Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Smoker

The Smoker
Author: Rocky Rutherford


Hey, young fella, how you doing? What ya doing up so early? Set down, take a load off. Just got off the bus, huh? Don't believe I know you, you just passing through? Well, I can see you ain't like me. I talk too much.

Gonna be another hot one. Well, I tell you what. If I get on your nerves with all my mouthing you just tell me to shut up, okay?

Boy, you sure remind me of someone I aught to know. You sure you didn't grow up here? No? Okay. Who do you remind me of? Well, let's see, let me , think. Yep now it's coming back. Yep. You remind me of a towheaded kid that growed up here. A strange one he was. Yeah, that is funny, ain't it? At least you can laugh, more than I can say for a lot of folks. My name's Zote. Zote Hanner. Born here, raised here, spent all my life here except for the time I spent in the Big War. Overseas. Putting old Hitler in his place.

You see all these factories or what used to be factories? Betcha at one time I worked in everyone of them. Nothing but gutted hulks now. Everything's gone overseas. Oh, yeah, sorry. Who do you remind me of? The strange kid? By strange I don't mean nothing bad. What'd you say your name was? Yep, that's right you didn't say did you?

Let me see, son. Yeah, let me look into your face, your eyes. Yep, it's the eyes. You remind me of a kid growed up here had eyes like yours, not hazel, not blue and green, not touched with this color or that. But green.

Bright green. Funny? I like the way you laugh. Say you want to hear about him, huh? Well, it might help pass the time while you wait for the next bus.
Back after WW Two this was a booming little town, the Furniture City of the South they called it. Made all kinds of living room, dining room and bedroom furniture. Shipped it all over the world. We had twenty factories going night and day.
Everybody had a job, times was good. I can remember getting fired from Plant A, living room furniture one day and getting hired the next day at Plant B, Bed room. I was kind of rambunctious back in my day.

Well, I was working at Plant A and after work on Friday which was payday we'd all head down to the VFW which was above Sink's Grocery and shoot pool, drink beer and piss away our money. Just having a good time. About 8 or 9 the smokers started and the gambling was heavy. Oh, smokers was boxing matches. Mostly local boys but sometimes a boy came from High Point or Charlotte because the pot was pretty good. But mostly it was the best entertainment we had. Something ain't it? Nothing to do but watch men beat the shit out of each other.

And it didn't matter how old you was or how much you weighed. You made your challenge and crawled into a roped off area we called a ring.

Everybody had to crowd around close because it was so smoky you couldn't hardly see.

We had a real good local fighter, a colored boy named Donnie Jay Skeen who took on all comers and won. He made me a lot of spending money. I always put my money on him. He wasn't a big man, middleweight I'd say, but he could hit as hard as a man twice his size. And he could throw a single punch that would flatten most men. He worked with us at Plant A knocking up furniture. So he had good arms and was always in shape.

You couldn't tell his age but he'd served in the Navy during the Big War.
Sorry, I guess I'd better get back to who you remind me of.

We's all getting pissy assed drunk one payday night waiting for the smoker to start. Donnie Jay was having a beer with us, not worrying about anybody they'd put up against him.

"I'll knock his ase out real quick and we can git back to what counts...dranking," Donny Jay says. And that's exactly what he did to the first five that went up against him. Knocked they asses flat out cold. Along about midnight, seeing there was nobody else left to whup, me and Duggan Daniel and Donnie Jay decided we head on down to the river to drink all night and fish, if we found the time. Tucker, the barkeep, was sacking us up a bunch of longnecks, when the joint went silent as Sunday school.

A lone figure stood in the middle of the room and you could see him silhouetted against the juke box lights. When he turned to look at us, even in the dimness, you could you could see his eyes, like I said but need to add: a penetrating bright green. He was stripped to the waist, boxing gloves hanging on his hands like balloons. You could tell he wasn't a man, he was a boy.

Tucker yelled at him to get out there wasn't nobody under twenty one allowed.
"I come to fight," said the boy laconically (the only college educated word I ever knew).

"Boy, get the hell out of here," yelled Tucker.

"I come to fight," said the boy again. And the first thing I noticed is nobody laughed. Bud Crowley's coughing was all I heard. Tucker started around the end of the bar but stopped when the boy said "Here's my five dollar entry fee." He had it rolled up in his right hand glove. He stepped over and dumped it on the bar. Tucker looked away. Everybody looked away. They couldn't take what those bright green eyes had to give. Hell, that kid couldn't have been thirteen or fourteen. But he stopped everybody in their tracks and they listened. Donnie Ray, standing beside me, swallowed and stared back at the kid. God, I thought to myself, Donnie Ray will kill him.

