CHANGE FOR A FIVE
He was a fat shadow of the old Rocky. But the real story is back in the dressing room
MARCO and Rocky left the hotel and started for the Armories. Rocky was eager. Marco had to skip along to keep up with Rocky’s waddling stride. It was dark and Marco was glad of that.
“I’ll just walk out and swing on this farmer,” Rocky said. “Yeah, might as well get it over fast.” They turned in at the Armories. Fans waiting in line stared at them and Marco frowned. Why didn’t I go see Rocky, instead of phoning him? Marco asked himself. He remembered Rocky’s surprise. “You mean me, Marco?” Rocky had said over the phone. “Me, fight in Mill City?”
It wasn’t like I could take it or leave it, Marco reminded himself. He made a wry face, thinking of the lunchroom where he and Rocky had eaten;
where Marco had paid for the dinner and then counted the eight dollars remaining in his billfold, acting quite startled.
“That’s funny,” he had said. “I thought I had plenty—prob’ly couldn’t cash a check in this town, either.”
Marco guessed he had Rocky kidded. “Well, Marco, if they don’t pay off,” Rocky joked, “you got carfare home, anyways. Me, I’ll have to ride the rods, huh?”
Now, walking into the Armories, Marco tried to tell himself he didn’t have to worry about getting paid. After all, two years ago Rocky had been, almost, one of the important heavies. What Marco had to do was keep talking, talking, holding up Rocky’s confidence.
“Sure, I’m glad I’m back fighting, Marco.”
“Yeah, Rocky. We’ll have you back in the big clubs. No time at all.”
“Sure, sure,” Rocky said. “Take off a few pounds.”
“Yeah, a few pounds.”
Marco went up the stairs, not looking at Rocky or at the gaping fans in line. He was playing a trick on himself, pretending that behind him was the Rocky of two years ago. At the turnstile Marco pushed Rocky ahead of him.
He said to the ticket taker, “How’s the house?” The man went dead pan; he moved to stop Rocky, but Marco kept pushing. They went on through a lobby and found themselves at the doorway of an officelike room crowded with Mill City sports. At a table, facing them, sat a bald, jowly man with unpleasant eyes. Marco knew a promoter when he saw one; he nodded, smiling tightly.
“I’m Marco,” he said. He found himself posing, holding the smile, waiting for something to happen. The promoter looked at Rocky. “Who’s that?” “It’s me,” Rocky said quickly.
The promoter asked Marco, “Where’s your fighter?” and then, understanding, he rose slowly, his unpleasant eyes bulging. “Not that fat slob?” Marco just stood there, wondering, how did I expect to get away with it? And he thought wearily of the day he had spent building up Rocky’s confidence. He turned and saw Rocky still grinning and recalled that Rocky, his ears hopelessly cabbaged, couldn’t hear half that was said to him Rocky gave the promoter a cheery wave. “It’s me, all right, chum,” he said. “We’re gonna give them fans of yours a real show tonight, me and this local kid you got.” He winked at Marco. “Ain’t that right, Marco?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Marco said. He wished Rocky knew enough to get out of sight. “Go find a dressing room, Rocky,” he said. “I’ll be right with you.”
“Oka-madocah,” Rocky said. He waved, grinning, to all the sports and went back down the hall.
THE promoter barked, “I’ll call the fight off!
That fat bum wouldn’t last a round with K. O. Wilcey!”
“You’ll call it off?” Marco said. “With that crowd waiting?”
“You told me on the phone he was in tiptop condition !”
Marco tried to get mad; he couldn’t do it. “What you squawking about?” he said. “Rocky was always fat. He’s in good shape, just the same.”
“Shape!” the promoter shouted. “Shape like a barrel !”
The sports laughed; it wasn’t a laugh Marco liked. “Don’t worry about Rocky,” he said. “Rocky’ll give you a good show.”
“He better!” The promoter was shaking his two fists. “If that mountain of lard don’t go the ten rounds—you don’t get paid !”
“Hah!” Marco said and he made a flippant gesture and walked out of the room. But a funny idea had ccme to him.
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When he saw Rocky in the lobby he knew what he was going to do.
“Can’t find the dressing rooms,” Rocky said, bewildered. “One guy says upstairs, one guy says—”
“Never mind,” Marco said. He took out his billfold. “I forget to get tape. You want to find a drugstore, buy what you need?—A buck be enough?”
“A buck?” Rocky took the bill. “Oh, sure, Marco. Been so long, I forgot about bandages. Ain’t that funny?” Then he said, “What’s the guy looking sore about? He looked sore about something.”
