San Quentin, July 4th, 1975
I stabbed with my right fist, coming up to the imaginary point of my opponent’s chin. The “clack” of the cell doors being unlocked came closer. I bobbed, ducking his counter punch, weaved and threw a left, right combination. My feet, shod in flimsy shower shoes, sounded as if they were sanding the floor with each shuffle. “Clack,” followed by a pause, and then another “clack,” came my way.
In a couple of hours, my blows would be real as I threw a blistering one, two, three with the last blow landing to the side of his head.
Jimmy was still five cells away, and there was a rhythm to the thrust and turn of the key coming down the long Eastblock Fourth tier. The sound was normally my cue to get my day going. Not today, as I dodged several phantom blows and again struck back with a left to the body and a right to the head.
I stood in the three feet of space between my bed and the cement wall behind me, pretending that the ten-by-five floor space was really the dimensions of the boxing ring in the gym. He threw two more hard punches which I feinted to the left and then back to avoid, and then returned with my own volley.
Jimmy thrust his metal spike into my cell door, but paused. “Hey, Cliff?” he asked.
I didn’t turn to look at the inmate trustee, whose job it was to unlock the cells at the start of the morning program. “Yeah, Jimmy?” I asked while putting together another combination of punches, and then turned to him as I continued to dance on my toes.
A snarling grin came over his face as he looked at me through the four-inch spaces between the bars. “I’ve got six packs of Camel cigarettes on Smitty.” The morning sun brought in enough light for him to make me out. I acted as if his words didn’t mean anything to me.
Stepping over to the toilet, I turned to look at him as he stayed at the door. “Care to bet another two packs with me?”
“Yeah, Jimmy,” Gary shouted from the cell next to mine, “how bout giving me some action, I’ll put six packs down on Cliff?”
Jimmy’s grin dropped a moment, but then he bared his teeth, “Shit, Smitty’s gonna wipe the mat with your young ass.”
Gary beat me to the words. “Then put your money where that big mouth is!”
Having finished my business, I hit the toilet handle and walked over to the door. The loud sucking of the flush made conversation impossible for a moment. He stood waiting, but I saw doubt mixed in with his greed. Jimmy stunk of tobacco and body odor. He looked at the cross around my neck, and his grin came back. “I thought you didn’t gamble no more?”
“So, what’s stopping you from bettin’ with me?” Gary asked.
Jimmy turned in the direction of Gary’s cell. “I’ll get to you!” He looked at me again, standing as I did in my boxer shorts and shower shoes. I flexed my pecs, letting them dance up and down. I felt the trickle of a line of sweat coming down my temple. Jimmy licked his lips, “Alright,” he said with a nod of his head, “two packs?”
I reached through the bars. “Deal.”
Jimmy hesitated, his skinny arm, covered in fading tattoos, was raised half way up, “Deal,” he said and snatched my hand.
I gripped his hand hard, squeezing to hurt him, but he simply grinned back at me. He brandished yellow teeth, coming up close and giving me a good whiff of his bad breath. “Smitty’s got a right that’s gonna drop you like a sack of rocks.” I gave Jimmy’s hand a twist and more pressure, but he didn’t flinch as he looked me straight in the face. “Better say your prayers over at the chapel,” he said as he turned the spike in the door, still ignoring my grip. “That new found God of yours,” he said while finally moving back from me, “may be talking with you really soon.”
“You stink, Jimmy,” I said. While letting go of his hand, Jimmy pulled out the spike and gave me a salute with the long metal rod. The small raised edges on the round metal pressed into his flesh, and left a jagged red line on his forehead after he pulled it away.
“Let’s make it another six packs for me too!” Gary said loudly at the sound of his cell door being unspiked.
I heard Jimmy speaking at a distance, “I’ve got business done.”
“Why you no-good coward,” Gary shouted after him.
“Shut up, Gary,” someone shouted back in a groggy voice.
Ignoring the fellow he’d rudely woke, Gary continued, “You so cock sure, get your ass back here and bet me too!”
