Kendra "Black Bear" Hayes was backed against the ropes and getting worked over by Athena "Titan" Dulaine, a five-foot-ten blonde batterer who was nine years younger and six inches taller. Athena was a rookie keen on making a name for herself and using Kendra as the punctuation. Kendra's gloves were up high in a wasted effort to protect her face. Soon—very soon—her opponent was going to make her promised move and that wide, flat forehead of hers, the one she tried to cover up with teased and hair-sprayed bangs when she was outside of the ring, was going to come down like an anvil on Kendra's face and down she would go. Match over; TKO. Takethehit-takethehit-takethehit was Kendra's new mantra. She winced when the next fist landed, her breath stuttering out. Maybe the money wasn't worth it after all.
Kendra and her opponent were the opening act for the main event: two local boy fighters from adjacent cities. Their hometowns' high school rivalries would be resolved by the outcome of their fight. They were fighting in an overly warm, old high school gymnasium and the fights were the building's last event. Over Kendra's head, the school's old basketball banners hung limp from steel support girders. Next week the gymnasium would be demolished, making room for an ethanol company's expansion into rural Illinois.
Again Athena's fist connected with Kendra's side, an earthquake rolled through her torso. Where's the goddamn bell? Take. The. Hit. Kendra pushed off the ropes delivering two quick punches that made her opponent lean her long torso away and step backwards. Athena recovered and returned with her own combo, slower than Kendra's. Keeping up her end of the deal, Kendra allowed the last punch, a weak left hook she'd seen coming, to glance off her jaw. She staggered back against the ropes, sliding left a couple of steps. The blow had stung but worthwhile things are often painful. She'd only needed a moment to see the room.
To her right, past the table of three perspiring judges in suits, were rows of men and folding chairs. The men, all standing up, some of them drunk, were yelling: Fight! Fight! Fight! She'd spotted Maury's red-headed self, standing in his cheap navy-colored suit, next to the double doors that led back to the gymnasium's locker room. She'd seen the referee, a bearded, beer-gutted man who likely refereed based on his betting tendencies, leaning back in the opposite corner of the ring, his head turned toward Maury. She'd seen enough to understand. Maury was holding up the bell. Either that, or time itself was running in reverse. No way was two minutes this long. Her arms were getting tired, from the weight of the borrowed 16oz. gloves, from having to hold back her natural aggression, from ignoring her gut instinct to beat her opponent to her knees then spank her like the baby she was. Only twenty years old and Athena thought she knew everything. The gall of her to show up in Kendra's bar talking trash, trying to push her buttons to get Kendra to fight.
"Nobody would blame you for being gun shy," Athena had said after bellying up to Kendra's bar like she belonged there. As if her being there was an everyday occurrence. "Your last fight with Adams was a battle, that's for sure. You went five rounds before she took that low blow. You were lucky that head butt of hers missed."
Athena took a sip from the bottle of beer she'd asked for. Kendra had done her job and served the girl. It wasn't in her job description to talk to the customers so she hadn't said anything, only looked up at Athena from behind the bar and tucked one of her many braids back behind her ear. She waited for the girl to say something that mattered. Athena set the bottle aside, leaned over the bar and told Kendra, with a smile that some might mistake for kindness gracing her pale face, that if she got in the ring with her, Athena wouldn't miss.
Kendra had smiled back, wide and unflinching. She kept smiling until Athena's own smile weakened. Athena backed out the front door. The three regulars in the bar, old men retired or fired from the steel mill or the Caterpillar factory, and who knew Kendra used to box, raised their drinks in toast to her and said, "Bring back the Bear!"
Kendra was often thought to be too soft, even for a woman, to be a boxer. Her face was round and her nose was small and turned up a little at the end, her eyes wide and friendly. An old boyfriend called her face cherubic. An ex she didn't talk to anymore likened it to a dog's, all cute and playful until the fangs came out. Kendra was partial to that description. Back then, she'd be a dog or a bear or whatever it took to win. Now she'd do only what was necessary.
Athena, it seemed, was in love with punching Kendra's torso now, tagging her repeatedly on one side, then the other. She swung a wild punch at Kendra's head. Kendra dipped and shifted her stance. She felt the rhythm of the fight settle over her, like always. Often Kendra felt energized, almost euphoric, this deep into a fight. The natural beat of the moments between the bells. She'd find a second wind and it always propelled her to victory. But today was different. She wasn't here to win. Her ears were hot from the glancing blows and sweat ran between her breasts. She paced her breathing to the blows, waiting for the bell. Waiting for Maury to be a stand-up guy and not still be all about the money. She wasn't feeling pain exactly, only the thud of blows given and received. There was a dull throb in her head. One of Athena's punches had connected and driven the beads woven into Kendra's braids deep against her skull. She felt her ponytail loosening and a braid hung limp behind her ear.
