Read The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller Online
Authors: John Grisham
The rivalry began as a friendship between two boys with much in common. Both were third-generation grandsons of Croatian immigrants, and both were born and raised on “the Point,” as Point Cadet was known. Their families lived two streets apart. Their parents and grandparents knew each other well. They went to the same Catholic church, the same schools, played in the same streets, sandlots, and beaches, and fished with their fathers in the Gulf on lazy weekends. They were born one month apart in 1948, both sons of young war veterans who married their sweethearts and started families.
The Old World games of their ancestors were of little significance in Biloxi. The sandlots and youth fields were meant for baseball and nothing else. Like all the boys on the Point, they began throwing and hitting not long after they could walk, and they proudly put on their first uniforms when they were eight years old. By the age of ten, they were being noticed and talked about.
Keith Rudy, the older by twenty-eight days, was a left-handed pitcher who threw hard but wild, and frightened batters with his lack of control. He also hit from the left side, and when he wasn’t on the mound he was anywhere his coaches wanted him; the outfield, second or third base. Because there were no catcher’s mitts for lefties, he taught himself to catch, field, and throw with his right hand.
Hugh Malco was a right-handed pitcher who threw even harder and with more accuracy. From forty-five feet away he was terrifying to face, and most ten-year-old batters preferred to hide in the dugout. A coach convinced him to swing from the left side
with the usual rationale that most pitchers at that age were right-handed. Babe Ruth hit leftie, as did Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial. Mickey, of course, could swat ’em from both sides, but he was a Yankee. Hugh listened because he was easy to coach and wanted to win.
Baseball was their world, and the warm weather on the Coast allowed them to play almost year-round. Little League teams were drafted in late February and began games in the middle of March; two games a week for at least twelve weeks. When the regular season ended, with the city championship, the serious baseball began with all-star play. Biloxi dominated the state playoffs and was expected to advance to the regional tournament. No team had yet to make it to Williamsport for the big show, but optimism ran high every year.
The church was important, at least to their parents and grandparents, but for the boys the real institution was Cardinal baseball. There were no professional big-league teams in the Deep South. Station KMOX out of St. Louis broadcast every game, with Harry Caray and Jack Buck, and the boys knew the Cardinal players, their positions, stats, hometowns, and their strengths and weaknesses. They listened to every game, cut out every box score from the
Gulf Coast Register,
then spent hours on the sandlots replaying each inning. Every spare penny was saved to purchase baseball cards, and the trading was serious business. Topps was the preferred brand, primarily because the bubblegum lasted longer.
When summer arrived and school was out, the streets of the Point were filled with kids playing corkball, kickball, Wiffle ball, and a dozen other variations of the game. The older boys commandeered the sandlots and Little League fields where they chose teams and played for hours. On the big days, they went home and cleaned up, ate something, rested their worn arms and legs, put on their uniforms, and hustled back to the fields for real games that drew large crowds of family and friends. In the late afternoons and early evenings under the lights, the boys played hard and bantered
back and forth across the diamond. They enjoyed the cheers from the fans and chided each other without mercy. An error brought an avalanche of catcalls. A home run silenced the opposing bench. A hard thrower on the mound cast a pall over any opponent. A bad call by an umpire was off-limits, at least to the players, but the fans knew no restraints. And everywhere, in the stands, the parking lots, even the dugouts, transistor radios rattled on with the play-by-play broadcast from KMOX, and everyone knew the Cardinal score.
When they were twelve, Keith and Hugh had magical seasons. Keith played for a team sponsored by DeJean Packing. Hugh played for one sponsored by Shorty’s Shell. They dominated the season and each team lost only once, to the other, by one run. With the flip of a coin, the DeJean Packing advanced to the city championship where they slaughtered a team from West Biloxi. Keith pitched all six innings, gave up two hits, walked four, and hit two home runs. He and Hugh were unanimous picks for the Biloxi All-Stars, and for the first time they were official teammates, though they had played together in countless sandlot games.
With Hugh firing from the right side and Keith terrifying batters from the left, Biloxi was the solid favorite to win another state championship. After a week of practice, their coaches loaded the team into three pickup trucks for the twenty-minute drive west along Highway 90 to the state tournament in Gulfport. Hundreds of fans followed in a rowdy caravan.
