These days, I can’t help thinking about Ravenstown because I tried so hard to just put it away but now I only feel guilty. Being in college kept me distracted for a while, but I know deep down that this feeling of guilt only got bigger and bigger once I got into college. I was just trying to suppress it and imagine that everything I had done was logical, like any other person would do the same. I guess that may be true, that I just did what I had to do, but I still feel awful and I can’t really explain why, and none of my friends would really understand, so maybe you will.
The reason this all is coming back to me now is because of the letter I got just the other day from my Aunt Sally. I love her to death but she’s gotta know by now that the only things I expect from letters are birthday cards, money, or bad news. I just don’t really write letters any more. I don’t think many people do. It wasn’t my birthday, so I was curious about what it was. I guess that even though I said “bad news” is one of those things you get in a handwritten letter, I only say it now, a couple days later, because that letter had bad news.
There were two parts to the letter. The first was a handwritten note from Aunt Sally. I wondered before I even read the “I’m really sorry” at the beginning why she couldn’t just give me a call. Then I read the rest.
“I’m really sorry to have to show you this, but it wouldn’t be right if you didn’t know. We got this from your mother. At first, I wondered if you might be better off not knowing. Uncle Gary and I talked it over, and we decided you ought to hear. Please don’t be mad at us. Don’t be upset. There was nothing you could do. Call if you want to talk.”
I felt dumb that I had read that note without seeing the other part of her letter, but knowing myself, I was just scared and procrastinating. I think reading her letter made it all worse. I almost didn’t want to see what it was she was talking about, but I could have guessed pretty easily based on what she wrote that something had happened to Reggie, Tek, or Luis. I flipped the other piece of paper over. It was a small newspaper clipping. At the top, as I almost guessed, was the bold printed name of “Ateka ‘Tek’ Ali.” At first, I didn’t realize it was an obituary, since it was just a small little ditty in the paper. I figured it out when I was reading, and I just felt empty and angry at myself or something, like one of those times where you feel like you’ve done something wrong. I read it carefully.
ATEKA ‘TEK’ ALI, 20
Ateka “Tek” Ali, 20, of Ravenstown, Ohio died on October 14, 2004 in a train accident.
At his request, no service will be held. Friends of Mr. Ali are currently arranging for a small memorial service to be announced in the coming week.
Mr. Ali was born on August 25, 1984 in Ravenstown, Ohio to Abdul and Basma Ali. He graduated from Ravenstown High School in 2002.
A lover of boxing, Mr. Ali named Muhammad Ali and Diego Flores as his greatest heroes. Mr. Ali had told his friends that his goal was to pursue a law degree. He was hoping to attend community college this spring.
He is survived by his parents as well as his sister Dimah, 14.
I put everything down and took a deep breath. Reading something like that had put this little pit in my stomach, a sinking feeling. I looked around my dorm room, thought about calling Aunt Sally or even my mom but I just thought both couldn’t really change any thing. It’s not like I didn’t believe it happened.
I got out at the end of the summer of ’98, right after the Flores fight, because I had to go move in with my Aunt Sally in New Jersey. I don’t think that summer was so special just because it’s the last thing I took with me from Ravenstown. I know that Reggie, Tek, and Luis would probably agree that there was something about it that was different. Something mesmerizing, maybe. It’s just that I know if I had tried to stay in touch with them, I’d be able to tell you whether or not that’s true. But I feel that it’s true, I really do. It was an important summer for all of us.
We played by the trains all the time. That’s why it struck a chord with me, that it was a train accident. But I can’t help feeling this little shred of something, something scary I guess, about that line, “At his request, no service will be held.” I want to believe it was a mistake, but it’s been so long, you know? And the mention of his friends doing a memorial service, it’s like confirmation that they’re real, that they’re still out there, and
then I wonder if I should be going. But will they hate me? I re-read the line about Diego Flores and I know that they couldn’t hate me because we did that all together during that summer. I have to believe that it matters to them as much as it matters to me. I just have to replay it all in my head and figure out what I should do.
We were just kids. We didn’t know any better. We knew nothing, really. We roamed around, played with stuff, kicked things around. The woods were ours and we made them seem like whatever we wanted them to seem like. A jungle sometimes, a castle another day. The train tracks went through the woods, and some days it got so hot that summer, there were at least three or four times one of us hallucinated about Diego Flores sitting right near us, looking at the trains with us. We fainted sometimes but it never got too serious. We were 14 years old and still, we daydreamed. I’d kill to have the imagination I had then. I remember the graffiti, its smooth, mesmerizing texture, the mystery of what it meant, and the way the nights just seemed to slowly turn the color of orangeade. I remember that all like it’s something I still ought to be doing now. And yet it seems so close and so foreign at the same time.
