At 8-2, with a single KO to his credit, Milo Spinks knew he needed to work on his jab and perhaps find a way to better connect on his lackluster right cross. He had the tools, his father said, but lacked the discipline to take the next step in the ring.
It was in the van, on a somber ride home after that second defeat when the elder Mr. Spinks suggested something new, arching an eyebrow then veering off towards the family mortuary.
At first Milo had been aghast by the suggestion, lowering the ice pack from his eye, woozy and spent from going eight miserable rounds with Hank “The Hammer” Kendrick. He’d decided long ago to avoid the family business, besides, how would this help?
Mr. Spinks adjusted his tie, his collar tinged yellow from wear and exposure of his days with the dead. But it was with a middleweight’s agility that the old man wheeled into the freezer, where a struggle ensued.
“Think of it as a bag,” he said, returning, breaths rapid and short as he slow danced with a pale-bluish, elderly stiff. Milo dropped the ice pack as he nearly leaped out of his gym shorts.
“Now, now, son, just work on the jab. Easy now, come on.”
A cautious punch. The stiff let out a moan that nearly dropped Milo to the canvas.
“Just gas, come on. Give him the combo.”
Eventually Milo was able to string something together. Then harder, absorbing the thud of his fist against skin. The solid clack of four knuckles against the padding of flesh, the ridges of the rib cage, the cool touch of the skin on his fists.
Training went late into the evening. Any damage to the cadavers could be fixed, his father assured. Come on, broken ribs weren’t going to keep a dead man up at night.
And so they returned. And again. Eventually, Milo got used to the lemony twang of the shop, the dentist’s lamp arched above his father’s workstation. The way it’s gleam caught the polished shine of the metal gurney, flickering sometimes when he landed that solid right cross.
Mr. Spinks piped in some Jay-Z to keep the kid from getting skittish. Again he assured Milo that it wasn’t disrespectful, beating the dead. The souls had long departed, and for all purposes he was only punching a slab of meat. Maybe, Milo thought, but Mom would have never allowed it.
And he certainly couldn’t argue with the results. Milo “The Mortician” knocked out Ernie Sanders. Whipped JJ “Shortpump” Stokes in three rounds. Then won his next six bouts, four by knockout, and found himself cracking the top ten in the regional rankings and thus earning an invitation to the Grand Sienna Resort Championship in Reno, Nevada.
A month later, Milo was training hard into the late hours of a drizzling Tuesday night. It was four days before his bout with fifth-ranked Chris “Cleaver” Bradshaw, and the metal hook on the rack squeaked in time with the swaying caused by the precise, disciplined barrage of punches to the greenish, pear-shaped body of a middle-aged banker who’d collapsed on an escalator.
After exhausting the fat man, Milo took a breather. The banker’s jaw had come unhinged, drooping like a broken drawer. His father’s eyes sparkled with pride, joking how the banker was going to have to hold up for the week because the only other body in the place was that of a young girl. But while Milo had been removed of any moral quandaries with the workouts, beating the pretty porcelain-faced teenage girl was a bit much.
Mr. Spinks dabbed his son’s brow. “You make your folks proud, son”
“Yeah?” Milo said, unwrapping the tape from his fist. He felt incredible. Disciplined. His body in tune with his mind. Five rounds of sparring and the corpse was breathing harder than him. Milo’s father turned off the rap music. He put in something slower.
His mother’s voice. She’d sung in the church choir for years. Everyone in town knew that voice. The voice of an angel called home, they’d said at the funeral. Five years ago.
Milo shivered through his sweat. It was like she was in the room with them. Something made him turn left. He turned to find his parents.
“Tell him, Cheryl. Tell our son how proud he makes us.”
Milo’s scream leaped out of his throat. His mother’s hollowed stare remained fixed on his eyes. A slight smile on her face. She sat with her hands in her lap, his father’s grasp on her sharp shoulders.
“I’ve kept her for us. So that we can be a family again.”
Milo’s head shook. Words failed to come out of his mouth. His father stood over her, waiting, as his mother’s voice filled the room.
He fell to the floor. Undisciplined and rubbery. Knocked out cold.
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