FICTION; “Bag Work” by Jacob Steven Mohr

I took a week after the fight to clear my head. A bottle of brown and a long slow cruise around my Boston apartment did the job, wearing down the soles of my loafers, pacing. Then I got dry, and I went to see Jimmy in his hospital bed. He put a brave face on, but I could see he was busted up bad. The tears kept coming down his face under the bandages. That put the hate in me, but I didn’t jump on it. I waited another week. I let that hate get cold and solid inside me.

Then I went downtown to Dill Potter’s health club and got myself damned to hell.

I didn’t take much time planning it. I’m not meticulous by nature, or careful. I’ve made bad investments in my life, and I’ve gotten my heart broken. A more careful man wouldn’t get put in that position. But I’m reckless, and it’s hard for a reckless man to hold onto good things. But I knew I wouldn’t need any caution. There’s never been a bigger fool in all of this city than Dill Potter. I’d go through him like a steam engine. I’d crush him like a punch you didn’t see coming.

I went there at dusk, just as the dark was thickening. Boston’s such an ugly town at night. The streets are rough and crooked like bad teeth. I thought about Jimmy Kite laying on that white hospital bed all covered up with white bandages. I played the fight over and over in the dark theater inside my mind. Then I’d arrived and stood a while in the drizzle under the sign out front of the health club. Then I went in and shut the door behind me.

The place was all closed down. But Jimmy still had the key; I palmed it at the hospital, and I’d return it once I’d finished. Inside it was all dark. The windows were papered over and the watery light from the streetlamps only bled in at the corners. I could see the practice ring and the heavy 150-lb bags all dangling from their chains in rows. They dangled like hanged men who’d been dead a while. I moved past them on soft feet towards a rectangle of light. Through the door, and into Dill Potter’s little back office. I waited maybe five minutes.

Dill Potter came back whistling, shaking water off of thick-knuckled hands. These hands only trembled a little—his age hadn’t taken the firepower out of his fists like it does some others. I knew he could still sock. But I wasn’t cowed at all. I wasn’t afraid. It was like this other man was some jungle beast in a zoo, and I was the child on the other side of the bars. I knew what those teeth and claws could do but there was no real fear. Only a tingle, thrilling down my spine.

Besides, he was not such a large boy as that. He’d boxed flyweight, and a flyweight can only sock you so hard. He saw me as he came through the door. I was half-seated on the desk with my hat crooked on my head. He looked at me with narrow eyes—I blinked at him, feigning tipsiness.

“Silas?” he croaked at me. “Leonard Silas?”

“Sure. It’s me.”

He looked in at me warily. “The hell are you doing here.” When I only giggled at him he said, “Well—you’d better clear out. If Saul catches you skulking around, he’ll give you a pretty cauliflower on your ear to match mine.”

But then he dropped his eyes: “I’m sorry about what happened to your boy.”

The old fool—his tone nearly convinced me. Instead I burbled at him, “We-eee-ell. He was your boy too once. A long time ago.”

He looked at me sharply. “Not so long.”

“You’re right. It wasn’t that long ago.” I reached inside my jacket, next to the gun, and showed him the neck of the cabernet bottle. I said, “Maybe we could talk about it.”

“I guess we could.”

Like a little magic trick, he got two cups from inside the desk. We filled these to the brim and touched them together. Dill Potter sat down on the chair, and I leaned in the doorway. The wine was no good—a poor vintage, another flash of bad luck on my tally. But I barely tasted it. I didn’t swallow any more than a few small mouthfuls. But I played sloppy and let Dill Potter get drunk and red in the face, while inside I was sober as a vicar. Coolly I watched him over the rim of my cup, studying his old red face and his round cheeks.

We talked a little about the sport. This was pleasurable in spite of it all. Nobody would say Dill Potter didn’t know everything anybody knew about training prizefighters. Stories fell off his tongue like water off an icicle’s tip. He talked about training Jimmy, back when he was coming up. How he beat Gorgon Willard with the prettiest right cross you ever saw. I was at that fight, but I let him tell it his way. I laughed when he joked and smiled when he finished. But all the while I felt my hate turn inside me, slow and cold.

