'Twas the Fight Before Christmas

A high-wire experiment in sports fiction, written in nine chapters, sequentially, by nine SI authors, wherein a fast-fading pugilist suddenly finds himself in the bout of his life. Read on....
December 26, 2005

[ I ]

I tasted the blood before I felt the pain. Buttnose Rizzoli told me it would be like that, but I hadn't believed him because when you're a boxer you're always hearing things that turn out to be a load of crap.

Buttnose, my first trainer, was right about the blood and pain thing, though. A left hook to the gut had doubled me over, then a right cracked a couple of my nasal bones and blood poured down my throat. The pain didn't hit me until I was getting led out of the ring by Doggy Jenkins--my current trainer--who was stuffing his index finger up my nose to stop the bleeding. "The guy don't break my nose," I said. "I go all eight with him." Doggy didn't respond, which meant that maybe he didn't agree with my analysis. ¶ A tipsy-looking guy stepped in our path waving a cup of something foamy at me. He looked like a refugee from a Jimmy Buffett concert. "Hey, look," said the guy, sneering. "Here comes the Great White Dope."

Doggy took his free hand, the one that wasn't up my nose, and slapped the guy in the face, never even stopping. "I hate guys who wear those bandannas," Doggy said.

The commission doctor was already in my dressing room, sitting there with a smug grin, like he had known I was going to need him. He came over and started moving my nose this way and that. "I fixed up your dad the other day, Tommy," said Doc Walker, who was, as usual, offering up a serious case of halitosis. (What, he can't spend a dime for one of those little masks that cover your mouth?) "Your dad's got a cranium as hard as titanium."

"That's good to know, Doc," I said.

"Yeah, ol' Irish Paddy Cavanaugh. That's a hard man there, your pop."

"Doc, you concentrating on my nose here?" I asked.

The doc went on like I wasn't even there. "What're you now, 25? You're gonna have some honker on you when you're my age."

Doggy tapped the doctor on the shoulder. "How's it look?"

"Broken," said the doc.

"Brilliant diagnosis," said Doggy.

"How long before I can fight again?" I asked.

The doc, mercifully, pulled away. "It isn't fatal, Tommy, and I know you aren't signing up for any beauty pageants. So whenever you and Doggy want back in is fine with me." He slapped Doggy on the shoulder and left.

"I wouldn't let that guy touch my dog," said Doggy, pulling off my gloves. "And I don't even like my dog."

The door flew open, and there was Cheryl Sue, wearing an orange scarf and a pair of orange Capri pants, her perfume filling the room. She still used that politically incorrect musk scent you can only get by killing rare reindeer or something.

"You did great, Tommy," she said, sticking out her butt and keeping her distance as she kissed my cheek. Cheryl Sue liked to pretend that the blood and sweat and pervasive stench of my profession didn't bother her. "If the guy doesn't get lucky and hurt your nose, I think you could've beat him."

"You hear that, Doggy?" I said. "She saw the same thing I did."

Doggy grunted. As much as he fought against it, he liked Cheryl Sue. "That's 'cause she's polite."

Cheryl Sue gently ran one of her orange fingernails along the bridge of my nose. "Will it affect your breathing?" What she meant was: Will you make noises like a horse when you're sleeping?

"Nah, and I'll be back in the ring in no time. The doc says it's a 'nonthreatening nasal condition.'"

Cheryl Sue was still trying to work out what that meant when Wilson, the guy who swept up around Ring Lights, stuck his head in the door. "You got a call."

"They probably want to bronze my nose for the Boxing Hall of Fame," I said, as I walked out to the pay phone in the hallway.

The receiver was dangling from the wall, spinning slowly on its metal cord. I reeled it in and said hello.

"Cavanaugh? This is Charlie Considine. You probably heard of me. We book fighters."

"Sure, sure, Mr. Considine," I said. "Who hasn't heard of you?" What I'd heard was that he was a crook, not like you'd expect anything else in this game.

He ignored my nonanswer. "I think we can work together," he said. "I love light heavies."

"You name it, and I'm there," I said. "Unless it's to fight a Mexican in Mexico. Anything else is negotiable."

"Nah, this is a New York fight. Hell, you can take the subway to it."

"I only need a couple weeks to get ready," I told him. "I was doing good tonight against Warren Davis till he got lucky and busted my nose, so I'm pretty close to top form. Who is it? That young guy from Texas been knocking everybody out?"

Considine took his time answering. "Nah, somebody older than that," he said finally, "but you know him. We want you to fight your dad."

[ II ]

I LET THE PHONE RECEIVER fall, then watched it swing back and forth on its silver cord, like a man dangling from a vine trap. Which is what I felt like after telling Considine, without thinking it through, that I'd fight Pop. ¶ I called him Pop but not just because he was my father.

No, Pop was the sound of his nose cartilage exploding every Friday night in the ring. Those pops came with such frequency--and so explosively--that the writers, for a time, called him Orville Redenbacher.

Pop was also the sound of his open hand on my face, on those rare cameo appearances he made in our house. Maybe he was trying to make me over in his image, rearrange my face in the manner of Mr. Potato Head, to whom Pop bore a striking resemblance. He came to New York from Ireland at 15 and later fought three bouts as Potatoes O'Grotin. This earned him a two-word mention in the Daily News--"Potatoes O'Rotten"--that he folded up and stuck in his wallet for reasons I never understood. It was practically the only folding paper that boxing ever put in his pocket.

