Commentary Magazine


Homage to Benny Leonard
A Story

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Mr. Flaxman, as Davey got up from the table, where he had sat morosely through the meal, and walked off.

Mrs. Flaxman shrugged, as though to say that she could not choose amongst the numerous possibilities.

When, a moment later, Davey walked back into the dining room to pull out the ball which was securely lodged between the floor and the bottom of the bureau, his father asked him: “What is it, David?”

It was David’s turn to shrug his shoulders. “Nothing, Pop.”

“A fine nothing,” said his father. “One could die looking at you.”

“I’m telling you, Pop, it’s nothing,” and he walked slowly out of the house. When the door closed quietly behind him, did not slam, Mr. Flaxman said to his wife: “What is it, they don’t tell you anything?”

There was an implied criticism here, the burden for the child’s non-confiding was suddenly put on the mother.

“You were probably no different at that stage, that’s how the children are.”

Mr. Flaxman was momentarily bemused, as he thought of his far-off childhood, the childhood which is twice as far off for the immigrant as for the native-born.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “who remembers?”

Since the problem had not come into full light, he shook it off, the more so when his wife said: “I wonder what’s bothering him. You think he’s not feeling well? Maybe I’ll take his temperature.”

Mr. Flaxman shook the thing further away from him, shook it almost into non-being.

The sport pages of that morning’s newspaper told the story of Davey’s grief. It was the defeat of Benny Leonard, one of the three defeats this remarkable champion was ever to suffer in the ring.

Benny was the boy’s hero. On the short side himself, putting his reliance on skill, speed, dexterity, what the kids called “form,” it was only natural that Davey should identify this way with the peerless lightweight.

Stories he had heard at home of the Old World pogroms and persecutions had created an uncertainty, a fear, which required a defender. This defender was required against no present foe but against some unknown future enemy, even against the monstrous foes of the past—Haman, Antiochus Epiphanes, the thundering Black Hundreds.

It was no accident that at this time (later his heroes were the mighty figures Ruth and Dempsey) he needed the prince-hero, the 135-pounder who could weave, parry, outguess his opponent, jab, feint, dance off, and yet throw the sudden knockout punch, and then come dancing into the middle of the ring, his dark hair unruffled, saying into the microphone: “Hi Mom, he never even touched me.”

At this moment Daniel Mendoza would not do, but Benny Leonard would.

He remembered his mother’s story. She was taking care of the store in their Russian village. Suddenly the cry “Cossacks!” She quickly locked up the store, ran desperately. How Davey wished he could have been there to defend her. . . .

“Hi Davey.”

It was Chick, also out in the street for that glorious hour between supper and sleep.

“What’s eatin’ you, Davey?”

When Davey mentioned the fight, Chick was surprised. He couldn’t understand that much of a reaction.

“So what,” said Chick, “you can’t win them all.”

Chick was one of those kids who had more easily thrown off his ghetto past. He did not seem to carry within him the ancient walled cities, the nighttime assaults and terrors; he did not dream the bearded Jew shot to death in the tunnels under the New York Central Railway up on Park Avenue. He took for granted the prevailing freedom, was not drawn to the ancient midnight, nor was he disturbed by vague and monstrous presentiments, menacing shadows. He was well-adjusted historically.

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This rather flippant attitude on Chick’s part both angered and relieved Davey, the anger because his friend did not share his woe, the relief because his friend kept him from sinking deeper and deeper into this woefulness.

It was not yet dark, just light enough to see a ball, so they had a catch, throwing the ball back and forth in a leisurely manner—slow balls, curves, floaters, and an occasional fireball down the groove. Allie and Richie joined them, and they got into a quick game of boxball, playing under the lamp post. Then it was too late to play, and they sauntered down the block, toward the candy store.

“Last one down is a rotten egg,” said Chick, and the four of them were off in a flash. Allie, a P.S.A.L. runner, won easily, by four or five boxes. Richie, who was kind of heavy, pulled up a game last.

“You’re the rotten egg,” said Chick, but the satisfaction was not abiding.

Inside the candy store they picked and chose amongst the sponges, the caramels, the licorices, the creams, in the secure and exciting candy world.

Coming out, at their ease, chewing, or biting, or sucking, or crunching, they paused near a group of the Big Guys who were hanging around in front of the store. They stood close enough to the Big Guys to hear everything that was being said, but far enough away (they hoped) not to disturb them.

