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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Valley Assassin

                                  

by Bill Frank Robinson


 



They say us folks that live on Rosedale Avenueare the poorest of the poor. Ain't no men got no jobs. The women, my mom and Molly, make all the money. Nobody has a car and Andy is the only kid with a bicycle. Andy, now there's a guy for you, always smiling, always happy. When I first met him I figured there's a guy that would never hurt anybody. I was wrong.  Andy is a prizefighter, a mean, vicious killer in the ring. Or so they say. I ain't never seen him in the ring, but I seen him almost every night sparring with Big Doyle in the alley behind our house. Big Doyle the biggest, ugliest guy in Modesto--a guy nobody wants to mess with. Nobody but Andy. Andy beats the piss out of Big Doyle almost every night of the week. And he laughs as he does it.

 

The year is 1941 and we, the Johnsons and Wilsons, live in a big old house at 313 A and  B Rosedale Avenue. The house must have been a mansion in it's day, but a landlord got hold of it and nailed all the connecting doors shut from front to back and made two apartments out of it. The Johnsons live at 313A and we Wilsons live at 313B. The Johnsons are Lonnie, Mollie, Andy, Paulie, and Grandma. Lonnie is said to be a cracker-jack automobile mechanic but I never seen him work on a car. Fact is, he don't even look for work. Dad says that Lonnie don't work because he's white trash. I don't figure that. I figure there is some deep, dark mystery why Lonnie don't work. I figure that something bad has happened to Lonnie and I want to find out what because he's my best friend.

 

Molly, Lonnie's wife, I don't see much. She is usually away working in the fields or in the cannery. Paulie, Andy's little brother, is my worst enemy. Grandma, Lonnie's mom, has all the kids in the neighborhood listening to her stories of the old days. She reads Ring Magazine and knows all about the old-time boxers. When she was young she sparred with Lonnie's dad and with Lonnie and Lonnie's brother Carl. Carl went on to be a professional prizefighter. He even had a World Championship fight. He lost that fight and got cheated out of all his money. Now he works on the docks in Oakland.

 

My dad, Frank Wilson, was a rich man back in Colorado but he lost all his money and we come west to California. He can't find no steady job and that makes him mean and unhappy. He screams and hollers about the thieving big shots that steal everything from the working man. He says they want to starve the working man to death. Mom says Dad never worked until we come to California. She doesn't say it when he can hear her though.

 

One thing I can't figure, the Johnsons come from Kansas and we come from Colorado, yet the Californians call us Okies. They say we should go back to Oklahoma where we belong. I ain't never been to Oklahoma. I can't figure how I'm supposed to belong someplace I never been. Lonnie says to pay no mind to those idiots. He says I'll amount to something someday cause I got grit. I don't know what grit is. I do know that Lonnie saved my hide when I first got to Modesto. A gang of boys, lead by Paulie, jumped me and was gonna take my pants off. Lonnie pulled the gang off me and when those boys kept chasing me he fixed up a boxing match between me and Paulie--everybody come to see the fight. I beat the stuffing out of Paulie until I got tired then he beat the stuffing out of me 'til Lonnie stopped it. Lonnie called the fight a draw and said we had to promise not to fight each other ever again. We both promised but Paulie's a mean little cuss; he's gonna figure out a way to get me. Anyway the fight got me out of trouble and nobody chases me nomore.

 

With nobody after me I can walk straight down Rosedale past the High School, across Tuolumne Boulevard and I'm home. Well, almost home I still gotta walk past the vacant lot on the corner. The first building past the vacant lot is an old garage where Andy works on his bicycle and then an alley and then my house. On this day Lonnie and Andy are sitting on stools outside the garage. They're both looking at me and smiling as I walk toward them.        

 

"Billy, did you hear that Andy's got a big fight coming up?"

 

I shake my head no, but I can't figure it; they seem to be interested in me and what I might do. I walk over and stand in front of them. Andy's grinning ear to ear.

 

"Andy's gonna fight Bart Siriani up in Nevada City at the Miner's Day Picnic--he's one tough cookie--they call him the Terror of the Foothills. You ever hear of him?"

 

"No." I still can't figure it. Why are they telling me all this?

 

"That Foothills Terror guy has a list of knockouts as long as your grandma's drawers, why he knocked out 7 fighters in one day. Ain't never been a fighter that could stand up to him, but Andy's gonna knock his block off. The only problem is that Andy needs a sparring partner. That Terror guy hits like a mule kicks. We gotta get Andy ready so he don't get knocked out. We need somebody to teach him defense."

  

I'm getting a funny feeling in my belly. "Andy's got Big Doyle."

   

"Big Doyle hits too hard. We need someone who's quick, can move around, and throw a lot of punches."

