I stop blood. I stop it between rounds for fighters so they can stay in the fight. Blood ruins some boys. It was that way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he’d see his own blood and fall apart.
I’m not the one who decides when to stop the fight, and I don’t stitch up cuts once the fight’s over. And it’s not my job to hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy’s title. I do that one little thing and I’m worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood and save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.
But you can’t always stop it. Fight guys know this. If the cut’s too deep or wide, or maybe you got a severed vein down in there, the blood keeps coming. Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to stop the blood, maybe more—the boy’s heart is pumping so hard, or he cuts more. But once you get the coagulant in, sometimes you need another whack right on the cut itself. That can drive the blood away from the area, so now the stuff you’re using can start to work. What I’m saying is there are all kinds of combinations down in the different layers of meat.
Some fighters cut all the time, others hardly ever. It’s not something a guy can do anything about, being a bleeder, any more than a guy with a glass jaw can do something about not having a set of whiskers. I don’t know if it’s the bone structure around the eyes, or something to do with the thickness of the skin. Some guys get cut damn near every fight, and it doesn’t take long for a bleeder’s eyes to droop from severed nerves. They develop a monkey look around the eyes. Nature builds up scar tissue to protect the eyes, but in boxing the scar tissue can be the problem—the soft skin next to the scar will tear free, because of the difference in texture.
Boy gets cut, I always crack the seal of a new one-ounce bottle of adrenaline-chloride solution 1/1000. When it’s fresh, it’s clear like water, but with a strong chemical smell. The outdated stuff turns a light pinkish color, or a pale piss-yellow. When that happens, it couldn’t stop fly blood. I might pour adrenaline into a small plastic squeeze bottle if I need to use sterile gauze pads along with a swab, but I never use adrenaline from a previous fight. I dump it, even if three quarters of it is left. This way it can’t carry blood over from one fight to another, and none of my boys can get AIDS from contaminated coagulant. I’d give AIDS to myself before I’d give it to one of my boys.
I used to train fighters. But I got too old. I was walking around with my back and neck crippled up all the time from catching punches. My first fight working the corner of Hoolie Garza came after his trainer talked to me, Ike Goody. Ike was a club fighter in the fifties, but like most first-rate trainers, he was never a champ. With the exception of Floyd Patterson, who trained his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, I don’t remember another champ who ever trained a champion. Hoolie Garza is a smart featherweight Mexican boy who thinks he’s smarter than he is. He was born in Guaymas, raised illegal in East Los Angeles. He fought with his big brothers for food. His real name is Julio César Garza, but as a kid he was nicknamed Juli — in Spanish it’s pronounced hoolie.
After the Korean War, I went to school in Mexico City on the G.I. Bill. I wanted to learn Spanish, maybe to teach it. So I hung around with Mexicans, not Americans. Some of my friends were bullfighters. I had a fling with the daughter of the secretary to the President of Mexico, a natural blonde who drove a car with license-plate number 32. She, God bless her, was one of the ways I learned Spanish on several levels and in different accents. I usually keep my Spanish to myself, like a lot of Latinos in the U.S. keep their English to themselves. But if they find out and ask about it, I tell them I was a student in Mexico and Spain both, and I say, Hablo el español sólo si me conviene—l speak Spanish only -when it’s to my advantage. They always smile. Some laugh out loud and wag their finger.
A lot of Latino fighters coming to fight in L.A. use me in their corner; some fly me to Vegas. I’m as loyal to them as I am to an American, or to an Irishman, which is why I never bet on a fight I’m working—not on the boy I’m working with and not on the other fighter, either. This way, if I somehow screw up and cause my boy to lose, it can never be said that I did business.
Ike caught up with me at Bill Slayton’s gym in South Central. “Hoolie’s got a fight in Tijuana. He wants you.”
“What’s he getting?”
“Short money. You know about his California suspension problem? The Mexicans know about it, too. A lousy $2,500 for ten rounds. It’s with a tough TJ boy, Chango Pedroza. They want to make a name off us. It’s Hoolie’s third fight after his suspension. Two wins by kayo. Hoolie says he’ll pay the regular 2%. I told him no good, you won’t work ten rounds for that, but he kept after me, so I said I’d talk to you.”
“He smoking dope again?”
Ike shrugged his shoulders. “I know he’s hurting for bread.”
“I don’t work that cheap, fifty dollars. Tell him to get someone from down there.”
“He’s a bleeder. That’s why he wants you.”
“It’s 150 miles down there, Ike, so I go for a tank of gas, right? Now I don’t get home until after four a.m. I don’t work for fifty here in L.A., unless it’s a four-rounder.”