The tournament was dominated by teams from the southern part of the state: Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula, Pass Christian and Hattiesburg. In the first game against Vicksburg, Keith threw a one-hitter and Hugh hit a grand slam. In the second game, Hugh threw a one-hitter and Keith returned the favor with two home runs. In five games, Biloxi scored thirty-six runs, gave up only four, and walked away with the state title. The town celebrated and sent the boys off to Pensacola with a party. Competition at the next level was a different matter because the Florida teams were waiting.
Nothing thrilled the boys more than a road trip, with motels and swimming pools and meals in restaurants. Hugh and Keith roomed together and were the undisputed leaders of the team, having been named co-captains by their coaches. They were inseparable, on the field and off, and all activities revolved around them. On the field, they were fierce competitors and cheerleaders, always encouraging the others to play smart, listen to the coaches, shake off errors, and study the game. Off the field, they held team meetings, led the pranks, approved nicknames, decided which movies to watch, which restaurants to go to, and propped up teammates who sat on the bench.
In the first game, Hugh gave up four hits and Biloxi beat a team from Mobile, the Alabama state champs. In the second, Keith was wilder than ever and walked eight before being pulled in the fourth inning; Biloxi lost to a team from Jacksonville by three runs. Two days later, a team from Tampa scored four runs off Hugh in the bottom of the sixth inning and walked away with the win.
The season was over. The dreams of playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport were once again crushed by the State of Florida. The team retreated to the motel to lick its wounds, but before long the boys were splashing in the pool and trying to get the attention of some older girls in bikinis.
Their parents watched from under poolside umbrellas and enjoyed cocktails. A long season was finally over and they were eager to get home and finish the summer without the hassle of daily baseball. Almost all of the parents were there, along with other relatives and a few die-hard fans from Biloxi. Some were close friends, others only friendly acquaintances. Most were from the Point and knew each other well, and among that group there were cracks in solidarity.
Hugh’s parents, Lance and Carmen Malco, were feeling a bit shunned, and for good reason.
When Hugh’s grandfather got off the boat in New Orleans in 1912 he was sixteen years old and spoke almost no English. He could pronounce “Biloxi” and that was all the customs official needed. The boats were filled with Eastern Europeans, many with relatives along the Mississippi coast, and customs was eager to move those folks along and send them somewhere else. Biloxi was a favorite destination.
The kid’s name, back in Croatia, was Oron Malokovic, another mouthful. Some customs officials were patient and worked tediously to record the correct names. Others were hurried, impatient, or indifferent, or maybe they felt as though they were doing the immigrant a favor by renaming him or her with something that might adapt easier in the new country. In all fairness, some of the names from “over there” were difficult for English speakers to pronounce. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast had a rich history dominated by French and Spanish, and by the 1800s those languages had melted easily into the English. But the consonant-laden Slavic tongues were another matter.
At any rate, Oron became Aaron Malco, an identity he reluctantly embraced because he had no choice. Armed with new paperwork, he hustled up to Biloxi where a relative arranged a room in a barracks and a job shucking oysters in an “oyster house.” Like his countrymen, he eked out a living, worked as many long, hard hours as possible, and saved a few bucks. After two years, he found a better job building schooners in a shipyard on Biloxi’s Back Bay.The work paid more but was physically demanding. Now fully
grown, Aaron stood over six feet tall, was thick through the shoulders, and manhandled massive timbers that usually required two or three other men. He endeared himself to his bosses and was given his own crew, along with a pay raise. At the age of nineteen, he was earning fifty cents an hour, a top wage, and worked as many hours as the company offered him.
When Aaron was twenty, he married Lida Simonovich, a seventeen-year-old Croatian girl who had been fortunate enough to be born in the U.S. Her mother had given birth two months after she and her father arrived on the boat from Europe. Lida worked in a cannery and in her spare time helped her mother, a seamstress. The young couple moved into a rented shotgun house on the Point where they were surrounded by family and friends, all from the old country.
Their dreams were dashed eight months after their wedding when Aaron fell from a scaffold. A broken arm and leg would heal, but the crushed vertebrae in his lower back rendered him a near cripple. For months he convalesced at home and slowly regained his ability to walk. Out of work, the couple survived with the endless support of their family and neighbors. Meals were abundant, rent was paid, and the parish priest, Father Herbert, stopped by every day for prayers, both in English and Croatian. With the aid of a cane, one that he would never be able to fully abandon, in spite of his heroic efforts, Aaron began the difficult task of looking for work.
