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Thom Jones

ROCKET MAN

The Quonset hut was immaculate except in these times when W. L. Moore was drinking. Thus when Prestone entered the yard, found it strewn with empty beer cans, and discovered the front door ajar, he was reluctant to step inside and so he hung back a moment, milling in the yard, waiting for inspiration.

Moore's Chevrolet was parked far to the rear of the lot with the driver's door wide open. The nose of the automobile pressed hard against the taut barbed wire fence that separated the lot from a cow pasture. To Prestone it seemed like the car was poised to blast through into the field. He walked over to the car and closed the door to save the battery and then slowly walked back to the Quonset hut.

Billy Prestone was a large young man. He was a light- heavyweight but the only time he weighed as little as one hundred seventy-five pounds was for the very weigh-in of a fight when his huge frame of bone and muscle had been tortured down to the official limit. The only way to do that any more was by dehydrating off the last ten pounds with diuretics. This was dangerous-but as Moore was wont to say, "Like, so what else is new?"

Although Prestone had just fought and won, he was eating already, taking in water and putting on weight, maybe twenty pounds overnight. In combat boots and a double layer of sweats he seemed gigantic. A sinister set of reddish-black stitches bristled under the curve of each eyebrow-either one of the cuts could have cost him the fight but Moore had been in his corner and kept the cuts under control.

Moore had remained cool while the chief second had panicked in a way that had nearly freaked Prestone. Moore had come through for him but now Prestone felt he would rather go back and face the anguish of the fight all over again than confront his friend.

He pulled off his watch cap, revealing a "high-and-tight" haircut, and carefully blotted the perspiration from each of his blackened eyes. The rest of his face was splotched with red glove burns and stung with sweat. He swung the door open with the toe of his boot. The room was saturated with the sweet sickly smell of stale beer.

W. L. Moore stood astride his old boxer dog, Muggsy. He had the dog's head tilted back and he was carefully pouring Donnagel down the dog's throat, alternately massaging it so she would swallow and then pouring in more of the pastel green fluid. When she had swallowed a considerable amount, Moore seemed satisfied and wiped the dog's square grey muzzle clean with a disposable napkin.

Elton John was singing "Rocket Man" on the radio when W. L. Moore looked up at Prestone, Moore plaintively spoke the words Elton John was singing- " 'I'm not the man they think I am at all-I'm a rocket man . . .' "

For a moment the dog started to gag. W. L. Moore massaged the back of the old dog's neck, rolling the folds of skin back and forth with one hand while he stroked the underside of her belly with the other. "You have to give her digitalis twice a day," he said, "and it upsets her stomach and she goes into this thing where she shits and pukes for three days and then I can't give her any medicine and then her heart weakens and she'll faint or fall down. It gets so bad you hope you'll just walk past one time and find that she's . . . dead."

Moore searched Prestone's face intently, desperately. "You know what I mean? But then it will pass off, she can take the medicine and have a couple of good days." He looked Prestone over suspiciously as he drew himself erect. He grasped at a spasm in his back and then began to gulp air. He seemed to have shriveled and grown old overnight. Prestone looked away.

"She's a good dog," Prestone said. He walked over to the wine-colored leather heavy bag suspended from an iron beam at the top of the ceiling. Prestone squeezed back his thumbs, drawing his hand wraps tight, and with sudden fury the young man ripped off a dozen body shots at the inanimate bag, causing it to jerk violently on its chain. After the barrage he swayed from the waist, in a bob and weave style, dodging the bag, picking up its rhythm as he raised himself and unleashed a savage flurry of left hooks and straight right hands to the head of the bag. Abruptly he hooked the bag with his elbow to stop it from moving and turned back to W. L. Moore.

"You look like hell, champ," Billy said. "Your face is blue. I don't think you're getting any oxygen. How come you're juicing again, man?"

"I don't know. I wish I knew. How come you're out running already?"

"I just felt like it. I must have done ten miles. I'm all hyper."

