His elbows on his knees, he stared down at the laces on his shoes. How long had he known the old man? He remembered he'd just celebrated his tenth birthday when his mom had ushered him into the store to meet Mr. Feldman, and a deal had been struck. The grocer needed a boy to sweep the store afternoons and Saturdays, and in return for his services, his mom could select slightly aged produce at reduced prices, still good, but not good enough for the daily trade. And, she was allowed to buy day-old bread at half price.
"He was a fair man," a bass voice echoed from the front of the chapel. Will watched his scuffed shoes swing under the pew as his lips silently repeated the phrase. He was a fair man. He could imagine a hand reaching down with a piece of penny candy, but never recalled an instance when this had actually occurred.
Will had been taught to make himself scarce when shoppers came into the store. He was to keep the floor free of dust and debris, dust the shelves, but never to be seen by the shoppers. Some days he'd have long waits behind the back room curtain watching transactions and exchanges of pleasantries at the counter. And when he heard the bell over the door, he'd peer out to see if the store was empty and, if so, he'd continue his daily tasks.
This routine had continued unchanged for a couple of years until one day he was called into the old grocer's small, cluttered office in the back of the store.
"Will, you are old enough now to deliver groceries to the back doors of our customers, those who are unable or unwilling to come into the store. How would that suit you?" he said.
"Fine, I mean, I'd like that Mr. Feldman."
"Now Will, because of our need to make multiple deliveries time to time, you will need a bicycle with a basket to carry groceries, and—"
"I don't have a bike," Will interrupted.
The old man paused and peered over his glasses at the boy.
"Well, do you suppose you could get one?"
Will felt perspiration dance across his neck, his hands searching his pockets for some unknown purchase.
"I…I don't know, sir, I could ask around."
The old man nodded and reached for a pencil that rested over his ear and used it to scratch the back of his neck. He smiled at Will's wide eyes and winked, "Where there's a will, there's a way."
The boy looked puzzled, but said nothing. He sensed that the meeting had ended and returned to his duties in the store. And he wondered what he would do now. He knew the cost of a bike was beyond him, even with his mom's help. And to his knowledge, none of his friends owned one. Everyone he knew walked to school.
Up front two men in black suits closed the casket. Everyone rose in silence as the dusky apparatus was wheeled down the aisle. Will squeezed his eyes shut just as he had when his mom insisted they go down front to view the body. He could hear the old man's words as if he'd spoken them yesterday! Where there's a will, there's a way.
Once they were home from the funeral his first order of business was to kick off his shoes. It was summertime, bare feet weather. Leather shoes always hurt a kid's feet. Now back in his overalls Will sat at the kitchen table eating lunch, graham crackers and milk. It would be the same each day until school started in the fall. Then his mom would place a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his school lunch sack. And this suited him. PBJs were standard fare for all kids.
The bike was on his mind. He and his mom had canvassed the neighborhood for days looking for someone who owned a bike and would loan it to him. But no one had a bike. Even the adults, for the most part, depended on bus service for daily commutes. All appeared hopeless to him until Mr. Feldman proposed a solution. He would furnish a bicycle to the boy and Will would pay him a quarter out of his new dollar a week wages until the debt was settled. And before the old man presented the bike to Will, he'd had it painted bright red.
Will soon became the talk of the neighborhood. Everyone wanted a ride, and he would quickly oblige anyone who could scrounge up two cents for a trip to the end of the block and back.
Will knew he still owed money on the bike, but to whom? The old grocer had been a widower and had no children as far as anyone knew. He finished his milk and shambled out onto the front porch to inspect his treasure. It stood gleaming in the light, safely secured by a chain to the banister. Too easy for someone to steal it otherwise. Nothing of value would survive a night outside in this area of town unless it was protected in some way. He bent down to take a closer look at the tires. There was plenty of tread left, but he could see small cracks in the rubber. It wasn't a new bike, but new to him and a good bike, too, he thought.
His mom came out of the house and passed him in a blur, shouting instructions. She had a job as a dispatcher for a commercial truck terminal from noon until midnight and today she was late because of the funeral.
"Will, remember to sweep the front porch and empty the kitchen trash before I get home. And don't stray too far from the house. You know what we talked about earlier."
Will recalled the lecture about the gangs in the area and how they recruited kids to become drug mules. The money would be good, she'd said, but the end result would be a prison term or a violent death. She'd preached this so often Will could almost recite the speech himself. And he could hear her continue to rattle off tasks for him to do as she scooted up to the street toward town.