But it wasn't the last time Pop appeared in the News: He spent a year or two sleeping in it, and other papers, in a bus shelter on Canarsie Avenue after I got big enough to fight back and Mom got smart enough to change the locks.

Last time I saw him was a month ago, at the gym. He was looking up at me from Ring magazine, under the headline OUT, BUT NOT DOWN. It was a story about how Pop managed to lose 57 fights in his career--every one of them on points. "The Berlin Wall took 40 years to knock down," the story said, "but Cavanaugh hasn't fallen after 41."

The fact that he'd never been knocked down didn't make him great, just stubborn, with a high pain threshold and a bottomless well of blood. Ring said Pop "splattered more canvases than Jackson Pollock." I asked Doggy what kinda fighter Pollock was, and he said, "Musta been crap 'cause I never heard of him."

To judge by the picture, Pop didn't just have cauliflower ears, he had the whole produce aisle: A cherry tomato of a nose and green eyes shot through with red at the center, like pimentos in an olive. This wasn't a face, it was the salad bar at Ponderosa. "Somebody's gotta toughen you up," he used to tell me every time we sparred, with bare knuckles, in the backyard. But he was really doing the opposite: He was tenderizing me, like a steak.

Steak and salad bars. I'm always hungry after a fight.

"Cheryl Sue," I said, as I grabbed my coat from my locker. "Let's go to Lucky's. I could eat a horse."

"If it's horse you want," said Doggy, "Lucky's is the place."

Doggy should know. Guy lives on restaurant leftovers. Other people's. He'll wait for a couple to leave, then dump their half-eaten porterhouse in his canvas doggy bag, the one with everlast emblazoned on the side. Which is how he got his nickname.

I took an aspirin bottle from my duffel bag, removed the cotton wad, shook some pills down my throat then plugged the cotton up my right nostril.

"That a rabbit up your nose?" some drunk said as I pushed the panic bar on the steel door, ushering Cheryl Sue out of the gym.

"Yeah, lucky rabbit," I said and jaywalked across the street to Lucky's, where we slid into a booth upholstered in vinyl, the window booth, where I plan to pop the question when I win a few fights.

Tonight the only ring on the table was last month's Ring magazine. Lucky came by to ask about the fight--he always wears a pink tie and a pink pocket square--and when he finally left I told Cheryl Sue about Pop: how he could absorb a beating better than any man who ever fought--better than Cobb, better than Ledoux, better even than Jerry Quarry, a fighter whose last name was a synonym for a hunted animal.

I told her Pop was known as a human heavy bag, a guy who wouldn't go down even when he's spraying blood like a lawn sprinkler, even when the ring looked like the prom scene in Carrie and all the blood was his.

The more I talked, the more I felt like I was still dangling by the ankle in Considine's vine trap. What if I kill my own father in the ring? And, almost as troubling: What if I don't?

"This guy's my next fight," I said, showing Cheryl Sue the copy of Ring. "That's my father."

She turned white through her spray-on tan, which had been almost as orange as her outfit. "Tommy," she said. "He can't be your father."

"He is," I said. "On a technicality."

"But his name's not Cavanaugh, it's Kelly. That's Eight-Count Kelly."

"And Potatoes O'Grotin and Finbar McCollow and--wait: How do you know his name, anyway?" I said, popping two more aspirin into my mouth.

She didn't say anything.

"Cheryl Sue?"

Her chin began to quiver and my stomach did the same. "Tommy," she said, "please don't hate me."

"Hate you for what?"

"I had no way of knowing, Tommy, no way of knowing...."

"What is it, baby? Say it."

But she just fingered that page of Ring magazine, looking like she was about to cry.

Just then Lucky breezed by with tongs and a basket of dinner rolls, shouting, as he always does, "Compliments of the chef!"

But Cheryl Sue was already whispering, "I didn't know he was your father, Tommy. I couldn't have known."

Before I could say anything her tears, and her tan, were falling on the table.

She pulled the silk square from Lucky's pocket and dolefully blew her nose.

[ III ]

"UHH, YOU KEEP IT, DOLL," SAID LUCKY, unable to conceal his revulsion as she proffered him the hanky, into which she'd just honked like a migrating Canadian goose. "I got more where that came from." ¶ And that was true: He bought in bulk from TieOneOn because it was surprising how fast you went through haberdashery while running a greasy spoon catering to the fight crowd. It wasn't just oil spattering up from the deep fryer. There was the palooka who, pulling on Lucky's cravat a few years back, yanking his head down to table level to give him a better view of the moth in his split pea soup.

That guy was Fred Rogers in a cardigan compared to Paddy Cavanaugh, a.k.a. Potatoes O'Grotin, a.k.a. Eight-Count Kelly, etc. Now there's a man with a mean streak. Making a living as a flesh-and-blood piñata tended to leave him in a bad mood out of the ring. Lucky gave Paddy a wide berth, turning a blind eye when he pocketed the little packets of ketchup and granulated sugar; always forcing a smile when he made the same joke about the flank steak: So tough it asked ME to step outside!