The old dog struggled to get on Moore's narrow single bed. W. L. Moore quickly moved over to help her by lifting up her arthritic hips. The dog made a couple of circles on the tight mattress and then plopped down heavily. Moore covered her with an olive green army blanket leaving only her head visible. He tenderly framed her face with his large twisted fingers and bent forward to kiss her. The dog looked back to him with sad grateful eyes and swallowed several times.

Moore reached under the bed and withdrew three sixteen ounce cans of Hamm's by their plastic retainer ring along with a half pint of Smirnov vodka. These he set on the oilcloth-covered kitchen table. He broke the seal on the vodka bottle and guiltily looked to his friend. "Blue sparks are popping off my fingertips. Every time I look at the wall I see bugs in my peripheral vision. I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone or something. It's like . . . psychotic terror."

He threw his head back and tossed down more then half the bottle of vodka and then quickly swallowed an entire can of beer. He looked back at Prestone with red watering eyes and took several long breaths, gulping in the air. "I'm on my eleventh day," he said. "I can't get high anymore. I can't even get straight. I want to go to detox, but her stomach won't come around."

Moore walked back to the bed and lowered himself on it, wrapping his body alongside that of his dog. "That time I fought Red Franklin," Moore said. "It was a very tough fight. I woke up hyper, like you. I remember I went to the store to get all of the papers to read about the fight. I mean, I knew that I had won but he really roughed me up. He was tough. He was a butt-kickin' stud. I was sore all over, but by the time I got back from the store, my back really started to hurt. I realized I had a fever and when I went to piss, I was pissing blood. I was too sick to drive myself to the hospital and I had no phone. I just lay for three days, delirious. I thought I was going to die but gradually I did come out of it. He was a terrific body puncher. That fight, that beating was the beginning of the end for me. I was twenty-four years old and that's how I celebrated winning my title. Coming up through the ranks is hard. The other night was hard. Too hard, if you ask me."

"I didn't smell booze on you, you were completely absolutely stone cool. Tommy wienied out when he saw the cuts. Man, I don't want to hear that shit, 'You're cut to the bone! You lost a quart of blood! We've got to stop it!' "

"Is that what he said? Tommy said that?"

"You don't remember? Yeah, that's what he said. You closed the cuts and Tommy tells me to go out and throw my shooter, knock him out, but he won't go down, he comes back with he head, he's dropping left hooks in over my right hand. I can't see, my second wind is history, I don't know what's holding me up; back in the corner you closed the cuts again-"

"I remember the cuts, I used two bottles of adrenaline and when that didn't work I burned them shut with ferris chloride-"

"You said, 'There's a third wind.' You said, 'Kid, there's a third wind. It's between here and death. Don't be afraid. Go on ahead and grab ahold. The third wind. It's all yours.' "

"I did? That's pure Gurdjieff!"

"You said, 'Go on out there, it's all on instinct now.' It was so strange. Suddenly I had my legs back and I was punching, really hurting him, but he was taking it. I mean, I knew I had him but I couldn't believe how he could take it. I feinted a right, gave him the Fitzsimmons' shift, and nailed him with a left hook to the solar plexus. Can you believe that? I'm telling you, I nailed him. I drilled the fucker. He made the count, and I was glad for this because I wasn't through. I trapped him on the ropes, slid him down to his corner and blew him away. I threw the shooter. It was the first clear shot I had at his chin all night. It had some firepower in it. Blam! He went down like he was shot between the eyes with a .45. Two minutes into the tenth round."

"The Fitzsimmons' shift," Moore said. He laughed shortly. "I don't really remember. I was doing some Demerol. It's all a jumble."

"I'm as brave as a bull," Prestone said, "I fear neither man nor beast."

Prestone back pedaled away from the table, set his feet, feinted the right and then quickly executed the Fitzsimmons' shift, assuming the southpaw stance, and fired a ferocious left hook to the solar plexus of the heavy bag, followed by a crisp overhand right. He bounced for a second on his toes and then mechanically tripped off a sequence of uppercuts.

