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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Fighting Joe Diamond
by Jesse Clifford

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Fighting Joe Diamond's real name was Joseph Elijah Martin. During his checkered career in the ring, he was also known as The Fighting Irishman, The Dublin Bomber, Hurricane Joe, Thunder Joe, Lightning Joe, The Mad Mauler, Dancing Joe Diamond, and a host of other names that wooed the fight crowds through two decades with such titillating sobriquets. But "Fighting Joe Diamond" was the creation of enamored sports writers; henceforth, the name was written in stone.

But not so with Joe. He had been obsessed during his waning years with death. His struggle inside of the ring paled against the struggle inside his mind. He had strong visions of himself lying underneath a dirt mound with a gravestone that bore no name. He had so many appellations in his life, yet it never occurred to him to use his birth name. Subconsciously, he hid his real name behind a world of cruelty and evil. It was a world he was determined to forget.

Joe was born on a potato farm on a rocky plot of ground outside of Dublin. It was a fate cruelly bestowed upon him by the capricious engineering of nature. Joe's family was always on the brink of starvation. Each of his seven siblings was expected to contribute to their survival in their own way, whether they begged, borrowed, or stole. When Joe became older, he preferred to steal. Begging was shameful for a proud boy, and if he borrowed, he knew he had no means to pay back the debt. So Joe used his fist to steal. Many nights, Joe would hide in the darkness and shake down some inebriated poor soul stumbling out of a pub.

At fifteen, tall and strong for his age, he hired on as a boiler man on a coal barge. Infected with the American dream like thousands of others, he eventually made his way to Chicago and worked for a while as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. After being fired for beating up a tyrannical foreman, he tried his lot as a sparring partner.

It was then that he was noticed for his ferocity in the ring. Professionals declined to spar with him. That's when a contingency of prospective managers slobbered all over themselves, vying to position themselves as Joe's groomer for a professionals title. But Joe had only proved to be a good contender and nothing more.

Near the end of Joe's career, he had a haunting obsession that had occupied his mind during those rare times when he was sober. Joe believed that until he was able to settle upon a name for himself, he would spend eternity drifting in limbo. Then, after much aggravated soul searching, he would with tentative satisfaction, imagine hammering out himself a name with a chisel in large, ornate letters. Momentarily relieved of his mental task, he would get satisfactorily drunk at Danny's pub.

Danny's pub was rather dark, with a low ceiling, and the walls were covered with World War II posters, photographs, and newspaper clippings. There was a picture of Irish freedom fighter Michael Collins on the wall behind the bar.

Danny would always meet Joe with the familiar greeting, "Hiya Sport, what's the name this time?"

"I settled on 'The Fighting Irishman'," he said cheerfully, as he reached the stool at the center of the bar. "What do ya think Danny?"

"Nope - won't do. The graveyards are filled with Irish fighters. What if some other bum has the same name carved on his headstone? That would be a bloody shame."

Joe frowned at the possibility and downed his whiskey. The name on the headstone he envisioned was now gone. "Give me another drink Danny boy," he said pensively, "It looks like I'll be into a long night."

"Now if I was you," said Danny as he poured, "I'd stick with 'Fighting Joe Diamond'. Sounds real classy you know, not too Irish. It almost sounds Italian. Italians have real sweet names, like - Joe Dimaggio, Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, or Leonardo da Vinci. Those are names that just roll off your tongue. People really like them Italian names."

"But I'm Irish and everybody knows it. I won't take no Dago name to my grave," Joe said self-righteously.

"Then suit yourself Joe. Frankly, I ain't got time to figure what name would best accompany you to yonder heavens. If that's where you intend to go, that is."

