Shadow Boxer 1 GROUNDWORK Easter Sunday afternoon Monty was lying on the couch in front of the TV. He was sleeping in front of one of those Jesus movies with a thousand different actors in it that he always sleeps through on a Sunday afternoon. First, he eats his weight at dinner, which isn’t all that much, then he sacks out for a couple of hours. I sat next to him, by his feet, since he didn’t take up more than half the length of the sofa, and Ma was in the kitchen doing the dishes. I got up to put my suit coat on.
“Where do you go, George?” Monty surprised me, opening his eyes a crack.
“No place. Go back to sleep.”
He propped himself up on one elbow. “Every holiday, you put on your suit coat and sneak away, like if we have a Friday or a Monday off from school, George has to go someplace on Sunday to pay for it.”
“I don’t sneak. I just walk right out the door, and everybody who’s awake knows about it.”
“So where do you go?”
“Is it any fun—out?”
“Everything doesn’t have to be for fun, Monty.”
“Then it’s not fun, right? It couldn’t be fun if you gotta wear a jacket for it. So why do you go?”
“Watch your movie, or go back to your nap.”
“Can I come with you?”
I made a sucking-lemons face. “No.”
He sat up, like he was going to come anyway. “Why not?” he said.
“Because you’re a kid.”
“I am not a kid.”
“Monty, you’re eleven years old, and you still take naps. That’s about eight years later than when I stopped.”
“George.” Monty looked and sounded like I’d hurt his feelings. “You know that the doctor said I’m hyperactive, and that by the end of the week I get run-down.”
“That’s right, I did know that. I’m sorry. So, take the rest of your nappy now so you don’t get too run-down.”
Monty stood up and put his jacket on. He walked over and stood beside me, his head coming just above my shoulder. I stared down at him. He didn’t move.
“Listen, if you just follow me saying stupid things, and spoil my day, I’m sending you home. And change that jacket—put on your good one.”
Monty put on his blue blazer with the gold buttons. We went up to Ma, at the kitchen sink. “I’m going out, Ma,” I said. She looked around me at grinning Monty. “He’s coming with me,” I said without a lot of enthusiasm.
She raised her eyebrows, smiled, almost laughed, nodded, and kissed us both. “Have a fine time, men,” she said.
When we got downstairs, Monty asked, “How do you do that? All I have to do is go into the bathroom, and Ma says ‘Where are you going, Monty?’ ‘What are you doing, Monty?’”
“Me and Ma understand each other. She trusts me. She pretty much knows all the time what I’m doing, and it’s okay with her. But here’s a tip: If you go out of the house in a suit coat, she cuts you a little more slack since you’re probably not going to be jumping off roofs or hangin’ with your boys down on the corner.”
Monty waved his finger at me like “Hey, there’s news you can use,” as if my story were a trick story. That’s why I have to be careful about what information I give him. “But I don’t care if you go out in a tuxedo,” I reminded him. “I’ll want to know where your little butt is going.” He sighed.
We waited for the bus in the bright sun, in our navy-blue jackets, light-blue pants, white shirts with white ties. It wasn’t very hot out, but it started to seem it. The bus pulled up close to us on the curb, making it even hotter.
Monty put his hand on my arm as I was about to sit. “Remember, George, I get bus sick when I have my suit on,” he said. I looked up at the ceiling as he climbed into the double bench first, to get the window seat. It was only a ten-minute ride anyway, out of our neighborhood, past the brick apartment houses, the few playgrounds, the cars on either side of the street jacked up with somebody underneath, or abandoned. A few corner stores with kids hanging out in front. It was the later, lazy part of Easter Sunday, and we only saw a few bonnets, baskets, families walking together but looking hotter and less happy than they had at church in the morning. The guys selling droopy flowers out of station wagons were pretty much out of business.
The bus pulled into a section of town where real flower shops seemed to be everywhere. There weren’t a lot of houses around, but a lot of open space, a batch of four or five cemeteries. A big, wide intersection on a parkway, four corners, four florists.
“This is it,” I told Monty as I stood up.
“This? This is where we’re going? There’s nothing here, George.” I pointed at Mount Calvary Cemetery while he followed me down the stairs of the bus. “You sure know how to have fun, man,” he said.
We crossed the street and walked in through the big front gate, past the square cement office. “They have maps in there,” I said. “You can find anybody you want. They have a kind of celebrity tour. Some guys from the Revolution and the Civil War are over in section C. Ray Bolger, the guy who was the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, is up on that hill there in D. Eugene O’Neill is in B.”
“Who’s Eugene O’Neill?” Monty said as we walked down the wide asphalt path.
“He was a great writer,” I said.
“Oh ya,” Monty said, not looking at me, trying to read the names on every stone we passed. “What did he write?”
“Well, I can’t think of any of the titles right now. But they were great, they were big, and he’s here.”
Monty read the name of someone we knew from the old neighborhood, but it wasn’t the same person. He suddenly stopped short, looking over at me.
“And who else is here, George?” He looked at me sideways.
“Come on, Monty. You’re a kid, but you’re not a dink. You know Dad’s here.”
Monty looked at the ground. “Ya, I know he is.” He looked up and down the rows to his left and right, at the many piles of flowers that were left that day, at little flags stuck in the ground. The wrapper off of a peanut-butter egg tumble-weeded down the road.
“We don’t have anything,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I was little the last time I came here. It was a long time ago, I don’t remember it much.”
I slapped him on the arm. “Come on,” I told him. It had been a long time since he’d been there, probably three years. Ma doesn’t care much for coming, and I like to come alone. So by the time I was ten and could travel pretty much everywhere the buses went, Ma mostly left it up to me.
