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EXCERPT 9, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam looks for the good life in the direction of trouble in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

 

After the meal, Johnny lit a cigar. Bob Nash and his girl Sheila went downstairs to the piano bar and Harry decided to go home. Lambert told Johnny he’d see him at the Bayside and departed with the jiggling, redheaded Gloria in tow.

Johnny joined Bob Nash in the piano bar. They didn’t say much to each other; just Bob’s same old line about how Johnny could hold his state title for another ten years, easy. How there was no one out there that could touch him. Always avoiding the question about any big fights or the chance to get a shot against a national contender.

Johnny had a good load on and he began to flirt with Bob’s blond bombshell. He could have left with her, but that night he was more interested in business than pleasure. He was only flirting with the broad to get Bob Nash’s goat. Most of all, he wanted to think about making corn whiskey. A young fighter he knew name of Big Cat Edwards had bragged about making corn whiskey and bathtub gin good enough for a true boozehound.  At least that’s what he’d said one night, and Big Cat wasn’t the type to bullshit. Johnny believed him, anyway, and you just had to go with your hunches.

Around 11:45 Beam said his goodbyes, pumping Bob Nash’s hand and maybe squeezing a bit too hard and planting a big smooch on Sheila’s full, fleshy lips. The parking lot was dark and quiet as he went to his car, the only sound the dull clack of his heels on the frozen pavement. He could see the lift bridge looming in the vague light. The car door moaned as it slid open and the wind bit at the back of his neck. The leather seats were ice-stiff. The throbbing in his head had faded into the background. The ignition fired and the engine roared to life. Johnny looked out at the frozen grayness of the bay and felt like good things were about to happen. For some odd reason, it seemed life was about to start going his way.

Bay City was dark and dirty as it always was. Sooty snow and greasy black ice filled the gutters and clung to the curbs. Hunks of paper and flattened plastic cups danced and pinwheeled across the pavement, driven by the snarling wind.

Johnny considered what it might be like if he still lived in this town and shook his head. All he could remember about his childhood here was a couple of sunny spring days, just a few months before he and his mother had left for Minnesota.

Warm days in the springtime were a rarity on the shores of the big lake; that’s why you remembered them. Having a dying rat flying at your face was another reason to remember.

His mama had been feeling good that day and she’d let him go off with some of the neighborhood boys, even though they were a little older, white and scruffy. The group spent the afternoon walking along the railroad tracks that ran through town, looking to smack rats with a hockey stick. They had two sticks and plenty of targets.

The system worked like this: the older boys held the sticks and walked alongside the tracks while Johnny and another boy walked through the weeds in an attempt to flush out the rodents. When a rat scurried in front of a stick bearer, he attempted to swat the filthy beast, a slap shot being the preferred method.

On Johnny’s day in the sun, the boys developed a new twist to the game: “Hit it at the pickaninny.”

He never forgot the sight of those filthy things flying at his face after a hard slap shot, sharp teeth sticking out like fangs. Enough to make him afraid of rats forever.

     Goddamn state boxing champion afraid of rats…

The memories made him feel the same things again: the dread, the fear—like he was a scared little kid again. He squeezed the steering wheel a little harder and inhaled deeply, felt his boxing wounds throb.

(To be continued)

T.K. O’Neill’s crime novel Fly in the Milk is available on ebook at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 9, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam looks for the good life in all the wrong places in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

The scotches arrived shortly thereafter, followed closely by Lambert and the buxom redhead. Lambert sat down next to Harry, who slid as far away as he could get, wedging himself against the window.

The redhead slid in next to Johnny.

He didn’t budge an inch.

“Hey Johnny,” Lambert said, gesturing toward the woman. “Hope you don’t mind me bringing Gloria, here, she really wanted to meet you. She likes boxers.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gloria,” Johnny said in a mellow baritone.

“The same, I’m sure,” Gloria said, smiling, her lips crooked.

Her large mouth and large teeth, red lipstick and hair were joined together in unison, shouting, Fuck me.  At least that’s the way Johnny was reading it.

“That cut on your eye must be nasty, Johnny,” Gloria said, hormone-induced concern oozing from her husky voice as her long red fingernails slid over his shoulder. “And this awful bump…”

“I’ll be all right, darling. I’m a big boy. I recover fast.”

“I just bet you do,” she said, slowly sliding her hand from his shoulder.

“We just came over to say we enjoyed the fight, Johnny,” Lambert said, slightly slurred. “Didn’t we, Gloria?”

“Of course, Jimmy—it was a wonderful fight,” she said, admiration flowing like clover honey from her big browns.

“I thought you were gonna put the guy out there a couple of times,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike and letting the smoke disperse in a cloud around his head. “You had him on the ropes more than once.”

“Sparks was tough, he knew all the tricks,” Harry Sloan snapped. “He’s had a lot of fights.”

