TWELVE

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Chapter 9

I didn’t tell Ma about Jon when I got home. I found her sitting at the kitchen table, half-tanked and playing a game of solitaire, a cigarette burning in the ashtray.

Emma stayed home for supper, but microwaved Pizza Pops wasn’t much compared to the feasts we’d been having.

After we ate, Emma said she was going over to Jennifer’s house to hang out, but I made her promise that she’d come back home to sleep.

I decided to leave, too. I didn’t want to be stuck in the house with Ma anymore than I had to, either.

Predictably, I wound up at Willie’s.

We played some video games, and in particular, our favourite – Rematch. Basically the premise of the game was to put together two heavyweight contenders who’d already had real-life bouts before, and see who comes out on top the second time around.

This time we chose Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield. In the real-life fight, Tyson had bitten a chunk of Holyfield’s ear off, and that was actually one of Tyson’s moves in the game, too. I let Willie have Tyson, because he enjoyed taking bites out the Holyfield character so much.

“So, what’s up with your brother, Georgie?” Willie asked abruptly. He had probably been waiting patiently for me to dish up the information, but I wasn’t keen on talking about it. I was ashamed of my brother, and I was starting to wonder why I’d ever looked up to him so much.

“He’s...he’s done for, I think,” I said. I couldn’t hide the sadness in my voice.

“What do you mean ‘done for’?” Willie asked, pushing the “pause” button on the game.

“He thinks he’s going to get a year for trafficking,” I told him.

“A whole year!” Willie said.

“Shhh!” I said. I didn’t want Willie’s foster parents to hear us from the other room. I was too embarrassed.

I dropped my own voice to a whisper.

“I went to the station after I dropped Emma off from school,” I said.

“And?” Willie asked, leaning in a little closer to hear me better.

“He looked like crap, Willie.” I almost started to cry again, but I was getting tired of acting like such a wuss, so I held it back. “He said they’re sending him to the young offenders’ jail.”

“So it’s true?” Willie asked.

My eyes dropped to the floor. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s true.”

I remembered the day I saw Jon at Tappy’s and wished to God I would’ve said something to him then. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much, because Jon never listened to me, but I should’ve tried to stop him somehow. But like the coward I was, I did nothing.

Willie and I played for a little longer, sitting in almost complete silence.

“How about your mom?” Willie asked after a long time.

“She’s not so good either,” I said. “She’s still drinking.” Willie just nodded his head. I wondered why Willie kept being my friend. I imagined his foster parents had probably warned him to sever the ties with me, probably thinking I was just like my brother, or just like my mother, and would bring nothing but trouble.

But then Mrs. Meiers brought us a plate of cookies like she always did, and I stopped worrying.

If I was being truthful with myself, it was actually me who was worried I’d be a bad influence on Willie. I was the one who felt destined to screw up my life like every Christmas before me.

But I remembered what Jon said to me, and how he’d made me promise to take care of Emma, and I knew I had to somehow beat the odds for her.

The next day, after everyone had heard their earful of the rumours about Jon, the stares started to taper off.

I inadvertently heard some interesting things in the meanwhile. Because people in Prairieville loved to talk so much, they often talked themselves into a hole, and what started out as some gossip about a person often turned into a hideous shambles of the truth.

For example, I overheard a couple of senior boys from the basketball team saying Jon had gotten into a fight with one of the cops and was being charged with assault. Another rumour was that Jon tried to rob Tappy’s and got caught with his hands in the till.

The true version, the one where police caught Jon in handing one of Tappy’s patrons $700 worth of coke in a back room was in the mixture of tales too, but I guessed maybe that wasn’t quite interesting enough for all those involved in the rumour mill, so they decided to make up something else.

The day went by quickly and I was relieved to hear the final bell of the day. Willie was away at a hockey tournament, so I decided to spend the weekend laying low. After school, I picked up some more boxing magazines and a copy of the movie “Ali,” with Will Smith playing the lead role. I’d recently read a biography of Muhammad Ali and wanted to see how much of the book matched up to the film. I thought it must be cool to be somebody like Ali, knowing you were going down in history books as one of the greatest boxers of all time. A lot cooler than being a small town, white trash nothing like me, I guessed.