One slow night in the diner Lucky told me the story about the woman who'd stood up to Pop, must've been eight years ago. She was a bottle blonde who'd been hitting the bottle too hard: Her hair was a chemical yellow not found in nature (as was, he recalled, her pantsuit). But she carried herself with a quiet dignity. He'd seen the hurt expression on her face that night as she told my father, "I can't believe you forgot my birthday."

Pop said nothing. He just took from the table the two quarters he'd intended to leave as a tip, walked outside to the gum-ball machine in front of the newsstand and came back with a toy ring in a clear plastic bubble. "Happy friggin' birthday," he said, bowling it across the Formica.

His attempt to duck, when she flung it back at him, was a full second late, as usual. The plastic bubble caught him on the crown of his knotted forehead, then richocheted up and bounced off the ceiling. By the time it stopped rolling on the linoleum floor, the woman was out of the diner and out of Pop's life.

And it dawned on me, maybe this was the same woman, having another blow-up with another Cavanaugh.

"I met him in Atlantic City," she said when she'd finally stopped sobbing. "I was working one of his fights as a round-card girl. He hit on me during the fight."

She told me how she was climbing through the ropes before the third round--"Not as easy as it sounds when you've got a big card under one arm, and you're wearing three-inch heels," she said--when Pop complimented her on her leopard-print bikini. "What can I say?" the old letch said while a cutman jammed a Q-tip into a trench under his left eye. "I'm a cat person."

I rolled my eyes while she forged ahead, recounting how Pop kept flirting through the middle rounds, even as he fell hopelessly behind on points. She was strangely flattered. When he asked for her phone number after the fight, she gave it to him. He was smiling as he went to get stitched up.

"We had some O.K. times," she told me. They'd dated a couple months, but his shtick got old fast. One too many times he'd gone through the motions of patting himself down, telling her he'd left his wallet at the gym, leaving her to pick up the dinner check. It reminded her of a sportswriter she'd dated.

"But you, sweetie--you're different," she said, reaching across the table and taking my hand. "You're a gentleman--no thanks to your old man. You hold doors for me, you don't forget your wallet. You're not gonna let him come between us, are you?"

I pulled my hand from hers and stood up. "I need time to digest this," I said. Even though Cheryl Sue's no genius, she understood that I wasn't talking about the corned beef hash.

I walked home through a rough part of town, half hoping some punk would try to take my wallet. My frustration at losing the fight--I'd trained hard and felt sharp--piggybacked on the confusion and hurt I felt at this latest ugly piece of news. What the hell had Cheryl Sue been thinking? Even if it was eight years ago, Pop was still no prize; I've seen better-looking gargoyles. Maybe her vision was impaired. That would certainly explain some of her wardrobe choices.

The walk home, followed by the hike up five flights, took the edge off my anger. But I was still feeling a bit off-kilter when I arrived at my apartment and saw the door ajar. I had company. Entering, I was thrown for another loop by the sight awaiting me: a fortysomething man arched over a yoga mat.

"Evening, Tommy," said Paddy Cavanaugh. "They call this one the downward-facing dog. Great for the spine."

He squinted up at me. "I see Warren Davis broke your nose for you," he added. "He did mine too. Welcome to the club."

[ IV ]

DOWNWARD-FACING DOG WAS MORE than a yoga position. It was my old man's job title. It surprised me as I stared down at him--the itch I felt in my right hand to introduce him to savasana: corpse pose. ¶ Oh, yeah. I'd taken a few yoga classes myself, so I knew precisely why the perv had taken it up. For the tights. For the tail. For the 22-year-olds in sleeping eagle pose. My only question was ... how the hell, at $15 a pop, could Pop afford it?

He held the position, kiester pointing roofward, potato head dangling between his hamhock arms, bug eyes staring between his fire-hydrant legs. Like he was trying to get to heaven ass-first. I turned my back on him. Every time he'd materialized in my life, he'd shown up doing or saying something half-cocked designed to put me on my heels. He didn't pay visits. He paid ambushes.

"Don't feel bad," he grunted.

"About what?"

"Taking the fight."

"Oh, I don't."

"Or about putting a beating on me. It's my last fight. I'm done, kid. I just need you to stick the fork in me."

So that was why he'd come--to suck all the bliss out of the beating I'd planned for him, all the joy out of the first-round uppercut to his right kidney, the shot that I knew--having shared a toilet or two with him--would have him pissing scarlet for a month.

Or ... was this a setup? Pop in downward-facing possum pose, so I'd drop my guard, neglect my training, gorge on the cheesecake at Lucky's and the you-know-what at Cheryl Sue's?

Which reminded me. I grabbed her picture off the end table and slid it right under his mug.

"Remember her?" I said.

He looked long and hard. His inhale-exhale gave me the creeps. "No," he finally said.

Liar, I wanted to scream. He remembered every woman he'd ever had just as he remembered every bout, every round, every mouthful of leather in every rat-infested firetrap he'd ever fought in.

He rose to his feet. He picked up the picture. He studied the picture, and then the expression on my face.

Something I'd never seen before, like the shadow of a passing cloud, moved across his eyes. "Should I?" he asked.

"Cheryl Sue," I murmured.

"Did I...?"

I nodded.

"Are you...?"

I nodded.

