Friday, August 17, 2018

The Last Bell

The Last Bell
Bobby Derie

THE STILL white form quivered, asleep on my bunk, paws batting at the air like he was in a desperate fight. It was hard to look at Mike then—how thin and frail the bulldog had gotten in the last few months. I'd picked him up when the Sea Girl came into Dublin a decade and some years back, and we'd had a battlin' life ever since, with all the scars on our grizzled hides to show it.

All fighters know their days is numbered, that the toll will tell on body and mind. So it seemed to be comin' for Mike: he spent more and more time in his fitful dreams, and when he did rouse himself it was on weak and shaky legs. He hardly ate, and didn't keep much of what he did down, though I'd give him steak and chops from my own plate down in the mess.

Not a man aboard said a word about it in my hearin', but I knew Mike was dyin'. The dog seemed to shrink in on himself every day, though the little stub of the tail still wagged to see me when he was awake, and that was almost as painful as anythin' else. And though I prided myself on bein' as tough as old beef, I couldn't stand to watch him go.

The Old Man came to see me off at Vladivostok harbor. Years had hollowed him out some too.

"It won't be long, Costigan," he said. "But we got a schedule—got to ship out soon. You sure you don't want to be with him?"

"I ain't one for good-byes," I answered. "An' I can't watch him just fade away. Toll the bell when he's gone, and I'll be back. An' if I hear Olaf or any other mug kicks him off my bunk, they'll be in the market for a new set of teeth."

We shook hands, and I turned my face into the cold wind. So cold it could bring a tear in any man's eye.

I WAS at loose ends, and not fit for drinkin' or sleep, leastways not yet, and there was still plenty of sunlight left. My feet found their own course, past places I knew, or used to know—bars I'd drunk at and busted up, bunkhouses me and Mike had bedded down at, chow halls where we'd gotten our grub. Mike had followed me across half the work and then some, leavin' blood and skin in every port from here to Galveston. We always gave as good as we got, but there's some battles you just can't win.

That durn wind came up again as I stopped at an alley where Mike had whipped a sled dog that didn't know enough not to pick on a mutt because of his size. I wiped the mist from my eyes, and when I'd opened them again I was starin' at a rat in a bad suit. You never in your life seen such a missin' link between man and rodent: he had a nose like an aeroplane, an' a mustache that might have been drawn on with a grease pencil, beady brown eyes that was never still for an instant, and on account of the weather he'd a fur coat on over the gaudy green pinstripes he was wearin'.

"Steve!" The rat squeaked so hard I feared the pomade would crack in his hair—and that's when he launched into his spiel. I recalled the rat's name was Yuri, or least, that's what they called him in Russia; I had a feelin' he had a different alias for every port. He was a fight promoter, or had been the last time I'd seen him. The last time I'd signed on with 'im, Yuri had set me up with a guy called Ursus...and it wasn't 'til I stepped in the ring with a six hundred pound Russian bear that I figured out what was what. Still, I was game for a tussle. Anything to get my mind off Mike.

"It's only ten rounds, Costigan." Yuri explained. "An opener for the main match. I had this Swede all set up for it, but he got dysentery."

"Who am I fightin'? Naw, on second thought, don't tell me. It don't matter much. I'm game for about anythin' right now." I replied. It was true, though it would be tough without Mike in my corner.

THE FIGHT was set in a little gym right on the waterfront, in what used to be an ice warehouse. They didn't bother heatin' it either, but Yuri told me that when they got enough bodies packed in around the ring, it was warm enough. I saw a cloud of my own breath and hoped maybe he was right. The big main doors faced right out to the harbor, and when I looked I could make out the lines of the Sea Girl in the distance. The Old Man had already taken in the lines.

An old washroom had been set aside for dress, and this little Siberian called Kurchak was introduced to me after I got into my trunks. He was gonna be in my corner and act as my cutman an' everythin' else. Turns out he spoke English pretty good, and he seemed to know his business as he wrapped my mitts. Ol' Kurchak took in my scars with what might be called a professional interest.

"Been fighting a long time," he observed.

"All my life, thereabouts." I huffed. I could still see my breath in front of me, and hoped the ring itself would be warm as Yuri had said.

"What you fight for? Money, women?" Kurchak had all the manners of a New York cabbie. Yet the question got me to thinkin'. Because it had always been my opinion that a man had to fight for somethin' more than himself. A woman, a country—a dog. What the heck was I fightin' for today, with poor Mike out there at sea without me? I didn't answer, and Kurchak didn't push. It ain't good to ask a man questions like that afore a fight.

When we came out, the crowd was alright thick and growin' thicker. None of them came to see me or the bloke I was fightin'. We was the warm-up to the main act, some kinda big grudge match. Maybe the bookies wanted to stretch it out some, but like I said, I didn't mind. Anything to take my mind off of that little white form in my bunk on the Sea Girl.

