Your Punching Privileges Have Been Revoked
Yeah, the vaseline helps a little, though that’s mainly so the skin don’t break when the guy gets in a lucky scrape, with his red leather glove rubbing against my almost equally leathered face. It seems to be happening more and more lately. The sweat always manages to get in the eyes, though. Deep in the corners, ya know? And then I’m up until God knows when that night because my eyes are burning like a son-of-a-bitch and I’m squirting all kinds of shit in there that my doc gave me, only after a lecture on how maybe I ought to think about taking it easy and also after his favorite scary stories about what getting hit in the head does to the brain.
Thanks doc, just give me the eye juice and I’ll take it from here.
I shuffle back towards the edge of the ring where I’d climbed in, having rubbed off the liniment from the inside of my glove onto the top rope. I don’t have to put on much of an act as I fall back. We’re only in the third round and the battle had long since become mental, what, with my chest feeling like an elephant’s taking a nap on it and my shoulders burning like a dead hero’s funeral pyre.
I got to give this kid a run, though. Have to keep the audience of twenty entertained and off their phones. They gave me another young one tonight. I can tell he doesn’t want to be here, thinking he’s beyond fighting a geezer in shorts hiked up to his nipples, but here he is because his manager said everyone has to do it. Anyone in the Northeastern circuit has to come up against Rocko because the guy has done so much for the sport, ya know?
They always come in thinking they only have to dance with me a round or two and then take me down. And sometimes I let them.
But sometimes I don’t.
The outside of my gloves finds the slickness on the ropes as I bounce off them and then fall back to rest with my hands up in front of my face, blocking the incoming hits.
This guy’s a Puerto Rican, probably lives not too far from my old neighborhood. I know he’s not even really trying and still his footwork is impressive. It calls to mind the little dance I’d seen Vasquez do back in ‘07 before my uppercut found the glass bonework that composed his chin and delivered me my third title belt.
After allowing a few jabs to the stomach, I feign like I’m winding up for a right hook. I almost see the split-second smirk on the kid’s face. He takes the bait and comes in with a left. I hold what little breath I have, duck, and let the boy find nothing but air. Now he’s off balance. I put the rest of my speed and strength into a couple of quick jabs to his wide-eyed face.
The kid knows something is wrong right away, but he looks confused. He blinks a couple of times trying to squeeze away the sting. I take my cue and get to work on his stomach, followed by an uppercut which sends his mouthpiece flying across the ring with a pound of spit. He leans to the right, seeking some stability with his gloves on an imaginary rope. He only finds more air. His eyes look like a pair of eggshells sitting side-by-side in the nest as his head lands on the mat, bouncing once or twice, emitting a sonic boom across the tiny gym.
Bobby, the ref, starts counting down and I stand patiently. I could head back to the corner at this point. The match is as good as done. My signature punch is my signature punch for a reason.
I look out toward the people sitting on the bleachers. Some young, but mostly older folks. The men are wearing dark coats and a few have women with them that are looking away with curled faces like they’d just been force-fed lemons. Except there’s this one gal who is on her feet, a big grin on her angelic face and whose eyes are smiling down on the Puerto Rican like a pair of spotlights. Her male companion looks like he’s going to be sick.
I don’t look down at the kid as Bobby yanks my wrist in the air and declares me the winner. Two weeks of aspirin and the boy will be alright, though he might be talking funny for a while.
The walk back to the locker room is always a solemn affair for me, only because it takes all I have to present myself to the world like I’m still a champion. Like I’m still that guy from ten years ago.
Like I’m still Rocko Giannetti, three-time world champion.
My arms feel like they’re going to fall out of their sockets. It’s going to take the rest of that liniment tonight, I just know it, and wouldn’t you know, my cutman took off leaving me to figure out a way to somehow apply the damned stuff. I wonder what I pay him for and then I realize I don’t pay him anything outside of free lessons.
There’s a tapping on the floor behind me.
“Looked like you were about to take a nap on the canvas a few times out there, Rocko.”
