A Piece of Steak

by Jack London

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Tom King is a big brute of a man who looks every inch the champion prizefighter he was twenty years ago. Times are harder now. He seldom gets a good match and even has trouble finding work on the docks. As the story opens, Tom is finishing a meager meal of flour gravy and bread. He had been craving a piece of steak since the morning, and his poor wife had tried to get meat from the local butchers, but they refused her credit. She purchased the bread with their last few shillings and borrowed the flour from a neighbor. There is no food in the house. She eats nothing herself and has sent their two children to bed without supper. She knows that Tom needs all the nourishment he can get. In less than two hours, he will be fighting a younger man from New Zealand for a thirty-pound purse. She tells Tom that he must win, and Tom reassures her, determined “to get meat for his mate and cubs,” or else his family will go hungry.

Without money for a cab, Tom walks the two miles to the arena and wonders how many more fights he has in him. Boxing is really all he knows how to do, and he knows that the young fighters sooner or later beat down the older ones. How much longer does he have? Tom remembers his first fight against an “old un.” Stowsher Bill was his name, and after Tom had beaten him, the older boxer sat weeping in the dressing room. He had laughed at the misfortune of the old fighter then, but youth is now his nemesis. It is his turn to face the superior speed and stamina of someone almost twenty years younger. Had he known years ago that this would be happening to him, would he have stayed in boxing? No one explained that to him, but had he been told, he doubts that he would have listened. Boxing was too much fun, and it was easy then.

Tom knows that youth must be served. He is doubly concerned because he has not been able to train properly or maintain a decent diet. Drawing on considerable experience and skill, he hopes to conserve his own strength and wear down his muscular young opponent, Sandel. As expected, Sandel, whose career depends on beating Tom, immediately attacks with a flurry of blows. Seldom throwing a punch, Tom fights defensively, moving slowly but ducking expertly and allowing few of the blows to hit home. In the third round, Sandel momentarily drops his guard, and Tom lands home a staggering right hook that drops the younger man to his knees, but he is able to recover. By round seven, Tom is utilizing every trick he knows to conserve his strength. He clinches frequently and breaks slowly, forcing Sandel to support his weight. He seldom leaves his side of the ring and makes sure to be near his corner when the round is over so he can simply step back into his chair. However, on and on comes Sandel.

In the tenth round, Tom lands two bone-crushing right uppercuts, knocking Sandel off his feet and to the floor. Tom moves in with other smashing blows, and a knockout by the veteran fighter appears likely. The bell sounds, however, and between rounds, Sandel regains his strength and composure. The fight becomes grueling in the eleventh round. Still hungry and inspired by thoughts of a piece of steak, Tom musters all of his strength and delivers yet another punishing series of punches to Sandel. The...

(This entire section contains 797 words.)

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young boxer falls back, and Tom staggers after him, his legs giving way and his stamina already gone. Sandel suddenly shoots back, pushing aside the weak and futile blows of his spent opponent. Another punch, then another, and finally the one that sends Tom through the black veil of unconsciousness.

Tom bears Sandel no ill will for knocking him out. He had done so to older fighters; his turn simply has come. The knot in his stomach reminds him of his abiding hunger, and Tom is certain that a piece of steak would have given him the strength to put Sandel away. After dressing, he walks toward home alone, thinking about what has just transpired. He decides against having a drink at the neighborhood saloon, and moves on, thinking more deeply about the present and what the future holds. His wife will be waiting, but how can he tell her that he has lost? He is hungry and broke, and it will be a week before his aching hands can do even dock work. Sitting on a street bench, he begins to sob, and now understands why Stowsher Bill had broken down and cried so long ago.