The tapping of the smooth silver ballpoint pen against the notepad sounded very much like a metronome gone out of control. Crumpled balls of paper littered the handsome wooden desk like a graveyard of bad ideas as the thinning notepad lay blank before him. The paper’s watermark – a green-tinged lion’s head logo – stared mockingly at him, daring him to try again to write something poignant. Or even just intelligent. In fact, at this point, the lion would even have settled for something merely coherent.
He reached for the tiny bottle of vodka – airplane-sized, from the mini-bar - that he had been sipping. He upended it, emptying the last of the clear, caustic liquid down his throat. He felt his face flush as the liquor burned a path into his stomach. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of drifting off to drunkenness.
When his mouth and throat cooled he reopened his eyes. The lion still looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to begin this manifesto, this great work that would make her understand why. He tentatively put the pen to paper and was trying to decide the letter’s opening line.
To whom it may concern…
He had barely formed the final “n” when he tore the page from its pad. To whom it may concern, he thought. How silly.
He tossed the balled up sheet of paper to the side and started again, dating the top of the page. He went over in his mind how letters were supposed to start, with Dear Someone, or Dearest Whomever. He wrote: I don’t even know your name.
He smiled as he finished writing that one line. He cracked open the miniature bottle of premium vodka queued up next to him, sucked it down and added the empty to the paper graveyard. He was drunker than he had been in a long time, but at least the words were flowing.
My name is Michael Dane. I’m your father. A little Darth Vader-esque, he thought, but it worked. If you’re reading this then I’m dead. He paused a moment after he wrote that; the finality of those words made his stomach gurgle. Doubt, nervousness and fear crept into his mind, all at once, and all for the first time since this whole thing started. He wondered if this whole deal was such a good idea after all.
Drunkenness helped him rediscover his resolve. He had no choice after all. He wrote: And of course you’re reading this, because I know I’m going to die.
The lights in the locker room hummed and flickered above Michael Dane’s head as the last of the gauze was taped tightly to his hands. He looked up and held his breath for a moment as he punched the palms of his hands, exhaling when the fluorescent rods snapped back on full strength, buzzing as if a fly were trapped inside. Soon after, they flickered again, and something in his stomach danced to the rhythm of the lights. When fully lit, the locker room was cream-colored brick from the ground up to about three feet, with drywall painted an off-white color– beige, or maybe eggshell- going up to the ceiling. Michael sat on an elevated table in the center of the room, a small metal bowl with gauze, tape and scissors next to him. The table was brown leather and heavily padded, like the one he saw in his doctor’s office. The lights dimmed again, freezing Michael’s breath. He exhaled only when they came back on.
“Why don’t they do something about that?” he said, testing the wrist support of the gauze. “It’s annoying.”
The pot-bellied black man putting the tape on Michael’s hands stood from the stool in front of the table. “Perfect,” he said. “Let’s get the gloves.” He hustled over to the locker on the other side of the room and pulled out a pair of black boxing gloves with “DANE” printed on the wrists in gold block letters.
Michael took another deep breath to try to stop the salsa dancing girls in his stomach as the gloves were slid onto his hands. “This is it, Dutch,” he said to the fat man as the gloves were tied up. “Showtime.” He hopped off the table and began to loosen up, rolling his head from side to side, and finally shadowboxing his way toward the wall, bobbing, weaving, and striking his imaginary opponent.
Dutch quickly glanced at the clock on the wall behind Dane. “Easy, killer,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t tire yourself out. We still got at least 10 minutes. Keep your shorts on.” Michael laughed too and stopped shadowboxing. The dancing in his stomach changed from salsa to a waltz. Dutch tightened the laces on the gloves and glanced up at his fighter. “God damn it,” he said. “I can’t believe we’re finally here. Main event, title fight. It’s been a long time coming.”
“Relax,” Michael said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Be nice to get out there and get it over with. I’m too old for this stress.”
Michael smiled quickly from the corner of his mouth. “Stop worrying,” he said. “You trained me, didn’t you? Haven’t we been working to get right here, right now since I was like 12? I’m ready, Dutch, don’t stress it. I got a job to do.” Dane flexed his hands through the tape and took a deep breath. Tension rippled through his arms as every muscle bulged and relaxed in succession. “You’re making me nervous.”
“You should be. Nervous is good. It keeps you focused, careful, and on your feet.” Dutch wrapped duct tape around Michael’s gloves at the wrists. “You ready?”
Michael nodded and bounced on the balls of his feet. “Born ready,” he said as he led the way toward the ring, shadowboxing his way out the door. Dutch rolled his eyes at the statement and followed his fighter out.
One by one, people were funneled into the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The crowd grew steadily to capacity, and the people coming in late were hard pressed to make it to their seats. It was only a few minutes before the main event was scheduled to start: the heavily-favored IBF Light-Heavyweight Champion Quin Cortez vs. the underdog, but well-regarded Michael Dane for 12 rounds. The excitement was palpable as the crowd noise started to sound like boiling spaghetti. Cortez, a lean, chiseled Dominican with a devastating right hook, had mowed down everything in his path to this point and his fights had been so short lately that his pay-per-view bouts were offered by the round. Dane, on the other hand, was a veteran who insiders felt never quite reached his potential. He usually finished fights with a powerful overhand right and was undefeated since his release from prison, but many felt had lost his best years while incarcerated for a gun violation.