Then the waitress returned and they hadn’t even looked at the menus.  Johnny sipped on his scotch and told her to come back in a minute. “Thanks for the drink, Jimmy,” he said, warmly.

“My pleasure, Johnny.  You deserve it after a fight like that. That guy Sparks was pretty tough, eh?”

“Plenty tough, Jimmy. He hit like a kick from a horse and he fought dirty. You saw the bastard head-butt me, didn’t you?”

“That stuff is low down, all right,” Lambert said.

“You ever been kicked by a horse, Johnny?” asked Gloria, her eyes twinkling as she elbowed him lightly in the ribs.

“Can’t say as I have ma’am,” Johnny said like John Wayne; his grin so deep it made Gloria nearly swoon. “But I can well imagine. I’ve been hit by many a horse out on the football field.”

Gloria giggled and fell into him, brushing her breasts against his thick-muscled arm.

“Well Johnny, just wanted to say hello,” Lambert said, staring at Gloria, his lips and eyes narrowing.  “We better get back to Nash before he thinks we’re plotting something.” Lambert liked Johnny. A man’s color had never meant anything to him, as long as his money was green. That was one of his little jokes.

“Listen Jimmy,” the boxer said. “You got a few minutes? I’ve got some things I want to discuss with you.  Some business ideas I’ve been tossing around. Things I think you’ll be interested in.”

Lambert was always ready to listen to a business proposition. He had irons in many fires and a diversity of investments. As well as bars in Bay City, he owned several establishments in remote rural areas, boondocks buildings on dark tree-lined back roads that housed after-hours clubs. Some called them blind pigs, others, roadhouses. “Good citizens” called them the scourge of the county.

Whatever you called them, these establishments housed after-hours drinking, gambling and, sometimes, prostitution. A local legend had it that carloads of women would occasionally show up at the clubs unannounced. Girls who worked the Wisconsin strip-bar circuit and wanted to supplement their income with a little lying-around money—or so the story went. Just this possibility, the vague dream that someday this might happen while you were in the building, was enough to keep the honky-tonks hopping with horny hayseeds on many a dark and frigid night. These were the places that held Johnny’s interest. Something he’d seen in Chicago seemed just right for such establishments.

He’d learned a lot in Chi-town. It had taken getting drunk with his Uncle Charlie (Mama’s brother) to find out about his daddy. Mom had never said much about his father, summing up his existence with: “He was a good man who died when your were three.” Old Charlie hadn’t wanted to spill the beans but he was too honest a person to hold back. At least after he and Johnny had knocked off a gallon of Red Mountain wine. Then the floodgates had opened and the story came rushing out like rainwater down the side of a mountain.

The truth was a shock to Johnny at first, but also a relief of sorts. Here was something to explain the parts of him that had railed against his mother’s teachings in spite of his good intentions. These traits clearly came from his daddy’s side of the family, the people his mama never wanted him to know about. The part of him that, among other things, wanted to make moonshine—in the tradition of the old Chicago gangsters—and sell it in Lambert’s joints.

“What kind of things you talking, Johnny?” Lambert asked.

“I bet you sell a lot of liquor, what with all your taverns—right, Jimmy?”  Johnny smiled, eyes twinkling.

“That’s right, Johnny—quite a bit, I s’pose….”

“What if I could save you lots of dough on the booze? Would that interest you?”

“Of course it would, Johnny. But I don’t see how you could do that. I mean, you know, you should see the rotgut I sell already.” His snaky body folded forward into a raspy, cackling laugh.

“I can beat any price you get—guaranteed,” Johnny said.  “Good quality stuff, too. Is there maybe some time we can discuss this in more detail, Jimmy?”

“Say, listen ah, Johnny,” Lambert said. “We gotta get back over there with Bob. But how about if you come over to the Bayside tonight, say about midnight?  I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll talk business. Just tell the bartender you’re there to see me, and he’ll show you back to my office. I’ll tell him to expect you, so he ah… doesn’t get… isn’t…  Ah fuck, I’ll just tell him Johnny Beam is coming.”

“I can do that, Jimmy. In the meantime, give some thought to the things I said, I think this could be a good deal for both of us.”

Lambert stood up, holding his cocktail glass and coughing. His lips curled down at the edges as Gloria continued to flirt. Impatience creased his shaggy eyebrows.

“Sure nice to meet you, Mr. Beam,” Gloria said, putting her hand on Johnny’s large forearm as it rested on the table.

“My pleasure, Gloria honey,” Beam said, oozing warmth.

Lambert coughed into his fist and walked awkwardly away.

Gloria got up and followed slowly behind, her heart and just about everything else she possessed full of lust for Johnny Beam.

“Jesus, I’m glad he’s gone,” Harry Sloan said, sliding away from the window and flexing his shoulders. “And what’s this shit you’re feeding him about cheap booze?”

