The Big Blow
For Norman Partridge
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 1900, 4:00 P.M.
Telegraphed Message from Washington, D.C., Weather Bureau, Central Office, to Issac Cline, Galveston, Texas, Weather Bureau:
Tropical storm disturbance moving northward over Cuba.
On an afternoon hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock, John McBride, six-foot one-and-a-half inches, 220 pounds, ham-handed, built like a wild boar and of similar disposition, arrived by ferry from mainland Texas to Galveston Island, a six-gun under his coat and a razor in his shoe.
As the ferry docked, McBride set his suitcase down, removed his bowler, took a crisp white handkerchief from inside his coat, wiped the bowler’s sweatband with it, used it to mop his forehead, ran it over his thinning black hair, and put the hat back on.
An old Chinese guy in San Francisco told him he was losing his hair because he always wore hats, and McBride decided maybe he was right, but now he wore the hats to hide his baldness. At thirty he felt he was too young to lose his hair. The Chinaman had given him a tonic for his problem at a considerable sum. McBride used it religiously, rubbed it into his scalp. So far, all he could see it had done was shine his bald spot. He ever got back to Frisco, he was gonna look that Chinaman up, maybe knock a few knots on his head.
As McBride picked up his suitcase and stepped off the ferry with the others, he observed the sky. It appeared green as a pool-table cloth. As the sun dipped down to drink from the Gulf, McBride almost expected to see steam rise up from beyond the island. He took in a deep breath of sea air and thought it tasted all right. It made him hungry. That was why he was here. He was hungry. First on the menu was a woman, then a steak, then some rest before the final meal—the thing he had come for. To whip a nigger.
He hired a buggy to take him to a poke house he had been told about by his employers, the fellows who had paid his way from Chicago. According to what they said, there was a redhead there so good and tight she’d make you sing soprano. Way he felt, if she was redheaded, female, and ready, he’d be all right, and to hell with the song. It was on another’s tab anyway.
As the coach trotted along, McBride took in Galveston. It was a Southerner’s version of New York, with a touch of the tropics. Houses were upraised on stilts—thick support posts actually—against the washing of storm waters, and in the city proper the houses looked to be fresh off Deep South plantations.
City Hall had apparently been designed by an architect with a Moorish background. It was ripe with domes and spirals. The style collided with a magnificent clock housed in the building’s highest point, a peaked tower. The clock was like a miniature Big Ben. England meets the Middle East.
Electric streetcars hissed along the streets, and there were a large number of bicycles, carriages, buggies, and pedestrians. McBride even saw one automobile.
The streets themselves were made of buried wooden blocks that McBride identified as ships’ ballast. Some of the side streets were made of white shell, and some were hardened sand. He liked what he saw, thought: Maybe, after I do in the nigger, I’ll stick around a while. Take in the sun at the beach. Find a way to get my fingers in a little solid graft of some sort.
When McBride finally got to the whorehouse, it was full dark. He gave the black driver a big tip, cocked his bowler, grabbed his suitcase, went through the ornate iron gate, up the steps, and inside to get his tumblers clicked right.
After giving his name to the plump madam, who looked as if she could still grind out a customer or two herself, he was given the royalty treatment. The madam herself took him upstairs, undressed him, bathed him, fondled him a bit.
When he was clean, she dried him off, nestled him in bed, kissed him on the forehead as if he were her little boy, then toddled off. The moment she left, he climbed out of bed, got in front of the mirror on the dresser and combed his hair, trying to push as much as possible over the bald spot. He had just gotten it arranged and gone back to bed when the redhead entered.
She was green-eyed and a little thick-waisted, but not bad to look at. She had fire red hair on her head and a darker fire between her legs, which were white as sheets and smooth as a newborn pig.
He started off by hurting her a little, tweaking her nipples, just to show her who was boss. She pretended to like it. Kind of money his employers were paying, he figured she’d dip a turd in gravel and push it around the floor with her nose and pretend to like it.
McBride roughed her bottom some, then got in the saddle and bucked a few. Later on, when she got a little slow about doing what he wanted, he blacked one of her eyes.
When the representatives of the Galveston Sporting Club showed up, he was lying in bed with the redhead, uncovered, letting a hot wind blow through the open windows and dry his and the redhead’s juices.
The madam let the club members in and went away. There were four of them, all dressed in evening wear with top hats in their hands. Two were gray-haired and gray-whiskered. The other two were younger men. One was large, had a face that looked as if it regularly stopped cannonballs. Both eyes were black from a recent encounter. His nose was flat and strayed to the left of his face. He did his breathing through his mouth. He didn’t have any top front teeth.
The other young man was slight and a dandy. This, McBride assumed, would be Ronald Beems, the man who had written him on behalf of the Sporting Club.
Everything about Beems annoyed McBride. His suit, unlike the wrinkled and drooping suits of the others, looked fresh-pressed, unresponsive to the afternoon’s humidity. He smelled faintly of mothballs and naphtha, and some sort of hair tonic that had ginger as a base. He wore a thin little moustache and the sort of hair McBride wished he had. Black, full, and longish, with muttonchop sideburns. He had perfect features. No fist had ever touched him. He stood stiff, as if he had a hoe handle up his ass.
Beems, like the others, looked at McBride and the redhead with more than a little astonishment. McBride lay with his legs spread and his back propped against a pillow. He looked very big there. His legs and shoulders and arms were thick and twisted with muscle and glazed in sweat. His stomach protruded a bit, but it was hard-looking.
The whore, sweaty, eye blacked, legs spread, breasts slouching from the heat, looked more embarrassed than McBride. She wanted to cover, but she didn’t move. Fresh in her memory was that punch to the eye.
“For heaven’s sake, man,” Beems said. “Cover yourself.”
“What the hell you think we’ve been doin’ here?” McBride said. “Playin’ checkers?”
“There’s no need to be open about it. A man’s pleasure is taken in private.”
“Certainly you’ve seen balls before,” McBride said, reaching for a cigar that lay on the table next to his revolver and a box of matches. Then he smiled and studied Beems. “Then maybe you ain’t ... And then again, maybe, well, you’ve seen plenty and close up. You look to me the sort that would rather hear a fat boy fart than a pretty girl sing.”
“You disgusting brute,” Beems said.
“That’s telling me,” McBride said. “Now I’m hurt. Cut to the goddamn core.” McBride patted the redhead’s inner thigh. “You recognize this business, don’t you? You don’t, I got to tell you about it. We men call it a woman, and that thing between her legs is the ole red snapper.”
“We’ll not conduct our affairs in this fashion,” Beems said.
McBride smiled, took a match from the box, and lit the cigar. He puffed, said, “You dressed-up pieces of dirt brought me all the way down here from Chicago. I didn’t ask to come. You offered me a job, and I took it, and I can untake it, it suits me. I got round-trip money from you already. You sent for me, and I came, and you set me up with a paid hair hole, and you’re here for a meeting at a whorehouse, and now you’re gonna tell me you’re too special to look at my balls. Too prudish to look at pussy. Go on out, let me finish what I really want to finish. I’ll be out of here come tomorrow, and you can whip your own nigger.”
