Rodger finished lowering the kitchen cabinets in Ada’s kitchen Friday morning. Adele left him on the porch with Ada as she fed Jonelle in the back bedroom.
Ada wiped her hands across her thighs. “I’ve so enjoyed this time with Adele and the baby. You—-you’ve been busy. Like a carpenter wasp.”
His laughter exploded from his throat. “And I’m surrounded by queens.”
Ada reproved him with a sharp glance. “That’s not what I meant.” She tapped her glass with a finger. “Is it the upcoming fight?”
“No.” He cocked his head, amused by her interrogation. “I’ll pull it off.”
Ada pushed away from the table and went inside, bringing back a box tied with a satin ribbon. She handed it to him.
He jerked the ribbon off, tossing it onto the ground. As the lid slid off, he sucked in his breath as he stared at the black silk boxing trunks with white satin insets at the legs. He swallowed, meeting Ada’s penetrating eyes.
“I thought these would go nicely with your robe,” she said softly.
“Thanks,” he said, setting the bottom inside the lid, “I didn’t expect this. I bought the silk for you.”
“Yes, I know, but I wanted to do this for you,” Ada smiled. “Does the shoulder hurt at all?”
“Not a bit.” Rodger motioned to Adele as she came out the back door. “Look, honey.” He took the trunks out of the box.
“I know,” Adele winked at him. “I helped.” Both women chuckled. Adele leaned over his shoulder, close to his ear. “We did it all behind your back, and,” she tweaked his nose, “underneath your very nose.”
He stood, pushing his shoulder blades into one another.
“I’m outnumbered.” He caught Adele exchanging a quick glance with Ada. “You two just think you’ve outsmarted me.” He flexed his arms.
Adele’s face wrinkled in concern, but Ada stood abruptly, stopping Adele from saying anything. Rodger stood and held the door open for them. He walked back and picked up his boxing trunks and stuffed them carefully into his gear bag. Ada’s kitten attacked him from underneath the chair by the door. Rodger swatted at it.
“Pest!” he growled as it scrambled to the far side of the room.
Ada bent down and swept it up with one hand.
“Poor, Kid,” she soothed. “I thought you’d like him, Rodger.”
He waved impatiently at them; then, seeing he had wounded Ada, changed course.
“Oh, I do, kind of,” he tried to smile, hoping to ease the pinched look from Ada’s face. “I don’t like surprise attacks, is all.”
Ada grinned. “He’s friendly.” She put him down on the floor. “So sure that no one will harm him.”
Rodger rubbed his hand along his jawbone. “That cat reminds me of the Night Wolf. This crazy Jap raids the American air bases at night. All by himself. Does a fair amount of damage, too. You know what’s funny?” He looked fixedly at Ada. “Not one of us guys can get him. Out-maneuvers every single damn one of us.”
Adele closed in beside him. His neck tingled, like telegraph wires were connected to them, vibrating. He knew she tapped into his secrets. But he’d choose the time, a good time, to tell her.
“Wish me luck, my ladies.” He opened his arms to embrace Adele. “In a couple of hours, I’ll find out what I’m made of.”
Adele ground her cheek against his chest.
“Good luck, good knight,” she whispered.
Ada crossed her fingers and held them up.
“We’ll be thinking of the victory knock‑out.”
“I’ll be home in time for Captain Midnight,” he said as the door slammed shut behind him.
He walked along the familiar route conscious of the prickling heat and streams of voices around him. He nodded back to those who called after him. He swung his bag in time with his step and whistled an airman’s tune.
Wary faces turned on him as he strode through the gym to the locker room. The lanky Negro boy shuffled his feet as Rodger tossed his gear into the locker. He paused, waiting for the boy to look up.
“Something on your mind?”
The boy’s head snapped up and his eyes riveted on Rodger’s, his voice a husky whisper. “Lots a money comin’ down on this here fight.” Rodger shrugged, narrowing his eyes at the boy. “Don’t have nobody tending ya. I’d do it.”
Rodger studied the well‑formed muscles of the boy’s arms and shoulders.
“Sure. Earn yourself a cut of the winnings.”
“No, mister,” the boy put up a large, flat palm, and spoke fervently. “Don’ want no money. Jus’ you win.” His eyes burned.
To hide his surprise, Rodger bent down and laced his one shoe, then the other.
“Gonna do that, son.” He straightened. “Let’s work out. What’s your name?”
“Theys call me Li’l Les. Name’s Lester.”
Lester tossed Rodger a jump rope. He began a slow, easy hip-hop from side to side.
“Lester,” Rodger picked up his tempo, “you and me will be a winning team.” Not missing a beat, he whipped the rope faster and faster, wondering as he put his body through the routine paces, what Lester really wanted from him. The boy anticipated his needs, staying out of the way until he was needed. Rodger silently tallied the winning take. He knew the crowd had backed his opponent. A couple of hundred bucks, at least. More, maybe three hundred, on the second fight.
Shorty bounded into the room, waving his arms.
“Rodger! In the ring!”
Rodger flung aside the jump rope, pulled off the lightweight gloves and dropped them on the floor. Lester sat in his corner, dangling the regulation gloves in front of him as if exhibiting some kind of a trophy. Rodger snaked through the ropes and stood before Lester as he worked the laces tight on each glove. The crowd bunched around the young man in blue trunks, Reb’s friend. Rodger sized him up. A knockout in the first round. Big Red had schooled him on guys that came into the ring like bulls. Determined. All set for a kill. Easily killed.
The air crackled with alien voices. Rodger scanned the tops of the heads. He knew no one. Lester took his position behind the corner post. The voices blended to a drone.
