Richard Krause/ Fiction 7.1 / Spring, 2019

RICHARD KRAUSE

Richard Krause’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press, and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by EyeCorner Press in Denmark. Another collection of his stories, The Horror of the Ordinary, has been accepted by Unsolicited Press. His fiction has appeared in Hackwriters Magazine, ink&coda, Cold Creek Review, Subtle Fiction, EXPOUND, the Scarlet Leaf Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky.

THE HANDKERCHIEF

            Couldn’t the black boxer have come out of him and given it to Alvin Dark?  Alvin was the best fielding shortstop in the league, but didn’t have the courage to face the pitcher, or stand in the batter’s box and take his fastball right down the alley, and so his dream of entering the majors ended in legion ball.

            Ingemar Johansson gave it to Floyd Patterson that first time and he took it.  Lightning speed he had, and charm, a broad smile, modesty, and enough friendliness to be dubbed an Uncle Tom.  There was nothing fake about Floyd either, and so from that alone, and his black namesake, Floyd Patterson, you’d have hoped the punches would have been thrown at Alvin Dark.  How could Alvin Dark get the better of him if he possessed the smooth black limbs, with all the quickness, the nimbleness of his namesake?  Wouldn’t that be enough to scare Alvin away, and the power of Floyd’s own punch that the name threw in everyone’s face?  No matter this Floyd Patterson was small, white, with tiny timid eyes behind the metal frames of his thick glasses.

            Like the boxer he’d never laugh at anyone, never sting like a bee, float like a butterfly, transcend the ring.  Could some of the speed and dedication have rubbed off on Floyd, did he have to come from Patterson, New Jersey for that?

            You can’t leave your name once it has stuck.  Floyd Patterson of New Jersey, a small white boy with thick Coke bottle glasses in an orphanage.  The wrath of the bigger, stronger boys would come down on him and he had to defer to the boxer.  The quick black man with lightning-fast fists, handsome and winning.

            Floyd the rodent-faced boy, no glistening off the sweaty film of his shiny black muscles under the incandescent lighting, not a heavyweight world champion, the stuff of Ebony magazine, on the cover of Boxing World, no, this Floyd was instead a punching bag.

            At first the little boy fought back, and was hastily beaten to a pulp.  Like a pomegranate crushed underfoot, he lost a few teeth until he stopped resisting.  The bloodstains on his shirt got him a special reprimand.  He was squashed like a bug, stepped on, pushed, gouged, poked mercilessly.

            Finally he gave up, saw it was useless to fight back, but kept the saving vision

of the black boxer as he was being punished, clenched his fists in his mind.   It was devastating when Johansson beat him.  Floyd was crushed and took it personally, as if his own defenses had collapsed before the Swedish boxer and he was even more vulnerable around the boys.  But he secretly plotted revenge, though he was never able to carry it out like the world champ who met Johansson a second time, still he was emboldened in his mind.

            The night Patterson lost it was like those white handkerchiefs young women flutter in the air then have to daub their eyes with.  Floyd was all sniffles, sensing his own vulnerability. And when Sonny Liston beat him, Floyd was broken.  He’d come back against Ingemar, but the big bear, the ex-con was too much.  Floyd tried to slug it out, like the fighter in his mind, but the power of Liston, of the more powerful Alvin Dark was too much.  He saw that was impossible and he just collapsed to the chagrin of all his

fans.  Floyd never put up serious resistance after that and Alvin Dark was all over him whenever he pleased.

            And so when Jack heard that the Alumni Association paid six thousand dollars to get Floyd to the Homecoming, dressed him in the best of suits and tie money could buy, new Alfredo Fortini shoes, flew him and his spouse first class from their home in

Shreveport, the wheels started to turn to heavyweight boxing, an association Jack had never made before with the ears pinned back in fear, the tail between the legs, to Alvin Dark, the would-be Giant who lorded over the smaller Floyd, the namesake of the famous black boxer. 

Simon put his large head close to Jack and whispered in his ear in low but confident tones bursting with pride, “It’s great, Jack, what we did.”

            “What, Simon?”

            “To get some of the guys back.  Over seventy-five after all these years is a record!

Guys that had never been back. You know, Jack, some don’t even have the money.  Floyd Patterson didn’t.”

            Jack thought of all the awards for helping people, the mania of community service, the rampant cliché “to give something back.”

“Americans are a great people, Jack, so powerfully kind!” 

Jack pictured uppercuts, body shots, head butts, left hooks, jabs below the belt; his own head feinted not to collide with all the goodness of Simon’s enlarged cranium.  Simon had been nicknamed “Head” in his youth.  Jack remembered his sawed-off shotgun body exploding from the line of scrimmage against Cedar Cliff for seventy yards.

