The people closest to Bill Crutchlow seemed to be developing interests and relationships that he never would have foreseen even a year ago, and that ran entirely counter to his aspirations for them. His wife, Mary, an English teacher who had given up her profession to stay home and raise her children, had started selling a line of cosmetics called Betty Lou, in what looked to Bill like little more than a pyramid scheme. His fourteen year old daughter, Lauren, had quit the soccer team and acquired a boyfriend, a fox-faced, pony-tailed high school senior with a stud earring and a wisp of chin beard. And his son, Matthew, wanted to box. Every week or so, Matt worked himself up to ask permission to take lessons at the Boys’ Club – officially these days, the Boys’ and Girls‘ Club. How could an organization sufficiently evolved to adopt such a name change, Bill wondered, still be so backward as to promote boxing as an activity for children?
“But why can’t I box?” Matt would whine, after Bill had given him five perfectly good reasons, starting with brain damage, why he couldn’t.
“You’ll muss your hair,” said Bill. Matt, of course, took this joshing appeal to his vanity as an insult. The kid spent an hour a day in front of the mirror.
He couldn’t pass a looking glass without pausing to fidget with his clothes or flex his muscles. In his present frame of mind, however, he would not view boxing as posing any threat to his appearance: Bill could easily imagine the boy standing at the mirror and examining a broken nose as admiringly as if it were an overdeveloped bicep.
“Why don’t you try reading a book instead?” said Bill, voicing his own frustration. Matt just walked away, disgusted.
In one recent eight month period, he had shot up nine inches, and now, at thirteen, stood over six feet tall. Bill was tall, too, but thin. Matt was different, thick-jointed, with size twelve feet and an adolescent lopsidedness and disproportion that seemed to promise further significant growth. His hips and shoulders were slightly misaligned (the school nurse had diagnosed scoliosis, but the doctor said no), and despite his height he was somewhat short-waisted: once his legs caught up to his torso, he’d be six-eight. This was the number that had lodged itself in Bill’s head, and that he had recently, without being entirely aware of it, added to his list of goals for his son.
There was a promise of grace in Matt’s thickness as well. Mary was half Italian, and that Italian influence was showing itself more and more in Matt. Thus had blond Bill Crutchlow produced this Mediterranean son, who not only didn’t read, but wanted to box.
“Is Al Bender still knocking around down here?” asked Bill.
“Who?” Matt replied.
“Al Bender. He ran the swimming lessons when I was a kid.”
“I don’t know,” said Matt, shrugging.
It was a Wednesday evening in mid-November, and Bill was driving Matt to the Boys’ Club. They were taking roughly the same route by which Bill’s mother had taken him to swimming lessons at the Club when he was a boy (Bill and his family now lived only a few blocks from the house he had been raised in); and the route, the time of year – the bare trees and early dark – and the butterflies in his stomach put him suddenly in mind of Al Bender, the head swimming instructor and one of the pre-eminent authority figures of Bill’s youth.
“Do they have any hot water in the showers down here yet?” Bill asked. “That was one of the worst parts of swimming lessons for me, those cold showers they made you take beforehand. That was worse than actually getting in the pool.”
“I wait til I get home to shower,” said Matt.
In the dark interior of the car, Bill was aware of the looming figure of his son across the seat from him. The kid’s bulk was a constant and satisfying surprise, something Bill had to keep checking to confirm. The shifting shadows within the moving vehicle dramatized the strength of Matt’s jawline, his bull’s neck, the bump in the bridge of his nose. The fact that his father had preceded him at the Boys’ Club obviously held no significance for him. Or maybe nervousness accounted for his unresponsiveness – but Bill doubted that. He was a hard kid to read. He obviously felt no need to be ingratiating, to feign interest in what Bill had to say – no need to pay any real attention to his father at all. The kid had gotten what he wanted – or anyway, all he could expect to get – at least for now.
On the matter of boxing, Bill had relented to this extent: Matt could enroll in the Boys’ Club’s beginners program, which met on Monday and Wednesday evenings and involved general conditioning and instruction in the fundamentals but no actual fighting. Bill had finally given in after talking on the phone to the father of Matt’s friend Joe DeLorenzo.