“I know some people in the wholesale liquor business,” Beam lied, stretching his arms along the back of the booth and watching Gloria wiggle away and glance back at him. “Down in Minneapolis, that’s all. People I met while I was in college. I get around, you know.” This was partially true. He knew some guys that ripped off delivery trucks.

“You were only down there for a year.”

“I make friends in a hurry, Harry, you know that.”

“I sure do.  Like that broad with Lambert. She was looking for a hunk of dark meat tonight.”

“And I sure aims to please, Mr. Manager bozz.”

“Shut up, Johnny, and look at your menu.  Here comes the goddamn waitress.”

“I know what I want.”

The restaurant filled up and stayed that way. The grill smoked. Cocktail glasses jingled and the room hummed. The kitchen pumped out steaks and chops and lobster and the famous shish kebabs that were set aflame in full view, the white-coated kitchen staff carrying the skewers to the tables like burning swords, orange flames shimmering in the darkened windows.

Over the course of the evening, admirers sent drinks to Johnny’s booth.

Others in the restaurant wondered who the nigger was.

(To be continued)

T.K. O’Neill’s crime novel Fly in the Milk is available on ebook at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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“(T.K. O’Neill) throws worlds of hurt at his ne’er-do-well characters… in the spirit of Raymond Chandler… his writing process builds on trouble… the underside of the American Dream… a perfect example of noir…” (MMM Newspapers)

EXCERPT 8, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam meets up with Zenith’s underworld in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

 

The Flame was Zenith’s premier restaurant. Situated on the waterfront with a sparkling view of the bay, it featured fine food, a casual but well-dressed atmosphere and the reputation as the place to be seen in the port city.

Johnny and Harry Sloan arrived in separate cars, one behind the other. Harry in his brown Chevy sedan and Johnny in a dark blue 1956 Olds four-door hardtop. They parked in the lot and walked together towards the two-story, white block building, FLAME running vertically down the front wall in red neon.

A biting wind whipped across the ice-covered bay. The temperature hovered slightly above zero. The cold helped Johnny revive. Numbed the pain in his face a little. That and the three Empirin with codeine tablets he’d swallowed.

The fighter and his manager went through the glass doors together, glanced briefly into the dark piano bar on the left, where voices and smoke mingled with soft lights and the murmur of slow jazz. Moving up the carpeted staircase, Johnny peered out the smoked-glass at the blinking lights of Bay City, across the water, the town where he was born.  He smiled at the memory of his mother, how she’d kept the secrets of his birth locked up inside her for all those years. How he’d found out the truth from his people in Chicago, after the war. Aunts and uncles who’d laughed as they told him the story one sticky summer night over jugs of red wine.

Johnny and Harry reached the top of the stairs and their shoes hit the thick burgundy carpet. Melodic mood music and low voices backed by the tinkling of ice in glasses soothed Johnny’s soul.

They gave their coats to the pretty brunette coat-check girl who was smiling behind the dark wood counter. The maitre d’ greeted Johnnby name and with a smile. Several diners turned from their tables to look at the victorious pugilist. Some were fans; some were gawkers. Johnny was well known and, for the most part, well liked in town. He smiled and waved and responded politely to various congratulations.

Promoter Bob Nash was sitting in a black leather booth along the wall with Jimmy Lambert, the owner of several taverns in Wisconsin and a big fight fan. Both men had a large-breasted woman at their side, a blond for Nash and a redhead for Lambert. Nash, a Manhattan glass in his hand, nodded at Johnny and Sloan and pointed to an empty table nearby.

Johnny was glad to see Lambert there. He had a few things he wanted to discuss with the man. Some ideas he had. Thought the two of them could make some money together.

“Your table is ready Mr. Beam,” the maitre d’ said, respectfully. “View of the harbor, as always.”

“Thanks, Kenneth, I appreciate it,” Johnny said, flashing the million-dollar smile and slipping Kenneth a five spot.

Kenneth bowed slightly, “Right this way, gentlemen.”

“What about Bob, Johnny?”  Harry whispered.

“He can come over to our table if he wants to talk, Harry. I ain’t gonna tag after him like a puppy dog.”

Johnny smiled as they walked by Nash.

Bob Nash looked up at him, quizzically. “Johnny… Harry…” he said, wiping his mouth with a white linen napkin.

“Nice fight, Johnny. How you holding up?” Lambert said as the fighter and his manager lingered.

“Fine, Jimmy, fine. Right as rain all the time, you know. I just need a nice steak and a stiff drink and I’ll be as good as new.”

“Let me buy you a drink, Johnny,” Lambert said.

“That would be real nice of you, Jimmy. Why don’t you come over to our table a little later? If you got a minute, I’ve got some business ideas I’d like to discuss with you.”

“You bet, Johnny. What are you drinking?”

“I’ll have a scotch,” Johnny said, tugging on the cuff of his fine white shirt.

