I shadow box in front of the gym mirror. The punches land on my reflected nose, chin, ribs. Uppercuts come next, number nine and ten in my combination sequence. I imagine my head snapping back, my jawbone breaking, blacklights dancing before my eyes. I throw jabs that lack snap, overhead rights without power, slow hands that can no longer do damage.
It was my doctor who suggested I box. A good cardio workout, he’d said. Get the old heart pumping. Drop a few pounds.
Jab, jab, cross, hook.
He was right. My heart is skipping rope. Sweat mats my gray hair. This must be good for me, I think, as my wrapped fist finds my left eye socket in the mirror. Twice a week I climb the back stairs to Terry’s Gym to hit the speed and heavy bags, to chase my trainer, Jonathan, around the ring, to throw punches at myself. My arms already ache.
Lynette, my wife, thinks it’s funny. She calls me Sugar Ray now and laughs when I shadow box in front of our bathroom mirror, telling me to float like a butterfly, forgetting that I once could float and could sting. She’s kept in better in shape over the years than I by planking and Pilates, yoga and indoor cycling. Our old Oster blender has been replaced with something called a Bullet, which I don’t know how to use. It produces green drinks made of kale. Lynette is a woman who gets her daily steps in, walking here, jogging there, sometimes marching in place by our bed as she stares at her Fitbit until she hits her magic number. Then she’ll slide in next to me, already satisfied.
Jonathan calls time and says that’s enough for one day, that I did good, that I should hit the showers. I look at the clock above the mirror. He’s ending our session eight minutes early, my flushed face and heavy breathing probably scaring him. I don’t argue, just stick out my aching arms so he can unwrap my hands. He is tall and lean, and speaks softly as he unwinds the tape, reminding me to tuck my elbows when I throw uppercuts, to torque my body on the hooks. I nod and watch a Puerto Rican kid with the Virgin Mary tattooed on his chest crunch sit-ups. His body gleams sweat, his eyes, like the inked Madonna, are turned heavenward. He is young, all muscle and bone, abs visible, looking like he could do sit-ups until the end of days.
I shower quickly, dress, and head for my car parked behind the gym. Boys approach me, walking three abreast. They’re maybe sixteen, sporting first attempts at sideburns. They wear strap t-shirts and gold chains, ballcaps with brims turned backwards. I step aside and let them pass, wondering if I would’ve crossed the street before they got close if it was after dark. I hope not. I never would have before.
My car is blocked by a rusting pickup, the driver-side door open. A man dressed in green work pants and matching shirt is arguing with a woman with red hair. I don’t recognize them from the gym. Maybe she works next door at the hydroponics place. His voice rises as I approach.
He slaps her. Hard. The sound is as surprising as the blow.
“Hey,” I say, not very loud.
He slaps her again.
“Hey!” I yell, this time.
He turns, his chin stubbled dark. “Mind your own business, old man.”
She tries to rush by him, but he grabs her above the elbow. His fingers sink in and I know that fair skin will bruise. Her face is red where he’d slapped.
“Let her go,” I say, and move toward them, my heart skipping rope again.
“Walk away, old man,” he says, over his shoulder, his eyes as black as his stubble.
I stop a few feet in front of them and drop my gym bag. I slip into the boxer stance Jonathan taught me: fists raised, chin down, eyes up.
“Really?” he says, and pushes her away. She rubs her upper arm where he had squeezed. “Really?”
He faces me, copies my stance and screws up his face, aping, I guess, my scared expression. He looks like a man who knows how to keep elbows tucked and how to torque his body when throwing hooks. My fists are trembling, and I picture the mirror.
Jab, jab, cross, hook.
Fast hands, bad intentions, Jonathan always says.
He laughs. “You crazy, old man.”
He lowers his arms and turns to the girl, his back facing me, the punk. “Get your shit out of my apartment. Be gone before I get back or you and your crap go out the fucking window.”
He walks towards his truck, sees me still in my stance, and cocks his arm like he’s going to punch. I flinch. He laughs all the way to the pickup. I think he’s still laughing when he pulls out of the parking lot, the rusting truck backfiring gunshots. I lower my fists certain I look foolish and relieved.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
Stupid question. Neither of us are okay. She nods anyway.
“Did he hurt you?”
Another stupid question. Her face is red. She’s still rubbing her arm.
She nods but doesn’t tell me hers. Her head is tilted, as if trying to remember something or maybe she’s ticking off the time it’ll take to get home and pack her things.
“Okay then,” I say, and pick up my gym bag. “Take care of yourself.”
I head to my car, digging in my pocket for keys, but she doesn’t move. She just stands there rubbing her arm.
“Was that guy your ride?”
She nods a third time, and I wonder if she’s in shock and unable to speak.
I should get in my car. I should go home to Lynette. I had stood up to that guy. That was enough.
“Can I drive you somewhere?” I hear myself say. “To your apartment to get your stuff maybe?”
“I can take the bus,” she says, and stares at the back of Terry’s as if she can see through the brick wall and heavy bag and the Puerto Rican kid doing sit-ups, all the way to the bus stop on Hertel Avenue.
I should open the door. I should get in. I should turn the ignition and put it in gear.
“It might be faster if I drive you. Before he gets back.”
She turns, and I see fear flicker across her face. She studies me hard, wondering, I imagine, if she can trust me, if she can trust any man. A few heartbeats pass before her shoulders sag and she starts towards my car, deciding, I guess, that I’m harmless.