Instead of awaking Saturday morning to the breakfasts we’d been sharing as a family, Ma was still in her room sleeping off the pills and booze she’d consumed the day before. It was almost comfortable, the way things had slipped back in to the old, dysfunctional Christmas routine.

I went in to check on Ma briefly, just to make she was still breathing. I couldn’t help but worry that she might have another overdose.

Emma had gone off to play with her friends early and it was quiet at home. The movie was fairly long, but I enjoyed watching it. I expected the film to be focused on Ali’s famous bouts, but it was more about his life and who he was. He was sure a lady’s man, I realized. But he was also a cocky mouthpiece, and his tongue matched the speed of his gloves.

I wondered again how I would ever be able to hold my own in a ring, considering my pint-sized stature, and even worse, my crippled self-confidence. I knew it took guts I didn’t have to even step between the ropes. If I acted anything like I did when the Piranhas were after me, it would surely be a sad display.

But somehow, Ali had inspired me, and after the movie was over I decided to practice my moves a little. I was supposed to go back to Jim’s place on Sunday, and though my muscles still felt weak, I thought I’d better brush up on my jab. That way, Jim would know I was serious.

I went into my bedroom and looked at myself in the long mirror hanging off my door. I still looked as skinny as ever – maybe even more so than ever – and I felt a twist of hopelessness in my gut as I thought about what a typical fighter looks like and how I didn’t measure up.

My arms were gangly at best, and if I lifted up my shirt, I could see traces of my ribs popping out. I quickly covered up and tried not to think about it.

I got into my stance, checking to see that the space between my feet matched the width of my shoulders the way Jim had shown me. I raised my hands to my face, tightening my left into a fist, then let it fly out in a jab. I looked awkward at first, but then I concentrated as hard as I could, wiping every trace of a smile off my face. I thought if I could look mean, I would be mean.

I practised that for a while, and then did a few pushups just to see if I could make it to 50. But after about a dozen, I dropped to the floor, the muscles in my arms quivering with fatigue, still worn from the workout on Thursday.

“Don’t be a pansy,” I told myself out loud, and looked up at my reflection in the mirror.

I slowly returned to position, and lifted my body up and down, up and down, until I’d finished another 12. I kept going, and when I got to 50, I decided that wasn’t enough, and I counted off another five.

There were little beads of sweat already forming on my brow, and I felt good for pushing myself even further than I’d first thought I could go.

Next I tried some sit-ups, forcing my body forward in a curl, immediately feeling my stomach muscles working. I knew it was probably just in my head, but I already felt stronger after I’d finished 50 of them.

I stood up again and practised my jab a little more, watching myself as I snapped out my left and brought it back to my cheek, repeating the move over and over again until I felt I had improved.

Even Ali had to start somewhere, I thought.

Emma came home later in the day and we decided to just hang out with each other for the rest of the night.

Mom came out of her room around supper time and put some canned soup in a pot to heat. But she must’ve totally forgotten about it, because soon after I heard it bubbling over. I turned the stove off and poured Emma and I each a small bowl of what was left, and we had some toast to go with it.

Ma went back into her room and we didn’t see her for the rest of the night. It occurred to me that it might not be long before she was dead too. There was only so much abuse the body could take before it just gave up, I thought.

Emma and I played cards all night, sipping cola and eating some half-stale chips I’d found in the pantry. I appreciated having my sister more than I had the guts to tell her.

“Emma, I have a secret for you,” I said.

She looked at me blankly, probably waiting to hear what else had gone wrong.

“It’s nothing bad,” I assured her, flipping a card over. We were playing 31, and I was trying to get a run of diamonds.

“Then what is it, Georgie?”

“I’ve joined a boxing club,” I said, and I half-expected Emma to laugh at me, but she didn’t.