Leaning on a cane just inside the locker room, with a crooked back and bushy gray eyebrows, is an old man who makes me feel like a newborn babe. Squinty-eyed and wearing a dirty, pea-green beanie pulled down barely over his forehead, his unshaven face matches the growl in his voice.
“You come in just to hassle me?” I ask.
“Just sayin’, that wasn’t the Rocko that I seen fifteen years ago at Booker’s Palace.” I’m pulling on my socks at this point, wondering how I could get the old bat out of my hair.
“I can still hold my own,” I say, putting on that glare I’d used so well in front of the press back in the day. It wasn’t really a challenge, but I hoped it would get him to leave. Instead, he shuffles a little bit closer.
“You sure got some luck,” he says. “Seems the boy lost his way towards the end there. Like he couldn’t see no more.”
I began lacing my shoes, still sweating a little after my shower. I won’t be fully cooled down until an hour or so later.
“You got somethin’ to say, old man, say it. Otherwise, I got things to do.” I remember that I got to stop by the payday shop and put in for another loan. There’s no way I’ll be getting my check for tonight’s bout for another week, at the earliest.
“What if I told you I could get you back to your old fighting form?” he asks. “Get you moving and swinging like Marciano or Ali again? Maybe even like 2007 Rocko?”
I have to laugh. Does this chump think I’m going to buy his snake oil? Does he not realize how many chumps just like him have been in here over the past month?
I give the standard reply. “I’d say you were the devil and then I’d have to apologize, ‘cause I ain’t got no soul to sell.”
The old man grinned. His brown gums were highlighted by his ridiculously phony white dentures. “No, I ain’t the devil and I don’t want your worthless soul. But I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart. Of course there’s a price. I want my cut.”
I’m on my feet now and he’s in my way. I could brush by him, but I still have that ingrained sense of respect for the old folks. I was raised by my grandparents and though I wouldn’t say I was the best-behaved kid, I look back on them with nothing but respect for what they’d managed to instill in this thick skull of mine.
“Alright, Mr. Spit it out. I ain’t got all night.”
That eerie smile crept back across his face and he reaches into his ratty old pants pocket, pulling out a yellowed sock.
“You wear this, kid, and you’ll be moving like a goddamn bullet train and won’t nobody be able to stop you.”
I almost double over at hearing the word kid, but my back is killing me, plus, I guess it’s all perspective. He dangles the sock in the air in front of me.
“Alright, I’ll play your game, old man. Let’s say I put on that sock and get myself some nasty new foot disease. Why you bringing this to me? Why not sell your laundry to one of these new kids?”
“Bah,” the old man says, waving away the suggestion like it’s a buzzing gnat. “New kids bring in the new kids, but vets who come back–they bring in both the new kids and the old guys. Imagine the headlines: Rocko Giannetti, Comeback of the Century. Everyone loves a comeback. Don’t you want to be able to have a meal again without worrying about which of your pals you’re going to bum it off? And, I might add, that’s a dwindling number of pals. I’m sure you see the hesitance and looks in their eyes. They’re awful tired of serving as your personal charity.”
Now the clown is making it personal. “You seem to know a lot about me. Who are you?”
I can almost hear the snaps and cracks as the old man straightens up that crooked back of his and bears his eyes into mine.
“I’m an old fan, Rocko. Been following you a long time, but you probably don’t remember me.”
I try. I really do, but I can’t match that face against anything in the memory banks. Here we stand, alone in a scum- and mold-stained locker room with dirty towels and rags strewn across a cheap folding table and the only bench in the place.
“Listen,” I say, “I got another match next week. I’m not looking forward to it. Every inch of my body aches right down to my balls and they ain’t ached for years. If I wear your sock, will you go away?”
He tosses the sock and it lands on my right shoulder.
“You wear it and your whole life will change, I promise you that.”
I feel it before I even step in the ring. This raging inferno passing through every ounce of muscle and sinew in my body, contained only by a promise to be unleashed once I’m dancing on the mat.
