The Night Smoke Finds Religion

Smoke’s right eye starts to swell in the fourth, and I know he’s in trouble. This is a pretty big fight at the Taj Mahal, against Dreaded Eddie Jefferson, a California kid with machine-gun hands, and a black kid too. Smoke’s a plugger, a real old-fashioned Philly fighter, a white guy with a thick neck and thicker head. He keeps trying to get inside, but Eddie keeps stinging him with that hard left jab - plus some right leads and a few nasty left hooks. The ref calls up the doc in the fifth.

The doc’s a little Asian guy in a cheap gray suit, and he climbs up on the apron and lifts Smoke’s chin. I jam a white rag in my back pocket, just so I have it ready if the fight goes on, because that’s what a good manager does at times like this.

“Yo, I’m fine,” Smoke mutters through his mouthpiece. “Listen to me, doc. I’m fucking fine.”

The doc doesn’t say a word. He peruses the eye and then turns away from the ropes, and just before he steps down he nods yes at the ref: he can fight.

“Fucking right,” Smoke says, and pounds his gloves.

“Keep your right hand up,” I say. “Or he’ll turn that eye into puppy chow.”

The light around the ring is crisp, intense. It has that big-fight feel for us, because this might be Smoke’s last shot at an HBO card, but he needs one more good win. I know Smoke’s focused, doesn’t notice the smell of beer coming up from the front rows, or the city councilman from Philly with his new redheaded girlfriend at ringside. He might have spotted the HBO guy, and spotted his buddies from the neighborhood in Grays Ferry up in the cheap seats, and of course his old man in the fourth row, but I know he has his head in the fight.

I look over at Little Tony, our trainer, who’s actually as big as a pasta factory, to be sure he knows I have the rag ready, and he nods yes at me. Then I squeeze a blob of anti-bacterial on my hands and rub them together like a son of a bitch. It keeps away the gym fungus, but sometimes I get nervous and rub it in for the hell of it. Like now. Besides, I’m feeling extra edgy after giving up smoking for Lent again.

The sixth is sloppy, both fighters missing and hanging on each other, and probably the first round of the fight Smoke wins. In the seventh Dreaded Eddie catches a second wind and is landing his jab again. Halfway through the round, Eddie backpedals toward the corner, shifts to his right and lands a left-right combination to Smoke’s head followed by a nasty left hook. Smoke’s head bobbles, and the hook catches him smack in the eye. Now the welt under his eye looks like a plum. I’ve never seen anything like it. Just as I reach for the white rag, the ref steps in and waves his arms.

When Dreaded Eddie’s hand goes up in the middle of the ring, the sound system starts pumping some hip-hop crap, and a brawl breaks out in general admission. White guys against black guys. Security guards in yellow jackets swarm in and haul out two of Smoke’s pals from Grays Ferry, plus one of the black guys they were fighting. The black guy leaves peacefully, but it takes two security guards to wrestle each of the white guys outside.

Smoke is 31, a former middleweight contender who will soon be on the downside, and now he’s just been pummeled for the second straight fight. His real name is Joey Nix, but he hates it. He was tagged with Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s nickname because they were both Philly fighters with the same style and same first name, and that’s how nicknames get handed out in this racket. Now this is Smoke’s fourth loss overall, all by TKO, and all at the hands of black fighters, which must make it even worse for him. His contender status is probably gone for good now - but first, the eye.

As we walk back to the dressing room, I think about what Smoke was like as a kid. He grew up just down the block from me - a tough little nut, the youngest of three brothers, always fighting the black kids in the playground outside St. Gabriel’s Church. Grays Ferry is a tight-knit white part of South Philly, sandwiched between the Schuylkill Expressway and the black neighborhood. After fifteen years of boxing and a few years scrapping in the street, Smoke has never been hurt so badly. When I took him to the gym at age 16, I knew he’d fight like a warrior, and I also figured fighting would do some good for him - keep him off the street, maybe make him a better person somehow. Now I have two more kids from the neighborhood starting out, both kind of like Smoke. All these kids are like my sons, because I’m 61 years old, a retired cop, and I don’t have a family. My wife and I divorced 20 years ago and never had children, so boxing seemed like a good second career when I left the Police Department.

At the dressing-room mirror, Smoke drops his green robe on the back of the chair and looks the eye over best he can. The mirror has fat lightbulbs to help the big stars with their makeup, but it doesn’t help Smoke. His right eye is swollen shut, and with his good left eye he squints at the bad eye like someone searching for a needle in the dark.

