Gene is teaching me how to play checkers. He lets me be red and I learn about jumping and kinging. I think about Grady’s checkerboard and think that next time I might just ask him for a game. We could sit outside at his checker table and watch the rich people go in and come out the Ghoston Hotel.
“Cono, there’s a new kid in town. He’s got two pairs’a boxing gloves.”
“Who is he?”
“We call him Oklahoma ‘cause that’s where he’s moved from.”
“Can I box with him?”
“He’s a little bigger’n you are.”
“Don’t matter. Everybody’s bigger than me, ‘cept you.” Being small doesn’t seem to bother Gene one iota. He knows how to stand real tall in his shoes.
Gene gets us together at the open lot. Of course, I put on Oklahoma’s old pair, the ones with the black cracked leather and torn laces. It doesn’t matter. They feel good on my hands, strong and powerful, like I could reach down and pick up the whole town.
“Ready to box?” he asks.
“Ready,” I say. I try to remember the punches Aunt Nolie has taught me, the ones my Dad used to clobber the Tombstone.
Oklahoma and me start out in the center of the lot, without any ring this time, but with boxing gloves on our third grade hands. He comes at me full force. I swing my arms like windmills trying to get a hold of something. He circles around me, trying to get my attention. He’s already done it. He’d gotten my attention alright, right on my mouth. A piece of my tooth is missing. The fight lasts a whole minute. He beat the tar outta me.
“Ya okay, Cono?” asks Oklahoma.
“Sure,” I say even though I got dog tired after one minute. “Jes’t lost a piece’a my tooth’s all,” I bend down to try to find it.
Gene looks in my mouth to see my broken tooth and says, “Cono, ye ain’t gonna find that tiny piece of tooth, not in this dirt’n weeds. Why’re’ ye lookin’ fer it anyhow?”
“Ya gonna try to glue it back on or somethin’?” laughs Oklahoma. I just shrug my shoulders and stop looking. I don’t want to tell them that I wanted to save it for my box of specials.
When Oklahoma has his back turned, I tear off a piece of the worn lace from my borrowed glove and stick it in my pocket. That’ll have to do.
I’m not a good boxer yet, that’s for sure. But at least now I can say that I’ve worn real boxing gloves, felt the goodness in them and have a broken tooth to prove it. Getting a beating in checkers in one thing, but getting a real beating is different.
I get home and show Mother my tooth.
“Don’t worry none ‘bout it, Cono. When ye grow, yer tooth’ll grow right along with ye and that little chip won’t even show.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, by C. Dennis-Willingham
The “real” Cono (in the two pictures below) grew up to be a boxer in the Army. And later, he became the man I would lovingly call, “Daddy.”
by C. Dennis-Willingham