In the Ring

by Karen Rawson

“He’s here for you,” Terese said in a sing-songy voice. She let her arms fall wide as she fell back onto her bed, giggling.

I went to the window and lifted one corner of the blind.

“He” was Tommy Clyde. He had on one of those skinny white tanks that showed off every swell of his hammer-hard arms. I watched as he walked from the bus stop toward the boxing club. “Big Samson says he’s been scouted.”

Terese rolled onto her belly and propped her chin on one had. “Tommy likes you.”

He was a half block away now, giving the corner boys a screw-you look as he strolled past. “I’m going downstairs,” I said.

Hank looked up as I skirted through the kitchen. “Where you headed?”

“To the store,” I said. I was almost to the door.

“Hold on. That what you’re wearing?” He licked his lips, eyes on my bare legs. I tugged at the hem of my cutoffs.

“I’ll be right back.”

He reached for his pack of smokes and pulled one out, never taking his eyes off me. I wondered when Ma was getting home, and if she had to work late.

“You hurry back, now,” he said.

#

Our flat was over Mac’s Boxing. It had two separate bedrooms and a kitchen-living combo, which maybe didn’t sound like much. But it was better than living over Arnette’s, like we did back before Ma married Hank. I liked living over the boxing club. It smelled like hard work and the boxers were gentlemen, mostly. They were always kindly to Terese and me, and I had the sense if those corner boys ever gave us crap, the boxers would’ve fed them a fist sandwich for it.

My sneakers squeaked on the tile as I hurried to the entryway. At the bottom of the stairs there was a double glass door where folks came in for both the gym and the apartments. One wall was plate glass looking into the gym. Sometimes, the fighters hung out here, watching the other boxers train and have their conversations. Those guys had more drama than any soap opera I ever saw, and Terese and me would perch by the railing and listen. When Samson  caught us at it he’d give us a little grin as if to say, ‘Whatchoo gonna do?’

I was nearly to the bottom when Tommy pulled the front door open. “Hi,” I said, feeling breathless.

“Hi,” he said back—and when his eyes met mine my heart went spinning in my chest.

That weekend I took the bus to see him fight at Uptown. Afterward, we had pancakes at the Bluebird and he took my hand. “How come a girl like you never had a boyfriend?” he asked.

I liked that he had a stitch on his lip from a bar brawl in Skokie, and that his knuckles were thick from fighting. That Tuesday, he held the door as I walked out of Pick ‘n Save. One hand grazed my waist as he went to walk me home.

Two weeks later we were Saturday-steady. One Friday, he bent for a kiss before he went in the ring. “For luck,” he said. The crowd cheered as my face went warm.

We had a date for fireworks that Fourth. He said he wanted to ask me something special. I wore my white shorts which I never wore for anything because I meant to keep them nice. In the bathroom getting ready, I curled my hair.

I froze at the sight of Hank’s face in the mirror, standing just behind me. I set the curling iron down. “Ma’s going to be home any minute.” I could hear the tremble in my voice.

My gut dropped as his arm snaked around my ribs. He pulled me tight against his middle.

“You got all the looks,” he crooned in my ear. One hand slid up to cup my breast. I reached to push it off, but he just squeezed harder.

“Please. I’m meeting Tommy.”

“Don’t be a whore.” His grubby hands smeared grease across my shorts as he raked my zipper open. As he entered me, I tried to guess how many more times it’d be.

He always said that if I told Ma he’d just tell her I asked for it. It wasn’t true. All I ever wanted was for just five minutes to be special. That’s all it ever was. Hank was the first person who listened when I talked. And when he started taking me to Whirlman’s I felt like a cherished prize. We’d ride the slides until they closed, and I’d laugh until it felt like I had run a whole marathon of laughing. And at first, all he wanted were these little things. I never guessed where it was going.

And even if Ma believed me it would ruin her. We’d move back to the rooming house with no way to pay for Terese’s lessons. That girl was the best of us, anyway. I never had no particular talent. And we were lucky to have a man like Hank: a union man with a steady job. And if I ruined this for them, well then, I only cared about myself. It only happened a couple times a month at most—on those days when Ma worked late and Terese had her lessons.

“She’s got talent,” Ma would say. In this case it was true, and not one of those lies she said to make herself feel better. Terese could hear a song—any song—and then coax it right out of her keyboard, note by note. All by ear. Hank could squeeze ninety-nine cents from a dollar and he swore he’d never pay for TV when we could get it free. But even he could see Terese’s talent. Those lessons cost almost as much as our rent—to hear Hank tell it, anyway.

When he was done, I stuffed the white shorts in the laundry basket with the dirty clothes and put my cutoffs on. It would have been nice to wear something fresh. But it would have been nice to have a lot of things.

#

“I hear congratulations are in order,” Samson said.

Samson had a voice like a Sunday sermon and his shoulders were broad as a fireplace mantle. He hugged me with one brick chimney arm.

I grinned. “When’d you get back?” He’d been out on the circuits, doing exhibition fights up and down the East coast.

We were still talking when Tommy came in, his top lip stiff in a snarl. I cut Samson off and me and Tommy went outside.  

“I ain’t gonna marry no cheater,” he said.

But when I tried to tell him that me and Samson were just talking, he huffed off down the alley. And when I followed after pleading he swung back and shoved me against the wall. Before I could tell him it was Samson who told me about Tommy in the first place he had his hand wedged against my neck, cutting off my air.

“I won’t talk to him no more,” I tried to say, choking. He loosened his grip enough that I could get a full breath. “I swear.”

#

But as I studied the bruises on my neck in the bathroom mirror the next day, I remembered my real dad and the way I cried when he’d black Mama’s eyes til they swelled shut.

“They never change,” she told me. And when I was six she left him and never went back, and I believed her.

I went to put on powder to cover the bruise when Hank brushed behind me to grab his work shirt off the shower rod. “You gonna be in here all day?”

I felt my soul grow small in my chest. Then I remembered Ma was home, sitting at the table. I walked into the nook and sat down across from her, pressing my knees together.

She eyed me over top the funny papers. “What’s that on your neck?”

I pressed a hand against it. “Nothing.”

“If Tommy done that, then you best be breaking it off.” One eye tightened. I could hear the rest in my head: they never change.

Hank walked out of the bathroom, his eyes greasing past my chest as he turned to Ma. “Can you believe this one’s getting hitched?”

I twisted my hands in my lap, spinning Tommy’s ring around my finger. We weren’t even married yet and he was marking me up.

They never change, Ma always said.

But what if I never did nothing to piss Tommy off? What if it was her fault what Daddy done to her? And so what if I risked some bruises every now and then—if it meant Hank could never touch me again.

“I’m so excited,” I said, forcing a smile.

—————

Karen Rawson is a YA novelist and the author of several successful blogs including KarenLeeRawson.com, AllTheBadassWomen.com, WhatPegmanSaw.com, and the WritersToolkit.net.