Until recently, I'd only traded in one Punch Voucher and that was the time I hit Chuck Mellon in the nose when we were kids and broke his glasses. He didn’t make crying noises, but his eyes sure watered. We stayed best friends, though. Right up until he hanged himself.
It was bad timing because my girlfriend had just dumped me, and I was hoping to stay on his couch. Chuck had the best couch ever. Firm but lush, if that makes sense. It was deep brown with luminescent flecks of gray sprinkled throughout as if it contained a small universe. I spent a lot of nights with my head wedged between the cushion and the plush arm, my legs splayed over the back. But now that Chuck was dead, I found myself sleeping on my sister’s couch which was like a pile of rocks covered with paper towels.
Wanda, Chucks’ mom, asked me to speak at Chuck’s funeral and that’s when I realized I’d left my only suit over at my ex-girlfriend’s. Way in the back of her closet with the tennis rackets we never used. I sort of blamed Chuck that I had to talk to her again, but just a little.
There were a lot of people at the church that I’d never seen sitting shoulder to shoulder in their black clothes. I wished my suit wasn’t green. After the preacher talked about how Chuck was called away too early (no mention of how), I talked about the time I hit him and broke his glasses. I got a few laughs, choked with tears of course, but it felt good to smile while remembering my best friend. I almost told them about the time I beat his high score in Tomb Blaster, but I didn’t want to brag. It was his day after all.
Afterwards, Nadine and Roger walked up to give their regards. Chuck had a huge crush on Nadine, but she never reciprocated on account of the fact that she was married. She had long golden hair like the lady in the Golden Locks shampoo commercial, but was three hundred times prettier. My sister said Nadine only hung out with us because we were non-threatening losers. My sister's normally right about things like that.
You did really good, Nadine said, Chuck would be pleased.
She placed her delicate hand on my shoulder and smiled. She seemed like she wanted to stay longer, but Roger pulled her out by her arm, a vein throbbing on the side of his boxy head like a silent alarm.
When everyone had gone, Chuck’s mom Wanda walked up and gave me a humungous hug. My nose got tangled in her sticky helmet of hair and it smelled like baby oil.
I need to talk to you, she said. So I agreed to sit in the back pew with her while she blew her nose and repeatedly patted me on the head.
There was a will, she said, or a suicide note. Whichever you’d call it.
Did he leave me his couch? I asked.
No, she said, he put all of his stuff in a storage room the day he ended his life. Before I could get it out, it was broken into. They took everything!
It seemed fitting. If I was never going to see Chuck again, I might as well never see his couch either. But that couch was heavier than a school bus on its way to fat camp. Must have been some pretty big guys.
When Wanda was done blowing her nose she said, He left you his Punch Vouchers.
She pulled them out of her purse. Two rectangular magenta cards, about the size of my hand, with Chuck’s name and ID number and a line for a signature. It was a completely legal transference. Wanda even had a form from Central Office saying that they'd updated my file.
She closed her eyes and said, In his note he wrote that he wished he’d punched a buttload of more people. She was pretty shy to say buttload, and I didn’t hear her the first time.
Buttload, she said and it ricocheted around the church like one of those rubber balls Chuck and I used to bounce in his garage after we drank too many beers.
Chuck thought it would be worthwhile to exceed the Two Punch Quota and do Serious Time. This was news to me; he was always such a sissy. I got the feeling that Chuck was giving me a hint from beyond the grave, like in a movie, and I deduced that he wanted me to hit someone. Too bad he didn’t say who it was in his note.
Chuck and I always saved our Punch Vouchers and returned them to Central Office at the end of the year for a free dinner at Spunky's. We’d wait for a night when Nadine's husband Roger had a poker game and drag her along, too.
Roger always used his two Punch Vouchers on Nadine.
Now that I had the legal ability to punch four people, not to mention a mandate from my dead friend, I began thinking about how small and scrawny I am due to the genes that were passed on to me. If I’m honest with myself, I know that’s the real reason I never hit or get hit. A punch from me would be like a feather falling out of a cannon. So I did the next best thing: I went out applying for jobs. I mean, I had to get off my sister’s couch.