I dig an ice pack out of my bag and say, “Here, put this on while we wait. It looks really bad.”

“Get away,” Smoke says, pushing me with a straight right. “Besides, you got dog breath.”

“Yo, don’t get pissed at me,” I say, and swat away his right.

“Get me a cigarette,” Smoke says.

“No, the doc’ll be here any second. Here, take this damn ice pack.”

Smoke looks over at Little Tony, who just sat down on a little stool in the corner, as if he’ll find the cigarette, but I wave Tony off. “No cigarettes,” I say.

“Hell, where’s my old man?” Smoke asks, and finally he takes the ice pack.

“Don’t know. Big crowd out there.”

“You know what I’ve been wondering,” Little Tony says. “How many times you think Don Rickles has looked into that very same mirror?”

“Does it matter?” Smoke says.

“Can we stay focused here?” I say. “We just lost a big fight, and we got a bad eye to deal with. Huh? Jesus Christ, I don’t know why I gave up smoking again.”

Little Tony slumps on his stool, while Smoke finishes inspecting the eye and leans back in his white leather chair. Smoke rubs his forehead like he has a migraine, and then he slaps the ice pack over his eye. The look on his face tells me he’s suddenly relieved the fight was stopped.

The doc comes into the locker room, pulls a scope from his suit pocket and studies the eye, more carefully now than in the fifth.

“We should get him to hospital,” the doc says. “Can you walk to ambulance?”

“Fuck,” Smoke says.

“Can you walk to ambulance?”

Smoke gives a little nod, and the look on his face makes it seem like it’s all the doc’s fault. Then he turns to me and says, “Call my old man. Tell him where we’re going.”

“AtlantiCare Regional,” the doc says.

I flip my phone open and dial. The old man doesn’t hear well, so I have to call Smoke’s brother. The old man, who was a sheet-metal worker at the Philly Navy Yard, lost most of his hearing in an explosion at the shops - almost twenty years ago, just before the feds shut down the Navy Yard and the city turned it into an office park. So I have the cell number for Smoke’s oldest brother, the one with a square head like Smoke. He’s the responsible brother, still holds down a job driving a trash truck.

“No answer. I left a message.”

“We got him good seats. I can’t believe he’s not in here yet.”

“Don’t be surprised if they went to the casino,” I say. “After all, he’s with your brothers.”

“With my eye like this?” Smoke snaps.

“I’m just saying.”

Smoke huffs, stands up, bends forward, and looks the eye over in the mirror once more.

“Let’s go,” I say. “Time is valuable”

I drape his green robe over his shoulders and we head to the ambulance, which I know is waiting outside. I always know where the ambulance is - it’s something else a good manager does. Little Tony stays back to gather Smoke’s gear. As we walk to the ambulance, I drape my arm over Smoke’s shoulder, and the doc is maybe five paces behind us. Smoke has the ice pack pressed to his eye. As we turn the first corner, Smoke misjudges it and bangs his shoulder on it.

“Damn. Fuck. Damn.” He recoils, glares at the corner like it just insulted his mother, and then turns to me. “I thought you were helping me here.”

“I’m trying,” I say. “You’re all right. Let’s keep moving.”

When we get to the double doors I step ahead of Smoke and throw them open, and he follows me into the bright, black Atlantic City night.

“I think you’re right,” Smoke says. He pulls the ice pack off his bloated, purple eye and shades the eye from the neon glare of Virginia Avenue. “I think this is bad.”

The ambulance is parked about fifteen yards to our left, and I steer Smoke that way as a medic swings the back doors open. I climb in first, offer Smoke a hand, and he follows.

The doc huddles for a moment with the driver, then waves at the ambulance. It’s a weird, friendly wave, as if he’s sending off a friend at the train station. My cell phone rings - Smoke’s oldest brother returning my call.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“Right in front of the casino,” he tells me. “An usher pointed us the wrong way.”

“Is your old man with you?”

“Yeah. Where’s Smoke?”

“We’re in the ambulance,” I say. “It looks bad. We’re going to AtlantiCare Regional. Get directions from a security guard or something.”

“Got it.”

“And yo,” I say. “Get there quick. No Black Jack. And tell that to that other blockhead you’re with.”

“Already did,” he says. “And he ain’t happy about it.”

“Tough shit.”

I flip my phone closed and say to Smoke, “They’ll be there.”

