BLOODLINES OF CAIN
PROFESSOR AITKENS’S BET
Audio and print editions coming in July.
Arthur Hathaway tasted blood.
The usual result when he boxed Joe Keenan, the most feared sparring partner in residence at The Olympia Club.
Life, said the sage, is pain. Keenan knew the sage.
Joe Keenan was a square, solid slab of a man, his face ruddy and pocked like the flanks of a weathered chimney. The big Irishman hit with an abrupt and continuous jab, impossibly fast for a man of his bulk and age, which Hathaway reckoned on the wrong side of fifty. He liked to follow the disorienting jabs with malicious hooks to the ribs that sucked all the confidence and swagger out of a man.
“Look for the hole kid,” Keenan said and his left pistoned out catching Hathaway full in the face.
“You’re not concentrating. When you don’t concentrate you can’t anticipate- NOW WATCH.” Again the rattlesnake left, and again and again followed by mean spirited hooks, inevitable as the thud after the lightning flash.
“Ya gonna let an old man beat ya kid? Don’t ya got any pride?”
Hathaway’s eyes watered. He stumbled back, feeling for the safety of the rope. The rope was home. It was real. The rope would save him, he hoped. He sucked on the growing lump of his split lower lip.
“When I punch, I leave an opening. My guard is down for an instant. It can’t be helped. To get an advantage yah gotta give something up.” Keenan lumbered across the ring raising his fists.
BAP! And again-BAP! BAP! BAP! The big hollow thuds echoed off the tiled gym walls with the impact only a focused punch can deliver.
Keenan had a big man’s love of the hook, key weapon in the science of hurt. The bent elbow, stiff arm, twisting hips, driving bone and gristle into Hathaway’s flanks like a hammer drives a spike. “Stop thinking. This ain’t debate society. Look. Anticipate. Now go inside the punch and HIT. Why are you blinking? Look at me kid.”
The college of blood and leather. Joe Keenan, Professor Emeritus.
Hathaway wobbled from the powerful blows. He felt like he was wrestling with a barn door, mashing into his sides over and over.
“Never take your eyes off an opponent. Now look at me.”
Then Hathaway’s world narrowed to a pinhole of white light edged in a splotch of India ink.
Keenan’s fist shot out.
Hathaway slipped to the right, guarding his face.
The sweat slick glove whizzed by his cheek with a half inch clearance. He hooked with his right, starting the blow on the ball of his foot, twisting his whole body into the punch, slamming the door, the way Keenan had taught him bruise for bruise. The blows came automatically, like notes triggered by pinpricks on a piano roll. Hathaway was surprised when he heard his glove smacking cold and hard against Keenan’s skull, as if his arm had been a club wielded by a stranger.
To his astonishment Keenan dropped his guard, staggered onto the ropes, rebounded and fell on his knees, one fist in the canvas to steady his bulk.
“Aw, don’t think you’re getting better,” Keenan said rubbing a gloved thumb against his jaw. “That was plain dumb luck.”
“No man feels the error of his ways until he is punished,” Hathaway said, an expression of perfect solemnity on his face as he helped Keenan up.
Hathaway’s instruction began some years previous when Joe Keenan insisted in a barroom bet that Hathaway could not, on any account, snatch a nickel out Keenan’s open palm before he closed his fist.
Try as he might, Hathaway couldn’t get his fingers near Miss Liberty’s serene Nordic profile before the big man’s paw snapped shut. “Here kid,” the Irishman taunted. “Maybe a silver dollar’s big enough for you to see.” Hathaway grabbed at the shining disc and again Keenan bear trapped it before he could react- while infuriating loud guffaws exploded from the bar. Suspecting a trick, for Keenan moved absurdly fast considering the two pints of stout Hathaway just witnessed him downing, he demanded to see Keenan snatch the coin out of his hand.
Hathaway saw Keenan’s hand move, felt his own hand tense, but couldn’t tell what happened until he uncurled his fingers, showing empty pink palm. A sly smile formed on Keenan’s face, as he showed Hathaway the snatched coin. Later, when Hathaway learned his other club mates were afraid to spar with Keenan, he determined to learn whatever he could from the fascinating ruffian. He immersed himself in the gospel of offence and defense, the art of the slip, and the four weapons of the ring: the hook, the jab, the straight, and the uppercut.