I was waiting for the J Train when this enormous walrus of a guy walked right into me. His belly was huge but it wasn’t jiggly, it was solid like a bag of flour. He knocked me off balance, and I staggered into a cement pole. The walrus barely faltered. He turned his bristling red face to me and said, Why don’t you watch where you’re going, pansy?
Then something happened to me that has never happened before. I talked back. I don’t know if it was the knowledge that I had more Punch Vouchers than anyone but I said, Why don’t you watch what you eat?
You’re lucky I’m out of Punch Vouchers, he said while blood vessels popped in his eyeballs like bacon in a griddle.
I still have mine, I said, but he didn’t look so scared. In fact, he got right in front of me and leaned his greasy face into mine.
Hit me, he said with a lot more restraint than I ever thought he could muster.
Of course, instantly like three Eye Witnesses showed up. The walrus looked like a dog begging for food. He knew it wouldn’t hurt him, and in the end, he would still look like the winner, even though he wouldn’t get a chance to hit me back without doing Serious Time.
I would never waste a Voucher on someone like you, I said. Besides, you might eat my fist.
I guess I was really stretching for a joke, but it felt good to stand up for myself. A couple of the Eye Witnesses even chuckled a bit.
If I see you after January 1st, I’ll have one Punch Voucher waiting for you, he said.
I can’t wait, I said and he finally pulled his face away from mine and walked to the end of the platform.
The Eye Witnesses dispersed when they realized there would be no Punch Vouchers to sign. All but one squat guy who leaned against the wall looking at me strangely. After we stared at each other for a few seconds, he finally walked over. His breath smelled like a sink full of dirty dishes. Unfortunately for me, he got real close to me when he talked. I got the feeling he wanted us to be private. I’ve got a special job for a guy like you, he said.
And that’s how I heard about the Underground Punch Market, or the UPM.
People with Punch Vouchers left, like myself, could be put in contact with people who didn’t, like the walrus for example, and that person could pay me to punch someone for them. I told him that I don’t punch very hard due to the fact that my arms are about as useful as a garden hose lodged under the front wheel of a garbage truck. He told me he knew a place that could help me. He was real nice and gave me directions to a Work Room. I couldn’t think of one reason not to go.
There was a guy expecting me. His name was Rogue, though I think it was fake. He had his shirt collar pulled up around his chin and he wore sunglasses that were so big that they covered the top half of his face. I'm no detective, but he looked conspicuous to me.
I could whip you into shape in a month, Rogue said, his voice resonating at a higher register than his massive frame would suggest. Then you’ve got the two weeks around Christmas to unload your two Punch Vouchers.
Actually, I’ve got four.
Rogue’s eyes got all big and twinkly and I could almost see the money signs appear in his pupils like in the old cartoons.
Was four Punch Vouchers a buttload?
Rogue had me punch bulky red bags suspended from the ceiling, and I lifted weights for the first time in my wimpy life. He taught me how to hit someone so that it hurt the most. People paid a lot of money and they wanted the punches to be painful.
A few short weeks later, Rogue pulled me aside and said that I was ready and he handed me a big envelope with money in it. I'd never seen so much money all at once. And that was after Rogue had taken his cut. Then he gave me an envelope that had a picture in it. This was my first Quarry. His name was Clarence Eubanks.
I’ll always remember Clarence Eubanks because he was really tall. When I punched him, I had to reach up to his face, and I almost fell over. I didn’t quite do it like Rogue had taught me, but Clarence’s nose did bleed, and I don’t think he ever thought that I would hit that hard. Or even hit him at all. I appeared out of nowhere from his point of view. I hid in the alley next to his favorite restaurant (I knew that because it was written on the back of the picture) and when he walked up I ran out and punched him. It was exactly 7:34 in the morning. My hand hurt like a bastard. Clarence Eubanks got down on one knee and this other guy with a bad hairpiece began laughing hysterically. He was so excited that Clarence Eubanks got hit. He must have been the one who hired me, I figured. Then when the hairpiece guy came up and said thanks to me, I knew that I had figured correctly.
I felt bad for Clarence Eubanks because he didn’t even eat his breakfast. He got back to his feet and immediately left and the hairpiece guy laughed like it was the only thing keeping him alive and yelled after Clarence that he deserved what he got. I wonder if he did deserve it. A couple of Eye Witnesses signed my Voucher, and I dropped it in the next mailbox I saw.
