Inspirational Coming of Age Fiction

Luke’s pulse throbbed through his entire body. He could even hear it in his ears as he faced the battered green, double door. He had begged his parents for weeks and they finally relented. They were banking on this being a phase, a passing fancy. No way Luke thought. 

Ever since the Saturday that his Dad let him stay up to watch the fight, he was hooked. The next day he had gone to the library and checked out as many books as they would let him take, but the grainy black and white pictures weren’t enough. They were like drops of rain to a man dying of thirst. 

He looked at the sign next to the door. Spartan Gym est. 1963 it read. Luke’s mind conjured images of battle-hardened Greek warriors wrapping their hands in leather and sparring to prepare for war. Below was the outline of two fighters engaged in combat surrounded in a laurel wreath. The sign was weathered and dirty, the paint faded and peeling, but that made it seem more real. It oozed legacy. He wondered just how many boxers had walked through the hallowed green door.

He sucked in a deep breath and finally pushed the door open. The gym was dimly lit with low-watt pendant lights hanging overhead. He was immediately confronted by the triplet rhythm of speedbags, the thwap of leather on leather, and skipping ropes slapping against battered hardwood in metronome-like time. There were coaches shouting, athletes grunting and hissing through their teeth as they shadowboxed (a term Luke had picked up in a book) or hit the heavy bag. Somewhere a radio played, adding to the cacophony. Hot, moist air blasted through the open door, as if it had been sealed under pressure, waiting for release. The air that blew past Luke smelled like cracked leather, steel, sweat and blood. He thought it smelled great!

Luke’s Dad told him the night before that the gym had been built as a garment factory and operated as such until the end of the second world war. 

The walls were brick and covered in old fight card (another term he picked up from a book) posters and the windows were tall, foggy and yellowed. The hardwood was battered and marked, years of polish and wax worn away in heavily trafficked spots. Luke could see the outlines of the machines they would have used in the factory days on the floor, the holes left behind hastily filled.

The north wall was lined with heavy bags hanging on steel arms mounted into the brick and various pieces of exercise equipment. The south wall was covered in mirrors, making the gym seem twice as big as it was. Across from the door on the west wall stood two rings backed by windows struggling to let in the afternoon sun. In the centre were some gym mats and empty floor space. On Luke’s left was the front counter and gear racks.

The gym was busy and chaotic with kinetic energy. Everybody and everything seemed to be moving.  Sweat sprayed and dust swirled in the light that was bright enough to highlight it.

Everything was dirty and worn from years of use and abuse, but that didn’t matter. It was real and he was standing in the middle of it.

A few people, some of them kids his age, some adults, turned to look at the open door but eagerly went back to their business. They didn’t care. Luke realized he was still holding his breath and let it out between his teeth. Relief washed over him; I look tough enough to at least walk through the door he thought. He had privately feared that someone would have seen his spindly frame and immediately kicked him out saying “Sorry kid, you’re certainly no fighter and it’s fighters only.”

Luke let the door behind him close and wandered in, wondering who to talk to.

* * *

Peter was coaching a young fighter named Danielle. When Peter’s father ran the gym, he didn’t allow girls but Peter changed that when he took over. If you wanted to fight, and you were brave enough to step in between the ropes, that was good enough for him. 

Danny hadn’t been training for very long and her technique could use a little work. “Danny, what’s going on? Your elbows are all over the place!” Peter said in a slurred, Greek accent. “Come over to the wall. Face this way. Good. Now I want you to throw a jab.” Danny did so, her elbow bumping into the wall next to her. “Ha! You see? Your elbow is coming up. Throw it again but don’t let your elbow touch the wall.” Danny complied. “Good, now I want you to stand here and throw 100 jabs without touching the wall. Then turn the other way and throw 100 crosses. If you touch the wall, start over. Go ahead. One… Two… Good… Four…” 

Peter saw the door open and a small, skinny kid of about twelve walk in. “Eight… Keep going.” he said as he turned to walk towards the kid. The kid noticed him and stopped. “Can I help you?” Peter asked. The kid was small but Peter noticed, even in the dim light, the twinkle in his eyes. It was something he’d seen hundreds of times before. it didn’t always mean he was in the midst of a natural-born fighter, but it was a good start. You needed fire for this sport. 

