The Turnpike Boxers (2 of 2), 2005

For Part 1 of this story, you can refer to this post. I published “The Turnpike Boxers” in the Winter 2005 edition of The Stonefence Review while I was a senior at Dartmouth. Figured retyping all of this out word by word might help me get back into fiction mode for my next writing project, now that Hurricane Camp Stories is in the books.

As the young man restarted the car, the 80s blared husky droll feminine tones, all treble and no bass, betraying all stereo quality insinuations. He sheepishly cut off the music, backed up the car, and drove into the now-open garage. The attendant was already stooped in the tire well.

“Should I pull out my spare?”

“Nah, don’t need that. Look at this.” He tapped the tire. It made a thick hollow sound. “What you’ve got here is just wear-tear. Weight. And you’ve got snow tires and it’s almost May now.” The man stopped short and looked down for a moment.

“Pennsylvania plates?”

The boy affirmed.

“Where ’bouts?”

“Fort Washington.”

“Yeah? Where’s about?”

“Um, half-hour outside Philadelphia, off the turnpike.”

“Not nearly Philadelphia.”

The man removed the cap on the pressure hold and affixed the automatic pump handle to the worn rubber wheel. The garage smelled like old cigarettes and rust. The boy stepped forward.

“I can do that.”

“Setting it up, that’s all.” The old man spoke while screwing the pump into place, and then stood up with dark grease stains on the knees of his pants. He pulled a silver tire gauge out of his pocket and handed it to the boy.

“Get it up to 35 psi with the load, and you should get to Pennsylvania just fine.”

He walked a bit further into the garage and sat down on a faintly humming metal box. The boy crouched down in the shadows and squeezed the handle. The attendant watched, turning his right hand over in his left in a slow, systematic manner. He began cracking his knuckles.

“You in Philadelphia much?”

“Sometimes. Not often though.” The boy turned back over his shoulder. “I mean, I’ve got friends in the city.”

“School?”

“Yes. I mean, my friends and I both.”

“South Street?”

“I’ve been on South Street.”

THe man nodded and switched hands. The boy didn’t look up, and wondered how he could tell when the tire was full. He lightened his hold on the pump and the airflow lowered in pitch. “I mean, thanks for helping me out with this.”

The man studied his knuckles. Whites on top, in a cracked, horse-caddy way of smiling, the boy thought from the corner of his eyes.

“You see, my hands are strong, but I gotta keep them loose. You ever box?”

“Fight?”

“Ali. Frazier. You ever boxed?”

He hesitated.

“I took a class at school. Trained for the Golden Gloves in Vermont, those are the big state championships. For amateurs.” Lies. He’d boxed for a term, if you could call jump-roping with the randoms boxing. He hit a bag to stay in shape, couldn’t ever get the speed bag right beyond six or eight hits. And when he sparred, the Dominican told him he was too emotional in the ring- he could see it in the eyes, and emotion made you sloppy. Too much, and he’d ended up running miles in circles around an auxilary gymnasium for it. Some guys boxed at the Gloves, but the college boys never did well, and at any rate, he had quit after ten weeks.

“Golden Gloves, no kidding, son. I won the Massachusetts Golden Gloves in nineteen-sixty-two. You know what my name was in the ring? You know?” The man stared him down in a way that simultaneously promoted and stifled response. Joey concentrated on the airflow, and after a few moments the man continued.

“They called me Thunder Thomas. Thunderin’ Marshall Thomas.” He smiled at his hands. “Best amateur out of the East End they’d seen in years, they said.”

“No joke.” The air wheezed a bit as the man guffawed.

“That’s right! No jokes. I spent some time in Philly after that. I got picked up by Joe Brien. You heard of Joe Brien? East Coast promoter?”

Crack. Another knuckle.

“Probably too long for you to remember, he was known though. Tub of a belly, sweaty smell when he got angry, red mop of hair shaking left and right. Irish in him always got out ringside.” The man smiled into the darkness. The setting sun was cutting pillars of light into the building, and the boy saw dust particles passing through each of the three illuminated diagonals. He let go and pushed on the tire.

“Is this good enough?”

“Go ahead and check it.”

The boy picked up the gauge and pushed it clumsily into the pump cap protrusion. Air hissed loudly into the metal cylinder, and the small lever in the mechanism shot to the top.

“Little too much. Your load’s half a notch too high on the front-left. Let that out some.” He’s making that up, the boy thought as he crouched again. Half a psi? Sound of the air, the look on my face- that’s how he knew, thought the boy. Regardless, he obliged. The air began hissing as the man stood up and paced over to the far side of the garage.

“Philadelphia…” He started, and then paused, looking up though the window at the orange sky. “I fought in Philadelphia. Before Rocky…you seen Rocky?…Before Rocky movies made it a joke.” His raspy voice burned.

“Everyone’s seen those movies. I didn’t eat eggs. I didn’t run up stairs, and I didn’t jump around like a damn fool, sprawled all over the place…I trained.”

The skin on the man’s cheeks tightened with his teeth.

“You know what it means to train, you’re a boxer. I fought. I was even in the newspaper, got interviewed. Weighed in 218 going into that fight versus Frazier.”

The air stopped.

“Joe Frazier?” the boy ventured over his shoulder. The man looked over at the kid crouched next to the old Ford. His teeth ground together audibly.

