Third Time's the Charm
(c) 2000 By
The gym manager took one look at Rita and shook his head. "He'll eat you alive, lady," he replied, then burst out laughing.
"What? Why?" Rita asked, surprised. 'Damn - my first major break, after years of nagging my editor to transfer me to Sports instead of the Entertainment column, and this is what I get?'
Rita tried to keep her expression smooth as she waited for Mr. Carstairs, the manager of Carstairs' Gym, to stop laughing long enough to answer. Behind her, through the open door that led into the small, grimy office decorated with no less than twelve (she counted) nude calendars, Rita could hear the steady rattatta-rattatta-rattatta of the speed bag being worked over by some young hopeful, and the low thump-thump-thump of another working on the heavy bag. Rita found the calendars offensive, particularly the current one, Playmates of 2004. 'Miss April' may have been sexy to Carstairs, but to Rita, it was blatantly lewd and crude. Rita tried not to breathe in the pungent, sweaty air of the gym too deeply as she waited for Carstairs to finally stop laughing.
"Oh, lady! You may as well ask to interview a tiger in the zoo - even if you live, the tiger still ain't gonna say nothin'," he finally said, wiping tears of laughter from his bald, wrinkled face.
"Alright - but why?" Rita insisted.
"Well, you're a woman!" he replied, still chuckling. "Don't you know nothin' about Tony?"
"No, that's why I'm here to interview him. All I know is that he's thirty-two, an up-and-coming boxer, turned pro four years ago at age twenty-eight, and in a month he'll be fighting a match that could put him on the track to the heavyweight title, if he wins. If I already knew what I needed to know, I wouldn't be here, now would I?" Rita replied dryly.
Carstairs grinned. "I like you, lady. You got moxie," he said, and reached into his the pocket of his shirt, producing a pack of Camels. "I'm tellin' you, though, you ain't gonna get nothin' outta him, and might just get your head bit off tryin'. Go back to your paper, lady, and tell your editor to give this job to a man."
Rita shook her head. "No way," she replied defiantly, and stifled her reaction at Carstairs lighting his cigarette. It was his office, she supposed he could do whatever he wanted here. "So why is he like that? Why does he not like women reporters?"
"Oh, hell, lady - it's not women reporters. It's women in general. Tony D'Tillo hates all of you," Carstairs replied, blowing a plume of smoke from his first drag.
'That figures,' Rita thought. 'My first assignment, and Sam gives me a boxer who hates women.' Rita resisted the urge to wave her hand before her face and try to clear the smoke - it wasn't like the air in here was particularly fresh in the first place. "Why is he like that? Is he gay?"
Carstairs stared at her for a moment with an astonished expression, then burst out laughing again. "Oh, lady! You go ask that to his face - just give me a few minutes to call the ambulance before you do, alright?"
'I'm getting nowhere here,' Rita realized. Looking around in the office, she spotted an autographed baseball on top of a cabinet behind Carstairs. "Hey - is that Joe DiMaggio's autograph?" she asked, grasping at straws.
"Yeah, what's it to you?" Carstairs asked, suspiciously. "I'm not selling it, if that's what you're wondering."
"No, it's just that he's always been my favorite player. Joseph Paul DiMaggio, the 'Yankee Clipper'," Rita replied, and put a nostalgic look on her face. "One of the greatest, if not the greatest outfielder in baseball history, and definitely the best all-'round player in the forties. Played minor league in 'Frisco, then got snapped up by the Yankees. Between '36 and '51 when he retired, he helped the Yankees win ten AL championships and nine World Series titles, though he was in the military when they won the pennant in '43. In '39 and '40, he led the AL in batting, with averages of .381 and .352 - his career mark was .352, making him one of the best hitters ever to play, too. Hit safe in 56 consecutive games between May 15th and July 16th of '41. He played outfield so relaxed, some people thought he was lazy."
"He wasn't, though! He was just damn good!" Carstairs replied, grinning.
"You betcher ass, bud," Rita replied, which caused Carstairs to chuckle again. "Got MVP three times, in '39, '41 and '47, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in '55. His brothers Vincent Paul and Dominic Paul were also major league outfielders, but they never really did manage to step out of the big shadow Joe cast behind him."
"Yeah, they were good, too. But Joltin' Joe was the best. So sad that he's gone, now," Carstairs said with a sigh.
"Yeah. When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up and marry him. It didn't work out, though - after Marilyn, he wasn't interested in marrying again," Rita replied with a straight face.
Carstairs looked up at her, and burst out laughing again. "Oh, come on! You weren't even a gleam in your ol' man's eye when Joe retired, if that! I'm sixty-six - I remember watching him play when I was... Eight or ten, I think. But you? You can't be more than thirty."
"Actually, I'm thirty-four. But hey - a girl can dream, can't she?" Rita replied with a grin.