“Good for you, Georgie,” she said, and smiled at me brightly. “I think you’d make a great boxer.”

“But it’s our secret, right?”

“Right,” she said, smiling at me. I knew I meant the world to her, they way Jon had for me. I was determined not to blow it.

We kept playing until our eyes were too tired to keep open anymore. The more time we kept busy and the less time we sat thinking was probably the better, I thought.

“Good night,” I told her after I just couldn’t stay awake anymore.

“Good night, Georgie,” she said, and bounced off into her room.

I opened Ma’s door one more time before heading to bed myself. She was snoring lightly, so I knew she was okay. At least for the time being.

I fell asleep right away that night – much earlier than I usually did.

Again I started to dream, and I reappeared at the same ring as in the dream several nights back.

This time, though, I was feeling a little stronger. The same hooded opponent was in the ring with me, and though I couldn’t see his face, I felt like I knew him somehow. And then I felt an overwhelming anger inside of me and I knew I had to destroy him.

Just like in my practising during the day, I got into position and let my left hand fly. I woke up right before connecting with his face.

On Sunday, I tried to finish up my homework early so I’d have time to hang out with Willie when he got back from his tournament.

I thought he’d be tired of hockey by then, but Willie loved the sport so much we wound up playing road hockey again in his driveway.

I decided I should tell him about my new-found hobby too. I just couldn’t keep any secrets from my best friend.

Just like Emma, Willie was supportive.

“Well, if you get good enough, maybe you can kick Lamburt in the head. I can’t stand the bastard.” We both burst out laughing. Willie hated those jerks as much as I did, but he had to play hockey with them, so he had no choice but to tolerate my bullies.

Ma looked like hell on that day. I saw her at supper time, after she’d mustered the energy to make a pot of pasta.

Her eyes looked puffy, and I knew she’d been crying.

“Georgie,” she said to me, in a quiet, small voice while I was standing in the kitchen dishing myself out some food.

“Yeah, Ma?”

“Did you know about your brother?” She looked at me, and I could see the hurt in her eyes.

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Then why didn’t you tell me?” Tears were welling up in her eyes again. She must’ve found out that Jon was in jail at some point over the weekend.

I shrugged my shoulders. I wanted to say – “because you’re a drunk and I didn’t think you’d remember it next day if I told you.” But I said nothing instead.

Ma went into the medicine cabinet and took out some pills. I caught a glimpse of what she had in there – there must’ve been 30 or more different kinds of prescriptions. I had a strong urge to take everything out and dump it down the toilet, but I’d learned a hard lesson the first time I’d tried to intervene on Ma’s addiction that way. So I did nothing but watch as she downed a couple.

We ate in silence, and I noticed Ma hardly swallowed a thing, mostly just pushing her pasta around on her fork instead.

I could tell she was a wreck over Jon. It looked to me from the bags under her eyes that she hadn’t slept in several nights and had been spending most of her time weeping. I felt badly for her, but in a way, it was her fault Jon was going to jail. If she hadn’t scared him off, he wouldn’t have needed the drug money to survive, and wouldn’t be in trouble now. But I also blamed myself, because Jon was trying to collect what he thought he needed to take care of me and Emma. I should’ve told him that day when I saw him passing the parcel to Tappy that he didn’t need to do anything for us. He just needed to take care of himself.

I finished supper quickly. Boxing started at 7 p.m. and I was really looking forward to being able to release the anger that continued to build inside of me.

Now that I knew where the gym was, I decided to take as many back alleys there as I could so I wouldn’t run into the Piranhas again. I was lucky they hadn’t seen me the last time.

When I arrived, Jim was standing in the shadows again the way he had been when we first met. I thought the man must horrify small children who passed by.

“Well, well,” he said. “Look who’s back.” Jim took a long drag of his reeking cigarette, blowing smoke out all over the place. I coughed a little after catching a lungful of it.

“Hi,” I said, still a little intimidated by Jim, but less than the first time we’d met.

This time, I brought with me an old pair of sneakers I’d worn years before, which were a little too tight in the toe and terribly worn, but I thought they’d be somewhat better than sock feet.

