Tito lived over Imelda’s Dime-a-Dance Parlour at Broadway and Main where the lackadaisical musical stylings of The Martin Sentimental Band began every evening at 5.00 p.m. During the day, he worked at the Sunrise Market, stacking carrots, turnips and onions, and chasing off produce thieves with a razor sharp vegetable knife. He was an unrated middleweight waiting for his crack at a title.
At night, in the winter, he lay on his bed waiting for the melodies that matched the time register of the clanging steam pipes, usually 2/4 time give or take. In the summer, he lay there naked, perspiring until the night cooled and the nocturnal breezes off the Pacific began their cycle. He burned candles and incense and reread 1940s vintage boxing magazines, waiting for Cole Porter tunes to come up through the floor.
Sometimes Martin’s younger brother, Melvin Sentimental, would sing with the band. He had a voice like Sinatra’s after he’d met Eva Gardner, after she’d rescued Frankie from his lonely hell.
Around midnight, fights that broke out in Imelda’s spilled out onto the street. Tito would draw back a corner of a curtain and peak out at the men on Broadway, only half as drunk as they thought they were on the cheap, watered down booze. They brandished knives and unforgivable insults while the dime-a-dance girls stood languidly by, bored and pouting and wishing it was closing time. Occasionally some mook would pull a cheap .38 that would explode when the trigger was pulled. Sometimes the money Imelda paid out couldn’t keep the cops away.
Every Mother’s Day, Tito’s Mamma returned from the dead to tell him how much she loved him, and complain to him about the state of his messy flat. Anticipating this, he worked hard to keep his apartment clean during the days that led up to the annual visit. So, on the morning of the second Sunday in May, when he awoke and saw her smiling ghost standing at the foot of his bed, the place was spick and span.
“Hello, Tito baby,” the ghost of his dead Mother said.
“I’ve just come to tell you I love you, Tito baby.”
“I love you too, Mamma. How is it being dead?”
“Not so bad. But we ain’t got no Army & Navy, and sometimes I have to put up with relatives who aren’t any better dead than they were alive. Your father’s brother, Uncle Sal, for one. What a bum. You’d think that death would change a man, but no. Not a man like your Uncle Salvador.”
“I’m sorry to hear this, Mamma.”
“Oh, don’t concern yourself,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “That’s death for you. Just the troubles of an old woman’s ghost. The living have other things to worry about. Like this apartment, Tito. Can’t you do something?”
“But I cleaned…”
“I mean it’s tidy enough, but you couldn’t take a moment to paint?”
This was new and distressing. Tito’s dead Mother had always restricted her comments to cleanliness. She’d never mentioned the apartment’s state of disrepair. Tito located the beginnings of a hangnail on his left index finger and began to rub it with his thumb. It was a natural and inevitable nervous reaction to his dead Mamma’s natural and inevitable prodding. “I cleaned it up for you, Mamma,” he said.
“It’s tidier than other years, I’ll admit. But those drapes…”
Tito stopped rubbing the hangnail with his thumb and began picking at it with his thumbnail. “I only rent, Mamma.”
“Stop that,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “That thing you’re doing with your thumb. You’ll only make that hangnail worse. It’ll start to bleed. It’ll look like you’ve got bloody nail polish. Girls don’t go for boys that bite their nails.”
“But I don’t bite my…”
“And it’s 7.00 a.m. Why aren’t you out of bed yet? If your father were around…”
“Don’t ask,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “I never see him. Salvador, his underachieving brother, I see daily. But your father, the man I married, who I spent 30 years cleaning up after, forget about it.”
Tito continued to pick at his hangnail with wretched enthusiasm. It was getting longer, more pronounced. It was starting to sting. It was probably bleeding onto his brand new white bed sheets. He couldn’t look, and hoped his Mamma wouldn’t either.
“You know what it’s like trying to get a blood stain out, Tito? Didn’t I teach you anything?”
“Yeah,” came a voice from the wall where Tito had hung glossy black and white 8x10s of famous 1940s middleweights. “Didn’t your Mamma teach you anything, Tito?” It was Jake La Motta, standing in his photo like all of the framed boxers around him. The black and white image not only representing a lack of colourful distraction, but the revelation of shadow, muted radiance and grainy highlights on the powerful shoulders, heavily scared brow ridges, cheekbones and a bent and swollen nose. Wearing silk boxing shorts, his head down, up on his toes, his feet placed directly under his shoulders, his mitted fists up and ready. When he spoke again, he did so in a mocking, falsetto voice.
