The Phantom Punch

by Caitlin Scholl


Before he became the object of our whispers and stares, the Throat Man rode a customized Harley and frequented the no name bar in the seedy area at the edge of town. No one can remember whether he had ever held a real job for more than a month at a time, but it seems he had a hand in many other people's business.
The Throat Man's luck had never been dependable. One day he'd be passing out cigarette packs in the streets with a girl on his arm and a week later a mill worker would find him half-drowned in the canal without the change to buy a cup of coffee at the luncheonette. "If he'd been alive during Prohibition," Chicky said, "he would have been one of the bootleggers that froze to death up in Smuggler's Notch on their way back from Canada, thousands of dollars stashed under the floorboards of their homes."
Chicky slowly laid out these bits of information as we took drags off one of his father's cigarettes. Whereas most thirteen-year-olds would have immediately jumped into the sordid details of the story, Chicky paced himself. I had heard of summer camps in the woods to the north where the boys water-skied and hiked all day, settling down around a campfire after a large communal dinner to be regaled with tales of previous campers who had met nasty ends and haunted the surrounding mountains. Sitting among soggy cardboard boxes in the alleyway between our tenement building and the pizza shop, I thought Chicky had this in mind as well, though his subject really was right around the corner, watching over the neighborhood from on high.
If we didn't show any interest in the Throat Man before that summer, it was only because he had sat in the same spot on the wooden walkway in front of his top floor apartment for as long as either of us could remember. The mothers in our building seemed to think of him as a babysitter, telling their children they could play in the dirt lot next door only so long as they didn't stray out of his sight. We obeyed for the most part, though I doubted whether he would do anything if a kidnapper showed up in Little Canada. Whenever I'd look up from my work building forts and trenches I only saw a yellow withered body attached to an IV––hardly superhero material. The kids that lived in the other apartments on his floor said he breathed through a little hole above his shirt's neckline and ate through tubes that fed directly into his stomach. I must have taken more interest in him after hearing this, but if I did it soon faded as he continued sitting in his lawn chair day after sunny day. It seemed as though he only acknowledged the passage of time when he appeared on the walkway sporting his fur-lined hat each fall, an event dreaded by every kid in the building as it meant the end of aimless days of play and the return to nuns and wool uniforms.
We grew older and began roving further and further from under the Throat Man's eye, but our mothers invented new functions for his continued presence. When Chicky was caught swiping his father's cigarettes, Mrs. Michaud warned that he would end up just like "the pitiful man upstairs." When I told my mother I was saving the change I made off the bottles I turned in at the redemption center to buy a motorcycle, I was told the Throat Man had done the same thing at my age, and look where it got him. But when Jimmy Silarais reported his mother's cryptic message ("The cripple upstairs used to touch himself as a boy too"), it became clear that the real story had to be unearthed somehow.
Lucky for us, it wasn't long before Chicky's father decided it was time for one of their fishing trips. The oldest of the Michaud brood, Chicky received a certain favoritism. His parents, though ardent Democrats, subscribed to a trickle-down theory when it came to the raising of their six children; if Chicky was raised properly, the others would turn out all right in the end. So once or twice every summer, Chicky and Mr. Michaud walked the half-mile to the trickle of Great Falls and dropped their lines. They never took pictures or brought the fish home to eat, but when he returned in the afternoon, Chicky always had the aura of the woodsman about him. None of his siblings were jealous, though. After a century powering numerous shoe and bedspread mills, the river smelled rank and, although the scent was frequently carried to our neighborhood, it was far worse on the actual banks. Kids in school talked of finding frogs with tiny shoe-shaped growths on their backs. It was there, peering into the Androscoggin's yellow waters, that Chicky would ask his father all of the questions that we couldn't put to the other adults we knew. Most of the time he got answers.
Chicky was describing the Throat Man's former friends when I stopped him. "So, what happened to him? Was it any of those things our moms said?"
"Of course not," Chicky replied with mock indignation. "You think I'd go on like this if it was?"
"So what was it then?"
"Well," Chicky said taking a drag off the cigarette, though it was down to the filter and he was probably burning his fingers, "there are two schools of thought."

