Punch Me Twice
Sam looks mean enough and he’s taller than most boys, but his arms don’t reach past the row of seats in front of us. I think he’d punch like a joke. If he got up in that ring I think he’d run himself out of balance, put his weight behind the wrong arm, maybe just trip up and duck back out through the ropes. It’s not his fault but he’s a controlled person, slow and careful with his movements, no explosiveness in his entire body. Seems like the ring’s too big for a fourteen-year-old with thin arms. These men we’re watching, they fight in jumps. They’re sweating like the match is deadly and their punches are stinging through the boxing gloves. The view is patchy from our seats but the top-lights are sterilizing and I can see shadows on the boxers’ cheeks as they dodge. I can’t stop watching them move, twitch, spin. They jump around like it’s random. They fight like it’s not the arms but the timing’s what matters.
It’s 1982 and the match is half over. It’s Patton on Evans, Dad says, not “Patton v. Evans” or even “Patton fighting Evans,” and Patton is winning. It’s a late November afternoon and the breeze is knocking all the cups and flyers around—must be too warm to keep the doors closed. The ring is several feet above the chairs and natural light pools at the bottom of the room, onto the fighters’ feet and around the ropes and on bits of the canvas. It’s the same gym they use when the high school students graduate, just with the ring deconstructed and moved into the corner and all the chairs pushed forward. Today it’s almost full. There are some spare seats in the back but people are standing, leaning their weight on the aisle chairs and stretches of the side wall where the view is good, watching Patton fly around the ring. He’s the stronger fighter and he has these punches that just land and ripple. Evans doesn’t take a punch well—they make him shiver every time—but I think he conserves his energy well. An hour ago the match was even but it’s clear now that Patton’s ahead. I’m glad. He’s who I’m rooting for, even though Sam thinks Evans still has a chance. Patton’s got blood on the back of one glove, and when he gets down on his knees to wipe it streaky on the canvas the crowd explodes.
Sam’s splitting his time watching Patton and this girl a few rows up. She’s standing, leaning on a chair with one hand, and she gets up on her toes to watch Patton wipe off his glove. Her hair falls sandy down her back and she’s on her toes for several seconds, watching as Patton plays it up for the crowd, but she’s got a beer in her other hand so I know she’s too old for Sam.
“Stand up, look at how much blood he just wiped off,” Dad says. I get up and there’s a line the length of a cat on the canvas, already drying and turning rust brown.
“Well goddamn,” Sam says to me. “That’s blood.”
Sam’s not a fighter but he knows this ring well enough. He lives a few doors down from me, with his grandparents and his younger brother, in a house that’s warm and drafty and never very noisy. He’s lived there for almost a year now, ever since his mom went back to the rehabilitation center in BLAH. The first time I went over my mom gave me peaches to help introduce myself, but Sam tried to kiss me halfway up the first flight of stairs and I was so surprised that I dropped the six peaches down the rest of the stairway. They landed with six little thumps, and I accidentally worked the peach juice into the carpeting with my toes when I went to pick them up. It was so bad his grandmother had to pour salt right onto the stain later to get it out. Sam’s my year at school and most days we walk home together since we live so close, and I like the way he puts a spin on things. He thinks in cause and effect. One time, to make sure his grandmother would let him spend Sunday mornings at my house, he convinced me to take him to church with my family. He made a big show of ironing his pants and combing his hair, getting up before 8 o’clock to eat a big breakfast, and he even had me come by in my long floral dress, with my mother, to prove that we were really going. We only went to church that one time, but since then his grandmother lets him walk over Sunday mornings and spend all afternoon watching boxing and picking the fruit from the trees in my backyard.
We’re a few rows back from the action and all the spectators are dressed in weekend clothes, light cotton suits and loose tops. This is the first match Sam and I have seen live. We usually watch the pros fight on TV but today those matches seem slow in comparison. It’s the heat or the noise of the crowd, maybe, that makes this fight electric. There’s no commentary like there is on TV so I have to ask Dad whenever the ref blows the whistle in a way I don’t understand. He knows all the rules. Patton and Evans aren’t pros but they’re strong and Dad is writing down every move he respects in the margins of his newspaper, chronologically, small and neat so he has room for the whole match. It’s what he does for the big matches on TV, too. He has newspapers from all throughout the 70s filed in his office and he’ll bring them out sometimes to show us what moves the greats made, how they jabbed and dodged and danced.