“It’s all supervised,” Bill was told authoritatively by Cha DeLorenzo, whom he had met once, in passing. “They’re gonna love to get their hands on your kid, as big as he is.” This conversation took place on the afternoon of the day the program was to begin. Bill, of course, was all in favor of physical fitness, and he found, as he listened to Cha, that the idea of Matt going down to the Club to skip rope and hit the heavy bag was not without a certain appeal; so he signed the registration form. Matt, though, needed to understand that this was as far as his father would compromise: at the conclusion of the beginners program, the kid would need to find some other outlet for his energy.
The program was in its third week. Because Bill’s work schedule had prevented him from taking Matt to the first two weeks’ sessions, Matt had gone with Joe and Cha. Joe, however, had been grounded for some trouble at school, so Bill had arranged to be home in time to take Matt to his lesson tonight. This excursion provided him not only a chance to see what the boxing program was all about, but an excuse to get out of the house. Kevin, Lauren’s boyfriend, only months shy of high school graduation yet so weak-voiced, smirking, and complacent that it was all Bill could do not to kick him, would be over, as he was almost every night, on top of which Mary was hosting another of her Betty Lou shop-at-home parties. Bill could only imagine what went on at these parties. He recalled years ago seeing a Sixty Minutes feature on Betty Lou’s founder, Betty Lou herself, who had been left a penniless widow at twenty-five and was now flown all over the world in her powder blue Cessna and lived in a gossamer mansion in an exceptionally well-manicured portion of Texas. He could no longer remember whether the Sixty Minutes piece was a simple profile or an expose; but he retained an image of Mike Wallace bemused in the midst of a frenzied motivational sales meeting, and among the items Mary distributed at her product parties were a Betty Lou song book and a Betty Lou calendar of daily affirmations. Bill could only hope that his wife was involving herself in a simple pyramid scheme and not a full-blown cult.
The Brighton Boys’ Club – the Boys’ and Girls’ Club – a three-story brown brick building with a cornerstone dated 1905, was located on a bend in the road on the northern edge of downtown: east of the river, south of the railroad tracks, and across the street from a former Elks Hall that was now an Assembly of God. Brighton had changed since Bill’s youth, but the landmarks on the way to the Boys’ Club – the pocked road and aging buildings, the rusty railroad underpass, the billboard displaying happy smokers, the overhead configuration of utility wires, the shabby holiday decorations, the darkness – were the same. Downtown Brighton had been a bustling place when Bill was a boy, but the Boys’ Club was on the edge of that bustle, away from it. It had a bustle all its own. Al Bender notwithstanding, Bill remembered it as a place of ringing noise and remote authority – of boys entertaining themselves: in the gym, in the gameroom, in the vestibule, on the stairs. A few years later, in seventh grade English, when he was introduced to Dickens, his Boys’ Club experience provided him with a vivid point of reference. It was easy to imagine, in retrospect, that some secret corner of the building had been set aside for the training of pickpockets.
The first room you saw when you entered the Boys’ and Girls’ Club was the game room – it was a large, high-ceilinged, ill-lit room, visible from the vestibule and occupying the center of the club’s main floor, no doubt constructed for some other purpose but nowadays outfitted with rows of pinball machines and various game tables – and the first people Bill saw in there tonight, as he followed Matt through the front door, were girls, five of them, all black. The one who caught his eye was a very large teenager wearing a shapeless green windbreaker and her hair in a pair of short pigtails. She was playing table top football and dominating a vigorous conversation – it could have been an argument – with her smaller opponent and three kibbitzers. The boys in sight were mostly black, too, but somehow this didn’t seem like much of a difference from Bill’s childhood: in their loudness, their roughness and volatility, these boys looked to Bill to be interchangeable with their mostly white counterparts of thirty years ago. After more than a quarter century, adults remained inconspicuous here – even the scrawny white desk attendant in the vestibule who checked Matt’s membership card and issued Bill’s visitor’s pass looked no more than fifteen – and to Bill, the biggest change in the club, bigger by far than the presence of females, was the amount of breathing space. Bill remembered the human crush of the game room as akin to that on the floor of a stock exchange, and the traffic on the stairs as a virtual stampede. Tonight, however, there were not many more than a dozen kids in the game room, and though the boys coming up the stairs that Matt and Bill descended from the vestibule were running, and shouting, there were only two of them. As he followed his son down these rubber-coated stairs with the iron hand rail – the same stairs he had taken to get to the swimming pool as a boy – Bill realized why he was disappointed to find the club so underpopulated; it was the same reason that tonight, for the first time ever, at forty years of age, he didn’t feel out of place – overmatched – at the Boys’ Club. It was because of Matt. After all these years, Bill had returned to this place, where no one had ever bothered him but he felt threatened at every turn, with a champion: the only person they had seen so far anywhere near Matt’s size was the girl at the football table.
