Knockout Stage

We started the boxing club over winter break, when six of us stayed in town while everyone else went home for Christmas dinners and Amazon gift cards and nights out at bars serving up boozy eggnog and cinnamon-spiced whiskey. We were sitting in our frat house basement drinking brass monkeys and playing circle of death when Pooh Bear and Elmo got into a debate about who would beat the other in a fist fight. When things got more intense because of all the Old English bloating our stomachs, Rainbow cleared his throat and said the only way to settle the matter was for the two of them to either actually fight or to fuck. He was the only out guy in our fraternity, so he could say those kinds of things.

That got everyone laughing, and the matter, we thought, was settled. But the next afternoon, when the rest of us wandered downstairs to the noise of The Chemical Brothers blasting through the basement speakers, we found Rainbow wrapping heavy ropes around four of the support posts. When we turned down the music and asked him what he was doing, Rainbow blinked at us and said, “Making the boxing ring.” He pointed to the bar, where he’d piled two pairs of boxing gloves, a stack of packaged mouthguards, two boxer’s helmets, and a mound of athletic tape.

“So we can box,” he said. His hair had been green the night before, but at some point in the interim he’d dyed it again so it shimmered a cool aquamarine. When none of us said anything, he shook his head. “Oh, come on. Don’t pretend I’m the only one with anger issues to work out. Why else are we all here?”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Johnny Five said. We called him that because he knew too much. On his final pledge test, he’d listed the names of one hundred alumni.

Rainbow looked at each of us. “Who’s gonna know? Who’s gonna tell?”

We all shrugged.

“Okay,” he said, slapping one of the gloves and turning the music back on. “Let’s box.”

Four of us boxed each night, for three two-minute rounds each. On the first night, Elmo—short, red-head—and Pooh Bear christened the ring. We helped wrap their wrists so they didn’t break any bones. We boiled the mouthguards in the kitchen, shoving the still-scalding plastic between their lips and reminding them to bite down and not move their teeth until the shape was set. Rainbow set a cowbell on a folding table where the judges would sit. He’d read up on scoring and gave us all the basics, explaining the ten-point scale and the things to look for, like effective aggression, command of the ring, playing strong defense, and, of course, landing clean and hard punches.

Pooh Bear beat Elmo by split decision, two rounds to one. They were both bent over, chests heaving, when Rainbow announced the win. Even though the basement was freezing—winter air slipped in through the steel doors leading to the stairwells that chugged up to the back and side of the house—they were both shirtless, their torsos slick with sweat, their beaten faces fire-red. Neither of them had drawn blood, aiming not for noses and jaws but ribs and ears.

Johnny Five said he didn’t want to fight, so Research Methods and Skyscraper got in the ring next, the latter’s reach giving him the advantage. Research Methods was quicker around the ring, and it was tough to judge, especially for Elmo, who looked like he was going to pass out the entire time. His hair was matted down on his face like he’d been doused with a bucket of water.

The next morning, the four of us who had fought could hardly move. Rainbow went to every bedroom, delivering ibuprofen, Gatorades, and sausage biscuits from McDonald’s. Each fighter groaned out a thank you but said he couldn’t lift his arms or move his torso. We were all in decent shape and yet our bodies were slugged with lactic acid. On the second night, when Johnny Five and Rainbow were done in the ring, no one else wanted to go back in.

“I can’t lift my shoulders,” Elmo said.

“I will die if anyone touches me,” Pooh Bear said. People liked to poke him when he was drunk, especially on the chin, because he would spasm, hands clutching toward his throat, and let out a giggly whine.

But fight we did. We pushed through the pain, assisted by shots of rum or shotgunned beers. Our bodies ached, but we set our jaws and bit into our mouthguards and ignored the scream in our shoulders and biceps. When we were punched, our bodies lit up with pain. We grunted and moaned.

“We should have walkout music,” Rainbow said on the fourth day. “We’ll make a production of it.”

We chose “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Come Sail Away,” “Eye of the Tiger.” Rainbow picked “Barbie Girl,” and Elmo downloaded a hard-edged version of the Sesame Street theme. When it was time to start each fight, Rainbow turned off the overhead fluorescent lights so that the room glowed in jazzy neon colors thanks to the glo-paint that had been spattered on the walls and ceiling years ago during a disco-themed party. He cranked the music and we flung the doors open and marched in from the cold, pumping our fists in the air.

On Christmas, we took a break, sitting in a circle on folding chairs inside the ring. Research Methods had arranged a secret Santa gift exchange.

