The Round by Marco Antonio Rodriguez

The Round by Marco Antonio Rodriguez

The Round

By Marco Antonio Rodriguez

He goes into the bedroom to ask her yet again, to be patient with him and his mother, to forget mama’s crime, that second bowl of soup yesterday, Saturday. But she has his back turned to his plea, her head confined in a helmet of rollers, her hands covered with cream.

In the light of the nightstand, he imagines the facial mask that leaves bare only a segment of her frivolous features and that makes her look like a fish out of water. He doesn’t know if he should like down next to her, considering that he doesn’t have anything more to say other than what he’s already said so many times, or leave and then come back an hour or two later, after deluding himself by pretending to read back issues of boxing magazines. On turning toward the hallway, he notices the almost astral odor of cosmetics and the obscene crack in the mirror, exactly like hers.

He closes the door with the same troubled feeling he had when he opened it, but just then she waves her arm at the light as though it were a cloud of tiny moths, she coughs twice. He turns into a rag doll curved into the void, his right hand soldered to the doorknob, listening to the malignant murmur she spreads throughout the house.

It’s cold and even colder on crossing the passageway that leads to his mother’s room. Perplexed, he looks at the sad olive miracle of her closed eyes. Beyond, his trophies expire, subdued by dust.

Now in the street, he bends over to tie his shoes. The pale knit pullover leaves bare his neck taut with hands, inhales and exhales through his nose. He jogs down San Juan at an easy pace, annoyed by the dim lights in the shops, the boys in their street corner gangs who still recognize him and stand back to let him pass, the bars that exude their harsh orders.

At La Merced, in the light of the church’s farthest dome, he thinks he sees the vapid grin of Ceferino Congo, the black deaf mute who lived for a hundred years taking care of the friar’s colossal clock. When Ceferino died, lay brother Valenzuela insisted in catechism class, there was no way to get the hands of the clock moving again.

He crosses the plaza at the church of San Francisco and 24 de Mayo, where illusions are for sale. He climbs up the hill with the pawnshop and comes to Huascar. Weak, he hides from a pitiful shape, flattening himself against a door. He barely notices the bundle, picnic grounds over which cockroaches swarm, or their raspy razor sharp screeching that rips through the squid belly of the night.

He breathes in rapid double time, bracing his head until the tendons in his neck jump like wet jackrabbits. (Punish his muscles and prove that they’re still vigorous or wander among his scattered joys like a caged jaguar looking for the freedom he’s misplaced, that generally brought him back to an acceptance of his routine lot in life, but now his resolve slipped away like the string of a broken toy.)

He’s worried that somebody might recognize him. Maybe if he were go to back home. Or look for his friends. Or lose himself in a whore from Lima and songs about love lost. A pretty impulse, like the foul smell growing at his side, flashes through his nerves. Exasperated, he checks his pockets, putting together all the money he finds.

Two forces, both hazy, do battle in him: one compulsive but excessively soft, and the other like a rough, merciless mass in league with time. No matter how often he shuffles the dark deck of his brain, he finds no vengeance that in recent months ravages his blood announcing a death limply calculated.

At La Esperanza, he can taste the penetrating fumes of stale beer, tobacco smoke, and clandestine sweat. There are only a few people in the bar – the word Sunday comes to mind – all men, except for one brittle woman who drinks alone at the back table. The walls are covered with grime interrupted here and there with etchings of sex organs and hearts pierced with trite phrases.

Behind the bar, the bartender, disheveled, slides over to him. He’s a man as nervous as a little lizard, his face stale from long nights, with a fuzzy cap bobbing on his head. He makes stupid little hops, shakes his apron, blinks like a simpleton. He shouts champ and his shout wades through the notes, hastily arranged, of a cumbia that booms from the jukebox. Nobody else notices him, but he feels a comforting euphoria and comes in flexing his muscles. When he gets to the bar, the little man with the cap dazes him with a cross fire of shots of cane liquor and infantile accolades. He drinks diligently, quieting the flattery of the bartender.

He’s startled by a slap on the back. He turns on the revolving bar stool, steeling his jaw and widening his eyes dulled by the first drinks. It’s Pup Cespedes, his old idol; a limping grey stew, his eyes almost invisible in rolls of fat, and a dirty tangle of hair at his neck. Champ, they say to one another, and surrender to an endless embrace, heavy with secret complicities. Still a champ?, the words bubble over to him. You bet boy, the old man answers, caressing him with a fake jab to the jaw.

They sit down near the table near the woman’s. Pup swears: It’s One-Eyed Moncayo, Colonel Arcentales’ daughter. In the old days we used to call her the Lobster because she had the tasty part in the rear. The King knows the story just like everybody else in the barrio, but he laughs anyway and he looks at the little woman shamelessly. He’s intimidated by the look in her damaged eye, the grimace of her read, toothless mouth, but he keeps looking at her. Pup distracts him, pretending to hit him with his meaty fists.

It’s like being at Arenas, except without the fans, he jokes. Sure, the King laughs, rubbing himself like a champion against the back of the chair. The drunks turn around to watch, timid, without meaning to, and they start laughing too. Pup orders a bottle of cane liquor and cigarettes, the King that they play Tormentos and Rebeldia on the jukebox.

The bartender runs back and forth, accommodating them, his big butt jiggling. Pup settles himself in the chair, works on getting his eyes focused, curls his lips, lights the little candle in the attic, says: The good times, boy, are the ones that get your crotch hot, the punches, on the other hand, they toughen up the soul. Now he pushes his cut rye face toward the middle of the table, knocks over a glass with the left, puts it back where it was, roars: “You what, King? Drink, and I ́ll give it to you straight: A boxer is a Roman candle, he throws off some sparks, four or five years, after that he spends the rest fighting with life, if they left him a whole man.”