Included amongst these Big Guys was a lad who was not so much a stranger (for he was one of those nomadic types who thought it nothing to wander three or four blocks from his own block) as what you might call a border figure; he hung around enough so that he was no stranger, but still he did not belong, because he did not live on the block. There was always an element of suspicion attaching to one who did not live on the block. He was called “The Gate,” or when he was addressed directly, “Gate.” This nickname apparently referred to the figure he once had, wide and formidable. There were some signs of that old figure, out of which he had grown, and yet he kept the nickname (like a tall “Pee Wee” or a gray-haired “Red”). A later school of sociologists may decide that the nickname “Gate” refers to the blocking maneuver, founded on superstition, or suspicion, in a dice game.

Now the conversation of the Big Guys was not of a particularly profound sort. It related to given individuals, mixed praise with the most severe criticism, the foulest maledictions, and was punctuated by expectorations geared for aim or distance. But to Davey and his friends, age conferred, if not dignity, a certain awe, because of that extra measure of experience, the activities just beyond them, so they listened, hoping to get closer to the unknown, the forbidden, and to be initiated painlessly into the mystery of the stage ahead.

But this cynical adoration on the part of the youngsters (for it was not exactly improvement they were looking for) did not predispose all of the Big Guys in their favor. Some were pleased, some paid them no mind, but The Gate, who looked around and saw these blemishes on the landscape, said: “Whatta you kids hangin’ roun’ for?”

At this question the four of them, in a kind of reflex movement, seemed to come closer together, but nobody made a move, for it was clear that the taunter was not serious in his intentions.

The scattered interchange of praise and invective went on; two of the older fellows lit up cigarettes, but The Gate was not one of those two.

“Beat it, you shrimps,” he said.

This statement was not yet the one requiring flight (though it was a move in that direction from the previous question) because it was a command, but without a threat attached.

None of the Big Guys showed much interest in The Gate’s annoyance, they looked at it as a kind of eccentricity, but with a sure knowledge that there was a motive, inexplicable to be sure, but the kind of motive which could induce any one of them, under similar pressures, to behave quite the same way. One of them said, tolerantly:

Aw, leave the kids alone, Gate.

But this friendly admonition only angered him the more, it was as though he was being opposed not only by the silent four, but by these contemporaries of his in whose company he was still somewhat of an outsider, where he still had to prove himself.

“Get goin’,” said The Gate, “befaw I roon yiz.”

Here was the command, and the threat, but no overt move. The Gate’s rhetorical string was played out—his next move was pursuit. Again one of the Big Guys put a cautionary word to him, asking: “What’s the diff if they stay here?” implying the acceptance and even enjoyment of the kids’ somewhat idle homage.

“Because they’re a buncha wise kids, that’s what,” said The Gate, and it was just then that Davey tossed up his ball, catching it in his backwards-cupped hand.

_____________

 

Here, finally, was a reason, an act of insubordination to justify The Gate’s wrath. He had been publicly humiliated.

“Aw right now,” he said, and then he made his move. His intentions were obviously to disperse this group, swiftly, by this move in their direction, and then to return to the charmed circle, quietly triumphant.

To his surprise (and deepening chagrin), one of the four detached himself from the group, and advanced toward him, on his toes, in the approved boxing stance. The taunter was being taunted. In the few seconds between Davey’s first move and his near approach, The Gate realized in what an absurd predicament he now found himself, forced to do battle with a kid three years younger and maybe thirty pounds lighter. To take on four of the kids was one thing; to find himself isolated with the one was monstrous. A victory could be only hollow and meaningless, a defeat catastrophic. He had no way of coming out at all. He looked longingly at Chick, Allie, and Richie, hoping they would move in to do battle, but they had stopped in their headlong flight, and were watching in fascination as their comrade-in-arms advanced on the enemy.

“Go way, ya runt,” said The Gate to Davey, “go back tu da cradle.”

In reply, Davey threw a left jab, which grazed The Gate’s cheek.

Some of the Big Guys snickered. It was quite easy for them to turn against this suspect border figure.

The Gate had to protect himself, for to be hit by the kid was in itself an embarrassment, perhaps not so bad as sloughing him, but certainly shameful enough. The Gate’s position was deteriorating fast, he could find help neither from his friends nor from his enemies.

Davey meanwhile was desperately trying to remember everything he had read about his hero’s style. “Keep jabbin’ him,” he said to himself, “jab him crazy, look for the opening, and if you don’t find it, move back. Then jab away again.”

