You And Nothing Else
It hurt to find your girl loved a winner. Surely a guy could have a small car, some fishing and a girl like Janet without turning himself into a human punching bag
JANET’S voice nudged its way through his thoughts. “That’s the last of them,” she sighed. The last dish dripped in his hands, to be mechanically rubbed dry and put away with the rest. He had been watching her head, windowframed, with the softened sunset tints for a backdrop.
His fingers, fumbling blindly behind his back, only succeeded in knotting more hopelessly the strings of an apron donned earlier at her insistence. “Hey,” he said. “Help me with this, will you?”
“You’ve been away from domesticity too long, Grant,” she teased from behind him. Her fingers worked on the knotted strings.
He thought: I’ve been away from you too long. If he were to turn now, take her in his arms—
“There!” she said. “Let’s get out of this place before we melt.”
Silently he shuffled after her through the wellremembered low-ceilinged rooms, their window shades drawn against the day’s heat, even darker for him because of the smoked glasses he wore. His reflection as he passed the old, scroll-framed mirror was hardly more than a blur. Like Buddy Raye in the fifth round Monday night. Dancing weaving blur, coming closer, momentarily half recognized, and then a bagful of fists being bounced ofF his face; and the blur again, coming out of the white glare of light flooding the ring, and the brightness exploding twice —one, two—like a million candles suddenly upflung; and the relentless, red-tinted blur once more, and blunt blows battering down the remaining life in his stomach muscles; and trains roaring around his head on a circular track; and finally the soothing feel of canvas on his writhing back—
Past the mirror’s scope he unclenched his hands, which had been instinctively half raised in a defensive gesture. He followed Janet outside, to the shaded porch where her father and mother sat for the slight evening breeze. Their glance as they looked up at him was brightly attentive. It was also indirect, refusing to fasten on any part of him. It had been the same all through dinner. Now, Grant, their look seemed to say for them, we have never seen a badly beaten fighter before. We don?t quite know how to act. We want you to know that we’re happy to see you again. At the same time we don’t want you to feel that we’re staring.
“We’re going into town,” Janet told them.
“Everybody will be glad to see you, Grant,” her father said heartily.
“My goodness, yes!” her mother chimed in, seeming relieved at finding something to say. “Somebody or other is always asking about you.”
He told them he would see them later, awkwardly half backing away from the porch. Vaguely, lie answered their wave as Janet’s fifteen-year-old coupe fluttered along the twin ruts leading to the county road. A fellow could own a little car like that in Springton, and it was enough. It would take him out to a little fishing, or just a beer in town, or maybe to church on Sunday. A fellow could have such things without being a prize fighter and taking the beating of his life from boys like Buddy Raye—
AS THE car topped the last hill he laid an - excited hand on Janet’s arm. “Stop here a minute, Jan,” lie said. Below was Springton, nestled on the lake’s shoulder, with the sun’s farewell flashes of flame on windows and water. “Isn’t it a picture?”
“1 guess I’ve seen it too many times,” Janet said. She glanced at him for an instant , and then she let the car roll downhill. When it. had gathered enough momentum she cut in the ignition, and there was the jerk of the motor taking hold. And he remembered that in the back of his mind, when he had asked her to stop, there had been the thought of kissing her—of getting back to the way things had been before he left.
Four hundred yards from the town’s main street gravel gave way to concrete.
The cluster of buildings which made up Springton stretched in an unbroken row on each side of the street. “It’s almost as if the old town had its arms outstretched to welcome a fellow back,” he told her.
“You can’t really feel that way after just a year.”
“Why not? A year is a long time.” They got out of the car. It was a long time—long enough to make for a lot of things besides homesickness. It was, for instance, three hundred and sixty-five days on any one of which Janet could have stopped waiting for him. Right now there was nothing to assure him that such a thing had not happened. Their first kiss in a year had been a flurried touching of lips. And he, feeling the restraint immediately, had become uncertain. Since then no moment had seemed just right for kissing her as he had kissed her before he left, and as he had pictured himself kissing her after he decided to return. And he wondered if she had been hesitant because of the dark glasses under which his eyes were still pufFed half shut; or because his arrival had been so completely unexpected; or because of the other thing which could have happened on any one of the three hundred and sixty-five days.