“Make that two scotches,” Harry Sloan said, with a wink.

“Sure Harry, I’ll buy you a drink,” Lambert said, grinning like a jackal. “Soon as you pay off your debt from football season.”

“Come on, now Jimmy,” Sloan said. “This is no time for that stuff.  Haven’t I been good?”

“Yeah, you have been good, Harry,” Lambert said, laughing and wrinkling his eyebrows at the redhead sitting next to him. “Just kidding around. Two scotches it is.” He spied a waitress and gestured in her direction.

Johnny kept smiling as he glided over to the table where Kenneth was patiently waiting, manicured fingers holding two glossy red menus.

Harry Sloan followed behind, his face slightly flushed. He tugged at his green, bargain-basement sport coat and sat down across from Beam, who was gazing distractedly out the window.

Kenneth placed the menus in front of them. “The waitress will be with you shortly. Enjoy your meal.”

“Why did you go and invite that bastard Lambert over, Johnny,” Sloan whined, shifting uncomfortably. “You know I don’t like him.”

“Sounds like you like him enough to bet with him,” Johnny said, grinning.

Harry saw through the smile to the fatigue on Johnny’s face. “Christ, that was way back in football season, Johnny. I haven’t done anything lately.”

“Lambert must be a pretty good guy to let you slide this long.”

“I’ve been paying him regularly, for the Christ sake. And it sure as hell isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it’s that he’s smart. Smart enough to know that if there’s any rough stuff, he’ll never get his money. And he’ll go to jail, besides.”

“For assaulting you?  I don’t know, Harry, cops just may congratulate him. That is if any of them ever bought a used car from you.”

“Very funny, champ.  You should go on the stage.  And there’s one leaving any minute now.”

Beam laughed softly at Harry’s same old routine, his permanent response when the joke was on him. But on this occasion, Harry was right. In this town, too much violence and the cops shut you down in a hurry. The way Johnny saw it, if you stayed away from the stupid strong-arm stuff, you could get away with a lot around here.

A busboy in a white linen coat came to the table and poured ice water from a silver pitcher into short-stemmed crystal glasses. Johnny drained his glass before the boy was finished pouring Harry’s.

“More, sir?” the boy asked.

Johnny liked being called sir. “Please,” he said.

(To be continued)

T.K. O’Neill’s crime novel Fly in the Milk is available on ebook at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 7, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam looks for after-fight thrills in this final excerpt from Chapter 1 ofF Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

 

Those were the days, Johnny thought. Chicago. That had been the way to live. Only it was way too big down there. He really liked it up north here in Zenith. This town had always been good to him. At least when you compared it to what else was out there. At least the places that he’d seen.

He’d thought about Florida after the war but it was too damn hot down there. He’d grown up in northern Minnesota and his blood was like a Finlander’s. Yep, you put Zenith together with Bay City, his place of birth across the bay in Wisconsin, and the place was just big enough. Big enough to contain all kinds of trouble and small enough that the trouble was easy to find. You had everything you needed in the Twin Ports. Yes sir, there were some strong positives to life up here, predominantly white citizenry or not.

The question now forming in the back of his aching head was how to bring a little of Chicago’s high living here to Zenith and cash in on his fleeting fling with fame. One way or another, this boxing gig was going to end someday. More likely sooner than later. There just had to be some elements of the Chicago life that he could incorporate into this locale. Some source of income other than getting the shit pounded out of you for chump change. No way he was going back to being the neighborhood nigger.

He was reaching for his coat when Harry Sloan came bursting back into the room, red-faced and ebullient, a large unlit cigar in his hand and a fresh one burning in his mouth. “Here you go, Johnny, victory cigar from Havana. World’s finest, compliments of Bob Nash.”

“Slow down, Harry, you’re like a whirling dervish. What’s that you’ve got there, a carrot from Bob Nash for one of the horses in his stable?”

Nash was the fight promoter and Johnny had always believed he was screwing the fighters one way or another, undercounting the gate or padding expenses or what have you. He wasn’t driving a Cadillac for nothing. But, giving credit where credit was due, Nash had always treated Johnny right. At least right enough to stay on his good side. And Nash had influence in this town. Had the keys to some of the doors that Johnny wanted to walk through. Nash knew the folks with money and the folks who liked to play—the gamblers and the ladies’ men and the lonely squares that needed someplace to belong.

So Johnny always smiled real nice and made with the jokes around Bob Nash. And hell, Nash wasn’t really that bad once you got used to him. He knew plenty of women who liked to party, and that was a redeeming factor in itself.

“Thanks, Harry,” Johnny said, taking the cigar and flashing his perfect set of pearly whites. “Grab me another beer, will you please? Where is Bob, anyway? He stuck his head in here for a few seconds, and then left. Didn’t seem that thrilled about the fight, if you ask me.”