His summer afternoons had been filled with grocery deliveries, but no more. He rode his bike up to the store and peered in the dark windows. Who would buy it now, he wondered? And would the new owner hire him? And would his mom have the same deal with the new grocer? So many unanswered questions.
The late sun bore down and he could see no one out to play. He chained the bike to the porch, flopped down on the sofa and flipped on the television set. Soaps, melodramas. He didn't know those terms, but what he did know was that every episode was filled with adults, sometimes in bed, engaged in endless conversations that made no sense to him. He'd no clue what the attractions of these programs might be, but when the subject arose at home, he recalled his mom had mentioned the woman across the street. Every evening he'd see a stream of men come and go, and Will had been told to stay away from her house and not to speak to the men who visited the woman.
The afternoon heat warmed the house and Will soon fell asleep. His dreams were filled with rides through the streets and across the park on his bright red bike. And days when he'd wave to other children on his way to important deliveries.
He awoke with a start when he heard noises toward the street, and raced to the door. Outside in the dark he could see links of the chain curled on the porch in the early moonlight. He ran to the curb and looked up and down the empty street, then hurried to the nearby corner, his heart thumping. But the only movement he saw was a dog with his head buried in an overturned trash bin down a nearby alley.
His head down and shoulders slumped, Will made his way back toward home when an old pickup truck, its innards rattling, pulled up next to him and stopped.
"Will, that you?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Simmons," he said. Moses Simmons was a neighbor who painted houses dawn to dusk, seven days a week.
"You don't look too good, boy. What's up?"
"Somebody stole my bike," he chuffed.
"You see who did it, Will?"
"No sir, I was asleep."
"Well, get in and let's circle the block. Maybe we'll see it."
For almost an hour the rusty old truck cruised the neighborhood, sometimes stopping so Moses Simmons could speak to folks cooling themselves on their stoops. No one had seen a red bike. And no one knew who might do such a thing.
In the wee hours of the morning when Will's mom returned home, he was asleep in front of the television set, its wide eye broadcasting a cloud of light and a hum. She gazed down at her son's innocent face and covered him with a sheet.
At first light Will was out on the streets searching every yard and alley and stopping everyone he saw. And it occurred to him that the one place he'd failed to search was the town cemetery. But why would anyone leave a bicycle there? He'd no idea, but he felt a need to look anyway.
From one end to the other he searched but saw nothing but gravestones, markers, and various monuments. New remembrances lay strewn here and there, some fresh, some plastic. And some graves were adorned with nothing more than weeds and crabgrass. And then something caught his eye: a fresh mound of dirt, a new grave. Mr. Feldman. It was still too soon for any markers to be placed here, but he was sure this hillet represented the final resting place of his former employer and friend. He could see the old man's wrinkled smile. Do I still owe you? You don't happen to know where my bike is? In the stillness, the only sound he could hear were two wrens fighting over a tidbit below a tree nearby shading the new grave.
Over the summer Will's discouragement festered into anger. He'd get even. Somehow he would. Every evening he'd sit on the porch steps watching people pass, wondering who in the neighborhood had betrayed him.
Late one evening in front of the television set an idea came to him. He was watching the Friday Night Fights. He'd become a boxer, an amateur and then a pro. He'd show them.
Unknown to his mom, on Saturday morning he showed up at a gym where local boxers trained. He begged Nick, the owner, for a chance to train. But that would cost money, he was told.
Recalling the words of the old grocer, Will agreed to dispense towels and sweep floors afternoons and weekends in exchange for an opportunity to learn to box. He was determined. And Nick was pleased with his work. He described the youngster as thorough and energetic, tenacious even. He did not need to be told twice to do something.
Winter afternoons and weekends found Will in the gym. And the memory of the red bike began to fade. Sometimes he'd think of places he'd not searched, and fellow classmates who did not like him. But he never looked for it again. And in some ways he secretly hoped it'd never turn up. His demeanor had coalesced into a burning determination to win in the ring. The fight game had become his passion.
When Nick paired Will with a fighter for training that first Saturday, he'd picked an older boxer, a seasoned veteran who'd seen better days. Nick watched them spar. Will was quick and caught on fast. The next Saturday Nick selected a younger boxer to work with Will. The results were the same. The boy was good. And each blow he took produced an equal or harder punch in return. A few weeks of this, and Nick decided he'd handle Will's training himself.