“We’re a bunch of sad sacks,” he said when we all showed up, beers in one hand, presents in the other, their contents hidden beneath newspapers or in paper bags or, in Pooh Bear’s case, an obnoxious amount of duct tape. We sat in silence as we opened our gifts, most of which were holiday booze sets, a fifth of mid-list vodka or gin boxed up with a pair of rocks glasses. Rainbow’s present to Skyscraper was a panorama of New York City, framed in mahogany.

“Holy shit,” Skyscraper said. Rainbow, of course, was the only one who’d taken the time to buy an actual roll of wrapping paper, a flurry of Santas waving their mittened hands. Since he was such a tall bastard, Skyscraper’s wingspan allowed him to grip each side of the frame with ease.

“Get it?” Rainbow said, leaning over to look at the photograph. “Because you’re a skyscraper too.”

Skyscraper nodded. “Thanks.”

We got rip-roaring drunk on our gifted booze. Elmo passed out on the ratty couch in the corner that reeked of beer and bodily fluids. Research Methods vomited in the yard, where his puke crystalized and was covered with snow. The next day we all had pounding headaches, but we boxed anyway. We boxed the day after that and the day after that.

On New Year’s Eve, we thought we’d take another break, but Rainbow shook his head and told us he had a surprise and that we’d better show up on time. The day was snowy, one of those grim, gray-white slogs through time where the clock doesn’t seem to move even as the marathon of bad sitcoms on TBS labors on. We sat in the tv room, slumped on a trio of leather sofas, the nicest furniture in the place, and the only seating that was treated with any respect by drunk partygoers. We ordered delivery Chinese, splitting orange chicken and General Tsao’s and broccoli beef, flattening the boxes and plucking up chunks of slippery meat with our hands, smearing sauce on our slick beer cans. When night fell, someone had changed the channel to Ryan Seacrest in Times Square. Elmo slapped his thighs and said, “I guess we’d better see what he has for us.”

Rainbow had been gone all day. He was an odd duck, hard for us to figure out. On his initiation night he’d wowed all of us by making out with Katherine Turning, the ex-girlfriend of our last fraternity president, whom she’d broken up with on the cusp of his graduation the previous spring. She was a bombshell, tall and blonde and kind. We never saw her drink a drop of alcohol in our house, but she kept coming to parties even after she was twenty-one, when most of the sorority girls started staking out for the bars in the downtown square instead of mucking about at fraternity parties. But there she was, her hands raking the back of Rainbow’s head, their faces pressed together, lips glossy with spit. Some of us hooted and hollered over the pounding beat of the rap music, and the next day he blushed and shrugged when we asked if anything more had happened.

But then, a month later, he introduced us to a guy he brought around one night. They played beer pong together, and we could tell from the way their hands found each other and their shoulders bumped that they weren’t just friends. Rainbow introduced him as Dan, and he shook all of our hands with a hard, strong grip like someone from the military. Dan was tall and muscular and a good shot, sinking cup after cup. He and Rainbow high-fived a lot, and those of us paying close attention saw the way Dan eyed Rainbow when he thought no one was looking. There was, we decided, love there, the dangerous kind: not ravenous or physical, but intimate, pristine, fragile.

When we stepped into the basement, none of us knew what to say. Rainbow was perched on the bar, his heels hitting the wood as he grinned. Waiting in the ring were two girls. Despite the cold and snow they were attired in black bikini tops, Daisy Dukes, and matching high heels. One we recognized: Trace, who as a freshman had lived in the dorm across the street from our house and come to parties every weekend. She was tall and tan and had lacrosse thighs and a scar beneath her right ribs from some gruesome field hockey injury that she liked to show off when she’d had too much tequila. We didn’t recognize the other girl. Rainbow identified her as Fox, one of his co-workers at the bar where he slung drinks part-time when he needed cash.

“They’re our ring girls for the evening,” he said when he tossed himself down from the bar and stood between them, an arm over each of their shoulders.

The girls smiled. Fox was tiny, blonde, squinting. We would later learn she normally wore glasses but had gussied herself up for the night.

“They hate going home, too,” Rainbow said. “So I thought they might ring in the new year with us.”

Rainbow had also brought his television down from his bedroom, setting it up on the bar top and feeding the sound through the speakers. As we pummeled one another, musical acts served as our background noise, celebrities like Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper and Gwen Stefani chit-chatting as we jabbed and hooked at one another’s bodies. The girls paraded around the ring, displaying homemade signs as though we were surrounded by hooting spectators. They teetered on their high heels thanks to the shots of cheap vodka they took after each lap. When he wasn’t fighting or adjudicating, Rainbow stood between them, one arm over each girl’s shoulder. We watched them giggle and paw at his chest, hands splayed over his sternum. He kept whispering in their ears, and though we couldn’t hear what he said, it must have been funny, because they laughed over and over.