“Whattaya mean, Johnny?” Harry said, handing over a brown bottle of beer. “Come on. He’s fine. Come on—Jesus man. Good crowd wasn’t there?  You’re always good here; you know that. Bob’s good, too, you know. He wants to meet us at the Flame later. Says he’s got some babes on the line—you know Bob. He wants to talk a little business too, he says. I’m positive he’s got some plans for you.” He paused and stared out into the hall. “You mean he didn’t say anything at all when he popped in?”

“Yeah, he said ‘good fight’ and all that shit.  But he just said it and left. I was getting the tape cut and his head jerked right in and out of here like he had a nervous twitch.”

“He must be preoccupied, thinking about your future.”

“That must be it. Yassuh, bozz, yassuh.”

“Oh, come on, Johnny, ease off,” Harry said, wrinkling his eyebrows. “We’ll go to the Flame. I’ll buy you a steak.  A couple of drinks and you’ll be good as new.”

“Since when do you buy me a steak, Harry?”

“Since tonight. My vote of confidence for our future together.”

“You’re a real prince. What’d you do, sell a car today?”

“Two to be exact. You know I couldn’t afford steaks on the money you pay me. Maybe tube steaks.”

Johnny laughed; his eyes twinkled. “You always said you were doing this for the love of boxing, Harry—the ‘sweet science,’ right? And of course you saw great talent and potential in me.”

“And that is still correct, Mr. Beam. And if you’ll down that beer and grab your coat we can get to someplace where it doesn’t smell like jockstraps and assholes floating in liniment, and they serve real drinks and thick, juicy steaks.”

“I’m ready for that,” Johnny said, as he thought more about his plans.

Yes sir, it sure did pay to be nice to some people. That’s what he liked about living in Minnesota; there were always a lot of nice people out there ready to help you out with things.

T.K. O’Neill’s crime novel Fly in the Milk is available on ebook at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 6, FLY IN THE MILK

The fight was over, Johnny was pretty sure he won, but the thrill was gone. From Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

Prizefighting. Only what exactly was the prize? The money wasn’t shit. Just enough to impress a few women for a couple of nights. And when it came down to guys like Sparks… that kind of fighter, this kind of fight… it was a different world. One that Johnny Beam wasn’t very fond of.

And a distant voice in his head was shouting that he was too old to change.

Truth was, he’d been adjusting to one thing or another all his goddamn life. Whether it was school or the army or white society in general, it didn’t matter. Black man in a white world had to bend or go down for the ten-count. It seemed about time that Johnny Beam—light heavyweight champion of Minnesota—started calling his own shots. Let the world adjust to him for a while, he’d been ducking and dodging long enough.

The fighters got watered down and toweled off and their cuts were treated. Sparks was going to need quite a few stitches and there was a murmur that maybe the fight should have been stopped. “Never seen so much blood,” said some.

Ernie was putting a bandage on the damaged eyebrow. All Johnny could think about besides the throbbing in his face was how badly he wanted to get out of this lousy shit hole of an armory. Hard to believe this was the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, had performed just a week before their fatal plane crash. Christ, they had Jeeps in here just like the ones in Korea. Goddamn military trucks, too. And all the assholes out there in the seats—shit—it was way too much like the army.

Sitting there feeling the pain in his hands and head, he recalled the months of training in cold, empty gyms. And all that running outside in the snow and ice so they could put up a ring in a goddamn military garage and come out on a frozen night to see two niggers beat the shit out of each other. But hell, he’d won. He’d beaten the guy; he could feel it. They weren’t gonna come up with some bum decision in this town. He was a hero here, Negro or not. They loved him. He’d won, goddamn it.

The judges didn’t take long to reach a unanimous decision in favor of Minnesota Champion Johnny Beam. But the key word here was decision. Johnny swore he heard a tone of disrespect when the ring announcer said the word.  But then some of the crowd started chanting, “John-ny, John-ny, John-ny,” and he felt better. He held up his tired arms in victory and smiled that famous smile that had won over so many.

As he made his way out of the ring and slowly across the concrete floor toward the dingy lockers in the basement, the crowd was friendly and encouraging, yelling “Way to go Johnny” and “Bring on Archie,” meaning Archie Moore, the current world light heavyweight champion. But the scene just made the knot in Beam’s gut get tighter and fueled his growing desire to escape.

After the tape was cut off his hands, he sat on the bench in the locker room staring at the dark green floor, wiping sweat from his chest with a worn towel and pulling on a bottle of beer from the case of Royal 58 a local distributor always sent over on fight nights. As he sat there letting his muscles relax, smelling the liniment and touching his fingers gingerly to the bump on his face, Johnny started to feel a little more comfortable about his future.

Removed from the ring and Al Sparks’ stinging blows, his victory seemed a little easier than it actually had been. Now it was possible to believe he could do it again. Maybe get a shot at the title. Wasn’t that what they were saying out there?