They had me matched up against a kid—twenty years old or I'm a ballerina—an' I couldn't make out his real name, so that's just what I called him: the Kid. At least six-foot-three, which was a couple inches taller than me, with smooth clean limbs, broad shoulders and trim waist, not an ounce of fat on 'im. The Kid had the noblest nose I'd ever seen, like the prow of a battleship, totally unscarred. At two hundred pounds apiece we was about a match, but I looked like a palooka standing next to him. Hair going grey at the temples, scars all over, I must have looked like a ship mothballed after the war, pressed back into service. I set my teeth and grinned.

Yuri introduced us in Russian; Kurchak translated. "Three minute rounds, one minute rest between rounds. Ten rounds. If either still standing, it goes to decision." I nodded.

We met in the center of the ring, the Kid looming over me a bit. I stared up at a nose that had never been broken, a chin that ain't never been cracked. The Kid stared back at me with innocent eyes, thinkin' that would never happen, not to him. But I knew better. I studied that face like a sculptor figuring on where best to put the chisel.

THERE WAS the bell, and we came out of our corners spoiling to come to blows. The Kid had somethin' to prove, and I had somethin' to forget—the empty spot at ringside where Mike was like to sit, waiting for me to come back. The Kid had the reach on me, an' was smart enough to use it, dodging my first charge and striking me at a glance as I rushed past.

I whirled and stopped his left with my face. The Kid stepped in, thinkin' he had me, but that was his first mistake, because I closed the distance faster than he thought. My left sank in about to the wrist, right under his heart, an' for a minute I thought the fight was gonna be over then and there. But the Kid was game and recovered, backing off.

That set the tone of that first round. The Kid kept his distance, using height and reach to land blows against me, and I rushed into it, again and again. Whenever I connected, the Kid wilted a little, but it was hard work. I could feel the cold air in my lungs, and our breath was comin' out as steam. Already I could feel the numbness in my fingers and toes. Meant it didn't hurt so much when the Kid landed a shot on me, but I felt it was slowing me down, robbing my punches of some of their force.

The bell sounded right after I'd finally managed to poke the Kid in the nose—an' I was a bit disappointed when it only resulted in a cut. In warmer weather the claret would have flowed and I'd have felt the crunch through my glove. Still, I'd had worse openings, and bless his bones, but Kurchak had a bucket of hot water to steep the towel in when I got back. When the bell sounded again, I came out feelin' like I was fresh from a shave.

The Kid had gotten it into his head to work my body, aiming low shots that landed just above the belt, battering around my meaty arms at my sides. That was fine by me, as I kept tryin' to land shots on his face. Body shots are great for the long haul, but there was only ten rounds, an' I didn't trust his chances to do much damage before it was over. Better fighters than the Kid had broken their hands on my ribs.

There was a lot of motion, the Kid back-pedaling away whenever I charged, leaning in to land a shot around my guard when I didn't. I got the feelin' maybe he was tryin' to tire me out. I never stop to think too hard on what the other guy does during a fight, but the Kid's face never wavered, like he always knew exactly what he was going to do.

I almost missed the opening—the kid dropped his guard for a minute, switching up to aim at the side of my head for once—and when I swung he faded away, so my momentum ended up carrying me right into the ropes. That's when the beating began. My side was turned to the Kid, and he laid into me with the most vicious combination you ever saw, pounding away at my ribs for all he was worth. I couldn't do more than wave at him with my right arm, the left hanging onto the ropes. The referee should maybe have stepped in, but the only thing that ended it was the bell.

In the corner, Kurchak was quick with the hot towel, and then went in to figure the damage. I didn't flinch as his strong fingers crept along the fresh bruises forming on my ribs. It hurt a little to breathe, but I chalked that up to the cold air.

"Not good," the Siberian said. "Maybe broken. You get another hit there, splinter could go into your lung or heart."

"Then I won't get hit there," I said. "I ain't throwing in the towel. I'll keep going 'til the last bell."

Kurchak was right and I knew it, so I came out leading with my left and favoring my right. It ain't the proper way to box—not American style, where you like to crouch and weave, maybe switch it up a bit—and I didn't have the straight left that so many British boxers had perfected. The Kid, though, had maybe never seen that. Damn near walked into it, my knuckles scraping along his jaw, and there was no feint in the way his eyes rolled up as I rattled his teeth. I moved to follow up with another, and that's when he clinched me.

It wasn't a bear hug and I wasn't in much mood for grappling, but then the Kid slammed a punch into my wounded side. Not much power in it, because he was hanging on to me, but I felt a line of pain run up my side and damn near threw the Kid across the ring in a bellow of pain. The referee stopped me long enough for the Kid, to stagger to his feet, hands on my shoulders, screaming something in Russian what I couldn't understand.

