“Golden Gloves Chump,”

Fiction by Jeffrey Sussman

If you saw Will on the street in his early 60s, you would think he looked like an aged James Cagney after nights of heavy drinking and little sleep. He was a small, wiry, angry man. Indeed, anger consumed him: a fire he could not extinguish. Offhand comments were a provocation to him. Look at him askance, and he might bark a curse at you. A friend of his said that Will had more than a chip on his shoulder; it was a rattlesnake. His provocative manner was an invitation to a challenge. He was quick with his fists, but also with his mind. He was a strange combination of brilliance, talent, and belligerence.

He came from Montreal when he was a teenager in the late 1920s. He had beat up another boy and sent him to the hospital; the victim had made a lewd remark to Will’s mother. Will had learned to box at a local gym; a coach introduced him to speed and body bags, to shadow boxing and rope skipping. Will’s gloved fists blasted away his fury. Fighting was as second nature to him as his anger.

His mother thought he would wind up in jail and so sent him to live with relatives in New York. At least he would be with a family that was headed by a man who might instill some discipline in young Will. So he moved in with an aunt and uncle on Hester Street in Little Italy. For a violent boy, he had a strange sensitivity to the arts. He was a self-taught poet, painter, and pianist. He would spend hours in his room reading poetry. At the Henry Street Settlement House, he played the piano and painted city scenes. When he played a popular song on the upright piano, listeners could briefly forget that those same dancing fingers could become clenched fists and pound an insult into an abject apology.

By the time he graduated from high school in the 1930s, he had a couple of amateur fights, then known as smokers. He would pick up $20 or $30 a fight. He was encouraged to try out for the Golden Gloves, and he fought his way into the semifinals, then the finals, and then he won in the featherweight division.

His mother, who wrote to him regularly, begged him to give up fighting and learn a profession. He loved his mother and so he got a degree in accounting. He hated thinking of himself as a bean counter, but it was a way to make a living. With no outlet for his anger, he took to drinking. Morning, noon, and night, a bottle of scotch was close at hand. Third Avenue with its hundreds of Irish bars became his second home. He was as steady and reliable as the old Third Avenue El going south to north, north to south. And numerous bars became his clients.

At night, fueled by scotch and ambition, he wrote lovelorn sonnets, odes to misery, and elegies to a life he would never know in the dim corners of his clients’ musty bars with sawdust floors, tin ceilings, and slowly spinning fans. He managed to get a few of his poems published in quarterly magazines that paid for his work with free copies.

One night, he attended a reading of the poems of Langston Hughes at the 92nd Street Y and, at the butt end of the evening, he boldly introduced himself to the famous poet. Will showed Hughes a few of his poems, and Hughes told him to stick with accounting.

“Kiss my ass,” Will hissed and shot a left jab into the poet’s soft gut. He walked off into the night ready to punch anyone who got in his way.

Being an accountant, he saw money as a device to be manipulated. He could be as clever with money as a used car dealer. He got a bank loan and purchased a brownstone on lower Lexington Avenue. He and his pregnant new wife resided on the top two floors, and he rented out the lower two floors, which covered the costs of his mortgage and utilities. He arranged to be the accountant for the coal company that supplied all the buildings on his block and bartered his services for their coal. It worked well for two years, but then his drinking led to his “fuck ’em” attitude. He failed to file tax returns, stuffed his client’s information into a breadbox, made excuses, and ultimately had to pay for his own coal.

For some, it would have been a warning, but for him, it was just another injustice, another reason to carry his anger like a tensed muscle.

The hell with it all. He would be slicker than everyone, he would use money from banks, from loan companies, from credit unions to buy buildings and then quickly sell them before he lost properties to the hungry demons of foreclosure. It was a great game of keeping two steps ahead of lending institutions. He managed to buy, with other investors, a 10-story office building in Lower Manhattan. Though he owned a share of the deed, his name was not on the mortgage. How clever he thought he was. He was now living with his family in an elegant town house just off Fifth Avenue.

The 1930s were coming to an end, and he was living in expensive comfort. He had been good to himself, to his family, and to fellow investors.

He decided he had enough money to live on and could devote himself to writing poetry. It was poetry that haunted him. It was for poetry that he now wanted to live. He could compose sonnets, villanelles, odes, elegies, at the drop of a challenge. Yet, he couldn’t find a publisher willing to accept his genius. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. And the angrier he became, the more he drank.

In October, his wife said she wanted a divorce. She was tired of his drinking and claimed that he had sexually abandoned her. He denied it, slapped her face, and left their home. He was angry and contemptuous of her charges. He awoke the next morning on the street outside a bar in the Village. It had been the worst night of his life, he felt.

He was not as clever as his wife’s lawyer, and he lost his rights to their town house and custody of their young son. He lived for a while in a residential hotel on upper Broadway. While there, he was sued for malpractice by a former client and had to pay for a hefty settlement out of his own pocket.

One night at the bar in Sardi’s restaurant, he got into an argument with a comedian named B.S. Pulley. He told Pulley what the B.S. stood for and then claimed that Pulley intentionally burnt a hole his new camel hair overcoat. Pulley received a left jab to his jaw and a right cross to his temple. He went over like a dead tree in a strong wind.

Will sat out World War II. There were very few men who had avoided the draft, and having done so drove him further into contempt for all those who might have looked at him with disapproval. He wrote anti-patriotic poems for which there was no audience. It was not until the war’s end that he could go back to being angry about his prospects.

Years passed. His fortunes shrank and expanded. He went on drying-out cures and returned to drinking as if to an abusive lover. His son had grown to dislike his father, whom he rarely saw. The son had inherited some of his father’s talent for music and worked as a pianist in a hotel bar in Midtown. There he learned to drink as well as his father.

By the 1950s, Will had met another woman, a widow. She was distraught and lonely, eager for a man in her life. And Will pursued her like a missile. He would not let go; she was this drowning man’s life preserver. She finally consented to marry him, and it proved a terrible decision.

When he would return from his now shabby office in Brooklyn to their apartment on the Upper East Side, he would accuse her of being unfaithful. He suspected a handsome athletic neighbor, a delivery boy from the supermarket, the doorman, and even some of his more raffish friends. The more he suspected his wife, the more he drank.

The woman’s adult son, an aspiring writer, grew to detest Will. In the 1970s, the son published a review in The New York Times Book Review; it was a fast-burning fuse to Will’s anger and jealousy. The son went to visit his mother on a Sunday afternoon; she had left the apartment to do some shopping.

Will was there and said to the son: “Every boy must fight for his mother.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“We’ll just do it open handed, no fists.”

The son got up from the couch and landed a couple of quick jabs with his left hand, then flung a right-handed smack to Will’s cheek.

“Hey, I said open handed,” he yelled.

“It was open handed.”

Will then went at the son with fists. The son blocked the feeble drunken punches and landed a quick series of combinations that made Will kiss the floor.

“You know,” the son said, “when I was a teenager, my father signed me up for lessons at Stillman’s Gym. I can out-box an old fart like you any day of the week.” He never saw Will again.

A few months later, Will bought a shipment of 1,500 stolen Nikon cameras. He was arrested and spent a few days at Rikers Island. His wife finally bailed him out. His humiliation was now a raging fever. What self-image he had was not something he sought in mirrors. Drink transported him to the City of Oblivion, a place where death is the welcome rescuer.

Will collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut. He was rushed to a local hospital. There, doctors discovered that he was bleeding internally, the self-inflicted wounds of his disease. He died on the operating table.

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of 10 books and is president of the eponymous marketing and public relations agency.