Standing under the light, Jim looked a little less frightening than he had first appeared. When he pulled down the hood of his coat, I could see his entire face.
He looked tough, like he could lay a lickin’ on anybody, and rough, like he’d lived hard and fast. There were deep creases around his eyes, showing his age to be somewhere around 60. Of course his smoking habit, and any others he might’ve picked up along the way, could’ve helped along the aging process.
Jim was completely bald, except for an oddly-shaped goatee and a long, curling reddish-grey moustache which covered most of his face.
I’d expected him to be a lot bigger than he was from the sound of his voice over the phone. But instead of the burly, six-foot man with thick arms that I’d imagined, Jim was small, almost petite. In fact, he wasn’t a whole lot taller than I was.
He reeked of smoke and stale sweat, and I stood back from him a couple steps when I caught a whiff of it.
“This is where we train,” he said. “The other guys should be here in a minute.”
Other guys? I thought. I hoped these “other guys” weren’t as strange as Jim.
“Who was it that gave you my card?” Jim asked out of nowhere. He was glaring down at me intensely.
“Your card?” I asked.
“Yeah, that thing you got my number from,” Jim said, a heavy impatience in his voice.
“Oh, that,” I said, and I felt my cheeks begin to burn. “A teacher from school gave it to me.”
Jim nodded. “Claus Dryden,” he said matter-of-factly.
I wondered how he knew that, but I was too scared to ask.
“This gym isn’t public knowledge,” Jim said, “so rule number one is, you can’t tell any of your wussy little friends about this place. This club is by invite only.”
I nodded in agreement. But if it was an invite-only club, why was I invited? I wondered.
“Now, let me show you around,” Jim said, putting one arm behind me, pushing me forward.
“This is the ring, the home of the real boxers,” Jim said, pointing to the centre of the gym. “It’s where they bleed, where they sweat, and on a good day, where they cry.” He let out a wicked cackle that sounded almost inhuman.
“Rule number one is, you don’t go in there until I say you can,” Jim said, and then he shot me another penetrating look. “If I catch you in there before then, you’re dead,” he said, pointing a pale, boney finger at me. I was sure he meant it literally.
Jim took a few giant steps to the left, almost as though he was leaping rather than walking, and stopped in front of the mirrors.
“This is where you’ll begin,” he said. “I’ll show you some shadow boxing and some basic leg work and we’ll see how you do.”
Jim took a few more giant steps to the north end of the gym where the bags were.
“After you’ve got some hands and feet, we’ll move you over here,” he said. “You’re going to need some bag mitts, of course, or you’ll break those scrawny wrists of yours.”
I was hoping that he hadn’t noticed how frail and thin I was, but I guess there was no hiding it.
I didn’t know what bag mitts were, but I didn’t tell Jim that. In fact, I didn’t know if I’d ever speak to him unless spoken to first because I was basically terrified of him.
A few more leaps to the right and we were standing by the floor mats.
“You see those?” Jim asked me, pointing to some worn ropes dangling from hooks on the wall. “Those are the most important thing in this gym. Skipping rope is where you’re going to get all your conditioning. If you can skip three rounds over there, you can go in the ring for one round. That’s how it works.”
The front door suddenly thudded shut and I whipped my head around to see another guy, maybe five years older than me, entering the gym. He wore sweatpants and was carrying some of those fancy slippers the prize fighters on TV have.
I didn’t have any shoes, just my sock feet, and I thought I was doing good wearing ones without holes in them.
“This is Ralphy,” Jim said, pointing towards the bottom of the stairs.
“Hello,” Ralphy said, and I noticed he had a strange accent.
“Ralphy here is from the Hutterite colony,” Jim announced.
The Hutterites were an isolated society who lived an old-fashioned colony lifestyle on the prairies. The men wore black tailored suits and hats year-round, and the women wore handkerchiefs on their heads and long, black dresses. They were intermittently seen around Prairieville arriving in huge vans to do their shopping or to use the town’s services.
