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I was struggling, the way we all do.  It wasn’t one thing or another.  No love.  Money dwindling down to nothing.  Not much of a plan for making life any better.  But I had a cheap condo on a canal with access to the Gulf of Mexico, and when I sold I would not have a care in the world for at least five years.  Who needs love?  Who needs a purpose, a moniker, when you have money in the bank?  Still, it was a bleak time.  An alligator lived in our canal just twenty feet from my door.  Wiggles, we called him.  He wasn’t going anywhere.
      So when the boxers moved in with their manager, I found it a pleasant distraction. 
      I remember I did not care for their manager at first, Roger Lambert.  He lay around the pool making bossy phone calls all day long, invading my space—I was the only other person who could stand the heat around the pool.  And unlike Roger Lambert, I didn’t have a phone and I didn’t have business.
      He was handsome but too beefy.  He sounded arrogant when he talked loud on the phone.  But after I got to know him, he seemed like an everyday guy.  And eventually he told me things about his boxers.  I sort of became his confidant as things began to unravel between him and Don King.  Not that he disliked Don King.  And in a cock-eyed way, you have to admire someone who does not have a bad word to say about Don King.  No, it was the deal that went south.  That’s what screwed my friend Roger Lambert.  It made me lose my curiosity about boxers.

I could see it all along in the kid’s eyes, the welterweight. Other boxers came and went and even quit on Roger.  They traveled to fights and back home again, and Roger Lambert was good to them, even if they did squeeze life into one small condo.  But this welterweight, Darnel Watson, was always happy to be “home.”  He tried flirting with me a few times.  He was a good looking kid.  But he was a kid.  And I was nearly old.  Personally, I like older men.  Even older than me. Men who have made it and know it all.  I like maturity. But that is another story.
      The kid had a really great look and I love boxing but something about messing up that perfect face bothered me.  He had a flawless, deep-dark skin and great bone structure.  And he had a flirting smile around the laundry room, which is the main place we ran into him.  We older ladies in the condo talked among ourselves.  Was he just lonesome?  He hit on all of us.  We felt motherly toward the welterweight.  We tried to be friends with him but he wasn’t interested in that.  He seemed to get quite moody if you extended your friendship.
      “Does he just want to get laid?” someone inevitably asked; but looking around at ourselves, at our matronly-ness and our shadows of beauty long gone, we shook our heads.  Collectively, we knew it was not the answer.
      Not long after an extended trip, Roger Lambert came home complaining to me about Darnel’s cousin hanging around.  Before I got the story I thought it was quite innocent.  In fact I mistook Russell, Darnel’s cousin, for a trainer. He had a muscular chubbiness, a boxlike shape. He reminded me of a boxer gone out to pasture, and maybe he was, because Roger seemed to know him too well.
      Darnel and his cousin Russell spent a lot of time fishing in the canal in front of my condo, right off my lawn, even as I sat and smoked in my small lanai.  They never asked permission to be there and they never turned to look at me.  I called to them, but they refused to hear. But it was futile on their part, as well, because the fishing was lousy, the fish inedible, and Wiggles, who never moved unless he ate, got most of the fish.
      I mentioned it was a cheap condo, about to burst into a bubble of nonsensical real estate wealth.  Our building manager was a proud Florida cracker and he would have told you so himself, and he sort of ran our place as a flop house—we had a fortune in landscaping and we had junk heaps.  Sometimes the flowers grew through the junk. Nothing rusted ever got thrown out but more and more flowers were planted.  Mr. Roy we called him.  His concept of beauty had to be a scrap pile in the Everglades.
      There was nothing unusual about Darnel and his cousin Russell standing in my yard to fish in the dirty canal, closing out the rest of the world to where I couldn’t even walk up to them and ask how the fishing was going. They shrugged. They muttered to each other.  They closed me out. I walked back to my lanai like nothing rude just happened to me on my own property.  It’s the Florida heat that turns us all into crackers.