Prestone arrested the swinging of the heavy bag and turned to Moore with his hands on his hips. He said, "This morning I got a long distance call. Guess who?"

"Tell me."

"A call from Scotland. Glasgow. McGillian says he saw me on TV. . . He says, 'Yer a bluidy tough bloke, I cannae wait to get it oan.' They want me for July."

"How much?" Moore demanded.

"Two hundred fifteen thousand and change."

"They want you before the eyes heal right. Did that ring doctor debride those cuts? That tissue is sodden with adrenaline."

"Hey, man," Prestone said, "he cleaned them up righteously and stitched them with silk. I'm not worried about my eyes. I'm worried about McGillian. I'm going to kill the motherfucker."

"I don't like McGillian at all. His style is all wrong for you." W. L. Moore reached under the bed and withdrew another can of Hamm's. He popped it open and stepped over to the table, finished the rest of the vodka and then chased it with beer. "Am I still blue?"

"No, you've got color."

"The cells-at this point the only language they understand is alcohol. I feel a little bit better. I was getting fucking paranoid."

Moore crossed the room to a row of metal cabinets next to his small kitchen sink. He rummaged through the drawers until he located a fifth of apricot brandy. He took a long pull from the bottle and then grabbed a full six pack of Rainier's Ale from his refrigerator. He flipped a can of ale across the room to Prestone and then opened one for himself. He took a small sip before he walked back to the bed and laboriously arranged himself next to his dog. "I've got to get horizontal," he said. "I feel rough."

Prestone tossed the sweating can of ale from hand to hand. "McGillian has a good jab," he said.

"Aha! I knew it, the voice of doubt. You better believe he's got a good jab and no matter how much you think you're going to be ready for it, it will surprise you. His jab will make you see pinwheels, a whole star show. It will curl your toenails. You will think that you are being hit in the face with a battering ram. This is how it's going to feel-and let me tell you something, buddy, you've got to be ready for that kind of thing or you'll panic. You've never seen a jab like this and it will throw you out of your conception of a safety zone-all these years of feeling comfortable in the ring will go out the door. You will feel like you're on some strange planet and you'll panic and won't know what to do. It's pretty hard to improvise when you're getting the shit kicked out of you. Last night was a Sunday picnic compared to McGillian. You beat a cheese champion. Fight a couple at home and collect some easy money. McGillian is going to be war-"

"I'm good with a right hand counter shot-"

"Not that good. You're going to have to eat that jab for five, six rounds, maybe all night, and . . ." Moore said incredulously, his high girlish voice rising into falsetto, "you're going to be fighting him in Scotland? In his ring with all his homeboys cheering him on?"

"I can't make the fucking weight anymore! One more time and I never want to see one seventy-five again. Don't fuckin' worry, I'll get McGillian. I got the juice for him. I'm going to get audacious and kick some ass. I'm going to let him have it. That motherfucker is going to be one sorry son of a bitch when I get done with him. He's going to wish he never heard of me. I got his number. He's mine! They're going to say he was a shot fighter after Billy Prestone. I'm going to tell him, 'you better quit, motherfucker, you ain't got it no more.' I'm going to lay some shit on him that they have never even heard of yet and then I'm moving up to the heavies, where I belong, and every swinging dick in the division better fucking look out!"

"Well, say it like you mean it! Can you hang in with the big man?"

"I can hang with anybody."

"You can hang with the big guy?"

"I can hang with anybody!"

Moore came off the bed with his hands up, his head bobbing as he waded in on Prestone. "Can you hang with me?" he cried in mock fury. He was beginning to sound drunk.

Prestone threw a vicious but well-controlled five punch combination that was so fine he was able to bring it just a few millimeters short of Moore's jaw. "Anybody!"

Prestone playfully began to wrestle when suddenly Moore began to shiver uncontrollably. He quickly slipped away from Prestone and staggered over to the sink. "Oh my God," he said. Turning away from the sink he rushed to the toilet, which was in open view at the back of the Quonset hut. Moore pitched his head forward into the bowl and began to retch, although he did not vomit. In a moment he got up and walked back to the table with exaggerated precision. His eyes were bloodshot and watering heavily. He picked up a can of ale and did what to Prestone seemed unthinkable-he drank all if it and then clutched himself as he began to tremble again. Prestone helped him settle back down on the bed. Reflexively, Moore reached for the warmth of his dog under the army blanket.

