is why you killed those poor men, but I am sorry for them and for you. Please write back if you want to.
P.S. I am a boxer. I am the only girl boxer but I beat the other boy boxers at the junior Golden Gloves. It would be nice to be friends.
Robert read it again, then searched the envelope for an address. He reread the letter once more, and put it down. He yelled out for the guard to bring him some paper and a pen.
School years goes by pretty quickly. I’ll be in junior high school next year, a big change, I’m guessing. Our schools aren’t all that big and they’re right next to each other. Still, I look at the older kids and a lot of them seem like grownups. They walk by us little kids like we aren’t there. I don’t believe they’re being mean, just deep in their own thinking. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll be like them when I’m older, looking serious all the time. Except for when they’re not cutting up.
Summer was hiding just around the corner and all of us kids were getting super antsy, ready for school to be over until next year. The weather turned so nice, we could hardly stand being indoors at all. I found myself sighing a lot, wishing I was down by the creek lying on the new meadow grass. Every now and then I wondered how Marty Collins was doing in Chicago. I bet it was still cold there. I didn’t think about him all that much, though. I just wondered once in a while.
Mrs. Burkhardt reminded us that our pen pal project was due the next day. The whole class was surprised, how did six weeks go by so fast? Now, we all had to hurry getting copies of our letters together and putting them in order with those we got from our pen pals. Most of the kids had just a few from different states. A couple had only one or two, but they were from foreign countries, which meant that Mrs. B. would be sure to give them 100 percent.
I expected to get 100, too, because Robert had written back to me half a dozen times. I didn’t think anyone else would have more letters to show and Mrs. B surely would be amazed. I thought so anyway. Then, I started thinking if handing in letters from a famous murderer was a good idea. People might get the wrong notion. I didn’t have much choice though, because if I didn’t give them to Mrs. B, I would get a bad grade. Good grades were important to Daddy and they were important to me, too. So, the next day, I handed them in.
Mary Beth Burkhardt looked forward to reading every one of Ellen’s writing assignments. For an eleven-year old, she possessed an amazing internal life. Everything Ellen wrote surprised Mary Beth, but it always seemed so natural after she’d finished reading. For the pen pal project, Mary Beth worked her way through the other students’ work, saving Ellen’s collection for last.
Most of the other students wrote pretty much the same things, simple and mundane—“My name is …,” “I am a student at …,” “I like to …,” “What do you like?” “Please write back.” Rudimentary responses followed. The student’s next letter, if there was one, covered the basics of life in Mill Creek, West Virginia. “My daddy works at …,” “I like to hunt and fish …,” “Do you hunt or fish?” and the like. She thought the international exchanges by two of her students might be more fun and read the first overseas reply, “I don’t hunt, I live in Dusseldorf.”
She sighed, then smiled as she centered Ellen’s letters in front of her. After reading Ellen’s first letter, her smile faded. It disappeared altogether when she read the return letter from Robert Redding.
I am glad I read your letter. I get plenty others which I usually toss. Most people write telling how sorry they are for me as if they cared. Then right away they start asking questions about what I did. They all just want to freak out like people gawking at car wrecks. So I stopped reading them. But your letter caught my eye. You didn’t make a big deal out of me with all sorts of questions. You just seemed friendly, like a breath of fresh air here.
I was surprised to read you are a boxer. Girls don’t usually do that. I was really amazed how you beat eight boys in the Golden Gloves. You knocked them all out, that is amazing! You must be a very special person.
So, keep up the good work. Try to do good whatever you do. I’ll tell you the truth. Truth is always best anyway. I did terrible things and hurt a lot of people. I think about it every day. I had my troubles when I was young but I wasted my life when I should have done better. I have some brains and I could have done other things. But I took the easy way out. I am not a nice person and now I must pay the price. I don’t want to cause any more harm. You want to be my pen pal, which is okay. If there is anything to learn from me, it is to choose the opposite direction of how I lived.
P.S. You can call me Robert.
Mary Beth sat stunned. Oh my Lord, she said to herself. Horrified by what she had read, she quickly flipped the page to read Ellen’s reply.
Dear Mr. Robert,
I am very happy that you now are my pen pal. I thank you for the things you wrote in your letter. I will take to heart your advice, I understand that you did very bad things. But I know that there is good in everyone, our reverend tells us this every Sunday. You are repenting so after your punishment you probably will go to heaven. I hope so.
