For a long time, years, I didn’t think about it. I moved constantly, counting each year with a new city: Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia.
I didn’t even notice that every year I was heading a little bit further east, until one day I was getting on a train in Philly and saw that in few hours I could be in Atlantic City. I was a midwest boy, and I’d unknowingly migrated to the ocean. I thought I’d feel out-of-place when I realized how far I strayed, but the only thing I could think was that I had to see that big body of water.
Two days later, I was standing with my feet in the sand, the boardwalk splayed behind me in both directions.
It was bigger than I’d ever imagined, but, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d ever tried to imagine how big and blue the ocean could be.
Walking back to my hotel, which was tucked in the shadows two blocks from the ocean, I did a double-take.
The poster was big, almost as big as me. So Ole Anderson looked almost life-size in black and white, big mitts poised in front of his face, getting ready to duck a jab, red lettering shouting across his forehead.
“One Night Only!! The Ox of Sweden on the ComeBack Tour of the Decade! At the Coney Island Stadium! April 12, 1931”
I must have stared at that poster for 15 minutes, trying to figure out what I was seeing.
Truth was, I hadn’t thought about Ole Anderson in years — I’d almost forgotten I’d ever met him. And here he was, staring at me out of a poster on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
April 12 was three days away, and I knew where I was going next.
He won the fight, in only two rounds. His opponent was big and Irish, but he was slow.
I waited until the crowd at the stadium had dissipated. I knew he’d probably left, but I lingered outside the doors, hoping I might catch sight of him.
I wanted to talk to him, but I didn’t know why. I had no idea what I would say. I only knew that I had to ask him how he got away.
It was almost thirty minutes before he turned the corner, and I recognized his enormous frame, lumbering down the sidewalk towards me.
I wondered if he’d recognize me. He glanced at me as he passed, and in that moment, I felt smaller than I’d ever felt.
The last time I’d seen Ole he’d been splayed out in a bed in that dingy, rundown boarding house. He’d seemed so defeated and done.
But not tonight. He seemed larger than life. He must have gone three or four paces past me, and I figured that was that. But then he turned.
“Hey. You, ” he pointed a sausage of a finger at my head. “I know you. From Summit. You’re that kid.”
I nodded silently, not sure what I was supposed to say next.
“You see the fight tonight?” he asked. And when I nodded, his eyes seemed to grow a bit wider, as if in a surprise.
“Watcha doing in New York, here? How’d you know I was fighting?”
“I saw a poster, down in New Jersey, a few days ago.”
I see him roll his eyes, “Jeez. Fugazy,” he mumbles.
“Excuse me, ” I ask, not certain I’ve heard him correctly.
“Fugazy — he’s the promoter. Sort of runs this place.” He gestures off to the stadium. “Says he’s going to make something of me. Putting posters up all over the place.”
“Well. . . there was a big crowd. And you did win.”
He sighs. “You’re kidding, right? Sure, I won. And next week, we’re going to put a man on the moon.”
I guess he notices my confusion, because he keeps talking.
“You remember that night? Four years ago? When you found me in that boardinghouse.”
I nod, not sure at all where this is going.
“They found me the next morning, early. I went out for a paper and coffee, and of course they were waiting. I knew they would be.”
“How’d you get away? ” I ask, even though I know he’s going to tell me now, whether I ask or not.
He shrugs. “I got hurt real bad, and then I begged, cried, swore I’d make it right. And I guess they believed me. Said if I got back on the circuit, kept fighting, and winning, and making them lots of dough, they’d let me live.”
“But. . .what if you don’t win?”
“Don’t you get it? I always win. And I always keep fighting. Can’t stop now. Can’t lie down again.”
I stare at him, letting this sink in.
He lifts a hand in a gesture that sort of says “Good-bye” and sort of says “What are you going to do?”
Then, he just turns, walks away and disappears into the shadows and dark.
And suddenly, he doesn’t look big anymore. What seemed like swagger, I now realize is him holding his body carefully, to make the pain a little less.
I turn, too, and this time I don’t look back.
I’ve been writing this alternate ending (or perhaps “extended version” is better) in my head all week. Actually, I had this grand plan of writing an ending in which Nick and Ole had to seek out the medical assistance of Dr. Evans (of The Shadow: Death Triangle), and when Ole realizes that the only way he can stay alive is to run, he decides to look up his old friend Frank Chambers (from Postman), but I couldn’t really make it work. Maybe I’ll try again one day.
What was most fun for me was to try and imitate the style of the original. The short, succinct sentences and paragraphs. The occasional tiny detail to set the scene. The careful, taut dialogue.
I’ve read a few of Hemingway’s other Nick Adams stories, so I know I’m violating a whole narrative tradition here, but it was still fun to imagine how Ole might survive but still have a story with no happy ending.