Steven didn’t know what to make of this stranger showing up, looking to throw leather just like that, first day, as if he were the next Hector Camacho, but he knew what Papi was going to tell him: “Thirty days, bro, no sparring thirty days.” Most lasted one day, never got past mirror work, Papi making them slide back and forth throwing jabs, yelling at them—“Come on, boy, unos, dos, tres”—until their eyes teared up, the pain in their arms letting them know it was a good thing nobody was throwing back at them, rubbing their elbows when Papi wasn’t looking, chugging water, sneaking toilet breaks, streetfighters, winners of one-minute brawls, backpocket box cutters, gunshots in the air, thinking they were boxers, knowing nothing about discipline, sweat, self-control, the Bronx full of them, too many to mention, too many to remember, graffiti memorialized, all of them, Papi said, nobodies.
This kid seemed different, coming downstairs from the locker room, uncoiling his hand wraps like snakes, putting them on the right way, hands outstretched, palms down, fingers out, loop over the thumb, each wrap drawn tight, then tighter with every course around, palm and wrist and thumb again, till the wraps were snug and clinging to his fists like casts. On the soft planks of the sagging wooden floor, varnish scuffed away, Steven shadowed, throwing his fists at the big Broadway mirrors missing silver, leaning against pocked plaster walls coated blue here, chipped white there, needing paint everywhere, his sweat beading, skin slick, muscles loose. The new kid was warming up, too, bobbing, weaving, snapping jabs, looking nothing like a kid off the street his first day at the gym.
The bell rang, the boxers rested with the rest of the crowd at the gym, but the new kid kept looking at the mirrors, staring, admiring what he saw, himself, arms roped with muscle, the kind you can’t get without a whole lot of weightlifting.
He turned to Steven.
“You sparring?” he asked.
Steven nodded. They threw gloves every day at Jerome Boxing Club. Other gyms in other places threw every other day, maybe twice a week, maybe not, but not at Jerome. The gym had a reputation, one it defended every year, every fight, every borough, every trophy in the display case by the front entrance proof of that reputation, lower-shelf trophies from smokers in back rooms and clubhouses, middle shelves from the Spanish Gloves and Empire States, top shelf for the Golden Gloves, and in another case just for the pros, photos of fists held high, smiling faces, number one fingers pointing to the heavens for the camera.
“You want to throw?” the kid asked Steven, glancing down, checking him out. “You look about my weight.”
“Ain’t up to me,” Steven replied.
“Who’s it up to, the old man?” the kid pointed at Papi.
“I know him,” the kid said. “What’s his name? He used to be at Times Square Gym.”
“Papi,” Steven said.
“Just call him Papi.”
The kid stepped close, too close, his face older than Steven thought, no kid’s face, little lines springing from the shadows of his sockets, dark eyes a little sunken. He looked like a middleweight, heavier than Steven but short, with rusty hair, a rat’s tail, and a strange-looking face, nose, mouth, chin, thin like a fox.
“You know who I am, bro?” he asked, staring at Steven. Steven shook his head no.
“I’m Cochese, man, Ivan Cochese,” he said as if the name were supposed to mean something. “I fought pro.”
“Sorry, bro,” Steven said, “don’t know the name.”
Cochese kept staring into Steven’s eyes, maybe a little too long.
People were always staring at Steven’s eyes, especially all the women, his aunts, his mother’s friends in the building, her customers at the hair salon when, as a kid, he would stop by after school. “Ay, dios mío,” they would say, hands against their breasts, “I want those eyes,” gawking and laughing, “And his lashes, mami, if only my mascara looked so good,” his aunt chiming in with her little joke, “Those eyes are the family jewels,” and the women would laugh louder.
Steven held Cochese’s stare, refusing to give in, staring back so hard that he looked straight through him.
The bell rang.
Cochese turned away and Steven fell into his shadowing, thinking to himself, another one coming in off the streets, talking bullshit. I fought pro, my ass. One loco claimed he was Sugar Ray Leonard, actually believed it, demanded people call him Sugar Ray, went psycho if you didn’t, ranting, raving, banging tables, knocking down chairs. The trainers would put Sugar Ray in the ring, have somebody beat the shit out of him, keep him away for a while. Still Sugar Ray turned up time and again from who knows where, probably Bronx State.
Steven concentrated, angling into the mirrors, snapping his combinations, jabs, rights, uppercuts, hooks, bobbing, weaving, thinking to himself, I’m Cochese.
