When I got home that night, I was exhausted, having gone from school to work to the club, but it was a good kind of exhausted, and I knew I would be in for a restful sleep.
The next morning I woke up fresh and relaxed and ready for the school day.
Ma was usually still asleep by the time I got up, but I could hear a hell of a noise coming from the kitchen.
I walked into the room and saw her fumbling around in the cupboards, opening them for a second then slamming them shut. I caught a glimpse of her eyes – they were wild with panic – and I thought I should probably bolt out the door.
“They’re coming,” she said, gasping for air. “You’ve got to help me get everything figured out.”
I could smell whisky wafting from her mouth, even though I was standing several feet away. But I’d noticed over time that when Ma drank a lot of that terrible stuff, it seemed to come straight out of her pores.
I had no idea what she was talking about, or what she wanted “figured out.” She was a mad woman, running from cupboard to cupboard, searching aimlessly.
She grabbed a cigarette from her package on the counter and hastily sparked it up. Holding the burning cigarette in one hand, Ma kept rifling around with the other hand, obviously looking for something. But she was in such a nervous fit, there’s no way she would’ve been able to find anything.
“What is it, Ma? What are you looking for?”
“We gotta find everything, Georgie. We’ve got to find it all and hide it, or they’re going to take you guys away from me again.”
Then I knew she was looking for her booze, and Social Services was coming over to inspect the house.
“I didn’t mean to, Georgie,” she said, and grabbed me firmly by the shoulders, her cigarette still burning in her left hand. I choked a little from the suffocating smoke.
“I was only going to have a couple of drinks, and then put it away forever,” she said. “I swear to you.”
I just stared back at her frightened eyes, which were now beginning to well up with tears.
“I know, Ma,” I said. I was ready to say anything to get her to calm down and get out from under the grip of fear.
“There are just a few bottles laying around here. Some of them are from forever ago. But the caseworker is coming over and if they find anything, we’re in big trouble.” She took a long, deep drag of her cigarette and let the ashes fall carelessly to the floor.
“Help me, Georgie,” she said desperately. “Please help me. I don’t want them to take you kids away from me.” And then she burst into a flood of tears.
“When is she coming over?” I asked.
“This morning,” Ma said.
“Didn’t you expect this would happen eventually, Ma?” I asked her, angry that she was so out of control.
“No. I mean, I knew they were going to show up sometime, but I didn’t think it would be right now. I thought I had some time. I just needed some time to get things figured out.” Ma was breathless and helpless and hopeless as she kept dragging on her cigarette, which she’d already sucked down to the butt.
“Find them, Georgie. Find them and hide them, like you did that day I tried to kill myself.”
The words bubbled out of Ma like a geyser -- she didn’t know what she’d just said. I was already mad at her for the display she was putting on, but in her panic, she dropped a bomb on me, and immediately, I was furious.
“You said it was an accident, Ma.” Suddenly I felt like I had floated out of my body, and the real me had been replaced by some kind of animal made of pure rage.
“You lied to me,” I said. “I hate you, you lied to me!”
“No, no,” Ma said. “You got it wrong now, Georgie. What I meant was the day everyone thought I tried to kill myself. I didn’t, though. That’s just what everyone thought.”
I knew she was lying.
“Come on, Georgie,” she said. “Help me find those bottles.”
“No,” I said, dead cold.
“Georgie,” Ma said, surprised at my defiance.
I didn’t care. In that moment, I hated her, and I didn’t care if the caseworker found out that she was still a damned drunk who couldn’t stay off the bottle, no matter how badly it was hurting her children, the same children who were already fatherless.
“Georgie, they’re going to take you back to that place in Saskatoon, you know,” Ma threatened.
I gritted my teeth. I was seething with anger, and I hated her even more for trying to manipulate me.
“Good,” I said. “I’d rather be in that shithole with those crazy shit-for-brains doctors than stuck up in this hellhole with you!”
Ma just stood there, her mouth wide open in disbelief. I thought I might’ve sobered her up some with my outburst.
“Georgie, I’m sorry,” was all she managed to say.
“I don’t care,” I said. “‘Sorry’ doesn’t mean a damn thing to me anymore.” I walked away from her, leaving her alone in the kitchen.
I knew I had to get Emma before leaving the house. I found my sister in her room, listening to her iPod and crying softly.
She was rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the music, as if it was soothing her.
