Story: Out of the Abyss
By: Bob Kalkreuter
The girl’s tight red dress bounced around like a bag of fighting cats. A car slowed and honked.
“Well lookie there,” said Ernie, leaning against one of the palm trees that fronted the empty parking lot directly across the street. He pointed at her with his cigarette.
“Where?” said Tuck. He’d been lost in thought, thinking about Cheryl, and he sat in the sand at the base of another palm, his left leg stretched out straight, his right leg cocked up.
Brothers they were, once close, dream-telling close, although so physically different that no one who didn’t already know them would have guessed they were even kin.
Ernie was a huge teddy bear of a man, chock full of good will and loyalty. But Tuck discovered long ago that Ernie was a dangerous ally, if you needed subtlety.
Growing up, Ernie was famous for his endless fretting and strength. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he had massive legs, thick shoulders, and hands the size of garden spades. With little effort he used to lift the front of their grandfather’s old Volkswagen bug. Yet he was so slow he could never hold his own against Tuck, whenever they got into one of their rare fights.
Tuck, in contrast, was lean and sinewy, with fast feet and faster hands. In high school he loved to box, and he used to make money from side bets on his own fights. In the ring, he was quick and ruthless, often brutal. He fought all comers. Once, at eighteen, he fought a twenty-five-year-old man who outweighed him by thirty pounds, and the two of them slugged it out until the larger man collapsed from exhaustion.
But that was twenty-five years ago, before Tuck headed for New Jersey and the real fight game.
Overhead, the Florida sky looked like a burnished blue bowl, cloudless and deep. The sun was hot and the shade from the fronds was striped and jagged and almost vertical.
Ernie nodded toward the girl. “Damn, don’t tell me Cheryl’s got you so sewed up you quit looking,” he said.
The girl flicked her eyes at them, her dyed, blonde ponytail swinging like a metronome. At the corner she glanced back across her shoulder, then disappeared.
Tuck caught a quick glance of her back. “Who is she?” he said.
Ernie shrugged. “Damn if I know.”
“Well, I got more on my mind than watching some girl.”
Ernie laughed. “See,” he said. “Cheryl has got you whipped.”
“It’s just that she’s pissed right now,” said Tuck.
In twelve months he’d gone from the lowest point in his life to the highest. In a whirlwind, Cheryl had snatched him from an abyss he didn’t know he’d fallen into. She’d shown him that dreams did come true, and when she touched him everything else seemed to disappear. Even now, she was the best thing in his life, and he was amazed by the speed it had all happened.
Still, he wondered if he really might be the total, complete idiot Cheryl accused him of being this morning.
“Damn,” said Ernie. “What’d you do? You got to work hard to get Cheryl pissed.”
“I told her about the fight,” said Tuck.
Ernie swiveled his head. “You did what?”
“She asked me where I was going,” said Tuck.
“I thought you weren’t going to tell her until you got the money.”
“So you just spilled the beans about the whole thing? Hell, you take a stupid pill, or what?”
“What for?” said Ernie.
“She’s going to find out anyway,” said Tuck. “I didn’t see any reason to lie.” Sitting in the hot sun, he felt sweat beading under his t-shirt. A car passed, radiating a wave of engine heat. “Anyway, I might lose,” he said.
“To Wilson? Don’t be stupid. He’s got nothing, next to you.” Ernie took a drag from his cigarette.
“Aside from being bigger, younger, and stronger, you mean?”
“Hell, he hasn’t done half what you have. He’s no pro,” said Ernie. “All he’s done is pick up a few local fights. He’s never fought anybody like you.”
“You mean old and lame?”
“Hell,” said Ernie. He flipped his cigarette to the ground and stepped it out. “They could have taken your leg off and you’d still beat him.”
Tuck glanced at his watch. “It’s already past noon. If Terrell doesn’t get here soon, we won’t be going anywhere.”
“We’d already be there if you’d brought Cheryl’s car.”
“She wouldn’t let me use it.”
“Damn, you really must have pissed her off.”
“I guess I did,” said Tuck.
“Well, after today, you’ll be able to buy two cars.”
“I don’t have that much to bet.”
Ernie raised his eyebrows. “You’ve got some, right? I mean, you’re not doing this for nothing?”
“No,” said Tuck. “I’m not doing it for nothing. But even if I get good odds I’ll barely make the rent.”
“Well, I got $50 bucks,” said Ernie. “Wish I had more, but I’m going to save some from my next paycheck so I can put down more next time.”