As soon as the bell rings, I’m like a wild tiger that’s broken free from its cage at the Bronx Zoo and now I’m free to pounce on the first good-looking piece of flesh I come across. This time, it’s another young guy and he never sees me coming. He’s ranked twelve and one and came into the ring as cocky as any son-of-a-bitch I ever knew. But as soon as the first two flurries of jabs knock him back a little, the tiny crowd jumps to their feet and the boy realizes he’s not going to be able to call this one in.
Damn, do I feel good. I’d left the liniment on the ropes just in case, but I knew I wasn’t going to need it. I spot the old man sitting inconspicuously in the audience and he gives me a wink. I’ll offer ten percent, but if he demands twenty, I feel fantastic enough to take it. I look back at the kid and want to tell him through my mouthpiece, “Get ready for twelve and two, chief,” but I keep it to myself.
A few bobs and weaves and a strong right cross leaves his left cheek starting to puff up like a pink marshmallow. I feel kind of bad for him, honestly, so I let him drop back toward his corner. The old Rocko would have been five paragraphs into his trash talk by now, but age has put at least a little more grace in me.
Pretty sure we got about thirty seconds left and it only takes me half a second to decide to take this kid down before the bell rings. It would be a mercy, honestly. There’s a look of fear on his face as I approach.
Right about halfway across the canvas, I feel something begin to tingle in my right foot. The foot with the tight, yellow sock. And almost instantly, it’s like someone dropped me into The Pond at Central Park in the middle of January.
The soles of my shoes are glued to the mat.
My thighs come to a full stop.
Then my arms stop moving and my neck freezes up. The only thing I have any control over this point seems to be my eyes which open wide as I watch the kid dance timidly toward me. I can tell he’s wondering if this is some sort of fast one I’ve baked up.
No, kid. I’m screwed.
I see the first fist coming straight for me and I’m helpless to do a damn thing about it. Then another, and another, until finally, I see nothing but the world beginning to tip over around me.
I seem to be falling asleep and waking up in different places. I was out there on the mat and then I remember my cornerman looking down at me, seeming like he was yelling something, but there was no sound coming out his mouth. And then I’m here now, laying on what I think is the folding table in the locker room–at least I think I’m laying down because I see nothing but fuzzy bright lights running along the ceiling. And I don’t think anyone else is here except me. I think my cornerman said something about calling an ambulance. So I’m left with only my thoughts of what the hell is wrong with me until I hear a tapping sound getting louder on the tile and finally see the bottom of the old man’s wobbly, whiskered chin.
“Hey, Rocko. Looks like you’re a little down in the dumps.”
I want nothing more than to peel off that piece of shit sock and shove it in his mouth for all the good it did me tonight, but I can’t feel anything enough to move.
He continues, “I know what getting punched in the head can do to a man, so I don’t know how your memory’s gotten over the years. Still, maybe you can fire up enough brain cells to remember a boy named Joe Lekowski. Eh? You fought him back in ‘01 before you came up big time. Ring a bell?”
I hear ringing bells, but they don’t have anything to do with a Joe Lekowski. I want to tell the old man that I’ve fought a lot of folks over the years, but my tongue is as limp as a pile of cod on the docks.
He disappears from my line of sight and I hear some shuffling of fabric, only to see his face pop back in. My sense of smell still seems to be with me as the stench of the sock being held over my face would make me gag if I could.
“This belonged to my Joe,“ he says. “He lost his mind, because of you. Wound up near a worthless vegetable until he finally passed last month.”
I’d heard stories about some of the men I’d gone up against, but boxing is a dangerous sport. No guarantees.
“Do you remember what you said to my boy?”
Nope. Don’t recall, old man.
“You said, ‘Your punching privileges have been revoked.’ That’s all my Joe kept repeating, over and over again until he finally stopped speaking altogether.”
He drops the sock on my face and now I can’t see a thing.
“You were always a damn cheater, Rocko, and now you’ve paid the price. I told you I wanted my cut.”
The sour sock has me close to vomiting and fearful of choking to death. I hear the tapping of the cane drifting away and the faint sound of sirens in the distance.