Ralphy the Hutterite and the twins Michael and Morris were already jumping their ropes when I arrived.

“Hello der,” Ralphy said as I passed by him.

I was hoping there would be some sort of miracle, and that when I went to grab the rope this time I would know how to use it. But just the same as the last time, I fumbled around with it, looking as graceful as a duck in an oil spill.

Eventually, I got the thing to start turning, but every couple of rotations I would mess up the rhythm or step on the rope. I tried not to let myself get frustrated, but it didn’t help having to watch the swift elegance of the other boxers who looked as though they were born with a rope in their hands.

Jim appeared several minutes later and the now-familiar smoke smell followed him in. “Tiny!” he shouted at me. “Get some mitts on and get on the bags.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, immediately bolting toward the storage room to grab some mitts.

“No, no, no,” he said, and I stopped in my tracks.

“I mean yes to the bags, and no to the “sir” bit,” Jim said. “I don’t want to be called that. “Sir” is what they called my father. Just call me Jim, and that’s all you call me, at least to my face.” His mouth grew into a wicked grin and he let out another strange cackle.

I just nodded, kind of afraid then to say anything at all. I ran to the back room and grabbed the only pair of bag mitts I could find there, so worn someone had patched them with duct tape. I was happy to have them, though, knowing I didn’t have the money to buy my own.

I met Jim at the heavy bags.

I quickly tried to pull on the bag mitts to get ready for instruction.

“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Where are your wraps?” Jim asked.

“My wraps?” I said.

“Yes, Tiny, your wraps, where are your hand wraps?”

I just stared at him blankly. I couldn’t afford shoes or bag mitts, so why did he think I would have hand wraps? I wondered.

“You don’t have wraps,” Jim guessed, and he let out a groaning sigh. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll lend you some wraps too, but you have to pay me $6 for them next time you come.”

I nodded my head, but I felt my heart jump a little, because $6 was more than I usually had my hands on during any week. I’d have to borrow it from Willie, I thought. But I felt terrible about that, too, because I’d already borrowed money from Emma for the month’s dues.

Jim went back into the room again and reappeared with a brand new pair of yellow hand wraps, still in the packaging.

“Okay,” he said, “go over there and get Beard-boy to help you with these and then get back here.” He was pointing at Ralphy, who was now sweating profusely and wiping himself with a towel.

“Jim says I should get you to help me,” I told him, after I’d crossed the room to where he was now slugging back water from his bottle.

“Thad old man is always gedding me to do his job for him,” Ralphy complained, but he helped me anyway, and I watched as he showed me to wrap my wrists tightly for support, and then wound the wraps around my hands and slightly up my forearms.

“There,” Ralphy said. “Now tell thad Irishman nod to bodder me no more.” Ralphy went back to his skipping routine and I returned to the punching bags.

I decided not to tell Jim what Ralphy said.

“Okay,” Jim said, holding the bag mitts. “Get these on.”

I put the gloves on clumsily, and felt like a fool because it took me quite a long time to set them on straight.

“Okay,” Jim said. “Now let’s see your left jab. Go ahead.”

Jim watched as I sprung into the stance I’d been practising. I focused on the bag and let my left hand fly, landing it with a thud into the bag.

“That’s pretty good,” Jim said, seeming a bit surprised. “For sure better than last week. Go ahead, work it some more.”

Jim held the bag as I continued jabbing at it. My arm already felt sore after about a minute or so, but I kept going, refusing to show my weakness again.

“Good work, keep it up,” Jim said. “Throw a couple of rights in there.” I mixed it up, throwing a few lefts and then a right, keeping it in a rhythm. My right felt a bit sloppy, but I tightened it up after a few punches, and started to feel good about it.

“Good, good,” Jim kept saying. “Kid, you know, you might be a natural.” His eyes were gleaming and I could tell he was getting excited.

“How old did you say you were?” he asked.

“I’m 15,” I said, panting as I spoke.

