Authors: John Grisham
But once planted, the idea would not go away. After some hesitation, Jesse had finally mentioned it to Agnes. The reception was lukewarm.
After four club fights in Buster’s Gym, Hugh had one win, one loss, and two draws. The fact that he had survived without getting knocked out emboldened him to take the next step. Buster, his coach, wasn’t so sure, but seldom said no when a new fighter was eager to get in the ring. The Golden Gloves tournament was in late February in the gymnasium of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and Buster, the undisputed ruler of amateur boxing along the Coast, controlled the card. He tried to protect his novices and make sure they would survive, at least through the first round.
Hugh’s first lesson was not in a gym. Nevin Noll found two pairs of sixteen-ounce gloves, and they squared off behind Red Velvet one afternoon for a friendly lesson. Just the basics: stance, position of hands, head back, foot movements. Hugh was terrified because he had seen Nevin in real action and knew how quick his fists were, but he accepted the reality that a few bloody noses were part of the training. No blood was drawn in the first few lessons as Nevin patiently taught Hugh to keep his hands up. He also warned the kid to lay off the cigarettes and beer while in training.
During Hugh’s first workout at Buster’s, the old coach liked what he saw. Though his feet were a bit slow, the kid was an athlete who was willing to work. Hugh sparred with some experienced boxers and finally took a hard one on the nose, but it only made him more determined. He would never contend for an Olympic medal, but he was a natural fighter who relished contact and wasn’t afraid to get hit. Before long, he was in the gym almost every afternoon. He enjoyed juggling his part-time job, trysts with
Miss Cindy, and an hour or two at Buster’s. Schoolwork became even less of a priority.
Lance liked the idea that his son was learning to box. Every kid needed the discipline and he was never much of a football player anyway. Carmen was horrified and vowed to avoid all fights.
After a lousy football season sitting on the bench, Keith was suffering through an even worse winter as a second-string forward on the JV basketball team. Playing time was scarce, but at least he was sweating every afternoon. Like most of his friends, he viewed basketball as a means to stay in shape between football and baseball seasons. They became intrigued by Hugh’s sudden interest in boxing and were delighted to learn that their buddy would actually get in the ring at the annual Golden Gloves tournament. Hugh did not broadcast the news. While he was itching for his first real fight, he also worried about the possibility of getting knocked out cold in front of his friends.
The tournament drew a large crowd every year, and when the
Gulf Coast Register
ran a story that featured two of the local favorites, it also listed the first-round bouts. In the 145-pound welterweight division, Hugh Malco would fight Jimmy Patterson in the opening card’s tenth bout. As always, Keith read the sports page over breakfast, and when he saw Hugh’s name, he was proud of his friend and decided to take action. At school, he organized a cheering squad and Hugh became the man of the hour, receiving far more attention than he wanted. The knot in his stomach grew tighter and he had little interest in lunch. By mid-afternoon, he was having second thoughts, which he shared with Nevin Noll.
“It’s only natural,” Nevin said, trying to reassure him. “I vomited twice before my first fight.”
“Gee, that makes me feel better.”
“The butterflies will vanish the first time you get hit.”
“What if it’s a knockout punch?”
“Hit him first. You’ll be fine, Hugh. Just pace yourself. It’s only three rounds but it’ll seem like an hour.”
Hugh lit a cigarette and Nevin said, “I thought I told you to quit smoking.”
“It’s my nerves.”
The tournament began on a Tuesday afternoon, with the finals set for Saturday night. The first bouts were novices in the lighter divisions and were uneventful. Most of the boys seemed reluctant to mix it up. By seven o’clock, the gymnasium was packed and the crowd was ready for some action. A thick layer of cigar and cigarette smoke hung not far above the ring. Vendors sold hot dogs and popcorn, and in one corner a bar offered cold beer.
Alcohol was still illegal everywhere in the state, but it was, after all, Biloxi.