 

My belly is dropping farther and farther down into my pants. "Paulie can do that. He can throw a lot of punches."

 

"No. No. Paulie ain't allowed to tussle with Andy. Paulie ain't got no sense he just gets madder and madder and meaner and meaner, sooner or later Andy will have to hurt him bad. We don't want Paulie to get hurt. How about you, Billy? You can do it."

 

My whole body has froze up on me. All I can do is stand here and stare at them with my mouth hanging open.  Andy just keeps on grinning.

 

***

 

Well, I never said yes and I never said no, but here I am pulling boxing gloves on and watching Andy dancing around and throwing punches. We're in the alley between our house and the old garage. It's starting to get dark and all the kids in the neighborhood have come to see me get my whipping. Paulie and Big Doyle got front row seats. They're sitting on the ground giving me mean looks.

 

Lonnie walks out of the house and goes to the garage. He's got a bad limp. Grandma said it was because of a motorcycle accident he had once. She says he was a carnival fighter, stunt motorcyclist, and chief mechanic for the carnival that she, Lonnie's dad, Lonnie, and Molly traveled with and worked for. She says the carnival never had to pay the $25 to anyone who could last 3 rounds with Lonnie because Lonnie always knocked everybody out in the first round. She says he was a top-notch fighter until…Right here she quit on me. I tried to get her to say more but she stopped talking.

 

Lonnie comes out of the garage with a burning lantern. He hangs it on the side of the garage. "Billy are ya ready? Come on over here and let me talk to ya. I want you to hit Andy as hard and as often as yacan. Remember, don't stand in one spot, move around him, don't reach, step in close and whack him. Andy, I don't want you to throw any punches, just move around and block, try to keep his body between you and his dangerous right hand, stay on the left of him." Everybody starts laughing when he tells that lie.

 

Well, it don't work. I try to run in and hit him and Andy just sidesteps me. Sometimes he gives me a little push and I crash into the garage or out into the street. Finally, Lonny gets between us. "This ain't working. Andy get on your knees."

 

Andy laughs out loud but he gets on his knees. "Go after him, Billy." I go after him and blast away with both hands. I ain't hitting nothing but gloves but I keep Andy twisting and turning this way and that. I keep on him till Lonnie says stop.


***

 

I finally figured all this out: Lonnie's getting Andy used to holding his gloves up against the side of his head. I keep moving around him and punch away. Andy, with his gloves glued to his head, has to turn with me and move his head to put the gloves in front of my punch. I get better and sometimes I slip in a punch to the face. Lonnie always hollers at Andy. "Keep those gloves in tight."

 

Andy still spars with Big Doyle, but with Lonnie telling him what to do he don't get to beat up the guy so much. Another thing about Andy: he's a lefty. Lonnie says he tried to teach Andy to box righty but Andy never would do it. The best Andy would do is learn to box with his body and hands square in front of the guy he's fighting. That way he's neither a righty or lefty. Sometimes Lonnie puts the gloves on and shows Andy how to move around the ring and keep to the Terror's left, away from his dangerous right hand. Training for a fight is doing the same things over and over again. We keep hearing the same things time and time again. It sure makes everybody tired. Except for Lonnie: he don't get tired.

 


***

 

Andy has come back from his morning run and is punching a stuffed duffel bag hanging in the garage. I'm watching Andy. Lonnie pokes his head in the door. "Come out. Let's talk."

We go out into the alley where the sun is just peaking its head over the trees. Andy, sweating and wearing old work gloves, keeps on punching. Lonnie is standing in the middle of the alley. He looks both of us up and down. "OK. You guys done good. We're gonna quit training now. This is the plan: Andy, tomorrow you are gonna come out in the first round and get right on the guy. Don't figure on a knockout. Just climb in bed with him, stay right up against him, punch and push and keep him on his heels. He can't hurt you if he can't get set. He'll come out in the second round blazing. That's when you use the stuff you been practicing with Billy. Don't try to trade punches with him, just keep your gloves glued to your head and keep moving your head and feet. The more he misses the more he's gonna reach. Wait till he throws himself off balance, and then nail him. You're gonna knock him out in the second round. Take it easy the rest of the day. Carl is gonna be here bright and early in the morning and drive us to the fight."
 

***

 

Well, here I am in the rumble seat with Andy. I was real worried; first Mom wouldn't let me go cause I didn't have no good clothes, but Grandma got some of Paulie's old clothes and let me wear them. Then, Carl showed up in a little 2-door coupé. There was five of us and the front seat was only big enough for two. Carl opened up the rumble seat and said he could take two more--somebody was not going--I knew it was gonna be me. I was ready to go off and hide somewhere when I hear Lonnie say, "Doyle, we can't take you. Sorry, we just don't have any room." Big Doyle dropped his head, stuck his hands in his pockets, turned, and walked off down the alley.