Reaching the narrow hallway at the bottom of the stairs, they turned right. The way to the swimming pool was to the left. Casting a backwards glance, Bill caught sight, through an open door at the end of the hallway that gave onto a balcony overlooking the pool, of a heavy patch of undulant greenish light, reflected off the water. The odor of chlorine, barely discernible in the stairwell, was this hallway’s chief characteristic, as it had been thirty years ago. It seemed to constrict Bill’s breathing, and gave him a delicious taste of his old anxiety. His sympathy was divided between the nine year old he had been on his way to swimming lessons, and his teenage son now, going to box. (No, Bill reminded himself – not to box. Just to work out.) No doubt Matt was developing his own set of associations and involuntary responses around this aged building’s sights and sounds and smells; but the kid didn’t look like he wanted any sympathy, as he splay-footedly led his father down the hallway, up a short flight of stairs, around two turns, and into a low-ceilinged, windowless room that Bill, though he had never seen it before, instantly recognized as the club’s secret center, a place of great intimacy, expectation and purpose, to which Matt had found his way without any help from his father.
For one thing, there were adults down here, two of them, who welcomed his son with a nickname: Chicago.
“Hey, Chicago,” called the older man from the center of the long, narrow room. He was a short, shirtless sexagenarian, as bow-legged and weather-worn as an old time ship’s captain, his saggingly muscular arms and torso covered with curly gray hair, wearing a pair of shiny green boxing trunks. This was Tommy Farneti, a local fighter whose name Bill remembered from the sports pages of his youth. You still saw Farneti around town, on his training runs; the fighter he had been was still apparent in his head-down, tottering running style, his punchy arm action (as if he were delivering body blows in a clinch) and vigorous, unyielding baby steps.
Bill didn’t recognize the other guy, a man of about his own age, a big, jowly, quietly amused looking fellow with a bushy mustache, wearing a red baseball cap, a blue sweatsuit and a towel around his neck. He was sitting on a small, torn, red vinyl couch set against the wall, not far from the door Bill and Matt had come in; his legs were crossed, and his spread arms were resting on the back of the couch.
“Whaddya say, Chicago?” he drawled, as Matt, having left his father behind at the door, eagerly crossed the room towards a padded trainer’s table lined with boxing gloves and headgear. It excited and intrigued Bill to hear his son thus addressed; he wondered whether Chicago was simply a synonym for rookie, or if it had some significance specific to Matt. To Bill, the man on the couch offered a slight nod. No one else in the room paid him any attention at all.
To Bill’s surprise, there were only four kids in the room besides his son: some younger than Matt, all smaller. The most experienced-looking of these, and certainly no beginner, was a slight, lightning quick, thinly mustached Hispanic, about sixteen or seventeen years old, who made little hissing noises as he shadowboxed in the center of the room under the eye of Tommy Farneti.
“That’s it, Cuba,” said the old man. “Snap that jab off. The jab’s the most important punch. Feint with your shoulders, then come with the jab. That’s it, boy.” The old man spoke as if from inside the fighter’s head; his eyes were fixed as intently on his fighter as his fighter’s were on his phantom opponent. The bobbing, circling, weaving Cuba was slick with sweat; the damp little hiss his mouth produced in perfect time with each rapidly successive punch was like the sound of his small bare hands slicing the air.
At the far end of the room was a black kid, maybe twelve years old but sleekly muscled, expertly skipping rope. His eyes moved abstractedly about the room and his lips silently kept the count, so that, facially, he reminded Bill of a child hurrying through his prayers at bedtime. Observing the action, and apparently awaiting instruction, were a pair of slender white kids, no more than eight years old. They stood next to the boxing ring, which occupied an approximately fifteen-by-fifteen-foot space in a far corner of the room and was fronted by a small, three-tiered set of wooden bleachers. The ring’s three ropes were red, white and blue, respectively. The room’s other furnishings included a dusty chalkboard, a stationary bike with no handlebars, and a couple of battered green lockers. Two speed bags and a heavy bag, imprinted with the word Everlast, hung from the drop ceiling. On the wall were several garish fight posters, and a couple of cork bulletin boards lined with photographs of Boys’ Club fighters in the ring or on the awards stand. A large, free-standing floor fan oscillated in a corner, circulating the odors of must and liniment.
