Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Boxer's Lament by Ben Woestenburg

Sarah tells the story of growing up in Maine with her ageing uncle, formerly one of the world's greatest boxers; by Ben Woestenburg.

You won't find Vermont Falls on a map anywhere, not unless you go back thirty or forty years, and then you'd have to be looking for it in the first place. Vermont Falls was a dirt poor, Black community, two miles from the Maine coast and sitting on a hill overlooking the winding Naragaugus River. It isn't there anymore, and hasn't been for a long time; it died when they shut down the Cannery.

A small fishing village made up of ramshackle shanties that looked like they were carved into a malignant hillside, the single street looped around itself like a wet rope twisted over on its side. The shacks were small, two or three rooms with dirt floors, although some had scrap pieces of wood laid down and looking like giant jigsaw puzzles inside. The windows were blackened within by smoke drifting up through worn out chimney pipes, and the glass sparkled like mirrors on the outside. Most of the windows were splintered, and the cracks looked like spiders' webs when the sun crested the hills and broke through the trees. The shacks were painted with multiple colors that made you think maybe they ran out of paint and used whatever was available, and from a distance, the place looked like an old patch-worn quilt someone left out in the rain.

In Vermont Falls, there was always a sense of foreboding and desperation that clung to us like a heavy cloak. The town had long been home to forgotten exiles and former heroes - people like Uncle Sam and my Daddy - men who lived in the shadows of previous generations and fished the open seas. Fishing was like sharecropping the sea, they said, and then they asked themselves what difference it made, as long as it was theirs to crop. It was subsistence living at best.

The low rolling hills were full of color in the fall - like a postcard in a corner store, or the kind of picture you might see on a calendar somewhere and send off to a friend. The trees grew down to the water's edge, darkening the distance like part of a watery plain. It's what gave the place its sense of soul. The trees; the water; the landscape; they were all a part of you that couldn't be left behind. They were the Holy Trinity that spelled out "HOME".

As much as I might love the ocean now - and I do - I miss the trees of my youth. The trees stood in verdant contrast to the ruddy lanes bleeding into steep trails that led down to the river. In winter, we'd sled down the trails to the frozen slough below; in summer, fishing nets and lobster traps needing repair had to be walked up the trails at the end of a long, frustrating day - where the day's laundry was spread out on brittle, sun-burned grass by women grown old before their time.

The air was stagnant; there was a sluggishness to it and a listlessness that left you gasping for breath. Life was a combination of oily food cooked on blackened woodstoves, and choking wood smoke for curing fish and lobsters. It was a part of your life, a part of your identity; it was what set you apart from others. We never noticed the choking blue smoke hanging over our heads as much as we did the storm clouds. Heavy clouds came sweeping in off the coast - dark, rolling, cumulus giants that blackened the sky, tumbling over themselves on their way out west - and looking for all the world like they were going to trip over the horizon and stumble out of sight forever. Storms would break without warning, and there was always the smell of dead fish and drying mud that got caught up in your clothes.

In the morning, you'd hear piercing gulls picking their way along the river, or else see them painted up against the sky riding on invisible air thermals. They looked beautiful - almost abstract - and I could imagine myself sitting in the hills for hours listening to the rickety wharf cough up against itself in the distance. The river was a living, breathing thing, hidden under a sheer lace of blue fog. It was the lifeblood of the village.



Uncle Sam managed to escape Vermont Falls, but you can only really leave a place like that for a short while. It takes a town dying before you can really get away. But still, his was the greatest success, the one they all talked about, even after he came back. When Uncle Sam was twelve years old, Mamma told me, he ran off to live with her in Boston.

There was Mamma, and Mamma's first husband, Black Johnny, as well as their three children, and Uncle Sam. Mamma called them the Olden Days, because that was before she met Daddy, and before she had me. It was before she came hobbling back home to take care of her dying father. She said she didn't have anywhere else to go after the fire. Losing your family will do that to you I've learned; it leaves you with a gut-wrenching pain where feelings of guilt will haunt you forever - just like they do to me - but I didn't think it explained why she had to move back to Vermont Falls.

Uncle Sam spoke with a girlish, lisping voice, and he always spoke to me like he knew he had to convince me of everything he said. He knew I didn't believe him, but the five old cronies that sat with him every day, were always quick to nod their heads as they passed their bottles of shine back and forth between them, reliving the past through him. I kept waiting for them to shout out a hearty Amen, as though they were confirming everything he said to me as the Gospel Truth.

They were quick to tell me Uncle Sam used to be a boxer; a mauler and a brawler, he told me with a hacking laugh, as if it was his first time telling me. He was always quick with a laugh, and his large shoulders would jerk up and down under his worn-out terry cloth bathrobe, not at all in sync with the lisping voice he had, or his coughing laughter. He told me he was born with ability. He had a combination of fast hands, and lightning reflexes - as well as a cast iron jaw. I asked him if that was why his ear was like that, and he laughed again. He had a large, permanent, cauliflower ear, and a flat nose - flatter than the one I remember Daddy having.

He quickly found his way into the fight world. He was lauded over, and loved by legions of fans, if you listened to the way him and his old cronies told the story. He was respected in every corner of the world the old cronies said to me - except here in the States, he reminded them. Here, they referred to him as "The Boston Tar Baby". But his portrait was on the cover of every sporting magazine in the country, and on trading cards, cigarette packages, and matchboxes too.