Ernie Callahan hovered around, squinting at the swelling above his fighter’s eye. Sloan was there, too, a cigar between his lips and a beer in his hand, his free hand slicing through the dank air as he paced around, talking excitedly.

“I think we can get you a shot with Kid Chocolate, Johnny. He’s been ranked as high as number five. We can get a big venue, maybe Chicago… at least the Twin Cites….  I know you want to move up. And y’know, it’d ah, it’d ah… it would’ve been be a sure thing, you know, if you had KO’d the Canadian.  But you know… anyway…  Sparks is well respected in the game. He once took Ezzard Charles the distance, y’know. So beating him in any fashion is good.”

“Wasn’t Charles a heavyweight?” Johnny asked peering up, his eyes showing skepticism as he swiped the towel across his forehead.

“Well yeah, when he was champion, he was. And that should be motivation for you. Charles started out light heavy, I think….  He, ah, put on weight—and then he moved up toward the end of his career.  First light heavy, than heavy. Didn’t reach his prime until his body was mature. Only weighed two hundred when he was champ. Our Mr. Sparks also put on some weight as he matured, you can bet on that. He was packing at least one-eighty-five out there tonight.”

“I sure must be maturing, too, Harry,” Johnny said, chuckling softly and pulling at the growing roll around his middle. “And it’s getting harder to take off, the more mature I get.”

“I told you, you should’ve started training sooner,” Sloan said through a blue cloud of cigar smoke as he returned the empty bottle to the cardboard case on the green bench. Then his head jerked toward the hallway, honed in on someone in the small crowd mingling outside the locker room. He leaned over and grabbed another bottle of beer, waggled his paunchy, late-forties body and said, “There’s some people I gotta see out here, Johnny boy. You hold tight a second.”

“Sure, Harry,” Beam said, turning to Callahan. “You can go home now, Ernie,” he said softly. “I’m going to be fine. You know I heal up real quick. I tell you what, my friend, why don’t you stick a few of those beers in your coat and take them home to the wife. I know she likes beer. Tell her that Johnny Beam wanted her to have a good time tonight.”

Ernie stuffed six bottles in the pockets of his gray wool overcoat, thanked Johnny and left. Beam felt that familiar lonely-in-a-crowd feeling coming back again so he hit the showers. The hot water and steam took away some of the pain. He dressed in his favorite black suit and a white shirt that he’d purchased just last week at Allenfall’s. The suit was from Chicago, acquired when he’d lived there after returning from the Korean War. That suit was the only thing he’d brought here from the big city besides his wife Ruby.

Suit was the only thing still with him.

(To be continued)

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Boxer

EXCERPT 5, FLY IN THE MILK

Ever read a boxing scene so vivid that you can smell the sweat, see the desperation, feel the tension? A classic fight scene finish from Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

 

The fighters wearily took to their respective corners.

Johnny couldn’t avoid the pang of frustration lingering in his gut, nagging him. This guy just wouldn’t go down like the others. Even in the two fights he’d lost, he’d put the bums on the canvas at least once. Only reason he lost at all was inexperience. But this bastard was tough. Left-handed shit was a pisser.

Johnny drank heavily from the water bottle, trying to douse the fire in his head. The lights seemed to dim as Ernie squeezed the sponge and mopped his brow and chest. His manager, Harry Sloan, was squatting in front of him, a graying, balding head hovering in the fighter’s face.

Ernie worked on Beam’s eye while Sloan wagged his thick index finger and snapped off instructions: “You got him Johnny, stay on him and the fight is yours. Keep on him, keep on him.  Don’t let the bastard take a breath without hittin’ him. Go after the bastard, I tell ya. Keep him on his heels. Win one more round and you got the fight. You gotta want this thing, Johnny. You gotta want it.”

Beam nodded his head but the frustration just wouldn’t go away. Yeah, he wanted to put the guy down and walk out of there a winner—of course he did. But maybe he didn’t want it as bad as he thought he should.  Maybe it didn’t seem worth it quite as much anymore, at the age of thirty. Just look at that goddamn Sparks over there, he’s not right in the head.  Something about the way his eyes float loose in the sockets, and how his jaw takes that funny, crooked angle….

Round nine started slowly. Sparks clinched and held and used the ropes. Johnny lacked the energy to put him away. Both fighters were cautious and seemed reluctant to throw punches.

Deep into the lackluster round, Beam reopened the cut above Sparks’ eye with a solid jab. In return, the Canadian exploded with a jab of his own followed by vicious upper-cut to Beam’s chin that sent the Minnesota Champion staggering backwards toward his corner, only to be saved from any further embarrassment by the dinging of the bell.