A bell rang, and Tommy Farneti, Cuba and the kid jumping rope all relaxed. Tommy conferred briefly with Cuba, showing him something about the positioning of his hands.
Matt, in the meantime, had removed his jacket and sweat suit, hung them on a wall hook, and started his warm-up – all without being told. He was wearing blue cotton trunks and a tee shirt from which he had cut the sleeves, and when he did his jumping jacks, Bill was reminded of one of the first games they had played together, before his son could even walk. Bill would ask, “How big is Matthew?”, and the beaming baby would happily thrust his short arms towards the ceiling. Now, as he sprang lightly from the tiled floor and spread his legs wide and raised those same, now simian arms high above his head, he looked too big for the room.
Cuba was leaning against the trainer’s table, sweating profusely, swigging from his water bottle and watching Tommy Farneti talk to the two children. The black kid was doing one-handed push-ups, cheating a little, Bill thought – he was only getting his chest about a quarter of the way to the floor – but still, his slender arm muscles bulged impressively. Matt had spread his legs and arms and was doing alternate toe touches, another exercise that emphasized his enormous wingspan but one that Bill hadn’t seen performed in years – he remembered it having been proscribed as far back as his own schooldays, because of its potentially injurious, ballistic motion – bad for the back. Had ballistic stretching come back into favor, or had word of its hazards never reached the Brighton Boys’ and Girls’ Club?
His warm-up complete, Matt moved to the trainer’s table, and began to expertly wrap his hands in long, thin strips of cloth. The man on the couch caught Bill’s eye.
“He yours?” he asked, indicating Matthew.
“Yep,” said Bill, nodding.
“Big kid,” said the man. “Pretty good puncher, too.” He glanced from Bill to Matt, and back again. “Way to go, Pop.”
Bill smiled appreciatively. Matthew was not a child who had garnered a great deal of praise in his life so far. He was an average student and had not been a standout in the sports he had tried. Bill, therefore, had long been waiting for what was praiseworthy in his son to emerge, and he was happy now to accept this compliment. He did feel deserving of congratulations for having produced such a son – a son so different from himself. Even watching Matthew wrap his hands was a revelation, the way he wound the fabric in a smooth, continuous motion, giving it a little tug at the completion of each cycle, keeping it evenly spread and wrinkle-free—this, from a boy who at home couldn’t properly fold a pair of socks.
Matt had his gloves on now, and had moved to the heavy bag. He threw a few wary punches, as if making sure that the bag wouldn’t hit back; but his blows soon grew impressively hard, bringing him up on his toes and landing with a corporeal thud that set the bag shivering and swinging and rattled the chain by which it hung from the ceiling.
“Look at the size of that kid,” marvelled the man on the couch, and even Bill, who was used to the fact that his son looked bigger in motion, did a re-evaluation now.
“Just how big is he anyway?” asked the man on the couch, suspiciously.
“Six-two, one-eighty,” Bill said off-handedly, and though Bill exaggerated by four pounds and half an inch, the man on the couch appeared as unsatisfied with this answer as was Bill himself.
Tommy Farneti had moved near the heavy bag and was watching Matthew – not as intently as he had watched Cuba, but with a measuring eye appropriate to Matt’s age and experience.
“Don’t throw so many punches, son,” he said mildly, and Matt, without taking his eyes off the bag, made the desired adjustment.
“That’s it,” said Tommy Farneti. “Keep your distance, keep moving around the bag.”