Someone yelled, "Kick her ass!" and Athena grinned down at Kendra. "Hear that?" Athena said, coming closer, her voice muffled and distorted by her mouth guard. "Gonna do that. Gonna fuck you up."
She reached for Kendra, trying to corral her into a corner. She wrapped her long arms around Kendra. Instinctively, Kendra's head went down and pillowed against Athena's chest. In the clinch now, they both delivered ineffectual punches into each other's sides. Kendra knew Athena was waiting for the ref to pull them apart then she'd deliver the promised head butt.
Kendra decided she wasn't going take another punch. She was all alone in the ring. Maury wasn't thinking of her or Athena. To hell with taking a fall. She still felt ill at the thought of lying down for this chick, this wannabe serious boxer.
When Maury called a week after Athena's visit she should have hung up on him but he'd asked the right questions at the right moment: How much for you to fight again? How much more for you to lose? She'd gone home that night to her one bedroom apartment and figured out what it was worth to her to get back into the ring.
Kendra left boxing after she had found out she was pregnant. One day she'd been a boxer then the next she'd been a retired one. It'd been so easy to trade one life for the promise of another. Could she do it again? In her closet was the baby book with all its brief memories: the sonograms and a lock of newborn hair and a card from a fertility clinic in Chicago received three months after the funeral. She decided that night she could do it again. As long as Maury met her price: twenty thousand dollars, more than enough for two invitro-fertilization treatments. With what was left of the twenty combined with the money she'd been saving the last three years since her baby died, she'd have enough to be fat and pregnant. No need to work and no struggling to pay the bills for over a year. So she'd agreed, and now she was getting bruised by a woman with a weak left hook. Fuck that.
Kendra earned the nickname "Bear" because of a low growl that would rumble up when she was angry or frustrated or just for the hell of it. Later "Black" was tacked on once the general boxing public had gotten a look at her. Now, as Athena lifted her right arm to deliver another punch, determined to pound Kendra through the mat and into the concrete foundation, Kendra growled low and shoved forward, masking her planned move within another. Athena's right arm flailed momentarily. Kendra took a half step back, curled in on herself, planted her right foot and popped her head up and into Athena's chin, snapping her head backward. The other boxer took one step back, blinking at the steel ceiling.
Kendra hesitated, part of her wanted to rush in, to finish her off. Part of her wanted to bend down over a semi-conscious Titan and say, "I live for this shit. Didn't you know? This is why I'm on this earth. To fight you and put you in your goddamn place." But Kendra held herself in check, watching Athena take one step forward. She watched her hands come up like she was readying herself to punch. Athena's body automatically remembered the stance. That kind of muscle memory came from real work. Maybe Kendra had underestimated her. In the time it took to blink her eyes, Kendra pondered this. Then Athena's head tilted back down, her mouth slack and her eyes nearly crossed from the chin blow and Kendra hit her.
She jabbed, striking Athena's face: once, twice. Kendra's right fist was hovering next to her cheek, waiting for its chance. Athena stumbled and Kendra went for it, an uppercut that cut Athena down. She stepped into the punch, her own grin spreading across her face because it felt good to land a punch with all her strength and desire behind it. To not just punch at Athena, but through her. Kendra imagined her fist exploding through a window, pounding through a wall, demolishing steel with that fist. Take this hit, rookie.
The referee rushed over, pushing Kendra away. Athena was face down until the ref hit three in his count then she moved and rolled over. She stood shakily, took a step and careened over to the ropes. Athena shook her head. The ref was in her face trying to assess her. Athena pushed him away. Not bad, Kendra thought. All that mouthing off had convinced Kendra that Athena was weak. But she wasn't weak; Athena was a boxer. The bell sounded and Athena was guided back to her corner.
In the locker room, after the medics looked them both over, Kendra was stretched out along one of the bolted down wooden benches feeling the heat leave her body. Where the heat remained in isolated pools across her torso, the bruises rose like bread. She would be really sore tomorrow. Kendra was waiting for Athena and Maury to finish arguing. Their argument was low and buzzing, Maury's sharp pointed sounds and Athena's low buzzing, furious responses. Athena was angry she'd won by decision, angrier still because now she knew that Kendra had been going light on her; that for all practical purposes, Kendra had let her win.