“Yeah, I fought Joe Frazier. Before he went pro? Yeah, I fought Joe Frazier. Took him to seven rounds at Addison in West Philadelphia. Put him to the mat in the third too. Joe Brien’s still screaming my name from the corner, you know. Up here.”

The man tapped his temple, raising his eyebrows. The boy stood. The tire was pumped, and fine to drive he supposed, but the garage was stuffier. His breaths were thicker. Sparkling dust jettisoned through the air.

“I put him on the mat too.” Pause. “That boy never saw that right hook coming, swear to God.” The man smiled into the orange light, and his teeth glowed like better. The boy rubbed his knees.

“Knocked him down.”

“You bet your ass, boy.” Marshall Thomas stared. The boy leaned against the car and stared coolly at the opposite wall. The attendant paused, looking down at the concrete.

“I lost though.”

Joey turned to the attendant. Joe Frazier- rich. He reminded him of Crazy Raymond on the streets of White River. The punk Vermonters never tired of chanting his name from their bicycled phalanxes, taunting the old man chatting up the college kids outside the Coolidge Hotel. And he’d felt a similar drop in his stomach to what he felt now for this Joe Frazier boxer, one that echoed for days afterwards. A digestive toast to poor Ray, who proceeded that night long ago to calling Tracey MacNeill an Africa-woman, and ended up ostracized and alone, wandering down the dark alleys of Main Street in just another cold town. Like then, like now.

“Thanks again for the help-” the boy leaned against the windows of his father’s car.

“No matter, I appreciate the conversation. Don’t get so much around here, especially not from a guy like you. You know, with the bells a-clanging, and…” He paused, eyes in the light, then looked straight at Joey.

“I’m not pulling your leg, though. I can still hear the thuck of my mitts. And jump roping. And the audience filled up all along the sides. It was a small guym, but my boys all came by to cheer for it…being young, feeling strong. No matter what happened, you walked and you were strong. In your legs, in your thighs, you could do anything, stepping around that ring ten times if you wanted.”

The boy bit his cheek.

“No, you don’t know. I hope you might- maybe it’ll be different if you keep going. I got knocked out. Knocked out I hear. But…” Pause. “…but I can still see it. Sweat in his smile. Joe Frazier step. Step, step, right hook.” The veins in the neck of Marshall Thomas popped out in thick canyon lines as he shot his eyes to the dark ceiling. “I knocked him good, son. And you, if you ever see Addison, remember that you talked to Marshall Thomas here. In this garage.”

He paused for a moment.

“I’m still here.” Marshall Thomas breathed heavy and his eyes were wide; even in the fading light the boy could see the wispy palpitations of comet dust moving with his outbreath, heaving slightly through the windows with each passing second.

“I will, sir. Ah…” the boy wandered back and forth, idling on the edge of the vehicle. “Where is here?”

“James Fenimore Cooper Texaco. North of Newark. Before the Garden State.”

“I will. Thanks for your help, again. I really appreciate it. I’m sorry about Joe Frazier.” Joey stuttered it out; all mannerism collapsed. And if that wasn’t obvious enough, Marshall Thomas walked around the car, straight up to the now open door and the stout shaggy boy in front of it. There were sunflower seed shells between three of his teeth, a small one behind his left bicuspid, and then two down the middle, top and bottom. He was that close- sunflower close. Thomas smiled, and told him it wasn’t a thing, he doesn’t meet people he can talk to so often. Joey fingered the extruding door lock behind his side while acknowledging how hard it must have been for Marshall Thomas, so close you could smell the salt of a champion’s lips. And how James Fenimore Cooper was some vice-president before Abraham Lincoln but after Thomas Jefferson (“And believe me, who knows any of those vice-presidents anyways. I bet you don’t. Nothing even happened then.”) And it was getting dark, he should be on his way to catch his parents before bed. He thanked Marshall Thomas for catching the flat, and the man stopped and said:

“You seem like a fine man. I don’t talk to people much…I like talking fighting- not enough out there that understand us. You stop by here again when you’re coming down the turnpike. Don’t let that one fall get you down, though. I’m still here, you know. And if you’re still here, no one can take that away from you. Still here.” He snickered to himself in a personal way, and turned back into the garage, whispering to himself.

The boy pulled out his car. Although the sun was setting, nothing else had changed; summer stifled enormous. It sung everywhere, from the hissing traffic on the far side of the trees to the slight hum of the garage. The cars idled behind the gas islands, engines low. It seemed strange; the smoke, the heat, the nozzles reflecting damp sunlight, each winking weakly toward the line of vehicles. It was too stagnant to be real, bound to melt away and collapse in a summer blink. From the gas station to the restaurant, the trucks blaring to the systematic procession of attendants, from the smell of the station to the way humidity burned inside one’s nostrils- every human sense was bound to fire, and the coarse ache of breezeless summer. The boy turned the car toward the on-ramp, away from Texaco and Bob’s Big Boy and towards the turnpike. Directionless thoughts traced his tongue. He could never think what he wanted to think, he mused, and Marshall Thomas was always going to be here. The horizon dripped hazy dusk and gasoline as the husky woman sang once again and the old Ford started onto the interstate.

Winter 2005

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About g-mo

The day I was born, Michael Jackson's Thriller album was at the top of the Billboard 200. I've been trying my best to live up to that expectation ever since.
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