It was all motion in the gym, the cavernous old dilapidated post office crowded with noise, heat, speed bags drumming, jump ropes whirring, school kids clowning around, laughing, filling water bottles, tying glove laces, lugging spit buckets to the toilet in the closet in the corner, old timers scattered on rows of the wooden bleachers pressed against the back wall, sizing up the sparring, judging, spouting lame advice, old Ramón in his lawn chair nodding along, old sea-captain cap on his head, an old Havana policeman so he claimed, his only certain claim his key to the gym to lock up at night.
In the middle of the massive old mailroom, around the ring the trainers mingled, serious stoic men, night-shift tired, money earned as janitors and doormen, in garbage trucks and gypsy cabs, standing outside the ropes, looking in where they once stood themselves, looping arms around the ring’s top cable, gazes fixed, centered, observing, remembering the old days when they were living with their dreams and all the pain dreams can ignore, the bruises, welts, sore ribs and elbows, headaches and swollen eyes, red burns on biceps swiped violently against an opponent or the taut cordage of the ring where their arms rested now.
The bell rang, Steven ready, shadowing done, his sweat rolling, dripping, it was time to spar. Steven’s boys were gearing up next to the ring, Edwin and Antonio. They shook hands, hooked thumbs, locked fingers. They were sparring partners, friends, the three of them in high school.
“Who’s the funny-looking man?” Edwin asked.
“Don’t know,” Steven said. “He claims he fought pro.”
“Maybe he did,” Antonio said. “He knows how to punch.”
“Mirrors don’t mean shit,” Steven said.
Papi stood above them on the apron of the ring. “You’re late, chachos, let’s go,” he said as he always did, no matter if you were on time or the first one at the gym, opening up the place with old Ramón and the owner Dolores, everyone always late for Papi. “Lace ’em up,” Papi told them.
Steven picked out his mouthpiece and flung his gym bag next to all the other gym bags lined up along the floor against the wall behind the ring, no one trusting the lockers upstairs for their valuables, their wallets, their personal belongings. Across the floor, Steven eyed Cochese sliding through his paces, fists pumping, an eye peeping out at Steven in return.
“Edwin, Steven, que pasa?” Papi yelled.
On the table next to the ring was Papi’s giant oversized canvas bag, and if he said so, you could use his equipment. Steven chose some headgear and a pair of sixteen-ounce gloves, not the fourteen-ouncers, because he wanted a good workout. He pulled the headgear on, damp and hot inside as it always was, and he hated that, having to stick his head into somebody else’s business, the same way he used to hate his brother’s hand-me-downs, pants with holes in the knees, sneakers with the treads worn off. He tugged the strap of the headgear tight, reminding himself that all the pros had their own headgear.
Steven scooped a gob of grease from the Vaseline jar on the table, dabbed it on, cheeks, eyebrows, lips, then rubbed the grease smooth with the tips of his fingers. He slipped on his gloves, one of the little kids hustling over to tie the laces for him, then helping him with the thick red groin protector, like a giant padded jockstrap, the kid stretching it open so Steven could pass his feet through, one foot at a time, and with the hands of his gloves cupped, Steven slid the belt snug to his waist. Another kid handled Steven’s mouthpiece, squirting it with water and slipping it into his mouth, Steven swallowing it, sucking in the cold water and the molded plastic, vacuuming it tight against his teeth. He climbed the wooden stairs to the ring, bobbing between the ropes, all eyes on him.
Papi waiting on the apron of the ring patted him on the head, “Keep it moving,” he told Steven, “ariba, abajo.”
The bell rang.
Steven drew his breath deep, then deeper, stepped forward, mouth clenched, breathing out, inhaling slowly, easy, controlled, the way Papi taught him, but Edwin stung him with a jab. Steven smiled at the pain and weaved into Edwin, jabbing, hooking, pounding into Edwin’s body. Pushing off Steven’s shoulder, Edwin slipped to the side and swung a right hand, but Steven ducked underneath and swiveled to press him. Working the whole round, the two of them did not let up.
Steven liked sparring Edwin, his quick hands, quicker than Steven’s, Edwin reaching the Golden Gloves quarterfinals two years in a row, making it all the way to the Felt Forum, 139 pounds, novice one year, open class the next. Sparring Edwin disciplined Steven, no time for long round sloppy punches and relying too much on his power, losing control. Steven had muscle, but muscle could be a weakness with someone as fast as Edwin zipping punches, stinging his face, making Steven think, take him out now, one blow, showtime, like the movies, Rocky Balboa, Hollywood.
