I was changing, and people were noticing.
“Georgie, what’s happening to you?” Emma asked one day after school.
My sister, Willie and I were sitting on the Meierses’ sofa, watching Much Music and eating crackers and cheese.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Yeah, man, I’ve noticed it too,” Willie said. “You’re starting to look different. Like, less skinny and stuff.”
“Yeah, Georgie,” Emma said.
I felt elated, because I thought I’d only been imagining a difference, but if other people were seeing it, I knew it must be real.
“Just a minute,” I said.
I rushed upstairs to the Meierses’ bathroom and shut the door behind me. They had a small,white scale on the floor, and I stood on it, just to see.
One hundred and 12 pounds, it read. I’d gained eight whole pounds since I’d first weighed myself in Dr. Baker’s office back in September.
There was a long mirror hanging on the bathroom door, and I took a few minutes to really look at myself. My cheeks looked fuller, and there was a little less air between my ribs. I had a long way to go before I’d be able to reach my goal, but physically, I was getting bigger and stronger.
Even though I knew it was corny, I pushed my sleeve up a few inches on my arm and flexed in the mirror.
I was shocked to see a muscle – a real, actual muscle – popping up from my arm. I wouldn’t want anyone to see me flexing like that in the mirror, but I was damned proud of my progress.
I ran back downstairs to Emma and Willie.
“Did you suddenly have to take a crunch?” Willie asked.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Must’ve been the cheese.”
We went back to watching TV, and despite all the negativity in my life at the time, I was starting to feel good about how things were developing.
The next day at training, I gave Ralphy a real arse whooping. He was stunned, because it was only my second day of sparring and already I was dancing off my feet. He stepped right into my hook, and I found all the sweet spots.
“You sure you’re not Irish?” Jim asked, and scratched the top of his balding head.
“I think we’d bedder watch oud for dis guy,” Ralphy said, panting through his breath after we finished our last three-minute round. “You’ve been hid’en a secred weapon in dose skinny bones.”
But the thing was, three months after I’d started training, I wasn’t so skinny anymore.
Jim noticed too.
“Looks like you’ve been listening to me about those beans, Tiny,” he said. “You’ve filled out some.”
“Yup,” I said.
“Well, keep it up, Christmas,” he said. I wondered if he’d intentionally called me Christmas that time instead of Tiny. Maybe the nickname didn’t really suit me anymore, I thought.
As the weeks went by, I kept growing stronger and putting on weight, and by December I weighed 120 pounds. I had to buy a whole new wardrobe because of it. It was a good thing I had a job to pay for it.
I had to hand it to Mrs. Meiers. She kept shoving those lovely mashed potatoes my way, and I kept shovelling them right into my gullet. It wouldn’t be long before Ma was due out of rehab, and I was kind of sad when I thought about leaving Mrs. Meiers. I knew she’d just be across the alley as always, and I’d still get to enjoy her cookies and probably come over for supper whenever I wanted, but I knew it wouldn’t be the same after I left their place.
At the gym, it was getting harder to convince any of the other guys to step in the ring with me.
By then Jim had raised the bar, and for a while he was getting me to box three rounds. After I could do that, he pushed me to five rounds, and when I survived that, it became seven.
“I think we can get you on a card,” Jim said one night after I’d boxed circles around Michael. “You’re showing some real progress now. I think you’re ready.”
Through all the hard work I’d been doing, I hadn’t even thought much about having a real amateur class fight, but the idea of it was thrilling to me.
It was a Monday, and Willie I walked together while he was on his way to hockey practice at the rink and I was on my way to work.
“Ever hear from your Ma?” Willie asked.
Ma had been calling every Sunday. After the strenuous first conversation, she’d made a point of calling weekly, and eventually I caved and started talking to her again. Emma spoke with Ma every week too, both of us for about 15 minutes each.
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s all right.”
“Is she getting any better?” Willie asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. The truth was, I didn’t know. I was sure she wasn’t going to get away with being drunk at the rehab centre, but that didn’t mean she was better. She’d already broken her promise to stay sober once before, so I had no reason to believe that when she walked out of that centre, she would be any different than the day she walked in.
I didn’t even have to look up to know that it was Josh Lamburt.
“Oh, no,” Willie said.
It had been a surprisingly long time since I’d run into Lamburt or any of the Piranhas, and my luck must have run out.
I didn’t see them right away, but the other two were there – Danier, and Downing – and they looked like they were in the mood for trouble.