"Are you all right, champ?" Prestone said.

"Brandy on an empty stomach. I just can't seem to get straight. I'm shitfaced and hung over at the same time."

Prestone sat down next to the table and took a swallow of ale. "The first time I saw you, I was walking home from school and you were in here punching the bag. You were playing the Doors, so I figured you had to be cool and then I saw your bag action and I was hooked immediately. I had me a hero. What moves you had. It was beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I fell into the rhythm and everything else in the world seemed to drop away. I knew I was going to be okay then because suddenly I had a dream. I'm in seventh grade and I had a plan for my life. Man, I love boxing. I love everything about it. I love the punches and all the fancy moves. I like sweat and the smell of leather. I love the diet, the training, the structure of each day. I love the individuality, I love the other fighters. I feel privileged to be in their company. Hey, man, I'm like Peter Pan, I don't ever want to go back to reality. I still can't believe it; champion of the world."

Moore's eyes were rolling back into his head; he had passed from a state of lucidity into unconsciousness in a matter of seconds. Prestone felt a bit like a fool when he realized that his soliloquy would go unacknowledged, yet he sighed with relief. This would make a difficult situation easier. He got up from the chair and found a dry sweatshirt in Moore's foot locker. Prestone took off his own and looked into the large floor-length mirror Moore kept for shadow boxing.

His neck was huge, his chest was thick and flat, the muscles distinct and visible beneath the smooth, almost transparent skin. His arms were pumped from throwing punches and roped with thick well dilated blue veins; his waist, a narrow thirty-two inches, was perfectly ripped. Prestone squatted down into a fighting stance, once more performed the Fitzsimmons' shift, and then assumed the disdainful Daguerreotype-like pose Robert Fitzsimmons struck after knocking down James J. Corbett in their 1897 match. He had studied the picture for years, burned it in his mind and somehow had made it come true. He was champion of the world. Hands down on his hips, chest thrust out, head held high, Prestone looked about the room in the arrogant king-of-the-hill attitude of "all right, who's next?" So vivid was his play acting, he cried aloud, "Anybody!" surprising himself with his own spontaneity.

His gaze returned to the mirror. Champion of the world. It was hard to believe. It was too much, really, and it was different than he imagined it would be. He somehow felt vaguely cheated. Prestone studied himself another moment before he put on the dry sweatshirt and went back to the foot locker. He began to fill a small duffel bag with fresh underwear, a clean pair of Levi's, a shirt, a pair of moccasins, Moore's shower kit, and finally, the well worn copy of The Portable Nietzsche.

Prestone zipped the bag shut and then coaxed the dog down from the bed and out into the front lot. While he waited for the dog to relieve itself, Prestone gathered up the beer cans that were scattered everywhere and tossed them into the garbage can. Next he combed through Moore's Chevrolet looking for fresh liquor. It would be too easy if there was an available supply when Moore came home.

Back inside he dumped a pint of brandy into the sink. He located two more hidden cans of Hamm's. He took these and the three remaining cans of ale along with the duffel bag, and placed them in the rear seat of the Chevrolet. When the dog was back on the bed next to its master, Prestone covered it with the army blanket, then he hoisted Moore and carried him out to the car. Once they were moving, Moore stirred to consciousness.

"Hey," he said. "What's going on?"

"We're going to detox, champ. There's five beers back there. You better drink fast. We'll be there in ten minutes."

"Oh God, poor Muggsy . . . she's gonna die!" Moore moaned.

Prestone saw his friend's contorted face in the rearview mirror. This is just what he had hoped to avoid, a maudlin scene.

Moore began to sob. "I can't bury another dog. Not now. God!"

Prestone slapped the rearview mirror askew and flipped on the radio. Once again Elton John was singing, "Rocket Man."