Also, thank you for your nice words about my fighting career. Because you wish me to be good all the time, I have decided to dedicate all of my fights to you next spring. My daddy is a fighter and he has a big fight coming up in June. It is really special and he has been training hard to win. He lost the last two times. I go running and working out in the gym with him. I run by myself a lot to school, three miles. On weekends I run down by Mill Creek and sometimes up Green Tree Mountain. Last time I saw Mr. Wilson, Uncle Waban to me, running up too, really slow and puffing. I was surprised, he’s my Daddy’s friend and they drink beer together. He’s who my Daddy fights come June. Uncle Waban is the one who beat Daddy twice twenty years ago, way long before I was born.
Last week I sparred with another local kid Jesse Warner who I beat pretty good last spring. He thought he was all that and everything, but I peppered him until he quit back then. So I wasn’t worried sparring with him except he barreled in hard and walloped me with a wild haymaker. I fell flat on my bottom first time ever. It was embarrassing. I got up moved in quick and hit him right below his breadbasket. When he dropped his gloves, I hit him one, two, three, and he backed up. He was done, so I quit. I was surprised though when he knocked me on the floor.
That’s all I have to write. I will try to think of more next time. Sincerely, Ellen Truitt
Mary Beth hurriedly shuffled through the wad of letters until she found the last one sent by Redding.
Dear Blossom Gold,
I loved getting your last letter, baby girl. It’s great to know you are the best and I feel like we’re growing closer. In your last letter you asked me what my favorite animal is, so see if you can guess.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night.
Neat, huh? It was written by an old poet from long ago, William Blake. He wrote a plenty of cools stuff, mysterious and spiritual, and drew some really cool pictures to go with it. I read him when I was sent to the pen one time and got bored. His poems surprised me, I could see myself in a lot of what he said. Well, it’s getting late, honey. I love you Ellen baby and hope you write back right away.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” Mary Beth uttered, clutching the letters close to her breast. “Oh my God.”
Arliss found her sitting on the front steps when he returned from the gym. He felt awkward, standing in front of her his face and body glistening, his old sweat pants and shirt wet with perspiration. He hadn’t bothered shaving that morning, either, figuring then what was the point? He also never expected Ellen’s favorite teacher to show up on his porch.
He gripped his left bicep and started squeezing as he said, “Mrs. Burkhardt, nice to see you. Sorry I’m kind of a mess, I been working out at the gym. A little surprised to see you here, actually. Ellen up to no good?” he asked with a big grin. It melted away when she didn’t smile back, instead her eyes showing alarm.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Mary Beth stood and held a sheaf of papers out to Arliss. “Mr. Truitt, these are letters Ellen has been writing as part of a class project. The children’s assignment was to find a person living far away to become their pen pal. When I read Ellen’s letters, I became very concerned.”
Arliss took hold of the letters, wondering how in all the world Ellen could be a matter of concern. “All right,” he said, “why don’t we go inside so I can take a look at these?”
Inside, he apologized for the clutter, sat her down on the couch in front of the TV, then offered her some ice tea. He went into the kitchen and washed his face and hands before pouring the tea. When he returned, she had picked up the letters again.
“Mr. Truitt, please read these, they are so disturbing.”
Arliss handed her the glass and sat next to her. He started working his way through the letters, confused at first about what he was reading.
“Who is this,” he murmured, “Robert Redding?”
Mary Beth remained silent. She watched him as slowly, painfully, it dawned upon him.
“This is the guy,” he said haltingly, “the guy who killed those gas station clerks.” He stared up at Mary Beth, “He’s going to be shot by a firing squad.”
She saw his utter bewilderment turning into agony and she said quickly, “I’m so sorry Mr. Truitt, truly sorry. I had no idea my project would lead to this, I thought it would be fun. Please forgive me!”
“Fuh…,” he breathed, looking into the air. He shifted his sight back to Mrs. Burkhardt. “How did she find him? How’d she know where to write him?”
Mary Beth shrugged, “She just sent them care of his prison. And, he wrote back.”
Arliss expelled air again. “Holy…, now what?”
Mary Beth drew closer, “You have to stop her, Mr. Arliss. This could be so dangerous. What if he escaped?”