            Simon could barely contain himself.  He couldn’t wait to tell Jack everything.  He was positively bursting with the good deeds, like an Easter bunny his pockets stuffed with jelly beans, colored eggs, chocolate rabbits, yellow marshmallow chicks, or a Santa Claus with a sleigh full of presents and a full stomach that he’d have to let out another four or five notches of his black belt to accommodate all the goodness in him.

            “Truly, Jack, you don’t know how good it feels, the impact we can make on people’s lives!  You know, not everybody’s well off!” he chuckled.  “It just does your heart good. You can’t imagine the satisfaction when you see the guys return, the tangible rewards of helping less fortunate classmates, giving them the red carpet treatment!”

            Floyd down the dimly lit basement with Alvin Dark over forty years ago flashed through Jack’s mind.  His own ear glued to the radio, straining for every syllable from the Patterson and Johansson fight, the fight with Sonny Liston, getting his own ears boxed in by older boys and the radio taken away. 

            They tormented each other as youths so exquisitely, along every nerve, that it is only natural that they’d shell out six thousand dollars years later.  Simon wasn’t there, but something similar must have happened at Vian. 

            The flesh over time keeps its rawness, the flies stay away from what’s preserved in our minds, the memory doesn’t decay, turn flyblown, maggoty, but remains on the plate signifying the lost appetite of our treatment of each other, beaten as we were to make ourselves tender, hard for the rest of our lives until we could pay for it, correct the horror with smiles, handshakes, the good will of a fortieth class reunion.

            “Jack, you just don’t know how good it makes you feel!”

            Did Simon know?  Intuitively he must have known.  Maybe it was the hangdog look that Floyd still wore, as if he’d been beaten by Liston and Johansson on the same night.  But it was the endless nights that he was forced to perform in front of the other boys.

            Were they all guilty as their munificence amply testified, paying for those who never returned, sensing they were implicated in the hangdog expressions, in the cautiousness even as an adult, Floyd’s pack-rattedness, all he accumulated against their assaults, secreted in his pockets for consolation.  The fact that he had nothing all these years shows how he was stripped of pride, confidence, the zest for life that they were now trying to buy back.

            “It makes you feel good!” Simon whispered a third time stretching out his arms as the conversation was going nowhere.

“Floyd, over here!” Simon on tiptoes waved.  “Someone I want you to meet!”  

Jack pictured Floyd being sent the money, his surprise at opening the envelope, his purchase of the suit, tie and shoes, and the first class tickets, renting a car for the first time, entering the luxurious suite at the Hilton. 

“…that you can do something for one of the guys,” as his belly shook and his eyes twinkled as they locked on Floyd walking towards them just as he had distanced himself the last forty years.

            “You remember Jack, don’t you Floyd!”  Simon said.

“Yeah, Jack Dooley, how are you doing?” and he put out his hand. 

Jack looked down at the hand and a split second later was clasping it.  There was a clamminess to his limp handshake.  Floyd had stopped making a fist altogether by graduation after the farm home of twenty-one boys had rendered him defenseless.

            Floyd and Jack made small talk, asked where each was living, quickly ran out of conversation.  Floyd was doing some kind of maintenance work, seemed a little dazed, lost in the rotunda, the high dome dedicated to the Founder of the Home, all the space above oddly connecting the past to his standing there exchanging pleasantries after the unexpected goodness of the alumni committee.  It was like the unintended consequences of an electroshock that everything came back to him.  Beneath the calm, his eyes had a wild focus, as if someone might appear from any of the numerous wooden doors lining the circumference of the rotunda.  He couldn’t grasp the leap of forty years, the newfound dignity.  It could have been the surprise at the familiarity that now seemed part of the six thousand dollars.

            After their conversation broke off, both wandered separately over to the easels where returnees of each class signed their names and Jack saw Floyd again. 

He approached him and said out of the blue with Floyd’s back to him, “I talked to Alvin a few weeks ago.”

            Floyd turned and gave Jack a blank stare, as if he had not registered what was said.  A punch-drunk look appeared on his face, the dazed effect of the two boxers who had KO’d his namesake.  Jack brought his hand up for emphasis, but Floyd didn’t flinch, just blinked through the thick lenses of his glasses. Maybe it was the rope-a-dope that dazzled him, a memory of the footwork of a successor.

            Through the largess of the guys, the blue silk threads shimmering in Floyd’s tie, the brown pheasant design and impeccably tailored suit, through the airiness of landing in Hamburg, despite the reality of the engines, the red carpet, the rented car, the luxurious hotel room, he was transported back to the past.

            The wives of the alumni committee had come with balloons and met him at the airport.  But that was swiftly punctured; at the mention of Alvin darkness lowered, spicules appeared, the air was let out, the tension that always holds the present in the rosiest grip was gone and Floyd stood in the lonely glare of headlights on a country road. 

            “Alvin Dark, you remember him, don’t you?”

            For a moment Jack thought there’d be a feral animal with a snarl, the snort of the sharpest teeth, but no, Floyd’s spine had been broken years ago, and he was simply preparing for another bout standing there.

