3. Limits, Knowledge, Bravery
Achieving greatness isn’t just about working hard. You need to open your eyes to the world, try to absorb as much as you can. This took me a long time to figure out. Once I’d graduated and gone pro, I was working so hard to stay out of trouble—avoiding late-night Korean news, punching three, maybe four thousand saxophones a week—that I started resenting everyone I saw as slacking off.
In this way I had won three official boxing titles, and was a contender for about a dozen unofficial ones where you fight animals. I told myself I wouldn’t fall back on my old ways, but I wish I’d also taught myself about the dangers of over-work.
One afternoon, I saw a man walking down the street still wearing his pyjamas, and I just snapped. When I was finished, he looked like he’d dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool. The first people to arrive at the scene were a road-crew because whoever reported it thought the guy was just a puddle of tar that hadn’t set properly.
Afterwards, I found out that my victim was a doctor, and that those were the clothes a doctor wears in hospital. Pyjamas! The official uniforms of doctors! I thought: If I turned on the fucking radio once in a while I’d probably know these things. So I started listening to the radio every single day, and reading every book I could get my hands on. It was easy because I was in prison again and didn’t have much else to do.
That’s how I began to read about the resentment we all bear inside us. I began to write, too, about the fear we are all taught, about the slime we loathe, even as it pumps through our hearts.
It’s where I got into the Bible, too, which my father said was too sexy to have in the house. But I didn’t just read the sexy bits about flaming swords and people kissing their sisters. I read about Jonah, who got swallowed by a whale and lived to talk about it. Probably the only time that’s happened; certainly the only time anyone’s ever gotten famous for it. What’s more, it was the best thing that could have happened to him, because it gave him time to think, got his life back on track, put him on the path that he was always meant to be on, spreading the word of the Lord in the desert and convincing donkeys to wear clothes. I realised that we all need to spend some time in the belly of the whale. For me, that was prison, except on Wednesdays we got to watch movies.
At first they didn’t want to release me, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. But they could see that I was a new man, a godly man, who listened to the radio. As part of my release package I became one of those former inmates who cleans sidewalks with high-powered hoses. The old me would have turned his nose at this sort of honest work, but the new me looked at it as a new opportunity for growth. The new me appreciated riding home on a strong hose in the very-early mornings, like Jonah sailing away from his whale, with nothing left but mud in his belly, and a lot to apologise for.
With the money I saved cleaning sidewalks I bought a cheap saxophone from a pawn store and went to see my father. He had a whole new family now, a family of boxers. While I was away all those years he remarried and remarried again, collecting big, strong step-kids, kids he could blast with water until they were champions. At ninety, divorced a dozen times, he was finally the manager he’d always wanted to be.
We ate lunch with the sun shining on us through the high windows of his home. His children stood all around us, dozens of them. Some were huge, beautiful kids who looked like they might be winners one day. Under that light I gave him the saxophone and tried to tell him what I’d learned. I tried to tell him the story of Jonah and the Whale, a story he never knew. I tried to tell him I was sorry.
He picked the instrument up slowly.
“Tell me what you are now,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s not a fighter anymore. You’re a man who cleans blood off the road, you may as well be a machine yourself.”
He stuffed the saxophone into the trashcan with the crusts of our sandwiches.
“A fighter doesn’t sit in the whale,” he said. “He beats his way out of the whale. You punch out its butt and escape into the ocean, and then you swim, swim, swim, until you’re either drowned or beached on a tropical island. Being a fighter means you’re willing to fight the biggest guy around, no matter if it’s a whale, or a regular strong guy, or the President of the United States.”
I sat and thought about what he was telling me. The old me would never have listened to his father. But the new me was going to be better. The new me had his heart open to the world, so the new me grabbed one of his father’s kids right there in the kitchen, the biggest one he saw, and started beating on him.
I dragged him outside and went to town on him, right there on the road, in front of his rich neighbours. I could feel all the years of training flowing back into my arms. My father came out in his wheelchair and I hurled him into a swimming pool, him and all the tall, beautiful kids dumb enough to get close to me. I conked their heads together like coconuts, pulled them apart like wet trash. I felt great, full of noise like I’d swallowed the earth and it was rocketing around inside me like in a pinball machine. I’d made it, I was a champion again, standing there beating the shit out of my step-family like a bunch of fridges forgotten out on the street.
Jack Vening is a bookseller and writer from Canberra. He is currently working on a fake book of motivational boxing memoir, and a collection of stories for the QLA Young Writers Fellowship, which he won in 2014.