I remember the first time he sent me inside to find the old cigar box he kept his pictures in; he wanted to show them to his cronies. I handed the cards to him like I was the curator of his own personal picture gallery. It was like looking at the portrait of a stranger; not the Uncle Sam I knew, but a handsome young man standing with his hands in front of him in that typical boxing stance of the day.

He'd ask me what the picture was, and I'd tell him, passing the pictures on to the old men sitting with him. There were magazine articles for me to read - because like him, the old men sitting with him couldn't read - newspaper clippings, programs, and old ticket stubs from different fights he'd fought. There were pictures of him in London, Paris, Mexico City, and even Berlin. There were captioned drawings from magazines, and grainy, sepia colored photographs.

That was the first time I came across the picture of a young woman hidden underneath, and paused. I looked at the name on the back. Celia. When I asked him who she was, he clammed up, snatching the picture from me and hugging it to him as he rocked himself back and forth on his chair. I watched him staring out into nothingness, refusing to answer any more questions. His cronies told me a man like Uncle Sam doesn't have to account for anything in his life, especially to a nine year old girl.

I watched Uncle Sam put the picture back in the box, closing the lid tight and holding the box firmly on his lap. He reached out for the other pictures suddenly, snapping his fingers at me, and telling me to give them back - hissing at me to give them back - and stuffing them in the cigar box. He held the box on his lap, rocking himself back and forth in his chair again, and refusing to talk to me, or his cronies, for the rest of the day.



Over the years I've learned that Uncle Sam's career spanned twenty-four years. He'd fought more than six hundred fights. He said the first job he ever had was in a fight club, sweeping the gym floor for less money than the food he ate. He told me he was drawn in by the sights and sounds of the gym, like a man needs air to breathe. There's something about the smell of sweat, and the sound of someone hitting a heavy bag, he said.

He told me different stories than the ones he told his cronies, and I'd sit beside him rolling my eyes, knowing he couldn't see me, never thinking any of it was true. He made it sound like he was unbeatable; a boy fighting men and beating them. I never knew if I could believe him half the time. Every man I've ever known has some level of exaggeration when he's talking to a child - girl or boy, it doesn't matter which - and Uncle Sam was no exception.

When he was sixteen years old in 1902, he said he turned pro. He took on all comers and started winning fights against bigger fighters. He said that was his problem right from the start: he was too good. After a year, he beat Joe Gans, the Lightweight Champ of the time - but they said both of them weighed in at too much and the title was taken from him. He beat Gans in fifteen rounds he said, and after the decision was reversed, Gans refused to fight him again.

As a welterweight, he took on "Barbados" Joe Walcott - the World Welterweight Champ, and fought him to a draw. He smiled at me and said Joe never was as good as everyone said he was, shaking his head as he thought about the fight, maybe thinking he should have won. He was always making himself sound like he should have won every fight he ever fought.

In 1906 he fought Jack Johnson, the only name I was familiar with. "Little Artha" he called him. After that, he said, things changed. He gave six inches and thirty pounds to Johnson, and took him to a decision after fifteen rounds, only going down twice. He said whenever "L'il Artha" knocked him down, he'd get back up and stand toe to toe with him, giving him a good what-for. He said Johnson busted him up pretty good - breaking his nose up in the first two rounds of the fight, but he never quit.

Two years later, Johnson beat Tommy Burns and became the first Black World Heavyweight Champ. Johnson refused to give Uncle Sam, or any other Black fighter, a title shot. Johnson stood to make more money by taking on White trash contenders because they were less skilled than him, and he could have more fights.

Uncle Sam was forced to fight for smaller purses, in smaller venues. He fought White men, and the only reason they fought him was because he was better than anyone else. They knew he'd taken Johnson to a decision - something no White man had been able to do. He was only making three dollars a fight. He said they were looking for the White Hope, even if they had to go through him. But Black fighters were stronger, bigger and hungrier than White fighters, and had more to prove. Uncle Sam didn't fight White men because he thought they deserved a chance, but because by defeating them, he thought he might get a second chance with L'il Artha.

Sometimes he'd list off the names of the men he fought: "Irish" Terry McGovern, "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien; the twins, Mike and Jack Sullivan; Packey McFarland, Jimmy Clabby, and Jack Britton. All good men, he claimed, and Irish Whites out of Boston. When the cronies sitting outside with him named off other fighters - dozens of names they remembered - Uncle Sam nodded his head as if he remembered each and every one of them.

At the end of his career he was a self-defeated man. He'd been broken and tamed like the wild animal they said he was. He was drunk most of the time, and practically blind. He said he had an operation once, but it didn't take; after that, he went entirely blind. That was in 1932 when I was fourteen.



Uncle Sam sat with his cronies and drank until the sun went down. Most of the cronies came from miles around, bringing special gifts with them, like bottles of moonshine, or chews of tobacco. He'd tell stories about how he sailed to Europe first class; how he owned houses, and cars, had women at his beck and call (and White women too, he was quick to point out), and they never once doubted him. Not like I did.

