My friend Matty believed he could fly. "I have the cape and everything," he told me one afternoon. We were playing knights and dragons in his backyard when he pointed to the roof.
"You want to ... [+]
The Pugilist in Repose on His Porch, Most Sundays
The moments of lucidity were rarer and rarer, but when they came, he regaled me with tales of swallowed teeth, basement brawls, and AIDS tests administered at midnight in ramshackle midtown health centers. This was the seventies, when he was the only gay boxer he knew of. And he hadn't heard of one since.
"Can you imagine," he said, leaning forward in his rocking chair, "feeling strong attraction to someone, then repeatedly bashing them in the face with the hopes of making them pass out? It wears on you. It gnaws on your soul, your very fucking being."
I remained silent, the pitcher of pink lemonade sweating between us.
"I loved some of these men privately and obliterated them publicly. If they knew the truth, they never would have agreed to fight me. The fear of gay blood is paralyzing. You don't need gloves—just hint that you are sick and a heavyweight in his prime will flee from your advance like a coyote at the crack of a rifle."
The less-lucid moments were marked by odd, almost poetic snippets of his life. He told me of a father who was the first black accountant for a multinational automaker and who each night would collapse under the weight of an all-consuming listlessness. Not even pharmaceuticals, shock treatment, or alcohol could temper it. "There was no fight in the man. It was disgusting. He was an eggshell of a human filled with numbers."
The boxer told me of his first love, who was also his first foe. He, then maybe eleven years old, had followed the classmate everywhere until rumors started racing around the neighborhood faster than his own canvas-shod feet. "You can't fight those kinds of words. It's like chasing ghosts. So instead of my own lips on his mouth, it was my knuckles."
His parents switched him to another school after that. His father disappeared a couple months later and was presumed dead. But over the years, reports filtered back of him pushing a cart along the wharf or sweeping out the bottle redemption depot. His mother took over the accountant position and never missed a day up until her retirement at 71. She died at 72.
The boxer was now 60. Once freed from Sunday mass, I'd bring over vegetables from our garden, courtesy of my mother, who urged me to keep up the visits, saying that it kept his mind agile. He'd pour the lemonade mix into a pitcher and dump in an entire tray of cubes. While it chilled on the porch, he would show me a few things in the back yard, his cloudy right eye glinting in the mid-morning light, his crumpled ear like a piece of shriveled fruit, his smile so disarming you wondered if he missed his calling as the host of a cable access show featuring local oddballs and slovenly lounge singers.
Our training ring was a patch of grass shaved down to stubble by our sneakers, and my imaginary opponent was a gym bag filled with sand and hanging from a tree. "Wrists locked. Punch through the bag like there's a second, meaner, uglier bag behind this one. But never lose your balance." He said this with a light shove against my shoulders. I laughed, embarrassed, terrified.
"You don't want to kill it right off. Be surgical at first. Then chiropractic. Now gladiate the son of a bitch."
At times it was like dancing. He'd wrap his arms around me and shake me back and forth. That had always been his style—lure the opponent into the corner and love them, destroy them with affection, then hit them so hard they forget their own name.
He wasn't an alcoholic except the days he was. But on his clearer days, we talked like war buddies. I would recap my week, telling him about school. And the bullying. I even admitted to the time a little brat had stuck leaves in my shorts and called me a lard-ass before sprinting off. At such stories the boxer would nod and grunt in sympathy, then pass me the box of ribbon candy. He loved that stuff.
I didn't pursue boxing, but I ran and played baseball and eventually the weight came off and the taunting faded. The boxer went the other direction though. As his joints worsened and he was forced into a wheelchair, he grew churlish, then demented, then volatile. Various drugs warred over his faculties. At one point he tackled an orderly—or was he simply looking for a warm embrace? Regardless, my mother excused me from regular visits.
I did see him one last time though, before I headed out West. He still had that smile, now more gaps than teeth, like the night sky broken up by dim stars, and I wondered if life was still gnawing at him. He remembered me. He took my hands in his, still exceedingly strong and heavy, and told me to find someone to love and tell them a hundred times a day, over and over.
"And never hit anyone," he said. "What a waste."
He pinned my hands to his knees and rocked back and forth. It was almost like he was asking me for a hug. I wanted to give in, I really did, but I was afraid that if he got me in close, I would never break free. So I practiced what he'd taught me, shifting my weight and staying light on my feet as if fighting off an undertow.
"What a waste," he said. "Just love. Love. What a waste."