After the shot, Thomas knelt above the deer that was bleeding out, then watched as his four-year-old niece slipped her index finger inside the bullet hole.
The third year inside the state penitentiary was 40 years in the desert, and Thomas longed for the Christmas tree farm and dogs of his youth, the smell of clay mud and Coastal Range lakes good for fishing.
By Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Thomas rubbed the scar on his middle finger, a scar the shape and size of a Brown Recluse. He remembered he had been a pro fighter for three years by that night, that night when he was twenty years old, and it was his reach that gave him power, an arm-span of his height plus eight inches. He was long for a welterweight. He also threw his right hook from behind his own ear so that opponents forgot to guard their chins and they went down in that well-known, face first topple, like trees leaning suddenly into a flooded river. Thomas had knocked fifteen of eighteen fighters to the canvas, and he thought nothing of the consequences and the other man, the possibility of his crystal chin and the fixed corner of a bar. He had not known the man would die when he hit him, that he was already dead when Thomas was finishing his last shot of Jack Daniels No. 7, and that the man’s friends were carrying the body to a waiting Ford, in the alley, a needless rush to the emergency room. Thomas had not read about the incident in the paper the next morning because he had never been taught his letters when he was young, but instead picked at the open knuckle on his right hand which looked to him like it had been shattered with a ball-peen hammer and might lose him his chance of an early June fight.
The third year inside the state penitentiary was 40 years in the desert, and Thomas longed for the Christmas tree farm and dogs of his youth, the smell of clay mud and Coastal Range lakes good for fishing. He noticed every sign of life then. Crows like businessmen grew fat on the rotten food at the top of the garbage heap. Starlings flew back and forth over the ribbon wire, nesting where the guards could kill them with bolt-action .22s. The triangle top of the lone pine tree beyond the west wall was limbed below its summit to look like the four stations of the cross.
Thomas fought inside no more than the average man and no less, though he was offered good money to fight on Friday nights for the entertainment of the other men, the guards, the warden, and the warden’s wife. Thomas did only what was necessary, like a bad union man, and his right hook, deceptive and strong on a lefthander, saved him from the worst of things. Some inmates were friendly to him after a while. They taught him how to play baseball, how to turn a double play from both sides of second base and how to keep his bat level through the hitting zone. So he played games when the guards allowed them in the yard, and ate at a common table, and was never alone during the daytime. But having company during the daylight hours did not help. Even Jesus cried in the dark of the garden, and Thomas, at night, would do sit-ups and push-ups until the top of his abdomen and the fronts of his shoulders cramped and would not go any more, would not respond to his mind’s urging and the longings of dissolution, and he would lie on his back on the cement floor, hands outstretched, feet together, and feel the slide of his sweat between his back and the cold surface underneath, and he would imagine that he had fought a good fight.
Writers said he struggled with resentment and indignation when he returned to the ranks after his three years absence but Thomas knew nothing of those words and only pugilized because his fists were hard from the walls of cement and steel that had closed him in, and he knew he could break a man in half with a hook of disappointment. Eight straight wins landed Thomas a title shot, but he met Robinson at the champion’s best and no one beat that boxer in his prime. In the fourth round Thomas drew the blood of the great Sugar Ray, opening a cut like a diamond above his right eye, but Thomas doubted his own faith and he was not allowed to take off his gloves to examine the wound and feel the interworkings of the indentation and so it was that Thomas lost his one and only opportunity as some talented baseball players fail to stick in the Major Leagues because they do not believe they can hit a twelve to six curveball during their September call-up. Thomas did not go down in the fight with Robinson, not once in twelve rounds, and lost only on decision, but he was never given another chance and fought the remainder of his career on undercards and with long sojourns between matches, long enough for the governing bodies to give him a ranking in the top ten but never again as the number-one contender. Thomas retired at number three, a strange position for retirement, and his record of 39 and 1 was stranger still for someone who was never a champion.
Thomas would not take the Junction City farm even though he was the oldest and it was his natural inheritance. Looking into his brother’s eyes, eyes the color of the flooded Willamette, Thomas saw the faith of a first born, and so he prepared himself to work as a manager after he was finished fighting. But pneumonia killed his brother the October after his brother’s wife had run off with a mechanic from Gipson Ford. A search for the mother proved futile, neighbors telling the police that they were sure the couple had run out of state, and therefore Thomas was asked to become a surrogate farmer and father, at the age of thirty-seven, in charge of five-hundred acres of Noble Firs and one four-year-old girl.
Thomas took the girl deer poaching in January, in what were now his own woods, logging hills behind the Christmas tree farm, towards Triangle Lake. The deer weren’t wary out of season, not recognizing that Thomas carried a lever-action.30-.30 across the crook of his left elbow like a gentleman sometimes carries a cane, and the girl held the other hand at the end of his long right arm. The four-point buck saw the girl first and thought nothing of one so young, continuing to chew the frozen stems of a sapling, looking very much like a man bent casually over a chessboard in a park.
After the shot, Thomas knelt above the deer that was bleeding out, then watched as his four-year-old niece slipped her index finger inside the bullet hole, behind the front shoulder, sealing the wound and returning the animal to innocence. Her arm hid the trail of blood to the ground, and it looked to Thomas as though the deer had not been shot but was only sleeping, breathing heavily as the girl stole an opportunity to pet its soft fur in the deep of her own backwoods. Thomas wept then, not for the deer, but for death in general, and he remembered the second death, in the ring, when he had been angry and seeking retribution for his three years and his one loss, and he had trapped a man against the ropes, in the corner, where it is hard to stop a fight in time, where a boxer knows the fight sometimes can not be stopped in time.
He had waited months before taking another fight and he wondered that they did not come for him this time, that it was accepted and understood, that he was sent notes of condolence and congratulation by men who sat ringside with their favorite mistresses and whores. Thomas remembered the smell of Cuban smoke and the single malt on their breath, stronger than the wreak of sweat, as they crowded into his tape room after it was over. They said, That was a good thing. You let that boy have it. You really did. We made a lot of money because you let him have it. And Thomas did not wonder about the other boxer because he knew. When his manager cut the tape off his hands he searched for a new spider, a new broken knuckle, but the scar from this injury would not be visible on his hands, hidden in the desert like Elijah. In the shower, he tried not to hear them talking about it. Their laughing could not be drowned out though and he told himself that it did not matter, that their laughing did not matter, that this happens sometimes, that a man can be called to God in the ring and it is no different than a matador spilling his intestines on the horn of a bull. Thomas read books about bullfights during his rest days, now that he had taught himself to read, and he thought that maybe a matador knows something of the science that is not called sweet by the pugilists, never sweet, but a life in front of the swollen crowd, drunk on whiskey and blood, death the only end to a great fight. §
Peter Brown Hoffmeister received the 2006 Oregon Literary Fellowship award for fiction. His stories have been published by Struggle, Ink Pot, Denali, Paradoxism, and VBouldering. He teaches English and writes in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He can be reached at email@example.com.