KID WOLF & KRAKEN BOY
A Novella by Sam J. Miller
[sample: first 14 chapters]
“…an alt-history Roaring Twenties New York gangster boxing labor-rights queer romance… historical references to actual boxers of the era give the tale a gritty, authentic sensibility… the classically noir setting is brilliantly realized… the mutual devotion between these two memorable narrators gives the whole tale the legend-like aura of classic romance…” – Locus Magazine
You want to know about me and Hinky. And me and Kid Wolf. And how I got this dumb wonderful name. And of course they’re not separate stories.
Fifty-seven years later, everybody still asks. Sometimes they gotta get drunk to do it. Sometimes politeness prevents them from bringing it up until the third or fourth conversation. Eventually everyone gets around to it.
Dead for decades, Hinky Friedman still fascinates. The movies about her haven’t hurt. I saw the one with Meryl Streep. She did all right. Thinner and prettier than Hinky ever was, which would have pissed Hinky right the fuck off.
How could you work for her? You know what she was—what she did—why would you ever agree to be part of such a criminal enterprise?
The truth is, that was the easy part. Saying yes to tons of money and material comfort is no fraught moral dilemma when you’re alone and hungry in New York City and it’s 1929.
The hard part was making up my mind to betray her.
But to tell that story, I gotta tell the whole story of how she found me, and what I did for her, and why I ended up doing what I did.
Kid Wolf is in there too. Kid Wolf is the real story.
“Isn’t she a delicious little morsel?” Fey said, sliding into my shop, sidling into the empty seat beside me.
“Where?” asked the inebriated sailor whose taut stomach was bloodying beneath my fingers. He craned his neck to see this mystery woman, unaware that he was himself the subject of Fey’s question.
“She’s okay,” I said. “I think you could have her for very little effort.”
“But you won’t,” Fey said, picking through the stack of metal flash stencils I kept on hand, for indecisive would-be clients to choose from. Bad art, all of them—inherited with the rest of the shop, along with the rusty old tattoo machine. Fey stared at me through the crude cut-out eyes of a tiger.
“She’s drunk,” I said, wiping blood away.
“Such morals you have! You won’t take advantage of some pretty helpless horny thing…”—and here he traced a finger lovingly across the top of the sailor’s buzz-cut head, although the boy was too focused on the pain to notice—“…if she’s drunk. But you will take her money and mark her forever. Fascinating.”
“It’s different,” I whispered, but Fey was hopeless. And that was part of why I loved him so much. His first lesson after taking me under his wing was, Boys like us, we don’t survive by playing nice.
“Drunk girls are the best,” slurred the sailor, eager to be included.
“Aren’t they just,” Fey said. Then he touched the boy’s stomach, right above where I was inking. “What kind of bird is that?”
“A swallow,” the boy said proudly. “My first. Sailors get them to commemorate when they’ve traveled five thousand nautical miles.”
“Five thousand miles, my. Aren’t you an intrepid little argonaut,” Fey said, licking his lips. “I would say you absolutely deserve a swallow.”
“Swallows always return to their roost,” I said, mopping up the last of the blood. “A swallow tattoo provides protection, to ensure a sailor’s safe return home.”
Fey made a dismissive sound. According to him it was all mumbo-jumbo, the idea that there was magic in tattoos.
But I could feel it happening. My tattoo gun broke the skin, sixty times a second—and magic flowed from me to him. The fabric of reality was being rewritten. My art was weak and clumsy and imprecise, but it was there.
The sailor felt it too. His eyes went wide and wet with emotion.
This was my consolation prize. This flesh, these raw hungry boys. I knew I’d never be a great artist. None of the great ink Lineages would take someone like me: a boy who lusted after other boys. So I’d never have the magic to make someone truly magnificent. Couldn’t give them the power to stop a storm or snap their fingers and turn water into wine, or gin—a very valuable skill in those Prohibition days. I’d never have that kind of power and I’d never make that kind of money. I had to settle for these sailors and longshoremen, who offered themselves up for me to weep with unappeasable lust over. The best I could give them were glyphs of minor protection, the flimsy magic of the lovelorn.
“Thanks, mister,” the sailor said, grinning. “Cheeeeee, ain’t she a beaut?”
He stood, and laughed at the sight of his own erection. “Sorry guys. Something about that needle just got my blood flowing. Hurts, but tickles too.”
“Happens to lots of guys,” I said. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
Fey was too busy staring to offer any helpful perspective.
“You got a bathroom?”
“There’s an outhouse down the pier,” I said.
“Much obliged,” he said, futzing through his pockets for the five bucks he owed me for my work.
Fey was pretty much my only friend, ever since my father threw me out. He was thirty and I was twenty and he’d helped me get this stall, but he never once tried to get frisky. Fey was strictly interested in trade—hyper-masculine, working class boys straighter than a breadline: prisoners, dock workers, the construction fellows putting up skyscrapers all over town. Sailors.
My latest one let me smear vaseline across his raw red inked skin, and walked out the door.
“If you don’t mind,” Fey said. “I’m going to go help him out with the apparently very heavy load he’s carrying.”
“You’re incorrigible,” I said, giggling.
“You gotta take your chances in this world, kiddo.”
His arch world-weary attitude was at least partially an act. Fey pursued danger with a little boy’s energetic bravery—for him life was full of horror but also full of great pleasure and excitement. It was an admirable way to live, and one I’d tried and failed to emulate.
“Oh,” he said, halfway out the door. “One more thing. Hinky Friedman wants to see you.” He said it casually, like it was no big deal, when in fact I’d have been less gob-smacked if he’d said the president wanted a meeting. “It’s about a job. Tomorrow, noon. Cohen’s Gym, 35th and Broadway.”
And he walked out, leaving me with a mouthful of questions, because of course a summons from Hinky was not something one questioned.
You want to know about me and Kraken Boy, you got to start with me and Pier. It’s shitty and I wish it wasn’t true, but it is.
Pier sold me to a gangster at my father’s funeral. That’s how I found out I was in love with him: By how hard it hurt.
For all I know the deal went down well before that, but that’s when he told me about it—on the sidewalk outside of the synagogue, while I stood there wiping my eyes dry, letting the Lower East Side’s summertime smells and sounds and bright wet sunlight wash over me, remind me life went on. Knishes still got cooked and laundry still flapped in the wind four stories up, kids still played, people went to work and some of them even smiled while they did it, men and women like my father, letting their bosses drain them dry and make them sick and then cut them loose to die alone and uncared-for the instant they ceased to be useful.
“Sol, hey, boy, wow,” said Pier, seizing my hand and shaking it, all stammery apologetic awkwardness, and I had to straighten my spine the way I always did when I was around him, hide the smile, widen my stance and hope no one was staring at my crotch or they would surely have seen the effect he had on me. “So, so sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks, Pier,” I said, holding the hand just a fraction of a second too long, then figuring fuck it, this might be the only time I’m ever able to do this in public, and I pulled him forward into a hug. He tried to resist, but how could he? He’d done too good a job of making me into an unstoppable force.