The unseen bell, which was apparently hooked to a timer, rang again, and Matt immediately dropped his arms. The bag continued to swing slightly as Tommy Farneti moved close to advise the boy, occasionally laying a gentle hand on Matt’s arm or chest as he spoke, assuming a fighter’s stance to demonstrate the correct position of the head or the hands, explaining the necessity of keeping the shoulders loose and the chin down. Matthew, dripping sweat, his chest heaving, dwarfed the rugged old man, who had his full attention. Bill knew that Matt, despite his behavior at home, was generally respectful of outside authority – he had seen that before, he had been reassured of it – but there was something more than respect in the quality of the attention the kid was paying to Tommy Farneti now, an eagerness in his posture, an obedient wildness in his eyes, that suggested he would walk through a wall if the old man told him to. It touched and gratified Bill to see this; and when Farneti slipped his hands into a pair of bright yellow, oval-shaped leather pads, each about the circumference of a man’s face, and bracing himself, presented these to Matthew as targets, raising his hands to the level of his shoulders in a gesture that in other circumstances might signify surrender; and Matt, crouched and dripping behind his own padded hands, began to strike at these targets, crisply and rhythmically, responding as if entranced to Tommy Farneti’s cadenced instructions to bob, feint, jab, hook and weave, Bill’s thought was, “This kid can really take care of himself.” It occurred to him that the ways in which your children weren’t like you, the strengths they hadn’t gotten from you, the untraceable attributes that suggested, among other things, that you weren’t entirely responsible for them, constituted some of the sweetest surprises of parenthood.
Satisfied that Matt was in good hands, Bill, overdressed for the boxing room and feeling a bit feverish, decided to get some fresh air. He felt better as soon as he stepped out the front door. The temperature had fallen, and Bill savored the sting of the cold night air in his lungs. The streets were empty; the only sign of life came from the Assembly of God.
The Boys’ and Girls’ Club and the Assembly of God, both facing east, occupied corner lots, separated by a side street. The Assembly – the former Elks Hall – was another brick building, even larger than the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and set back a bit from the road. Tonight, the entire second story was lit up, and from inside came the sound of the congregation singing. Bill had occasionally, while driving past, seen this congregation arriving for an evening service: urban yokels (the pastor’s name was Piedmont), or some perhaps actually in from the country, dressed in their cheap Sunday best, clutching their soft cover Bibles, issuing their mild greetings, and trudging inside for their hearty, dreary service. Their entire enterprise was summed up for him by the large clock with which they had replaced the iron elk on the building’s front lawn. “One of these hours,” read an adjacent sign, “the Lord is coming back.” In the context of the clock, Bill, a Roman Catholic, read this good news as an impersonally friendly threat: Come join us, neighbor, or you’re gonna burn.
Tonight, however, he stood listening to the music. He was unfamiliar with the tune; nor could he make out the words. Nevertheless, what he was hearing made him thoughtful. When the music stopped, Bill found himself thinking again of his mother, thirty years ago, bringing him to the Boys’ Club for swimming lessons.
Loretta Crutchlow was, self-consciously, a non-swimmer; so her son’s learning to swim was important to her. The family legend was that her father, as a young boy, had been thrown off a dock into a lake by a well-meaning uncle – sink or swim being, apparently, a widely practiced method of instruction back then – and had been so traumatized by the event that he not only never went in the water again, but did all he could to keep his own children away from water – despite which Loretta was the only one of his three children who never learned to swim. Bill retained from childhood an image of his mother, at social gatherings in the summer, standing or sitting, fully clothed, on the pool deck or the lake’s edge, watching the frolic in the water. There were invariably, at these summer gatherings, more adults out of the water than in (though one of those in was usually Bill’s father, a large man whose summertime party trick was to wade to waist level, with a big black cigar in his mouth and a Panama hat on his head, and then to recline in the water, to float, arms spread wide or hands folded on his chest, bobbing on the gentle waves as contentedly as if he were dozing in a hammock); but the fact of his mother being, in such instances, in a majority failed to mitigate Bill’s sense of her as excluded. He knew the story of her non-swimming, after all, and understood, when she took him for swimming lessons to the Boys’ Club, that her intentions were every bit as good as those of the father who had kept her out of the water, or the uncle who had thrown her father in.
Bill’s father had succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage a year ago, and his mother lived alone now in the family home. She had changed since her husband’s death. She was a slender woman who had never been given to extravagant expressions of love: her gentleness and good nature, her sense of humor and discretion and nervous solicitude had conveyed everything that needed to be conveyed in the way of affection. But that solicitude was gone. When she had forgotten both her grandchildren’s most recent birthdays, her apologies were lighthearted; and one of her favorite expressions now, in reference to matters that formerly would have cost her sleep, was, “You know what? I’m not going to worry about it.” Without having become forgetful, exactly, she was growing vague, preoccupied, but lightly so. She did not appear to pose a danger to herself or others. She kept her refrigerator stocked and her house clean; her hygiene was as good as ever; she hadn’t been found wandering the streets in her bathrobe at three a.m.; she did not announce plans to remarry. Still, Bill was concerned about her. He wondered if she had grieved properly. It occurred to him that what really bothered him wasn’t that his mother had changed, but that she was alone, and didn’t seem to mind.