Soon the wine thickened in him; his talking got slow, and his eyes looked kind of lost. That’s when I said to him, “Have I ever talked to you about Africa?”

“Hmm. What’s this now?”

“Africa,” I repeated.

“Yes—I was wondering when we’d talk about Africa.” It was his turn to giggle, quite drunk.

Ignoring this, I said, “This was a few years back, before Jimmy came over to me. I went across the ocean, and I lived for a time among the tribesmen there. I wanted to expand myself, and I’d gotten it in my head that Africa would be… Well—anyhow, I went. And over time I got the tribesmen’s trust. They showed me something I’d have never seen anywhere but that corner of the continent. How they killed the poachers who kill elephants.”

Dill Potter looked up from his cup. “You can’t poach elephants. They don’t belong to nobody.”

I shrugged. “They belong to Africa I guess.” I went on, saying: “To this tribe, the elephant is an important man. When he eats, new vegetation grows up for the smaller animals to eat and nestle down in. When he moves through his jungle, his bulk makes paths for the others to follow behind. His dung is full of seeds that grow into new grasses and trees and bushes…”

“You came downtown to lecture me on elephant shit.” This was no question, only an observation. I smiled permissively and continued on, swirling my undrunk wine.

“…and in the dry season, he digs in the ground for water, with his tusks. When he’s had his fill, all the other animals come behind him and drink too. The tribesmen I lived with, they drink the water too. They’re living in his jungle. And they know it’s a terrible crime to kill an elephant, so they kill his poachers in a terrible way.”

Now I had Dill Potter’s interest. In spite of the wine in his belly he looked at me keenly. All sockers like him love a yarn with violence at the heart. We’re vicious creatures like that I suppose—and I suppose I’m the most vicious of all, for what I’ve done.

He said, “Well, you’ve built a nice foundation.”

“Now I’ll show you the house.” Again I favored him with a smile. “They catch this hunter,” I said, “usually a white fellow like you or me, some poor fool out on safari. But they don’t kill him. They treat him gently. Then in the late afternoon they anoint him with a perfume they make there. It’s mixed with herbs that ape the scent of the bull elephant’s own musk. And then they take that hunter and tie him up suspended between two trees, spread-eagled like this…”

Here I stretched out my limbs across the doorway, throwing my head back like I was struggling against ropes. I was Fay Wray, writhing before Kong. I went on.

“…and they leave him there like that at the jungle’s edge. In the evening, the elephant comes out from the trees, drawn there by the scent of the perfume…”

Dill Potter leaned forward, running his tongue along his teeth. He smelled blood. I gave it to him.

“The musk drives him mad, into a killing frenzy. It never takes long. Sometimes, he gores the hunter on his tusks. Sometimes he tramples him. Sometimes he paws his trunk until his arms and legs pop off like doll’s limbs. I saw that once, watching from the bushes. I’d never heard a man scream like that. He took a long time dying, bleeding into the dirt. But that’s not the worst thing. Sometimes the elephant doesn’t come—out of mercy, the tribesmen say. But do they cut him down? Do they let him go? This wouldn’t be justice. No, they leave him hanging, to starve or cook in the sun. Or else the vultures come pick him clean while he’s still living. Perhaps the elephant knows all this, perhaps he’s not so merciful after all.”

“A dumb beast, Leonard,” put in Dill Potter.

“Yes,” I said between my teeth. “A dumb beast.”

“What’s got your mind on elephants.”

I shrugged. Inside my jacket, the pistol was cold and solid along my ribs. “We-eee-ell,” I said. “An elephant’s sort of like a prizefighter. That’s my thinking.”

“Well—I guess you’re pretty drunk,” said Dill Potter.

“I guess I am.”

