He overcame monstrous odds—he had fought just once in the previous five years—and became the first man to beat Hagler in 11 years. All his fighting life Ray had been able to reach into his cellar when he was hurt or in trouble; he had reached deeper in such moments than any fighter of his time. And the moment he was finished in that vast darkness, he would run up the cellar stairs and slam the door shut, show up smiling, cool, witty, wearing clothes that lay upon his body as they do upon men in fashion magazines. He would make people forget all about that cellar. Forget how badly he needed to be a boxer.
In the first half of his career, a month or two before each fight, Ray would select an exotic island, imagine its smells and sounds and the splash its blue-green water made upon the sand. "I'm going to go there as soon as this fight is over," he would vow to his lawyer, Mike Trainer. He would wring all the anticipation from the dream during training, smell surf where there was only sweat and liniment. Then win the fight and never go there.
The day he became wealthy enough to go lie on that sand whenever he wished, he discarded that dream. The fantasy had lost its scent and color; reality eroded his perfect white beach. He left home now and then for a week's stay at such a place, but after only two days he would pack up and leave. Reality made every dream tawdry.
Even when he was a child in Maryland, he had lived his richest life inside his head. He would spend all morning reading comic books about Batman, the Flash, Superman and Thor, then spend all afternoon alone with his dogs, Duke and King, imagining stories so vivid in colors and tastes and feeling that he could not quite believe they were not real. Stories in which he was the superhero, the enemy of all chaos, the avenger of all wrong. Often he bent his knees and jumped into the sky. He was different from other boys—nothing pulled him back down; he would spend his afternoon flying. His mother, Getha, wanted to shake him sometimes, rattle loose a sentence. It unnerved her, how distant and quiet her son could be.
Why forsake his daydreams, he wondered, why trade in his world for theirs? Their world could never quite be trusted. His mother was a big-hearted woman with a sense of humor, a temper and an arm—cross her and duck, because something would be coming, hard and high. Once she hurled a can of pork and beans at his sister, Bunny, for talking back, miscalculated and caught his brother Kenny's friend in the chest just as he was entering the house and calling out a cheery, "Hello, Mrs. Le—." The force of the blow drove the boy back through the door, never to enter the house again.
Ray's dad, Cicero, was a keg of quiet strength, 39-1 as a boxer during his days in the service, the kind of man who could work a month of 12-hour days muscling crates at the fruit market or the grocery store without a grumble or a sigh, the kind of force a child wanted kept in that keg. It hardly ever spilled, but when it did, it ran till the keg was empty—Cicero's knees squeezed like jaws around a misbehaving son's head, and his right arm spanked until it was spent.
Then there was Roger, the agent of anarchy, the brother two years older than Ray. In the middle of a dead sleep or a mouthful of mashed potatoes, a quiet bath or a comic book or a cartoon on TV—who knew when it might come, from what angle or what it would be? A slap across the face, a punch in the gut, a book in the ear. C'mon, Ray, fight me, Roger would taunt. But Ray would just sit there, remote and silent, or he would walk away, do anything to stay wrapped in his dream. You've got to fight back, his parents would lecture him when the fantasy burst and he came crying that Roger or the kids on the street had hit him. But no, Ray could not risk having his fantasy shattered by real life. He would wait until he was alone on the porch, scratching his dogs behind their ears, then stride across the landscape with Thor's hammer in his fist and bludgeon them all in his daydreams.
One day when he was 11, Ray was playing along the bank of a flooded creek just after a storm, balancing himself on the rocks. His foot slipped, and suddenly the world was dark, his eyes and throat full of muddy water, his body hurled head over heels by the current. He came up gasping, glimpsed a branch and grasped it, and began pulling himself toward the shore. The branch snapped, and back into the torrent he was thrown, his head vanishing beneath the frothing water. A log! Up ahead he saw it jutting halfway across the creek, felt the water tumble him toward it, threw his skinny arms at it, was sucked under once more by the swirl. At last he hugged the log, dragged his body up onto it and crawled to land, vomiting water. He staggered home and lay on the floor, retching again and again. Yes, everything he had suspected was true. Reality was like Roger, it waited in ambush. Only on the porch with his dogs could a boy tiptoe on the rocks by the rushing water, only in his dreams.
He watched Duke, scruffy and un-bathed, gnaw on a bone in the sun. Poverty gnawed at Ray the same way. Not so much its actual teeth—there were worse neighborhoods than his. Not so much having to stuff toilet paper in the toes of the too-big shoes handed down by his three older brothers. Not so much pretending to be sick rather than admit that he didn't have the dollar to go with his classmates on their field trips to Washington, D.C. No, what gnawed at Ray was that poverty was the most oppressive reminder of the terrible distance between his life and his fantasy. Thor's boots fit without toilet paper.
On weekends, his parents would load their seven children into the car and drive to the neighborhoods where the money people lived. Simply park and stare at the model homes, or pile out, pray that the sales agent was myopic or kind and have him lead them on a tour. The other children were loud and announced what they would have for their own one day, one day. Ray ran his eyes and hands across the furniture and walls, saying nothing.