This is a short story I recently finished. Hope you enjoy it.
Of all the assignments I received that first year at the Reporter, none really got me excited like the Emmanuel Nelson interview. I loved boxing, and had since before I could even stand. My dad and I would watch all the big fights on our stained couch, him holding me in place on his thigh with his left hand while drinking a beer with his right. We watched his classic battle with Fletcher, and his bloody, brutal trilogy with Morales. For our money, he was one of the best middleweights of the late 60s and early 70s and certainly the best colored boxer out of the city of Chicago that my father had seen. And I had seen what he had seen, so he was the best from Chicago. My mother would come in and ask a question and my father would make a “SH!” signal with only one finger while keeping a grip on his drink with a shaky hand, spilling beer all along, staining the couch all over again. Even after my father left and my mom got bitter, I still enjoyed it, probably even more. So when Mr. Pritchard gathered all the writers and offered the interview as part of the “Where are they Now?” segment, my hand couldn’t have shot up any quicker.
In truth, I usually hated this feature. It was page filler, generally a short Q&A with a forgotten sports hero or musician or actor, their answers dripping with bitterness and regret. But I was excited as anything to meet one of my childhood heroes. Mr. Pritchard also knew of my fondness for the sweet science so he thought he could maybe get an extra page or two from me.
“Feel free to deviate from standard Q&A format, I’d love to squeeze a few inches out of this. Just spend a night with him. Let the story go where it goes,” he told me. So I called and heard Emmanuel Nelson’s deep, hearty voice and we made a plan to meet at a barbecue joint in the South Side of Chicago.
When I walked in, Mr. Nelson was sitting at the bar, already halfway through his second drink. He had put on some weight since his fighting days but I still recognized him. We introduced and exchanged pleasantries and I smelt the fiery whiskey coming off his breath. He motioned to the hostess that we were ready to sit and in one gulp, he finished the remainder of his drink.
“So, I guess’ll want me to start from the beginnin’ then?”
“Yes I think that’s most logical, Mr. Nelson” I replied.
“Emmanuel. Please, Emmanuel.”
“Ok …Emmanuel. So from the beginning then.”
Before he could start his story, the waiter approached and Emmanuel quickly ordered another whiskey.
“Whiskey isn’t usually my drink but I’ll be a good drinking buddy,” I said both to my interview subject and the waiter. The waiter left and I looked back at Emmanuel to signal that he could begin.
“Well, here goes nothing. I grew up in Chicago, not far from here. Was one of 6 kids. I had 4 sisters and a brother, they was all older ‘cept for one baby sister. My brother died before I really got a chance to know him. My pops was a janitor at Woodrow Wilson Junior College, or at least that’s what it was called when he worked there. It changed to King-Kennedy College. Or Kennedy-King College. No matter. Now, my pops worked hard. He worked hard, drank harder and hit the hardest,” Emmanuel said with a wide smile and a hint of a laugh. He must have caught my raised eyebrows because he immediately attempted to clarify.
“Now, now. Don’t get the wrong idea. When my pops hit us, it was always out of love. It was never random. We always done something to deserve it. It was out of love.”
“Well, before my dad left he would beat up on my mom, and there was nothing loving or lovely about it.”
The waiter came to bring me my drink and brought Emmanuel his third.
“I didn’t mean much by it,” he began, “You know, sometimes a smile ain’t really a smile. Sometimes, you gotta focus on the comedy in the tragedy to get through.”
“I get that, but aren’t you bitter at your dad?”
“No no. He did his best. You see, my mother, she meant well, but she, she just wasn’t no good at mothering. So my pops had to mold us. And he did his best.”
“Was your dad a drunk?”
“Oh you bet.”
“And you obviously drink, eh?” I said, pointing to his now half-filled glass of whiskey.
“I enjoy the finer things in life,” he said, sniffing his whiskey and shaking it so the ice cubes gently crashed into each other. “Like I said, I ain’t mad at my dad.”
I took in the sentence with my own gulp of whiskey. “Ok. Ok. Back to the story then.”
“Ok. Well. Growing up, only things I cared about was boxing and the blues.”
