Sam Watson’s wife, Camellia – a thin, overworked African-American woman and mother of seven – never forgot the winter “the Champ” came to live with them. That was when she ceased pumping water from the old well outside and got used to the thrill of turning on faucets instead. That was when they got their indoor bathroom – in fact, two bathrooms, because the empty second floor had been remodeled to accommodate their guest. Charlie was his name, but his boxing prowess led fans to call him Champ.
The house was refurbished with new cupboards, living room carpeting and a rose-patterned wall-paper. The wonder of it all put a new shade of color on Camellia Watson’s cheeks, too.
Ivy, the eldest of Sam and Camellia’s children, would never forget that summer, either, for something strange and fascinating came into her life.
Sam had married Camellia and settled into a poor, predominantly white district of a small Georgia town with his folks. After the arrival of their first child, Sam took off and headed north, where lumber camps and road work paid big money. However, it was four years before Camellia took little Ivy by the hand and joined Sam in the big, old house he had purchased in Wisconsin.
With a few years’ start on her siblings, Ivy had grown into a responsible caretaker for them,
toting babies, bottles and diapers wherever they went. The twins, Cyril and Cypress, came within a year after Sam and Camellia were reunited, and Sam was especially proud to have a son. Rapid succession of four more children – all girls – left Sam disappointed, depressed and downright sore at the world.
From then on, Sam became an indifferent, ne’er-do-well provider. In the bare, bitter years that followed, Camellia often gave thanks that her first-born had been a daughter. Without Ivy’s help and watchful eye over the young ones, Camellia would have been driven to despair. And all the while, Ivy was budding softly into womanhood.
The summer Ivy turned fourteen, an important letter from Sam’s brother, Leslie, came from Georgia. He wanted to know if, as a special favor, Sam could put up a houseguest for the winter. Leslie was buddies with none other than Charlie Johnson, a prominent heavyweight boxer who was looking for a place to rough it and build up stamina for an important upcoming bout. Since Camellia had written in her letters back home that she and Sam had a nice, roomy home in the country, it sounded like an ideal plan.
Sam caught the full portent of the letter, and he knew he could not be a disgrace to his brother by having the true status of his existence discovered. To send a refusal would be certain to disclose that things were not as well as Camellia had implied. So, with a critical glance at their surroundings, Sam dug into a reserve bank of willpower and set out for the lumber mill to see if they could use an extra hand.
Sam Watson had his pride back, and soon everyone would know there was an important sports figure – a possible world champion boxer – staying at his house. Out of the millions of people in the United States, he was chosen to host this great man.
Together, Sam and Camellia put a bright face on the whole interior of their home. In the evenings after work and on weekends, Sam set about renovating the upper floor, knowing they needed more room. The family had been overcrowded for sleeping quarters for far too long, and the Champ would surely want – and should have – his own space. The children didn’t question the radical change in their father, but instead stood by, happily watching the miraculous changes taking place within him, as well as around the house.
Summer slipped by. Days were cooling, and the leaves were falling. In a couple of months, their special guest would arrive.
A new coat of bright white paint had refreshed the exterior, and the Watson home truly looked inviting. Nobody would know that the plumbing bill was not completely paid for – yet.
Charlie was driving a red convertible when he and his trainer, Adams, arrived. Adams, a balding white gentleman, was situated between the seat and the floorboard, sound asleep. Blissfully unaware, he continued snoring loudly long after the motor ceased humming, until excited squeals from the youngsters roused him to shocking reality. One glimpse at the lively menagerie around him, and he politely declined the Watsons’ offer of hospitality, explaining that he had already reserved a room at the local hotel. He assisted in unloading the Champ’s luggage, and then without further ado, he climbed behind the wheel of the convertible and headed off toward town.
Ivy’s legs went weak, and her breathing stopped momentarily when the bronzed giant stepped out of the car. Sam went out of his way to welcome the Champ, while the twins stood by quietly.
Mauve Rose, the Watsons’ youngest child, began to cry, and the other children tugged at the Champ’s trousers. After thanking his hosts for their kindness, Charlie greeted Ivy, and she felt vaguely faint and dizzy.
Everyone gathered around the dinner table when Camellia announced that the evening meal was ready. Steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, pork and kraut, corn niblets and apple pies were set on the table.
Sam said grace, and their guest insisted everyone call him Charlie instead of Champ. He wanted them to know that he felt right at home, and that he came from plain folks, just like the Watsons. One would not have guessed it, though, by the cut of his fine suit and paisley tie, not to mention the gold ring and watch he was wearing. It was obvious, however, that he relished the home-cooked meal, as well as the friendly conversation with the family.
