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The Palooka
About the Author: Pete Barnstrom is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker whose projects have played at theaters and film festivals all over the world. He's shot documentaries in Greenland for the National Science Foundation, made movies with the Blair Witch guys (not that one), and seen one of his films screened at the Smithsonian.

“They sez he usta be a fighter,” the Boy said.

He wiped the table, and the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel lifted his shapely glass. He’d asked about the big figure up at the bar, and the Boy was telling him. “Is that right? Boxer?” He’d used boxers before, the ones whose brains had gone to mush. Maybe he was on the right track with this one.

“Oh, no, mister, no adherent to the Sweet Science this fella, no.” The Boy dumped the ashtray into his tub, grinning under his dark glasses. How could he see in those things? The place was dim enough already. “What he was, he was a wrestler.”

As boys go, this Boy was well-seasoned at fifty-seven years old, but that’s what the fellow who picked up the empties in the bar was called. The Boy.

He ran his towel around the inside of the ashtray and set it back on the table. “You seen the wrestlers? On the tee-vee? Big men in tights and boots? They grimace and grapple with each other for a spell, an’ then the Good Guy wins?”

“I’ve seen wrestling,” the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel lied. He’d heard of it, but he had no use for television. He’d rather be out.

The Boy gestured over his shoulder, to the end of the bar. “He wasn’t one of the Good Guys.”

The Man With The Carnation In His Lapel looked past the Boy, at the big shape against the bar. Facing away from him, leaning over a glass.

He was dark. Not the way the Boy was dark, dark in a way that suggested there was always a shadow cast across him. Dark clothing, dark hair, dark shoulders you could project a Cinemascope picture across. Imposing.

“No.” The Man With The Carnation In His Lapel nodded. “He wouldn’t be.”

“What they sez,” the Boy continued, and most of what he knew of the big fella was second-hand and his own assumptions, as he’d never even heard the man talk, much less about himself, but that didn’t stop the Boy from talking. “They sez he killed a man.”

“In the ring?”

“Yes,” the Boy said. “The first time.”

This interested the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel, but he gave no indication. Instead, he tapped a cigarette out of his pack, offered it to the Boy. Keep him talking until he learned all he needed to know. It seemed more and more likely that this was the chump he’d been looking to find.

Delighted, the Boy took the cigarette and lit it in the flame of the gold lighter proffered by the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel. His face warmed in the glow, the flame reflected in the smoky-dark lenses. “My, but that’s one pretty lighter you got, mister.”

The Man With The Carnation In His Lapel closed the lighter in his fist. He knew it was a good lighter, he’d paid for it. He didn’t need some chatty bus boy to tell him that. “The first time, you said?”

“Sure.” He didn’t sit, the Boy, he knew better than to make that presumption. But he crouched down, to get closer to the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel. “It’s all fake, you know, the wrestling. Planned out in advance.” The Boy drew on his cigarette, enjoying the smoke in his throat. “But one time when the hero hits him too hard, our boy hits back, only he didn’t make it any too soft like he s’pose to, and the Good Guy wound up in the hospital. And he didn’t make it out.”

“Tough break,” the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel said, allowing a semblance of sympathy into his tone. He didn’t like the way the Boy was still looking at the hand holding the lighter, and he pocketed it. “But there was another time?”

The Boy turned away, making sure no one was leaning in on the conversation, then swiveled his head back. “They sez he snapped a man in two for mashing on a woman who didn’t appreciate his attention. That’s why the Boss keeps him around.” The Boy grinned again. “Keep the wolves in the bay, he sez.” He chuckled. “The Boss ain’t too good with English.”

The Man With The Carnation In His Lapel smiled back, making like they were sharing a joke. “A noble cause,” he said, then tilted his well-barbered chin back up at the shadow against the bar. “Must be a Good Guy after all.”

“I personally seen him toss a man out when Lilly shouted boo.” The Boy looked over at the girl with the Hollywood hair, dress cut too tight to be anything but professional. “Picked him up by the face, my hand to God, and threw him out the door. Didn’t land this side of the opposite curb.”

“Noble,” the Man With The Carnation In His Lapel repeated.

This story appears in our FEB 2023 Issue
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