The Sparer

Maurice Carlos Ruffin

I used to bully this kid. Braces. Always sick. Small and a whiner, too. Carlos’s family lived in a shack lit by candles; they couldn’t afford to keep the lights on. His mama was a maid and left early on weekends to get to the hotels downtown. Those were my favorite days because we’d play in the field next to his house. He’d watch us from his bedroom. Eventually, he’d come out so I could bust him in the mouth. Sometimes his sister, Lametra, gave me the eye, but I never took any trouble over it from their mama. I brought hell to that kid.

I came home from middle school one day and Carlos’s house was empty with the lights on. I went up to the porch, and sure enough the inside was cleared out down to the cheap tile, which made sense. After all, his mama was a maid.

In college, I caught fights on the TV at the corner bar. I was watching intensely one night, when my buddy jabbed me.

“Look like you seen the girl of your dreams,” he said, “the way you eyeballing that set, Eddie.”

I told him that when I was younger I used to own Carlos, the wiry one in the red trunks. Everybody, my future wife included, was sure I would become a famous boxer before long. My buddy just laughed and poked my belly.

Years later, I was downtown with the family, just before I lost my good job. Carlos came strutting up the street, a full-grown man. I recognized him even in his expensive suit with a fine woman on his arm. I stopped him and asked if he remembered me. He gave me the once-over and said he sure did.

“We used to spar together,” I told my kids. My wife looked at me with this real hopeful look on her face.

The boxer gave us each a nod and cracked his knuckles. I stepped back.

“That never happened,” he said, and walked off with his girl.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You and We Cast a Shadow, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the PEN America Open Book Prize.