The Hutterites were largely estranged from the rest of the prairie people, and were not very well understood. Occasionally, it seemed one of them would reject the idea of living without cable, and would leave the colony to live in the outside world. I gathered Ralphy had been one who “escaped,” as the people of Prairieville liked to say.
Ralphy was rather large and had huge, lanky arms and a strong hand which he gripped to mine in a friendly shake.
“He doesn’t say much,” Jim warned me, “and what he does say is mostly Hutterite gibberish.” I thought it rude of Jim to talk like that about the poor guy, considering he was standing right there.
Ralphy was now jumping rope on the mats in a fantastic manner.
“You go over there with him,” Jim told me. “Grab a rope, and let’s see how you do.”
I went over to where Ralphy was and clumsily took one of the ropes from the wall.
“Wait!” Jim bellowed. “Where are your shoes?” I looked down at my helpless grey socks, then back at Jim, my cheeks burning from embarrassment.
“I-I didn’t bring any,” I said. Jim theatrically slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. I felt like leaving the gym right then and there.
“Okay, just train in your socks for today, but try to remember to bring your shoes on Sunday.”
“Uh, okay,” I said, but immediately felt uneasy about the promise knowing I wouldn’t have gym shoes by then. I also knew I couldn’t wear my dirty old boots to work out.
“All right, now what did you say your name is?” Jim peered at me through his crinkled up eyes. The question struck me as odd, because he’d remembered my name when I first arrived only a few moments ago. He must have a memory problem, I thought.
“G-Georgie,” I said.
“All right G-Georgie,” he mocked me, “get skipping!”
The next few minutes that passed were a grotesque display of inept physical ability. Every time I’d swing that rope around, I would either land on it with my socked feet, or accidentally whip myself in the behind.
I struggled along that way for almost 10 minutes, and every so often as Jim puttered around the gym, he’d look over at me and shake his head, muttering something under his breath.
“Don’t worry aboud dat Irishman,” Ralphy said to me suddenly.
It was the first time he’d spoken to me, and it caught me a bit off-guard.
Ralphy was taking a break from his fluid skipping routine, which had made me feel comparably pathetic.
“Irishman?” I said.
“Yeah,” Ralphy said in his thick, chalky accent. “Thad one offer der.” He pointed in Jim’s direction. “Thad Irishman – don’t worry aboud him. He’s crazy.”
Ralphy took one finger and looped it around his ear. I wondered if that was the symbol for insanity even on the colony, or whether he’d picked it up from mingling with folks in Prairieville.
Ralphy was sweating terribly, with little droplets pouring down from his dark hair and spattering on the floor mats below us.
“How do you know he’s Irish?” I asked.
“Das whad he says all der time,” Ralphy said, laughing a little.
“Hey, you clowns!” Jim called to us from across the room. “Get busy!”
Ralphy immediately fled back into his routine of staring straight ahead and skipping in a robotic motion.
A few moments later, a pair of identical-looking boys wandered in wearing sweatpants and carrying sneakers. At least not everybody had the fancy training slippers, I thought.
They seemed somewhere between my age and Ralphy’s, in about Grade 11 or so, and I was sure I’d seen them at school. Both of them stared at me, obviously curious to see who the new member was.
The boys sat at the back of the gym on an old wooden bench sitting in the shadows, and started wrapping their hands in white cloth.
After they finished and walked back into the light, I recognized them as Michael and Morris Mason – a shy but athletic set of twins who lived on a farm outside of Prairieville. They were harmless, as far as I knew.
“Das id,” Ralphy said, and I turned to see he’d once again stopped skipping. “Das da last of uz.”
As I looked around the small group of boxers, I realized that instead of the brutish, punishing figures I’d expected to see, the boys training at Jim’s Gym were all quite slight. None as scrawny as me, of course, but none were too terribly far from my size either.
“Time to switch up,” Jim said to Ralphy and I. “Colony – you’re on bags. Tiny, you’re going to do some pushups.”
“He’s gaud funny names fer all uz,” Ralphy explained to me. “I guess yers is going da be Tiny.”
The only pushups I’d ever done were the sad attempts I was forced into during gym class. I felt a pang in my heart remembering the snickers that always followed when I tried to do anything physical at school in front of others.
