Herewith a startling and idiosyncratically romantic Steven Heighton short story “A Right Like Yours.” Many of you know Steven from previous appearances on the pages of Numéro Cinq, including his lovely poem “Herself, Revised” (very popular here), his novel excerpt from Every Lost Country, his book of essays The Admen Move on Lhasa, which Rich Farrell wrote about here, and his handful of Horace odes in translation, which you really ought to take a second look at for their grace and intricacy. Of these odes, David Helwig wrote to me in an email: “They seem to me technically brilliant. And therefore moving.” (Remind me to ask him if I can quote him.)
A RIGHT LIKE YOURS
By Steven Heighton
He is short but he has shoulders and I think he wears the flattest shoes going, cheap sneakers of some kind, and that is attractive, that he doesn’t try to elevate himself in any way. His look is shy though, maybe cold, with green eyes that don’t meet your eyes but look at your mouth or chin in the same way as, when you’re in the ring, the other girl will stare a little below your eyes. So maybe he does it to practice. Always be in the ring, Webb Renton tells us.
I choose to think he is just somewhat shy.
It started because I was training for my fifth fight and my sparring partner had hurt that ligament in the knee that’s called, I think, cruciate but we just say crucial because that’s what it is. The other girls at the club are either on the little or the huge size and Trav is about the same weight as me, though he is shorter, and toward the end of a workout Webb yelled at him to get in there and give me a couple rounds. Trav’s face then—like someone told him to throw himself on a grenade. People started gathering ringside. Like I said, it was the end of the night, and I would have been interested too. I don’t think the coach had ever put a girl and guy in to spar that way.
So the bell sounds, he comes out as if being shoved from behind and he is ogling my chin as usual, as if meaning to clock me there, but his eyes don’t have that focused, violent shine. He sets his hands high with the forearms upright in an old-fashioned stance and he peeks from between them like he’s behind bars—a guy who just woke up in jail and has no idea how he got there. I fling a few jabs at his face to see what he will do, which turns out to be nothing, so I hook low to his gut and then I follow with a loaded right and there’s this sound like an air mattress just sprang a leak and he takes a seat on the canvas and looks down at his lap with a puzzled frown. In a way it feels good I’ve knocked down such a solid and experienced little guy but mainly I feel bad. He was not trying. “Get up, send something back at her now, she’s training!” yells Webb from my corner. Trav’s cheeks inflate with air which he now puffs out through his mouth in a serious way and he gets to his feet slowly and we begin.
Next day I see him downtown after my shift at the Ramada where I work in the office. He is walking out of a camera store looking down at some photos and he has this warm, wide-open smile, just the opposite of his awkward frown last night in the ring. I stand in his road so he will have to collide with me or else stop. He stops, looks up from his photos. The smile dies. He’d looked beautiful before, thinking no one could see.
“That’s a shiner, all right,” I say idiotically, even pointing. “Nice photos?”
He mumbles something and he’s not staring at my chin but into my eyes! Well, my left eye.
“Damn,” he says now. “Sorry.”
“You know what Webb says about fighters apologizing.”
“That’s just in the ring. I never gave a girl a black eye before.”
“Yours is blacker,” I argue. “And I dropped my left.”
He nods and develops a thoughtful frown. “It’s a bad habit.”
“Not anymore. I won’t drop it in my fight and that’s thanks to you.”
The shiner is a sexy touch on him, like a pirate eye patch on a pretty boy face.
I think he wants to leave but I would like a few more seconds here.
“Your photos turn out?”
His face unfists, almost smiles. My knees waver like from a scoring blow.
“Sure,” he says, “they’re fine.”
“They of you in the ring?”
“Family,” he says, shaking his head, and he looks down at his shoes which I notice he always does after he answers a question, like he’s hoping that when he looks up again, you won’t be there.
“Parents?” I can’t believe how nosy I am being.
“Uh, kids. Son and daughter. Four and three.”
I stare from his face to the stack of photos and back again. I cock my head. In a slow, wary way he passes the top photo toward me like he’s surrendering his credit card to a mugger. It’s Trav, no shiner, pushing his grinning face (!) between the faces of the little girl and boy who are laughing in a wide stretchy way on either side of him. There’s a cake too. The girl’s face has been made up as a black and orange butterfly. The faces are a bit blurred, and the pupils are diabolically red, but there’s no missing the joy here.