After his cronies left, he'd nap for an hour or two, and then start drinking in earnest. He'd call out for me in that lisping voice he had and I'd help him inside. He always asked me where such-and-such a man was; this man, or that one, and I'd have to say I didn't know. He'd nod his head slowly, drunkenly, stopping to spit into a tin can he always carried - almost burying his head inside of it - and tell me how they said they'd always take care of him; to protect him from himself, he added. It always felt like he was apologizing to me. Then he'd laugh, asking me where they were now, as if I was supposed to have an answer for him.

When I told him I'd protect him, he looked at me deliberately - just like he always did whenever I said that to him - focusing on my voice. He reached a hand up to my face, telling me I was a good girl. His hands were smooth, his touch as soft and gentle as a child's first exploration of its mother's face. He used to call me his Angel. He started calling me that because of the sing-song sound of my voice, he said, even after I told him my name was Sarah.

I used to sit with him reading Mamma's collection of Classics, hoping he wouldn't get too drunk before the end of the day. I tried not to watch him dribble his tobacco juice into the tin can he held between his legs, but I always seemed to bear witness to that. Whenever I finished reading, he'd ask me to read him another story, and quietly fall asleep.



I don't think Uncle Sam never got used to being blind. He hated that if he needed anything, he'd have to call for help. He hated everything about being blind. The fact that he'd been deserted, neglected and forgotten, well, I think it ate at his soul as much as it ate at his mind. Maybe the reason he drank was that it had always been that way for him?

He never dressed himself either. He sat outside with his cronies wearing his old tattered bathrobe. It was frayed along the edges, stained from where he dribbled tobacco juice on himself, and faded with age. It had all of those old man smells I'd come to know with Uncle Sam; the sweat of who knows how many years folded inside of it like a soft dough rising through the tattered holes. There was the smell of piss on him too - because he was always having accidents - and the stink of liquor. He wore the felt linings of an old pair of winter boots he had for slippers, and red pajama bottoms to keep his legs warm. At his age, a man's veins tended to become a problem one way or the other, he said.

There were days when he'd lament over his past, telling me how he used to own the world and let it slip away. Sometimes, he'd sit with silver tears in the corners of his eyes and I'd be forced to console him. I used to resent him when he was like that; I resented him for a lot of different reasons, not least of which was the time he stole from me when I might have been sitting on the hillside overlooking the river valley, reading and studying. It never occurred to him that I might have had my own dreams. He used to drag me into his past, and called me Celia instead of Sarah. I think I resented him most for not letting me be me, and for not letting me live my own dreams.

And then he'd piss himself. I'd be forced to clean him up before Mamma came home from the Cannery. I'd pull his funny slippers off and make him stand up as I pulled his pants down. He never wore underwear. He'd step out of his pants, holding onto my shoulders and looking for all the world like a guilty child, the tears glistening in his eyes like quicksilver. I always felt embarrassed seeing him like that - naked, crying, looking exposed and vulnerable - and like Noah's children trying not to look at him, I always did.

His old crony friends pitied him; they didn't see the Uncle Sam I saw. I told them the last thing a man like him needed was pity; I needed more of a reason. I was wasting my life taking care of an old man reliving his past through his friends. I think that's why he listened to them, so he could hear the past the way they saw it. Uncle Sam said life didn't give him anything back in return. I told him sometimes you make choices, and no matter what happens, there's no one you can blame but yourself. Uncle Sam told me that once he had three hundred thousand dollars. How can you lose that much money in a hundred years?

He didn't keep his money in banks, he said, because banks scared him. They were too intimidating, the way those stuffy bank presidents looked you up and down and dismissed you out of hand, silently, without ever saying a word - sometimes with just a look. He said whenever they stood up and welcomed him into their office, he knew they had no intention of helping him. He said it was like they called him Nigger without even uttering a sound. He told them to pay him in cash.

And where did all that money go? I asked him.

He spent it, he said. All of it. He bought fancy cars, saw fancy women, and ate in high class, fancy restaurants, leaving ten dollar tips. He smoked big, fat, Cuban cigars, because his trainer told him the smoke would work as a decongestant.

He traveled through Europe. He faced the best and worst fighters on the continent. He traveled the world, he said with a cackle; the Philippines, Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, and London. He fought in Argentina, Peru, Columbia, and San Salvador. When the war broke out, he put on exhibitions in Paris for the soldiers, taking on all comers. He said while they were in Paris, he invited friends out with him, and they celebrated the fact that they'd lived through another night. He said the distant guns were a numbing reminder of their own mortality.

When he needed money to pay for the operation they said would restore his sight, he fought for it. He fought through near blindness and won the Heavyweight Championship of Spain in Mexico City, back in 1923. But the damage to his eyes was beyond repair.

I suppose I can pity him now because I know he couldn't help himself. I know he needed people around him as much for direction, as he did for company. He needed someone to tell him where to go, and what to do. They paid the bills, booked the fights, bought railway tickets, and first-class passage on liners going to and from Europe. But they took more than they needed; until they took so much there wasn't anything left. That was usually when they left. There were others - he said there was always someone willing to help him along - but they took more than he earned, sometimes not even leaving him with enough to buy a drink.

And I suppose I can pity him for being more than a victim: he was the ultimate prize. He was everyone's Brass Ring. But I was a child when he told me everything, and I didn't understand what he told me. I couldn't imagine half the things he said: Paris and London were just names to me. It was years before I understood, and by then, I'd learned what it meant to survive.



