BY: PAUL A. BARRA
He can knock the fillings out of a man’s teeth with either hand, but he can’t prevent his girlfriend from being murdered…
Life is good for Catholic schoolteacher Terrence Muldoon. He owns his own house in Astoria, New York, and a one-year-old Volvo, both paid for. His only dependent is a rescued greyhound, and his avocation as a club fighter, under the ring name of Seamus Muldoon, provides all the excitement he needs.
Then all that changes when his jockey girlfriend is killed during a race at Belmont. Unable to save her, Terry is driven to find out who wanted her dead, and why. Or was she just collateral damage? He teams up with a NYPD detective friend in a quest for answers that takes him to Myrtle Beach, the rural environs of South Carolina, into the world of Queens gangsters, down to the Brooklyn waterfront, and out to Fire Island. As if his mission isn’t fraught with enough danger, he’s training all the while for a bout with a man being touted as the next Ali. ESPN gives Terry only a “puncher’s chance.” But even if Terry survives the match, the investigation is winding up for a knockout punch as well, with Terry facing the toughest fight of his life…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Astoria Nights by Paul A. Barra, Terry Muldoon is a high school teacher whose hobby is boxing. Terry meets a woman jockey who quickly becomes a friend, and when she is killed in a bombing at Belmont race track, Terry is devastated. He’s determined to find out who killed her and why. His investigation takes him from New York to Florida and South Carolina and from the world of club fighting boxing, to the world of horse breeding and racing, and then into the realm of gangsters and murder. To help him find answers, Terry teams up with a detective in the NYPD. But the police might not be able to keep Terry from getting murdered.
The story is well written, the plot strong, and the action tense and fast paced. Add in the superb character development, and you have a really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Astoria Nights by Paul A. Barra is the story of a man who can’t accept the death of a friend killed in a terrorist attack. When New York City club fighter boxing champ Terrence Muldoon’s girlfriend, a jockey riding in a race at Belmont, is killed by a terrorist bomb during the race, Muldoon demands to know who. And why. Since the police can’t give him any answers, or at least not as quickly as he wants them, he starts his own investigation with the help of a friend in the NYPD. Since Muldoon has no restrictions imposed by jurisdiction that hampers the police, he heads south, digging for clues, and runs headlong into trouble. His quest exposes him not only the world of horse racing and breeding, but also to gangsters, assassins, and murder. Surviving only by his wits and boxing skill, he uncovers some deep dark secrets that the perpetrators will go to any lengths to keep hidden, including the elimination of Muldoon.
Astoria Nights is a complex, fast-paced, and hard-hitting thriller/mystery with glimpses into worlds that most of us would never see—horse racing-breeding, club fighting, and gangsters. With wonderful characters, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of edge-of-your-seat tension, this is one that you won’t easily put down once you start.
Marcie once called Amos “Bad Boy” Bozard an ugly critter, and, from my perspective up close he was all of that and more. Some of his ugliness was his own doing. He had shaved his head, so that the wads of muscle and fat leading from his shoulders up the back of his neck stood out in great detail, lumped like an unmade bed and rolling up to the blood vessels and scars that decorated the sides of his head. Amos looked like a recent resident of Rikers Island. Maybe he was. His arms were covered with black tats that looked as if his younger brother drew them with a Sharpie. He was heavily muscled through the torso, and his scowl was every bit as thuggish as Sonny Liston’s when he hoped to intimidate a young Cassius Clay a half century ago.
Bozard might have intimidated me if he could jab or could put some of his bulk behind a straight right, but he could do neither well. And he was slow, even for a heavyweight. He was not a pleasant conversationalist in the clinch and his favorite adjective was a vile vulgarity that he tacked on to “whitey” and “Irish bastard” as he pushed his head into my face when he grabbed me. He smelled like an open septic tank, but I probably did too, since we were in the fifth and both of us were slippery with sweat.
The ugliness, the obscenities, and the odor didn’t really bother me because I often encountered similar stuff in my job, and I realized that unpleasantness could be part of the milieu of the game, but it did bother me when he knocked me down.
We broke from a clinch and I was tired. My arms felt heavy. I was getting frustrated with Bozard’s new tactic scheme: swing wildly once or twice, then close fast and hang on. I hadn’t been able to time his charges regularly yet, at least not when I was set down to punch hard, so I was wasting energy banging shots off his big arms and shoulders. But it was just a matter of time. I had put him on his can twice in the early rounds, before he resorted to his punch-clinch sequencing, when he actually tried boxing. None of that excused my blunder in the fifth.