“We” was Reggie, Tek, Luis, and me, two black boys, a Hispanic boy and myself – the black sheep white boy – all tied together by Diego Flores’s poster on our walls. That, and Ravenstown. We talked about our fantasies like any boys would, but we never called it “getting out” because to do so was to acknowledge that there was a problem.
I remember the events of that summer in bits and pieces. It seems like we did the same stuff every day, like it all blended together. But that made those little changes stick out. Like these little things that happened throughout the summer actually seemed like major events, that’s how routine our lives were. We were just playing, by the train tracks,
by the parking lots, by the alleyways, in Lou’s Pizza. The summer was ours. We’d been tight for so many years, inseparable really, and we needed each other so we weren’t just angry all the time.
At the beginning, we learned about kicking stones. Diego Flores had just won that big fight over Mario Marquez, do you remember that? Reggie said we should celebrate by throwing pebbles into the lake. We always did stuff like that when we were in a good mood, thinking about things and just relaxing. We had lots of respect for Reggie because he had the biggest Diego poster. It’s kinda funny how kids pick their leader. His poster was so dark, complete blackness, except for the light shining down on Diego, his red trunks, his “RAVENSTOWN” tattoo that stretched from shoulder to shoulder, his arms raised triumphantly. Reggie was so dark, we actually joked that the poster was the one thing blacker than him. He shrugged it off because he knew his was the best.
None of us had seen the fight but we were talking about it. Reggie had eight siblings, so he didn’t even bother trying to get his parents to let him. Tek was always in trouble with his parents, so they weren’t gonna pay for it. Luis had a single mom so he had to take care of his younger siblings all the time. I was relatively privileged I guess, and I feel bad about that. But I also don’t think they understood I had my own set of problems. I spent much of my time in front of a television wondering when my dad would come home from his latest trucking gig. He’d always looked at me apologetically from across the living room as I was lying down with my head on my hands by the television. I’d try acting uninterested in him because I thought he was uninterested in me, and so for only a second would I turn around when I heard the opening of the screen door as he nodded his head at me without saying a word. He looked as if he wanted to say something to me most times, but he rarely did. As for my mom, she was just completely indifferent. So we never saw the fights, and I hated that I had no control over my parents.
But what we did that day, we tried to act it out ourselves. For my birthday, I had received a highlight tape of Diego, and some afternoons, we spent hour after hour watching it when we were too tired running around. Soon, we knew the highlight tape by heart, Reggie announcing one move followed by me re-enacting it on Luis, Tek offering the fake applause from the crowd. This was how we got our daily diet of Diego Flores, because we were not old enough to go to the bars in town that carried the fights on television. We did it by heart that day, and every time I landed a fake Diego punch on Luis, Tek would throw a pebble into the lake and we would count the skips. Like I said, we were just kids.
This homeless guy came up to us. Old, tired-looking black guy, right up the little pebbly path by the bench where we were hanging out. We kinda just kept doing our thing because it’s not like we hadn’t seen homeless people before, it’s ridiculous how many there were there, but we were a little nervous since he seemed to be really into whatever we were doing. It was actually me who was celebrating a nice little fake punch I had landed by throwing a pretty big stone when this homeless guy just snatched it out of my hand.
“What the hell you think this is?!” the man yelled. I took a step back right away, and Reggie got right in his face, but we had to hold him back. He was screaming and there was a little commotion and stuff but the homeless guy just ignored us completely. He put the stone on the ground and started kicking it. We looked at him like he was crazy, like that had to hurt his feet, you know? This was a pretty decent sized stone. The guy just didn’t notice our reactions.
“Thems is kicking stones,” he said defiantly as he kicked my stone past us, pointing at the other stones lying around, and then, from over his shoulder, “they ain’t for throwin’. Not here.”
And he kept kicking the stone along the dirt path and away from us. We looked at one another, embarrassed. Because he was older than us, it didn’t matter that he was a bum. We took his word to be true because he had been wandering around longer than us, plain and simple.
Reggie found a stone and placed it on the ground. He started kicking it down the dirt path. We looked between him and the lake and followed suit, kicking stones all the way into town, until we made it to Lou’s pizza, where at sunset, on this Sunday afternoon, we would get the leftover slices so long as we were first in what would become a fairly long line.
