Leslee Becker — “The Contender”

The Contender

Good thing for us that the boxing match was staged in Champlain, New York, a city close to the Canadian border, and a fair distance from Dannemora, my hometown.  The promoters, according to my father, picked Champlain so they could advertise the match as an international event.  My brother Eddie’s opponent was Claude Michaud.  Eddie was called Prince Edward, like the island, and I was tempted to ask Dad why Claude Michaud didn’t have a nickname, since Dad was a new authority on boxing, but I left it alone. Claude, the Cougar, Cougar Claude, or the Big Canuck would be choice names for the guy.

I was in the passenger seat, in my mother’s spot.  She was at home.  I didn’t know if she’d had any selection in the matter.  The topic of Eddie was “off limits,” Dad had said many times.  Funny thing is, Mom didn’t cry or raise a ruckus about me seeing the boxing match at the tender age of twelve.

When I was four, and Eddie was eleven, going on a trip to visit relatives, a horse supposedly jumped right over the nose of our car, but Eddie and I missed out on seeing the spectacle because we were goofing around in the back seat, and every time we went on the same road on other visits, my parents would repeat the story of what happened.

“I thought for sure I was going to hit it,” my father would say, “but it leaped right over the front of the car.  Your mother screamed.”

“I’ll never forget it,” she’d say, adding details about the horse’s tail and the sound its hooves made clattering on the road.

I’d heard the story so many times, I thought I’d seen the thing for real, even though what I chiefly remember are the moments leading up to the horse event.  It was hot in the car, and the upholstery smelled like mashed potatoes, beef and gravy.  My parents were smoking to beat the band, and I felt queasy.  Who wouldn’t?   Then Eddie’s dolls toppled to the floor in the back when Dad slammed on the brakes.  Eddie’s Ken doll in beachwear landed on top of Barbie in a shapely swimsuit, her eyes fluttering, and I connected Mom’s screaming to the dolls, like Mom had eyes in the back of her head.

She might’ve said, or maybe it was Dad, who said, “Jesus, did you see that? When troubles come, they come in battalions.”

Did Eddie laugh?  Giggle.  Make a smart-aleck comment?

Dad smacked him.  That’s what happened for real.

When we pulled into Champlain, I saw a couple of posters on telephone poles for the bout between Prince Edward and Claude Michaud, and asked Dad if he thought there’d be a big crowd at the fight.

“What a question,” he said.  “Everybody and his brother will be there.”

Men stood outside the Moose Club, feathers of breath riding from their mouths, and the cars in the lot had hats of snow on their roofs.

It smelled of wet wool and cigars and cigarettes inside.  Rows of wooden chairs faced the ring, which was smaller than I expected, a cuff of smoke above it. People hooted and whistled at the announcement of Eddie’s name, and when he glided toward the ring, Dad looked down at the floor.  Eddie’s hair was bleached yellow, and his silk boxing trunks were the color of monarch butterflies.

Claude Michaud wore white trunks, and he winked at Eddie, which got a big laugh from spectators.

“You hoping to get pollinated?”Claude shouted at Eddie.

Don’t do it, I thought, but Eddie imitated Mohammad Ali.  He pranced around the ring, making windmill motions with his arms, and getting jeers from the audience.

I didn’t know that you could hear the wet, thudding sound gloves make, or the boxers’ noises, little sounds, like they were reacting to a surprise. When Eddie held his opponent, people squealed, and the referee separated the boxers, but I knew the ref was hamming it up, warning just Eddie, and then Eddie socked Claude in the jaw, and Claude’s head whipped back like a wet towel, sweat and spit flying around.

The match was over, and Eddie moved around the ring, raising his arms, and blowing kisses at the audience.   I didn’t know if he could see us, but I waved, then felt a constriction in my chest, as if a noose had been tied around it, when Eddie gave me a wink.

“He’s a genuine dandy,” I heard a man say. “We got our money’s worth tonight.”

“A semi-professional drag show,” his seatmate said.

“It’s rigged,” said another man said. “The whole thing’s phony as a three-dollar bill.”

Dad was looking at his shoes, the good ones he reserves for church and work.  Popcorn, peanut shells, beer cans, and cigarette butts were on the concrete floor, and then popcorn boxes, cans, and food wrappers went into orbit as a man in a cardigan sweater led Eddie away.

“How’d you like to be the person who has to clean this place?” I asked, Mom’s standard line at the movies and restaurants, but got no response from Dad, so I touched his sleeve.  “Come on.  Let’s go home.”

He brushed my hand away, then got up and left.  I sat there like a dope, the lone female in the Moose Hall, and when a man approached, asking if I was lost, and what in hell must’ve possessed my parents into depositing me here, I could’ve said I was Prince Edward’s girl, but said that I was writing a school report on boxing.

Dad was ripping posters down outside, and when I went up to him, he glanced around at people getting into their cars, then lowered his head.  His eyelashes were thatched with frost. Maybe he’d cried, and didn’t want to risk anyone seeing him that way, especially me, “the Babe,” Eddie’s little sister, earning a nickname from Dad that I’d always despised.

About Leslee Becker:

I grew up in the Adirondacks, and received my MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  I’ve published a story collection, The Sincere Café, and individual stories in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, Epoch, New England Review, and elsewhere. I live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and teach at Colorado State University.

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