Fighting Story Part3c

Once inside Rusty's office, once the door's closed, Chuck's composure breaks completely. Curling up in the corner of the ring was bad enough--no need to let anyone but Rusty hear the reason why. No one else really deserves the shuddering breath, the leaking tears. But it's one more step towards redemption, one last shot at safety, at regaining his sense of self. Rusty just waits for the story. It's not long before Chuck can pull himself together.

"You know about my brother. I told you that the first time you busted me for street fights. That sorta set the bar for me. I didn't beat his ass more than that one time, but I looked for that kinda fight. Uneven, odds against me if the guy's sober, but he's not sober. One a those 'glory days' guys, thinks he's still top jock. I'd scout out the bars, wait for 'em to stumble out. Sometimes...most times too drunk to stand, let alone fight. I'd get in the guy's way somehow, get him to take the first swing, just in case anybody was watching. But I took 'em one at a time--the lonely guys, maybe lost his job or yelled at his wife or kicked his dog or whatever. Always a guy on his own. Sometimes they wanted somebody to kick their asses, but I didn't care about that. He takes a swing--I slug his gut till he pukes, then punch his face until he doesn't get up. Never takes long, not more than a few punches, but it's got this rush for me. I do this about once a month, off and on, until I look old enough to go in."

"Inside is better. I can scout out a target easy. Then I follow. Same result, but it's more of a hunt, more of a game. One or two guys musta remembered me, 'cause I'd go back to a bar and pick out a guy and follow him out like always, only he'd play drunk until we got outside, and he got me to throw a punch. Y'know, he'd fake a drunk punch, wait for me to land a punch and then drop the fake bit. Got my ass kicked like that once or twice, but not often. If it happened, I'd book it outta there soon as I could...if I could. Take my licks if I couldn't get away. Then I'd move on to another bar. This town's got a lotta bars. I'm more careful the next time, but I don't stop. One night I go into this bar called Alibi."

This catches Rusty's attention. "The gay bar?"

"I didn't know. I'm in there a couple minutes until I figure it out, mostly 'cause there's this guy checking me out. Not that big, smaller than me by maybe twenty pounds or so. Not a threat, but I don't want the attention. So I leave...and he follows me out into the parking lot. He's calling out stuff like 'hey you' and 'slow down' so I figure I should stop and turn him down clear. I turn around to face him, and I see that he's alone. In my head, there's this click--he's fair game."

"He's got a face like a girl, all round and soft. It's summer, I guess, 'cause he's got this tank top on, and I can see he's got no muscle tone. I figure I can take him easy. So I don't say nothin'. He don't either, just slows his pace down to a walk. He gets real close, like he's gonna kiss me, and I just hit him, two shots in the gut. He's down on his knees. But he's still reaching for me, like he's gonna go down on me. So I grab his hair, pull his head back, punch his face a coupla times. He's loopy, but he ain't out, so I hit him with a right cross, hard. Down and out. I look, but nobody's around to see. I walk away clean. Same kinda rush, just a different way to get there. Guys weaker than me. I don't hafta go to no gay bar for that, either. Hell, I wouldn't'a took on Mix outside if I thought it was even."

Rusty's getting impatient. There are things he should be doing. "This is all history. What happened in that ring tonight? You got that coming anytime soon?"

Up to this point, telling the story calms Chuck down. Now, though, he starts with the nervous tics again. Rusty waits--something's got to be pretty bad to shake Chuck like this, and Rusty's not sure he wants to know. But he knows Chuck has to tell. So he waits.

"About three months ago, I go into this place called Winks."

"Southside?" Rusty knows a lot about the bars. Another time, Chuck might wonder why, but he doesn't think to ask right now.

"Yeah. Kinda a upscale dive. Got some class, I guess. They sell cigars, good ones, the ones that smell...well, the ones that don't smell like shit. But it's a gay bar. I know going in this time. Even bought this slick shirt--seduction blue, the sales guy said that's the name of the color--and it's all shiny and...slick to the touch, y'know. Got my hair styled like I seen them do. Just bait on the hook. I go in, buy a cigar, settle in and scope the place out. I spot him right away--thin, a little taller than me, stick of a neck, and he's got this cigarette holder like some actress in some old movie. He makes his way across the room, flicks his ashes into my ashtray, then walks out the front. I follow, thinking, 'This was easy.' I didn't see them behind me. I didn't know they were there. There's this alley next to Winks. And they go there know..."

Rusty nods.

"So this guy leads me back there. He gets down on his knees like he's gonna blow me. Reaches out for me. So I get close, run my hands through his hair so I can grab hold and keep him there while I punch him. I wasn't gonna let him do anything."