“There’s not going to be a next time,” said Tuck. “After this I’m through.”
He realized that most everybody else thought he’d been through for a long time. After fighting professionally for fifteen years, Tuck finally retired after three straight losses to title contenders. During his career, he fought forty seven times, mostly in small, dingy arenas, where he suffered several concussions, a broken jaw, and more cuts than he could remember, finally breaking his right hand for the third time, taking a severe beating from a ranked middleweight who’d been embarrassed and out of shape in his previous fight.
And even then, Tuck only retired after driving into a telephone pole, drunk and sleepy, totaling his car and ruining his left knee in the crash.
After returning home, he met Cheryl in a laundromat. She was a slim brunette with a laugh that made him happy every time he heard it.
At first he got a job loading freight, and together they made enough money to rent a house three miles from town. They used Cheryl’s old Chevy to get around.
Tuck lasted a month on the job, until his bad leg finally gave out under the strain.
“It’s all right,” she’d told him. “I’m working, and you’ll find something soon.”
Weeks passed, until he ran into Terrell Johnson, who’d been organizing local fights for years, on his farm outside town. Over time they became social events, where men came to watch, drink whiskey, and gamble.
“I need a job,” Tuck told him. “You know of anything?”
Terrell was a tall man, slightly stooped. “I suppose I can match you up with somebody this weekend,” he said. “But most of them won’t fight you.”
“I’ll take anybody,” said Tuck.
“Well, there’s Stan Wilson,” said Terrell, glancing at him sideways. “He’ll do it, I suppose.”
“Anybody else, maybe?”
“Nobody that’ll fight you,” said Terrill, and waited.
“Will he fight me, you think?”
“I’ll ask him.”
Tuck heard the rattle of Terrell’s truck before he saw it. He shifted away from the palm tree and rose awkwardly, rolling to the left and swinging himself up with his right leg.
“About time,” said Ernie.
Tuck tried to look relaxed and confident. Inside, he was churning. He hated to lose, but he didn’t see any way to beat Stan Wilson, not now, not with his damaged leg. Not fighting a man at least fifteen years younger and twenty-five pounds heavier.
The truck stopped in the dusty road and a man with a bushy head of reddish gray hair looked from the window. “Ready?” asked Terrell.
“That’s not the question,” said Ernie, smirking.
“What’s the question then?” asked Terrell, with the irritated tone of a man who liked to be in charge.
“The question is, is Wilson ready?”
Terrell sat in the cab of the truck, scowling. The motor misfired in mini-spasms.
The clearing was packed with cars and pick-ups, many of them selling whiskey and beer from truck beds and trunks. Men gathered in clumps, wearing overalls and khakis, drinking and betting. Above, the sky swirled with rolls of bread-dough clouds. Terrell stopped at the river and gestured out the window to a flat area near the trees. “The ring’s yonder!” he shouted. “Four o’clock.”
“I’m going to find me a sucker,” said Ernie, smacking his pocket. He jumped out.
Terrell rested on the window frame. He looked at Tuck.
“Wilson,” said Tuck. “I haven’t seen him since he was a kid. He as good as I heard?”
“Probably better. He hasn’t lost in three, four years now. Nobody’ll fight him anymore.”
Tuck rubbed his right hand, the one he’d broken in his last fight. “Damn. I could’ve used something a little easier, you know.”
“Well, you said you wanted to make some money…”
“He’s all I can get. You still have a reputation around here, you know.”
“How many rounds?” asked Tuck.
“Eight,” said Terrell. “Or less.”
“Three minutes each, with a minute in between?”
There was silence, long and heavy, and Terrell slipped the truck into gear, ready to leave.
“I need you to do something,” said Tuck.
The truck continued to idle and misfire, rocking slightly.
“Place a bet for me. On the quiet,” said Tuck.
“Do it yourself. If anybody thinks I’m rigging a fight…”
“I can’t,” said Tuck.
“I want you to bet on Wilson for me.”
The two men stared at each other so long Tuck started to wonder if Terrell had heard him. Another fight was underway by the trees, and voices rose and fell.
Terrell sighed. “Get Ernie to do it.”
“He’ll attract too much attention,” said Tuck. “Besides, I don’t think he’d do it.”
Terrell rubbed his hand through his hair. “I can’t, Tuck. If anybody found out…”
“I’ll cut you in,” said Tuck. “Five percent.”
There was more silence as they looked at each other with the truck shuddering and a light breeze carrying the scent of grilling burgers.
“Ten,” said Terrell.