“No streetfighting, you’re a boxer,” Papi always told him, tapping his forefinger to his temple. “Think.”
The bell rang, rest time. Steven leaned forward into the ropes, and Papi squirted him with water, saying, “Good, bueno, bueno,” but Papi was no smiles, nothing friendly, just matter of fact. He said the same thing to Edwin, “Bueno, bueno.”
Steven and Edwin waited for the bell.
On the floor outside the ring Cochese strolled over and began talking to Papi, naming names, getting familiar, Papi’s long lost buddy.
The bell rang.
Edwin and Steven threw another round, Steven feeling good, cutting off the ring, cornering Edwin like a cat, keeping him contained, waiting for Edwin to drop his left hand as he always did. In the Golden Gloves, 147 pounds novice, Steven lost to a kid from Starrett City, a fighter like Edwin, quick, slippery, pistol jabs, and Steven never caught him, never cornered him, never rammed home any solid blows, Starrett City too fast, and by the second round, Steven lost his head, pissed off, swinging like a windmill, finding nothing but air, Starrett City dodging away, countering, delivering an old-fashioned beating.
Papi scolded Steven afterwards, long afterwards, when the pain of his loss could bear the criticism. “You didn’t use your head,” Papi told him, pointing to his temple. “Don’t waste our time like that.”
But sometimes Steven doubted what Papi had to say. Starrett City didn’t seem to use his head that night, his movements so easy, his strategy so natural, there was a truth to the way he fought as if his body and mind were one. He just sort of glided into kicking Steven’s ass. Edwin was like that, too, spontaneous, but Steven needed time to size up the opponent, figure out his weakness, and that was his strategy, and with another year under his belt, experience was experience.
Steven learned how predictable fighters were, some trying too hard to hide their weakness, others not trying hard enough. He taught himself to read his opponents, and as soon as he figured out what he was dealing with, he capitalized. It was as simple as that. He could keep up with Edwin because they sparred all the time, giving Steven time to study him, the twitches of his muscles, the movement of his eyes. The problem was he didn’t have time to study everybody, especially if his opponent was someone like Starrett City who didn’t need time to study anything. No matter what Papi said, it wasn’t always about thinking because thinking was all Steven ever did.
When the bell rang, Papi waved Edwin out and called Steven over, squirting him with the water bottle, the spray trickling down his neck. Papi patted him on the head and told him to keep working. That’s how Papi did it. If he thought you won, you kept working, a bonus, no words spoken, but it was what it was. Steven grabbed the top rope in the corner, did some knee bends, feeling good about himself, a momentary champ.
On the wall behind the ring was a mural as long as the ring and as high as the ceiling, the words Jerome Boxing Club arched across the top, El Boxeo along the bottom. The background was all random colors, mostly blues but also greens and whites mixed together like a view of the Earth seen from afar. In the middle were two boxers exchanging blows, one fighter crushing a left uppercut into his opponent’s jaw at the same time as the other one was landing a right hook.
One fighter was black and the other white, their muscles exaggerated, their chests and abdomens, shoulders and arms, bulging in a way that made them look like weightlifters. You couldn’t really see the white boxer’s face because it was covered by a glove, but the face of the black boxer was the most realistic thing about the painting. The face was clenched in a grimace of pain, the eyes nearly shut, the teeth and mouthpiece exposed, the jaw distorted by the punch. But the face somehow showed that the boxer was at a moment of decision, something about his eyebrows, his eyes, his frown. The boxer still had the choice to quit or to keep on fighting, to decide if the pain was going to break him or if he was going to break through the pain.
Steven loved that mural, the way it inspired him, reminding him that he could always quit, do something else, take the easy way out like all the other nobodies in the Bronx. Just walking to the gym each day was a decision, each round a choice, every ringing of the bell a little victory.
The bell rang.
He turned and opposite him in the ring, it was not Antonio but Cochese bouncing punches off the turnbuckle. Cochese swiveled and rushed across the canvas too fast, which Steven recognized as fear, and a quick glance at Papi, a quick nod back, and he smashed Cochese clean on the chin with a left hook, a vicious thump, and snap, just like that, Cochese buckled, one knee to the canvas, catching whistles from the old-timers howling, holy shit, Steven thinking, another Sugar Ray Leonard, another loco.
Cochese jumped up pitching leather as if he had not gone down, not taken a knee, not been shown up, and he was not waiting for anyone to call time-out, either, and no one did, the way they usually did when someone hit the canvas, Steven taking it as a signal that Papi wanted Cochese taught a lesson not to come back to Jerome for a long time.
