Learning to Duck

Chad Thornton was proud of his name. It wasn’t that he had done anything great…yet. He was proud of his name because he was named after his father, who had served during the Gulf War as an airborne trooper with the 101st Airborne. Also, John Wayne played a Thornton in The Quiet Man. Chad liked that movie.

It was late, and Thornton should have been sleeping, but he was up watching reruns of South Park on Comedy Central. He had been tempted to watch HBO for the porn, but the tungsten ring on his left hand stayed him from that. It hadn’t always worked, he reminded himself glumly, but he was trying to clean himself up.

In the queen bed next to his, Yul McVicker snored. McVicker had been a boxer back in the day but never made it in the big time. That’s what they were doing now in the MGM Grand Hotel, waiting for the big times.

Thornton had been a journalist in Kalispell, Montana. It was a small city but had recently seen substantial growth. More than anything, Thornton wanted to box and be a great boxer. It had started when he was a young tyke watching John Wayne and all the other great western stars punch it out with the bad guys.

He went on to join a local gym offering boxing lessons, and from there he had fought in the Junior Olympics and Police Athletic League National Championship. He had won two golden gloves in the welterweight and middleweight classes. Tomorrow would be his professional boxing debut as the undercard fight between John “Jack” Dempsey and Roy Talon.

He would be fighting a man a little bit older than himself named Makin Webb. Thornton saw him only once at the weigh-in, and that was too short of a span to gain knowledge. He had hoped that watching the tapes of his opponent’s previous fights would help. Webb would be coming in with two professional bouts under his belt, compared to Thornton’s zero.

At only twenty, Thornton was married and nearing the first year of marriage, as well as parenthood. His wife had given birth to their first son several months ago. She was in Kalispell staying with her parents, waiting for Thornton to finish the fight. Beth Thornton had not been home in some time. When she had found out what her husband had done, she walked out, and he had barely been able to look at himself in the mirror since.

When he felt his eyes begin to slowly shut, Thornton turned off the television and turned over onto his side.


When he awoke the next morning, McVicker was on his phone with what sounded like his wife.

Make sure you watch the fight tonight,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a good one!”

Unlike most women, Sandy McVicker was not squeamish when it came to the blood and gore of the ring. She was supportive of her husband as a boxer and actually enjoyed watching not only boxing matches but MMA fights.

Still promoting?” Thornton asked tiredly. He tossed the covers off himself and sat up at the edge of the bed, his toes scratching at the rough carpet.

Always, kid.”

McVicker had seen Thornton training every day at the gym where he worked and taken a liking to the young fighter. McVicker had only gone so far in his career as a boxer. He had lost steam at some point, but Thornton…this kid could go the distance, he often thought.

Thornton dressed in jeans and a grey graphic T-shirt with his black-socked feet stuffed in his athletic shoes. He always wanted a pair of cowboy boots but never had the money to pay for them. He hoped that would change after tonight.

On the television that hung on a bracket from the ceiling, Fox News was broadcasting something about the newly elected president, Nicholas Meadows. It had been a tight race with Senator Richard Moore, but Meadows had closed the gap and beaten the career senator.

What do you think of this guy?” McVicker asked, pointing at the television with his fork. “You as glad as I am that he won the election?”

Thornton shrugged. “I wouldn’t say I’m as glad as you are, but I’m glad Moore didn’t win.”

Meadows has what it takes to bring this country back on course,” McVicker stated.

Well, he is a businessman, and America is just one great, big corporation essentially, so he might be able to do something about jobs and the debt, but I wouldn’t say he’s the savior we’ve been waiting for.”

You’re a reporter, right?” McVicker asked.

Yeah, so?”

Think you can get away reporting that?”

In this day and age, I don’t think so,” Thornton said with a chuckle.

Thornton took a drink of his coffee. Oftentimes, he didn’t know which was worse: gas station or hotel coffee. This was one of the rare times he was pleased with the coffee. When he had traveled as a kid, he’d have to put two of the creamer packets in it, or if they didn’t have the liquid creamer packets, he’d fill it halfway full of sugar.

How’s your family?” McVicker asked, not looking up from his breakfast.

The nausea hit him again. “Fine.” Thornton took another drink of coffee and continued eating.

