By Pietro Grossi, Howard Curtis
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2006 Sellerio Editore, Palermo
All rights reserved.
Let's get this straight: I really liked the whole boxing thing.
I don't know what it was, whether it was the sense of security or the awareness that I was doing something the way it should be done. Maybe both, maybe also the terrific feeling that there was a place where I had what it takes, where I could fight on equal terms.
There was a logic about it. You couldn't escape it, neither you nor anyone else; you knew who you were fighting, it was always a single person, he weighed as much as you did, and if he beat you that meant he was either better than you or more experienced, and in both cases all you could do was learn from your defeat. I know it seems absurd, but the fact is, you end up going to a place where everyone fights because you feel more secure there.
There was also the fact that I was good at it. It must have been all those videos of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson my dad used to watch when I was little, but when I walked into that hangar-like building for the first time and saw that patched-together ring, which was only standing by a miracle, I imagined myself up there skipping about like Ali and firing off jabs like arrows.
I don't know, maybe if you convince yourself of something, in the end you get it. The fact is, that's how I learnt to fight: I would skip around my opponent and torment him like a mosquito with those straight punches as precise and quick and sharp as strokes of a lash. Let's be honest: I didn't have a boxer's body, I didn't look very promising. I was skinny, with a long, straight neck, slender wrists, thin legs and bony knees. I looked like a branch hurriedly stripped of its twigs. But I got up there, hunched my shoulders, raised my guard, started hopping backwards and forwards, and it was as if I was getting ready to fly. Sometimes I thought I heard Beethoven, a piano sonata maybe, and I had the feeling I was inside that deaf bastard's notes, landing straight punches to the rhythm of the music.
It was my mother who had forced me to learn the piano. She made me take lessons from a filthy old woman whose breath stank and who scattered dandruff like confetti.
That was how I started boxing. I was the perfect son — studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient, who went to bed early and who, if you asked him, even said his prayers before going to sleep. But he didn't want to play the piano. I hated the piano. I hated Mozart and Bach and that deaf freak Beethoven and that stinky old woman, Signora Poli. The only one I could swallow a bit was Rachmaninov, because the music always sounded angry and because it was so hard to play.
One day, I told my mother I hated the piano. Music was fundamental, she said, it gave you discipline. Discipline. Why discipline? I was the most disciplined child in the world. I was so disciplined, I'd almost vanished from the face of the earth.
My mother looked at me and told me not to talk nonsense, music was important. It was a tricky situation.
"Then I also want to learn to box."
"If I play the piano I also want to learn to box."
"That's right, to box."
"Don't talk nonsense," my mother said, trying to cut the conversation short.
"I want to learn to box."
"The word want doesn't cut any ice with me."
It was the first time I had dug my heels in with my mother, and half-of-me felt strangely excited, as if I had suddenly woken up and landed a left-right in the sixth round of a tough fight. The other half-of-me wanted to cry.
"I want to learn to box." Right hook to the face.
"Let's not even talk about it. Discussion closed."
End of round. Saved by the bell.
But I'd woken up, I'd raised my head high. For once, the nice, disciplined little boy was fighting for something. It was a difficult fight; one of those exhausting fifteen-round matches. I stopped studying, kept my mouth shut for two oral tests in a row, stopped speaking and playing the piano. Three times Signora Poli had to give up after trying for ten minutes to make me play or speak. She had even convinced herself to feel sorry for me. I went a whole week without speaking. No one knew what to do; they were ready to send me to a shrink, when one evening my mother suddenly came into my bedroom and told me she'd talked to my father, and that if I wanted I could try boxing.
"Good," I said. "I'll enrol at the gym tomorrow."
It was my first victory: a technical knockout in the fourteenth round, prepared with skill and patience. Maybe I would have won on points anyway. I don't know, my mother has always been a bit of a pain.
When I enrolled, a couple of boys started laughing, and Gustavo, a thin old guy with a voice like a black jazzman, asked me to bring certificates and authorisation from my parents, statements absolving the gym of responsibility and five thousand lire for the registration fee.
Six months later, I was dancing in that ring like a ballerina and scattering straight lefts like summer hailstones. It was undeniable: even though no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body, it was if I was born to be up there. And since I'd started training, my piano playing had improved, too, and I was even starting to like that bastard Beethoven. I don't know what happened to me up there, but suddenly the noises, the shouts and the smells would disappear, the world around me would disappear and all I saw was my opponent, who suddenly seemed almost to be moving in slow motion, all I heard was my own heartbeat, as clear and regular as a steam train. Only my heartbeat and the tired eyes of the poor guy in front of me.
Left. Left. Turn, skip. Left. Left. Left right left. Turn. Parry. Parry. Left. Parry. Left right left. Left. Turn. Turn. Skip. Sharp right and left hook. Bell.