My eyes lit up and right away he noticed.
“You like the blues?”
“Yea, yea I do. Quite a bit,” I said with a smile.
“Ohhhh” he said, rubbing his hands together and clapping loudly, “who you like?”
I thought for a minute. “Hm. Robert Johnson. Me and the devil, was walking, ohh was walking side by side”
He laughed big and raised his glass in a mock cheers, spilling whiskey as he sang, “And I’m goin’ to beat my woman, until I get satisfied”
We both laughed for a bit until it suddenly got quiet.
He continued, “That’s ‘em Delta Blues bubs. It’s good stuff, but this here is Chicago. I like the Urban Blues. Muddy Waters. Chess Records. The classics.”
I laughed for a bit before beginning, “Shit, Muddy Waters was born in Mississippi. So was Howlin’ Wolf. Willie Dixon too.”
“Listen ya smart motherfucker,” he started with a smile, “now, maybe they from Mississippi. But that there is a piece of trivia. They weren’t nothing ‘til they came to Chicago. That’s the way it works. Perform under the bright lights or shrink under ‘em…back to wherever the fucks you came.”
“Well you performed, eh?”
Before he had the chance to answer, the waiter came by and we both ordered another whiskey and dinner, a rack of ribs each, a full rack.
“Oh you betcha. But I’m from here. Was used to the pressure since I could take my first steps. I grew up here. In the basement of boxing gyms and the floor of jukes and dives and blues clubs. I’m as Chicago as it gets. So dem lights don’t scare me.”
“Ok. That makes sense. Born and bred…So speaking of boxing gyms, how’d you get your start?”
“Well you see, I was small. Real small when I first started so no one paid much attention to me. I walked into a local gym on the way home from school one day. They didn’t even know my name. I was a nobody, just helping guys train. That negro helping out that more talented negro. That was me. I had skills, but when you see a skinny kid like that, maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, you don’t think much. There wasn’t much money in strawweight or flyweight bouts. Now, it wasn’t ‘til I grew and started filling out that anyone took a notice o’me.”
“When was that? When did you start to really hit puberty?”
“Fourteen. Motherfuckers really started to notice me then. Suddenly I weighed 140 and they taking an interest in me. But before that man,” he said, shaking his head, “them sparring sessions, they was brutal. They didn’t know nothing ‘bout head injuries back in the day, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t given a shit anyhows. They’d knock you out in sparring, clean out, KO, and you’d wake up to some trainer stuffing smelling salts up yo’ nose and slapping you silly, trying to stand you up to do it all over again.”
“Damn. Brutal. Wait, so when did you make your way to Windy City Gym?”
“Ah. I’m getting there. Patience bubs. You see, when people started noticing me, I dropped out o’ school and became a truant. I had boxing now. And I didn’t have much use for learning anyhows. So I’d spar and I’d train all day, and at night I’d lay down some of the bags on the floor on a makeshift bed and sleep there. This was life for a while. And then one day, Joe Banks, he was a trainer at Windy City, he comes up to me and starts talking real, real fast, ‘Listen, listen my friend. Wow, that sure was impressive. You got skills. Skills, kid. But do you got it between the ears? Do ya? Why don’t ya come train down with me’ and starts throwing all kinds of talk of money. So the next day I checked out the gym, and a year later, still short of my 16th birthday, I made my debut with a doctored ID, winning by KO in the 4th,” he said with a big smile.
The waiter came with our respective whiskeys and threw down our ribs in front of us. Emannuel rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The conversation seized for a bit. And we just ate. Like savages we ate, ripping the meat off the bones, hands covered in barbecue sauce. We ate until our plates were nothing but a littered collection of bones and empty bowls of slaw. Until our bellys hung gently over our belt and the sweat beaded on our brows. We each ordered another drink and then another.
I studied Emmanuel slowly, chomping on whiskey flavored ice cubes. He’d probably put on at least 50 pounds since he last fought, I’d peg him at about 225. Each time he would take a sip of his drink, his hand would shake violently.
“Now, my editor would be mad if I didn’t ask a few things. So if you don’t mind, I got some more questions.”
