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the real thing
By J. J. Murray
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 J. J. Murray
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Do you know where Dante Lattanza lives?"
The towheaded child on the wooden dock jutting off Turkey Island whizzes a long silver lure past the prow of my rented aluminum boat. "You talk funny, eh?"
It's because I'm from Red Hook in Brooklyn. At least I don't say "Eh?" after every sentence. "I'm from New York City," I say, not wanting to confuse him. "So, do you know where he lives?"
This Canadian kid is obviously more interested in catching a fish than answering questions from a black woman in jeans, waterproof Timberlands, and a red and black flannel shirt. "Your outfit will help you blend in," Shelley, my editor at Personality magazine, told me. "I'll still be black in the Great White North," I had complained, "no matter what I wear." Shelley only rolled her eyes. She does that a lot whenever I'm around. I think she has a wandering eye. She never seems to focus on me when I talk to her.
"Um," I say, turning off the ten-horsepower motor and drifting toward the shore, "where exactly is Dante Lattanza's house?"
The kid's eyes stay glued to the lure sluicing through the water. "He lives in a cottage."
Cottage, house, what difference does it make? "Which cottage does he live in?"
The lure flies up fromthe water and zips immediately toward me, missing the stern of the boat by inches, er, centimeters, or whatever archaic units these Canadians use. "What time is it?"
I ask which cottage, and he asks for the time. "Almost four-thirty, but I really need to know ..."
The kid reels in the lure rapidly, throws down his pole, and takes off up some stairs to a house, er, cottage. It looks like a house with a huge screen porch and some decking in front of another houselike section. "Where are you going?"
The kid doesn't turn or even acknowledge me. What? Is it time for his meds? Maybe he'll come back with some intelligence and some respect for his elders.
This is such a waste of time. I had gotten an anonymous letter last month telling me where to find the reclusive, elusive Dante "Blood and Guts" Lattanza, former middleweight champion and boxing wunderkind in the mid-nineties until he lost two bloody brawls to better, faster, and stronger fighters. "He's training at Aylen Lake, Ontario, from the end of August through November," the letter said. Retired for ten years, Lattanza was making a comeback just as Personality had named him one of the sexiest men alive based on a bit part he had in a recent Rocky rip-off called Heavy Leather. Normally, Personality magazine only chooses from the Hollywood ranks, but someone in editorial must have a crush on Lattanza.
It has been a slow year for sexy men. "The older ones keep dying off," Shelley had told me, "and the younger ones just don't seem to know anything about cultivating sex appeal." Except for Denzel Washington in 1996, all the winners since 1985 have been white, with Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney winning twice. There has yet to be a single Italian winner, and I, for one, think Italians are very sexy.
Something about their eyes just moves me.
Shelley wants me to get a few good close-ups of Lattanza's face before Tank "The Lion" Washington, the current undisputed middleweight champion and the man who originally took Dante's title, splits it open, and generally rearranges it during their rematch this December. "We can't put bloody faced Italian men in Personality," Shelley had explained. "Oh, I suppose we can if it's a shot from a Sopranos episode or one of whosawhatsit's model boy toys."
I had to fly from LaGuardia to Ottawa and rent a car to drive 225 kilometers (about 135 miles) to this little strangely shaped lake through the towns of Kanata, Carp, Golden Lake, Killaloe Station, and Barry's Bay. It was kind of like escaping Red Hook, where I live in a renovated warehouse at Reed and Brunt streets with a lovely view of the East River, which my insane realtor called "Buttermilk Channel." It actually looks like buttermilk some days, but ... It's the freaking East River! Calling it something else does not make it any cleaner.
Now, I'm floating on Aylen Lake in front of Turkey Island, feeling like a flanneled turkey and waiting for a blondheaded, freckled kid with selective hearing to-
Oh, there he is, and he's carrying a ... stopwatch? Is he going to time the gaps in his synapses?
"Dante will be by here in a few minutes," the boy says.
"By here, as in here? He'll be by this island?" I take a weather-beaten paddle and dip it in the water, pushing the boat away from the shore.
"Yeah. He comes right by here, eh?"
I look around. I see no boats, canoes, or sailboats on the lake, not a single person other than Towhead out on a dock, not even any of the moose, bear, or loons I've read about cavorting on the shoreline. "Really?"
The kid points to a rocky outcropping bathed in sunlight and jutting off the northeast shore maybe a quarter mile away. "He's about to begin."
I look at the outcropping and don't see anyone. "Begin what?"
"The last part of his workout," the kid says. "He broke his record by twelve seconds yesterday."
I get my camera ready anyway, screwing on a telephoto lens. "You don't say? What exactly am I going to ... see?"
Then I see a man diving off the rocks at least thirty feet above the water. He wears what looks like a parachute or a backpack on his back. That's Dante Lattanza? He's also a cliff diver?