“Hey, Willie, man, I didn’t know you had a girlfriend. Oh, wait, that’s shit-for-brains Christmas.”
Willie just stood there. I knew he wanted to stick up for me, but I also knew he couldn’t.
“Hey, Christmas, hey, shit-for-brains, I hear your Mama’s back in the loony bin. I guess having an ugly kid like you was driving her to drink.”
The three of them laughed together, and I just stood there, paralyzed with fear and anger. Willie looked horrified, but he dared not open his mouth.
“Shut up,” I said, finally. I said it fairly quietly, but all three of the Piranhas heard me.
“What did you say?” Lamburt said, taking a menacing step towards me. “Did you tell us to shut-up?” He walked a few steps closer and I immediately felt my pulse speeding up.
“You’ve got some kind of mouth on you, you little piece of dirt,” Lamburt said, and he gave me a hard shove, sending me backwards. The entire scenario was a bit of déjà vu from the last run-in, and so was the pain in my backside as I landed on the road.
But I wasn’t going to take it the same way this time. But instead of sliding into my boxing stance, a shrieking, snarling roar came up from inside me and I pounced on my feet, driving forward straight at Lamburt’s throat.
His eyes bulged out of his head and he was completely surprised by the attack.
I had my hands clasped around his neck with a fierce grip, and I let go only long enough to pound his nose flat with my fist.
Suddenly, blood was everywhere.
In a delayed reaction, Danier and Downing grabbed me by the arms and yanked me off Lamburt, revealing his blood-soaked coat and swelling eyes.
“I’ll kill you, you son-of-a-bitch,” Lamburt said, wiping the blood off his face. I had hurt him. I’d hurt him bad, and it looked like he couldn’t even move.
Adrenalin was throttling through my body -- so much of it that I was shaking.
“Not unless I kill you first,” I said. The shy, pathetic Georgie had slipped away, and the angry, vengeful Georgie had emerged.
“Should we get him for you?” Danier asked Lamburt as the defeated bully clambered to his feet.
“No, I’ll do it myself,” Lamburt said, and he took an unsteady step towards me.
“No!” I said.
“Ha,” Lamburt said. “You thought a little blood would scare me off? You thought you’d get away with this, you little turd?” He was seething now, so infuriated that his voice was squeaking.
“We can finish this now, but it won’t end there,” I said. “If you beat me now, I’m going to want to come back and beat you. If I beat you now, you’re going to want to come back and beat me.”
Josh just glared at me.
“What’s your point, shithead,” he said.
“I think we ought to settle this, once and for all,” I said. “We pick a time, we meet, we fight. If I win, you never bother me again.”
I was determined to see this end with the Piranhas, one way or another.
“And if I win?” Josh asked.
“Then I’ll leave town,” I said. I hadn’t thought about the plan before spurting it out in front of Josh and his cronies.
“What?” Willie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “If you beat me, Josh, I’ll skip town, and you won’t ever see me again.”
“Seriously?” Josh asked.
“Dead serious,” I said.
I was tired of the Piranhas’ crap and I wanted it to end, even if it meant I had to leave town forever. I didn’t know where I’d go, but after I thought about it a little longer, I was sure it was the only way. I couldn’t keep living in fear, wondering always when the next attack was coming. And if I couldn’t beat Josh down, I’d have to go away and never come back.
“Okay,” Josh said.
I couldn’t believe he agreed with me. Neither could the rest of his gang.
“Josh?” Danier said. “What are you doing?”
“Shut-up!” Josh said. Danier, of course, did as his leader said.
“Name the time,” Josh told me.
“Next Saturday, in the schoolyard, at four o’clock,” I said. “Meet me there and we go five rounds, two minutes each.”
“Five rounds?” Lamburt said. “Why not 12?”
All I’d ever done in the ring was seven rounds. I was working my way up, but I wouldn’t be able to train for 12 in just over a week. I realized I’d probably gotten myself in way over my head, but I couldn’t back down. Now that I’d laid it out with Josh, it was do or die.
“Deal,” I said.
Lamburt stared at me menacingly, blood dripping from his face down onto his coat.
“All right,” he said. “Next Saturday, four o’clock, and we go 12 rounds.”
“Aw, come on man, are you sure?” Danier said. “If you want we could just kill this piss ant right now.”
“No,” Lamburt said. “Next Saturday, and we finish this.”
As he glared me down, Lamburt’s eyes were dark and filled with rage.
“You’re dead, Christmas,” he told me. I knew Lamburt meant it exactly the way he said it.