There was a moment of foot shuffling, and one of the elderly men leaned over and whispered to Beems. Beems breathed once, like a fish out of water, said, “Very well. There’s not that much needs to be said. We want this nigger whipped, and we want him whipped bad. We understand in your last bout, the man died.”
“Yeah,” McBride said. “I killed him and dipped my wick in his old lady. Same night.”
This was a lie, but McBride liked the sound of it. He liked the way their faces looked when he told it. The woman had actually been the man’s half sister, and the man had died three days later from the beating.
“And this was a white man?” Beems said.
“White as snow. Dead as a stone. Talk money.”
“We’ve explained our financial offer.”
“Talk it again. I like the sound of money.”
“Hundred dollars before you get in the ring with the nigger. Two hundred more if you beat him. A bonus of five hundred if you kill him. This is a short fight. Not forty-five rounds. No prizefighter makes money like that for so little work. Not even John L. Sullivan.”
“This must be one hated nigger. Why? He mountin’ your dog?”
“That’s our business.”
“All right. But I’ll take half of that money now.”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
“Now it is. And I’ll be runnin’ me a tab while I’m here, too. Pick it up.”
More foot shuffling. Finally, the two elderly men got their heads together, pulled out their wallets. They pooled their money, gave it to Beems. “These gentlemen are our backers,” Beems said. “This is Mr.—”
“I don’t care who they are,” McBride said. “Give me the money.”
Beems tossed it on the foot of the bed.
“Pick it up and bring it here,” McBride said to Beems.
“I will not.”
“Yes, you will, ‘cause you want me to beat this nigger. You want me to do it bad. And another reason is this: You don’t, I’ll get up and whip your dainty little ass all over this room.”
Beems shook a little. “But why?”
“Because I can.”
Beems, his face red as infection, gathered the bills from the bed, carried them around to McBride. He thrust them at McBride. McBride, fast as a duck on a june bug, grabbed Beems’s wrist and pulled him forward, causing him to let go of the money and drop it onto McBride’s chest. McBride pulled the cigar from his mouth with his free hand, stuck it against the back of Beems’s thumb. Beems let out a squeal, said, “Forrest!”
The big man with no teeth and black eyes started around the bed toward McBride. McBride said, “Step back, Charlie, or you’ll have to hire someone to yank this fella out of your ass.”
Forrest hesitated, looked as if he might keep coming, then stepped back and hung his head.
McBride pulled Beems’s captured hand between his legs and rubbed it over his sweaty balls a few times, then pushed him away. Beems stood with his mouth open, stared at his hand.
“I’m bull of the woods here,” McBride said, “and it stays that way from here on out. You treat me with respect. I say, hold my rope while I pee, you hold it. I say, hold my sacks off the sheet while I get a piece, you hold ‘em.”
Beems said, “You bastard. I could have you killed.”
“Then do it. I hate your type. I hate someone I think’s your type. I hate someone who likes your type or wants to be your type. I’d kill a dog liked to be with you. I hate all of you expensive bastards with money and no guts. I hate you ‘cause you can’t whip your own nigger, and I’m glad you can’t, 'cause I can. And you’ll pay me. So go ahead, send your killers around. See where it gets them. Where it gets you. And I hate your goddamn hair, Beems.”
“When this is over,” Beems said, “you leave immediately!”
“I will, but not because of you. Because I can’t stand you or your little pack of turds.”
The big man with missing teeth raised his head, glared at McBride. McBride said, “Nigger whipped your ass, didn’t he, Forrest?”
Forrest didn’t say anything, but his face said a lot. McBride said, “You can’t whip the nigger, so your boss sent for me. I can whip the nigger. So don’t think for a moment you can whip me.”
“Come on,” Beems said. “Let’s leave. The man makes me sick.”
Beems joined the others, his hand held out to his side. The elderly gentlemen looked as if they had just realized they were lost in the forest. They organized themselves enough to start out the door. Beems followed, turned before exiting, glared at McBride.
McBride said, “Don’t wash that hand, Beems. You can say, ‘Shake the hand of the man who shook the balls of John McBride.”’
“You go to hell,” Beems said.
“Keep me posted,” McBride said. Beems left. McBride yelled after him and his crowd, “And gentlemen, enjoyed doing business with you.”
Later in the night the redhead displeased him and McBride popped her other eye, stretched her out, lay across her, and slept. While he slept, he dreamed he had a head of hair like Mr. Ronald Beems.
Outside, the wind picked up slightly, blew hot, brine-scented air down Galveston’s streets and through the whorehouse window.
Bill Cooper was working outside on the second-floor deck he was building. He had it completed except for a bit of trim work. It had gone dark on him sometime back, and he was trying to finish by lantern light. He was hammering a sidewall board into place when he felt a drop of rain. He stopped hammering and looked up. The night sky had a peculiar appearance, and for a moment it gave him pause. He studied the heavens a moment longer, decided it didn’t look all that bad. It was just the starlight that gave it that look. No more drops fell on him.
Bill tossed the hammer on the deck, leaving the nail only partially driven, picked up the lantern, and went inside the house to be with his wife and baby son. He’d had enough for one day.
The waves came in loud against the beach and the air was surprisingly heavy for so late at night. It lay hot and sweaty on Li'l Arthur John Johnson’s bare chest. He breathed in the air and blew it out, pounded the railroad tie with all his might for the hundredth time. His right fist struck it, and the tie moved in the sand. He hooked it with a left, jammed it with a straight right, putting his entire six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame into it. The tie went backwards, came out of the sand, and hit the beach.
Arthur stepped back and held out his broad, black hands and examined them in the moonlight. They were scuffed, but essentially sound. He walked down to the water and squatted and stuck his hands in, let the surf roll over them. The salt didn’t even burn. His hands were like leather. He rubbed them together, being sure to coat them completely with seawater. He cupped water in his palms, rubbed it on his face, over his shaved, bullet head.
Along with a number of other pounding exercises, he had been doing this for months, conditioning his hands and face with work and brine. Rumor was, this man he was to fight, this McBride, had fists like razors, fists that cut right through the gloves and tore the flesh.
Li'l Arthur took another breath, and this one was filled not only with the smell of saltwater and dead fish, but of raw sewage, which was regularly dumped offshore in the Gulf.
He took his shovel and redug the hole in the sand and dropped the tie back in, patted it down, went back to work. This time, two socks and it came up. He repeated the washing of his hands and face, then picked up the tie, placed it on a broad shoulder and began to run down the beach. When he had gone a good distance, he switched shoulders and ran back. He didn’t even feel winded.
He collected his shovel, and with the tie on one shoulder, started toward his family’s shack in the Rats, also known as Nigger Town.
Li'l Arthur left the tie in front of the shack and put the shovel on the sagging porch. He was about to go inside when he saw a man start across the little excuse of a yard. The man was white. He was wearing dress clothes and a top hat.