I had eased back, upright, shaking my arms to loosen the biceps from their bunching. Bozard surprised me by coming forward from the clinch, fast, instead of backing off as he had been doing. He caught me with a right as my feet were crossing and my hands were down. I sat hard.
Prior to that fifth round knockdown, he had not hit me much, so I was far ahead on points, but I wanted to get rid of the bastard. The right hook that seated me, a glancing blow that could hardly be expected to alter the outcome of what had become a one-sided bout, caused him to alter his tactics and me mine.
I bounced up immediately, knowing my embarrassment showed, and hoping–I didn’t know why–that the blonde woman wasn’t laughing at me. The woman was the cause of my distraction. I’d noticed her while I was waiting for the opening bell. She glanced up at me as she made her way to her seat, and the look she gave me connected somehow, even though my mind should have been entirely focused on the pending battle. I couldn’t seem to get her out of my mind. She was off on the perimeter, to be sure, but a man engaged in a boxing match with a massive, angry man could ill afford any sort of diversion, partial or not. I also didn’t know why I even noticed her, to tell the truth.
Unless I was looking for someone in particular–and those people sat where I knew they’d be–the crowd was usually an amorphous mass to me when I was engaged in the ring. And it wasn’t as if this woman jumped out from the crowd with some kind of spectacular appearance either. She did look different, I’ll say that, but not in a way that would normally attract a lot of attention. It was the look on her face that caught my eye and captured my interest. But it was the look on the ref’s face that had my attention after the knockdown.
Augie Marino frowned at me, looking as if he was about to say it served me right for losing focus, but he counted to eight instead, holding his left hand against the middle of my chest and marking off the count with the fingers of his right. He asked me if I was okay.
“Fine, no problem.”
“Come toward me, Seamus. Two steps.”
I complied, so Augie rubbed the faces of my gloves against his shirtfront and released me to face my opponent. Bozard came after me fast, winging punches from both sides, any further defense strategy forgotten. That was his mistake, but it was also his final opportunity to raise his record to fifteen/eleven, and he knew it. I went into the Patterson peek-a-boo and moved my head and body up, down and sideways. Bozard grunted with each missed hook. I could hear them whistling past me.
In fifteen seconds, the whistling was coming from Bozard’s lungs. I raised up and pushed the tired heavyweight away. But “Bad Boy” wasn’t finished. He came back, lunging, a frantic look on his face as he flung another wide right hand. I went inside it and banged my own right into his open mouth. Because of his size and desperate charge, and because I had twisted my hips into the punch, the impact was stunning. It caught him in his rush forward, jolting me to the shoulder and raising him up and off his feet. His mouthpiece popped out as he bounced off the canvas like a starched mummy on a trampoline, arms by his side, feet straight up. He didn’t try to beat Marino’s count and needed help getting seated on his stool. I went over to him quickly but could see that the man was more worn out than hurt. The ring doctor shined a pencil light in his eyes, but they were open and his chest heaved, indicators to me that his brain, such as it was, still functioned.
Ambient sound like a furnace in full throat battered the ring. I turned away from the blue corner and saluted the seats with my right fist. That got another roar. The place smelled of beer and bodies. Crepes of cigar smoke edged near the ceiling. I knew people’s soles were sticking to the floor by this time of night, but they didn’t care. The crowd was up and about, yelling at the announcer as he made his way into the ring between the ropes and talking to each other in shouts and gestures. Back in my own corner, I had no trouble hearing my trainer over the noise of the crowd even though they’d packed the renovated Sunnyside Gardens to see a local fighter and they loved knockouts.
“Was there something in the seats, now, that was more important to a fighter than the brute trying to kill him?”
“Sorry, Clancy. This guy was so bad, I had a hard time paying attention after a while.”
“But you’ll be quick to blame me or the game if you get puffed up around the eye and canna explain it to your students, won’t ya? It’s a short bit of work you’ve got, Terrence, three minutes at a time. You can pay attention that long.”
I was saved from a reply by Marino, who came over to give me a pat on the fanny.
“Nice fight, Seamus.”
“Thanks, ref. You worked harder than Bozard and me both tonight.”