Keith and his gang of rowdies arrived and waited excitedly for the big match. When Hugh stepped into the ring, his pals cheered wildly, making a nerve-racking experience even worse. The PA announcer introduced the fighters and the crowd roared for Hugh Malco, the obvious favorite. His opponent, Jimmy Patterson, was a skinny kid from Gulfport with only a few fans.
Just before the bell, Hugh glanced down at the front row and smiled at his father, who was sitting next to Nevin Noll. His mother was at home, in prayer. There were no women in the crowd. Buster rubbed Vaseline on his cheeks and forehead and said, for the umpteenth time, “Go slow. Pace yourself. You’ll get him in the third round.”
Buster knew exactly what would happen. Both novices would dance for the first minute, then one would land a punch that would start an old-fashioned street fight. It took at least five fights before the kids learned to pace themselves.
Keith, the cheerleader, stood and started a chant: “Let’s go Hugh! Let’s go Hugh!”
Hugh jumped to his feet, pounded his gloves together, and flashed a big, confident smile at his friends. The bell rang, the fight was on. They met in the center of the ring and bobbed a few times, sizing each other up. Jimmy Patterson was three inches
taller, with longer arms, and danced away from Hugh, keeping his distance. The long arms became a problem as he popped Hugh with some harmless left jabs. Nevin was right. Getting hit settled his nerves. Hugh kept his hands high and backed Patterson into a corner where they flailed away at each other while doing little damage. The flurry excited the crowd. The chants of “Let’s go Hugh!” drowned out all other noise. Patterson spun away and danced to the center where Hugh stalked him. Halfway through the first round, Hugh was surprised at how hard he was breathing.
Damned cigarettes. Pace, pace, pace.
Patterson found his rhythm and peppered him with left jabs. He was scoring points but doing little damage. Hugh was crouching and leaning in, and from the corner Buster kept yelling, “Head up! Head up!”
Lance found it impossible to sit idly by and watch his kid in the ring. He kept yelling, “Hit him, Hugh! Hit him, Hugh!” Nevin Noll was also on the edge of his seat and yelling.
Hugh heard nothing but his own breathing. He pinned Patterson in a corner but he covered up and got away. The first round seemed to last for an hour and when the bell finally rang Hugh walked to his corner and flashed another smile at Keith and the boys. Buster sat him down as a second poured water in his mouth. Buster said, “Look, when he throws that left jab he drops his right hand, okay? Fake a right hook, then throw a left one. Got it?”
Hugh nodded but found it hard to concentrate on anything. His heart was pounding, his blood was rushing. He had survived the first round with no damage at all, and as the crowd chanted he realized how much he was enjoying the fight. All he needed now was to kick Patterson’s ass.
Patterson had other plans. He opened the second round with the same dancing and punching from long range and Hugh couldn’t pin him on the ropes. He missed badly with a couple of wild rights and Patterson countered with more jabs to the nose. Halfway through, Hugh got frustrated, ducked low and tried to
charge. Patterson hit him with a hard right that stunned him and buckled his knees. He didn’t go down, but the referee stepped in and gave him a standing eight count. By the end of it his eyes were clear and he was fired up. By allowing Patterson to bomb away, he was losing the fight. He had to get inside and land some body blows. Buster kept yelling, “Head up! Head up!” But the problem was Patterson’s long arms. Hugh practically tackled him and they grappled on the ropes until the ref broke it up. Patterson took a step back and threw a wild left that missed. Just like Buster said, he dropped his right hand, and Hugh spun a left hook that had no chance until Patterson stepped into it. The hook smashed into his right jaw, popped his head back against the ropes, and Hugh was quick enough to land a hard right as Patterson was falling. He fell in a corner, and would be there for some time.
It was the first knockout of the evening and the crowd went wild. Hugh wasn’t sure what to do—he’d never scored a knockout—and had to be pushed by the ref to a neutral corner. As he began counting it was obvious that Patterson wasn’t getting up anytime soon. Keith and his friends were screaming and Hugh flashed another smile as he bobbed on his toes. He was almost as stunned as Patterson. Minutes passed and Patterson finally sat up, took some water, shook his head, and got to his feet. His coach walked him around the ring a few times as he came to his senses. At the appropriate time, Hugh stepped over and said, “Good fight.” Jimmy smiled but it was obvious he wanted out of the ring.