Up on the ring, Evans is lower than Patton. He’s adopted this halfway-squatting stance, bouncing even when he’s standing still. Patton’s got at least six inches on Evans anyways and it’s making him punch downwards to make any contact at all. It’s a new move and I think it’s throwing Patton off, making his punches weaker or less coordinated. Evans gets in a close punch to Patton’s belly and it seems to stick.
“Margaret, I’ve been thinking,” Sam says.
“Okay,” I say.
“I think you only hit the belly when you can’t reach the face,” he says. “It doesn’t sting the same way, right? I’d think strategic fighters would go for the face even though it’s a cheap shot.” He slaps his cheek softly a few times and it makes him wince. Neither fighter has landed a punch in nearly two minutes so the crowd is rumbling and I can’t hear Sam that clearly.
Dad looks over and says, “It’s all strategy, Sam.”
“I think it’s all a play for the crowd,” I say.
“Maybe that’s the strategy,” Dad says.
Another hit lands on Patton’s belly and a low sound rolls through the crowd. Patton’s the favorite and the crowd is invested in his win, but Sam is energized each time Evans gets a blow in. Sam pulls my arm forward and closes my hand into a fist. “Try a punch,” he says. “Just like Evans.” He’s cracking his knuckles and leaning forward in his chair.
I jab a few times forward but my shoulders knock into my father next to me. I don’t have enough room to try a hard punch, and even though my arms are moving slowly I feel the strain in my shoulders.
“Get your wrist in line with your hand,” Sam says. “You’ll break your hand if you have it flexed like that.” I throw another punch forward. My elbows are moving up towards my ears even though I know Patton keeps his parallel to the ground.
“No, no,” and Sam is laughing. “You’re flailing. Make the movement cleaner. And tuck in your elbows.”
The girl Sam’s been watching is working her way back thorough the rows, looking for a seat. She finds one at the edge of our row, and from this close she looks younger than I’d thought. Maybe a teenager, though she’s still rolling a bottle around her hands. Her jawline looks strong and I think she’s at least nineteen. She puts her beer down and sits up straight to improve her view.
“Dad, would you teach me?”
“Just to punch,” I say. I show him my attempt three or four times, punching as hard as I can out in front of me, but each time my rhythm is still off and my elbows are too loose and he doesn’t give me any suggestions.
Dad’s worried boxing is going out of style. He was raised on Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano and still likes to see 15 rounds broadcast live on Friday afternoons. Every week he turns the TV on at 4 and recapitulates the match over 6 o’clock dinner, stringing out the forty-minute fight to last the entire meal. These days the only news stories are the times a boxer is concussed or bounced around the ring too hard. Like when John Rogers split his eye open in Phoenix last week, or the pair of boxers in our town that sent each other to the hospital with matching concussions. They’re front-page stuff but Dad buries them in the folds of the paper, behind the obituaries and the foreign news. He doesn’t like that boxers are dying in the ring but he doesn’t like talking about it, either. Mom doesn’t watch any matches but she listens over dinner as Dad tells her about the upsets and the knockouts and anything the announcers didn’t catch. When the NFL came off strike a few weeks ago and all the primetime slots went back to football, to the big burly men who punch with their chests and heads and the weight of their shoulders, we both watched as Dad flipped all the way through to the international boxing channels to watch Eusebio Pedro land 3 square hits to Juan Laporte’s temple.
“Margaret, look, they’re fighting now,” Dad says, and I stop punching the air.
“I know,” I say. Evan dips and they embrace, at a standstill, until the referee calls the whistle. While they’re clasped all of their punches are weak and hit softly on the upper back. Dad folds his paper up and tucks it away.
“No, listen.” he says, “They’re fighting. We came here to see them box.”
