Before going home, I decided to head down to the store to see if the latest edition of Gloves was in. As part of her new found generosity, Ma had given Emma and I each $5 to spend on whatever we wanted. It wasn’t a lot, but I appreciated having a few dollars banging around in my backpack.
I was still perplexed that Mr. Dryden had singled me out like that, and that he thought I was “special.” At school, I was just an average kid, and had average, or sometimes less than average grades. I wasn’t an all star track athlete; I wasn’t on the yearbook or the students’ council. I was just Georgie Christmas, son of the late George Christmas Sr., the man who blew his head off in the family’s basement. I wondered why Mr. Dryden would waste his time suggesting boxing to the skinniest, most hopeless kid in his class. Even if I learned some moves, with so little meat on my bones, any opponent I faced would probably just walk away from the ring laughing. I couldn’t punch my way though a piñata, probably.
But since it was a sport I loved, I had to weigh it out in my mind. Besides, I knew it was true -- the Piranhas were never going to stop picking on me unless I made them stop.
When Dr. Baker first told me I had to try to gain weight for my own health, Ma was still deep into the bottle, and a real supper would have been a miracle. Actually putting on a few pounds was nearly impossible.
Now that Ma had stopped drinking and she’d been preparing us three square meals a day, there was hope.
Hope felt a lot better.
I kept walking along the quiet streets, with small children playing happily on the sidewalks. I continued past the town park with the groomed shrubs, now barren as fall started to beckon in a blanket of winter.
Though I was deep in thought, I tried to stay alert for fear the Piranhas might be prowling.
That was another thing. I was always afraid of the Piranhas, no matter what time of day, no matter where I was. I was tired of walking in fear.
I arrived at the store, saying hi to the cashier as I entered, then walked straight over to the magazine rack.
There it was, bright and glossy in all its glory, the newest edition of Gloves. The cover story was about the recently announced match between heavyweight Samuel Peter and his contender, Oleg Maskaev. Peter had just finished pummelling through James McCline in a WBC title fight back in November. Some were saying Peter, an enormous black African aptly called the “Nigerian Nightmare,” had the stuff to become the next world champion.
I had to admit, even the picture of Peter on the magazine cover, his gloves raised in a fighting stance, a terrible ferocity in his eyes, stirred something deep within me. I tried to picture myself in his place, posing for the promotion of my upcoming bout in Atlantic City. The fantasy seemed so ridiculous to me at first that I actually laughed out loud. The clerk at the counter glared at me, probably thinking to herself that I’d just finished a joint and was laughing because of nothing. I’d actually never tried drugs. In fact, witnessing Jon with that package of stuff was the first time I’d laid eyes on any narcotics. I wondered what the hell my brother was doing getting mixed up with that. I hoped it was a one-time thing, but if I was honest with myself, I knew that it wasn’t. The whole thing just underlined the fact that the Christmases were no good. I figured my brother was different, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d only been desperate for it to be true, and I’d been blind to who my brother really was all along. It made me feel sick.
But maybe Mr. Dryden saw something in me that I wasn’t able to see – something that had been pushed down and choked out by my fear and inability to believe in myself, something that had a use or a purpose in the world. Maybe I wasn’t destined to be a nothing forever.
I snatched the magazine off the shelf, paid the clerk and said thank you as I pushed through the door.
As I headed home, I held the magazine close by me as if it were a Bible and could protect me somehow from the devils that lurked.
With my spare hand, I reached into my pocket, retrieving the crumpled piece of paper. I looked to see if there was an address on it, thinking maybe I could just walk by the gym and check it out.
But all that was there was the phone number - 213-1041- and the note advertising Jim’s Gym.
Who the heck was Jim? I wondered. And why had I never heard of a boxing gym in Prairieville? I thought I knew everything about the town.
I got home safely without any confrontations with the Piranhas. It was about 4:30 p.m. by then, at least an hour before supper time.
In my room, I unpacked my backpack, wondering whether I should start my homework. We were supposed to read a couple poems by Edgar Allan Poe. I personally thought the guy was a bit of a nut job, and I wasn’t terribly interested in his work, but there was a test on it the following day.