The Piranhas took off for the arena leaving me behind shaking uncontrollably.
“I gotta go, man,” Willie said to me. He looked embarrassed, or scared, or a bit of both. He took off for the rink, on his way to play hockey with the same bastards who wanted me put in my coffin on Saturday.
I knew it was all really rough on Willie, because he was being forced to sit the fence between the game he loved and a friend he loved.
It was horrible that the unwritten Hockey Code of Honour kept Willie from being able to really stick up for me the way I knew he wanted to. He had to be respectful to the Piranhas on and off the ice, and somehow balance that with being friends with one of the biggest Piranhas targets in town. I’m sure he’d already faced pressure to turn against me. Shoot, he even had a Piranhas jersey. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t just cut and run.
Willie wouldn’t make a very good bully – he didn’t have the necessary cruelty in him – but it probably would’ve been easier for him to either hate me or pretend I didn’t exist like mostly everybody else in Prairieville.
I wondered how his hockey practice that day would go, and how many other practices he’d had to sit through and pretend he couldn’t hear the Piranhas ridiculing his friend Georgie Christmas. But Willie wasn’t like the rest of them – he was in a league of his own. I knew he’d been tempted, but I also knew without any doubt at all that he wasn’t going to ever turn his back on me. He was my friend for life.
After I was sure the Piranhas were gone, I dusted the snow off my pants and kept walking to work.
The adrenalin was still there, but it’d worn off some. What was left was an emerging feeling of self pride. I’d handled those jerks. I didn’t let them get me that time. Lamburt was roughed up bad, but I’d walked away without a scratch on me.
But I didn’t want to be a fool and think I was suddenly invincible. Calling the fight on with Lamburt was serious, I knew that. There was a good chance he was going to massacre me. A very good chance. The thought of it sent a flock of butterflies to my stomach. But at the point I was at, it didn’t matter. If I wound up getting beat and was exiled from Prairieville, it might be the best thing for me, I decided. I was sick of the town, and sick of how I felt living in the town, with everyone passing judgement on me based on my family name.
And it wasn’t just the Piranhas -- it included every adult who looked down their nose at me, glad their kids didn’t turn out like those Christmases.
I was going to fight Lamburt, and I was going to deal with the outcome. Even if Lamburt killed me. There’d been lots of times I didn’t think it would matter if I died anyway.
The only thing – the only, only thing – was Emma. If Lamburt beat me and I had to leave town, Emma would be alone.
I pushed that thought out of my mind. The deal was done. I had to go through with it, no matter what.
On Tuesday night, I told Jim everything. I told him how my mother was sick from the drink, and how the Piranhas had been picking on me. Neither thing seemed to come as much of a surprise to him.
I begged him to prepare me for the fight on Saturday.
“You’re not ready,” Jim said, shaking his head at me. “And, you should know this,” he said, suddenly getting angry, “rule number one of the club is NO street fights. You’re supposed to be in a different class than those jerks tripping kids in the hallway. Don’t waste your talent getting your knuckles bent on some puck-happy numbskull’s head.”
I hated seeing Jim upset like that. I felt terrible that it was because of me. I was also starting to feel like my plan to defeat Lamburt once and for all was unravelling fast. I needed Jim’s help. If he wasn’t going to get me ready, I wasn’t going to be ready.
“Please, Jim,” I begged him, trying to work past his anger and appeal to his heart.
I could see he was struggling to make up his mind. I knew he liked me. In fact, I thought I could’ve become his favourite boxer.
“You don’t understand, Tiny,” he said. “I train boxers, not dirty street scrappers. There are no rules on the street. How can I train you for that?”
I didn’t know how to answer him. He was right about the fight -- Lamburt could grab my head and bounce it off his knee if he wanted to. All the style and technique I’d been working so hard to learn would be out the window if the fight got dirty. What had I gotten myself into? Suddenly, I felt sheer panic running through me.
I couldn’t do this alone.
“Please, Jim!” I pleaded.
“No!” he said. “Georgie, I could get my licence to coach taken away. Do you know how long I’ve been training boxers here? This is all I have, and if anyone finds out I was behind a street fight…”
It was the first time he’d called me Georgie. I knew this was serious. All Jim’s usual joking had been set aside.
“You’re not behind it, Jim,” I said. “I am. It was my idea. I’m just asking for your help.”
“I need a smoke,” he announced, disappearing out into the December night, not even wearing a coat.
