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Authors: Robert Lipsyte

The Chief

BOOK: The Chief
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The Chief
Robert Lipsyte

FOR MY TEACHERS
DICK GREGORY
AND
CHIEF OREN LYONS

Contents

1

SONNY IS WIRED. All the way to the fight, he's…

2

THE ARENA IS PACKED; every folding chair has a fat…

3

THERE'S A CAR WRECK and a stabbing ahead of us,…

4

WE TRAIL ROBIN'S OLD BMW to an all-night diner just…

5

PROFESSOR MARKS WAVED the four chapters I had faxed him.

6

I JUMPED ON THE FIRST train back to New York.

7

THE SUBWAY HOME was as hot and stinky and crowded…

8

THE RES LOOKED DIFFERENT to me every time. At first…

9

SONNY WAS SPRAWLED in a reclining chair Jake had made…

10

THE WING DIPS, and I follow it down through the…

11

SONNY SHOULDERED through the hotel lobby and the gambling casino,…

12

JOHN L. SOLOMON worked out at the Oasis Hotel, at the other…

13

SUDDENLY, WE HAD a room in the Oasis. It was…

14

SONNY AND JOHN L. ran together at dawn for ten days…

15

AT SIX O'CLOCK IN the evening it was still so…

16

WE WATCHED THE MAIN event in John L.'s section with his…

17

SONNY AND I RODE the ambulance to the hospital. John…

18

I WROTE HARD. TRIED to stick to a schedule. Up…

19

WAS BACK AT SCHOOL feeling sorry for myself when some…

20

SONNY WAS THERE when John L. died. He was in the…

21

IF THE LAS VEGAS gambling hotels are an oasis in the…

22

SONNY AND JUNIOR settled right into a steady, grinding fight,…

23

JAKE LEFT HOLLYWOOD after a few days, but I was…

24

I FLEW FIRST-CLASS to L.A. It's a good thing I…

25

I FOUND SONNY SPRAWLED on a pile of cushions next…

26

THE GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK has his main office in…

27

I'M TAKING NOTES again as Alfred keeps the HandiVan twenty-five…

28

RICHIE WAS WAITING for us outside the Fort Ruth Holiday…

29

FIFTEEN MILES FROM Sparta I spotted the first war party,…

30

IN A QUIET, EMPTY room that smelled of freshly cut…

 

 

Just before the bell for the third round,

I scoop out a handful of ice, pull out the waistband of Sonny's trunks and dump it under the leather belt of his protective cup. When the ice hits his crotch, he jumps up bellowing. It's my tail he wants, but Viera is roaring across the ring at him.

They meet in the middle slugging.

S
ONNY IS WIRED
. All the way to the fight, he's jamming his headset on and yanking it off, drumming the dashboard with his bad hand, grunting at trees. When I tell him to get some sleep, he glares.

“Just drive.”

It's usually a good sign, Sonny on edge. Means his reflexes are hair-trigger; he's ready to rock. But this feels different. He's cranky, off his rhythm. After two years with a boxer you can read his moods like a weather map. He's got a lot shaking around inside his head. His mom is on his case again to move out West with her, and the knuckle he broke two months ago still hasn't healed. But he's lived with this before. Something else is cooking, something bigger. He could be ready to snap, bail out, dump the dream. Last night, on the Reservation, he used the word “futile.” Not a Sonny kind of word. He's beginning to think the
heavyweight title's out of reach. I told him I thought he was wrong, but I lied.

We're getting nowhere.

I know we're in trouble when I pull the van up to the arena, a bush-league hockey rink behind an abandoned factory. Still stinks offish. The marquee over the entrance has
SONNY BEAR
half the size of IRON PETE VIERA. It was in the contract that Sonny's name would be larger, and on top. And there's no ramp up front for Alfred's wheelchair. That was part of the deal, too. Bad signs. When they screw you on the small stuff, they'll steal the fight if they can.

Sonny knows. “Turn around,” he says. “Let's go home.”