The kid starts the stopwatch. "He'll swim across the channel to the point of our island, run across to the other point, swim the other channel to that cottage over there, run up the hill, ring a bell, run down the hill, and swim back."
I zoom in on a man's arms furiously cutting through the waves, his head bobbing up every ten strokes. "What's on his back?"
"Twenty kilos in a backpack," Towhead says. "He has weights on his wrists and ankles, too. It adds a total of thirty kilos."
This means absolutely nothing to me.
I snap a few shots of Lattanza's flailing arms, the sunny outcropping in the background. He is an extremely strong swimmer, cutting through the water like ... well, like a man carrying an extra thirty kilos, practically disappearing underwater occasionally. These shots won't do. I couldn't sell these to even the most desperate tabloids. Lattanza isn't, however, exactly tabloid material. He's practically unknown.
And then ...
Lattanza reaches the northeast point of Turkey Island, rising out of the blue green water like a cut sculpture, tanned and toned and looking like Carrara marble. He sprints down the somewhat sandy shore in bare feet. I click away on auto as he glides closer.
"Ciao, David," Lattanza says with a smile as he passes the dock.
"Ciao, Dante," David says.
I keep my finger on the trigger, so to speak, taking Lattanza in, keeping him framed until he dives off the other point into the water. I sit and review the pictures I've taken and see a man defying nature. Lattanza is forty-two but hasn't an ounce of fat on him, his entire body cut like one of Michelangelo's models. He has such dark eyes, dark eyebrows, dark stubble, and thick, wavy black hair. His signature high cheekbones make his smile even more effective because of his squint. I can't believe Shelley and the rest of the editorial staff only have him at number thirteen.
I'd, um, I'd put him in the top ... seven. But then again, I've been single a long time. When was the last time? Who was I with? Who was president? Ooh, look at his-
"Hey," David says.
"Yes?" I look up briefly. Lattanza has a seriously interesting butt, as if he has two huge fists back there. Our readers will rejoice. I may rejoice a little bit later my damn self. He has a nice, muscular booty.
"Listen for the bell," David says.
"Shh. You'll hear it, eh?"
I look at the southeast shore about another quarter mile away and see Lattanza rise from the water onto a dock, run up some steps, and disappear into the woods....
A bell rings.
Then I hear shouts, "you-hoos," and car and boat horns honking. What's all this about?
"He's ahead of his record," David says.
"What was all that noise?"
David grins. "I'm not the only one timing him, eh?"
So at least the residents, vacationers, and cottagers on Aylen Lake know they have a celebrity among them. This must be the highlight of their day. Whoopee.
I see Lattanza bouncing down the steps to another dock and zooming off. Thirty kilos extra and he's flying like that. Tank Washington may be in for more of a fight than he has imagined. Lattanza will still lose, but maybe the fight won't be the bloodbath Las Vegas is predicting and HBO Pay-Per-View is counting on. They're already touting the rematch as "The Lion vs. the Legend-Twice in a Lifetime." The first fight was Ring magazine's "Fight of the Year" ten years ago. The two had combined for over eighteen hundred punches, eight hundred of which connected-five hundred or so to Lattanza's face and body. Most folks, though, don't expect a repeat performance, especially from Lattanza. The experts think he'll run out of gas after the third round.
I see Lattanza using his legs now-hairy things, strong kick, no letup as he comes back-silhouetted against the sun, powerful, virile, truly not number thirteen. I let the camera fire away. With that background, that face, and that body, he should be at least in the top five. I'll have to talk to Shelley about his placement. Unlike many on this year's list, every bit of Dante Lattanza is real and as God made him. He has no blond highlights in his hair, no calf implants, no caps for his teeth, and no sex appeal based on whom he's sleeping with, adopting children with, or dating. In addition, he doesn't need a personal trainer because he's his own personal trainer.
I am witnessing an atypical boxer's workout. My granddaddy fought in the amateurs, getting pretty far in the New York Gold Gloves, and he maintained a boxing workout throughout the rest of his life at Gleason's Gym, so I know boxing. Granddaddy ran in the morning, went to work, then picked me up after school to spend a few hours in the gym shadowboxing, pounding the heavy bag, popping the focus mitts, peppering the speed and double-end bags, jumping rope, and sparring whenever he could. Yet here's Dante swimming a total of a mile or so and playing a hunchbacked lifeguard on Baywatch.
Lattanza is on the island again, and he's not slowing down. He only nods at David, shoots-is that a grin?-at me, and again he's crunching down the beach to the point and flying into the water.
I check to see if I snapped the grin, and I did. It's a nice grin. I'm not sure if all those teeth are originally his, but ... nice. The squint makes his eyes twinkle. On the other hand, maybe they just twinkle and the squint ...
Listen to me. Daydreaming about a photograph.
Okay, top three.
David runs out onto the dock. "This is my favorite part."
I zoom in on the rocks, expecting Lattanza to stop to catch his breath. He doesn't. He literally leaps from rock to rock, handhold to handhold, almost hopping up that rock formation to the top where he rings another bell.