When he was near the front porch, he stopped, took off his hat. It was Forrest Thomas, the man Li'l Arthur had beaten unconscious three weeks back. It had taken only till the middle of the third round.
Even in the cloud-hazy moonlight, Li'l Arthur could see Forrest looked rough. For a moment, a fleeting moment, he almost felt bad about inflicting so much damage. But then he began to wonder if the man had a gun.
“Arthur,” Forrest said. “I come to talk a minute, if’n it’s all right.”
This was certainly different from the night Li'l Arthur had climbed into the ring with him. Then, Forrest Thomas had been conceited and full of piss and vinegar and wore the word nigger on his lips as firmly as a mole. He was angry he had been reduced by his employer to fighting a black man. To hear him tell it, he deserved no less than John L. Sullivan, who refused to fight a Negro, considering it a debasement to the heavyweight title.
“Yeah,” Li'l Arthur said. “What you want?”
“I ain’t got nothing against you,” Forrest said.
“Don’t matter you do,” Li'l Arthur said.
“You whupped me fair and square.”
“I know, and I can do it again.”
“I didn’t think so before, but I know you can now.”
“That’s what you come to say? You got all dressed up, just to come talk to a nigger that whupped you?”
“I come to say more.”
“Say it. I’m tired.”
“McBride’s come in.”
“That ain’t tellin’ me nothin’. I reckoned he’d come in sometime. How’m I gonna fight him, he don’t come in?”
“You don’t know anything about McBride. Not really. He killed a man in the ring, his last fight in Chicago. That’s why Beems brought him in, to kill you. Beems and his bunch want you dead ‘cause you whipped a white man. They don’t care you whipped me. They care you whipped a white man. Beems figures it’s an insult to the white race, a white man being beat by a colored. This McBride, he’s got a shot at the Championship of the World. He’s that good.”
“You tellin’ me you concerned for me?”
“I’m tellin’ you Beems and the members of the Sportin’ Club can’t take it. They lost a lot of money on bets, too. They got to set it right, see. I ain’t no friend of yours, but I figure I owe you that. I come to warn you this McBride is a killer.”
Li'l Arthur listened to the crickets saw their legs a moment, then said, “If that worried me, this man being a killer, and I didn’t fight him, that would look pretty good for your boss, wouldn’t it? Beems could say the bad nigger didn’t show up. That he was scared of a white man.”
“You fight this McBride, there’s a good chance he’ll kill you or cripple you. Boxing bein’ against the law, there won’t be nobody there legal to keep check on things. Not really. Audience gonna be there ain’t gonna say nothin’. They ain’t supposed to be there anyway. You died, got hurt bad, you’d end up out there in the Gulf with a block of granite tied to your dick, and that’d be that.”
“Sayin’ I should run?”’
“You run, it gives Beems face, and you don’t take a beatin’, maybe get killed. You figure it.”
“You ain’t doin’ nothin’ for me. You’re just pimpin’ for Beems. You tryin’ to beat me with your mouth. Well, I ain’t gonna take no beatin’. White. Colored. Striped. It don’t matter. McBride gets in the ring, I’ll knock him down. You go on back to Beems. Tell him I ain’t scared, and I ain’t gonna run. And ain’t none of this workin’.”
Forrest put his hat on. “Have it your way, nigger.” He turned and walked away.
Li'l Arthur started inside the house, but before he could open the door, his father, Henry, came out. He dragged his left leg behind him as he came, leaned on his cane. He wore a ragged undershirt and work pants. He was sweaty. Tired. Gray. Grayer yet in the muted moonlight.
“You ought not talk to a white man that way,” Henry said. “Them Ku Kluxers’ll come ‘round.”
“I ain’t afraid of no Ku Kluxers.”
“Yeah, well I am, and we be seein’ what you say when you swingin’ from a rope, a peckerwood cuttin’ off yo balls. You ain’t lived none yet. You ain’t nothin’ but twenty-two years. Sit down, boy.”
“Papa, you ain’t me. I ain’t got no bad leg. I ain’t scared of nobody.”
“I ain’t always had no bad leg. Sit down.”
Li'l Arthur sat down beside his father. Henry said, “A colored man, he got to play the game, to win the game. You hear me?”
“I ain’t seen you winnin’ much.”
Henry slapped Li'l Arthur quickly. It was fast, and Li'l Arthur realized where he had inherited his hand speed. “You shut yo face,” Henry said. “Don’t talk to your papa like that.”
Li'l Arthur reached’ up and touched his cheek, not because it hurt, but because he was still a little amazed. Henry said, “For a colored man, winnin’ is stayin’ alive to live out the time God give you.”
“But how you spend what time you got, Papa, that ain’t up to God. I’m gonna be the Heavyweight Champion of the World someday. You’ll see.”
“There ain’t never gonna be no colored Champion of the World, ‘Lil’ Arthur. And there ain’t no talkin’ to you. You a fool. I’m gonna be cuttin’ you down from a tree some morning, yo neck all stretched out. Help me up. I’m goin’ to bed.”
Li'l Arthur helped his father up, and the old man, balanced on his cane, dragged himself inside the shack.
A moment later, Li'l Arthur’s mother, Tina, came out. She was a broad-faced woman, short and stocky, nearly twenty years younger than her husband.
“You don’t need talk yo papa that way,” she said.
“He don’t do nothin’, and he don’t want me to do nothin’,” Li'l Arthur said.
“He know what he been through, Arthur. He born a slave. He made to fight for white mens like he was some kinda fightin’ rooster, and he got his leg paralyzed ‘cause he had to fight for them Rebels in the war. You think on that. He in one hell of a fix. Him a colored man out there shootin’ at Yankees, ‘cause if he don’t, they gonna shoot him, and them Rebels gonna shoot him he don’t fight the Yankees.”
“I ain’t all that fond of Yankees myself. They ain’t likin’ niggers any more than anyone else.”
“That’s true. But, yo papa, he right about one thing. You ain’t lived enough to know nothin’ about nothin’. You want to be a white man so bad it hurt you. You is African, boy. You is born of slaves come from slaves come from Africa.”
“You sayin’ what he’s sayin’?“
“Naw, I ain’t. I’m sayin’, you whup this fella, and you whup him good. Remember when them bullies used to chase you home, and I tell you, you come back without fightin’, I’m gonna whup you harder than them?”
“And you got so you whupped ‘em good, just so I wouldn’t whup yo ass?”
“Well, these here white men hire out this man against you, threaten you, they’re bullies. You go in there, and you whup this fella, and you use what God give you in them hands, and you make your way. But you remember, you ain’t gonna have nothin’ easy. Only way a white man gonna get respect for you is you knock him down, you hear? And you can knock him down in that ring better than out here, ‘cause then you just a bad nigger they gonna hang. But you don’t talk to yo papa that way. He better than most. He got him a steady job, and he hold this family together.”
