Book Excerpt

One

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Early February, 1972

As he sat on the training table swinging his legs, someone outside the locker room yelled, "It's time!" Watching his legs reminded him of being a kid again.
The boxer continued to stare, mesmerized by the flexing muscles and taut skin. He watched them swing in time to the hands of the small clock on the wall, ticking away the minutes to the fight.

He hopped off the table, ambled over to the sink, turned on the scratched metal fixtures, and waited for the loud thrum that preceded the rush of water.

He smiled grimly, wrinkling his nose at the distinct rotten-egg–like smell as he splashed his face.

He knew this was the time fighters were supposed to be psyching themselves up for the fight. For some reason, his brain would not allow it, or maybe this was just another way of doing it.

His thoughts were of his childhood and all the things he had to overcome. All the sacrifices his parents made for him. How they did it without ever complaining or a harsh word to him. The stories he heard of about how when he was born, the doctors told his parents he would not live through the night. Of his father praying all night, just hoping that God would spare this couple this child, since he had taken their first with a miscarriage.

Then when Tony was six years old, they had to be told their son had a Perthes disease in his left leg and probably would never walk again. If he did, it would be with a brace. Sports and other physical activities would be out of the question. How they kept him at home against the doctor's advice. Insisting they could give him better care than if he was in a hospital. Over the next ten years, they proved to be right. With all their love and care, he beat that damn disease. How at times it was hard for him as a child. Enduring the verbal and physical abuse that still echoed in his ears:

Hey, brace leg!

Yo crip, you can't play with us. You're too slow!

After all these years, Tony could still feel the blacktop and concrete ripping into his ass, his thighs, and his knees, his palms cut all to hell from instinctively breaking his fall as the kids laughed and took turns pushing him to the ground.

No matter what, though, he'd always get up and fight back. He never let them win or gave them an inkling of how badly he hurt.

So lost was he in the past that he never even heard his trainer, Jake, calling his name. Whatever awaited him in the ring, he was now ready.

"What the hell you doin', kid? Get yer head outta yer ass! They're calling for ya, and you're not even warmed up yet."

Tony snapped back, the water still running. He turned it off and gazed at his reflection in the mirror. Thankfully, all trace of the boy he had been was gone. Or was he? Tony wondered.

His trainer yelled again for him to get his ass moving, his three-pack-a-day voice grating, as it always did, on Tony's nerves. He knew the harsh tone wasn't personal. It was just Jake's way, and in his way, the words were practically terms of endearment from the old man.

"I'm ready, Jake!" Tony yelled back, lacing his voice with just enough annoyance to make a point and get away with it. "I'm ready," he echoed softly.

Tony entered the aisle leading up to the ring. His stomach gave a small burp of protest at the noxious mixture of grease, smoke, and sweat; that, along with the loud cheers and voices, combined to greet him like a slap in the face.

As he was trotting past the throng, hands reached out and patted him on the back and touched his shoulder, but these small acts of encouragement barely registered, other than to irritate him. Rather, they did the opposite - distracted him from concentrating on the man who was waiting for him in the ring.
Tony allowed himself one brief luxury, which was to look for his father and his uncle. He glanced at the seats reserved for family and spied his dad. His father's eyebrows were knitted together, his mouth turned into a frown.

Give 'em hell, his father mouthed.

This small act of support soothed Tony and helped him focus.

Beside his dad, his Uncle Mike stood on his chair, waving his arms and urging the crowd into more of a frenzy by cheering, yelling, and screaming to "start the damn fight!" For a moment, Tony saw the chair wobble under his uncle's considerable bulk, but he didn't have time to worry about whether or not Mike would end up ass over teakettle, as his father had always said. He had to focus. Still, it was difficult for Tony to clear his mind completely of his uncle.

After all, Mike, Tony knew, had a lot riding on this night, not the least of which was that he had been the one who had talked Tony's father into letting him have this one fight.

"This kid, he's like a hunk of granite. If he ever got in the ring, no one would touch him!" his Uncle Mike had said.

He hoped his uncle's prediction would prove true and provide some small consolation to his father now.

When Tony entered the ring, the announcer had already begun the introductions.

Jake quickly removed Tony's robe and rubbed his arms. While Jake continued to warm his muscles, Tony heard the whistles and catcalls from some of the girls in the crowd.

He had forgotten that it was Valentine's Day.

His opponent was a big brute of a man, bald, heavily muscled, with the tattoo of a hairy skull on his right shoulder. His pale face was almost albino-like in its whiteness, his face twisted into a sneer of confidence.

The bell rang to start the first round. Tony stared back at the man across the ring. All noise ceased to exist.

Then the man charged.

