The Road Boxer

James started boxing small village lanes and worked himself up to highways. It was a long road to the top and he didn't have an easy time of it. The construction crews who always loitered on the side, eating donuts and drinking scalding hot coffee, had made fun of his training routines. James would throw a clod of asphalt in the air and smash it his fist, yelling loudly in pain, then he'd do it again. Although these pieces were parts of the street the men hadn't fixed yet, they still complained he was getting in the way of their job.

"Hey, buddy, go use a punching bag. That's what they're for, not the crap we're trying to clean up here."

"If you want, guy, I can let you hit this shovel. It hurts the same and does you as much good. I could be your sparring partner, swing it at you a few times."

"I am training," James said. "I'd appreciate some support, and if not, please get out of the way."

He was always polite to these knuckleheads, although he could break their jaws open like manhole covers if he wanted. The first lane he fought had a crowd of similar jerks around it, making smart ass comments. "You can't beat progress," one said. Another, "Someone's only going to come around and fix it." He readied himself by wrapping wads of tough leather around his hands. Saying a prayer to a God who hadn't failed him yet, James rang the bell and rushed into the center of the road. Traffic had been stopped, if only to see the spectacle, but that didn't mean unforeseen dangers weren't around. A bicyclist sped over the sidewalk and only his footwork enabled him to dodge a horn to his solar plexus. Then a mime, pretending she was kangaroo, hopped into the homemade ring he'd made with rope and orange cones. James bounced away from the mime's leaps and let her pass back into her imaginary Australia in the alley. After the distractions, he took a look at his opponent and decided his best approach.

The lane passed an antique store and a coffee shop. It was made of bricks, antiquated in a fashionable way. James knew the old guys were the wiliest veterans. His first attempt to pry up a piece of the street failed, the momentum of his pull spilling him on the ground. He was breathing hard.

"Hey, Mr. Boxer, 10, 9, 8, 7 . . . ."

"You're not the referee," said James. He picked himself up and tried another approach. James threw his whole body at the lane, arms and legs smashing the tough road. Except for a slight chipping, the lane was unhurt. Bleeding and sore, James went back to the corner, drank from a spray bottle and decided on another strategy. His fists, small weapons as they were, had been strengthened by his asphalt exercises. He called one Wear and the other Tear and both of them together were lethal weapons. Shaking himself back alert, James bounded into the ring with his face guard in, his game face on.

The lane countered by tripping him up with a loose brick. James knew this had been a possibility, with old roads prone to breaking up, so he had taken ballet and dance classes, to keep himself nimble and agile. The crowd, even the jerks, held their breath and James spun in the air like a graceful swan, so any judges watching would have given him perfect 10s. After he landed, James started with a jab into center of the lane, then a combination of punches uppercuts, roundhouses, haymakers into the belly of the street. His fists felt like they were crumbling, the knuckles bleeding like a broken I.V., but James did not give up. Several minutes passed, but soon the lane began to move away from the ring. Underneath the feet, like a wave of water, the bricks toppled the mime and cyclist off, caused the jerks to flee with their hard hats and lunchboxes, and made everyone except James run like the worse catastrophe in the world had happened and they could be next.

James watched the lane rumble toward another city, looking for escape. The grass around it tugged at its sides and the weeds jumped in its cracks. Before it knew what had happened, the tiny lane was a meadow crawling with bees and flowers, picnickers and lovers drinking in its loveliness. James smiled to himself, unwrapped his hands, and picked up the orange cones and rope. He was only in the lightweight division now, and he had to keep climbing up the ladder to the heavyweights. After sleeping for two days in his Spartan apartment, James woke up sore but ready to carry on his mission.

The newspapers and TV crews began to show up. They sprayed him with make-up, rolled brand new cars toward him as an enticement for an interview. His friends wrote books about him and made money telling others about his lousy childhood as a wimpy nerd, the science fiction club he founded at college, and his sudden disappearance form his job as a technical writer. Picketers paid for by the construction and car companies showed up for every match, yelling at him that he was killing this country and that he was Un-American. The public ate up every bit about him, watching his exploits on the sports channel in larger numbers than football. The phenomenon even incited copy-cats, who broke their limbs trying to mimic his accomplishments. These distractions did not keep James from his mission. In his eyes he only saw the latest street or road or boulevard that dared risk a fight with him. When he won, in their place grew walking paths for children going to school and new groves of fruit trees the neighbors picked. People found their SUVs submerged in swampy muck or their pickup trucks crushed like a tin can. James would shrug his shoulders at them when they complained or praised him, saying he was a fighter. He had no responsibility for the other being in the ring.

The day of the biggest, and the last, battle came. The Beltway wrapped around the city of D.C. like a noose. In the middle of the hottest day of the year, during the worse possible traffic, James walked to the six lane behemoth, even though pedestrians weren't supposed to walk there. He set up his tiny ring. He bound strips of steel around his hands. He warmed up by jogging in place. He said a prayer and put his teeth protector in. The lights from the cameras burst around him like stars crackling in their death throes. James would not comment when the press yelled at him their questions, which he could hardly hear. The traffic had completely stopped and a thousand horns blared out, piercing ear drums. Some of the people had left their cars and held out signs for and against him. James sensed the power in the highway its years of work holding this region together, damaged by the tread of a million tires, commuters ravaging it like a helpless captive. It ached like an old man who wanted his final rest. This opponent could not be beat by force alone; he had to drill into its vulnerability, its psyche.

James bent down in the center of the ring, and whispered into the pavement. It burned his lips. The heat caused sweat to saturate his trunks. He heard its resistance and punched it once, then began to talk to it again. The Beltway, though it wanted to die, could not stop resisting. The force of its asphalt, its long snakelike body, kept it from giving in. James beat down on it, cracking his fingers, yelling that he was the only champion. There had been a flood, and there had been a plague, and there was him, the boxer of highways. He felt the earth give under his feet and the highway started being sucked in around him. He looked up and saw the cameras, cars, and the people scurrying away, into the few grassy areas left. The crater covered miles of earth that steamed with new growth. The Beltway sunk around him, and he felt its pavement belt wrap around his waist. James did not resist as he was dragged down. This was his last fight, the one he had trained for his whole life, the one he had to win even if it killed him. Flowers would sprout from his belly. Roots would grow into his limbs. The sky would shine startling light on his new garden, verdant and invulnerable through every season. For this, he was the new champion.

About the author:

Donald Illich has published poetry in Fourteen Hills and has a poem that will be published in an upcomming issue of The Iowa Review. He has published work in the online editions of Pindeldyboz and McSweeneys. He works as a technical writer for the Federal government in Rockville, Maryland. Please visit Donald's blog at Float Not Swim.