We took a break at midnight, screaming out the countdown. Rainbow produced several bottles of cheap champagne, the kind we made graduating seniors chug the weekend before they received their diplomas. We drank from the bottles, letting the bubbly liquid spill down our bruised chins. Once everyone had boxed, we took turns in the ring again, not worrying about judging or winning. By then we were drunk enough that our punches were sloppy, our arms loopy and freewheeling. We didn’t care if what we threw landed or not. Late in the night we struggled upstairs to our rooms, ears ringing with the echoes of celebration.

Because it sometimes took freshmen at our college a semester to figure out that there wasn’t much to do in small-town northern Missouri except go to parties, our Interfraternity Council held a small rush week in early February every year. We planned our events at the first chapter meeting of the semester. Before our house began to fill back up we’d taken down the boxing ring and stashed the gloves and leftover athletic tape in Rainbow’s closet and we’d agreed, standing in a somber circle with the rope clutched in each of our hands like a giant rosary, that we wouldn’t tell anyone about what we’d spent our winter break doing.

And so it was a surprise to all of us when Rainbow, during the brainstorming session about what to do on the first night of rush, raised his hand and said, “What about boxing? We could call it Friday Night Fights.”

Elmo, who was the Secretary, sat at the executive council table at the front of the meeting. We watched his jaw tighten as Rainbow detailed everything we’d done for three weeks, presenting it as a hypothetical. He mentioned walk-out music, judges, even ring girls, not identifying Trace and Fox by name but saying he knew some ladies who would be down for it.

“Isn’t it a little cold down here for that?” our recruitment chair said.

“I’m not sure it’s safe,” our president added. “Nationals wouldn’t like it.”

Rainbow shrugged, undeterred. “We’ll type up liability waivers. We’ll make everyone wear mouth guards and we’ll keep plenty of Band-Aids on hand.”

The recruitment chair rubbed his eyes. “Does anyone actually want to fight?”

At first, none of us raised our hands. We caught Elmo’s eye. Only a week had passed since our last boxing night, but we could all see the itch in the others’ eyes, the hook of their shoulders, the curl of fingers as they turned into fists.

Skyscraper raised his hand first, followed quickly by Research Methods and Johnny Five. Before Pooh Bear and Elmo could volunteer, others who hadn’t been part of the club were volunteering. People yelled out what they thought would be funny matchups. Roommates against roommates. Guys who’d slept with the same girl going for bragging rights. Fall pledges versus spring pledges. Pledge brothers who hated one another but never said so out loud.

Rainbow beamed. His hair—orange—flashed as though he was lit from within. He stared at the executive board with a hard grin on his face as if to say, Tell me no. I dare you. Then he turned to the rest of us. He raised his hands like a preacher slurping up the power of God but said nothing. This made us nod our heads. The fifth-year seniors nodded. Last semester’s pledges nodded. Those of us who had boxed and beaten one another throughout those cold three weeks nodded.

“Alright then,” our president said. “Friday Night Fights it is. Let’s just not have any broken bones, okay?” He looked around the room. “Please?”

The lineup was set two days before rush started, at a special Wednesday night chapter meeting.

“There are currently sixty-five guys signed up in advance,” our recruitment chair said. He had been elected because he was suave, a Kennedy-esque orator (his nickname was JFK), and because he was a solid planner. He’d booked restaurants and had secured a deal at the bowling alley for Monday Night at the Lanes, our stalwart mid-rush event. “Lots of guys sign up the day of, so we’re looking at a decent pool.”

Everyone nodded. Unlike the other fraternities, we tended to do well in the spring because we let just about anyone come to our fall parties so long as they paid to help buy a second keg when the first one ran out. Even though a good third of our membership joined halfway through the school year, we always made fun of spring pledges—like Research Methods and Elmo—for being nerdier than those of us who dove in during the fall.

JFK detailed all the small tasks that needed to be handled for each event. He was good at staring when no one volunteered to do something, waiting out those who got uncomfortable and eventually raised their hands. He skipped Friday Night Fights, then circled back to it at the end. He blinked toward Rainbow, who stood up and jostled his way to the front of the room.