Ralphy had been standing there, listening to the whole thing.
“Yer a crazy son-of-a-bitch,” he told me, “But I think it’s a good idea for you to get rid of doz guys who are bugging you.”
I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was finally realizing the enormity of what I’d brought on myself, and I felt an urge to run away. But it could be my only chance to defend the Christmas name, I knew. I couldn’t run like a punk.
A few minutes later, the door opened, and Jim came clambering down the stairs.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll help you. But if you get your head beat in, don’t come crying to me, do you understand?”
“And,” he said, “you owe me.” He pointed a long finger straight at me.
I nodded some more, ecstatic that he’d agreed.
“Okay, then, let’s get started,” Jim said.
He stood there for a moment, and I guessed he didn’t know where to begin.
“Cripes, Georgie,” he said, shaking his head. But I knew he was in, and wasn’t going to back out on me now.
“We have to work on your hook. I think that’s what’s going to make or break you, because it’s the best thing you’ve got going for you.”
He took me over to the heavy bag, and started me off with a jab, hook combination.
“How is this fight going down?” Jim asked.
“It’s twelve rounds,” I said.
“Twelve rounds!” Jim howled, glaring me down.
“Yeah,” I said between breaths. “Twelve.”
“Tiny, how are you going to last twelve rounds? Are they one-minute rounds, at least?”
“Two,” I said.
Jim slapped himself on his forehead again, something I’d seen him do about a thousand times by then.
“Well,” he said. “Either you’re a damned fool or you’re a brave son of a gun. I’m not sure which one myself.”
“Me neither,” I said.
We worked on my hook, and Jim showed me a few street tricks.
“Since you’re not going to be wearing any gloves for this fight, dig your knuckles right into his ribs, and give it a little twist at the end, really tear at the skin a little.” He demonstrated on the bag, cranking his bare knuckles hard into the leather. I was sure he’d used the move himself a few times.
“Might as well take off your gloves and give it a try,” Jim said.
I pulled my bag mitts off, revealing my carefully wrapped hands. I threw a few practice swipes and then nailed one straight into the bag, digging in deep. In my mind, I pictured Lamburt’s body was the bag. That was the motivation I needed to pull it off.
“Wow,” Jim said, after I nearly cut a hole in the bag. “I think maybe you might stand a chance.” After I got the hook down, we worked on the jab. Jim didn’t have any suggestions to add a street flare to it. He just wanted me to hit straight and hard.
“Aim right for that kid’s schnauze,” he said, “and hope for pain and blood. A couple of good nose blows can finish a guy pretty quick.” He cackled at that, finding his own wordsmithing hilarious.
I had my bag mitts on again and jabbed at the bag until my shoulder ached and my arms started to quiver.
“Okay, Tiny,” he said. “I think your jab is as good as we’re going to get it for now. If I had six weeks to train you, I might be able to put you up a skill level. But we don’t, so I can’t, and it’ll have to do.”
Then we worked on my uppercut. Since I’d started training, my legs had grown three times stronger, and because of it, my uppercut had more power – a lot more power.
“Surprise him,” Jim said. “He won’t expect a small fry like you to have any weight behind his wallop.”
I was really sweating by what I thought was the end of class. The rest of the guys were packing up and heading out the door on their way home. But for me, training was apparently just beginning.
“Okay, let’s get to work,” Jim said, and he guided me over to the ring. “You’re going to spar with me.”
“With you?” I said, incredulous. I had never seen the old man in the ring in all the time I’d trained at his gym.
I couldn’t believe it as I watched a 60-something-year-old climb through the ropes with a pair of gloves on, ready to box me.
Hesitantly, I climbed in and stood over in the south corner opposite Jim.
“Okay,” he said, “get ready.”
I got into my stance and raised my hands up by my face.
“I ain’t going to hurt you, Tiny,” Jim said. “But you’re going to need a crash course, and so I’m going to give it to you.”
With that, he threw out a jab, landing it right on my temple. Less than a half-second later I was laying flat on the canvas below him.
“That wasn’t so good,” Jim said, standing above me wearing his wicked smile. “We have a lot of work to do.”
There wasn’t usually boxing on Wednesdays, but I went over to Jim’s that night too to get some extra practice.
We spent most of the time in the ring together, and I practised my footwork, my defence, and Jim’s favourite, offence. He didn’t knock me down so easily that time – I was more prepared with what he could do. I couldn’t hit him though, no matter how hard I tried. He may have been old enough to order a discount meal at a restaurant, but the man could still box. Smoking like a chimney didn’t seem to be affecting his speed either – he was fast.
