The Hook and the Haymaker

Jared Yates Sexton
Story of the Year, 2013
Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 2 – December 2013

The Hook and the Haymaker

You may not believe it, but I fought Buster Mathis before he was Buster Mathis. He was still fighting the City Circuit, after the Golden Gloves and before he moved up in class and dropped Harper Lawrence for the title. They were training him at Patterson’s Gym, the place where all the up and comers go, and they needed some sparring partners. I signed up and they hired me right off. His manager said I worked hard and didn’t take cheap shots. Said he admired the left hook I was throwing back in those days.

Buster went through partners like they were toilet paper. I stood out there on call and watched him drop them in no time. It wasn’t like he was really trying either. One after another they got in and touched gloves and he’d put them on their ass before they knew what was what. He was a murderer. Couldn’t even hold back sparring. He’d flick a jab or two and then lay out these poor boys with a cross or uppercut. Just shut their lights off.

What was worse was his haymaker. That’s what he was famous for, this wild punch that started in his right shoulder and came up and over your guard like a flood. Seems like he landed it every time. Certainly put Harper Lawrence down. And when he let loose that day, when he’d square up one of those kids who went ahead of me, it wasn’t even a contest. They took it right in the teeth.

They fell and they fell hard.

Truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to getting in the ring. Guy before me had to be carried out. I climbed in after and got a mouthpiece from one of the corners. He told me to try and stay in there awhile and swap punches.

Throw that hook, he said. Make him earn it.

I didn’t know any better. Sure, I said.

Buster charged at the bell. Come right in like I didn’t mean shit to him. He swiped with his right, that goddamn cannon, and it barely got my cheek. It hurt though, cracked a molar, and that snapped me awake. I got the hell away and ducked the jab he was loading up. Out of desperation I hurled that hook, the one that’d got his manager’s attention, and it smacked him spot on the ear.

Now, I never did much as a fighter. I won my share and lost just as many. But I’ll be honest – that hook had to be one of the best in the business. It had to be. I knew from early on I didn’t have much to offer. Feet were slow. Knuckles broke too easy. I couldn’t manage a long bout to save my life. But that hook? It was my saving grace, the one tool I had in my bag that worked worth a damn.

Well. Buster found out about it. When it hit he backed off, stumbled even, and had to take a second to get his head in order. I could tell it shook him up, that it made him reconsider the situation.

Buster, his manager said. You good, son?

He was looking at me out of worn-out eyes. He nodded and charged again. This time I could feel the heat coming off him like exhaust. I didn’t see much except that haymaker charging up in his lump of a right shoulder. When I woke up it was a good half hour later and I’d swallowed four of my front teeth.

They slipped me some extra for the surgery. I pocketed a couple hundred and told the dentist to only replace three of those teeth. I wanted a memento. Now, when I smile, people get a good look at the souvenir I got from Buster Mathis.

Things changed after that. Word spread that I’d stood the man up. I got more fights, even got a shot at the City Champion. Fought Hector Ramos at the Roosevelt Gym and got knocked out in the seventh. There was word that Ramos was dirty and put pig-iron in his gloves, but I didn’t protest. I was done fighting at that point, done waking up with bloody sheets and bruised hands. I’d done my time.

Of course, Buster was just taking off. Got on a real roll of it and was taking fellas out left and right. I used to go up to the bar and drink and watch. Sometimes people would come up and ask if I was the guy who’d stood Buster Mathis with a left hook. They’d want autographs and pictures like I was some kind of big shot. It was embarrassing, but I’d grin a big gap-toothed smile and bear it.

The paper even called later and did a story in the run-up to his fight with Harper Lawrence. This pretty little reporter came and asked what it was like to take a punch from Buster Mathis and live. I laughed and pointed to where my tooth had been. Like falling, I said.

Her name was Anne and she was sweet enough to laugh at my piss-poor joke. In fact, she laughed at all my piss-poor jokes. She was fifteen years younger but I could tell she’d spent most of her life in the company of her elders. I asked if she wanted to grab a bite to eat and the two of us went over to the Mexican joint down the street. We closed the place down, drinking cervezas and going over all my old, worthless fights. When the article finally ran in the paper it was crammed way in the back.

It wasn’t two weeks later Anne moved in. When we’d met she’d been in a bad situation and looking for a way out. I guess I gave her that. And maybe it was out of appreciation, or even kindness, but we spent most of our nights getting drunk on the couch and watching fights on the tube. In those days you could count on somebody airing a bout, be it cruisers or feathers or the occasional heavy, and we’d be right there when the opening bell rang, the both of us draining beers between her asking questions and me doing my best to explain.

When it came to the technical aspects of the sport, the poetics she called it, I hardly knew anything. As a fighter I was clumsy, a cloud of mistimed punches and artless blocks, and the fact that I’d ever won a decision or knocked a man out was a miracle in and of itself, but I wanted to impress her so I made shit up. Look there, I’d say to her, pretending to know what I was talking about. Look how he drops that guard. Look at that window.

I see it, she’d say and huddle in close.

She was as sweet of a thing as I’d ever come across. In the morning she’d head into the office to report on a car crash or an assault and of the evening she’d come and make me supper. Never asked me to find work. Never bothered me about my drinking. Never asked me to do anything besides explain the fights on the television.

Well, she asked one thing.