He took a little walk and ended up staring into my refrigerator. "Went to the doc's a few months ago." He was talking to last week's pizza. "He called it dementia pugilista. Said there's nothing much for it, but he'd read a study claiming that yoga might slow it up a little, affect the brain chemistry somehow." He shut the refrigerator. "Load of crap, but it don't matter." He winked at me. "I like it."

He headed toward the door. "Don't worry," he said. "Considine will get me past the commission doctor at the checkup. You'll get 81 of the 100 grand."

Hundred grand? "What're you talkin' about?" I croaked. Neither of us had ever seen one twentieth of that for a fight.

He headed down the hall.

"Didn't that crook Considine tell you?" he said. "He sold it to TV. Gonna follow us around with cameras for six weeks before the fight. Some kind of reality show.

"I'll take two grand to clean up what I owe my doc, trainer, landlord and yoga instructor, 10 grand for the 100 thousand life-insurance policy I took out--with your mother as beneficiary--and seven for her to cover the pine box and plot at St. Michael's. That leaves 81 for you."

"Stop walking away!" I shouted. "What are you saying?"

He turned at the top of the stairwell. "You tell me how else your mother'll ever afford her medical bills. Look, I got big ones." He grabbed his crotch. "But not big enough to do this myself. Tried three times. I'm not gonna spend the next 20 years drooling and staggering around the Port Authority, not even knowing my own name, and I'm not gonna sit and watch your mother go destitute and die. So just do your work, don't hold back, and I'll stand there and take it, like I always do. No big deal, Tommy. Only thing I ever asked you to do in your whole life."

Sounds echoed through the hallway. Howie Herbert was watching The Honeymooners in 6-B. Charo was teaching her parakeet to sing "Yo No Soy Marinero" in 6-C. The Urwins in 6-D were arguing over the toilet lid. The Cavanaughs were discussing patricide out in the corridor.

Pop grinned and walked toward me. "You studied the Greeks in school, didn't you? Got your new ring name for you. Eddie Pus." He cackled. "Just don't get carried away. Keep your paws off your ma."

Then he did something he'd never done before--he kissed me--and walked away.

[ V ]

THE DAYS BEFORE THE FIGHT WERE passing with the speed, if not the ease, of a kidney stone. In all my other fights it had been so simple. A few weeks out, some gravel-voiced promoter would call Doggy to say he was staging a card and needed a walkaway fight. Doggy'd tell me what weight I needed to make, what I'd get paid--usually 100 bucks a round plus a "bleeder's bonus" depending on how much plasma was off-loaded that night. I'd do some push-ups in the morning before going to the construction site, stop in the gym after work and try my best to forsake fried food, amber-colored liquids and Cheryl Sue. Fight night, I'd show up, have Doggy wrap my hands, knock off a few Hail Marys in my dressing stall and then go out and try to be the star in a telethon of pain. End of story.

This time everything was different. I was getting a crash course in the thermodynamics of hype. Interviews. Press conferences. Photo ops. Those damn cameras popping up everywhere like prairie dogs. Considine called me all the time to "check in on the champ," as he always put it.

"Hey, Tommy Gun, you know how you can tell if a fight is big time?" he had recently asked me.

"No. How?"

"It gets its own nickname. And we got one for yours."

"What's that?"

"We had a bunch of options but went with We Are Fam-melee. Get it, Tommy Boy?"

Yeah, I got it. But he might be lookin' at A Homicide at Yuletide if Pop got his way. The reality show people had scheduled the fight for Christmas Eve. They thought it added "flavor."

Maybe it was all the build-up. Maybe it was just seeing Pop on that yoga mat. Or maybe it was knowing he'd slept with Cheryl Sue. But I decided that if I was going to lose, it wasn't going to be for lack of preparation. I quit working the construction crew and, for the first time in our five years together, my trainer actually trained me. You could say I was Doggy's bitch. Every morning he dragged my ass out of bed so early there were still infomercials playing on my TV. He rode his bike next to me as I ran down Jerome Avenue all the way to the gym. He held my feet while I did sets of 100 sit-ups. "We're going to turn the topography of your gut from Colorado into Kansas," he growled.

Three mornings a week he had me throw on a piece of headgear that smelled like rancid goat and spar with Kassim Martin, a teenage tough who'd dropped out of school three years back and had been begging Doggy to train him. He already had a nickname--Kassim the Dream. What he lacked were skills. But he was tougher than calculus and had the stamina of a Kenyan marathoner.

I never did get the whole sparring thing. You're supposed to go easy on the guy and concentrate on your footwork and conditioning. But, shoot, fighting is fighting. A guy tries to rearrange the architecture of my face, I'm not going to hold back. One morning the Dream knocks me on my butt with an uppercut. Soon as I land, I'm windmilling some fury in return. He catches me with a lucky left, and we have to quit because it looks like my lip went through a deli slicer.

"You can't be takin' shots like that, Tommy!" Doggy barked as he grabbed a wad of paper towels and daubed the ring and my mouth, in that order.

"Why are you matching me up against Kassim, anyway?" I shot back. "I thought you were supposed to spar against a guy with the same style as your next opponent."

"Your next opponent is old, don't move and has a chin of concrete. Tomorrow you can spar against a bridge abutment if you want."

If my body was getting into some semblance of shape, my head was all messed up. It had been weeks since I'd called Cheryl Sue, and she wasn't exactly taking advantage of her free-nights-and-weekends plan with me either.