I held him. Someone was dead; men hugged all around us. I’d been training four to eight hours a day for six months now; my muscles were mighty enough to hold onto Pier for as long as I wanted.
My dad was dead and I didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to imagine him in the coffin, lungs blackened and skin dried out from decades stoking boilers in the bowels of factories. Didn’t want to remember his smell, the cheap cologne that never quite hid the stink of sweat, or that foul soap they used at the factory laundry even though dad and half the men alongside him were allergic to it.
I breathed in the smell of Pier; sunshine and hustle and the sage-pine luster of brilliantine in his hair.
Pier was free, I thought. Pier wouldn’t die for someone else’s profit.
I didn’t know then that nobody’s free. Or that he’d hand over my freedom to get a little bit for himself. But I was about to learn.
I was fifteen when I met Pier. He was seventeen. Saw me in a back stairway of our school; watched me beat the shit out of somebody. I wish I could say the guy deserved it, but he probably didn’t. I’d knocked out more than my share of bullies and antisemites who hated anyone who hadn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I’d also picked fights with people whose only crime was being better than me at math or baseball.
“You hit pretty hard for a little guy,” he said, after my opponent had scampered off. “You ever do any boxing?”
That smile. Wide, self-aware, slightly goofy. Like he’d made a joke only we were in on. That smile, and his thick black hair and thin green eyes, made me catch my breath.
I shrugged. I didn’t dare speak. What was this magnificent creature, and what was it doing to me inside?
“You should,” he said. “You’d be good at it. Not because you’re good at fighting—lots of guys who are good at fighting are shit in the ring. No, you’ve got something else. I can see it in your eyes.”
Pier was tall and had huge hands that made staccato motions in the air when he talked, and he stood close and talked low and drew me into the mysteries of a world I’d only imagined.
Boxing obsessed me. What little Yid boy wasn’t head over heels back then, in the days of the great Jewish champions? But Italian Pier had an in. He hinted at friendships with gangsters, involvement in low-level illegality, but I didn’t know enough to be scared off by it. All I knew of organized crime was what was in the movies, and the newspapers—the thrilling exploits of brave deadly men and women.
We spent an hour talking, there in the stairwell. Pier had been backstage after fights at the Garden. Pier had met Benny Leonard. Benny Leonard! When the bell rang—when a flood of students surged around us—when it rang again and—we stayed where we were. I would have stayed there forever, listening to him. Sucking up that brilliantine smell, those marble-green eyes.
Later that week, I met him at the gym where his brother worked. Sparred with somebody. Spoke to a trainer. The following Saturday I skipped synagogue and profaned the Sabbath with blood, with sweat, with the brutally hard work that would become my life.
It’s an old story. Not special just because it’s mine.
Pier was right. I had something. Something he could exploit. And not just the killer instinct he talked so much about. He saw how I looked at him. And he knew it meant he could make me do whatever he wanted.
Six weeks after we first spoke, he caught me off-guard with a kiss—a fondle—that same shared-secret smile. When my eyes widened he was all apologies, but I knew it was an act, a way for me to save face if I wasn’t ready. He kissed me on the neck, in the ear. His mouth was wet fire.
A week later I dropped out of high school and stepped my training up to full time. Pier found me in the shower after that first day, fell to his knees fully dressed, soaked in seconds, and when he took me in his mouth the world went white and I remembered the Psalm of David from shuul, You have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me in gladness, I didn’t get it when I was ten but I got it there, lost in the clouds of shower steam, my body bruised—I was clothed in gladness, the joy that sets you free, the deep-down bliss that breaks you out of your body and shakes your whole world to its core.
“I want you to meet someone,” he said, and I reluctantly released him. My mother leaned against the brick wall of the synagogue, smoking, weeping, surrounded by so many aunts and cousins. No one had seen me, the need on my face, the lust that grief for my dead father had somehow only sharpened. No cousins, no uncles—least of all my mother. She’d been blind since a factory accident when she was fifteen.
“This is Moyle Cohen,” he said, presenting a man beside a massive automobile.
I knew all about Moyle. Other boxers had told me. Some gangster bosses dominated bootlegging or horsetrack racing or brothels, and Moyle had fingers in all those pies, but boxing was where he reigned supreme. He bought up fighters by the dozen, just to sidetrack them.
“Pleased to meet you, Mister Cohen,” I said, shaking his hand. This man was too small and too old to possibly be the terrifying mobster of underworld legend—but then again, wasn’t I a short little schmendrick myself? And wouldn’t it be a mistake for someone to underestimate me based on my size?
“Deeply sorry to hear about your father,” he said in Yiddish.
“Indeed,” I said. His cheeks were so freshly-shaven they shined; his voice was wet and shrewd.
“Me and Pier Paolo here, we’ve come to an agreement about your future,” he said in Yiddish, but switched to English when he saw the linguistic struggle in my face. “I’m going to be your manager. You know I work with the best in the business. Even managed Benny Leonard, for a while.”
Some Moyle boxers were championship material—some would get access to the big-deal fights. But I knew that wasn’t where I was heading. I knew by the way Pier wouldn’t look me in the eye.
And I knew that he’d played me. Figured out what I wanted most, and used it to make me into something that would make him money.
So I’d ended up the same as my fucking father, who sold his soul and gave away decades off his life so his wife and son could eat. I’d sworn I wouldn’t, but here I was at the ripe old age of sixteen already in chains.
“Welcome aboard, little Wolff,” Moyle said, and handed me a fistful of filthy folded bills.
I’d lost two things in that moment, neither of which I probably ever had: Pier, and a shot at the top.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, my mother’s manners saving my ass—because what I really wanted to do was break his nose and drive the bone shards into his brain with the single punch I knew precisely how to deliver. But if I did that I’d be dead in seconds, shot by any one of the armed men in and around his car.
“I foresee fantastic things for you,” he said, but he was already rolling up his window.
“Great stuff, huh?” Pier didn’t have the smile, this time. “Sorry it has to come on such a shitty day.”
“Walk the fuck away from me,” I hissed. “And stay there.”
He nodded, and hurried off. A groan escaped me. The same one you make when you get punched in the gut by a gloved fist. It hurt, how easily he could walk away from me. After all we’d done together, after all the ways he opened himself up and let me in.
But that was bullshit. He’d never given me anything—just his time, his lies. His skin. His mouth. His ass. A big beautiful tapestry of deceit. I’d been an idiot to fall for it. And I never would again.
My father was dead. No one wondered why I was crying.
“What are you, some kinda bum? Hit ’im back, for Christ’s sake!”
The street door shut behind me, but I stayed at the bottom of the narrow staircase. Strange voices boomed from above me—loud, angry, male. Hollering men and the sounds of someone getting slugged.