See, Ike’s always told me the truth, always done square business with me, so I believe that Ike is telling me the truth about what Hoolie told him about the purse, but I know some things about Hoolie, and who’s to know what kind of truth he’s telling Ike? Let me tell you, Hoolie’s a hell of a fighter, a tough little bastard who will meet you in the middle of the river and fight you. He’s got an underslung jaw and a hooked nose that points off at an angle. And scar tissue. At 29, he’s losing his hair, so he shaves his head. Tattoos from jail and from every country he’s fought in, roses and daggers, same old shit. Fought for a title his third fight out of the joint, where he did time for assault with a deadly weapon. Not his hands, he didn’t want to hurt his hands; he pistol-whipped some guy who smiled at his wife. He almost won his title shot, but he got tired late, and the other guy came on in the 12th. Hoolie, like always, was cut up, but the cuts didn’t become a factor. After the title fight was over, Hoolie failed his piss test. They found traces of marijuana and suspended him in California for a year, and held up his purse as well. It means Hoolie can’t fight anywhere else in the States that counts, because most state boxing commissions honor each other’s ban. But Hoolie’s a good draw, promoters from all over want him, because he’s so tough and because of the blood. That’s why Hoolie has to fight for short money in Australia, in Latin America, in the Philippines, wherever there are little guys. And to stay busy, so he can be ready for his next shot at a belt.
So after Ike makes three phone calls, I settle for a hundred. I take it because Ike is a long-time friend, and because it gives me an excuse to go down to a seafood restaurant there in TJ named La Costa, a place I can get some of the best camarrones rancheros in the world—shrimps in hot sauce with garlic and peppers and onions and tomatoes and cilantro. Wash it down with a couple of Bohemias. For appetizers, they serve deep-fried freshwater smelt with fresh salsa and limes. I say an Act of Contrition every time I leave the place. Been going to La Costa thirty years.
I also take the fight because once the suspension is lifted, Hoolie’s sure to get another title fight. He uses me, I can make a little money. Ballpark, I get first cut of the purse, two percent. Some guys get more, some less. It’s business. On a $50,000 fight, that means a thousand for me. But maybe my boy doesn’t get cut at all, so I just sit ringside and watch. But I still get paid. Bigger fights, I try to get the same 2% if I can, or I charge a flat fee. But a four-round prelim boy, he needs a cutman same as a champ, right? So if I’m going to be at the arena with another boy anyway, and I like the prelim boy and his trainer, or maybe I feel sorry for a scared kid, a lot of times I don’t charge —the prelim boy’s only making $400 in the first place. Out of that, he’s got to pay his trainer 10% off the top, and his manager another 33 1/3. Ike doesn’t charge his prelim boys.
But this is a game of money, right? So I got to be careful. I charge too little at the start, some boys won’t respect me, and then they don’t want to pay more when they make more. And some will stiff you, even after you save their careers.
Before I left Ike at Slayton’s, I told him that the Tijuana Commission would look for any way to disqualify Hoolie, and to warn him that they’re sure to make him take a piss test if he wins.
“You right, you right,” said Ike. “Damn.”
“Is he clean?”
“Say he is.”
The weigh-in is at noon the day of the fight. Hoolie’s staying in the same hotel where the fight’s going off. He wants to eat at five, but not in the hotel, where at lunch he was pestered by people after his autograph. He’s a big man in Mexico, what with him being born down there and making it in the States. He asks me about seafood and if I know a good place to eat in town. I tout him on La Costa, but tell him it isn’t cheap. In TJ, he’s got his wife, his mother, and two brothers he’s got to feed; he’s got to feed Ike and me; and Ike’s back-up cornerman. There are two more to feed, a homeboy member of Hoolie’s Toonerville gang and a black kick-boxer, a kid called Tweety, who’s as polite and well-spoken as a Jesuit. With so many eating, it has to cost Hoolie a bundle. I wondered why he’s paying for people who aren’t family or working his corner, but he paid the tab without a bitch. No problem, until the waiter collected and counted Hoolie’s money. I could tell from the waiter’s face that Hoolie had stiffed him. So now I got to wonder if he’ll do the same to me. I slip the waiter $30 for himself. With the tank of gas I had to buy, I’m working for nothing, right? The adrenaline I know I’ll be using on Hoolie’s cuts later that night has already cost me another fourteen dollars and change. But what am I going to do? I know these waiters for years and I can’t let them get stiffed on my call.