Kendra sat up and rolled her head and her shoulders. Maury was looking up at Athena and edging towards the locker room door. Athena was matching him half-step for half-step. Her hair was slipping out of its French braid, wild strands looking electrified by her anger. The blonde hair framed her ever-reddening face. Athena stuck a long blunt finger in Maury's face and he flinched. Kendra almost laughed out loud.
"Hey, Maury, give us a minute," Kendra said. The blonde glared at her. Maury, not the fool so many claimed he was for backing female boxers, took the proffered chance and slipped from the room. Now it was Kendra and Athena, with only the lone metal gurney the medics had left behind between them.
"You didn't beat me," Athena said. She fingered her bruised jaw. Kendra shrugged. She stood and stepped up onto the bench. Athena moved away from the door and toward Kendra, stopping when she reached the gurney. She put her hands on the gurney's cushion and began twisting the thin sheet that covered it. "Rematch in six weeks."
Kendra shook her head. "Don't be mad because I beat you to the head-butt. Everyone would have seen you do it and you would have looked bad. This way, I'm the bad fighter. You got what you wanted; so did I."
Athena looked down at the gurney. Kendra saw a shudder go through her. Athena's voice was low and strained when she said, "I didn't get what I wanted."
"You beat me."
"By decision!" Athena flung the gurney away. It crashed into the end of a row of lockers, metal against metal ringing and sounding the bell if Kendra were game. Athena was clearly up for it. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her fists were balled at her sides. She turned her body sideways, readying herself. "I had you."
Kendra wanted to tell her she never had a chance. Kendra had fought better and bigger opponents than her. Kendra shook her head. Athena was so young, so foolish, so full of herself. She was ripe for Maury's brand of manipulation. Kendra remembered well what being his girl was like. All the shine and glitter he'd wanted to sprinkle over Kendra to make her into a face instead of a boxer. "You're too pretty to box," he'd said a hundred times. To the point that when she did finally get hurt—a cut over her left eye that later matured into an impressive scar—she'd been ecstatic. Finally, she'd earned a mark to signify she was a serious boxer. Maury had teared up at the sight of the stitches for a nearly a week. Maury wanted her to wear bright colors and push-up bras. He wanted her to flaunt her sex around the ring instead of concentrating on her boxing talents. Looking at her replacement, victorious but disappointed, Kendra couldn't help being thankful she'd gotten away from Maury.
Kendra said to her, "Your left side is weak. You telegraph all of those punches. You're like a goddamn atlas. You're better than that." In the moment she said it, Kendra knew it could be true. She had a flash of Athena fighting and winning against some new female Leonard or Frazier. "Work on that or the pros will demolish you, and Maury, he'll have moved on to the next girl before you've even realized it."
Kendra hopped down and grimaced. She was stiff. She wanted a shower and her bed. She picked up her gym bag, slung it over her shoulder and walked past Athena. The boxer made to move after Kendra, but Kendra held up her hand, "We're done."
"I had you," Athena said to Kendra's back as she walked out of the locker room.
In the hallway leading back to the ring, Kendra heard the next event gearing up. The men were entering the ring and the audible wave of support from the crowd rolled down the hallway to her. No mocking, some trash-talking maybe, but those boxers, those men were respected for what they did.
Maury was waiting for her further down the hall by the double doors that led out. "You weren't supposed try to win," he said when she got near enough to hear him.
Kendra shrugged. "I made it look good. Besides, I got tired of being your punching bag out there. She still won." Kendra stepped around him and headed towards the double door.
"Wanna come back? After that performance, I don't know if she has what it takes to last out there."
"Come back to you? Never. Don't worry; she'll go the distance."
Kendra walked the few feet to the double doors and hit them hard. The doors squelched open and clanged against the metal jambs as they swung closed behind her. She pulled her hair free of the rubber band and she shook her head. Using both hands she massaged her scalp as she walked to her car. The sun hadn't been down long and the air was still warm.
Kendra opened the car door and tossed her bag onto the passenger seat. Upon impact, the bag's plastic zipper split open, her street clothes and one boxing glove bulged from the opening and everything slid to the floor. She sighed, sat down in the driver's seat and as she leaned over to push her clothes back into the bag, she winced and sucked in a breath. She sat up pulling the glove free as she went. Kendra turned the glove over in her hands, letting her fingers follow its curves, noting the dings and scratches on its dull red surface. She'd need at least a month for the bruises and pain to fade. But she'd deal with that and then schedule her appointment at the fertility clinic in Chicago. And in a year, Kendra figured she'd have everything she wanted. She exhaled a long, slow breath then tossed the glove over her shoulder and onto the back seat.