“Okay,” he said, clearing his throat. He clapped his hands together and then explained exactly what would happen. Rainbow pointed at three guys and identified them as the judges. He picked out two preppers, who would be responsible for getting each man’s hands bound and their mouthguards ready. “I need your walkout music by tomorrow at noon,” he said to the fighters. He didn’t mention that he already had songs for himself and the five of us. Throughout his speech, Rainbow glanced at each of us at least once, his eyes twinkling as he spoke. We could see his joy at spreading the boxing club’s tendrils into the world.

“And I made these,” he said, pulling a thick stack of half-sheet flyers from his back pocket. “Everyone take some and spread them around campus.” He smiled. “This is going to be huge, you guys. Huge. You don’t even know.”

Despite the polar weather of early February, the basement was hot when Rainbow rang the bell to start the first round of the first fight. Bodies were crammed inside, pressed up against the rope ring. Older members sat on the bar, sodas between their dangling legs. Girlfriends and freshmen craned their necks to see the action. The ring girls, chests shimmering with body glitter provided by Rainbow, strutted and smiled, hips cocking when they paused their circular sashays.

The first fight was Johnny Five and Research Methods, dubbed Battle of the Brains by Rainbow, who had secured a megaphone that nearly destroyed the hearing of everyone pressed close to the ring. People cheered the fighters indiscriminately as they entered, the whole basement bathed in the LSD glow of the walls. Rainbow had rented a smoke machine from the local party store, which spewed out smog as each boxer entered.

In between fights, Rainbow got back on the megaphone and, like a great car salesman, started talking about all the great things our fraternity offered. He paused so people could clap and cheer. He talked about how much our fraternity meant to him, a place where even a weirdo like himself—here, a honk of applause—could feel like he belonged when no one else would have him. He caught each of our eyes, and we each felt exactly what he was saying: Pooh Bear had been tossed out of his mother’s house when she found a single joint in his underwear drawer; Skyscraper’s dad knocked him around when it turned out he was terrible at basketball; Elmo’s stepmother wanted nothing to do with him; Johnny Five’s parents hated that he wanted to study art history instead of molecular biology.

Rush was dry, but we’d provided soda and pizza, and each time the crowd whooped in approval they held up their Cokes and slices of supreme.

The night was a rousing success. When the final bell rang and the last winner was declared, everyone stuck around even though there was no beer to be found and it was after ten pm on a Friday night. Some of the brothers whispered details of off-campus parties to trustworthy freshmen and girls, and slowly the basement started to empty. The air was tinged with something animal, an odor of brutality and the preternatural.

While the rest of the fraternity disappeared into late-night socializing, the six of us stayed back. We’d all fought except Rainbow, who was busy putting away the smoke machine and discarding the bundles of athletic tape he’d snipped off fighters’ wrists. He was whistling, swishing his hips to the music still playing, a low humming 80s power ballad. The rest of us stood around the ring, our t-shirts smeared with our leftover sweat, hair standing on end, faces red and shoulders burning. We hadn’t boxed since winter break, and we were all out of practice.

We could hear people milling about upstairs, some final stragglers, freshmen taking tours, peering into the chapter room, being shown the gargantuan television, climbing to the second floor to take a glimpse at a few bedrooms with their bunked beds and Bud Light posters. The six of us, joined by Rainbow, stood around the perimeter of the ropes still strung around the metal posts. We each fingered the frayed material with our pulsing, bruised fingers. None of us said anything. On the one hand, the return to the ring had produced an electric joy, the current more powerful with a gaggle of our brothers and friends shouting and cheering. But something sacred and secret had been pulled apart. Even though no one knew we’d been doing this for weeks, we felt exposed. We could see it in one another’s eyes.

Rainbow sighed and broke the silence. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’d better take this down.” He smacked the rope. “There’s no telling when we’ll get to do it again.”

Elmo nodded. Research Methods looked on the verge of tears. Skyscraper and Pooh Bear started in on the nearest knots. We were all silent as we worked, as the rope went slack in our grip. We didn’t catch it, not at first, instead letting it slalom down to the floor, where it laid like a dead, deflated snake.

Out of the one hundred and twelve freshmen that rushed, fifty-two of them signed our guest book at the start of the night. Forty of those came back Saturday and Sunday, and we held on to twenty of them through Tuesday, and then on Wednesday and Thursday, when events were invitation-only, seventeen returned. Of those, fifteen signed the bids we offered. We had the highest take of the twelve fraternities on campus. Everyone held beers, ready to celebrate the end of a week of the no booze. JFK declared Rainbow that semester’s Rush God, a title granted to the member who had the greatest influence on our success. It came with a bottle of champagne and a free twelve-pack of Busch. When the announcement was done, Rainbow ripped the case of beer open and handed each of us two of them.