And for some reason, I was having second thoughts about murdering my own father. Doggy wasn't much help. "When you get in that ring," he kept telling me, "forget he's your dad. You gotta act like he's your worst enemy."

"He is my worst enemy."

"Then what are you crying about?"

If I wasn't crying about that, I was crying about my cash-flow situation. I was learning fast how Sugar Ray Robinson could have died poor and Joe Louis ended up as a casino greeter. The 80 large sounded like a lot of dough, but pay off Doggy, a cutman he had rounded up and the tax man, it gets whittled down fast. Plus, it hardly seemed fair that I had quit working to train for this fight and was making bubkes thus far, while Considine, Doggy and the schmucks from the reality TV crew were all doing fine. I decided to call Considine for a modest cash advance. Two thousand, I figured, would get me through.

"Don't take this the wrong way, Tom-Tom," he said. "But paying you more than I gotta, that'd be like putting premium gas in a rental car."

I didn't have a response, but he picked up the conversational slack. "What do you need two large for anyway?"

"Pay off my rent, my cable bill, get a silk robe and some real boxing shoes."

I didn't tell him that with whatever was left over, I was gonna buy a nice little engagement ring.

[ VI ]

USUALLY I JUST LET THE machine pick it up, but I was worn down. Here it was, six days before the fight, and the reality guys were getting desperate for the lifestyle crap and had spent all day trying to get more--more interviews, more color. "More Juice!" That's what that goateed producer guy kept saying. Anyway, there they were: Poking me as I'm waking up, following me into the john and then into the shower, so they could get that shot of the Spiderman curtain they wanted so bad, down to the bagel joint for a coffee, muffin, water. I'm drinking water constantly, training so hard it's just going through me. All the time they're asking over and over about Pop, the fight, what it means. How the hell should I know what it means?

So finally they clear out for the day. It was one of those bleak days, chilly and not a bit of sun, the Grand Concourse drowning in that iron-gray 4 p.m. December nothing. I always liked that time of year. Yankee Stadium is empty, all those rich kids from the suburbs aren't coming in for the game, looking at us scared and superior like we're zoo animals or something.

Not 30 seconds after the goatee and that weird, hulking camera guy leave, the phone's ringing.

"Hell--" I started to say.

"Are they gone? I been waitin' down here at the grocery so long, the Korean guy thinks I'm hitting on him."

Oh, God.

I tried to say "Mom?" but it came out all squeaky-like. No matter. She wasn't waiting for an invitation.

"I'm coming up."

Even before I hung up, I caught myself rubbing my thumb along that splotch of green paint on the kitchen table. It's a crappy thing, rickety legs, chipped edges. I remember we dug it out of the basement and banged it up six flights of stairs together. It was just the two of us then, so we jammed it into a corner of every tiny kitchen we had, and everything landed there--keys, eviction notices, bad report cards, insulin bottles. I spilled green paint on it as a kid and tried cleaning it but just rubbed the paint deeper into the grain.

The buzzer rang. It hit me then, how this was the one piece of furniture I took when I moved out.

She came blowing through the door before I had it half open. Hugging me, swarming me and, like always, holding on a beat too long. "You look thin," she said.

She did, too, but then, what else was new? Her hair was lighter, a weird ash color that was supposed to be blonde but looked more like iron. She smelled good, wore huge sunglasses that made her look like a bug, long fingernails. She let me go, then tossed her tiny purse on the table. "You been avoiding me," she said.

"Nah. Just busy, Ma. Training, this fight, these camera guys, you saw them, it's like ... I don't know. I just wa--"

She cut me off. "You're going to kill the jerk, and you don't think you should talk to me first?"

The Jerk. She always called him that; I don't think I ever heard his name out of her mouth except when a reporter would come around. She knew how to turn it on for the sportswriters: How Padraig--the first time, for a second, I didn't even know who she was talking about--had smacked her around, how we were gettin' by without him, how she loved him still. She knew he read the papers; she needed the occasional 50 bucks he'd throw our way. She'd even tell how I'd have to give her her insulin shots because she hated needles so.

"So he told you. Crazy, huh?"

"Told me? He's never been prouder of himself. 'I'm trying to set you up,' he says. 'The boy's gettin' more pub than he could ever dream of, and you'll get 100 grand.'"

I glanced at her, trying to get a read from her eyes, but the bug glasses had me blocked out. Her hands were flat on the table top, inching toward mine. I tried to concentrate, but it wasn't easy.

"I didn't tell you because I thought you'd talk me out of it. I thought...."

She sat back, smiled without showing her teeth. "Tommy," she said. "You can't pull this off without help."

"Ma, I've beaten up a lot of guys, and...."

"Baby, you're soft. You don't have the cojones." She started rustling around in her tiny purse and then placed a syringe on the table. "I got this from a doctor friend."

So now it's a doctor friend. Before that there was a lawyer friend, a money guy friend, a contractor friend. I could never keep track of all her "friends," and Pop never knew about them. That's one reason he thought he owed her.

"He got this from Mexico, says it's some kind of cocktail that'll get you out of your mind, something called Roidrage, make you crazier than a sex-crazed rhino. You'll want to tear apart anything in sight. Just inject it an hour before."

"So you want me to kill him?"

