So here’s a short story I wrote a few years ago and got published at Hobart, which was a tremendous honor. To top it off, the editors paired it with some terrific art by Barrelhouse artist Killian Czuba. This piece is fiction and the narrator and her family, etc., aren’t me and mine. I’ve never even watched a boxing or MMA match. I wrote it as a kinda/sorta tongue-in-cheek yet loving take on Irish-American identity. I’m sharing it again now because it’s also a “worker’s story” and this is Labor Day weekend. Whoever reads it, if you’re suffering through a similar situation as the narrator, hang in there and don’t give up: There’s going to be a clear road.
I’ve always been the one you wouldn’t want to back in a match of wills. I work in an office. I’m a woman, a little overweight, unmarried. I live with my dad. He looks after me and I look after him.
My boss is a man, more than fifteen years younger than me, and his boss is a woman the same age as him.
Recently, for my yearly review, my boss noted how much my confidence had increased in composing emails. He said he noticed this increased confidence in the tone of quite a few of my messages, all of which I’m required to cc him on, and he wanted me to know how much he appreciated my efforts and recognized my growth. I did not tell him I’d been writing emails since well before he joined the workforce or that I sent my first one before he was even born. And when he suggested I continue my growth and skill variation in the year ahead by taking a social media for beginners course, I did not remind him I had taken it already at his and his boss’ suggestion after my previous review.
He forgets things often: assignments, deadlines, approval of my overtime pay. “I forgot,” he says, while giving me a project on Wednesday that had to be done Tuesday and came to him for assigning at least a week ago. “Sorry,” he doesn’t say. Instead: “You need to have this done before lunch today, no later than 1:00. You can work through lunch if you need to. Don’t worry if you have to go over your hours and stay late to finish the rest of your work. I’m okay with that.”
The other men at work treat me with respect or just ignore me, which I’ve been told for women like me means almost the same thing. Except one, who’s begun to make a particular noise whenever he sees me coming to make the guys in the cubicles around him laugh. He’s a temp, I’m told, when I speak to my boss’ boss about it. Or a consultant. It’s hard to know which, since my boss’ boss changes her mind on his title, on everything, hourly. In any case: “He won’t be here much longer…maybe. Don’t worry about it.”
My dad is a widower and retired. He worked a machine in a plastics factory for his life’s occupation. These days he watches sports and politics, bitches about the Republicans, reads the newspaper every day (he still gets it delivered) and every book he can find about the wild west and the American Indians. He admires their spirit, he says, their defiance. Dad always did respect a fighter. His favorite sport is boxing. On his left forearm, he has a faded tattoo of an Irish flag, the colors long blurred by patches of wiry old man’s hair and the purple, brown, and deep blue spots of age. Dad prides his Irish heritage. His “Irish blood” as he says, though there are several kinds of blood coursing through him. Irish, Welsh, German, possibly a little Czech. But Dad favors the Irish strand over all. The Irish, Dad says, have been in a state of active resistance for over 800 years. Unconquerable, he calls them. “Them” including him, me, and most of all Mom – “the full Irish breakfast” as Dad used to call her, teasingly but with respect bordering on adulation. She was the real deal after all, her parents Belfast born and bred.
She was not a naturally pretty woman. I took after her in that regard. She had a broad back and shoulders and pale eyelashes that made her look like a rabbit when they were bare, which wasn’t often. Mom always wore makeup. And dresses or skirts, never slacks – though dungarees, as she called them, were an occasional self-treat. Thick high heels, even while waitressing at the diner all day. And scads of jewelry, even though her employer threatened to fire her for it day after day. She favored quirky, dangly earrings and unique, colorful brooches – and of course, her wedding ring, an uncharacteristically simple, slim-band item that Dad wears now, on a chain around his neck under his shirt.
Mom’s most prominent feature was one I gratefully missed out on, a strong jutting jaw, like an old-time boxer or one of those tough street kids in the black-and-white Bogart movies. Mom was a toughie herself. If I got bullied at school, she’d come up with the nastiest insults you ever heard to trade back with my bullies. She would’ve gone and said them straight to the mean kids’ faces, and to their parents, my teachers, the school principal, the whole world within her aim and earshot if Dad hadn’t time and again stopped her. Mom was the kind who always needed to be moving, working, acting on something, whether a cause or an impulse, or a real or imagined slight or barely healed pain. She wouldn’t have lasted long at my workplace. The sitting in a cube all day would’ve driven her nuts. And my boss and his boss, and the “consultant”? I’d give anything to bring Mom back just to see how they’d fare against the likes of her.