“No no bubs, it’s fine. Go ‘head”
“Boxing to me has always finely straddled that thin line between barbarism and the idea of it being a “gentleman’s sport,” what are your feelings on that?”
Emmanuel smiled briefly and then thought on the question. He mockingly put his hands in front of his face, guarding it in a battle of faux fisticuffs.
“I don’t got much thoughts on the gentleman aspect, but some on the brutality. You see, I try to lead a good life. A moral life. A godly life. But I have to reconcile that with the fact that I have hurt people, sometimes very badly. I have to reconcile it with the fact that due to me and my path and the way I’ve chosen to earn a living, some poor guy is choking and slurring on his words because of what my fists did to his brain. Probably gotta piss and shit in a bag. Am I ok with it? I don’t know. What else choice do I got? If I think on it enough, sure maybe I could find a problem with it. So you know what? I don’t think on it much.”
“Interesting philosophy. Very to the point.”
“Ya well, when you’re a prizefighter and you settle scores with your fists, you tend to be rather to the point.”
“Well that’s fair, can’t argue that.”
“If I was going to be totally honest with both you and myself well, I’d probably have to admit that yes, I viewed it as a job and yes, you gotta pay the mortgage so to speak, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the brutality of it. I enjoyed flexing nuts so to speak, enjoyed throwing down. Loved the metallic taste of my own blood and I loved that look in my opponents eyes. That fear. That regret. Right when the bell rings and they feel my power the first time, their demeanor changes. I let the proverbial air out of their proverbial tires. I miss that.”
“You miss that? You have no regrets over anything?”
“Listen bubs, I hear that judgment in your voice. I got regrets. But they ain’t over boxing. No way, no how.”
“Ok, so what are the regrets then?”
Emmanuel fell silent and I debated how hard to push him on this question, if at all. I was buzzed from the whiskey but he signaled over the waiter and ordered one more and I couldn’t help but follow suit.
“Listen. I don’t mean I got no regrets on boxing. Every time I can’t remember something, every time I struggle out of my chair, every time I shake and stammer, I think ‘Damn, couldn’t I just been a janitor like my pops,’ I just mean those ain’t my biggest regrets.”
His words trailed off and he began to look rapidly around the bar, perhaps slightly uncomfortably.
“Alright a few more quick questions. Favorite fight?”
“Hmm. First one with Morales.”
“It just is kid. It was the biggest test of my young life, Morales was a typical Latino, quick as hell, agile and so much heart. He just kept coming. And I went in there and did I was trained to do. And that combo in the eighth, it started with a right cross and I seen his legs get rubbery and his eyes roll back to his head so I did what I was trained to do. I put him down.”
“Like a dog,” I said.
“Like a dog,” he repeated.
“Alright, a few more questions. You ever been married?”
“Yes, I was but not no more.”
“Rather not say. Let’s just say I’m my father’s son and leave it at that.”
“Ok. Any kids?”
“No, no kids.”
He seemed as if he was going to follow up on that but he fell silent. I too was silent, wondering what, if anything I should ask next. He broke the silence.
“Hey bubs, listen. It’s fine if you ain’t into it, but if you don’t mind, could you just please help me to the bathroom.”
I stood up and walked around the table to Emmanuel’s end.
“Here now, just give me your wrist.”
I watched as the old man struggled to push himself off the seat. I tried to help him up by grabbing under his arms but he quickly swatted my help away.
“Kid, I ain’t dead yet.”
With his right hand shaking, he pushed himself up and then with his left hand, held on tight to my wrist. I placed my hand on his hip to secure him. His grip was frail but surprisingly strong.
“Ok now Emmanuel. Bathrooms right here, its close.”
“Ok bubs, ok.”
With his firm grip still tight around my wrist, we walked to the bathroom, me and the old man. The fallen hero.
“Ok, take it slow now. Ain’t no rush,” he said with a grateful smile.
We walked the rest of the way to the bathroom and I helped him steady himself in front of the urinal. He finished and limped over to the sink and mirror where we now stood side by side. He looked at me calmly, his lips pursed as if to say something. But he didn’t, and I didn’t have any words either.