Monday, January 10, 2011

I had an opponent assigned to me. His name was Cory. He was big and fast and that’s how he talked, too. “I’ll carve you up,” he said. “I’ll make you wish you were never born.”

I rumbled a low sound in my throat. I had been told by someone—was it you?—that animal behavior, while sometimes attractive to women, was capable of producing fear even in the most formidable of men. I snapped off the end of the noise in a bark and turned away before I could see if anything close to shock passed across Cory’s face. I was gloomy that afternoon, because you and I were apart. Most days at the office, I permitted myself a few moments of relaxation in which I thought about you or the other things that pleased me (sentimental music, certain kinds of food prepared with spectacle), but the weigh-in was not one of those moments. My mouth has always been small, like my father’s before me, and it was frozen in a frown, set there, pinched. I knew I had to put Cory on the canvas quick. There were many reasons, not all of them in the room.

Cory, like other men I had fought, would not understand that silence was a prudent course. At the weigh-in he kept jabbering. “You going to put your best dress on?” he said. And then: “I have a dinner reservation at a nice place tonight, but I don’t know if they’ll seat me with bloody palms.” I stayed silent, kept my arms at my sides, stood beside the scale. I had said everything I could to Cory. Early in my career I learned that by the time the first bell sounded, I had to feel at least the beginnings of hatred for my opponent. I had once had a fight with a man who had the same name as me, a fact that softened me to him. That was a peculiar experience, like fighting an image in a mirror. At first I mostly just circled, throwing the occasional noncommittal jab. The other man knocked me down in the second round, and it took all I had to come back in the third and win on the card.

That man, the man with my name, was a pleasant sort: he was the kind of person who could look at a fatal car wreck and think, correctly, of the family of the driver. I would look at the same wreck and think of myself, relieved that I was not trapped and broken in the twisted steel and a bit guilty for my relief. Cory would look at it and not think anything at all. He was vain and careless and heavily favored in the fight. The company had posted odds, and you would have to lay down a hundred on him just to win twenty. This was loyalty in the purest form. Just as I reminded people of my father, Cory reminded people of his, a upper-floor manager who had worked at the company for decades and had been seen by some as a probable chairman before he took ill and died at the age of fifty. I had joined the company the year my own father retired, and had pretended at first to be innocent of its history and customs. When there were meetings on the fifteenth floor, I took the stairs from twelve rather than the elevator, though I knew that the elevator might afford me an opportunity to talk to the executives. When there were late nights in the office, I ate alone rather than in the north conference room. My father was furious when he learned how I was conducting myself. “What did I teach you?” he said.

I said nothing. As long as I could remember, he had been cruel and distant and unpleasant to my mother. He put money before everything and kept a young mistress and sat up late reading biographies of war heroes and drinking whiskey from a tumbler. Every time I took the stairs I imagined him in his days in the office, waiting by the elevator so he could ride up with top brass, cooking up things to say that would draw their notice. I would like to say that the thought made me laugh, but it only redoubled the weight of the frown on my face. I worked hard and denied to coworkers that I was my father’s son.

One day Cory’s father called me into his office. “I see something in you,” he said. I shook my head. “I mean it,” he said. “You are an independent thinker, and this company needs them. Your father was not like that.” I began to speak, but he waved me off. “I mean no insult. My son is not that kind of man either. He works in a branch out west, but one day he will be back here in the main office, and he will succeed as your father succeeded, by doing what he knows is expected of him. That is how I conducted myself, until recently. I sacrificed nearly everything for this company. But in the last few years, for reasons I won’t get into, I have started to feel differently. And suddenly, people like you make sense. I want to put you up for a regional post. Think about it.” He buzzed for his secretary to show me out.

