After years of working in the dime store, Mother bought a honky-tonk tavern. She rented a room upstairs to one of her customers and then she married him. Alton Grainger, Mother’s fifth husband, was just Mother’s height and the age of my oldest sister. He was from North Carolina. He’d boxed in the army, said he’d been on Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. He drank while he tended bar, got into fights and shoved Mother around, and she loved him. Rumor had it, Al married Mother for the bar. She got rid of the bar, thinking he’d stop drinking. Now the bar was gone, but Al was not. He left for months at a time but kept coming back.
In 1959 I was the only white boy in Tandy’s boxing tournament. I was sixteen, a bantam weight, 118 pounds. Al drove me to the match in his ’54 Chevy. The city street was dark despite the street lamps. He was sober. He obeyed the speed limit, came to full stops at stop signs. We stopped at a confectionary to buy me a lemon, because I’d heard it was good for dry mouth and thirst. He was like somebody I didn’t know, or like himself when we were friends before he married Mother. It was March, but cold enough for coats. It would’ve been a nice drive, me and him together, him sober, if there weren’t a fight to go to, but without the fight, we wouldn’t be like this with each other: silent, comfortable in our shared silence, warm inside the car, the hum of the heater, a sweet sounding engine.
We’d squared off before and we’d square off again, part play, part not. But tonight he was on my side. I could feel it, and it felt good.
A small crowd of young dark men gathered around the entrance to the auditorium. We got some poisonous looks going in. The place was huge and packed, but without tiered seats it looked like standing room only. Along one dimly lit wall a few white men in white shirts watched from a small stage. I guessed they were reporters and tomorrow I’d see my name in the paper again. Everyone else was black. The crowd was loud. Fighters were going at it in the bright-lit white ring, little guys. Heavy-weights were saved for last.
The dressing room stank like an armpit: lines of army green lockers, empty ones with doors open, full ones closed and locked. No one was there. Maybe we were late. Al was somewhere in the crowd. I took off my clothes, put on my jock strap, then the cold aluminum cup the club provided, put on my white gym shorts and white basketball shoes. The urge to pee wouldn’t pass till the first bell rang.
A big white guy came in with questions, a very white guy, white hair in a short flat top, pale blue eyes stern, direct. He had a belly, but I could tell from his frame and muscle he’d once fought light-heavy. Where was my coach? We’d trained without one, me and my best friend Roy.
Less than a month ago Roy and I had gone to see the Golden Gloves and watched kids fight we’d fought a year ago. From our seats in the bleachers that night, them so far away, we were sure we could take them now, so we signed up to fight in Tandy’s City Tournament. The Golden Gloves had been mostly white boys. Tandy’s Tournament came after.
Our coach had moved away, but we went back to Cherokee Center where we’d trained, and fought out of, for two years. In that same hot, green, concrete room barely bigger than a boxing ring we trained as we remembered how to train, in three minute rounds: shadow-boxing, skipping rope, working our punches on the speed bag and heavy bag, then rounds of sparring with sixteen ounce gloves till we dropped. He fought 135. We were no match, but going against him made me stronger.
On the evening of the fight I found our names in the newspaper listed next to who we’d fight. Then Roy called and said he got an infection in his leg from working on a roof. I didn’t have a car. I sat there looking at my name in the paper like it was a summons and Al said, “If you really want to do this, I’ll drive you.”
In the locker room the big white guy taped my hands. “We got a coach for you. Now listen. This coach wants you to win. This kid beat one of his boys last week.”
He tugged on the eight ounce gloves, tightened the laces and tied them. A fighter came in to get dressed, a long black kid about my age but in the next two weight classes up. “Who you fightin’?”
“Calvin Johnson,” I said.
“My brother fought him. Southpaw.” With bare hands he demonstrated. “Hooks under.” He threw a right uppercut. “Comes over the top.” He threw a left cross, an overhand I thought I could block.
Outside the locker room, I joined a cluster of other dressed-out fighters along a dark sidewall. Some wore robes, others their coats, but I hadn’t thought to bring my coat. I was a little cold, standing there in my small, white nakedness. Some fighters were shadow boxing, warming up, but I didn’t want them to see how I punched, and it felt like I’d forgotten how.
Then we were lined up on collapsible metals chairs by weight and match. I sat next to my opponent like he was a high school buddy, but we didn’t talk or look at each other. We sat next to the elevated ring and watched the other fighters go at it. I had a wet spot on the front of my shorts and fought to hold onto my bladder. The juice from the lemon had turned to acid in my throat. Sweat from my armpits dripped from my elbows. I chewed on my mouthpiece till a big black man came by and took it away from me. “That’ll make you sick,” he said and I spit it into his huge hand. Backlit by the ring lights he was a form made of shadow. I couldn’t see his face. He put a white towel around my shoulders. “We’ll fight out of this corner,” he said, and I knew he was my coach.