In the second round Hoolie’s eyes started to bleed. I kept him going, and as long as Ike and I could get him ready for the next round, he was standing up at the ten-second warning and waiting for the bell. Little shit, he recuperates between rounds better than anyone I ever saw. Punch by punch, he wore Pedroza down. Pedroza went after Hoolie’s eyes, twisting his fists on impact to tear open the cuts even more. Hoolie stayed close, went to the body with shots to the liver, ribs, and heart. The liver shots made Pedroza gasp, the heart shots made him wobble.
Pedroza was a local boy, a good fighter with the will to win. The crowd was clearly in his corner, and so was the ref, who took a point away from Hoolie by calling a phony low blow.
In Mexico, if somebody’s cut, they tend to let the fights go longer than in the U.S. But if you happen to be the guy from out of town—and you’re the one who’s cut—and if the promoter is looking to get a win for his boy—you know you better knock him out in a hurry, because they’ll stop the fight on you as soon as they figure the local boy’s ahead on points. The ref kept calling time and looking at Hoolie’s cuts, but I had stopped the blood and the ref had to let him go on.
I repaired Hoolie’s eyes after the third and the fourth. After the fifth, I did it again, then swabbed his nose with adrenaline to jack some energy into him through the mucous membrane. Hoolie punched himself on each side of his face and slid out to the center of the ring, his hands intentionally down low. Before Pedroza could get off on what he thought was an opening, Hoolie caught him with a sneak right-hand lead. Then he caught him with a short left hook to the liver. An uppercut put Pedroza down on the canvas. He twisted into a tight ball of hurt. The time keeper and the ref stretched the count, but they could have counted to 50 for all it mattered.
The crowd was howling and throwing beer bottles into the ring. We got to the dressing room as fast as we could. All of Hoolie’s people crowded in, while Ike and I were pumping fluids into him and trying to towel him down. We were all happy and toothy. It’s always like that when you win. A bottle of tequila was passed around and Hoolie took a couple of hits.
Tweety went into the crapper, turned off the light, and hid behind the partly closed door.
Two minutes later, the Commission doctor arrived, followed by the promoter whose boy Hoolie had just dropped. With a smug look, the doctor held up a plastic specimen bottle. Ike glanced over at me, rolled his eyes.
“La-la-la,” said the doctor, sure he had busted Hoolie.
If Hoolie fails the test, the promoter’s boy doesn’t suffer the loss on his record, and the promoter doesn’t have to pay Hoolie. Hoolie doesn’t get paid, neither does Ike, neither do I.
Hoolie took the bottle with a smile. He went into the crapper, pushing the door ahead of him. He dropped his trunks and cup to his knees, and stood where the doctor could still see his bare ass. From my position, I could see the action. Hoolie handed the bottle to Tweety, who already had his dick out. Tweety pissed into the bottle. Hoolie sighed a piss sigh and jerked his arm around like he was shaking his dick. Hoolie took the bottle back from Tweety and handed it to the doctor.
From Hoolie’s relaxed attitude, and from the heat of the specimen bottle, the doctor was no longer so sure he’d nailed an offender. The promoter saw the doctor’s face, and began talking to himself.
What the doctor and the promoter were trying to do disgusted me, but the game Hoolie and Tweety were running got to me. I love boxing like I love the sacraments. You play by the rules. You never throw a fight, and you never throw intentional low blows — unless the other guy does it first. When I realized that Hoolie was still smoking dope, I got out of there as soon as I could.
“Hoolie,” I said, “I got to go. How about takin care of me.”
“I’m broke until the promoter pays me, man.”
“Tomorrow morning when the bank opens, homes. Hey, I’m good for it, you know me, man. I don’t see you around, I’ll give your piece to Ike so he can take care of you, what you say?”
“It’s only a hundred.”
“I’m broke, man, that’s why I took this shit fight, and my wife’s knocked up.”
I took off. I saved a doper’s ass, and it cost me money. I knew then I’d never get my hundred. It wasn’t enough to shoot him for, so I let it go.
It was one a.m. when I got back to the border. There were long lines waiting to get across. Vendors selling hats and serapes and pottery stood along the Mexican side. Groups of ten-year-old boys begging for change flowed like alley cats along the lines of cars; haggard women with scrawny kids sat by the roadside with their hands out. A stunted three-year-old boy stood rigidly between two lines of traffic. Tears streaked his dusty little face, snot ran down over his lips. He wailed a senseless little song and beat two small pieces of scrap wood together. Sanity had left his blue eyes. On the way home I stopped at a Denny’s for coffee and a piece of gummy lemon pie.