All my life, the shouts of men had menaced me. Father, teachers, bigger boys around the way. All of them angry with me for being too skinny, too stupid, too smart, too artistic, too queer. Part of why I loved my little East River stall was how for once I was on my own, subject to no one’s power but my own. I had no money, but I was safe.
But I couldn’t stay there. I’d starve in my safety.
With Hinky, I knew I wouldn’t starve. Her generosity was the stuff of gossip column legend, Walter Winchell’s muse and the Evening Graphic’s favorite folk hero. “Love and money keep people loyal,” she’d said in the Post more than once, “and I give my people both.”
I’d already made my peace with never getting the kind of magic and talent I’d spent my whole life wanting. The best I could hope for was to not end up drinking myself to death on the Bowery.
So I took a deep breath, and started to climb those stairs.
Cohen’s Gym was legend. Every fighter showed face there, retired champs standing ringside smoking cigars, has-beens and almost-weres hustling to scrounge up a couple bucks or a comeback fight on the strength of reputations long since reduced to worthlessness. All of organized crime came to watch and plot and do business and schmooze. In the weeks before a big fight, kids could pay a nickel—grown-ups a quarter—to watch world champions spar.
Boxers pounded punching bags in the corners. A cheering crowd surrounded two fighters sparring in the center ring. Against one wall, a whole row of payphones: bookies placing bets, journalists phoning in bylines. A coffee counter across from it, staffed by a battered old man who looked happy to be alive in a way only gainfully employed ex-fighters can be. Behind me, sooty windows letting in weak New York City winter sunlight. The smell of sweat and leather and coffee and hot dogs and cigarette smoke—and cologne and money and talcum powder—made my head spin, and my heart surge.
I was hooked. Instantly; overwhelmingly. It embodied everything I feared, but I adored it immediately.
“This him?” Hinky asked.
“That’s him,” Fey said, sitting in the window, filing his nails. A couple dozen other flunkies and workers filled the room—on phones, working a stock ticker, clipping pieces from a newspaper.
“He’s prompt,” she said.
“He’s a regular eyngl. Obedient.”
“Sit,” she said.
I sat. I stared.
A large woman, with long curly brown-red hair and barely any make-up. Somehow the color of her hair threw me more than anything. A thousand times I’d seen her, and always in black and white. She’d been on more newspaper front pages than Amelia Earhart. Her story had been told in songs and sermons, op-eds that cast her as agent of Satan or working-class hero.
But she was real. Full color.
‘Hinky’ Rubenstein, nee Rivkah Heinckmann, aka Rebecca the Hink—daughter of sweatshop workers—married a two-bit tubercular bootlegger, took over his work as his health ebbed away, ingratiated herself to his boss ‘Moyle’ Cohen, became the daughter he never had and the son he never needed to worry would usurp his position. Shocked the underworld by taking charge of Moyle’s boxing interests with his blessing, and then expanding his slice of the pie by brutal force until she ran the whole sport, the mob’s unofficial commissioner.
And she was looking at me. And she was smiling.
“What’d Feygele here tell you?”
“That you… wanted to see me?”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to waste anyone’s time—not yours, and not mine. He was to tell you exactly what my offer was before you arrived, so you could stay home if it wasn’t up your alley.”
“Figured if it was no, he’d have a hard time saying it to your face,” Fey said, with a shrug.
“Offer?” I said, too low for anyone to hear me.
“I don’t want him to say yes out of fear,” she said. “Artists don’t do good work when they’re afraid.”
“Offer?” I said, louder, startling myself. I’d never have dared raise my voice like that to my father. Something about Hinky’s smile made me feel like I didn’t need to be afraid of her. Which maybe was my first mistake.
“I want you to be my own personal in-house tattoo artist.”
She offered me five hundred dollars a week. An obscene amount. More than I’d made in the ten months I’d been scraping away in my stall.
“Why would you want your own artist?” I asked.
Fey stood up, stretched. Uncommanded, he rounded up all the other flunkies in the room and they exited together.
Hinky stood and went to the window. Looked down at the city. “The boxing game is crooked. I should know—I’m in charge of it. But if we’re going to set it straight, my boxers need an advantage. I want you to ink them up so they hit harder, dodge faster, fight smarter. Just the boxers, to begin with, but everyone in my enterprise could benefit from a little magical assistance. Let my runners always outrun the law, give my bootleggers the gift of making the best-tasting booze, that kind of thing.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. Mostly tattoo magic was a well-kept secret, the kind of thing that people laughed off as ignorant superstition if they did happen to hear something about it, but every once in a while you found someone with a little bit of knowledge—just enough to be dangerous. “I gotta be honest with you, Hink—can I call you Hink?”
“Thanks. Well, see, Hink—the thing is—if it’s magic you’re looking for, I’m the last tattoo artist you want. Real power comes from Lineages, from a master who’s spent their whole life immersed in a specific school, who knows all its rules and secrets. I’ve got no Lineage, no master. My magic will always be stunted. Limited.”
“That’s one school of thought,” she said, and her smile stopped me in my tracks. Chastened me.
I’d been unconsciously condescending. I’d assumed she was a dilettante, some gangster who heard rumors that tattoos could do magic and got some big bad ideas. The fact that she might know as much as me—or much more—hadn’t entered my mind.
“There are other ways to learn, besides a school. And anyway, Lineages come with limitations, as well as advantages. Right? The South Sea Island Lineages, their tattoos are incredibly strong if you’re on or near the ocean—but they weaken the further you get from the sea. The Russian schools have a thousand glyphs for war and violence, but they know nothing of the healing ink of the Egyptians.”
My jaw dropped. My stomach clenched. I never knew any of this. She had what I lacked, what I wanted most: Knowledge. A tingle started up my spine, one I hadn’t felt in a long long time. The stir of magic; the uncoil of latent potential.
Maybe this wouldn’t just be a job. Maybe this would be the way I got the power I’d spent so long pining for.
“The Lineages are old,” she continued. “Unchanged for centuries. Tradition gives them strength, yes, but it also blinds them. Am I wrong? Most masters, they already have ideas in their head about who can and can’t have power. And they instill that same bias in their students. So they’d never see fit to share with—or learn from—someone like me. Or someone like you.”
I wasn’t conscious of her coming closer, but there she was. Standing right in front of me. Hand held out. She knew what I was, and she wasn’t going to kick me out for it.
My face fell, reddening instinctually.
“Don’t be ashamed of other people’s fear,” she said. “How powerful can the Lineages be, if they don’t learn from others—trade ideas—share knowledge—embrace sources of power other than their own? Welcome people who are… different?”
“Not very,” I croaked.
“This is New York City,” she whispered. “We have people here from every nation on earth. We don’t need old closed-minded men to give us power. We can make our own power. Come back tomorrow at ten and we’ll get started.”