A few months ago, Pastor Kearney came for dinner and told me I didn’t need to be a Presbyterian if I didn’t feel so compelled. His voice was tinny and he was squinting straight into the sun to speak to me. Mom had wiped down our copper pots and hung them from hooks along the back wall, and they were so shiny I could see the back of his head reflected in them. He looked at me from across the table and told me my religion was my own, that I had a duty to myself and to my family to take it seriously and understand it freely.
Dad coughed at him and said, “Certainly.”
Pastor Kearney isn’t in our clergy since we’re Episcopalians. That night he was eating with an appetite Dad didn’t seem to have, and Mom served him seconds of buttered sweet potatoes and reheated bread before he needed them. He was wearing gray trousers and a white button-down, and I decided not to ask him why he didn’t have a clerical collar. It was the first time he’d stayed through dinner, even though every week he walks the few blocks from his house to ours. He’s teaching Mom the steps of converting to Presbyterianism, but he had been tutoring her for almost a month before he stayed to eat. Every weekend, on Saturday mornings, they sit at the large dining room table that takes two leaf inserts to reach full size and spread books out until the whole thing is covered. I see him come and go and he always says “hello to you, Miss Rowland,” but I never hear any of the lessons because I stay in the sunroom, my radio low and pressed to my ear.
“Thank you,” I said when the pastor told me again that he wasn’t intending to make me convert. He seemed confused that the conversation avoided religion and he held a long silence to eat in a dedicated way, scraping the sweet potatoes with a fork until there were just streaks left. Mom doesn’t talk about their lessons so often with me, so I didn’t know what else to say. She keeps the pastor’s books on the lowest shelf of the bookshelf in the den and only has him over once a week, which I think is because Dad’s reactions are hard to predict when the pastor is around, but that night he was just quiet. The pastor about my cross-country team and schoolwork, and finally asked Dad about the fights.
That was the month Kim Duk-koo’s face hit the canvas too hard in Nevada and he died out of the ring five days later in. The papers ran the story for six days straight, right through the day he died and then a special article the day of the funeral where Mancini apologized to the family and the country for fighting too hard. After that fight all the boxing channels’ ratings went down and headgear changed and Dad began to go to live matches again. Dad called it a good fight, though, since Kim burst Mancini’s ear open in the 8th round and Mancini made Kim buckle at the knees in the 2nd. Sam and I watched that game too, crowded around the TV, and Mancini did get a compelling flurry in at the end. Upwards of twenty punches—I lost count. More than a dozen for sure. It was a long match, but Kim had the strength to pull himself up on the ropes, even as he was dying. At the time, though, I didn’t know he was dying. I only read it in the Sunday review. Kim was South Korean and Mancini’s an American. Dad became animated when Pastor Kearney brought up boxing, putting down his fork and working his way systematically through the important matches of the last week.
“What else are you going to do if you’re 27 and you’re 135 pounds and you’re fighting for your country?” Dad said when the pastor asked about the Kim-Mancini match. “You fight until you can’t fight anymore.”
“I worry about Mancini,” Pastor Kearney said. Mancini had been on the news several times apologizing since Kim died, and I hadn’t seen him sign up for a fight since, but it surprised me that the pastor had been keeping up.
“But you wouldn’t say he’s culpable,” Dad said.
“I’d say he might be in pain.”
The girl at the end of the row gets up again just as Evans hits Patton in the left ear, hard. I think she’s also rooting for Evans because just as the hit lands she hesitates, putting her beer down on the seat of her chair before she walks away. I’m hoping Patton shakes it off. The hit looks hard but Evans and Patton are wearing protective headgear so it doesn’t seem to sting too much. The headgear are clunky things, big on the fighters who don’t know how to punch around them, new in the rulebook since the Manicini fight. Patton keeps aiming sloppy for the throat and landing his punches on Evans’ shoulders instead. Evans gets a direct hit to Patton’s eye, making him stumble backwards in an ugly, uncoordinated movement. The referee jumps in front and blocks my view of the fighters. Sam’s fingers are tapping on beat with the hits and when the girl stands up he tracks her hair move across the room.
