Ticket to an Execution
Over two hundred were gathered in the smoky, noisy Knights of Columbus hall although the bouts didn't start for another half hour. The hall was enormous, designed with enough room for weddings, dances—even sporting events—but somewhere in the planning no one thought to address acoustics. The sounds of wooden chairs scraping against the wooden floor, shouts, laughter, and big band music of indeterminate origin echoed in a muffled roar.
Like picking a pew at church, the regulars knew who sat where and seated themselves accordingly. The first row was full, as was the third. The second row remained empty. Barrett Brown knew the latecoming regulars who filled those spaces and that there'd be room for one or two more.
Moments before the bouts were to begin, a woman stood at the end of the row, timidly pointing at the seats, asking if they were taken. He started to say they were, but she had the look of someone lost—a visitor at the church—someone unfamiliar with the seating arrangements, alone, and seeking acceptance. He could relate to one in her situation. "There's room," he said. "Have a seat."
She sat two seats down from him and looked up at the boxing ring while the workers put on the finishing touches. Barrett gave her a quick once over. She was like someone out of the eerie pictures from The Dust Bowl, the displaced, half-starved families huddled like cornered dogs. She seemed to be around Barrett's age. Her face was pretty, but weathered, and her hair was clasped in a bun with several loose strands falling to her shoulders. She wore a dress that he recognized as being made from a flour sack, this one with a dingy yellow floral pattern that seemed more appropriate for a pillowcase or curtains. Her shoes were brown, clunky, pulling loose at the seams. Her situation was evident, but made even more so by the rounded belly that said in days—if not minutes—there'd be yet another hungry mouth in the household.
"I'm Barrett Brown," he said. Sensing that something besides an evening out on the town had brought her there, he added, "Do you know someone who's fighting?"
"My husband." Her hands went to her belly when she said the words. Her voice was nasal, southern in origin, with traces of a region Barrett couldn't determine. "We've been travelin' around for him to fight."
This piqued Barrett's interest—as he knew it would everyone's—because many nights they watched the same fighters fight to the same conclusions. It was exciting to have a new face on the card.
"He ain't never been beat and he ain't gonna be. Everywheres we go he wins, and they told him if he wins here, his next stop is Chicago or New York City. Right up in the big time!" She seemed giddy, as if he were already a celebrity. "I'm Opal Delacroix, by the way."
"Delacroix. That's unusual. Are you from Louisiana?"
She shook her head in quick little shakes. "No. My husband is. I'm from South Alabama. The Bayou La Batre area."
"So he's fought in a lot of places?"
"Oh, a whole lot. Florida. Mississippi. Georgia. Can't nobody beat him." She patted her belly with quick little pats, which drew Barrett's eye. "You like my dress? When I saw the flour bag, I said, 'Erby, that's gonna be my dress,' and I made it special for tonight. But I'll tell you what, the way Erby's been fightin' I'll be gettin'em store-bought before long."
"That baby's going to be born craving biscuits," Barrett said, imagining Opal shaking out the sack just before putting it on the sewing machine.
Opal threw back her head and cackled. "You're funny, Barrett Brown." She looked at him like he'd let her in on one she could tell everybody she knew. "Erby'll like that. And here we are in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We ain't neither one of us heard about boxing bein' big here, but they said his real test was here and after that it was up to the big cities." Her words came fast, sharp, like a chicken pecking corn, and the more she talked the more excited she became. "Some say Erby's the next Jack Dempsey. They called Jack 'The Manassa Mauler', you know." She said this confidentially, as if Dempsey were a peer, someone with whom she and Erby were on equal footing. "I told Erby we have to come up with him a name. Somethin' catchy like that. He's from Carencro so it could be The Carencro Crusher, or The Lafayette Parish Puncher. I came up with those." She patted her belly again, and Barrett half expected to see white powdery flour fill the air around her.
"So your husband's a heavyweight," Barrett said, hoping the answer was no.
"Sure is!" Her eyes smiled. "That's why I said that about Dempsey."
A hot lump of lead seemed to ease down Barrett's throat and settle in his stomach, making him pregnant with a burden of his own. "Is he here to fight Rex Sneed?"
"That's the one. I hope you—you bein' local and all—will still talk to me after this is over, 'cause Rex Sneed may need to find a new line of work," she chirped.