She probably wanted to do whatever she could to drown out the sound of Ma stomping around the house, trying desperately for a way to hide the truth of the shame she’d been living.
The thing was, even if she somehow managed to get rid of all her bottles before the caseworker came over, she wouldn’t be able to get rid of the alcohol coursing thickly through her veins. In fact, anyone would be able to plainly see that she was drunk. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they found more Ativan in her, either.
I sat down and wrapped my arms around my sister. I noticed the grip I had felt stronger than the last time I’d given her a hug, the day we found out about Jon.
I was the only one Emma had left. I had to be strong, so I could take care of her, and strong enough to take care of me too.
Emma and I went to school that morning, though it was impossible for us to concentrate.
We both went home for lunch, and as I expected, the caseworker’s car was parked in the driveway.
Inside, we heard Mrs. Townsend talking to Ma. Maybe Ma was able to pull it off, I thought. Maybe she’d fooled Mrs. Townsend into thinking everything was fine.
I walked into the kitchen.
“Hey guys,” Mrs. Townsend said. “How’s it going?” She was smiling, so I figured things must’ve gone all right.
“Good,” we said in unison, though we were both lying through our teeth.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. Ma was standing behind her by the sink, looking horribly distraught. “So, guys,” Mrs. Townsend said, leaning over slightly to reach closer to us. “I was hoping we could talk privately for a few minutes.”
I immediately felt uncomfortable, and wanted to tell Mrs. Townsend to leave us the hell alone.
“Sure,” I said instead, like the chicken I always was.
“Will you excuse us then, Mrs. Christmas?”
Emma and I followed Mrs. Townsend out of the kitchen into the living room, still within ear shot of Ma if we talked at a normal volume.
“I just wanted to see how you two were doing,” Mrs. Townsend said. “How’s school going?”
“It’s good,” I told her, hoping that might be her only question.
“And for you, Emma?”
“Good,” she said in a very small voice.
Mrs. Townsend scribbled some notes into a book she was carrying.
“Good, that’s very good,” she said. “And how are things going here at home?”
It took me a few seconds to gather the nerve to keep lying.
“It’s better,” I said.
“Better in what way?” Mrs. Townsend asked.
Why couldn’t she just leave it at that? Why did she have to be so nosey, like that needle-nosed twerp from Saskatoon.
I shrugged my shoulders.
The truth was, nothing was better in any way. I couldn’t even conjure up another believable lie.
“What do you think, Emma?” she asked. “Do you think things are getting better?” Mrs. Townsend tilted her head to one side, and talked in a very soft, quiet voice.
“I don’t know,” Emma said, and she subconsciously scrunched herself closer to me.
“Okay,” Mrs. Townsend said, and scribbled a few more notes in her book. “What about things with your mother?” she said, lowering her voice to a near whisper. “Are things going okay?”
“Uh, yeah, it’s going okay,” I said.
“What about for you Emma?” she asked.
Emma just nodded, but the poor girl had tears in her eyes. She was too innocent to be able to fool anybody.
“Okay, well, I have to be going now,” Mrs. Townsend said, and I could feel my muscles relaxing.
The caseworker shook both our hands politely.
When she was out the door, I relaxed even further, letting out the breath of air I’d been holding the whole time she’d been talking to us.
“I didn’t like that,” Emma whispered to me.
“Me neither,” I said.
Ma came into the living room.
“What did you guys tell her?” she asked. Her eyes were less wild than they had been that morning, but they were still bulging out of their sockets.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, I don’t think it went too badly,” Ma said. “I think it went okay.” She ran her hands down her pants, probably wiping the sweat off her palms. I could still smell the booze on her.
Anyone would be able to tell that things were not okay in the Christmas home. I didn’t know what Mrs. Townsend was writing in that little book of hers, but I knew it probably wouldn’t be flattering to Ma.
If I had the book, I would’ve written down that Gladys Christmas was a damned drunk and didn’t deserve to raise children.
I went to work at Prairieville Foods only a shell of a person. I desperately didn’t want to show the anxiety I was feeling, because I didn’t want the crap going on at home to affect my job. As usual, the two hours went by quickly. Afterwards, Mr. Weinhauser approached me, and my knees started to wobble because I thought he was going to tell me I was fired or something.
“You’re doing a good job, Georgie,” he said instead. “Keep it up.”
“Thanks,” I said, rather shyly. It was good to hear something positive amid all the negativity in my life.