“We’re all a part of this,” he said, looking from Pooh Bear to Elmo to Skyscraper. His eyes scanned each of us. “It’s a group prize.”

We each opened one, beer spraying out of the cans, and slammed them. Rainbow let out a belch and dropped his can, the last remaining froth burbling into the dirty snow at our feet. He looked at each of us, wiping our lips and crunching aluminum in our fists, and asked if we wanted to share the champagne.

“But it’s yours,” Research Methods said. He was wearing his glasses, and he pulled them off, wiping away streaky condensation with the hem of his sweatshirt.

“It’s all of ours,” Rainbow said, and then he unpeeled the foil around the neck and pried off the cork, which disgorged a wimpy pop. He took a long slurp and then passed the bottle to Johnny Five.

The night was a dull blur. After welcoming the new pledges with twenty-four-ounce cans of beer we made them chug on the front porch, we dragged them off to dinner at the various crappy Mexican restaurants in town, conning the waiters into thinking they were old enough for fishbowl margaritas. The next stop was a party house two blocks from campus, where a keg of Natural Light and several handles of cheap rum waited. By ten-thirty, when everyone coalesced back at the house for dancing and drinking in the basement, everyone was tilting and staggering.

We found Rainbow slumped in a corner, his hair matted and wet, his eyes glossy with drink. Skyscraper patted him on the back and helped him stand up straight.

“How about some water?” Elmo shouted over the music.

Rainbow shook his head and said something about wanting to box.

We glanced at one another. Rainbow rarely got drunk to the point he couldn’t stand. In fact, he seemed able to down beer after beer or sluck up Jell-O shots two, three, four at a time and never seem any worse for wear. He would zip out into a crowded party and wow strangers with his compact, careful dance moves, still full of grace and rhythm after huge slugs of Everclear or Bacardi 151. He once drank an entire bottle of grape Mad Dog 20/20 and thirty minutes later recreated the “Thriller” dance with snappy perfection.

Skyscraper and Pooh Bear pulled Rainbow up and led him out of the basement. He was a non-resistant drunk, allowing them to haul him past the sober monitor barring anyone who didn’t live in the house from going upstairs after eleven pm. We mounted the two flights from the basement to the second floor and took Rainbow to his bedroom. Our house wasn’t palatial or grand; the second-story hallways were covered in thin blue carpet that would make putting greens seem lush. The rooms were oddly shaped and often too small to comfortably hold two beds but too large to justify single occupancy. Rainbow’s room was at a corner and meant for three. His roommates were still out partying, so we didn’t have to worry about being quiet as we helped him in. The walls were dotted with holes from nails and thumbtacks that had held up posters and photographs over the years, scuffed and flaked by drunken injuries and periodic fights that punctured the drywall. Two of the three beds were part of a rickety homemade set of bunkbeds painted blue, the names of everyone who had used them written along the beams in thick black marker, their nicknames scrawled beneath their signatures. The upper bunk was piled with clothing that spilled down the ladder—a pair of skinny jeans and a trio of boxer shorts hung there like they were drying—and the trail continued into the doorless closet, which looked like a sale bin at a discount store, dress shirts and tees and all manner of socks and underwear living in dilapidated heaps.

Rainbow fell onto the lower bunk. Research Methods and Skyscraper sat in the two desk chairs, the latter shifting a biology book out of the way. Like the bunkbeds, one of the desks was homemade, all plywood and unvarnished two-by-fours. The other was a gargantuan rolltop thing that someone had bought two years ago at the local auction house off highway 36, a converted barn where locals spent many of their spring and summer Friday nights buying cheap boxes of rocks glasses or old board games missing pieces. Sometimes, when there wasn’t a rocking party on the docket, some of our guys hauled out there just to listen to the auctioneer’s babbling brook voice over the loudspeaker and to periodically bid on an interesting vintage beer sign.

Rainbow gestured toward the rolltop desk where Skyscraper sat and said there was a bottle of Jim Beam somewhere behind a stack of books. Would he be so kind as to find it? We watched Skyscraper’s huge body yawn over the books. Like a crane his arm nabbed the bottle by the throat and set it on the desk’s edge.

“A toast!” Rainbow said. “To the boxing club!”

Skyscraper stared at us, then unscrewed the cap and took a draw. He passed the bottle to Pooh Bear, who did the same. It went around, ending at Rainbow, who sat up with a grim set to his face. He took a longer swig than the rest of us, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Rainbow looked around the room, pausing long enough at each of us that, one by one, we looked away.

