Mattresses cover the terrazzo floor, some of them scrunched up the wall, every square inch topped with futons and blankets, smelling of attic storage.
It’s hot outside, with only a noisy ceiling fan to roll the humidity around inside, and Sammy sweats easy anyway. He scratches his belly and tugs at the elastic waistband of his old gym shorts.
Joel’s driving down from Athens for a fight this afternoon.
Sammy wipes the sweat off his chest with a Kleenex-thin old T-shirt and tosses it to the hallway. He drops to his butt and does some stretches. He hears the knee cartilage pop and feels the vapor zigzag off his skin. He sniffs the crook of his arm and his pits—skin and hair smell like shoe leather baked in limejuice and mustard greens.
Joel likes Sammy to beat him up. No costumes, no special gear, no fancy moves, no lovey-dovey, just bare-knuckle roughhouse. For almost a year he’s come down once or twice a month, bearing gifts of T-shirts, LPs, hard-to-get magazines, concert tickets, and cash. It’s not a living or anything (Joel is his one so-to-speak customer), but Sammy likes to oblige.
Joel has the sort of face you want to punch into anyway—bovine, overbearing, quivering with sarcasm, spoiled rotten by a life of easy breaks. Not to say he isn’t a nice guy in his way, soft spoken, humorous, rather nice looking, and, in the end, utterly defenseless against Sammy’s onslaughts.
Joel’s six years older than Sammy, an inch shorter, maybe fifteen pounds heavier, and the middle of every April he mails a check to the Kansas City IRS about equal to what Sammy grosses in three years.
Sammy doesn’t hate Joel. He likes him, in fact, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to buff his kneecaps on Joel’s hairy gut now and then.
Knocking at the front screen door, barely audible over Queen playing in the back bedroom.
Joel drops a couple of paper grocery bags full of stuff in the hallway, steps gingerly onto the mattresses, and bends down to offer Sammy a firm, manly, businesslike handshake. The two men say each other’s name by way of greeting. Joel likes to keep these things butch and perfunctory, like two Corsican duelists meeting at sunrise.
Joel sits across from Sammy, finishing a cigarette, careful to drop the ashes into a paper coffee cup he brought in with him. Joel’s face is pentagonal and currently flushed, his clear blue eyes close set, his jaws jutting out almost as if to touch his shoulders, his neck and forearms golden, taut, and veiny.
They don’t speak. Sammy resumes his stretching, and Joel studies the play of Sammy’s muscles through arabesques of mentholated smoke. He then drops the cigarette into the cup, and it hisses.
Joel rises and sets the cup outside on the hallway floor, stretches his elbows up to the ceiling, thus releasing his shirttail from his pant waist, and pulls the shirt off over his head.
His torso is lean and tight, like a dancer’s, but nowhere near chiseled. His tan is even, the product of a lamp, not the sun. He removes his leather loafers and rolls his socks off his feet like a military man. When he drops his trousers, Sammy sees he’s wearing new madras boxers underneath.
He ambles over to Sammy, who stays seated on the mattress, not looking up, in a pretense of minding his business. Joel uses his big toe to nudge Sammy’s left lat. Sammy ignores it.
This is the routine.
Joel jabs Sammy’s side again, with more force this time.
“Knock it off,” Sammy says.
Joel takes a step back. There’s a long pause. Then he reaches down and grabs a fistful of Sammy’s curly hair. Sammy doesn’t respond, so Joel grips the hair tighter. Sammy tries to turn his head up, but Joel won’t let him. Joel yanks the hair up, pulling the younger tough up to his feet.
“I said knock it off.” Sammy deepens his voice and tries to work up some real rage.
Joel pushes his head towards the wall, and in one neat move Sammy twists, swipes his forearm to break Joel’s hold, and delivers a solid left to the jaw.
For a few seconds, the two men just stand there and glower. Then Joel lunges, but Sammy deftly kicks his knees out from under him, and Joel hits the mattress. Sammy circles the fallen man, punching his fists into the air.
“Man, you’re starting to piss me off. You want some of this?” Sammy strikes a muscle-man pose, and Joel can’t stop himself from licking his lips.
