Maurice and his family lived next door to us on the Island. They were all dwarves: the mother, the father, the two girls and Maurice. The old man worked on the coal boats and their house was chock-a-block full of miniature furniture.
One day, Maurice came by and said he wanted me to lead his gang. I said, “Okay,” and he said, “Good, I’ve got a forty-five.” I told him: “I ain’t goin’ with you if you got a forty-five.’’ So he said, “All right, I’ll take my BB gun instead.” Just then my brother, Butch, showed up wearin’ one of them cotton dresses the Old Lady used to put him in. He was around six, covered with soot, with hair the colour of ginger taffy. Butch would follow me anywhere so I slapped his head and said, “Get lost, Shorty.”
Me and Maurice looped Dizzy Square like G-men. There weren’t much to see: a travellin’ salesman haulin’ pots, a farmer pickin’ up labourers for four bits a day. Just when we figured we’d be better off at the track fillin’ water buckets for the horses, Maurice spotted three nuns and got off a dandy shot. Spooked, they scattered like pigeons. One was the biddy who cuffed my ear when the old lady sent me beggin’ for food when Butch was sick and the old man was down in the Maine lumber woods scrapin’ for a buck.
I don’t think Maurice hit ’em just scared the meanness out of ’em, so I said, “Man, we better split. You ain’t outrunnin’ nobody, not even three old nuns, with them short legs.”
After a week, Maurice was back like the peddle wagon.
“Sparky,” he said. “I need your help with somethin’.”
Maurice had a voice like a scrub board. I remember his eyes gettin’ hard and starin’ at something I never could see. Maurice would talk and his eyes would widen like he was watchin’ a movin’ picture, a silent flick with Charlie Chaplin, but there weren’t nothin’ there.
He’d read a book, he said, and he had it aced. This Lebanese neighbour had a pig named Larry in his yard and Maurice was going to operate on him.
I said, “Count me out, man, I ain’t operatin’ on no pig.”
When the war broke out, I joined the Navy, thinkin’ I’d be a hero. They turned down Maurice which made him feel pretty low, all washed up, like one of them old horses the farmers fed to the foxes. He started to hit the hooch and hang with the shakos. I heard he smashed a guy over the head with a two-by-four.
Around 1942, Maurice caught a break. He signed on a merchant ship with a bunch of Norwegians. Runnin’ grub to the crew, helpin’ Cookie, he was what they called a messman. Some guys fall apart after shit like that: duckin’ subs, watchin’ men die, but Maurice said it was good for his nerves, and at night, he slept like a Philadelphia lawyer.
After the war, Maurice moved to Norway and married a woman he’d met on a flag tanker. She was a radio operator, a real tomato. They said Maurice opened an auto-body shop. I don’t know what kind of cars they had in Norway, but Maurice was sharp with his hands, he could fix anything. All my hands were good for was fightin’ which was why I stayed in the game for fifty years: fighter, trainer, cut man.
A couple years after the war, I was downtown Halifax with Butch, who was tuned for a ten-rounder with Sailor Boy Doyle. Butch had a bad hate-on for Sailor Boy so I had him on a short leash to keep his anger bottled up. Around midnight, we rolled into a clip joint that smelled like a card game and Minard’s Lineament. Butch was feelin’ pretty big in a double-breasted suit he’d bought with his last purse. Most of the time, Butch was whingy, but he looked sharp that night and he knew it. “Let’s check ’er out,” he said, noddin’ to the back.
We made our way through the smoke, and who was playin’ but the midget rasslers, in town for a show at The Forum. I loved to watch them perform. Man, they were agile. When The Little Beaver was young, he could cover the top rope like a squirrel. Sky Low Low could stand on his head with no hands for balance. Outside, they could be bad little buggers; one guy got caught pissin’ out a hotel window, another liked to drink moonshine and yodel.
The Little Beaver was my favourite naturally. They called him the King of the Midget Wrestlers. The papers said the Beaver was four-foot-four and weighed sixty pounds, but I thought he was bigger, the way he could lift a grown man or airplane-spin Sky Low Low. In my mind, Beaver was a better showman than Ali. Years later, I heard he died in a little Quebec town from emphysema.
Anyway, sittin’ at the table with a dead man’s hand was Maurice in a hand-woven Panama with a pleated pearl ribbon. You’d have thought he was Howard Hughes, not some spud from the Island. I rubbed my eyes. “Maurice, what are you up to, man?”
“Sparky,” he said. “I’ve gone into management.”
Well, I let that pass. I was too busy lookin’ at this tiger they had chained to the table, a full-grown animal with paws like hubcaps. Now, I seen tigers in South Africa when I had Rockabye Smith fightin’ for the Commonwealth title but this was a bit unusual. We started talkin’ and Maurice laid out some heavy shit he’d seen in the war: deaths, explosions, mutilations. He chucked her all in, bullshit chowder. Norway was as boring as The Island, he said, and they never done nothin’ for the sailors after the war. I never asked about his wife; there was women there if you get my drift. I told him I got tinfished in the English Channel but survived. Maurice laughed, which kind of insulted me, and when he did, that tiger’s head shot up and snarled.
So the next time the midgets came to town, me and Butch went. I remember that night because Butch had fourteen stitches over his right eye; it was the same year that Marcel Cerdan was killed in a plane crash. Little Beaver was puttin’ a hoofin’ on Fuzzy Cupid and some big fool in the front row jumped up and screamed, “Beaver is an Animal.” Beaver was agile as a cat, but he weren’t no animal.