I seized her hand. I shook it so hard.
Nothing changed. Not right away. I moved out of my aunt’s overcrowded apartment and shifted my home gym to Cohen’s, but I was still training six or more hours a day and too tired to do anything but sleep and eat when I wasn’t. I bought nickel beers in bars, which meant I could get a free lunch of pickles and crackers and cheese. But poverty was nothing new.
The only difference in my life was all the light had gone out of it.
Sometimes I saw Pier. Running around Cohen’s, always hustling. On the phones, arguing in corners. Eloquent hands moving a mile a minute. Once he smiled and waved when he saw me staring, but whatever he saw on my face scared him so much he wouldn’t even look in my direction after that.
The heavy bag was always him. Hanging helpless from the ceiling, taking all the abuse I could dish out. I imagined punching those lips, so skilled in the art of lies and blowjobs, until they were bloated and swollen and burst. I pictured shattering those jade eyes and watching them run down his bloodied face.
But I still imagined him at night, alone in the crummy rooming-house where Moyle’s runner put me up. Pier intruded into all my jerk-off fantasies; it was his mouth hot around my hard-on when I woke in the morning from obscene, infuriating dreams.
He made me who I was. And I’d fucking kill him if he ever said one word to me again.
My brain would, anyway. The rest of my body I wasn’t so sure about. It was a traitorous villain, and I worried all Pier had to do was touch it with one finger for it to suddenly return to slavish devotion.
Three years went by like that. I got good; I got great. Every month or so I had a fight—chickenshit gigs, in gymnasiums and speakeasies. I won them all, but it didn’t matter. My prospects never improved. I watched baby fighters I could have creamed in half a round rise to top contender material.
I was just a line in a ledger for Moyle Cohen. A horse in a stable. He kept me off the racetrack so I wouldn’t beat the horses he’d sunk the real money in, the ones who’d do as they were told. The ones the sports writers would love to get a beer with. That’s who got to the top. The charismatic ones. The smooth talkers. That would never be me.
I made friends. An old boxer named Granville Molyneux took me under his wing. He’d been fighting for ever, was on track for a title shot back in 1908 when Jack Johnson won the belt and all of white America acted like the sacred virginal purity of boxing had been defiled, and every Black boxer in America’s career took a dive. Now Granville was forty-two years old and still slugging away when he finished his job unloading farm trucks from upstate. Could have been a hell of a trainer, but those slots were closed to him too. Took sparring gigs sometimes. Fought shit fights when they came along. Mentored any losers like me who would listen.
I listened to Granville, and the gossip of my fellow fighters. I read the newspaper stories. So I’d heard of Hinky Friedman. We watched her rise until she ran Moyle’s boxing business, and then as Moyle declined we watched her claim more and more of his empire.
None of us thought much of it. Hinky or Moyle, they might as well have been characters in a nursery rhyme for all it impacted us. We saw her walk in and out of her office in the back of Cohen’s Gym, but that was about it.
Eventually, however, I noticed something. She was watching us, all the time. I even realized she was rotating us, making sure every fighter in her stable had an afternoon training session scheduled in the center ring of Cohen’s.
And then? She said she wanted to see me.
“You said you wanted to see me?”
The man who stood in her doorway was small, and astonishing. Wearing only boxer shorts, all sweaty skin and bulging muscles and a glare on his face so fierce I looked at my feet in fear.
“Yes, come in,” Hinky said.
At first I’d been too afraid to look him in the eye, but I looked now, and I couldn’t stop looking. Bright black curls. Shirtless; sweaty. Big yellow Star of David sewn into his shorts. Unspeakably beautiful.
“Sit down next to Teitelstam here,” she said, and I marveled at the sound of my own name.
He sat. I could smell him. Not bad—just strong. I felt my face flush. Heat came off him like he had a small sun inside.
“Teitelstam, meet Solomon—known in the ring as Kid Wolf.”
Kid Wolf made a face like someone handed him a hundred million bucks, and then he swiftly whisked all emotion away.
“Kid Wolf, meet Teitelstam. One of our newest employees.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said, emotionless. Unpleased.
I knew that special brand of Jewish derision when I saw it. My father was the same way. He believed in strength, in fighting back. Burying our heads in books and scrolls for centuries had made us weak, soft, easily oppressed. The best way to be free from our bullies was to become as brutal as they were. My father’s heart hurt every time he saw my spectacles.
“I need you to take Teitelstam to Chinatown,” she said. “I’ve arranged a meeting for him.”
Kid Silver looked me up and down resentfully, like a teenager told he has to take his little brother to Coney Island.
“He can’t go to a meeting by himself?”
“It’s in a place with some tough characters. They might not let him in. You got something better to do?”
He frowned, bit his lip. Kid Wolf knew who called the shots. But I could smell it, how hard he had to fight to keep from talking back.
I was a different person, then. I admit it. I was weak.
And I had to get the hell away from him.
The last thing I needed in my life was another boy with pretty eyes and a smile that promised all the joy in heaven. I didn’t know why the hell Hinky had selected me for this awful little escort gig, but I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I’d never have to stand to close to this lavender-and-rust-and-ink-smelling boy again.
I dropped him off and hurried away. Only when I had three blocks between me and Teitelstam could I think clearly enough to remember:
She’d called me Kid Wolf.
She’d given me a name.
Nobodies didn’t get names.
Inside that name lay all the dreams I’d told myself were dead. The title shots, the name in lights. The money that would let my mother retire from her daily sweatshop nightmare.
Solomon Wolffe was gone. The gangster boss who ruled boxing had christened him Kid Wolf.
Well, not christened. Because we’re Jewish. The Jewish version of christening.
And as before, when I’d heard her say it in the office, I forced myself to step back from the dizzy precipice where it put me.
Because of course it didn’t mean anything. I didn’t know her—probably it was just her style. Give henchmen stupid nicknames so they feel special. Not so different from what Pier did, kneeling before me and looking up with that goofy grin so I’d think I meant something to him, so I’d do whatever he asked.
I felt it in the air, then. All the complex webs people were caught up in. All the bonds that bound us together. Work, family, religion, love, hate. Everyone around me served a thousand masters, whether they knew it or not, their happiness impinged upon by wars across the ocean and the price of oranges and their mother’s moods and something an ancestor did six centuries ago. Magic tied us all together, and I could sense it all as clear as the smell of meat and five-spice powder in the air. Who knows why. That Teitelstam boy had gotten under my skin, probably. Shook me up. Made me melancholy and impressionable.
I walked without thinking. Following the webs. And then I got where I’d been going, without even knowing I was going there.
My father’s factory. The sweatshop where he’d run the boilers that powered the machines that took apart old wooden food crates and put them back together again.
I walked inside. I’d never gone in before. He wouldn’t let me. Some days after school I’d go and wait for him there. And as soon as the heavy door slammed behind me, I knew why.