The next day, I wrote a quick note to Cory’s father explaining to him that I had no desire to advance through the firm. I wanted only to hold my current job, to earn slight increases in salary, and to fight. He replied at once, on company letterhead. I expected something terse and dismissive. Instead, he wrote at length and with great eloquence. He explained to me how his life had fallen apart, how his marriage was a shell of what it had been, how his son was a person whose judgment he could not trust. Money was nothing, he said, but he didn’t know what could fairly replace it. He was disappointed that I would not take him up on his offer, he said, but he would do his best to accommodate me. And so I was given my first fight, a four-rounder against a disbarred lawyer who was working in the public relations department. I put a glove in each of his eyes and had him by the end of the second round. Cory’s father sat in the front row, just off my corner, and watched the fight with light in his eyes. My father could not be bothered to attend, though I think he used the evening as an excuse to sneak out on my mother. Cory was not there either. I learned later that his mother was visiting relatives and that Cory took advantage of his father’s absence from the house to have an impromptu party at which a girl was drugged and her lip bloodied, after which one of her friends called the police. Cory was arrested, but it was massaged away by the company.

It is customary for a fighter, after his debut, to be photographed with his company sponsor, win or lose. Cory’s father stood next to me, smiling. I still wore the small frown that would become my trademark, though inside I was gladdened: that I had won, that he was there. As we left the arena, Cory’s father told me that I seemed lonely. I did not disagree. “Take the promotion,” he said. “It will give you the power to eliminate that loneliness.” Then he paused. “That may not be true,” he said, sighing. “You know, I had someone recently, a woman, and I don’t have her anymore. So the fact is that loneliness may persist.” The tone in his voice was different from any I had heard up until that time. It was sadder, even, than the note he had written me. I was afraid to look at his face.

I put a hand on his shoulder to steady him. “Life, while too short, is too long without someone who makes you feel right,” I said. It wasn’t something I had read somewhere or heard from someone. It was a moment of genuine philosophy, if also obvious and slightly self-important. He heard what was true in it, put a hand on top of mine, and gripped it. We left the arena separately, but we were together in all regards.

The next day the glow of the victory had faded slightly and we were back to where we were. Cory’s father was a force in the company, and wanted an heir, and felt uncertain of his own son, so he wished to groom me, and I wished only to thwart his plan. Still, he got me a second fight, and a third, and a fourth, and he came to them all, and sat at the edge of the ring and cheered with that same quiet excitement. I had been unranked and then I was ranked ninth, and then I was sixth. In a sense I was moving up through the company. My own father even came to a fight or two, though he showed more interest in the size of the purse than in my performance in the ring. Just as I was cracking the top five, Cory’s father started to cough up blood during a board meeting, and doctors found a tumor in his chest. The company gave him medical leave and kept his office vacant; when I walked by it I quickened my step. I visited him now and again in the hospital, more frequently as the end approached. “I still want the best for you,” he said.

 “I know you do,” I said. “But I think I know what’s best for me.”

 “That’s one of the reasons I feel so protective of you,” he said. “You are so certain of yourself. A young man like that needs protection. I want to give you something.”

 “No,” I said. “You’ve done enough. I don’t want your money.”

 “That’s not what I mean,” he said. He coughed. “You have given me so much, even though you may not know it. I want to repay you in some way.”

 “You have done plenty,” I said.

 “To hear you say that fills me with sadness,” he said. “But a glorious sadness. My own son wants everything from me. And what’s worse is that he’ll get it. He’ll get money in the will. He’ll get my good name, which means he’ll get what he wants at the company. He’s back east now. He’s working up on nineteen. High-tracked already.” He coughed again. “And of course, he already got my looks.” He tried to smile but the pain disallowed. “Time is coming for me,” he said. He died the next day. That afternoon I was delivered an envelope inside which was another sheet of company letterhead with a note scrawled on it. Cory’s father had written it after I had left his room. It was not what I had hoped for: there were no words of wisdom, no spiritual insights declaimed from the edge of oblivion. There was only a single brief sentence—“I am not ashamed to say that I came to love you”—and then a name and phone number. “Call,” it said below in shaky print.

The next day I fought and lost badly. It was murder I had in mind, and I kept punching past my opponent, an accountant from the sixth floor. He started off mild enough, but my presumption enraged him, and he reached down and found a series of uppercuts that stopped me in the second round. I stood in the dressing room afterward and cried. He was walking by and stopped. “It’s just one fight,” he said.