“Didn’t your mamma tell you about stains?”
Tito began to pull more anxiously on the growing hangnail. He’d pulled it out of the nail bed, and it was now a fleshy string of skin and sinew that stretched all the way to his knuckle. He was peeling his finger like an apple, round and round, leaving only muscle, nerve and bone behind.
“He’s coming undone,” said the 8×10 of Ray Robinson.
“What a bum,” said Kid Gavilan. “Folds under pressure like a house of cards. No wonder he’s just an unrated gym rat. Definitely not a contender.”
“Ha, gym rat,” Jake La Motta said. “That’s rich. Look who’s talking.”
“Back off, La Motta you stupid wop,” said Kid Gavilan. “You clubfoot, I’ll take you apart.”
“You and what army, you half a girl.”
“Shut up,” Tito yelled with his hands over his ears, one of them dripping blood. “My dead Mother’s visiting. Leave us alone.”
“You hung us here,” said La Motta.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
“Maybe I should just go,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said.
“No, Mamma,” said Tito peeling off more of the flesh from around his finger. He was down to where the index finger met the hand now. Blue veins had been revealed. They glistened and pulsed.
“And stop picking at that,” the ghost of his dead Mother said. “It’ll get infected.”
“It’ll get infected,” La Motta lisped.
Tito threw off his bed sheets, and got out of bed. He wore a pair of lime green cotton boxers with purple geckos. There were whistles and hoots from the wall of 8x10s. “Mamma, please stay. I’ll make tea.”
“Tea,” whispered Joey Maxim’s 8×10. “Isn’t that precious?”
“One lump or two,” said Archie Moore.
“I’ll give you lumps,” said Jersey Joe Walcott.
“Will you ladies be having scones and strawberry jam,” said La Motta.
“Stop it or I’ll take you all down,” Tito said. “I’ll throw you all into the trash.”
“Couldn’t be any worse than hanging round this joint,” said Ezzard Charles.
“Anything be better than watching this homo skin himself alive,” said Rocky Graziano.
“I’m not a homo,” Tito said.
“Homo gym rat,” La Motta said.
“Shut up,” Tito yelled.
“Have to go,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.
“Mamma, please.” Tito continued to peel himself. He was exposing the flesh beneath the skin of his wrist and beginning to proceed up the forearm. Pinkish white tendons were showing. The ribbon of skin and flesh had gotten wider. He was feverishly pulling it off with his right hand now.
“Look at you,” the ghost of his dead Mother said. “Go run some cold water over it. It’ll stop the bleeding. Then put on a Band-Aid, for goodness sake. I told you not to pick at it.”
“Oh please do stop picking at it, Tito darling,” La Motta said.
“Hey La Motta, looks like your face after our fight in ’44,” Ray Robinson said.
“Shudup, you bum,” said La Motta. “I coulda murdered you that night.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t,” said Jersey Joe Walcott. “I was there in the third row. Ray sure took you apart.”
“Who’d you blow to get a third row seat,” said La Motta.
“Watch it La Motta,” said Walcott. “You dive artist.”
“No, you watch it, Jersey. You don’t want me coming over there.”
“You can’t come over here, you dim wop. You’re just a lousy 8×10 glossy. Even uglier than the real thing, if that’s possible.”
Laughter from the wall.
Tito was nervously tearing skin off from just above his elbow, a long ribbon now, some of which lay on the floor trailing blood.
“Look at the mess,” the ghost of his dead Mother said.
“That’s some sick shit,” said Maxim.
“You’re making me do it,” Tito said. “Shut up and leave me alone.”
“Hey, we got a right,” said Kid Gavilan.
“Yeah,” said Graziano. “We gotta hang here all day and all night with nothing to look at but you, you morose mamma’s boy. Watching you sweat over those out of date boxing magazines makes me sick. What goes on in that head of yours? I think you are a homo.”
“He’s a homo,” La Motta said.
“I’m not a homo,” said Tito, peeling away below his opposite shoulder.
“He’s a sensitive boy,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.
“Oh, here we go,” said Maxim. “Dead Mother’s ghost to the rescue.”
“Stay out of this Mamma,” Tito said.
“I will not stay out of this. You’re my baby.”
“My little baby with the geckos on the shorts,” said La Motta.
“Actually, I kind of dig the geckos,” said Robinson.
“That makes you a homo, too,” said La Motta.