Mamma knew a woman at the Cannery whose sister taught school in Boston. It took Mamma everything she had to convince this woman I was worth her time. Mamma worked for a week on her one letter to this woman, checking it, and re-checking it with her books, making certain there were no mistakes. Mamma learned to read and write while cleaning house for a minister and his wife, and nothing made her prouder than reading notices to the other workers at the Cannery. When she finished writing the letter, she read it out to Uncle Sam - as if he was any judge of what was right or proper. It took three more letters before the woman finally agreed to tutor me. Mamma was persistent, if she was anything.

I did the lessons as soon as Mamma brought them home - a crisp, clean package done up in brown wrapping. A week's worth at a time; I did it in three days. Then Mamma would bring them in to work and Mamma's friend would deliver them to her sister. Mamma said the only reason the woman agreed to teach me was because I was Uncle Sam's niece. I remember looking at Uncle Sam sitting near the woodstove the day Mamma told me. I watched him staring off into nothingness. It was like he didn't even know we were there. His mind was a million miles away - probably on his lifetime lost, I thought - and I told myself there didn't seem to be anything anchoring him to reality except the dirty coffee can in his lap.

I read Mrs. Evanston's notes like I was trying to read something into her letters that made it easier for me to understand her. I was thinking maybe there was something in the slant of her J's or Y's, or her open G's, I might be able to make sense of. I was trying to imagine the person behind the words; I couldn't see anything past the lessons she sent. I began imagining what she looked like.

One day, when Uncle Sam was sitting outside with his cronies, I went looking through the worn out pictures he kept in his cigar box. I began sorting through the pictures until I found what I was looking for. She was beautiful, even though her face appeared pale and ghostlike in the dull sepia of the photograph. It was obvious she had dark features. I didn't know it was possible for a woman to look light skinned and still be considered Black. I thought, years later, that she looked like a young Lena Horne. Maybe she was in love with him, I told myself; maybe theirs was a lost love and it was up to me to bring them back together? I took the picture and slipped it into my pocket, telling myself that one day I'd find her and make it up to them.

I started reading her letters to Uncle Sam. I tried stopping once, thinking there was no point in going on, but Uncle Sam insisted I continue. He tried telling me it didn't matter what she wrote, it was the sound of my voice he liked. Looking at him, it was hard to tell what he was thinking behind those blank eyes, but I didn't believe him. There were things about him I never understood - and things it would take a lifetime to understand.



The years went by. By the time I was seventeen, I was ready to write my college entrance exams. By the time I was nineteen, Mamma had enough money saved for my first year's tuition, and I left home, hoping I'd never see Vermont Falls again. I didn't.



I was two years into college when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I remember the horror of the scenes as they unfolded on the movie screen in front of me. Like everyone else, I howled at the billowing clouds of dark smoke; I screamed at the sailors scurrying to get out of the way of airplanes spilling across the tarmac. Everything seemed so unreal, and otherworldly to me, that it invoked a deep sense of loathing in me, and an instant hatred for all things Japanese. I've just recently been able to accept the past, and if not to forget it, at least forgive.

But at that moment, I was as American as everyone else, with the same inviolate sense of hatred everyone else felt. The whole theater was holding its collective breath, and there were sobs coming from behind me. I thought: Did those women lose somebody, or did they catch a final glimpse of someone they loved on screen? I felt a certain degree of disgust creeping over me because I couldn't turn away. I decided to do something about it and signed up for the Nursing Corps.

Writing home to Mamma was the hardest thing I've ever had to do; it was more stressful than giving birth to my children. Mamma wrote to me asking what I was thinking; I had to get on with my education, she said. That was all that mattered. I was a Black woman, she went on, and I'd never be accepted into that world - the war was something for White people only - and people like us weren't wanted, or needed, overseas. I wrote telling Mamma she was wrong. This war, more than any other war in history, was the most important thing ever committed to by a nation - and it was as much a commitment of the individual, as it was of the nation.

Mamma tried belittling the whole affair. She wrote to me telling me how every generation faces a war by which all other standards are measured. Daddy fought in "THE WAR TO END ALL WARS", and where did that lead us, if not straight back into this one? There was the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and Civil Wars world wide. What about Manchuria? Nanking? Ethiopia? Nobody tried to prevent those things from happening. She tried explaining that there was no cause good enough for any war, that the next generation always forgets the sacrifices of the generation before, which is why we're all caught up in this deadly loop, unable to stop.

I was shipped out to a tiny island near Fiji, in the middle of the South Pacific. We never expected to see action, sitting out there. But we wanted to do something for the Cause, and kept telling ourselves The Big Picture was more important. The island was overrun by Japanese within the first three months of my arrival, and we were forced to flee. We hid - bouncing from one tiny island group to the next - until we thought we outran them, or we'd just run out of war. We never did know which came first. We were captured.

I was a prisoner of war for the next three years. I live with the nightmares of those days. I've never spoken to anyone about it - not even my late husband. I keep my memories separate from my real life. It's like stepping out of the loop, as Mamma used to say. I was forced to undergo so many indignities that sometimes I find myself overcome with emotion when I'm walking along the beach, or staring out at the sea - and all because of something I saw, or a scent I smelled. It's gotten so that I have to gather my breath as I weep silent, dusty tears no one understands.

