by Jeremiah Kleckner
Jack stepped into the space that would be his locker room for the night. The yellow bucket and mop in the corner told him that it doubled as a janitor’s closet. He wanted to grab the mop’s stained handle, just to feel it in his hands. Maybe if he cleaned this room he could ask to be a temp when one of the regulars got sick in the next wave or were rounded up for questioning. He could bring home regular money as someone with a job. Someone who worked.
He allowed himself to live in this fantasy before he closed the door and set his bag down on the fixed wooden bench. The rusted blue locker was tall enough for him to hang his shirt but so narrow that he had to stack his shoes one on top of the other and pack his pants into a tight roll to make them fit.
He opened his bag and slipped into his state-assigned black trunks. The number 0815 was printed in white on the back to display his Workfare ID.
Jack was taping his wrists when the door swung open. A man wearing a striped shirt stood in the doorway. He was shorter than Jack, had a wide jaw and round shoulders. Thin wire glasses hooked around swollen knobs of flesh that were once ears and rested on the bridge of a crooked nose that had to have been broken many times over. The man slid inside and closed the door behind him.
“Jack Hammer, right?”
Jack’s last name was Hammery, but he nodded and said nothing. He’d read articles of Workfare recipients being disqualified for upsetting state employees like referees or EMTs and being sent home without food vouchers. He didn’t want to risk starving over something so small as a name.
“Mitch Chambers,” the man said. He tugged on his shirt collar and added, “I’m officiating your bout tonight.” He pulled one thin plastic glove out of his pocket and stretched it over his hand. “May I?”
Referee Chambers felt behind Jack’s ears and checked his nails.
“Open,” Chambers said.
Jack opened his mouth and Chambers probed his gums with gloved fingers.
“I saw your fight last week,” Chambers said as he took his hand out of Jack’s mouth and checked his pupils. “Hell of a combination. You trained.”
“Yes, Sir. Nothing major. I wrestled in high school and boxed a little after that.”
“No,” Jack laughed. “But I was the sparring partner for a guy who took silver gloves one year.”
“Anybody I’d of heard of?”
“Ian… something,” Jack said. “I didn’t really know him.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Chambers motioned for Jack to move over, then sat down next to him. “Your bout is on last. You should be grateful.”
“I-I am,” Jack mumbled. He didn’t know much about the broadcasts, but he remembered that going on last was a big deal back when public gatherings for sports and concerts were legal. What he knew for sure was that he was awarded the same voucher no matter what time his fight went live. It was a state-regulated payout. Full-vouchers for winners. Half-vouchers for losers. “Winning is winning.”
Referee Chambers laughed in a way that shook him like a hiccup. “Do you know anything about the guy you’re facing?”
“Not really,” Jack said. “I’ve only seen clips, but I think I can take him.”
“We do, too,” Chambers said. “Which is why you’re going down in the second round.”
The words hit Jack like a slap. “You think I’m underestimating him?”
Chambers chuckled and shook his head. “Not at all.” He leaned in. “Jack, you’re popular, but this guy has a mouth on him and, frankly, his ratings are better than yours.”
“But I can beat him.”
“That means nothing if nobody’s watching,” Chambers said. “There are a lot of hands in events like this. You have the cable companies, internet providers, trademarks on logos, merchandise, vendors, subscription services, and that’s just the list of people who report the money they make.”
Jack stood and asked, “What do I tell my wife when I come home with a half-voucher for the week?”
“Tell her you lost,” Chambers said, rising to meet him. “Tell her he caught you by surprise and you’ll get him the next time. Hell, tell everyone that.” Chambers handed Jack a small envelope. “Take this in the meantime, just for doing the favour.”
Jack opened the envelope and thumbed through the thin stack of bills.
“As long as your ratings stay good,” Chambers continued, “you’ll be figured in on these broadcasts. We’ll set up the rematch in a month or two, then a rubber match after that.”
Chambers reached for the doorknob.
“W-wait,” Jack said. “Who knows about this?”
“Almost nobody, and you’ll keep it that way or you’ll find yourself back on the wait-list.” Chambers sighed and patted Jack’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine, Kid. It’s just a job.”
Chambers closed the door behind him with a solid metal click.
Jack felt the weight of the envelope in his hand, then slipped it into his bag and stuffed the whole thing into the narrow locker. Regular money meant new clothes from the thrift store and vaccines for him and his wife. Maybe even a renter’s permit one day.
The door swung open and Referee Chambers poked his head inside. “It’s time, Kid. You ready?”
Jack nodded. There was no doubt about it. He was ready to work.
Jeremiah Kleckner has taught English/Language Arts in Perth Amboy since 2005. During that time, he earned the Samuel E. Shull Middle School’s 2014/2015 Teacher of the Year award, wrote dozens of short stories, and self-published several books. Jeremiah lives in Jersey City with his wife, daughter, and an ever-increasing number of dogs and cats.