      “Trainer!  He’s no trainer,” Roger Lambert said to me as we soaked in the hot sun around the pool. It was weeks before the big fight. We were both waist deep in water at the time, pouring water over our heads.  “That is Darnel’s cousin, and I wish the hell he would go home.  He’s no good.  I mean he’s not bad but he’s just a terrible influence.  Takes Darnel out at night.  They eat, they drink, they smoke cigars.”
     “Every night?” I sensed doom.
     “No.  Hell no.  Just once in a great while.  But that’s enough.  He’s a bad influence.  Darnell will not go anywhere without his cousin.  I don’t like it.”
     “Can’t you forbid him to see his cousin?”
      “Well, to be honest with you, I don’t know what’s worse.  A boxer off his diet occasionally is a bad omen, but a lonely boxer is hopeless.”
      At that point I felt like I was getting some of the exciting intrigue I had hoped for.  When Roger Lambert was not bitching about Darnel and his cousin, he was hyping the big fight he had lined up in Vegas for Darnel.  Don King would see the young welterweight fighter.  Don King and Roger would be sitting together ringside.  It was a Vegas fight, the kid’s big chance.  I told my niece, living right across the hall from me with her family, that we could be sitting ringside, too.  I said I’d get the energy to rob a bank, and she said go for it, but I’m not sitting next to Don King.  We began to discuss how pissed we would be if the fight were over too soon.  Why not talk a dream to the end?
      Russell, Darnel’s cousin—I never talked to him.  I tried a few times but he was a shrugger.  He showed you his backside.  That to me meant he was hiding something. He was not necessarily up to no good, but something was very hidden, and I had the sense that none of us involved—not even the laundry room ladies—wanted to find out.   I don’t know how I mistook him for Darnel’s trainer.  He was just a solitary fisherman.  But if he caught a fish, he was more responsive than Darnel.  Distant, but responsive in the sense that he would show you the fish in the bottom of the bucket, then place the metal lid over it carefully as if to keep you from seeing more.
      I still had it in mind that I wanted to know a boxer.  What they’re made of.  What makes them take a punch to the face?  Who would not want to know that?
      For some reason Darnel and I were both up at some ungodly hour of the morning doing our laundry—early to bed early to rise. I caught Darnel sitting in the lounge.  That was another thing.  We had a lounge with lounge chairs outside our laundry room, a bit of cracker affluence, I think.  I plopped myself down next to Darnel to make him my captive audience.  I started by asking about the big fight, now just days away, but he shut me out cold.  So I asked about his diet.  He perked up a little, although he stared forward like a horse with blinders on.
      “I eat fish a lot.  I watch every calorie.  Protein is important but you can’t eat too much of it.”
      He went on listing the things he could and could not eat, but when I tried to return to the subject of the fight he became short.
     “It’s just a job,” he said.
      I couldn’t help myself.  I asked if he was scared.  He looked vacant for too long, and then he said, “Oh, I don’t even think about losing. I don’t think about it because in my mind I already won.” 
      So I never did get much info about boxers and boxing when I held him captive in the lounge outside our laundry room, but one very interesting conversation was forthcoming.  It wasn’t even between me and Darnel.  It was Roger Lambert calling on the cell phone.   I could hear Roger Lambert’s voice just as clear as if he were sitting next to us on the lounges, but it was one of those private conversations.  One you are not supposed to hear. One you never dream other people have. I thought it was a supersonic trick that it came to me so clear.   I don’t think Roger was shouting into the phone.  He was smooth talking Darnel, but his big voice sounded like a recording of Wotan on the downslide.
      “What’s wrong?”  Roger whined.
      “Nothing,” said Darnel.
      “What are you doing?”
      “Nothing.  My laundry.”
      “You did your laundry yesterday.”
      Darnel muttered.  It sounded hostile.  Roger took a new tone, whimpering like a big, loud baby.