We waited. A kid smaller than I was came up to Calvin and mumbled something in his ear. Calvin’s near glove pointed to me. “Get him good,” the boy said.
Then I was climbing the wooden steps up to the ring, and the big black man behind me took away the towel. “Now this boy’s a southpaw. Hit him with right hands.” It was the biggest ring I’d ever been in. Spotlights above glared off the white canvas.
The referee called us to the center of the ring and gave instructions. Calvin was taller than me, had a narrow face, broad nose and lips. He tried to stare me down, his eyes black and hot. I kept my eyes on his chest. His skinny muscles were so cut he looked like an anatomy chart.
Going back to my corner, I spotted Al standing in the crowd, a little white man, very still, his head barely higher than the chins of the aroused dark men around him. The crowd was going wild with shouts and whistles like I was the main event. It was a relief to hear the bell ring and shuffle across the canvas to meet Calvin.
I jabbed and he countered with his left overhand that swept the side of my head. I clinched him, tied up his arms. He was sweating and slippery. He wriggled and punched his way out of it, and I caught him with a solid right to the cheek bone. He just ate it and came back. I could tell from the clinches I was as strong as he was. But he was faster. He was in and out quick but his punches didn’t hurt. His right uppercut glanced off my belly and elbows. I blocked most overhand lefts, and missed his head with a lot of right hands. When he charged I grabbed him, kept tying him up, knowing I was short on wind. The crowd booed, but I grabbed him and hung on. I was saving myself for the last round. The bell rang. I was winded after only one round.
I dropped onto the stool and my coach placed his big hands around my back and lifted up on my ribs to help me breathe. I saw his face close up, a calm face but with intense eyes. I sipped from the water bottle, rinsed my mouth, spit in the bucket. His voice was gentle and urgent. “Don’t worry about this hand.” He tapped my left glove. “Just keep throwin’ that right hand. Don’t worry about the left.”
The bell rang for round two. Calvin charged with a flurry. I tied him up. All I wanted was to finish on my feet, but this round I’d give him a fight. Before the ref could part us I pushed off and caught him with a straight right to his jaw I felt through my knuckles. The next one caught him at the edge of his eye and he backed off. Coach was right. Jab or hook, any punch from my left, he’d counter with that rear overhand, but he carried his lead right hand low to cock his uppercut, so most of his face was like a chute for my straight right. I punched straight to his head again and again, but he’d caught on, side-stepping, moving his head when the punch came. Guard up, I kept my stance but stood still to breathe, and for a moment the world went still. I didn’t hear the crowd. Calvin was still, as though I’d knocked him wary. In the white square of the ring
there was only me and him, mirroring each other. Then he danced in with that right uppercut to my belly and my air went. I grabbed him, held on, tried to breathe but couldn’t get the air in. The referee separated us. I stepped back and dropped my hands. Calvin took one step back, then threw the overhand left. I hadn’t been taught to move my head. I watched the punch coming as though in slow motion, the wine-colored glove getting bigger, turning black just before it hit my nose. My right knee buckled and I went down, head bouncing from the canvas-covered plywood with a racket and a flashbulb going off inside my head, and I saw the towel fly in from my corner ending the fight before the referee could count.
The crowd roared. I lay looking up at the ring lights. There were four, shining down on me and the white canvas. I had a sense of whiteness and light all around, and far beyond me, darkness and a host of dark people cheering. Far above the lights was a vast dark ceiling. The shouts and whistles from the crowd seemed to lift the roof off the building. I thought I saw the roof rise up and the night sky coming in. I’d been hit harder than this before, but I was down. What hurt was the cheers.
In the dressing room I took off the hot gloves and lay on a stainless steel table. Al stood at my feet. “Looked like he addled you with that one punch.” I didn’t know what addled meant and didn’t remember what punch. He said he’d never been more proud of me. I started to cry. “Don’t now, god damn, don’t cry, ” he said.
The ride back was quiet. We weren’t going toward a fight, only Mother. My nose was swollen and still swelling, blood swelling the sinuses like unspent tears. My head hurt, but no worse than after some nights of sparring. Next year I’d learn how to move my head. Street lamps we passed were making Al light and dark and light: his little nose in profile, the lit Camel perched in his driving hand. He drove slow, made full stops at stop signs. He was like somebody I had yet to know.