I followed Jim as he motioned to a spot beside the mirrors.
“Wait here,” he said, and slipped into a back room I didn’t know existed until then.
Jim returned with another small exercise mat. “There,” he said. “Now, I know it’s your first day, and from the looks of your skipping you’re not in the best shape. Try 50 to start and we’ll go from there, all right?” Jim said, and swatted me hard on the back.
I felt like everybody was watching me as I hunched up on my hands and knees, and with great effort, set myself into pushup position.
One, I counted in my head, as I lowered and raised my body, two, three.
After the fourth pushup, I was already feeling a burning sensation in my shoulders and I knew I didn’t have a snowflake’s hope in hell of making it to 50.
I struggled on, feeling sweat begin to bead on my forehead as I laboured. I kept pushing up to 10, and then I let go, falling in a lump on the floor.
“Tiny, what are you doing?” Jim hollered at me from across the room. As I’d dreaded, everyone looked up and stared at me.
“I-uh, I was just taking a rest,” I said.
In a few giant steps, Jim was standing over me, glaring down. His eyes were shadowed by his forehead making him appear even more menacing.
“You’re done when I say you’re done, got it?” he said.
I was breathing heavily from those 10 pushups, my mouth hanging open like a dog chasing a rabbit.
Jim watched as I tried to continue, barely able to force my arms up and down. After a few more repetitions, my muscles seized, and I dropped to the floor once again.
“I can’t,” I said.
The entire room fell silent.
“Never use that word,” Jim said sternly. Everyone was glaring at me. “Can’t doesn’t exist here,” he said. “That’s rule number one.” My face was scalding hot from complete mortification at being singled out in front of everyone.
“Do 20 more and you’re done,” Jim said. I didn’t dare argue with him though my muscles were quivering in protest.
I dug way down deep within my will power, forcing my body past its rightful ability, pushing my arms up and down, up and down, until I thought I was going to throw up from the pain.
Suddenly, without even realizing it was happening, I fell to the floor again.
“Finish,” Jim ordered, showing no mercy.
Again I struggled into position with 15 more repetitions to go. I actually wanted to cry, but I knew if I did that over my first set of pushups, I was never going to be a boxer. So I kept on, my arms noticeably shaking, until I reached the last one, and finally let myself fall to the ground.
“Good,” Jim said. “Now do 50 more.”
I wanted to punch him, but didn’t think I could lift my arms to do it. If this was what this club was going to be like, I wasn’t sure it was the right thing for me. But as I looked around, and saw Ralphy punching away at the hand bag, and the twins skipping their rope with an attractive finesse, I realized there was something unique and cool about the whole scene, and I had a chance to be part of Prairieville’s underground boxing club. I knew it would be one hell of a long road before I would ever be able to stand up to the Piranhas, or even conquer a full set of pushups for that matter, but something deep inside me said I needed to press on.
I strained through the next 50 pushups, resting intermittently, and really only doing half a pushup each time. Nonetheless, I finished them.
I felt an odd, unexpected sensation afterwards. Besides the overwhelming, burning exhaustion in my arms, I also felt a sense of satisfaction because I’d pushed myself beyond the normal realm of my capabilities and had achieved something small but significant to me.
It felt good.
“Okay, Tiny, get over here,” Jim said, and I followed him to where he stood beside the makeshift ring. “I’m going to show you how to throw a left jab.”
I nodded, thinking that if the punching was as easy as it looked on TV, I’d have no problem.
“Now,” Jim said, “even more important than the jab - which is the most important of all the punches – is your feet.” I looked down at my socked feet, embarrassed again that I had no shoes.
I felt just slightly better when I looked down at Jim’s feet and saw that he wasn’t wearing fancy boxing slippers or even expensive sneakers, but instead a worn pair of moccasins.
“Okay,” Jim said, “stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your left foot slightly ahead of your right.”
“Shouldn’t I stand with my right foot forward?” I asked.
“Holy crap,” he said. “You’re not a southpaw too, are you?”