      “What’s a matter,” said Roger.  “Don’t you love Poppa anymore?”
      “Yeah, sure.” Darnel half committed himself.
       “How come you don’t love Poppa anymore?  What’s wrong?”
       “Nothing.  Nothing’s wrong.  I’ll be up in a minute.”
       “Poppa misses you.  When are you coming back up here?”
       “I’ll be up in a minute.”
        “Poppa Bear is lonely. Poppa Bear wants you now.”
        “I said I’d be up in a minute,” Darnel said, barely restraining his annoyance.
        “Don’t be too long.”
        “Yeah, yeah.”
          “Papa loves you so much! Don’t you love Poppa anymore?  How come you don’t love me no more?”
          Darnel grumbled and snapped his phone off.  I do not believe he thought I overheard. But I knew in a flash that, between Darnel and me, whatever incipient relationship we had started, it was over.  Even the small talk, the flirting around the laundry—it was all over.  After Darnel hung up the phone, the buzzer rang for his clothes.  He shot in and out of the laundry room with a few white garments in his hands.

Shortly after that they all went off to Vegas.  To the big fight.  Don King would be in the audience, checking out Roger’s fighter.  That was all us old ladies could think of the entire weekend.  What it meant to us I couldn’t say.  But I think in our hearts we all knew something about the boy, the young welterweight who only wanted to flirt with us and nothing more.  We felt nervous about Darnel, though no one knew just how to state it.
      I said to the ladies, the day of the fight, “Wish we could watch it on TV right now.”
     “Not me,” said my niece, young and beautiful but married.  “I lost interest in it completely.”
      “Why?” said Mrs. Roy, the building manager’s wife.  Like her husband she wore too few clothes, dirty rags all washed out, and you got the sense that she hung out for the gossip—not to wash any clothes, as no one had ever seen her wash any. There was a funny rumor going around that she was Harvard educated.  She sat in her chair, too stiff to be comfortable, too thin to be healthy.  “I don’t want to see it either, but I wonder why not?  What’s it all mean?  Someone explain it to me.”
      “It’s just a bad omen,” said the Mail Order Bride from Lithuania.  She smacked her gum and snapped the pages of her People magazine.  I was surprised she could speak English, as no one had heard her speak before.  She had been listening in on us a lot, I assumed.
      “What’s a bad omen?” said the old lady with crepey skin, Mrs. Robinson, who would die in her room at the end of the month.
      The Mail Order Bride spoke with her thick accent:  “I heard the boy howling in the middle of the night.”  She looked at us over her magazine and then, just as quickly, she ducked back into her reading as if we were the bad omen.
      “That was my dog,” said Mrs. Roy. “He howled till midnight and not a minute longer.”
      “It makes no difference.  The dog is the voice of the boy.”  The Mail Order Bride flipped her page in a show of superiority over us.
      My niece, so beautiful and so poor, laughed a little.  “She’s probably right.”
      And after that we all sat quietly listening to the machines hum and click and groan.

When they returned, I was still pissed I missed the fight, but worse than that, no one would talk about it.  I couldn’t get a straight answer out of “How’d it go?” 
      Darnel answered by grumbling about Roger, only he had no substantial complaint.  He sounded like a teenager complaining about good parenting. “He’s controlling.  He wants to cook my meals, do my laundry.”  It was about on that level.  But Darnel spoke with a bitterness that made you question Roger.  You got the impression something went wrong and it was all Roger’s fault.  Darnel had become vocal at last, but he spoke with gut hatred for Roger, who everyone knew was a nice guy.  Still, it had its effect.  It made you second guess Roger Lambert when you shouldn’t have.  There was a short time when people thought of Don King as an asset to his community.  And this was like that.  A misconception based on meaningless facts.  It made you think, what had Roger Lambert done to the poor kid?