When the dinner dishes had been cleared, Ivy sliced the pie and served it on small plates, setting the largest slice in front of Charlie. She hesitated for a moment, stealing an admiring glance at his strong, supple hands. He noticed, and her face flushed dark crimson in embarrassment, but even so, she could not avoid meeting his intense dark eyes. He remarked to Camellia how lucky she was to have a girl as handy as Ivy in the kitchen. The color surged again, unbidden, to Ivy’s cheeks, and she could barely eat her dessert.
Happy, content and totally at ease with his new family, Charlie soon began lounging about in a black robe. Mauve Rose was delighted to discover a fiery red dragon embossed on the front of it. She traced it with her pudgy fingers every time she had a chance, and Charlie was more than pleased with the attention.
Ivy volunteered for the task of caring for Charlie’s room. Before carefully folding his robe and draping it over the foot of the bed, she would press it to her face and daydream. His coming here had hit her with such emotional force that she was left unstable to reason sensibly. Now, in his room, she explored her heart and knew she loved Charlie Johnson. Of course, she would guard her secret, for she knew Charlie saw her as a child.
The following morning, Sam was up at daybreak, discussing with Adams and Charlie what might be needed to complete the temporary gym he’d set up in the shed at the east end of the lot.
“Wouldn’t take more than a week,” Sam assured them, knowing his carpentry skills had been honed all summer long with building renovations.
Charlie’s pursuit of recognition and fame was relentless. At first light, he was up and outside jogging. Midmornings, Adams put him through one grueling exercise after another to build strength and endurance. Afternoons brought about a succession of strapping young men from the area, able and eager to spar with him. Evenings were spent enjoying friendly banter and small talk
with the Watsons.
Instead of seeking opportunities to be near Charlie, Ivy deliberately avoided him. She was
terribly afraid he would see she had feelings for him, and she would be humiliated.
The first time she saw him in his wine-colored boxer trunks was the morning she had gone looking for Mauve Rose. She found the toddler wandering about in the gym, her pacifier clamped between her teeth. Ivy stooped down and tried to pry the pacifier loose before picking up her sister, but her attempt at taking the pacifier only resulted in screams of protest.
Just then, Ivy felt a hand on her shoulder, and as she lifted her head, she looked right into Charlie’s eyes. Mauve Rose slid from her grasp, and Ivy somehow managed to straighten.
“I can’t figure it out, Ivy,” Charlie said. “I’ve made a hit with everyone here but you. Don’t you like me? Or is it fighters you don’t like?”
“Oh, no!” Ivy exclaimed, the words rushing out.
This was the last thing she wanted – to have Charlie think she didn’t like him. Avoiding him had been because of her fear of self-betrayal. Now, however, she realized that her behavior might have indicated dislike.
“Look here, Ivy,” Charlie said, realizing she was embarrassed. “How’d you like to ride into town with me tonight? There’s a couple of stores open that you could look in while I stop in and talk to Adams for a minute. Won’t be too long before we head for a big fight, and I sure don’t want to leave without having good feelings from everybody. Your kin have been mighty good to me.”
“Oh, Mr. Johnson, I wish you well ... Truly, I do, and you don’t have to take me in your car ...”
“No more of that Mr. Johnson talk, Ivy,” he said, interrupting her rambling. “We’re friends, and I want you to call me Charlie.”
It was dusk when Charlie helped Ivy into the convertible. The other children clamored to go, and, without invitation, scrambled into the back seat. Charlie smiled and said nothing, while Ivy’s protests fell on deaf ears.
The chattering of Ivy’s siblings was constant, allowing little chance for Ivy and Charlie to talk. The air was cool, and Ivy was thrilled to be sitting next to Charlie, her arm pressed against the warmth of his, as they sped through the dark, whispering countryside.
She wondered, long afterward, if that evening might have been different had they been alone. He did promise her, after all, that if he won the upcoming bout, he would be back for training again. Was it possible that he could care for her, just a little?
Silly girl, she thought. Why does love always have to be so painful?
The plumbing was paid for by the time the Champ left, which made Sam and Camellia happy. Before Charlie left, he handed presents to each member of the Watson family – a pocket watch for Sam, an electric mixer for Camellia, fancy chocolates for each of the younger girls, boxing gloves for Cyril, a toy dragon for Mauve Rose, and last of all, a silky blue dress for Ivy. She hurried to her room to try it on, and it lay like a cloud upon her soft curves. Charlie stood transfixed at the vision of this slim, graceful young woman, whom he had once only seen as a child. Ivy knew when she looked in his eyes that he now saw her as a young woman, not as a child.