“He’s a janitor.”
“That’s more than you is.”
“And you hold this family together.”
“It a two-person job, son.”
“Good night, son.”
Li'l Arthur hugged her, kissed her cheek, and she went inside. He followed, but the smallness of the two-room house, all those bodies on pallets—his parents, three sisters, two brothers, and a brother-in-law—made him feel crowded. And the pigeons sickened him. Always the pigeons. They had found a hole in the roof—the one that had been covered with tar paper—and now they were roosting inside on the rafters. Tomorrow, half the house would be covered in bird shit. He needed to get up there and put some fresh tar paper on the roof. He kept meaning to. Papa couldn’t do it, and he spent his own time training. He had to do more for the family besides bring in a few dollars from fighting.
Li'l Arthur got the stick they kept by the door for just such an occasion, used it to rout the pigeons by poking at them. In the long run, it wouldn’t matter. They would fly as high as the roof, then gradually creep back down to roost. But the explosion of bird wings, their rise to the sky through the hole in the roof, lifted his spirits.
His brother-in-law, Clement, rose up on an elbow from his pallet, and his wife, Li'l Arthur’s sister Lucy, stirred and rolled over, stretched her arm across Clement’s chest, but didn’t wake up.
“What you doin’, Arthur?” Clement whispered. “You don’t know a man’s got to sleep? I got work to do ‘morrow. Ain‘t all of us sleep all day.”
“Sleep then. And stay out of my sister. Lucy don’t need no kids now. We got a house full a folks.”
“She my wife. We supposed to do that. And multiply.”
“Then get your own place and multiply. We packed tight as turds here.”
“You crazy, Arthur.”
Arthur cocked the pigeon stick. “Lay down and shut up.”
Clement lay down, and Arthur put the stick back and gathered up his pallet and went outside. He inspected the pallet for bird shit, found none, stretched out on the porch, and tried to sleep. He thought about getting his guitar, going back to the beach to strum it, but he was too tired for that. Too tired to do anything, too awake to sleep.
His mother had told him time and again that when he was a baby, an old Negro lady with the second sight had picked up his little hand and said, “This child gonna eat his bread in many countries.”
It was something that had always sustained him. But now, he began to wonder. Except for trying to leave Galveston by train once, falling asleep in the boxcar, only to discover it had been making circles in the train yard all night as supplies were unloaded, he’d had no adventures, and was still eating his bread in Galveston.
All night he fought mosquitoes, the heat, and his own ambition. By morning he was exhausted.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 10:20 A.M.
Telegraphed Message from Washington, D.C., Weather Bureau, Central Office, to Issac Cline, Galveston, Texas, Weather Bureau, Central Office:
Disturbance center near Key West moving northwest. Vessels bound for Florida and Cuban ports should exercise caution. Storm likely to become dangerous.
McBride awoke, flicked the redhead, sat up in bed, and cracked his knuckles, said, “I’m going to eat and train, Red. You have your ass here when I get back, and put it on the Sportin’ Club’s bill. And wash yourself, for heaven’s sake.”
“Yes sir, Mr. McBride,” she said.
McBride got up, poured water into a washbasin, washed his dick, under his arms, splashed water on his face. Then he sat at the dresser in front of the mirror and spent twenty minutes putting on the Chinaman’s remedy and combing his hair. As soon as he had it just right, he put on a cap.
He got dressed in loose pants, a short-sleeved shirt, soft shoes, wrapped his knuckles with gauze, put a little notebook and pencil in his back pocket, then pulled on soft leather gloves. When the redhead wasn’t looking, he wrapped his revolver and razor in a washrag, stuffed them between his shirt and his stomach.
Downstairs, making sure no one was about, he removed the rag containing his revolver and razor, stuck them into the drooping greenness of a potted plant, then went away.
He strolled down the street to a cafe and ordered steak and eggs and lots of coffee. He ate with his gloves and hat on. He paid for the meal, but got a receipt.
Comfortably full, he went out to train.
He began at the docks. There were a number of men hard at work. They were loading bags of cottonseed onto a ship. He stood with his hands behind his back and watched. The scent of the sea was strong. The water lapped at the pilings enthusiastically, and the air was as heavy as a cotton sack.
After a while, he strolled over to a large bald man with arms and legs like plantation columns. The man wore faded overalls without a shirt, and his chest was as hairy as a bear’s ass. He had on heavy work boots with the sides burst out. McBride could see his bare feet through the openings. McBride hated a man that didn’t keep up his appearance, even when he was working. Pride was like a dog. You didn’t feed it regularly, it died.
McBride said, “What’s your name?”
The man, a bag of cottonseed under each arm, stopped and looked at him, taken aback. “Ketchum,” he said. “Warner Ketchum.”
“Yeah,” McBride said. “Thought so. So, you’re the one.”
The man glared at him. “One what?”
The other men stopped working, turned to look.
“I just wanted to see you,” McBride said. “Yeah, you fit the description. I just never thought there was a white man would stoop to such a thing. Fact is, hard to imagine any man stooping to such a thing.”
“What are you talkin’ about, fella?”
“Well, word is, Warner Ketchum that works at the dock has been known to suck a little nigger dick in his time.”
Ketchum dropped the cottonseed bags. “Who the hell are you? Where you hear that?”
McBride put his gloved hands behind his back and held them. “They say, on a good night, you can do more with a nigger’s dick than a cat can with a ball of twine.”
The man was fuming. “You got me mixed up with somebody else, you Yankee-talkin’ sonofabitch.”
“Naw, I ain’t got you mixed up. Your name’s Warner Ketchum. You look how you was described to me by the nigger whose stick you slicked.”
Warner stepped forward with his right foot and swung a right punch so looped it looked like a sickle blade. McBride ducked it without removing his hands from behind his back, slipped inside and twisted his hips as he brought a right uppercut into Warner’s midsection.
Warner’s air exploded and he wobbled back and McBride was in again, a left hook to the ribs, a straight right to the solar plexus. Warner doubled and went to his knees.
McBride leaned over and kissed him on the ear, said, “Tell me. Them nigger dicks taste like licorice?”
Warner came up then, and he was wild. He threw a right, then a left. McBride bobbed beneath them. Warner kicked at him. McBride turned sideways, let the kick go by, unloaded a left hand that caught Warner on the jaw, followed it with a right that struck with a sound like the impact of an artillery shell.
Warner dropped to one knee. McBride grabbed him by the head and swung his knee into Warner’s face, busting his nose all over the dock. Warner fell face forward, caught himself on his hands, almost got up. Then, very slowly, he collapsed, lay down, and didn’t move.
McBride looked at the men who were watching him. He said, “He didn’t suck no nigger dicks. I made that up.” He got out his paper pad and pencil and wrote: Owed me. Price of one sparring partner, FIVE DOLLARS.
He put the pad and pencil away. Got five dollars out of his wallet, folded it, put it in the man’s back pocket. He turned to the other men who stood staring at him as if he were one of Jesus’ miracles.