The sun fought through dark, heavy clouds and charged the landscape with a bleak and unearthly white light like the light of nuclear winter. Both men, each for his own reasons clung to a phrase in the song-"it's lonely in outer space . . ." and froze up for the rest of the ride.

-----

The glove burns had vanished from Prestone's face; the stitches, too, were gone although the cuts under his eyebrows were still flaming red scars only just beginning to heal. The blackened eyes were fading into shades of red and yellow like autumn leaves. Prestone wore a Ralph Lauren khaki shirt with a button down collar under a navy blue sleeveless v-neck sweater, cotton chinos and deck shoes. He led W. L. Moore's boxer dog around the side of the building until he spotted his friend inside the window. At this point he unhooked the dog's leash and began to shadow box with the animal. The dog was frisky and well, but Prestone quickly ended the game because of her heart. Inside, Moore gave him the high sign and after this, Prestone took the dog back to the car and then came back across the parking lot and entered the hospital.

Moore was seated at a small table in the detox ward dayroom with a large can of apple juice before him, a red and white package of Marlboro's, an ash tray and a packet of matches. His hands shook too badly for him to light a cigarette and Prestone did this for him, lighting another for himself.

"Thanks for taking care of Muggsy." Moore said, "I can't tell you-that's a load off my mind. How did you get her to eat?"

"Consuelo does it. She has been mixing up small pieces of chicken with that Heart/Diet stuff you got from the vet. It smells rank but the dog goes for it. How are you doing?"

"I'm on Librium. I've slept through the worst of it."

"What's with the apple juice?"

"There's fructose in it," Moore said with a great deal of effort. "Cells can burn it . . . alcohol it destroys the mitochondria . . . the cells can't handle-they get used to the simple sugars, like fructose-it's . . . accessible to your cells." The speech took Moore's breath away and he began to pant. Moore pressed his palms against his eye sockets and rubbed them vigorously. When he was done, he stared out into space, pop-eyed, breathing hard. "Air hunger," he said. "Diabetes out of control.

An attractive blonde nurse in a crisp white uniform approached Moore with a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope. "I need to take another reading, Mr. Moore, and see if you're still running high."

W. L. Moore quietly offered her his arm. The good feelings the sight of the dog had evoked had passed off. Now nothing felt good. He was back to that. He hoped Prestone would leave so that he could go back to his room and lie down. But then he saw Prestone taking in the presence of the nurse and a smile began to play across his lips. "Under the charm of the Dionysian, not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but the nature which has become alienated, hostile or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son-"

"He reads Nietzsche in the German and listens to blues records," Prestone said. "I can't understand philosophers."

"I know," the nurse said, laughing.

"Somebody had to come out and tell it like it is," Moore said. "As for the blues, once you hear Fats Waller play "The St. Louis Blues," you will be transformed, your life will never be the same-'Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, right at this very moment, that is your original face.' It's more far out than even Nietzsche. It will take you past all duality."

"What I like," the nurse said, "is the part in "Be My Baby" when the Ronettes come in behind the lead singer." Unselfconsciously, the nurse began to sing both parts of the song. She had a melodious, pleasantly low voice. Prestone liked her spontaneity, her good humor, her clean smell. She looked him over with big beautiful green eyes as she picked up the blood pressure cuff and began to fold it. She broke off the song and said, "You're the boxer-the one on the news! I've never met a boxing champ-"

"Well, now you know two," Prestone said. "That there guy is-you're taking his pulse, the former undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. That man gave away fourteen pounds and went fifteen rounds with Sonny Liston. That man is holy! That man is consecrated."

The nurse suddenly reverted back into a professional persona, and Prestone became certain that he had frightened her with his intensity. He watched her record Moore's blood pressure and pulse and then she handed Moore a paper cup containing two black and green Librium capsules. Moore popped the capsules and somewhat shakily tilted the can of apple juice to his lips. The nurse was all business as she looked to Prestone. Her voice took on a solemn tone. "You better convince the champ to lay off the booze before he takes a permanent ten count. This is the third time this year."