He left the following day, and Ivy went off by herself and wept.
Charlie did not return to the Watson place for additional training. He had become a world champion and established elaborate headquarters in Missouri. It seemed only a minor thing, but he had left behind his black robe with the embossed red dragon.
Sam was cut to the quick, but never let on to anyone. He left his job at the mill and made a lazy, meager living, capitalizing on publicity of the modest east shed gym, where a world champion had been born.
The Watsons idolized the Champ’s memory. Camellia and Ivy followed his path of glory through the years in news clippings, cherishing the photographs taken of him. However, when the photographs showed him with different women – all with glittering gowns and golden hair – it ate at Ivy’s heart. Oh, Charlie! It couldn’t be the same Charlie who’d said he belonged to plain folk and enjoyed plain living. Four years after his departure, there were fewer photographs. He had lost his championship, and now the photographs showed him with lips set in a tight, grim line – and he was seldom photographed with women.
Life went on, though. Ivy graduated from the local high school with honors, and quickly found employment at a truck company in a nearby town. Her salary was a welcome boost to the family income, and Sam, shamed by his own lack of ambition, again picked up work on road construction. Once more, the household became a happy, humming home – for everyone but Ivy, who could not stop longing for Charlie. It was only a nightly ritual that offered her a bit of comfort. She kept Charlie’s dragon robe hidden in one of her dresser drawers, and at bedtime, she carefully removed it from the drawer and climbed into bed, holding it close to her. Then she would slip away into a fantasy world.
There was a time when Ivy’s yearning for Charlie was so intense that sleep would not come. She crept downstairs and penned a brief note to him, reminding him that training at their place had brought him luck in the past, telling him that if he came back, he would surely regain his title, especially with their encouragement. There was never a reply to her letter, though, and she thought perhaps he was too ashamed of himself to answer her.
For the sake of convenience, Ivy eventually moved to town and found room and board a few blocks from her job. The diversion of mingling with new people and hearing of their interests eased her own unhappy state of mind. Walking to and from work, she soon became aware of someone who always seemed to be following her. To avoid the unknown, she would quicken her pace. However, after a few days, she discovered that the stranger’s destination was the same as her own, which led her to believe that this individual had only friendly intentions.
No longer anxious, she slowed her steps and allowed the stranger to catch up. He wore a heavy black overcoat with a turned-up collar, and a hat tilted down to the brow, which revealed little more than eyes and a nose. Despite the winter camouflage, she saw a young colored man. He introduced himself as Matt Tyler.
Walking together became a daily routine throughout the following months. Matt often arrived early and waited for Ivy. Brief, everyday conversations led to an atmosphere of trust as they got to know each other, and it wasn’t long before she realized that his background was much like her own.
It was customary for the girls at the office where Ivy worked to congregate in the powder room for the latest gossip until a buzzer summoned them to their desks. At one such session, Ivy overheard the head stenographer boasting with unconcealed pride that she had a date with Matt Tyler, describing him as “that good-looking guy from the engineering department.” Not that it mattered to Ivy. She had never had a good look at him anyway, with all his winter garb on. She was just a country girl no one noticed, anyway, and besides, she loved Charlie.
Then came the first beautiful balmy day of spring, and with it, a Matt she had never really seen before. Shed of excess winter covering, he walked toward her with a firm stride and a pleasant smile. Recalling the comments made about him in the powder room, she eyed him critically for verification, and her heart did a flip-flop. It was true. He was indeed attractive in both appearance and manner.
That same afternoon, Matt was waiting for her after work. On their walk home, he told her he had to go to a nearby city the next day to pick up a few things, and he asked if she would like to ride along. Surprised at her own quick response, she accepted the offer, while at the same time wondering if this was just a friendly gesture, or if it was perhaps a date. She struggled that evening with guilt and anger, while holding Charlie’s robe close, vowing to be faithful and love him forever.
On Saturday morning, Ivy was both nervous and excited about her outing with Matt. Certainly she wanted to look presentable, but not overdressed. After an hour of indecision, she decided on a beige skirt and an orange-gold top. She fluffed her short, wavy hair, and she was ready.
Matt arrived to pick her up in a well-taken-care-of, used black Chevy. He got out and opened the door for her, then got back in and drove off. During the drive, he related his life story to her, and in turn wanted to know all about her. The questions and answers didn’t end until they pulled up to the second-floor parking ramp of a department store.