He did not want to think about that last part. As he led her into the cool mustiness of Darce’s Drugstore he welcomed the familiar objects which telescoped time and gave him a feeling of not having been absent long. There were the same deer antlers on the walls; even Darce behind the counter—nothing changed.
“Well, well, Grant!” Darce’s red, meaty hand was extended over the counter. “Why the disguise? You forget to duck in your last fight?”
“We enter the Stork Club,” Janet murmured. “Billingsley himself greets us with enthusiasm and a bright remark.”
“Nice to see you, Darce,” Grant said. “Nice to see the place the way it always was.”
“Yep, it’s the same old place,” Darce agreed. “Can’t expect us to change very much.”
“It’s in the county constitution,” Janet said without smiling.
Darce laughed, the way one laughs for sociability’s sake even when the exact point of a joke eludes him.
Janet said she would have a soda. Grant ordered a milk shake.
“It’s on the house,” Darce said. “Who was this fellow you forgot to duck, Grant?”
“Never heard of him. You lost the fight before that too, didn’t you?”
“And the one before that,” Grant said wryly. “Tough luck.”
“They were just better boys.” His sidewise glance took in Janet, covertly studying him. He knew that because of the dark glasses she was not aware of his eyes upon her. It gave him a guilty feeling—like inadvertently finding himself a Peeping Tom. He faced her more sqqarely, so that she would know he was looking at her. Instantly, her uncertain, measuring expression was curtained by a smile.
There was a slap on his back which made him wince, and someone saying, “Hi, Grant!”
He turned on his stool. “Oh, hello, Wilkie. Nice to see you.”
“Saw you coming in,” Wilkie said. “Figured: There’s the story to fill the blank space on the front page.”
“Still the reporter, huh?”
“He’s a regular Winched,” Janet intoned.
Wilkie smiled. “I’m the editor too, now. Old McHenry quit.”
Wilkie hauled his slight, bony body atop a stool. Taking out his glasses he polished them thoroughly. He located a stub of pencil in one pocket and a many-folded sheet of paper in another. “How long are you going to be with us, Grant?”
“I—really don’t know.”
“Short vacation before returning to the ring wars,” Wilkie mumbled half to himself, his cramped handwriting crawling across the paper.
“But—” How to tell Wilkie that he wanted no more of that, that he had taken one beating too many. Wilkie would be the logical one to let know —it would save him from explaining it personally to everyone in town.
Wilkie’s blue, washed-out eyes peered over the glasses. “Looks like you just got through a hard fight.”
“You can quote me on that.”
“But you won.”
“Do I look like the winner?”
“Hmm. Well, I’ll bet you left the other fellow in pretty bad shape too. I’ll just say you got a bad break on the decision.” “It wasn’t like that at all,” Grant
protested. “I was knocked out!” He got the impression that Janet caught her breath, but when he turned to her she was staring fixedly into her drink. That was one of the things he had wanted to tell her when they were alone, but there had been no time.
Continued on page 30
You and Nothing Else
Continued from page 20
“I guess we just won’t mention it then,” Wilkie was saying. “How many fighte have you won now?” “Seven. Seven wins. I lost ten.”
“In the short time he has been fighting, Grant has amassed seven victories,” he murmured, writing it down.
“And ten losses—don’t forget that.” “We won’t mention the losses.”
“Are you a reporter or a press agent?”
“But you’re a local boy, Grant. Everyone likes to see a local boy make good.”
“This time you have the wrong local boy.”