Augie walked off, smiling and shaking his head. I followed him to Bad Boy’s corner, throwing my arms down, trying to stay loose as the sweat dried. It was considered good form to commiserate with a beaten man and tell him what a good fight he put up. Bozard was still on his stool, legs splayed, mouth open, his belly hanging over the front of his black shorts. I tapped him on his shoulder with the inside of my glove.
“Good one, Bad Boy. You’re a strong guy.”
“Lucky punch, Irish,” he wheezed out.
I didn’t know if he was talking about his own punch that seated me or the KO, but I paused as I touched up with his cornermen. “Sure was.”
Back in the red corner Clancy unlaced my gloves and cut off the hand tape in silence, holding my wrist tightly to tune out my body motion. Once I got into the rhythm of a fight, it took a while before I could coerce my body back into the kind of stillness that I tried to manage outside the ring. I wasn’t bouncing anymore but my muscles kept me rolling and twitching. Our cut man, Taffy Trafficante, was pressing a little fluid from beneath my left eye with an Endswell. He snapped a look at Clancy. The trainer was angry that I had gotten knocked down and I could tell by the wide-eyed look on Taffy’s face that he didn’t like facing Clancy when he was like that. The cut man put the robe over my shoulders and, keeping me between himself and the trainer, held the ropes open. Terry Muldoon, AKA Seamus Muldoon, heavyweight, shuffled out of the hall, nodding and slapping palms with red-faced men who lined the aisle. Trafficante opened the dressing room door for me but didn’t go in.
“You had him all the way, Seamus, but that knockout was a beaut.”
The cut man nodded three times then shut the door quietly and went away. I sat in the sudden silence. I was still sitting on the rubdown table when Clancy came back with the purse check.
“Something wrong with the shower?”
“I’m trying to see how long it takes to cool off, Clancy. And it’s beginning to take too long.”
The trainer’s eyes rolled and he put a gnarled hand to his forehead. “We got to go through this age bullshit again? That mountain man is only twenty-three, lad, and you just took him apart in five. What more proof might you need that you ain’t over the hill?”
“Bad Boy Bozard is an early retiree, as you well know, Clancy. Ten years from now I’ll still be able to beat a bum who can’t move and punches with his arms. The point is, my body’s trying to tell me something.”
Clancy came forward in a shuffle, making me start with the suddenness of the move. He had his chin tucked and fingers curled into open fists. He weaved like the old lightweight he was. Even though he lived on the shaded side of seventy, he still looked as if he could surprise a mugger or two on the city streets he walked every day. He twisted out a left and a right.
“You had great combinations tonight, Seamus. Fast, hard. The crowd loved the knockdowns, and the kill was clean. You’re not that old.”
I had learned after fighting under John Clancy for thirteen years that he was going for his own kill once he reverted to my fight name. We’d been over this ground every couple of weeks since Christmas. Now that the snow was melting into the curbside drains my resolve was also leaving. Clancy sensed this, of course, and ended the match.
“I’ll pick ’em carefully,” he said in a low voice. “That’s why you pay me, boyo. No young Mike Tyson’s going to step in the ring with you. I know you need your brain, lad. And we both need this extra money, don’t we now?”
I sighed and nodded, knowing full well that we two, without a dependent between us, hardly needed second jobs. But John Clancy was a New York fight man and there was no way even an educated boxer could compete with his wiles or his endurance. The trainer clapped me on the shoulder and pushed me in the direction of the shower room. It had been a short bout with Clancy.
Less than an hour later, I saw the blonde woman again. This time she was sitting in a booth at Cosmo’s, where fighters and others who made their living from the game went after a card at Sunnyside to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Mine was a mug of Killian’s from the tap, my second. She had a glass of wine in front of her. I couldn’t help but return her smile. It was the way she looked at me that lured me, as if she was appraising an old painting she couldn’t quite identify. She was slight with short hair and an easy grin. She turned from me and spoke to one of the men seated across from her. I recognized Jake Martin, a sports agent. Jake was part of the fight crowd, so I knew him even if I couldn’t really call him a friend. Clancy treated him the same way he treated most of the peripheral people to the game, guys who made a living from it without actually being involved in the fighting itself. He was polite to them but trusted nothing that wasn’t written in blood.
Martin listened to the blonde woman, nodded, and worked his way out of the booth. He slouched up to me. “Nice fight, Seamus.”