Sammy backs off, and lets Joel pull himself back to his feet. The two men bob in and out, fists up, squinting into each other’s eyes. Joel lunges for Sammy’s legs, but Sammy swivels like a matador, and Joel hits the floor. Immediately, he twists round, elbows burning pink, but Sammy swoops down and locks his head between his chest and right bicep.
Joel shoulders in, and Sammy lands on his butt, wrapping his legs round Joel’s waist, keeping the head fast against his heaving ribs.
Joel drives his fist into Sammy’s belly and pulls his head free. He gets back up on his feet, grabs Sammy’s legs, and pulls. But the hold isn’t solid, and he falls back into Sammy’s leg lock.
He punches, but Sammy wraps his arms around his shoulders and pulls him in close, muffling the slap of skin on skin.
Joel grabs Sammy’s head and lifts his whole body off the floor by it, and then slams it down on the mattress. Sammy grunts, but gets his right leg up higher, at Joel’s neck. Joel strikes back with some rabbit punches, but his fists lower to Sammy’s ribs, which he hammers in rapid succession.
The blows hurt, and Sammy’s getting genuinely pissed, which is OK, because Joel likes it to get real.
Holding the dominant position, however momentarily, gets Joel hard. And his punches get brash and serious. Again he grabs Sammy by the neck and head and lifts him high off the mattresses. Then his whole body drives Sammy back down to the floor. The impact makes both men groan, and Sammy feels Joel’s hard-on nail him in the thigh.
This pisses Sammy off. He clamps his thighs on Joel’s waist and squeezes with everything he’s got. He locks his hands behind Joel’s head, digs his knuckles deep into his hundred-dollar haircut, and smashes Joel’s face against the solid side of his skull, arching his neck so as to butt Joel’s nose. Blood speckles Joel’s upper lip and Sammy’s shoulder. Joel tastes iron in his mouth.
For a few seconds, there’s deadlock, and the two gasp for air, their bodies slick with perspiration, mostly Sammy’s.
Then Joel cuts repeatedly to Sammy’s ribs again, and Sammy grabs Joel by the ears and forces his head down, straining the back of Joel’s neck.
Joel rears up, but Sammy deftly locks his leg around his neck and flips him over and then grabs his arm and scissors it in his legs.
Pain shoots through every cell of Joel’s body, and he moans in delicately layered anguish and rapture.
Sammy savors the feeling of absolute conquest. He gives the arm an extra twist and almost feels the spasm run through Joel’s body and into his own. He can’t help but laugh at Joel’s abasement. Joel’s feet thrash helplessly against the mattress.
“You give, man?”
Joel whimpers, which inspires Sammy to bend his opponent’s arm even further back. The whimper turns to a yelp, then a scream. Sammy loosens but maintains the hold.
Joel mumbles gibberish.
“Submit! Hear me? Submit! Don’t make me break you.”
Joel’s free hand reaches for Sammy’s cock. Sammy tightens his squeeze and flips Joel flat on his back. He releases the hold and knees Joel sharply in the ribs. Joel wails and blindly punches into the air but misses Sammy. Sammy pokes Joel’s hairy chest with his kneecap and grabs him by his hard-on.
“Trying something like this, Joel? Lemme show you how it’s done.”
He gives the cock a vicious twist, and Joel’s shimmering body flaps impotently like a trout on a riverbank.
Joel screams: “I give, I give, I give, I give!”
Sammy chuckles and lets go. He straddles Joel’s stomach and flexes victoriously, to an imaginary auditorium of screaming fans. Joel’s cock shyly nudges the base of his spine. He smirks, grabs Joel by the haircut, and pummels Joel’s mouth with three quick, devastating rights.
Joel’s out cold for maybe fifteen seconds. He awakes to see Sammy stroking his own firm cock about two feet away.
Sammy notices him and reaches over and gently pushes the hair off Joel’s sweaty forehead. Joel inhales and exhales, his body feeling light, almost floating.
The music is still buzzing in the back bedroom, but mostly the men hear the sounds of the two of them breathing and their own hearts thumping. Sammy relishes the stony ache he feels after a good scrap, all the better when he’s just pulverized the other guy, and, for whatever reasons, all the better when the other guy is Joel.
He leans down close to Joel’s face and snarls, “End of Round One, bitch.”