Opal, Barrett thought, you may not be able to speak when this is over. She carried on like she and Erby were hop-scotching the South, taking all comers, convinced that only a top-ranked contender could hold his own against him. Barrett said nothing, but wanted to tell this girl who appeared to be his own age, married, struggling, and with a baby on the way, that the dream she and her husband had been nursing was about to end. Erby had most assuredly faced some tough competition, but chances were he'd never faced an animal. Rex Sneed was thirty, a little old for title shots, but one who, like Erby, had never been beaten. In fact, he'd never been knocked down.
"Does Erby win on points most of the time, or by knockout?" Barrett asked.
"He's knocked a couple out. There've been some close ones, but in that third round he always pulls through."
The crowd was filing in, taking their seats. Several younger fighters in the lighter weight divisions had come in with their trainers and were jogging in place, getting warmed up. Other spectators came in the row and Barrett and Opal scooted back to let them pass.
"Me and Junior here," she touched her belly again, "are his biggest supporters. I think Junior recognizes the sound of the bell. It's like he starts fightin' right there in my belly. I could be havin' twins! Now that'd be somethin'! They could be in there goin' at it and come out ready to put on gloves."
"Maybe so," Barrett said, not wanting to discourage, nor give too much hope.
Someone else entered their row and Opal moved to the seat next to Barrett. "There's a feller across the ring wavin' to you. If you need to go sit with him that's OK. You've been awful nice keeping me company. It's kindly awkward when you don't know nobody."
Only two other women were in the hall: one white, sitting several rows behind them; and one black, relegated to the bleachers with the other coloreds.
"I'm fine where I am. Are you kidding? I'm The Lafayette Parish Puncher's biggest fan."
She clucked out another laugh. "Well I appreciate that," she said. "It sure makes the time pass faster to talk to somebody."
The announcer entered the ring and made the first bout's introductions. There'd be many matches before Sneed and Delacroix's, which would fall later in the night. Barrett wished he could sneak back to the warm-up area and tactfully tell Delacroix that he'd be wise to pull out and move on to the next town. If Barrett could somehow crawl between the ropes and take the pummeling himself, he thought he would possibly do it. He hated to see Erby lose face—and Opal lose faith. This was their future. Their hopes were riding on it. And Barrett guessed they were staking everything.
Like a sweaty, savage ballet, the night progressed, with a brief intermission before the four final bouts. Patrons liked to stretch their legs and get refreshments before the big guns were brought in. Barrett again considered finding Delacroix to advise him to back out while he could. But Erby, of course, was a fighter, and as Barrett well knew, fighters didn't back out. It would only make him more determined.
While waiting in line for popcorn, Barrett and a couple of friends exchanged handshakes. A ragged man stood behind them counting out pennies in his palm. One of his friends leaned in close and joked, "Better be careful bringin' that pregnant girlfriend out in public."
When Barrett returned to his seat, Opal was wearing a small, mint green, side hat. And on her hands were loose-fitting white gloves that came over her wrists. "Is it just me, or is something different?" Barrett said, looking at her as he sat down. The hat had remained under her seat most of the evening.
"I ain't a big fan of hats and gloves," Opal said, "but I want to look nice for Erby."
"You certainly look nice."
"Well, thank you!" She shifted in her seat and tugged at each glove as if it was sliding off. "I'm gettin' nervous. It's about time, I take it."
"It won't be long," Barrett said. "Three more and then the heavyweights."
He saw her cheeks puff as she exhaled through pursed lips and he asked if she'd like some popcorn. She declined, saying her stomach couldn't hold it. Opal reminded him a bit of a fighter herself. No matter how certain of victory, he'd never seen one enter the ring without a case of nerves.
Like a human assembly line, as the final round of each bout got underway, the fighters for the next match moved ringside at opposing corners. And as the lightheavies finished, Barrett got his first glimpse of Erby Delacroix. He was nice looking, obviously strong, hopping from foot to foot, shaking his dangling arms as if wicking away water, stretching his neck from side to side. "There he is!" Opal said, waving to him. Erby grinned and tilted his head back in acknowledgment. "And he—is—ready. I can tell." Erby had the natural cockiness of one who's never been given reason not to be cocky.
The lightheavies exited the ring, and Erby—eager, brimming with confidence—hopped in, sliding adroitly between the upper and middle ropes. He looked out at the hometown crowd as he paraded, gauging their reactions. Opal rose to her feet, clapping, beaming.