            “Alvin, you lived with him at Rolling Green!”

            Floyd had a large chin, small eyes, and a glass jaw that jutted out precariously.  

He was frozen at a standstill when Jack mentioned Alvin.  It was as if the past had come armed with a powerful bat.  Floyd thought he heard something shatter in the distance forecasting his appearance.

            He who had flown first class, stayed in the best hotel, had suddenly come down to earth and wondered why he was there.  Had he come all this way for the shock of having Alvin’s name mentioned?

            “Alvin, you know him, don’t you?” Jack insisted.

            Still there was no response.

            “Alvin Dark, you lived together at Rolling Green,” Jack repeated.

            Floyd’s eyes still had a glazed look.  Alvin Dark tumbled from the recesses of all the doors that had shut behind Floyd for forty years, the screams, the banging, his young body behind them as he waited once again for Alvin to walk through.

            “Oh…yes,” he stumbled.  He had ducked down in the basement again, been ordered to stand up after hunkering with both hands behind his head, been forced to admit he remembered.

            “He’s not here?” Floyd murmured.

            “No,” Jack said.

            “No?” he repeated, looking as if he no longer knew whom he was talking to or why he was there. He looked quickly around the rotunda at the doors to see if one would open. This small man who hid behind visions of a magnificent black boxer with lightning quick moves was sluggish, more unprotected than ever.

 Floyd with thick glasses was now beating back the past.  He was ruminating as Jack spoke to him, his jaws worked nervously in tiny little bites, a mouth empty of all but chewing motions. He swallowed compulsively sucking air as if in the giant rotunda there wasn’t enough oxygen.  Once again he was depositing stains on the salty, tear-stained towel in his mouth so he wouldn’t yell.

            “Oh, yes, Alvin Dark.  Where…is he?” And the black hole drew him spinning, whirling back, passing out, getting up, his thighs, his hands slimy, through the glare of  the bare light bulb, the boys egging him on.

His darting eyes told everything.  They didn’t have the wide-eyed remembrance of old times, but retreated, furtively checking if Alvin was in the rotunda.

            “No, he’s out in Vegas,” Jack said.

            Jack knew the story of the handkerchief.  It leaped to mind when Simon mentioned “the generosity of the guys.”  How they “banded together” to help.  “The guys are great,” echoed in his mind.

 “It gives you goose bumps,” Simon had said. 

The stickiness of the handkerchief stayed, the one strong spermatozoon breaking through ahead of the others to rescue Floyd from the basement at Rolling Green.  The “guys are great” reverberated in Jack’s mind as he shook Floyd’s hand, again felt his loose grip.

            “No, Alvin has a weight problem, he’s a little self-conscious.”

            The scene repeated itself, the way Floyd was forced to do it each night into the handkerchief in front of the others.  The permanent tic it left, that twitching of his left eye, the constant swallowing when he was eating nothing.  He was instructed not to leave a mess, swab the last drops, keep his clothes immaculate.

            Jack was introduced to Floyd’s wife who stood back, spilled punch on her dress backing up that Jack quickly got out his handkerchief to wipe it off.  Floyd winced as if his glasses experienced a sudden magnification.

            Alvin Dark was the master of ceremonies, the baseball wannabe who hadn’t the courage to face pitchers because of his fears of the hardball crushing his facial bones, crushing his temple like a paper lantern. 

            He was the instigator who produced the soap and had him clean off the smell, and after the second, third, and fourth rounds, had him dispose of the handkerchief.

            “How is he?” Floyd asked vaguely.

            “He’s fine, living in Vegas, doing a lot of betting on sports.”

            “Maybe he’ll strike it rich,” Floyd said as if he lost a boxing crown he had nothing to do with outside being a punching bag himself.

            Sexuality is a weighty matter with twenty-one boys and no girls around.  They didn’t see them for weeks.

            How is it to express itself?  There were no handbooks.  It was only natural that they’d turn on each other.

            Floyd stood there as Jack imagined an uppercut, jab, left hook decking Alvin, the real Floyd Patterson this time, who didn’t need the alumni’s six thousand dollars. Simon must have known. 

            The guys should have come to his rescue years ago. But they piled on instead.  Stood back intrigued knowing Floyd was not the boxer his name evoked, but the bottom of the barrel, the SOS of his white handkerchief sticky in his hands.

“It makes you feel great what you can do for your classmates!” Simon says, swollen with pride, spit forming on his lips tiny white balls of goodness.  

His tormentor should have been decked, left flat on his back there under the dim light of the basement, not become this optical illusion of a little boy standing as a broken adult decades later nervously looking around the rotunda.

Jack looked down and saw Floyd had bitten his fingernails to the quick. 

“He’s not back, is he?”

            “Alvin?”

            “No,” Jack repeated.  “He’s worried about his weight, couldn’t come but still bets on the fights,” as Jack too looked at one of the doors of the rotunda to open.

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