After Buster Mathis retired he came back to the city. Opened a drive-in that lasted two seasons and shut down in good order. Bankrolled a diner that burned up under suspicious circumstances. I’d see him every now and then walking in and out of places. You could tell he was enjoying retirement. A layer of fat coated his muscles and his face and cheeks filled out. But just watching him you could tell he was still graceful, one of the most naturally gifted sons of bitches to ever lace up the gloves.

And he was as famous as they came round here. Every time somebody opened a store or restaurant they’d ask Buster to come and cut the ribbon or declare business begun. He seemed bored by the whole thing. Like he was half-asleep when he got out there. He’d put up those cinderblock fists of his like he was about to fight but the spirit was gone.

One of those openings was for the new Shop N Save on Bondehoo. There was going to be a big ceremony, the kind he was always brought in for, and over beers Anne said she thought I should be there too.

I’ll write it up, she said, for the paper. Get a picture and everything.

Nobody cares, I said back. And Buster probably won’t even remember me.

She didn’t agree. This is the kind of thing people eat up, she said. Hell, it might be on the front page. You never know, maybe they’ll start asking you to open up supermarkets.

I would’ve said no if she’d ever asked me for anything before and if things between us were good, but we’d slipped into a bad period. It was as if something had shut off, like we were both tired and ready to throw in the towel. We got hateful there for awhile and sometimes I’d ask her about it and she’d act like I was imagining the whole thing. It was there though and I knew I wasn’t in a position to turn her down. After all, a girl like her, a girl who can put up with a washed-up loser like me for so long, doesn’t ask for much. But when they do it matters.

So I said okay.

The morning of she helped me put on the only suit I owned. It wouldn’t button anymore and the shirt only made it halfway up my chest. The whole deal reminded me just how out of shape I was. And, when I went to button the buttons that would still cooperate, my knuckles started feeling fuzzy and out of focus. A pain throbbed up. It’s how they felt whenever there was a rain brewing, whenever they started remembering the old days between the ropes.

I don’t know if I can do this, I said.

She tied a loose knot in my tie and brought her face close to mine. I know you can, she said. You can do anything you want to do, she said.

I wish I could’ve told her how wrong she was.

At the new supermarket there were maybe thirty people there in front of the main stage. Some reporters, a television crew from the news station, the store employees, and a few gawkers and family members. Over the top of the stage was a banner – SHOP N SAVE: THE UNDISPUTED GROCERY CHAMPION. Next to the words were a pair of badly-drawn boxing gloves.

When the time came the owner marched out with the new managers. Some music played. I can’t remember what it was. The air was buzzing around my ears. I was keeping watch for Buster. Anne had her hand in mine and was squeezing in anticipation. I wanted to run.

And now, the owner said, pulling a cheap-looking championship belt out of a box, the meanest man to ever throw a punch: Buster Mathis.

More music played. A few purple spots danced in front of my eyes. I tongued the space between my teeth. Buster came onstage and crowd barely cheered while he made a show of throwing a few punches. I felt my feet shift on their own and I had to catch myself from falling over.

Buster got up to the microphone and the owner tried to drape the championship belt on his shoulder. It was awkward but it ended up there like a dead snake. Buster said something but the microphone was turned off. He backed away and the owner announced he’d sign some autographs if anybody wanted them.

He ended up behind a table on the stage. The reporters and employees and gawkers went from getting some of the free food to getting autographs from Buster. Anne led me up there in line and got her photographer ready. You’re shaking, she whispered to me.

I’m not shaking, I lied.

I got up to Buster and he was signing a receipt slip for a teenager wearing a Shop N Save polo. Chances were he didn’t even know who Buster was. Soon as he got the autograph he shoved the slip into his pocket and walked off to find something to drink. He’d had no idea how great Buster was, how he’d gone round the world knocking some of the biggest and the strongest on their asses. It was awful.

Next, said the man directing traffic.

I walked up and said, Hey, Buster.

Buster wasn’t paying attention. He’d signed his name for the people before me with his head down, like he was ashamed of what he’d become or that he’d had to be there in the first place. I imagine he was probably thinking back to his days of being led out to the ring, crowds of people cheering and the music pumping out of the speakers. I imagine he was wishing he was anywhere but this sad-ass city that’d birthed him.

Buster, Anne said to him. I’m from the paper. You remember this fella? You remember sparring back in the day?

Like he was waking from a nap, Buster lazily raised his head. He looked like someone who might have been Buster Mathis in a previous life. Like someone who missed being Buster Mathis. Then those eyes of his, the same I’d seen after I landed that cross, the tired and worn-out ones, they came to me. I think he recognized me right off.

I’d like to do a story, Anne said to him. A sort of a where-are-they-now piece.

I don’t think she was done speaking at that point but she quit talking. Buster, after all, was pulling himself out of his seat. He was raising that mountain of a body of his up and shedding the suit coat that barely fit him. Those eyes came alive too. They caught fire like someone had switched on an engine.

Buster, I said.

But I’d been watching his eyes too closely. It was a flaw of mine from way back, one of the things that’d always got me in hot water in the late rounds. I’d be in there in the mix and get to focusing on the fella’s eyes instead of where it needed to be – his feet and his hands. And right then, on the stage, Anne at my side, I was watching how Buster’s moved and changed and not paying a bit of mind to where all the trouble was brewing and swelling, right there in his right shoulder.

Jared YatesSextonJared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and currently serves as Managing Editor of the literary magazine BULL. His work has been nominated for a pair of Pushcarts, The Million Writers Award, and was a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books.

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