“Frankly, I think you’re all a bunch of sorry assholes, and I think, one at a time, I can lick every goddamn one of you Southern white trash pieces of shit. Any takers?”
“Not likely,” said a stocky man at the front of the crowd. “You’re a ringer.” He picked up a sack of cottonseed he had put down, started toward the ship. The other men did the same.
McBride said, “Okay,” and walked away.
He thought, maybe, on down the docks he might find another sparring partner.
By the end of the day, near dark, McBride checked his notepad for expenses, saw the Sporting Club owed him forty-five dollars in sparring partners, and a new pair of gloves, as well as breakfast and dinner to come. He added money for a shoeshine. A clumsy sonofabitch had scuffed one of his shoes.
He got the shoeshine and ate a steak, flexed his muscles as he arrived at the whorehouse. He felt loose still, like he could take on another two or three yokels.
He went inside, got his goods out of the potted plant, and climbed the stairs.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 6:00 P.M.
Telegraphed Message from Washington, D.C., Weather Bureau, Central Office, to Issac Cline, Galveston, Texas, Weather Bureau:
Storm center just northwest of Key West.
Li'l Arthur ran down to the Sporting Club that night and stood in front of it, his hands in his pants pockets. The wind was brisk, and the air was just plain sour.
Saturday, he was going to fight a heavyweight crown contender, and though it would not be listed as an official bout, and McBride was just in it to pickup some money, Li'l Arthur was glad to have the chance to fight a man who might fight for the championship someday. And if he could beat him, even if it didn’t affect McBride’s record, Li'l Arthur knew he’d have that, he would have beaten a contender for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
It was a far cry from the Battle Royales he had first participated in. There was a time when he looked upon those degrading events with favor.
He remembered his first Battle Royale. His friend Ernest had talked him into it. Once a month, sometimes more often, white “sporting men” liked to get a bunch of colored boys and men to come down to the club for a free-for-all. They’d put nine or ten of them in a ring, sometimes make them strip naked and wear Sambo masks. He’d done that once himself.
While the coloreds fought, the whites would toss money and yell for them to kill one another. Sometimes they’d tie two coloreds together by the ankles, let them go at it. Blood flowed thick as molasses on flapjacks. Bones were broken. Muscles torn. For the whites, it was great fun, watching a couple of coons knock each other about.
Li'l Arthur found he was good at all that fighting, and even knocked Ernest out, effectively ending their friendship. He couldn’t help himself. He got in there, got the battling blood up, he would hit whoever came near him.
He started boxing regularly, gained some skill. No more Battle Royales. He got a reputation with the colored boxers, and in time that spread to the whites.
The Sporting Club, plumb out of new white contenders for their champion, Forrest Thomas, gave Li'l Arthur twenty-five dollars to mix it up with their man, thinking a colored and a white would be a novelty, and the superiority of the white race would be proved in a match of skill and timing.
Right before the fight, Li'l Arthur said his prayers, and then considering he was going to be fighting in front of a bunch of angry, mean-spirited whites, and for the first time, white women—sporting women, but women—who wanted to see a black man knocked to jelly, he took gauze and wrapped his dick. He wrapped it so that it was as thick as a blackjack. He figured he’d give them white folks something to look at. The thing they feared the most. A black-as-coal stud nigger.
He whipped Forrest Thomas like he was a redheaded stepchild; whipped him so badly, they stopped the fight so no one would see a colored man knock a white man out.
Against their wishes, the Sporting Club was forced to hand the championship over to Li'l Arthur John Johnson, and the fact that a colored now held the club’s precious boxing crown was like a chicken bone in the club’s throat. Primarily Beems’s throat. As the current president of the Sporting Club, the match had been Beems’s idea, and Forrest Thomas had been Beems’s man.
Enter McBride. Beems, on the side, talked a couple of the Sporting Club’s more wealthy members into financing a fight. One where a true contender to the heavyweight crown would whip Li'l Arthur and return the local championship to a white man, even if that white man relinquished the crown when he returned to Chicago, leaving it vacant. In that case, Li'l Arthur was certain he’d never get another shot at the Sporting Club championship. They wanted him out, by hook or crook.
Li'l Arthur had never seen McBride. Didn’t know how he fought. He’d just heard he was as tough as stone and had balls like a brass monkey. He liked to think he was the same way. He didn’t intend to give the championship up. Saturday, he’d find out if he had to.
The redhead, nursing a fat lip, two black eyes, and a bruise on her belly, rolled over gingerly and put her arm across McBride’s hairy chest. “You had enough?”
“I’ll say when I’ve had enough.”
“I was just thinking, I might go downstairs and get something to eat. Come back in a few minutes.”
“You had time to eat before I got back. You didn’t eat, you just messed up. I’m paying for this. Or rather the Sportin’ Club is.”
“An engine’s got to have coal, if you want that engine to go.”
“Yeah.” The redhead reached up and ran her fingers through McBride’s hair.
McBride reached across his chest and slapped the redhead.
“Don’t touch my hair. Stay out of my hair. And shut up. I don’t care you want to fuck or not. I want to fuck, we fuck. Got it?”
“Listen here, I’m gonna take a shit. I get back, I want you to wash that goddamn nasty hole of yours. You think I like stickin’ my wick in that, it not being clean? You got to get clean.”
“It’s so hot. I sweat. And you’re just gonna mess me up again.”
“I don’t care. You wash that thing. I went around with my johnson like that, it’d fall off. I get a disease, girl, I’ll come back here, kick your ass so hard your butthole will swap places with your cunt.”
“I ain’t got no disease, Mr. McBride.”
“Why you got to be so mean?” the redhead asked suddenly, then couldn’t believe it had come out of her mouth. She realized, not only would a remark like that anger McBride, but the question was stupid. It was like asking a chicken why it pecked shit. It just did. McBride was mean because he was, and that was that.
But even as the redhead flinched, McBride turned philosophical. “It isn’t a matter of mean. It’s because I can do what I want, and others can’t. You got that, sister?”
“Sure. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Someone can do to me what I do to them, then all right, that’s how it is. Isn’t a man, woman, or animal on earth that’s worth a damn. You know that?”
“Sure. You’re right.”
“You bet I am. Only thing pure in this world is a baby. Human or animal, a baby is born hungry and innocent. It can’t do a thing for itself. Then it grows up and gets just like everyone else. A baby is all right until it’s about two. Then, it ought to just be smothered and save the world the room. My sister, she was all right till she was about two, then it wasn’t nothing but her wanting stuff and my mother giving it to her. Later on, Mama didn’t have nothing to do with her either, same as me. She got over two years old, she was just trouble. Like I was. Like everybody else is.”
“Sure,” the redhead said.
“Oh, shut up, you don’t know your ass from a pig track.”
McBride got up and went to the john. He took his revolver and his wallet and his razor with him. He didn’t trust a whore—any woman for that matter—far as he could hurl one.