My brother died suddenly and left me some income property on Bull Shoals Lake down on the Missouri-Arkansas border. I moved back there to fix it up and sell it. Three months after I’m in Missouri, Hoolie gives me a call. He says he’s got a new trainer and a manager from Mexico. The manager’s positioned him into a WBC title fight with Big Willie Little in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I want you in my corner, homes.”
“Why Kansas City?”
“Big Willie’s from there. It’s a big deal on one of the riverboat casinos, Pay TV, all the shit.”
“The promoter only came up with four plane tickets, and I’m using one for my wife. That leaves tickets for my trainer and one more cornerman from out here. Besides, I don’t want to chance it with some hillbilly white-bread mayonnaise sandwich from back there, right?”
“Like I say, why me?”
“You’re the best, man, look what you done for me in TJ, man, they’da stopped it except for you. Besides, you’re already back there, homey.”
“How’d you get my number?”
When I heard that Ike had given him my number, I knew Ike was scheming on the punk, that Ike wanted my presence in Kansas City, and I got interested.
“You owe me a hundred dollars, forget the gas and what else it cost me in TJ.”
“I know I do, man, but you gotta know how broke I been since the suspension. It’s over now, but my old lady’s got cancer in the tit, ese, and it’s costing me, but I’ll give you your bread, no sweat, man.”
“Is Tweety going to be there?”
“No, man, I’m squeaky clean for this one.”
“Here’s my deal,” I said. “It’s something like three hundred miles from here to Kansas City. That’s all day both ways and three tanks of gas. So if I do come, I don’t want to waste my time, understand?”
“No doubt about it.”
“How much you gettin? Level with me.”
“Yeah, yeah, only fifty grand, see? I’m takin it cheap just to get a shot at that mayate Big Willie mothafuck.” Mayate is a word some Mexicans use for black people. A mayate is a black bug that lives in dung. “I’ll take his black ass easy.”
I don’t trust Hoolie the fight’s only for fifty thousand, not with his name on the card, but if I can make a grand, it’ll buy the paint I need to finish the work on my brother’s buildings.
“I’ll come,” I say. “But up front you send me the hundred you owe me by overnight mail. I don’t get it overnight, forget it. Once I drive up to Kansas City, the day I get there you pay me a thousand up front, which is 2%. Or I turn around and come back home.”
“You got it, ese, no problem, man.”
“When’s the fight?”
“A week from Saturday. We’re flying in day after tomorrow.”
“When you want me there?”
“Promoter says two days before the fight, to get your license, and all. I already got a room in your name. Your meal tickets will be at the desk.”
“I don’t want to lay around that long, so I’ll be there one day before. Give my name to the commission at the weigh-in. I already got a Missouri license from a fight last month in St. Louis.”
He gave me the name of the casino and the address. I gave him my P.O. box number and the deal was made. It took three days for my hundred to get to me, because I live way out in the hills. I cashed Hoolie’s money order and drove down to Gaston’s on the White River for catfish, hush puppies, and pecan pie.
The day before the fight, at six in the morning, I picked up Highway 5 out of Gainesville, and slowly headed up the climb to Mansfield. It had snowed in the night and the shivery landscape glowed in the Ozark dawn. Before the turn-off to Almartha, I watched a ten-point buck and three does race below a line of cedars, the snow kicking up like puffs of fog. Going west from Mansfield took me through the rolling hills of Amish country, black horse-drawn buggies driven along the paved shoulder by bearded men in black wearing wide-brimmed round hats. I passed through Springfield and much later on up across the backwater of the Harry S Truman Dam to Clinton.
The snow on the highway had melted because of pounding semis long before I got to a little spot called Amy Jane’s Cafe in Collins, Missouri. I had two pieces of lemon pie with my coffee, which was country good. Pie and radio is how, in my family, we entertained ourselves during the great Depression. Even after World War II, when not everybody had TV sets. Picking up crumbs with my fork, I sat there thinking back. I do that more and more. I’ve started to miss people I’ve never missed before, to return to scenes from my childhood that are as fresh as if I was standing there again.
After taking the wrong exit twice in Kansas City, I got to the casino at 3:30. At the front desk they told me the weigh-in had been at noon, and that Hoolie’s fight would go off at eleven the following night. From fight guys, I also learned that Big Willie Little had been three pounds overweight, had had to take them off in the steam room. Three pounds is a ton to a featherweight. It sounded good for Hoolie.