It stunk. A soul-killing reek like rotten fruit and fish slime and a million sour armpits. And I’d never felt heat like that before. Stale, hot, heavy—human bodies and heavy machinery baking in the sun from the high shut windows. This was on the ground floor, no less. I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like in the basement, with the boilers. No wonder my father stunk, the kind of stink you can’t ever wash off of you, the kind that kills you slow by the mortifying embarrassment of being out in the world like that.
“Not hiring,” somebody barked, and stepped close so I’d be intimidated into exiting.
My muscles were invisible inside my clothes. The armor I’d spent so long building for myself meant nothing. To them I was just another hungry Yid.
I hurried out. A moment before, the air had been full of magic, invisible spiderwebs that wove us all together. Now there was nothing.
My dad believed in magic. He believed G-d had chosen him, chosen our people, for some special destiny. He thought his G-d would save him.
But that was all bullshit. His G-d watched him work himself to death. I walked back to where that deadly pretty boy waited, to do the bidding of my brutal boss.
“You must be Teitelstam,” said an old woman in a brightly-colored gown. “I’m Inaaya.”
She gestured to a table, and drew a curtain around us. We sat. The hubbub of that Chinatown tenement seemed to recede; incense burned in a bowl between us. Her eyes were all over me, looking for something. When she looked away, I wondered whether she’d found it.
“You’ve gotta forgive me,” I said. “Hinky told me to come, but I’m not super clear on who you are or why we’re here.”
She smiled. “I am an ink scholar. I have dedicated my life to studying the Schools and Lineages of the great ink masters. I have a great deal of knowledge that she believes you’d find useful.”
The incense smelled like wood and rain, like a forest in late fall, and it made me shiver even in the late-summer heat.
From a fold in her elaborate gown, Inaaya pulled a stack of cards. “This glyph,” she said, showing a Chinese logogram, “means that your blade will always make a mortal wound. This one,” and she showed a crude and unsettling arrangement of bones, “will allow you to kill a man—any man—simply by speaking his name and then a certain word in High Church Slavonic.”
She placed a pile of papers on the table between us. Old documents and new ones, thick parchment and pamphlets and tattered newsprint, some that were crumbling and some that curled at the edges like scrolls. “Shall I go on?”
I wonder: how much of this do you know? I can never tell how much people believe about tattoo magic today. It’s the 1980s, after all— ‘morning in America,’ as President Chisholm put it in her second inauguration speech, right before announcing the push for universal health care that she pulled off in six months. We have so much knowledge within reach at any moment, but we choose to believe that big chunks of it are lies and nonsense.
Probably it’s for the best if people still think it’s ignorant superstition. Many Lineages believe a glyph’s power diminishes, the more people know about it. And who’s to say that’s not true for ink magic as a whole?
There’s a power in secrecy. Keeping something for yourself and your crew.
But there’s a different kind of power that can only come from sharing with the whole world what everyone says should stay secret. So I’ll share what I’ve learned. Like I’ve shared Kid Wolf with the world.
Four vectors determine a tattoo’s power.
The first is the Artist: their skill, their experience and intentions, their Lineage. Some schools believe an artist’s magic is forever diminished if their own skin is tattooed; others believe that the more glyphs they carry, the more powerful their own will be. Some believe that power grows as an artist ages, and others say its magic ebbs with time, so that every year past the maturation rite their glyphs have less potency.
Basically every school has its own perfectly-consistent rules, and they usually completely contradict another school’s.
The second vector is the Recipient: their intentions and desires, their behavior, their life experiences. Are they receiving the glyph for completing a coming-of-age ritual or vision quest? What is their social rank and birth order? Have they shown suitable filial piety or religious reverence? What was the weather or season or star configuration on the day they were born? Have they chosen or been chosen by a specific animal or spirit or element? etc.
The third is the Image itself: what it represents, where it originated, what it means to the recipient, whether it’s meant to be seen. Some schools, some glyphs, are badges of honor, and their power grows as more people see and learn about them. Others must be kept secret, seen only by the Recipient and their mate, and their power is compromised or lost altogether if anyone else sees them.
The fourth is the Context: the place on the body that the tattoo is applied, the alignment of the stars at that time, the phase of the moon, what prayers are said while it’s going on. Massive amounts of oral lore are passed down from Master to Student across millennia, governing when and how to apply a glyph. What goes into the ink; what kind of skin-piercing tool is used.
There is another vector, spoken of in some traditions: the Relationship. Who are the Artist and the Recipient to each other? In pre-modern contexts, where ink art takes place within a small community and is inextricable from their ethics and traditions, this is crucial. The bond or blood ties between the tattooist and the tattooed matter. How they feel about each other matters. But even now, the bond means something. Is it just something someone in a storefront does for money? If so, does the Artist respect the Recipient? Or vice versa?
Strong emotions make a difference. Everyone agrees. But what emotions—and what difference—that’s harder to say.
Of course there’s more to it than that. Thousands of contradictory ethnic traditions and indigenous beliefs from all over the world cannot be condensed into 4.5 rules so easily. But this is a starting place for a system.
“It’s less certain how any of this works, for artists outside of a Lineage,” Inaaya said. “Wild seeds. Artists like that, independent or self-taught or people who’ve been kicked out of a Lineage for one reason or another—their magic tends to be weaker, but I don’t believe that’s just because they have no school or master. I think it’s because they have no system. Prison ink, for example, is usually disconnected from a Lineage, but it has rigor and consistency and some of the most powerful ink I’ve ever seen has come out of prisons.”
“So you’re saying if I have a system—even if it’s just one I’ve figured out for myself—or one that builds on your research—I can still become…”
“Great,” she said.
“Great,” I said, my voice a whisper. I had to blink the tears out of my eyes. Here was wisdom. Here was power. I wanted to grab hold of Inaaya and hug her.
She reached forward and pinched the tip of the incense stick with two fingers, wincing slightly at the pain. I was shocked to realize it was the same one that had been burning when I arrived. I felt like days must have gone by, greedy years of knowledge and learning. “There’s one warning I must deliver, Teitelstam.”
“Your employer seems an honorable woman, within the confines of her dishonorable world. I suppose that describes us all. But you must remember that ink magic is a web. A set of bonds between people—Artist and Recipient, Artist and Lineage, the Artist and their community, their family, people on the whole other side of the planet they do not even know exist. To ink someone is to be bound to them forever, to them and to those they are bound to. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I thought I understood.
Teitelstam came out looking as dizzy as I felt. And he didn’t want to talk the whole way back to Cohen’s Gym, and it was a good thing, because on the way down every time he tried to chat me up about Hinky or life or the weather or whether I liked Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton better it cost me something serious to keep from answering.
Not until we were climbing those steps again, and I was composing my face to return to my world where strength mattered more than anything, did he whisper—in a scared and weary little voice—“thanks for helping me out today, Kid.”