He also found Keenan was not without humor. It was just that his personality reminded you of a pot set to permanent simmer, its lid dancing ever so slightly in continuous warning.
“C’mon let’s get some steam then head for the pub,” Keenan said, unlacing his gloves and peeling the cotton wraps from his hand. “You look like you need it. Hell, I need it.”
After the dulling heat of the sauna the late winter air felt like a tonic to Hathaway. They crossed Union Square, then Broadway, dodging three lanes of trolley traffic to reach the curb. Keenan shook his fist at a gray bearded motorman. The smell of horseflesh, manure, wood char and coal smoke attached itself to particles of damp, chill air, a smell that never left the city streets, seeping into the bricks and cobbles.
Keenan continued with the tirade he’d begun in the sauna about the decline of boxing and masculine virtue in general. Usually quiet, morose even, he talked in rambles when he was around Hathaway. He liked Arthur Hathaway. The kid was graceful and quick on his feet, and nothing soft about him, not really. So what if he played the piano? Rich people were always making their kids do funny things. Keenan saw a ferocity in him that belied his banker’s manners and fine education. Hathaway could throw a punch and more important, to Keenan’s estimate, soak one up without folding. You wouldn’t guess in a million years Hathaway worked at a museum, and Keenan saw no reason to hold it against him.
“I trained Barney Doyle,” he said. “Who you wouldn’t know, on account of it was before your time and also he ended up a bowery bum right before he drowned himself, but he beat McCaffrey in ’91 and Peter Jackson in ’92. That was before the bastards decided to fix the sport.”
Hathaway knew that Keenan regarded as bastards anyone in congress, most of the police and the simple majority of priests, cardinals and bishops. Of the pope he would say nothing, which Hathaway attributed to latent superstitious dread.
It wasn’t nice enough for ‘em so the powers that be decided to fix it, make things clean and civil. Everything’s different now. The training’s different. It’s …I don’t know, even the men are changing if you ask me.”
He groped for the right words. “It can be a fight or it can be a game, but it can’t be both. Do you know what I meant Art? You can’t make life safe. It’s always gonna be-”
“Yeah, that’s right, life,” Keenan said.
“Twenty years ago a fighter had to go through a trial. It’s not only the saints who need a trial. I would get Doyle up at five and run twelve miles a day when I trained him. He knew wrestling too. Everyone did back then. Now how the hell can you wrestle in a glove stuffed full of horsehair? It’s not pure anymore. Dishonest is what they made it.”
Pete’s Tavern stood on a disused corner two blocks from their club, in quiet remove from the clatter of Union Square. A black fascia shaded under black awnings proclaimed in white letters: STEAKS CHOPS ALE. Inside the pub, age darkened walnut panels bracketed rows of bottles and rust spotted mirrors. A pressed tin ceiling wearing deep brown lacquer further gloomed the place. Keenan liked it that way. He claimed too much light made it hard for a man to think.
They took a corner table and ordered a bottle of rye while they perused the hand drawn curlicues of the oyster list. Cold blue points fresh from Long Island Sound. Stony points, harvested from the freezing gray shoals out past the Verrazano Narrows. Hathaway settled on Stony points. He put the menu down and noted the dozen enamel spittoons lined neatly on the floor in front of the bar. He hoped no one would use them while they ate.
“Stony Points please,” he said to the waiter. “Stony points sound good today.”
Keenan looked at the red slice across Hathaway’s lower lip. “Christ you look like you spent a night at the Tombs.” He called for the bartender. “Mario, get my friend here a piece of ice. He had a little sporting accident.”
“Here this’ll fix you up,” he said, wrapping a chunk of ice in a napkin for Hathaway. “Now hold that on your lip till it goes numb. Don’t worry. You won’t have a scar, not a big one.”
Hathaway let the ice soak up the pain and presently the waiter trotted out holding a platter against his shoulder. Oysters, steaming cups of chowder, tumblers of whiskey and fat mugs of beer began to crowd the little table.
Keenan raised his glass.
“To hell with the Anti Saloon League.”
“Oh, by the way Joe,” Hathaway said after downing his drink, “I did spend a night at the tombs once.”
“I was much younger and a bit wild,” he explained at Keenan’s surprised look.