“Aw, you’ll even things up,” Wilkie told him soothingly. “Just win the next one and you’ll forget—”
“There isn’t going to be any next one-—I’m through!” The jagged words which came seemingly of themselves, perhaps because he had gone over this moment so often in his mind, were not the ones he had intended using. Nor was the audience right. All the mental rehearsing had been for Janet alone.
“You mean you’re actually quitting, for good?”
Wilkie’s fumbling incredulity was an irritant that brought out another rush of words. “Right!” he said. “You know what I’ve been in my last three fights? A punching bag, that’s what. A punching bag ducking all over the ring, and once in a while trading one for three or four.”
“But as you learn more—” Wilkie put in mildly.
“Sure, you learn more.” he agreed wearily. “And so does the next guy. These last three boys I met bad more than I’ll ever have. Still, I’ll bet not one of them really gets anywhere. So where does that leave me, except maybe hanging on the ropes?”
No one said anything for a moment. The only sound to be heard was the scrape of Wilkie’s pencil as he drew aimless whorls over the notes he had made. Then Darce broke the spell. “Grant’s right,” he said, his tone brooking no argument. “Plenty of ex-fighters going around with bells in their heads because they didn’t have sense enough to quit.”
“1 don’t say he’s wrong,” Wilkie declared. “I guess if a man sees he isn’t getting anywhere why—” He shrugged, leaving the sentence unfinished.
Grant waited for some word from Janet. She said nothing, and he did not know whether that was better or worse.
Janet slid silently from the high, leather-covered stool, and he followed close behind her. She was already out of the door, and he was just walking through it, when Darce called after him. “How at)out some trout Sunday? They’re getting a few off the bottom at March Lake.”
“This won’t take a minute,” he told Janet.
“I’ll wait in the car,” she said. He walked back to the counter.
After they had agreed on the starting time, Darce said to him: “You know, I’m glad you’re around again.” He grinned. “Besides you being another customer, which never hurte, I’m glad.”
“Sure, I know,” he answered gently. “Well—Janet’s waiting. I’ll see you around, huh?” “Don’t forget, five o’clock,” Darce called after him.
OUTSIDE there was the half light of dusk, and the sound of crickets, the headlights of a car coming into town, and the store windows along the main street, their lights aglow. And there was the lake near the edge of the town, its shimmer new-lost to darkness, and the smell of hay in the air. It made him want to open his arms and embrace it all. He understood now how he could have been so sharply haunted by memories, especially after the last fight as he lay in the darkened hotel room with the sting of stitches above his gashed eye and the tired ache in his ribs. “Let’s take a look at the beach,” he said to Janet.
They drove the short distance in silence, and stopped again. The motor quit its whispered cough. They became part of the evening hush enveloping the lake.
“Jan, I—I wanted to tell you,” he began. “All of it, before anyone else.” Her words were slow in coming, as if fighting their way through deep thought. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re sure?”
“I can’t get over the feeling that I’ve let you—let us both, down. I was going to do such great things. The only wonderful dream left is you.”
“I’m not wonderful, either.” She paused, then went on tentatively. “Grant—”
“Let’s not rush things. Do you mind—if we give ourselves a little time?”
Once again he felt himself pulled inward, the way he had felt earlier that day, following their first kiss of greeting. Time for what? That was what he wanted to ask her. Instead he said, lightly and fast, “Mind? No, of course not. We have all the time in the world.”
At her home he waited until the screen door closed softly between them, and then he turned away and started the mile walk home along the country road. It was a moonless night, and he made his way partly by starlight and partly by the feel of the road’s gravel underfoot. As he approached each farmhouse the dog on the place barked, and the barking continued, sounding more mournful than angry in the night silence, until the next dog on the next farm took it up—like sentries passing on the warning from one post to the next when they are uncertain about someone or something in their midst. Everyone and everything was uncertain—himself, Janet—
THE sound of the family moving about downstairs woke him in the morning. In the kitchen he found his father and young brother at breakfast. “Hey, Grant, you going to help us with the hay?” his brother asked.