“I’m looking for the owner. I was hoping I could start training.” the kid said. Peter could tell he was nervous.

“I’m the owner. My name is Peter. It’s $20 a month and that includes using gear, but if you’re serious you should get your own. It’s an extra five if you want to rent a locker. Your first day is free, to see if you like it. Once you pay there’s no refunds. You know how to skip?” Peter said. It was a speech he had said thousands of times. Most people stayed and tried for at least the day, some came back a couple of times and left. Some asked for refunds after paying and Peter just laughed at them and told them they didn’t listen very well. But some stayed and he coached them into real boxers. Fighters. Warriors. Just like his Dad had taught him.

“I can skip a little.” the kid replied.

“OK, I’ll show you where the ropes are.” Peter said as he turned to walk away. The kid hesitated for a minute before following him. “What’s your name?” Peter asked.

“Lucas. Luke.” The kid replied. 

Loukas. That’s a good Greek name. You Greek?” Peter asked.

“A little on my Mom’s side I think.” Luke replied.

Loukas.” Peter said again. “I might have to ask you that a few times. Memory’s not so good sometimes. Try not to get hit too much or it’ll happen to you too. This is a tough gig. OK, grab a rope and head over to the centre of the gym and start skipping with the others. After you’ve done five or six rounds, listen for the bell, come find me.”

* * *

Luke began to skip. He managed to turn the rope two or three times, his left leg kicking up behind him in an awkward mix of skipping and running, before the rope slapped his shins. 

He had overestimated his skipping ability. He remembered spending a week skipping in his fourth grade gym class. That was getting to be three years ago and he hadn’t touched a rope since. He also hadn’t gotten very good in that week in the first place. It hadn’t been cool then. He and his friends thought skipping was for girls. Now, getting tangled up in the rope repeatedly, he realized how stupid that was and he wished he’d tried a little harder to get it back then.

He reset the rope and started again. This time he got up to five turns before it slapped against his shins, his leg still kicking behind him. He felt his cheeks flush as he reset the rope for a third time. He started to turn the rope once more when Peter descended on him.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s not skipping? Why are you doing that with your leg?” Peter asked.

“Well, it’s been awhile.” Luke said, red embarrassment showing on his face.

“Watch Lenny.” Peter said, gesturing to the boy a couple of feet away. The boy was a few years older than Luke, about fifteen he guessed. He was turning the rope smoothly with his wrists and jumping on the balls of his feet, shifting his weight with each jump. The rope slapped the ground with neat tcht noises and Luke could hear the faint whoosh of it cutting the air. 

“See how smooth and simple it is? Try to copy Lenny.” Peter said. Luke nodded. “Once you get better you can start to add tricks. Sprint!” Peter said. Lenny began to run on the spot, bringing his knees up high, the rope whipping through the air. “Double unders!” Peter shouted. Lenny began to spring off of his toes as high as he could, the rope passing under his feet twice with each jump. The rope was turning so fast that it was whistling through the air. Luke’s eyes grew wide.

“OK, thanks Lenny.” Peter said. Lenny went back to skipping at his own pace. Peter turned back to Luke. “Try again, just like Lenny. Come and find me after you’ve got a sweat worked up.” he said. Luke nodded and reset the rope.

Luke had to fight to keep his leg down and stay on his toes but after a couple of rounds he could string twenty or thirty jumps together before getting his feet tangled up. Once he was sweating and his legs felt a little like jelly, he went and found Peter who was working with somebody by the mirrors,

“... your chin tucked in behind your shoulder. If they counter, you don’t want your chin exposed.” Peter was saying. Luke stopped a few feet away and waited awkwardly for Peter to notice him. He had been listening intently to the instruction when Peter turned his attention to him. 

“How did you make out?” Peter asked.

“Better.” Luke said. “I think I got thirty in a row.”

“Well you’ve got to start somewhere.” Peter said. “Keep practising and you’ll get better. The important thing is that you’re warm. OK, face the mirror.” Luke turned to face the mirror and saw a skinny kid staring back at him.