The announcer climbed in, as did Rex Sneed. Barrett stole a glance at Opal and saw the first hint of alarm. Sneed was easily four inches taller, many pounds heavier, and where Erby looked like an athlete—a guy who may have played some football—Sneed looked like something made of stone, a workhorse, someone who'd spent years lifting timber and making his body do things that normally required machines. The crowd was up; a sea of rumbling began. Opal looked all around. As if on cue, everyone rattled his chair against the floor and stomped his feet. "His nickname's Thunder," Barrett shouted into Opal's ear. "They always do this."
When the chaos quieted, the announcer introduced Delacroix, telling where he was from and that he was undefeated. Sneed stood solemnly in his own corner. After the introduction, Delacroix circled the ring, stopping to look at Opal. He kissed both his gloves and pretended to blow the kiss to her. Smiling, radiant, she pretended to catch it and blew one back. And as Delacroix backed away, hopping in place, he nodded ever so slightly, smiling, as if his work here was almost done.
Barrett watched this, all the while cutting his eyes over to Sneed, who at first had seemed sullen and brooding, but now looked alert, his eyes fixed on Delacroix's performance. Sneed's jaw appeared to set, and he popped his gloves together. Barrett glanced at Opal, realizing that she would probably never look this happy, nor be filled with this much hope, ever again.
When the bell sounded and the pugilists sprung from their corners, the crowd gazed in rapt attention, as if not wanting to miss anything—as if they knew if their eyes left the ring, even for a second, they might miss everything.
The two established distance. Jabbing. Circling. Getting into the rhythm of the fight. Sneed threw soft pitter-patter punches as Delacroix began to step it up. Delacroix jabbed, threw some hard rights, none of which found their target. Sneed was elusive, his head dodging from side to side, the blows flying past, only grazing him at best. Sneed threw a couple of half-hearted rights.
"If that's all he's got," Opal said, "he ain't lastin' long. PUT HIM DOWN ERBY!"
The first minute of the three minute round passed and Sneed was yet to strike. He seemed to be studying his opponent, decoding Delacroix's strategy—and his weaknesses—so that when the moment came he could most effectively act. Barrett had seen this before. Sneed just wasn't letting on. He was a dog that walked up innocently before lancing its teeth into you.
As the final minute wound down, Delacroix must have concluded that Sneed was afraid of him because he began to unload, delivering an array of elaborate punches—even doing a quick, circular "wind-up" motion with his cocked right glove before throwing it. Opal was ecstatic, on her feet, shouting. Barrett could imagine what was going through her mind. Chicago. New York. Headlines. Piles of money. Sneed continued lobbing softballs, but seemed to be deliberately shepherding Delacroix to the side of the ring where Opal and Barrett were. When the two fighters were front and center of Opal and Barrett, as if lined up for a picture, Sneed's right glove drew back. It came around—straight, low—launched like a mortar shell that exploded against Delacroix's stomach, finding the solar plexus.
The blow was loud, audible over all the shouting, stomping and cheering of the smoke-filled fight hall. A sound like a broom smacking a rug hung over a clothes line. Delacroix doubled over, his gum rubber mouth guard flying from his mouth. Before the ref could step in to retrieve the mouthpiece, Sneed, like a pitcher coming out of a full wind-up, came around with another right. This one connected with Delacroix's head just as it raised. Opal screamed. The crowd erupted. Erby's torso flew back, his feet left the canvas, and he landed—not like a dead man, but like a dead man who'd been dropped from a five-story building. His head lay turned toward Opal, eyes closed, mouth open, with blood pooling beside it. She grabbed Barrett by the shirt, her head jerking hysterically from side to side, crying, seeming to want to bury her face on Barrett's shoulder but instinctively resisting because a lady wouldn't be that familiar with a man other than her husband.
The ref knelt over Delacroix, slowly doing the ten count, as if performing last rites. The bell sounded. Sneed stood expressionless, gazing down at Opal. The right corner of his mouth raised in a sneer. As he looked away, it was like something caught his attention—something on his glove. He raised it, studying it curiously, and then brushed something away with the other glove, and returned to his corner. When Barrett saw what it was, he hoped Opal's eyes stayed on her fallen warrior. She was now wailing, her nails tearing Barrett's flesh through both her gloves and his shirt. But he said nothing. He just tried to console her, hoping that her eyes didn't see the two teeth that Sneed had just flicked from his glove.