“What was that, La Motta,” Robinson said. His framed photo shook slightly on the wall. “You fat, degenerate, alcoholic slob,”
“I said that you’re a homo, too. Let’s face it, a fella doesn’t comment on another fella’s shorts unless he’s a homo. It’s a homo thing. So, you’re a homo just like him.”
“I’m not a homo,” said Tito as the ribbon of flesh and gore progressed around his back and across the front of his collar bone.
“Stop picking,” the ghost of his dead Mother said.
“Come and get it, La Motta,” said Robinson. “I’m gonna beat your lily white honky ass to a pulp. I’m going to take you apart piece by piece.” Robinson’s frame began to rattle violently on the wall as he spoke, and then fell to the floor. The glass shattered. “Pick me up, pick me up,” Robinson’s yelled. His voice muffled beneath the overturned frame and matting.
“Ha, that’ll teach you not to mess with the champ,” La Motta said. “Look at you down there with the dust bunnies.”
“I swept up the dust bunnies,” Tito said. “There are no dust bunnies.”
“My boy’s very neat,” said the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother.
“You only show up once a year, lady” said Archie Moore. “He cleans up for you. The rest of the time it’s like a garbage barge in here.”
“That’s a lie,” said Tito.
“The hell it is,” said Gavilan.
“Shut up,” said Tito, peeling away the skin from above his nipples.
“Pick me up, Tito,” yelled Robinson. “Or I’ll kick your homo ass.”
“I’m not a homo,” said Tito.
“He only ever had one girlfriend, come to think of it,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “And she was sort of butch, if you ask me.”
La Motta guffawed.
“Don’t try to help, Mamma.”
“Well, I love you even if you are a homo, Tito,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.
“I thought you were going, Mamma.”
“I thought you were making tea.”
“You can’t even drink tea, Mamma,” Tito said peeling the ribbon of flesh off from around the small of his back and stomach. “You’re dead.”
“It’s the thought that counts, boyo,” said La Motta.
“Pick me the hell up,” yelled Robinson. “If I was a white man, you’d have picked me up by now.”
“If you was white,” said La Motta. “You’d fit in better with polite company, instead of floppin’ around on the floor like you was tap dancin’ or something.”
“Yes,” said the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother. “It’s the thought that counts. And if you don’t stop picking at that, I’ll scream. You were always such an obsessive, picky little boy.”
“Homo,” said La Motta.
“Pick me up,” yelled Robinson.
“I’m not a homo.”
“You spent an awful lot of time with that Jeremy Blinker boy in high school,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “Wasn’t he in ballet?”
“Ballet,” gasped La Motta.
“Well, there you are,” said Archie Moore.
“Pick me up.”
“He was in figure skating,” said Tito.
“Same damn thing,” said Maxim.
“And you dressed up like a girl that time,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.
“It was Halloween,” said Tito. “I was only ten years old. And it was your idea, Mamma. You dressed me up as Marilyn Monroe.”
“Ooo, daddy!” said La Motta
“Well, I always wanted a girl. A boy can be disappointing in so many ways. You have no idea.”
Tito had now peeled away the epidermis from his torso to just above the waist band of his gecko shorts. He looked down at the gruesome blues, reds and pinks of his exposed tissues. “I thought I’d bleed more,” he said, mildly surprised, as he began to pull down his underwear.
“Stop right there, young man,” said the ghost of his dead Mother. “I’ll just collect myself and leave. Then you can abuse yourself as you see fit. But I suggest that you visit a doctor tomorrow and have him provide you with some ointment for that.”
“That must hurt like a son of a bitch,” said Graziano.
“It’s indescribable,” said Tito as he sat down on the bed, holding the balled-up ribbon of flesh in his hand.
“All joking aside, kid,” La Motta said. “You should maybe call an ambulance or something. You need stitches.”
“Don’t you call a damn ambulance before you pick me up,” yelled Robinson.
“Why can’t you people leave me alone,” said Tito.
“Well, I like that,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.
“You’re the one who hung us on the wall, boyo,” said La Motta.
“But you’re so vicious,” said Tito.
“Vicious,” whistled Archie Moore.
“Pick me up.”
“Unrelenting,” said Tito.
“I’m your mother, Tito. If I’m not unrelenting, then who will be?”
“Look at what I’ve done.”
“I told you to stop picking at it. It’ll probably get infected now.”
“A homo and a head case,” said Kid Gavilan.
“Pick me up the hell up.”