Joe's eyes were now glassy and the network of veins in his nose filled with blood. "I'm surprised at you Danny boy, do you think I would accept anything less? I've paid bloody hell in the ring since I was a lad of fifteen, living on bloody bowls of potato broth and stale bread, if I was lucky. Those were hard times for sure, but I never complained. The benevolent St. Patrick could swear to the dues I've paid. I fought in every rat-infested arena from here to Harlem where I could make an honest buck. For two hundred dollars a fight I made my livin' fair and square, though I'm none the prettier for it. I've fought in hell paved with canvas and was held bound by the merciless silence of the bell. The bell, as you know, is sweet music to a fighter who is blinded by cuts and groping along the ropes. So you can bet your sweet Irish arse I'll be havin' a drink with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates someday."

"Well then," said Danny as he poured himself a small drink and raised it upward, "When you go to your passing, I'll raise me glass to Heaven and Fighting Joe Diamond, no matter where thee may be." He quickly drank down his whiskey.

Joe wasn't amused. But he wasn't angry either. He was enjoying the whiskey as it numbed his body - a body that pained him daily.

During his battles in the ring, he suffered broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a bruised heart, wracked kidneys, brain concussions, and a cracked vertebra. Joe's face showed a history of poundings that could be traced from his chin to his hairline. Younger fighters could be heard gasping when Joe stepped into the ring.

In the ring Joe liked to amuse himself by pointing at his own mug and promising, "This is what your gonna look like when I'm finished with you." A child with a lump of clay couldn't create anything more hideous.

Just then the door flew open and two women walked in. One was a tawdry dressed red head, full of makeup and chatter, the other a plain brunette, somewhat strained and fearful.

"Well, well," said Joe turning on his stool, "If it ain't the fiery lass from Dublin. Did you escape the precinct Red, or did you happen to bless the good Desk Sergeant on callused knees?

"Oh shut your cake-hole, you ugly ape. If I'd have known you'd be here, I'd have happily stayed in the pokey with all them coppers," said Lilly Hindrie, flopping down on the stool next to Joe. "I'll have what he's havin' Danny, and be quick about it. I'm parched."

Joe asked, "Well, aren't' you going to introduce us?" motioning towards the other girl, who took the stool next to Lilly.

Swallowing her drink, Lilly licked her smudged lips and said, "Katrina, meet Fighting Joe Diamond. A man who loves the ring almost as much as he loves his liquor."

"Hello," she said demurely, then looked down at the bar.

"Hello to you lass," said Joe, winking while nodding. "Katrina, is that Russian or something?"

Katrina shrugged slightly and said, "I'm Lithuanian."

"Lithuanian? Well if that ain't a coincidence. I fought a Lithuanian once. His shoulders were as wide a truck, and had legs like tree stumps. He caught me square like a sledgehammer he did. Knocked me down twice if my mind serves me right. But I put it to him in the seventh round. I caught him with an uppercut when the flash of a camera blinded him. It makes you see spots for a second. But in the ring, all you need is a second. You learn never to look into the crowd when you're in a match."

Katrina nodded politely then looked away, appearing uncomfortable.

"Can I buy you a drink?" Joe asked.

"She says she doesn't drink a lick," Lilly chimed in. I found her sitting on a bus bench in the freezing cold. She missed her bus and I brought her here to keep warm. The buses stop running after midnight."

"What a shame," said Joe.

"It's okay," said Katrina, "I'll find my way home somehow."

"No, I meant it's a shame that you don't drink," Joe said.

Lilly threw her head back and laughed. "Spoken like a true Irishman," she said. "Fill em up Danny. Both of em."

"Can I get you anything Darlin'?" Danny said to Katrina. "Coffee maybe?"

"That would be fine, thank you," she said.

"You won't have to worry about gettin' home miss, I can drive you," said Joe, leaning his heavy frame over the bar to see past Lilly.

"Oh, I don't think that will be necessary, Mr. Diamond. I don't live far from here really."

"Think nothing of it lass. A pretty woman such as you shouldn't be wandering about at night in Chicago. Not with gangsters roaming about, eh?" A smile, huge and swollen creased his battered face. Katrina smiled back, looking past his face and into his eyes. She saw genuine warmth there, and she started to relax.

"I'll think about it, Mr. Diamond. Thank you."