I knew from reading my magazines and watching fights on TV that a southpaw was a left-handed fighter.
“No,” I said. I wasn’t sure what Jim meant by “too.”
“Then you lead with your left foot and jab with your left arm,” Jim told me.
I did as he said, but it felt extremely awkward at first. As a right-handed person, I’d always done everything with my right hand because it was the strongest, but I dared not argue with Jim.
“Okay, now let’s try the jab. You don’t have hand wraps, do you?” Jim asked. I shook my head no. It was ridiculous for him to ask that, really. I couldn’t even afford shoes, let alone extra gear like hand wraps.
“All right, then,” he said. “Hold both of your hands up to your face, up there by those skinny cheek bones of yours.” I followed his instruction, lifting up my fists.
“Now, I want you to snap out that left fist, but keep your right hand up. Okay, go ahead.”
I held in position and then let my left fist fly into the air. I repeated the move a couple of times, thinking I’d done it exactly the way Jim had shown me and I expected he would be quite impressed.
“Holy Moses,” Jim said. “Do we ever have work to do, boy.”
If the point of the first lesson was to make me feel small and hopeless, that objective had been achieved, I thought.
“Here, it’s like this,” Jim said, and swept himself into a fierce, practised stance. He held both hands in a stone-like grip covering his face until only his two beady eyes were visible. “Watch,” he said, and his left fist suddenly snapped out like a rattlesnake attacking its prey. He repeated the move several times, but worked at such a fast pace that I could hardly see how he was doing it. “Like that,” he said. “Now you try.”
I returned to my stance, and with my fists raised, I snapped out my left hand. I heard a sickening “pop” as my elbow wobbled momentarily out of joint.
“Ow,” I said, rubbing at it. Jim stared at me, probably wondering what in the hell Mr. Dryden had ever seen in a skinny, useless little boy like me.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s slow it down a notch.”
I watched as he carefully set up his fists again, then slowly pushed his left fist out towards me, staring dead ahead.
“See that?” he said. “You just keep that left shoulder tight against your chin, and look straight down your arm at your opponent’s nose, and then – blam-o!”
He let another couple of fast jabs fly, and I could tell that even though Jim was probably in his 60s, he would still be a threat to anyone who challenged him.
“Okay,” he said, “you keep on at it for a while. Try over there, by those mirrors,” he said, and pointed to the left side of the room. “That way you might be able to catch all the mistakes you’ve been making.”
I did as Jim said, standing in the stance he’d shown me, punching at my reflection in the mirror. I looked at my tousled hair, sweat dripping heavily from my brow. I thought I kind of looked like a real boxer with my fists held up next to my face. I liked that feeling.
While I practised throwing the jab, I held my arm as straight as I could, even though my elbow still panged from popping out earlier. Worse than that, I was physically exhausted from all the pushups, and I could feel my left arm quivering as I tried to keep throwing jabs.
After a while, I looked around again to see what the others were doing. Ralphy had returned to his skipping routine, but I saw the twins had left their stations and were standing beside the ring.
One of them was already wearing head gear and Jim was strapping the other one in. Both Michael and Morris were wearing gloves and I realized they were going into the ring to spar.
“Tiny,” Jim said. “Get over here and watch these guys. You’ll learn something.”
I scurried over to where they stood at the ring and watched the twins climb in through the ropes.
I imagined myself doing that same thing one day. The thought was thrilling.
“Okay, let’s do three rounds, nice and slow. Just take ’er real easy,” Jim told them.
Ralphy had also made his way over to the ring, standing next to me so he, too, could watch the Mason brothers duke it out.
Jim held a stopwatch in his hands and the twins set themselves in their stances.
“See, der bod soudpaws,” Ralphy said to me. I hadn’t noticed myself, but the twins were both standing with their right feet forward, with their right hand leading their stance. That must’ve been why Jim asked if I was a southpaw too, I realized.
I knew from watching HBO that southpaws had an advantage to a degree under a normal circumstance, but if a lefty faced another lefty, it would be an equal fight. In the case of the twins, who were the same height and build, I expected it to be pretty even.