Of course, I had to procrastinate a little first, so I opened my magazine to the cover story on Samuel Peter.
I tried to imagine what Ma would say, or even Jon if I told them I had decided to train in boxing. Ma would probably tell me it wasn’t possible. She never seemed to be able to dream big, not even for us. Jon would probably warn me not to get myself too excited about it so I could avoid disappointment.
There were a few things I remembered clearly about Dad from the short time we spent together. One of the most prominent was my recollection of him telling me to follow my dreams.
“Don’t end up like me, Georgie,” he told me one day as I sat on the living room floor playing with my toy cars, probably around the age of five. I was too young then to realize my dad was already dying of alcoholism, a disease that would later take my mother captive too.
Dad looked a lot like Jon was starting to become, except Dad was about 40 pounds heavier. His drink of choice was beer, and I remember him polishing off about a case of it a day.
Even though he was a drunk, I remember Dad had a kind heart, and though he didn’t say it often, I knew he loved us.
“Follow your dreams, Georgie,” he would say. “Don’t let them tell you that you can’t do it. The worst thing would be to die knowing you never followed your heart.”
Maybe Dad already knew by then that he was going to kill himself. He had probably spent a lot of time thinking about it before actually uncasing the rifle, turning on a slow Billie Holiday tune and putting a bullet in his brain.
As I sat there in my bedroom, I felt my heart sink, realizing I hadn’t been following my dad’s advice at all. In fact, after the heartache of losing him to death, and losing Ma to alcohol and pills, I’d stopped completely. I didn’t dare, because I couldn’t face any more let downs. It was safer not to dream.
I decided that if I was going to let a dream live, I couldn’t tell anyone about it, not even Willie, because that would jinx it.
There was no reason to stall anymore. I picked the paper out of my pocket, staring at the numbers.
I left my room and headed for the phone in the living room, picking up the cordless receiver.
“I’m just going to call Willie,” I said loud enough so Ma would be able to hear me from the kitchen.
I looked at the phone, then back at the piece of paper, and almost chickened out.
There’s no way, I thought. There was no way I had what it took to be a boxer. But the truth was I wanted it. I wanted to prove to myself that a Christmas could be something other than a drunk, a drop out or a drug pusher.
I pressed on the “talk” button and started to dial.
As the phone began ringing, my heart started thumping madly in my chest.
After two rings, a coarse, grizzly voice answered.
In a shaky, nervous voice, I spoke:
“Uh, hi, um, this is…this is G-Georgie Christmas,” I stammered. I must’ve sounded like I had an intellectual disability or was on drugs.
“Who?” Jim asked. He sounded annoyed, and I almost hung up right then out of embarrassment.
“G-Georgie Christmas,” I said again, a little clearer this time.
“Don’t know him,” Jim said.
“I, uh, I was calling about your ad,” I said. I could feel my palms sweating. I hated talking on the phone to anyone, especially strangers, and especially strange adults.
“My ad?” Jim asked.
Oh no, I thought, maybe I’d called the wrong number.
“The-the one about b-boxing,” I managed to say, but I was wishing to God I hadn’t called.
“Oh, yes,” Jim said, “What about it?” At least I’d called the right place.
“Is it, could I, I’d like to, uh…,” I felt ridiculous, and my cheeks were on fire.
“Be at 101 Third Street West at seven o’clock tomorrow,” Jim said. “Bye.” And he abruptly hung up the phone.
I didn’t have a pen with me, so I repeated the address in my head over and over until I could find one and write the numbers down.
I still felt leery about the whole thing, especially after Jim’s curtness, but since he told me to come, I felt committed to be there. Of all the things I was – a wimp, white trash, fatherless, and powerless, I at least had enough of a sack to stick to whatever deal I made.
I wondered if I should call up Willie to see if he would come with me, but I reminded myself that I was going to keep this whole boxing thing a secret from everybody.
I took the cordless phone back to the living room, returning it to its cradle.
“What’s new with Willie?” Ma asked.
“Uh, not much, but we’re going to hang out tomorrow night,” I said. I felt terrible lying to Ma, but at least I had a cover for Thursday night.
