Authors: Gary Paulsen
“Frank will be the go-to guy for everyone. He’ll liaise with all divisions and serve as the point man between key players. He’ll input and update all the facts and figures and forward you and the team weekly status reports.”
Liaise? What kind of word was that?
I studied Arnold while he passed around matching leather notebooks. A funny little round man in hippie clothes with a mind like a steel trap.
It didn’t look like I needed to stay for the next part of the meeting. “Thanks, everyone.” I stood. “Let’s go,” I said to Kenny and Allen.
But Allen was making notes in the notebook I’d left on the table. He looked right at home.
Kenny leaned toward Savannah. “How do you start a college fund?” It had to be the first time Kenny had even
As I was halfway out the door, Arnold handed me a new BlackBerry. “Check this regularly, okay? We’ll meet up with everyone tonight at Joey Pow’s big fight. Sitting together in the sponsor’s box will be a bonding experience for the team.”
Bonding. Team. Sure.
Kenny’s eyes popped. “You sponsor a prizefighter?”
Allen flipped to the section in the notebook that covered Joey. His lips moved when he read, though, so I knew he was a little rattled by all this news.
I drove home and into the garage, shut the door and sat on my lawn mower in the dim light to think. Some people take yoga classes or meditate, but for me, sitting on the lawn mower helps make sense of things. There’s something about looking at the picture of the turtle and the rabbit on the throttle that puts everything in perspective.
Right now life was in rabbit mode.
If Mr. Bunny had been taking human growth hormones and was overly caffeinated.
I was still sitting in the garage, at one with my lawn mower, feeling a little overwhelmed … okay, a lot overwhelmed … okay, completely terrified and panicked, when I heard a racket in the driveway.
I peeked out one of the garage door windows and saw Zed outside his camper, playing air guitar to the radio blasting from his pickup cab, a bag of lard-soaked, deep-fat-fried pork rinds and a six-pack of beer on the ground at his side. He chugged two cans at once, lifted his head like a wolf baying at the moon and let loose with a burp so loud it must have deafened house pets three houses over.
Truly a class act.
When were my parents getting home? And what would Zed look like stuffed in the passenger side of his pickup upside down and bent double? That was what Joey Pow had done to some bad guys who tried to mess with us once.
Joey. I’d go to the gym to see Joey. He has a wonderfully clear and simple outlook on life and is extremely comforting to be around. Plus, I wanted to spend some time with my fighter before his big match.
“Hey, bro,” Zed yelled over the hum of the electric garage door opener and the growl of the lawn mower’s engine as I drove out, “wouldja lend me a coupla bucks?”
I pretended I couldn’t hear, gesturing to my ears and shrugging as I rumbled past him and took a hard right onto the street.
“Hello, sponsor. You seem sad,” Joey said when I got to the gym. He leaped out of the ring. His agility is surprising, because he’s so big he makes gardening sheds seem tiny.
“Oh, I’m okay, I guess, I just—Wait! Is that Rock over there?”
Rock was a guy who’d given us some trouble a few weeks ago when he wanted to buy me out of my lawn-mowing business without, of course, any money changing hands. Joey made that problem go away by bowling, with Rock and some of his guys as the ball and the pins.
“He works for me now.”
“Whatever I tell him. Now he is cleaning out slop buckets, and later he will scrub the urinals. The little cakes get dirty in the urinals. It is good to have them clean. The little blue cakes. In the urinals.”
“But why does he work for you?”
“He needed”—Joey stopped to think—“supervision.”
Well, will wonders never cease.
“Arnold told me how you make deals and have employees. Now so do I.”
I watched Joey smile at Rock, who flinched. Rock had a slight limp and two big Joey-sized handprint bruises on his upper arms, as if he’d been picked up and moved.
“Uh, hey, Joey? What do you think about Zed?”
“I think Zed is shifty.”
“Yes. He has pinchy eyes. That is not a good thing.”
“He doesn’t give off the best energy,” I agreed.
“Besides”—Joey took a deep breath—“I don’t have an uncle Sam.”
“Then why are you going along with him pretending to be your cousin?”
“Like Rock, he needs to be watched. And I’m good at handling trouble.”
“I know.” I must have looked worried, though, because Joey patted me on the head. If the pats had been just a tad firmer, he could have pat-pat-patted me right into the ground.
“Don’t think about Zed. Or Rock,” he said. “Today we think about Bruiser Bulk and the fight.”
“How are you feeling about the match tonight?”
“I have”—he paused to study the floor as if the word he needed could be found somewhere near his left shoe—“concerns.”
He looked at me sadly. Then he looked at Rock. Then he shook his head. “You leave the fight to me. I’ll make you proud.”
“I’m always real proud of you, Joey.”
His smile could have lit up a room.
“Oh, good, there you are.” I heard Grandma’s happy voice from the doorway. We turned and, if I hadn’t been standing so close to Joey, I’d have fallen to the ground.
Grandma’s hair was red. Not red like Little Orphan Annie or Lucille Ball. Red like Bozo the Clown. Red like a fire truck. Red like all the red in the entire history of the whole universe had been concentrated on her head. Her hair glowed. And shimmered. When she moved, I could see … sparkles. The brightness made me wince.
“Do you love it?” She twirled proudly. Joey and I squinted and took a step back. Toward a dark corner. Hoping Grandma and her head would follow us out of the light. “I colored it myself today. I was at the drugstore buying ice—did you know that I only like store-bought ice? Homemade ice tastes funny and makes my tea smell strange.”