“Ready?” Jim asked them. Both boys nodded.
“Okay...fight!” Jim said, and clicked the stopwatch.
The boxers touched their gloves together at the centre of the ring and the battle was on.
Michael and Morris circled around each other, reminding me of sharks searching for their supper in the sea. Intermittently, one twin would break from the circle and jab forward, and his brother would throw up his arms in a guard.
“Michael, keep your hands up!” Jim shouted, but with both twins wearing head gear, I couldn’t for the life of me tell who was who.
Suddenly, one of the boys let out a left jab, then followed up with a hard right to his brother’s jaw, sending his sibling for a fly.
“Good one!” Ralphy said.
“That’s it Morris,” Jim said, “that’s the way to get ’er done.”
Michael and Morris continued to jab at each other through the first round, and I watched in fascination.
“Time!” Jim shouted suddenly, clicking the stopwatch again. The twins both dropped their guard and moved over into their respective corners.
“Good work,” Jim said. “Both of you need to work on keeping your eyes focused on your opponent. “And you, Michael, watch your feet. You’re letting your back leg slip when you jab.”
The twins nodded in near synchronization.
Jim called them back to fight and started the stopwatch again. The brothers pressed on through the second three-minute round. It was amazing to watch them – clearly they’d been training for years already. My earlier theory had been dead on - Michael and Morris were almost as identical in their boxing ability as they were in their appearance.
By the end of the second round, the twins were sweating heavily and panting for air. As I sat there, enthralled by what the boys were doing, I kept wishing that one day I’d have a chance to spar someone too, even though a pipsqueak like me was liable to get a ruthless beating.
After Jim started the third round, one of the twins came out with a mean right hook that landed square on his brother’s solarplexis. It sent his brother staggering back, and I heard Ralphy hoot with enthusiasm.
“Good shod, Michael!” he said.
The wounded twin, who I gathered was Morris, took a few seconds to recuperate, then came back with a retaliatory jab-uppercut combination. That saw Michael fall flat on his butt.
Jim immediately stood over Michael and began counting, lifting his fingers as he gestured toward the fallen twin.
“One! Two! Three!...” Jim started as Michael struggled to get back up on his feet... “Four! Five!” Jim said, then waved both of his arms over top Michael.
“Yeah!” Ralphy shouted. Morris started to bounce on his feet, both gloved arms raised high above his head, a ridiculous smile plastered on his face.
“Morris Mason of Prairieville, you’re the new champion of Jim’s Gym,” Jim said.
Morris lifted his arm in triumph once more, then quickly moved over to his brother. Michael had risen to his feet and was leaning with his back against the ropes, trying to regain his breath.
After their gloves were off, Morris clasped his brother’s hand in a friendly shake. A short time later, after the twins had stripped their head gear and wiped the sweat off their bodies with a towel, Jim announced class was over.
“Tiny,” he said to me, and I bounded over to where he stood by the ring. I braced myself, sure Jim was going to tell me I’d stunk up the place too much and wasn’t good enough to train at his gym.
“Are you coming back on Sunday?” he asked, and I almost doubled back in surprise.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ll spend some more time on your footwork,” he said. “The thing is, you need to learn how to stand before you can dance.”
There was a crazy gleam in Jim’s crinkled-up eyes. It was clear to me there was nothing he loved more than the sport of boxing. I felt humbled that he was willing to take me under his wing.
“Oh,” Jim said, “don’t forget to bring your money next time.”
My heart stopped in my chest when he said that. In my anticipation of the whole thing, I’d completely overlooked the idea that I would have to pay for the boxing lessons. Jim must have noticed the immediate sadness in my eyes, and he gave me a sympathetic look.
“It’s $30 a month, but you don’t have to pay it all at once,” he said. “You can pay a little bit each week instead, if that works out better for you.”
Even seven dollars a week was more than I earned from shovelling old ladies’ sidewalks, but I nodded my head in agreement anyway. I would just have to find the money somewhere, I decided.
“It’s a deal,” I said.
Everyone packed up their gear, heading up the dark staircase out the door and into the cold night.