Steven turned up the pressure, angling in, moving his body from side to side, pumping jabs, Cochese sort of quick like a real boxer, nothing like Edwin or Starrett City, but quick enough for someone off the street, and every time Steven cut him off, Cochese slipped underneath, but he was sloppy, catching Steven’s elbow or forearm on the head, then flicking away a jab the way you were taught, but weakly, more like slaps. Steven kept himself together, stayed calm, pressing, controlled combinations, step-by-step, steady, closing in on Cochese, cornering him, Cochese covering up, falling back against the ropes, exposed, his weakness obvious, and Steven knew that even if Cochese had fought somewhere at some time, his skills were worn down, his sharpness gone.
Steven pushed into Cochese, headgear to headgear, shoveling in short punches, enjoying his dominance, Cochese hunched over, protecting his ribs with his elbows, gloves over his face, Steven pounding his gut, hurting him, close enough to smell him, his dank sweat, his foul hungry breath, and that’s when Cochese spoke to Steven, a secret just for him.
“You got pretty eyes, maricon,” he whispered.
The words did their little trick, setting Steven up for letting up if only for a second but long enough for Cochese to shove him away by the shoulders and drive a right cross into his face, and the steady pace Steven had been keeping, his measured steps, his plan to teach Cochese a lesson, all fell apart, his anger bursting out like heat in his headgear, and Steven started punching like a streetfighter, all arms, no setting-up, no footwork, no tightening of the springs, all windmills, and Cochese began disappearing underneath, slipping and sliding, bobbing, maybe his old moves coming back a little, capping Steven with combinations, Starrett City all over again, and soon Cochese had Steven against the ropes, pounding his body, Steven thinking, who is this punk coming in off the street and messing with me like this?
The bell rang, and Papi waved Steven out, Antonio in. At the side of the ring, one of the kids unlaced Steven’s gloves while Steven squirmed out of his belt and yanked off his headgear, his hot sweat inside, ready and waiting for someone else. Above him, up on the apron, Papi shook his head in disgust, and catching Steven’s eye, placed his finger to his temple.
The minute you walked in the front door, the sign at the entrance of All Hallows High School let you know, The Street Ends Here, Brother Gregory standing there every morning like a monument, all the boys required to say, “Good morning, Brother Gregory,” just like that, as you doffed your cap, doff his word, not yours, his school, his world, the one with all the crucifixes nailed to the walls. You put your ballcap in your school bag and entered the school building wearing your necktie and jacket, the buttons of your shirt clasped, your pants pulled up around your waist, your belt buckled tight.
That’s how it was, the rules at All Hallows, and now Steven was a senior, Brother Gregory constantly on him to apply to schools besides Bronx Community College because Steven had the grades, he had the smarts, he had the potential, Brother Gregory naming schools for Steven that he named for no one else. But when Steven looked at the pictures of the people in the glossy college booklets, he could never imagine himself among them, and there was boxing now. Steven had ambitions to win the Golden Gloves and maybe turn pro and that was the irony because Brother Gregory had introduced Steven to boxing in the first place, paying his dues every month in sealed envelopes Steven passed along to Dolores, but now Brother Gregory wanted Steven to lay aside his dreams and go off to some college in a world that was not his.
Steven had come to trust Brother Gregory, the old-timer, so white he was pink, dressed in his cassock, the black dress, rosary beads swinging from his hips, the man they all laughed at the first time they saw him, the first time being the last time anyone ever laughed at Brother Gregory. He was the man they all came to fear, but a good fear, a fear that set them straight. Steven learned his lesson from the beginning, Brother Gregory calling him into his office the first week of freshman year, sitting him down in the leather chair that smelled like leather, creaked like leather, made you know you were sitting in the kind of place you had never sat before. Across from his desk, Brother Gregory told Steven the essay he had written for his entrance application was very good, “You know that, don’t you?” He stared into Steven’s eyes, his old man’s aftershave lingering between them, spicy and sweet, Steven wondering what this man in the black dress was getting at, unsure, remembering the jokes he heard from the older kids, that in the all-boys schools they liked the heads of the freshmen bobbing, especially the fairy old brothers who wore no underpants.
Finally, Steven answered Brother Gregory, “Yeah.”
Brother Gregory busted him down immediately, saying, “The word is yes when you’re speaking to me.”
Brother Gregory told Steven his essay had stood out, one of the best ever from an applicant because it showed intelligence, but more important, he said, it showed compassion. “It’s why I insisted you get the scholarship,” he told Steven.