Moore said, "I know, I'm a believer. I'm quitting. I'll take Antabuse if I have to."

Prestone watched the nurse walk back to the duty station. He looked back to Moore.

"I did it. I signed . . . it's official. I took a fucking on the deal but I want this fight. They sent the papers already. Faxed them. Maybe you can come over and help me train."

"I can't take the dog to Scotland. They've got a quarantine law."

"You've got to be there, man! I can't rely on Tommy anymore. I'll carry him, he was with us at the start, but he's fucking useless anymore. You have to come over, there's no other way. Consuelo will watch the dog. She's got a way with the dog. Don't worry about the dog."

W. L. Moore mashed out his cigarette and shoved his chair back, far away from the table. Prestone wanted to talk strategy. Moore was in no mood for a strategy session and he was offended that Prestone, after all these years, did not read him any better. "How do you beat a jabber?" Moore asked wearily.

"With your own jab. I've been working my jab with three pound weights-doubles, triples and then cross over with the straight right, and then, boom boom! downstairs with the left hook, back up top with the right hand, left hook to the temple, right to the jaw. I'm going to hit him in the liver; I'll get him under the short rib, damn it, I want him to know how it feels! I'm going to say, 'There, you son of a bitch. How do you like that?' "

Prestone was up on his toes pumping out his left hand, then quickly began to work the right as he gracefully shuffled about the room in a beautiful ballet. "Douzche! Douzche! Douzche! Dit dit dit, pop, pop, pop, la la la, dit dit dit, pop, pop. Man, he went down like he was shot between the eyes with a forty-five!"

"What exuberance," Moore said. "Tell me, can you hang with McGillian?"

"I can hang with anybody, but I'm going to roll over McGillian. It's no bullshit, man. I'm going to mow him down, chop him up. I'm going to slice him. I'm going to drop him like a pair of dirty underwear. I'm going to carve him out a new asshole. I am going to fuck him up-"

"Good," Moore said, thinking that now, at last, Prestone would wind up his rap and leave. "You don't need me. You know what you're doing-"

Prestone's face abruptly became a mask of doubt. "I need you for the head part, champ. Tell me about the Apollo, Dionysus an' all that shit."

Moore dragged himself up from the table. "I'm weak," he said. "Let's go into my room. I have got to lay."

Prestone followed W. L. Moore down the short hall past the nurses' station where he saw the attractive nurse, her blonde hair up in plaits, carefully charting medical reports. She looked up at him and winked, flashing a smile of gleaming white, even teeth.

In the room Moore hurled himself on his bed and slung his arm over his eyes. "Can you pull the blinds? Is it hot out? Is Muggsy hot out there?"

"It's just right, champ."

Moore closed his eyes for a moment and feverishly began to massage his forehead and scalp. Moore began a hypnotic drone, "You know, all of those Scots are gonna be going nuts; you're the first real fight McGillian has had in two years, you're in fighting trim, McGillian could very well be shot, like Willard before Dempsey. Or maybe he's got sore hands, a bad back, a blown knee . . . there's always something wrong . . . anyhow, you won't get rattled; you're ready for all of this, it doesn't bother you 'cause you've left little Billy in the dressing room. But, alas, who's that coming into the ring in your body? Why, who could that be? 'In every human breast there is a fund of hatred, anger, envy, rancor and malice, accumulated like the venom in a serpent's tooth, and waiting only for an opportunity of venting itself, and then, to storm and rage like a demon unchained.' This is the nice little overseas present you have brought for Mr. McGillian. This is what comes into the ring against McGillian, the Will to Power personified in the body of Billy Prestone!"