Though she passed away nearly fifteen years ago, Dad talks about her, champions her every deed and accomplishment as if she’s still here – alive, well, and above all, willful. “Your mother was quite a woman,” he’s always telling me, as if it needs reminding, as if I or anyone could ever forget her or compare.
In my cubicle at work I keep a small picture of her. It’s the only personal item I keep. I used to have colorful calendars, inspirational quotes, even a little plant back in my first few years at the company, but I took it all down in the past couple years, a few months after my current boss came on. I keep Mom’s photo propped up by my mouse, close at hand. Easy to take on the day it comes to that.
It’s true I do a lot of overtime, more than I should be willing to, but it’s not out of any loyalty or dedication to my work. I use my overtime pay on Dad, always keeping my ears perked up for him to mention something he would love to have or do. Like this year for his birthday, I gave Dad the gift of a fight. The Mayweather vs. McGregor match on pay-per-view. Dad couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. It was Mayweather this and McGregor that. Who was he rooting for, I asked, thinking that was a no-brainer. Dad has always been something of a purist when it comes to boxing – he used to say boxing was for athletes, mixed martial arts was for animals. And besides, did anyone really believe McGregor, even with his mountain’s worth of confidence, could hold his own at boxing with, as Dad called Mayweather, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter to wear a pair of gloves since Ali?
By way of answering me, Dad reached into the back pocket of his trousers, pulled out his wallet, and fished out the few bills inside. “That’s on Mayweather,” he said. “What about your kinsman?” I said, teasing. “What about your fighting Irish pride?” Dad placed his hand on his heart. He took a moment to rub at something on his chest, and I knew it was the ridge of Mom’s wedding ring protruding through his undershirt. Then he lightly thumped his chest, his heart, the ring, all of it, as if for luck, and said, “This is on McGregor.”
The day of the match Dad got a barbershop haircut and shave, put on a clean old dress shirt of his, and suggested we order Chinese for dinner and eat it on proper plates with Mom’s silverware. “Some people got the Superbowl, I got the fights,” he said when I took note of his newfound dapperness. Maybe a secret memo had gone out. Just before the fight a picture went viral of McGregor getting his hands wrapped while wearing a three-piece designer suit and shades. I showed the picture to Dad on my phone. “Look at him,” I said. “Full-time flamboyance this guy has.” Dad corrected me: “No, Jean. Fighting form. Battle gear.”
Once the fight started, Dad burrowed into a respectful silence. It’s something I’ve always appreciated about him, that he doesn’t act out fights vicariously like so many other male fans. No shouting at the screen, no balling his hands into fists and jerking his shoulders as if shadowboxing his diminishing potency in his Lazy Boy. Dad watches a fight as if it was a mass, an almost mystical occasion whose noisy embellishments and flashy sideshows are only included for the benefit of those who don’t understand the stakes and significance of a fight the way he does. Which isn’t a conceit. Dad’s a Depression baby, a war draftee, a factory lifer. And yeah, Irish – 800 years of resistance, fighting form, and all.
But McGregor lost, after all that hype and hope. Dad applauded anyway when the match ended and got out a bottle of discount brandy for a birthday toast. He poured a glass for me and we both stood in the kitchen drinking. “Did you enjoy the fight, Jean? It was a good one, wasn’t it?” he said. “But our guy lost,” I said. I downed the brandy in one gulp, feeling thirstier and edgier than I could remember. Dad laughed and passed me the brandy bottle. “He lasted 10 rounds, Jean. Against Mayweather. That’s the important thing.” He put his empty glass in the sink. “There’s winning and losing, and then there’s fighting. The first two are just outcomes. The third is something else altogether. A way of life. A fighter doesn’t always need to win or lose to justify himself or prove his worth, Jean. He just needs to put up a good fight. Make a good stand.” He moved to the doorway of the kitchen. “This is just the beginning for our man McGregor. You watch.” He winked and thanked me for his birthday gift, then went off to bed. But I stayed up.
I am not like my parents. Not on the inside. Like I’ve never been comfortable with confrontation. Though there’s beauty in a fight that even I can recognize, I’m never at the ready with a withering comeback like Mom always was and I don’t have the ease with handling confrontation, the philosophical attitude about it that Dad does. That night, after the fight, I stayed up in the kitchen wondering where it all went wrong with me. Perhaps the Irish in me is too watered down, too commingled, beyond Dad’s even, beyond the brink of any inborn courage and inherited resistance. Perhaps the fighter’s gene, if there is one, skips a generation.