Fine? Are you saying that because you’re avoiding the question, or you actually know?”

Thornton said nothing.

Uh-huh.” McVicker scratched his grizzled chin, giving the young fighter a skeptical look. “Chad, you need to settle this before you get in that ring tonight.”

How am I supposed to do that?” Thornton had softened his reply. He had a few choice words to say to the old man, but swearing in front of him always made him uncomfortable.

Settle it,” McVicker said more forcefully. “Settle it or you won’t have your head in the fight. We’ve worked way too damned hard for you to fail now.”

Thornton suddenly felt like not eating. He made a fist with his left hand, covered it with his right hand, and pressed both against his mouth. He breathed heavily, anxiety sat on his chest like a heavy burden.

I don’t need this right now, Yul.” Thornton struggled to control his breathing.

Maybe not now, but the only way you’re going to fix this is if you get pushed into it. I’ve never known anyone so willing to go into a fight but not fight for what he loves.”

Thornton ignored him and picked at the rest of his breakfast. McVicker finished his breakfast and said he was taking the car to go shopping for his wife. Thornton knew what he was playing at and grimaced at the ploy.

For a long while, he just sat there staring into his empty coffee mug. He filled it up again and drank it at the table. Thornton put his dishes with all the other dirty dishes and took the elevator to his floor.

He sat on his bed staring at his phone, torn apart with his emotions. He loved his wife and wanted to talk to her, but at the same time he didn’t want to talk to her due to the shame he felt.

One night, about three months ago, Thornton was up late going through Facebook and cleaning his emails up when he got a message from a girl he had met online. She asked if he wanted to Skype, and Thornton didn’t see the harm.

When the connection was made, he saw a grainy image of a girl posing erotically. She was messaging him to take his pants off so they could have some fun. Thornton didn’t know what had possessed him, but he did so.

After about five minutes, the image dropped, and she asked if he wanted to see something. He watched in horror as his deeds were played back to him with an ultimatum: Pay me a thousand dollars or I post this on social media.

Thornton gave in and dropped the thousand he had in a private account for dates and buying things for his wife. He went to bed feeling sick. She kept asking for more, and little by little he gave her money to keep his secret sin quiet.

His wife found out when he couldn’t hold it in anymore, and he told the whole thing to her in text while at work. He explained how he felt like dying for shame and doing such an unspeakable horror to her.

They sought help, but Thornton just couldn’t get over any of it. He couldn’t see past his own anxiety and depression, so she took the kids and went to her parents’ house two weeks ago.

Thornton dialed his wife and pressed the phone to the side of his face.

Hello?” she answered hesitantly. He knew she saw his name on the screen before answering.

Hey, Beth.” Thornton felt tears swell behind his eyes.

Hey. What’s up?”

I…I just wanted to hear your voice.” What was he calling for?

When’s your fight?”

Eight hours from now. You gonna be watching?”

Maybe.”

It’d mean a lot to me if you did.” He realized how foolish it sounded coming from him.

Beth Thornton snorted on the other line. “Why did you call?”

Thornton faltered. “To say I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did what I did.”

You don’t know why you cheated on me?”

That dirty word. He hadn’t seen it as cheating at the time, but after counseling, he saw it for what it was.

No, I don’t. I wish I could take it back, and baby, I swear I’m changing. I want to fix this. Fix us.”

You have to be cooperative then, Chad. You can’t just shut down!” A baby cried in the background. “Hang on,” she said. “Mom, can you change him?” she asked, her voice muffled.

I won’t, I promise.” He began getting choked up and teary eyed.

Okay. Good luck tonight, babe. I gotta go feed the baby.”

Okay. I love you.”

Beth faltered this time. “Love you too.”


The dull roar of the crowd carried back to the dressing room as McVicker taped Thornton’s hands. Both were silent, each playing the night’s events in their minds and imagining the moves Thornton’s opponent would use, and how he would counter them.

You get that thing cleared up?” McVicker asked, finishing up.

I think so.” Thornton rolled his head around. He wasn’t sure why he did it, but that’s what all the fighters did in the movies.

Good. She watching?”

She said she might be.”

That’s something.”