"I want to hurt him," Prestone said. "I want him to know how it feels-"

"Good! That's good. You're into it. In fact, you will find all of this amusing and it will empower you and you will enter the ring with a much more deeply refined manifestation of the Will to Power. McGillian is a businessman. He's a celebrity, a public man. He's not a prizefighter anymore. When his two or three tricks don't work, he's going to fold. A young, knock 'em down stud like you fights for the sake of fighting. How can you top that? I mean, we did a little Gurdjieff last time, that was just a warm up. I knew you were for real after that. You started to glow, you practically lit up the room; when a fighter does that he's invulnerable. Anyhow, it will all happen automatically and you will do all the right things. His jab will be there, but you will be able to walk through it if you have to and when he tastes your own very fine jab he will think, 'I'm tight tonight; I can't get off.' You will take him out of his comfort zone. It's his ring, his crowd, but when you start backing him up-and this cocksucker can't fight backing up-fear will set in. Doubt. You will grow stronger and you will make him pay. If you catch him cold, he goes out early; if not, he will find that he's exhausted by the middle rounds. The pressure will be too much for him. He is not going to catch a third wind like you did the other night. That is something rare and only a few fighters have ever found it. McGillian is going to see that you have something that goes far beyond what fighters call heart."

"It's going to work, isn't it?"

"Like magic. It's going to be one of those nights. It's going to be sweet, kid. It's going to be magic. It's going to be your night-a night like no other. You're into the rhythm. Jump on him right from the start and never look back. And when you take him out, don't bounce around like you're surprised you won. No emotional displays. Play it cool, deadpan. Stone face. Dead black eyes. It will scare the next person you fight. It will drench him in fear. He will think, 'this fucker isn't human.' It will put the chill on him before he ever climbs into the ring. Like Norton before Foreman. Like Michael Spinx before Tyson. Fuckin' little bunny rabbits caught cold out in the open."

Prestone was on his feet. He put his hands up and pumped out a jab. "And then I move up and go for the big guy."

"Yes, you're making the transition from local hero into the big time and it's a sucker's game and the big ones eat the little ones up there, but you'll make out, and after you win, hang on to that title with your life." Moore reflected a moment and spoke bitterly. "There's nothing more useless to the world than a washed-up prizefighter."

Moore twisted around on the bed and came up on his hands and knees. "Are you sure it's not hot out?" He tore away his sheets. "No wonder. This mattress-it's a plastic-coated mattress!"

Moore yanked the bedcover from the adjoining bed, folded it into a thick, body-wide strip and spread it over his mattress. He lay down and pressed his pillow over his eyes. "I need another couple of days," he said. "Look, I don't mean to be rude, but I just can't talk any longer. Those pills are kicking in. Soak your face in brine twice a day and read the man. It's all in there."

Prestone picked up The Portable Nietzsche. "Thanks, champ. You clipped me in. I just won the fight. You just won the fight for me. The rest is simple mechanics. McGillian is in a world of hurt and he don't even know. 'I am the lizard king; I can do anything.' "

"That's right. It's spilling out all over the place. You scared the nurse with it. Did you see her? She wants to fuck you, man, because you are a man. You are so real you had her wetting her pants; she ain't seen a real one on the hoof probably for some time. You are a man! Think about that." Moore halved the pillow and folded it over his eyes again. Prestone looked down at his friend, a view that had him peering into the nostrils of Moore's misshapen nose. He watched Moore take several long ragged breaths.

A sucker's game. The big ones eat the little ones.

Prestone squeezed Moore's shoulder and spoke, deliberately chopping off his words so his voice wouldn't break. "I love you, champ. I love you more than anything. There's nothing in the world I wouldn't do for you. These are my true feelings. I love you. Don't fucking go south on me."

When he saw that Moore wasn't going to respond, when in fact he felt him stiffen and clench the pillow to his face all the harder, Billy Prestone respectfully tucked the volume of Nietzsche under his arm and walked out into the hall.

The blonde nurse called out "good luck" as he passed the duty station, and then, as Prestone crossed the lawn to the parking lot, he could hear Moore's voice, at once rich, vibrant and powerful, crying through the thick glass of the window in his room. Prestone turned to see his friend standing with his arms raised triumphantly in the air, shaking his fists. There were tears pouring down Moore's face and he was crying like all the trumpets of Jericho. He was crying, "Anybody! Anybody!"

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