by Alexei Russell
Hollis was the picture of misery and resignation. His head hung low and he sat so limp on the bench that his big red boxing gloves touched the floor. In the dim red light of the locker room, any onlooker would have supposed that he was a corpse, left there to rot.
He stared at the battered metal lamp, swinging on a frayed wire, in the middle of the room. One eye was almost gone from years of bouts and too many rounds to count; half the lamp appeared fuzzy and transparent, as if it were only half there. Hollis felt he was only half there, too, only half alive. He felt as derelict as that swinging lamp.
He recollected a time when things were much different. Once he had been a handsome young man, an enthusiastic young boxer, with a spring in his step and a sense of idealism. He was a local hero in his neighborhood, one of the poorest boroughs in metropolitan New York. Hollis could be trusted to chase off the thugs from the corner, break up the fights and keep the neighborhood kids in line with nothing more than a stern look. His massive frame and steadfast righteousness were the pillar that held up his acre of the city.
He fought under the name “Hitman Hollis,” and every time he had a bout the whole community turned out to cheer him on. H\e was the patron saint of the neighborhood; the locals felt his victories were their own: a blow for justice, a blow for law and order, a blow for decency and self-respect.
Fueled by the love and respect of the people, Hollis never lost a bout. He longed for the day when he would get his big break: he would make it all the way to heavyweight champ, and he would come back to his community a real hero. He would make millions, give it all back to his neighborhood, and fix it all, once and for all. All he needed was that one big break. Bouts were few and far between, but Hollis spent every waking hour training and waiting for his manager to call.
One morning, Hollis was on his back porch, punching the heavy bag, when he heard a scream, and saw a young lady running down the lane. A middle-aged man with slicked back hair and a jean vest was chasing her, brandishing a small blade. Hollis dashed after them, still wearing his boxing gloves, in hopes of rescuing the young lady.
“Hey!” said Hollis, “What’s going on here?! Leave her alone. Go on, get out of here! You better drop the knife or I swear I’ll lay you out on the concrete!”
“Hollis!” said the young lady, clinging to him for protection. “He won’t leave me be!”
Hollis recognized her as his neighbour, Aleisha. She worked all the way in Manhattan, trying to earn enough money to get into college. He’d see her walking behind his house every day, going back and forth to work.
“Aleisha, who is this clown?”
“He’s that thug Teak, who’s always taking bets over behind the arena. I had to walk past there on the way home and he started following me. He’s saying awful things to me!”
Hollis gave Teak an intimidating look and raised his big red gloves in front of him, in a traditional boxer’s stance.
“So you’re a big man chasing a woman around, are you? You take bets for fights in the arena, do you? Crooked fights? It’s guys like you that are ruining the neighborhood. Well, who do you think’s going to win this bout, eh Teak? What are the odds on Hollis?”
Hollis started with a few light-hearted swings, but that was enough to send Teak’s heart pounding. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, as he dodged Hollis’ fists.
“Listen, Champ! Hollis! I was just messing around with this girl. I wasn’t going to hurt her, honest! How about I just put away this knife and we both walk away, right?”
Hollis stopped swinging as he watched Teak put away his knife and back away with his hands up. Aleisha gave Hollis an appreciative hug and an adoring glance, and the two headed back home, arm-in-arm. Hollis relished that old familiar feeling of playing the hero.
“Wait, Hollis!” said Teak. “I was just thinking. You’ve got great form and we all know you’re one of the toughest guys around here. I mean, you even scare the gang-bangers!”
“So?” asked Hollis.
“So... you belong in the ring, man! I swear you do! Tell me, do you have an agent?”
“Well, he’s not doing you much good if you’re stuck at home with a heavy bag! All this week, at the arena, there’s bouts going on! Prize contests, with big purses, and it just so happens one of the fighters bowed out. I could get you in as a contestant!
“Why, you’re a shoo-in for first prize! You could have two thousand dollars in your hand by mid-week! And there’ll be promoters there! When they see you knocking them down, with the whole crowd cheering you, like they always do, why, you’ll be getting some real, professional bouts! This could be your ticket to the big time! I’m telling you, Hollis, you just need the right agent!”
Hollis’ ears pricked up at the mention of big purses and big-time promoters. He stood, conflicted. This could be his chance to make it big and really help out the community.
“Look Champ, I know about you. Everyone knows you! Everyone knows you’re going to make it big someday and give it back to the community. And this might be your big chance. Tell me, are you going to help the people out by punching the bag on your patio? You let me manage you for just a couple of bouts, and you’ll have two grand! You can pour that into the community. Just think about it, man! Just this one contest. What do you say, Hollis?”
“Forget it, punk!” said Aleisha, “Hollis isn’t interested in your kind!”
“Wait a minute, Aleisha,” said Hollis. “Run along home. We’ve got things to discuss.”
“Come on now, Aleisha. Just listen. I don’t like him any more than you do. But you need money for college, this neighborhood needs me to make it big. I hate to admit it, but he’s right. I won’t do anyone any good punching a bag on the patio. I won’t be winning this one for Teak. I’ll win this one for the neighborhood. Now you listen to me and run along home.”
Aleisha bit her lip and ran off, tears welling up in her eyes.
Hollis cringed as he recalled these memories, still sitting, limp, in the dark, dank locker room. The door creaked open and Teak walked into the room, wearing an expensive suit, gold chains and a great many diamond rings on his fingers.
He had a girl on his arm — Aleisha, who now wore the outfit typical of a woman of her profession — trashy, revealing and perfectly advertising her wares. At the sight of them, Hollis dropped his head all the lower and tried to avoid eye contact.
“Well, Champ,” said Teak, “you’re on! Now this bout, you fall in the third — me and the gang have got a lot of names in the books. And, guess what? They’re all betting on you — so you’re taking a dive this time! I know we can trust good old ‘Hitman’ to come through for us, just like always! After all, you’ve got a talent for kissing canvas, don’t you, Champ?” Teak laughed and helped Hollis stand up.
As he rose to his feet and donned his robe, Hollis thought back to that first fight with Teak as his manager. The crowds, which once cheered him on, hissed and heckled him. They were so disillusioned to see their hero fighting for a known gangster that they roared at him in anger; throwing trash and cursing his name.
The crowds that once injected courage into his heart like a needle now sapped his blood with the power of their collective hate. His punches fell short, and he doubted his every move. By the end of the third round of his very first bout, he had found himself half-conscious on the ground, tasting the canvas and hearing the jeers of a hundred spectators.
And the worst of them all was the face of Aleisha, who had glared at him from ringside, with a look of cold contempt that had chilled his heart. Recalling it, he couldn’t help but look over to Aleisha, as he followed Teak out of the locker room. She looked at him with that same cold glare she’d given him all those years ago.
“Go ahead, Hitman,” she said, “win another one for the neighborhood.”
Copyright © 2010 by Alexei Russell