Arliss eyed her skeptically. She looked to be pretty young, skinny, with dull brown hair. The kids called her Mrs. Burkhardt, of course, though everyone knew she was divorced. Maybe she was a mouse, he thought, but she still cared plenty for his little girl. And Ellen cared heaps for her, too.
“I don’t think Redding is going to break out of jail anytime soon,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to be walking anywhere much longer.”
“Yes, but his letters are so creepy!” she said. Imploringly, she went on, “You’re right, Mr. Truitt, he probably won’t get out. But these letters he’s sending are bad for her, they might cause permanent damage. She’s only eleven!”
Arliss screwed up his face sourly. “I suppose so. She won’t like it.” He glanced back at Mary Beth. “How you going to handle it in school? Looks like she worked hard on it.”
She shook her head, “Always. She always works hard. I’ll give her 100, naturally, but I won’t return her work. I’ll tell all of the students that I want to keep the letters to show other students next year. She won’t feel singled out.”
“That’s great, Mrs. Burkhardt, I appreciate that. And, thank you for bringing all this to my attention.”
“Of course, Mr. Truitt. I’m so relieved that you know. She’ll understand eventually. She thinks the world of you.”
He smiled shyly, “I’d like to think so. But you are her favorite teacher. You do know that, don’t you?”
She smiled slightly herself. “It’s a mutual admiration society.”
Arliss walked her to the door and watched her for a while as she disappeared down the street. Just as she left his sight, Ellen strolled up the walk to the house.
“Hi, Daddy, how’d training go?”
Damn, he said to himself.
Robert Redding paced his cell. Ellen hadn’t written him for days and time passed. He asked Teddy every day if there were any letters, but none arrived. He pretended to wonder what had happened to Ellen, but he had it figured out really. Her daddy had found out about their correspondence and forbade her to write him anymore. He did wonder then if she’d been allowed at least to read his last letters. The whole deal maddened him, he thought. It was the only thing he wanted to do now, especially since Audrey didn’t come to see him one time since he’d been locked up, never mind bringing the kids. Things here had become an annoying waste of time, with his brother and mother always coming around trying to change his mind. Almost every fucking day, for Christ sake. Through all of this noise, little Ellen was the only one who was pure, sweet little Ellen. All he wanted to do was talk to her, to tell her how he felt. She was the only one who understood.
He did twenty more laps up and down the ten-foot cell, sometimes wringing his hands, sometimes clutching them into fists. He stopped and shook them out, trying to calm himself down. The frustration, though, he thought, and off on another circuit he’d go.
Teddy rapped the cell door bars to get his attention. He stopped and looked at the guard, belly falling out of his shirt and pants. “You got a visitor,” Teddy said.
“If it’s my brother or my ma, I don’t want to see them.”
Teddy shook his head, “It ain’t them.”
Redding perked up. Ellen, maybe?
“It’s that Tinsel Town producer agent guy of yours, wanting to talk to you again.”
“Fucking ghoul, all of ‘em. Tell him to go stick it up his ass.”
“I tell him that’s what you’re gonna say, but he keeps insisting. Says he feels sympathy for you,” Teddy muttered sarcastically. “How ‘bout that?”
Redding stabbed him with a look. The guard continued in a sheepish voice, “Anyway, he says he can get you a lot more money now for your story. You could leave a helluva lot more behind for your kin, your mama.”
Impatient, Redding started to tell Teddy to get lost when he had another thought. “He said he’d get me more money?”
“That’s what he said,” Teddy nodded.
Redding rubbed the bristles on his chin, a three-day growth. “Let’s go see him,” he said.
“All right. Lemme get the shackles.”
I was pretty embarrassed when Daddy showed me the letters, asking me what was up. To be honest, I was sort of shocked that it was such a big thing. When I read Robert’s letters, it was plain to me that he was lonely and that he could use a friend that didn’t keep oohing and ahing over him like a monster. He had done awful things and there was no forgiving him on earth. At least, he saw it that way. But he believed that God would forgive him and save him from doing hurtful things again. I felt so sorry for him, I just wanted to make him feel better. I didn’t understand why Daddy got all huffed up about how friendly Robert had gotten. Geez, Daddy called me baby girl and honey all the time. True, Robert wasn’t my daddy, but he was my friend.
Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to write Robert anymore or read his letters. To be honest, I’d hustle back home after school to see if Daddy was around and if the mail had arrived. I couldn’t get them all, but I managed to pick off a few letters from Robert before Daddy got them and burned them. In one, he said he’d come into some money and that I should look forward to getting something nice from him before too long. I dared not write him back, though, in case he wrote something about my letter in his reply. If Daddy read Robert’s letters before he dumped them, he’d find out about mine and I would really be in Dutch. So, I just waited to see what the surprise was that Robert would be sending me.
Things had gotten tighter in Mill Creek. The Ripple panel had been shut down for more than a month, now, and no end in sight. The whole town worried, those with jobs as much as those without. Everyone wondered if shuttering the Ripple marked just the beginning, that Amalgamated planned on pulling out altogether like in other towns up and down the coal belt. In the meantime, Arliss had run out of jobs completely. Even if folks needed work done, they put it off, waiting to see how things played out. He already started dipping into his savings, paltry as they were. He forswore that he would stay away from Ellen’s college fund. Except, how long could he do that if Mill Creek looked to shrink and fade away? He worried his lip nearly raw, looping thoughts over and over again. The fight was still a month and a half off, and he could use that money now. Could they hold out that long?
Rather than waste gas in the truck, he jogged into Mill Creek like every day now. He’d make the rounds up and down the street, hoping to catch on for a day’s work. Except a host of laid-off miners stalked the streets, too. Sometimes they annoyed him since they collected unemployment while he and Ellen lived hand to mouth. Then, he’d feel guilty, knowing that most of them had a bunch of kids to feed and a check from the gov didn’t go all that far. He ran his hand through his hair again wondering what would happen.
He looked up to see Waban opposite him, standing with his hands in his pockets.
“Looking for work?”
“Trying to,” said Arliss.
“Yeah, I’m hard up, too. The store’s a ghost town these days.”
“Sorry to hear that, Waban.” Arliss said it somewhat begrudgingly. As bad as it was for everyone in town, Waban had to have it at least a little bit better than the working man.
“I got some more bad news,” Waban said. “The fight in Huntington?” Arliss felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as Waban went on. “Well, the prelim between the pros is cancelled. Seems Huntington’s favorite son busted his hand while training.”
“Oh,” said Arliss.
“So, they’re only paying us five and three. Plus, no gate.”
“Shit,” said Arliss, “that sucks.”
“Yeah,” said Waban. He waited, shifting from one foot to the other. He looked a bit thinner to Arliss, and nervous.
“Well, I know five grand isn’t much right now. I’m not even sure it’s worth fighting for at all.”
“I’ll fight,” said Arliss, “no matter how much money.”
“Sure,” said Waban, “me, too. But, I had a thought about how we could sweeten the pot, maybe get a share of the gate back.”
“Oh? What you have in mind?”
“Ellen,” he said. “Ellen could fight on the undercard.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ellen’s amazing,” said Waban, “Everyone talks about Blossom Gold around here. Others want to see her, too. Remember that newspaper fellow come around here from Charleston for a story on Ellen? She’s a phenom. Folks in Huntington would come out to see her fight, especially after seeing her record, eight wins, no losses, no draws!”
“You’re crazy, Waban.”
“No, no, I talked to the promoter. He said he’d pay five hundred for her to fight. He’d line up a local boy her age for the match. You make five hundred dollars right off and he’ll give back one percent of the gate. It’s a good deal, Arliss, five hundred–“
Arliss cut him off, “—Win or lose, I get it. What’s wrong with you, Waban? I’m not putting my baby girl in a ring with someone I don’t even know. Those people come out to see Ellen fight like a freak show. They have no idea of how hard she works, of how good she is. If she gets in the ring with some kid outweighs her by a hundred pounds, he’d kill her. The Huntington folks would love that. Forget about it, Waban, forget you ever brought it up.”
“But, five hundred bucks, Arliss.”
“Forget it! Talk to your promoter friend, tell him we want more or we ain’t fighting.”
He turned and stalked off back toward home. Son bitch, he thought.
Three days later, he arrived back at the house again without anything to show, and found an oversize carton set on the porch. Puzzled, he glanced at the label: Utah State Penitentiary. Redding. Arliss slowly shook his head back and forth, his lips a flat, tight line, glad that Ellen hadn’t seen it first. After opening the carton, he stared down at its contents.