Jimmy’s only answer was the continued work in the unlock. I looked at the clear view of San Francisco Bay the location of my cell gave me. Every winter, the maintenance put in new windows, and, at the start of summer, the windows were busted out, with carefully aimed bars of state soap. With two hundred cells, and all but a few smoking two packs a day, fresh air was necessary. The cool air gave the side of my head a chilled line that followed the bead of sweat as I watched a small sailboat passing by.
A couple was winching a sail further up the mast. It must be moored at Tiburon, getting an early jump on sailing about the bay on this three-day weekend holiday. “You see it, Cliff?” Gary asked.
“Yeah,” I answered in a daydreaming voice, while I bounced from one foot to the other. “I could live on that.”
“After living in this sardine can,” Gary said with a hint of anger, “that would be a floating castle.”
I continued my dance at the cell door until the boat passed from sight. I inhaled deeply, smelling the salt in the air. I grabbed the small metal cross dangling from my neck. “Maybe one day,” I whispered, and then stepped out of the boxing ring to get myself ready for the day.
A power cord delivered electricity to metal plates in a cup of water; it hummed as I made my bed. Steam quickly rose from the cup. I grabbed the glass coffee jar off the shelf and inspected its quantity. “You’re out if you lose, Cliff,” I said to myself.
Commissary shopping was still three weeks away, and I’d held onto those two packs to buy the coffee I’d be drinking until my turn at the prison store. I stuck my wood spoon into the jar, fishing out one heaping pile of the brown powder, and then another mound. I dumped the second pile into the water and watched it dissolve as I stuck the spoon in for the usual third, but then thought a moment of saving it to make it stretch a bit further. With a shrug of the shoulder I said, “Fourth of July,” and dug out a third spoon of the coffee. A quick stir and my nose was hit with the pungent smell of the morning brew.
Sitting down on my bed, I blew steam out of the cup and drank a small sip. I took my new Bible and Daily Bread off the shelf above my bed. The study was on Matthew 22:19 through 22:21, titled, “Giving unto Caesar.”
The short study told me that we needed to give unto our country what was due it. My eyes focused on the water on the bay as a small fishing boat was going by. “Amen,” I said. My study continued with instructions on what I owed to God. “Amen,” I whispered again with a small sigh.
I balled my hand into a fist, and stared at the knuckles. Thick calluses had built up over two years of punching the heavy bag as I tried to release frustrations of this life sentence; two months ago a preacher told me real peace came from another direction. I didn’t speak very loud, not even sure I wanted him to hear me, “Billy?”
“If you’re asking, Cliff,” he answered, “you already know the answer.”
Being in the cell on the other side from Gary, I knew he’d heard me with Jimmy. “I know I shouldn’t of bet,” I told the man who’d talked me into paying a visit to the chapel, “but what about getting in the ring?”
There was a long silence, and I was about to repeat myself when Billy finally said, “Then don’t.”
“Billy,” Gary said from his cell, “don’t be throwing your Christian guilt-trips on Cliff. I’ve already got three packs riding on him.”
Billy answered him quickly. “Think about someone other than yourself, Gary.”
I waited to see if Gary was going to try and win this debate with Billy, which he never did. Finally I said, “There’s two cartons of Camels.”
“If,” Billy said that first word with a high note, “you can beat Smitty.”
“Will you shut your mouth with all that negative bullshit!” Gary’s anger was hot.
I sat quiet, but Billy didn’t answer Gary. He finally spoke to me in a soft tone, “I think you’ve got what it takes to win.”
“You’re damn right he does,” Gary threw out.
I sat down and began reading again, nothing left to say. They released for the morning meal twenty minutes later. Holiday breakfast included bacon, eggs, hash browns, and two cartons of milk. I gave away the tray, and drank down the milk, knowing that I needed to keep my stomach empty for the noon bout.
I walked slowly back to the block, looking up at the towering building. The rust pigeon crap made long stains on the outside, marking the long years since the last time someone had painted the building. “Hey, Cliff?” I turned to look in the direction of the voice, and saw an old fellow facing me, his fists raised up. “Keep that guard up.”