“You’re a gringo,” Luis told me when we sat down, “letting that old man take your stone.” I blushed and looked down at my lap.
“Gringo!” Reggie and Tek yelled and laughed together, clapping their hands, prompting Old Louie to yell at us to shut the fuck up from the back of the restaurant, us dirty good-for-nothing brats.
“What it mean?” Tek asked, eyeing the soda machine behind me, probably fingering the levers in his mind without getting caught.
“What’s what mean?!” Reggie shouted. “Kickin’ stones, man.”
“What it mean? It ain’t no matter it just what you do, kick dem stones, man. What it be, what it do.”
I was relieved to have lost the attention. I learned about racism, ironically, through my own experience of loneliness sometimes. Not just with my friends as the only white boy, but also that feeling of loneliness I felt when I was without them, because I imagined that they felt just as alone as I did when they were the only people of color in a place. But I also learned it first-hand by watching how the three of them were treated. Immediately after that unforgivably awkward silence, Old Louie walked out, eyed the four of us, told us troublemakers to go, and to take our spic friend with us.
Dusk was setting in, and we knew we’d blown it at Lou’s: we’d be hungry that night. We kicked pebbles along the crumbling plains of cement and tried to feel better. We explored the alleyways for signs of hope from others. Yes, the graffiti, our own personal horoscope, was forecasting what we knew but never said: that if a boy from Ravenstown could leave and win a boxing title, then we all could get out and be successful.
Luis, upset that a fellow foreigner had degraded him in front of us, said he had to go to take care of his brother and sister. We all broke up for the night then to make him feel better, something we had to do a lot because Luis was always busy helping his mom. He did this weird thing though where he would hug each of us before he left and I think it is something his mom told him to do. Reggie said that he was “gonna go call some chicks,” the same chicks we never met, who couldn’t have really existed since he spent all his time with us. Tek was absorbed by the graffiti and traced his hand along its path in the grooves of the brick wall. I think he was trying to pull the words out because they
looked three dimensional, but they ultimately frustrated him since they were not what he wanted them to be. He sauntered off without saying a word, his over-sized shirt billowing in the wind against his lanky frame. Luis put his hands in his pockets and glimpsed out at the setting sun. Without looking at me, he apologized for calling me a “gringo,” gave me a hug as I stood silently with my arms at my side, and trotted off to follow Tek, leaving me in the chilly evening to reflect on what didn’t seem so much like a wasted day any more, alone.
The next big thing was the day that they announced the Flores-Broxton fight. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, because that was a big deal. You know that Broxton was the big name in boxing at the beginning of the decade. We knew it because even as kids we would wander into the boxing gym looking at all these guys trying to make a living and all they would talk about was Tony Broxton. It’s like you think they’d talk about Diego Flores because he was in their situation once, but no, it was all Broxton. A little Diego here and there. But when they announced the fight, all the Broxton posters were torn down off that awful, smoldering stucco in the gym. He became a public enemy, Diego a hero, and even now as I remember the smell of sweat in that small, dingy little room on the corner of a block with empty lots, I miss the feeling of thinking that one day, I was going to rise up and be just like Diego Flores.
I was watching television at home when I found out about the fight. I think I just hadn’t met up with my friends yet. But I was not alone when I heard the announcement. My mom and the self-proclaimed electrician were sitting on the couch behind me. I know now that they were not really taking a moment to watch television with me. He was
probably fondling her. They probably carelessly caressed one another as I sat obliviously in front of them looking in the wrong direction, unable to understand anyway even if I had been looking behind me. My dad had disappeared without explanation that summer, but he was always on the road so much that I hadn’t even really noticed, and I was too young and stupid and pre-occupied to really know what my mom was up to.
The boxing gym was where I got the news again. It was where I ran to, alone, hopping over the stones and guard rails along the sidewalks and crumbling walls, only to see fifteen to twenty men of varying ages and colors crowded around a small television on a flimsy stand in the corner of the gym. Some of them were sweaty or out of breath and had their hands at their sides. One of them was angrily wrestling with the antenna to get a better picture. Then there was Diego on the screen, cleanly shaven, hair shorn, and a crisp smile on his face that seemed so genuine. Behind the television was an autographed photograph of Diego from his younger days, when he had stepped into that very same gym. After I looked at it, I looked down at my own two feet and wondered if Diego had ever stepped in the same exact place.