By Thursday, I was starting to get used to Jim swiping at me. It hurt when he connected, but I was able to dance it off for the most part.
“Don’t even give him two seconds to think about where it’s coming from,” Jim said. “Just let it rip all over him.” He demonstrated an explosive combo, hitting a jab, hook, and uppercut. I hoped I’d be able to apply the things I’d practised on Saturday. I didn’t say anything to Jim, but I was worried all the training would be meaningless come the fight, and that Lamburt would do something dirty, like pull a knife on me again.
“Now, listen, Tiny,” Jim said between rounds. “A street fight’s a little different than boxing with an old man in this ring. Without these gloves on,” he said, holding his hands up, “the punches are going to hurt a lot more, with bone splitting against bone. You could get hurt. Really hurt.”
“I know,” I said. If I thought about it too long, I knew I might think myself out of the fight. I had to battle Lamburt. There wasn’t anything else left to do. So I pushed all the doubts aside and focused on getting as ready as I was ever going to be.
There were only two days left to train before I faced up with Lamburt.
I was a nervous wreck, and Jim could tell.
“You know,” he said, “my first couple of fights were on the street, too. Of course, that’s where I used to live, so I had the home turf advantage.” Predictably, a wide grin appeared on Jim’s face. Jim had alluded to a rough history before, but I didn’t know he had literally lived on the streets, and I was rather shocked.
“My daddy, he was a hard worker, but he was ruthless,” Jim continued. “I first learned how to fight by dodging his fists, then when I left home for the street at about your age, I learned the rest. After that, it was all just the technical stuff.”
I was sure Jim didn’t tell everyone about that. I felt honoured that he was willing to share his story with me.
“I don’t remember hardly nothing about my father,” I said.
“Well, Tiny, hang on to what you do remember, because it’s important that you do that. And, no matter what she’s done, you’ve got to forgive your mother. Listen to an old man who held on to his anger for way too long. I did myself a lot of damage that way.”
“My life didn’t turn out to be much. I live here in this dumpy place, and sure, I have fun training up you kids, but I’m lonely, and I let myself get that way. You don’t want to wind up a lonely old crank like me, now do you?”
“No, sir, I don’t,” I said quickly.
“I want you to stick up for yourself with these punk kids,” Jim said. “I can support you there, but you gotta stop picturing your poor Mama’s face in that punching bag.”
I didn’t realize the thoughts in my head were so obvious to Jim. I hoped that not everybody saw the same thing so plainly.
I wanted Jim to be there for my fight. He told me he couldn’t, because if anyone saw him there and found out he’d trained me for a street fight, he’d get shut down.
I knew Lamburt would have all his cronies crowded around him, and I’d have nobody in my corner. Willie would be too scared to stand up against the Piranhas for me. But after thinking about it for a while, I started to get a little angry.
And later, as I was walking home to the Meierses’, I decided I couldn’t let him away with it. If Willie was my honest-to-goodness best friend, he had to stand in my corner, and I told him so later that night.
“Willie,” I said, while we were sitting on the sofa playing checkers before bed. “I gotta ask you something.”
“Sure, man, anything,” he said.
“Can you stand in my corner during the fight?” I asked. I knew I was asking a lot, but I had to do it.
“Yeah, man, I can do that,” he answered, without any hesitation at all.
I was relieved, because at least I’d have some back-up. And I also knew I’d never have a better friend than Willie the rest of my whole life.
After, I went up to Emma’s room to check on her before bed the way I’d done every night since we’d moved into the Meierses’.
“Emma?” I said, knocking lightly on her door. I found her sitting cross-legged on her bed, staring down at a photo album on her lap. There were tears lightly rolling down her face.
“Emma, what’s wrong?” I asked. My heart sank. I hated seeing my sister so unhappy.
As I drew closer to her, I saw that the photo album was full of pictures of us – me, Ma, Jon, and even a few of Dad before he passed away.
“What happened to my family?” she asked, looking up me with deep pain in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Georgie, I miss Ma.”
“I know,” I said, and hugged my sister again.
The truth was, despite all the anger I held against her, I missed her too.
I told Emma about Lamburt, and how we were going to have a fight on Saturday.
“I’ll be there, rooting for you,” Emma said. “I just know you’ll kick his ass.”
I was glad that Emma knew it, because I didn’t.