She paused, staring at me from behind those glasses, the quiet lasting a beat too long, like one of her hugs.

"Look. My kidneys are killing me. Dialysis, doctors. And I'll be needing home care for months. I can't do that without some kind of help. It's gonna be tough to live." She shrugged, sort of folding into herself to show me how tiny she was. "He's sick anyway."

She stood up. "Think about it. And just remember: I love you."

She picked up her purse quick, then blew out the door, the slam of it sealing in the quiet. I looked down at the table. The syringe was still there, three quarters full of some milky yellow stuff. I sat there looking at it for an hour or so. Then dark filled the kitchen, and I almost couldn't see it at all.

[ VII ]

THE NEXT THING I KNEW IT WAS 3 A.M. and I was peeling my face off the table, leaving behind a thick varnish of drool. I'd been dreaming I was in the ring with Pop and he was pummeling me like a speed bag, landing haymakers while I moved as if hip deep in sawdust. All the while he was lecturing me. "Boy," he said, while compacting my nose with a jab, "you are disappointing me no end. It seems"--burying a left hook into my gumline--"that I can't even trust you with a little thing like killin' me." I'd tried to tell him I wouldn't let him down, that I would bludgeon him right good if only I could get these legs to work, but when I opened my mouth no words came out, my jaw just hanging there like an open mailbox. Which probably explained the drool.

But damn if my mind didn't have good reason to be working overtime, what with all this talk of murder and steroids and money. And I was missing Cheryl Sue. I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't put that big yellow rock, the one the pudgy clerk at Discount Diamonds had assured me was far nicer than the clear ones ("Champagne," he'd said, "is classier than seltzer water, now ain't it?") on Cheryl Sue's finger. Despite her history with Pop, I still loved her. Sure, her taste in clothes was only marginally better than her taste in men, but there was something about the way she strutted into a room like a lioness, the way she gently held ice packs to my orbital bone when I got shiners, the way she called me "Tommybug" that made me feel warm inside. And when it's your life's work to get hit in the face, it's nice to feel warm inside every once in a while. So, after Doggy put me through my paces the next morning--his goal seemed to be to see how quickly we could lose the camera crew during our jog, and in which bad part of the Bronx--I picked up the phone.

"Hey, Babe," I said.

"Oh, Tommy, I'm so glad you called."

"I got something important to talk to you about, something nice," I said. "Can you meet me Friday night at Lucky's? Seven-thirty."

"Sure. But Tommy, there's something I gotta tell you too. I'm--"

"Shhh," I interrupted. "Save it for Friday."

I hung up and took a deep breath. Five days until I popped the question, six days until I popped Pop. I needed to focus.

The week went by in a blur of sparring sessions, sit-ups and on-camera interviews. Finally, the big night before the big fight arrived, and I wasn't sure which ring I was more worried about. The one in my pocket felt like an anchor as I waited in our booth at Lucky's. My gut, sour on a good day--I'd inherited Dad's ugly mug and mom's suspect stomach--bubbled like one of those hot tubs Doggy was always telling me was good for my back. I must have been out of it because I didn't even notice Considine until he sat down across from me, an unlit cigar in his mouth. He ordered a glass of milk, drunk through a straw, as always, and waved away the camera crew, which lurked in the booth behind us.

"Boy, don't you look pretty," he said, appraising my getup, a cheap-black-suit-and-green-tie combination I'd accented with a liberal dousing of Old Spice and a carnation from a local bodega.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, genuinely surprised. I couldn't think of a good reason for him to visit the night before the bout, unless, of course, he knew about Pop's plan. I tried to stay calm.

"Got some good news for you, Kid. The producers love the show so far. They think you're the kind of lug audiences root for, they say you've got great pathos in your life."

"Paffose?" I repeated, wondering if this was yet another Greek nickname my father'd come up with.

"Yeah. They like you so much that they want to continue the series after the fight. Stick around, see where your life goes. "And," he paused, with a smile, "they'll pay you $75,000."

If I'd been drinking something, I would have spit it out. Instead, I made a strange squawking noise, like a chicken being strangled.

"Yup. Seventy-five large, my boy," Considine said. He pocketed the cigar and stood up to leave, then stopped. "Oh, one more thing. The suits think you only work as an underdog, something about you being more likable when you're down-and-out. The whole Rocky deal. Anyway, point is, you wouldn't be quite so likable if you beat your old man tomorrow night, if you catch my drift."

I was pretty sure I did. "Are you telling me you want me to throw the fight?"

Considine stroked his chin and thought for a second. "No, Tommy, I'm telling you that if you happen to lose, you'll happen to find yourself $75,000 richer. And if you don't, you won't." And with that, he was off, leaving me with one hell of a dilemma.

Should I take a fall? It went against a lifetime of training--Doggy's motto was, Throw a left or a right but never a fight--yet that kind of money would take care of Mom and leave me enough for three days, two nights of matrimonial bliss at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City. Then again, Pop's life insurance was worth more, and it gave me a chance to square things with the old bastard. If, that is, he wasn't setting me up. I'd never been able to trust him up till now, so what made this any different? Then again, why trust Considine? And I'd already seen enough of the TV people to know that they tell you one thing one week, then the next deny they ever said any such thing. Sort of like politicians. But if that second-season money didn't come through, then Mom would be up against the ropes, behind on all three cards.