The night Pastor Kearney came to dinner, I let Sam into the basement after dark and I told him that my father hated the pastor. I wasn’t quite sure if that was true, not even when I told him, but he took me very seriously and whispered, “You’ve got to let me see them fight.” The air was dusty and his tone made my breath choppy. Our basement had air vents that Sam was convinced let sound travel around the house, up to my parent’s bedroom, so he led me by the hand to the only corner without the vents before he would talk.
“They’re not going to fight,” I said and pressed my toes into the trim of the wall. “Dad barely speaks to him when he doesn’t have to. They hardly see each other, they won’t fight.”
“Then how do you know they hate each other?”
“Just that my dad hates the pastor.”
“Margaret,” he said. “How?”
“He just doesn’t talk to me during her lessons, that’s it. And we stopped going to church together, even though Mom offers to go to both—ours and Pastor Kearney’s—every week.”
Sam was sitting on his heels and kept shifting his weight, working the situation over silently for nearly a minute. Finally, he asked, “Can I go with you to church tomorrow morning?”
“No, Dad and I don’t go anymore.”
“No,” he said. “Can we go with your mother?”
I was silent a while after he said that, kneading my toes into the wall and considering what Sam would look like, pressed linen pants, standing next to my mother again in the pews. It was warm in the basement and I was getting tired.
“Why do you want to go?” I asked.
“I just want to see how he reacts.”
The next morning, Mom and I left for church before Dad woke up, and I wore my hair in two long braids down my back. She was awake when I came into the kitchen, already in her cotton dress and buckled shoes, pouring hot water into a mug to warm it up. She seemed surprised that I asked to go with her, but when I told her that I wanted to get to know Pastor Kearney she just smiled calmly.
We walked by Sam’s house on the way to church and he was standing on the curbside, his shoes shining in the sunlight, waiting for us. Mom didn’t say anything as he joined us, and he kept his hands in his pockets for the entire length of the walk. Neither of us spoke much throughout the congregation. It had been several weeks since I’d gone to service at all and the melodies of the songs were slightly different the way Pastor Kearney sang them, drawing some words out longer than I expected and taking some short and clipped. They didn’t play the hymns I knew best. Sam stood beside me, humming in tune, eyes on the pastor the entire service. I was expecting him to run up to introduce himself when the congregation was done, or at least come back to my house to speak to my father, but he just walked back slowly with us, peeling off back to his house before we reached mine.
The next time Evans is hit there’s blood on Patton’s gloves again. The match has been speeding up, quick flurries to both fighters’ ears and lower guts and jaws and it seems like they’re both feeling the hits more concretely. The light’s going down and the shadows fall longer on the canvas. It all feels sinister to me, but Dad has always loved the last few rounds of a match. When Patton hits there’s an immediate hum that spins around the crowd. It’s a quick one, direct on the eye, but when he pulls his hand back his glove sprays fine droplets of blood across the canvas. Evans slumps down into my view, giant gloves up in front of his face even though Patton isn’t punching.
“He’s up,” Sam says. “This means he’s ahead, right? That Patton is winning?” I realize that for all the matches I’ve watched on TV I’ve never listened to the announcers describe how a fighter won, how the whole thing is judged, so I don’t know who’s winning either.
There are a few specks of red on the referee’s tunic and he wipes Patton’s nose with some tissue from his pocket. Evans looks stunned but is standing straight again. There’s a slow stream of blood coming from some cut hidden in his hairline but he doesn’t wipe at it and won’t let the ref touch it, either. I’ve lost track of the girl from our row and the crowd is still. The referee touches both men’s shirts and says something quiet to them, one at a time, before he puts the whistle back in his mouth.
“Should they bleed when they box?” I ask, but Dad has his newspaper out again and is writing small in the margin. He’s tied to the punches and doesn’t answer me. The referee signals the fight up again but immediately Patton lands a jab to the jaw, the eye, the other side of the jaw. Evans’ head isn’t bleeding anymore but he’s stumbling.