When he asked Mary what she would think of his asking his mother to move in with them, she said, “Why? Your mother is a young woman.” His mother was seventy. Of course, Bill took Mary’s point: youth was a state of mind. His mother was a bit round-shouldered, her long fingers were bent with arthritis, but she moved quickly and had youthful eyes.
“Let her enjoy her independence,” said Mary, making widowhood sound like a stage of life all women looked forward to.
When Bill returned to the boxing room, a surprise: the two eight-year-olds were engaged in a match. Outfitted in thick headgear and girdle and gloves, they stood in the center of the ring, under the watchful eye of Tommy Farneti, and threw vigorous, looping punches. As padded as the boys were, and as unskilled, their contest appeared no more dangerous than a pillow fight. Still, wasn’t this the beginners class, where no actual fighting was to take place? Nearby, Cuba performed a jump rope routine of striking intricacy and jauntiness. The black kid was towelling himself off. Matthew was working on the speedbag. Bill stood in the doorway and observed his son’s cool regard of the tear-shaped leather pouch as, with the slightest motion of his raised, wrapped hands, he caused it to flap madly within inches of his face.
When the bell rang, Matt dropped his arms and, seeing Bill in the doorway, went and said a few words to Tommy Farneti. The boy smiled and pointed to his father. Tommy Farneti looked at Bill and spoke to Matt, nodding and inclining his head toward the ring, where the two eight year olds, apparently none the worse for wear, awaited further instruction. As Matt, smiling and dripping, came across the room toward his father, the eagerness and deference he had shown Tommy Farneti were still in his face. It seemed to Bill years since Matthew had approached him in this way.
“How’d I look, Dad?” Matt asked breathlessly.
“Pretty tough, I’d say,” Bill replied.
“Coach Farneti says I hurt his hands when he had me hitting the yellow pads,” said Matt, laughing, but sounding as if he hoped it might be true.
“I can believe it,” said Bill. “When you were on the heavy bag, it reminded me of that scene from ‘Rocky’ where he’s in the meat locker hitting the side of beef.”
“You looked like Evander Holyfield out there,” put in the guy on the couch, whom Bill had forgotten was there.
Matt smiled broadly. ”Thanks,” he said, and then to Bill, “Dad, Coach would like to meet you.”
Bill saw that Tommy Farneti, a five-and-a-half-foot welterweight, his stiff-jointedness seemingly an aspect of his strength, was on his way over to them. As the old man approached, Bill let his posture sag a bit: he didn’t want his superior height to be misunderstood. Not that there was any chance of that.
“Are you the father?” the old man asked. His tone was brusque, but didn’t his words suggest that, once again, congratulations were in order? Also, that responsibility was inescapable?
“Uh, yeah,” said Bill. “Yes, I am.”
“Tom Farneti,” said the old man, extending his hand.
“I remember you from when I was a kid,” said Bill, as he shook the old man’s knobby hand, but Farneti wanted to talk about now.
“Your boy’s a good hard puncher,” he said loudly, as if he were a little deaf, or thought Bill might be. “His timing’s not the greatest, and he’s a little heavy on his feet, but that can be corrected. He’s a hard worker, and he’s even got a little bit of a mean streak.” He seemed to take Bill’s comprehension for granted. There was no acknowledgment in his words that a parent might have misgivings about what he was saying, or that being a hard puncher or having a mean streak were other than useful qualities.
“You and I are gonna have to talk about his future sometime,” Tommy Farneti went on. “I think we can make something of your boy. It was nice making your acquaintance,” he concluded, and with a wink at Matt, withdrew.
“Dad,” whispered Matt, as soon as Tommy Farneti was out of earshot, “Coach wants to know if I can go a round with Cuba.”
Bill blinked, then forced a smile. “That doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “He’s half your size.” But it was no good joking. Though everyone continued to go about his business, and only the guy on the couch and Matthew were listening, Bill felt as if the whole room were waiting for his reply.
