[img_assist|nid=660|title=Reunion by Elynne Rosenfeld © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=118]Your mom told me write this down, just in case. She worries. Never tells me straight out I should quit, but she thinks it all the time. I know. I see it in those looks. Those big bright eyes make you feel like you better come up with something quick and you find yourself thinking, what?
That woman can talk like anyone—you’ll be smart like her. It’s when she’s quiet you know she’s telling you something. When am I getting myself a regular job, she wants to know? She mentions your uncle can get me in maintenance down at Saint Joe’s Hospital. Now who wants to clean up after a bunch of sick people? Uncle Squeaky likes it well enough. He’s been on that mop for 20-some years. But not me, right? I’ve seen enough blood. A few times it was my own.
Been doing this since I turned 18. Tell the truth, it was really 16. Lied about my age so I could turn pro early. Figured I could get out in 10 years with my wits about me. Still hanging on to those wits, and I’m not used up just yet.
Your mom says 39’s too old. I say, yeah, but it’s too young to lie down. I don’t know anything else worth knowing. You want to get somewhere in this hustle, you got to get past me. I’m what’s known as an opponent. They put me in with bucks on the way up, some half as old as me. Most times, though, they’re not half as smart. Nobody fights me without learning something.
Everybody calls me Nails. Nails from North Philly.
My trainer, Darcy Walker, gave me that name years ago. Met him the first time I walked into Joe Frazier’s gym on North Broad. Darcy used to be a fighter himself. Won the Pennsylvania welterweight title back in the ’70s. Then Darcy’s vision got fuzzy and they made him stop. Told him he was done and that was that. If it wasn’t for the record books, most regular folks wouldn’t even know he existed. Guess they wouldn’t know much about me, either.
I had arms like pipe cleaners, but Darcy said he could make me a decent middleweight if I was to stick with it. Year or so later, I was in the gym sparring one day when he yelled, “Look at Nails! You hit so hard, boy, you could seal a man’s coffin shut for good!”
Most people been calling me Nails so long, they forgot my real name. Sometimes I even have to think about who I used to be.
I been in 46—no, 47 pro fights. Been all around the country—even far out as Arizona, California, Texas. This one time, I was in fighting a Mexican in this big hot auditorium and the people were screaming, “Kill that spic!” I didn’t pay them any mind. No one in that place would say that to his face, just like they wouldn’t call me nigger to mine.
Anyway, I hit that Mexican with everything I had and he just kept coming. I believe I broke a knuckle on his head. Those gloves and wraps don’t make a bit of difference, not when you’re trying to break stone. In the sixth, he caught me with a left uppercut and all I saw was a blank screen with white dots floating across it. Stayed on my feet four more rounds, but I don’t know how. Thought I pulled it out, but the judges saw otherwise. Lost a close decision. Wonder whatever happened to that Mexican? He was rough. Wish I could remember how much I made for that fight?
Most times, I fight here in Philly, over at the Blue Horizon. That’s my home crowd. They cheer me, win or lose. They chant, “Nails, Nails, Nails” and slap me on the back when I’m moving past. They know I leave everything I have in there, even though I don’t have much left.
When it comes to Philly fighters, everybody knows we’re the toughest. Forget Frazier. We had Bennie Briscoe, Cyclone Hart and Matthew Franklin (calls himself Saad Muhammad now). Maybe some day folks will put me up there with them.
Been on a down streak lately. Knocked out in my last two bouts. Darcy says one more KO and the athletic commission’ll suspend my license. Now how do they take a man’s living away just like that? Those KOs were just because I was lazy. Didn’t work hard enough in the gym. Caught me on a bad night, twice in a row. That’s all.
Overall, I won 30 fights and lost 17. Looks bad on paper, but I still have more Ws than Ls. A lot of those losses were wins judges took from me. Some don’t like me because I’m flashy. Stick and move, stick and move. Others, well, I couldn’t tell you what fight they were watching.
The reason I never won a championship is because there was almost two years right in my prime when I was out of the ring. This was before you were born. Got myself locked up for being stupid. Started thinking I should be making the big money right away, didn’t want to be patient, wait on my chance. I was running with these guys who decided to take down an invite-only craps game on top of a Chinese place on Girard.
I wasn’t packing that night. I just waited outside, by the fire escape. You could still see Christmas lights blinking in the windows in February. So cold my toes went numb. I wondered how I’d run if I had to.
Something went down in there, still don’t know what. I heard pop-pop-pop-pop then Ray-Ray comes busting out the front door, looking like he didn’t know if he should go left or right. He flew down the alley and I got to it just in time to see him toss his piece in a Dumpster. I knew that’s the first place the police would look, so I took off after Ray-Ray. Then I felt those headlights on me and heard a cop tell me to freeze, put my hands up or he would shoot. I was just hoping he wasn’t the kind who’d shoot either way.
Don’t know where everyone else got to that night, but none of them came to see me up in Graterford. Eighteen months just for standing outside, and trying to help a fool.
I look out the window tonight and still see them. Maybe not the same guys exactly, but the same kind. They look hard under the streetlights, but really they’re nothing but empty inside.
This morning, when it was barely light, I was out doing my roadwork on Rising Sun. I passed one of them guys, maybe just a few years younger than me. We looked eye to eye and it came to me that it would have been easy enough for me and him to switch-up. Not that much difference between us two, but we each made some choices that put us where we are.
You won’t end up like them. You’re smart, like your mom. She’s getting her college degree someday. Wants to be a nurse. Maybe she’ll get me into the hospital after all.
You don’t know it yet, but you’ll have a baby brother or sister by the end of the year. That’s why I need to keep doing this a while longer.
Got another fight coming up in two weeks at the Blue. They’re putting me in against some kid from Baltimore with a Muslim name. Darcy said he has 14 knockouts in 15 fights. They say the kid hits so hard your teeth’ll hurt even if you have dentures.
But I’ve been training extra hard, that’s why I haven’t been around much lately. I’m figuring if I can pull this off, I’ll get myself noticed for a money bout. I’m feeling like this is the one that’ll change everything. We can walk on out of here. Move someplace nicer. Someplace where I won’t have to worry about you and your little brother or sister getting hung up in something crazy.
After this fight, you might even read about me in the Inquirer or Daily News. Nails Hammers It Home. That’s what the headline will say. Tim Zatzariny Jr. is a senior staff reporter for the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J. In May, he’ll graduate with a master’s degree in Writing from Rowan University. He is at work on his first novel, set in his hometown of Vineland, N.J.