When the referee raised Hugh’s hand and the announcer declared him a winner by knockout, the crowd roared its approval. Hugh basked in the glory and smiled at his father and Nevin, and also at the crowd from school. Oddly, he thought of Cindy and wished she was there for his greatest moment. But no, she was back at Red Velvet hustling soldiers. Nevin was right. It was time to stop seeing her.
Wednesday was a regular school day. The knockout artist arrived a few minutes earlier than usual. His name was in the morning’s paper and he was anticipating a pleasant day being admired by his peers. Word spread quickly and different versions of his dramatic victory were making the rounds. Keith, always with plenty to say, announced the knockout in homeroom and invited everyone to the second round of fights Thursday night. Their new hero would fight a guy named Fuzz Foster, who, according to the paper, was undefeated after eight bouts.
The paper said no such thing. Keith was exaggerating and trying his best to whip up enthusiasm for the fight. With a nod from the teacher, Keith went on to say that, after watching at least a dozen fights the night before, he was now of the opinion that their new hero, the knockout artist, was in bad need of a catchy boxing nickname. “Hugh” just wasn’t sufficient. Therefore, it was incumbent upon them, as his biggest fans, to find one. All manner arose from the floor. Hack, Duck, the Assassin, Bazooka, Scarface, Bruno, Rocky, Sandman, Babyface, Razor, Lazer, Machine Gun Malco. As things were getting out of hand, the teacher listed a dozen of the better ones on the chalkboard and called for a vote, but the bell rang and nothing was accomplished. Hugh trudged off to first period with no change of identity, no colorful nickname that might intimidate opponents or make him famous.
He completed his classes that Wednesday without skipping a one, and left after the final bell to see Cindy. She was not at her apartment, and one of her roommates finally admitted that she had left town. “She quit, Hugh.”
“What do you mean she quit?”
“Gave it up. Gone home. I think her brother found her and made her leave.”
Hugh was stunned and said, “But I need to talk to her.”
“Let it go, Hugh. She ain’t coming back here.”
He left and went searching for Nevin Noll. He was not at the
Truck Stop, Red Velvet, Foxy’s, or any of his usual hangouts. A bartender whispered, “I think they’re having some trouble with O’Malley’s. Nevin might be there but you’d better stay away. Things are heating up.”
Hugh took his advice and drove away from the Strip, alone in his little truck, where no one could hear him mumbling to himself about losing the girl. They’d been together for over five months and she’d taught him things he’d never dreamed of, and, as much as he despised what she did for a living, he’d found a way to forgive her and carry on. She couldn’t just disappear without saying goodbye.
He drove to Buster’s and went through the motions of a light workout, but only because Buster expected him to. He poked around to see if anyone had seen Fuzz Foster in the ring, but came away with no scouting report. His mind was on his girl, not boxing. He knew Nevin was at Red Velvet, on duty, every night at 5:00 when happy hour started and the cover charge went into effect. He found him at the bar drinking a soda and having a cigarette with one of the waitresses.
Nevin frowned when he saw him and said, “You looking for another fight?”
“No, just need to talk.”
“Well, not here. You’re still too young, Sugar Ray.”
“Let’s go outside.”
Behind the club, both lit cigarettes. “What happened to Cindy?” Hugh asked.
Nevin shook his head as he blew a cloud. “I’ve been telling you to forget about her.”
“I know, but please, what happened?”
“Yesterday, we got a call from some cops over in Arkansas. Somebody tracked her and knew she was working here. As you know, she’s only sixteen. We didn’t admit that and told the police the girl had an ID that said she’s eighteen. You know the drill. So,
this morning two cops from Arkansas showed up with her brother. We had no choice but to cooperate, and now she’s back home where she belongs. Forget her, Hugh. She’s just another hooker. There’ll be plenty more where she came from.”