He gives a little nod. He’s lying back on the starchy white gurney, and he looks spacey. I squeeze another blob of anti-bacterial on my hands and start rubbing.

The ambulance doors close, and then one door pops open. The driver turns and yells, “You’ll have to slam ‘em!” And the doors close again with a bang.

Smoke looks up at me, confused. “Did I just say something?” he asks.

“What are you talking about?”

“Sometimes I mean to say something out loud, and then I wonder if I only thought it. Know what I mean?”

“No. You’re not making any sense. Just try to relax.”

Then he whispers something. It sounds like he says, “Please, please, save my eye.” But I can’t be sure, and I don’t feel like asking, because he might not want to admit talking to himself like that.

One of the medics climbs into the back with us, and the ambulance takes off. The medic puts a fresh ice pack over the eye while the ambulance soars past the pawn shops and dinky motels on Pacific Avenue. None of us says anything for a minute. Then Smoke looks up at me again.

“Ever seen those blind guys walking around Center City?” he asks.

“I guess,” I say. “What’s it matter?”

“You know, they have a dog leading them down the sidewalk, or they’re stabbing around with a stick. They always have this blank look on their face. I always feel bad for those guys.”

“Don’t get crazy,” I say. “You got at least one good eye left, no matter what happens.”

“One good eye, huh?”


“Well, I’d be done fighting, for sure. And what about driving? And playing Xbox? And who’s to say one good eye will last? Look at my old man - one blast at the Navy Yard, and he’s never been the same since.”

The medic, a chubby guy with a nicely trimmed goatee, pipes up. “They have great doctors here. They’ll take great care of you.”

“I’ll never forget that day,” Smoke says. He’s looking straight up, like he’s talking to the air. “I get home from school, and Mom’s next door on McPhearson’s stoop, begging for a ride to the hospital. We spent half the night at Methodist, and Mom’s holding her rosary beads the whole time, praying and praying. Finally the doctor comes out and says something to her, and she starts crying like a baby.”

“Try to relax,” I say.

“My old man has never been the same since,” Smoke says, still talking to the air. “Too damn stubborn to learn sign language, and his hearing aids don’t do shit. Doesn’t work. Been on disability. Just not the same.”

And then he turns his head away from us, like he wants to be alone or something. He doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the ride.

The ambulance swings around a corner and comes to a sudden stop in front of the Emergency Room. The back doors swing open, and Smoke sits up, his back stiff as a board. He has this look on his face, like he just found a million bucks in the back of a cab.

“I found God,” he says.

“That’s good,” I say. “A prayer or two can’t hurt.”

The medics haul the stretcher out and wheel it toward the emergency room, and I climb out and have to hustle to keep up.

“No, you don’t get it,” Smoke says, straining his neck to look back at me. “I really, really found God. I’ve been born again.”

I look at the medics and say, “I think he’s dehydrated.”

“No, man, you don’t get it,” Smoke says.

I’ve heard of this sort of thing before. A pug gets the crap beat out of him and all of a sudden he decides he’s born again. Bingo - just like that. I know Smoke always believed in God, believed everything he heard from the nuns and priests at St. Gabe’s, but he never really took it to heart. He knelt before every fight and prayed, but what else is a Catholic kid from South Philly going to do before a fight?

“Hallelujah!” Smoke yells as his gurney rolls into the E.R.

The waiting room is almost empty, only an old lady who looks homeless, holding a bandage on her forehead, and a skinny Puerto Rican guy who just looks spaced out. The medics wheel Smoke straight back into E.R. and I take a seat, as far away from the other two as possible. It’s not long before the E.R. doctor comes out and tells me they’re going to call in a specialist to operate, and then Smoke’s old man and brothers show up. The doc says we can all go back and see him while they wait for the specialist. The middle brother, the one without a job, who probably sells drugs, though I can’t prove it, says he’s going outside for a cigarette.

It’s like a maze back to this tiny room in the E.R., where Smoke is laid back on a gurney in a flowered hospital gown. A male nurse is gently shaving his eyebrows, and Smoke winces once and then sees us.

“Nice gown,” the brother says.

“Knock it off,” I say, but Smoke’s ignoring him.

“Don’t worry about my eye, Dad,” Smoke says. “There’s nothing to worry about. I found God. I made a deal.”


“I found God! I made a deal. He’s going to save my eye, and I’m going to be a warrior for Him now.”

The old man turns to Smoke’s older brother and asks, “What’d he say?”