“The guy’s not in your class, but the fans loved it. Go for the heavy timber, y’know?”
“Yeah, I guess they do.”
“You oughta, pal. You been getting rich thumping these kinda guys.”
“I’m just a club fighter, Jake. And I’m not a comer anymore. I don’t guess I got to tell you again that I don’t need representation.”
I hated it when I started sounding like the guy I was listening to.
“Sure, sure. Look, kid, I unnerstan and I ain’t here try to get a piece of you. I know Clancy a long time. He’s taking good care of you. I’m only here to wish you well and introduce you to an acquaintance of mine. Fact, I represent her.”
“What’s she do?”
“She’s a jock.”
“I’m a jockey.”
I turned to the new voice. Standing in heels, the blonde woman was better than a foot shorter than me. She was dressed in a silky pale green blouse and holding red wine while her tongue licked imaginary droplets from the rim of the glass. Her features all seemed to fit together in a small face. The skin around her cheekbones was sort of roughened, as if she’d been out in the wind all day, and all of her other skin that I could see had some color to it, not the paleness that one would normally associate with a woman of her light hair. When she smiled, her blue eyes crinkled.
“I’m Marcia Glasgow, big fella. You won’t hurt me if you shake.”
I noticed then that she was holding out her hand. I quickly transferred my beer to my left, swiped my right on my pants and grasped her hand. It was cool and hard.
“It’s nice to meet you, Miz Glasgow. I’m Terry Muldoon.”
“He’s a helluva fighter, Marcie. Don’t hardly ever get beat. Uh, remember, you got a big day tomorrow. See ya.”
Martin patted me on the shoulder and walked off. I thought he seemed eager to leave.
“So, what’s Jake mean about a big day?”
“I’m riding the second favorite in the Matterhorn Stakes. Belmont.”
“Oh, yeah? I follow the ponies a bit, but I don’t recall your name.”
“That’s why ol’ Jake-boy’s as jumpy as Henry’s cock.”
“A rooster y’know. He’s nervous ’cause Henry’s looking for Sunday dinner. It’s an ol’ expression from down home.”
“And, I’m almost afraid to ask, where is down home?”
“Saluda, South Carolina.”
She skipped over the “o” in Carolina. She smiled and finished off her wine. Waiting. I felt as if I had walked into a class that was being conducted in Portuguese. But the lady was waiting, so I plunged ahead.
“And so, uh, why is Jake as nervous as Henry’s…er…rooster then?”
“I ride at a training track down to Aiken. I ain’t never been in a big race before, but ol’ Sandman does best with me aboard so the owner wanted me to ride him in the Matterhorn. Mr. Martin went along with it–not that he had much choice–and signed me to a contract. I do believe he’s afraid of being embarrassed, seeings how he never met me before today. Nor ever seen me ride.”
“Well, then, Marcie, you just ought to kick old Sandman home in front tomorrow. We’ll all be there to cheer you on.”
The jockey grinned at that.
“You’re such a nice young fella, I’m going to let you buy me another drink.”
We sat at the bar for a while. I limit myself to two beers after a fight, but I quaffed an extra that night and Marcia had two more glasses of wine as we talked. The bartender lined up three mugs of beer that fans bought me. I acknowledged each one with a nod and glass salute, but the beers sat on the bar until their heads fell and the bubbles all popped into the heavy air of the barroom. Three glasses from the tap was my absolute limit.
I was fascinated with Marcie’s eloquence when she spoke about horses and at her open enjoyment of the moment thrust upon her. The race was an opportunity to showcase her talent. Unlike her promoter, she wasn’t afraid of being embarrassed.
“No way it could happen, don’t you see? The horse shipped good and he’s in great shape, so he’s gonna run good no matter who’s in the saddle. I’m just gonna make it look like I earned my fifteen minutes in the sun.”
Every time someone stopped by the bar to congratulate me, she smiled brightly at the newcomer and asked him some question that eased the sense of interrupting or acted as a curtain call. “He done good, didn’t he?” “Wasn’t that a punch, now?” “Don’t he get better every fight?” “Didn’t you like the way he let ol’ Bozard punch himself out before he put ’im away?” I marveled at her social skills and found I was enjoying them. When I felt my body begin to sag from the effort of the fight, I wondered how she would handle our own curtain call.
“I’m starting to fade, Marcie. Can I give you a ride home while I’m still upright?”