“Nicole’s third. At the five-pin lanes up on the base.”
“Beautiful,” I say. “You look young to have a family. I mean, kids.”
“Boy came when I was eighteen.”
He shuffles. I think he knows what I want to ask.
“It’s a shared arrangement,” he says, and the look on his face is like somebody tricked him into speaking.
It can be as tempting to hit a face that attracts you as to hit one you hate, if the liked face is not replying to your attraction. At the Friday night workout we spar three rounds and he again pulls his punches but not too much now. A couple times after I score on him he retaliates instantly and for a second there is an exciting gleam in his eyes and he almost meets my gaze. He avoids hitting me in the chest guard, though. Breast shots really kill so I guess I could see this as a sign of budding affection, though I realize it might just be courtesy.
After, I ask if he will walk me to my car and he growls, “With a right like yours, a chaperone’s the last thing you need.” He walks me anyway. We cross the parking lot and he slows up as we approach each car, then glances at me as we continue.
“Farther,” I say. “I parked over there.” I nod up the dark service road toward the beer store on the far side of the diamonds.
“Why so far?”
“The lot was packed when I got here,” I lie.
“I’ve never seen this lot packed.”
“And like Webb tells us . . . got to fill those legs up with mileage before a fight.”
Several hours later, it feels like, he says, “I think you’re ready. Guess you’ll taper back on the sparring, next couple weeks.”
“Oh I don’t know,” I say quickly. “That’ll be Webb’s call.”
The service road lacks lighting. I glance over but can’t read his face. I have
butterflies, like before a fight, and it makes me walk faster though I am trying to slow down.
“Maybe when you’re training for your next fight,” I blurt out, “he’ll put us together again. Give you some extra rounds!”
“I doubt it,” he says. “I mean, I’d be training.”
I will knock him down again next week. He is short and pale and uncommunicative. He needs a shave. When we clinched tonight, he smelled of, I think, garlic bread.
Now he mumbles, “That was rude of me. Sorry.”
All of a sudden we’re at my ruin of a Lada which I parked under a crackling amber streetlight in a corner of the beer store lot. It sounds like a zillion volts are running through this light. I know the feeling. There is a ticket under the car’s front wiper. Trav removes it carefully and hands it to me with a sympathetic frown. He looks almost apologetic.
“Can I give you a lift,” I say strongly.
“I don’t want you to go out of your way, Trina.”
“It’s no trouble! Get in! Don’t mind the mess.”
There is no mess. This morning I vacuumed and lint-picked the interior and before the workout I took the car through a carwash where the asshole attendants actually offered me raingear and then (I watched them in the rear-view) bent over laughing as I drove slowly in.
“Thanks,” he says, and my heart for a moment there, till he says, “but I’ll walk. Like you say. Got to get mileage into these legs.”
“Yup,” I say with an idiot’s grin. “For sure. That’s very true.”
I renew my oath to knock him down Monday.
“Anyway, I live close. Near the No Frills.” He points in a vague way, like he is
embarrassed to live in the neighbourhood, or he just prefers not to locate himself too clearly.
Webb says I headhunt too much and he needs me to work on my body shots. He also thinks Trav needs to work on taking body shots if he is serious about turning pro. For a round at the end of each workout he makes Trav become a human punching bag and sicks me on him. Trav never looks pleased about these dates of ours. He leans back on the ropes with his blue gloves by his scrunched up face, elbows glued to his ribs, and my job is to find openings and work his body. He is permitted to move but not to punch, which basically means I can have my way with him. Since he is short, with long, thick arms, it can be hard to find undefended parts of his flesh to pound and I am very careful about not hitting below the belt—though at times I get the urge. Sometimes I feel him flinching, too. He must be concerned that even one of my hard punches could land foul, by accident or otherwise.
Tonight he smells of, not garlic bread, just bread. He works in a bakery, four in the morning till noon, five days a week. He likes it there. He was just promoted. It is easier to pry personal information out of him now and I am getting opportunities because after the last two workouts he has let me drive him home. To extend the drive, since he only lives a few blocks from the gym, I park some distance in the other direction on the service road, which also means we get to walk first to my spotless wreck of a car. Naturally he is silent on these outings and I have to talk for both of us. I think maybe he is annoyed about the
extra walking but he still does it with me and I choose to see this as hopeful.