The next morning, Emma and I had to stay home from school for the follow up phone call from the caseworker. Ma was a nervous wreck, and chain smoked through every hour until the phone rang.
“Hello?” I heard her say from where I sat watching TV in the living room. “Yes,” she said, and then there was a long pause. It went on so long, I thought maybe she’d hung up the phone. But then I heard her say “okay” in a nearly inaudible voice. She set the receiver down and immediately started bawling.
I knew they were taking us away from her, and I suddenly regretted all the bad things I’d said and done, and wished I would’ve been a better liar, so Mrs. Townsend would’ve believed us that things were all right.
“They’re sending me away again, Georgie,” she told me, wiping her tears with shaking hands. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t do this.”
It was too overwhelming. I couldn’t go to work that night, so I called in sick. It wasn’t a lie either – I was sick.
A pair of Social Services workers came to our house the next day and hauled Ma off to a rehab centre in Regina where she would stay for three months. It would be the longest stretch of time she’d ever been physically away from Emma and I. But then again, she’d been missing from our lives for a long time.
Emma cried, but I was past the point of tears. Something was changing in me, and I was feeling less human all the time. I’d gone numb and nothing felt real.
“I’ll be back soon,” Ma said to us as the workers led her out the door. “I love you.”
Neither of us said anything.
We didn’t get sent back to Serenity Home like Ma had threatened. Instead, we were placed in foster care.
There must’ve been angels surrounding us, because of all the places we could’ve ended up, Emma and I were sent to the Meierses’. Being at Willie’s, which was already my second home anyway, was a huge blessing.
Bruno was sent to a kennel somewhere out in the country to stay. I didn’t want him to go, but there was no way the Meierses could take him and we couldn’t leave him home.
Emma wasn’t doing well with the whole situation but I believed having me right there with home right across the way was a big help for her.
Willie felt badly for me when he found out what was happening, but he was thrilled that I’d be staying with him.
“We can stay up late every night and watch movies!” he said.
“You can’t stay up late every night, boys,” Mrs. Meiers interjected, “but tonight it’s okay.” She smiled brightly at both of us and I felt at ease.
I didn’t really feel like it at first, but I went to work after school. I had to keep that job, I told myself. I needed the money for boxing, and so I wouldn’t have to ask the Meierses for anything.
But after my shift ended, I was completely exhausted. All the stress of the past few days had taken its toll.
Emma was settling herself into the room Mrs. Meiers had made up for her. There was another spare room, but I was allowed to stay with Willie in his room on a spare cot.
I skipped boxing that night. I was simply too tired and overwrought. Before bedtime, I went to check in on Emma to make sure she was going to survive the transition.
Her bed was made up in a pretty purple duvet with little white daisies printed on it. She’d taken her stuffed bear from home and had it resting on her pillow, and there were some pictures of her friends on the night stand. She looked so alone and afraid sitting there next to her teddy.
“Don’t worry, Emma,” I said, sitting down next to her. Her hair looked incredibly blond shining in the moonlight from the window, contrasting against the purple background of the duvet. “This whole thing is going to be good for us,” I said. “When Ma comes out, she’s going to be better.”
“I hate her, Georgie,” Emma said. “I don’t care if she gets better, or if she ever comes back.”
I didn’t know what else to say to my sister because I was almost happy Ma was gone too. It was a nice break from the drama of living with an alcoholic, never knowing which way was up, or how bad she was going to be each day, walking on eggshells all over the house all the time.
“I don’t need her,” Emma told me. “As long as you don’t leave me, Georgie.” She wrapped her little arms around me tightly again.
“I won’t leave you,” I promised her.
It was awesome being able to spend so much time with Willie, and we adopted Emma into our circle too, letting her hang out with us after school and at night, playing video games or whatever. It was comforting for all of us to stick together.
Thursday night came around and I wasn’t going to miss boxing again.
I told the Meierses that I was going out to play volleyball at the school. I didn’t want them knowing about the boxing club, because I was afraid they might think it was too dangerous and try to stop me, but I felt terrible lying to them.
Willie felt guilty about deceiving his parents, but he backed me up, and didn’t breathe a word about where I was really going, and neither did Emma.
I felt good once I got to the club, almost like no one could touch me in that underground gym. By then, I was getting used to the skipping rope, and was starting to get some real rhythm going.
I had been shadow boxing in front of the mirror as much as I could, and Jim continued to be impressed with my progress.