I was mostly asleep, but still slightly awake when I had the dream again. I was standing there in the ring, and there were people all around me. Emma was there, and Mr. Dryden and Jim, and Ma was there too.
The hooded opponent appeared from the shadows, and immediately I felt intense fear.
As the menacing figure drew closer, I raise d my fists, preparing for battle.
In the dream, I felt like the fight had been going on perpetually for all of my existence, and that I would be stuck in the ring with him forever until I was able to beat him.
My opponent drew even closer, and the figure that had remained hooded and hidden in all the dreams previous began to slowly remove his hood.
I dropped my gloves, letting down my guard, when I realized who he was.
It wasn’t Josh Lamburt, or Dan Danier, or Scott Downing.
My opponent was me.
I woke up with a start, clutching the alarm clock that sat on my nightstand.
There was pure darkness all around me, and the clock read 2:35 a.m.
I lay my head back down on my pillow, but it was no use, I couldn’t sleep.
After another hour had passed, I decided I had to get up, so I put on a sweater and some sneakers.
I felt terribly guilty sneaking out of the Meierses’ house because they’d been so good to Emma and I the whole time we’d stayed with them. But I had to get out.
As quietly as I could, I unlocked the back door and slipped out into the night. There were no stars and no moon – only street lamps to guide me as I began to run.
Two more days until my fight with Lamburt. What had I done to myself? I wondered.
My feet skipped along the skiving of snow lacing the streets and sidewalks. It was quiet and peaceful in the darkness of Prairieville. Not a car, not one person was out except me.
I kept running at a fairly fast pace, trying to keep balanced as I jogged across snow and ice. As I ran, I kept my fists raised, swiping and dodging the way I’d been trained to do.
No one but God himself could’ve known how truly nervous and afraid I was over the fight. I almost wished for it to come the next day instead of Saturday so I could get it over with and then rest, because I couldn’t rest now.
It struck me that maybe Lamburt was nervous too. But then I realized that snake probably thought he was going to have a slick time beating me. What he didn’t know was that I was going to be ready – damned ready for the fight. He wasn’t going to take me down easy.
I kept jogging, pumping my arms and legs until exhaustion came over me and I felt like I had tired myself out enough to sleep. By the time I was through, I’d run nearly a complete circle around the town, and it didn’t take me long to close the last three blocks before returning to the Meierses’ house.
I was surprised to see that there was a light on inside, and then I was horrified, because I knew the Meierses had noticed I was missing.
Sheepishly, I opened the back door, feeling almost too ashamed to go back inside.
Mr. Meiers was sitting there at the kitchen table, wearing his night coat and sipping from a white tea cup. I felt horrible knowing he had to be on his way to work in just a few short hours.
“Mr. Meiers,” I said quickly. “I-I just couldn’t sleep, so I went for a jog. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“Georgie, just go to bed, okay,” he said sternly.
I did as I was told, and though I felt rested enough to sleep, my guilt kept me awake a while longer until I was finally able to drift off to sleep.
“And Georgie,” he said.
“Don’t think what you’re doing is a secret. I know about the boxing gym, and I know about the fight on Saturday.”
Mr. Meiers turned to face me, looking me square in the eyes. As it turned out, I had been a fool to think I was fooling anybody.
I waited for him to tell me that a liar like me wasn’t allowed in his home anymore and that I wasn’t going near Willie again. But he didn’t say either thing.
“Good luck, Georgie,” he said instead.
I had math first on Thursday, and I was dreading it because I hadn’t finished my algebra homework. In fact, I hadn’t really done any homework all week.
At the start of class, Mr. Dryden hobbled around on his cane checking everybody’s work. I knew I didn’t have much of an excuse to tell him when he got around to my desk.
I was ashamed, because I had a lot of respect for Mr. Dryden, especially since I’d discovered that he was at one time a talented boxer.
He’d made his way over to Annie’s desk, just in front of me. That broad always had her work done on time, and she usually got all As too. I couldn’t stand her.
“Very good, Annie,” Mr. Dryden said as he leaned in on his cane, flipping through her scribbler.
He hobbled over to me next.
“Well, Georgie, let’s have a look then.”
I sheepishly flipped over to where I’d started the assignment. It read: “1 a),” and then there was supposed to be an answer to the first question, but there was nothing but a bunch of blank space.
“Georgie, there’s nothing here. Didn’t you do the assignment?” Mr. Dryden asked.
I shook my head.
“Not any of it?” He looked rather disappointed.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dryden,” I said lamely. “I, I just got a little distracted, I guess, and I forgot.”
