Paulo’s Journey (The Final Part)

    For the next minute, Paulo sat on a stool while Colin screamed at him to start throwing punches. Paulo’s head ached, but his focus cleared up by time the bell rang to start the second round. He tried his grappling technique again, but this time his tattooed opponent kept him at bay, snapping his punches out quicker. The few times Paulo did get him in a clinch, the man threw short headbutts, and one opened a cut above Paulo’s left eye. Paulo was taking hit after hit, he was running out of breath, and the heavy pain from his battered nose was spreading across the rest of his face. He feared to give up, lest Colin should reach for the revolver in his pocket, so he fought on. He survived the second round, though his face was half-masked in blood and he verged on collapse. The third round was more of the same, until elements conspired in Paulo’s favour. Throughout the round, he began to lose patience with the incessant pummelling of his already tenderised face and ribs, and for the first time since he lost his money, Paulo’s fear, humiliation and self-pity gave way to anger. In frustration he shoved the tattooed man back. The tattooed man threw a right hook but was off balance and stumbled forward as his punch swung well short. Paulo reached his left hand out and pushed the man’s head down (an illegal move according to Queensbury Rules, but again, this was warehouse boxing, and the rules were more lenient), then swung a straight-arm uppercut into the man’s face. It was a terrible punch—technically flawed, physically weak, aesthetically displeasing—striking with an almost open palm rather than the knuckles. But this reckless strike—which had it been delivered by anyone else would have failed with the utmost embarrassment—dropped the tattooed man to the floor and left him cursing and covering his face. You see, Paulo’s thumb, the permanently straight one that he could hardly move, had poked the man in the eye. The tattooed man got to his feet, infuriated and in pain. The referee asked him if he was able to continue, and, despite horribly blurred vision, the man insisted he was able.

    The tide turned. The tattooed man’s punches lost their confidence and accuracy, while Paulo seemed now as nimble as a cat. He started throwing some punches of his own—and they connected. In fact, his flimsy looking jabs hurt his opponent. With many a thousand dollars’ worth of bets on the line, the crowd went berserk. Two and a half minutes into the round, Paulo hurled a wild right hand and struck the tattooed man on the chin. The man’s legs buckled, and he dropped to his hands and knees. The crowd was stunned to near silence. Only Colin cried out, delighted to see his fighter on the verge of victory, and ecstatic at the thought of collecting fifteen hundred dollars in prize money.

    It was warehouse boxing, so rules were bent and sometimes ignored, people did what they could to get an advantage (e.g., Colin placing metal pieces over Paulo’s knuckles), and small infringements of etiquette were overlooked. But there were some things you could not do. Like kick a man in the face while he was down. And that’s what Paulo did. He had never seen boxing before; he didn’t know the rules. He was just trying to stay alive. He was lonely and hungry and tired and homesick, and he had had enough of this tattooed guy punching him in the face. So he kicked him as hard as he could. He almost broke his foot doing it. The man dropped flat and limp on the canvas. Colin shrieked in anger, his prize money vanishing with Paulo’s certain disqualification, while the crowd erupted in rage. Paulo looked down at the tattooed man. The man’s shorts had slipped halfway down his buttocks, revealing a faded pair of red briefs with a large hole at the side, below the elastic. Paulo stood there, in a warehouse full of rioting illegal boxing fans, beside a gun-toting Salvation Army officer imposter, with metal strips wrapped to his fists, with blood pouring from his beaten face, staring at an unconscious man who either could not afford or did not value new underwear. Was this the land of the free and the home of the brave?

    The spectators rioted—hurling beer bottles, dismantling the corner posts and ropes and invading the ring—they might have torn Paulo to pieces had not Colin waved his revolver around and cleared a path to drag him out of there. Colin, Paulo, and Colin’s two other young fighters raced across the carpark, piled into the van and sped off. After he had driven about five minutes, Colin pulled over in front of a convenience store and told Paulo to get out of the van. Paulo rolled the van’s side door open and climbed out, watching Colin cautiously. Colin never looked at him. The door rolled shut, and the van roared away, back toward the city.

    The woman working at the convenience store helped Paulo. She gave him a burrito and a can of Pepsi, gave him the ten dollars she had in her purse, and directed him to a homeless shelter. Within a week, Paulo was on his feet. He got a job washing dishes in an Italian restaurant and rented a room from a nice lady who lived nearby. He took a bus to Manhattan and marvelled at the buildings and the colours and the noise and the people. He saw a store that sold lingerie. As he stood in front of the store, intrigued by the lacy underwear in the window and the pictures of beautiful models, a man approached him and told him he knew a place where you could see women just like that, and these women would take their clothes off for you. Paulo didn’t understand what he meant. Paulo asked the man what kind of store this was, and the man told him it sold sexy underwear. Paulo asked the man to explain what “sexy underwear” was, and the man laughed and walked away. The store and the phrase stuck in Paulo’s mind. Sexy underwear.

    America was not what Paulo had imagined. He worked hard, as many shifts as he could get, and saved his money. In a few months, he had enough for a plane ticket, and he flew home to Italy. Back in his village, Paulo opened a tiny store that sold men’s underwear. It had a section for briefs, and a section for boxer shorts. Good quality stuff. He put up pictures of male models wearing only underpants and had a mannequin displaying the store’s most expensive underpants. Paulo liked the phrase “sexy underwear” and wanted to use it for his store. He didn’t quite get its meaning though, and it was further skewed in translation. He called his store Underwear for Men Who are Good at Sex. The store is still there and does a roaring trade. Men even come from neighbouring villages, some come twice a week, to be seen purchasing underwear there.

© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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