“You’re really coming along, kid,” he said at the gym that night.
Jim started me on the speed bag, which was awkward at first, but by the end of the night, I’d gotten the hang of it and was pounding the bag with a decent speed.
“Yer getting preddy good,” Ralphy said as we were stretching out at the end of class.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve been working at it.”
“It’s a good way to ged oud anger,” Ralphy said.
I didn’t know it was so obvious to everyone that I was angry.
“I’ve been going through kind of a tough time lately,” I told him. Sweat was still dripping down my forehead, but it felt good.
Ralphy nodded. “Den whad yer doing here is good.”
Ralphy got up and went to get himself a drink from his water bottle, and then Jim came and sat down next to me.
I felt kind of nervous with him sitting there, and I tried to scoot away from him a little.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bite you,” Jim said. “I’m not Mike Tyson, for cripe’s sake.” And then he launched into one of his crazy laughs.
“Got yourself a job, I hear,” Jim said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s good,” Jim said. “It’s a good thing for a kid your age to have a job. It’ll keep you out of trouble.”
I just nodded. I hadn’t really planned on getting into any trouble. I’d vowed to myself never to turn out a jail bird like Jon.
“I used to be kind of a trouble-maker, myself.” Jim said. “But that’s all changed now that I’ve gotten old.” It almost made me laugh to hear him talking like that, but I had a hard time even smiling in those days.
“You know, you’re getting quite a bit better,” Jim said. “That jab’s really coming along. I think if you keep at it, you’ll be good.”
“Think so?” I asked.
“Yep. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were Irish,” he said, and I caught a glimpse of that crazy twinkle in his eye again. “The Irish are the best fighters, by the way,” he said. “It’s in our blood. In fact, I’m named after one of the best all-time Irish fighters, James J. Braddock.
“The guy from the movie?” I asked.
“Yeah, the Cinderella Man movie,” Jim said. “Only Braddock was cool way before the film came out.”
“I just thought I should tell you a bit about who I am, seeing as how you come to my house three times a week.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Anyway, that’s good that you got a job. Now you can pay me for the hand wraps,” he said, and cackled again.
“Oh, I forgot!” I said, and then my face turned red.
“That’s okay,” Jim said. “I know where to find you.” He cackled at me again and kept on laughing as he walked away.
The next day at school, I had math class with Mr. Dryden. At the end of the lesson, he stopped me before I could leave the room.
“Georgie,” he said, “Things must be moving along for you. I’ve noticed there’s a light in your eyes that wasn’t there before.”
I thought the “light” Mr. Dryden saw in my eyes was probably the burning hate that was starting to take over inside of me.
“Oh,” was all I said. I still found my encounters with Mr. Dryden strange. I couldn’t figure out why he gave an ant’s arse about me.
It was easy for me to start eating better again at Willie’s house -- the Meierses seemed to have a feast almost every night. There were mountains of meat, potatoes and vegetables at every supper, and the breakfasts and lunches were hearty and filling.
I made sure to sneak in as much meat as I could muster so I didn’t have to eat Jim’s beans. I thought meat probably had way more protein, and to me, Mrs. Meiers’ roast pork tasted about a thousand times better than a can of Heinz.
It only took about a week before I started noticing a difference. I definitely had more energy. And as the weeks went by, the combination of an improved diet, my work-outs three nights a week at the gym, and carrying out groceries at my new job, I knew I was getting stronger. I was actually starting to develop muscles. I could see them in the mirror when I was shadow boxing.
And instead of sweating and straining through 10 pushups, I could easily count them off. My lungs were also growing stronger. Everyone at the gym started to notice my improvements.
After school one day, I dared Willie to race me home. We lived exactly four blocks from the boundary of the school yard, the equivalent of about half a kilometre. Willie accepted the challenge, and I could tell he thought he was going to overcome me easily. After all, he was in peak condition from playing hockey.
“On your mark, get set, go!” I said, and we both took off. At first Willie was well ahead of me, but I focused in and wound up gaining on him, and then passing him. Willie’s competitiveness set in, and he pushed himself to take ground over me again.
We were neck and neck for almost the whole last block, but then I started to lose my wind and slipped back a couple of metres. It was enough for Willie to get some headway, and he beat me, but only by a few strides. I think I surprised him by how close the race was.
“Hey,” he said, as we sat panting on his lawn afterward. “You didn’t do too badly there. Those boxing classes must be doing something.”