I remember his smile, his white teeth, his clean-cut face, his short, spiky hair, and his general friendliness. He seemed like a guy I would hang out with, if I were older at least. He was not just our hero, but everyone’s hero. I remember wanting to lay claim to him. I remember nothing else about the interview with Diego except that they asked him where he was from, that we cheered loudly when he said “Ravenstown,” and we felt ashamed, again, when the promoter asked him “Where the hell is that?!”
I remember the first time we actually started talking about what the fight meant. We may not have been bright kids, but we could feel things, like important moments. We were at the town dump because Reggie’s mother needed a new lamp. This time, though, we weren’t really looking too hard. Just talking to each other, we felt like the lamp could wait for now.
“What happens if he wins?” Tek asked, plunging his long arms into a dirty pile of empty beer cans.
“Why you always be askin’ stupid questions, man?” Reggie yelled. Just Reggie being Reggie, I thought. Tek shrugged.
“Dunno, man. Just curious…”
At first, I had agreed with Reggie that Tek was asking a dumb question. But they weren’t always dumb. I mean, even the question about kicking stones seemed dumb at first, but then you really had to think about it. Yeah, if Diego Flores won, he’d be the champion. He’d be the best. But then what? What did it really mean? What happened next?
Luis, already tan in his white tank top, put the matter to rest. He was good at doing that ever so quietly, while I, I just kept kicking digging through piles like I normally would.
“If he wins, he’s the welterweight champion, Tek. Best in the world. As for what happens after that, man, I dunno. We gonna find out, though, right?”
Joe the Garbage Guy emerged from behind a pile of old books just then. That’s what we called him. I don’t know what he really did.
“What you rascals doin’ here?” he snarled, twisting his cap back on straight and fixing his overalls.
“Looking for a lamp, man,” Reggie whined, “why you gotta be bustin’ up in here again?”
Joe the Garbage Guy looked embarrassed. I was embarrassed for him. He was pretty old and had been doing this for years. He was always trying to fix himself up around us even though he was unshaven and unhealthy looking.
“Not ‘bustin’ up’ on anything, man. Just don’t see a lot of folks rummaging around here this late in the day, when the sun’s about to set and all.”
We nodded. We tried to pretend that Joe the Garbage Guy was going to leave us alone now, but we were wrong.
“What you kids even searchin’ for anyway? A lamp or somethin’?”
Reggie nodded. The rest of us just stared.
“Tough times, huh? Can’t even buy a lamp in this place.”
I had expected Reggie to be angry, maybe ask Joe the Garbage Guy why he wascalling him out for being poor, but Reggie was unexpectedly calm. Our condition was universal, I thought. This was a moment of unity.
“Well I say, search away. Make it yer dream. Hustle kids, but don’t listen to everything else they say.”
“What you mean?” Luis shot back with surprising interest, “What who says?”
Joe the Garbage Guy sighed and crossed his arms. He scratched his stubbly cheek a bit and looked out across the lake as the sun began to set.
“Everyone. All the older folks. You know, about tryin’ hard in school and all that. I was almost valedictorian. Look at me now. Nah, if you’re gonna get out of here, it’s gonna be somethin’ special, like the way that Diego Flores did it. You gotta start boxin’ or learnin’ some kinda trade, somethin’…”
He paused. We lingered around, waiting for him to finish his sentence. He looked away from the setting sun now, and back at us. We looked silently at anything but Joe the Garbage Guy. We wanted to pretend we hadn’t heard him, but we had. I bent down and picked up a tattered magazine and pretended to read it.
“So…what you gon’ do?” Tek asked.
Reggie shrugged, a look of frustration marking his sweaty face.
“Dunno, man. Boxing, probably. How boutchu?”
Tek raised his shoulders as well, then bent over to pick up a stone. He studied it abit, turning it over in his hands, tossing it from one to the other. He turned around to throw it into the lake, extending his arm backward, but then he stopped, put it on the ground, and tapped it with his foot.
Was he too ashamed to tell us he wanted to be a lawyer?
We walked home. But walking home those days wasn’t just plain and simple like it should’ve been. We’d jump on rails and hop between the blocks of cement or jump into the holes that had formed within the blocks. We pretended to be other people; the President of the United States, a famous actor, Diego Flores. We thought we were free, and maybe we were. No one was around to tell us otherwise during those walks in the
darkness. And no one cared that summer about where we were, or what time we’d be home for dinner.