The two men ate and drank in silence for a while then Keenan asked, over his third shot of rye: ”So what’s he trying to prove?”
“This boss of yours, Aitkens.”
“Ah, you mean the bet. It concerns the identity of the Ex-Ex mandible, the one known as 9303-HB.”
Hathaway scooped an oyster from its shell, downed it and took a sip of beer enjoying the suspense.
Keenan scowled at him.
“An unclassified fossil jawbone, or rather a piece of jawbone brought back from The United States Exploring Expedition of 1842.”
“Never heard of it,” Keenan said.
“Few have. Ex- Ex was the biggest and most complex mission of exploration ever undertaken by the United States. A watershed really, nothing less. You should have been there Joe. You would have fit right in.”
“Uh-Huh, and the bet?”
“I say the jawbone is Megalonyx Jeffersonii. That’s a big extinct ground sloth, named for our esteemed founding father. You see, the museum has a wealthy backer who fancies a sloth with his name on it, and they do make for fine display pieces. Quite hideous looking they were in their time. It seems we will have to dig one up for him. In fact two of my colleagues are in the field doing just that. But Professor Aitkens says my specimen, the jawbone, is not Megalonyx, not a sloth, extinct or extant, and not even a fossil.”
“So what is it then?”
“A piece of junk on a store room shelf in all likelihood. Some random bone, a dead moose, a trapper’s lost mule. You’d be surprised at the amount of junk sitting in museum store rooms. I actually found it by accident in the tusk vault. That’s where we keep the ivory collection under lock and key. But a lot of these so called artifacts are nothing more than the detritus of natural history- random junk, with a few gems mixed in. It’s a matter of distinguishing the junk from a handful of clues that explain the world, or at least make us think we can explain the world.”
Hathaway’s eyes beamed with excitement as the heat of drink and the euphoria of combat washed over him. It felt good to be with Keenan, who was like a little boy before him whenever Hathaway spoke with passion about mysterious things. He felt the pain in his jaw die away to a faint rhythmic throb that he knew would hurt all the more come morning, but it didn’t bother him.
“You see this mission, the Exploring Expedition, it was unique. We had a continent to claim. They said it was science, and it was, a little, but you know what they really wanted Joe?”
“Ahhh, let me see if I can guess: to show the flag?”
“Exactly, show the flag. Assert American power. Tell the English and the Spanish and the Russians that it was our continent and it was, by Jesus, going to stay that way. That’s why Quincy Adams authorized the thing in the first place. As I recall, Captain Wilkes- he was the commander- old Wilkes had to kill forty or fifty natives in the Fijis after they murdered his nephew. A regular colonial war, albeit a smallish one.”
“I was in the Fijis once,” Keenan said, “Back in ’87. Damned Hot. Lots of flies too.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Anyway Joe, they went out with a squadron of six ships under this Wilkes, who was only a lieutenant in actuality, but he made everyone call him captain, and they sailed from New York to Terra Del Fuego then right up to the mouth of the Columbia river in Washington state. Two ships never made it back. They court martialed him too. The navy doesn’t like losing ships- but old Wilkes, he got off. They even made him a captain in the end.”
“That reminds me,” Keenan said. “There was this poor bastard lieutenant I knew when I was in the Merchant Marine. Thought he deserved a command, that one, but never got it. He could tell you a tale about how they were holding him back for this or that. The real reason was he missed his ship one time because he was shacked up with a Manila whore. So he turns himself in to the shore patrol, drew thirty one days in the brig, and he was damned lucky they didn’t nail his hide to the wall for that adventure.”
Hathaway waited for some word of editorial clarification. None came.
“And your point if I may enquire?”
“My point is he was always a son of a bitch to anyone below him and an ass kisser to anyone above him. His nature I guess.”
“Hmmm, it is hard to imagine Professor Aitkens in a Manila whorehouse. But he did manage to embarrass himself in front of people who don’t easily forget the offence.”
“Orthogenesis,” Hathaway said lowering his voice for conspiratorial effect. Now it was his turn to mystify.
“Aitkens was the last scientist, or one of the last, to stand up for the idea that life has some grander purpose, other than to maintain itself by perpetual reproduction.”
“You’re sayin’ it doesn’t?” Keenan looked like a child who has been told something vaguely blasphemous by his parish priest.