“Maybe he figured I wanted it in advance.”
“Yeah,” Rocky said. He looked at Marco. “Did you?”
“No, no,” Marco said. “Run along now, Rocky. I got to check on the tickets.”
ROCKY waved breezily and waddled out past the turnstile. Marco went to the door and saw him turn left to go up Main Street. Then Marco went out too. He turned right and went down a block and then took a street that brought him to the hotel. Marco tried not to think of what he was doing: but he wondered. Had he ever heard of a manager running out on his fighter?
Marco had already checked out at the hotel; he got his bag and walked to the railroad station. He asked the clerk, “When’s the next train to Toronto?”
The clerk glanced at the clock. “Twenty-three minutes.” He reached for the ticket rack and then paused, watching Marco. “Six seventy-five,” he said.
Marco was staring blankly at his open billfold. There should have been a five and two ones; he saw three ones and no five. Marco tried to believe the five was there; all the time he knew he had given it to Rocky instead of a one.
“Never mind,” Marco said to the clerk.
He checked his bag and started back to the Armories. But he walked very slowly. More than ever he dreaded the thought of appearing before a crowd with fat Rocky. He told himself he didn’t owe it to Rocky; there wasn’t anything in it for him. Rocky couldn’t go the ten rounds, Marco was sure and there would be no purse to cut.
Marco walked into the Armories. The lobby was empty, but back in the arena the fight crowd was yelling. Marco found the dressing rooms. Strange grunts came from one of them, and Marco opened the door to see Rocky, in his trunks, shadowboxing around the small room. Then he realized how really fat Rocky was. His old faded trunks had been enlarged at the sides with big triangles of cloth, to make room for the great bulge in front.
“Hi, Marco,” Rocky said. He saw the doubt in Marco’s eyes and his grin faded. For a moment, Marco knew, Rocky himself saw how impossible a thing this was, his going before the crowd with that belly bulging over pieced-out faded trunks.
“Everything okay, Marco?” Rocky said. He was studying Marco’s face.
“Yeah, everything’s okay,” Marco said. Standing there, he could picture how the fight would go. He could picture the gasping, sweating, redsplotched Rocky, trying to keep going. Oh, Rocky would try, all right. Marco could see him, on the floor, getting up to be knocked down again.
Marco stopped thinking about that.
In fifteen minutes, about, the train would be leaving. Marco still had time to get the change from his five and run for it.
“Yeah, everything okay, Rocky,” he said.
Rocky seemed reassured; he began shadowboxing again. Then he stopped and winked at Marco. “A dollar thirty, it was.”
“What?” Marco said, though he had been waiting for this.
“The bandages,” Rocky said. “You only gave me a buck, you know? So 1 just started talking. The guy was a fight fan and 1 started talking about the big fights 1 had.” Rocky gave Marco the wink again. “See, Marco?
1 kept talking and I handed over the buck and then I walked out! He forgot all about the thirty cents! Ain’t that pretty good, Marco?”
Marco didn’t look at Rocky. “You gave him the bill and walked out?” Marco knew then that he had to go through with it. “Yeah, pretty good,” he said. “Where’s the bandages?”
With the tape and gauze Marco went to work on Rocky’s hands. He wanted to be doing something. He didn’t want to think of what was going to happen. It helped a little to have Rocky, dumb Rocky, talking away.
“Sure, Marco, I’ll just walk out there, stick a left hand in his kisser and start laying ’em in. Huh, Marco?”
“Yeah,” Marco said. Get it over with, get it over with, he kept saying to himself. Upstairs the crowd was yelling for somebody to sock somebody. Marco pressed down the last strip of tape.
Rocky was still talking, sounding more confident every minute. “Why should I fool around with him, Marco? If he can’t fight, why don’t he stay home and milk the cows; huh, Marco?”
“Okay,” Marco said, straightening up. “Might as well go.” And then, seeing Rocky throw his old sweater over his shoulders, “Didn’t you bring any robe?”
Rocky had started out into the hall, swaggering. But Marco couldn’t follow him. No robe, he was thinking; no robe to hide that bloated body. Rocky stopped; there was something different in his manner.
“The fact is, Marco, my robe don’t fit so good.”
THEY went up the empty hall, hearing the crowd’s yelling and on into the arena. They stood at the head of an aisle and Rocky said, “Ain’t it wonderful, Marco? Ain’t it like old times?”
“Yeah, old times,” Marco said. He wondered at the tremble in Rocky’s voice.