“I think they’re doing a lot of something,” I said between gasps for air.
It took us both a while to finally catch our breath.
“Hey, man,” Willie said. “Don’t you have to go to work today?”
“Damn!” I said.
“What, you forgot?” Willie asked. “How could you forget?”
I didn’t know how I could forget, but I had.
“Guess I’m not done running after all!” I said. “See ya later, man.” I left my backpack on the lawn knowing Willie would take it in for me. That’s the kind of friendship we had. We didn’t even have to say anything to each other, because we were always on the same page. Almost always, anyway.
He liked a different kind of girl than me. I liked brunettes, and he dug red heads. Of course, neither of us had ever been near a real girl. But anytime we looked at our girlie magazines, we’d pick the ones we thought looked the prettiest on the page, and without fail our choices were different.
As I ran from Willie’s house, I couldn’t help but notice how empty and lonely my house looked next door. It had been three weeks since Ma left.
I kept jogging at a semi-relaxed pace until I got to the grocery store. I breezed through the door with still five minutes left on the clock.
As soon as I’d put my orange apron on to start carrying out groceries, Mr. Weinhauser approached me. I started sweating, and wondered if I’d ever be able to talk to anyone older than me without getting extremely nervous.
“Georgie, I need to have a word with you. In the back room,” he said.
I followed him to the warehouse in the back where pallets full of food sat in stacks waiting to go out onto the shelves.
“Georgie,” he said, his voice lowered. “I did the math the other day, and I realize now that you’re only 15.”
My head lowered, and immediately I felt ashamed. I should’ve told him from the get-go, I thought, worried Mr. Weinhauser was going to think I was a liar.
“I’m not angry with you, Georgie, so don’t worry,” he said. “In fact, as long as we keep this between ourselves, I don’t think it has to be a big deal.”
I was shocked. I thought for sure he was going to fire me on the spot.
“I’m not going to fire you, Georgie,” he said, as if reading my mind.
“You’re not?” I said.
“Of course not!” Mr. Weinhauser said. “You’re one of the best workers I’ve ever had. Just make sure you keep it to yourself about your age, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
Heck, I could do that, I thought. If it meant keeping my job, and keeping my membership at the gym, I would do almost anything.
So I kept up the routine. Every day after school, I worked, and three nights a week, I boxed.
It was hard keeping it a secret from the Meierses. I started to worry they might want to come to one of my “volleyball” practices, and then I’d really be in trouble.
As soon as they brought up the subject, I’d change it, or at least try to divert their attention to something else. I thought a few times that maybe I should just tell them the truth, straight out, but then they’d probably hate me for lying the whole time, I decided.
Ma hadn’t called us since she got into rehab. It had been nearly a month, and not one call.
“They’re probably keeping her very busy working on her recovery,” Mrs. Meiers said when I complained about it out loud one day.
I didn’t buy it for a second. She wasn’t too busy to call. She was too self-involved.
Finally, on the third day of the fifth week, she called.
“Hello,” I said, after Mrs. Meiers put me on the phone.
“Georgie?” Ma said, as if she didn’t quite recognize me.
“Yeah, Ma, it’s me, Georgie,” I told her.
“Oh, Georgie,” she said. “My son, how have you been? I’m so sorry I haven’t called. I’ve just...I’ve just been...I’ve just been a wreck,” she finally spit out.
“Yeah,” was all I said. I tried to sound impatient, like it was an inconvenience that she’d called, like I hadn’t been waiting every day for the last five-and-a-half weeks for her to phone me.
“Georgie, I miss you so much,” she said. “I’ve missed you every day.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you miss me too?” she asked.
“No,” I said, as cold as I could sound.
Then there was a long pause.
“Can I talk to Emma?” Ma asked.
Emma was out with her friends, but I didn’t feel like telling that to Ma.
“She doesn’t want to,” I said. I couldn’t believe how cruel I was being. It wasn’t like me to act that way. But I wanted to punish her for taking so long to call us while we waited helplessly.
“Oh,” Ma said. “Okay.” I could tell she was devastated.
“Okay,” she said. “Well, I love you.”
“Okay,” I said.
“All right,” she said, giving me ample time to say it back. “Well, I guess, good-bye then, and I’ll see you soon.”
“Kay,” I said, and hung up the phone.
I wondered, though, how long it might be before she called again.