That was the problem. Sometimes, I’d get home, and my mother would be absent. If I was lucky, I’d get a note next to some food. It would say that she was out for the night but here was some food for dinner. Other times, no note and no food. There were many nights where I didn’t eat a real dinner. I was used to scrounging around, and I don’t know if my mother knew that and budgeted accordingly, but I managed.
Other times, she would be home. If she was with a man, she would instantly explain his purpose. He would be an electrician, or a plumber, or a mechanic, or something that we apparently needed over for some kind of fixing. I was too naïve to think that they were there for any other purpose. Usually, these men would leave pretty quickly after I had arrived.
Whether or not someone was over, she would ask me what I was up to. She’d ask if I was “kicking around town.” Usually, that was the right way of putting it. A few times, when she asked me this kind of question, she seemed to mean it. She seemed to feel genuinely sorry about being a shitty mom. She would swing back her black hair and narrow her eyes at me, making me feel like she was really listening. Without fail, I’d brush her off as quickly as possible and go to watch television. And I don’t see how I can regret that.
I got home one day from sitting by the train tracks (we had been watching the trains come and go through town all day), and my mother stood up and instantly came to the door to give me a hug. She was wearing only jeans and a bra. She peppered me with kisses and hugs and asked me how I was feeling. I was confused by her sudden affection but I tried to enjoy it. It was a surprisingly good feeling to think that she might love me. She asked me if I was looking forward to school, what I had been doing with my friends, what I thought about Diego’s upcoming fight. She even led me to the kitchen table and sat me down on the chair next to hers, got up on her knees on the chair and started blowing smoke rings. She asked me if I wanted to go watch the Diego Flores fight somewhere in a month.
I actually started to look at her for once. I had seen her around but I didn’t really know what she looked like up close. We never sat down and talked like that. She had beautiful green eyes, long, dark hair, and a bony frame. Her narrow jaw-line made her look kind of like a witch, but a beautiful witch, I thought to myself. Yes, maybe I loved my mother after all.
“So um…where’s dad?” I finally asked. I thought that this was my chance. All summer, I had been curious, but my mother and I barely spoke. I thought that even the slightest hint of this question would get me into some kind of trouble. Either that, or I was afraid to know the answer. To me, it was possible that my dad had died. Seriously. I had noticed him fighting with my mom, so I thought to myself that maybe she wouldn’t have even been sad if he had. I really wouldn’t have known either way.
She put out her cigarette and looked at me, in a cold way. She had never looked at me like that before. I can still see that look in my head when I want to conjure it. It was a sympathetic stare, right into my eyes. But I realize now it was just a look of insecurity.
“Do you love me?” she asked. I shook. Love was not a word that was used in that house. I hadn’t remembered my parents saying anything about love except for when I was younger, when they tucked me in at night. I remembered it then only because I didn’t remember it ever happening afterward. Things were better then. What I knew then was teddy bears from my mother, catch with my father, and that I was loved. With time, that all gradually dissolved. The hardest part about leaving them behind was that I like to think that my mom and dad are still those people, but they’re just not any more, and it makes me so frustrated that I can’t just have this normal set of parents. It’s like I know they’re there somewhere, but I can’t have them.
I looked down and clamped my hands together. I didn’t really know what love was. Even if I had loved my mother, I was shy about admitting it, just as I was shy about letting Luis hug me before he went home every night. But I knew there was only one way to get what I wanted out of this conversation, and besides, my mom had just showered me with affection for the first time since god knows when. I had thought that maybe I did love her or at least admire her in some weird way because she seemed beautiful.
“Yes,” I muttered.
“Oh, that makes me so happy to hear,” she said, sliding the traces of cocaine off the table. It’s a detail that I hadn’t really noticed back then.
“You know, sometimes I feel bad I’m not around and everything. Your Aunt Sally has all the money in the world and she still doesn’t help her sister out. But I always know you’re doing just fine. You and those kids. Oh, boys will be boys,” she chuckled, but then seeing me sitting there emotionless, added, “Yes…you boys are something else.”
“Dad’s gone away for awhile, a lot of long drives out west somewhere. But he’ll be back sometime.”
She gave me a hug. And that was that.
As July turned into August, the heat became bad but the town was buzzing with the upcoming fight. Ravenstown was getting press. People were becoming friendlier. We still sat by the train tracks and watched the trains come and go. We wondered if we could hop on board. Reggie dared us to try but none of us was brave enough. I wonder now if that’s how Tek got out. As for Reggie, he said he wanted to blaze his own path. No one questioned that.