When I got back to the Work Room, Rogue gave me a big thumbs up.
My hand hurts like a bastard, I said.
He handed me a bag of ice followed by another picture. And another big envelope of money. I pulled out the picture and winced. My next Quarry was a woman.
I'd never hit a woman because my mom told me it wasn’t right, even though Central Office never made a rule against it. Legally, I could punch whomever I wanted and it didn’t matter what sex they were. It didn’t help that this lady sort of looked like my mom. But if I squinted my eyes, maybe it would look like my sister. That wouldn’t be so bad.
When I left, I got the feeling that I was being followed. This guy in a black suit was taking the same exact route as me (and I know a lot of shortcuts) and we were the only two people out walking. It seemed like a bad idea to go home. I decided to go to Nadine’s house, instead. If Chuck were alive, I think he would’ve done the same thing.
Nadine and Roger’s house is small, but it’s in the nice part of town where it seems like it’s always sunny. Her house looked like it was smiling; the trim row of bushes on each side were the laugh lines.
Whenever I see Nadine, my first reaction is to pull her hair because of how adorable she is. But I’ve never actually done it. She grinned when she saw me and said, Do you want some lemonade?
I looked through her front window and sure enough that guy in the black suit was hanging around her neighbor’s yard acting like he was interested in their flower garden.
I miss Chuck, she said.
I didn’t say anything but she knew I did, too. I got a job, I said.
Actually, I think that man is following me. My job may be illegal.
I’m sure you’re mistaken, she said.
I pointed at the guy in the black suit, and I could tell she thought it was suspicious. She poured another glass of lemonade and went outside and invited him in.
Damn compadre, I thought you were never going to stop walking, he said in a boisterous voice as if he was the host of The Game Show for Kiddies. He spun his empty lemonade glass in his hands as Nadine led us into her compact front room.
It turned out that he worked for Central Office in the Black Suit division. They were in charge of apprehending people who exceeded their designated amount of punches. They also tracked down people who didn’t turn in their Punch Vouchers. His name was Mike Smith.
Like any Bureaucrat, he told us all the things we’d heard before. About how Central Office created Punch Vouchers causing Violent Lifeloss to drop 80%. According to him (and the Central Office newsletter) quality of life had also increased for all citizens.
Nadine sat really close to me and it made it hard to hear what Mike Smith was saying. He explained how the UPM, my current employer, helped people get more punches than they were allowed. If a person went over his Punch Limit, they did Serious Time. If they paid someone else to punch for them, wasn’t the same end result achieved and shouldn’t they also suffer the same consequences?
So you see my problem here, right buddy? he said.
Nadine grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I got hormonally charged immediately. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stand up for at least ten minutes.
Let me get to the point, he said. Central Office is willing to let you go free if you help us catch Rogue.
In all honesty, I don’t see how I can do that, I said. I consider Rogue a friend.
Well, then you’re looking at Serious Time.
Oh, in that case, I can be persuaded, I said. I’ve only known him a few weeks.
Nadine looked flushed and stared solemnly at my hands. Mike Smith said that he would be in touch and that I should just keep going along like we’d never spoken.
At that exact moment, Roger came in. He has a sloping forehead and a square jaw. He looked pretty mad to see two guys in the house with his wife. Nadine jumped away from me quickly and my hand dropped heavily onto my lap.
There better be a good explanation for this, he yelled, or I’m going to ram my fist so far down your throats I’ll be able to tell the next time you need to take a crap.
Calm down Punch-o the Clown, Mike Smith said. I know you’re out of Vouchers. And I don’t think you want to mess with someone from Central Office. He flashed his badge and Roger backed down.
All the commotion sent my hormonal charge running scared, and I was able to stand and make my way to the door.
Roger blocked my path. I don’t want to see you around the house anymore, he said. You should get some new friends.
Nadine cowered in the doorway, her eyes shimmering.
I’ll think about it, I said. And that's when I realized that Chuck wanted me to punch Roger as hard as I could. In the face.
When I got back to my sister’s place, Rogue was waiting for me. I know you spoke to Central Office, he said.
Since he already knew, I figured I could tell him about it. He told me to do what they said and to go along like we hadn’t spoken. Everything was under control. I'm glad he had it handled because I was getting confused.