Torments and grief tear ayayayayayay, through my chest, my shattered heart… “The flies haven’t settled on you yet, King, why don’t you get back into the ring, or if not, set yourself up for a business,” the Pup goes on philosophizing, and his licked cork heart floats over the words, “I’m doing all right with the French fries, you gotta quit being a guard dog for the politicians, I know what I’m talking about. They’re not our kind.”

Now I have someone to love, discrete and better than you, she doesn’t know how to betray two…

The King’s not listening to the well-meaning advice of the only man he’s ever admired in his entire life, though he hides his indifference with an easy smile. He needs time to drink and think. He thinks about the sun-drenched days when she and his mother got his bag ready, shook out the plush cape, arranged his shoes, his socks, the bandages with ointment, and outside now, surrounded by kids chattering away like birds, fighting to get close to him, he calmly broke the protective wall thrown up by his assistants and anticipated the singular blush of glory, kissing her fresh and anxious lips, certain that he had the world in his fists.

He thinks of the fights in his life, while the Potolos blaspheme macho tones: Lord, I am not satisfied with my lot, nor with the hard law you’ve decreed…Angel King Clonares Vs. Dynamite Altamirano, Fugenio Rocky, Duke Olivares, Big-Mouth Lobato, Marvin Curry, Charlie Lee Hagler…because there’s no good reason for why you’ve brought me down. He, always coming from the side, tight-lipped, always on guard, his left up, the right at his waist, using his earth-shattering hook, or his one-two, which his rivals knew were tickets to the hospital

…And you wanted to listen to me, but haven’t been able to…Now he’s fixating on his dashing figure in the fight posters, more like a dance instructor than a boxer; the nappy hair, the serious forehead, the fine nose and jaw, the proud eyebrows and the small, sly eye…suspended your sentence and my condemnation …He thinks of her light mulatto skin, the part around her breasts…

…And I’ll pay my debts when I can…, and as though a lamp were lighting her up from within, spreading a warm, fleshy lightness…I will give you back the life you gave me…And other hands possessing her.

They drink until dawn. Defeated, jubilant. Swearing eternal friendship, feigning swift combat, talking about the old days and the stingy business of life, confiding in one another their darkest secrets, the Pup irritating the few cats who drank that night at La Esperanza, swaying his bulk the size of a triple-door closet, mimicking the bartender, the King living up to his reputation as a hard drinker who never let the booze get to him, from time to time their gazes joining at some undefined point along the shelves, grinding their teeth, both letting the music penetrate, digging its’ sad claws into spandrels of their hairy chests.

The King settles with his friend on an improvised bed of newspapers in the back of the bar. He scribbles an IOU. He picks out the salvageable butts. He runs his fingers through his hair. As he leaves, he sees One-Eyed Moncayo nodding off in the doorway. A whore’s luck, he mutters. In the semi-gloom of the street, his imagination begins to take pleasure in the details of his revenge. Then he heads back.

When he first noticed the car it was harmless and distant, ready to disappear at any moment in the neighborhood’s winding streets. Later, he noticed a few blocks away, fearless, cunning spying on the outlines of his house. Then he felt its existence like a vague but menacing reality, aggressive, pawing, its’ horn blowing Bertha’s delay, and Bertha running harried, now I’m screwed, Angel, now I’m screwed, the boss just got here, running like the wind down the stairs, now I’m screwed, Angel, waving her just polished nails. And he’s going to the window, gasping for air, pressing his depraved anguish to his heart, as though it were his wife’s body.

At Cruz Verde, a bunch of drunks comes his way. He’s pretty sure he knows who they are and tries to avoid them. Too late. The thugs pile up on him, slice the air with their commands, confuse him with their tragic party steps. I’m Angel the King Clonares, sonsabitches he shouts and searches like a blind chicken for a vulnerable point, but he always crashes against a wall of rabid shoves.

They grab his arms and check his pockets. He’s clean, the pocket checkers say. Pimp, howls an old hunchbacked man, aiming a kick to his stomach. Angels falls curled into a ball. I’m Angel, the King Clonares, his lips pray.

He wakes up suffering an implacable pain in his bones, as though they ground him up in a press. With his right hand, which is the only one he can open to size of a coin, he sees a meaningless horizon of furtive lights. Not a single thought can penetrate his mind. Behind him, everything ended with no demands, but in his shred of time now remote and past-due, there remains the body of a woman broken by his blows. That’s all.

Nevertheless, he’s still cheered by his sinister decision. Little by little, in place of the pain a feeling of detachment takes root and he smiles finally, in spite of the fact that in doing so, he is reminded once more that he will never be the same again. He thinks about the Pink Panther broken up into dozens of small cubes. He stops at the cubes that holds one of his eyes – maybe the right – and watches how, from there, the Panther weeps for the pieces of his body, lost in previous sequences.

He gets halfway up. Leaning against the wall, he tries to move, managing the swaying of a decrepit animal. And you, who thought you were the King of the world…the Panther, dressed like a Mexican cowboy, sings in his head.

She’s in the same position she was when he left. He gets undressed with difficulty. Then he gets into bed, slowly. He raises his wife’s bathrobe and pulls down the tiny silk panties, rolling them almost to her knees. She takes care of the rest without opening her eyes, her movements expert but listless, a grimace of boredom visible on her lips. He gets on top of her and says in her ear, my queen, penetrating her and detecting the unmistakable scent of fear in his blood.

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