Brother Gregory let this information sink in for a moment, this news to Steven about the scholarship his mother said was a gift from God.
Then Brother Gregory told him, “I called you into my office because I wanted to meet you personally.”
This time Steven replied, “Thank you, Brother Gregory.”
The essay was about Steven in grade school, a reading contest sponsored by the owners of a McDonald’s, the kids competing for coupons as prizes. Steven racked up, but really everyone did, the questions so easy, the stories so simple, you’d have to be unable to read not to win something. There was a girl in the class named Yamilette, brand new from Puerto Rico, a year older than everyone else, big and quiet, always dressed in puffy blouses and frilly skirts, and when one of the kids started blabbing that she didn’t win any coupons, everyone began laughing and pointing at her. Steven could see the tears moistening her eyes, so he stood up and said, “Yamilette, hey, buen cupón!” and placed one of his own coupons on her desk so everyone could see it, a Big Mac Value Pack coupon nobody else had won. Immediately, everyone shut up, and Steven said to the blabbermouth, “That’s almost as good as your French fries,” and everyone laughed, but this time Yamilette, too, because even if she didn’t understand English, she still understood the language of laughter. That was what Steven wrote about for his essay that won him the scholarship.
But the scholarship was not what really made Steven know Brother Gregory had his back.
The summer after freshman year, before he joined the gym, Steven was bored like everyone else who was bored in his neighborhood on McClellan Street, hanging out, watching TV on the fire escapes, old men playing dominoes on the sidewalk, little kids jumping through water from fire hydrants arching across the street, girls going down up in the park at night, hoodies in the schoolyard scapping basketballs if they beat you at Twenty-one, and the fighting, the streetfights everywhere, every day eruptions, someone piping up, “Hey, coño, you chicken?”
What really got to Steven that summer was the noise and heat, homeboys lighting firecrackers as if every night were the Fourth of July, pop, pop, pop, everywhere, pop, pop, pop, all the time, pop, pop, pop, too loud for sleep, and the music to no end, blaring from boxes and car stereos, salsa, merengue, soul, rap, rock, reggae, and the jet planes from LaGuardia booming overhead, one after the other, minute after minute, muffling everything with their roar. All the windows shut tight to keep the Bronx out, El Bronx, the B-X, the Boogie Down, the heat in the apartment so bad, all the fans humming but still too hot to sleep, the crackling A/C unit dripping water into a pan in his mother’s bedroom, but not for him, “Get out of here, Stevie, I’m sleeping,” his body sticking to every surface, the plastic on the couch, the shag on the rug, the sheets on the bed, the air in the air, everything sticking together.
In the middle of that summer, always too tired from not enough sleep, when his brother asked him one day if he wanted to come work for him until school started up, part time, earn a little money, buy some new sneakers, take a girl to the movies, the RKO uptown on Fordham Road where the air conditioning blew full blast, Steven said, “Yeah, okay, thanks.”
“Just don’t tell ma,” Roger said.
Roger had a small operation, strictly nickel and dime bags, just him and his friend Frankie downstairs on McClellan Street. With Steven working, Roger’s hands were freed up, his .22 in his pocket, calm, relaxed, sipping beer through a straw, nodding if strangers looked safe, stray Yankee fans wandering off River Avenue. Frankie collected all the cash, directing customers across the street where Steven slapped baggies into their palms before grabbing another baggie from the space behind the intercom in the building where Roger paid off the super.
One night, two white guys in sandals surprised all three of them. Before Steven could slap a baggie into anybody’s palm, one of the white guys shoved him against a car and pulled out a badge from underneath his shirt while Roger strolled away. Pressed against the car, trembling, the plastic baggie sticking to his palm, thinking to himself, cops don’t wear sandals, trying not to panic, scared, fear pooling in his guts till he felt like he’d shit in his pants, thinking, think fast, staring at the head of the cop twisted around and yelling up the street to his partner handcuffing Frankie, his forearm hard against Steven’s chest, standing so close Steven smelled his sour sweat, the same as the teachers at All Hallows on the hot days of June, this was the moment.
His hand was pressed against the side view mirror of the car, the adjustable kind of side view mirror, the kind that moved, which he gently poked to one side, opening up a space on the other, and slipping the baggie inside, he straightened it out again, the hand of the cop still flat against his heartbeat, and just like that, right under the cop’s nose, like a magic trick, there was no more baggie in Steven’s hand.