The anger stuck with me, but I bottled it up during the day, saving it until I got to the club, where I could let it all out on the punching bag.
It was a Thursday night, and I was really givin’ it. I mean, I was wild. I kept hammering it into the heavy bag, with big, solid punches.
Left, left, right, uppercut. Left, hook, left, uppercut. It felt awesome. It was the only thing in my life that felt like that.
I moved over to the speed bag, really walloping on it. At times, I pictured it was Ma’s face. Then I pictured Lamburt, Danier and Downing. I hated them all, and pushed that hate all the way from my guts through my gloves.
Jim must’ve been watching me from across the room for a while before he walked over and stood beside me.
“I think you’re ready for the ring,” he said.
“Really?” I said, stopping the bag in mid-swing. Sweat was dripping off me, drenching the collar of my T-shirt.
I felt my heart skipping around in my chest. It was what I’d been working so hard towards, and now that it was near, I felt suddenly nervous.
“Yeah,” Jim said. “Now that you’ve finally paid your fees, I think you’re ready.” He laughed again in his maniacal way. “Where’s your mouth guard?” he asked.
I knew there had to be a catch.
He saw the defeated look in my eyes and shook his head.
“You don’t have a mouth guard, do you?”
“No,” I said.
Jim rolled his eyes. I was really starting to like him, but Jim was frustrating sometimes the way he expected I knew everything before ever being told.
“Okay,” he said. “I guess I’ll get you one of my spare mouth guards, but you owe me six bucks.” His tone was impatient, but I decided to just let it roll rather than get frustrated any further.
He disappeared into the back storage room and produced a small case of what looked like a big hunk of rubber inside.
“We’re going to have to mould it to you. Come with me,” he said. I followed him up the stairs, but I couldn’t figure out where we were going. I was surprised when he invited me up another short flight of stairs, through another wooden door, and right into his living quarters.
“Behold, my abode,” Jim said, grinning widely as he flicked on a light in his entranceway.
I couldn’t believe he’d let me in his house.
The first thing that struck me was the overpowering odour of cigarette smoke. It was ghastly. I tried to breathe as little as possible to keep from passing out on his green and white tiled floor.
To the left of me was the living room. From the pale light of the entrance, I could see that he had a small TV and some magazines strewn about. It was obvious he lived simply, with very few pieces of furniture other than a vintage style couch and a heavy looking coffee table. There were quite a few ashtrays, and it looked like he hardly ever cleaned them out as they were so stuffed with butts.
He gestured to the right, and I followed him through an open doorway into his kitchen.
There wasn’t much to the decor of it. The cupboards were plain and painted an off-white. The counter tops had much the same look. There was a small, round table by a window with two chairs on opposite sides. It didn’t seem likely that Jim hosted a lot of company very often.
“What are we doing?” I had to ask.
“You’ll see, Tiny. Just hang on.”
He walked over to his stove and flicked on the overhead light, then turned the dial on a burner that sat under his tea kettle.
“We’re going to have tea?” I asked.
Jim turned and shot me a look that let me know it was a stupid question.
“Just wait,” Jim said. A few minutes later the kettle was whistling.
“Okay, give me that case,” he said, pointing to the mouth guard package I still held in my hand.
I didn’t argue. I just handed it over. Besides, I hadn’t actually paid for it yet, so technically it was still Jim’s.
Jim peeled off a plastic covering and then pried open the case, pulling out the rubber bit.
He opened a cupboard to the left of the stove and pulled out a small cup. Sticking the mouth guard inside, he poured the boiling water over top of it until it was covered by a few inches. After about a minute, Jim fished out a fork from his drawer and used it to retrieve the rubber dipped in the still steaming water.
“Here,” he said, pushing the rubber-on-fork closer to me. “Stick it in your mouth and bite down hard.”
I grabbed at the rubber, and much as I expected, it was piping hot. But I didn’t want to drop the damn thing and look like a fool in front of Jim, so I did what he said and stuck it in my mouth.
It only felt hot for a minute, and then either my mouth adjusted to the rubber, or the rubber adjusted to my mouth. Either way, I was in business.
I bit down gently at first, and when I couldn’t feel the rubber giving way at all, I bit down harder, until I could feel my teeth penetrating it a little.
“Good,” Jim said. “There, now keep holding that bite for about five minutes.”