“Please, Dad,” said Matt.
“Listen, pal, we talked about this.”
“But Dad, just one round. We’ll be all padded up.”
“Matt…” said Bill, and sighed.
Breaking the uncomfortable silence, the guy on the couch said, “Tommy won’t let ‘im get hurt.”
Ignoring this, Bill said, “Matt, we had an agreement.”
In relation to Matt, Bill had come to feel keenly of late the strength of his position as naysayer.
Despite the compromises he sometimes felt forced to make where his son was concerned, the fact that he could still say no to Matt – the fact that saying no to Matt still seemed possible – increased Bill’s affection for the boy; it felt like a bond between them. Imagine the reaction he would get, the scenes that would ensue, the irrevocable damage that would be done, if he tried to tell Lauren she could no longer see Kevin – something it should have been his perfect right, as her father, to do! As for Mary, their steadily evolving twenty-year relationship contained no precedent that would enable him to realistically imagine even trying to dissuade her from continuing to sell Betty Lou Cosmetics.
Bill was alarmed to see now, however, that Matt was on the verge of tears – and for no other reason than that his father was making him stick to the terms of their agreement. The guy on the couch was eyeing Bill, who knew that whatever he said next would be wrong. He felt his fever rising; he stood there as if paralyzed, ashamed of his enormous, babyish, selfish son, who really didn’t have a thing in the world to cry about. But no, he told himself, this whole thing is my fault, for letting him come here, for showing the slightest enthusiasm, for my pride. Rocky, hitting the side of beef – give me a break! It was time to put a stop to this foolishness right now.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” Bill said, “but we had a deal.”
After that, Bill had to get out of the room. He told Matt he’d wait for him in the lobby upstairs, but as he walked miserably down the hall, instead of turning left at the stairwell, he continued straight, towards the swimming pool.
The door to the balcony was still open. He stepped inside, and walked down half a dozen concrete steps to the railing; but instead of the cavernous, subterranean aquahell he expected, preserved as a monument to his suffering, he found a modest four lane pool, half-lit and empty of swimmers, its mostly still water varying in depth from three to ten feet and gently rippling in spots along the edge from the action of the filters. In a small office off the pool, a man in a bathing suit was sitting at a metal desk, writing. The air was damp and uncomfortably warm; and Bill, still feverish, now remembered his swimming lessons as a series of unpleasant sensations: the near nakedness, the mandatory, freezing showers, the chattering teeth, the feet slapping slippery tiles, the chlorinated air as green as the lapping water, the shouts, the echoes, the inescapable proximity of other boys. You sat shivering on a wooden bench along the wall while Al Bender, short but powerfully built, with a prominent hard belly and wry bulldog features, took attendance. Next came the breath-clutching shock of the initial, waist-deep immersion; then the lesson began, with flutter kicks. Fifty boys faced the side of the pool, shoulder to shoulder, grasped the gutter, and kicked. The water roared, as if there were a waterfall at your back and the point of your exertions was to keep from being swept away. Sometimes they practiced their breathing while they kicked, putting their faces in the water and blowing bubbles, then turning their heads to the side to take air in. Bill had trouble establishing a breathing rhythm: he would blow too long, and begin to feel the terror that must attend the drowning man as he runs out of air. Then, with an effort, he would pull his face out of the churning water, as if something had been holding it there, and gulp down two or three breaths before plunging his face back in. He was never more than a mistimed inhalation away from a lungful of chlorinated water.
Other times, they just kicked. Then Bill kept his attention on the secret little world of the gutter: his handhold, his breathing space, his focal point. At regular intervals, Al Bender’s flat feet, shod in flip flops, passed close above Bill’s head, as the instructor paced back and forth on the pool deck, shouting to make his encouragements and sarcasms heard. In Bill’s imagination, the long-ago uncle who threw Bill’s grandfather in the lake was Al Bender.
A door at the far end of the balcony opened, and in came three black girls. Bill recognized the large girl he had seen playing tabletop football. Though there was something surreptitious in their movements, the girls took no notice of Bill. Bill saw that the man in the office was gone. He doubted these girls were supposed to be in here, and when the large girl drew what looked like a cigarette from the pocket of her windbreaker, he knew he should say something. Instead, he got up and left. He had been enough of an adult for one night.