When I arrived Stateside, I discovered a lot of us lost more than we bargained for. There were husbands, brothers, and parents gone; sons lost; and children born. Coming home was something of a two sided concern: on the one hand, I was grateful to be back, while on the other, I was devastated by my losses. A lot can happen to disrupt your life in three and a half years. My losses were no different than anyone else's. Mamma was dead; Daddy rowed out to sea and disappeared shortly after; and Uncle Sam was nowhere to be found. I was alone for the first time in my life, with no family, no friends, and no place to call my own.



After the war, there was a feeling of displacement I knew I would gradually overcome as the years went by. But I harbored feelings of despondency that swept everything aside. There was a general malaise that seemed debilitating to me at times, like it was sucking the energy right out of my darkened soul - and whose soul was not blackened by the sins we committed in the name of humanity? I was haunted by images echoing in my dreams like the dark uncertainty of a foggy shore; an uncertainty compounded by a sense of loss it was impossible to hide from. It haunted my sleep; it overwhelmed my judgment; it kept me in a state of anxiety that left me sweating, and breathless. I felt exposed. It left me questioning my sanity.

Not even the turn of fresh autumn leaves could shake the feelings of melancholy that held me. A potpourri of beautiful colors rained across the city in a sublime cascade of leaves drifting underfoot as I walked the streets; I didn't see them. I walked the footpaths of Central Park, and Washington Square, studying the faces of the men and women like I was looking for a sign. Maybe I was looking for someone who understood what I'd been through? I saw too many faces of people who did.

I took a job in a used bookstore somewhere in the Village. I lived on the third floor of a small, five story, brick walk-up, not too far from where I worked. It was a nice building, old, but not too antiquated; the hardwood floors were recently refinished. The pipes were in good shape, and there was new insulation to guard against the cold New York winters. There was a common bathroom with a flush toilet, and a combination shower-bathtub I could soak myself clean in on lonely Saturday nights with the shower curtain wrapped around me like a musty cocoon.

I'd sit out on the fire escape afterwards, looking out over a back alley where stray dogs, wary cats, and homeless veterans picked through kicked over garbage cans. Watching them, I thought they looked just as lonely and displaced as I felt. I'd watch the sun set in dark, bloody, colors, telling myself it was that way to the Brooklyn Bridge, that way to the Empire State building, and that way to the Statue of Liberty. I listened to the soul of the city, and told myself it was children I heard in the distance, not soldiers.

I watched the traffic snaking its way through the streets, marveling at how there was always music that seemed to float up out of nowhere, drifting through the noise like a delicate scent. Once in a while I'd hear a song that reminded me of a different island, or a different friend, and I'd slip into that melancholy state, but for the most part, I managed to control myself.



I came across a magazine in the bookstore I worked at, and there he was, staring out at me from the cover: Uncle Sam. He looked youthful, hauntingly familiar - looking out at me from an old photograph taken near the turn of the century. I remembered the photograph; it was one of the pictures Uncle Sam had in his cigar box.

I bought the magazine, stuffed it inside my purse, and walked through the streets later with a sense of excitement. There was a light mist falling, and the streets glistened with a sheen reflecting the dull lights around me. I could smell the wet asphalt tickling my nose, and tasted its sweetness in the back of my throat.

I lay in the bathtub later that night reading the article again, and again, looking for a clue that might lead me to Uncle Sam and hoping there was some way to find him. I decided to call the magazine in the morning and ask for the writer - a man named Lahey - thinking he might tell me where I could find Uncle Sam.



Lahey answered the phone on the first ring. I found myself choking on my words, and wondered if this was how I would react once I stood face to face with Uncle Sam. I was nervous. My hands were cold, and clammy; my voice sounded far away. Lahey kept asking me to speak up because he couldn't hear me. I told him who I was, and he sounded happy to hear from me. He said it was a shame about what happened to Uncle Sam, and I agreed, although in the back of my mind I was wondering what he was talking about. I didn't want to ask him - I didn't want to sound ignorant, or uninformed - so I let him talk, thinking I could pick up a hint from what he was saying.

I told him I returned stateside last year, and though I wasn't injured, I was having issues trying to readjust. He said he'd heard people were having problems readjusting. I didn't tell him I'd been locked up as a prisoner of war for three years. He sounded kind all the same, and considerate, even obliging. There was a short pause - the kind that leaves you hanging in the air and makes you feel uncomfortable because you don't know what to say - when he suggested we meet somewhere over drinks. I agreed, and wrote down the address of a small bar on Seventh Avenue he said he frequented. I asked him if six o'clock was a good time, and he said yes.



Lahey was a short, squat, White man not much older than myself. He was polite, taking my raincoat and umbrella from me, and hanging them on a chair nearby. He had a shock of white hair that looked like someone had doused him with hair dye, and it was poking out from under the black felt hat he wore. His eyebrows were light, his eyes a startling blue. He wore a rumpled suit that may have seen better days, and his tie was pulled loose, the top two buttons of his shirt undone. He ordered drinks for us and sat back, complaining about the weather, and asking me how he could help.

