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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Death Bed
by Andy Peacock

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Marlon had no use for rhetorical questions, so he was silent when Lauren asked, "You are coming, though?"

He sat still with his arms stretched out on the rear of the couch, watching his left eye close up with interest.

Marlon's lips were dry. So dry they stuck together when he pursed them. Marty, as if reading his mind, jammed a water bottle into the side of his mouth.

"Easy Marty, Jesus, there's still a couple of teeth in there y'know," Marlon spat blood on the floor; it was thick and didn't run any.

"Sorry Marlo."

Frank was here now. He was talking at pace, the way he always did. "What did I tell you kid huh? I told you he was a bum and I was right. What did I tell him Marty?" Marty was busy with Marlon's gloves, but looked up for a minute to say, "I thought he had a good right Frank."

"A good right?" Frank nearly dropped his cigar in mock laughter. "A good right? That guy couldn't even raise his right. He couldn't raise a flag. He was a bum."

"What's he doing fighting bums?" Lauren wanted to know.

"Excuse me?"

"Why are you having him fight bums?"

"Well, when I say bum, I mean, Marlo makes him look like a bum. Yeah, you know, he makes them all look like bums."

"No bum could live on what you pay Marlon," Lauren said.

Frank jerked his thumb in the girl's direction. "Hey, who is this anyway?" then to Marty; "get her out of here will you?"

Marlon raised his head. "It's my sister, Frank. My father's dying."

Frank stopped dead, and looked apologetically round the room. He paid his respects in his own way, by removing his cigar from his mouth, and hat from his head, revealing less hair than when he last had cause to displace it in public.

"Well, I'm sorry champ. I didn't know that," Marlon remained expressionless. Frank noticed his left eye had come up swollen, like a plumb had taken root under the surface of the skin.

Marlon's sister said, "I'll tell him you're coming. He'll be pleased." She left the room.

Frank moved over to where Marlon sat. He put a hand to his shoulder. "Sorry kid. I really am. Was he a good man?"

The glove finally came off, almost sending Marty tumbling over on the tiled floor. Marty swore.

"Why don't you get the hell out of here Frank, before I slap you in the mouth."

Another man began rubbing Marlon's back and shoulders. Moving them round and round. It was the best he'd felt all night. He spat blood again to make room in his mouth for the cigarette Marty offered.

Frank's hat was on now. The moment of respect for the soon to be dead had passed. "You keep a reign on that tongue Marlo. Fighters round here don't get too far without good representation." Marlon leaned back and let the palms of the man whose name he didn't know move in circular motions on his rib cage. He said, "Let's see how far you get walking on your hands."

It was Frank's turn to go now. He tried to do it with dignity. Like he was leaving anyway.

Outside the rain came down in sheets. It hit the ground and bounced up, almost to knee height.

The boxer half-heartedly raised his arm for a cab. He still wore the white ribbons round his hands. He spotted Lauren across the street, and went to her.

"Do you want a drink?" she asked, knowing he would accept. They went up a dark block to a bar below a building that had once been grand.

The barman poured two scotches. Lauren had her drink straight, Marlon took a little water. The adrenaline had left his body weary. He knew it wouldn't take many drinks to put him down.

At the far corner of the bar a three piece played.

"Who gets the money?" was the first question he asked. It took Lauren by surprise.

"Why do you still have the ribbon on?" she said, pointing to his hands.

"I never take them off until the next day."


He lit a cigarette, even though he didn't like smoking in front of her. "You remember Tommy Valance?"

"The old blind guy?"

"Yeah, well, he wasn't always blind. He wasn't always old. When I started out, he told me if you took the ribbons off straight after a fight, eventually your knuckles would come off too."

"You believe that?" she almost giggled.

"Maybe," Marlon said.

"Tommy Valance was crazy," Lauren finished her drink and poured herself another.

Marlon drank his down, so as not to be playing catch up. "He wasn't always so crazy," he said. "Why didn't you answer me about the money?"

"Why do you care? You know it won't be you. Or me."

"I care because you didn't answer me." The bass from the band was playing smooth and fast. Peculiar notes that twisted and bent.

Lauren sighed. "The moneys gone. All of it. Bad investments, drink. The usual."

"All of it?"

She nodded. A tear slid down her cheek. She looked older than when he had seen her last. She was sad, but not for the money. Not for her father. Marlon didn't know why she wept.

"You made a mess of that guy tonight. What was his name?"

Marlon lowered his head. Barely audible under the music he said, "I don't remember."

"You always were good at kicking the shit out of people."

He smiled at her and his jaw ached.

"That's the first smile I've seen out of you in a long time," she noted with a smile of her own.

"Smiling too much ages the face," he informed her, playful now.

"In that case you'll be the youngest looking guy in town. You won't even be able to get drinks at the bar."

"I'm not so sure. I think getting hit in the head compensates." She nodded her agreement.