Johnny collapsed into the stool, fatigue and frustration sapping his will. Ernie chewed Dentine and stoically worked the Vaseline and the styptic. Sloan shouted sharply, cigar-breath in Johnny’s face: “You let up!  You let up! You let up, goddammit, man! You had him Johnny, but you let up.  Where’s the old killer instinct, man? You gotta show me…You gotta show the crowd… Listen to those fans out there…. They’re your fans, Johnny. They came to see you knock this Canuck bastard into downtown Chicago. It’s time you gave them what they want. It’s time you showed them who the big dog is.”

Johnny’s eye was swollen half shut. He had a fire in his chest, weakness in his knees and a twisted gut. This prizefighting shit wasn’t fun anymore. Not like football used to be. And fighting those hambones—back in the beginning—that had been fun. People had started paying attention to him again. Like the days he was setting the state record in the 100-yard dash in the spring and scoring touchdowns in the fall.

He’d been a two-sport star who the local newspaper had once called “the classy Negro dash man.” Sports, and most importantly, victory, had opened many doors for him in this northern town where you could count the number of blacks on the fingers of your hands and have a few left over—fingers, that is.

But this fight was bullshit. It was taking everything he had inside to summon enough desire to get off the stool and go hard for one more round.

Just three lousy minutes, he told himself as he crouched forward and touched the gloves to his forehead. Just whip this guy for three minutes and be in the locker room smiling, ready to celebrate.

The bell rang. The crowd chanted. “Kill’em Johnny, kill’em. KO, KO, KO. Beam, Beam, Beam.”

Sloan had one leg through the ropes as he brayed his final words: “This is it, Johnny.  Show him who the man is here.  Send him home sorry and sore.  This is your town, big fellah.”

The bruised combatants moved slowly towards the center of the ring where the squatty, balding referee with his prim white shirt and black bow tie waited tensely.

Beam’s nose was swollen; it was getting hard to breathe. He was wishing he’d done that extra roadwork over the Christmas holidays instead of eating cookies and drinking beer.

Sparks’ eye was nearly shut and his cuts were ready to flow red at the slightest contact. He looked beaten but still dangerous, like a cornered dog.

The fighters touched their gloves together.

Johnny glowered and Sparks stared grimly, facial muscles twisted.

The ref gave the signal and the fighters shuffled their weary feet, bobbing and weaving stiffly.

Beam jabbed and circled and waited for his chance. The circling continued while the crowd grew restless.

One minute in, Sparks’ hands dropped slightly and Beam threw a right-hand lead to the forehead, giving the lefty a taste of his own medicine. With surprising speed, Sparks bulled in, grabbed Johnny’s arms and clinched.

“Let him go, let him go,” the referee snapped in a thin sharp voice, reaching between the fighters. “Break it up, come on now, men. Break it up.”

Sparks let up on his grip and Johnny shoved him away.

The ref warned the Canadian.

Johnny moved forward.

Sparks circled.

Johnny threw an overhand right.

Sparks jerked back a half-second too slow and caught the blow on the tip of his chin. His head snapped back and the crowd let out a vicious roar.

Stumbling back into the corner, the southpaw struggled to lift his hands.

Johnny moved in carefully. He could see every past loss in Sparks’ eyes and sense the lingering scars from too many lonely nights on the road.

Beam threw a right hook that Sparks managed to block.

Fading fast, Sparks grabbed on, clinging to Beam’s sweat-drenched torso with all the strength he could summon.

The boxers wrestled. The referee shouted. The fans whistled and catcalled.

The men in Sparks’ corner looked damaged.

Beam’s corner men pounded on the canvas, yelling, “Take him out, take him out!”

The referee moved in to peel apart the writhing octopus.

“Break, damn it, break,” he snarled.

Ignoring the command, Sparks bulled Johnny around until the diminutive referee’s vision was shielded by Beam’s broad back, then, like a ram on the rut, he butted Beam’s damaged eye with his rock-hard forehead.

Gasps and boos filled the air as Johnny reeled backwards on his heels, dark blood spilling down across his cheek and into his mouth. The ref’s face turned crimson. He stared into Spark’s swollen eyes accusingly.

The fighter stood defiantly, like a rat in the corner of a basement.

The ref sent Beam into a neutral corner and issued a warning to Sparks. Then he signaled the fighters to the center of the ring and made them touch gloves before resuming the battle.

Dangerously angry, fists pumping and head jerking like he was swatting flies with his eyebrows; Beam attacked, driving his opponent into the corner with a barrage of thunderous body blows.

Cheers and shouts and calls of derision bounced across the brick walls of the cavernous armory.

Then a funny thing happened. Johnny smelled popcorn. And beer.

Strange, he thought, a transient jolt of mirth passing through him as he pummeled away at Sparks’ midsection, his arms like the limbs of a great tree, heavy and wooden.

Sparks was still on his feet, ducking and covering and absorbing blow after blow, bloodied but not going down. Johnny threw an uppercut that caught mostly glove and was relieved when Sparks snagged his arms and held on.

The ref separated the tie-up but the final bell rang before another punch was thrown.