The referee was counting over somebody. Marco heard the numbers and then the crowd’s roar drowned them out. But he had heard the numbers and he couldn’t hold back the picture of what was going to happen, the long bloody minutes Rocky had to go through. He looked quickly at Rocky and understood what was the trouble. Rocky was afraid.
He grabbed Rocky’s arm. “All right,” he said sharply. “Let’s get down there.”
Rocky moved forward a step and he stopped. Marco saw the sweat on his face, the terror in his eyes. Rocky said, “Marco, I’m scared. I can’t go down there.”
“Go on, go on.” Marco was shoving. “Marco, Marco, they’ll laugh at me! I’m so fat!”
Marco said, “What do you care if they laugh or if they cry? Get started down that aisle before I swing one of these here funeral chairs on your head !” Marco was shoving Rocky, both
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hands against his broad, bare back. No dumb palooka was running out on Marco. He was going to shove this crying slob into the ring and make him fight.
Marco heard the yells: Lookitim!
—the little guy pushing the fat guy! He said to himself, Marco, it’s you they’re laughing at! Marco, how did this happen to you? But he kept pushing.
“Marco, I can’t fight!” Rocky wailed. “Marco, they’re laughing at me!”
“You’ll fight,” Marco panted. “You’re more fighter than these rubes ever seen in their life before. Rocky— get walking down that aisle!”
And Rocky was walking, like a man walking to his death. They reached ringside and Marco, scowling out over the crowd, went up and held the ropes apart. Rocky followed him, ducking into the ring. The crowd howled: Lookitim!—the little guy’s got to hold the ropes for the fat guy! He’s so fat he can’t get in the ring! But they were in the ring. Marco, his face set, walked to the corner and kicked out the stool for Rocky. Somebody threw new gloves over the ropes; Marco picked out a pair and tried them on. Rocky put up one big hand. Marco shoved a glove onto the hand and began to lace it.
Rocky, pasty-faced, his lips trembling, was talking to Marco. With the crowd howling, his voice seemed to come from far away. “Marco, I told you they’d laugh! I told you I was too fat! Marco, wha’d you bring me up here for? Wha’d you kid me I could still fight for?”
The announcer couldn’t make himself heard and he gave up. The referee stood sheepishly beckoning in midring. Rocky got to his feet. He and Marco started toward the referee; and then, with the ring cleared, they saw K. O. Wilcey.
Rocky went on, but Marco paused, staring at Wilcey. This wasn’t the kind of opponent Marco had expected to meet in Mill City. K. O. Wilcey was a head taller than Rocky; he was big and broad and smooth muscle bulged all over him. He didn’t walk like a farm hand; he walked like a fighter. Ele was mad, too; he didn’t like the comedy. He glanced down at Rocky’s bulging front and sneered.
Marco knew then that what he had only imagined was really going to happen. He wondered if he had nerve enough now to take Rocky out of the ring, to quit. But Rocky, peering up into K. O. Wilcey’s threatening face, seemed to find something there that pleased him. Rocky was looking hopeful; a strange light was growing in his eye. Marco, staring, could almost imagine that this was the old Rocky, the fat roughneck who loved to fight. Marco began to feel better himself.
With the referee rattling off instructions, Rocky kept peering into K. O. Wilcey’s face. Rocky was almost grinning, but Wilcey seemed annoyed. Marco turned to look out into the crowd. For some reason the laughing had stopped.
“Shake hands,” the referee said.
They were back in the corner, the announcer was making hurried introductions. Marco took Rocky’s old sweater. “All right, go out and swing,” he said. “This guy looks iike he could fight. Keep on top of him.”
“Yeah, Marco. Right on top of him, Marco.” Rocky turned to face the other corner. He and K. O. Wilcey eyed each other across the short stretch of canvas. Then the bell rang.
MARCO dropped from the ring and squatted in the aisle. The crowd was quiet. K. O. Wilcey came out,
his hands high, his eyes watchful. Rocky went to meet him, taking his time. Rocky, walking flat-footed, his big arms folded before him. Rocky’s head was down. He was like a man walking into a sleet storm.
Wilcey didn’t hesitate. He jumped in and pounded at Rocky, a fast right hand and right again. Marco winced when a punch thumped into Rocky’s jaw, knocking his head sidewise. The fans jumped up, yelling. Rocky kept walking in and Wilcey, scowling, backed away from him. Marco, biting his fingernails, asked himself, Why don’t Rocky punch? Why don’t he swing on him?
