The Pep Talk

Tre sat on the trainer’s table, in the shadow of his grandfather’s broad shoulders. His boots dangled freely, swallowing up his scrawny legs, but there was a slugger’s stare in his eyes. Thomas wiped at his grandson’s brow, then scooped up his fists. A drip in a dark corner near the lockers kept time like a clock.

“How you feeling?”

Tre nodded. “Good. I’m fine.”

Thomas smiled. So much confidence now. Three years ago the boy had come to him, roughed up after a scuffle with some kids. He’d been downcast and timid then, since his father had died. Thomas took his hands then, just as he did now, and so began the routine.

Taping and gauzing, Thomas didn’t rush, he savored these prefight moments. The kid hardly noticed, those boots kicking away under the table, brushing the old man’s battered knees.

“You’re going to be fine. Just remember. He’s long, with the reach, so you need to get in and do damage. In and out. Don’t linger and don’t try to slug it out with him, got it?”

“Yeah, Papa, I got it.”

Thomas ripped a line of tape, tore it with his teeth. A sound that took him back to when he’d sat there, in that same room, a lifetime ago. Before the crowds, the bright lights, the managers. Before Marcus came along, and Thomas groomed him—harshly at times—to succeed in the family business. Father and son, within these same, smooth concrete walls. Walls that held as many layers of DNA as they did many layers of paint.

He had Tre take a few deep breaths. There wasn’t much more to say about the qualifier. Tre was good. He was disciplined and he knew what to expect. If he won tonight it put him in a good spot. If he lost, well, they’d keep grinding.

Another stretch of tape, the kicking stopped. Tre’s eyes on him. Almost brash. “Am I quicker than my dad?”

The tape hung from Thomas’ mouth. He shot the kid a look. They needed so much assurance these days. So much hand-holding. In Thomas’ day, you just went out there and slugged it out. “Why are you bringing that up?”

The kid shrugged, his gaze set proudly over Thomas’ left shoulder. Thomas followed it to the picture of Marcus, primed to his peak, sculpted and beautiful. All the greats were up there, including a faded picture of Thomas from years ago. But where Thomas had been a brawler, Marcus was flashier, a dazzler. All the kids wanted to be like Marcus.

Thomas took a breath. “Yeah Tre, you got a step on him.”

It was a small lie, harmless too. The truth was that Thomas had never seen such speed and quickness that his son possessed. Nobody had. Marcus was lightening, in more ways than one. Could’ve been something, too, if he never had to leave the ring.

But Tre. This bright-eyed boy sitting in front of him, wanting so badly to believe it. “Really?”

“Yeah, I think so. Your Dad liked to play too much.” And it didn’t matter. He still destroyed everything and everyone.

The boy put his hands out. “Was he better than you?”

Thomas scooped up the gloves. “You got a lot of questions right before a fight. Let’s worry about that kid across the ring from you. I’ll bet he’s not asking about old forgotten champions.”

“You’re not forgotten, Papa. They always talk about you at the park. Talk about who was better. Coach says Marcus was too quick for you. But you held the title. Was the belt heavy?”

“Nah, just shiny.” Thomas motioned for the boy to hop down. Get him moving, get him focused. The kid danced around some, trying to mimic his father’s pose. The last one on the wall. Undefeated. And dead.

“They say Dad would have been champ.”

Champ. The boy loved that word. Thomas nodded.

A few sharp punches, the kid was crisp at least. And he was good. Thomas hadn’t wanted to take him on, not after Marcus. He’d been through with boxing. It was through with him. Like banging your head against a wall, even if you were all right, and somehow you reached the top, there were too many vultures. Too many looking to make something off of your sweat. Then you lose a fight or two and it’s gone before you’re forty. All that was left then was slurred speech and a letter from the IRS.

But this kid, he had something his father never had. He put in the work, he learned technique and took to coaching. Thomas hoped it would keep him off the streets and clear of the pitfalls. More than boxing had done for Marcus.

“This fight will be in the news,” Tre was saying. Thomas shook his head. These young ones loved the publicity. Thomas had to lay down rules. No phones in the locker room. You didn’t need to know what everyone was doing all the time. It was good to be in your own head before a fight. A quick knock at the door.

“Two minutes, guys.”

The door shut and Thomas straightened his back. “Over here, face me.”

The kid sauntered over, rolling his shoulders, shiny and new. Thomas fixed on the headgear then pawed the sides with a few playful jabs. The kid’s grin lit up. At sixty-two, Thomas had refused sparring with him from day one. Never told him about the sessions with Marcus. Sessions that left his son in tears. Thomas was a different man now, a gentler man who’d learned from his losses.

He took the boy by the shoulders, breath’s awake now. He wanted to tell his grandson the hard truth. No kid, you aren’t as quick as his father. You’re not as tall or strong either. You won’t be the champ, and there’s a good chance you won’t win tonight. But you got love in your heart and wise in your brain. You’re a wonderful boy. Better than your dad and me put together. You got more than boxing. And you got me. I’ll never leave your corner.

Thomas was a brawler not a talker, an old man who knew that outside of this locker room the world was waiting to chew the boy up. But for now, right then, he had a hold of him. A drip in the corner.

“Just stay with me, okay? Keep your head, and stay with me out there.”

“Yeah Papa, come on.”

Thomas nodded. Set his head against Tre’s headgear. Clasped the sides with his big hands while they stared at the scuffed concrete floor. Where Thomas’s boots had been, where Marcus’s boots had been. Where Tre’s boots were now.

“Let’s get one for Marcus.”

“Yeah, for Dad.”



*This story was first published in the Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology




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