“I’ll do that.” My words made him smile; his toothless grin was as much encouragement as he knew how to give. I turned back to stare at Eastblock, and repeated to myself, “I’ll do that.”
The walk back to my cell was a slow one, and it gave me time to think of what I had to do in a couple of hours. Smitty was San Quentin heavy weight champ, and twenty pounds heavier, none of it fat. As I walked up the stairs, I came to where Bogus Red had murdered Fast Freddy. It had been a week later that I went to hear that preacher at the Garden Chapel. That was two months ago, and questions seemed to be coming more frequent.
Was I just scared by seeing Red shoving that shive up into Freddy; did that make me walk down front when the preacher made the altar call? I’m not that bad a guy I reasoned, and so what if I’d made a bet with Jimmy? It’s not like I’m stealing from anyone . . . I made it to the cell and changed into my workout clothes. A shadow came to the front of my cell as I was lacing up my tennis shoes. “I think you can take him,” Billy said, with emphasis on “can.” I looked at my balled-up hand, and my knuckles suddenly didn’t seem as hard as I looked at them again. By some trick of light, they looked to be soft and smooth.
“I hope so.” I emphasized my words by jumping up and sending a blistering round of light punches onto the cement. The smack of my fists against the immovable wall reminded me of just how tough they were, and it quickly brought Gary around to look over Billy’s shoulder.
“Christ, save it for Smitty!” he shouted.
We laughed at Gary a moment, and I calmed his selfish fears by holding up my still-intact hands. “He’s ready,” Billy said, slapping Gary on the shoulder as he walked over to his cell.
Gary stood a moment longer, leaning in as he whispered, “I hope you kill that freak of nature.” He closed my cell door and walked away.
Once more I looked at my hands, only to be reminded of what else they had done; of a time and a place that removed another human life. That recalled the other reason I stood at the front of that stage with tears streaming down my cheeks. A Parole Board would be talking with me soon; the other Lifers told me that I could expect to be paroled in about twelve years.
I walked slowly across the Upper Yard heading for the area covered by the shed. Half of the San Quentin Yard rested underneath this, long enough and wide enough to play a football game underneath. Some rich old lady had paid to have it built because she felt sorry that we had to stand out in the rain. Maybe someone convinced her he was innocent . . .
I came underneath the shed, making sure that a pigeon wasn’t perched above where I walked while heading to the stairs leading down to the Lower Yard. Jimmy stood underneath, throwing down chunks of bread to a dozen pigeons that eagerly gobbled it up.
“Hey, Jimmy?” He looked up at my voice, and gave me a half grin when he saw who it was. “I hope that you get that bread back from the other end.” He flipped me off and then returned to throwing the bread.
As I stepped through the entrance to the Lower Yard, I looked down on the area where much of my prison life had been spent. The Gym was a huge cement box. For some reason it reminded me of Egyptian Pyramids; only this one’s square, but I pictured it filled with tunnels. I made my way down the stairs, looking out onto the yard to see that they had already begun the sack races. I could hear the distant hoots as the guys stumbled and fell and tried to get back on their feet without getting out of their burlap bags. Further out on the yard, sprinters were setting up for the Fifty Yard Dash, while marathon runners were over readying themselves for the longer distance. Each winner would get two packs, but I had chosen to try and take the grand prize from Smitty.
“Cliff!” my coach, Mike, shouted as soon as I walked into the gym. This place held in it life-giving juice for me. Training to fight, and fighting to train, had given me release from the monotony, and, now, I saw my goal sitting over to the side of the boxing ring; he was ready. Smitty sat on the other side of the ring smoking a cigarette with his group of sycophants. A bunch of wanna-be tough guys, who clung to Smitty for protection. They gave me their cocky looks and spoke to their alpha male.