Thornton’s heart beat wildly inside his chest. He wasn’t sure if he was more nervous about the actual fight or the thought of Beth watching the fight. Would she be cheering for him? The taping complete, Thornton shrugged into a maroon and white boxing robe with maroon boxing gloves on his fists.

Well, you ready?” McVicker asked.

Yeah, let’s do this.”

They walked out of the locker room to the sound of Eminem’s “Won’t Back Down” with the lights flashing and the people roaring. Makin Webb was already in the ring, jumping up and down getting his legs warmed up.

Webb was an easy one hundred eighty pounds, about ten pounds heavier than Thornton, with a slightly longer reach. Thornton licked his dry lips as he ducked in between the ropes. They met in the middle and stood toe-to-toe.

The referee came in between and said, “All right, gentlemen. I gave you your instructions in the dressing room. Remember, protect yourself at all times and listen to my commands. Overall, let’s have a good clean fight. Touch gloves and go to your corners.”

Thornton touched his opponent’s gloves and went to his corner.

You got this, kid. Just like we’ve been practicing.”

Thornton breathed evenly, keeping his cool. He shrugged out of the robe and swayed on his feet. McVicker patted him on his developed deltoid.

Go get him.”

The bell rang, and the fighters met. Thornton backed away from a right hook thrown by Webb. The crowd roared, as though that swing was the real start. Thornton put his gloves up to protect himself as he inched back.

Webb wound his fists up, ready for the onslaught he no doubt had planned. Thornton stuck a left jab into Webb’s face. Webb threw a right hook for the body that landed. Thornton gritted his teeth against the mouth guard, and he dropped his elbows, protecting his body from several other punches.

Thornton heard the crowd’s cheers with McVicker shouting from the corner. “Protect that body, kid! Keep it cool!”

Thornton popped another fist into Webb’s face that he blocked and dropped a left to the belly. Webb backpedaled, his face distorted. Thornton went after him, following with punches to Webb’s body that put him in the corner.

Elated, Thornton started working the punches as fast as he could throw them. Two erratic punches thrown by Webb landed. One brushed Thornton’s cheek, and the other landed on his collarbone.

The bell rang.

Good round, kid.” McVicker set Thornton down on the stool as he started going over him, checking for cuts. He was good.

Got him good, then,” Thornton said through gasps of air.

Yeah, you got him cornered, but he blocked most of those blows. Keep workin’ his body. He’ll focus on covering his body and leave his head vulnerable. We’re lookin’ for a knockout, ain’t we, kid?”

Thornton nodded. “Yeah, we sure as hell are.”

The bell rang once more. Thornton stood and let McVicker stick the mouth guard back in his mouth. He bit down on it and slammed his fists together. He went out to meet Webb. Thornton swung a right hook that Webb ducked under. He stood and gave Thornton a stiff left jab that sent lights flashing in his head.

Cover up, kid!” McVicker yelled.

Webb threw a flurry of jabs and crosses at Thornton’s body and head that jarred him. Thornton tripped on his own feet and hit the canvas hard.

Stay down!” McVicker screamed as the referee pushed Webb into a corner. “Collect yourself!” The referee came over and started counting. “Get yourself together and make sure you cover up. Go after his torso! Okay, that’s enough sleepin’, get up!”

At six, Thornton got to his feet. The referee brushed his gloves off and waved the fighters to come together. Webb reached back with his right, leaving his belly exposed. Thornton slid in with his left hook, staggering Webb. He followed up with a right and then another left before Webb fired back with his own.

Thornton covered up and let Webb blow off some steam. In a break, Thornton fired an uppercut that slammed Webb’s mouth shut. Thornton slid out and threw a left hook that landed on the side of Webb’s head.

Attaboy!” McVicker cried. “Knock his block off!”

Webb turned to face Thornton and was met with another blow to the body. Webb covered up and deflected the blows from his opponent. Thornton threw a left hook that connected at Webb’s temple. He followed up with straight right that opened up a cut over Webb’s brow.

It was Thornton’s turn to cover up as Webb hammered away with his own blows. Webb landed a stinging blow on Thornton’s cheek and fed two punches to Thornton’s belly. He backed away quickly, nearly missing two punches meant for Thornton’s head.