When we went to the dressin’ room, there was no sign of Maurice. He had split.
Years later, I had Archie Lucas down in New York for a six-rounder. Archie didn’t have no papers and they held him at the border for eight hours on accounta him being black and quite possibly, in their minds, a Cuban hitman. Before it was over, Archie confessed to breakin’ into the Legion and stealin’ two dozen hams. Archie weren’t ready for nothin’ but a do-si-do, but we went to Gleason’s and put on the gloves. When we came outside, Archie said he wanted a giant hotdog from the street vendor. I looked at Archie and said: “Man, you ain’t gonna make weight as it is. You already ate them hams.”
We hailed a cab and headed to our digs, Archie still jawin’ about that goddamn hotdog. His brother, Jermaine, was the exact same way. The whole family had an awful weakness for cheap meat. Sittin’ there, tryin’ to ignore Archie, I looked at the driver’s mugshot and it seemed familiar despite the moustache.
“Man, I know you, don’t I?”
The driver nodded. “Yeah, it’s Maurice, brother. I’m a Neeeww Yawker now.”
I told him to come to the fight on Friday night and we’d hook up after. He never did, or I never seen him, and that was that.
A few years back, my brother Butch got sick. They said it was from fightin,’ too many shots to the head like Ali, but I don’t know. Butch liked to feint, to cover up. When Carmen Boucher fought him in New Brunswick, he said it was like tryin’ to trap bubbles.
They put Butch in an old man’s home on the Island, out in the country near some farms. I went to see him and it weren’t that bad. The place was clean and Butch was out of it, jingle-brained. Someone had made a scrapbook of his clippings with a front page that said, “Island Boy Fights to Draw in Madison Square Garden”, and they set it on his dresser for visitors to see.
The nurses had big signs on everything. Socks. Underwear. Today is Harry’s Birthday. The place had that old man smell, as musty as a root cellar. It was the guys who still knew what was happenin’ that I felt bad for. One old guy was wearin’ his service medals and talkin’ about a 1928 Chevy he’d bought for a grand. Another guy kept drummin’ the edge of the table with his fingertips. He was wearin’ a trucker’s hat and yellow tinted aviator glasses, with the hat tilted down over one eye like a badass.
And then there was Maurice. After all he’d been through and all he’d seen, there he was, parked in a chair in a Habs bathrobe and slippers.
Maurice seemed like somethin’ out of a fairy tale. He was wearin’ a porkpie hat and starin’ out the window at a dusty clay road that looked like a roll of dried blood. It made me think of all the hand tapes I’d kept in a box, cut off and stained. After each fight, I’d add the name of the fighter and the date in ink, and they became records, really, of wins and losses, and wars that never shoulda been.
The nurse told me Maurice was having trouble with his legs and couldn’t walk right. He was real hateful to the other guys, she said, he’d call them washerwomen or ignorant spudheads.
I looked at Maurice and said, “What’s happenin’ man?”
He shugged and hauled himself up in his chair. Pretty soon, it all came out. Maurice said that a few years back, his wife, the tomato, took up with some skinny accountant who looked like Howdy Doody. They were skatin’ around, meetin’ in cars, makin’ a monkey out of Maurice.
Maurice said he tried to shake it, but it stuck like sand in his shorts, so he cut the brake lines to the guy’s car. You know the end of that story: Howdy Doody in a wooden nightshirt.
An old farmer in wraparound sunglasses shouted, “They said they’d build a trout pond.”
“Gout?’’ said his buddy. “Who the hell wants gout?”
Some hayseed with mud on his boots arrived to see an oldtimer named Berle. His shirt was open to the waist like a flamenco dancer. He wore his hair in a style from the fifties, short on the sides with a greasy slip in front. His eyes looked half-crazy.
“Look at that fuckin’ rhubarb,” Maurice cursed out loud.
I looked at Maurice and shook my head. He had a rubber ball in his hand that he kept squeezin’ like he was pumpin’ blood to his heart over and over to keep himself alive. Maurice was always cool as ice, shootin’ at nuns or cuttin’ up pigs, but I could tell by the way he was squeezin’ that ball that it weren’t all right.
I never had much brains to work with, but I know that life is a card game. At some point, your luck runs out. The cute moves, the clever shit, it all gets old. Stanley Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin, got himself shot to death at twenty-four for being a wiseass. Men, you see, always believe they’re gettin’ away with it: the missed anniversaries, the jackass excuses. It’s like gettin’ a paycheque with no taxes taken off. Somehow, they think the dough is theirs and no one will come lookin’ but they are wrong because women are the most unforgivin’ tax collectors on Earth. Women keep track of every nickel, every dime of deceit, and women are just waitin’ to collect. Probably when the kids are grown or the house is paid. Then it will all come down: every hurt, every grudge as bad as the Goddamn Irish. And she may not leave in body, just in mind, movin’ to a place she’d worked for, and it would be her place not his because he weren’t never there to build it.
“You know, man,” I said since there were no moves left for me or him or Butch. “You’re just tryin’ to get through life and there are lunatics all along the way friggin’ you up. No wonder I punched so many guys in the mouth. Half the bastards probably deserved it.”
Maurice nodded like he’d heard it all before, and then he said, eyes as blank as a dead man, “Amen, brother.” »