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Authors: Robert Lipsyte

The Contender

BOOK: The Contender
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The Contender
Robert Lipsyte

FOR MY MOTHER AND FATHER

Contents

1

HE WAITED ON THE STOOP until twilight, pretending to watch…

2

HE WOKE UP IN HIS aunt’s bed, blinking against the…

3

DONATELLI CIRCLED SLOWLY around him, his hand on his square…

4

“THE WHITE MAN’S got his foot on your throat,” roared…

5

THE GRASS WAS SPONGY with dew and the air was…

6

HE BOUNCED UP the steps two at a time, friendly…

7

HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE milled under the marquee of Madison Square…

8

“MONDAY NIGHT AND dressed so fine,” said Major, leaning against…

9

THE BIRDS WERE GOSSIPING in the trees. There goes Alfred,…

10

LEFT…LEFT…SNAP it out, Alfred,…left…right…right…left…

11

MAJOR SAW HIM FIRST. “There’s the champ.”

12

FAR, FAR AWAY, the rattlesnake was buzzing, short bursts, time…

13

LEFT…LEFT…SNAP it out…drive in…mix it up…

14

AT 5:30 A.M. HIS eyelids snapped open. It was gray and…

15

AUNT PEARL JUMPED up. “Your face, Alfred, it’s all…you’re…

16

GRIFFIN WAS LIGHT and fast, his gloves were a red…

17

UNCLE WILSON WAVED his drumstick. “Two in a row, now…

18

BARNES WASN’T AS strong as Rivera or as quick as…

19

“YOU ARE NERVOUS,” said Henry.

20

AUNT PEARL’S HANDS were clenched and her eyes were wide…

 

H
E WAITED ON THE STOOP
until twilight, pretending to watch the sun melt into the dirty gray Harlem sky. Up and down the street transistor radios clicked on and hummed into the sour air. Men dragged out card tables, laughing. Cars cruised through the garbage and broken glass, older guys showing off their Friday night girls. Another five minutes, he thought. I’ll give James another five minutes.

“You still here, Alfred?” Aunt Pearl came out on the stoop, her round face damp from the kitchen.

He tried to sound casual. “You know James. He better hurry or we’ll miss the first picture.”

“He’s never been this late, Alfred. Why don’t you go upstairs and call his house? Maybe he’s sick.”

“James ain’t sick.” Alfred stood up.

“How you know that?” Her eyes narrowed. “You know where he’s at?”

“Maybe.”

“He’s hangin’ out with those worthless punks, ain’t he, Alfred? Maybe you just better…Alfred!”

But he was already off the stoop and moving fast, his sneakers slapping on the sidewalk. Packs of little kids, raggedy and skinny, raced past him along the gutter’s edge, kicking empty beer cans ahead of them. Used to do that, too, when we were little, he thought. One thing I could always do better than James. I was always faster. Big deal. He slowed down.

He stopped at the mouth of the alley, and took a deep breath. What am I, James’ shadow or something? I don’t need him. But he marched to the basement steps, and plunged down into the clubroom.

Hollis and Sonny were sprawled on the long, sagging couch, snapping their fingers to a scratchy record. Major was flexing his arm muscles at the cracked mirror over the mop sink. Only James, trying to read a magazine in the dim light of the naked bulb, looked up.

“Hey, man, what’s happening?”

“Nothing much,” said Alfred. “Ready to go to the movies?”

“Not unless it’s free night,” said James.

“I got some money,” said Alfred.

Major turned slowly and let his muscles relax. “How much you got, Alfred?”

Sonny and Hollis stopped snapping.

“I said, ‘How much you got, Alfred?’”

“Nothing,” mumbled Alfred, staring down at the tips of his sneakers.

“You the only one workin’, and you got paid today,” said Major. “What you got?”

“Gave it to my aunt,” said Alfred.

“‘Gave it to my aunt,’” mimicked Major. “You such a good sweet boy. Old Uncle Alfred.”

Sonny giggled, and Hollis grinned, buck-toothed. James looked away.

“Don’t you know this club has got dues?” Major folded his arms across his bulging T-shirt.

Hollis leaned back in the couch. “Go collect the dues, Sonny. Turn Alfred upside down and make the dues fall out his pockets.”

“‘Turn Alfred upside down,’” echoed Sonny, blankly. He stood up, taller than any of them and almost as heavily muscled as Major. “Upside down.”

“Hold on,” said James. “Alfred’s my guest. I
invited him to come down.”

Alfred took a step backwards, nearly knocking over an old wooden chair. “Let’s go, James.”

Major swaggered across the room, the metal tips on his pointed shoes clicking on the concrete floor. “How much them Jews give you for slavin’, Uncle Alfred?”

“Jews squeeze the eagle till it screams,” said Hollis. “The eagle screams, ‘Faster, Alfred, sweep that floor, you skinny nigger.’”

“They been all right to me,” said Alfred.