A few days later, when my jaw had healed, I took out Cory’s father’s note, called the number, and asked for the name. A woman came to the phone. There was some confusion at first, and then I explained why I was calling, that I had been given the number by Cory’s father. “Oh,” the woman said coldly. I repeated his name and then, with a hitch in my voice, told her that he had died. She gasped and burst into tears. Through them, she explained to me that the two of them had been in love. “We were together all through the winter,” she said. “He was over the moon. He told me he had never thought to do anything like that but that life, while short, was too long without someone who made him feel right.” It was my turn to gasp. “Then about three months ago,” she said, “he ended things abruptly.” Three months, I told her, was when he first discovered he was sick. “Oh no,” she said. There was a long pause she filled with sobbing. “Can I meet with you?” she said.


 “Not this week. I can’t think straight. Soon?”

 “OK,” I said. She hung up.

The following week Cory got his first fight, against the manager of the company cafeteria. He lost in the second round but went up in rank, from fifteenth to twelfth, as a sign of respect for his father. The company could not have been wholly innocent of the essential dishonesty of this arrangement. He fought his next opponent to a highly suspect draw, and he was named “Promising Newcomer” in the monthly newsletter. There was a small picture but I could not bear to look.

By that time I had met the woman. The woman was you. I fell in love as rapidly as Cory’s father had. At times I wondered if you seemed to me to be a piece of him, or if I seemed the same to you. At times I didn’t wonder about anything at all. I was experiencing happiness—true happiness—for the first time. You came to my fights and sat at the corner where Cory’s father once sat. You hand-lettered signs of support and cheered me on, almost as quietly as he had. One night, preparing for a fight, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. I was wearing my customary small frown, but this time it was an act of theater.

When Cory was assigned to me as an opponent, I didn’t tell you at first. I wasn’t sure how you would react. You had never met him, only heard about him from his father, and though you were not predisposed to feel kindly toward him, there was the matter of blood. When I finally told you, you blanched. “I can’t come to the fight,” you said. “I can’t see him. It could only be too much.”

 “I understand,” I said. I had the same doubts myself. I had never met Cory, and I wondered if I would be able to go as hard as necessary if he looked like his father.

He did, exactly. When he stepped off the elevator—it was the executive elevator, express from the nineteenth floor—it was as if I were seeing an apparition. When I mentioned that I had met his father, he said, “Well, meet the new and improved model.” I thought this was a discredit to his father’s memory, so I didn’t say another word. I didn’t need to, as I have said, because Cory was a constant source of chatter. “I’m coming for you,” Cory said. “Where you are now, that’s where I’ll be. And you know where you’ll be? In a heap at my feet. When you’re down there, could you tell me what size shoe I wear? And shine them up, too.” I wanted the fight to start, if for no other reason than it would mean that he’d have to put in his mouthpiece.

We went from the weigh-in directly to the ring. We were introduced not only by name and by record but by salary, title, and time served with the company. I felt certain this was the wrong thing to do, but there was no one I could tell. Everyone was in the bag for Cory. The referee had his arm around him and was saying nice things about his father, comforting things. A woman in the front row had a sign that said “A Good Employee Punches In” and, beneath it, a drawing of a boxing bell.

Up there in the ring we listened to rules, touched gloves, and then returned to our corners, only to come out roaring. Cory put a few on my ribs and then landed a hard shot to the face; I came away with a mouthful of diamonds. “So, you cared about my father?” he said. “I care about you only enough to make a donation to your charity.” Then he started in on my midsection. “Have we met?” he said. When I put up my gloves to block him, he pushed them to the side. Then he came forward and tried to put a shoulder into my chest. “I’m Cory,” he said. “I’m Cory.” He was still saying it when the first round ended.

The company had a policy that prohibited ring-card girls as such, but two young women came out and put on a play, the theme of which was that conflict was not necessarily inconsistent with team building. They tottered on high heels and tee-heed and then exited by way of my corner. One of them gave me the eye. As a younger fighter I would have responded with enthusiasm. Within twenty minutes we would have been in my office and I would have been telling the girl, truthfully, that she had a beauty that a man could not see without also wanting to possess. That had happened after many of my early fights. I remember one girl in particular. Her hair was like the color of a room when you snap off the light, and when I touched her at the base of her back she shivered with encouragement. She was in charge of the theatricals for my fourth fight, which was with a scientist from the tenth floor. I leveled him with a massive right. “Remember the look in his eyes?” she said, by way of asking me to kiss her. I thought of that girl while I watched the play that followed the first round of my fight with Cory, but I knew that thinking of her was the limit of things. I had you waiting for me.