“It’ll be back,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“How will that work?” Johnny Five said.

Rainbow wobbled like a windsock. Then he started to teeter, and Pooh Bear grabbed the bottle just before it toppled over onto Rainbow’s lap. As his head hit the pillow, Rainbow said, “You’ll see.” Then, right before he passed out, eyes blinking shut, “Just you wait.”

Despite Rainbow’s avowal, the boxing club drifted away as the snow eventually melted into March. Our new pledges were sharp in their duties, which included cleaning up the house on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They studied our fraternity, reading a book called The Blue Sapphire, a history of the national organization. One requirement for initiation was sitting down with every member, all sixty-three of us, at one point or another, and talking to us about why we’d joined the fraternity and what we were studying. We then signed the inside cover of their books, scribbling our real names, our nicknames, and our fraternity designation numbers, assigned in the order we were initiated. Some brothers liked to be tricky and difficult, tucking themselves away in their off-campus housing, skipping chapter meetings, avoiding parties, just to make the pledges sweat and worry about finding them and getting those precious signatures. The truth was that no one gave a shit if every pledge got every single one; initiation day was set from the very beginning of the semester, before we’d even scooped up a new pledge class, not that we told them that. They worked hard and slowly hounded out everyone on the brotherhood list until they only had one left: Rainbow.

None of us in the boxing club knew why Rainbow went elusive. He stopped coloring his hair, so each time we saw him his natural brown encroached further from the roots, spreading like an infection. After bid night, he started sleeping somewhere else, though we didn’t know where.

“Maybe he has a new girlfriend,” Pooh Bear said.

“Or boyfriend,” Elmo said.

Skyscraper frowned. “What about Dan?”

“That ended a while ago,” Research Methods said.

“It did?”

Johnny Five nodded. “He didn’t really talk about it.”

Rainbow came to chapter meetings, but he managed to arrive just as the call to order was shouted out, and he vanished in a flash at the end, taking advantage of the fact that the pledges were responsible for putting away all the folding chairs. By the time they were done, he was always gone. Even we didn’t get a chance to say hi.

For spring break, most people just went home to St. Louis or Kansas City or Des Moines, lacking the funds for a trip to the Gulf Shores or Palm Springs or wherever. Pooh Bear, who picked up a speeding ticket a week before break, trudged home to Perryville to work in the shitty seafood restaurant where he’d bussed tables in high school so he could hire the local defense attorney who represented college kids when they got pulled over or written up for MIPs. The rest of us stayed at the house. We kept waiting for Rainbow to show up, announcing the return of the boxing club. We checked his closet for the supplies, but they were nowhere to be found. Elmo suggested we just buy new gloves and helmets.

“It’s not the same,” Skyscraper said. We were sitting in the basement, staring down at the floor as we drank, slimy cans of cheap beer tucked against our legs. “It should be all of us, not some of us.”

We couldn’t disagree. We slammed our beers and woke up stuffy-headed and dry-mouthed. For a week we slept late, drank late, ate greasy food that spiked our guts and messed up our bowels. Johnny Five and Research Methods took late-night walks through campus, secret flasks in their hoodie pockets, silently sliding across the quad that was usually packed with people studying or playing Frisbee or laying on towels to grab up whatever sun decided to show up before May arrived. They didn’t tell the rest of us what they discussed, but we imagined they were thinking about Rainbow. Every night when we came together that’s who we talked about, wondering where he had wriggled off to.

“Sure hope he isn’t dead,” Elmo said. Then, when we stared at him, he shrugged. “What? I’m serious. Who knows if he’s alive?”

He was alive, and he reemerged from wherever he’d gone into hibernation when break was over. At the chapter meeting he sat in his usual spot, slouchy on the end of the bar, legs dangling so the soles of his shoes bobbed against the wood, hands clustered between his spread legs near his crotch. But he looked different. Not only had Rainbow’s hair had gone fully back to its natural state, it was longer than usual, wild and curling on the ends, bunched at his ears and the back of his neck, reaching toward the nape of his t-shirt. And we could see that he was a little more muscular, broader. We wanted to ask him about this, but when the meeting wrapped, he hopped down from the bar and slipped out of the basement before we could get his attention. Elmo called out his name, but he didn’t slow down as he exited, as if he couldn’t hear, despite the fact that he had always heard us, even when we didn’t realize we were speaking.

Everything changed when our Campus Activities chairman announced that the Recreation Center had approved a new intramural sport: boxing.