“ Are you right or left-handed?” Peter asked.

“I’m left-handed.” Luke said.

“Ah, a southpaw.” Peter replied. “It can give you an advantage. Very awkward for a right-handed fighter. OK, get into your boxing stance, right foot forward.” Luke did his best approximation of what he had seen in books and on TV. “Not bad.” Peter said. “I see you pay attention. Now, widen your feet a bit. Good. Now keep your elbows in and keep your hands touching your cheeks, that’s very important. Keep your chin tucked in.” Luke did so and couldn’t help but smile. He looked like a boxer. “OK smiley, now try to throw a jab and hold it out…”

* * *

Luke stood outside the gym facing the double doors, his heart pounding in his chest. He had been coming to the gym for a week. The night before, Peter had told him to get a mouthguard so he could spar. “I like to put people in early and see what their instincts are. See how well they work under pressure.” Peter had said.

 It had taken some convincing but his mom had taken him to the sporting goods store to get a mouthguard. “I need to find out if I really want to do it.” he told her. “And the only way to find out is to get in the ring and I need a mouthguard to do that. Please? They’re so cheap.” She was hesitant and Luke knew that she secretly hoped he would get hit once and quit.

Luke sucked in a breath and pushed through the door. The gym didn’t seem busy. There wouldn’t be a lot of fighters vying to get some time in the ring. Luke secretly wished he could have at least one more day, but it looked like he would be making his in-ring debut. His stomach started doing flips.

He grabbed his rope and started skipping. His parents had bought him a rope and he practised every day since in the driveway and he was improving quickly. 

After a few rounds, Peter came over to him. “You get a mouthguard?” he asked.

“Yeah it’s in my bag.” Luke said.

“Good boy. Finish warming up and do a few rounds in front of the mirror. Nothing fancy, just focus on keeping your hands up and bringing them back to your face. Defence first.” Peter said.

Luke finished skipping and wrapped his hands. It took him a few tries to wrap them the way Peter showed him but he eventually got it. He went to the mirror and took his stance, eying the skinny boy glaring back at him. On the bell he began to move around carefully, one foot at a time, throwing jabs and left hands. He was careful to keep his chin tucked and bring his hands back to his face. It was hard to concentrate though. With every passing second, he worried about sparring and wondered who he’d be getting in the ring with.

After a couple of rounds, Peter came back over. “Are you ready?” he asked Luke. 

“I think so.” Luke said, trying to hide the nervousness in his voice.

“Don’t worry. Sparring isn’t about hurting anybody. It’s about testing what you’ve learned. The most you’ll get is a bloody nose or a black eye.” Peter said. Luke knew he was trying to be encouraging but the thought of getting hit hard enough to get a black eye scared him.

“Go get your mouthguard, some gloves and headgear.” Peter said as he made his way towards the ring.

“Lenny!” Peter called. “You want to move a little?” Lenny was working on the heavy bag and Luke swallowed when he saw how hard Lenny could hit. 

“Sure.” Lenny said and started walking towards the gear racks. Luke must have looked nervous because Lenny turned to him while they were getting ready. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. It’s just practice. And don’t be afraid to hit me.” he said around his mouthguard. Luke just nodded and smiled weakly.

They headed over to the ring where Peter was and climbed in.

“OK.” Peter said. “This is just sparring. Lenny, Luke is new so don’t go crazy.” Peter looked at Luke. “Just focus on defence and footwork. Stay calm and stay focused.” he said. 

Easier said than done Luke thought. His heart and mind were racing. He thought he might throw up. He looked across the ring and saw Lenny standing there in his stance. He was calm, cool and ready to go to work.

 “OK, Box!” Peter shouted. They shuffled to the centre of the ring.

* * *

Peter watched intently. He had seen worse for a first timer. Luke was trying to stay away from Lenny’s jab, but Peter could tell he was looking for a way around it. Good instinct.

Lenny threw a few jabs and caught Luke on the forehead with one. Peter saw him pause for a moment.

“That’s OK, keep moving.” Peter said. “Don’t be afraid. Sometimes you have to take to give.”