Smitty watched me with an odd look, as if I was not the same person he’d seen around for the past five years, as if now I mattered. Other than working the speed bag and heavy bag, he only fought when there was a reward to it. Even then, he’d rarely been challenged, and most of the time he just accepted the prize uncontested. He also collected an occasional unpaid debt, which he then took half of, but it was easy money. Smitty never had to ask more than once, and no one refused to pay. He had no neck and a body as thick from his shoulders down to his knees. His muscled body was matched by arms as thick as my legs. “I’m dead meat,” came out of my mouth without me asking it to.
“Hey,” Mike said as he punched my arm, “you can take him.” The cigarette bobbed up and down between his lips. “Come on, let’s check you in on the fight card.” Convicts streamed into the gym, not only to see the fights, but also the weight lifting and handball competition.
The fights began with the feather weights. They immediately went into head hunting, ignoring each other’s bodies, aiming for the one head shot that took the opponent to the mat. From there it would work up to the finale of Smitty taking my head off.
I was soon caught up in the sport, watching those in the ring engaging in the art of controlled physical violence. Each punch and counter punch kept my attention away from what was coming, and most were evenly matched so the three rounds were decided by the prison coach and an old guard who once boxed. Smitty was situated on the other side of the ring, and I could see his bulk out of the corner of my eye, but I kept my eyes focused on the boxers hurling blows at each other inside the ring.
Too soon, Mike said, “You’re next up,” with a slap on my shoulder.
My eyes immediately went over to Smitty, and he was staring at me as if I was a steak dinner. His “buddies” were slapping him on the shoulders as they watched me watching him. I slowly turned my head away, and reached for my hand wraps.
I focused on the training Mike had given me. He was doing ten flat for trying to kill his wife and the guy in bed with her. He’d owned his own boxing gym, and trained a couple of welter weights to Golden Glove status. “No, really,” I remember him saying to me, “you’ve got what it takes!”
I had put on some gloves with a buddy, and we were slapping at each other inside of the ring when Mike walked up and began to point things out to both of us. Our fight soon turned into a serious game of battle as my punches began to hit home more often than not. Mike talked with me the same day, and the next morning began my training for this day. “Two years,” I said as I made the last turn of the cloth wrap and carefully tied the string with my other hand.
“Okay, now for the feature match!” came the shout from inside of the ring as Mike laced up the glove. Loud shouts followed the announcement. I looked over to several guards standing ring-side holding a slim stack of bills while they looked at me with a smirk.
“Let’s do it!” Mike said, as we got up and climbed in.
Smitty ambled up and jumped over the ropes like a gazelle. The crowd immediately roared, and he obliged them with a flexing of his twenty-four inch arms. At six-feet-four, he was a volcano with long bright red hair and a thick beard halfway down his thick chest. If there was ever a group of guys who had no respect for the underdog, these were the ones. “Eat his brains, Smitty!” came one shout from the crowd that made me flinch as I tried not to turn and look.
There were no introductions. It was Smitty against the young nobody who didn’t have enough sense to let Smitty pick up his two cartons unopposed. “You guys know the rules?” asked the inmate ref, but Smitty wasn’t interested in hearing him as he stepped right up in my face and tilted his head down to push his forehead onto mine. The crowd was screaming loudly things like making my grandchildren retarded and using a mop to get my brains off of the mat.
“Smitty,” the ref finally said, “keep it clean, or the gunner’ll shoot your ass.” There was something similar to the sound of a grunting laugh he gave out as he stepped back. “Touch gloves!” he ordered, and we smacked leather and turned to walk back. I gave a look upward to the catwalk strung above the gym, to see the gunner all the way on the other side away from the bout. I wanted to scream for him to get over here, but that wouldn’t say much for my self-confidence.
“We got his smug ass right where we want it!” Mike said as he shoved the mouth piece in. I tasted the tang of rubber as I bit down hard. The give under my teeth brought a surge of courage into my heart, picturing Smitty giving the same way.
The bell rang, and the crowd roared. As if they had all one mind, “Kill him, kill him!” came the chant, and it wasn’t me they were talking to.
