All the fathers but the boy’s have souvenirs from the war—helmets, guns, a bayonet etched, sometimes, in German, Italian, or the strange, unknowable Japanese.
One father has shrapnel in his back. One flings a quick, open hand for failures. One shakes with what his mother calls “the palsy,” keeping bottles in his garage and car. All of them carry cigarettes in their hands and depend upon blasphemy for speech.
Though he often dreams of them, their apartment has none of those things. Not whiskey. Not even the cigarettes and curses. Year by year, his father stays silent, vanished beneath a distant, sealed door.
Because their fathers say never, his friends point those foreign guns at each other. Because whoever had fired them is dead, they tumble, quiver, and lie still. Because the boy has no weapon except stealth, he becomes a traitor they execute.
The child’s school is noise and nuns, as simple as a sidewalk broken by numbered streets, but Mass is an unsolvable labyrinth of soloed Latin. Every day, he creates a maze, each, he tells his mother, a new version of purgatory. When he completes it, he asks her to escape without lifting her pencil.
They live alone, the studio apartment small enough to memorize, the corridors on each floor straight and right-angled, a toddler’s puzzle. When his mother struggles, retracing, he imagines her prayer. When she exits, he believes she has managed penance. Always, he times her.
One evening, his mother, the pencil still pressed to the paper, declares there is no solution. Mute, he taps his watch. The apartment is cluttered with hesitation and sighs. When she retraces again, the line thickens until it fills each alley, until it’s hell.
His mother buys him gloves. She has a heavy bag hung from a basement beam. When he touches it, he inhales as if sinking in sand. On your toes, she says. The future is furious, a full-time thug. Because it wants more than you have, you must learn to juke and shuffle.
Jab, his mother says. Discover weakness. Uppercut, body blows, the hook from your left instead of the right you too much rely on. With or without brains, tomorrow is a brute.
Nothing is more serious than the speed bag she hangs in their studio. Again, she says. Now. His shoes skid where his father’s absence lies slick and oily on the floor. In every corner are the things unused for years—vow and promise, faith and joy—each tangled among his father’s pre-war clothes. Fear loiters near the locked door, its glowing cigarette a clock. She tells him to breathe as he shadow-boxes. Listen, she says, that voice you must hear is the undefeated’s.