"Yeah, I guess you can," he replied, nodding and glancing over his shoulder to his nude calendars. "Tell you what - you can dream about Joe, and I'll dream about Marilyn, okay?" he asked, grinning.
"Okay," Rita replied. 'Bingo - she shoots, she scores!' she thought to herself. It wasn't by chance she knew DiMaggio's career statistics, nor was it some feminist impulse that had made her push for a transfer to the Sports desk. Rita Mahoney had always loved sports - all sports - ever since she was a little girl, and she'd even played women's basketball in high school and college. She'd always been a bit of a 'tomboy' in that regard. She loved sports as much as any man she knew, and knew more about sports stats than most men did. Rita read the sports page as devoutly as many other women read the fashion or society pages - though she read the fashion pages to keep up with the latest trends, of course. Over the years, she'd found that sports made a great way to 'break the ice' with men, though in the end, her knowledge of sports often ruined an otherwise perfect relationship. Most men can't stand dating a woman who can argue sports stats with them - and win.
"Here - siddown a minute. I'll try to tell you what I know of Tony the Tiger, okay?"
"Sounds good to me," Rita replied, and took a seat in the rickety chair before Carstairs' desk.
"Okay. Now, you gotta unnerstan' he wasn't always like this. He was once a real nice guy. You know - opens doors for the ladies, gets up when they come into a room, yadda yadda. Got the picture?" he asked, and Rita nodded while he continued. "Well, about two years ago, somethin' happened. Nobody around here knows what. He was gone for about six months. Didn't show up to work out, nothin'. I caught him on the street one day, so I asks him. 'Tony,' I says, 'Why you haven't been around?' 'Al,' he says back, 'I got a girl. First in a long, long time. She needs me, Al. Can't work and take care of her and be at the gym, too. Something had to give.' I want to ask him more, but he's in a rush," Carstairs explained, and paused to pull out another Camel and light up before he resumed his story.
"So, I'm thinking 'This must be serious, he's given up boxing, and that was his life.' Still, nobody sees him around here. Maybe his friends over on Clancy street see him, but not around here. Then, one day, he just walks back in like nothing happened. Well, the word's gotten around that he had a girl, you know? So one of the boys asks him about it. POW!" Carstairs exclaimed, clapping his fist into his palm for emphasis. "Broke Johnny's jaw, knocked him out cold. Anybody who asks him about his girl - same thing. And when some of the boys have their girlfriends visit them here..," he said, his voice trailing off. Carstairs shook his head. "You can just feel it. You can see it in his eyes. He hates them. All of them," he said, then looked into Rita's eyes. "It's no good, lady. Give it up. He ain't gonna talk to you - and he might just knock your pretty little block off if you say the wrong thing. Yeah, he's on his way up. He might even make heavyweight champ in a few years. But lady, you haven't seen him in the ring, I'll bet."
"I've seen him fight. I got tickets to his last bout two months ago - he was on the ticket with another boxer I was interested in seeing," Rita replied.
Carstairs chuckled. "A dame who likes sports. Now I've seen everything," he muttered, then shook his head. "Well, if you've seen that fight, then you know what I'm talking about. The man is an animal. He hits so hard it makes Tyson's punches look like love-taps. He knocked Eddie Fisher, the guy he was fighting then, right out of the whole damn ring! Did you see that when you saw that fight?"
"Yup. Bell rings, three quick jabs to push him back to the side of the ring, a body blow that doubled Fisher over and knocked him into the ropes, then a right cross that sent Fisher between the ropes and down to the floor. Ref couldn't stop it when Fisher hit the ropes, even if he wanted to - it just happened too fast. Fisher had a broken rib from where D'Tillo punched him, and a broken elbow from hitting the floor."
"Exactly right. That's why I'm telling you, lady - don't mess with him. Just go back to your paper and tell your editor to send a man out to do the job. You ask him the wrong thing, and he's likely to put you in the hospital with one punch. The man is an animal."
"No way. I'm not giving up," Rita replied firmly. "So when does he usually come in?"
Carstairs sighed. "Okay, lady. It's your funeral," he said, and pointed behind Rita, out the open door. "See that big gorilla in the black turtleneck walking towards the showers?"
Rita turned and looked over her shoulder, out the door. "That's him?" she asked, spotting an enormous, black-haired man in a crew-cut on the other side of the gym, walking with his back to her, a gym-bag under one arm.
"Yup. He just walked in while you and I were talking. Give him a few minutes to change, then you can try to talk to him in the gym. I'll stay here by the phone so's I can call an ambulance after he decks you."
Rita turned back to look at Carstairs, and was a little shocked when she saw his expression - he wasn't joking. He was deadly serious. "He-he hasn't actually punched a woman, has he?"
"Not that I know of, no. But then again, none of the gals who sometimes visit here ever get close enough to find out if he will or not. Trust me, lady - you can see it in his eyes. He hates you. All of you."