“Georgie,” he said. “I’m going to have to dock you a mark, you know that, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
For the second time in less than 24 hours I had been scolded by someone I looked up to. I felt like dirt. The fight with Lamburt was taking over my life and I was really starting to think I’d made a big mistake.
“I think I’ll need to see you after class, Georgie,” Mr. Dryden said.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
After the bell rang and everyone else had left the classroom, Mr. Dryden stood in front of my desk so I couldn’t leave without speaking to him first. He leaned in on his cane, looking me directly in the eyes.
“I know why you’re tardy with your assignments, Georgie. Don’t think teachers are oblivious to the stuff students talk about here at school. I know about your fight on Saturday.”
My face grew hot and started to sink into my chair.
“Georgie, don’t worry,” Mr. Dryden said. “I’m the one who told you to stick up for yourself, remember?”
I nodded my head.
“Now, just remember,” he said, and suddenly he let go of his cane and raised his fists. “Always keep your hands up. Guys like Lamburt aren’t used to someone protecting themselves. Those hockey fighters are all about offence, and they know nothing about defence, trust me.”
I watched as my crippled math teacher started jumping around on one foot, swiping and jabbing at the air. He looked kind of strange, trying to perform with only one good leg, but it was also remarkable to me that he hadn’t fallen over without his cane. As I watched him, a passion sparkling in eyes, I could see a faint glimmer of the fighter Claus Dryden had once been.
“Good luck on Saturday,” he said, hopping back towards my desk on his good leg and stooping to retrieve his cane. Mr. Dryden straightened out his collar and returned to his former posture. “And try not to forget your assignment next week.”
Mr. Dryden’s little “talk” was just the boost I’d needed.
I already had the support of Emma, Willie, and Jim, but it was great to think that Mr. Meiers and Mr. Dryden were also rooting for me.
During recess, I saw Lamburt and his cronies up ahead among the crowd of students mingling about, and I hated myself for cowering in fear.
As Lamburt drew closer to me, he deliberately moved through the crowd so he was lined up right in my path, and as he passed by me, he checked me hard with his solid shoulder, sending me flying into the brick wall.
All of the students stopped and stared as I lay there, stunned, my books spread all over the hallway.
Lamburt just kept going as if nothing had happened, and I was powerless to do a damned thing as I lay there, watching his head disappear back into the crowd.
It was a warning - Lamburt wanted me to know he planned on hurting me on Saturday.
After a short while, I stood to my feet again and tried to catch my breath after feeling winded by the surprise blow.
The tactic was meant to scare me, and the truth was I felt petrified, but I wasn’t going to stop.
I was extremely distracted at work as I bagged people’s groceries. I kept mixing up cans with bread, and fruit with cleaner, and Mr. Weinhauser noticed something was wrong.
“Georgie, you all right?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I told him truthfully.
“Well then, what’s wrong?”
Mr. Weinhauser had been a good boss, and had treated me with respect despite the fact that I was a Christmas. He’d also given me a paycheque even though I was too young to be working at his store. I appreciated everything he’d done for me, and felt sour over my scatter-brained work leading up to the fight.
“I, I, I have to fight this kid from school, and I’m terrified,” I said. I couldn’t believe I was being so open about it with Mr. Weinhauser, but I felt he deserved an explanation.
“Oh, I see, and you’re nervous about it.”
“Well, I’m not condoning any fighting, but if it were me, I’d go for the throat.” Mr. Weinhauser faked a punch into the air, aiming at a pretend neck. I was completely shocked, because I’d never seen him step out of his professionalism box, even for a minute.
“I got into a pretty bad fight once when I was about your age, and I knocked that sucker in the throat, and he was done for.” A glow of pride washed over Mr. Weinhauser. It was clear he didn’t regret the move.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll try that,” I said. I felt horribly uncomfortable, but at least Mr. Weinhauser wasn’t upset at me for poor work performance.
I wondered if maybe I should pull some moves like that. Going for the throat wouldn’t fly in a boxing ring, but might work in a school yard fight. I decided to bring up the idea with Jim. After all, he was my trainer, and I felt I should at least run it by him. Maybe getting dirty would be the only way I would win.
We only had that night and one more before I faced Lamburt and I was looking rough around the edges.
“You have to be faster than him, because you aren’t going to be stronger,” Jim told me as part of a feed of mental preparations he led me through that night.