"Will, you have to expect to win…at all costs," Nick said, "and you can never leave your guard down. You got that?"
Will nodded as he danced and weaved, waiting for his new trainer to throw a punch. When it came, it glanced off the side of Will's head. And then another, and another until the young fighter began to tire. He'd been dazed by a couple of punches, but he never fell to the mat. At the end of his first lesson, Nick asked him if he had any questions.
"What if he's bigger than me? What do I do?" Will said.
Nick stared at him in disbelief.
"Will, do you want to win?"
"Do you expect to win?"
"Then why the question?"
The lesson was over. The trainer turned his back on the boy and walked off. Will knew what the expected answer would be, but he wanted the real answer.
Nick continued to add strategies to the young boxer's repertoire, and he told him,
"Will, a good idea has power, is power, and, if nurtured in a cauldron of angst and energy, it becomes an unstoppable force." Will's moves soon became psychic. An opponent would feint left and bob right into a gloved fist that would meet his head like a freight train at full speed. For some unlucky opponents, one solid punch was all it took.
Over time Will grew in breadth, height, and zeal. And he won. Time and again. Nick continued to match him with faster, larger and more powerful boxers. And like a Rembrandt, a Michelangelo, or a Botticelli, he'd become a master of his art: the art of movement, poise, and stamina. And raw determination. And a time came when few youthful fighters wished to face him in the ring.
At first his mom had been reluctant to allow him to fight. "Will, you could get hurt. Your face could be scarred for life, baby."
"Momma, it's me. It's my future. It's what I want to do."
In time she became his most ardent supporter. And he won the youth division title with no losses. By the time of his eighteenth birthday, the opportunity Nick had whispered in his ear so often was at hand: tryouts for the US Olympic Team.
Later his defeated opponents in this grand tournament would talk about their initial encounter with the young boxer. There was something mystical about his gaze. Every hopeful amateur knew there would be a faceoff and a moment when each would attempt to intimidate the other. A fighter was prepped for this moment, but with one look into Will's eyes, they knew. And he knew.
And perspective mattered. No amount of ingenuity on the part of the opponent could stop him. In Will's case, he'd embraced a discrete goal: every breath, every flinch, and every move was designed to be part of a singular force of destruction he'd unleash on his enemy.
By the time Will faced his first opponent in the Olympic trials, memories of the treasured red bike had waned, and the reasons for his competitive edge were no longer within his conscious processes. While he awaited the announcer, a thought flashed through Will's mind. Why am I here? As the din rose, his muscles tightened, and he peered across the ring at his opponent, a young sandy haired fighter from an Eastern bloc nation who stared back at him. What Will saw was a broad shouldered, tall youth who exuded total confidence. And for the first time in his boxing career, Will hesitated. Something was missing, but he couldn't say what.
The bell rang and the two Olympic hopefuls moved to the center of the ring, bobbing and weaving. And his body responded with the rote moves he'd practiced so many times with Nick. He thought he heard a voice and he blinked. In the next moment he felt himself falling. Everything moved as if part of an angry sea. Imaginary gnats danced across his eyes, and he remembered what Nick had told him if he took a fall. Stay put on the mat and breathe deeply until the referee says "six." Then rise and continue the fight. But Will had never been knocked to the mat. This was all new to him. And he wondered again why he was even there.
He shook his head and breathed. His vision cleared and he realized his opponent was nearby bouncing in bright red trunks. And in a flash the obsession that had driven him through all the steps that had brought him to this moment returned, and he heard the voice of the old grocer once again. He peered out into the animated crowd and thought he could see him shouting at him. The din was too great for him to have heard anyone, but he knew what Mr. Feldman would have been telling him.
He sprang to his feet at the count of eight, his arms and legs limber, his belly full of fire, and his energy bursting from his chest. The blow had changed him. It was a new game, a new quest.
Will danced backward and shook his head as if to clear it. His eyes narrowed, but his opponent didn't seem to notice. He shook his head again, and the sandy haired giant threw a wild punch just as Will connected with a bomb. The big man's legs buckled and he fell to the mat. Will's resolve then crystallized once and for all. No one would ever take anything from him again, nothing he'd ever worked so hard to earn. Nothing. Ever.
Fred Miller is a California writer. Over thirty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories appear in his current blog.