"Call me Joe. All my friends just call me Joe."

Lilly broke up their dialogue. "Well call me daft," she said tipsily, "but is the great Joe Diamond already trying to put the gloves on the helpless lady? My lord, she's only been here a couple of minutes and you're drooling all over yourself." Then she turned to Katrina who was blushing furiously. "Don't worry girl, Joe may be a hopeless sot, but he can be gentlemanly when he's up to it."

"You never did keep your tongue under your belt, Lilly Hindrie," said Joe, perturbed at her deliberate uncouthness.

"I make no pretensions Joe Diamond. Life on the bloody streets is no place for pleasantries you know," Lilly lashed back.

"For God's sake Lilly," Joe said contemptuously, "Not in front of the little lady, mind you. Have you no shame? She doesn't need to be privy to your... well your..."

"To my whoremongering? Go ahead and say it Joe. I'm a whore, a woman of ill repute, a painted lady, a working girl, a floozie, a trollop, and a lady of pleasure. I've heard them all. But it's a life that I've chosen for myself and I blame neither God nor the devil. I only blame hypocrites like you who sell their convictions for a moment of piety. I don't think the lady judges me for what I am. But you do, and that's the part that hurts." Lilly's eyes welled up with tears despite her thicked-skinned persona, and black tracks of mascara ran down her cheeks. She started for the woman's restroom.

"Wait a minute love," Joe called after her guiltily.

Teetering on pointed heels, Lilly whirled around. "What is it?" she asked, her voice quivering.

"Ta bron orm," said Joe, seriously.

"What does that mean?"

"It's the only Gaelic I know," Joe said. "It means... I'm sorry. I truly am sorry, lass."

Lilly, fighting to regain her composure said, "Forget it, you old fool. It takes more than some big palooka to pull my strings. Pour me another drink Danny. I'll be back as soon as I do me business."

"She's a good girl, she is," said Joe to Katrina. "She's right to say that I'm an old fool. I have no right to judge her particular employment. Just as nobody's got the right to judge mine. Both of us use our bodies to get what we want, you might say."

"She seems like a very sad lady," said Katrina.

"The world can be a very sad place," Joe said. "I've even noticed the specter of sadness in your own face lass. You would be very pretty if you weren't so unhappy."

"Why do you think I'm unhappy?" she asked curiously.

"It's your spirit that gives you away. There's a spirit of deadness that's crushing you. I felt it the moment you walked in the door."

"And you're an expert are you?"

"Aye lass. I've carried that spirit into the ring for the last few years. In all my dreams, I'm lying near a headstone without so much as a name. I've had so many names in my fighting career, I can't decide on which one to use. It seems a terrible curse to die without a name."

"Are you planning on dying soon?"

"Every time I step into the ring. I feel like everybody is gathering for my funeral," said Joe.

"Is there a name you prefer most?" asked Katrina.

"I like Kid Dancer. Only I was younger then. I don't dance so well anymore," Joe said wistfully.

Danny overheard him and said, "It wouldn't do anyway, sounds too colored. Nobody moves as good as them colored boys."

Katrina said, "I think Kid Dancer is a nice name," despite Danny's objection.

"Do you really?" Joe asked, a little flattered. Do you mind if I move a little closer? My ears ain't what they used to be. They've taken to cauliflowering. Years of pounding you know."

"Sure, if it will help," Katrina said, almost too eagerly she regretted.

"So tell me," said Joe, his big hulk dwarfing Katrina, "What could possibly plague such a bonny lass such as yourself?"

"We've just met Mr. Diamond, and I'm not sure this is the place..."

"It's as good a place as any. Within these walls there is nothing to hide. There's been more confessions heard here, than in the electric chair at Sing-Sing. Besides, I'm a good listener, drunk or sober."

Lowering her head and clutching her coffee between her pale hands, Katrina hesitated for a moment before speaking. In a barely audible voice she heard herself saying, "I'm with child, and I have no husband."

Without batting an eye, Joe said, "Go on, I'm listening."