 

I ain't rode in no car since I was a little kid back in Denver. This is really nice, riding in the rumble seat just like Mickey Rooney--I saw it in the movies but never thought it would happen to me. Andy ain't no fun; he just sleeps. I bet Paulie and Lonnie are having a good time in the front seat, but I don't care. I can see all the trees, houses, and stuff. I'm too excited to sleep.

  

***

 

We get out of the car in a big parking lot. There sure is a lot of people and cars here. Carl tells us to follow him. Carl ain't nothing like Lonnie. His face is all scarred up and he's got cauliflower ears. His nose is twisted on his face. He ain't funny and he looks mean. Grandma says Carl had a hard life and don't like most people. I tried to talk to him but he just give me a mean look. We walk through the crowds of people. Picnic tables are set up everywhere with lots of food and drinks. Kids are everywhere, running around, hollering, chasing each other, and getting in the way. There are kegs of beer and some of the people look and act drunk even though it's before noontime. Carl walks toward a group of men standing around and listening to a big fat guy talking. The fat guy looks around and sees us. He leaves his friends and walks to meet Carl. "Carl! How ya been, Champ?" Carl takes hold of his hand and the two of them stand close, talking real low.

 

We stand watching them. Lonnie says, "That's Babe Brown. He was Carl's manager in the old days. He's putting on the fight. Andy, if he likes you he can get you some big money fights. Of course you gotta win and the crowd has to like you."

 

Carl steps away from Babe Brown, turns around and waves us over. He introduces us to Mr. Brown. Babe gives each of us a smile and nod, but he keeps his eyes mostly on Andy.

 

"Andy, I been hearing some good things about you. I hear you got a big punch, rock chin, and will fight anybody."

 

Andy almost laughs out loud. "You put 'em up and I'll knock 'em over."

 

"Hey! That's the way I like to hear a man talk. We're gonna make a lot of money together." He grabs Andy around the shoulders and walks off with him.

 

Lonnie says, "Paulie, you and Billy walk around and meet the folks here. I bet you can scare yourselves up a meal. Carl and I got things to do." I look at Paulie and he looks at me. He don't look so mean no more.

 

***

 

"Paulie, Billy, over here. I got seats up ringside for ya. The fights gonna start any time now."

Carl is waving his arms and pointing us toward a ring set up in the baseball field. The place is noisy and crowded. We follow Carl through the crowd and sit down on some folding chairs. We can reach out and touch the ring apron. "You boys had something to eat?" We shake our heads yes. Paulie is smiling for the first time in his life. I can see he is almost jumping out of his skin with excitement. I feel the same way--I don't want this day to ever end--this is the best day of my life. There are two guys sitting behind us. They are old men with fancy suits on--they look like important guys. They talk like they know all about boxing. One of them looks like Doc Kearns. Grandma told me that Doc Kearns is a famous old-time fight manager. She says he took Jack Dempsey under his wing and made him the Heavyweight Champion of the World. She says no fighter can make it without a good manager. Maybe this guy's gonna manage Andy.

 

Lonnie told us to meet some folks and we met lots of kids. He told us to find something to eat and we stuffed ourselves at every picnic table in the park. We was the only guys from Modesto and everybody thought we was heroes--specially when Paulie told them he was Andy's brother. We run with all the guys and told them about our neighborhood and how we played marbles and baseball. Every thing was so exciting except a little girl with a flowered dress on took Paulie behind the bleachers and gave him a big slobber on the lips. Paulie wanted to take her underpants off but I told him no. We throwed rocks at leaves and stuff floating down the creek. We told everybody to come to Modesto and we would show them around. We told them about the potato slide at the high school. They ain't got nothing like that around here. Paulie almost got in a fight when some guy said Andy was gonna get a whipping. But that all blowed over and everybody was happy.

 

"Ladies and gentlemen this is the fight of the year." Babe Brown has hold of the microphone and he's standing in the middle of the ring. "What we got here is two very special fighters. They are easily the best fighters in Northern California. The winner is in line for a shot at the Championship of California. In this corner, all the way from Modesto, I give you the Valley Assassin, Andy Johnson." Babe steps back to the ropes and Andy dances out of his corner with a big smile on his face. He turns in a big circle with his gloved fist high in the air. He gets a little bit of clapping and that's all. He goes back to his corner.

