Beneath the Net

by Curtis Smith

Your first dream ended on a Reno undercard. A left hook hollowed you to the core, your insides a column of dead air, the punch a whistling thousand-pound bomb whose impact turned your thoughts to dust (how expertly you'd been played, five rounds of jabs and straight, quick rights, just enough leathery rat-a-tat to keep you on your heels, and then...). The canvas scratched your back and you beheld through moth-fluttering eyelids the otherworldly vision of a half dozen suns burrowing through cigar-smoke clouds. Impossible to tell where your dislodged mouthpiece stopped and your tongue began. Somehow you made it to your feet, oblivious to the world's new silence, to your cornerman who'd already thrown in the towel and was ducking between the ropes to rescue you, your boxer's instincts working you like a puppet on strings, your deeply-engrained belief that you could no more quit than you could stop breathing.

Jean Harlow movies. Radio songs like "Moonglow" and "Cheek to Cheek." The whores who gathered in the alley behind the gym, sundown vampires whose bodies turned cold the moment their backs touched their stained sheets. The girl from your hometown, the preacher's daughter who, the night she finally stopped saying no, began to sob the moment your hand reached beneath her home-sewn dress.

This was all you knew about love.

You loaded freight cars and rousted hobos in the Santa Fe yards, sheered llamas in Utah, paved mountain roads in Colorado. On the radio, you listened to news reports from Europe and Africa and the Pacific. The world seemed intent on consuming itself, armies on the march and whole countries vanishing, and, truth be told, you didn't much care one way or another. In each new town, you'd find your way to the gym, watch the fighters, sometimes wrap your hands and hit the bag...and around the corner from every gym was a bar...and just outside, the whores who looked right through you, knowing.

When the war finally came, you tried to enlist, faking your way through the physical until the bored doctor took a peek at your ruptured eardrum and told you to get lost. And there you were again, a fighter unable to fight. You hitched a series of rides to California, crossed the desert in a pickup bed shared with a mangy dog and caged, squawking chickens. The moon shone across the dead sea, and you pulled your tattered coat tight around your shivering body. Who were you, anyway?

Army engineers had rigged football fields' worth of camouflage over the airplane factory's hastily-erected holding areas and warehouses, the loading bays and slope-roofed hangars. The camouflage reminds you of seaweed tangled in a fisherman's net, and as you cross the vast parking lot, the frayed cloth strips flutter in the breeze, the net heaving with the rhythm of a restless ocean. You gaze up at the sky cut into the tight squares of a giant crossword puzzle, the clouds and blue, the faint morning moon and winter's evening stars.

You smoke your morning cigarette until the burning nub warms your fingers, nod a hello or two (but no one knows a thing about you, your boxer's past, the home you left long ago). A sleepwalkers' parade files past, faces obscured by the net's ever-shifting play of shadow and light, and you think of the deeper camouflage of a man's life, his heart wrapped in actions and stances meant to mask the sorrows that are his alone.

You spot a woman at the plant. Tall and blonde, pointed knees poking her overall's enveloping blue with every step. Her arrival as one of seven in a backfiring Ford reminds you of a midgets' circus trick. You start setting your alarm twenty minutes earlier just to plunk yourself in her path, smoking and kicking stones into the plant's backhoed trash pit. Down there, the maze of oily rags and paper scraps and broken wooden skids bristles with the traffic of scurrying rats. Tat-tut-tat scold the netting's strips of olive cloth.

Her story comes to you filtered through a dozen tongues. Her husband's body left on some jungle island-speck, and what mor