And I—idiot that I am—was so caught off-guard by it, and so disarmed by the vulnerability under his words, that I said “Yeah, you got it,” in a voice not much less fragile than his own.
That was probably why I stayed so late. Punched so hard. Between Teitelstam and the sweatshop I’d felt more weakness in one day than I typically let myself feel all month. Afterwards I stayed in the shower for what might have been an hour, letting it scald my skin and melt my fear away.
And Hinky was waiting for me when I came out of the locker room.
“Kid,” she said.
Almost midnight. The place was as close to empty as it ever got. The wall of payphones was silent. Somebody shadowboxed. On the benches, in a corner, a couple boxers slept who had nowhere else to sleep. Behind the lunch counter Tommy kept a pot of his famous coffee percolating. Said to be the strongest java in New York—harsh enough that its smell could hold its own against the stink of sweat and cigarettes in that cathedral of battle.
“Looking good in there,” she said. “Come into my office.”
I spent all day in just my shorts, never noticed the least bit of embarrassment—but here, now, with her, outside of the ring, I felt defenseless.
“Sit,” she said, and I sat. “Tell me. How did you come to be in Moyle’s stable?”
I frowned. There was a reason I was a boxer. Fights don’t require talking. And this was dangerous ground. Who knew how she felt about him—how honest I could be? Probably not very.
“I had a… manager. He signed me over to Moyle. Didn’t have much say in the matter.”
“And how did you feel about it?” Her stare was kind, but penetrating.
“Honored,” I said, but anyone with half a brain and at least one eye could have seen in my face what a lie that was.
“Men think because I’m a woman I don’t know how the game is played,” she said, pulling a bottle from a desk drawer. “Whiskey?”
“I don’t drink,” I said, unsure how to apologize for the sexism I’d blundered into.
“Good answer.” She put the bottle back without pouring any for herself. “Moyle did what all the bosses did with their boxers. He shelved them. Made sure no one climbed the ranks without his say-so. Ran the game ruthlessly. Didn’t give two fucks for whose lives he ruined. I’m not going to be like that.”
I felt like she was waiting for me to say something, but I couldn’t imagine what.
“Do you want a shot, Kid?”
“Sure,” I said. That one, at least, was easy.
“What would you do for it?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know. I was supposed to say Anything, but it wasn’t true. If I said it, I’d be hers to use however she wanted. Maybe she’d have me kill someone, drive drugs across a border, get shot guarding bootleg barrels. Hope was way more effective than money, in getting people to do stuff that wasn’t in their self-interest. Just ask my dad.
But Hinky smiled, like maybe a shrug was not the wrong answer. “I’m going to give you that shot. I’m not gonna give you the belt—I’m not Moyle, I’m not going to fix fights and I’m not going to keep good boxers out of the Garden. It’s not in the interest of the sport and it’s not in the interest of our bottom line. I can give you a shot, but nothing more.”
“Why me?” I asked. “You got dozens of guys just like me on your roster.”
“You’ll have to trust my intuition,” she said. “And I need you to do something for me. It may be something of a religious question.”
Here it comes, I thought. Murder, or beating down a business rival who never hurt nobody.
“Are you willing to get tattooed?”
Fey took me out for drinks that night. A speakeasy somewhere in Brooklyn, full of laughing fops and frowning rent boys.
“So proud of you,” he said, drunk, teary-eyed. He acted like the toughest, archest creature on the planet, but he was such a softie. “You’re going to go so far.”
“Thanks to you,” I said, sipping slowly while he swallowed one shot after another.
“I don’t mind telling you that I made rather a mess of my life,” he said. “There was a time when I was considered quite the promising singer. That all went to pot pretty quick. An age-old story: loving the wrong man, engaging in the wrong acts of larceny… suffice it to say that all I set on fire was a small corner of Cell Block D. But you—you can change things. For all of us.”
He kissed me on the forehead, priestly and sentimental.
“I will,” I said. “I promise.”
I wondered if Fey’s mentor ever took him out for drinks, told him how proud he was, how he had fucked it up but Fey would be different, Fey was going to change the world. If this scene repeated itself down the generations, bright gay promise coming to nothing.
But Fey’s promise hadn’t come to nothing. And even if I only ever managed to help one poor lost, scared feygele find their way in a world that hated them, neither I nor Fey would have been a waste of breath.
And when we stepped out into the night, tipsy and uproariously happy, I noticed a black-bodied, red-bottomed Duesenberg Model J, parked across the street.
“What’s up with that?” I asked him. “I saw that same car parked outside my stall last night, when I went to clean it out.”
“You work for Hinky Friedman now,” he said. “Her enemies are yours. Lots of people wish her harm, which means lots of people wish you harm too.”
“And how would they have found me so fast?”
Fey shrugged, wrapped a jade-green paisley scarf dramatically around his neck, and started singing a melancholy Yiddish song my mother had loved.
I swear to G-d, Kid Wolf rolled his eyes when he saw me walk in. Didn’t say a word. I was about to call him out on it when Hinky joined us, in one of the many side rooms upstairs from Cohen’s Gym.
She handed him a poster. Bright red and black on white, garish lettering, announcing: KID WOLF vs THE POSITANO PUG / SOLOMON WOLFFE vs DOMENICO GRACCHIANO, along with a date that seemed awfully damn close. And there he was, a snarling feral version of the man who stood beside me, fists up and gloved, black curls cocked and loaded, beside a photo of an equally vicious-looking Italian gentleman.
Kid Wolf cursed softly in Yiddish. “Is this for real?” he asked, holding up the poster, his smile so wide and guileless that my resentment of him cracked open a little—like a kid on Chanukah hardly daring believe the gift he’d been given.
“Hope so,” she said. “Got fifty thousand of them going up all over the city today.”
“Fuck,” he said.
“Indeed. How do you two like your new office?”
We both said, “Our?”
“Maybe studio would be a more appropriate word? Parlor?” She handed over two keys. “I need you both to have total privacy, and complete secrecy. You’re the only ones with access to this room.” Seeing Kid’s confusion, she added, “This is where Teitelstam will be tattooing you.”
“Him?” he said. He stood up straighter, clenched his fists. “There’s no way I’m going to let this—”
He stopped himself, but he didn’t need to finish that sentence for me to know where it was going. Weak, glasses-wearing, limp-wristed, pansy, feygele, punk. I’d been right to think he shared my father’s disdain for the scholarly and the soft.
“Oddly enough I agree with him,” I said. “I’m not going to do a damn thing for someone who—”
“This is not optional,” she said, turning to go. “The only alternative is, you’re both fired.”
She slammed the door on her way out.
Neither one of us said a word. Seconds became minutes. But I broke first. “Look—”
“Forget it,” he said, and peeled off his shirt. “Let’s just do this, okay?”
“No,” I said. “Not okay. Tell me why you hate me so much.”