“See you on Sunday, den,” Ralphy said to me as he headed off.
“Yeah, see ya,” I said.
It was an odd mix up of people that I’d met that night, but something felt good about it all. As I walked home, the adrenalin and endorphins still pumping through my body, I felt better than I had in a long time.
About a block ahead, I noticed a car pulling up on the street, and fear struck me hard as I realized who it was.
Though it was pitch dark by then and only the street lamps lit the world around me, I was terrified, thinking for sure either Downing or someone else in the car had seen me.
I quickly ducked behind a snow-covered bush, peering from behind it to see whether Downing was in his house yet.
It seemed like he was standing there talking to the driver forever. As I kept watching, I recognized the driver to be none other than Lamburt, and I was exceptionally grateful for the bush I was cowering behind.
That was the thing - I was cowering because I was a coward, and I knew it. If I had any guts at all, I wouldn’t be ducking behind a bush with my knees in the snow, too chicken to face the people threatening me. I hated myself for it.
Finally the car pulled away and I saw Downing step inside his house. After a few minutes of waiting, just to be sure I was safe, I climbed out from behind the bush and scurried home, dodging the light of the street lamps as I ran.
It was around 9 o’clock when I arrived home. It was quiet in the house, except for the dull sound of the TV playing in the background.
I could feel some stiffness already setting into my muscles and I knew I’d barely be able to walk the next day.
“Ma?” I called, but heard no answer.
I felt a chill after moving from the sweaty atmosphere of the gym to the cold outdoors. I decided I’d take a hot shower, and grabbed the last pair of clean pyjamas from the dresser in my room.
I clambered down the stairs, undressing quickly as the shower heated up. I spent a good couple of minutes letting the hot water pour over me, soothing my body. It felt good to just relax.
When my skin had warmed, I got out and towelled myself dry. I’d already brushed my teeth for the night and dressed into my pyjamas when I felt my stomach growling. I must’ve burned a lot of calories at the gym, I thought, and remembered what Dr. Baker told me about how I needed to take in more, not work it off.
Since the cupboards had seemed a little fuller lately, I decided to help myself to a snack.
“Emma? Ma?” I called again as I came upstairs.
It was dark in the kitchen, and though it was getting close to everyone’s regular bed time, it seemed early for the all the lights to be off.
I flicked on the switch and helped myself to the fridge. But as I opened the door, I caught a glimpse of Ma sitting in the dining room.
“Ma?” I said. She had been sitting there in the dark the whole time, I realized.
“She’s gone,” Ma said.
“What?” I said.
It was then I noticed the familiar, glazed over look in Ma’s eyes, and I knew she was drunk.
“Emma got mad at me and she left,” Ma said, slurring her words slightly.
“Why, Ma? Why did Emma get mad at you, and where did she go?” I was panicking, and felt suddenly like I’d walked upstairs into my sleep, and this was a nightmare.
“She thought I’d been drinking, and she said she was going to leave, and then she packed a bag and left.”
“And you just let her go?” I said, incredulous.
Ma just looked at me, her eyes dead and drooping, with nothing to say for herself.
“Ma!” I said, furious now. “She’s only 12! It was one thing for you to let Jon walk out of this house, but Emma’s just a baby for Godssakes```!”
For the first time in my life, I was shouting at my mother. I’d held all my anger back until that moment, but to see her there, obviously lit up like a Christmas tree after she’d made a promise to us all to stay sober, I was enraged.
She just sat there, nearly falling off her chair from drunkenness, and I knew I hated her just like Jon and Emma.
“Where did she go?” I repeated, and grabbed Ma firmly by the shoulders.
“I don’t know, Georgie,” she said.
Without really knowing what I was doing, I cracked my mother across the head with my open hand.
We both just stood there motionless, neither of us sure of what just happened.
Ma didn’t say anything; she didn’t do a damn thing except stare at me.
“We have to get her back,” was all I said.
All the things I thought were safe again were not. The dream I’d had for my family’s healing was over. Jon was right - everything Ma ever promised us was a lie.
And just as I’d feared all along, I was no better than any of them. I was a monster.