      Then they all disappeared, first Darnel, then the cousin, and finally Roger was no longer at the pool, so I assumed he moved out.  It happened just weeks after the big fight and still no one could tell me how it went, and I asked a lot of people.  My own niece’s husband, who had gambled on the fight, shrugged and refused to talk about it; that’s the way it went with everyone.  Something had gone wrong.  Whatever happened, it was an embarrassment to our sensibilities. Talk of it would be awkward for anybody, exposing unpleasant things about our human nature.
      Our building manager was a Florida cracker, as I said, and that meant that both Mr. and Mrs. Roy were repulsive in ways you could not say or define.  We always said, could they at least wear more clothes, or cleaner clothes?  Once they took my boat out and returned it without a rudder.  How they made it back from the islands I can’t imagine.  Mr. Roy was greedy about the smallest of things.  He lied and cheated and showed up drunk and stupid at things like our attempts at proper weddings and funerals.  Once he drove our condo lawnmower into the canal.  He had about ten sit-down lawnmowers and none of them worked, and instead of working on our building, he tinkered with his broken mowers all day.  He was also no fun during a hurricane. You do not want to share a building with a drunk during a hurricane.
      But then again at times Mr. Roy could rise to the occasion and be decent, and finally it was Mr. Roy who set me straight on the fight, and the way he talked, I knew he wasn’t lying.  The Vegas trip was already old news to everyone but me.  I was still asking around and getting nowhere.
      “You didn’t hear?” said Mr. Roy.  He wore short shorts which showed all of his elephantine legs and his decrepit old skin.  He wore a sleeveless shirt with ragged armholes, open in front to reveal his extended belly.  His elastic pant waist was hitched up, but not far enough to cover his dirty belly button.  His skin was clammy with sweat and the dirt of one who bathes not at all.  His hands looked like they had been submerged in grease. 
     “There never was no fight,” he said, and shook his head with disgust, as if someone on this earth had done worse than him in life.
      Mr. Roy tinkered with an upside down lawnmower as he spoke to me.  Sitting on his bum in the grass, his enormous, tan knees poked up at the sun as he scrutinized the lawnmower from all sides.  His neck seemed excessively rubbery.
      “Roger was sitting in the front row right next to Don King,” he explained as he went right on tinkering, his hands black with grease.  “This was his chance to show off his fighter, and Don King would give them a contract if he liked what he saw.  Roger was real confident.  But Darnel, he got in, stood there, took one punch, and ran.  He ran out of the ring.   Man, he left Roger holding the bag for a lot of money.  And Roger was sitting there, right next to Don King.  They had business and Darnel walked off the fight.  In Vegas!   How embarrassing is that!  He and his cousin, they both stuck Roger with a lot of bills, if you can imagine.”
      “So the kid walked off the fight?”
      “He ran!”
Then it all made sense.  He was a welterweight so maybe nobody really noticed.   But Darnel was no boxer.  Darnel was a disillusioned child, searching for his family, and it wasn’t his cousin, and it wasn’t Roger, and it sure as hell wasn’t Don King.  
      That is what we knew all along, what we fretted over and could never put into words, what we found in our hearts but could not say about a boxer—the old ladies of the condo with whom he flirted now and then: Darnel did not know what a family looked like.  He struck out blind.  He found us.  And then he ran.

© 2014 Gretchen A. Van Lente

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Author Bio

GretchenI am the ninth of ten children, and I write because dinnertime for us was all about the story.  I studied with Tobias Wolf at Syracuse, which was a dream come true for me. My classmate was George Saunders so that was another dream come true.  I have about twenty published stories in storySouth, Drunken Boat, the 2nd Hand Review, and on
and on.  I had my first rejection from the Atlantic Monthly when I was twelve years old.  I wrote a story in dull pencil on a scrap of paper, and the editor sent me back a kind note in dull pencil on a scrap of paper. I publish in all genres and I once wrote lines for a talking crow for an educational bilingual TV show for children.