He simply walked directly toward me, with his gloves raised against his chest as he stepped up and raised a pillar of an arm to hit me. In a flash, I hit him with a combination that landed a blow square on his chin.
There was a lull in the screaming, as they watched Smitty step back away from my work. He looked at me with shock in his eyes. “You hit me,” were his first words ever spoken to me. A grin came over his face. As if recalling some forgotten protocol, Smitty now raised his hands into the same position that Mike had been drilling me with. Once more he approached, only now those massive arms had become real obstacles.
“Jab, jab!” Mike screamed from behind, and that is what I did. Once, twice, I flicked out my left hand, catching only the top of the head, and suddenly I was seeing a cloud of stars.
I wasn’t sure what the roar was. It may have been some distant galaxy that I had been transported to, or the screams of the crowd. Through the fog I began to hear the words, “ . . . three, four.”
“Get up, get up!” screamed Mike, as I caught the transport bus back to San Quentin. Smitty’s hulking body was turned away from me, hands raised in the air.
“ . . . six, seven,” was all the further he counted before I hopped to my feet. The crowd was a bunch of snitches, screaming for Smitty to turn around.
“Are you ready?” the ref asked grabbing both gloves and shaking them. I gave him a nod as I danced on my toes. But he still held on as he gave me an unbelieving look. “Where you at?” he probed.
I quit dancing and looked him square in the eyes. “Doing life!” I shouted as I yanked my gloves away and faced off in the middle of the mat.
The behemoth came my way to the continuing chant, “Kill him, kill him!”
I happened to look to where Smitty’s corner man stood and saw Jimmy beside him with a yellow grin on his face. As Smitty tried to take me down again with a fast left, I ducked under it and delivered the hardest punch I’d ever thrown right into his ribs. There was a funny sort of crunching feeling under the glove, followed by Smitty spitting out his mouthpiece as he staggered away from me.
“Time!” shouted the ref, and I was ordered to go to the neutral corner while he went over to where the mouth guard lay on the mat.
Picking it up, he slowly walked over to the opponent’s corner. “Hurry up!” Mike screamed as they washed it. I turned to look at Mike, whose expression was sheer delight. “You got him!” he said pointing over to Smitty. A grimace covered his face as he stared up, twisting his upper body. “Do some dancing,” he said as the ref stuck the mouth piece back in.
“What?” I asked, eager to begin tearing this mountain down.
“Dance,” he yelled as Smitty moved straight at me with fury in his eyes, “dance!”
The train was right on top of me then, and I feinted with a right hook and then jumped away from the counter blow that would have sent me back to the mat if I hadn’t stepped back.
I did a Muhammad Ali as I backpedaled around the furious beast at the center of the ring. “Come on, punk!” he shouted while beckoning me with his glove, “I’ll show you your tonsils.”
“Dance,” Mike screamed again, but that was easier said than done now that Smitty began to cut off the ring as he attempted to corner me.
“Fight me!” Smitty screamed as he lunged at me with a right roundhouse that landed on my upper arm.
My body tightened to it, but I was still thrown off balance, and I saw Smitty coming in for a fatal blow. I did what Mike told me to and stepped in front of the punch and wrapped my arms around his thick waist.
Didn’t anyone around here know where the showers were? Smitty stunk worse than Jimmy, his hairy armpit in my face, as he swung downward blows trying to ring my head, and that was when I had a thought.
As he raised both arms up for another assault, I reached up around Smitty’s huge barrel chest and clamped down again. “Auuugh!” he screamed in pain, and his intentions turned from trying to hit me to just working himself free of my grasp.
“Break!” shouted the ref, and he began to pull me away.
I let go, just as the bell rang for the first round. I cautiously moved back from Smitty, whose stare was designated in the California Penal Code under Section 187. I watched him watching me move far enough away from any sudden attack by him; only then did he move back to his own corner.
I spit my mouthpiece into my hand to take a deeper breath. “You got him!” Mike shouted as I sat down on the stool. Cold water splashed on my face as I took a bottle and drank a large gulp. “Listen,” my coach said with a slap on the cheek, “three to the head . . . ” He slapped me on the cheek again, “Hey, look at me.”