She then said, "There was a man who... He followed me home from work one day... He came in through the window... I was in the kitchen when he... I tried to fight him... I begged him to leave..." Katrina began to sob.

Joe reached out held her gently against his chest, stroking her hair with his thick hands. "Now, now lass, it surely seems like the end of the world for you, but providence has a way of working things out. If it's a friend you need, then I'll be your friend with your permission. I never gave up a fight for nobody, so you can count on me to be there for you."

"Tonight I was on my way to see a doctor," she added, filled with guilt. "I wanted to get rid of my baby. I thought it would make me happy again."

"But you missed your bus," said Joe. "So you see, it was never meant to be. You'll never be happy by punishing your baby for the evil that visited you. Give time a chance, Katrina. Time is a healer, but bitterness is a stealer. Don't let bitterness destroy you."

Katrina looked up at Joe with tears streaming down her cheeks, and believed Joe to be quite a handsome man underneath all his scars. Katrina said, "You're a peculiar man Mr. Diamond. How can a person be so kind, and yet use his fist to hurt others?"

"It's me profession to hurt others, it's nothing personal. But I've never hurt anybody who had no fight left in them. I do what I do because it's all I know how to do. I'm not perfect, mind you. I drink too much whiskey and have cursed with the best of em. But I'm not an evil man, though the ring can sometimes be an evil place."

"I know you're not evil, Joe Diamond. I can see nothing but kindness in your eyes. They are soft and warm. The eyes never lie."

Joe kissed her softly on her forehead, wiped a tear from her eye and said, "Maybe you'd better join Lilly in the restroom. You can use a little brushing up lass."

"I'm sure I look absolutely dire," Katrina said, taking off her scarf and running her fingers through her hair.

"Forgive me for being so bold," Joe said, "but I think you look absolutely beautiful."

Katrina just stood speechless for a moment, then walk away, but not before Joe saw a smile crease her face.

A moment later, the door slammed from behind and cold air swept through the pub. A large man with streaks of gray hair barged in, and threw his coat on one of the large brass hooks on the wall. Joe turned around and shouted cheerfully, "Jim Casey! How's she cuttin' laddie?"

"I'll let you know when I get the doctor bill," Jim said, taking a stool next to Joe, his face grimacing in pain from the fresh wounds on his face. "Just bring the bottle Danny. I aim to get good and snookered before this night is over."

"Now Jim, there'll be no drinking from the bottle in my place," said Danny. This is a respectable establishment. You'll take your hard tack in a glass like everybody else." He slid his drink down the marbled counter.

"You always were a true bantamweight Danny boy," said Jim, good-naturedly. "Feisty and cocksure. You know, it's you guys who last the longest. Us bigger guys fall a lot harder in the end."

"That's because you apes use your mug as a punching bag," explained Danny, feigning a punch to his own head. "Going toe to toe makes no sense to me. When I was a donnin' the gloves, I knew how to work the ring. All the time I was bobbin' and weavin', bobbin and weavin.' That's how I stayed on me feet for fifteen brutal rounds. Look at my face lads; do ya see any scars? No ya don't. You know why? Because I never went toe to toe, or traded punch for punch. I was a smart fighter, I was. I'd lay back and work the ring, waiting for an opening, and then, POW! Right in the old kisser. The 'Galloping Ghost' is what they called me back then. That's because nobody could touch me."

"Well here's to the Galloping Ghost," Jim said, raising his glass. "May you always be able to bob and weave through the vicissitudes of life. As for me, I'll go toe to toe with any man, and may the better man be left standing in the end."

"Aye to that Jim Casey," said Joe, downing another glass.

While Danny poured more whiskey, Joe turned to Jim and said, "Speaking of boxin' Jim, how did it go last night?"

Jim sighed, "Don't you read the papers Joe? There's a real pretty picture of me landing flat on my arse during the first round. I was caught with a left hook. He broke my nose with that one."

"Standing toe to toe were ya Jim?" said Danny with a gloating grin on his face, as he wiped some glasses.