We got to the top of the hill in section B. Turning off the main drive, we walked past the Robinsons, mother and father and three kids. They weren’t in the ground, they were live people from the old neighborhood. They were the most religious people we knew, the whole family going to church every day and all. They didn’t even have a TV, which pretty much says it all, so Pat used to have to sneak over to all his friends’ houses to watch. They didn’t say anything when they passed us, just nodded and smiled enough so we wouldn’t think they were hostile or anything.
We zigzagged between stones, some flat on the ground, some tall. There were a lot of angels, and a lot of war-memorial type things, but mostly plain rectangles. We came to the one. “Here we are,” I said to Monty.
Monty stopped, like he was a little afraid, but mostly like he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. I walked straight over, stepping around a newly planted lump of grave. I stood in front of the stone, and Monty pulled up beside me.
“What’s that?” Monty blurted, waving his finger madly at the inscription. Next to our father’s name was our mother’s, with her date of birth and a space for the day she’s going to die. “I don’t remember that being there.”
“It’s always been there, Monty,” I said.
“Well, let’s get rid of it. Fill it with cement or something. I don’t like it.”
“We’re not getting rid of it. It was Ma’s choice. She wanted it there.”
“I don’t like it, George,” he said, more angry.
He wasn’t going to change his mind, so I steered him to something else. “What about the rest of the stone?” I said.
“The other stuff, do you like it?” I walked right up and patted the headstone on top, rubbed its face. “I picked it out, you know.”
“Ah, I don’t think so, George.”
“I wouldn’t make something like this up. Ma had to go down to the monument maker, to take care of everything. I wasn’t even as old as you are now. She said to me ‘George’—she always called me Georgie before that, or Mr. Magoo—‘George, I’m going to need a lot out of you now. You’re the man.’ You’re the man, is what she told me. I told her that was okay with me, even though I was nervous because I wasn’t sure what being the man was exactly all about, and Dad wasn’t able to show me everything because . . . well, because he wasn’t really focused during a lot of the time I knew him. I figured I knew enough, though.”
Monty had wandered a bit, down the row to read other stones, head down like he wasn’t paying attention.
“Are you listening to me?” I said.
“Ya,” he said quietly.
“So then she says, ‘George, what I have to do now is a lonely job. Would you like to accompany me? It is all right if you don’t.’ I put on my coat and went with her in that hot smelly black Chevette with half a floor Dad left us. Remember the Chevette?”
“The Black Hole.”
“Right. Anyway, she goes, ‘What do you think?’ when she had it narrowed down to a smooth, shiny black stone with a Celtic cross on top and this plain, rough gray one. The black one cost maybe ten times what this one cost, and I didn’t think it was any finer. It looked too shiny, like a toy or the hood of a car. And that wasn’t my dad, y’know?”
“Our dad,” Monty said.
“That’s what I meant. So I told her to get this one. She didn’t even hesitate. She looked happy that I picked it, and told the man right away, picking that little rose engraving I liked too, out of a book with hundreds of designs. The only thing I didn’t get the way I wanted it was, I didn’t want Ma’s name on there.”
Monty had walked down the row one way and back the other, staying away and listening at the same time. Now he stood right in front of me with his hands on his hips. “Why didn’t you pick one of those?” he said, pointing to the line of mausoleums running along the outer edge of the grounds. He said it was like he was blaming me for something.
“Come on, man, look at those mothers. Who could pay for something like that, you? It’s like a house. If we could afford a house, Ma’d buy us a house. But I’ll tell you what. I think if that’s what I picked out, Ma would have tried to buy one.”
Monty walked back and forth nervously. Suddenly he ran to one of the tall angel monuments nearby and stole some flowers from it. He came back and dropped them on the ground in front of our stone. “Why do you like to come here, George?” He was pacing again.
“I don’t think anybody actually likes coming. . . .” I wasn’t sure I was telling the truth.
“The Stiff Family Robinson loves to come here. They go to places like this all the time,” he nearly yelled, pointing back toward where we’d seen the Robinsons, like he was mad at them now.
“Cut that out, Monty. You can’t be yelling and saying stuff about people here.”
“I want to go now, George. Can we?”
Monty was already walking down the path. I caught up to him, and we walked the asphalt road without talking until we were nearing the front gate. The sun was bright wherever we walked.
“Monty, you want to go see the Scarecrow?” I said from just back of his shoulder.
“Nope.” He walked steadily.
“You want to talk about Dad?”
“Will you tell me when you do want to?”
He walked even faster. “Yup.”
We crossed the wide intersection again and stood in the sun in front of the florist. “Maybe I’ll just finish my nap next time, and you can go alone,” Monty said while we waited for the bus.
“I’m sorry, Monty. Maybe it was too soon for this.”
“Nope,” he said, looking at me for the first time in a while. There was sweat on his upper lip, but he was looking hard.
“You want to take your jacket off?” I said.
“Take it off, then.”
We both took our jackets off just before the bus pulled up and blew dirt and heat all over us again. We sat in a double seat, Monty at the window. He stared off. I knew what he was thinking about because I’d been there before. Though I’m not really a huggy kind of guy, I put my arm around his shoulders.
“Listen,” I said, “when we get home, you wanna fight?”
Chris Lynch is the Printz Honor Award–winning author of several highly acclaimed young adult novels, including Printz Honor Book Freewill, Iceman, Gypsy Davy, and Shadow Boxer—all ALA Best Books for Young Adults—as well as Killing Time in Crystal City, Little Blue Lies, Pieces, Kill Switch, Angry Young Man, and Inexcusable, which was a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of six starred reviews. He holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College. He teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Lesley University. He lives in Boston and in Scotland.