“Where’s the ref?” Sam asks, jumpy in his seat. “Why isn’t he calling this? How long is he going to let this go on?” and Dad looks up again. Evans is leaning all his weight on the ropes when he can. Patton is up again, bouncing, light on his feet and tracing a semicircle around his punches with his whole body. Another hit directly to the eye and a slow one to the lower belly and the ref whistles to break the men apart. Evans doesn’t seem to hear and stands up slowly, throwing a punch right at Patton’s chest.
“He whistled,” Sam says. “He whistled!” but he knows the boxers can’t hear him. Patton knocks the arm away cleanly and swings again for Evans’ face. “He whistled, I don’t understand why they’re fighting anymore.” The men are broken apart but Sam is still asking my father, “What are they doing? The ref called the whistle. He whistled so many times.” Sam gets up and his arms are everywhere. He’s bumping into people on either sides of him, knocking into glass bottles and chairs. He looks at my father, who’s still got both eyes on the match and his newspaper, and then ends up looking at me.
“He’s 23, he’s 145 pounds—he doesn’t have to fight for anything. He’s fighting because there’s fight to be had,” I say, and I look to Dad to see if there’s anything he’s going to add.
Sam says he’s going to take a piss and weaves through the cheers. Evans and Patton are separated and the referee is standing far away from them, talking animatedly. When they fight again I’ve lost the rhythm of it all and I can’t tell which punches count or sting or matter, really. I think Patton is still ahead. The room smells sour and metallic, even though I don’t think I could smell the blood from this far back. I get up too and walk closer to the ring, where the door and the breeze are, and I pick up the beer the girl left on the aisle seat. It’s two thirds full and warm. Up by the front of the ring, the lights are brighter and everyone standing at this distance is shielding their eyes with their hands. Patton and Evans both look battered from this close. It doesn’t look like either is winning. I decide I’m looking for Sam.
I walk outside and he’s sitting up against a case of empty Heinekens, a few bottle caps in his hands. It smells like stale sweat out here and along the street ahead construction steel is glinting orange from the sky.
When I sit down, I put the bottle on the concrete next to him and take a short swig. It’s stale and bitter and warm, but I offer it to Sam anyways. He rolls the bottom of the bottle in circles around the concrete, listening to the way the ridges on the bottom clatter on the ground, but doesn’t drink from it. I can’t tell if he wanted me to follow him out here or not.
“Where’d you get this?” he asks, dropping the full bottle from a fraction of an inch off the ground. It rattles when it hits the ground but he supports the neck so it doesn’t fall over. He tips it back and forth.
“Doesn’t matter. You’re not even drinking.” I say.
“From your father?” He’s got a tight grip on the bottle.
“You’re going to break the glass,” I say. “Give it back to me.”
I reach for it and, right as I do he extends his fingers towards me, off the beer bottle, palm facing up. He’s looking down but I brush his fingers and pause for a moment. My hand sits on top of his and I try to catch his eyes but he keeps them on the ground. I try to keep my hand there but it’s clammy and cold and it’s twitching and he doesn’t move it and it feels like it’s dead, like there’s no blood in the entire arm. I jerk my hand up and grab the bottle from him, dropping it into an empty slot in the Heineken case.
“Let’s walk,” I say. He gets up slowly but he comes with me.
Sam leads us out of the gym parking lot, taking us down broad streets in the direction of our houses. It’s all close together—my house, his house, the gym, our school, the church—and we’re not walking particularly fast. I don’t mind he’s leading me since I didn’t have a destination in mind, and I enjoy the cool fresh air on my temples. The streets are emptying out and we take long slow steps in the middle of the street. He asks me about the match. He’s curious if my Dad told me anything more about Patton or Evans or the referee. It’s almost 5 o’clock, though, and I wonder if we should go back into the gym. Evans can’t be holding very strong. I wonder if the referee has stopped the game, or if Patton has knocked Evans out for good. Sam’s asking me if my Dad ever boxed for the pros. I tell him no and then he asks, “Is your dad leaving your mom now that she’s going to be a Presbyterian?”
I don’t know how to answer that. I stop for a moment but try to keep walking, keep my steps even. “Would it matter?” I ask.