In the rearview mirror I see Alfred and Jake exchange glances. “Got a contract,” says Alfred through clenched teeth. The dead cigar between his teeth is a wet brown shred. He's in pain. That's the only reason he let me drive his van. Long trips are tough on what's left of his spine.

“They're out to rattle you, Sonny,” says Jake. “They're afraid of you.”

“This is futile,” says Sonny.

“Fu-tile,” mocks Alfred. “Martin teach you a new word?”

I don't mind being the butt, if it gets us over. “Words are like punches, a new—”

“Shut up,” says Alfred. “Scared, Sonny?”

“That don't work no more,” says Sonny. “Wake up. Elston Hubbard's fighting in Vegas for a title shot and I'm here in Woptown…”

“Portuguese Americans,” says Jake, “and that kind of talk…”

“…going nowhere.”

“…don't get us anywhere,” says Jake.

“Got to keep pushing,” says Alfred.

“Why?” asks Sonny.

“'Cause you got the goods to be champ.”

“Of this?” Sonny jerks a thumb out at the arena, a gray cinder-block box that looks ready to crumble into the pitted black tarmac of the parking lot. Old fishing boats, paint peeling, masts cracked, bob in the harbor. We're in some coast town I've never heard of. I make a mental note to get the correct spelling of the town's name. For my book. Especially if this is where it all ends. What a pissant place to close down the story. But fitting. Ironical. And then I feel ashamed—I'm thinking about my book. This is Sonny's life.

After a while, Alfred asks, “What else you gonna do?”

“You mean what else YOU gonna do,” snaps Sonny.

“I got my pension,” says Alfred. “I can watch you play Indian for the tourists, sell your momma's made-in-China tomahawks.”

In the rearview, I see Jake's wrinkled old face twist into a scowl. Sonny's mom is his niece, but he hates what she's doing more than anyone.

“Can't be worse than this,” says Sonny. “Time to hang it up. It's never gonna get any better.”

“Warriors welcome their fears,” says Jake. “The Creator gives them fear to make their senses sharp.”

“Not about being afraid,” says Sonny. “About wasting time. For nothing.”

“Let the Hawk find the way,” says Jake.

“Later on the redskin crap,” says Sonny.

“Let's just get on with it,” says Alfred, “and then we'll all sit down and figure out what's next. Promoter booked us into a nice motel with free movies. Let's win the fight, relax, and tomorrow we'll have a big breakfast and
make some plans.”

“You been saying that for two years,” says Sonny.

Alfred opens the window and spits out the brown shreds. “What do you say, Martin?”

“Nobody's been punching at me,” I say. I keep my eyes on the road, but I can imagine Sonny's sidelong glance. I know how to get his attention. “I'm not going to tell Sonny what to do.”

It's sly but it works. You can't order Sonny around, even if you're right, but if you are, he'll come around. You just have to cut him slack.

“Don't count on me making any more plans after tonight,” grumbles Sonny.

Back in the rearview, Alfred and Jake roll their eyes in relief. I let the air out slowly, through my nose.

We have to lift Alfred's wheelchair up the front steps of the arena. It's hard on someone who used to be a tough cop to be dependent, but for once Alfred says nothing. One wrong word and Sonny blows. Never seen this weirdness before.

The arena is cold and shabby, wooden planks over the hockey ice and a crummy old
ring. The ancient canvas is stained with dinosaur blood. The ropes are frayed, sagging. The ring is surrounded by folding chairs, another bad sign. Crowd doesn't like a decision, those chairs fly.

The promoter is waiting for us in his office. Typical small-town boxing sleazebag, cheap toupee and gold chains. “Tickets just ain't moving. Times are bad. The new TV shows. You know how they hate Indians around here. I didn't want to cut your percentage, so I moved you to a cheaper motel.”

I think, No movies, but I say, “What about the marquee? Sonny's name was supposed to be first, and in bigger letters.”