That was going to be a long time, I thought, especially since I already felt like gagging. But if it got me closer to the ring, I’d do it. So I held it there, and could feel my teeth sinking deeper into it. Just when I thought I couldn’t feel it anymore, it was done.
“There,” Jim said. “Now you have a mouth guard.”
I popped it out of my mouth and looked at it in all its slobbery glory. It was neat seeing how the guard had the same crooked front tooth I had. At least I wouldn’t ever mistake mine for somebody else’s, I thought.
“Okay, let’s get back down there before everybody starts goofing off,” Jim said.
“Wait!” I said suddenly, and then my face grew hot. I’d been wondering something for a while, and felt my mind was full from it.
My heart started racing because I hadn’t expected I would have the guts to talk to Jim about it.
“I gotta ask you,” I said, talking to him like he was my friend rather than my instructor. “Why me? Why are you letting me train here?”
“What do you mean, Tiny?” Jim asked.
“Don’t you know who I am,” I said. “I’m a Christmas.”
Jim just looked at me, saying nothing at first. Then he took a long breath, and blew it out slowly, almost like a dragon.
“I know exactly who you are,” he said. “Dryden knows who you are, too, and that’s why he sent you to me. He saw something in you, and it’s something I’m starting to see myself. You belong here.”
“That’s something else I don’t understand,” I said. “What does Mr. Dryden have to do with this club? I’ve never seen him here.”
“You know, I’m about 100 years old now, and you’re not the first kid coming from a tough place to pass through here,” Jim said. “To be a boxer, you have to have some grit, and you have to have passion. That’s the kind of stuff Dryden was made of when he trained here with me.”
“Mr. Dryden was a boxer?” I asked in complete disbelief. It was hard to picture it now, with him hobbling around on a cane.
“Yes, years ago he was,” Jim said. “In fact, he was the national amateur champion at one time. He would’ve gone pro, too, if it wasn’t for that damned accident.” Jim shook his head, looking sad.
“Poor bugger. That rollover happened in the prime of his life. Bunch of dumb punks playing chicken on the road. He’s lucky he wasn’t killed.”
“Maybe Dryden wants you to have the same shot I gave him, and maybe someday you’ll get to go the extra mile he couldn’t.”
I felt both inspired by the story and relieved that I finally had some answers. All through my life, I’d always gotten the feeling, no matter where I was, or what I was doing, that I didn’t quite belong, or that I didn’t deserve anything good to happen to me. That was starting to change, and I owed it to a couple of people who weren’t judging me on the basis of my last name. I appreciated it more than I’d ever have the guts to say.
“Thanks, Jim,” was all I said.
I hung on to the mouth guard and followed Jim back down the stairs into the gym. Everyone was still working away. Ralphy was shadow boxing in front of one of the mirrors, Morris was jumping rope, and Michael was doing sit-ups. Jim went into the back room and came out with some worn head gear and a pair of gloves.
“I have gloves,” I said.
“No,” Jim said. “These are for in the ring.”
Looking at them closer, I saw the gloves Jim handed me were a little different than my bag mitts. These were rounder, and stuffed a bit more. The bag mitts were flatter and thinner.
I just nodded in agreement, and started to slip the new gloves on. Whatever I had to wear to get in the ring, even a pink lace tutu, I would do it, I thought.
“Morris! Get over here!” Jim bellowed. Immediately, Morris dropped his rope and came running over to us.
“Yeah?” he said.
“You’re sparring Tiny,” Jim said. Morris simply nodded and disappeared momentarily, returning with a pair of gloves for himself.
Jim helped me get ready, making sure I’d popped my mouth guard in properly, and that I’d buckled on some head gear.
As we were getting all prepped up, I felt a rush of exhilaration, a kind of thrilling sensation I rarely felt.
Morris crawled between the ropes of the makeshift ring, and I walked over to the opposite corner before following him in.
I was starting to feel extremely nervous, and wondered how I’d be able to coordinate my body with it shaking the way it was.
“Okay, Morris, now, take ’er easy on Tiny here, all right?” Jim said.
Morris nodded, his lips puffed out in distortion because of the mouth guard he wore. I wondered if I looked that strange too.
Morris started bouncing up and down, keeping his heart rate going. I just stood there in my stance, too inexperienced and lacking in style to know what to do with myself in the ring.
“Okay, let’s just go half-speed here. Take ’er real easy,” Jim said. “You guys ready?”