While he was in the can trying out the new flush toilet, the redhead eased out of bed wearing only a sheet. She slipped out the door, went downstairs and outside, into the streets. She flagged down a man in a buggy, talked him into a ride, for a ride, then she was out of there, destination unimportant.
Later, pissed at the redhead, McBride used the madam herself, blacked both her eyes when she suggested that a lot of sex before a fight might not be a good idea for an athlete.
The madam, lying in bed with McBride’s muscular arm across her ample breasts, sighed and watched the glow of the gas streetlights play on the ceiling.
Well, she thought, it’s a living.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 10:35 A.M.
Telegraphed Message from Washington, D.C., Weather Bureau, Central Office, to Issac Cline, Galveston, Texas, Weather Bureau:
Storm warning. Galveston, Texas. Take precautions.
Issac Cline, head of the Galveston Weather Bureau, sat at his desk on the third floor of the Levy Building and read the telegram. He went downstairs and outside for a look-see.
The weather was certainly in a stormy mood, but it didn’t look like serious hurricane weather. He had been with the Weather Bureau for eight years, and he thought he ought to know a hurricane by now, and this wasn’t it. The sky wasn’t the right color.
He walked until he got to the beach. By then the wind was picking up, and the sea was swelling. The clouds were like wads of duck down ripped from a pillow: He walked a little farther down the beach, found a turtle wrapped in seaweed, poked it with a stick. It was dead as a stone.
Issac returned to the Levy Building, and by the time he made his way back, the wind had picked up considerably. He climbed the stairs to the. roof. The roof barometer was dropping quickly, and the wind was serious. He revised his opinion on how much he knew about storms. He estimated the wind to be blowing at twenty miles an hour, and growing. He pushed against it, made his way to the weather pole, hoisted two flags. The top flag was actually a white pennant. It whipped in the wind like a gossip’s tongue. Anyone who saw it knew it meant the wind was coming from the northwest. Beneath it was a red flag with a black center; this flag meant the wind was coming ass over teakettle, and that a seriously violent storm was expected within hours.
The air smelled dank and fishy. For a moment, Cline thought perhaps he had actually touched the dead turtle and brought its stink back with him. But no, it was the wind.
At about this same time, the steamship Pensacola, commanded by Captain James Slater, left the port of Galveston from Pier 34, destination Pensacola, Florida.
Slater had read the hurricane reports of the day before, and though the wind was picking up and was oddly steamy, the sky failed to show what he was watching for: A dusty, brick red color, a sure sign of a hurricane. He felt the whole Weather Bureau business was about as much guess and luck as it was anything else. He figured he could do that and be as accurate.
He gave orders to ease the Pensacola into the Gulf.
The pigeons fluttered through the opening in the Johnson’s roof. Tar paper lifted, tore, blew away, tumbled through the sky as if they were little black pieces of the structure’s soul.
“It’s them birds again,” his mother said.
Li'l Arthur stopped doing push-ups, looked to the ceiling. Pigeons were thick on the rafters. So was pigeon shit. The sky was very visible through the roof. And very black. It looked venomous.
“Shit,” Li'l Arthur said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Leave ‘em be. They scared. So am I.”
Li'l Arthur stood up, said, “Ain’t nothin’ be scared of. We been through all kinda storms. We’re on a rise here. Water don’t never get this high.”
“I ain’t never liked no storm. I be glad when yo daddy and the young’uns gets home.”
“Papa’s got an old tarp I might can put over that hole. Keep out the rain.”
“You think you can, go on.”
“I already should’ a,” Li'l Arthur said.
Li'l Arthur went outside, crawled under the upraised porch, and got hold of the old tarp. It was pretty rotten, but it might serve his purpose, at least temporarily. He dragged it into the yard, crawled back under, tugged out the creaking ladder and a rusty hammer. He was about to go inside and get the nails when he heard a kind of odd roaring. He stopped, listened, recognized it.
It was the surf. He had certainly heard it before, but not this loud and this far from the beach. He got the nails and put the ladder against the side of the house and carried the tarp onto the roof. The tarp nearly took to the air when he spread it, almost carried him with it. With considerable effort he got it nailed over the hole, trapping what pigeons didn’t flee inside the house.
Inside the whorehouse, the madam, a fat lip added to her black eyes, watched from the bed as McBride, naked, seated in a chair before the dresser mirror, carefully oiled and combed his hair over his bald spot. The windows were closed, and the wind rattled them like dice in a gambler’s fist. The air inside the whorehouse was as stuffy as a minister’s wife.
“What’s that smell?” she asked.
It was the tonic the Chinaman had given him. He said, “You don’t want your tits pinched, shut the fuck up.”
“All right,” she said.
The windows rattled again. Pops of rain flecked the glass.
McBride went to the window, his limp dick resting on the windowsill, almost touching the glass, like a large, wrinkled grub looking for a way out.
“Storm coming,” he said.
The madam thought: No shit.
McBride opened the window. The wind blew a comb and hairbrush off the dresser. A man, walking along the sandy street, one hand on his hat to save it from the wind, glanced up at McBride. McBride took hold of his dick and wagged it at him. The man turned his head and picked up his pace.
McBride said, “Spread those fat legs, honey-ass, ‘cause I’m sailing into port, and I’m ready to drop anchor.”
Sighing, the madam rolled onto her back, and McBride mounted her. “Don’t mess up my hair this time,” he said.
The study smelled of stale cigar smoke and sweat, and faintly of baby oil. The grandfather clock chimed four-thirty. The air was humid and sticky as it shoved through the open windows and fluttered the dark curtains. The sunlight, which was tinted with a green cloud haze, flashed in and out, giving brightness to the false eyes and the yellowed teeth of a dozen mounted animal heads on the walls. Bears. Boar. Deer. Even a wolf.
Beems, the source of much of the sweat smell, thought: It’s at least another hour before my wife gets home. Good.
Forrest drove him so hard Beems’s forehead slammed into the wall, rocking the head of the wild boar that was mounted there, causing the boar to look as if it had turned its head in response to a distant sound, a peculiar sight.
“It’s not because I’m one of them kind I do this,” Beems said. “It’s just, oh yeah, honey ... The wife, you know, she don’t do nothing for me. I mean, you got to get a little pleasure where you can. A man’s got to get his pleasure, don’t you think ... Oh, yes. That’s it ... A man, he’s got to get his pleasure, right? Even if there’s nothing funny about him?”
Forrest rested his hands on Beems’s naked shoulders, pushing him down until his head rested on top of the couch cushion. Forrest cocked his hips, drove forward with teeth clenched, penetrating deep into Beems’s ass. He said, “Yeah. Sure.”
“You mean that? This don’t make me queer?”
“No,” Forrest panted. “Never has. Never will. Don’t mean nothin’. Not a damn thing. It’s all right. You’re a man’s man. Let me concentrate.”