I was a pleasure to watch. Gustavo showed me off to everyone as if I was a new car.
"Try to guess how much he weighs," he would ask people who didn't know me, his eyes all lit up like a boy's, as if he was asking them about his car. "Try to guess how many kilometres to the litre."
"I don't know, sixty-six kilos, maybe sixty-seven?" they would usually say.
Gustavo would give one of his black jazzman's half-laughs. "Sixty-three and a half," he would say. "A junior welterweight."
Then he would send me into the ring and tell me to go one round. While I was up there, dancing, he would nudge that friend of his who had never seen me and smile.
"My dear Giorgi," I heard him say once to a guy in a long wet raincoat, "we're going to get this one to the Olympics."
"Why not let him turn pro?" the other man asked.
"That nose doesn't deserve it," Gustavo replied.
I do in fact have quite a nice nose. It stands out like a smooth, well-drawn little mountain on that hollow, lopsided face of mine, looking as if it's been removed from someone else's face and stuck there — but, although it doesn't really fit, it seems to give some kind of order to the rest.
I don't know why Gustavo had convinced himself that if I stayed an amateur my nose would be saved, as if amateurs threw fewer punches. The fact is that, when he told that guy Giorgi that he would take me to the Olympics, I hadn't had a single fight.
I was a kind of legend. They talked about me in all the gyms. They called me the Dancer. Quite often, some boxer shooting his mouth off, who might not even have seen me, would actually call me the Ballerina. It was said I was the best, the strongest, and that I didn't fight because I knew I'd already won. They said a whole lot of things, and people went crazy talking about me. The trainers cursed because I could have taken gold for Italy at the Olympics but wasn't interested; the local toughs talked about me on the streets without even having seen me, and the boxers, when they weren't shooting their mouths off, were grateful that I didn't fight and hoped I would carry on like that.
It was a nice feeling: sometimes some man or boy would visit the gym and after a while I would see Gigi, the other trainer, point at me. They would take a few steps and stand there looking self-conscious like someone coming in to see a head of state, and they always stopped for a few minutes and watched me train. God knows what they later told other people. Apparently one day a schoolmate told his friends that I was the Dancer, that he had seen me in the gym.
"That guy who always dresses like a nerd and carries a leather satchel."
"The one wandering off alone over there?"
"I know it for certain, I saw him yesterday in the gym, you should have seen how fast he was."
"I wouldn't believe it even if I saw him."
No one doubted that I would win against any of the guys around me, not even me. It didn't take much to realise that that clumsy, clodhopping bunch who wasted most of their punches were powerless against a lean, winged animal that danced in the ring like a butterfly.
God knows what they would have thought if they had known that I didn't fight because my mother didn't want me to, what they would have said if they had known that behind my mysterious, fascinating reluctance stood the slender figure of my mother, that apparently inoffensive lady whose hair was already starting to turn white. They wouldn't have believed it. Or else they would have split their sides laughing and I would always have remained 'the Ballerina', however many punches I landed, however many titles I won, however many Olympics I competed in.
Every now and again, though, things happen to you that change your life. And then you want to turn back the clock and say no, I liked it better the way it was before. But the vase is broken and whatever was inside is now on the table, gradually drying, and showing the world as it really is, with a bit of colour, maybe, but the way it is. One day, you see the anger and discover what sweat is.
I only fought once in my life. I mean seriously. Referee, corner, audience, bets and all the rest of it. People still remember it. There are still some who say it was the best fight they ever saw.
I had only seen him fight once. There was a big fight meeting at the Teatro Tenda, and I went with Beppe. I told mother the school was taking us to see a play by Pirandello. She swallowed it, so I got my friend Beppe to pick me up outside my house and give me a lift on his old three-colour Ciao moped which was always so difficult to start. He was one of the few people at school who knew about this boxing business, but somehow he didn't want to believe that I was really good. I think he thought I'd made it all up, that I didn't even go to the gym, that it was all a fantasy in order to make me seem less of a nerd than I was. The first time he started to suspect it might be true was when he came over to my place one afternoon to study and on the way we got caught in a downpour and ended up as soaked as dishcloths. We undressed in my room, which wasn't something that happened often, because I didn't have many friends. Anyway, Beppe and I were in the bedroom when I heard him cry out, "Bloody hell!"
I looked up and saw that he was looking at me with a stupid half-smile on his face.
"What is it?" I said.
"Fuck," he said. "What a body."
I looked down at those prominent pectorals, those chequered stomach muscles and those sinewy arms. When I was dressed, you'd never have guessed that beneath those trousers and those over-large nerdy shirts there was that knot of muscles, small but nice and taut.
"Thanks," I said.
"But how do you do it?"
"I told you, I box."