Rusty lets him believe that. "'Course not."

"But just when I'm grabbing his hair and pulling my fist back, he calls out, 'Is this him? Is this the guy?' And behind me this voice answers, 'That's him.' I don't let go, but I turn to see who it is. It's the guy from Alibi...and he's not alone. Guys behind him--I can't see how many. I don't know how they snuck up on me like that, not that many. While I'm figuring out what to do, the guy on his knees punches me in the balls. Hurt some, but he's not that strong. I stay on my feet. The guy from Alibi nods to some of the other guys, and he comes at me. I think there's gonna be three at first, so maybe there's a chance. Maybe the others are just gonna watch or something."

"Way I see it, the whole set-up's the first punch, and I don't plan on going easy. A quick one-two puts the Alibi guy on the ground, but the other two grab my arms and push me back against the brick wall of the bar. They lean in against my elbows so I can't get away, can't throw a punch, but they've both got hands free to punch me. They poke me in the gut a coupla times, but they don't know how to punch--it's all arm punches, no real leverage. I grunt like they're getting me good, but they're not. The thin blonde helps the Alibi guy get up, and he gets the other two to just hold me."

"The Alibi guy gets in my face and says, 'My name is Ben. Ben. Remember that. That's who's responsible for kicking your ass, 'cause you kicked his first.'"

"I say, 'Stop talkin and get it over with.'"

"He doesn't go for my gut. Goes right for the nose with three pretty solid rights, hard enough to bounce my head off the bricks, but not hard enough to make me dizzy. The nose is bleeding, probably broken a little, so he goes for the eyes. Lefts and rights, and he gets his body into it. I'm all woozy, my vision's a little blurry--I already know the right's gonna have a shiner, but the left's gonna swell shut--I can feel the pressure in the skin. Then the punches stop, and he grabs my face and forces me to look at him. He says, 'All right, that's enough from me. Your turn, boys.' The two who have me against the wall let go, get their arms behind me, and push me into the group that's been watchin. I can't see so good, but there's all these fists hittin me. I strike out, and I'm pretty sure I knocked some guys back some, but there's always more on all sides. Hard shots to my jaw, my gut, my ribs, my back, my balls, even my legs. I can't break through, and I wouldn't be able to see well enough to drive or even walk anywhere. So I drop to the ground and curl up, like I did out there just now. I figure I'm gonna die."

Chuck pauses, half-heartedly pointing out towards the ring. He's shaking even more now, rocking a little in the chair. After a long silence, he manages to go on.

"Then there's this big voice says, 'Stop. Enough. Enough. Stop.' And they do, they all move back. I look up, and there's this big guy there, probably the bouncer. He says I learned my lesson and he'll call the cops if anybody else hits me. There's an ambulance from Mercy General comin, so they all go back inside. The paramedics don't say much to me, just what they gotta say to know my head's clear. I know it looks bad. I'm shaking real hard...kinda like now...and one of 'em asks why I wasn't wearin no shirt. Those assholes musta ripped it off me. On the way to the hospital, I swear to myself that's the last time. The last. No more. Not again."

Rusty's been listening to all of this pretty calmly, not moving much, trying not to stare at the shaken fighter, wondering if the middleweight he used to know is still in there somewhere...and knowing that that's why Chuck's here now. The story told, Rusty gets up, goes over to Chuck, and checks the guy's eyes. "Healing pretty well. Nose doesn't look so bad. We'll have the Doc give it a look, but no more sparring without his ok. While we wait for that, you're gonna get your weight back up. Talk diet with the Doc, but you used to have it down, so you'll get it again. You'll get it all again." The gym owner opens the office door and almost manages to leave the room before Chuck calls out.

"So I'm back?"

"You're back." And Rusty goes back out into the gym.

Chuck's still shaking a bit from the memories, so he doesn't notice Ox coming in. The big Russian waits for Chuck to look up, then hands him a shirt. The blue shirt Chuck had worn to Winks that night, the shiny material torn to shreds, small amounts of blood dried into the weave.

"That was you?"

"Was me. I am bouncer there two years. Is not for you to tell anyone. Here. Take." He holds out the shirt again.

"I thought you collected these."

"Was not my fight. Is not my shirt. You earn this one."

Chuck accepts the shirt, but he really wants to destroy it. The damned thing feels dead in his grasp. Ox watches for a moment. Maybe this one learns, he thinks.

"Thanks, Ox."

"You are welcome. You are back."

Not quite, Chuck thinks. But soon.


He decides to keep the shirt.

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