We are filling our legs with mileage.
When my arms get too heavy to plant the punches Webb is yelling at me to throw,
I have no option but to lean in on Trav and clinch, for a pleasant rest. Would anyone notice if I sampled the fresh sweat on his neck? I think Trav would notice. Tonight for the first time he initiates a clinch. On Webb’s command I have been throwing repeat right hooks at his solar plexus, trying to pry through his guarding elbows, and now I do get through and his stomach is solid, though with a slight layer over it, I guess from all those baked goods. It’s so satisfying to connect. He grunts and gasps softly and sags and envelops me and my punches stop dead. He is humid, panting. Webb hollers at him to break and get back on the ropes.
My roadwork is a forty minute run each day at the traditional hour for fighters in training. It’s a struggle to get out of bed but once you are up and out, you can sprint straight down the middle of Princess Street if you want to. I do that sometimes. I have been known to sing at the top of my lungs while doing that.
I would like to sing at the top of my lungs this morning but this morning I will play it cool because this morning Trav is running with me. It’s the first day of his weekend, Tuesday. You’d think he would choose to sleep in but he says he is used to getting up for work and besides he wants time to get his place ready for his kids, who stay over on these days. Runs With Man is his morning alarm, he says. Runs With Man is a pound rescue dog, Jack Russell and malamute, a furry barrel with a wolf’s head and stub legs who trots at Trav’s side without a leash.
I would feel more encouraged by Trav’s presence if he hadn’t said, when I asked
him to run with me, that Tuesday is his “usual day for a run anyway.”
Like I say, I love running through the city in the last dark with the streets wide and empty and all to myself, but this morning after we do some of that, Trav asks me to run across the causeway to the fields and hills around the old fort. “The sunrise,” he says and it sounds like a romantic proposition maybe, except as usual he mutters it from the side of his mouth. But we run across and there’s this mist on the river from the night’s chill and with the lake still warm from the summer. “Let’s go,” he says, and frowns at his watch. He has a good idea exactly when the sun shows its face every day because he works at an east window, and to me there is something so appealing about a guy who sees every sunrise.
We put on a surge as we run up the middle of the road that climbs to the hilltop fort. Trav’s face knots up with the strain. When we get there he is winded. This embarrasses him, I think—that he is somewhat unfit or maybe that I am fitter. He mumbles that he’s just able to run once or twice a week, because of his hours.
Runs With Man flops on the grass and his tongue lolls like a pulled muscle.
“So are you really going to turn pro?” I ask, hoping the question won’t offend.
“Coach still wants me to, but there’s no way,” he tells the patch of dirt at his feet.
To my surprise his words are a relief. To my greater surprise I realize I am
not serious about turning pro either, though I have talked about it like I am.
“I saw a couple friends turn pro,” he says. “Used to think it might be a way to support the kids. Not a chance.” He turns to watch the coloured clouds at the horizon as if trying to figure the odds on our sunrise. To me, the view up the river and west over the big lake is enough. This view of Trav in profile is enough. He says, “I’m not good enough to win big prize money and not bad enough to get work as a bleeder for rising stars.”
“They love you at the bakery, though.”
“For some reason I’m good at it.”
I shift my feet downhill so my eyes are at his level, even a bit lower. Will this help? I am almost ready to suggest we start back down the hill when he taps the dog in the butt with his shoe and says, “Go, boy, get that squirrel.” The dog’s ears prick up and it pelts away downhill toward the water.
“I didn’t see a squirrel,” I say.
He looks me plumb in the eye and shows his still-good teeth and steps toward me. The sun is up. Clouds are in the way but sunlight sneaks through a momentary opening and it is enough to turn the grassy hill and the fort and the calm river and lake a rosy gold, like in a religious poster. Then it’s gone and I am glad because I see that the flush in his cheeks and spreading up to his hairline and down to his throat is not a reflection of the sun at all.
Like Webb says, the one that gets you is the one you don’t see coming.
“Just wanted us to be alone for a second,” he says, and as I open my arms the hill pulls him down to me.
—By Steven Heighton
Note: This story appeared in print in the U.S. in The Black Boot and in Canada in Maisonneuve.