He groaned. Opened his mouth. Left it that way.
He wasn’t going to let up. Just kept looking at me, with those gorgeous eyes.
“I don’t hate you,” I said. “Okay? Everything’s great. Put a fucking wolf on my arm, or whatever.”
A mortician’s table that was too big for the room stood in its center. Teitelstam sat on it, let his legs swing. How did he find it so easy to inhabit space, to exist in the world? “If I’m gonna be putting tattoos on your body, we need to be on the same page,” he said. “This is a spiritual, mystical practice we’re talking about. Antagonism between artist and canvas will severely compromise the magic. It’s fine if you don’t like me, but you gotta at least respect me enough to tell me why.”
In that moment I really did hate him—and words—and language, life, society, being human. All these things that asked so much of me. So I had to hurt him. There was no way not to. I had to keep my walls up, prevent him from penetrating.
“Respect someone like you, okay,” I said, and started pacing.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Someone like me.”
“Listen to yourself, brother. Spiritual. Mystical. We’re not in the fucking shtetl anymore. This is 1929, and we’re in a new world. And as long as we stay with our heads buried in the sands of some Bronze Age bullshit just because it’s in the Torah, they’re going to keep on screwing us.”
I wasn’t lying. I really did feel all of this. But it wasn’t why I was being a jerk to him.
He frowned, and I felt like shit. And that’s how I knew: it was too late. He’d already gotten in. Linked his wagon up to mine, somehow, so that his pain became mine.
There was one window in our room, and I went to open it. Let the cool of the New York City night in. We were only three stories up. If I jumped, I’d probably survive.
“I’m sorry,” I said, in a whisper I hadn’t intended.
“No,” he said, and looked away. “Now I know.”
I crossed the room, sat on the table beside him. Our shoulders touched.
“I respect you,” I said. “You’re my shot, okay? My only chance at being something other than one more dump chump trying for a dream that’ll never come true.”
He laughed, a bitter unamused sound.
“I wasn’t being fair. But that’s on me, not you. We’re both trying to make a leap, right? Get out of our current shitty circumstances? So let’s do that. You have my respect, Teitelstam.”
I lay on my back, put a hand on his back and pushed him to his feet. He stood up, still avoiding looking at me.
“Let’s get to work,” I said, and I couldn’t see his face so I had to hope he smiled.
We did not have a lot of space, to put a tattoo. It had to be hidden by his trunks when he was in the ring. Tattoos were not against the rules, but it wouldn’t do to have our enemies seeing his glyphs and maybe making some connections between new ink and new abilities.
Hinky had a lot of enemies. I was pretty sure one was stalking me.
Third eye, Inaaya had said, informing me of the glyph Hinky had selected for Kid’s first. Grants powers of perception beyond ordinary sight.
On a thin panel of wood, a drawing in red ink. An eye opening out of the center of a triangle, which in turn was contained in a series of circles. Flower petals sprouted from the edge of the outermost circle, then flames.
In the spiritual traditions of India, it corresponds to the ajna chakra—between the two eyebrows. But in the ink cultures of Russian prisons, the watchful eye allows you to see threats and conspiracies before they come, and should be kept hidden from those whose ink could occlude its power. Since Hinky won’t let us put it on his forehead, we can put it in the small of the back, which corresponds to the sacral chakra. Its energy is that of flow and flexibility. Creativity. Sexuality.
Kid was on his stomach, so I had no way of knowing if he was getting an erection. And judging by how hard he was sweating, he probably wasn’t taking any pleasure at all in this.
His body was full of magic. So was mine. So was everyone’s. I just had to find it.
I went slow. I took deep breaths. I focused on everything Inaaya had taught me.
Something was happening. Some new freedom; some new skill. The power flowing between us was like electricity, a current slowly cranking itself up.
Something was wrong. Something had shifted. The tattoo only covered a few square inches of skin, but I felt flayed—rubbed raw and wide open to all the energy of the city.
Teitelstam asked, “Do you feel any different?”
It had been his idea to go for a walk. He said I looked like a beached fish up there, and I needed some fresh air to get my blood pumping again. And he was right. But also, he was wrong. The city was a million volts of electricity, and all of it was flowing into me.
“I don’t know. My head is swimming. Like I’m just starting to get drunk, or waking up from a nap. Everything’s…”
“Ink changes you,” he said. “Makes you someone new. And what’s harder to describe then the difference between who you are and who you used to be?”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, startled by my own hushed, reverent tone.
On the corner of 34th and 8th, a thug in a cheap suit stared me down. Pimps pushed women into my path. New York City’s rambunctious night commerce pressed in on me. I’d spent a lifetime building walls against all the ways this city would swallow you up and suck you dry, but now I couldn’t find those walls.
“You ready for your big fight?”
I grunted. I hated him for how happy his voice made me. How he and Hinky had made me weak. How I could feel it again, the bonds between people, the threads connecting them, and a big fat one looped me together with Teitelstam now. I ignored his question, prayed he’d never ask another.
“Forget it,” he said. “You don’t want to talk to me, that’s just fine.”
I said “It’s not,” but I could go no further.
He stopped walking. “I am so fucking sick of men like you.”
I wanted it all to stop. Words. Life. The struggle of hiding what I was. I wanted to be in bed. I wanted to stay there forever. “What—”?
“All my life, I’ve had guys in my face making me feel like shit,” Teitelstam said. “Acting like I’m lower than the dog shit on their shoes.”
“It’s not—I didn’t—”
“I don’t need to get more of the same from a nobody punk who I’m trying to help here.”
Dominos clattered in the dark of a doorway between us.
“Watch it,” I said. But I couldn’t summon much menace. “Hinky might have bought your business about tattoos being magic, but not me. I know it’s all bullshit. So don’t go thinking I’m another g-ddamn dupe.”
My anger wasn’t real. All I wanted to do was put my arms around him. I’d treated him like shit, before. Tried to hurt him. Probably succeeded. He was right to be mad at me. And those eyes, when they flashed with anger, could cut me open as sure as the tiny blades of his tattoo gun.
“What’s the matter, Kid?” he asked. “I remind you of anyone?”
“Just a whole lot of big-mouth smarty-pants little schmendricks.”
“And let me guess. They’re all Jewish.”
“Because maybe the problem you have isn’t with me. It’s with yourself. And your rabbi, your dad, whoever the hell made you think being Jewish meant being weak.”
“I’m proud as hell to be Jewish,” I said. “Why do you think I wear the star of David on my trunks? There’s plenty of Jewish boxers ashamed of who they are, fight under Irish or Italian names. That’s not me. You don’t—”
“But you’re ashamed of your people,” he said. “The ones you call weak, backwards, religious. Stereotypical. Or am I wrong? You’re ashamed, and you’re convinced that being tougher and stronger than our bullies is the only way to survive.”
“I gotta go,” I said, and abruptly turned around.