Both fighters sagged at the shoulders with relief.

Johnny went to his corner reasonably confident he’d won the fight, but not feeling so good about it. It was a different game now.

(To be continued)

 

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EXCERPT 4, FLY IN THE MILK

Ever read a boxing scene so vivid that you can smell the sweat, see the desperation, feel the tension? Round one through eight from Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

February 1960, National Guard Armory, Zenith, Minnesota

Smoke hung thick in the air, stagnant and stinking in the yellow glare of the ring lights. The buzzing of the crowd matched the buzzing between Johnny Beam’s ears as he sank down onto the wooden stool and struggled to clear his head. His opponent had given him all he could handle for seven long rounds but the son of a bitch had paid a price.

The corner man squeezed a sponge and Johnny basked in sweet relief as the cool liquid slid through the tight curls of his black hair and down his bruised, swollen face. All around him, the crowd rumbled. He straightened himself and leaned back against the turnbuckle, stretched his throbbing arms along the ropes and squinted across the blue haze at the cut man working furiously on Al Sparks’ right eye.

The bastard looks like he’s beaten, Johnny thought. Look at him over there, blood dripping down on the canvas. But then, Christ, look at me… the only black men in the goddamn building and we’re both bleeding from the head. But that’s what the paying public wants to see, and you gotta do what you gotta do….

His body was heavy; blood in his mouth made him sick. Legs felt like liquid lead, worse than back in high school football when the rain had turned the pads to concrete. He didn’t feel much like getting off the stool again to face the left-handed Canuck and his goddamn right-hand leads. But the road to the big time went through Sparks, and the big time was where Johnny Beam wanted to go.

He was the light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota—had been for two years. He was proud of it, but it really wasn’t much of a title, and he knew it. Only way to a shot at some real money was by beating better talent. At least better than the punching bags he’d faced so far in his career.

He drank from a glass bottle covered with tape and swished the water around, spit bloody goo into the tin bucket between his legs and ran his tongue over the sore spots in his mouth while old Ernie Callahan applied Vaseline to his eyebrows and dabbed more styptic on the ever widening cut above his left eye.

The ringside bell clanged sharp and shrill.

Trying to focus his thoughts, Johnny stretched his lips around the mouth guard and stood up to answer the call.

Flashbulbs popped. The crowd howled.

Their roar is my engine, Johnny thought; I’ll make sure there’s more of Sparks’ blood to see than mine. If you got two Negroes in the ring, one of them should hit the canvas. That’s just the way it is…

The two well-muscled fighters came together in the center of the ring. A drunk yelled, “Kill the goddamn Canucky, Johnny,” and a cheer went up.

Sparks was desperate and went on the attack. He faked a right-hand jab and then launched a southpaw haymaker. Beam anticipated well, ducked under the punch, slid to his right, drove upward with his legs and unleashed a vicious right cross to Sparks’ cheekbone, eliciting an audible smack–leather against flesh.

The crowd exploded. Sparks stumbled, crashed into the ropes and grasped clumsily, gloved paws flailing for balance.

The cheers filled Johnny with energy. Just like the old days after busting off a long run or making a crunching tackle across the middle. He moved in for the kill, saw the blood and the look in Sparks’ eyes: dazed, struggling, fearful.

Beam’s jabs shot through and found their mark. Sparks retreated into the corner, struggling for breath and covering up, the cut spreading dark fluid down the side of his angular jaw.

His eyes are pleading with me, Johnny thought. Please don’t take me out. Not in front of all these goodamn white boys… let me stay on my feet like a man.

Johnny hesitated for a second then snapped off another jab, followed by a short, hard right to the mouth that rocked Sparks’ head and sent blood bursting into the smoky air, mixing with sweat in an artful pink mist that put a fever in the fans.

Beam stepped back and searched the Canadian’s eyes. Sparks’ right hand snapped out of its defensive position like a striking cobra, thumping Beam’s cheekbone. Seemingly revived, Sparks came on with purpose in his step and an all-or-nothing look on his bloody, battered face. He jabbed with the right hand, stinging Beam’s widening cut.

Johnny held his ground and they stood toe to toe. An explosion of punches fueled by desperation and anger juiced the screaming throng. Combination for combination, headshot for headshot and body blow for body blow. The crowd rose from the seats, howled for a knockout. The huge armory echoed as the referee stood with his hands on his hips, staring at Sparks.

Beam was tiring but his opponent was further gone.

Like he was lifting a boat anchor out of the mud, Sparks prepped for one more looping left hand, desperately hoping for the knockout punch. Johnny saw it coming and knifed inside. The roundhouse left bounced harmlessly off the back of his head. He came out of the crouch and snapped his own left into Sparks’ chin. Sparks staggered against the ropes and Beam swept in, launching a flurry of punches that were brought to a premature end by the dull sound of the bell.

End of round eight.

(To be continued)

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