I didn't care if he didn't believe it. Outside the gym, I usually didn't believe it myself. Outside the gym, everyone made fun of me, I never had a girlfriend, always said the wrong thing, got good marks, played the piano and didn't have a moped, and so even I ended up forgetting that there was a damp, stinking place where I was a sensation.
After the night of the fight meeting, though, all Beppe's doubts vanished. It was as if I was back in my world, even though it was outside the gym. There was the Finger tearing tickets at the entrance — the same Finger who'd got out of prison six months earlier, the same Finger I'd been telling how to deliver decent hooks a couple of weeks before.
He saw me from a distance at the back of the queue and started waving his arms.
"Hey, skinny! What are you doing back there? Come here, I'll let you through!"
We squeezed through the other people and when we got to the front the Finger smiled and shook my hand and slapped me on the back a couple of times and told me how pleased he was that I had come.
"This is Beppe, a friend of mine," I said, and the Finger shook his hand, too. Still smiling, he told us to go through.
Inside, there were lots of people going back and forth under the neon lights, between the bar and the red curtains which led to the stalls.
Beppe and I had two cokes at the bar as if they were bourbon on the rocks and went into the stalls. The symmetrical fortress of the ring rose like a wedding cake under the spotlights.
One by one, the guys from the gym came up to me and greeted me. They hugged me, slapped me on the back and greeted Beppe as if he were one of the gang. And during the fights they nudged me with their elbows every now and again and said, "You should be up there." Which wasn't, in fact, a bad idea: I could easily see myself up there under those spotlights, dancing around an opponent, covering him with straight punches like mosquito bites, and then in the end having my hand lifted by the referee to thunderous applause, or looking down at the other man lying on the ground after a good straight right to the chin.
But my mother didn't want that, damn her, so there I sat, watching the fights, content with the certainty that I would have won and the slaps on the back from my pals and the glances from Beppe, who was starting to look on me as a bit of a legend.
Whether they won or lost, the kids up there in the ring were all small-timers. All awkward, lumbering guys completely lacking in class. With one exception: the Goat.
He got up in the ring with those eyebrows of his hanging over his eyes like kitbags. As he sat there in the corner, with a towel round his shoulders, he held his dark-red gloves close to his chin, moved his head from side to side and hit himself on the jaw as if to remind himself that he'd soon be taking punches. I sensed immediately that he was good, that he was in a different class.
I leant over to Giano, a tall, well-built young guy with the body of a swimmer who was pretty scary in the ring but was too crazy to fight.
"Who's that?" I asked.
Giano turned and looked at me in surprise. "That's Mugnaini, the Goat."
"That's the Goat?"
"Yes, that's him."
"I didn't know he was fighting tonight."
"Neither did I."
I sat back again in my seat and watched him skipping in the corner, while his second massaged his shoulders.
"Who's the Goat?" Beppe asked.
I couldn't take my eyes off him. "Someone who's never lost a fight," I said, lost in thought.
Beppe looked at him for a few seconds then turned to me again. "And why's he called the Goat?"
I leant forwards and placed my elbows on my knees. "Because he always keeps moving forwards with his head down," I said.
Beppe nodded again. I couldn't stop staring at him. It was as if his skipping and the streak of shadow under his eyebrows had hypnotised me and dragged me up there into the ring to get a closer look at him, to see if I could find out whether, in that darkness beneath his forehead, somewhere behind those eyes, there was someone who could beat me.
"He's a deaf mute," I said.
Apparently, no one had noticed at first. He was only a strange, rather silent, solitary boy who didn't take up much space in the gym. He always arrived on time for his training, changed without looking at anyone, was always last in the queue for warming up, and whenever Buio, the trainer, explained a technique, he would always stand a little back from the others, his eyes as sombre and dark as TV cameras — but he'd record everything and then get down to it until he'd grasped it, practising again and again, probably practising at home by himself, too. Right after right, left after left, hook after hook, like a machine.
It was Masi who discovered he was a deaf mute. Masi was a tall, slim guy, the son of a gravedigger, a typical street kid, a bit of a hooligan, who liked beating up smaller kids as they came out of the football stadium. He was a decent middleweight, agile and confident, maybe the great white hope of the gym at the time. Just then, he was in training for the Italian championships, which he would lose in the semi-finals to a young guy from Bergamo who was as hard as a mule.
The Goat was working out at the punchbag, and Masi couldn't find another one free. It wasn't right that the aspiring Italian champion, beginners' class, should have to cool his heels waiting to go a couple of rounds at the punchbag. He stood behind him and waited for the Goat to finish his round. When the bell on the big grey clock which hung on the dirty wall at the back of the room rang at the end of the four minutes, Masi said he needed the punchbag. He was on his feet, loosening up his neck and punching the air lightly to relax his arms. The Goat did not reply. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fists by Pietro Grossi, Howard Curtis. Copyright © 2006 Sellerio Editore, Palermo. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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