“How come you ain’t workin’ right now?” said Major, circling until he stood between Alfred and the door.

“Grocery’s closed.”

“At eight o’clock?”

“They close early on Friday to go to synagogue.”

“They go pray for more dollars,” said Hollis. Even James smiled.

“No,” said Alfred. “The Epsteins are very religious. They don’t even touch money after sundown on Fridays.”

“That’s a lie,” said Major.

“No. They even leave money in the cash
register so they won’t have to…” He bit his lip. Water dripped into the mop sink, small explosions in the suddenly silent room.

“Let’s get it,” whispered Hollis.

“Show us,” said Major.

“No, I—”

“You just a slave,” sneered Major. “You was born a slave. You gonna die a slave.”

“‘Slave,’” echoed Sonny.

“I see you now, boy, old and stooped,” said Major, shuffling to the center of the room. “Old and stooped. You be scratching your head and saying, ‘Yassuh, Mistuh Lou, lemme brush them hairs offen your coat; yassuh, Mistuh Jake, I be pleased iffen you ’low me to wash your car.’”

Sonny and Hollis began to laugh as Major shuffled around the dim, warm room, his muscular arms dangling like a monkey’s, his eyes rolling, his black head bobbing in ugly imitation of an old-time Negro servant. “I can see you now, Alfred, good old Uncle Alfred. ‘Yassuh, Mistuh Ben, I be so grat-i-fied iffen you’d kick me now and again, show how much you white folks love us.’”

The laughter rose, high-pitched and nervous. Alfred peeked at their faces, black and
sweating in the semicircle around him. Hollis and Sonny, grinning and nodding. James’ chubby face was set and unsmiling as Major continued his imitation, scratching his nose, pouting his lips, and shambling loosely like a puppet at the end of jerking strings.

Alfred’s hands were wet.

“You come on with us,” said James. “You know just where to—”

“We don’t need him if he’s scared,” said Hollis.

“He isn’t scared, not him,” said James. “Look, Alfred, you don’t owe them anything.”

“They gave me a job,” said Alfred, surprised at how far away his own voice sounded.

“Big job,” said Hollis.

“Yassuh,” yelled Major, shuffling back into the center. “‘Mistuh Lou, I been sweepin’ out your store forty year now, how ’bout lettin’ me de-li-ver groceries on the bi-cy-cle oncet in a while?’”

Alfred swallowed hard. “They was the only ones gave me a job when I quit school,” he yelled.

They fell quiet again.

“You come on, Alfred,” said James, softly.
“Whitey been stealing from us for three hundred years. We just going to take some back.”

“No.”

“You could stay outside, be lookout,” said James.

Major shouldered in between them. “You coming?”

Alfred shook his head.

“Let’s go,” said Major, moving toward the door. He turned at the first step, Sonny and Hollis at his heels. “James?”

“Let’s go to the movies, James,” said Alfred.

“That’s all you ever want to do,” said James.

They stared at each other.

“You coming, James, or you gonna be a slave, too?”

James turned away. He followed the others up the steps to the street. The door banged shut behind them. Fool, thought Alfred. Had to open your mouth. He kicked the chair across the room.

“Good kick, man. Where’s everybody going in such a hurry?” Henry limped down into the clubroom, dragging his crippled left leg, the perpetual grin spread across his skinny face.

Alfred shrugged.

“Play some cards?”

“I gotta go, Henry.”

“Hey, Alfred, you know what I’m doing now? Mr. Donatelli, the fight manager, he’s letting me…Where you going?”

“Out.”

The stench of wine and garbage still hung in the moist June air. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his tight blue slacks, watching the cars cruise past. Another year, he thought, be eighteen, able to drive. Sure. On grocery-boy pay. Slave. The bells of the ice-cream truck jangled across the street, and a sudden roar burst from a dozen transistor radios. Somebody must have hit a home run. The Epsteins would be in their synagogue now, wearing skull caps and praying. He started to walk toward his house, then stopped. Aunt Pearl would be sitting on the stoop, waving the fan the undertaker gave away at summer funerals. She would ask him why he wasn’t with James. She would know if he was lying. He went back down to the clubroom.

Henry was punching at his reflection in the cracked mirror. He dropped his hands when he saw Alfred, and the big grin turned sheepish.

“Shadowboxing,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Mr. Donatelli’s letting me work around the gym, take care of the gloves and wash the mouthpieces.”

“Big job.”

“You ought to come up, Alfred. Willie Streeter’s training now. He’s going to fight in Madison Square Garden next week.”

“Yeah.”

“Lotta guys come up and train,” said Henry.

“Yeah.”

“Hey, man, where you—”

Out on the street again, he idly watched a green-and-white police cruiser slide by, a thick, hairy white arm hanging out of the open window. Alfred stiffened. The burglar alarm, the new silent burglar alarm installed at Epsteins’ the other night. How could I forget about that? They’d never hear it go off. It would ring in the detectives’ office, and they’d call the police right away. He began to run. Got to get to James, got to tell James. But the radio inside the police car began to crackle and sputter, as if it had read his mind. The car suddenly picked up speed.