“Donnie!” his mother cut in.
“You take it easy for a few days, Grant,” said his father.
“I’m all right, Pa. I’ll give you a hand—the work will do me good.” He said it more to convince his father than because he believed it.
He began to believe that same day that the work was something he needed, and he believed it more in the days which followed. For one thing it left him less time to worry about his standing with Janet. And, too, as the days passed his body began to respond more surely, without the sore stiffness which had been there at first. In a week his glasses were discarded and with them went the last bit of awkward deference from his family. More than ever it felt good to be back. If he could straighten things out with Janet —then everything would be perfect.
Donnie had gotten in the habit of waking him up every morning. This morning he did it with more breathlessness than usual. “Today’s the day, Grant!” he said after shaking him awake.
“The summer carnival—it starts today. And there’s a prize fighter!”
“Oh, Grant—not the carnival!” Janet said when he asked her to go with him. “Year after year it’s the same thing—the hula girl, trained dogs, high diver. I’ve seen them all so many times.”
“I’ve done everything your way, Jan. Do this one thing, for me.”
She gave in then and the first hurdle was cleared. But there were others, and the thought of them kept nagging at his mind. What if the whole thing disgusted her—if instead of his planned healthy shock she felt only that lie had resorted to a cheap trick? Or—not too fantastic a thought—what if she actually liked the whole thing? He had seen women at the fights, shouting as lustily as their men.
He did not know the answer to that one. V'l he knew was that he loved Janet enough—if that was what she wanted, if she could stand it, maybe he could stand some more of it too.
Vetoing the use of her car for the drive to Midan he borrowed his father’s pickup truck. He felt urgently that he had to take hold somewhere, to break up the attitude of unquestioning acceptance to which he had adhered since his return. For better or worse he was going to run this one show.
The crowd at the carnival was large. After a few minutes of walking through it Janet caught some of its spirit, linked her arm through his. “Your fortune, Miss?” a sharp-featured, henna-haired woman in gypsy costume asked as they passed her booth.
“Go on—-let her tell you all about your future,” he urged.
“If anything they’ve told me ever came true—” Janet said. But she stepped smilingly into the small booth.
He waited outside until she was seated and the fortuneteller began placing her cards, one by one, on a folding table. Then he hurried away to the other side of the midway. A barker with a thin, reedlike cane was there, shouting that Kid Symes would take on all opponents. Hurrying back he arrived at the fortuneteller’s booth as Janet was coming out. He said, “Well, did she say you’d take a long journey?” and instantly regretted his thoughtless words.
“No,” Janet said soberly, “she didn’t.”
“Of course you said yourself that they never guess right.” No, that wasn’t good either. In trying to square his having been a fool he was making himself out a bigger one. He abandoned the tack, afraid that it would take an even worse turn. “Let’s go this way,” he said. She walked with him to the platform on which stood Kid Symes.
“Only a few more minutes, folks,” the barker was chanting. “Come in, come in! Only a few more minutes before the bout goes on.”
“Jan, you’ve never seen a real fight, have you?”
She studied his face for a moment, and then she said, “You know I haven’t, Grant.”
“Let’s go in. You ought to see it once.” He took her arm without waiting for an answer, led her to the ticket seller.
Most of the ringside seats seemed taken, but then he spotted Wilkie, who, after getting over the surprise of seeing him, helped him and Janet squeeze into a place on the wooden bench that would have ordinarily accommodated one person. “Even if you quit, you can’t keep away from it, huh?” Wilkie asked.
“This is more for Janet. She’s never been near a ring in her life.” The crowd was impatiently shouting and stamping for action. He turned to see how Janet was taking it. She was sitting j quietly, seemingly ready to endure the whole thing.
There were a few catcalls and scattered applause as the fighter followed the barker into the ring. The barker went through his spiel, ending with, “Who’ll it be, men? Who wants that t we n ty - fi ve d olla rs?’ ’
He caught a fleeting glimpse of Janet’s surprised face as he shouted, “Here!” At the same time someone at the other end of the bench also volunteered. Wilkie looked surprised, too, but there was the beginning of understanding in his eyes.
