The crippled streets were wide, and empty. A downtown not unlike so many others in our depleted land of commerce, construction and frailty.
The boy held the old man’s hand gingerly, not too big to cling. His other hand reached up, glided along the tarnished iron of the fist, suspended by taught cables, a symbol of triumph and cruelty among the concrete expanse. His soft fingertips gently shined one great knuckle.
“Papa,” the boy asked, “he was the greatest, huh?”
The old man didn’t look at his grandson, or the statue, but at the gray buildings lining the empty boulevard; the piled-up trash along the gutters, the big X taped over the window of a store he had once shopped. The old man sighed.
“The greatest, boy, the greatest. When he put down a man,” he said, pondering, “that man stayed put down.”
The boy daydreamed of black death, massive forms of obsidian shattering across a bleached canvas to create an unfathomable image of pain and destruction, cringing infernos imploding upon impact, falling into a ten-count night.
“But Papa, wasn’t he ever beat?”
“Hmm. I don’t know he was never beat. There were greats among him, and he got his. But hear,” the old man released the boy’s hand briefly, pantomiming the dance. “When he needed to reach, like this arm here, he reached. When he needed to stay and be patient, and shuffle his feet side to side, well, he done that. And when that man needed to hit another man,” he lifted the boy’s hand and intertwined his long fingers with his, “he goddamn hit him.”
The boy squinted up.
“That’s a swear.”
“Not when it’s true, it ain’t,” the old man replied.
The boy looked up once more at the giant fist, his thoughts shining. “When I’m big, I’m gonna box just like Joe,” he announced. “I’m gonna hit everybody.”
The old man squeezed the babe’s hand, smiled a little and scratched the coarse gray hair under his hat. He started to lead the boy back toward home. The day was brisk and growing darker.
“You don’t got to hit everybody to be like Joe,” he said, talking softly while they walked. “You just got to keep your feet beneath ya. You gotta be patient, and every now and then, well, you got to swing, baby.”
The boy punched at the air with his free hand, then raised it, mocking triumph. The old man laughed and slowed his walk, allowing the boy time to give the world what it had comin’.