From the author: A boxer makes a Faustian bargain.
Ben Graf took a deep breath and stepped into the ring.
The audience roared as he ducked under the blue ropes and felt the spring supported floor bounce as he danced to stay limber. The noise of the spectators gave him energy.
Months of training led to this moment.
Graf turned around and outstretched his arms to the sea of strangers. He looked down at the five ringside judges. They were eating peanuts and laughing.
His opponent stood on the other side of the ring. The man was six foot three and looked as though he spent years sprinting up a mountain while wrestling jaguars, his body roped in muscle. His name was Arndt Bruckner. Rumor had it that Bruckner’s family tree had at least two Nazi’s on its branches.
The event was hosted by the Pacific Northwest Amateur Boxing League, and for that reason, this super middleweight division was not as easy to prepare for as it may have been if either opponent had a slew of fights underneath their belts, all of which would have been filmed and easy to review. Graf knew very little about Bruckner’s fighting style, except that he occasionally wore himself out during the first three rounds. Graf’s plan was to exploit that.
A referee with a head full of silver hair stepped into the center and retrieved a microphone. The hyperbolic introductions were given. Graf was known as Ben ‘The Butcher’ Graf, and the second fighter was known as Arndt ‘The Assassin’ Bruckner. The referee asked them to touch gloves and promise a good, clean fight, and told each one to protect themselves at all times.
Bruckner refused to bump mitts.
The bell dinged twice.
Graf parried. Both ducked each other’s strikes.
Graf landed the first blow on Bruckner’s chin, which made him feel like he was punching the edge of a granite cliff. Bruckner took a few paces back. Graf wanted to move in and take advantage of this disoriented moment, but Bruckner collected himself and retreated.
The first three minutes ended, and now they were in the second round. Within the following thirty seconds, Graf had landed two more blows.
All he could think about was how proud his younger brother would have been of him if he were alive to see this moment. If only Nick hadn’t died that afternoon at Mantle Lake that one December, if he never slipped through the ice and drowned. He would have never believed that his big brother was massacring a German in the true American way.
Graf was hit on the left side of his skull. He blacked out. Miniscule dots of color peppered his vision.
Graf woke up, peeled his eyes open, and saw that he was covered in blood. His coach was holding him in the c-spine position, telling him to keep fighting, to hold on.
When he woke up, he was in a hospital bed with a white curtain dividing him from an unknown person. His side of the room overlooked a rooftop. An IV was in his arm.
Graf turned his head to the right to look out the window and gazed at the night’s stars. He thought of a line he had read by Hemingway once, ‘my writing is nothing, my boxing is everything.’
He saw a silhouette sitting beside him. Upon closer inspection, the individual looked familiar. Graf recognized this person as Julius Reisman, the world-famous boxing coach who mentored some of the most iconoclastic fighters the sport had ever seen.
Reisman handed him a water bottle and Graf drank from it.
“You did well in the fight, kid.”
“Thanks,” Graf said, resisting the urge to argue with the fact that he was hospitalized and did not feel like a victor.
“Do you want to do better?” Reisman asked.
“Let’s get out of here before they call security on me,” Reisman said, getting up from his chair. “I helped all of your idols become professionals in the ring. I can do the same for you. We can make you become one of the world’s most celebrated fighters. You gotta leave this place first.”
Graf was confused. His body felt like it had been stripped of all nutrients. His spirit was skinned of morale. This strange opportunity made no sense, but it was one he could not let go. He ripped the IV out of his arm and stood up.
Reisman tossed him a pair of scrub pants and a black shirt. After getting to his feet, a flood of nausea overcame him. Reisman put an arm around his body to help him maintain balance.
“This is what we get for being in the head trauma business,” Reisman said, laughing. They walked slowly down the hallway to the elevators, doctors and ER technicians looked up from their paperwork to stare at them for a few seconds.
Once outside, Reisman lowered Graf gently on the curb of the main entrance. Reisman briefly left him there, before pulling up underneath the porte cochere in a silver SUV whose speedometers radiated a deep green, piercing through the shadows of the sidewalks.
“Hop in,” Reisman said. Graf took a few agonizing steps forward, feeling a rush of blood to the head as he opened the car door and sat in the front passenger seat.
The vehicle sped through one of the main back roads flanked on either side by tall moss-covered pine trees.
“Why give me this offer?” Graf asked, realizing how hoarse his voice sounded due to dehydration.
After a right turn was made, they were surrounded by dilapidated buildings with missing and blown-out windows. Telephone cables were stripped and laid on the thoroughfare, and the walls of the old brick structures were covered in faded graffiti. There was a car without a roof that had been lit on fire as a group of homeless men circled around it. At the far end of the street was a prostitute leaning over and speaking to a driver in a beat-up Volkswagen.
“This is where you grew up,” Reisman said. “Do you want to live here again?”