“If he throws one punch, you’ve got to throw five. You’ve got to be merciless. You’ve got to come out of nowhere and surprise him.”
There was a sort of light in Jim’s eyes, something growing inside of him that I had never seen before. He loved every minute of training me for the fight, I realized. But I was starting to feel guilty, because I’d made him do it, and there was no turning back. He was risking everything for me.
“Jim, what if people find out you were training me for this?” I remembered how Mr. Meiers told me he knew I’d been working out at Jim’s gym.
Jim put down the bag mitts he’d been holding.
“Look, Georgie,” he said, calling me by my first name for only the second time since I’d known him. “I’m an old man who trains a handful of kids in his basement. If they want to come and shut me down, they can just come right along and do that.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go through with it,” I said.
“You’re going through with it,” Jim said sharply. “Don’t make up excuses now, Tiny. You’re in it, and you’re not getting out of it. You’ve got to teach this punk once and for all that he’s not going to get away with pushing you around anymore.”
“Maybe I should try some other moves, like punching him in the throat,” I said.
Jim just glared at me.
“You do whatever you want to do, Tiny. I’m not going to be there. But just so you know, I’d never tell one of my fighters to do dirt like that. We’re supposed to be better than the street, remember how I told you that?”
“When you’re out there, keep in mind that you’re representing me and this club, and then the right thing will come to you.”
I nodded again, but felt a pit of despair welling up in my gut, because I didn’t think I was ready, and didn’t think I would be able to get ready by Saturday. My uncertainty must’ve been obvious to Jim.
“Look, here, Tiny,” he said. “Don’t get down on yourself. You don’t need some dirty move to make this fight. Look, I haven’t shared my mantra with you yet. I think that might help. ”
“Mantra?” I asked.
“Yeah, back in my heyday, when I was taking bouts – only two of which I ever lost, by the way – I had this little poem I would say.”
Jim forgot we were in the ring for a moment, and traveled back into the recesses of his mind.
“Blocks of doubt, bricks of fear, neither one will help me here. What I need is what I have, I’ve got it all, of that I’m glad. Deep inside, got what it takes, it doesn’t matter what the stakes. A living fire burns in my soul, they ain’t gonna break me no more, no more.”
“That’s awesome, Jim,” I told him after he finished. “Where did you get that from?”
“It’s an old Irish poem with a little Jim twist,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Okay Tiny, now you try,” he said.
I felt hesitant about it, but if it had worked for Jim, maybe it could work for me too, I thought. But I couldn’t remember even one word, so I stared at Jim blankly.
“Blocks of doubt...,” Jim said.
“Block of doubt,” I repeated.
“Bricks of fear.”
“Bricks of fear,” I said.
“Neither one will help me here.”
“Neither one will help me here,” I repeated.
The words held some truth for me. I was weighted down by doubt and fear, and it truly wasn’t doing me any good. As we walked through the rest of it, and I repeated the whole thing several times until I had it, I started to believe maybe it was possible I had what it took to defeat Lamburt. The stakes were high, but I could do it. The only way he could break me was if I let him.
Reciting Jim’s mantra had made me feel calmer, and we went back to training.
I worked as hard as I could, until sweat was pouring out of every pore. I tried to stop a few times, feeling exhaustion burning in every muscle, but Jim pressed me on.
“You want to fight this guy twelve rounds?” Jim asked. “You don’t even know what you’ve gotten yourself into. In a twelve-round fight, the last four rounds can seem like four years if you’re not ready. You want to embarrass yourself, and fall flat on your rear, or do you want to put up a fight?”
”I want to hurt him,” I said, feeling a new sense of determination. “I want to win.”
“Good, then, you have to work past the pain, and remember, Lamburt might be bigger and stronger than you, but he ain’t going to be faster. And even if he is faster, he ain’t going to be smarter.”
I let every one of Jim’s words soak in, knowing that if I started to lose it, those words might be all I would have.
We kept working after everyone else had left the gym, staying at it almost till midnight.
“I have to go,” I said, remembering how I’d disappointed Mr. Meiers the night before by being out late.
“Okay, but be back here tomorrow night after supper,” Jim said.
“Okay, Jim,” I said. “And, thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Tiny,” he said.
I knew simply saying thank you wasn’t really enough. In the time he’d been training me, Jim had helped me fill a gap in my life left after everyone in my family, one after the other, left me behind in the dust. And I couldn’t forget that Jim was saving my life, because I knew if he hadn’t prepared me for the fight, I wouldn’t stand a chance.