Friday, January 2, 2009

A Fighting Chance

I could feel the bad news coming. Doc always made me wait longer when he knew I wouldn’t like the diagnosis.

I sat hunched over in his examining room, staring at my swollen knuckles and wondering if this last bodily betrayal would be the end of me. I flexed my fingers, winced at the wave of pain that rushed up my arms and released them. I shook my head, knowing what Doc would have to say about that.

I heard his footsteps in the hall and sat up straight; he would not find a defeated and dejected man made pale by those glaring overhead lights that stole away shadows. He would find a fighter, a man filled with determination and steel.

He said something as he came through the door but I had to ask him to say it again. Sometimes I didn’t hear things too clearly – a few too many right and left hooks to the side of the head can do that to a man.

“How are you feeling Nate?” He closed the door behind him and gave me the Look. “Your ears bothering you again?”

“No Doc, I was just lost in my thoughts,” I told him. “I’m feeling just fine, I’m feeling ready to fight.”

He nodded before looking down at the chart in his wrinkled hands and the deep grooves in his forehead became even more pronounced than usual. I watched his eyes go left to right, left to right and waited for the verdict.

“Nate, how long you been coming to see me?” he asked when he finally brought those blue eyes back to bare on me.

“Twenty years,” I said immediately. It was an easy question – I had become his patient the day before my first amateur fight and I had never let another doctor examine me since then. I’d even asked him to be my cut man on two occasions when my regular guy, Buddy Davis, was out sick.

“And in those twenty years,” he continued deliberately in his rumbling baritone, “how many times have I recommended that you retire?”

“Not once Doc, not once.”

“Well,” Doc told me simply, “there’s a first time for everything.”

And that’s how he broke it to me – a first time for everything. He didn’t mean to be smart about it, that was just his way of doing things. I understood that but it sure didn’t make it any easier to take.

“Is it really that bad?” I asked him as I held up my clenched fists. It was a silly, stubborn question – of course it was that bad. Doc was the sort of man that didn’t see the need for lying - just tell the truth and you’ve got nothing to hide from.

“Nate, this is the third time this year you’ve come to me with metacarpal bossing. If you keep this up you’ll have chronic pain in your knuckles for the rest of your life. As it stands right now if you hang up the gloves you should have two functioning hands until the day you die. But,” he added with a soft, raspy laugh, “you’ll never play Mozart’s Piano Concerto Number 21.”

“I’ll have to think it over,” I said as I stood up and reached for my chocolate brown Italian leather jacket hanging on the stand in the corner. I needed to get some air, some head space, to figure out what came next. Doc caught me off guard by placing a firm hand on my shoulder and turning me to look him in the eyes.

“You’re the smartest boxer I’ve ever treated,” he said. “You might be the smartest patient I have – you’re definitely smarter than those kids from the law firm across the street. So don’t go getting stupid now. I won’t clear you to fight and no other doctor worth his degree will either. So go use your head for something other than catching punches.”

I nodded and moved past him with a mumbled thanks. I walked home the long way, letting the crisp autumn air wash over me, feeling the heartbeat of the city around me and allowed my thoughts to go where they would. I tried not to look too closely at the bums and beggars, afraid I’d see a face I’d met in the ring.

Homelessness was a common fate for boxers too old or too broken down to fight. For those lucky enough to retire with some money, the escape promised by the bottle or the pills often proved to be too great a temptation. I was hoping for a better end to my story.

I was no closer to figuring things out by the time I walked through my apartment door that night but I felt a bit better. After putting some water on to boil I grabbed the phone book off the shelf and flipped to Piano Lessons. I shook my head and sighed as I went back to Musical Instruction – Instrumental. I called up a randomly chosen company and made an appointment for a lesson the following week.

I’ve never been one to listen to doctors.

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