Tony took a lengthy two and a half seconds to size up the fighter who was hurtling straight at him, throwing haymakers as he came and trying to knock him out.
Backing into the ropes, Tony felt his opponent's punching power as the blows rained down on his arms. He smelled the man's sweat as it flew off in droplets, covering Tony in a dewy mist. After about fifteen seconds, Tony had seen enough. He moved the man to the center of the ring by bobbing and weaving his way there, avoiding each blow as it came. Tony sensed the man's growing self-assurance because he had not yet thrown a punch.

Once in the middle, the fighter lunged at Tony. Tony responded by snapping a hard left jab that caught the man square in the nose. The albino rocked back two or three steps, swiping at his nose with his glove. His opponent looked down and saw that the white laces were now crimson, wet and sticky with blood.

Tony faked a second left, and then slammed the man with a hard right to the jaw. His opponent flew across the ring, his mouth open in a silent scream. When he came to rest against the ropes, his knees buckled; and he fell face-first, a pool of blood seeping out of his mangled nose.

The referee ran to the downed fighter, disbelief and horror etched on his face.

The referee hesitated, and for the life of him, Tony didn't know why. He assumed the ref didn't know whether to call for the doctor or declare the winner, but the decision was taken out of the official's hands when the doctor came under the ropes and began working the downed fighter.

The crowd, once unruly and excited, became still and silent. The doctor looked at the referee and shook his head, indicating that the fight was over. Instantly, the ref grabbed Tony's hand and raised it in victory. At this, the crowd erupted in jubilant screams, a euphoric rapture of bloodlust and appreciation that lasted longer than the fight itself.

Tony bumped through the crowd on his way to the dressing room. He gritted his teeth in an attempt to keep from brushing off the hands that groped his back and shoulders. Tony knew it was just the crowd's way of trying to inherit some of Tony's skill, courage, or simply his winning aura, and that they hoped it would rub off on them and change their lives. Still, it annoyed him.

He heard voices shouting to him. "Great fight, man," and "Way to go," but Tony could only focus on finding his father.

When he finally spotted him in the crowd, there was a look on his dad's face that Tony recognized but hadn't seen in what felt like a thousand years - pride and respect were what looked back at him. And hadn't he been waiting his whole damn life for that look?

Two

Levittown, Pennsylvania
One decade later

The hill in Levittown had, like its Boston counterpart, been dubbed Little Heartbreak Hill because of its steep grade and its ability to break even the most dedicated and fit runner.

On this day, Tony took the hill at top speed, determined to make it to the top without walking, even if it killed him. Which, he thought, it just might. His legs - strong and well defined from countless hours spent fighting and sparring in Philly gyms a lifetime ago - pumped rhythmically, in harmony with each other and the rest of his body. He barely noticed the sweat pouring off of him and did nothing to keep it from draining into his eyes. Although it burned, he welcomed the sensation because it meant he was alive, and the pain diverted his attention from everything else running through his head.

As Tony trudged along, every step making his calves burn, an inquisitive breeze blew back his dark hair, hair that was just now starting to show signs of gray. The sun beat down on his back, infusing his muscles with warmth and heat. But he took no joy in the beautiful afternoon.

Instead, Tony thought of the boy he had been years ago - the one who had his leg encased in an iron vise for two years, the one who had endured verbal taunts and jabs that bordered on abuse by kids both younger and older than himself, the one who was never supposed to walk again, let alone run. Yet here he was - sweating his way, drop by frigging drop, through his workout. Despite the intensity and hard work, no matter the task, he had promised himself that he would always be thankful. And he was. So what the hell was his problem?

Topping the crest, proud of himself for beating the godforsaken hill that until today had always broken him, he paused and allowed himself a smile. He gave his lungs a break by taking a minute to get his breathing under control and reflected on what was bothering him. He paced in small circles, hands on his hips, while taking deep gulps of air. When his breathing calmed to a mere whisper instead of the wracking swallows that always preceded oxygen depletion, his mind returned to what he had been thinking about during his run, which was, What the hell was wrong with him? What was he so unbelievably dissatisfied with? After all, he had a good life - no, great life, he corrected himself - with Laura and his stepsons. Even his job was okay - not great, by any means, but working construction paid okay and kept him in good physical condition. And while he would've rather been sweating it out at Mahoney's - a hole-in-the-wall gym in Philly that sat atop a beer distributor - and taking out his stress on a punching bag, he also knew boxing was no life. Especially not when you had a family to provide for. So he was okay with his decision to stop boxing. Wasn't he?

Who was he kidding? The decision to leave his boxing career behind still ate away at him like tiny maggots on a piece of rotting flesh. It didn't help that on the rare occasion he did get to Mahoney's, both trainers and fighters alike often asked him, when was he coming back, when could they count on him for a match or two, when could they get him a fight, when in hell was he gonna get over the civilian life and come home? The questions were endless.

And while Tony loved hearing the comments from world-class fighters about his abilities, it served only to depress him even further because the answer was always the same. Never.