It's been five years since I last saw Chicky. He still calls, but since he picked up and left for Boston the day after graduation, I hear from him less and less.  When I ask him why he doesn't visit, he says why would he come back, there's nothing here.  He says I should come to Boston and give him something to do besides sit on the stoop all day and watch the world go by. Today I tell him how the town council is trying to entice Wal-Mart to build a distribution center off the turnpike. This could mean three hundred jobs. A third of the Bates Mill has been turned into retail and office space; the town loses three thousand dollars on it every day, but the renovated brick building looks good, like it belongs in some trendy section of New York where people live in lofts and go to gallery openings. The river is cleaner than it was when he was here, only smelling foul on the hottest of days, and a section of the old railway line along the east bank has been turned into a grassy park.
Chicky's voice comes back small and hard. His cell phone's reception is terrible and he periodically runs an impact wrench so the owner of the Saab repair shop won't suspect his employee's dereliction of duty. "It sounds good, but you remember what happened in the neighborhood the last time the town got it in their heads that they could bring back jobs by getting rid of the eyesores?"
I remember a summer of large destructive machines taking down all of the other tenements along our section of Canal. It was beautiful. My mother sat me down in front of the window every morning and I watched the wooden buildings fold and buckle like cardboard boxes until the workers and I took our lunch at noon.
But Chicky's talking about before. In those memories I run in and out of narrow alleyways, laundry crisscrossing for stories above my head and crotchety grand-méres yelling after me in French. The baker two buildings down hands out hard little sugar cookies. "Go tell your mama now that you want more. That's a good boy."
Once, in high school, I asked Chicky if he remembered the old neighborhood as I did. He had been perfecting his condescending laugh at that time, a combination sneer-scoff that he would get away with most of the time because he had skipped a year in school. He used it with me then, but a few minutes later he said that the neighborhood had had a more European flavor before urban renewal.
In a few days he'll be back in town to be fitted for his tux. My mother insists on a traditional wedding, though neither she nor Ally's family can afford it. Ally and I cringe at the thought of being in debt before we've even set out on our own, but then we remember the little house in Greene that we just signed a lease on and everything seems possible. Money will come soon enough.
Chicky's still griping about the town council when I remember that I haven't told him the real reason for my call. I honestly wouldn't mind if he stood as my best man in boxers and a T-shirt.
"Chicky. Listen, man: They're going to tear down our building, something about a new parking lot. They'll be cutting Frechette a check any day now. My mom's going to move in with my uncle and your family's found a place somewhere up in the tree streets. Walnut, I think."
I hear him yell something, but his phone's reception is failing.
"Chicky, you there?"
"Hey, don't worry about me; it's your ass that's in trouble, a kid like you getting married. Look, I've got to deal with a customer now, but I'll see you Wednesday."