Bill waited for Matt in the vestibule, standing and looking out the window of the front door at the dark street, as years ago he had stood waiting to be picked up after swimming lessons, watching for the family car, with his mother at the wheel, to round the bend. When Matt finally came trudging up the stairs, with his gym bag slung over his shoulder, his jacket open and his shirt half-tucked, Bill thought he looked more tired than upset.
“Ready to go, Chicago?” he asked, but Matt, his gaze averted, said nothing, and Bill felt at that moment that the significance of the boy’s nickname would never be known to him. They walked out the door and down the front steps without another word.
Once again, Bill found the night air soothing. As he and Matt rounded the corner of the building, they saw that the Assembly of God had let out. Groups of people were walking down the front stairs, or standing and talking by the lawn clock, nodding, affirming, contented, fortified. In the crowded parking lot on the far side of the Assembly, car engines were starting up, headlights coming on. The unhurried vehicles waited to make their exits, each car’s headlights dipping as it left the lot and headed off in one direction or another, through the otherwise empty downtown, proceeding back into the world.
“Hello, Bill and Matt,” came a voice from across the street. Bill looked towards a group of people standing in the darkness on the opposite sidewalk. Was that his mother excusing herself from the group? She came over to where her son and grandson were standing. It was her.
“What brings you two down here at this hour?” she asked. “Are you spying on me?’
In his confusion at seeing his mother, Bill was slow to respond, and it was Matt, who always softened in his grandmother’s presence, who answered.
“My dad brought me down,” he said. “I’m boxing at the Boys’ Club.”
“Boxing?” said Bill’s mother. “Oh, my. I hope you’re wearing gloves?”
“It’s just a beginners course,” Bill was quick to put in. “He’s doing it for the exercise. He’s not going to be fighting anybody, believe me.” Bill was certain as he said this that it wasn’t true – that if Matt really wanted to box, Bill would, in the long run, be helpless to stop him. He knew that this sense of helplessness had to do with the miraculous presence of his mother.
“Well, I guess you have to know how to defend yourself these days,” she said now. “He’s certainly big enough to box. My goodness, Matthew, look at the size of you. You must have grown three inches since I saw you last.”
Bill looked at his mother. “What are you doing here?” he finally brought himself to ask.
“Oh, I’ve been attending services at the Assembly of God for two or three months. Lillian Beylo got me started. Everyone is so nice – much friendlier than at St. John’s.”
Her metamorphosis could not have seemed more complete. She had belonged to the Legion of Mary as a girl, had made a daily Novena during each of her problem pregnancies, and now look at her: attending the Assembly of God, and not seeming the least bit embarrassed about it. Bill felt as if his abstemious mother had taken up smoking, or he was seeing her drunk.
“They do a lot of good down here,” Bill’s mother said to Matt, referring to the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. “I used to bring your father here for swimming lessons. Do you remember that, Bill?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Listen, Matthew,” said Bill’s mother, “I have a proposition for you. I’m cleaning out my attic, so that your father doesn’t have to do it when the house is his. Do you think some afternoon you can take time out from your boxing schedule to help me haul some stuff down? We’ll see if you’re really as strong as you look.”
Bill regarded his mother’s kindly, joshing face, his son’s blushing deference and pride. They bring out the best in each other, he thought, and saw that the best he could do for either of them now was to encourage their relationship.
“Sure he can help you,” he said, a little desperately. “Why don’t we set a time?”
“Oh, not yet,” said his mother. “I have some work to do first. I’ll give you a call when I’m ready. Well, I’d better be going,” she said, looking across the street to where the last of her fellow congregants were starting to disperse. “Bye, Bill. Goodbye, Matt. Don’t get your block knocked off boxing.”
This brought Bill up short – it sounded like a valediction. Was it all she had to offer? It was as if she were telling her grandson, with her dying breath, not to take any wooden nickels.
They watched her cross the street and head towards the parking lot. Passing in front of the lawn clock, she looked like she might be trying to catch her group.
“Ready, Dad?” said Matt, impatient now to go, his anger at his father clear in his voice.
“Not really,” said Bill, as he watched the receding figure of his mother scuttle a bit unsteadily towards the brightly lit, nearly empty parking lot. This was not what he wanted for her.; he had an impulse to call to her. But Matt was already walking away to look for the car; so Bill let his mother go and set off after his son.