He followed his own instructions to the letter. The Gate had to adopt a fighting stance in order to avoid the ignominy of being hit. Davey was fighting against an immovable target, for if The Gate were to start moving forward that would constitute an offensive, and The Gate realized that after he was out of this absurd predicament he would have to be able to say: “The kid went crazy, I just kept blocking his punches.”

But that turned out not to be the case, for every now and then one of Davey’s blows landed, and each jab was a monstrous humiliation for the older boy.

Davey was in a kind of euphoria, imitating the image of himself, and every now and then realizing that it was all real, that he had fled the imaginary world where victory was dearly but surely won and was struggling here in the street, where the issue was always in doubt. Once more he jabbed at The Gate, struck him lightly under the eye, and danced off, but not before The Gate, helpless and infuriated, struck out blindly and hit Davey high up on the cheek.

The Gate advanced threateningly.

“Why doncha grow up?” he asked, but Davey’s answer was a long left jab. One of the Big Guys snickered.

This ambiguous bout was brought to an end by a passer-by, one of those gents whose sense of justice is outraged by the sight of an obviously unequal struggle (as contrasted to one of those gents whose sense of exactly what? is outraged by the sight of an obviously equal struggle).

“Here, break it up, you two.”

The Gate turned toward this gentleman with a look of the deepest gratitude. “You are a veritable Nestor,” he seemed to be saying, “a depository of the most profound truths buried in the heart of mankind.”

Davey was perhaps less pleased with the turn of events, and would have been even more less-pleased had his cheekbone not begun to swell and cause some discomfort.

“That’ll loin ya,” said The Gate, as Davey walked off with his friends, but this remark was meant for what record?

Davey was considerably cheered, he understood as well as the next one that the Big Guy had pulled his punches, but he was pleased with his own exhibition. Looking back, he saw himself in the classic weave, felt the acclaim of his invisible mentor.

“That was nice goin’,” said Richie admiringly, and Davey felt also the approbation of the others. Then they walked each other home, and finally Davey and Chick stood together in the early darkness, they spoke seriously of matters of import, of the latest trade in the American League, of the next club meeting, of the distance of the furthest star.

“So long,” said Chick, “see ya.”

“So long,” said Davey, and he sprinted to the door of his apartment, then opened the door slowly, hoping to avoid at least a direct appearance before his parents.

_____________

 

He reached his room without being seen, and raised a warning finger to his lips at his brother Danny, as he opened and closed the door.

“Who socked you?” asked the younger brother.

“The Gate,” said Davey, and he gave a blow-by-blow description.

Danny was proud, envious, and disbelieving.

“You don’t have to believe me,” said Davey, “just ask anyone tomorrow.”

Then he got onto his bed and started on his homework. He wasn’t at it long when his sister Joan, who was between the two boys in age, entered noiselessly.

“Did you see my Little Women?” she asked.

Davey denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of this work; Danny denied any knowledge of the very meaning of the question.

“It’s a book,” she said, “and I’m sure you know where it is.”

The last part of the sentence was directed to Davey, who had been facing the wall, but now turned round to meet the gaze of his accuser.

She gasped with interest.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, “but don’t tell Mom and Pop about it.”

“If it’s nothing,” she asked, “why can’t I tell them?”

“Instead of being so smart,” he said, “why don’t you think of something that will help?”

“Beefsteak,” said Danny, who was steeped in all sorts of esoteric lore, “that will reduce the swelling.”

“That’s the same as steak,” said Davey to his sister. “See if there’s any in the kitchen.”

She went and returned with a piece of steak in her hand.

“Great,” said Davey, and he applied the meat to his cheek.

There was an instant of silence; then he opened his mouth with every intention of shrieking bloody murder, remembered the danger of disclosure, and bit into the meat, his eyes shut in agony.

“What’s the matter?” gasped Joan.

“It burns,” he said, “real bad.”

They both looked at Danny, whose look of puzzlement suddenly passed into the area of understanding.

“Naturally,” he said, “Mom salted the meat already.”

“You’re a girl,” said Davey to Joan, “you should know all about these things.”

“Don’t bother me,” said Joan, as she beat a retreat in the face of her brother’s repeated admonitions to say absolutely nothing.

“They’ll see it in the morning,” said Danny sagaciously.

But Davey was not taking such a long view. He asked Danny to bring in some milk and crackers, and they ate and drank together.

Then it was Danny’s bedtime, and Davey, to avoid discovery, and because he was tired, got into bed himself. Deep in his soul he exulted, having fought in the manner of his peerless champion, and for his vindication.

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