“We have two men!” the barker shouted. “Now we can’t give you a j double feature.” He paused for the ! crowd’s laugh. “So we’ll just pick one ! of the two. Will whoever called in this j corner stand up?”
He stood up, not looking at Janet, aware that her eyes were on him. The barker looked him over briefly and then called for the other man. No one stood up. And then he saw Wilkie returning to his seat beside Janet, hurriedly putting away his billfold. “You fixed that, huh?” he said as the reporter sat down.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Wilkie answered, grinning.
“Grant—” Janet began.
“Don’t worry,” he cut in. “It’s in j the bag.” It was always in the bag for those you loved. She might as well know how that part of it worked too. j “As soon as I take care of him,” he i added, “we’ll celebrate.” Yeah! Famous last words, while it was still easy to talk.
He was led to the scale. “One seventy,” the barker announced. “Just three pounds less than Kid Symes. That’s what 1 call an even match, folks!”
Doc led him away, while the barker continued his patter. “I have my own stuif in that truck over there,” he said when they were out of the tent.
Doc looked a little concerned. “You a fighter?”
“Nobody really thinks so, and that j includes me.”
Soon he was climbing through the ropes again, to be greeted by a ragged yell from the crowd. Somehow the word had gone around and the tent was filled with people from Springton. The barker had been keeping the spectators occupied with enthusiastic remarks about the evenness of the match. He lost some of his enthusiasm when Doc got him aside for a moment. Going to his fighter he passed along the information Doc had given him.
He and Kid Symes were called to the centre of the ring. “I want my own man in my corner,” Grant said to the referee.
“What is this—a frame-up?” asked Kid Symes.
“You expect them all to be pigeons,” he retorted.
The barker looked at him with new interest. “Get your man—it’s all right with us,” he said.
When he returned with Wilkie to the centre of the ring, Symes said, “Probably a golden-gloves punk. I’ll cut him down so he fits his pants again—they’re j a little tight right now.”
“You do that,” Grant replied.
In the first round Symes came in fast, trying to overwhelm him with a shower of punches. Grant ducked and side-stepped, took two light jabs on his forehead and landed with a solid left to Symes’ mouth. A little later he landed another good left in the same place. Symes bounced back, hurt enough to he wary. They were circling each other carefully when the end of the first round came.
Wilkie was jubilant, chortling, “You have got him, Grant—you’ve got him!”
“That boy is going to be a lot tougher next round,” he replied.
Symes was tougher, counterpunching with good effect, going into clinches when the going got bad. And at the break from one of the clinches Symes found him with a hard, low punch.
The world was suddenly a heaving, rocking sea of breathless nausea, and the “Oooohhh” he heard could have come from the crowd or from his own lips-he didn’t know which. He was down on his knees, stomach curled over lus hands, head hanging so low that his hair brushed the canvas. The referee was counting. four-five—
sixseven—” Violently he rocked his head and shoulders upward, lurched to his feet. Only a few more seconds to the round. A little luck and he would last it out.
He jabbed with his left and was soft and ineffective with his right as Symes came in. Then he went into a clinch. “Got your number now, punk,” Symes panted in his ear. “All left and no right, eh? That’s why you’re in this one-horse burg.”
The crowd was shouting, “Where’s that bell? Where’s that bell?”
Symes broke away, pounding his still numb mid-section. He went into another clinch, and a moment later the bell did come through. “That’s the last time you tie me up,” Symes said before turning away. “Try it again and see.”
Wilkie was fuming. “Of all the dirty, rotten deals! E'irst. he fouls you. Then the round is stretched because they thought he had you. They’ve got the referee, the timekeeper—everything for them!”
He had no breath to waste on Wilkie, so he just winked at him. Ele rolled his head to one side, glanced over his shoulder at Janet, who was nervously twisting the straps of her handbag, and he winked at her.