Silently, a second police car joined the first. Then both wheeled around the corner, roaring into noise and light, motors growling, headlights glaring, sirens howling. Alfred slowed down as hundreds of people came off stoops and street corners, and poured out of bars toward four cruisers parked behind Epsteins’. The doors of the police cars were open, and the red roof lights were blinking.

He heard shouts, and a voice yelled, “Stop, stop.” A shot rang out. The warning shot.

He started running again, toward the shot, but the crowd thickened in front of him. “They caught one,” someone yelled from an upstairs window. The crowd surged forward, sweeping Alfred along. He tried to push through, but the crowd was too tightly packed.

“The Man,” mumbled a voice off to his left. “Always lookin’ to put his foot on a black throat.”

“You sayin’ the truth, brother.”

“Only reason po-lice up here to watch out for them white stores.”

“So right.”

Police car doors slammed shut, and the cruisers drove away, their sirens on. The crowd
began to drift back to their stoops, to the drinks they had left on bars. Alfred passed an old man who lived in his building, and grabbed his arm.

“You see who they caught?”

The old man shook his head. “They hustled him away too fast.”

“Just one?”

“A couple got away.”

Alfred pushed his way out of the crowd, and onto a side street. He had to think. The three who got away would split up and hide. If James made it, there would be only one place for him to go. Alfred circled toward the park, his hands in his pockets, his head low. He kept his feet moving slowly. Police cars cruised by, and he felt eyes staring out at him. Keep walking slow.

It was quiet in the park. Couples were drinking and whispering on the grass, and the transistors were turned down. He saw the rock, big as a truck, outlined against a purple-black sky, and his feet moved faster, over the small rocks, over the low thicket of bushes. He dropped to his knees and wriggled through the tangle of stunted, twisted trees that hid the opening beneath the huge rock. On his elbows,
he crawled into the cave.

He had forgotten how small it was. He could barely sit up. The thin layer of loose dirt on the flat rock floor was cool against his palms, and his head touched the jagged rock ceiling. He drew his knees up to his chest, and held them. He slowed his breathing, and strained his ears for James.

He tried to remember the first time he had been in the cave. Ten years ago. James was there, too. He was hardly ever in the cave without James—Alfred squeezed against the back, James up front, poking out his head to see if the coast was clear. They were just little kids then, running away from older boys, like Major, who tried to hold them up for nickels on the street. They’d break and run when they saw Major coming, circle around till they were out of sight, then sprint into the park. They’d scramble through the underbrush into the cave, shaking and out of breath, clapping their hands over each other’s mouths to muffle their laughter. After a while, James might start his imitations. He would be Mrs. McCormick, their public school principal, pressing his lips together until they almost disappeared, fluttering his eyelids.
“Chil-dren. With-out ed-u-ca-tion man is a savage beast.” They’d collapse into hiccuping laughter.

And then James might screw up his face and make his eyes bulge, like Rick, the white college boy who ran the summer program. “Gotta hang in there, guys. Can’t lose if you hang in there.” They liked Rick, who showed them how professional basketball players took foul shots, and how to throw curve balls. They were getting good, too, until Major and Sonny and Hollis began hanging around the playground, making remarks and kicking balls out of their hands. One summer Rick just didn’t come back.

A twig snapped outside.

“James?” he whispered.

There was a soft, scampering sound, then quiet again. Squirrel.

James had found the cave the summer they were rock hunting. James had a library book on rocks, and they spent days just wandering around the park, filling their pockets with little rocks that matched the pictures in the book. For a while they kept their rocks in the cave, and then James took them home. He was going
to arrange them in a cardboard box and bring them to school in September. James’ father came home drunk one night and dropped all the rocks down the air shaft.

Far away, a police siren whined. Alfred shivered. C’mon, James, make it, man, get away. He moved his head, and dirt fell off the ceiling of the cave into his eyes and mouth.

He remembered the night his own father left home forever. He was ten. James sat with him then, in the cave. They talked, and it made him feel a little better. And James was there three years later when Alfred’s mother died of pneumonia in the city hospital, sitting with him all night, whispering, “Gonna be all right, Alfred. I’m gonna stick by you. We’re partners, right?” Then they crawled out of the cave, and James walked him back to his new home with Aunt Pearl and her three little daughters.

C’mon, James, where are you? Alfred’s legs began to cramp and stiffen. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

James tried to talk him into staying in school. “Can’t get a good job without that piece of paper, Alfred.” James was going to be an engineer, and build things. Alfred could help
him. They’d make a fortune and drive back to the neighborhood in a white Cadillac, and go right to the cave, crawl on the ground in their silk suits, and pull out any little kids they found in there and buy them something really fine. Never happen now. I quit school, and after all that talk, James quits four months later.

BOOK: The Contender
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