“Oh, that Willie, he’s always been such a good friend to you,” Ma said, tousling my hair the way she used to do when I was a little boy.
I hardly slept a wink again that night wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
At school the next day, it took everything in me not to tell Willie.
“Guess what?” I’d say, and then he’d say “What?” and then I’d say something like “I got a B on the history assignment,” but the thing was I always got a B on my history assignment, so that wasn’t much news for poor Willie.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Willie asked finally, after the second time I made up some lame thing.
“Aw, I don’t know man,” I lied. “Guess I’m just antsy today.”
“I guess so,” Willie said, sounding a bit irritated.
Later, as I was pulling out my books for third class, I spotted Mr. Dryden walking down the hallway. Our eyes met as he passed me by, and he gave me another one of those meaningful looks. There was something strange about him, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.
Since it was Thursday and Willie didn’t have league practice, we decided to play a bit of road hockey together. Willie kept a net set up in his foster parents’ driveway, which only got taken away when one of the Meierses was coming or going with their car.
We took turns either sitting in goal or practising slap shots. I wasn’t very good at either, but I played anyway because it seemed to make Willie happy.
Predictably, Willie’s foster mom brought out a big plate of cookies and some hot chocolate for us, and we took a break out on the front stoop.
It was fairly warm out for late November - only about -6 C - perfect weather for playing outside. I appreciated the times I got to spend with Willie and the simple things we did for fun. He made me feel less invisible than I felt the rest of the time.
“How’s your Ma?” he asked, biting into a big, gooey chocolate chunk.
“She’s pretty good,” I said. “The best I’ve seen her in a long time.”
“That’s real good, man,” Willie said between chews. “What about Jon? Does he ever come around?”
“No,” I said. Willie likely noticed my head droop down.
“Are you mad at him?” Willie asked.
I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but since Jon left, every time someone mentioned his name, asked where he was or whether he’d been by to see us, I felt this thing in my gut. I didn`t know what it was. Maybe anger, maybe sadness. Whatever it was, it didn`t feel good.
“Yeah,” I said, after a long pause. “Maybe I am.”
“That’s okay,” Willie said. “I think you got the right to be.”
It started to snow lightly and Willie and I decided we’d had enough of road hockey for the day.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” Willie asked, as we packed our sticks away into his foster parents’ garage.
“Yeah, sure, man,” I said. I must’ve looked visibly distracted.
“You worried about the Piranhas?” Willie guessed.
I was always worried about the Piranhas, but the real reason behind my preoccupation was nerves. I was feeling terribly anxious about going to Jim’s Gym.
“Uh, sort of,” I said.
“Well, maybe one of these days you’ll grow some muscles and they won’t pick on you so much,” Willie said.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said.
Supper was again delicious – this time it was marinated chicken drumsticks coated in spiced bread crumbs. There were heaps and heaps of mashed yams and spinach, and even green peas as a separate side dish. Ma must’ve been working on it for hours before Emma and I got home. I didn’t even think we had the cash to be eating like that. But I realized Ma was probably saving a lot of money because she wasn’t spending it on her JD anymore.
I gobbled up as much food as I could then lay lazily on the couch, digesting and watching TV. Eventually, I looked at the clock hanging on the living room wall and saw that it read 6:35 p.m.
“Holy crap!” I said.
“What is it, Georgie?” Ma asked, poking her head around the kitchen corner to make sure I was all right.
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “I just gotta get going, that’s all.”
“Aren’t you just going over to hang out with Willie?” she asked.
“Yeah, but he wants me to go there a little early,” I lied again.
I wanted to make sure I had some extra time to walk to Jim`s Gym, in case I couldn’t find it. We lived on First Street West, and the address I’d now memorized was on Third Street, so it was really only a few blocks. Still, I didn’t want to be late for my first class.
I changed into a torn up pair of grey sweats and an old Hard Rock Café T-shirt Jon had given me a while back. Of course, none of us had ever been to a Hard Rock Café, but I kind of felt cool wearing it anyway. It had a couple of small holes in it but I thought it would be better to wear something like that rather than my good school shirts. I only had a few of those, and didn`t want them to get ruined with blood or something.
Blood? Was there going to be blood? I wondered suddenly.