When the cop yanked him around to handcuff him, demanding the bag of pot, Steven replied, “What bag?”
At the precinct that night, explaining things, Frankie lying, insisting Steven had nothing to do with anything, he didn’t even know him, Steven’s mother showed up with Brother Gregory, and one of the detectives recognizing his old principal—“Brother Gregory the Great!”—the evidence still stashed behind the mirror of the car, Brother Gregory insisting he was a good kid, Steven was free to go. But he was not free of Brother Gregory, who knew better.
The next day he brought Steven down to the Jerome Boxing Club, down by the Hub, the hustling intersection, the crossroads where all the streets met, where his mother used to take him shopping for his school clothes every year, the gym a few blocks away, away from all the stores, on the corner of an abandoned lot where the subway tracks rose up from under the ground. After a long conversation with the owner Dolores, the widow of some dead boxing man Brother Gregory used to know, that was it, Steven had a new way of life, Brother Gregory telling him, “This place will keep you out of trouble.”
Jerome Boxing Club changed Steven, transformed him, with every victory his reputation growing on McClellan Street, at All Hallows, his world springing open. His first fight he scored a knockout at a smoker in Jersey, his prize from the country club a steak dinner and a fresh new green bill for “transportation expenses,” and from there it was trophies from Saturday competitions at the Lost Battalion Hall in Queens, boxers from all the boroughs spread out on wooden stands doing homework before their fights and playing basketball together afterwards, and his favorite spot, the bouts in the outdoor ring set up next to the Harlem River in Roberto Clemente Park. Even his daily roadwork excited him, waking up early every morning, running up the gigantic hills of Highbridge into University Heights and the Bronx Community College campus where the colonnade of the Hall of Fame circled around the library with all the statues of the great Americans, the views stretching westward over Manhattan past the towers of the George Washington Bridge and the wide-open skies beyond.
In the spring of his junior year, Steven entered the Golden Gloves, the opening rounds in Catholic-school gyms in Queens and Brooklyn, and as he advanced, Friday night fights in the raucous stained-glass ballroom of the Elks Club on Queens Boulevard, the ring surrounded on all sides by smoking, drinking men, the balconies filled right up to the rafters, a hidden passion in the city Steven had never known before, and during his three-round fights, that passion poured out for him.
The morning after Steven’s bouts in the Golden Gloves, Brother Gregory announced the results over the loudspeaker, the same excitement in his voice as for basketball or baseball or the city champs in hockey, but now for Steven’s name alone, the whole school letting loose with a whoop, the boys of All Hallows smiling, cheering, swinging fists from their desks, throwing punches from their chairs, as if each one of them had been standing tall in that ring the night before, glove of victory in the air.
Steven wondered alone at night in his bedroom if this was what it felt like to be chosen like a king.
Then he lost to Starrett City.
After Steven sparred Cochese, Antonio took his turn against the stranger. Antonio was taller, but Cochese slipped his jabs and bullied him around the ring, Cochese much stronger, Antonio fighting worse than Steven had after the trick of Cochese’s little whisper. Soon Papi waved Antonio out, and to Steven’s surprise, Papi climbed into the ring himself, which he never did on someone’s first day, working the catching mitts with Cochese as if he saw some hope in his worn-out skills.
Steven was angry. Even on his worst day, Starrett City would have schooled someone like Cochese. As Steven watched him in the ring, he imagined a confrontation in the locker room upstairs or on the corner outside the gym, challenging Cochese, punching him out, pummeling his face till it was smeared into a mess of blood, asking him, “You still like my pretty eyes?” He even imagined what it would be like to take his brother’s gun and stalk Cochese like a shadow at night, come up behind him and shove the pistol in his face, telling him, “I like your eyes, too, motherfucker,” and boom boom, once in each eye, lights out. He knew it was crazy, and childish, but the fantasy of it captivated him, and he nursed on his daydream.
But then his mind got lost in the ritual of his training, the bells of every round, the minutes passing one by one, the task at hand his only concern, bags first, three rounds each, rapping, pounding, hammering, the heavy bag into a shiver, the speed bag until it rhymed with his fists, the double-end bag till it bounced like a yo-yo. After the bags, Papi called Steven back into the ring so he could work the mitts with him, three rounds, Papi dancing around the canvas, shuffling the mitts, changing up the targets, mixing them into patterns, Steven chasing, punching, the old man smiling with each smack of the leather, the two of them falling into a tempo, arms circling around, colliding, fists and mitts clapping together. When they were done, Papi patted him on the head, telling him, “Good job,” the faintest smile on his face as he said it. Then Steven bobbed and weaved his way through three rounds, back and forth beneath the rope strung like a clothesline between two old mailroom columns, bending at the hips and knees what felt like a foot off the floor.