After leaving my gear off in my room, I went to the buffet, where among other things they prepared fresh Chinese food. I hadn’t had good Chinese since L.A. In Springfield and Branson, and on down in Mountain Home, Arkansas, it was hog slop. The stuff in the casino was first rate and I stuffed myself. I wouldn’t eat anything else that day. When I finished, I went straight up to Hoolie’s room and asked for my thousand. He was playing dominoes with Policarpo Villa, a scumbag trainer from L.A. Policarpo likes to help other managers build a record for their fighters by feeding them inexperienced kids; for this he picks up a couple of hundred, a nice reward for destroying his own boys’ careers. He sports a mandarin mustache that he grows down over his mouth to hide his bad teeth, and he wears a white Stetson indoors and out. It turned out that Policarpo was Hoolie’s new trainer as well as his new manager. That saves Hoolie the 10% he’d have had to pay Ike, because a manager/trainer only gets 33%.
When Hoolie didn’t answer me about my dough and instead kept on playing dominoes, I started tipping his pieces over so Policarpo could see his numbers.
“Hey, watchoo doin, man? I was kicking his ass!”
“We got a deal, or not?”
“I’m playin dominoes, I’m thinking, man, I got ten bucks ridin!”
“I got a grand ridin. You got my money, or not?”
“I was gonna pay you out of my training expenses, ese, but I had to pay more for sparring partners back here than I thought, you know how that goes.”
“We got a deal or not?”
“We do, we do gots one. Only, look, I can only come up with three hundred now. Sparring partners back here tapped me, man, mother’s honor, but you’ll get the rest right after the fight when the promoter pays up, I promise.”
“Do yourself a favor. Cross my name out of your chump-change address book,” I said, and started for the door.
“Come on, come on, goddamnit! Don’t be like that, you got to go with the flow.”
Policarpo said, “Screw it. I’ll be the cut man, save us both fuckin money, ese.”
I laughed in his face. “You gonna handle cuts on this guy, and give him the right instructions in the corner in the one minute you got? You got a kit, one that’s ready to go? You got all the shit? You bring adrenaline? Missouri ain’t like California, you got to have a prescription for adrenaline here. And where you goin to find a drug store that even handles it? We’re dealin with a bleeder, did you miss that? Go ahead, lose the fuckin fight for him, I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m gonna hang around just to watch the fucker bleed.”
“Calm down, calm down, ese, be cool,” said Hoolie. He turned to Policarpo. “How much you got on you?”
“Two hundred, that’s all I got.”
Hoolie counted out his three hundred and Policarpo added two hundred more. “Here,” said Hoolie. “Take it, homes, no shit, man, it’s all we got until after the fight. Gimme a break, O.K.? We’re gonna make big money together, you and me, word of honor.”
“Gimme an IOU for the five more you owe me,” I said, taking the five hundred. “You stiff me, I go to the commission.”
“Hey, you write it, I sign it, that’s how much I respect you, homes.”
I did and he did and I left. On my way out, he asked, “When am I gonna see you?” all humble and small and best of friends. “We got to get together before the fight so I know you don’t split, right?”
“You want your chiselin five hundred back?”
“I trust you, my brother, I didn’t mean nothin.”
“Your bout goes off at eleven. I’ll be in your dressing room at nine.”
“Hey, homes, no hard feelings, right?”
“Why would there be?”
The next day I slept late and took a walk down by the river. It was muddy and dark, and there were patches of foam in the weeds along the snow-covered bank. This was the river that Lewis and Clark took to open a way to the Pacific. I would love to have been along on that ride. Less than two hundred years ago, where I stood was uncharted Indian land. I wondered what kind of ride Hoolie planned for me.
I’d had a light breakfast and the cold air made me hungry. I went back for more Chinese. I was seated by the same hostess at the same table. The place wasn’t crowded and I noticed for the first time that the tables were arranged in little booths made up of dividers and screens for privacy. On my way back to my table, I saw that Hoolie and Policarpo were bent over hot tea at the table next to mine. I took the long way around. They hadn’t seen me, and when I sat down, I realized they were speaking Spanish. I had nothing to say to them. I’d handle the cuts, I’d collect my money, and I’d go back home and start painting. That was my deal, and I’d do it. I was kicking my own ass for showing up, but now that I was here, I was going to get my other five hundred. It was a rule.
Hungry as I was, at first I didn’t pay any attention to them. When I heard them scheming on million-dollar fights, I had to smile. Then I heard something about a two-hundred-thousand-dollar fight, and realized they were talking about the fight with Big Willie Little. I turned up both my hearing aids.
“I know they take taxes, but I don’t get what we do with what’s left of the two hundred thousand,” said Hoolie. “The promoter said we could cash his check here if we want to, but then what? I mean, we can’t pack it to L.A., right?”