Tuck handed him the money. “It’s everything I’ve got,” he said. “Take it before I spend it on something really stupid, like food and rent.”
When he’d left in the morning, Cheryl had been crying. “We don’t need money that bad,” she’d told him.
“But it’s easy money…”
“Easy?” she said. “Getting beat up?”
“I can make the rent money, anyway.”
“What if you get hurt?” she said.
“I’m not going to get hurt. Stan Wilson can’t beat up your grandmother.”
“He doesn’t have a bad leg.”
“Well, the rent’s due Monday. Do you have it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Some, but we don’t need it that bad. We’ll make it.”
“I’m not letting you pay it all,” he said. And with that he turned toward the door.
“If you do this,” she shouted at him. “Don’t come back. I can’t live with somebody, if I don’t know if I’ll find them in the hospital the next day… or worse.”
It was three-thirty when Tuck found Ernie lighting a cigarette and finishing a beer. Near the trees, two men were fighting in a make-shift ring. Around them, the sparse grass was dry and dusty, the air hot.
“You seen Wilson yet?” asked Ernie.
“I’m not sure what he looks like. Don’t forget, I’ve been living up north.”
“Maybe he won’t show,” said Ernie.
“Why not? He probably figures I’ll be an easy payday.”
In the ring, one of the men went down hard and the audience roared.
“I hope he keeps thinking it,” said Ernie, offering Tuck the bottle.
Tuck shook his head.
“What about the rest of the Wilson clan?” asked Ernie. “They don’t like to lose. Terrell have a plan for them, if they get rowdy?”
“I figure the plan is we’ll have to lick the whole bunch ourselves.”
“That’s okay with me,” said Ernie, grinning. He glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s time I found me a sucker.”
Tuck touched Ernie’s arm. “Not yet,” he said. “I want to talk to you about that.”
“Hey gimp!” came a loud voice Tuck didn’t recognize.
He turned, and saw three men walking through the sharp rays of sunlight that broke between the branches of the nearby trees. All three were tall, muscular, and fit.
“Surprised to see you here,” said one them. “I’m Stan Wilson.”
“That why you showed up? You figured I wouldn’t be here?” said Tuck.
Irritation flashed across Wilson’s face. He was taller than the others and had a short ponytail rubber-banded in the back. “I don’t think gimp here is glad to see us,” he said.
“About as glad as he was to see that telephone pole,” said one of the men.
Ernie’s face reddened. He threw down his cigarette. It tumbled end over end, skidding to a death of red sparks. He jammed his large hand into his pocket and pulled out some bills. “You want to back that up?” he said.
“How much you got?” asked Wilson.
“How much you want?” Ernie glanced at Tuck and grinned.
Tuck felt a lump rise into his throat. He started to cross over to Ernie, to grab the money from his hand, but hesitated, afraid to let Wilson see how hard it was for him to move his leg. “Not now, Ernie,” he said. “Let’s talk…”
“Two hundred. How’s that?” said Wilson.
“I’d bet that much on my four-year-old cousin.”
“Ernie…” said Tuck, alarmed.
“You name it, then,” said Wilson.
“I’ll take some of that, too,” said one of the men.
Ernie held out the bills. “Fifty ‘s all I have on me. But I’ll cover anything you want.”
“No!” shouted Tuck, and they all turned to look at him. “We’re not making any side bets. Not with you.”
Ernie stared, mouth agape.
“If you fellas want to bet,” said Tuck. “There’s plenty others to do it. ”
Wilson laughed. “Let’s find somebody who’s not scared,” he said, moving away. “Somebody who has some real money.”
“What the hell are you doing?” said Ernie, watching Wilson and his friends disappear into the crowd.
“Ernie,” said Tuck. “I can’t beat him.”
“What? You can beat that jerk. And don’t tell me you don’t need the money.”
“Sure I do, but…”
“We both do,” said Ernie, looking at the bills in his hand. “I thought you were trying to make money.”
“So what the hell are you doing?”
“Terrell’s making my bets,” said Tuck. “If you talk to him, he’ll probably make one for you, too.”
“I don’t need Terrell to bet for me.”
“You do if you’re betting on Wilson,” said Tuck.
“What! Why the hell…” Ernie stood there stolid and heavy, holding a half-empty bottle of beer and several greenbacks. “Jesus!” he shouted. “You didn’t.”
“Shhh.” Tuck fingered his lips and moved closer. Around them, a crowd of men stirred in the shifting shadows of palmetto fronds, checking watches, making last bets.