A chill ran down my spine. But I couldn’t back out now. I couldn’t let myself be spineless.
I made sure I had the address and phone number with me just in case I got nervous and forgot it. I looked at the clock again – 6:45 p.m. I grabbed my winter coat and boots and headed out the door.
“Bye, Ma,” I said, waving as I left.
The temperature had dropped slightly since the afternoon and I found myself wishing I’d brought mittens along to cover my freezing hands.
I walked straight west, and it only took me a few minutes to reach Third Street.
I turned to the left and started heading down First Avenue and felt fear creeping up in my throat again. It was a dangerous street for me to walk down because Scott Downing lived there. Downing was hardly ever home, but he had to show up once in a while for food and sleep, so there was a possibility I might run into him.
On his own, Downing might not pose much of a threat, but the Piranhas rarely traveled alone. Instead, like the true scavengers they were, they constantly lurked in packs.
It was dark out, making it difficult for me to tell whether there was anyone on the street. The good thing about that was it would also be difficult for anyone to see me. If I heard the Piranhas coming, I could always find a place to hide until they passed by, I told myself.
Within a few short minutes I’d reached Third Street. The club would either have to be the first house on the left or right, but as I glanced around, I saw that both sides just looked like houses. Looking closer at the right side first, I saw the house number read 102. Wrong one.
I scurried across the street to what had to be 101 Third Street, but there was no sign of a number anywhere on the building, which to me looked like be an abandoned shack.
It was a narrow house, maybe a quarter lot in size, with two long windows in front. The exterior paint had faded, and there were cracks in the plaster. I wondered why nobody had knocked it down yet.
As I got closer, I noticed the yard was even more unkempt than ours. Though snow was now covering the earth in patches, I could tell even in the dim light by a single lamp above the door that no one had bothered to mow the lawn in years.
How could this be the place? I wondered. But if the address on the note was right, then it had to be.
I almost messed my pants when I finally reached the front stoop. Inside the door frame, which jutted out about a foot, deep within the shadows sat a hooded figure, who looked to me like some kind of criminal. I could faintly see the billows of smoke rising from the shadows, and then smelled his cigarette burning.
“You Christmas?” he asked, skipping any polite hellos.
Too scared to speak, I simply nodded.
“You can talk, can’tcha?” the man asked, and it was then I recognized the coarse voice. I felt a bit of relief, because I was at least at the right place and hadn’t accidentally entered a convict’s property. That I knew of, anyway.
“Yes,” I said, squeaking out an answer.
“Good,” he said, and abruptly smashed out his cigarette on the steps of the front stoop. “Follow me.”
Still nervous, I followed Jim through a thick wooden door into the house. There was another short stairwell going up, and a longer, darker one heading down. To my dismay, he gestured for me to follow him down into the darkness of the basement.
I was starting to second guess the whole thing. What if this Jim guy decided to kill me right then and there? Nobody even knew where I really was, I realized, and my heart started racing.
Suddenly, we were through another door and under bright light.
The roof above us was surprisingly high, and unlike the outside of the house, the inside seemed relatively large and well kept up.
Right away I noticed something I assumed was a boxing ring in the middle of the room. There were four thick posts attached to cement blocks in four corners with rope wrapped around to form a square. It was a bit of a crooked square, but a square none the less. The posts were covered with matting, which I thought was probably to soften a possible fall into one of the corners. The floor of the ring was made of a thin canvass, raised about six inches from the ground, which I imagined would be quite hard to land on. Underneath the canvass I could see what looked like wooden slats, but I couldn’t be sure.
From what I’d seen on TV, the ring of sorts didn’t match official regulations, but for Jim’s Gym, it probably suited the purpose.
As my eyes adjusted fully, I could see the complete design.
There were some mirrors to the left of the ring propped up against the cement wall, obviously taken from old dressers. On the north wall behind the ring, I could see two large, well-used punching bags hanging from a support beam above. Beside the punching bags was a smaller speed bag. Finally, to the right of the ring, there were some jigsaw puzzle-type floor mats, with skipping ropes dangling from hooks on the nearest wall.
“Welcome to my gym,” Jim said.