I was looking at the other side of the ring and at the enraged Smitty watching back. “Ignore that son of a bitch,” he shouted while squeezing my cheeks in his grip and pulling my eyes to him. “You do three counts to the head, and back off. Three count to the head, and back off again.”
“Okay?” I asked as my eyes again looked back to Smitty who was making his corner man almost piss his pants in trying to keep him happy.
“When he keeps his guard up to protect his head,” Mike shook my head to bring my stare back to him, “you take that right and sink it into his side just like you did before.”
“Okay,” I said as the warning was sounded that the round was about to start.
As I stood waiting, I stepped from one foot to the other, kicking out each shoe as I looked to the other corner. Smitty matched my foot motion, coupled with a smacking of his right into his left glove. I suddenly seemed to be outside of time, as if I possessed some sort of ability to grasp every possibility, and I knew that I could bring this colossal down . . .
The bell rang, and on came the rushing bull as he screamed at the top of his lungs. The crowd screamed, “Finish him, Smitty!” Two steps and I waited, but the mad rush wasn’t as mad as he made me think, and Smitty anticipated that I would side-step him. He pulled up one step sooner than I thought he could, and he caught me with my guard down as I was playing twinkle toes till a left jab lashed out.
I stayed in orbit around earth on this one, but an interstellar launcher was certainly coming quickly if I didn’t do the right thing. I went down. Smitty towered over me, “Get up!” he screamed, but I lay on my back, and pursed my lips and blew him a kiss.
“Go to your corner,” shouted the ref, and Smitty didn’t move. “Go, Smitty,” he said again, and I raised a glove with a grin on my face and waved him goodbye.
“Coward, coward,” shouted the crowd.
“One, two,” the ref began to count, and I was already on my feet. “Nice move,” he said low enough that Smitty didn’t hear and I gave him a wink and a nod as I once more approached my Everest.
“Kill him, kill him!” These guys just loved a bloodbath. I stood waiting, my game plan ready as he once more approached me like a real boxer. We circled in the middle of the ring, and I noticed that he had his left arm down low where I’d hit him.
I hit him with a right, another right, and then a third right, and Smitty brought up his left to block me. He was waiting for something, but I kept to my plan. The left kept coming back too low. Again, one, two, and three, and now he wasn’t thinking of his ribs as my blows threatened to rock his brains out.
A left jab brought him off center, and I stepped to my right and made a roundhouse that landed square on his side. “Ow!” both Smitty and the crowd cried out.
He bucked, but he didn’t buckle as he wrapped me up in his big arms. Smitty’s left arm was under my right so I couldn’t hit the sore spot. His other arm was wrapped about my head. Suddenly I was lifted off my feet as I heard the sound of the ref, “Break.”
From the location of where the ref’s voice came, he’d picked me up with one arm and suddenly swung me completely around as Smitty’s other thick arm moved over my face. “Break!” I heard the ref shouting from behind Smitty, but I was now smelling the leather of a boxing glove, and then there was a searing pain on my face as I was slung looses of Smitty.
“I said break, Smitty,” I could hear at a distance, but I was bleeding over the bridge of my nose. He’d used the laces of his glove to rip across my face, and I could see the torn flesh over the top of my nose. My eyes kept wanting to cross in order to inspect the damage, but I needed my focus elsewhere.
There he stood with a grin on his face waiting, and when I looked at him, Smitty puckered up and blew me a kiss. I no longer cared for this man; he was to be removed. I wanted him to be wearing a toe tag, and my rage suddenly met up with a sense of dark cunning that told me just what I had to do.
Once more we circled in the middle of the ring. Smitty was landing blows on my arms and chest as he softened me up for a head shot, and I countered with my own punches to his head and then to the side.
Thinking he’d figured me out, I sprung my trap. A left jab to the face was followed with step to my left and the delivery of a thundering hit to Smitty’s solar plexus. “Oooh!” came the noise of his lungs emptying of air, and I didn’t stop.