I told Lahey about myself briefly, as he asked questions about Uncle Sam - taking notes, in case he wanted to do a follow-up story, he said. I nodded, and said his story led me to believe that Uncle Sam was living in New York now, and when I asked him, he nodded slowly. He told me he was starting a trust fund for Uncle Sam - the man had nothing, he said, shaking his head sadly. Uncle Sam wanted to move back to Boston. I asked him if he needed any help, but he shook his head, saying it was amazing the amount of people who still remembered Uncle Sam and wanted to help. After Jack Johnson, he said, Uncle Sam was probably the most famous, and well liked, Black fighter in the country. I laughed, remembering how Uncle Sam told me no one liked Little Artha - Black fighter, or White.

I asked him where Uncle Sam was living, and he said Harlem, adding that I probably wouldn't like to see the condition he was living in. I remembered Vermont Falls, and wondered how it could be any worse. He wrote the address on the back of a small business card he had inside his jacket pocket - it was a gym on 132nd Street - then he said he had to leave. It was fight night at the Gardens, he explained, and he had to do a write up on a new, up and coming fighter named Marciano.



Harlem in the late forties was far removed from what it is today. I may be old, but I'm not naïve enough to think it wasn't the same on the street corners then, that it is today. But it used to come alive at night, as my late husband used to say, and it was the heartbeat of the city - the very essence of its soul. White people used to drive in from the city for a night of entertainment back then - not as many as there were twenty years before that, but they came out all the same. It was because Harlem was a cultural Mecca where Blues and Jazz, and the Big Band sounds of Count Bassie and Duke Ellington used to filter through the night.

It was a far cry from the Harlem Renaissance of my Daddy's day, but there was Louis Armstrong, and Ella; Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday; there was Charlie Parker, and Dizzy too, just to name a few. I was never a big proponent of Jazz, or the Mississippi Delta Blues like my husband was, or my sons, so there was never any urgency for me to make my way down to The Main Stem - which is what they used to call 125th Street back then. To me, and people like me, Harlem was Niggertown. It was Chinatown where the Chinese lived, Little Italy for the Italians, and Spanish Harlem for that part of town where the Puerto Ricans lived. It was just a name they used to call it.

I went to see Uncle Sam three days after meeting Lahey. I woke up sensing that nothing was going to take away the feeling of anticipation I had. I took the subway into Harlem.

It was a beautiful spring morning. The sun was out, the sky was clear, and the temperature was warm. There was freshness in the air because of the rain falling on and off the week before. Spring blossoms were poking out, and the streets looked like something out of a movie with people strolling along the sidewalks and enjoying the morning. I thought about Fred Astaire and Judy Garland for some reason, and even began humming to myself. The flowers, the shrubbery, and the blossoming trees, made everything come alive with colors I'd always taken for granted; after a few days of rain and dreary clouds, you notice things like that and begin to appreciate them anew. New York really was a beautiful city then - and still is - for something as large as it is.



I went into Harlem telling myself I already knew what I was going to find, and because I told myself that's what I was going to find, that's what I found. If you tell yourself you're going to see prostitutes, drug addicts and thieves, the chances are you will. Only now do I understand that my personal prejudices tampered with my thoughts; nothing was going to change my mind.

In reality, Harlem's no different than any other neighborhood. Little Italy has a reputation for being a base for the Mafia, but it isn't; Spanish Harlem is known for Latino gangs - but who told me that? The Lower East Side was the worst of them all before it became fashionable. I find this attitude in people unforgivable now. I grew up in worse squalor, and I was looking down at them? For what? Because somehow, I had removed myself from it; at least they had running water. Sure, they lived in a certain amount of misery, but there was pride, and a sense of neighborhood, which was more than there ever was in Vermont Falls.

There was culture here, a sense of society, and growing opportunities. Vermont Falls had nothing to offer: no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets - and no hope for the future once the Cannery shut down in 1963. The Harlem way of life might have been hard, and rough, but it was a time when people had a chance to get out and make something of themselves, and a great many of them did.



I made my way to 132nd Street, looking for the name of the gym Lahey gave me. I found it on my second trip around the block. I was afraid I'd gotten lost and that I'd never find it - or that I'd never find my way out again. But the name was faded, and the paint had peeled off, so the sign was the same color as the building - a dark red that looked almost brown. The door was painted tan, and covered with old placards and posters advertising sales and social events - even "The Cotton Club" and "The Apollo" had something posted there - and the door was covered with graffiti.

The wind picked up, and the paper on the sidewalk swirled around me like dead leaves in the park. I opened the door and was plunged into instant darkness. There were steep stairs leading down to a basement, and a single, naked bulb that lighted the way. The stairs were wooden, worn out from years of use, and creaked with every step I took. I could hear people working out, and when I pushed the door open at the bottom of the stairs, everyone stopped to look at me, as if I was invading the inner sanctuary of a secret temple.

There was the stench of sweat hanging in the air - a musty smell that reminded me of wet clothes and dampness - and I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. There were no more than a half dozen boys there, and I guessed their ages were anything from twelve to eighteen.