“Grandma. Your hair?”
“Oh, right, well, anyway, I was buying ice and I wandered down the hair dye aisle and these boxes were on sale for seventy-nine cents so I bought four. Germaine would have charged me way more than
that at the salon. And you just
she’d never have gotten this shade. Do you realize that I exactly match Joey Pow’s boxing trunks?”
“Did you use all four boxes?”
“Yes. It took all four boxes to get this color. I spent all day in the bathroom doing my hair.”
I mentally kicked myself for having forgotten about Grandma all day. The last time I’d seen her was earlier that morning after she arrived at my house with Zed. She’d gone to take a nap, and—well, even for Grandma, who loves resting her eyes like most people love converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, that wasn’t an all-day proposition.
“What’s that?” I suspiciously eyed the spray bottle she pulled out of her purse.
“Diluted leftover dye. C’mere, sweetie, and let me spritz you so that you have Joey Pow red hair too.”
“No, thanks, I’m good with brown.”
“Suit yourself.” Grandma shoved the spray bottle back into her purse and looked at her watch. I don’t know why, because it’s broken. But she says she feels lost without it, and she won’t get it fixed because her wrist would feel naked while the watch was at the repair place. “We’d better get to the
auditorium if we don’t want to miss the fight. And did I ever tell you that those little sticky notes were really an accident when someone was trying to come up with adhesive?” She sailed off, a beacon of red, toward the back door and her car. I’ve driven with Grandma before, so I was just as happy to hitch a ride with Joey. I turned to him; he was looking after Grandma, smiling.
“Grandma is wonderful.” He tore off his gloves with his teeth and gathered his gear in a duffel bag.
“Wonderful. Colorful. Whatever. C’mon, Joe, we’ve got to get going or we’ll be late for your fight.”
He grabbed Rock on the way out. Literally. Reached over, plucked Rock off the bench where he’d been cowering and reeking of urinal cakes and dragged him behind us like a toddler dragging a security blanket.
Joey and Rock and I enjoyed a silent ride to the auditorium downtown. Joey dropped me off at the VIP door and I flashed my sponsor’s badge at the guard. Joey and Rock drove around the back entrance to the locker room.
I spotted Grandma near the ring right away. I wished I’d worn sunglasses. She was chatting with Arnold, Kenny and Allen. They’re not shy, but they were all looking at the ground while they talked with her. The glare from her head was too much for them.
Savannah, Gib, Frank and Lindy huddled together, each of them frantically thumb-typing on their BlackBerrys. Were they tending to my empire even during a social event? That was good, because I was taking the evening off to enjoy the fight. I turned around and saw Pasqual, Louis and Benny—who’d started working for us a week before and was fast becoming indispensable—and their wives. Behind them were about twelve guys from the yard crew. We all high-fived each other.
We took our seats in the sponsor’s box, which was the two front rows behind Joey’s corner of the ring. Kenny and Allen almost lost their minds when Arnold told them that the concession food was free to my guests. They ordered one of everything. I was too nervous to eat; I kept remembering how sad Joey had been when he’d talked about the fight earlier that day. I’m new to the prizefighting game, but there was something about the look in his eye that worried me.
After what felt like forever, the houselights went down and an announcer’s voice boomed through the auditorium, introducing the two fighters, who entered the arena from the locker rooms on opposite sides. In one spotlight, I saw Joey in his red robe
and trunks. He was dragging Rock after him. Zed swaggered behind, bringing up the rear.
I felt a nasty chill run up my spine. Why did I get such a bad feeling from this guy? Besides the fact that he was a dirty, lying mooch, of course.
I ran over to the corner and shouted in Joey’s ear over the roar of the crowd, “What’s Zed doing here?”
“While I fight, Zed and Rock can supervise each other.”
The audience booed and cheered as Bruiser Bulk climbed into the ring. He looked like he’d been carved from stone. Tattooed stone. He moved slowly around his corner, muscles rippling on his body where I hadn’t known muscles existed. He made his first and middle fingers into a V and pointed first at his own eyes and then at Joey, as if to say, “I see you. I see you and I’m going to eat you for breakfast.” Joey didn’t notice; he was waving at Grandma.
The introductions of the fighters (“In this corner, wearing black trunks, the Upper Midwest heavyweight champ, Bah-ruuuuuuiser Bullllllllllllllllllk! And, in the opposite corner, his opponent, wearing
o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ey Po-o-o-ow!”) took longer than the actual fight.
One right roundhouse.
One left uppercut.
One right punch in the face that made an ugly
Four and a half seconds.
Three lightning-fast blows followed by a
as Bruiser Bulk hit the canvas.
Joey Pow worked so fast that I hadn’t even gotten back to my seat; I was still standing near his corner of the ring, between Rock, who looked worried, and Zed, who looked furious.
The ref knelt next to Bruiser, counting to nine and checking to make sure he was breathing. When the ref got to nine, he leaped up, grabbed Joey’s arm and raised it above their heads.
“The. Newwwwwwwwww Upperrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Mid-wesssssssssst. Heavyweight. Chammmmmmmmmpion.
I’d have gone with “JOEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY PO-O-O-O-O-O-OW,” but it still sounded good.
Allen and Kenny were jumping up and down screaming, making it snow popcorn. Grandma was
standing on her chair, howling like a wolf, and Arnold was smiling and shaking hands with everyone in his vicinity. Savannah, Gib, Frank and Lindy were texting like someone’s life depended on it.