Both hands were now at his sides, and nothing else mattered to him, until I hit him with a left on the side of the face that laid open his cheek. As quick as I pulled it back, my right was on flight path, zeroed in on his chin, and it took him off his feet. He landed flat on his back. Big Smitty was out cold.
The crowd screamed its total shock, and disbelief of the destruction of their idol. I looked down on Smitty, eyes rolled up in his head, and I only heard the ref because he screamed it in my ear, “Get to the corner.” He shoved me in the direction of the corner near the crowd.
I began to focus on the crowd, half seemed to now be rooting for me, but then I saw Jimmy. Blood dripped from the end of my nose as I stepped up to where he stared in wide-eyed shock and disbelief. Muscles tightened and rippled as I leaned forward. “Auuugh!” I screamed in victory. The crowd roared, they all stood screaming their approval. From somewhere distant I heard the sound of a bell ringing.
I turned around to see that Smitty was now slowly climbing to his feet, still dazed. “End of the round, go to your corner,” I heard, but didn’t want to. I wanted him dead, and the idea of waiting any longer just didn’t work. “Go!” the ref said, and shoved me towards Mike who was waving for me.
I watched Smitty move back to his corner, and he was broken. “Sit down!” Mike ordered as I wandered close enough. I allowed myself to sit only because I could continue to stare at the object of my hatred. Smitty’s handler was now slapping his master about the face, trying to bring him back to the fight.
“Hey!” Mike said, “Great job!” He began rubbing Vaseline on the bridge of my nose. I could see that Smitty was now back in his full senses as he slapped his handler, while Jimmy was standing right by the corner with his hand out. “Are you ready to finish this?” Mike asked me.
“Hell, yes!” I said, and took a swallow of water.
“Same thing,” he began, “three to the head, and one to the ribs.” Mike grabbed me by the cheeks, “You got it?”
I was looking at Jimmy, who was putting something in the corner guy’s hand. “Yeah, I got it.”
“Good!” He paused as he finished putting the touches on the nose. “If you’re lucky, you’ll shove a rib into his lungs and the bastard’ll drown in his own blood!”
“Get ready!” the ref shouted.
I stood and looked over to see Smitty was also on his feet, but turned away facing his corner, and his handler was putting a chain around his neck. The bell rang, and I quickly approached ready, eager to begin my annihilation of his person.
Smitty slowly turned and moved at me with an expression on his face that passed for being worried. “Last round,” shouted the ref, “touch gloves.”
As Smitty came close, I noticed there was a piece of metal hanging from the chain; it was a small silver cross. I immediately looked over at Jimmy, who looked at me with a sinister grin. Smitty’s glove smacked against mine, but I didn’t notice as my thoughts seemed to rewind, asking what to do in this sort of situation.
At first Smitty wasn’t sure, expecting me to immediately dive in for the slaughter, but I held back, trying to decide if faith denied me the right to want to kill him. Smitty tentatively jabbed with his left. “Get in there!” I heard Mike scream.
I finally shook off the doubt, and began the attack, striking at his head with both right and left blows till his arms were raised high above his ribs, but I couldn’t go there. “Finish him!” Mike screamed, seeing that I had let slip several clean shots at the potentially fatal spot. My head shook in refusal of the offered target, “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” I heard Mike shout.
I tried, but I fought without wanting to punish him, and Smitty quickly realized that I wasn’t going to hit him where he feared I would. “Kill him, kill him!” came the chant, and now it was me who they called out to.
I landed a right to the side of his head, but it was only a glancing blow, and Smitty was ready with a left jab, which briefly blinded me to what was coming next. I don’t remember the right hitting me, just more of the stars from that far-off galaxy. As things began to come back, I was hearing, “Six, seven, eight; you’re out!”
I looked about me wondering what all the screaming was about, and then over to Mike who was stomping the ground and throwing his hat. It slowly started to come back as I looked at Smitty, with his arms raised high in victory. “Come on,” Mike told me as he was suddenly leaning over with his hand out, “it’s over.”