That was the way it went, for the next few rounds. The Kid could box, and now he knew I was wounded but dangerous. So he kept his distance, back-pedaling all the time, taking shots when he could but not risking getting close. My teeth ground at the thought of it. I'd been in fights like that before, and I'd worn my opponents down...but not in ten rounds. It took time, and time was a-running out.

Kurchak agreed with me, as he ran the steaming hot towel over my face, mopping up some of the blood. "Got to knock him down," he said. "Got to knock him out."

Then I looked over at the Kid. The fight was telling on him a bit too. He hadn't but that one cut on his nose, but there were bruises on his body, and as he lurched back to his feet, the hands came up a bit slower, like they felt a bit heavy. I tapped my own mitts together in front of me. The punters in the crowd never knew what five ounce gloves weighed, not when you had to hold them up for a stretch.

I thought of the Sea Girl making her way out of the harbor by now, and suddenly felt old and tired. The cold of the place seemed to sink into my bones. What was I doing here? What was I fighting for? A man has got to fight for something other than himself, but the only thing I had worth fighting for was maybe breathing his last, huddled on my bunk, out at sea where I should be. Yet there was a dog that had never walked away from a scrap, not even against a bigger or younger dog that was getting the best of him. Maybe it's just stubbornness, but that was his nature—and mine too.

I owed it to Mike to finish this fight.

When the bell came, the Kid hung back, but that was fine for me. I rushed in with an overhand right that opened up his cheek. He backpedaled away, and I didn't let up. He tried to step away, but I wasn't in the mood to chase him all over the ring this round. I stepped with him, swinging for what I was worth, jabbing with my left. The Kid was maybe a hair too slow, but that was enough, as I worked him against the ropes. Maybe he realized the danger, just as his back brushed against that line of hemp, because he turned to look for an exit.

The straight left slammed into that nose hard enough to flatten it, and the right cross that followed knocked it crooked, taking half of his face with it. The Kid hit the mat for the first time in the whole fight.

At this point the crowd was worked up. I doubt they expected anything like this. The referee counted in Russian over the Kid...but it didn't matter, because on семь the Kid stood up, face pale and angry, blood dripping down from his ruined nose. I felt a little like a kid that had tossed a brick through a stained glass window, both a bit mortified and strangely proud at the ruination I'd brought to his visage. No matter how long the Kid lived, he'd look in the mirror everyday and see that Costigan had been there.

I THINK it was the ninth round, and the Kid and I both knew we needed to finish this. The crowd was antsy, they always were when blood hit the canvas. The Kid met my first charge by moving in for a clinch; I tossed him off, but not before he sent another jab against my wounded side, which burned like ice even in the cold. Kurchak was screaming at the referee in Russian, probably about the Kid punching on the break, but I focused on what was in front of me.

We went at it like that, like we was dancing, two more times. I'd charge in and the Kid would clinch, I'd toss him off and he'd nail me, either going in or on the breakaway. My breath was coming short and painful, and I knew I could finish this with a couple more clean shots, but the Kid didn't aim to give me that.

In the center of the ring, we grappled for the fourth time—and I heard, faint and distant, the toll of a bell. So I slackened my grip, ready to go back to my corner and Kurchak's hot towel—when the Kid's fist slammed down, right above the belt on my wounded side.

Now, I ain't the most gentlemanly of boxers. But hittin' after the bell was just about the last straw to my mind. I brought my elbow down so hard I about broke the Kid's hand. He staggered away, face pale, left hand cradled in on his ribs, and I went on the attack. Part of me was kinda surprised the referee didn't say nothing, but I was too cussed angry to care even if he did. I planted a right into the Kid's stomach that about folded him in two, and when he came at me with a left hook my straight left beat it, slashing at his face and closing his right eye up good.

The Kid swung wild, still favoring his injured southpaw—and when my right hook connected, his head snapped back like it was on hinges. He stood there for a moment, eyes glassy, and the rage fell out of me. I'd known that look, seen it on plenty of men. When the light's gone out behind the eyes, but it takes the body a moment to realize it. Sure enough, he didn't stand there for two painful breaths before the Kid crumpled forward, out like a light.

Then the bell rang, and the referee was dragging my arm into the air and I looked around confused. Kurchak, bless his bones, was there with his hot towel, and guided me under the ropes and back to the dressing room.

"I don't understand," I said. "I heard the bell and thought the round was over. I was for sure thinking I would be disqualified."

The Siberian looked at me funny as he taped up my ribs. "Not ring bell," he said. "Ship bell, out beyond the harbor."

I couldn't see the sea, not there in the washroom. Yet a part of me knew that if I looked out through the doors of the warehouse, where they were making the ring ready for the big fight, I would see the Sea Girl a few miles out, her flag at half mast. We'd had sea burials before; where the Old Man would call out "All hands bury the dead," and the body wrapped in sailcloth and weighted down. There was a prayer, for such men as cared for it, and then the ship's bell would toll out just once...and how that sound could carry, over the waves, so long and loud and clear, Costigan never knew.


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