He laughed at me. “There’s no shame in it. After what happened to Jimmy. I’m surprised you dried out so soon. I’d still be at the bottom of the river.”

“All right. Then let’s talk about Jimmy.”

“The poor bastard,” Dill Potter agreed.

He raised his cup again—I touched mine against it. And I said:

“Here’s how a prizefighter’s like an elephant. Just by going about his business, the elephant supports his whole jungle, as I’ve said already. Well—the prizefighter does the same. The manager, the trainer, the promoter and the cutman… they eat because the boxer fights. He digs up their water. You hear some trainers say, I made that boy. And maybe it’s true. But without the boy in the ring, they’re just skinny old men. They’d wait in the breadline like the rest of the saps, looking out with their hats in their hands.”

“I thought we were talking about Jimmy Kite.”

“I told you—it’s a terrible thing to kill an elephant.”

“You’re sober as a judge. Jimmy’s not killed.”

“You’re right. Your boy couldn’t crack it.”

Dill Potter’s red face tilted on its side. His eyes gleamed a little, but only a little. “You ought crack a smile at least, joking like that,” he said.

I kept in the doorway. I wasn’t playing drunk any longer. I asked, “Does he know?”

“Know what.”

“Does your boy know you took the padding out of his gloves?”

He lurched to his feet, spilling his wine. But he didn’t say anything more. He just stood there behind the desk with his chair upended behind him, looking at me. After too long, he said, “The hell are you saying, Leonard.” But his eyes flicked sideways. I went back to my refrain.

“It’s a terrible thing, killing a prizefighter.”

“Nobody killed Jimmy.”

“You don’t think so?”

“To hell with you. I’m going home…”

He started for the door. I opened my coat, showing him the stock of the pistol. I didn’t say anything to him; he looked at the gun, then at my face. Then he kind of sat down, glancing off the edge of the desk and landing on the bare floor.

“I’m going home,” he said again, but he didn’t move.

I came around the other side of the desk and sat in the chair. I took the pistol out of my jacket and balanced it on my knee, with the barrel pointing over Dill Potter’s left shoulder.

“Let’s talk seriously,” I said. “Can you organize that?”

Dill Potter’s face, now white and bloodless, nodded that he could. I smiled at him, all pretense gone. My mask was off and on the floor in the hall. “I’m going to tell you what happened,” I said. “You’re going to tell me if I step off the line, but besides that, you won’t talk.” I joggled the pistol on my knee, thrilling at its heft. “Or go on. I like shooting just fine.”

Again Dill Potter nodded. He was the color of kitchen tile, pale and shiny.

I started in, watching him carefully. “Jimmy Kite was the best middleweight this health club ever saw. He handled Gorgon Willard, and he handled that bull Conrad too. But he wasn’t going to make that next jump here. He needed an extra kick—somebody with connections. I guess I was the guy for it. Me and Jimmy hand-shook on it, and that was that. He could smell how the wind was blowing. He wasn’t so dull as all that.”

Dill Potter eyed the pistol. “Shoot, if you’re going to preach,” he mumbled.

I ignored him. “You both got sore Jimmy was giving you the heave-ho—you and Saul Burton. Sore enough to want a little revenge. Saul tried it his way, betting against his own boy in their last fight together. But he flopped on the finish line. Jimmy pulled a miracle from under his hat and cost your pal twenty-five grand. That sound all right so far?”

Dill Potter shrugged again. He was good and mad, but with the pistol there he couldn’t do anything about it. “You get hinky with your details,” he said. “But sure, all right so far.”

I continued: “Saul got impatient—that was his failing. But not you, old man. You kept your head. You went back to your essentials. You were a pretty fair flyweight yourself, but you were at your best as a cutman. So when Jimmy’s first fight with me came around, you signed on in the other fellow’s corner. Nuts that he’d never worked with you—you were Dill Potter. He was happy to have you there. He thought it meant something. He didn’t know it wasn’t a fight you were after. He didn’t know how you’d fixed things.”