Then he fetched his jump rope, got it swinging, first slow and steady, with each revolution the leather rope snapping against the wooden floor, his knees popping up to his chest, then spinning the rope into a blur, fast and angry, he began skipping, kicking out his toes and heels in alternating beats and steps. As he continued jumping, the cord turning, his mind turned with it, his thinking safe inside the cloud of the whirling rope, the bells and the sounds of the gym shrinking away, leaving him alone to himself, the cadence of his thoughts pulsing with his heartbeat.
His thoughts centered on the big mural looming over the gym before him.
Dolores once told him the mural had been painted by a former boxer who had arrived from Santurce, a featherweight with no English, claiming to be the nephew of a famous baseball player, and with nothing but his uncle’s name, he came to New York to become a champion. As the story went, none of the boxing clubs in Manhattan would let him train for free, so they sent him up to the Bronx like a beggar, where Dolores allowed him to live at the gym, earning his keep as the janitor with a space and a cot in the equipment closet behind the trophy cases where they kept old worn-out heavy bags lying around like dead bodies with the brooms, mops, and buckets. The boxer’s name was Cepeda and he lived right there at Jerome for an entire year, fighting every single month at the Felt Forum for opponent’s wages, meaning he was the underdog every time, hired every fight to lose. He worked on the mural in his spare time.
The face of the black boxer was the face of Cepeda himself, and there was a photo in the trophy case from the night Cepeda won the Continental Americas Belt in Atlantic City that showed it was a selfportrait. Steven liked to imagine Cepeda creating the mural, standing on a ladder before he went to sleep, wondering if he had what it took, eating warmed-over leftovers from a hot plate, alone night after night, tending to his wounds, lying down on the cot in the closet, far away from his home and his world in Santurce, battling the odds every day, willing himself through his pain. Cepeda kept piling up the victories, never losing once, and eventually he fought for the championship of the world in London where he lost to the English champion Paul Hodkinson. Afterwards he simply never won again and returned to Santurce for good.
One night, late, after Steven was done training, no one else in the gym, old Ramón waiting for Steven so he could lock up, Steven told him what he thought about the mural. The old man claimed to have been educated by the Jesuits long before Castro chased him into exile, and although Steven didn’t really know what that meant, he still knew Ramón liked to talk about things. Steven shared with him his ideas about the painting and how it taught him there was a choice every minute of every day to quit or to keep on going.
“Eres muy inteligente, Esteban,” Ramón had said to him.
But he didn’t fully agree with Steven. He said it was a young man’s opinion, and that it was not just about choice but about fate.
“Cepeda was an artist who was a boxer first,” Ramón said. “He imagined his fate playing out in a boxing ring. But all he knew was that one day he would be broken. Always we will be broken.”
Steven looked over at the round bell, its cord unplugged, silent in the stillness of the empty gym.
“If everyone ends up broken, why do anything?” Steven asked.
“Dichosos vuestros ojos porque ven,” he said, pointing a finger at Steven’s eyes. Then suddenly Ramón’s face changed, and challenging Steven’s eyes with his own, with a seriousness in his voice Steven had never heard before, Ramón demanded, “Who does nothing?”
His question stunned Steven.
“No one does nothing,” Ramón said. “Most do small things, some do great things. But we all do something, even though we will be broken.” Ramón stared at Steven as if daring him to respond. “This makes us noble.”
As he thought about it now, Steven knew he wanted his own night in London, but he feared having to do what Cepeda had done just to get there.
In his trance, Steven continued jumping rope for several rounds, straight through the bells, so many rounds he lost count of how long he’d been jumping.
“Hey, Steven, you ever going to stop?”
It was Edwin. They both laughed, and Steven gathered up his jump rope and stashed it away in his gym bag.
When the bell rang again, Steven, Edwin, and Antonio began their calisthenics together as they always did, rounds of sit-ups on the mat, holding each other’s ankles, rounds of push-ups on the floor, lying on each other’s backs, more rounds of sit-ups on the incline bench, jabbing fists into each other’s abdomens, and then the medicine ball, tossing it to each other, the three of them slamming the heavy ball back and forth into each other’s ribs.