 

Babe comes back to the center of the ring and hollers in the microphone. "And Bartolo Siriani doesn't need an introduction. You all know him as the Terror of the Foothills." He turns and points at the Terror. "Give a big hand to Nevada City's own." Everybody jumps to their feet and cheer real loud and clap with both hands. The Terror circles the ring waving to the crowd with a smile on his face. He is a head taller than Andy but he ain't got the muscles Andy's got. He's got big scars running over both eyebrows. Lonnie says he's a bleeder. All Andy's got to do is bust him up and they'll stop the fight. Lonnie don't want that; he wants a knockout.

 

I keep looking at the Terror; he's tall and kind of slim - just like a boxer's supposed to be. Andy's short and has big muscles - more like a wrestler than a boxer. I wonder why Andy is a boxer. With his big muscles he could just grab somebody and twist their arm till they give up. If I was as strong as Andy I wouldn't be a boxer and take punches. The Terror's got whiskers on his dark unshaven face--he's a man. Andy's face is smooth--Andy's a boy and he don't shave. The more I look at the Terror, the older and meaner he looks. Andy can't whip him.

 

The referee is a big guy with cauliflower ears and a busted up face. I bet he's been in a lot of fights; he looks just like Mike Muzurki the movie tough guy. He walks to the center of the ring and waves both fighters to him. Andy and the Terror crowd around him and I can see they are listening to him. I can't hear what's being said because the crowd is making a lot of noise. He waves them to their corners. Andy and his opponent dance back to their corners.

 

Lonnie's been with Andy all the time, now he climbs down and crouches at the edge of the ring. He looks around at us, smiles, and gives a thumbs-up. The bell rings and Andy runs across the ring. The Terror tries to sidestep but Andy sidesteps ahead of him and drives him into the ropes. Andy lands a left and right to the face. The Terror grabs Andy's arms and holds on. Andy throws the Terror across the ring. The referee gets hold of Andy's arm and gives him a scolding. The crowd boos. Andy runs right at the Terror, who tries to circle away, but Andy sidesteps and gets ahead of the guy - just like Lonnie had him practice. Every time they get close Andy lands a bunch of punches to the face. The Terror's face is beet-red. He can't stay away from Andy and he hasn't even tried to throw a punch. I look around at Doc Kearns. I can hear him talking. "Nifty little boxer. But he'll never amount to nothing…no punch." No punch? I look back around at the fight. It's true. Andy is hitting the guy a lot of times but the guy ain't staggering or nothing. I'm hollering, "Come on, Andy." But I'm really screaming in my mind, "Put some red-hot mustard on those punches, Andy." The bell rings and both fighters return to their corners.

 

Andy's sitting on his stool. I'm looking up at him. Lonnie is smiling and relaxed. He uses a sponge to wipe Andy's face and gives him a drink from the water bottle. I look across the ring. The Foothills Terror is sitting on his stool and screaming and hollering at everybody in his corner: he's mad. I can read Lonnie's lips. "Get ready."

 

The bell rings and Andy dances out to the center. This time he circles away from his opponent. The Terror is charging and throwing punches with both hands. Andy's got both gloves against the sides of his head. He's twisting this way and that. The Terror is blasting away at Andy but he's missing or hitting Andy's gloves. Dang! Andy's fighting just like he practiced with me. I got goose bumps all over. The crowd is screaming. "Kill him, Bart."

 

Andy ain't throwed a punch for the whole round and the Terror is throwing punches a mile a minute. Andy's gotta do something. Oh! There it is: Andy's starting to punch back. He lands a Cracker Jack left and the Terror stumbles into the ropes. I can read the Terror's mind; he stands on the ropes and looks at Andy. He's thinking, "Should I slug with him? Hell yes, I'm gonna knock him out." He charges back in, throwing hard punches. Both fighters are blasting away but nobody's landing--the punches are just missing. Whack! The Terror goes flying into the ropes. I can see his eyes roll back up into his head and only the whites are showing. He's laying on the ropes, shoe soles on the floor, with his arms dangling at his sides. The referee grabs Andy by the shoulders. Andy, with a shrug, sends the referee stumbling away from the action. Andy attacks the Terror. The Terror's head flops back and forth as Andy blasts away with punch after punch. Suddenly, he goes down. It's like somebody jerked his legs out from under him.

 

The referee grabs Andy around the waist, spins around, and throws him across the ring. Andy hits the floor running. He grabs the ring rope and pulls himself up short. The referee kneels by the fallen fighter. He is joined by a flock of other men. The crowd is silent. They've stopped screaming- - I can't even hear them breathe - they just saw somebody get killed. Somebody grabs the microphone, "Is there a doctor in the house?" I hear other people start to yell, "Call an ambulance." Lonnie,smiling, looks down at me winks, and says, "You don't mess around with old Andy. Andy'll get ya right out of there." Carl says, "We better hope he's not dead. These folks will lynch us."


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