“You’re drunk,” he said uselessly, knowing it was a lie.

“You cut his gloves,” I continued. My hand was sweating around the pistol. “You cut them on the inside where it wouldn’t show, and you took padding out—just enough so the ref wouldn’t catch on, just enough to turn your boy’s fists into bricks. You’d know just the amount. After forty years, I guess you’d know all the tricks…”

Faster than I figured he could, Dill Potter made a scramble for the door. I was off-balance—my first bullet burst through the wood doorframe. Dill Potter was half-escaped by then, but my second shot blew his legs from under him. He fell screaming in the hall. I pursued, dragging the desk chair behind me. I set down outside the door, watching him crawl and flail, smearing dark blood behind him. Then I said:

“Stop that, or I’ll put one in your lap.”

He stopped. Slowly, painfully, he twisted onto his back. Even in the half-light in the gym his face was pure sheet white. His eyes bugged and his breath was heavy.

He said in a gasping kind of voice, “What do you want with me.” And I smiled.

“I want to know if you ever got sucker-punched.”

“For the love of God, Silas…”

“I know I suckered you, taking Jimmy away,” I said. “Or you felt that way. Maybe you thought that justified it. But your nose never got broke. You never took a punch you couldn’t see. Jimmy did. Your boy suckered him good.”

“In the ring,” Dill Potter breathed. His leg was bleeding good. “Fair rules.”

The gun seemed to twitch like a live thing. “Might’ve been at first,” I admitted. “But your boy’s gloves had no stuffing. At first Jimmy figured he was just a helluva lot stronger than he’d wagered on. But he was still shrugging off the punches. He knew he was a world-beater…”

“Sure,” Dill Potter said placatingly. “Sure he was. We all knew it.”

“That’s when his eyes started swelling up,” I said as calmly as I could. “Pretty soon they were closed up all over. Pretty soon Jimmy couldn’t see at all. And he started taking those big haymakers. But Jimmy, he wouldn’t quit. Don’t you throw that towel, Mister Silas. He kept saying it over and over again. He wouldn’t take water. After every round he’d tell me, Don’t you throw that towel. I can still fight. I can still take this boy. And damn it all—I believed him. I didn’t know how bad he was really hurt. I didn’t know what you’d done.”

“Ref should have called it. Should have stopped them.”

His voice was faint now. From in my jacket, I got some of the long white bandages I took from the hospital. I cut off a length of it and threw it at Dill Potter.

“Tie up that hole,” I told him. “I’m not a murderer.”

He eyed the gun in my lap. But he took the bandages and dressed himself with shaking hands.

“Ref should have stopped them,” he said again.

I shrugged. “Wouldn’t have changed it. You never took a punch you didn’t see coming. You can’t roll, can’t slip away. You take it square. And that’s the punch that busts you all up.”

“Jimmy’s not dead.”

My teeth ground in my mouth. “You keep saying that. End of the tenth—we have to cut Jimmy’s eyes. He still can’t see his hand in front of his face. Two detached retinas… the doctor’s confirmed it. His eyes are jelly. You did that, you and your boy. He’ll never fight again.”

I got off the chair and walked across the blood on the floor towards Dill Potter. He watched me approach—or rather, he watched the gun swinging in my right hand.

“You said you’re not a murderer,” he said.

“I did.”

“Then what are you.”

I showed him every tooth in my head. “Something you won’t see coming.” And I brought the pistol down smash against the back of his skull.

~

It all took me longer than it should’ve. I’m not a scheming man; I’m not used to making plans. But I was industrious, and I managed my work in an hour, long before Dill Potter woke from his doze on the floor. First I took the rest of the bandages and tied his wrists together, then his ankles, looping them many times so he couldn’t burst free. Then I took the scraps and made a gag from them, and put it in his mouth. When I was sure he was breathing still I took one of the 150-lb bags down from its chain and cut away the stitching along one seam. I took out some of the sand from inside the bag, just enough that the weights would be similar, and swept it away. It wasn’t as much sand as I thought it would be. Dill Potter was an old man and didn’t weight much at all. I took him by the ankles and dragged him to the half-deflated bag.

Then I took out my needle and thread, and I began to sew.

~

Some hours later I cracked my eyes from a doze. A little daylight was visible through the papered windows of the health club. I’d moved my chair to the middle of the floor; close by I’d rehung the heavy punching bag, stitched up tight. It shifted as though it had been struck moments ago. But there wasn’t anybody there to strike it, not yet.

I stretched and stood up, coming over to the bag. I patted it with my hand.

“Potter—you awake now?”

The bag went still. Then, it shook around again—but only a little. His hands and feet were tied, and there was sand in there with him, packed around his body. I heard a muffled groan from inside that leather bag. He was trying to scream through the gag in his mouth.

“Don’t do that,” I told him. “Don’t scream. Don’t try to talk. You’ll get sand in your mouth, and I don’t know how much air you’ve got. Better not waste it, in case it’s not very much.”

The bag did not struggle again. I heard a low whimper, then nothing. Outside, daylight was bleeding in strong. It would be morning soon. The fighters would arrive for their exercise. But I had time, time enough for this.

“You understand the trap you’re in, I imagine,” I said. “Or at least you can guess. You’re not the one who killed Jimmy Kite—that’s true. But you blinded him, and for a prizefighter that’s worse than dying. For a boy in his prime, he’d have rather died. But you couldn’t give him that. You left that to a braver man. And now I’ve got you between two trees, you son of a bitch. And the elephant is coming… do you think he’ll show you mercy?”

I said before—I’m damned to hell for what I’ve done. All this and more. But for this I would’ve faced Satan himself in the ring, fifteen heavyweight rounds.

“They’ll be here in an hour or so,” I hissed through clenched teeth. “Your prizefighters, your big hard-punching boys. You won’t see it coming. You won’t know when your elephant comes to you. The punishment will come out of the dark, out of your blindness. Maybe he’ll gore you, Dill Potter. Maybe he’ll crush you. But likely he’ll just beat you to death. Can you imagine it? A left, a right, coming hard out of the darkness—like this!”

Dill Potter wriggled ferociously; I wound up and socked him good and hard. Mistake… I busted a finger against a hard bone and rocked back, sucking on my teeth. But he screamed into the gag, and that made the pain all right. I was laughing through it like a madman laughing at the moon.

Then I heard a noise that was more than a noise through the heavy leather. I got close, putting my ear against the new stitching. “What’s that now?” I asked. And even through the wad of bandages in his mouth, I could make out the whimpered response quite clearly:

“For the love of God, Leonard!”

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “For the love of God!” And to this I got no answer.

I left just as the streets were starting to brighten. The city was still ugly, but I’d left the ugliest part behind. I wouldn’t wait in the bushes to watch the elephant take his revenge. I tried to imagine it—the fighter’s heavy breath drowning away the cries of pain and terror inside that swinging leather coffin. But I couldn’t conjure it. Instead I heard as if in an echo the sound of Jimmy’s heartbeat slowing, slowing, his face pressed down under the pillow. He was strong, but under heavy dope—the one piece of good luck I’ve ever had. And the one bit of real mercy I’d ever seen in this whole stinking world. But that heartbeat followed me a good while anyhow.

Then it started to rain a little, and I didn’t hear anything but the water hitting the streets.

Don’t buy the hype: Jacob Steven Mohr was not raised by wolves. Feral children are capable of many things, but weaving wild words into flesh and fantasy isn’t one of them. Lucky us. If it were, we’d all be speaking Wolf. Mohr’s work has previously appeared in NIGHTMARE SKY, SUMMER BLUDGEON, and NIGHT TERRORS VOL. 20, as well as on the Scare You to Sleep Podcast. He lives in Columbus, OH. Follow him on Twitter at @jacobstevenmohr & buy his book THE UNWELCOME here.

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