Policarpo said, “Two ways. First, we could trust the promoter, and cash his check in L.A. But what if the check bounces? I say cash it here, so we got it in our hands. Then have the casino transfer the money to banks in L.A., one third to me, two thirds to you, like the big guy said.”
“How much we got left over from training-expense money?” asked Hoolie.
“About thirty-five hundred. One thousand for me and two for you after the cutman gets his five.”
“The cutman gets it in his ass,” said Hoolie, “that’s what he gets for hustling me.”
“He’ll be pissed, raza.”
“Son cosas de la vida—that’s life.”
“Can we get away with that?”
“What’s the old paddy cunt gonna do?”
“You signed your name, ese.”
“What I signed was Julio Cercenar Bauzá, not Julio César Garza.” They laughed about the one word, cercenar—to trim, to reduce. “Dumb old fuck didn’t see the difference.”
It was true. Because of Hoolie’s scrawl and fancy whorls, I hadn’t picked up the name switch.
“What if he says you signed it phony?” said Policarpo.
“I say I never signed it at all. He’s the one who wrote the IOU, not me, right?”
“What, we just split his money, one third/two thirds?”
“No,” said Hoolie, “half and half. After I kick the nig’s ass, we’ll go buy us some black pussy on the old man, eh?”
When they gave the high five, they saw me for the first time. I turned to one side and didn’t make eye contact.
“Hey, man,” said Hoolie, looking through the screen, “how long you been here?”
“Couple minutes,” I said, shoveling rice into my face with chop sticks. “What’s up?”
“We’re gonna take a little walk, it’s not too cold, and then maybe I’ll have me a little siesta,” said Hoolie, as he and Policarpo came around the divider. “How come you don’t say hello, or nothing, man?”
“I was eatin. Didn’t see you.”
“Yeah, we didn’t see you, too.”
They stood there while I continued to eat.
Policarpo said, “You don’t speak no Spanish, right?”
Hoolie’s eyes flicked between Policarpo and me.
I shrugged, kept eating. “About like the rest of the California gringos,” I said. “Cerveza, puta, and cuánto.”
That got a laugh and they left feeling satisfied. I went back for seconds, took my time, and chewed on the fact that I should be getting four thousand dollars, not one. There were big posters of Hoolie and Big Willie in the cafe. More were set up throughout the hotel. This was Big Willie’s fourth defense of his title and he hadn’t looked good in his last one. With his weight problem, and with Hoolie’s speed and boxing ability, it figured that Big Willie was due to lose. But he was a durable little battler who loved being champ. Under pressure he was mean. He would have regained his fluids since the weigh-in, and Big Willie could bang, even when he was tired. Of course, Señor Julio Cercenar Bauzá was known to bleed.
When I didn’t see anyone around that was connected with the fight, I went into the casino and checked the line. Big Willie was a 3-to-1 underdog because of his weight problem. That’s when I went to the nearest ATM and pulled some cash from three banks.
I looked for someone who knew me from nothing. There were hillbillies and bikers and college boys. There were sorority girls and telephone operators and welfare mothers. Old people and young. Sporting types, squares, drunks and junkies. All colors. None looked right, so I waited.
I got a whore, a skin-and-bones Thai whore with frizzed hair. She was maybe 30, but looked 50. I wondered how she could make a dime, much less pay the rent. I don’t know if she was a crackhead or had AIDS, but for sure she had lived hard in the night. She made me for a typical old John, someone who wanted to feel her, not fuck her. I told her what I wanted and that I’d pay two hundred. I told her that I’d be right on her tail, that if she made a run with my money I’d stab her. She understood. What I did was slip her 15 hundred-dollar bills in an envelope —to lay on Big Willie Little at the Sports Book. I win the bet, I pick up a fast forty-five hundred. Afterwards, I tailed her to a video game room. She gave me my fifteen hundred dollar print-out, and I gave her four fifties. She shoved them into her training bra.
She said, “You no wan’ mo’? You no wan’ bro jo’? I goo’.” I gave the poor bitch another hundred and told her to go home. She gave me a tight little smile, maybe the first she’d given in a year, maybe her last ever.