We played games. We searched for things. We jumped and hopped around. But mostly we sat down against the tree trunks by the tracks and fiddled with leaves, getting ready for the next train to come. We didn’t carry watches with us, but it was so routine for us and we could tell time so well just with our senses that we knew when each train would come. We just wondered where it would come from, where it would go to. We could never prove who was right or wrong, and because we were never wrong, the game was always fun.
A week before the fight, we though we had another one of those weird hallucinations, except the sun was setting and we were getting ready to go home. About fifty yards down the tracks from us was a shirtless man panting heavily on a tree stump looking out at the tracks. He was real sweaty. We hadn’t seen him. Reggie was the one who elbowed us and silently motioned toward him. And after a really long, hard stare, we all had the sneaking suspicion that this person was none other than Diego Flores himself.
We inched closer, following Reggie’s lead.
“Oh my god,” Luis said. We were only twenty-five yards or so away now, and the man had turned to face us. It really was Diego.
We stopped. We looked at him. He looked at us. His face was wet with sweat and he was breathing heavily. He had probably been running through the woods. He was cut like a rock. He was hunched over just enough so that we could see the edges of his “Ravenstown” tattoo. It really was him.
My first thought was, “What is he doing here?” I had imagined Diego Flores as a celebrity who had left Ravenstown for good. He was the kind of person who would live in Los Angeles. Or just anywhere else, really. Places that were far away.
We all had that thought as we sat there with stupid expressions on our faces. Finally, Diego motioned for us to come over. We jogged over immediately, and for the first and last time in our lives, we saw the legend up close. He was a real person, after all. He extended his hand and said, “Diego.” We shook it one by one, mumbling our names, never once looking anywhere else but at his face.
“What are you boys doing here?” he asked. His voice was the confirmation that this was really him, not a robot that just looked like him or something. We had only seen and heard him on television.
“We just lookin’ at dem trains,” Reggie replied. “How boutchu?”
“I used to do that all the time,” Diego said, looking out at the tracks and ignoring Reggie’s question altogether. There was a long silence. Then I noticed. He had wet eyes. Not from sweating, but from crying. He really was human after all, I thought. My hero had weaknesses just like anyone else. He really was a person, wasn’t he?
“Why you cryin’?” Reggie asked. I think the rest of us wanted to hit him. He was being so bold trying to impress Diego. But the boxer just laughed.
“I saw you kids, made me remember what it was like to be a kid here.”
“You didn’t like being a kid here?”
“I loved being a kid here, man. I liked it less when I got older. You kids remindme of me and my boys.”
“Where are your boys?”
“One of ‘em is still here, somewhere. The other dude I was tight with, me and my buddy dared him to jump onto one of those trains and get outta here, and he did it.”
“So he’s somewhere else now?”
“Yeah,” our teary-eyed hero said, “you could say that.”
“Do a lot of boxers cry?” Luis asked, taking Reggie’s lead.
“They all cry.”
“Dag,” Reggie said, “That’s wild, son.”
I imagined Tony Broxton crying. I couldn’t see it. It was acceptable for my hero, Diego, because he was a real man. But for that brute Tony Broxton, there was no crying allowed.
“You gonna win that fight yo?” Tek chimed in, gesticulating nervously with his hands. Diego laughed again.
“Sure hope so buddy.”
It was my turn to talk. I asked him what had been on my mind all summer. “You think we’ll get out, too?”
Diego looked at me anxiously with his mouth closed and seemed to be really studying me. It made me nervous. Then he sighed and looked down at the ground, and then back out at the tracks with his head on his fist, shaking his head, not saying a single word.
When I got home that night, I was excited to tell my mom about what had just happened. There was nothing else in the world besides Diego Flores that would make me so anxious to see her. But when I opened the door, she wasn’t there. I saw my Aunt Sally, my Uncle Gary, and some other guy I had never seen before, sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me. I hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle in years, but I recognized them all the same. I liked them even though I rarely saw them because they always sent me money for my birthday. Still, my first instinct was to run. They opened their mouths to say something, so I ran.
I ran as fast as I could down the street. I knew if I could just get to the woods then I would be the master of my domain. I realized pretty quickly that the stranger, the stranger who had stood up when I opened the door, was chasing after me. He forced me toward the lake, and when I got there, I could only give up.