“Where to?” I ask, and she gives me an address. I know the neighborhood. It’s not too far. The homes are mostly rentals, doubles and triples, with sagging porches and peeling paint.
It’s a warm spring evening. I drive with the window down. Jasmine drifts to me. When I was younger, after long months of winter gray, I would think that anything was possible on nights like this, that hope was blossoming as much as flowers. That same feeling grabs me by the shirt and shakes me now. I had stood up to that man in the pickup truck. I had been ready to fight. If I hadn’t been there in my comical boxing stance, if I had pretended that I’d forgotten something at Terry’s and turned around as soon as he slapped her, maybe he would have hit her a third time or fourth… or done worse. That second wind that Jonathan always promises blows through me. I feel like I could shadow box for that remaining eight minutes or do as many sit-ups as that Puerto Rican kid. My arms no longer ache.
I think about texting Lynette, letting her know I’ll be late because I’m taking a pretty red head home. She’d laugh, text back ‘Yeah right, Sugar Ray’, the idea ludicrous to her.
Jab, jab, cross, hook.
I turn the corner onto her street, and she points out her apartment, a blue house with an overgrown lawn.
“Top floor,” she says, and winces, as if remembering his threat.
I pull in front and we both get out of the car.
“You’re coming up? That’s not necessary.”
“Sure it is. I can help carry things. Drive you wherever you want when you’re ready.”
“You’ve done enough. You should go. Thank you.”
“You can’t walk carrying all your stuff. How would you manage on the bus? I’ll take you to a friend’s house or home to your folks.”
She considers this. Tilts her head. Checks her watch. Her shoulders sag again. “Okay.”
I follow her up the front walk. She lives in the upper flat. A red puddle stains the driveway. Transmission fluid. I wonder if that’s where her boyfriend—husband?—parks his truck. Was she wearing a ring? It’s been years since I checked a woman’s left hand.
The stairs leading to her apartment are long and steep. I hold the railing and it’s loose. It would take me two minutes to fix it if I had my tools. She pulls her keys from her purse, unlocks the door, and I step back in time. It reminds me of our first apartment on Breckenridge Street after Lynette and I were married. Mismatched furniture, probably inherited from parents and grandparents, fills the living room. An old cedar chest, certainly a garage sale or Salvation Army find, doubles as a coffee table. Artwork—hers?—line the walls: still lifes, pen and ink street scenes, Hoyt Lake watercolors.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she says, and heads to the bedroom.
“Do you need help?”
“No, stay there.”
I hear a closet door squeak, the clatter of wire hangers falling to the floor, dresser drawers being opened and shut as I walk around her flat. A vase of fresh-cut lilacs sits on the small kitchen table, their fragrance mixing with vanilla. From a candle? Potpourri? Incense? The windows are propped open to let in fresh spring air and children’s laughter. It’s a good apartment, an attempt at a home. I take it all in, the sights and sounds and smells, and those early days on Breckenridge flood back to me. For a moment, I’m that man again, the one who could work all day and then rush home afterward not even tired. Lynette, as young and as pretty as the redhead who darts back and forth gathering her things, would smile with her lips and eyes and entire face when I’d walk through the door. She had called me just Ray back then, and her arms would open when she saw me.
The nameless woman emerges from her bedroom, a suitcase clutched in one hand, a plastic garbage bag bulging with her possessions in the other.
“Ready,” she says.
“What about the artwork?”
She stares at the walls, as if remembering each brushstroke, every line drawn, all the hours spent that can never be refunded. “There’s no time.”
“Sure, there is. It will just take me a minute.”
“I won’t be able to carry everything.”
“I’ll help,” I say, and move to the closest watercolor. As I lift that first painting off its hook, Breckenridge returns to me again. I remember hanging a framed print from the mall. Lynette had stood next to me, handing me the nail, her body so close it had made my own come alive. After hammering in the hook, she’d drifted away, telling me a little more to the right, to center it, now to the left as I tried to hang it straight. I had stepped back towards her after thinking I’d gotten it right. Our arms had slipped around each other, and we stared at the JC Penny print like we were standing in The Louvre.
Perfect, she had said.
“We should go,” the redhead says. “I can come back for them.”
“He’ll throw them out the window,” I say, and move to the next watercolor.
I turn and see her trembling lip, and the arm bruises beginning to form. I want to stay, to stretch this moment out so I could continue shadow boxing with the past, to relive what I thought I’d forgotten or, worse, wouldn’t allow myself to remember. But her face is still red from his palm, and the memories begin to fade. I’m certain as soon as I leave this tiny apartment, they’ll slide away, becoming as distant as Breckenridge Street once again.
“You’re right,” I say, leaving the second watercolor hanging in place, the ache returning to my arms. “You can get them another time.”
I linger, taking one last look around, trying to memorize the still lifes and ink drawings that we both will never see again. I breathe in the lilac and vanilla and try to hold them inside me, not wanting to lose them, too. The homemade curtains flutter, the breeze bringing jazz and a mother calling that it’s time to come in. We head to the stairs and I’m about halfway down when I stop and examine the railing. The brackets are brass and tarnished and some are missing screws.
“What?” she asks, stopping a few steps below me.
“It’s loose. I can fix it.”
“Come on,” she says. “Hurry.”
I follow her down, thinking about broken sash cords, loose railings, the front lawn that needs mowing and all the ways I could repair this house even if I don’t know how to mend my own. We’re almost at the bottom when I hear a truck pulling in the driveway, the exhaust backfiring, the evening shattering as if from gunshots.