David clicks the stopwatch. "He beat yesterday by fifteen seconds!"
More noise, yelling-what is this "You-hoo!" business?-horns blaring.
"He's going to get that title back for sure," David says.
Lattanza turns, addresses the noise, and bows, sunlight drenching him in amber.
Damn. I forgot to keep shooting. I click one of him taking off the backpack and raising his arms into the air. It reminds me of a scene from Rocky. That scene gave me goose bumps.
I look at my arms. They are long brown goose bumps that end with nails that desperately need a manicure.
Lattanza's bow would have been a cheesy shot, but I wish I had taken it.
I may have to, um, make the interview last longer than my usual thirty minutes. You know, stretch it a bit. I need to make sure I probe this man and get to his essence. Except for Heavy Leather, Lattanza has been out of the spotlight for ten years. This is an important interview. Readers will want to know why he's been hiding for so long.
I also, um, have to check out his abs up close.
My last short-lived boyfriend, whose name still escapes me (Chuck? Howard?), had love handles, which turned simply to fat, and I quickly returned to a single life.
Dante Lattanza has love ripples.
I wonder what those feel like.
Chapter TwoDante Lattanza is a throwback to another era, my granddaddy had told me, a real "Rocky" in the mold of the Bronx Bull Jake LaMotta and Carmen Basilio. Dante is the same height as LaMotta (5' 8") was, and has a better winning (50-2) and knockout percentage (96%) than either LaMotta or Basilio ever had, but these Italian boxers each had their African-American nemeses that kept them from immortality. LaMotta's nemesis was Joe Louis, Basilio's nemesis was Sugar Ray Robinson, and Lattanza's nemesis was and will soon again be Tank Washington.
Lattanza just hasn't kept up with the times. For forty-seven fights, he put all his hopes into a thundering left hook. By the time he fought Washington, Lattanza and his left hook hardly ruffled hair. After his divorce and a ten-year layoff, Lattanza was making a comeback and blood-and-gutting his way to miraculous victories over younger, faster, better skilled and stronger fighters, often knocking them out in the last few rounds while far behind on points.
Thus, I was here in Canada to catch up Personality readers on the last ten years of his life.
At least he's nice to look at.
Shelley doesn't assign me any truly juicy stories. She won't allow me to trail pop singers who can't follow judges' orders and lose their children as a result. She forbids me from stalking starlets who use drugs and kleptomania to handle their fame. She wouldn't dream of letting me interview fashion designers who end up in West Virginia prisons, the "it" couple and what flavor of the human rainbow they are going to adopt this week, and heiresses sent to jail, not sent to jail, sent to jail, an appearance with Letterman-oh, the freaking horror! Other more seasoned and cynical writers get those scandalous stories. I get the human-interest puff pieces, the feel-good, gosh-ain't-this-a-nice-person stories, the ones that should give our readers hyperglycemia because of all the sugar dripping off the page.
Celebrities. We actually quote them, as if any of them have something interesting and original to say. Most of them read their lines and have to go through several takes to get those lines right in front of the camera, right? Yet, we splash their drivel weekly (which they often tell us weakly) as nuggets of wisdom. "It's so miserable to be rich and famous," they seem to say. "You should see the little ten bazillion square feet bungalow I live in with only an unimpeded view of the Pacific Ocean." They tell us how awful the paparazzi are-"I hope they at least get my good side, but what are you gonna do?"-and how simply devastating it is to have their personal lives put out in public for us to ... envy? Shoot, give me $1.5 million a picture or $250,000 an episode and let me see how I handle the paparazzi for a day. I bet I'd ... stay home and read or surf the Internet or bid on eBay for Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia and old Johnny Mathis and Smokey Robinson recordings.
What? A modern girl can't go old school? Okay, okay, Mathis and Robinson are more "ancient school" than old school, but when you're lonely and pining for a man, whose voice would you rather hear caressing your ears-Keith Sweat and his nasal tones or smooth Smokey kissing your soul with "Cruisin'," "The Tracks of My Tears," "Being with You," and "Ooo Baby Baby"? You don't turn on some R. Kelly and all of his nasty baggage when Johnny's voice can snuggle up to your heart with "Chances Are," "A Certain Smile," "Misty," and "I'm Coming Home." Icons. I listen to icons. They never go out of style. They're immortal.
Johnny and Smokey are not famous for being famous like so many celebrities these days. What a vicious cycle. Fifteen minutes of fame (or infamy) translates into ten talk shows a year, maybe a guest appearance on a sitcom, and a bit (and often bitter) part in a movie. I don't hate the famous, but c'mon, now-they're people. They're not heroes. They're not role models. They're not saving the world. They're not going to end up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. They're only as famous (or infamous) as their last movie, album, show, or run-in with the law.
Excerpted from the real thing by J. J. Murray Copyright © 2010 by J. J. Murray. Excerpted by permission.
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