BY BELL TIME most of the pain was gone, but the quivery tightness was still there where the blow had landed. He stalked out carefully, knowing that Symes had to come to him, because twenty-five dollars was t we n ty - f i ve d ol I a rs.
Symes tried his whirlwind attack and was jolted back with two fast lefts. He tried again and the left found his nose and started a trickle of blood running around the corner of his mouth and down his chin.
'The blood was his cue. He went after Symes, backing him up—left, left, left. He was surprised when Symes went into a clinch without really having to - until he realized what it meant. He was being set up for the low one again.
It came with the break, as he had expected it to, and he blocked it. 'Ehen he used his right—really used it—for the first time, catching Symes squarely and flinging him into the ropes, and then catching him again as he came off the ropes, and Symes staggered, his slack body begging for the kill, and he got it, from another fast right which turned him so that he fell face forward, one arm outstretched, the other folded under him, like a man ready for artificial respiration.
The crowd counted along with the referee and then burst out with a prolonged cheer. Wilkie was doing a war dance around him. “Wait a minute, you maniac,” he said. “Where’s Janet?”
“Hey, fella—come get your money,” the barker called after him.
“Bring it over,” he shouted hack. He had just located her, still in her seat.
She rose as he got to her. “Oh, Grant—” Her eyes seemed to be
searching his face and body for fresh scars. Her hands hesitated, then went to his shoulders.
“I’m all sweat,” he told her. “Darling—I don’t care! Are you all right? That’s the big thing.”
Wilkie obligingly shooed away the small crowd which had gathered around them. Then they were interrupted anyway by the barker. “Here’s your money, kid.” he said. “You’re a real scrapper. I’d like to have a little talk with you.”
“Okay, talk away.”
“Sure. What’s wrong with here?” “All right. First of all, how long have you been at it and where?”
He mentioned his record. “You see,” he added, “you’re on the wrong track. Anybody could have won seven out of seventeen.”
“You were brought along too fast. I tell you, you’ve got promise. And brains, too. Symes told me you didn’t have a right, just before you tagged him with it.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“All right. Now I want to send you to a man 1 know. He’ll bring you along slower, maybe make something pretty good out of you.”
“I’m not that kind of material, mister, and I know it.”
“All right. Harry Garvey is champ today, right? Three years ago Elarry did the same thing you did today. I made him the same offer. He took it. What do you say to that?”
“No kidding—Garvey?” It began to sound good. Maybe he could still make good his promises to Janet. “What do you say?” he asked, turning to her. “No,” she said without hesitation. “What?”
“No,” she repeated. “N-O.”
“But—1 don’t get it. Just when I figure out that it’s what you want— What’s the story, anyway?”
“Come on, mister,” Wilkie said to the barker. “Let’s give these kids a chance.”
“It wasn’t exactly what you thought,” she said, when they were alone. “It was just that I was ready, waiting for you to come take me away, for such a long time. And everyone in town knew it, so that it was always, ‘When—when?’ Oh, I know it’s their way of being neighborly, but it got on my nerves. Soon my one big thought was that I couldn’t get out fast enough. And I guess that turned things around in my mind, so that instead of leaving town to go with you I was going with you to leave town. Only I didn’t realize it until you came back.
“Then 1 wanted time to get things straight. I had to he sure that I wanted you for yourself and nothing else. That’s the story, except that I am sure now, Grant. I’ve been sure since you went in that ring. When you went down—1 was never so scared in my life. 1 don’t ever want to go through that again.”
It was so much more than he had expected. Kor a moment he was speechless, as if he had watched a miracle being performed. “Would you mind,” he finally managed to ask, “if you got one of the kisses now that I was going to give you later?”
She smiled, and it was a good smile —tender, happy, the kind of smile he always wanted her to have. “We’ll concentrate on now ” she said, “and let later take care of itself.” it