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Not Quite Twenty

by Gary Clifton

“Guarantee ten bucks, kid... and bus fare.” Ol’ Clyde exhaled cigar smoke. “If you can handle six-ounce gloves.”

December 1954: Clyde had just offered Frankie his first club fight. Frankie had fought plenty of those bloody brawls in the wire pen behind Clyde’s Cigar Store. He’d also fought in the Golden Gloves where they used fourteen-ounce gloves; marshmallows, the guys called them.

Clyde sponsored fights inside that cage where they were plenty careless about weigh-ins. Easy to end up fighting a guy sixty pounds heavier and get a busted head. Except Clyde drew the line, and twelve ounces was the house glove-limit. In those pre-dope days, he made his bucks peddling shine, a little grass, and taking house cuts on bets. Fighters made chump change when they passed the hat.

“Broke” was a word as common in the neighborhood as “stick ’em up”. Frankie didn’t have a gun, but he was handy with his fists. He lived with his mom in a one-room upper across the alley from the Colorado, a predominantly black beer joint where Bo Diddley and Jimmy Hendrix wannabes blasted out ear-splitting jazz and ragtime with the back door open until 5:00 a.m. Yeah, Frankie always said, you can learn to sleep just fine if you’re tired enough.

His mom’s back kept her from working full time in the plant, and they hadn’t seen the old man since he split with that waitress from Omaha the year before. If eating a live chicken brought in a dollar, Frankie would have been first in line.

Clyde saw Frankie work over a plugger from St. Louis pretty good one night in his pen. “Ya got some style, kid, and a helluva right cross.” Thus, the club fight offer.

Ten bucks for God’s sake, to fight uptown at the Blue Blaze, a beer joint on the river. Two bus changes to get there and cold as hell. But it was the real deal. Man, Frankie could taste the big time: dollar bills and strawberry ice cream. He’d never seen ten bucks all at once before.

Clyde met him there and wrapped his hands, then taped the wrists on the six-ounce gloves. Little more than a bare fist, they felt like air. Frankie was elated. A man could knock down a mule with those feathers. He’d registered in as a welterweight, 147 pounds. The scale said he only went 139, but nobody gave a damn.

“Dude’s gonna be one tough customer, kid,” Clyde warned halfheartedly. He just wanted his cut.

The opponent was over thirty, beat all to hell, and weighed at least 160. Eighty, ninety professional fights behind him was the word. Both the ref and the opponent were black. So was the crowd, including Clyde. Frankie figured they’d come to see a white boy get his.

The ref eyed Frankie pretty close when he gave his spiel about no hitting during the break and the like. The ref saw Frankie was too young and too small. Frankie scowled at the floor and tried to look mean as hell.

No matter. No fight, the ref didn’t get paid his five bucks. He knew if he disqualified the kid, that crowd of drunks might maul him anyway. The other pug shot Frankie the dead man’s stare while the ref talked, but he never said a word.

By the second round, Frankie’s ears were ringing like the Salvation Bell ringer at the last bus stop. Couple of times he’d gotten to the guy pretty good. The man learned not to be so quick to clinch and rabbit-punch. Any hand speed the palooka ever possessed had been bludgeoned out of him. Frankie could hit him anytime, anywhere. The opponent spent a lot of energy swinging at air and soon enough went bellowing mad. His nose looked like an infected appendix. Both fighters covered in blood: his.

Finally, he wrestled Frankie into a sweaty corner. He slurred with whiskey breath through his mouthpiece, “Give it up kid, or I’m killin’ your ass.”

On the break, Frankie caught him with a head-butt across the bridge of his nose. Frankie was nearly blinded by blood splatter. The guy threw a good right cross on the break, but Frankie knew this wasn’t the Marcus of what the hell ever. Through the fog, he hung onto the ropes, woozy, dizzy with the crowd screaming.

* * *

The cement floor was cold on Frankie’s back under bare light bulbs, the iron taste of fresh blood gagging him. He’d lost sure as hell and wasn’t going to get paid. They’d pulled off his gloves for the next fight. He heaved himself to a sitting position.

Clyde was sitting on a collapsible metal chair.“Well, looky who’s back.” Clyde rolled his cigar and flashed a toothy grin through a mouthful of gold. “I got your bread right here, kiddo.” He waved a ten-spot.

“Damn, Clyde, you pissed?” Frankie reached for the cash. “I hoped—”

“Pissed?” His laugh ripped into Frankie’s clanging ears like screeching cats. “Maybe only ’cuz you like to beat that sucker to death. They stopped the fight when you damned near took off his ugly nose, but he was finished anyway. You walked outta the ring on your own, come down here. I seen you was woozy. Figured you oughta lay a spell.”

“What about him... the other guy?”

Carried that dude out on an old door. Crowd loved you! Come back tomorrow night, I can getcha twelve bucks.”

Frankie nodded. “Plus bus fare?”

He nodded and showed the golden grin again. “How old are you, kid?”

“Near twenty,” Frankie spat blood on the floor. Clyde didn’t really give a damn about age. He’d made a hundred bucks.

Frankie’s head began to clear. For twelve bucks, he thought, he’d kill that punk the next night. Maybe he should’ve asked for fifteen. After all, it was his fifteenth birthday. Twenty wasn’t far.

He grabbed his coat and headed out. Couldn’t miss the last bus.

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

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