We looked at one another. Our gaze shifted toward Rainbow, who didn’t let on that he’d even heard. But when the meeting wrapped, Rainbow shot toward the Activities Chair. The pledges saw this, and we watched them hover like prowling lions stalking prey on a savannah. We stood behind them, another ring of audience, waiting and listening as Rainbow made his case to be on the boxing roster. When the Activities chair finally nodded his approval, Rainbow clapped him on the shoulder and turned around. He blinked at the pledges and then saw us.

“Sorry boys,” he said. “Busy.”

We weren’t sure if he was talking to them or us. Either way, we all deflated, and in that moment’s pause, Rainbow slipped away once again.

The Recreation Center was a glowing, angular building, all glass and steel. In the evening, we could see through the huge windows jocks lifting weights and sorority girls jogging on the treadmills in the weight room. We swiped our IDs at the check-in counter then looped into the gym large enough for a trio of basketball courts crowned, upstairs, by a tartan running track.

The rightmost court—they were separated thick white curtains that descended from the rafters forty feet above—had been co-opted for boxing. Two makeshift rings had been erected on the tile, one inside each three-point arc. The flooring was something gray and spongey-looking, and the ropes were taut rubber. As in our basement, a folding table sat off to the side of each ring with three chairs for the judges. Two matches were already underway when we arrived a few minutes prior to Rainbow’s first fight.

The gym smelled of floor cleaner and rubber and a tinge of sweat. We were the only spectators for the fights aside from a trio of girls watching the other, their clapping and yelling so sporadic none of us could tell which boxer they were supporting. We watched the conclusion of the fight preceding Rainbow’s, two short-stacked guys we recognized from all-Greek parties punching at one another in windmilling, undisciplined strokes. They were both huffing and sucking in air, their arms dead weights when the referee blew his whistle. After a brief consultation with the judges, he lifted the arm of the one who was slightly taller.

Rainbow sprang into the ring as soon as he was taped and gloved. He’d arrived before us and had ignored our greetings, shadowboxing in a dark corner behind the metal bleachers used during the championship rounds of basketball and volleyball. He’d dyed his hair again, a vibrant pink.

“That’s him,” Johnny Five said as the ref went over the rules with Rainbow and his opponent, a knobby kid from Sigma who sold pot to a few of our stoner brothers. “That’s him again.”

This was not strictly true. Rainbow was wearing a light jacket and when he tossed it off, we saw his body. He was wearing a tight tank top that showed off muscular arms, shoulders bloating out and triceps popping with sinew. His lats were broad, heaps of muscle stretching across his back.

“Holy shit,” Pooh Bear said. “Rainbow is stacked.”

And when the referee blew his whistle to start the fight, Rainbow moved like a real, trained boxer. He kept his gloves close to his face; he sprung on the balls of his feet and held a wide stance. His punches were disciplined and crisp. He started pounding his opponent, his form impeccable as he threw jabs and hooks and even nailed a brutal-looking uppercut. We winced on the kid’s behalf, who didn’t give up but was clearly dazed after just one round. Rainbow looked like he’d barely broken a sweat. We cheered, but our applause was muted and stunned.

He won easily. His next bout was the next night, and he did the same. The tournament was a two-week affair, starting with round-robin fights followed by single-elimination finals. A bracket was tacked up on a bulletin board next to the check-in desk, and we watched Rainbow’s name move toward the championship round. At the chapter meeting after his first week of competition we tried to ask him about his transformation, but he jetted out as usual, much to the chagrin of the pledges who were told that initiation week was—surprise—beginning that night, and the first item on the docket was an examination of their books for signatures. We watched them glare toward Rainbow, who sat in his usual spot until the meeting’s end, when he vanished, squelching out of the basement with the same agility we’d seen on display at the Recreation Center.

We went to his quarterfinal bout, dragging other brothers from the house. Some of them mumbled, asking about the rules, how we would know if Rainbow was winning.

“Oh,” we said, “you’ll know.”

He offered up another beat down, though his opponent this time at least had the wherewithal to block some of Rainbow’s punches. Still, Rainbow broke through his defenses with careful jabs and sidesteps, moving out of the way of a sloppy right hook and burying his gloved fist into his opponent’s exposed ribcage. We could hear the kid sputter out lost breath, his inhalations ragged during the breaks between rounds. His face looked fallen every time to ref called him and Rainbow back, as though thirty seconds’ respite couldn’t possibly have already passed.