As instructed by both sides, I proceeded to the next Quarry. Her picture said that she would be outside of her office on a Regulation Smoke Inhalation Period at 2:15 the next afternoon. Unfortunately for me, there were fifty million women huddled on the wet pavement who could’ve been her; or they could’ve been my mom. I knew none of them were my mom though because she lived in that old folk’s house that my sister put her in last year.
The Regulation Smoke Inhalation Period lasted exactly 15 minutes or they would be docked a day's pay, so I didn't have much time to figure out which one was my Quarry. I narrowed it down to three based on the haircut. I wished I could take the picture out and hold it up to each woman's face.
I was getting a few strange looks due to the fact that I had wandered into the group and was staring at everyone instead of smoking. Plus I was a lot younger than everyone else.
One of my top choices snubbed out her cigarette and stepped into the immense glass office building as if she’d been sucked up by a vacuum. I didn't want to mess up the job. Someone had paid for this to happen at this exact moment. And I didn't want to give the money back. I started to feel like my lungs were shrinking, like I couldn't possibly be breathing enough air.
I knew what I had to do. I took a deep breath and looked up into the sky, and I promised Chuck that I would use my last Punch Voucher to hit Roger as hard as I possibly could. Which was a big deal because I was making too much money on these punches to dole them out for free.
Just then, a woman tapped me on the shoulder. Are you all right? she asked. She probably thought I was weird because I was staring up at the sky in the middle of their smoking group. She seemed nice, but she talked in a slow, loud voice.
I quickly turned away from her to see where my remaining two ladies went, and I accidentally bumped into a guy with a cigar protruding from his mouth like an exhaust pipe.
Get away from me, freak, the man said.
Oh leave him alone, Colby, the slow-talking woman said. Can’t you see he’s Mentally Held-Back? She turned and smiled sweetly at me as if I was a butterscotch candy that she was going to press to the inside of her cheek.
That smile seemed familiar, but she wasn’t one of the three that I had picked. I wished again that I could take that picture out and compare. Then I realized: I was focusing too much on the hair. She had cut and styled it differently and was wearing a ton of make-up. Who knew when that picture was taken?
I punched her straight in the jaw.
The cigar guy got really pissed which made me sure he wasn’t the person who hired me. The woman began crying hysterically, her tears as big as jelly beans, and I felt obligated to calm her down since she was crying because I hit her. I like your new hairstyle much better, I said.
What is wrong with you? the cigar guy said with his teeth clenched around his cigar. It sounded like he was talking through cellophane.
A few Eye Witnesses popped over to sign my Punch Voucher. Then the cigar guy figured it out.
He yanked the cigar out of his mouth and looked around at all of his coworkers. Who hired him, huh? Which one of you hired him? Then he turned back to me and said, You’re despicable.
I grabbed my Punch Voucher from an Eye Witness just as the cigar guy pulled his arm back and rushed his fist at my face.
My brain spun around a few times inside my head. My cheek went numb and then a second later it started screaming with pain. Actually, it was me that was screaming with pain. It hurt a lot more than I ever imagined. At that moment, I was convinced I would need Facial Restructuring.
The cigar guy began shaking his hand furiously and rubbing his knuckles. The sight of him in pain made me angrier than I had ever been before. Without even thinking, I punched him so hard he fell to the ground.
This was their company's most exciting Regulation Smoke Inhalation Period based on how many of them wanted to sign my Voucher. In the meantime, the cigar guy began calling out for some ice. I think everybody pretty much hated that guy because nobody even considered helping him. Nobody wanted their Regulation Smoke Inhalation Period to be cut short.
I grabbed my Vouchers before I accidentally punched someone else.
Feeling exhilarated, I walked quickly away from the swarming group of smokers. I had never punched someone like that before. Just on a reflex. No wonder Chuck wanted me to do it. My face didn't even hurt that bad anymore.
Mike Smith, wearing the same black suit, popped out of an alley and pulled me aside. He told me that they were following Rogue and that they were very close. He said to keep up the good work, and then he slipped away.