“Well you’re wrong!” he called, as I hurried away. “It’s not the only way!”
“Where the hell have you been?”
I took my seat after the third round ended, only to find Hinky furious with me.
“Nowhere,” I said. “I didn’t know I needed to be—”
“Of course you need to be here. He’s your problem, and he’s getting the shit beat out of him.”
We were ringside, and her voice somehow rose above the sound of a ten-thousand-person-plus crowd. I had never seen this side of her, but of course I should have known it was there. Gangsters didn’t rise to the top of the heap without instilling fear, the kind backed up by a capacity for astonishing violence.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “The glyph—he should be able to see the punches coming.”
“Well, he can’t,” she said, and pointed to where he sat in his corner looking dazed. “It hasn’t made him better. It’s made him worse. Fey assured me you were good, but if you fucked this up for me, I’ll break you—and Fey. For good.”
“Fix it,” she spat, and then whistled. Kid’s cut man, alone among the entire crowd, turned his head to look at her. As if she’d aimed it for his ears alone. I wondered whether she had any ink, or whether her magic lay elsewhere.
Hinky pointed at me, then gave the thumbs up. He nodded and waved me over.
“Go,” she said. “Fucking fix it.”
In a daze of terror, I went. The cut man waved me through the press of photographers and numbers runners, and held the ropes up to let me in.
Me. Nobody me. Standing suddenly in the center of the universe. Kid Wolf sat on a stool, looking dazed. I looked out at the crowd, a sea of men in hats, and: I got it. Why people fought. The space was sacred, hallowed. All these people pouring their hearts into the action that unfolded here.
It was magic.
“You got twenty seconds,” the cut man screamed in my ear. “I hope to fucking G-d you’ve got something up that sleeve of yours.”
“Hey, Kid,” I said, and dropped to my knees in front of him.
“I’m fucked,” he said, eyes wild with fear and confusion. Blood trickled from a tiny cut in his temple. “What the hell did you do to me?”
“Tell me what you’re experiencing.”
“Everything happens twice. And I can’t tell what’s real and what’s an echo.”
Inaaya had told me this might happen. That his higher sight would be at war with his regular sight, for as long as he fought it. I’d warned him, but of course he hadn’t listened to a word this bespectacled little bookworm had said.
“It’s not the glyph. It’s you. You need to trust what it’s showing you.”
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?”
“Do this,” I said, thinking fast, wondering how many of the twenty seconds were left. “Shut your eyes. Okay? Get out there and close your eyes, and just go with what the visions show you.”
“Are you fucking crazy? A fighter never shuts his eyes on his opponent.” There was his smell again—sweet and pungent, more pleasant than it should have been.
“What’s the worst that could happen—you get punched in the face a couple times? Sounds like that’s already happened forty or fifty times already. Shut your eyes, trust the glyph. It’s a split-second advantage, but that’s enough. Dodge the punches when you see them coming. And then hit—”
The bell clanged. The crowd shrieked. Kid stumbled up and away from me, leaving my advice incomplete. The cut man hustled me out of the ring, and pointed to the sweat-dripping stool Kid had been sitting on. I took it with me. My hand got good and wet.
He ignored my advice. I stood at the edge of the ring and watched him fight, sluggish and dull. Domenico Gracchiano was a big guy, edging out of the welterweight division. Six months ago he’d been the favorite to take the belt. He’d lost the fight, but he was working his way back up to another shot.
He let Kid take the lead. Retreated from his steady advance, stopping every four or five steps to get off a one-two combination, at least one of which would always land on Kid’s head or body.
My heart hurt with every blow. Even though Kid Wolf was an asshole—who hated me—I still ached for him. Some of that was just because he was beautiful. Some of that was the magic that had taken root between us, when I first cut into his skin.
I smelled my hand. Licked Kid Wolf’s sweat off of it.
He wouldn’t listen to me. But he might listen to Hinky.
“Tell him to shut his eyes,” I whispered in her ear, when I returned to my seat.
She didn’t ask questions. She didn’t bat an eyelash. She stood, and hollered “Close your eyes, Kid.”
Snickers went through the crowd.
“You don’t need to see this bum to demolish him.”
Kid didn’t ask questions or bat eyelashes either. He stopped his forward momentum. Took a step back. Shut his eyes.
Laughter, at ringside. Wisecracks from the radio commentators.
Kid Wolf seems to have completely given up!
Proving the pundits all right for wondering why this upstart got such a big fight in the first place!
The thing was? I could still see. Somefuckinghow. My eyes were shut but there he was, grainy black and white like a bad newsreel: Gracchiano with a slow confused look on his face, which then quickened into a grin. He took a step closer. Pulled back slow, telegraphing an uppercut.
I clenched my eyes tighter. Lowered my arms. Gracchiano unleashed the punch, a whip-fast upward whirl of glove and muscle.
The fist swung through empty air. My body had shifted to the side with such a slight swift movement that you could forgive Gracchiano for totally missing it.
A whoop went through the crowd. Frustrated—embarrassed—Gracchiano let fly two quick right jabs. Again I dodged them effortlessly.
And now, for the first time, I smiled. I took two steps back and Gracchiano pursued, swinging more wildly now. Every shot, even with my eyes closed, I saw it coming and made myself absent.
The crowd went wild. The commentator sprang to his feet, microphone in one hand and the other holding on to his hat to keep it from flying off. I could see them all, quick movie montage: Hinky; a hundred big-time gangster rivals; assorted movie stars.
Teitelstam. Grinning. Glorious.
I led Gracchiano on a long dancing shuffle for the next thirty seconds. And then: I opened my eyes. And grinned at my opponent, the kind of shark grin that flashed fear through all eight hundred in attendance. I saw it on their faces. I saw it on Gracchiano’s.
Then I turned my head ever-so-slightly, to where Teitelstam’s wide gorgeous eyes were on me, and winked at him.
Seeing my attention momentarily diverted elsewhere, Gracchiano swung his fist. I evaded again—and counterpunched—striking him in the side with such precision that they heard him yelp six rows back.
I knew what punch would be coming. And exactly what spot on Gracchiano’s body would be left most vulnerable by the swing.
This was real. Hinky wasn’t full of shit. Teitelstam wasn’t just some grubby ink-stained artist.
Magic was real.
I didn’t fight it. Didn’t cling to rationality.
Now it was Gracchiano retreating. Gracchiano struggling to keep up with the rain of blows; Gracchiano seeing double. Still he tried to swing, to assert control, but every time he hit he missed, and every time he missed I landed a punch.
I could hear the commentator, shouting into the mic for the benefit of the maybe millions listening:
This is it, ladies and gentlemen! Some of us didn’t see it—I’m not too proud to admit I was one of them—but I see it now. Ladies and gentlemen, you could see it with your eyes shut. Kid Wolf is a great fighter, yes, but also a hell of an entertainer!