In the second round Cory came out with the same push and shove as before. “I need for you to be finished,” he said. “Done and done and done.” I looked out over the crowd. Everyone was clapping for Cory, even a guy in the front row dressed like a referee. Cory got me in the neck hard, and something about that woke me up enough that I caught him on the shoulder. He stepped back, surprised, and my left hand caromed off his rib. He groaned. Now I had him. I found my note and played it. I was going hard around the middle and sneaking in the occasional uppercut, but he didn’t say uncle even when I whitened my knuckles on his chin. He was punching slower now but talking just as fast. “Turn the jukebox up louder,” he said, turning outward to the crowd and flashing a grin. “I can’t hear the song you’re playing, but I have a feeling I don’t like it.” I pitied him in that moment. He thought he could just go on preening and running his mouth, but I was coming for him. He was, in his false confidence, not uncommon. I had seen it before in the ring, many times. Look through any window and you’ll see a man sitting there who doesn’t know he’s being watched. I counted to five in my head and then hit him as far as I could see. Down on the canvas he was suddenly silent, like a man in front of a judge.

 “Cory,” a woman in the front row said. She was sitting just where Cory’s father had been sitting for my first fight.

I bent down to him. “Someone called while you were out,” I said. It was the first clever thing I had ever said, and I am glad I wasted it on a man who could not hear me.

After the referee hoisted my arm and declared me winner, I called you and we had a short conversation. I knew you wouldn’t be interested in the details of the fight, so I went quickly. It was my way of begging you to meet me. “You know what I need,” I said.

In twenty minutes I was home. You were there already. “Kill me quick,” you said, and pulled one of my hands up under your skirt. “Is this the one that did him in?”

 “Yes,” I lied.

We were insistent with one another all night long. “Go slow,” you said. “I want to feel every part of this.” In the morning you rolled to your side of the bed. “You’re a bag full of money,” you said. “Top of the top.” But you stopped there, which concerned me. After most fights you were so elated that you ran your mouth as much as Cory. But this time you were subdued. I growled at you but you said nothing, not even that I should continue.

We went out for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, and you asked me to tell you the story of the fight again. “Go slow,” you said. I told you about the weigh-in. I told you about the first round. I told you about the company play. I told you about the second round. It took as long to retell as it took to happen the first time through. I leaned hard on the part where I put him down. You smiled distantly and folded your hands in front of you.

 “I have a question,” you said.

 “Yes,” I said.

 “I’m not sure how to ask.”

 “I know the question,” I said. “Yes. The answer is yes. He looks just like his father, and I beat the hell out of him.” You kept your eyes cast down and wouldn’t meet my gaze. “What could I have done?” I said. “I wanted to rattle every tooth in his head.”

You brought up a hand to your forehead and then set it back down. “I brought you something,” you said. “I am not sure if I should give it to you.” The hand went into your purse and withdrew an envelope. It was stamped with the company’s name, and inside there was a sheet of letterhead. It was a note from Cory’s father—I recognized the handwriting. “I cannot see you any longer and I cannot explain why,” it said. “One day I will have a man call you. I want you to love him, or to try. Do it for me, at first, and stop only if you cannot do it for yourself.”

I put the letter down. There was a cold spot within me: warm at the center, yes, but freezing all around that, and growing. A crowd was collecting outside. The fight had made the papers, and there was a picture of me on the front page thrusting my hands skyward as the final bell rang. You looked at the letter as if you weren’t sure what to do with it and then returned it to your purse. I reached for the purse, but my hand stopped halfway as if it had encountered an obstacle. “Don’t get upset,” you said.

 “Already there,” I said. It was the second clever thing I had ever said. We left the restaurant together though we walked far apart. I should have waved to the crowd, but I kept my hands at my sides. There were just too many people calling out.

Saturday, January 1, 2011