Dad always says Mom worshipped me, her only child. Whenever I’m feeling low about my job, he says she would be proud to know I escaped working class life, that I have a “nice clean job” in an office instead of working on my feet or at a dangerous machine all day like they did. Something stable too. He may think that and I get it, I really do, but I don’t feel it. Certainly not when I walk past the consultant’s desk and hear his juvenile joking and his cubicle neighbors’ cowardly giggles, and all I do is walk on red in the face without a word in defense of myself. And not when I put away my resignation letter for yet another day or get denied a raise for “budget reasons” for yet another year or see the boss and his boss going out with the consultant for lunch more and more often, my boss’ boss laughing and blushing as the consultant opens the door for her, and all of them acting sweet as Halloween candy swiped out of some scaredy-cat kid’s bag.
Long after the match, I kept the picture of Conor McGregor getting his hands wrapped on my phone. I looked at it every day, sneaking peeks in my cubicle, in the ladies room at work, during lunch. Studying it, studying him. His pose, his style, the way he held out his hands to his trainers – casually, but with undeniable power radiating from his hands, from the picture, from some mysterious realm I’ve never been able to find the door to, where self-assurance is as second nature as brushing your hair or buttoning your shirt, as easy to carry around and show off as a flashy new watch or necklace or tattoo, or a family trait. Imagine if McGregor were a woman, I’d wonder throughout the day, as I sifted through the barrage of emails from my boss, all his reminders to cc him the next time I sent this or that, the notifications that he’d be leaving early again as I stayed late. Imagine McGregor in an office. Imagine him…or her, aged a bit past her prime. How would she prep for a fight? What would it be like to be a woman like her?
More often I forget McGregor and the all the cubicle walls around me, and I picture clear roads. Just that, plain and simple. I close my eyes and imagine a twister-wrecked field, a traffic-jammed crossroads, the faces in my office crowded together into an ugly clump of eyes and nostrils and teeth, then say to myself in quietude: “There’s going be a clear road. It’s inevitable.” And there, in my mind and heart, it appears.
For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I can feel something coming up in me, something stirring in my blood. Like I might be my father’s daughter after all. My mother’s too.
There’s one more way I take after her. I may spend a lot of my overtime pay on Dad, but for myself I splurge on makeup. Unlike Mom, I can take or leave a nice outfit, designer clothes, accessories, bling and all that. But like her, like a warrior without a shield, like a knight without armor, without makeup I feel naked. Defenseless even, like someone without a name or history or kin. I wear it every day, even when I have nowhere to go. What I’ve always loved best is a dramatic look – dark eyes, carved cheekbones, a strong mouth in a bold color. But it’s too much for the everyday, for the office, so I keep that look just for practice, just for myself.
But lately, as I get ready for work every morning, I’ve been playing up the drama, piling on the boldness, keeping a few images in mind. As I trace the shape of my eye with liner and gloss my lips, I think of the consultant and the cubicle gigglers. I’ve begun to notice, they all dress alike, eat alike, laugh alike, as if on cue or autopilot. They make a drab little blot in the center of the office, their laughter and very breath a feeble, fading heartbeat, the mewings of a nest of mice in a python’s chokehold. Their time’s up. They’re done. I apply color to my cheeks and I pick something rosy – against drabness, I say.
As I blacken my lashes, I think of my boss in a meeting room going over my annual review, clicking his pen and reading from a sheet the goals he’s decided on for me for the year ahead. The social media course. The emails. My boss’ boss interrupting me, correcting my just fine English and exchanging my just fine words for ones that make no better difference. This is the best they can do, and it isn’t much. It’s over for them too. It’s inevitable. I say it again: There’s going to be a clear road.
Second to last, I think of Conor McGregor getting his hands wrapped in a three-piece suit. Dad’s faded Irish flag tattoo and special occasion dress shirt. Mom’s picture beside my mousepad, waiting, ready.
I accentuate the angle of my brows, my cheekbones, and work my way down to my jawline, playing up the feature I’ve always tried to hide. My mother’s boxer’s jaw, jutting out from her face, from 800 years of resistance, from my long-awaiting destiny, like a fist.