In the semifinals, things got more interesting. Skyscraper had a doppelganger in Tri Beta, and he loomed over Rainbow. But he was slow, his footwork undisciplined. Rainbow waited him out, dancing around the ring for two rounds, landing a few useful punches that kept the score close. He got pummeled when he let his defenses slip, taking a hard swipe to the chin and a body blow so strong we heard him gasp. We could see the frustration in his creased forehead, his gritted, hard jaw. We wondered what was happening in his head when, like something out of a movie, his eyes changed, searing back into focus. Was he picturing his father, with whom we knew he’d had a falling out after freshman year? Or his uncle, who called him a fairy one Thanksgiving? We each thought, then, of our own hatreds, our own dysfunctions, and bellowed out wordless encouragements. Rainbow wore his gigantic opponent down, waylaying him as soon as the final round started.

By now, all had been revealed to the pledges, and they were no longer angry. They laughed at our trickery, the mindfuck. They celebrated the fact that their friends who’d joined other frats had been subjected to the Elephant Walk or Otter Slide, had to attend study halls at the library or butt chug, whereas all we’d asked was that they hang out and talk to us. They didn’t care that Rainbow had darted out every week, deciding that had been part of the game. They came to his matches, joined our motley cheering section.

We watched him warm up for his championship bout. He’d dyed his hair jet black and it shined like ink under the buzzing gym lights. When he pulled off his jacket, his skin glistened, as if he’d sprayed oil on his shoulders and abs, which seemed to pop with the kind of muscle you only saw on the internet and in Marvel movies.

“Holy shit,” guys who hadn’t yet come to one of his fights said, their voices honeyed with jealousy. “What the fuck happened to him?”

We were all convinced that Rainbow would win, but then we checked out his opponent: some guy from Alpha Upsilon, where all of the college’s athletes who wanted to go Greek ended up. The kid was a beef stack. He made even the new and improved Rainbow look stringy. His thighs bulged in his athletic shorts, and his forearms were so thick we were sure the gloves must be cutting off the circulation in his hands.

Rainbow looked unimpressed, his squinty, impassive face unchanged as he stepped into the ring. We clapped and screamed for him. His opponent, despite having reached the final round, had no fans. The other ring was empty. We glanced up toward the second floor track a few times; the runners didn’t look down, and the girls on the ellipticals overlooking the gym floor had their heads buried in textbooks propped against the machines.

The ref started the match. Rainbow and his opponent touched gloves and then slid away from each other.

The beefcake knew what he was doing. Although Rainbow was lithe and professional in the ring, his opponent was a tick better at everything. Plus there was the weight advantage. When his first real thrusting jab connected with Rainbow, Rainbow’s lips fished open and we wondered if his mouthguard might go flying.

“Oh shit,” Elmo whispered.

“I think he might lose,” Research Methods said. We all glared at him, but we’d been thinking it.

Rainbow put up a fight. He was slathered in sweat, his shoulders slumped by the end of the first round. We could see that exhaustion was already setting in from trying to defend against the barrage of muscled power coming at him from the other side of the ring. We tried to will him with our voices. We wished we could be in the ring, pounding and ducking and jabbing there alongside him.

After round two, he looked about ready to collapse.

His lip was bleeding, a little lake of red pooling along his lower gumline, staining his snow-white teeth. A bruise was already blooming on his right cheek, and a small cut above his left eye was leaky. The referee gave Rainbow a concerned look but let him get up anyway to finish the last round. Everyone knew it was over, that Rainbow had lost, but he stood and wriggled his arms as though trying to bring them back to life. His opponent stood stoic, waiting like an impatient professor who wanted a class full of silent students to answer a simple question. He blinked at Rainbow and then the ref, and then something set in his face. We imagined that he was like us. Everyone was. Everyone had something to punch.

As soon as the whistle was blown, he decked Rainbow in the nose.

Blood sprayed. Sweat sprayed. The Alpha Upsilon backed toward his corner. We watched Rainbow tilt and turn halfway around before he fell. For a moment, time seemed to stop, Rainbow’s bloated eyes catching on all five of us, his mouth widening into a glorious smile, as though this, this moment of collapse, was what he’d been waiting for all this time. We felt it, too, something slithering out of our guts, a final, total release. We wished he wouldn’t fall, that we could slip through time and space and prop him up, grant him our strength for one last push. His hair gleamed, his cheekbones shone with hurt. Rainbow exhaled a fine spray of bloody spit, and down he went.

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Phantom Drift, Passages North, Emerson Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His debut short story collection, Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise, was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Iron Horse/Texas Tech University Press First Book Award, and his second story collection, The Plagues, will
be released by Cornerstone Press in 2023. His debut novel,
I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA.