BY MILES WHITE
Copyright is held by the author.
YOU SURE you want to do this? You remember how much it hurt the last time. Johnson taped his hands and tied his gloves on, then warmed him up with the pads?—?hooks, jabs, uppercuts. Then he laid him out on a table on his belly and rubbed down his shoulders. Years ago the room would have been full of hangers on. Con men, hustlers, trainers, bookies, drug dealers, gangsters, reporters, and politicians on the way up or on the way down. People he didn’t even know were in there just milling around, anybody who could work him just by being in the same room with him; everybody with a mouth to feed, and he fed plenty of them, made them all rich, bought them houses and sent their children to fancy schools, and here he was still on the grind. You sure you want to do this? Johnson asked again.
The man shrugged. All right, Johnson said, working his neck muscles to get them relaxed, all the while talking to him, building up his man. We come a long way, he said. We come a mighty long way together, and we still on the road, just the two of us now but we come all the way through. All these years. He kneaded the man’s arm muscles, bending his arms back to stretch the tendons. I still remember our first fight, just like it was yesterday. You hurt that man for 12 rounds then knocked him out cold. Didn’t even know what hit him. They just called it The Punch because you hit him from somewhere even he didn’t see coming.
Johnson started working on his legs, pushing down hard with his elbows at the back of the thighs, flattening out the long muscles. We fought them all. They was lining up after that, he said. Liston, Robinson, Terrell, Frazier, Ali, them Spinks boys, Archie Moore, Norton, Holmes. We fought them all. The known and a lot of the unknown too, and now here we are, still standing. Still taking them on. That’s who the greatest man is, the last man standing. And that’s you, boss man. That’s still you.
The door opens. A pudgy man with a fat neck and a dead cigar between his lips walks in. Johnson stops what he is doing. The man hands him an envelope. Johnson shuffles through the envelope, checking the money. He goes down in the first round tonight, the fat man says. Johnson looks up. Like hell, he says. Do you know who this man is? You asking for something like that and paying something like this? You got to be out of your natural mind to come in here and ask for something like that. The man glints annoyance. Ain’t me asking, he says. Well then you can tell them no, Johnson says. This man is better than that.
The fat man looks over at the fighter lying on the table. He’s a bum, the man says. No, he is good at what he does, Johnson says. Which is taking dives, the man says. Which is making all them men in the ring with him look good, Johnson says, getting riled. He done carried men on his back all night, men he could have knocked out soon as he thought about it. He carried them not for his own glory but because he was loyal to you guys. And he made a lot of money for you. And this is how you pay him back?
The fat man looks over at the table again. What the hell are you talking about? he says. The guy is 22 and 67. He’s been knocked out 18 times. If it wasn’t for us he’d be sweeping floors by now. He making a good living, eating high, still getting pussy ain’t he? But that don’t change the fact. He looks again at the fighter lying on the table who is now looking at him. He spits cigar juice on the floor. That don’t change the fact, he says. He’s a bum.
He stares Johnson straight in the eye. Johnson is thinking he could get off with third degree, maybe even manslaughter, but who needs all that. Fuck all that. He stares the man down like he might do it anyway. The fat man opens the door quickly and steps through it. He gives Johnson a last look like don’t fuck with us on this. Johnson understands. The man on the table understands. Everybody understands. Fat man leaves. Johnson drops his head and looks over at his man. You sure you want to do this?