The rest of the card had just been a warm-up for this, but the early comers and die-hards wouldn’t deny themselves an undercard fight, especially those who had paid for whole night. The fights themselves were exciting enough. One featured a couple of middleweights from Mexico no one had ever heard of that went eight rounds before one of them was dropped by a surprise right hook. Another had a has-been from Miami, Florida fight a never-was from Vancouver, British Columbia. That fight went the distance and ended in a draw; both fighters were bruised and bloody afterwards and the crowd showed its appreciation. They were only filler though, appetizers for Dane vs. Cortez. The past few weeks, Cortez and Dane sniped at each other in the press, and officials had to separate them at the previous night’s weigh-in was stopped just before fireworks really started. The entire crowd was chomping at the bit for this to finally get underway.
A slender, dark-skinned man in a white suit– a three-piece he wore with a charcoal gray shirt and red tie and shiny white leather shoes- sat cross-legged in the front of one of the reserved luxury skyboxes, above the press boxes and high above the crowd with a lit cigar firmly cued between his first two fingers. He checked his gleaming platinum watch impatiently as he took a deep drag on the cigar. A thin, young usher, no more than 20 years old, walked past him, leading a pair of middle-aged white men to the seats behind him. The kid seated the two men and came back to the well-dressed man. “Sir,” he said, clearing his throat, “you can’t smoke that in here.”
The well-dressed man exhaled thick gray smoke from his nose. “Pardon me, son?” he said, fixing his lazy, but somehow intimidating stare on the usher. “I didn’t catch that.”
The usher’s hands fidgeted a bit. “There’s no smoking in here,” he said, trying to sound firm, but instead cracking his voice. “You’re going to have to put that out.”
The well-dressed man reared back and let out a sound halfway between smoker’s hack and laughter. “You can’t be serious,” he said, letting the cigar hang from the corner of his mouth. He took another drag and blew out a ring of smoke. “You do know who I am, right?”
The usher nervously pointed to the NO SMOKING UNDER PENALTY OF LAW sign posted directly above them. “I’m sorry,” he said, sheepishly. “I really am going to have to ask you to put that out.”
The well-dressed man turned his head and stared into the eyes of the usher as darted everywhere to avert the gaze. The man sucked in a couple of quick puffs as he reached inside his coat pocket. The usher flinched a bit and held his breath. When the man pulled out a silvery, rectangular cigar case, the usher breathed a deep sigh of relief.
The well-dressed man tapped the ash on the floor. W ith a low hiss, he extinguished the cigar against the case. “Satisfied?” he said.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Alexander,” the usher said. “Just doing my job.”
“You’re welcome,” the well-dressed man said under his breath as the usher scurried off. Once the kid was out of sight, he pulled another cigar from the case.
“Hope you have better control of your fighter than you do your event, Dante.” The man in white looked around for the source of this statement and saw a Puerto Rican man in a black suit sitting behind him, smiling from ear to ear. Dante reached into his jacket pocket for his lighter with his left hand, and flipped the Puerto Rican man off with his right.
“Trust me, Castillo,” he said, lighting the cigar and taking a quick drag. “Everything’s set. Just remember your end of the deal.”
Castillo smiled and leaned back in his seat. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll deliver when you deliver.”
“Then shut the hell up,” Dante said, turning his attention toward the ring. “It’s about to start.”
In the hallway leading to the ring, Michael Dane bounced on the balls of his feet, pounding his gloves together as Dutch paced in front of the closed door. An official from the Athletics Commission inspected Michael’s gloves for anything illegal. When he was satisfied, he signed the duct tape and waved them through.
Security guards in bright yellow blazers opened the door from the inside of the arena and motioned them in. Blinding white spotlights shone directly on the chiseled light-skinned black man with the shaved head and his portly, broad-shouldered, darker trainer. The roar of the crowd and the thumping bass line of Busta Rhymes’ “We Could Take It Outside” poured through the open door as if being sucked out by a vacuum. Dutch put his hands on Michael’s shoulders and pushed him out.
“It’s showtime,” he said again as he walked behind his protégé.
Michael stalked toward the ring, close to the fans, as always, so they could touch him. He rolled his neck from side to side as he approached the ring. Flash bulbs and spotlights blinded him momentarily and every time his eyes adjusted, another would go off. Dutch walked behind him, keeping his hands on Michael’s shoulders as they made their way through the crowd. They looked up at the giant video screen suspended above the ring and saw their high-definition reflection, 20 times life size. Michael climbed the ring steps at his corner, stepped between the ropes and raised a fist in the air. After Dutch took off his robe, Michael climbed the ropes in the corner, rubbed the panther’s paw tattoo on his chest and pointed out to the crowd.