The numbers rise. The blood rolls across the floor. Two. Three. Four.
A fervour is building. The braying of two hundred encircles the room. I feel it closing in and my mind begins questioning what I have done. I remember this feeling from last time. I tell myself my job is almost over, a performance reaching its end. But still I must listen to the din. I strive to block it out, just treat it as white noise. No words, no emotions, only a rumbling drone. It becomes more bearable that way. I try focussing on the numbers, but they’re becoming faint, consumed by the clamour that’s forcing its way upon me. So I just focus on the flow of blood.
Ten. A curtain falls. A cacophony erupts.
My time has come.
The referee crouches beside me, pushing me on my shoulder, turning me on my side to see the cuts. He stares at my bloody eye, then across into the open one. He knows what’s happened here, I see the scowl upon his face. Perhaps he’s a traditionalist? He seems upset. What does he care? He still gets paid.
The man drops me back to the canvas and walks away, his feet leaving smears of bloody steps.
Down in the sixth. The plan has been followed. The payment will be made. Promises kept.
Through one eye I watch my blood ooze across the browning canvas. Fresh blood mixing with old. The blood a result of a razor. A slice to my skin between rounds. Promises kept.
Beyond the ooze the victor is paraded. His arms are thrust into the air, the referee to one side, his coach to the other. He ignores the body and the blood in the middle of the floor. He’s happy with the result. The boy’s only young, just the beginning of another career. Maybe he’ll get somewhere. Achieve something. Make a name for himself. I’ve helped create champions before. That southpaw over in Madison I went down in the second for, his career’s going wonders. Gonna make the nationals so they say. Good luck to him.
An elderly hand rests on my shoulder, this one belongs to my trainer. He presses a damp towel to my cut eye and pulls me to my feet. No words need to be said, no need to inspect the wound. He knows I’m fine. Promises kept.
The arena has become a pantomime. Cheering greets the victor. Only hatred boils for me. Snarling faces fix themselves in my direction. Perhaps they realise something’s up? What are they going to do? This isn’t the first fight to be thrown. I gave them five good rounds, a short thrill in their drab little lives. That’s better than many others I know. I gave them value for money.
We reach my corner. My trainer wraps a gown round me. I go to sit on the wooden stool as I always do but the old man keeps me standing. He’s spotted the temper of the crowd. A bottle is smashed, a chair upturned. He nods at me and lifts the ropes that surround the ring. No point waiting around. Make a quick exit before the jeering turns more sinister. A clean break while we can.
Angry faces and scornful eyes part unwillingly as we move through the auditorium. A beer bottle lands across my shoulders, the contents spill and seep through the gown causing me to shiver. More faces glare at me. I can’t look at the expressions no more. I put my head down and shove my coach to hurry. He takes the hint and pushes the way through.
Another bottle is shattered.
We reach the exit. The old boy pushes me along the corridor to my dressing room, the noise of the crowd dimming as we go. We finally enter the dingy room. The door is closed, the crowd shut away. I lift my head again.
“You’re gonna have to be more careful in future. Think a few people are turning wise.”
I say nothing, just stand there holding the towel to my eye.
My trainer leads me to the bench in the middle of the room. I drop upon it and he rips off my gloves. My sweating hand reaches for the half drunk bottle of bourbon I left here. I pull off the lid, the top still moist from the swigs I took before the bout. I knock the bottle back and swig some more.
“Don’t reckon you can be fighting here for a while, there maybe a few folks on your back. We best not kick around too long.”
The old man tugs a pack of smokes from his jeans pocket. He pulls out a cigarette and lighter and ignites it, before handing the butt to me. Tobacco mixes with liquor. It is glorious.
“No, no, no. May have to think of another way for money. I’m not so happy with our situation here, it’s turning too risky. And I never can stand using that blade.”
He crumples up the cigarette box and launches it towards the bin in the corner of the room. The packet hits the side and drops to the floor.
“I need more smokes. A night like this is no good for an old fella like me. No good at all.” He heads towards the door still mumbling and opens it, the crowd return to the room. He looks back at me. “Seriously Frankie, I still agree with what the others say. Always have done. I still don’t know why you chose this.”
My trainer leaves the room. The door closes and a silence returns. I drag hard on the cigarette. I don’t see why the old man complains, he gets a cut of this. He’s doing better now as a result. There was no hope with the old way, in our former way of doing things. In his old heart, he knows that too. Promises kept.
And what harm is it doing anyway? A favoured few make some extra bucks from others who don’t deserve them. I’ve been in this game too long, I’ve seen what it can do to a man. Best make your money the best way you can then get out. Use the smarts that suit you most. For a person like me it’s the throw. Sure there may have been a time when people spoke of me fondly. Spoke of a future for me. Spoke of my promise. But they didn’t realise something I did. That wasn’t a future. I was always just a round away from a proper beating. Best jump out while I could. Turn to the moneymen. Take some chosen blows, then go. Best way for everyone.
I swig upon the bottle again and place it beside me. On the end of the bench lies a crisp brown package. Must have been left here during the fight. Promises kept.
I drop the damp towel, reach for the envelope and rip off the top. Crumpled notes are stuffed within. I pull out a wedge and begin counting. Blood spills over the money as I rifle through the stack. My eye. Must still be bleeding. I wipe the notes on my shorts, smearing blood across the faces of dead ex-Presidents. Another man would probably find something poetic in all this but nothing’s quite that beautiful in my world. All I care about is figures.
I finish counting and return the money to the envelope. The figures add up. Promises kept.
Down the hall I hear celebrations. My opponent no doubt. The champion. With his team. They’ll be basking in his triumph. I know what’ll be said. I’ve been there, seen that. The boxer will raise a glass and dedicate the victory to those who stand around him. He’ll say there’s no way he could have done it without them. He’ll give them thanks. The team will smile, pat each other on the back and declare the fighter – their man – the best they’ve ever worked with. They’ll hoist him on their shoulders and tell him the big time beckons. It’s inevitable for a man of his skill they’ll say, there won’t be no one he can’t knock down. There’ll be more cheap toasts and more cheap liquor will flow. And then it’s into town for yet more. The group will grow. Various broads, various fellas, various hangers-on, all leaching on to the champion and his winnings. Finally they’ll head to a cheap motel, a band of peddlers, pushers and prostitutes all keeping tow. And the fighter will wake the next morning, bruised, bloodied, and significantly poorer.
Oh yes I’ve been there, seen all that. But little do they know. Little must they realise their role in this farce. I sit by myself in a dingy room supping hard liquor and dragging on tobacco. I’ll sleep alone tonight, probably passed out across a mouldy couch in the condemned apartment I call home. And yet I’ve tripled my victor’s earnings. No more needs to be said. The victory becomes shallow. I know who the real winner is.
I hear a knock at the door. I’m not used to visitors. It can’t be my trainer, he walks in as he pleases.
I say nothing. I’m basking in my own glory. I prefer doing that alone.
The knock again.
“What? Get outta here!” I reply. I hurl a glove at the door to emphasise the point. I don’t care for visits at this time.
Despite this, the door swings slowly open. A man stands in silhouette in the hall. He steps forward, the light catching elderly features. A man enters a room. Nothing strange about that.
But this is a visitor I was not expecting. This is a visitor I don’t care to see. This is a visitor who ruins my victory.
The visitor looks at me through sullen eyes. He walks towards the bench.
The envelope falls from my hand, the money spilling across the floor. My eye begins to throb and I feel a pain within my chest.
I lower my head.
A Promise failed.