“Hadda do it for TV. They're shooting a documentary on Iron Pete.”

“Why him?” growls Alfred.

“Who knows? Something about ethnic boxers.”

“What do you think Sonny is?” I say. “Native Americans are the original ethnics.”

“You talk to them, kid. I got my own problems.”

The dressing room is chilly, damp. Rusted hooks in crumbly concrete. No hangers, no
lockers. The toilets haven't been flushed in weeks. No hot water. All the other fighters except Iron Pete, the local hero, dress in the same room with us. They're mostly white guys with dumb tattoos, eagles and skulls, skinny kids who washed out of the Marines or fat truck drivers who don't have good-enough personalities to be bouncers. They're getting their hands taped by their older cousins, fatter truck drivers with cigarettes dripping ash. Everybody gawks at us, two black guys, one in a wheelchair, an old Indian and a mixed-blood fighter.

“Someday, Sonny,” says Alfred, packing extra gauze over the bad knuckle, “believe it or not, you gonna miss this, you'll be the champ and…”

Sonny's head comes up, his black eyes hot. “You'll say anything to…”

“…you'll say, 'Life was simpler back then.'” Alfred winds tape over the gauze, across the fingers, down the hand, around the wrist. It's amazing how many times he does it, and he never takes shortcuts. He does it slowly and carefully every time. “Let's warm up.” He puts a mitt on each hand. Sonny jabs at the right mitt
as Alfred moves it from side to side, then starts mixing up his punches, straight rights, upper-cuts. He throws his money punch, the left hook. It looks slow, a rusty gate. He's not even working up much of a sweat.

“C'mon, c'mon,” says Alfred. He follows Sonny's glance toward the door. “Who's that?”

“Hi there.” She's wearing jeans and a safari jacket. Tall, slim, dark hair. She's only a few years older than Sonny and I, maybe twenty-three, but she's pretty sure of herself. “Sonny Bear?”

“No ladies in the dressing room,” says Alfred.

“Wrong.” She makes the word reverberate. “We won that battle years ago.” She waves at the door. “Let's go, guys.”

A man and another woman begin dragging in equipment.

“What's this?” asks Alfred.

“Just a few quick questions, we—”

“After the fight,” says Alfred.

Her body tenses. “That means overtime for my crew. This is public television….”

“This is private enterprise.” My best growl.

“Who are you?”

“I'm the third second.” I realize how dumb that sounds, so I add, “And Sonny Bear's writer.”

She lifts her thick black eyebrows into arches over her big brown eyes. I'm hypnotized. Then she says, “You must be joking.” Acid drips off every word. I want to splash her with the spit bucket.

“An old trick,” says Jake, throwing a robe over Sonny's sweaty shoulders. “Give him a chill, try to make his muscles stiffen up.”

“You paranoid?” she asks. “We're just—”

“You're the ones changed the marquee on us,” I say. “Who knows what else you're up to. You want your guy to win for your lousy TV show. Better clear out.”

She ignores me and smiles at Sonny. It softens her face. Parts of my body perk up. “I'd really like you to be part of this film, Mr. Bear, good publicity and…”

“Out,” snarls Alfred in his old bull-cop voice.

She looks cranked to argue, but the camerawoman grabs her arm and pulls her out of the room.

“Jab,” orders Jake. “Listen to Alfred.”

“I hear Viera is a banger, just keeps
coming,” says Alfred, moving the mitts around. “He's made to order for you. Box him in the early rounds.”

Bells start ringing. Whenever the door opens, crowd noise splashes in. The skinny kids and the truck drivers strut out for their matches and stagger back. One of them has to be carried. We stay in our corner and concentrate on moving Sonny around, keeping his muscles warm. Alfred makes him jog in place and throw combinations. Jake smears Vaseline on his face. I rub his shoulders.

“Viera butts,” says Alfred. “Don't let him close. Push his head away.”

Finally, the door bangs open for us.

“BEAR!”

BOOK: The Chief
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