Before I could sort through all these thoughts, which were as scattered as the pellets of rat poison Lucky tosses around his kitchen floor every night, Cheryl Sue walked in. She was wearing pink heels, a tight pink dress and a troubled expression. She made straight for our booth.

I'd planned to propose first thing, but I was too dazed from Considine's visit. So, before I could get on one knee, before Lucky could come out with the "mood" candles, before I could recite the poem I'd written--entitled Will You Be My Cornerman for Life?--and before I could tell her about Considine's offer, or suggest that the two of us could always run from all this, the cash and the cameras, because what did we need money for anyway, she opened her mouth and changed everything. "Tommy," she blurted, fidgeting with her purse. "I'm pregnant."

[ VIII ]

SO I HAD A FEW THINGS on my mind come fight night. I usually do. Hell, what's the point of stepping into the ring unless you've got troubles that need fixing. But all this was a problem well beyond what punching someone in the nose could solve. Here I was standing in my corner, bathed in flop sweat, trembling too, and ring announcer Mel (Mellifluous) Mankato was giving the introductions. I barely heard my name, just his barely legal catchphrase, "Ladies and Gentlemen, let's get prepared to tussle!" The crowd noise keened like a 747 at takeoff. The photographers--I'd never fought with someone so legitimizing as a photographer in attendance--were creating a dangerous strobe effect. And the ring was crowded with semicelebrities, the cast from Different Strokes, all grown up now, a color guard and a lesser Jackson to sing the anthem. Tito, Tonto? La Tonto, maybe?

These were conditions that were likely to create a hallucination in any case, but on top of everything else, including whatever I'd injected, I was more or less undergoing an out-of-body experience.

I couldn't trust my senses at this point so I was forced to disregard some odd signals. Pop leaned back on the ropes in his corner, his leering mug looking like a jack-o'-lantern. Why was he so cheerful? My cutman, Ace Bondage, was whistling a dirge. I didn't remember that as part of his shtick. Doggy wouldn't meet my eyes. And the referee! "Did he just wink at me?" I asked Ace, who wouldn't meet my eyes either. I looked down at press row, but the writers were all laughing among themselves. I only recognized the top-hatted and intermittently sober Rudolph Roberts, whose whiny Wring Ropes column had been running in decreasingly circulated papers for 40 years now. He was a gloomy guy, always poking you in the chest with his shaky fingers, saying, "Kid, it never ends pretty." Still, he was one of the few hardcore boxing writers still working. I looked down at him, and it looked like he was starting to say, "Kid, it never...." when the bell rang.

The chance to engage in a little hand-to-hand combat usually has a clarifying effect on me, and normally my muddled head would have cleared in that instant. But my confusion lingered like a bad hangover. The ringside gallery ought to have faded, but instead I found myself picking out Considine, Cheryl Sue, Ma, all the TV guys. I was distracted, I suddenly didn't believe I could lift my arms, I found myself wondering if I'd locked the door on my way out, I thought about....

Next thing I know I'm on my knees, scrambling for my mouthpiece. I never saw the left hook he'd nailed me with. I got up at eight but couldn't do anything but clutch Pop, an embrace we'd never had occasion to enjoy up to this point. How I ever made it through that round, I can't say.

Sitting on my stool between rounds, I knew I was in bad shape. "Cut me, Ace." I said.

Ace looked at my swollen eye, and then at Doggy. "It ain't that bad, Kid. More like a bruise."

Doggy leaned in to have a look as well. "It's more like a mild discoloration."

Ace looked again. "I'd say an abrasion."

I told them to do whatever they had to do to get me out of there, but they just retreated behind the ropes. I suddenly realized everybody was arrayed against me--Ma's injection another bit of sabotage, like Considine's ploy, Pop's phony sob story. I even doubted Cheryl Sue's news. They were all in on it. My instincts for paranoia, sharpened by the fight game, were paying off. All. Against. Me.

I stormed out of the corner. This was going to be reality TV, all right. History, even. The crowd was on its feet, sensing something unscripted. Pop dropped his grin, looking concerned. "You told me he'd be comatose by now," is what I heard him tell his corner. I didn't even let him get off his stool. I raced across the ring and shoved a right hand so far down his stupid mug I could have grabbed whatever he'd had for breakfast.

And next thing I knew I was pitching through the ropes into Rudolph Roberts's lap. "Kid--" he said....

[ IX ]

"... YOU'VE BEEN KRINGLED!"

And he pulled off his top hat to reveal a Santa cap underneath. Then everybody ringside--the photographers, the writers, the ref, the corner guys, the fans, even Pop--put on Santa caps and started giggling. Then this giant sled came gliding down from the rafters carrying that American Idol goof, Ryan Seacrest. He landed in the ring, ran straight to me and hollered, "That's right, Tommy Cavanaugh, You've Been Kringled!!!"

I closed my eyes and tried to shake the cobwebs out, but when I opened them, there was Seacrest again, against a sea of Santa hats, going, "You're live on Fox! We set you up!"

I closed one eye, thinking that might make him disappear, but it didn't.

"Your father was chosen by our You've Been Kringled! producers out of thousands to have his fondest Christmas dream come true!" Seacrest gushed. "And do you know what he chose?"