Then Wilcey, who had backed to the ropes, bounced suddenly off them and started flailing away at Rocky with both hands. He was socking Rocky about the head and neck and Rocky stumbled away, trying to cover up.
The crowd screamed, “You got him, Wilcey!”
Marco shouted, “Swing on him, Rocky! Swing on him!”
Rocky looked worried; he backed to the ropes. But his eyes were fixed on K. O. Wilcey’s chin. And as Wilcey charged recklessly, Rocky dropped his right hand low and took one great step forward—Marco stopped yelling. For an instant the arena was still. Rocky’s left leg seemed to crumple under him. He went down, falling clumsily, his big body banging hard against the floor. In the quiet he sat there, pulling at his left shoe. He looked embarrassed.
Marco was cursing. Had Rocky turned an ankle? Had he lost the fight without striking a blow? The Mill City crowd screamed: “He’s quitting!
The referee pushed Wilcey back and ran to stand before Rocky. But he didn’t start counting. He was shouting at Rocky. “You can’t pull that stuff in this town! Get up and fight!”
Rocky’s round face turned up to the referee, all at once aflame with indignation. Rocky grabbed the ropes and pulled himself up. He shoved the referee violently aside and whirled to face K. O. Wilcey. The crowd stopped jeering. Wilcey came racing across the ring. Rocky, standing on one foot, holding to the ropes with his right hand, crouched, waiting.
He swung his left as Wilcey came in, but Wilcey hit him first and sent him reeling along the ropes. Rocky turned toward Wilcey again, his eyes wide and desperate, but Wilcey fell on him, mauling at Rocky’s head and body with punishing lefts and rights.
“You got him, Wilcey!” Mill City hollered.
Marco stood swearing. Rocky was hanging to the ropes, backing toward the corner, hopping on one foot and Wilcey was following him, showering him with wild-swinging punches.
“Hit him!” Marco yelled. “Don’t leave him corner you!”
But still Rocky backed toward the corner, with Wilcey, punching crazily, after him. Rocky was penned and Wilcey, panting, stepped back to measure him. The crowd was screaming, Marco was shouting when Wilcey threw his kayo punch—and Rocky ducked.
Rocky ducked and as Wilcey flung himself full force into the corner, Rocky hobbled quickly out. Rocky planted his open right glove on Wilcey’s nose and his left started hacking at Wilcey’s stomach.
The crowd’s howl was choked off. Wilcey, struggling furiously to escape Rocky’s punches, tried to clinch. But Rocky’s huge front held him away. Wilcey tried to hang on; he looked out over the crowd as if appealing for help. He tried to hurl himself out into
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midring, but Rocky bulled him back into the corner. Rocky wiped blood from his face with his left hand and buried his right in Wilcey’s middle. Wilcey doubled up with a gigantic belch. Rocky’s left fist came flying from his knees and smashed into Wilcey’s chin.
Mill City sat silent and saw K. O. Wilcey straighten up, saw him, stepping high, start across the ring toward his own corner. Halfway there, Wilcey paused and gazed out over the crowd as if looking for a familiar face. Then he toppled to the floor and lay still . . .
IN THE dressing room, with the gaping Mill City sports crowded around him, Marco stood scowling down at Rocky. Marco didn’t want to show how good he felt.
“This is fine,” he said sourly. “Your first comeback fight and you ruin an ankle. Take off that shoe.”
Rocky started unlacing his left shoe, but he said, “Oh, the ankle is okay, Marco.”
“Then,” Marco demanded, “why was you out there in the ring fighting on one foot?”
Rocky seemed embarrassed. “Marco, I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “You
know I said I give the drugstore guy a buck for bandages?”
It was Marco’s turn to be embarrassed. He had forgotten his attempt to run out. Remembering, he only scowled the more.
Rocky sighed. “That was a fib, Marco. The fact is, you give me a fin by mistake and I was scared to give you back your change.” Rocky studied Marco’s stern face. “I was scared you’d go buy a ticket to Toronto and leave me fight alone, Marco.”
Marco snorted. “Who ever heard of a manager running out on a fighter?” he said. “And what’s that got to do with you fighting hopping around like you did?”
Rocky sighed again. He had removed his shoe and he was fishing money out of it: three dollar bills,
two dimes and, finally, a fifty-cent piece. “Change from the fin, Marco,” he said.
The sports were snickering and Rocky himself began to grin. “The trouble out there was, Marco, this big half-a-buck—it got stuck between my toes!”
Marco allowed himself a laugh. He reached over and patted Rocky on the head. “Tomorrow, Rocky,” he said, “I will buy you a piggy bank.” +