He calmed me down on the way back to the house, and he told me I was going to have to live with my aunt and uncle for a while. I know now that he was some kind of child protection agent or something. I know now that he found me a way out without even meaning to. The whole thing wasn’t a big deal to me at the time because the Diego Flores fight was coming up and I had just met the man himself, and having different parents wasn’t going to change much, I thought.
When we got back to the house, Uncle Gary and Aunt Sally gave me a hug and told me everything would be alright. I ignored them and asked where they lived. All I really knew was that they were from somewhere else. When they said New Jersey, I tried to run again, but the strange man held me back. I kicked and screamed; I have never been more upset in my life. In the years that followed, I slowly began to see it as a blessing, but I’m never completely sure it is, because it makes me feel so strange, thinking about all these things that could have been. The parents I had who disappeared. The friends I had who I betrayed.
I kicked and screamed so much that they begged me to tell them what was the matter. When I told them about the Flores fight, they looked at each other and shrugged and told me we could stay around for a week before we left, in a motel or something. I know they were trying to do any thing they could to help me.
The next week was the hardest one of my life. I lived in a motel in the next town over with Uncle Gary and Aunt Sally. They tried to offer me all kinds of different things but I refused. All I wanted to do was hang out with Reggie, Tek, and Luis. To Uncle Gary and Aunt Sally, it was absurd that I was allowed to wander around all day without any parental supervision, and they thought I might run away again if they let me do what I was used to doing.
There were a few times I was able to invite them all over to go swimming in the motel pool. The first time they came, I denied that any thing was happening. I told them that my aunt and uncle were visiting from out of town, and that I was just staying with them for the week. I don’t know why I lied to them. I think I was too young to feel guilty,
because even though we felt like we needed to get out of Ravenstown, we still had dreams and everything. I think it was because I was scared, or I didn’t want to actually believe it myself that I was going to be leaving them behind.
The one day Aunt Sally and Uncle Gary did let me go off on my own though was the day Diego had his fight. The day that happened, there was a parade in town. Lou’s was giving out free pizza, everyone was smiling, people were drinking in the streets: it was really a sight to see in Ravenstown. It was the first day that me and my gang took part in something greater than ourselves.
The euphoria came to a bit of a standstill at seven o’clock when most of these people tried to crowd into bars to watch the fight itself. The bars were really the only places in town that could carry the fight. Fortunately, Reggie, Tek, Luis, and I had every intention of watching it together. I just didn’t know if I really felt like I was one of them any more. I could tell they knew there was something wrong, but we just got used to never asking each other what kinds of personal problems we had.
We went to the Purple Raven, which was the most popular bar in town, and probably the most crowded that night. The bouncer, this odd-looking bald guy with thick eyelashes and thin lips looked curiously at us as we came to the door. He signaled his counterpart over from inside the bar, a taller black man with sunglasses and dreadlocks who looked upset about having to focus his attention away from the thumping music within the bar.
The white guy whispered something to the black guy, and the black guy just simply said, “No,” and shooed us away with his hands.
“C’mon man, please?” Reggie begged. “We been waitin’ all summer for this. C’mon man.”
“You kids ain’t 21,” the bouncer said. We looked at each other, then at the bouncer. There was a long line behind us. Soon, they took our side.
“Let the kids in,” they shouted, or, “Do it for Ravenstown!”
The bouncer blushed, and his fat friend started whispering in his ear again. The other bouncer started nodding his head.
“Alright, fine. You kids can come in. But you gotta pay the $5 cover.”
Between the four of us, we could manage $2.71 that we had in our pockets, just loose change we had collected on the sidewalks or in the woods. The people behind us took note of the situation and started collecting money among themselves. Soon, they had collected $18 and had forked it over to the bouncer. He made this fake smile and let us in.
The bar was dingy, dark and reeking of piss and booze. We didn’t care. The music was loud, the television was showing the fights that led up to the title bout, and we were really just amazed with our first experience: hundreds of happy people crammed into one space. Had they always been that happy? Had we just never known?
People said things to us here and there about how young we were, but soon we were seeing several other people arrive at the bar who were clearly under 21 as well. We were left alone toward the back of the bar to watch the moment we had been waiting all summer for, if not our whole lives.
There was a buzz when we saw Tony Broxton on the screen. The bar, mostly crowded with men, felt electric. The men were of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Many of them wore hats, clinked their glasses together, and gazed upwards at the televisions in anticipation. In the past, these men had fought each other in this bar. Today, they were friends.