“If he left?”
“If she was a Presbyterian. That she’s a Presbyterian. Would it matter?”
“I don’t know,” he says, and he looks down to rub some dirt off his fingers. There’s a cigarette butt on the pavement and he sands it down with his shoe, leaving a dark stain on the concrete. “Maybe she’s the one that’s leaving.”
I don’t know how to respond to that either. “I guess.” I hadn’t thought about it before. “Maybe.”
He takes us around a corner and I recognize Pastor Kearney’s house down the block. It’s straight and plain and trimmed dark blue with a row of zinnias out front. Sam says he’s got a question to ask. He takes a slow stilted jog right up to the door, cutting across the lawn, and rings the doorbell twice. I catch up and tell him that it’s dinnertime and the pastor might not answer, and besides I don’t know what he wants to ask. All the lights are on inside but it takes several minutes before the pastor comes to the door. I tell Sam that the pastor might not want to answer his questions, but right before he gets to the door Sam says, “That’s what he does. He answers questions.” When the pastor opens the door there’s light cello music spilling out from the dining room. Inside, the dining room looks warm and tidy.
“Miss Rowland,” he says.
“We’ve got a question,” I say, but I don’t know what it is so I look to Sam, “if that’s something you do.”
“Is it a sin to fight?” he asks.
“What?” I turn.
“Is it a sin to be a fighter? Is that a sin?”
“Well,” Pastor Kearney says, slipping his feet into flat shoes. “You could be asking many things.”
“No, I’m asking one thing, if fighting is a sin. Is it a sin to be a fighter? Does God think it’s wrong to fight?” The pastor is silent so Sam says, “Margaret, let me show him what I mean.”
Sam squares up his body and shivers on the balls of his feet. “Get into position, Margaret, let’s show him a punch,” he says and I put a bend in my knees. He’s flitting around me with his arms at all angles. Pastor Kearney steps out of the doorframe and closes the door behind him. The sun is going down and Sam’s eyes are gleaming. He’s punching the air around him like it’s real, with these straight-through hits that cause long twists in his body. I’m trying to catch his eyes but he’s moving, bouncing, circling me with a flinty look. “You punch me, then I’ll jab back and you do a one-two, a flurry,” he says, whispering to me when he gets close enough, soft enough that I doubt the pastor can hear. “You’ll get to do me twice and I won’t hit that hard.” I bend, I swivel, I throw a weak punch in the air just to try but my head feels light and my arms are slow. He’s a few feet away but suddenly right near me, right in front, bouncing, and throws a hard jab two inches from my left ear. It sounds like everything. I can see everything all at once and my pulse is deadly. “See, I’ll do it just like that,” he says and I catch him low in the gut. My fingers roll and stick there and I have to remember to bring my arm back. “Is this a sin? he says.
The pastor takes another step down, off the steps entirely, as my hit rolls off Sam’s lower belly. My arms are still tensed up and bent what feels like randomly at the elbows. “Margaret, I’m still not sure I know what you’re asking,” he says. “Put your arms down.”
“Pastor, can you punch?” I ask. I turn towards him and stare up into his eyes. He’s standing on the grass now but is at least a foot taller than me, even in his flat slippers, and it surprises me how close he’s gotten to us, how far up I have to crane my neck to speak to him. I’m out of breath from the hit but I say, “Do you know how to box?” He sighs slowly but doesn’t say anything in return.
Sam relaxes his pose but I keep my body tense. “It’s easy,” I say, “the power comes from twisting your body, not from your arms.” I bend my knees a few times and inch closer to the pastor, arching my torso one way and then the other to show him what I mean. He’s so tall I don’t think I can reach his face, not without angling my punch severely upwards, not without losing all my power. “Brace your stomach,” I tell him, and I throw my entire bodyweight behind a punch to the upper part of his belly, slightly below where my shoulder falls naturally. I feel it land in my knuckles.
“Keep your elbows up,” Sam says to me, a few steps away. I bounce again, take a few steps backwards, and put my arms back up.
“Is this it, Pastor?” I ask. “Is this what sin is?”