Ernie leaned forward, rubbing his temples. “I… I… oh shit. I can’t believe you.”
Tuck tried to smile. “I can hold him off a while, Ernie. I can hurt him, but I can’t beat him.”
“That son-of-a-bitch, you can’t let him beat you. Not before you walk in the ring.”
The smell of barbecue drifted across them from some upwind pit. “The smart money’s on Wilson this afternoon, Ernie.”
“Goddamn, Tuck. It’s not the money. It’s… it’s that two-bit asshole. You can’t let him whip you. Not that prick.”
A truck horn blew several times. Terrell’s raspy voice cut through the buzz of voices. “Let’s go fellas. Time to get started!”
“Tuck…” said Ernie, falling silent. He rubbed his forehead.
Somebody rang a cowbell and Tuck moved forward, dragging his left leg. Wilson moved even quicker, closing from the opposite side of the ring to throw a right hand. But he struck only air. Tuck countered with a short, chopping left that caught Wilson in the ribs.
“Umph,” grunted Wilson, swinging again, wild but hard. Tuck ducked away and the punch hit him on the shoulder, spinning him to the side. Even as a glancing blow, it hurt. Need to watch that right, he thought.
Wilson crowded forward. Tuck tried to slip away, but Wilson’s foot snaked out, knocking him off balance. Tuck hit the ground hard, feeling his left knee wrench to the side.
As Tuck got to his feet, Wilson pummeled him with lefts and rights, huffing with effort.
Tuck pressed inside, tasting his own blood. Taking a hard left, he landed an uppercut on Wilson’s jaw, feeling pain skitter through his right hand and up his arm. Goddamn, he thought. Not again.
Wilson winced, falling back to a safe distance while Tuck dragged his leg through the dust, throwing lefts and rights, one after the other.
“Kill the bastard,” somebody yelled. Tuck didn’t recognize the voice. Must have bet on Wilson, he thought. And then he remembered that he’d bet on Wilson too.
The air was hot and humid. Sweat trickled into his eyes, stinging. He blinked.
Wilson rushed him like a mad bull, fists pumping. Tuck caught most of them on his arms and shoulders, but one or two got through. His knee hurt, limiting his movement, then his feet got tangled and he fell again, his right hand throbbing.
Wilson’s foot caught him on the collarbone, then again on the cheek.
“You chicken-shit bastard!” shouted Tuck. The bell, he thought. Ring the bell, it’s been three minutes, easy. But the bell didn’t ring and Tuck rolled from the next kick, trapping, then twisting Wilson’s leg to throw him off balance and sending him backward. Tuck struggled up.
Here he comes, thought Tuck, but his bad leg wouldn’t move fast enough and he took Wilson’s punches one after the other, trying to bob and weave. Knocking away what he could, absorbing what he couldn’t. Hell, if I’m going to lose anyway, he thought. Now’s the time. Just let go.
His breath whistled painfully. He hurt all over. But he wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. He didn’t expect to win, but he wanted to punish this guy, make him pay…
Ring the Goddamn bell, he thought. Time’s up.
When he glanced around trying to locate the timekeeper, he saw her, standing pale and sallow-faced, Cheryl, her lips tight, her long hair hanging in loose curls. She was clutching her arms across her chest, her eyes swollen and red.
That’s when Wilson’s fist slammed him flush in the face, a hard, punishing right that knocked him back, reeling. Another hit him in the chest. Tuck tried to stay upright, telling himself that he was okay, that he needed to keep moving, to give himself time to clear his head. He dodged a left, took another right to the side of his face, felt a foot bang against his shin, trying to knock him down.
Ring it! Ring the Goddamn bell! he thought. But even as the words passed through his mind, he knew that it wouldn’t ring, not now, not until he lay down and didn’t get up. So he grinned, like the Mexicans did when they got hurt. “You fight like a girl,” he said.
“I’ll show you who’s a girl.” Wilson fired a right hand, missing cleanly. Tuck countered, pounding into Wilson’s gut, feeling the ribs give. It was a good shot, sinking deep.
Wilson stepped back. Blood ran from Tuck’s nose, his lips ached, even his teeth throbbed. But he felt good. Great in fact.
Make him mad, he thought. He can’t handle it. And then he realized the fight really wasn’t about money, it wasn’t even about winning or losing. It was about freedom and survival and the abyss. And most of all it was about Cheryl and the good things in his life.
“Sissy,” he said loudly, watching Wilson’s eyes glaze with anger. Then he grinned again, closing in.