Lenny shot forward and threw a one-two combination, landing both flush on Luke’s face. Luke stepped back, paused again, and then smiled. Peter smiled too. It was always the way. Once they took a couple of shots and realized it wasn’t so bad, they started to take risks. 

Luke started to venture a few of his own jabs, which Lenny avoided easily. “It’s OK to paw a little bit, but don’t be afraid to commit!” Peter called. 

Luke lunged with a reaching jab. Lenny was too far away and he missed. Luke was left wide open, his momentum  carrying him forward. Lenny could have rocked him with his own punch but he was merciful and spared Luke with a stiff jab. 

The punch landed solidly and Peter could tell that it was a brain shaker, but Luke was undeterred. Lenny stepped to his right but so did Luke. He had created an angle and Peter wondered if Luke had the natural boxing IQ to see it. Lenny saw it and started to make space as Luke began to coil his right hand…


Luke’s gloved fist slammed into the pad. There was electricity in the locker room. You could almost taste it and see electrons jittering on surfaces and dancing in the air like dust, looking for atoms to restore balance with. 

The only sound in the room was that of leather on leather, Luke’s grunts and the buzz of the crowd bleeding in from the arena. Luke’s entourage, including Peter, were watching intently, looking for last minute adjustments as Luke hit the punch mitts ferociously.

“Faster on the hook-uppercut. Bahp! Bahp!” Peter said, clapping for emphasis. Luke threw the punches and his gloves slammed hard into the mitts. 

He was a welterweight, but he looked like a middleweight with thick biceps, bouldering shoulders and sinewy forearms. He had a neck like a bull, veins and ropey muscles bulging with every punch.

Luke had learned at tremendous speed. His appetite for training was insatiable. They had worked tirelessly for twelve hard years and this was the payoff.

Peter had done everything he could to get Luke ready, and by God he was.

May 20, 2023 01:57

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Michał Przywara
20:41 May 25, 2023

The opening nails the feeling of bright-eyed-kid-doing-something-exciting. He wants to be there but he's also a little scared, and everything is a little dreamlike. The atmosphere of the gym is bang on too. Right since "It oozed legacy" established it. Luke's struggle is an interesting one, because he's fundamentally fighting himself. The idea of being a boxer appeals, but the journey is frightening - and his parents' hesitation doesn't help. I particularly like that he grins after the first punch to the face, because *that's* when he come...


C. Charles
18:00 May 26, 2023

Thanks for reading and commenting! Glad to hear the atmosphere of the gym came through. It’s an old cliché to say that boxing really is “you against you” but that’s the truth of it. I really wanted to explore the idea that even the greats were afraid the first time they walked into a gym, no matter how much they wanted it! Thanks for pointing out the technical error. Been a while since I’ve had to worry so much about grammar and punctuation and the like; I’m a little rusty!


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Philip Ebuluofor
15:42 May 24, 2023

The description is second to none. Fine work.


C. Charles
23:02 May 24, 2023

What a nice compliment. Thank you so much!


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22:14 May 20, 2023

Totally engaging throughout. I liked the way you jumped in and let us get oriented without spelling things out. Both the main characters were like able and the atmosphere was exciting even though the sport makes me cringe! Nicely done


C. Charles
02:18 May 21, 2023

Thank you! Glad to hear both characters are likeable! Peter was particularly fun to write. I understand your feelings about boxing; it is primal and barbaric but I’ve loved it since I was a kid and it’s a love I’ve carried into adulthood. It felt like a risk writing about such a polarizing subject but I’ve had lots of great coaches and this felt like a nice way to honour them. Thanks for reading and the comment!


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Mary Bendickson
21:52 May 20, 2023

Took me back to the gym (Fitness Center) my first husband and myself owned. Weight training not boxing but much the same. My thirteen year old jumped right into it all and by the time he was seventeen won state title for bodybuilding


C. Charles
02:14 May 21, 2023

Owning a gym must’ve been so cool. Lots of great memories I’m sure. It’s so great to hear a real-life example of someone finding their calling, I don’t think it happens all that often. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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