Forrest had to concentrate. He hated this business, but it was part of the job. And, of course, unknown to Beems, he was putting the meat to Beems’s wife. So, if he wanted to keep doing that, he had to stay in with the boss. And Mrs. Beems, of course, had no idea he was reaming her husband’s dirty ditch, or that her husband had about as much interest in women as a pig does a silver tea service.
What a joke. He was fucking Beems’s old lady, doing the dog work for Beems, for a good price, and was reaming Beems’s asshole and assuring Beems he wasn’t what he was, a fairy. And as an added benefit, he didn’t have to fight the nigger tomorrow night. That was a big plus. That sonofabitch hit like a mule kicked. He hoped this McBride would tap him good. The nigger died, he’d make a point of shitting on his grave. Right at the head of it.
Well, maybe, Forrest decided, as he drove his hips forward hard enough to make Beems scream a little, he didn’t hate this business after all. Not completely. He took so much crap from Beems, this was kinda nice, having the bastard bent over a couch, dicking him so hard his head slammed the wall. Goddamn, nutless queer, insulting him in public, trying to act tough.
Forrest took the bottle of baby oil off the end table and poured it onto Beems’s ass. He put the bottle back and realized he was going soft. He tried to imagine he was plunging into Mrs. Beems, who had the smoothest ass and the brightest blond pubic hair he had ever seen. “I’m almost there,” Forrest said.
“Stroke, Forrest! Stroke, man. Stroke!”
In the moment of orgasm, Beems imagined that the dick plunging into his hairy ass belonged to the big nigger, Li'l Arthur. He thought about Li'l Arthur all the time. Ever since he had seen him fight naked in a Battle Royale while wearing a Sambo mask for the enjoyment of the crowd.
And the way Li'l Arthur had whipped Forrest. Oh, God. So thoroughly. So expertly. Forrest had been the man until then, and that made him want Forrest, but now, he wanted the nigger.
Oh God, Beems thought, to have him in me, wearing that mask, that would do it for all time. Just once. Or twice. Jesus, I want it so bad I got to be sure the nigger gets killed. I got to be sure I don’t try to pay the nigger money to do this, because he lives after the fight with McBride, I know I’ll break down and try. And I break down and he doesn’t do it, and word gets around, or he does it, and word gets around, or I get caught ... I couldn’t bear that. This is bad enough. But a nigger...?
Then there was McBride. He thought about him. He had touched McBride’s balls and feigned disgust, but he hadn’t washed that hand yet, just as McBride suggested.
McBride won the fight with the nigger, better yet, killed him, maybe McBride would do it with him. McBride was a gent that liked money, and he liked to hurt whoever he was fucking. Beems could tell that from the way the redhead was battered. That would be good. That would be all right. McBride was the type who’d fuck anyone or anything, Beems could tell.
He imagined it was McBride at work instead of Forrest. McBride, naked, except for the bowler.
Forrest, in his moment of orgasm, grunted, said, “Oh yeah,” and almost called Mrs. Beems’s name. He lifted his head as he finished, saw the hard glass eyes of the stuffed wild boar. The eyes were full of sunlight. Then the curtains fluttered and the eyes were full of darkness.
The steamship Pensacola, outbound from Galveston, reached the Gulf, and a wind reached the Pensacola. Captain Slater felt his heart clinch. The sea came high and savage from the east, and the ship rose up and dived back down, and the waves, dark green and shadowed by the thick clouds overhead, reared up on either side of the steamship, hissed, plunged back down, and the Pensacola rode up.
Jake Bernard, the pilot commissioner, came onto the bridge looking green as the waves. He was Slater’s guest on this voyage, and now he wished he were back home. He couldn’t believe how ill he felt. Never, in all his years, had he encountered seas like this, and he had thought himself immune to seasickness.
“I don’t know about you, Slater,” Bernard said, “but I ain’t had this much fun since a bulldog gutted my daddy.”
Slater tried to smile, but couldn’t make it. He saw that Bernard, in spite of his joshing, didn’t look particularly jovial. Slater said, “Look at the glass.”
Bernard checked the barometer. It was falling fast.
“Never seen it that low,” Bernard said.
“Me either,” Slater said. He ordered his crew then. Told them to take in the awning, to batten the hatches, and to prepare for water.
Bernard, who had not left the barometer, said, “God. Look at this, man!”
Slater looked. The barometer read 28.55.
Bernard said, “Way I heard it, ever gets that low, you’re supposed to bend forward, kiss your root, and tell it good-bye.”
The Coopers, Bill and Angelique and their eighteen-month-old baby, Teddy, were on their way to dinner at a restaurant by buggy, when their horse, Bess, a beautiful chocolate colored mare, made a run at the crashing sea.
It was the sea that frightened the horse, but in its moment of fear, it had tried to plunge headlong toward the source of its fright, assuring Bill that horses were, in fact, the most stupid animals in God’s creation.
Bill jerked the reins and cussed the horse. Bess wheeled, lurched the buggy so hard Bill thought they might tip, but the buggy bounced on line, and he maneuvered Bess back on track.
Angelique, dark-haired and pretty, said, “I think I soiled my bloomers ... I smell it ... No, that’s Teddy. Thank goodness.”
Bill stopped the buggy outside the restaurant, which was situated on high posts near the beach, and Angelique changed the baby’s diaper, put the soiled cloth in the back of the buggy.
When she was finished, they tied up the reins and went in for a steak dinner. They sat by a window where they could see the buggy. The horse bucked and reared and tugged so much, Bill feared she might break the reins and bolt. Above them, they could hear the rocks that covered the flat roof rolling and tumbling about like mice battling over morsels. Teddy sat in a high chair provided by the restautant, whammed a spoon in a plate of applesauce.
“Had I known the weather was this bad,” Angelique said, “we’d have stayed home. I’m sorry, Bill.”
“We stay home too much,” Bill said, realizing the crash of the surf was causing him to raise his voice. “Building that upper deck on the house isn’t doing much for my nerves either. I’m beginning to realize I’m not much of a carpenter.”
Angelique widened her dark brown eyes. “No? You, not a carpenter?”
Bill smiled at her.
“I could have told you that, just by listening to all the cussing you were doing. How many times did you hit your thumb, dear?”
“Too many to count.”
Angelique grew serious. “Bill. Look.”
Many of the restaurant’s patrons had abandoned their meals and were standing at the large windows, watching the sea. The tide was high and it was washing up to the restaurant’s pilings, splashing against them hard, throwing spray, against the glass.
“Goodness,” Bill said. “It wasn’t this bad just minutes ago.”
“Hurricane?” Angelique asked.
“Yeah. It’s a hurricane all right. The flags are up. I saw them.”
“Why so nervous? We’ve had hurricanes before.”
“I don’t know. This feels different, I guess ... It’s all right. I’m just jittery is all.”
They ate quickly and drove the buggy home, Bess pulling briskly all the way. The sea crashed behind them and the clouds raced above them like apparitions.
Captain Slater figured the wind was easily eighty knots. A hurricane. The Pensacola was jumping like a frog. Crockery was crashing below. A medicine chest so heavy two men couldn’t move it leaped up and struck the window of the bridge, went through onto the deck, slid across it, hit the railing, bounced high, and dropped into the boiling sea.