A boxing ring stood in the center of the gym, and two boys were standing toe to toe, fighting guardedly - almost cautiously I thought, their slim bodies slick with sweat under the weak glow of the lights. A man was in the ring with them, telling the one boy when to throw punches at the other - a left, or a right, a jab, or a hook - to never mind me, and pay attention. There was someone working out at the heavy bag, with someone holding it for him, telling him to hit it harder, while another boy was hitting the speed bag. I could hear someone skipping somewhere off to my right, and there was the sound of free weights, the unmistakable clang of barbells.

Across the room was a kiosk, where an old man was standing behind the counter reading a newspaper, trying not to look at me. He held a pencil in his mouth, his lips glistening in the light of the single bulb above his head. His glasses rested on top of his almost bald head, and he snapped them down on his nose with a quick nod when I approached. He was standing in front of a wall of old, worn out gloves, helmets and shoes, as well as a hamper full of damp towels and old clothes.

As I made my way over to the man, he smiled briefly, asking me if he could help. His voice was deep and raspy, and I thought maybe he'd had one too many punches to the throat. I told him I was looking for Sam Langdon, and felt him staring at me longer than I thought was necessary. I told him I had this address from Lahey, hoping he'd know the name. He smiled, pulled the pencil out of his mouth and lay it on the newspaper. He lifted the counter up, stepping out from behind the kiosk, asking me if I was from a newspaper, or a magazine. I told him I was Sam's niece, and he stopped, looking at me closely, saying he didn't realize Sam had any family left. I told him the war got in the way, and he laughed lightly, called me sister, and said wasn't that the truth.

He opened a door off to the left, and there was another flight of old wooden stairs. He told me to watch my step, because it was dark. He mumbled something about getting the light fixed overhead, but I told him I'd manage. He limped up the stairs with an effort, pulling himself up each step with a struggle, using the banister on our right hand side.

We climbed up the three flights of stairs before he unbolted a door opening onto a thinly carpeted floor. He asked me if I was from around here, or if I still lived in Boston. He asked me if I knew the old lady. I told him I lived in the Village now, all the while wondering who the old lady might be.

He led me down the hall, knocking on a door at the end. I heard Uncle Sam's unmistakable voice. The old man opened the door for me, and smiled as I stepped inside.

It was a small room, crowded with old, worn out furniture. It was dark inside. I immediately reached for the light switch I assumed would be near the door. It didn't work. Uncle Sam turned on the lamp that stood on the small table beside the chair he was in. The chair was covered with an old towel; he was listening to the radio beside him, his arms crossed and resting on his lap. He was wearing green tinted glasses - the kind a woman might wear - and I'm pretty sure he was wearing the same terry cloth bathrobe I remembered from Vermont Falls. I think he had the same felt-lined insoles for slippers too, and I could see he still wore pajama pants underneath. The room smelled of old sweat, and dampness, along with the unmistakable odor of stale piss and alcohol. When he asked me who I was, I realized I hadn't said anything yet.

When I said hello, the creases of his face stretched into a limping smile, and his eyebrows went up in surprise. He forced himself up slowly - and with an effort too, I noticed - and I stepped toward him, wrapping my arms around him. He buried his face into my shoulder, closed his arms around me, and held me tight. I could feel tears coming to my eyes, stinging them, and I knew he was crying too, because I could feel the sobs shaking his huge body. When he finally let me go, he felt for his chair and sat down again, reaching over to turn the radio off. He called me his Angel, just like he always did, telling me to pull a chair up close so he could see me. When I did, he reached his hands out and ran them along my face, feeling my eyes, my mouth, my nose, and even my ears - like he did all those times when I was a young girl. He ran his fingers over my hair, and along my jaw line, caressing my chin, and telling me that I'd grown up a beautiful young woman.

He'd aged horribly since the last time I'd seen him. His body was bloated, and stuffed like a Christmas turkey. I looked at the permanent cauliflower ear he had - a grotesque thing that looked almost black now, and was twisted all inside itself - and then there was his flat, beaten nose, which looked like a small child's shoe sitting in the middle of his face. I thought how the rest of his face seemed to sag around itself. The corners of his limping smile slipping downward, giving him a seriousness I'd never seen before. He reminded me of a wax sculpture that had melted all over itself because it was left out in the sun too long. Those fine wrinkles he once had were deep creases now, and his furrowed brow seemed to shine in the soft light of the lamp beside him. There were scars on his face I hadn't noticed before, thin lines that tracked around his eyes, and along his cheekbones. His hair was almost all gray now, his hair line receding like a muddy ebb tide.

I asked him to tell me what happened and he grew silent, his tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. I watched him as he pulled his glasses off slowly, carefully, wiping his eyes deliberately. I felt awkward, and tried not to let my emotions get the better of me, but I knew it was no use; I wanted to tell him that it was just as difficult for me, but I think he already knew that. He shook his head slowly, and for a fleeting moment I thought he was saying no, he didn't want to talk about it. I thought my heart would burst. He was the only one who could tell me what happened. He put his glasses back on at last, and said he was sorry.

He told me he'd been playing the same words over and over again in his mind - maybe a thousand different times, and in a thousand different ways - wondering how he was going to tell me. But when I didn't come back after the war, he thought I really was dead; he told me a part of him died with me after he finally accepted it. I tried explaining what happened during the years I was away - grousing over the facts as best I could - telling him that after he left Vermont Falls, I had no way of knowing where he'd gone. He waved it off like it was unimportant - as if anything about him was unimportant.