As they descended the stairwell, Matt took Ivy’s hand. Once inside the store, he suggested she browse while he checked out the men’s section.
Rarely did Ivy have the opportunity to visit a big, bustling establishment such as this. She was drawn to a fascinating display of books, and she completely forgot about Matt until he came looking for her. She’d chosen a book for her younger siblings that was filled with colorful pictures they were sure to enjoy.
Matt walked up to her carrying several pairs of socks, which he held up for her opinion. She favored those of a deep-red shade, perhaps because they reminded her of Charlie’s boxing trunks.
On the way home, Ivy learned that Matt considered this a real date. He told her that of all the girls he knew, she was different – special. This admission was unexpected, and she turned and looked questioningly at him. His kind, patient eyes studied her. What a comforting feeling. Nothing like the wild throbbing of her heart she remembered when Charlie had finally “seen” her. How confusing this all seemed to be.
Word had gotten around at the office that Ivy Watson was dating Matt Tyler. The atmosphere seemed much cooler and aloof. Was it jealousy, perhaps? Strangely, it was not upsetting to her. She was never more content and at peace with the world.
All spring and summer, Ivy and Matt spent blissful, quiet weekends together. They went on picnics, went to local events and attended church. A relationship that had started out as a friendship turned into something more serious and troubling for Ivy. Beneath Matt’s calm demeanor, she knew he had deep romantic feelings for her, so it came as no surprise when he told her he loved her and wanted to marry her. He said he hoped she felt the same, assuring her that he would work hard and do everything possible to make her happy.
Knowing it was time, Ivy told Matt about Charlie, and about the mixed emotions she still had for him. Matt was silent for several minutes. Ivy had tears in her eyes and became sad – sad that she’d hurt Matt. She was also fearful – fearful that he, too, would leave her, just as Charlie had. The thought was unbearable, and she was unable to hold back a deep sob. Roused back to sensibility and forgetful of his own reaction, Matt tried to console her. When they parted from their embrace, he asked her to take some time and think about it.
Over the next few days, Ivy spent countless hours trying to sort things out, agonizing over the dilemma. Was she in love again? How could she know for sure? Was it possible to love two people at the same time? After days of self-analysis, her mind was numb.
A couple of days later, while at her parents’ house, Ivy was jolted back to reality when her mother hollered and told her that she was wanted on the phone. Mechanically, she walked to the kitchen and picked up the telephone receiver.
That voice! It was Charlie! He hadn’t forgotten her, after all. All the old feelings flooded back, and she was alive again! He said he wanted to see her and that he would be there in the morning. Charlie was coming!
Ivy slept with Charlie’s robe that night, and was up the next morning before daybreak. It seemed like it took forever, but the sun finally came out, shining brilliantly. It did more than just wake her. It brought her back to the present. Thinking clearly now, she dredged up the past – all the women in the photos with Charlie, his indifference to old friends, his fickle character and desire for all the finest things in life, his need for attention and fame.
It was late morning when Charlie drove up in an impressive vehicle. He hopped out and swaggered up to the Watsons, who were all overjoyed to see him. All but Ivy, who watched from afar.
Charlie was dressed in navy-colored trousers and a white shirt that showed off his sculptured upper torso.
When at last he approached Ivy, he began teasing her, saying she was the same shy little
girl she’d been when he had left.
Sam and Camellia convinced the children to go inside, saying that Charlie had come to see Ivy, and that they needed privacy so they could talk.
Charlie initiated the conversation, apologizing for not keeping in touch, especially after he received her letter. Seeing her now, a mature woman of grace and beauty, he told her that she had been in his thoughts constantly. He said he wanted nothing more than to be near her and spend time with her. His arms encircled her, and Ivy realized she felt nothing. She listened to his charming words before politely excusing herself.
“Wait right here, Charlie,” she said. “I have something for you.”
Charlie relaxed, leaning against his car, waiting. Ivy returned and handed him a package.
“Here’s your dragon robe,” she said. “You forgot to take it with you when you left.”
She thanked him for coming and told him she was sorry, but she was promised to someone else.
As if on cue, Matt came up the road in his Chevy. When he stopped and got out, Ivy introduced the two men. Charlie was speechless for a moment, then he croaked a few words of congratulations, turned, climbed hastily into his car and was gone in a cloud of dust.
Grasping the situation, Matt pulled Ivy close to him in a strong, warm embrace.
As she melted into his arms, she said, “There’s no doubt about it, Matt. You are the man I love. Yes, I’ll marry you.”