In my room, like I always do, I opened my aluminum attaché case and spread my goods out to make sure everything was there. But this time, instead of reaching for a new bottle of adrenaline, I unsnapped a flap pocket and took out an old bottle I knew had gone bad, an out-dated bottle I hadn’t used from a couple of years before. It was a bottle I kept in my kit just to have a back-up bottle if I ever needed one. I’d taped the lid so I wouldn’t make a mistake. When I broke the seal and poured some on a tissue, it was a pale piss-yellow. I mixed a fresh batch of salve, as I always do, using Vaseline and adrenaline. It smelled right, but the salve I prepared was from the piss-yellow stuff, not the clear. The salve’s color wasn’t affected. Once I made up the salve, I diluted the remaining solution with water to lighten the color. Under the ring lights, no one would notice, especially since it still smelled legit.
Even though I’m no longer a trainer, I always walk off the size of the ring. I test to see how tight or loose the ropes are. I check how hard or soft the canvas is, which is to say how fast or slow it will be. I check the steps up to the ring, how solid and wide they are, and how much room there will be at ringside. This time I checked dick.
It was a twelve-round fight and it went off on time. Hoolie and Big Willie split the first two rounds, but Hoolie came on in the third. In the fourth, each fighter knocked the other down, but neither could put the other away. Hoolie had planned to fight Big Willie from the outside, to keep him at the end of his punches, but Big Willie wouldn’t cooperate. The fifth was even, but at the end of the round, Hoolie returned to the corner with a small laceration in his left eyelid. I was quick into the ring and used just enough fresh adrenaline, along with pressure, to temporarily stop the flow of blood. I also used the phony salve, which meant there would be no coagulant continually working in the wound.
Hoolie was winning the sixth easy. Near the end of the round, Big Willie countered, whacking Hoolie on the way in with a solid one-two/one-two combination to the face, the second left-right even harder than the first. Suddenly there was a deep cut above Hoolie’s right eye, and the cut in the eyelid was split wide open. The ref called time and looked at the cuts, but he let the fight continue. By the bell, Hoolie was scraping at both eyes to clear his vision.
I cleaned the wounds with sterile gauze and applied pressure with both thumbs. Once the cuts were clean, I applied some more of my out-dated piss-adrenaline.
Hoolie said, “You can fix it for me, right, homes?”
“No sweat, man.”
“You’re the best.”
Because I had cleaned the cuts properly and because of the pressure I applied before and along with the swab, and because of the bogus salve I packed into the holes, it appeared that I had solved the problem. Policarpo and the other cornermen were so busy giving Hoolie instructions and watering him that I could have used green paint and they wouldn’t have noticed.
The bell for the seventh sounded. Big Willie and Hoolie fought like bats, each turning, each twisting and bending, each moving as if suspended in light, neither stepping back, both wanting the title, both ripping mercilessly into the other. Both were splattered with Hoolie’s blood. The head of each fighter was snapping back, and the ribs of both were creaking. Big Willie suffered a flash knockdown, but he was up again by the count of two. As he took the mandatory eight-count, his eyes were focused on Hoolie like a rattler’s on a rat. The ref waved the fighters on. Big Willie stepped up and delivered a left-right-left combination, the second left hand snapping like it had come off a springboard. It would have destroyed most welterweights, but Hoolie grabbed Big Willie and held on.
The round ended and I cleaned the wounds and applied more pressure. I used more piss yellow.
“I thought you fixed it, ese,” said Hoolie, his voice coming out small between bruised lips.
“I did fix it,” I said. “But you let him pop you, so it opened up on me. Be cool. Go with the flow.”
In the eighth, Big Willie looked exhausted, but there was no quit in him. He sucked it up and concentrated his shots on Hoolie’s cuts. Blood filled Hoolie’s eyes until he was punching blindly and getting hit no matter how he tried to cover up. People at ringside were shielding themselves from the flying blood. Big Willie saw the ruined flesh and his heart jacked up as his own adrenaline pounded through him. Walking through Hoolie’s wild punches, he drilled more shots into Hoolie’s blood-blind eyes. Two more cuts opened in Hoolie’s eyebrows. Veins weren’t cut, but blood pumped down, and the fans were yelling to the ref to stop it. He called time and waved in the ring doctor, who immediately stopped the fight.
Big Willie Little, still the featherweight champion.
In the corner, the doctor checked Hoolie’s eyes. By then I had used fresh adrenaline, which stopped the blood cold. The cuts were an inch and a half, two inches long, which is big-time when it’s around the eyes. But like I say, no vein was cut, and with the right stuff in there, Hoolie could have fought all night. Since Big Willie was sure to have run out of gas, and since I had no trouble stopping the cuts when I wanted to, I figured Hoolie should be the new champ. Except for me. Son cosas de la fucking vida.