Thornton threw a punch that Webb deflected with an arm. The bell rang, and both fighters returned to their corners. Thornton collapsed on his stool, and McVicker went to sponging him down.

Nice work out there, kid! Real nice work!” McVicker said. He let Thornton take a swig of water. “Keep workin’ the torso, but don’t be afraid to work the head and drop down to the body. Keep workin’ him like this and we’ll get him.”

He’s not bad himself,” Thornton admitted. He spat into the bucket.

Keep him away from your face; a few more blows and he’ll open up a cut on your cheek.”

The bell rang again, and the boxers met. The third round went much like the first two, with a few differences. Webb came out smelling blood and landed several blows. A right hook in the fourth round sent Thornton standing on his tiptoes. He felt the skin break and blood trickle from the cut.

Damn it, kid, I told you to watch it!” McVicker snapped, working the cut.

The third and fourth rounds were a toss-up as to who was winning, and Thornton knew it.

Pick up the tempo a little bit; remember who’s watching?”

Thornton shot a glare at McVicker. “I can’t think about that now,” he growled.

Pretend you’re fighting for your marriage. Webb is your marital issues, beat the crap out of ‘em!”

The crisp ringing of the bell sounded, and Thornton stood to his feet. He eyed the bikini-clad woman climbing off the canvas with the number five on a board.

Snap out of it!” McVicker barked.

Thornton’s eyes whipped over to where Webb was, his face swollen, eyes ablaze with a determination that Thornton knew must be in his own. Thornton came in low, a left jab from Webb glancing off his head.

Thornton came back with a left and right hook for the body. Webb connected a left hook on his face that staggered him. Thornton popped a left on Webb’s nose. Blood poured down into his mouth. Thornton connected another right that reopened the cut over Webb’s brow.

They stood toe-to-toe for a solid minute, exchanging punches before the sound of the round’s end.

You got this, kid! Just a little bit more and we got him! Halfway there!”

Think I cracked a rib,” Thornton grunted. He swished water in his mouth and spat it out into the bucket.

How bad?”

An annoyance, that’s all.” Thornton looked over McVicker’s shoulder at the panting Webb. His face was all bloody and swollen. Thornton wondered how his face looked. He could feel the swelling along his cheek and eyes. This was a fight for the books.

Round six, here we go.

Six rounds put the fighters in a tired state. There was no question they could keep going, but they had left so much on the canvas that when they met in the middle they were wary of one another.

Despite the swelling around his eyes, Thornton’s vision was not impaired. Neither was Webb’s. Thornton could tell by the punches he threw at his head that he deflected deftly. Thornton and Webb were circling one another in the middle of the ring, each watching the other.

Just as Webb stepped forward with his right hand cocked for a swing, Thornton stepped forward with a haymaker that connected solidly. Webb’s feet were swept from underneath him, and he landed hard on the canvas.

Thornton jogged around the ring before being sent to the corner. He stood, shaking out his arms as the referee started counting. Webb was writhing on the floor, struggling to get up. The referee counted to ten and walked over to Thornton.

Without aid, the victor raised his fists into the air. McVicker hit the canvas, pumping his fists, as the press flooded into the ring, followed by the sponsors, owners of the MGM, and Webb’s crew.

You did it, kid!” McVicker took Thornton’s bloody, sweaty face and kissed him on the cheek.

The next moments happened so fast, Thornton couldn’t follow it all. Someone stuck a microphone in his face and asked him a series of questions, to which Thornton had few answers. All he could say was how thankful he was to his wife for her support. He half-felt that he was lying, but if she was watching, he wanted her to know how much she really did mean to him.


Yul dropped Thornton off at his in-laws. He stood at the curb with his backpack slung over a shoulder and his duffel bag at his side. The sun felt warm on his shoulders, and a slight wind ruffled the hairs on his neck and tickled his beaten and swollen face.

The cuts and bruises were still sore to the touch. He wouldn’t be letting his son play with his face anytime soon. Anxiety swelled in his chest, feeling like someone had laid a sledgehammer on his chest. Thornton breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth.

With apprehensive steps, he walked across the lawn, stepped up to the red metal door…and knocked.

Honey, I just forgot to duck.
~Boxer Jack Dempsey to his wife when he lost his heavyweight championship
fight. September 23, 1926.

 

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