I continued walking a few more steps only to be stopped by Rogue. He told me that he was following Mike Smith and that he had the upper hand. He also told me that I had a nasty shiner and that he wished I hadn’t wasted a Voucher on that cigar guy, but that I should keep up the good work.
With all the good work I was apparently doing, I decided to go apartment shopping.
I signed a lease and was moving into my own place on New Year’s Day. Sure it was small, but I could leave my clothes lying wherever I wanted and watch movies as loud as the speakers would go. Who would’ve thought that I’d be getting my act together? That’s something Chuck used to say all the time.
He never got his act together.
But he was certainly going to hold me to my promise. Now that I punched that cigar guy, I only had one Punch Voucher left, and it had Roger’s name on it. I hadn’t seen Roger or Nadine since the day Mike Smith followed me over to their house. Nadine left a message at my sister's house to say hello, but said not to call back. Somehow, I had to find a good time to punch Roger. And there better be a lot of room to run afterward.
I stopped going to the Work Room and concentrated on getting ready for my move. I had just bought my very own Vid Gamer when Rogue appeared next to me on the sidewalk. He said, I’ve got you in mind for something special.
Only Rogue’s favorite Punchers got chosen to punch someone in a Domestic Dispute, so I was a little honored. Because of the promise though, I had to turn him down. He told me he would give me double the money due to the fact that I was the only guy in the UPM who still had a punch left. I didn’t feel so honored anymore. I still said no. Then he said triple the money. Sorry Chuck.
This woman wants you to punch her husband in front of all their friends, Rogue said.
I was feeling pretty bad about not punching Roger, but then I remembered: On New Year’s Day I wasn’t only getting my own place, I was also getting two new Punch Vouchers for the year. That was two weeks away. I decided that as a House Warming Gift to myself, I was going to lay that jerk Roger out on the floor. That should make Chuck happy. This fantasy was quickly followed by the image of Nadine and me making intercourse (not making babies) on Chuck’s old couch, the one that was stolen. It's not like Chuck had a chance with her anymore what with him being dead and all. Sorry again, Chuck.
I took the packet from Rogue.
When I got to the abusive husband’s work, I realized that there was a Christmas party going on. I spotted the abusive husband quickly, and I realized that he worked with Roger. They were friends it seemed, and the two were laughing loudly in the middle of the room, both trying to outdo each other for the attention of everyone at the party. I glanced around for Nadine but I didn’t see her.
It was the first time I'd seen Roger in awhile, and I realized how much I actually hated him. Not just because of how much Chuck did. Nadine could do much better than that slab of beef.
I didn’t feel like wasting any time, plus I didn’t want to get so worked up that I punched Roger instead, so I stepped up to the abusive husband and wailed on his nose as hard as I could. He immediately fell to the ground, out cold.
It didn't feel good at all.
The room got so quiet I could hear all of their hearts beating. Then a couple of people chuckled and started saying Merry Christmas etc. to the guy I knocked out. Roger looked up as I was crossing the room to find someone to sign my Voucher, and he grabbed me by the shoulder.
It would be an honor to sign the Punch Voucher of the guy who punched out that lame wad, he said. Then I saw him recognize me, like his eyes used to need glasses and then they suddenly corrected themselves. He couldn’t believe it, I could tell. I think he was impressed.
He signed my Voucher and then surprised me by inviting me to Nadine and his New Year’s Eve party.
I’d be happy to go, I said. But on the inside, I was really bothered by the fact that this was not how things were supposed to turn out. Chuck didn't give me his Punch Vouchers to make Roger like me, so that I could be friends with him and he could invite me to his New Year’s Eve party. It would be great to see Nadine, but I couldn't help but think I'd royally screwed this up.
As I walked out the door, three Central Office Sedans pulled up and blocked my path. Mike Smith jumped out of one of the cars along with a bunch of other guys that looked exactly like him. Mike Smith ran up to me while the others all ran into the building. I thought I was getting taken away to do Serious Time. But Mike Smith shook my hand. I’m proud of you, buddy boy, he said. You led us straight to the leader of the Underground Punch Market.
A moment later, the Central Office guys returned dragging the abusive husband I had knocked out. There’s that scoundrel now, Mike Smith said and then winked at me. There’s quite a sizable reward for his capture, you know. Come to the office any time and collect. I’ll give you a hint, fella. It’s something that has four wheels and goes Vroom, Vroom.