“No,” Graf said.
“Do you want to make Nick proud for once?” Reisman asked.
“Yeah…how did you - ”
“I’m taking you to meet my boss,” Reisman said.
“You have a boss?”
“We can make you famous,” Reisman continued, driving through a red light on an empty road, going past a street with yellowed grass and a line of small shacks made of rotting wood. “Do you want to go down in history with a reputation on the same line as Willie Pep, Rocky Mariano, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, Roy Jones, Ali, Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson? You want to have their success and carry the same air of fearsomeness?”
“Yes,” Graff said.
“Then don’t question why I chose you, kid. I have my reasons. I see it in you. That drive. Not everybody has that in the concussion industry.”
They were in a much busier part of the city, and Reisman took them down an alleyway and into a backlot that had a collection of flickering street lights. He parked the SUV in front of a large apartment complex.
“Follow me,” Reisman said, stepping out of the car and then walking towards a set of steps leading down to the nether part of the building. Graf was behind him, suddenly feeling a lot less dizzy as Reisman knocked on an entry.
A three hundred and fifty pound man with a set of lips tattooed on his neck answered.
The big guy welcomed them in and escorted them through the hallway. There were pool tables and areas with live poker games. They walked up another wooden staircase leading to a higher level, and the inked tour guide brought them to another door.
The entranceway swung open, and the man stepped to the side and waved them in.
They were in an office. There was a painting finished with old pastels on the back wall of an army of monks falling to their death off of a fiery hillside.
Sitting behind the main mahogany slab was an individual wearing a dark velvet suit. He looked up. His arms were illustrated with wolves and ocean life.
“Sit down,” Reisman said, pointing to a chair in front of the desk. Graf did, still feeling out of place. “This is Wallis. Wallis, you know who this is.”
After Reisman was done introducing them, he backed away into a corner of the room where there were shrubberies and a Greek statue.
The man stared at Graf with an admixture of inquisitiveness and contempt, before a smile on the side of his face emerged. He reached into one of the desk cabinets on his right and brought out a pack of cigars, opening one and unrolling the plastic off of the stogie before lighting it, a scent of Cognac and tobacco filling the quiet room. There was a large white wooden bookcase behind Wallis, which he turned around to face. There was an array of dark covered organizers and files adorning the rows.
Wallis grabbed one, whipped around, and slapped it on the desk surface while puffing away, blowing smoke towards the dimly lit ceiling. He pulled a pen from his pocket and slid it towards Graf.
“I need you to sign that,” Wallis said, his voice sounding as if he had spent the last decade swallowing sandpaper. “There are rules that come with our contract. The first one is that you solemnly swear to keep our deal confidential. The second is that you recognize the fact that you only get one request granted, and the wish for more than one of them is not permissible. The third is that you cannot ask for eternal life. Our energy persists through time whether we like it or not, positive or negative. The fourth is that you not include anyone else in the fulfillment group, got it? Not without going through me first. The fifth is that you acknowledge what you are giving up to me, which is the entirety of your core being. You monkeys sometimes call it your inner essence.”
The air got thicker and Graf felt sweat building on his forehead.
“The sixth is a direct agreement of what will happen if you break any one of these contractual promises. I want you to know that it’s a rebuke strong enough to make any and all of your manifested dreams seem worthless. Think of all the influential figures throughout history, some who met an abrupt peak before their prowess could evolve. Are you following me?”
“Yes,” Graf said.
“So,” Wallis said while leaning back, “what do you want?”
Wallis snorted. “Graf, let me tell you something. You were in a comatose state for weeks with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. You had severe neurological bleeding. When you came to, you were impulsive, aggressive. You stood up from your bed, yanked out your IV, walked over to the bathroom sink and started banging your head against the mirror until it shattered and you lacerated most of the skin on your face. You took one of the shattered pieces and began stabbing yourself in the chest. The medics gave you a blood transfusion and provided stitching and anesthetic. Even before that, one of the nurses stated that you had come to and rambled about imaginary fights and being famous. This last match puts you in a very bad place. You won’t be able to eat anything but liquid food for up to six months. So you either continue on this path of being fucked up in the head and going back to live in the ghetto and surviving off of ramen while telling all the kids about how you could have been something but passed it up, or you can agree to our deal. If you choose the former, I would tell you to study some more successful athletes who have sustained injuries similar to yours. Mike Webster, a football hall of famer who went from wealth to homelessness because of his psychological torture. Junior Seau, an NFL linebacker who shot himself in the chest at the age of forty-three. Dave Duerson, a defensive back for the Chicago Bears, who also shot himself because of brain trauma, memory loss, and poor impulse control. Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son and hung himself two days later. These men are representative of your future unless you let us heal you and make you venerated. So tell me Graff, one more chance, what is it that you want?”
“To be the world’s most famous boxer.”
Wallis grinned again and pointed to the paper. Graf signed it.
During the first six days, progress was nonexistent. Graf returned to his crumbling apartment and bug-infested gym, hitting the bag and performing the usual calisthenics, ones that he was once able to do with swift ferocity, but now struggled through after his neurological injury.
Against all medical advice, he still engaged in matches with other amateurs and won only two out of six of them. He began to wonder during this time if his own persistence was just delusional stubbornness.
Graf began to think that the night drive, the underground betting hall, and signing the contract in the office which looked like a chamber out of a Bosch painting had to have been hallucinatory.
On the seventh day, Graf went back to his training facility and shadowboxed for a few minutes before striking the heavy bag. It was punctured at first, his fist cutting through the center of it as if he had struck gelatinous matter. The bottom half flew off, causing the contents on the inside to spill out. Graf was shocked and then felt a surge of happiness overcome him, realizing he now had a future for the first time in a long while.
He managed to book a match with another amateur super middleweight fighter. The day of the event, there was no one in the audience, but Graf hit him with such an enormous uppercut that he lost consciousness, and the referee called time with all his voice could muster.
Over the next several months, Graf went from nonpaying matches for publicity to fighting personal heroes of his whose pictures he used to hang near the back of his weight racks before working out. He was brawling with his inspirations in some of the biggest venues the region could offer.
This led to Madison Square Garden, when he was in the ring with an icon whose title was on the line. After Graf had claimed that, he agreed to a much less lucrative but personally meaningful rematch with Arndt Bruckner. He made the German a household name and defeated him by removing his teeth and dislocating his jaw, pummeling him into obscurity forever.
Graf now had sponsors, deals for commercial appearances, a three-story manor, a brand new sports vehicle, and a girlfriend.
Her name was Maria. He met her at a tech entrepreneur’s house party. She had dark skin and flowing black hair. She made him feel important, which was so critical to him that it made him sick, to have someone who could remind him that he was somebody, to help him forget that his fiery run of success was based on an ethereal negotiation wrought with the lifeblood of his identity.
She was intelligent and loved his fighting style. They were preparing to move to Barcelona and decided to have a going-away celebration. They were drunk one night and made love, picturing their life by the sea.
She wrapped an arm around him when they were lying in bed. “How did you get so amazing?”
“I’m not,” he said, crushed by the verity of his own words.
“Don’t say that.”
“I was given an advantage.”
“Was it steroids?”
“No,” he said, “worse. I made a bargain.”
“I don’t know,” Graf said, turning over and facing away from her. “All I know is that it was for everything I am.”
Maria left the manor to go to a spa. Graf decided to hit the heavy bag hung on his balcony overlooking the city. He tried to get his blood flowing, wanting to get lost in the workout, but it was in vain. He saw how his punches were not having the same impact he had grown accustomed to.
He hit the bag again. It did not move after his strike connected with it. He found out that it was because someone was on the other side, holding it in place. Graf moved to the left and saw Coach Reisman staring at him.
“What are you doing here?”
“The boss sent me,” Reisman said, inching closer. “He says you’ve broken one of the rules of the contract. It’s a shame, Graf. You had it all. Money, fame, cars, and the lifestyle, all of it. You threw it away. Goethe wrote ‘who holds the devil, let him hold him well, he hardly will be caught a second time.’ You could have taken note of that.”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t - ”
“You told a lady friend of yours about the deal. That was a mistake.”
Reisman pulled out a hunting knife. He stabbed Graf in the right side of his abdomen. Graf felt shocked and the need for survival lapsed over him, before getting in a few clean strikes at Reisman’s face and running to the door.
Graf knew that his only option now was to get into his car and drive to the nearest hospital. Soon he was in the front courtyard, bleeding out while surrounded by marble fountains. He attempted to go to the garage when all of the blood loss became too much. He felt light-headed. His mind was telling him to keep running at all costs, but his legs had given out.
He was sprawled out on a cobblestone pathway, a trail of crimson snaking behind him. Reisman stood over him, and he heard footsteps approaching from a direction on the left. Looking over, he saw Wallis appear and walk closer towards him.
Two loud bangs echoed through the air. Wallis’ head evaporated as his body slumped to the ground. Reisman looked shocked at this sight. The coach’s stomach was bleeding out, and he fell over.
Maria ran over to where Graf was. She dropped a nine-millimeter on the ground, and pulled out her cell phone, dialing an emergency number.
“Maria…” he said.
“Once you’re treated, we have to move out of the country.”
“The fulfillment group,” Maria said, pressing her phone tighter against her skin. “Reisman and Wallis’ people. They’ll never stop coming after us.”
“H-how d-do you know…about them…”
“I wished to marry a rich husband,” she said.
Alarms sounded in the distance as the sun lowered.
This story originally appeared in Schlock! webzine.