“Good,” he said. “Just enough time to turn you into a real fighter.”

It meant a lot to me that Jim thought I had potential. Maybe he didn’t regret letting me into his gym after all.

We kept working on the bag, and then Jim showed me a bit more on the skipping rope, trying to help me improve.

“Just don’t think about it so much,” he said. “See that brick over there?” Jim pointed to a brick in the wall dead ahead of me.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Okay,” Jim said. “Look straight at that brick. Don’t look at your feet, don’t look at your hands, and just jump.”

I did as he said, and stared down that brick, and then tried to jump the rope. The first couple of times I wound up stepping on the rope again, but after a while, I started having some success.

“See,” Jim said. “I told you.” The twinkle in his eyes returned.

By the end of the class, I was at least able to jump the rope a few times without muddling everything up. I felt hopeful I’d be able to master it someday.

Again at the end of the night there was another bout of sparring, only this time Ralphy was pitted against Michael, who’d lost the last time. It was a little more uneven this time. Though Ralphy was a little taller, he was less skilled than Michael, and Michael got in a few decent shots to Ralphy’s nose right away, even drawing out a few drops of blood on to the canvas.

I was enthralled by the whole thing, and that week I felt more hopeful that I could one day enter the ring and carry my own.

Class packed up for the night after everyone had sweated as much as they wanted to and more.

I handed Jim the $5 I’d borrowed from Emma, plus another $2 I’d found in dimes and quarters at the bottom of my dresser drawer, paying him my dues for the week.

“Thanks, Tiny,” he said, looking down at the change in his hands. “Don’t forget to pay for the wraps next time, all right? I’ll see you Tuesday.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, but I dreaded having to come up with the money.

I decided if I was going to keep it up at the gym, I was going to need a job to pay for all the fees and equipment. I was 15, just short of the legal age to take a job, but I hoped I could find someone who would pay me under the table.

The next day I felt tired, but at the same time, rejuvenated. My muscles were sore, but I felt more mentally focused at school, and even a little less stressed.

I wanted to start working on getting bigger, but that meant I’d need to start eating a lot more, and since Ma wouldn’t be cooking any more feasts, I knew I’d have to rely on providing for myself. All the more reason to get a job, I thought.

During recess at school, I put together a quick resumé.

I put down my name, address and phone number, but when it came to any skills or volunteer work or anything to brag about, there wasn’t much to say. So I just wrote:

“Willing to do any job,” and left it at that.

I was ready to print it off, but I considered for a minute that maybe I should change my last name from Christmas to something else like Daniels or Jones so I wouldn’t be rejected based on who my family was. But Prairieville was too small, and nobody got away with anything, especially not a lie about who they were.

I deliberately didn’t put any information that would give away my age. Maybe no one would notice I was only 15, I thought.

I took Willie with me after school let out and he waited outside the stores as I handed my resumé out with nervous hands to the clerks downtown. I even left one at the drugstore, despite the nosey busy bodies that were there. I needed the money so badly, I decided I’d take any job, even one with them, if I had to.

That Monday, I sat on the bed inside my room, bouncing my red ball against the door and catching it. The phone rang, and I just had a feeling it would be good news.

“Is this Mr. Christmas?” a man asked. My first instinct was to say that, no, sorry, Mr. Christmas died years ago, but then I realized the man might be asking for me.

“I’m George Christmas Jr.,” I said tentatively.

“Well, my name is Vaughn Weinhauser, the owner of Prairieville Foods. I saw your resumé, and I was wondering if you’d like to take a job at my store?”

“Yes,” I answered enthusiastically. “When do I start?”

“You can start tomorrow after school, if you’re free. Your shifts will be short, from four o’clock until we close at six, but I’d like you to come in every day if you could.”

“Sure, that’d be great,” I said. I thought for a minute I should tell him I was only 15, but didn’t. I needed the job. I decided I wouldn’t lie to Mr. Weinhauser if he asked me, but I’d wait until he did before saying anything.