A distant cousin owned one of three corner grocery stores on the Point. He took pity on Aaron and offered him a job sweeping floors, stocking goods, and eventually operating the cash register. Before long, Aaron ran the place and business improved. He knew all the customers, and their children and grandparents, and would do anything to help a person in need. He upgraded the inventory, discontinued items that rarely sold, and expanded the store. Even when it was closed, he would fetch items for customers and deliver them to their homes on an old delivery bike. With Aaron
in charge, his boss decided to open a dry-goods store two blocks over.
Aaron saw an opportunity with another expansion. He convinced his boss to rent the building next door and establish a bar. It was 1920, the country was in the grips of Prohibition and the Catholic immigrants in Biloxi were thirstier than ever. Aaron cut a deal with a local bootlegger and stocked his bar with an impressive variety of beers, even some from Europe, and a dozen brands of popular Irish whiskeys.
He opened the grocery store each morning at sunrise and offered strong coffee and Croatian pastries to the fishermen and cannery workers. Late each night, Lida baked a tray of krostules, oil-fried cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar, and they became immensely popular with the early crowd. Through the mornings, Aaron hustled about on his cane, working the counter, cutting meats, stocking shelves, sweeping floors, and tending to the needs of his customers. Late in the afternoons, he opened the bar and welcomed his regulars. When he wasn’t serving drinks he scurried back to the store, which he closed after the last customer, usually around seven. From then on he was behind the bar pouring drinks, bantering with friends, telling jokes, and spreading gossip. He usually closed around eleven, when the last shift of cannery workers finally called it a night.
In 1922, Lida and Aaron welcomed their first child and blessed him with the proper American name of Lance. A daughter and another son soon followed. Their shotgun house was crowded, and Aaron convinced his boss to rent him an unfinished space upstairs over the bar and grocery store. The family moved in while a crew of carpenters erected walls and built a kitchen. Aaron’s sixteen-hour days became even longer. Lida quit her job to raise the family and also to work in the grocery.
In 1925, his boss died suddenly of a heart attack. Aaron disliked his widow and saw no future under her thumb. He convinced her to sell him the bar and grocery store, and for $1,000 cash and a
promissory note, he became the owner. The note was paid off in two years, and Aaron opened another bar on the west side of the Point. With two popular bars and a busy grocery store, the Malcos became more prosperous than most of the immigrant families, though they did nothing to show it. They worked harder than ever, saved their money, stayed in the same upstairs apartment, and went about their ways as thrifty and frugal immigrants. They were quick to help others and Aaron often made small loans to friends when the banks said no. They were generous with the church and never missed Sunday Mass.
Their children worked in the store as soon as they were old enough. At the age of seven, Lance was a fixture on the Point, riding his bike with a basket filled with groceries for home deliveries. At ten, he was sliding cold bottles of beer across the bar and keeping tabs on the customers.
Early in his business career, Aaron witnessed the darker side of gambling and wanted no part of it. Illegality aside, he chose not to allow card and dice games in a back room. The temptation was always there, and some of his customers complained, but he held firm. Father Herbert approved.
The Great Depression slowed the seafood industry, but Biloxi weathered it better than the rest of the country. Shrimp and oysters were still plentiful and folks had to eat. Tourism took a blow, but the canneries stayed in business, though at a slower pace. On the Point, workers were squeezed out of jobs and fell behind on their rents. Aaron quietly assumed the mortgages on dozens of shotgun houses and became a landlord. He took IOUs for past-due rent and usually forgot about them. No one living in a Malco home was ever evicted.
When Lance graduated from Biloxi High, he toyed with the idea of going off to college. Aaron was not keen on the idea because his son was needed in the family business. Lance took a few classes at a nearby junior college, and, not surprisingly, showed an aptitude for business and finance. His teachers encouraged him to
pursue studies at the state teachers college up the road in Hattiesburg, and though he harbored the dream, he was afraid to mention it to his father.