Chicky reveled in his role as storyteller. It wasn't until I had promised not to interrupt again that he went on:
The Throat Man ran with a rough crowd. His closest friend was Stan Varone, the man who set the world record in 1977 for longest distance traveled by motorcycle in a twenty-four hour period. One morning he set out from the coast and the next day he called his wife from Des Moines. He never came back either, though a rumor started a couple years later that he had been killed by a white supremacist he had befriended in northern Idaho.
But all this was over a decade after the Throat Man's injury. Back when he was still riding with Stan, the mills were open and the men could find work as weavers whenever they needed to make some extra cash. It was during one of these periods––working on the mechanical looms at the cotton bedspread mill––that the Throat Man met Flo Lariviere.
No one remembers much about Flo except that she was small, barely five feet tall. Her hair is described variously as blond or brown or auburn, depending on whom you ask. She was taciturn but not aloof and her coworkers at the mill thought she was as straight-laced as they come. In other words, she was completely unlike any of the women the Throat Man had had relationships with before, and it was understood that this was what made her attractive to him. Our town is pretty big, but it's still nearly impossible to meet people outside of the circle of friends you've always had.
The Throat Man and Flo were rarely seen together in public. Once in a while he would bring her around to his brother's no name bar on Lisbon Street, but you could tell she didn't enjoy being there. His brother being the generous type, the Throat Man was able to arrange all the hockey and football pools and boxing bets while Brother tended bar. The Throat Man even tried to run numbers for a while, but the town wasn't big enough to support the game.
The bar itself was much as it is today: the windows boarded up and the entire exterior painted sky blue, no sign anywhere, and the black door looking like it's been kicked in a few times. The other buildings on the block house pawnshops and an adult bookstore. Without any windows, the bar's interior is dark and stuffy, and there aren't any tables, the only space to walk in being the narrow aisle in front of the bar. This is why no one plays the only game in the entire place; to do so you'd have to stand near the door and throw the darts past the heads of everyone else in the building, and no one trusts their friends' skills that much.
It isn't clear whether the Throat Man knew about Flo's husband before May 25, 1965––the night of the second Ali-Liston fight. When the police tried to question him at the hospital, the Throat Man refused to pick up the pad of paper they laid before him. They wouldn't leave him alone and the beat cops accompanying the detective kept laughing (the Throat Man's business having brought him in contact with them a number of times). Worst of all, the Throat Man couldn't tell them to fuck off, his esophagus having dissolved the night before when he took a swig of whiskey spiked with battery acid. So he just lay there and stared at the ceiling.
Some people say that Ali-Liston II is the key to understanding everything that befell the Throat Man; others say it is of marginal importance. Either way, the facts remain: On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay surprised all the experts by winning a Miami Beach title fight against the invincible Sonny Liston. The bout had been scored a draw but Liston refused to come out for the seventh round, claiming an injured shoulder and eye. A couple of months later, promoters tried to arrange a return match but none of the state boxing commissions would have them, claiming that the first fight was suspect. Liston, who'd fought his way out of prison to become America's favorite bad guy, only owned ten percent of himself at the time. Rumor had it he was in deep with the Mafia.
The promoters, for their part, cried discrimination. After all, Clay had just changed his name to Muhammad Ali and was lending his Louisville lip to the Nation of Islam's cause.
Finally, our town stepped up and offered the Civic Center, the same building where we play Peewee hockey and the Shriners have their circus. Of course, boxing is huge around here, but Ali and Liston? It was like a dream. We didn't even have the hotel space for all the big shots pouring into town. Liston stayed out at that Victorian hotel and health spa in Poland. Of course, that was before the Job Corps kids burned it to the ground, but anyway.
The night of the fight everyone was antsy. It seemed as though half the town had placed bets, and wouldn't you know, the Throat Man was arranging all the local business from his brother's bar. This was definitely out of his league. Hardly anyone in town could afford to watch the bout, including him. So they just sat in the bar and drank to get rid of their anxiety. This was a title fight.
Up at the Civic Center, Robert Goulet messed up the words to the "Star Spangled Banner," but no one from town would have minded since he's Quebecois. After that, everything went by too fast to make sense. Ali landed a right and a left and a corkscrew right that no one saw. Liston was down on his back and Ali kept jumping around and heckling him, ignoring the ref, but the knockdown timekeeper counted anyway. Liston got up and the ref let the fight go on since Ali never went to a neutral corner. A couple of punches were thrown before a sports writer yelled at the ref that the fight was already over. And that was it. Liston went down after a minute forty-two and everyone was left wondering.
Analysts watched the footage of that corkscrew punch––it hardly seemed hard enough to take Liston down. Massive Liston who had fought for his life in the streets and then prison before becoming a professional. Ali called it his anchor punch. He said everyone in the arena had blinked at the same moment, missing his sting.
But the media had another name for it: the phantom punch. The blow that seemingly comes out of nowhere and shows that a man can never be invincible. Whether it was Ali or the Mafia or the Nation of Islam that took Liston down that night, no one knows, but five short years later he was found dead in his Las Vegas home, apparently from an overdose.
Someone who'd been watching the match on closed circuit television ran down to the no name bar with the news. Other people started coming in, those who pretended that they'd been there and those who wanted to hear about it from them. The bar was about as full as it had ever been, and the Throat Man's brother could barely keep up pouring drinks. Some people were wicked mad. The fact that the fight was happening on native ground seemed to make people put more money on the line then they normally would have and, if they had placed their money on the wrong fighter, they blamed the Throat Man.
A transient with no front teeth stood up on the bar and accused Liston of throwing the fight; soon, the Throat Man had to answer questions about this as well. Everyone seemed to assume that he had some insider connections, that he was buddies with the promoters.
Flo wasn't at the bar that night, but her husband was. When Mr. Lariviere was taken in for questioning, he insisted that he had no idea about his wife's affair. Flo had always been good to him and the kids. Even though she worked long days at the mill she always kept the house clean and had hot meals on the table every night. In fact, she was at home crocheting, their two boys asleep, when a detective came by to tell her that her husband was in jail and would she mind if he asked her a few questions.
Not everyone noticed the Throat Man flailing around at first. By that time, the people closest to the entrance had turned their attention to a tall blond man from away. He claimed that he had been sitting three rows back and saw the phantom punch with his own eyes. He said it was so fast that he saw tracers. But the stranger only had a few minutes' fame because the people at the back of the bar started yelling, trying to clear the aisle. By the time the ambulance arrived, the Throat Man had passed out from the pain.
"So was it the husband that spiked the drink? Is he in jail?" I asked, unable to handle not knowing a moment longer.
"Yeah," Chicky replied. "But the evidence was shaky. I mean, who doesn't keep battery acid in their garage? Jealousy just seemed too straightforward of a motive, they couldn't resist."