“Very good then, I’ll see you tomorrow, 4 o’clock sharp,” he said, and then hung up the phone.

I was elated. I had been worried all my resumés would be rejected, but only a few short days after I’d sent out my applications, I had already successfully landed a job.

Willie was happy for me when I told him about it the next day at school.

“That’s great, man,” he said. “Now maybe you can pay me back the money you owe me.” He laughed, but I took it seriously. I knew I’d pay him back every cent.

That first day, I was nervous as hell as I walked from school down to the grocery store. Mr. Weinhauser was pleasant as he introduced himself, then showed me around. I met a few of the till workers, including the teacher’s wife, and was told to start right away packing customers’ groceries into bags and carrying them out to their cars.

It was a simple job, really, and I felt good about doing it. I was starting at $8 per hour, and Mr. Weinhauser promised I could earn as much as $10 if I stayed on long enough. It was great. I could earn enough to pay for a month’s dues in a couple days. I wondered why I hadn’t tried to get a job sooner.

The two hours went by quickly, but I was tired by the time I went home at six – almost too tired to drag myself to boxing. But there was no way after landing the job to pay for boxing equipment that I’d skip out on any classes.

Emma told me Ma had been sleeping since after school, and my sister volunteered to make us fried eggs and hash browns for supper. I was proud of her for stepping up to the plate like that. For a 12-year-old, she was extraordinarily responsible.

She did a great job of cooking too and I scarfed my plateful down like a wild dog.

“Wow,” Emma said. “I guess you were hungry.”

I had just enough time to grab my gear and head down to the gym before class started at 7 p.m.

I kept to the shadows again, feeling almost like a wanted criminal the way I was deliberately hiding from view. Someday I’d be able to stick up for myself, I thought. I wouldn’t always be the Piranhas’ cowering prey.

By the time I arrived, everyone was already hard at it. Without being told, I ventured over to where the ropes hung, took one off its hook, and started skipping.

The tips Jim had given me the time before must’ve sunk in because I found myself having a little easier of a time, and I was actually able to skip several times in a row without a problem. I was impressed with myself, and so was Jim.

“Hey, not bad, kid. You’re learning,” Jim said, and smiled at me.

I thought I did better on the bags this time, too, but I noticed I was feeling dizzy.

“You look white,” Jim said, and I knew I was in trouble.

“I-I don’t think I ate enough today,” I said. Despite Emma’s eggs and hash browns, I was feeling weak. I’d stopped punching the bag, and was trying my best to hold myself steady, but felt my legs wobbled beneath me.

“Oh, no,” Jim said. “Come with me.” He led me over to the stairwell and had me sit down.

“Tiny, you’re too tiny. And you can’t expect to advance in this sport if you’re not eating. You’ve got to eat. You’ve got to eat a lot. Look at you, you’re skin and bones.”

He was right - I was skin and bones.

“I will,” I said, feeling even dizzier after sitting.

“Go home,” Jim said. I stared at him, feeling horribly rejected.

“Go home, eat some beans, and come back on Sunday after you’ve eaten more beans.”

“Beans?” I said.

“Yes, beans,” Jim said. “I don’t care what kind of beans you eat – kidney beans, navy beans, black beans, brown beans, purple beans, whatever. Eat two cans of ’em a day, and I promise, you’ll be doing a lot better.”

“Why beans?” I said.

“Beans are cheap and they’re packed full of protein, which is something you need very badly. Just make sure to keep yourself clear from standing in front of anyone until your stomach gets used to it.” He let out another familiar cackle.

“Okay, Jim,” I agreed. Now that I had a job, and especially a job at a grocery store, I thought I would be able to follow his instruction.

“Now, go home Tiny,” Jim said. “And remember, eat beans.”

“Okay,” I said, again, and felt badly that I had to leave early.

I took my gear and headed out the thick wooden door.

From where I stood on Jim’s stoop, I could see that Downing was again parked in a car at his house, and I decided to walk the other way completely, taking the long way home. But someday, I told myself, I was going to walk straight up to the bastard and face him, man to man.

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