He laughed lightly, and told me Mamma used to sit outside watching the sun go down every night, praying for my safety. He'd taken to the bottle heavily after I left, he said, and was more of a burden than a comfort to her and Daddy. He said he regretted that more than anything else. I think he was regretting a lot of things. He said he was sorry for all the hardship he'd put me through when I was a kid, but it was an afterthought, and then he reached a hand out to me, and touched my knee.

He remembered how Mamma was depressed after Black Johnny and the kids died, and said she seemed to come back to life again after she met Daddy and I was born. She was more like the woman he knew in Boston after I was born. I was born late in life for her, you see - she was well past forty when I was born - and she considered me something of a second chance: a miracle baby, he grinned. I was someone she could be proud of. I could read and write; I was the first one in the family to have a real education. From slave to college graduate in three generations, he smiled. It was something to be proud of, he added. I told him I never graduated, but I was thinking of going back to college on the G.I. Bill.

She used to get her mail sent to the Cannery, he went on. She'd read my letters to him and Daddy, and he could hear the pride in her voice as she read each one out loud. She was afraid for me, he said, and she used to follow the war in the south Pacific through old newspapers she'd found, and by listening to the radio at the Cannery. When the letter came saying I was reported missing, they told Daddy that her heart burst: just like that, he added with a snap. She collapsed on the ground right there, they told him, almost as soon as she'd read it. She was laying on the floor all covered in fish guts and scales, he said, and when they picked her up and put her on a table, she was already dead. They told Daddy she was still clutching the letter in her fist, and that they had to pry her fingers apart to see what she was reading. If she died of anything, he said, she died of a broken heart. Two days later, Daddy rowed out to sea and never came back.

The saddest part of all, he said after sitting quiet for more than a minute - a minute during which I felt my heart pounding in my ears; tears staining my eyes like an ink blot; little pieces of myself drifting off like I was sending parts of myself out to both of them - but the saddest part of all, he said, was that four days after she died, a letter came to the Cannery.

Mr. Hilton from the Cannery brought the letter out and Uncle Sam told him to open it and read it to him. It was the last letter I'd sent. It was a letter I remembered. I was alive and doing as well as could be expected, he said with that smile he had, and he said it broke his heart to hear that. I couldn't stop thinking of Mamma laying on the table covered with fish guts and scales.

She used to write letters to me. Every night, he said; she'd sit at the small table with an oil lamp burning low, writing page after page of things she thought I'd like to hear. When she was finished, she'd read the letter out loud to Daddy and Uncle Sam. I remembered how she sat at the table rewriting the letter to Mrs. Evanston every night. I felt tears coming to my eyes, and opened my purse to take a tissue out.

He still had the letters, he said, and promised he'd find them for me. He was certain they were in the cigar box with his old pictures and press clippings. It was all he had left of Vermont Falls; all that he had left of her. It was the only thing he could think to take with him when he left.



I still have them: the cigar box, the pictures, Mamma's letters, and the picture of the woman I convinced myself was Mrs. Evanston. I went back to visit Uncle Sam as often as I could, but he moved to Boston some months later - I remember how he laughed and said Lahey's trust fund was more successful than either of them imagined it would be.

He died broke all the same though. I never felt as alone as when I answered the phone that morning. It was a woman's voice, soft and faint - as gentle as a sea breeze on your cheeks, I remember thinking - and I could hear the pain of her tears in her voice, and my heart went out to her. I felt my heart letting go, like another part of me was slipping away and I'd never get it back. I'd given away so many pieces of myself by then, I thought I had nothing left to give. She called me Dear, told me that he loved me, and that I was always in his thoughts. I thanked her, and hung up the phone.

I went to the funeral with Lahey. He said he was putting his pen and pad away for the day. He was going out of respect for a man who was the greatest fighter pound for pound that ever lived. I thought it was a bold statement for anyone to make - considering all the stories I'd heard from Uncle Sam and his cronies when I was a kid I mean. But I hadn't really believed in him, had I? Not like Lahey, and everyone else who knew him. I wonder why we never think of things like that until it's too late. It took a man like Lahey to convince me that Uncle Sam really was as good as he said he was. He believed in himself, he believed in Mamma, and he believed in me - long before I even knew about believing in myself. It's just one more thing I try to sleep with.

Before they buried him though, before that first shovelful of dirt was tossed onto his grave, I took out the small picture I had in my purse - the picture I'd stolen all those years ago - and looked at it one last time. It was worn out, bent, and torn, and it was a woman I never knew but always thought of as his one true love. I carried the picture with me through all the days of my youth, through the Hell of war, and back again, looking after it like a sacred talisman. I placed it on the coffin with him, thinking if he'd want to take anything with him, it would be her. When Lahey asked me who she was, I said it was just one more memory for Uncle Sam to take with him.

3 comments:

  1. i can´t praise this highly enough. the brilliant descriptions bring this to life.
    and what a life!
    there must be enough threads here for at least one book!
    really first class!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. The story really resonates thanks to the beautifully crafted descriptions and the tight ties with the times. I agree with Michael - though the summaries make this a wonderful short story, the overall picture here is that of a book. Nicely done, Ben.

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  3. Evocative, emotional but with a distance that lets the reader in, excellent color and musical prose.

    Jeff Burt

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