“Sure can. I’m staying with a family in Astoria. Know it?”
She punched me in the chest.
“Ah, you got me. I’m sorry. I’m also too weak to fight back. I know Astoria. Live there myself.”
“Thata’ boy. Now if you’re that weak, as you say, I believe I’ll come visit your place and take advantage of you before you take me home.”
And the little jockey did just that, although I had to admit to being complicit in the activity. Maybe my defenses were low. That’s why I normally restrict myself to two beers after a fight. Maybe I was vulnerable because I’d been celibate for nearly a year. Maybe Marcie was too fast for me. I was naked and she was soothing the bruises on my neck with her remarkably soft breasts before I even thought about resisting.
The rest of her body was solid, lean, with knobs the size of baseballs on the tips of her shoulders and forearms like lengths of driftwood. We had a bout of hard and slick sex that left me depleted.
“You’re too big for me, Terry.”
She was working a lotion from her purse into a knot on my hip where Bozard had gotten in under my elbow. I was lying back on the bed in wonder.
That remark broke through, though, and I lifted my head.
“What’re you talking about?”
“Naw, I don’t mean this here little fella,” she said and patted me. “I mean your body, boy. I practically disappear under you and I have to stand on the bed to kiss your face when you’re on your feet.”
“Oh…Well, we seemed to have worked it out.”
“We did that now, didn’t we?” She smiled after she said that, a smile almost comically wicked.
She lay back next to me with a sigh of contentment. I smiled too, but wasn’t sure if I really did or if it was the beginning of a dream. I felt relaxed, slipping into a floating phase of peace and calm. I drifted mindlessly. It seemed like minutes later, but was probably much more, when my eyes popped open. Marcie was looking down at me, her face not a foot from mine. She spoke in a breathy whisper.
“I swannee, big guy, I hate to wake you. You look so peaceful there. Sleeping like a baby ain’t no exaggeration. I mean, you were practically smiling in your sleep.”
I rubbed my face.
“But you’ve got a big day coming up.”
“Yeah. I really ought to get on home.”
The two of us walked slowly up to Astoria Boulevard and stopped into The Boulevard Diner for coffees to go. We took Oscar with us. He acted like a stroll in the early morning dark was an everyday occurrence for him. His nose worked hard in the diner but he behaved himself.
The guy working the big flattop gestured to me and waggled his spatula. He stepped over quickly, his eyes flashing back to the potatoes and eggs sizzling on the grill. “Nice fight, Seamus. Bad odds but good fight.”
It was getting to be suppertime for the night people, somewhere around four in the morning, so the avenue showed some life, but the residential streets were quiet and we were too as we walked together past the narrow attached houses that make up most of western Queens Borough. Oscar roamed and urinated. I took Marcie’s arm when we crossed the place where some roots of a rambunctious chestnut had broken through the sidewalk. A few leftover leaves rustled along in the breeze. The coffee felt good on my hands through the cardboard cup. Marcie was wearing my school jacket, since the dark night had turned cold. The wool and leather covered her so completely that as a couple we might have been mistaken for a man and his son heading up to Rye for some early morning fishing. The jockey finished her coffee and threw the cup in the street. I stopped and picked it up. She watched me with a small smile playing on the pinched red features of her face.
“You worried about New York getting dirty?”
“I try not to make it any nastier than it already is.”
“Beating up on ugly critters like Bozard is a good enough way to do that.”
I laughed and put my arm around her shoulder. There was a light on in the front room of a brick and stucco house halfway down the block and that turned out to be the home of John and Lorraine Travis, transplants from the Carolinas who were hosting Marcie.
“You got a way to the track later on?”
“Yeah, Johnny Travis is going to carry me over. Maybe I’ll see you there?”
“Count on it.”
She handed me my coat and put the palm of her hand on my cheek. She ruffled Oscar’s tiny ears. Then she was gone. Seconds later, she appeared with a sad smile and a quick salute at the front window. The light blinked out. I walked back to my own house, head down and shoulders hunched, kicking at objects on the sidewalk, two pull tabs, one broken ballpoint and a few dried seed pods. I worried about Marcie’s melancholy look at the window. Did she have a boyfriend down in South Carolina? Was she telling me that our little affair was already over? Maybe I couldn’t say that I loved her, but our roll in the hay did feel good, after a win in the ring and a few beers. I felt blood begin to surge into my nether regions as I thought about the hard little blonde and the things we did in bed. I walked it off. My resolve to somehow live a good life seemed a sham now more than ever. I shook my head, telling myself that this was the twenty-first century and that I was too old to be feeling guilty about a little sexual pleasure, but I knew it was more than residual Catholic guilt. My problem was that I taught at a high school where sexual abstinence was preached and expected. I felt fraudulent.