But knowing what a kind soul Donnie Ray was, I figured he'd just lay a love tap on the boy just enough to shut those glaring green eyes and it'd be over.

I mean by now there ain't a sound. Even Old Hank on the jukebox quit moaning the blues. The boy watched Tucker swipe the five bucks off the bar then strode right over and crawled through the ropes. When he turned and look back at us all gaggled around the bar, all we made out was his eyes.

Tucker looked at Donnie Ray who looked at me and I shrugged. Nothing says a boy couldn't fight in the smokers. I whispered in Donnie Ray's ear and he just kind of smiled, not making fun, meaning he'd not hurt the boy.

Yeah, it's kinda funny ain't it? But I wouldn't laugh too hard yet.

Our smokers lasted three rounds. Anymore than that and the law would get after us for being professionals and making money. As long as we kept it amateur and nobody got killed they'd leave us alone. Tucker, the bar keep acted as the ref because he'd had fighting experience as a Marine on Iwo Jima. Also, for the fact the was the biggest and meanest son of bitch around. He liked to make a big deal out of introducing the fighters.

After he introduced Donnie Ray, who always got a big applause, he turned to the kid and said "And in this corner...What's your name, kid?"

"Alvie Tennyson," replied the kid, and I swear his green eyes shone like headlights through the fog.

"Alvie Tennyson," bellowed Tucker. Nobody applauded.

"Where you from, kid?"

"Around," said the kid which pissed Tucker who probably thought smart ass you gonna get your comupance now. Then Tucker went over and said something in Donnie Ray's ear and I'm guessing he's telling him not to hurt the boy. Anyway, Donnie nodded yes. Tucker had appointed Scoop Toston as time keeper and bell man who then whacked a big glass beer mug and the fight started.

Now, mister, what did you say your name was? That's right you didn't and you got that right. Damn sure ain't my style to poke where I ain't wanted.

Well, son, whatever your name is, you sure remind me of that boy. Can't no two people in the world have such bright green eyes. Yeah, that's funny ain't it?
From the way Donnie Ray danced right up in the kid's face you could tell he wanted to end it real quick. He fired off his haymaker right hand but in low throttle, just enough, he figured to put the kid down for the count. But the kid wasn't there and Donnie Ray went flying into the ropes with the kid behind him shuffling in a slow circle in the middle of the ring, his right fist cocked by his right ear, his left straight out. Donnie came straight at him again but this time trying to jab his way in. The kid moved like a ghost, never got hit, his left pecking away on Donnie's face. When the beer mug sounded to end the first round, the kid shuffled to his corner and stood his back to the mob. I was acting as Donnie's corner man and when he sat down on the stool his lower lip was split and bleeding. The second round went the same way and when my man sat down his eyes were bleeding too.
By the middle of the third round Donnie had bounced a couple of weak shots off the kid's head which did nothing to stop the ghost in his face. In the last minute the kid suddenly planted himself, set his large feet and was throwing straight rights that whistled between Donnie's gloves, squashing his nose flat against his face. Three straight shots and Donnie's knees buckled; he looked at me for help which I couldn't give then sank to his knees. Tucker counted him out as he slumped there, eyes closed, nose busted, lips split. Tucker made a big show by raising the kid's hand who snatched it away and went helped Donnie Ray back to his corner. The kid takes off his gloves and goes and stands by the cash register on the bar waiting for Tucker to pay him off. Now, if I know Old Tucker, he's going to try to cheat the kid. Yep, sure enough he tries. He puts two fives, one ten and five ones on the bar and turns away.

"You owe me five more," says the kid with the bright green eyes. Tucker turns on him as he usually did as like a bull, all full of bluster and fuming, but he stops dead and stares at the kid's eyes, turns sharply bangs the register and counts out the kid five ones.

And you know, the thing I remember most about the fight? There was no racket, no yelling and hollering and snorting like drunks usually do. That kid had 'em all eating out of his hand. He scoops up his money, walks to the door with every eye on him, pauses, and says: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Out the door. Gone. The VFW ain't never been that quiet even when it wasn't open for business.

Now, son, that's who you remind me off. I guess it's the way you moved when I saw you get off the bus, how you drifted through the station, how you move without sound or flourish. And like I said, ain't now two people in this world can have the same kind of green eyes.

Yeah, it's nice meeting you. Yessir, you just walk on up that street and you'll be in town in few blocks. You got to go right past Plant A on your left. Maybe you'll have time to visit the old VFW where they had the fight.

What'd you say your name was?