My face was a bloody mess, the prison guards were called ahead of my pace back to my cell. It made sure that they knew I hadn’t just got the crap kicked out of me in some blind spot, only in the ring against Smitty; I’m not sure if I would have preferred spending a couple days in the hole after this. Every cop still stopped me, and demanded I explain to him why my face was such a mess, and it gave them the chance to enjoy the pounding I’d been given.
A hot shower didn’t help much. Later I stood at the mirror in my cell and put a bandage over the bridge while pressing the skin back into place. My face was puffy and the swelling under one eye was pushing it closed. “I told you about that right, didn’t I?” came Jimmy’s voice.
Without looking, I reached into my locker, and grabbed the packs. I shoved them out between the bars. “Get lost, Jimmy.”
“Now,” came his taunt. “That’s not the Christian thing to say.”
Billy’s voice then broke in, “Get lost, Jimmy.”
I went back to tending my face as I watched Billy open my cell door and come in. “Good fight,” there was a pause as he thought about, “You let him get away.”
“Mike wouldn’t talk with me.”
Billy sighed. “Yeah, well, he’s got different priorities.”
I finished my doctoring and turned and sat down on the toilet. “I think I’ll hang up the gloves.”
Billy nodded his agreement, his lips pursed. “Yep,” he looked straight at me, “you can’t expect to win if you don’t try to hurt them.” He stood up and stepped over to where I sat and reached out his hand, “You’re the champ.”
We shook, and I laughed. Billy left and I stayed seated for a minute when another shadow passed by the cell. “I’ve got bacon cheese burgers for sale?” asked the face looking in cell.
Not moving he went on, “I’ve got an ice-cold soda, candy bar and the burger for a pack?”
I stared at the persistent salesman at the door and let go an easy laugh. “No, thanks.”
He squinted and looked closer a moment, and then a grin came to his face, “Oh, it’s you.” He didn’t wait for me to speak as he continued hawking his business down the tier.
“Yeah,” I said slowly standing, “it’s me.” Stepping over the bunk, I sat down on the bed.
“Count time,” came the voice over the loud speaker. In another minute, the bar slid over securing all the cells on the floor.
“Cliff?” came Billy’s shout.
“Going to dinner?”
I laughed, “No way!”
Billy laughed as well, “Yeah, I guess that would be too much punishment,” he said knowing that my bruised ego wouldn’t do well in that crowded dining hall with all the wisecracks. “I’ve got a Top Ramen?”
I took a deep breath. They were serving all-you-can-eat hot dogs and watermelon. July Fourth was one of the best meals the prison served. “Yeah.” I waited a second and then asked, “Gary, got any crackers?”
Silence followed for a moment, and then an abrupt, “No!” was all that came.
I waited another moment before speaking. “I’ll get it later from you, Billy.” I laid down on my bunk and closed my eyes. The fight came back, and the insults to my person Smitty had done didn’t seem to matter. Things began to drift, and I dreamed that I was sailing. The sail billowed wide as a strong wind pushed me into a clear ocean. Suddenly I felt someone watching me, and I opened my eyes to look.
Smitty was standing at the bars. He looked at me with a curious expression on his face. I sat up, expecting the worst, but I could see that bar opening the cell door was closed, and so my stare returned to Smitty and his look. His hand reached up to the silver cross still about his neck. “Nice, right?” is all he said before he turned and walked away.
I sat on my bunk, blinking my eyes wondering if I had been dreaming. That was when I looked down lower on the bars and saw the cartons of Camels sitting there.
I cautiously took the two long boxes off the bars and inspected them to see that they were in fact what they appeared to be. I stared up at the ceiling in amazement. “Billy?”
“Where’s that guy live who’s selling those burgers?”
Later that night, Billy and I leaned against the railing as we looked out of the broken windows as fireworks exploded in the distance. Billy took a long swallow of his soda and then looked at me. “You think you’ll be back in the ring next year?”
I gave a laugh. “No way.”