“Not so far as anyone can prove by evidence and experiment. Scientists care about those sorts of things Joe. Life happens. It keeps on happening.”
“Well let’s hope so. But what if you lose?”
“Ah yes, the bet… well he didn’t say what happens if I lose. I think it’s more a gentlemanly sort of bet, in any case.”
Keenan smirked at him.
“You need gentleman to make gentlemanly bets Arthur.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’ll be rid of Aitkens in due time. The museum board wants new blood, new ideas. We even have Roosevelts on the board. I think old Aitkens sees the handwriting on the wall, you know. Ideas come and go. Of course that means people must come and go.”
With that, Keenan, a great purveyor of maxims cited his personal maxim that an old man like himself shouldn’t keep a pretty young wife waiting alone in Brooklyn.
Hathaway lifted his glass as Keenan slid out of the booth. “Brooklyn of ample hills was mine, Joseph.”
A chill lingered in the late winter air. The kind of kind of weather you called bracing. Good for the system, Hathaway told himself. He decided to walk the thirty odd blocks between Union Square and his house. Continuous hot weather deranged a man’s nerves, but a walk in the cold seemed just the thing after a pounding and oysters.
He thought of the blizzard of ‘88 when the streets in front of His father’s brownstone choked shut under six feet of snow and he recruited the other boys on the block to dig a snow tunnel from the north curb to the south one. Nothing like it ever came to the city again, though he spent his boyhood hoping.
His body felt slack, his mind clear and wakeful. He stopped, catching sight of his reflection in a store window. Quite the love mark Keenan had given him. He adjusted his gray bowler hat. Around Hathaway swam an ocean of such hats in brown, black, or gray and varying conditions of wear- but all exactly the same shape, as though men had donned a uniform by unspoken decree. Hardly anyone under forty bothered with a top hat anymore, except on Wall Street. He sucked at the swollen spot on his lower lip. It tasted like a copper penny. To learn is to hurt, truly.
The sun set over the Hudson, breaking through the clouds and painting gilded domes and distant spires orange for a few fleeting minutes. Soon ten thousand gas lamps up and down the avenue would answer the dusk with their steady green glow. He thought of Keenan’s parting words:
“The trouble with you scientists is you know so much you really don’t know nothin’ at all.”
Half an hour later, he was too drained to think or feel. The side of his jaw throbbed from Keenan’s beating.
He paused on the curb before crossing the twenty six lines of track uncoiling from the maw of Grand Central Station. Each twisting dendrite of rail split into branches, lines and spurs sending barristers, salesmen, lovers and soldiers hurtling across the astonishing heap of a continent all the way to the Pacific ocean. He watched hot cinders whirl in the air as an evening train chuffed by. The embers were cold and dead by the time they struck the ground. A long procession of passenger cars rattled by. A blond haired woman locked eyes with him for an instant through a pane of glass and was gone. The cityscape overawed Hathaway in one flash of unclouded gnosis.
He felt as a traveler stepping off a boat in a foreign port, although he’d lived in the city all his life, the well ordered maze of brick and grime and clinging soot, of clean flagstones and dirt roads that turned to muck in the brief pummeling rains that stole comfort and ease, of flapping green awnings and wool worn too long between brushings, and plates heaped high with gaping oysters, fresh, steaming and good, the crystal mugs of honey colored beer and beef shanks and pig’s heads glaring blindly from pushcarts, dried dung, offal, piss, hurry and bother. The eye lingers on nothing. The mind retreats into its shell. He drifted along, part of the crush and flow of Anglo Saxon urban humanity: assured, brusque and cool, unconscious of their sameness and perfect mastery of the land. There were men in snug plaid suits and bowler hats, either bank clerks or detectives or common pickpockets plying the street side by side with millionaire swells in fur collared coats and ladies in wide brimmed hats with imperiously arched backs descending lightly from fine townhouses of chocolate colored stone, and squatters in shacks of raw wood bleached silver by the sun. Far removed from the city center, there were apronned long skirted wives in little clapboard houses dwarfed next to gargantuan cranes, water pumps, dynamos, cast iron trestles- and on distant beaches: waves crashing against rocks crusted with coal black mussels. It was maddening and horrible and glorious and free.
He was tired now, and Aitkens wanted to see him in the morning.