Thin Skin

Thin Skin

by Mike Payne

I opened the door and faced a man who insisted he knew what killed my grandfather.

If you’ve been around me more than once, you’ve heard my grandfather was a featherweight prizefighter in New York during the ‘40s. Not a serious contender, but serious enough to box full-time for a stretch.

When he retired he toiled briefly as a trainer. As for what killed him, what I was told is he started drinking, got himself blacklisted from the boxing scene, and wound up working as a building inspector. One day he showed up to inspect a building, and well, he got his head chopped off. My relatives raised a stink, but no one who was there came forth with an explanation. Hush money works.

“You won’t know the name Slattery, but it started with him,” the stranger said cryptically once I’d agreed to let him inside. He was lucky I was a geek about my grandfather or I would have shown him to the street.

The stranger explained that as a kid he ran errands for the boxing trainers so he could be around the scene. That’s where he met my grandfather, along with another trainer my grandfather knew named Corcoran.

“Slattery was this young fighter Corcoran wouldn’t stop talking about. He was fast, knew how to dance and do all that cute stuff. But he couldn’t punch. I didn’t understand why everyone was so excited. Then Corcoran told me Slattery’s looks were going to make him famous; Jack Dempsey, only a middleweight.”

“Problem was Slattery was a bleeder. A few punches and his face swelled up like a balloon. By the third round he couldn’t even see which corner to go to.

“One night I’m leaving the gym and your grandfather asks if I need him to walk me home–I could tell he just wanted to talk to me about something. When we get outside he tells me they’ve done something to Slattery. He said Corcoran took Slattery to some kind of witch. Not a witch-witch, with a broom and all that, more like someone who could communicate with nature. Honestly, that’s what he said! So this ‘witch,’ she did something to Slattery’s face to keep it from bleeding. Don’t ask me what.”

“You didn’t ask for details?”

“No, I was just a kid, remember? Anyway I didn’t see your grandfather much after that, and when I did he always looked like he hadn’t slept for weeks. And he was weird around Slattery, wouldn’t even touch him.

“Whatever that ‘witch’ did must have worked because Slattery stopped bleeding. Now he’s on a roll and everyone thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. They booked him to fight a southpaw, so we needed southpaw sparring partners. Corcoran brings in this kid I hadn’t seen before. Can’t even tell you his name because everyone just called him Celtic.

“So ‘Celtic’ comes in wearing an all-black robe; whoever saw an all-black robe? He had crazy tattoos right across his whole body. I remember he had three big symbols on his back, like hieroglyphics almost.

“They’re getting ready to spar. Slattery is in the ring getting loose. Your grandfather, he and I are the only ones looking at this Celtic person. We watched him open up this little leather bag he was carrying. He opens it, and all these rings of green smoke come rising up. He stood there breathing it in. Then he closed his eyes and started whispering to himself.

“I got scared. I remember feeling this presence in the gym. It even seemed like the lights got darker. Then Celtic puts his whole face in the bag and out comes more green smoke. Right as he does that Slattery spins around and walks real slow to the center of the ring. His whole look was off, like he was sleepwalking.

“Celtic gets in the ring and Slattery is just standing there frozen. Corcoran slaps him on the shoulder but he doesn’t move. Corcoran slaps him again and he finally puts up his gloves, but they were just sort of hanging there. Corcoran yelled ‘Box’, and don’t ask me how, but I knew something terrible was about to happen. Celtic threw a jab, and as soon as it landed Slattery’s face exploded! Believe me, it was a real explosion! Blood splattered everywhere. Everyone was screaming. I fell on the ground, then I realized there were little droplets of blood all over me. Truthfully, it wasn’t just blood…

“I told you I knew something bad was coming. That Celtic guy’s little ritual with the bag, whatever it was, it did something to Slattery. Slattery’s blood just came flying out all at once.”

“What did you do?”

“I got up and ran to look at the bag! I opened it but it was empty. It felt alive in my hand, like it knew I was holding it. Out of nowhere your grandfather snatches the bag out of my hand and goes flying out the door. I chased him, but when I got outside he was gone.

“I never went back to that gym. Only saw your grandfather once after that. He was walking down the street talking to himself. I pretended I didn’t see him.

“I haven’t even gotten to the part about the job site. Maybe you already know some of it. I worked in construction, and one time I ran into someone who worked on that building where they found your grandfather’s body. What this man said was, he didn’t see the body himself, but some of the guys on the job site swore that when they found the body, it was decapitated, and the neck was covered by a little leather bag.”

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Mike Payne
Mike Payne is a comedian and writer whose credits include Pseudopod.org. His blog: www.domikepayne.blogspot.com

3 thoughts on “Thin Skin

  1. Eerie and creepy apply here. The bones of a good story, but with some bothersome (to me) loose ends. No further reference to the hush money about Grandfather’s death; the reference to a middle-weight Jack Dempsey in the context of Slattery’s reliance on good looks. The famous Dempsey–the Mannassa Mauler– was a heavy-weight and not particularly good looking. There was a middle-weight by that name, but? It’s not clear whether Slattery was more limited by the bleeding problem or the inability to punch. One doesn’t box “full-time,” one turns pro. Little stuff, maybe, but attention to those would heighten the impact of the story. AGB

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