Ally and I started moving in to our new place today. It's nothing special: brown, one story with a basement, and hidden behind a copse of white pine. But it does have a yard, and this is what excites us. Ally's been collecting lawn ornaments since she was fourteen, even though this is the first time she'll have anywhere to display them. Today she started unpacking the boxes of ceramic animals and stone birdbaths before we'd even finished unloading the truck. She talks of having garden parties, creating scenes with her figurines that a visitor could stumble upon. A terracotta nymph gazing in to a still pond, her male counterpart peeking at her from behind a nurse log. Once in a while she slips and mentions children––what kind of environment she would like for our children. She'll grow red and say you know what I mean and I smile because I do.
Chicky wouldn't be too pleased with that. When I first told him about the marriage and that I'd like him to be my best man, he wouldn't talk to me for a week. Then when he did, he tried to tell me that I was ruining my life, that I would never be able to get away from town with a wife in tow. We were both supposed to leave, he said. Together. Didn’t I remember?
I didn't tell him that I have no interest in leaving my mom and childhood friends behind, but he has to know that about me by now–– now that I have a real house and yard only twenty minutes from our old neighborhood. Ally and I have even talked about opening our own business, a plant nursery or garden shop, once we've settled in at home. Until then, I'll keep driving out to the coast every morning to landscape around modern colonial style homes that Bostonians rent on their summer vacations, probably driving up in Saabs that Chicky has worked on.
He hasn't met Ally yet.

When Chicky had finished telling his tale we both sat for a long moment in silence. I was having a difficult time reconciling the invalid on the walkway with the man Chicky said he had once been. A couple of years later, Chicky would go through his philosophical stage, trying to convince me that what I called red was not his red. I was unimpressed. More interesting and horrible thoughts had occurred to me years earlier as a result of the Throat Man's story: Life is illogical. One's beginning does not guarantee one's end.
After a while, though, Chicky started sighing and shuffling his feet and I realized I had missed something.
"Hey, what was that you were saying about two schools of thought, anyway?"
Chicky got a sly grin on his face. He'd been waiting for me to say something; he always had to make me feel like I was two steps behind.
"Well, not everyone was satisfied that it was Mr. Lariviere that had spiked the Throat Man's drink. Some people believed him that he didn't know about his wife's affair. He didn't go into the no name bar too often, but practically everyone in town who'd laid a bet was there that night. Also, he was standing nearby when the Throat Man took that drink and was one of the first people there trying to douse his mouth with club soda."
I asked if that wasn't his way of covering for himself. You know, reverse psychology.
"That's just what the prosecution would have wanted you to think. But there was another man doing the same thing, standing nearby and trying to help: Stan Varone."
"But they were best friends! That's ridiculous."
"Some people said that Stan was in deep with the Mafia down in New Jersey and that he'd come up here to get away from them years before. Maybe with the fight in town they got a hold of him again."
I told Chicky he was a jackass. I told him his imagination was working too hard. Even if Stan was connected with the Mob, they would have no reason to make him poison his best friend.
Chicky tried to cock an eyebrow, but his rebellious facial muscles made him wink instead. "Wouldn't they?"
It was a weak response and I told him so, whacking him over the head and doing my best Muhammad Ali impression, holding up my fists, eyes wide and crazy. "I'll hurt you so bad your dog will cry when he sees you."
We headed out from the alleyway to find some other boys to whom we could show off my talent.