"Oh, dry up Danny. There's plenty of fight left in me yet. I may be older and fatter, but don't nobody count me out," he said, jabbing his finger at him for emphasis.

"Tell me about the fight Jim," said Joe. "Was it a battle?"

"Aye, and a brutal one for sure. He was just a lad; Marciano was his name. Some tough Dago kid with fists as hard as rocks. I thought he was going to knock me head clean off me shoulders, but I managed to stay with him till the last round. Knocked me down three times he did, but I always got up. I never want to meet that boy again, no sir. And you Joe, when will you be fightin' again?"


"Tomorrow?" Jim said, astonished. "Should you be laying so heavy on the booze lad, right before a fight?"

"Probably not Jim, but 'it is the cure of a hangover to drink again,' so the Irish proverb says."

"Who ya fightin?' asked Jim.

"Some Jew kid from Detroit. He slipped on the canvas last year and busted his arm. The press said he slipped, but the word's out that he took a dive. The guy's a bum."

"Well the best of luck to ya lad just the same."

"Thanks Jim." Joe felt a void again when he thought about the nameless gravestone. He saw himself floating aimlessly in space for eternity; through an endless and black universe. Heaven would always be a bright dot in the far distance, but it would become dimmer and dimmer as he floated further and further away. Joe was haunted with a dreadful sense of urgency that demanded he reconcile himself with a name before his fight the next evening.

Lilly and Katrina returned to their seats and with the exception of Katrina, glasses overflowed with whiskey as the night wore on. More patrons wandered into Danny's and joined the festivities. Everybody wished Joe luck with his fight the next day, and advised him to go home and get some rest. "Not before we part with a song," he said. Raising their drinks and swaying shoulder to shoulder they sang an old Irish favorite:

"What do you think I've been doing all day? Boozing, bloody well boozing!
And how do you think I've been spending my pay? Boozing, bloody well boozing!
Don't argue the point, 'cause you know I'm not right.
Don't tell me I'm wrong, 'cause you know I can't fight.
Where would you like me to take you tonight,
Boozing, bloody well boozing!"

Joe and Katrina walked out into the early morning cool and the fresh air was like a tonic for Joe. After a few deep breaths he felt sober enough to drive his car. Katrina was amazed at how well Joe drove after consuming so much liquor. Both were quiet for a while before Joe spoke, "You know lass, I think after this next fight I'll be hanging up my gloves for good. Something tells me my time in the ring has come to an end."

"What will you do then?" asked Katrina. "Do you know any trade?"

"I've been a fighter all my life. Fighting's been my trade. But I've managed to save a piece of money and my house is paid for. I've even fancied opening up my own pub."

"What about family?" Katrina ventured.

"I have siblings in Ireland. My mother and father long since passed away," Joe said.

"What I meant was... have you ever thought about having a family of your own?"

"Oh sure. But what woman would want a bum with a mug like mine? I ain't no Clark Gable ya know."

Katrina took Joe's hand into hers for a moment and said, "I think you're quite a handsome man Joe Diamond; cauliflower ears and the whole lot."

Katrina's warmth and gentleness moved Joe to ask her if he could see her again. "I would like that," she said.

Joe dropped Katrina pulled up to the curb outside of Katrina's apartment. The rain had stopped and the wet pavement glistened from the streetlights. Both sat quietly for a moment before Joe lit a cigarette. Then he asked, "Would you like to come see me fight Katrina? Since it would be my last, I would be happy if you came."

"I'm not sure. I mean - I've heard it's a brutal thing to watch, with all the violence and all."

"Oh it's a brutal thing for sure. It's not a place for the fainthearted. But I aim to make quick work of it. I'll try to spare you any unnecessary discomfort. Now, what do you say lass?"

"How could I possibly pass up an opportunity to see the Mighty Joe Diamond ply his trade?" she smiled.

"Great," said Joe. "I'll have a member of my crew meet you at the door. I'll make sure you get the best seat in the house."