Rita nodded. "Well, I'll just have to be careful, then," she replied, and stood, holding out her hand.
Carstairs rose, shaking her hand gently. "It's been nice knowing you, lady."
Rita went back out into the gym, and waited. She tried to remain calm, but it was extremely difficult. 'Come on, Rita. He can't be that bad. If he was really a monster, even Carstairs wouldn't let him in here - he does have a reputation to maintain, after all,' she thought to herself.
Several minutes later, Tony "The Tiger" D'Tillo stepped out from the locker room and strode over to the speed bag. He was wearing black Nike's with white stripes, black shorts and a black 'muscle' shirt. He also had a tiny black pager clipped to the waist of his shorts, small enough to fit in Rita's hand - though who might want to page this gorilla, Rita had no idea. He seemed totally consumed, his eyes focused only on the bag. The bantam-weight hopeful that was carefully and precisely swatting at the bag sensed more than saw the looming shadow behind him, and stopped. He turned, saw Tony behind him, and blanched. "Oh - sorry, Tony. I guess I'm done for now. I can use the other speed bag over there," he said, gesturing with gloves that seemed comically large on him.
"That's alright, Jack. I can wait," Tony replied, in a voice that sounded to Rita like nothing more than a deep growl.
"No, really. Go ahead, Tony," the smaller man replied, smiling weakly as he backed away.
"Thanks, Jack," Tony replied, and after taking a moment to adjust the height of the bag to about his head level, he began methodically bashing away at it. Rita noticed he wasn't wearing gloves over his ham-sized fists - he merely started punching.
Rita stared unabashedly at the man. He was, in a word, huge. She hadn't really been able to tell when she saw him fight two months ago, as her seat hadn't been that close to the ring. Now, less than fifteen feet from the man, she realized just how huge he really was. Rita guessed, since he appeared to be at least a head and a half taller than her, that he was probably about six foot six. In build, Carstairs hadn't been too far off with his 'gorilla' remark. He was enormously broad-shouldered, with a physique that made Swartzenegger look like a 98-pound weakling. 'Steroids, I guess,' Rita thought to herself. His face, though, caught her eye more than did his massive, rippling muscles. It wasn't that his face was ugly, per se, Rita realized - it was actually quite a handsome italian face. No, it was the scar.
He had an ugly scar that ran from above his left eye, across the bridge of his nose, down under his right eye and to the right corner of his mouth. Rita couldn't tell what it was from, but it certainly looked frightening. The scar twisted the right corner of his mouth downwards slightly, to where it always looked like he was frowning. The only other defect he had that Rita could see was that the knuckles of his hands had enormous calluses over them, but that wasn't unusual for a boxer.
With a sudden motion that startled Rita so badly she nearly leapt out of her skin, Tony clapped both his hands around the speed bag, stilling it instantly. He then slowly turned to her, and glared down at her. "Why are you staring at me?" he rumbled.
"I-I-I...," Rita stammered, then composed herself with an effort. "Mr. D'Tillo, I'm Rita Mahoney of the Daily Herald. I was wondering if I might interview you for the sports column of our paper."
Tony looked down at Rita, and she blanched slightly. The expression on his face was not a pleasant one - Rita imagined it was the look Tony might give a cockroach, just before he stepped on it.
"Leave me alone," he rumbled, and glowered at her menacingly.
Rita backed up a step, her heart pounding. Tony simply turned back to the speed bag, and resumed methodically bashing it. Rita felt a touch at her elbow, and jumped. She turned - it was Carstairs.
"I tried to tell you. You're lucky, I guess - no broken bones," Carstairs replied, grinning at her fear. He then looked Past Rita's shoulder. "Hey, Tony? Where's Frankie today?"
"His emphysema is bothering him. Got some kind of lung infection yesterday. He's in the hospital. Doctor says he'll be out in a couple weeks. You should lay off those cigarettes, Al, or you'll be joining him someday," Tony replied. After a moment, dawned on Rita that the same voice he'd used with Jack and Al was the same one he'd used with her - a deep, rumbling growl. Either he was angry all the time, or that simply was the way he normally sounded. Judging by what Carstairs had said, she was betting it was most likely the former.
"Who's Frankie?" Rita asked quietly.
"Tony's trainer, Frankie Fiarello," Carstairs replied offhandedly, then shrugged. "Well, lady, whatcha gonna do now? Risk bothering him again, or give up?"
Rita glanced back to Tony, who apparently had resumed his focused concentration on the speed bag, and was totally ignoring her. 'Jesus God. He really does hate women. I wonder why?' she thought to herself. She shook her head, and turned to Carstairs. "Well, for now I'm going back to my editor."
"Ah - get a man to do the job? That's best."
Rita frowned - the failure at her first assignment for the sports desk stung her pride. "Maybe. I don't know yet. I'll see you later, Mr. Carstairs."
"Bye, lady," he replied, chuckling.