The smell of his own sweat stung his nose. He clicked his mouthpiece into place. He felt sharp, ready. Energy coursed through his arms and buoyed his legs.
The bell clanged. He jumped up. His opponent in blue satin trunks with black initials “C T” on the left leg came bobbing into the center like a rubber toy.
Rodger slowed his step, teasing the man into a dance. C T swung wild, and Rodger stepped lightly away from the flying fist. He waited. CT came into his quarter circle.
Rodger cut him down.
The crowd was stunned into silence. Then the buzz swelled into a roar, crying victory for the next man, Reb. Lester offered Rodger the water jug and spit tube. His quick motions were efficient, yet oddly deferential.
Lester leaned and whispered in his ear, “Don’ like it quick, do they?”
Rodger shook his head, watching Reb getting laced up in his gloves. About the same build as he, maybe a pound or two heavier. Reb’s olive skin glistened with sweat; hard muscles rippled as he flexed his arms. He casually swiveled his head, giving Rodger a hard, brief once‑over.
“They want their money’s worth,” Rodger patted Lester on the shoulder. “I’ll give ’em what they want.”
He sucked his mouthpiece into place and waited for the bell. Reb stared him down. Rodger leaned forward, not blinking. Reb blinked, bobbing up as the bell jangled. Rodger was on the balls of his feet and swaying as Reb came at him.
They sparred. Reb was not so easily led as his friend, a better match for Rodger. Rodger pulled away from an uppercut. He nicked Reb’s jaw. Reb came in for him from the left. Rodger blocked. This man knew about dancing, too.
After the second round, Lester scolded, “Keep inside of ‘im. Don’ let ‘im come into your right.”
Third round. Shorty, commanding as a referee, bounded out of the ring. Rodger eyed the surly throng that lined the outside of the ring. Money poked up from fists, waved about like banners.
The bell. He leaped into the center of the ring. Reb charged him. Too late, he saw the gloved hand coming at him. He took the blow on his ear. The pain surprised him, giving Reb the edge. Rodger took another blow in the gut.
“Come on, old man, come and get me,” sneered Reb.
Maddened, Rodger lunged at his smirking opponent. He fended a blow to his left. Then his head cleared, and he knew the game Reb played.
Rodger dropped away from him, taking a sting on the shoulder. Reb closed in. Rodger bored down on top of him. One-two, one-two, one-two, three.
It was over.
Rodger looked down at the astonished face of Shorty. He smiled.
“Pay day,” he said. He turned and walked to his corner where Lester rubbed his aching shoulders and toweled him down.
He relished the cold of the metal post against his spine. Lester’s face was split by the white of his smile. Rodger tilted his head back and spoke wearily, “Just bill me as the ‘Bloodless Wonder.’ Madison Square Garden.”
Lester nodded in happy agreement. His hands worked deeper into the aching of his flesh. Reb and his friend were gone, out of sight of the crowd that had roared just a few minutes ago for their victory, now the men and women muttered angrily as their money changed hands.
Rodger shrugged off Lester. He took the towel and patted his face. His ear burned. His eye had already filmed over. The bodies crowding around the ring swayed back and forth. He inhaled deeply, breathing out hard. He climbed out of the ring and headed for the showers.
Lester trailed behind him. Voices trumpeted, and Rodger heard his name. He ducked into the stall and twisted the faucets on hard. Hot water pelted him, and he closed his eyes as a cloud of steam engulfed him. He drifted, then hearing voices, he lathered quickly and rinsed, stepping out, greeted by a towel thrust from Lester’s hand.
“Shorty’s got somethin’ for ya,” Lester gloated. “Man, oh, man, ya took in some winnings.”
Rodger dried off, careful of the tender spots. He felt his left eye begin to swell, and as he surreptitiously peeked into the mirror, he noted a bruise on his cheek. He dressed. Lester dogged his footsteps until he spun around and spoke to him “Listen, go tell Shorty I sent you to pick up my cut.” As Lester nodded and sprinted away to the main gym, Rodger ducked out the back door. He looked to his left, then his right, up the street and down, just in case Reb and his friend were waiting for him. It might have been a fair fight, but there are no honest losers.
As he came to the corner, his eyes strained to catch any movements in the shadows, and his ears prickled at the sounds of voices behind him. He strolled along, scanning to the right and left of him all of the way to his mother’s house.
The women bunched in the kitchen, not aware that he had come in the front door. He rattled his duffle bag, throwing it against the wall as he approached the kitchen. His Aunt Carrie screeched at the sight of him. Madeline turned from the sink and eyed him severely.
“Such savagery, Rodger.” She gripped the counter’s edge. “I’d thought you’d have outgrown this nonsense.” She wiped her hands on a green towel and motioned them into the living room.
Adele stepped away from his mother and aunt and ducked into the downstairs den where Jonelle slept. He rubbed his forehead.
“Not as bad as it looks.”
“You’ll be the death of your poor mother,” Carrie flung herself into a plump, upholstered chair. “Not to mention your wife.”
Adele laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Sit a spell. I sneaked a cold beer from home. Rode at the baby’s feet.” She placed the bottle into his hands. Then, cupping her hands over his around the bottle, she pressed them gently against his cheek. “To the victor belong the spoils.”
Painfully, his eyebrows shot up in surprise. “How do you know some things before I tell you?”
Adele kissed him on his good ear. “Intuition.” She straightened, stepping away from the couch. “A lady always knows her knight and, like a good book, knows how to read him.”
Rodger caught her hand and held it, pulling her close again so that he could whisper in her ear. “I’m a good read in bed, too.”