But I slept hard, despite my conscience. Saturday was still gusty, with rain riding the wind and the streets glistening. I jogged Oscar around the block and to the corner store, trying to work out some of the soreness from my body. At nine I called Tommy Greene.
“The racetrack, Terrence? God, it’s such a shitty day, why go there? Maybe a museum might be a better idea. Or a matinee.”
“Normally, I’d agree, but I got a hot tip for the seventh.”
“Oh, Lord, save me from the touts of the world.”
“Besides, I need to talk to you.”
“Okay. Will you pick me up?”
By the time I rescued the Volvo from the garage behind my house, drove across the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge and uptown to the Jesuit House for Father Greene and back out to the Island, the first race was going off at Belmont. We walked in from the huge parking lot rather than hop the tram. The rain and wind had stopped but it was gray and misty. We both wore baseball caps and had the collars pulled up on our jackets.
“I want to go to confession, Tommy.”
“I had sex with an unmarried woman last night.”
“No. Nothing serious, anyway.”
“You likely to see her again?”
“In a few minutes, as a matter of fact.”
“I mean as a potential sexual partner. I don’t believe even one as depraved as you would plan for a quickie under the grandstand at the track.”
“Actually, no. I think we’d both be happier as friends. She’s from out of state and probably won’t be in town for long. I’m sorry for my sin and promise to avoid it again.”
“Okay, pal. You know what Augustine said about evil, that it’s a deficiency of good. You don’t want to be deficient. At least not regularly.”
“I know. I am sorry.”
“Relax, Terry. Getting laid once in a while is not the end of the world. Don’t act so depressed.”
“It’s more than that. I feel like a fraud standing in front of a classroom full of kids in a school that’s supposed to be Christ-based. Some of them look up to me, and I’m setting a poor example.”
“For God’s sake, don’t tell your classes that you sleep around on Friday nights.”
“I don’t sleep around–” I began before I noticed the priest smiling.
“You don’t talk to them about your…uh…avocation of bloodletting, so don’t feel any obligation to get honest suddenly about your personal life.”
“I’ve never been dishonest with them.”
“Splitting hairs, pal. Sins of omission may be more artful, in your particular case, but they’re no less painful to the God who loves us.”
“Do you think boxing is an immoral activity? I notice you never take me up on my standing offer of tickets.”
“No, I don’t think boxing is actually wrong. It’s a test of skills between two evenly matched men, supposedly at least, and requires great athleticism and conditioning. But in your case, it verges. You are not what the sports pundits refer to as a boxer. You hammer your opponents. I believe, in your now twenty-two victories, you have won only a handful by decision, right?”
“That means you go into a fight, you and the inestimable John-boy Clancy, with the intention of rendering your opponent senseless as soon as possible, right?”
“Well, more or less. I can hit and I’m not a dancer. Our fight philosophy is to take the knockout if it’s available. We train hard and plan our fights carefully and thoroughly.”
“Save the bullshit for ESPN, Terry.”
“Okay. I don’t know why you can’t take a little bullshit. Everyone else puts up with it. But if I’m being honest, we look for the KO.”
“I never doubted that for a minute, Terrence. Still. You must be skilled–”
“At my level.”
“Yes, at your level. You must be skilled or else you wouldn’t win so often.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a lot more than skill, Tommy. Clancy and I approach the fight game with science. Most, maybe all, other boxers plan–at least the winning ones do–but not like us. We analyze prospective opponents and work up a strategy and tactics and alternate tactics. We book fights where I have no obvious disadvantage. We never fight left-handers, for instance, or defensive-minded guys. And I don’t take matches where the guy could hurt me. I mean, any heavyweight could hurt me, but my fights are almost scripted. ’Course, the other guy doesn’t always follow the script. So far, though, I haven’t been hurt enough to worry me. And I don’t intend to get that way.”
“So, why won’t you talk about your fighting career in the classroom? Surely, they know your reputation.”