Inside, he found an eight-millimeter camera, a tripod, film, various size lenses, and a complete set of other accessories, all fitted into a leather carrying case. Taped to the case was a note. Arliss opened it, and immediately recognized Robert Redding’s handwriting.
Dear Darling Ellen,
Here’s a gift from me to you to help with your boxing. While you’re in the ring, your daddy can film you so’s you can see yourself and work on your skills. Think of me when you use it. Thank you for being such a sweet girlfriend.
Yours always and forever, Robert
Such a sweet girlfriend. How much did this get-up cost? Arliss let out a ragged laugh. Maybe he should take a page out of Waban’s book, shoot a movie of Ellen in the ring and sell it to some of her fans. He could send copies to promoters who might book her after seeing how good she was. He’d check out all her opponents, of course, to make sure they were okay for her to box. It’d be different than the Junior Gold Gloves for sure. She’d be a professional like her old man. Or a sideshow.
He sighed and shook his head hard. He closed up the box, put it on the floor of his pickup, and drove to a pawn shop he knew about in Charleston. They gave him fifteen hundred for the camera and everything. They’d hold the camera set for 60 days before putting it up for sale, plenty of time for him to retrieve it after the fight.
Daddy told me he didn’t want me at the fight. He said those parts of Huntington could be a roughhouse and he didn’t have anyone to stay with me while he was in the ring. Of course, I knew the real reason. He didn’t want me there in case he lost. I told him he would win, no problem, he’d been training for this chance since before I was born. But a ghost from the past haunted Daddy, losing twice before to Waban Wilson, the Dancing Bear. I wasn’t worried, though. I’d seen Uncle Wilson working out on the mountain and he did look a bit trimmer. Still, no way could he catch up with Daddy, who weighed the same he did back then.
Daddy asked Mrs. Burkhardt if I could stay with her while he was in Huntington. She said yes right away. But when I asked her if we could listen to the fight on the radio—a local station decided to broadcast it just like in the old days—she said no, she couldn’t listen. The idea of picturing brutal blows described even only in words almost made her sick. Mrs. B must have seen my disappointment and knowing it was Daddy fighting, she said I could listen while she went off to another room. So, that night, I settled in with potato chips and pop to listen to my daddy kick Uncle Wilson’s butt.
The big lamps above warmed the ring, countering the air conditioning running full bore to dispel the extreme heat from outside the arena. Arliss looked up at the powerful lights, then around the big amphitheater full of people jawing and yelling to neighbors across the way, joyous about the Rematch of the Century, in West Virginia at least. These days, big crowds like this mostly listened to rock bands or milled around at a car show. He felt a glow at the size of the turnout and the crowd’s enthusiasm, how eager they all were to see them back in the ring.
He clambered up between the ropes and stood close in a corner on one side He bounced up and down on the canvas, hitting his gloves together and twisting his head from side to side to loosen up his neck. They shared the same dressing room, so Arliss had left early to avoid one of Waban’s endless yarns. Let him enter last, thought Arliss, Waban owned the bragging rights. By the end of the night, he’d be leaving the ring first.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Huntington’s Veterans Memorial Fieldhouse for a very special engagement, a rematch of the two legendary opponents in West Virginia’s bouts of the century.” Arliss recognized the announcer’s big round face and fake brown hair from when he hosted the big fights up North on TV. Apparently, the promoter had just enough to pay this guy to snazz up everything, then ran out of money. In his nasal New York accent, the announcer shouted out, “In this corner, weighing in at two hundred, thirty-five pounds, with a professional record of 32-7-1, the challenger Arliss “the Body-Breaker” Truitt!”
The throng roared and Arliss remembered the rumbling noise greeting them in both the other fights fought two decades ago in this arena.
“In the opposite corner, weighing in at two hundred, twenty-five pounds, with a professional record of 25-3-0, including victories in these warriors’ two previous encounters, Waban “the Dancing Bear” Wilson!”
Arliss didn’t hear the rest. He met Waban and the referee in the middle of the ring. He didn’t hear the referee’s instructions, drowned out by the noise in his own head, the dream, the fantasy of a chance to make the past over. The ref directed them to their corners and the bell rang.