I closed the other eye.

"Well, you're about to find out! Roll the tape, boys!"

And there was Pop on this huge TV screen, looking hungover and whimpering, "I guess what I want for Christmas is to get my son and my ex-wife back. I been a bum of a dad and a husband. I'd really like to make amendments."

Then they showed some Armani-suited, square-glasses producer, the guy who'd come up with the fight idea. He said it was an intern who thought up the tell-your-son-you're-dying routine, and that they'd come up with the phony reality-show thing just so they could justify all the cameras. They'd edited that footage down to the first 45 minutes of the show before they went live.

"What d'ya think of that, Tommybug?" Seacrest oozed.

I looked at Cheryl Sue. "How about her?" I said. "Was she lyin' too?"

Cheryl Sue had a tear rolling down her cheek. I braced for the answer. "No, Baby. I never slept with your dad," she said. "That was Publicity's idea. See, they offered me a whole lot of money to...."

"O.K.!" Seacrest interrupted. "Can't give away all our secrets! Or should I say, 'Seacrests!'"

My head felt like it was hosting the Kettle Drum Nationals inside it.

"But I am pregnant," she said quietly.

Seacrest jumped up like he was wearing a 120-volt thong. "Did you hear that, folks? Cheryl Sue is pregnant!"

By this time Doggy was helping me back into the ring. That's about when I realized somebody had replaced my legs with string cheese. They practically had to carry me to my stool. Cheryl Sue was kissing my ringing ears. There was a cameraman up my left nostril.

"So, Tommybug!" Seacrest said, all white-eyed and caffeinated. "Did you have any idea you were about to be Kringled this Christmas?"

"Sure didn't, Rye," I said. "I guess I'm the Little Dummer Boy."

Seacrest howled with laughter, though his hair didn't move an inch.

I was hotter than a $6 pistol. It pissed me off being made the sucker like that--by my girl, by my father, by my favorite network. And that's when I had an idea.

Just as Seacrest was saying, "So that wraps up another--" I used my two gloves to yank the mike back from him and said, "By the way, Ryan, who drugged me?"

Seacrest's makeup about fell off. The lead producer's eyes went wide as Frisbees.

"Ha! Good to see you haven't lost that great sense of humor, Tommy Bug!" Seacrest tried to say into the mike I was pulling away from him. "Well, that's all--"

I kicked his legs out from under him and said, "Yeah, feels like some kind of Roofie. Whose idea was that? Was it my mom's? 'Cuz she said she gave me steroids but--"

And that's when the house lights came up.

"We're off!" one of the producers hollered. "Somebody get me corporate!"

I got over my fire-engine-red ass eventually. Yeah, I got used by everybody I loved, but, hell, my job was to absorb pain, right?

I stuck with Cheryl Sue despite all the lies. And she'd told duffel bags full. It was Cheryl Sue who had tipped off the producers about Ma's steroids. Ma was never in on it at all. But Cheryl Sue didn't want me getting all nuked up so she told the producers, and they snuck in and switched the 'roids with some kind of sedative so nobody would get hurt. Problem was, the idiots put in enough for triplets.

That's why I never did forgive Pop. He knew I'd been slipped a mickey and gave me his best left hook anyway. Boxing is full of scum, cons and whores, but we've got a code and that just ain't kosher. There was no insurance policy, by the way. He had to cash that in to pay a bookie. You know, just because a guy doesn't ever get knocked down doesn't mean he's not lower than canal water.

His Kringle crumpled in about about six weeks. He was only in it for the dough. And before long he was back on the potato juice, and back in jail. But doing the show did allow Ma to get better acquainted with Doggy. They've been together six months now.

Pop missed a nice wedding too. I figured Cheryl Sue wasn't Mary Poppins, but she was the best thing this canvas taster was going to get. We rented out an entire Country Buffet for the reception. She wore this hot chartreuse dress and fluffy six-inch maribous. I wore a $49 suit I got at the Burlington Coat Factory.

I never did fight again. Hell, when you're making in the low six figures as an associate producer for Fox's You've Been Kringled, who needs life as a tomato can? See, when I asked, "Who drugged me?" on national TV, about a dozen lawyers rang. The producers quickly decided it was better to make nice with me than admit in court they shot a guy up with drugs just to make sure he didn't whip the star of their show. This Christmas we're doing the Diff'rent Strokes gang. Gary Coleman wants to make out with Nicole Kidman. Showbiz ain't easy.

You oughta come see the new house on La Brea. Cheryl Sue did little Brittney's room up royal, complete with a mural of Princess Di, a hot-pink velvet throne for her crib and a toilet seat painted like a tiara.

Who says it never ends pretty?

Pop said he was trying to TOUGHEN me up, but he was really tenderizing me, like a piece of STEAK

"I'm not going to spend the next 20 YEARS drooling and not even knowing my own name"

"It's some kind of cocktail from Mexico that will get you out of your MIND. It's called ROIDRAGE"

"I'm telling you that if you happen to LOSE, you'll find yourself $75,000 RICHER"

Next thing I know I'm on my knees LOOKING for my mouthpiece. I never saw the left HOOK

Boxing is full of scum, cons and whores, but we've got a CODE, and what he did just ain't KOSHER

ILLUSTRATIONIllustration By JEFFREY SMITH ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)