I felt a little empty inside.
After the Central Office Sedans drove away, I heard a whistling down an alley and saw Rogue waving me over. He also shook my hand and told me that the abusive husband that I'd hit was not the leader of the UPM and that he had officially beaten them at their own game. I’m proud of you, he said in his helium voice. We can always use a guy like you on our side.
He told me he was going to lie low for a while, and then he slipped me a huge envelope of money.
I wished Chuck was alive, and I could go to his place and sit down on that couch and turn on Tomb Blaster. I would even let him beat me. Instead, I went straight to the store and bought my sister a really expensive Christmas present for all the time she'd let me stay at her place.
When she got home from work, I gave her an order form for the couch I was having delivered to her house. It wasn’t as nice as Chuck’s but it was better than that crap she has now. I could tell that she really wanted me to stay living with her. It was the first time I noticed how lonely she was. I told her it was time for me to get my own place, and she told me that she was proud of me. I guess everyone was proud of me.
On my way out, I handed her some of the money from Rogue.
No matter how much money you have, you’re still a loser, she said. But she smiled a little.
She’s usually right about those things.
At the New Years Eve party, I was immediately recognized by people from Roger’s work. They all remembered my stellar punch. After shrugging past them all, I finally got to see Nadine. This time I did pull her hair. Just a little. I'd been falling apart until I laid eyes on her again. I tried to tell her, but I think she knew.
I can’t believe that black eye, she said, you have to be more careful.
I will, I said. It felt good to have someone care about me. It was even better that it was Nadine.
You know Chuck always had a huge crush on you, I said.
I never knew that, she said. But I think she was lying.
Roger didn’t seem impressed with me anymore, and he grabbed Nadine and took her away to talk to some of his friends.
He got real belligerent as he dank and he started saying some mean things about Nadine later in the evening. He told some secret stuff about her from their personal life that I would never repeat. She got upset and ran crying into the kitchen.
I was going tell Roger to calm down, but he saw me coming. You look like a bird with a broken wing, he said.
I didn’t really care about anything he was saying because most of it didn’t make sense. I knocked the beer out of his hand. And that’s when he started making fun of Chuck. That guy killed himself because he was sick of seeing his reflection in the mirror, Roger said.
In the background, people started counting down from 10. I pictured Nadine in the kitchen, crying into her hands as the New Year rolled around. I never liked you and I never liked Chuck, he said. My wife is too good to hang out with losers like you and I hope you kill yourself too so I don’t have to look at you anymore.
The people counting in the background yelled out the number 2 when Roger said, I’m glad Chuck is dead.
And that’s when I broke his nose. I hope Chuck rests in peace.
Serious Time isn’t as bad as I thought. I don’t ever get to go outside, but I get a room that I only share with one other guy. I'd only been here two days when my first roommate got released. So for about a day or two I had the room to myself. I got to thinking about the irony of me being here. If I'd waited one more second to punch Roger, it would have been the New Year and I could have used one of my new Punch Vouchers. But there were too many Eye Witnesses.
Nadine tried to lie for me on account of the fact that she was in love with me, which I found out later when she sent me a letter. In that same letter, she told me that she had divorced Roger and was going to wait for me.
I sometimes feel sad that I didn’t get to move into that new apartment or retrieve my reward from Central Office. But I know that Chuck is happy with how things turned out. I decided when I was released, I was going to my keep Punch Vouchers so I could trade them in for a dinner at Spunky's. With Nadine.
On the day I was taken into custody, they told me that I could bring one thing with me to my cell, my Special Artifact. I realized that I didn't own anything except for that Vid Gamer I just bought. That was the last time I was really happy. Playing the Vid Gamer with Chuck.
Then I met my new roommate. He seemed like an all right guy. He was sort of tall and thin with a large nose. He said he was a petty thief. He also said that I would never be able to beat his score in Tomb Blaster. I told him that I was up for the challenge.
Then the door opened and three huge guards began struggling to get something through the doorway. My new roommate smiled and told me that for his Special Artifact he wanted to bring his favorite thing in the world, and it just so happened to be the heaviest thing he owned. He laughed as he watched the guards struggle.
And through that doorway, they brought in Chuck’s old couch.