“Wilson has come out fast, tattooing Truitt’s face with four quick punches, slipping away from a wide hook by Truitt. Wilson slides to the right and pastes Truitt with a left hook, moving out of Truitt’s range again. The Dancing Bear is dancing again, twenty years later while Truitt looks befuddled, swinging wildly at the space already left by the slippery Wilson.”
“Come on, Daddy,” Ellen muttered.
“Truitt’s face is red from the constant jabs by Wilson, every now and then sticking in a straight right to keep Truitt off balance. Wilson’s a virtuoso out there, orchestrating a boxing exhibition harking back two decades.”
“Cut the ring off,” Ellen shouted, “move him into the corner!”
“Five rounds in and both boxers look fatigued. Wilson’s dancing has slowed somewhat, but his steady blows have tired Truitt as well. We’re at the halfway mark, folks, and so far it looks like a shutout.”
“You got to move in on him. Get in, grab him, and hit him on the breaks! That’s your only chance!”
Arliss spit out the water and gave his corner man a glance. He’d never seen the guy before tonight. Waban’s promoter had supplied him and the cut man out of the goodness of his heart.
You’re blowin’ it, son, you’re blown’ it. He could hear the little Italian manager’s voice screaming at him nose to nose, trying to get him to fight harder, to get him to try to win. Twenty years later and he still was getting his ass handed to him by his best friend.
The bell rang. “Come on, Daddy,” Ellen said to herself.
“Truitt’s come out of his corner, hands high up in front of his head. Wilson’s circling, looking for his opening. He throws a left hook, Truitt blocks with his forearm. Wilson steps the other way and throws a right hook. Truitt blocks it, and Wilson shifts low and bounces a left-right into Truitt’s midsection. Truitt walks through the body punches, moving forward to back Wilson up. Wilson steps back and to his right, but Truitt cuts him off and into the ropes. Truitt throws two heavy hooks with both hands into Wilson’s arms, covers up and presses Wilson against the ropes with his elbows. Truitt steps back and hits Wilson again on the arms. Wilson counters with an uppercut followed by a right hook. Truitt walks through the blows and throws punches to the body again. Wilson covers up! The crowd is roaring on the rampage, finally seeing the fight they expected to see!”
Ellen sighed. That’s it, Daddy, she thought, pound Uncle Waban.
“Round seven and Wilson is running. He is exhausted, in deep trouble as Truitt tracks him down slowly, patiently. Truitt feints, Wilson stumbles, and the Body-Breaker has him in the corner! Truitt is unloading all he has, right, left, right, left, hitting Wilson hard. Wilson cannot get out of the corner, his arms are dropping, Truitt’s gone to the head! The Dancing Bear dances no more, he’s down on one knee!”
“Good job, Daddy.”
Arliss pivoted and headed for his corner without looking back. He heard the ref call the TKO and the deafening thunder of the crowd. Facing his corner, Arliss grabbed both ropes and leaned over, his head low. He turned it slightly to peek over at Waban. He looked to be in bad shape, beat up for sure, but mostly exhausted, collapsed on his stool.
The announcer motioned him to come over, but he simply stood up and raised his arm, pirouetting in his corner waving to the bellowing fans. Once around, he split the ropes, climbed through and headed down toward the dressing room.
“Well, did he win?” asked Mrs. B.
“He did,” Ellen replied. “Technical knockout in the seventh. I knew he’d win. Uncle Wilson’s faster, that don’t go away.”
“Doesn’t go away,” corrected Mrs. B.
“Doesn’t,” Ellen repeated. “But, Daddy trains hard. I knew he’d wear him down if he just kept at it.”
Waban’s corner team helped him into the room where he sat down hard on the bench in front of the lockers. “Well, you beat me, Arliss, you got me back.”
Arliss remained silent, and Waban went on, “I knew you would. I did a little running the past few weeks to get ready. I’m still pretty quick, too, still pluck a fly straight out of the air. But I knew I couldn’t stand up to you for ten rounds. Hell, I couldn’t of stood up to you twenty years ago if you’d kept coming. I just wanted to give them a show tonight.”
He seemed a bit livelier, noted Arliss.
“And, we gave ‘em a hell of a show, too. The promoter wants us to do it again. Says he’ll double the prize, gate and all.”
Arliss stared at him disdainfully.
“It’s just an idea.” Waban sat quietly for a moment, then shrugged, “Anyway, the promoter made a ton of money and he’s going to give us the full amount including the gate. ‘Course, I’m not surprised, we did have a contract, and he seen how you can punch.”
A wrinkle appeared on Arliss’s brow. “I thought you said he’d lowered the prize money.”
“Aw, he couldn’t do that. We had a contract.”
“Then, you told me he was going to lower the payout just to try and get Ellen in the ring.”
Waban looked sheepish. “It would‘ve been a big thing for her is all.”
Arliss shook his head at Waban, “You never quit, do you, Waban.”
Waban didn’t reply, sitting on the bench while Arliss undressed to go into the shower.
Waban hesitated before saying, “You know, Arliss, you might think about Ellen retiring soon. You know, make sure she stays pretty.”
Surprised, Arliss stared at Waban. “I don’t think that’s up to me. She loves boxing.”
Waban nodded vigorously, “Sure she does. She loves her daddy, too. If you ask her to, she might be willing to quit.”
“I don’t think I can do that, Waban. I think it’s up to her, understand?”
Waban grimaced for an instant. “Of course, Arliss, but what is she now, ten?”
“Eleven. And what she weigh, eighty pounds?”
“Eleven years old and sixty-five pounds. So the boys she whups, she can do that for a while. But, they’re gonna start getting bigger than Ellen, you know, and some of them might want to exact some revenge, you hear me? It might be best for Blossom Gold to step down, still champion.”
“I just don’t know, Waban, she talks about going pro all the time someday, about winning a belt someday.”
Waban scrunched up his face again. “I don’t see how that can happen, Arliss.”
“I know,” Arliss said, “but that’s what she wants.”
Jimmy Rose, twenty-five years old out of Provo, read the ad in the paper for marksmen. Angry as hell, he applied, never thinking he’d be picked. Now, here he was, watching the warden and guards and a minister walk Robert Redding into the room. They’d turned an old storage facility at the prison into a makeshift execution chamber. A stout, wooden chair with leather straps rested before a wall of sandbags to stop errant shots. Jimmy and the other four shooters stood behind a thick, drywall screen with five twelve-by-six inch windows cut out. Gun rests had been positioned behind the apertures, with loaded rifles laying at the ready. Four had live rounds loaded in them, one a blank. Tradition had it that each would take comfort when shooting by persuading himself that his rifle fired the blank. In that way, he could relieve himself of any guilt he might feel for taking a man’s life. Jimmy knew better, he knew the odds.
They strapped Redding into the chair. While the warden read the writ condemning Robert Redding to death by firing squad, the guards affixed a small white cloth to Redding’s shirt targeting his heart. The minister prayed out loud for Redding’s soul and comfort in the life to come. Listening, Jimmy wondered why he had put his name in for this at all. At the time, he’d been furious at Redding for murdering those clerks in cold blood, leaving their wives and children alone on their own. But, staring at this lean man, bent over and grizzled before his time, Jimmy wasn’t sure anymore that it was a good idea to take anyone’s life. Why not just stick them deep in the pokey and through the key away?
The warden asked Redding if he had any last words, and Jimmy heard him softly say, “Let’s get it over.” The warden nodded, a guard put a black hood over Redding’s head, and Jimmy and the others shot him dead. Leaving the prison, Jimmy tried to get his mind right about what he’d done. He thought he might, maybe later. But he also knew he’d be living with this in some way for the rest of his life.
When I run down by the creek I like to watch the blue herons rise up as I go by. They fly lazy in the air like they’re sore at me for bothering them and making them have to rise up. Now and then I come up on a deer too fast for it to run. It’ll stand there frozen, staring at me until I’ve passed by, then run. If it’s too nervous to wait, it jumps right off and away, its big, fluffy white tail high in the air warning the others. I come across all sorts of critters when I run, box turtles, smooth green snakes, rabbits of course, groundhogs, a surprised fox once in a while, and all kinds of other birds—flickers, cardinals, ducks, geese, and lots of woodpeckers, even the big one called Pileated.
Then, sometimes I dream I’m in a big city, smack in the middle, staring up at the big buildings, my mouth open. I’ve seen them on TV, big, tall, and grey, looming so far above it makes me wonder why they all don’t just lean over and crash into each other. That’s when I decide staying at home is best, at least for now.