Hoolie’s cornermen were washing him down with alcohol and the doctor had stitched up three of the cuts when the promoter came in with Hoolie’s check. He was a big round Afrikaner with a walrus mustache and a huge Dutch gut from Johannesburg. He had kind, wise eyes and seemed to float rather than walk.
“Too bad about the cuts,” he said. “I thought Little was ready to go.”
“I beat Big Willie’s fucking ass my eyes don’t go,” said Hoolie, who was desolate from the loss.
“You’ve got one of the best cutmen I ever saw,” the promoter said. “Cool under fire, he was. I watched him. Did everything right.” He sucked on his mustache. “What was the grease from the little container?”
I pulled out the piss salve. I unscrewed the wide lid. “Smell.”
“Ahh, yes, good lad, you mix adrenaline right into the grease, yes? Keeps working, right?”
“Tough break, Hoolie being a bleeder.”
“Sure is. Listen,” I said. “I know it’s not my place, but I’m not going back to L.A. with these guys. I’m wondering if there’s some way they can cash out in the casino? So they can take care of me before they take off?”
The promoter looked at Hoolie. Neither he nor Policarpo said anything.
“I’ve got an IOU,” I said.
Hoolie saw that the promoter realized something wasn’t right. He played dumb. “But once we cash the check,” he asked, “we can’t have the money transferred to L.A., can we?”
“Certainly can. Like I previously explained, we can arrange the transfer of funds through the casino.”
“Ah, yeah, I remember now. Cool.”
At the cashier’s window, Policarpo counted out my money in English. “One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred.”
As he handed the bills to me, I glanced at Hoolie, whose bandaged eyes were telling me he’d never use me in his corner again. I love a guy who says he’s going to fuck you because you won’t let him fuck you. In his ass.
As I re-counted the first two bills in English, I decided to lay rotten eggs in Hoolie’s mind. Without a break, I slipped into sing-song Mexican street-Spanish. “Trescientos, cuatrocientos, quinientos. Correcto, mano — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred. Correct, my brother.”
Hoolie remembered our conversation over my Chinese food. “Hey, you speak Spanish?”
Now I went into a guttural, old-man Castillian. “Pues, coño, but only if it’s to my advantage.” Pues, coño is what nailed it—well, of course, cunt.
Hoolie blinked six times. Policarpo’s jaw flopped open. For the first time I saw fear in Hoolie’s eyes. Did I fuck him or didn’t I?
I left him standing at attention. I showered and packed and at two in the morning went down to the casino. I saw the last of the fight guys on their way out. I pissed away a fast fifty on the quarter slots to pass time. I knew Ike had watched the fight and would know that something had gone down. We would never talk about it. I waited until three o’clock and collected my bet, plus my original fifteen. I slept for a couple of hours, had three cups of coffee in the coffee shop, and checked out.
It was 7:15 when I eased the old truck into traffic. I listened to news for a while, then switched to a jazz station that was playing Jackie McClean. I headed home the way I’d come. There was more snow on the ground, like a Christmas card.
When I got back to Collins, I pulled into Amy Jane’s. Pie was in the air. A good ol’ boy in a John Deere cap recognized me from the fight.
“Buddy, you looked good on TV last night. Too bad about your boy, tough little booger.”
I ordered two pieces of lemon pie with my coffee, and then I found myself on the couch sitting next to my father. He was leaning into our new radio, an inlaid upright Philco with a magical green tuning light. It was June 18, 1941, at the Polo Grounds. Irish Billy Conn, the former light-heavyweight champ, and Joe Louis. Louis outweighed Conn by better than 25 pounds. In the thirteenth round, Billy went for the kill and hurt Louis early on —my father was yelling at the radio—but Louis rallied and knocked Conn out at 2:52.
At the count often, I watched some of my father die. As he sat with his red face in his oil-driller’s hands, my mother turned off the radio. We were to eat lemon meringue pie after the fight, my father’s favorite. I was able to eat a little piece, but not my dad, though he tried. He fell off the wagon that night.
I finished my coffee and at the table paid the waitress.
“You didn’t eat your pie.”
“Lost my appetite.”
I fiddled with my spoon. I sat for a while looking at my knees. I counted my keys. I fished out an El Rey Del Mundo Robusto Suprema, a hand-made maduro from Honduras that comes wrapped in white tissue. I’d fire up that spicy pup and smoke it down the highway for a good hour and a half, chew on it for more.
By the time I got up to the counter, my appetite was back. I smiled the waitress over and ordered country —a deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwich, with pickles and chips, and coffee, all to go. She didn’t know what was going on. And pies. Two gooseberry and two rhubarb. And two lemon, too. I like tart.