Lauren leant over and kissed her older brother on the cheek. She picked the one that looked the least bruised, but he still winced slightly. They sat in silence for a while, and then talked about nothing much until closing time.

Marlon found his way back to his apartment and slept well in an old spring bed.

He awoke in the morning with a thick tongue. He cut some of the ribbon from his hands and plunged them into the cold water of the basin. His knuckles were damaged, but still present. He counted them. He didn't take the ribbons off completely.

Breakfast was cooking when the doorbell went. A cab had been called. Not by him. Lauren he thought. Making sure he was on time. Marlon put the breakfast on a table near the window and left.

The taxi driver grimaced when he saw him. "Ouch," he said. "Tough night pal?"

Marlon's legs had been like jelly since around eight, and the night's rest hadn't improved them much. He slumped into the back seat of the cab, and gave his instructions. "The hospital huh? That only just occurred to you now?"

Lauren was already there of course.

The taxi rolled up the gravel, and Marlon stepped out tentatively. The siblings held hands as they walked the corridors. Marlon could still hear the sounds from the previous night, the bell, Marty, the crowd, the saxophone wailing.

He walked down the aisle until his sister left him. She gestured at a door further up. The hospital staff looked at him, as people do with strangers.

His father was expecting him. Someone had propped him up slightly in bed. He was gaunt and breakable. His lips were tarmac black. His fingers were inadequate. Marlon sat at a wooden chair next to him. No greeting was exchanged.

"The return of the native," the father spoke. His voice was consistent with his appearance. "You won last night. Undefeated. Who's next to feel your fury?"

"No one," he said, "I'm through."



His father swore, "The heart is empty. Nothing left. No fury, no hate. Used it all up have you? We're not so different, you and I. Of course, now I'll never get my money back. I guess your sister told you. I bet five thousand dollars you'd get knocked on your ass last night. She tell you that?"


"Well I did. You can't take it with you. If you had gone down, you'd have made twenty-five grand. Between the two of you." Marlon's fixed stare didn't waver. "Well what's next for you? What do you do now?"

"I don't know," Marlon said.

"No. You should have gone down."


His father had a flair for the dramatic. A rusty tin sat open on his lap. Someone had placed it there at his request. It had already been opened. "My medals," he said. "I leave them to you, I don't have anything else to give." He pulled one out. It shook in his feeble hand. "This one is for bravery. Take it."

"I don't want them," Marlon said coldly.

"Take them," his father said.


The old man dropped the medal back into the box, and managed to close the lid. It groaned like his bones. "I haven't been much of a father to you my boy. Nor you a son to me." The room was silent. Marlon had the band in his ears still. The roar of the crowd, the thud of the blows.

"Why did I bring you here?" the old man asked.

"I don't know."

"You know me. Maybe better than anyone. Better than your sister of course. Better than your mother ever did. They see saving grace in me. Holes and gaps for redemption. But not you. You just see the holes. Don't you my boy?" Marlon again left the rhetorical question alone. "Take what you know of me. Take it and ask yourself why I have brought you here?"

Marlon shuffled forward on the seat. It was more uncomfortable to him than any stool he had sat on inside the ring.

"You want something."

The old man leaned forward as much as he could. He laughed like gas escaping. His body racked, his xylophone ribcage raised and shook like a beehive. He struggled to control his coughing.

"Yes, yes that's it," he settled back down into the dent in the pillow where he had resided unmoved for so long. "You never made a choice your whole life that was right for you. Not once." All traces of laughter had gone. "You left me without a son. I walked through life alone. Now I go to death alone." The amber eyes of the old man watched the boy's face, scarlet and purple in places. Eyes that had once seen, a nose that had once been straight. The old-timer watched him and waited for some emotion to betray that stony expression. None came.

"I'm not a man comfortable with living alone. I cannot imagine I'll take to death with any relish," he said.

"We all face death alone."

"Perhaps," the old man turned his head with effort. "I want you to come with me."

Marlon stood. "You're delirious," he said

"Come with me," he said again with more command. His voice rasped.


"You weren't much a son to me in this life," the man bemoaned.

"And I'll not be one in the next," Marlon stood and moved to the door. The old man listened to his son's footsteps. The last footsteps he would hear. "Send Lauren in," he beseeched, defeated.

Marlon stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. Their eyes met for a moment. Marlon started toward him.

Unable to raise his arms more than a few inches from the dirty linen bed, the old man was unable to claw at his son's hands, big, bruised, to force them away from his mouth, or the fingers from his nose. He ripped at the white ribbons in vain. His son's hands still smelt of sweat and bandages.

He never had much breath, the old man. Even as a soldier.

As Marlon left the room Lauren approached him. Her eyes were wide. The ceiling fan above reflected in her gaze. "He's gone," said Marlon. She nodded.

Marlon went to say, "I'm sorry," but the oddness of the gesture meant he kept the apology to himself, even though he wanted to say it.

The two left the hospital together; Marlon paused only briefly to take the remaining ribbon from his wrist.

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