War intervened and Lance forgot about further studies. The day after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Marines and left home for the first time. He shipped out with First Infantry Division and saw heavy action in North Africa. In 1944, he landed with the first wave at Anzio when the Allies invaded Italy. Because he could speak Croatian, he and a hundred others were sent to Eastern Europe where the Germans were on the run. Early in 1945, he set foot in the old country, the birthplace of his father and grandfathers, and he wrote Aaron a long letter describing the war-torn land. He ended with:
Thanks, Father, for having the courage to leave home and seek a better life in America.
Aaron wept when he read it, then he shared it with his friends and Lida’s family.
As the Allies chased the Germans westward, Lance saw action in Hungary and Poland. Two days after the liberation of Auschwitz, he and his platoon walked the dirt roads of the concentration camp and watched in stunned disbelief as hundreds of emaciated corpses were buried in mass graves. Three months after the Germans surrendered, Lance returned to Biloxi, with no injuries but with memories so horrible he vowed to forget them.
In 1947, he married Carmen Coscia, an Italian girl he had known in high school. As a wedding gift, Aaron gave them a house on the Point, in a new section with nicer homes being built for veterans. Lance naturally assumed his role in Aaron’s businesses and put the war behind him. But he was restless and bored with the grocery store and the bars. He was ambitious and wanted to make some real money in gambling. Aaron was still firmly opposed to it and they had disagreements.
Thirteen months after their wedding, Carmen gave birth to Hugh and the family was ecstatic with the beginning of a new generation. Babies were springing up all around the Point, and Father Herbert was kept busy with a flood of christenings. Young
families grew and the older folks celebrated. Life on the Point had never been better.
Biloxi was booming again and the seafood business was more vibrant than ever. Luxury hotels were built on the beaches as tourism rebounded. The army decided to keep Keesler as a training base, thus ensuring a constant supply of young soldiers looking for a good time. More bars, casinos, and brothels opened, and the Strip became even busier. As was the established custom, the police and politicians took the cash and looked the other way. When the art deco Broadwater Beach Hotel opened, its lobby was filled with rows of brand-new slot machines bought from a broker in Las Vegas, and still quite illegal.
As a father, Lance tempered his ambitions to plunge deeper into vice. Plus, Aaron was still firmly in control and serious about his reputation. The family business changed dramatically in 1950 when he died suddenly of pneumonia at the age of fifty-four. He left no last will and testament; thus, his assets were split in four equal shares among Lida and the three children. Lida was distraught and fell into a long bout of debilitating depression. Lance and his two siblings fought over the family properties and a serious rift ensued. They squabbled for years, much to their mother’s dismay. As her health slipped away, Lance, her firstborn and always her favorite, convinced her to sign a will that left him in control of the assets. This was kept quiet until after her death. When his sister and brother read it they threatened to sue, but Lance settled the dispute by offering each the sum of $5,000 in cash. His brother took the money and left the Coast. His sister married a doctor and moved to New Orleans.
In spite of the family drama, and the accepted belief that Lance had managed to outmaneuver his siblings, he and Carmen continued to be well regarded on the Point. They lived modestly, though they could afford otherwise, and they were active and generous. They were the biggest contributors to St. Michael’s Church and its outreach programs, and they never failed to lend a hand to the less
fortunate. He was even admired by some as the smarter Malco who was willing to hustle to make a buck.
Away from the Point, though, Lance was yielding to his ambitions. As a silent partner, he bought a nightclub and turned half of it into a casino. The other half was a bar with watered-down, overpriced drinks the GIs were more than happy to pay for, especially when served by cute waitresses in revealing outfits. The upstairs rooms were rented by the half hour. Business was so good that Lance and his partner opened another club, larger and nicer. They called it Red Velvet, and erected a gaudy neon sign, the brightest on Highway 90. The Strip was born.
Carmen retired from the store and became a full-time mother. Lance worked long days and nights and was often absent, but Carmen kept the home together and doted on her three children. She disapproved of her husband’s ventures into the darker world, but they seldom discussed his clubs. The money was good and they had more than most on the Point. Complaining would have no effect. Lance was old-school, his father was from the old country; the man ruled the house with an iron fist and the woman raised the kids. Carmen accepted her role with a quiet steadiness.
Perhaps their happiest moments were at the baseball parks. Young Hugh became a dominant player as an eight-year-old and improved each year. During the annual draft, every coach wanted him as the top pick. When he was ten, he was chosen for the twelve-year-old league, a rarity. His only equal was his friend Keith Rudy.