Joe walked Katrina up the porch steps and to her door. "I had a wonderful time Joe," she said, turning to him. "You've been warm and kind to me. Thank you for making me feel better about things."

"Think nothing of it lass. I'm just glad we met. I've never felt... uh, I've never felt for a woman like I feel... like I feel for you," Joe said, faltering, while his face turned beet red.

Katrina reached for Joe's face and kissed him on the cheek. "Your such a big sweetheart Joe Diamond." Entering her apartment she hesitated before turning around. "Joe," she asked, "Just what is your real name?"

"It's a name that brings me shame lass. It brings me back to those days in Ireland when we foraged under rocks for something to fill our bellies. It's a name I'd rather forget."

"There's no shame in your God-given name, Joe Diamond. The only shame is that you run from the roots you came from by drowning it in liquor and in the ring."

"Now aren't you the amateur psychologist all of a sudden? Are you trying to rid me of my demons after we just met?" said Joe, without any rancor.

"I only care about you Joe. You're a good man inside that heart of yours and I hate to see it filled with bitterness from something you couldn't help when you were a child."

Joe stared into Katrina's eyes for a moment and sighed. "My given name is Joseph Elijah Martin. I was named after my father who made a living as a highwayman until he was caught and hanged, and he was named after my grandfather who brewed and sold rotgut whiskey to starving potato planters. I probably would have turned out like them, but I came to America to begin a new life, and took on the names the promoters gave me. They were names of that invoked fear and respect - great names like The Irish Crusher, Kid Hammer and -"

"I think Joseph Elijah Martin is a wonderful name," Katrina said. "It's a strong, magnificent name. And you're not like your father or your grandfather."

"And you're not like any woman I've ever met," said Joe. "Now, you'd better get some sleep. I'll see you tonight. My fight begins at eight o'clock. I'll need all the cheering I can get."

"It's you who needs to sleep Joseph Elijah Martin. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Katrina."

Joe pulled over to his curb and reached for a flask that he kept under his seat. He always kept a reserve for such times when his head reeled with pain. The pain had increase with frequency; a condition that plagued all fighters who labored long in the fight game. It started with a mild headache, then progressed into a full-blown migraine; his vision became blurred, and his right hand shook uncontrollably.

Emptying the flask of whiskey, Joe settled back and waited for the pain to subside. Before drifting off to sleep, Joe swore to himself that tonight would be the last fight of his career.

Joe was only remotely aware that something terribly wrong had occurred inside his skull. A perfectly vicious left hook had collided with his lower chin, twisting his neck like a rubber band. Then there was a sharp snapping sound. Joe felt a strange, but painless sensation in his head - like the dislodging of his brain from its stem.

Darkness fell over him like a thick curtain, and the whites of his eyes rolled up under his eyelids, revealing blood-soaked orbs. The impact sent him floating with limp arms face down towards the canvas. Even numbness was absent as he entered the stoppage of time.

With all his senses arching helter-skelter from torn neurons, a barely live circuit salvaged fragments of cruel curses and guttural cries from the crowd as they blended with flash bulbs and some mocking laughter. Sound was the only tangible sense left to his consciousness, and he wished it would all end soon. It was the sound of the unrelenting human machine screaming in one accord, churning out the disappointments and failures of a man, dying and bleeding on the floor.

Hovering within the penumbra of life and death, Joe distinctly heard Katrina's voice before taking his last breath. He could hear her crying the name that eluded him during his worst nightmares - a name that was absent from the hand of the engraver, leaving his headstone barren and unadorned. It was the chiseled name of "Joseph Elijah Martin," that would accompany him to his final rest.

They found Joe that morning in his car, his flask still clutched in his hand. When Katrina arrived that night to see the fight, Joe's trainer explained to her what had happened. "The fight's been canceled. They found Joe this morning, sitting in his car, "dead as a doornail."

Katrina stood motionless for a moment, and then without a word or any expression, Katrina walked out of the club, and into the blackened, rain-slick street.

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