I looked at my own friends but they were all captivated by the television. For me, it was less of a marvel because television was my daily life when I was not with them. I also knew I was leaving and my mind was elsewhere. My friends, they were silent but anxious. Tek was biting his fingernails.
Then, Diego Flores came on the screen. There was a loud roar as he walked to the ring and took off his warm-ups. In the past, Diego had seemed like a distant figure to us. But now, he seemed quite real. It was only a week ago that we had spoken to him right after one of his workouts by the train tracks during a little foray into his roots before the big fight.
I noticed two things before the fight started. First, I noticed that Tony Broxton was enormous. He looked invincible. Seeing him was the reminder that what we had expected to happen all along was far from given. The euphoria we had experienced earlier that day was there because we needed it. We couldn’t risk waiting until after the fight, because Diego might lose.
The second thing I noticed was that this did not deter any one from being hopeful. Yes, the others around me had noticed it too, that Broxton was a bull. They fidgeted nervously. They were sweating; the bar stank like sweat. They chatted nervously with one another. Nothing was certain for any of us. But they were still smiling.
When the fight started, the bar became more silent as people focused on the match. When there was a flurry of activity, there were excited roars. Occasionally, people called things out to the television. But if Tony Broxton ever did anything good, the place was dead silent, and we just watched and waited and hoped.
For the first couple of rounds, there was little action. Broxton was slightly more active than Flores. Me and my friends knew very little about boxing, but we knew enough to tell who was winning, plus we could tell by the noises people made in the bar. Throughout the first two rounds, we had been muttering instructions to Flores. He needs to duck quicker. He needs to land some more jabs. He’s gotta hop-step. Or, from Reggie, he gotta fuckin’ pick it up.
As the fight continued, Flores started to develop his chances. By the sixth round, he had Broxton cornered and landed a huge uppercut on the jaw before time ran out. The bar erupted. The tides were turning. Our hometown hero was taking control of the match. As he walked back to his corner with a bloody eye, I thought about the tears that had emanated from that eye only a week ago. I thought about how blessed I was to have met this man. I thought about how he was the brother I had always wanted. And then I looked at my friends and thought to myself that these were the brothers I wanted for the rest of my life. In that moment, I realized that I loved each of them dearly in their own special way. I wanted to tell them that I loved them, but it seemed out of place not only for that time, but for any time we were hanging out together. I thought about just telling them that I was leaving, but the fight was about to continue.
We were four boys from the Midwest and we couldn’t have known. We threw pebbles. We kicked stones. We ran around. We played with things. We looked at the trains. We looked to Diego. We smelled the beer and the blood but we didn’t know the fighting first-hand. We knew we were supposed to feel hopeless but somehow we had this enthusiasm to stir around. We couldn’t have known a thing at all.
When the seventh round picked up, Diego continued where he had left off. But Broxton would not go down. He was very much in the fight, landing his jabs here and there. And then, as quickly as I had regained hope on a hot summer day in front of my television, I instantly lost it all as Tony Broxton landed a shattering blow across Diego’s right cheek, knocking him unconscious down to the ground like a lightning bolt.
Except for the people that cried out in despair, the bar was utterly silent. I felt a weight enter my stomach. I looked at my friends; they were gaping at the television. I looked back at the television to confirm my worst fears: Diego, lying motionless on the ground, as Tony Broxton raised his arms in victory and hugged his trainer, sweat and blood dripping down from his crew cut down to his legs.
We hung our heads. I felt bad. For myself, yes, but more so for my friends. Would it be strange if I said I missed that feeling of despair we had? Usually, this was the time when fights would start. Yes, men were starting to yell expletives out at the air. These men had been coming here to sweat out their anger for years. They had fought each other. They knew one another quite well. They worked with one another. They kept each other down in their daily lives. The time was ripe for a beating, or several. We were young but we knew that, so we inched toward the door.
But all I remember as I was leaving was the men crying. My friends didn’t see it, they were so eager to leave. It was just me looking back from the doorway, before one of them grabbed my arm and pulled me out. I wish they could have seen it. Grown men crying, just like Diego. Grown men crying and hugging and comforting each other. I have
this image in my head of a man with short hair and a little bit of a beard sobbing into his arms over a beer, and two Hispanic strangers holding themselves close to him.
My friends were angry, and they expected the mood to reflect their own feelings of sadness. But they couldn’t have known what the atmosphere would be like, the throes of compassion in a time of utter solitude, so we got out of that place, kicking stones the whole way home.