Cochese joined them, too, in their circle, not because he was one of them, but because he was at the gym, and that’s what you did at the gym, you threw a fist or a medicine ball at someone as hard as you could, your best shot, expecting him to throw it right back at you, trying to burst a hole straight through you, whether you liked each other or hated each other’s guts, it was all the same, you were training, your daily rules were discipline, sweat, self-control, you were boxers.
The four of them now kept passing the heavy ball back and forth, one to another, round and round, clockwise, then counterclockwise, catching the leather ball in their guts, abdominal muscles tightened, heaving away the rebounds slick with their sweat, speed picking up, increasing, rushing, rolling, then a flip across the circle, breaking the rotation, surprising one another, and quick, a fling of the ball straight back, all of them laughing, feeling the pain, feeling their strength, feeling their need for each other, not wanting it to end, no matter if it was just a boxing gym and not the spinning world outside.
The gym soon emptied out, Papi long gone to his super’s basement apartment in his building up on Mt. Eden Avenue, all the other trainers gone, the boxers gone, all the kids and old-timers, everyone cleared out, except for Steven, Edwin, Antonio, and Ramón.
It was Friday, and a full week of training was now done. On Fridays, the three of them, Steven, Edwin, and Antonio, always took it slow, wandering up 149th Street, stopping for a pizza or some Chinese food, then the long stroll past Lincoln Hospital up the hill to the Grand Concourse, maybe a conversation with some girls outside Hostos Community College, and then down into the tangle of the subway, going their separate ways on the IRT trains, but they never did any of these things before helping Ramón lock up, slamming shut the roll down gate for him, the metal armor over the front door of the gym, safe and sound for the night.
But now they were still in the gym, Ramón murmuring the longlost glories of Havana and Steven waiting his turn for the shower upstairs. Steven sat on the apron of the ring, coiling his hand wraps into tightly wound balls, with each revolution their rough cotton texture smoothed over firmly by his thumbs. He deliberated about what he was going to say to Cochese. He was no longer angry, but he did not want to be called faggot again. When Antonio came downstairs, telling Steven the shower was free, he grabbed his gym bag and headed up the narrow staircase, preparing for what needed to be said.
In the locker room, there were metal lockers against the walls, wooden benches scattered across the floor, a single window facing outside where the subway tracks rose up from underground. Cochese had just come out of the shower, the single cold-water shower, no hot water in the old post office, the plastic prefabricated shower-stall calked into a corner as an afterthought. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair matted with moisture, beads of shower spray on his shoulders, and he was standing with Edwin, who was fully dressed in his street clothes with a newspaper clipping in his hands.
“Check it out,” Edwin said to Steven.
Edwin handed him a black-and-white photograph of Cochese, the year scribbled across the top, ten years having turned the picture yellow. It showed a much younger Cochese with his arms raised above his head in victory.
“Pretty cool,” Edwin said to Cochese, and then telling Steven to hurry up, he departed, leaving the clipping in Steven’s hands.
The picture surprised Steven because it placed Cochese in the world in a way he did not expect, like an official document or an ID card. He examined the picture, Cochese under the bright lights, youth in his face, laughter in his smile, then he passed it back to him.
“You still fighting?” Steven asked.
“I’m looking to,” Cochese said. “There’s a card up in White Plains next month. I hear they’re looking for opponents.”
“When did you fight last?”
“Not in a long time, mijo.”
Steven waited for him to explain, but Cochese turned away and removed the towel from his waist. The
rattle and clack of a line of subway cars could be heard ascending the tracks outside, and the window in
the locker room vibrated as it always did when the trains rumbled past.
“Why not?” Steven asked Cochese.
Cochese turned back to face him. He extended his arms with his wrists held together.
“I been locked up.”
Steven was surprised by the confession even more than by the picture, not because Cochese had been
locked up but because he was willing to admit it. He studied Cochese standing naked before him, his
sunken eyes, his aging face, the yellow clipping in his hands. Cochese was smiling, not with any joy, but
with resignation, a grimace, and he stared back into Steven’s eyes, holding onto him like a beggar, and
Steven wondered if he was seeing what Dolores had once seen in the eyes of Cepeda or if this was
nothing like it at all.
Paul Stapleton currently teaches at Concordia University Chicago. His work has appeared in various journals. Thanks to a nomination from J Journal in 2011, his story “The Fall of Punicea” (4.1) was selected for the Pushcart Prize (XXXVII). Almost daily he walks past a house in Oak Park with a very small marker on the lawn that says, “In this home Ernest Hemingway created his first literary efforts 1906-1920.” He is thrilled to see this house every single time.