The brother looks the old man square in the eye and exaggerates his lip movements as he says, “He says he found God, or something. Born again, or something, I guess.”

“Dehydrated,” I say.

The old man looks back at the older brother for confirmation and asks, “Born again?”

“Yeah,” the brother says.

The old man shakes his square head in disbelief, and the brother rolls his beady little eyes. I let out a big sigh and run my hands through my hair.

“Holy shit,” the old man says. “Wait till the nuns at St. Gabe’s hear about this.”

“Yeah, really,” the brother says.

The male nurse finishes prepping Smoke and pats his face softly with a towel, and as he gets up to leave he says the specialist should be here soon.

As we wait, crowded into this little room, the old man starts talking about the fight - he can’t get over Dreaded Eddie and those lightning-fast hands. And he keeps shaking his head as he talks, like he can’t believe it. The brother gets a cell phone call, flips it open, and starts talking, but says the reception is bad and heads outside.

“We never should have taken this fight,” the old man says, still shaking his head.

“Dad,” Smoke says. “I’ll be all right. I’m telling you.”

The specialist comes in with the male nurse in tow. The guy doesn’t knock, just pushes open the door, which bumps into Smoke’s old man. The specialist is a black guy, middle-aged, and big. He looks like an old linebacker who went to med school after football, something like that.

Smoke sees the guy and his face changes. All of a sudden. His jaw goes stiff, and he’s eyeballing the specialist, and I can tell he doesn’t want a black guy operating on him. Especially after what Dreaded Eddie did to him. I know exactly how Smoke feels about blacks, and now I know there are some things that even a big dose of religion can’t fix, not with a guy like Smoke.

“Let’s have a look at this eye,” the specialist says, as Smoke starts to fidget.

“Wait a minute,” Smoke says. “What’s your name? Where you from?”

“I’m Dr. Gilbert. I’m an eye specialist, son. I can see you have quite a welt there.”

“No, wait a minute,” Smoke says. He pushes himself up from the table and reaches one arm back to gather the back of his gown together.

“Just sit still,” I say. “The guy’s a specialist.” Then I look at the specialist and say, “He’s dehydrated.”

The male nurse shoves his way forward and grabs Smoke’s shoulders. Smoke tries to wiggle away from him at first, but when the male nurse gathers some steam and tries to push him down, Smoke ducks away from him and pops him with a right jab. The male nurse staggers back, crashing into a table full of metal utensils.

The specialist takes a step back, and the look on his face says he doesn’t want to mess with this crazy kid, but it doesn’t matter. Smoke comes after him with a big right hook, which sends the specialist careening into the wall with a big thud. The old man and I step back quickly, and Smoke darts out of the little room.

I chase after him as a nurse pops her head out of a desk station in the hallway. I hear the male nurse behind me yelling, “Call security!” As Smoke runs by, her head disappears behind the station.

Smoke’s wearing nothing but that hospital gown as he bursts out the door. A skinny young security guard comes running after him, barking into a hand-held radio, but he’s far behind Smoke. When I get outside, both of Smoke’s brothers are standing there. The older one closes his cell phone and drops his jaw as Smoke runs down the street, gown flapping around his bare ass, while the younger one flips his cigarette butt on the ground.

“What the hell?” the older brother asks.

“He can be a real shit sometimes,” I say, catching my breath. “And he still doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.”

“I coulda told you that,” the younger brother says, as he crushes the cigarette butt with the tip of his shoe.

“So you think,” I say, disgusted with the whole damn family. “Maybe you can tell me if the other two Grays Ferry kids I got coming up are big knuckleheads too, because I don’t want to waste my goddamned time here anymore. And while you’re at it, maybe you can tell me why the hell I bothered giving up smoking for Lent. How about it?”

He smacks the bottom of his Marlboro pack, and another cigarette pops out.

“Don’t know,” he says, digging a lighter out of his pocket. He lights the cigarette.

I wonder what’s going to happen to Smoke out there on the streets of Atlantic City. Probably get picked up by the cops, and with that bad eye, they’ll probably get him to a doctor somewhere. And then I wonder what’s going to happen to me. After all, I’m 61 years old, and I don’t know anything but police work and fighting, and I’m too old for one and now too burned out on the other. But with no family and very little money stashed away, I’ll probably go back to the gym, even though it won’t be the same. I won’t expect to change any of these kids anymore.

“Shit,” I say, and I feel exhausted. “Give me one of those cigarettes, will you?”