The Throat Man seemed less of an oddity to me having heard his story. I even tried waving to him a couple of times, though he didn't acknowledge this change in our relationship. Still, only a few days had gone by before new interests––such as the abandoned house some neighborhood kids had adopted––filled the position he had held in my imagination. The mystery of the Throat Man's injury might not have been solved, but I was satisfied that I knew as much about it as I ever would.
The abandoned house took up all of my free time for the rest of that summer. Jimmy Silarais pilfered some of his father's tools and we spent the balmy days of August in the house's cool, dark interior building ramps to jump our bikes off and furniture for some imagined future when we would all leave home to move in there. We called our new digs the Pad, as in:
What're you doing this afternoon?
Oh, I thought I'd drop by the Pad. My brother gave me a beer for helping work on his truck. Wanna come?
One night I stuck around the Pad after everyone had gone home, working on a wobbly structure I was calling a cabinet. I walked home sometime after one, exhilarated by the freedom I felt being out so late all alone and terrified of what my mother would do when I arrived. I was an only child and my father had left us a decade before; she would be waiting up, probably calling all of my friends asking when they'd last seen me. Still, as I approached our building I didn't regret anything, even as I thought there would surely be tears on her part.
As I neared our building, I saw that the Throat Man was still out in his lawn chair. He normally went inside soon after sunset, not emerging until ten the next morning. I couldn't imagine what had kept him out there until that late hour. The confidence I had been feeling just moments before was dwindling, but I passed by my ground floor apartment and started ascending the wooden stairs that crisscrossed the front of the building, not sure what I would do when I got to the top.
Of course I had been all over the building, eaten lunch in my friends' apartments, but the Throat Man was at the very end of the walkway––you couldn't casually walk by him. As I approached this night I realized two things: that he was asleep and that he looked completely different than the man I had seen from afar my entire life. Yes, he was withered and sickly, but there were other things I had never noticed before. He had a full head of white hair, when for some reason I had always thought of him as balding. By the porch light I could see that his mouth was shiny with old scar tissue, his jaw large and square; if he were not so slender and wrinkled he might have passed for a much younger man. I remembered the air hole and stooped to look below his nodding head. His shirt covered it, but I was shocked by the tranquility of his face in sleep. Maybe Stan and Flo left him alone in his dreams. Or maybe not.
I was still stooped over looking at his face when he woke up. He didn't seem surprised to see me, but motioned with his arm. I helped him up. We walked to his door and I felt the brittle bones of his shoulder, like broken glass in a sack of felt. His apartment's furnishings were sparse: a card table, a straight-backed chair, a television, a few pieces of shiny medical equipment. There was nothing in the kitchen, but there didn't need be; all his nourishment was in the bags of liquid piled next to an IV. He left me at the door and shuffled toward a door in the back, which I knew by the familiar floor plan to be his bedroom. He didn't turn or wave me away, just walked right in and shut the door. I looked around the room from my vantage point in the doorway, hoping to see some personal item––a photograph or dog-eared book––but there was nothing. I locked the door and headed downstairs.

The following spring, Throat Man died. Chicky and I talked about going to the funeral, but when the day came, we were too scared to ask our moms to drive us. For some reason, the funeral was being held in a town an hour away. Besides, we knew our moms wouldn't let us miss a day of school without some tough questioning. Chicky and I skipped school anyway, riding our bikes up to the Civic Center. I'd never told him or anyone about that night in August.
"Do you think Flo went to the funeral?" I asked.
"She's probably been dead for a while herself."
We climbed around on the road construction equipment being kept in the parking lot. After a while I asked Chicky, "Do you really believe it was Stan that did it?" We were both feeling pretty low and Chicky wasn't pulling faces and attitudes like usual.
"I don't want to believe it, but I can't understand anyone living their life like that, not having any contact with other people, just watching them from afar. I can't see anyone choosing that life unless someone they loved had hurt them. Someone who was like a brother."




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CAITLIN SCHOLL is attempting to escape a history that propels toward hipsterism.  A Reed College graduate, barista, bike safety instructor and campus organizer, publishing short stories does not help.  She lives in Bazou, Cameroon.




    

  
The Adirondack Review