“I’d guess you’re right there. It’s just sort of an unwritten rule at school. The administration doesn’t want to face the issue of my outside employment directly, so nobody talks about it. The other teachers aren’t really fight fans and I actively dissuade discussion of it in the classroom. My fights don’t get headlines or photographs often, so it’s easy to avoid the issue all together.”
“It’s inherently dangerous, and I wouldn’t want to be thought of as modeling that role. These kids are at the Prep for an education.”
“Many a devotee would say that boxing could be a commanding education. To say nothing of how varied carnal experiences could add to one’s edification.”
I knew my learned friend was being facetious but couldn’t help my reply from jumping out. “Tommy, we expect more from our students.”
“Ah, you’re a refreshing pause in the day, Terry. These kids come to me worried about AIDS transmission and the crack house down the block I tried out, and I’m not sure which one’s baby it is, and can God forgive more than one abortion…And you come along, a dinosaur in more than size. You missed your vocation, pal. You should become a priest.”
“Please, God, it can’t be that bad.”
“Well, no. I exaggerate for effect, but the point is that you don’t have to worry about scandalizing the pimply little bastards. Not these days.”
We walked along in silence until the priest cleared his throat. “But you’re sorry for your sin, so say an act of contrition, and I’ll give you absolution.”
We were near the entrance booths by then. We stood alongside the cyclone fencing that runs around the track, me with my head down mumbling a prayer and Father Greene sketching a blessing over me with his right hand. Passersby never slowed in their rush to the turnstiles, although one woman did stare at us briefly as she walked by. Probably from out of town.
We went to the warm-up ring in the paddock after each race but didn’t see Marcie until the fourth was done. She was leading a huge bay, looking herself like a little boy who’d snuck into the circus. She wore boots and jeans and a poplin pullover. They were muddied.
“Marcie. What’s the matter?”
“Ah, this big peckerhead don’t like the sloppy track worth a damn. I’m pulling for a scratch, but the dumb-ass owner says we come this far, we might as well run.”
“Maybe he’ll overcome his dislike for the slop when he feels the competition,” Father Greene said.
She looked at him and her eyes suddenly crinkled. “You might just be right, buddy. I don’t want to get him down with my attitude, now, do I?”
“Just be careful. It looks pretty slippery out there.”
“Don’t worry. I got too much to look forward to. I’m not about to take any chances with my body, not now.”
She smiled and winked comically at me and led the big horse off. Tommy was smiling as he leaned his arms on the white fence rail and watched her leave. I could feel my ears burning.
“Sure sounds like a good friend with no salacious designs.”
“I swear, Tommy. She practically told me it was a one-time affair. I have no–”
I stopped talking immediately when Tommy said so. When we were in grammar school he had saved me more than once from putting my foot in my mouth. The priest smiled his woman smile at someone behind me and I knew that Marcie has come back.
“Hey, big ’un. I got a tip for you.”
She was talking so softly that I had to bend toward her to hear.
“The rider in the next race likes his horse’s chances.”
“What does that mean?”
“Shit if I know. He been coming on to me and is trying hard to impress me, I think. He said ‘Watch me in the fifth.’ At least we know the horse isn’t sick or not ready to run. It’s the seven horse, Mutual Fever or something.”
“Well, thanks, Marcie. I’m going to run up and put a thousand on its nose.”
Her blue eyes widened for a couple of seconds before dissolving into crinkles again. She punched me high on my shoulder and walked off laughing. I looked at my program and saw that Carlos Santana was riding the seven and felt a pang of what I might have mistaken for jealousy if I hadn’t known better.
“Three minutes to post and he’s at eight-to-one,” Tommy said. “It ought to be worth trying.”
I put ten dollars across the board on Mutual Fever. Santana positioned him well and had a clean run at the leaders down the long Belmont stretch. The gelding came up half a horse short but paid seventy-three dollars for my show and place tickets. With a fast track he might have made it up. Greene didn’t get anything for playing his two dollars on the nose, but he liked the action. Since he’d taken a vow of poverty when he entered his order, he felt that he was betting with Jesuit money so if he won he’d have to turn it in anyway. He played the minimum and not even that on every race. The best part of the track scene for him was being in the midst of characters without parallel. He was enjoying himself and was happy I had asked him along. The cold, gray day was turning out to be a lark.
We went back to the paddock area in high spirits. We found Marcie. She had an even better deal waiting for us this time.
© 2017 by Paul A. Barra