We both nodded. Morris pounded his gloves together once, and it was the first time I realized I was going to be on the other end of a punch soon. I tried not to think about it. I focused in, staring straight into Morris’s eyes, and I tried to imagine that he was Lamburt.
Jim held a yellow stopwatch in his hand. “Okay, box!” he said.
I held my gloves solid up by my face, sturdy in my stance, until Morris came straight at me with a left jab, knocking me right in the nose. I had no idea how he’d punched through my guard so easily. I was stunned, and could feel myself losing control of my stance. I stumbled back a little, then noticed there was a trail of blood droplets following me.
“Time!” Jim shouted, and Morris backed away.
“Tiny!” Jim said. “What in the hell was that?”
I didn’t know what had just happened, so I had no idea what to tell him.
“Were you planning to just stand there like a totem pole, or were you going to box?” My nose was still spurting blood all over the canvas, and I was horribly embarrassed.
“It was a lucky punch,” Morris said. “I didn’t even hit him that hard.”
The fact that he’d done the damage, and hadn’t even hit me hard made me feel worse about myself, not better.
“No, it was an undefended punch,” Jim said. “Tiny, where was your guard? Do want to get yourself killed in the first round?”
I just shook my head no, too ashamed at my weak performance to even say one word.
Jim came over with a couple of tissues, and quickly dismantled my head gear.
“Okay, put your head down, and let’s stop the bleeding.” He pressed down hard on my nose, which stung a little, but I didn’t dare complain. I already felt like such a wuss; I didn’t want to worsen it with whining.
After a few minutes, he let go, and there were no more droplets coming out of my nose.
“Do you want to try again?” Jim asked me.
I just looked at him for a minute. I didn’t really want to try again. I was completely disheartened, and felt like a complete failure. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.
But then I thought about how much time, energy and focus I’d spent trying to learn how to box, and I didn’t want to let that all go because of what had happened in a single moment.
I decided I’d try it again. Maybe Morris had just landed a lucky punch, like he’d said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’d like to try again.”
“All right, then,” Jim said. “Both of you - go to your corners.” Standing there, sweat starting on my brow, I was determined not to let it finish before it started.
“Okay, box!” Jim said.
This time I attacked Morris, jabbing straight at his head. He blocked it, but I could tell I’d surprised him after being such an easy target in the first seconds of the round.
I was ready for it this time when Morris jabbed at me, and I dodged to the left. Jim and I had been working on footwork a little, and it was sweet to feel the movements come alive in the ring.
I countered with a left at his chin, and it connected soundly. But I wasn’t done. I threw a right hook and caught him in the ribs. I’d meant to hit him in the head again, and missed that target completely, but I didn’t care. I was thrilled I’d hit him at all.
“Good one, Tiny,” Jim said from where he stood resting against the ropes. “Keep it up, another jab.”
I let go of another one, but Morris blocked it this time, and answered with a shot of his own. He hit me, smack on the jaw, but I was able to shake it off that time. Now the adrenalin was pumping and I couldn’t feel anything.
I zeroed in on his nose, and kept searching for it with my jab. He swung at me again, a rather wild one, and I slipped under it with a kind of grace I didn’t know I had.
It felt like everything in that ring.
It was so simple, so pure, and beautiful to me the way Morris and I danced. I didn’t really understand it myself. It was odd that such a base, brutal sport could put such a sense of peace in my heart, like this was where I belonged. Finally, I had a place I belonged.
I threw two straight jabs at Morris, catching him off-guard with the second, then threw a right to his jaw, which connected with a satisfying pop.
“Good work,” Jim said. “That’s a lot better Tiny. That’s what I want to see. Keep your hands up, Morris.”
The three minutes we sparred seemed like a near eternity, but I wasn’t feeling uncomfortable. In fact, I hardly noticed how my heart rate had sped up to a gallop, or that I was already sweating profusely. Everything seemed to work for me in those three minutes and I was able to hold my own.
“Time,” Jim said as the final second ticked off.
“Good work, both of you,” he said. “Way to take it back, Tiny,” he said. “Let’s call it a day.”
“I want to go again,” I said. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve been way too shy to voice my desires like that to Jim. But it felt so damned good to be in that ring that I didn’t want out, ever.
“I really think you should take it easy at first,” Jim told me. “But I like that you want to push yourself.” He flashed me a crooked grin.
I was pleased with myself, and on my walk home, I felt like maybe I could handle the world after all, even with Josh Lamburt and alcoholism in it.