Slater and Bernard bumped heads so hard they nearly knocked each other out. When Slater got off the floor, he got a thick rope out from under a shelf and tossed it around a support post, made a couple of wraps, then used the loose ends to tie bowlines around his and Bernard’s waists. That way, he and Bernard could move about the bridge if they had to, but they wouldn’t end up following the path of the medicine chest.
Slater tried to think of something to do, but all he knew to do he had done. He’d had the crew drop anchor in the open Gulf, down to a hundred fathoms, and he’d instructed them to find the best shelter possible close to their posts, and to pray.
The Pensacola swung to the anchor, struggled like a bull on a leash. Slater could hear the bolts and plates that held the ship together screaming in agony. Those bolts broke, the plates cracked, he didn’t need Captain Ahab to tell him they’d go down to Davy Jones’s locker so fast they wouldn’t have time to take in a lungful of air.
Using the wall for support, Slater edged along to where the bridge glass had been broken by the flying chest. Sea spray slammed against him like needles shot from a cannon. He was concentrating on the foredeck, watching it dip, when he heard Bernard make a noise that was not quite a word, yet more expressive than a grunt.
Slater turned, saw Bernard clutching the latch on one of the bridge windows so tightly he thought he would surely twist it off. Then he saw what Bernard saw.
The sea had turned black as a Dutch oven, the sky the color of gangrene, and between sea and sky there appeared to be something rising out of the water, something huge and oddly shaped, and then Slater realized what it was. It was a great wall of water, many times taller than the ship, and it was moving directly toward and over them.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 3:30 A.M.
Bill Cooper opened his eyes. He had been overwhelmed by a feeling of dread. He rose carefully, so as not to wake Angelique, went into the bedroom across the hall and checked on Teddy. The boy slept soundly, his thumb in his mouth.
Bill smiled at the child, reached down, and gently touched him. The boy was sweaty, and Bill noted that the air in the room smelled foul. He opened a window, stuck his head out, and looked up. The sky had cleared and the moon was bright. Suddenly, he felt silly. Perhaps this storm business, the deck he was building on the upper floor of the house, had made him restless and worried. Certainly, it looked as if the storm had passed them by.
Then his feeling of satisfaction passed. For when he examined the yard, he saw it had turned to molten silver. And then he realized it was moonlight on water. The Gulf had crept all the way up to the house. A small rowboat, loose from its moorings, floated by.
Issac Cline had driven his buggy down the beach, warning residents near the water to evacuate. Some had. Some had not. Most had weathered many storms and felt they could weather another.
Still, many residents and tourists made for the long wooden trestle bridge to mainland Texas. Already, the water was leaping to the bottom of the bridge, slapping at it, testing its strength.
Wagons, buggies, horses, pedestrians were as thick on the bridge as ants on gingerbread. The sky, which had been oddly clear and bright and full of moon early that morning, had now grown gray and it was raining. Of the three railway bridges that led to the mainland, one was already underwater.
Henry Johnson, aided by Li'l Arthur, climbed up on the wagon beside his wife. Tina held an umbrella over their heads. In the back of the wagon was the rest of the family, protected by upright posts planted in the corners, covered with the tarp that had formerly been on the roof of the house.
All day Henry had debated whether they should leave. But by 2:00, he realized this wasn’t going to be just another storm. This was going to be a goddamn, wetassed humdinger. He had organized his family, and now, by hook or crook, he was leaving. He glanced at his shack, the water pouring through the roof like the falls of Niagara. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. He doubted it could stand much of this storm, but he tried not to think about that. He had greater concerns. He said to Li'l Arthur, “You come on with us.”
“I got to fight,” Li'l Arthur said.
“You got to do nothin’. This storm’ll wash your ass to sea.”
“I got to, Papa.”
Tina said, “Maybe yo papa’s right, baby. You ought to come.”
“You know I can’t. Soon as the fight’s over, I’ll head on out. I promise. In fact, weather’s so bad, I’ll knock this McBride out early.”
“You do that,” Tina said.
Li'l Arthur climbed on the wagon and hugged his mama and shook his father’s hand. Henry spoke quickly without looking at Li'l Arthur, said, “Good luck, son. Knock him out.”
Li'l Arthur nodded. “Thanks, Papa.” He climbed down and went around to the back of the wagon and threw up the tarp and hugged his sisters one at a time and shook hands with his brother-in-law, Clement. He pulled Clement close to him, said, “You stay out of my sister, hear?”
“Yeah, Arthur. Sure. But I think maybe we done got a problem. She’s already swole up.”
“Ah, shit,” Li'l Arthur said.
As Henry Johnson drove the horses onto the wooden bridge that connected Galveston to the mainland, he felt ill. The water was washing over the sides, against the wagon wheels. The horses were nervous, and the line of would-be escapees on the bridge was tremendous. It would take them a long time to cross, maybe hours, and from the look of things, the way the water was rising, wouldn’t be long before the bridge was underwater.
He said a private prayer: “Lord, take care of my family. And especially that fool son of mine, ‘Lil’ Arthur.”
It didn’t occur to him to include himself in the prayer.
Bill and Angelique Cooper moved everything of value they could carry to the second floor of the house. Already the water was sloshing in the doorway. Rain splattered against the windows violently enough to shake them, and shingles flapped boisterously on the roof.
Bill paused in his work and shuffled through ankle-deep water to a window and looked out. He said, “Angelique, I think we can stop carrying.”
“But I haven’t carried up the—”
“Leaving? It’s that bad?”
Bess was difficult to hook to the buggy. She was wild-eyed and skittish. The barn was leaking badly. Angelique held an umbrella over her head, waiting for the buggy to be fastened. She could feel water rising above her high button shoes.
Bill paused for a moment to calm the horse, glanced at Angelique, thought she looked oddly beautiful, the water running off the umbrella in streams. She held Teddy close to her. Teddy was asleep, totally unaware of what was going on around him. Any other time, the baby would be squalling, annoyed. The rain and the wind were actually helping him to sleep. At least, thought Bill, I am grateful for that.
By the time the buggy was hooked, they were standing in calf-deep water. Bill opened the barn door with great difficulty, saw that the yard was gone, and so was the street. He would have to guess at directions. Worse yet, it wasn’t rainwater running through the street. It was definitely seawater; the water of the Gulf had risen up as if to swallow Galveston the way the ocean was said to have swallowed Atlantis.
Bill helped Angelique and Teddy into the buggy, took hold of the reins, clucked to Bess. Bess jerked and reared, and finally, by reins and voice, Bill calmed her. She began to plod forward through the dark, powerful water.
McBride awoke. The wind was howling. The window glass was rattling violently, even though the windows were raised. The air was cool for a change, but damp. It was dark in the room.
The madam, wrapped in a blanket, sat in a chair pulled up against the far wall. She turned and looked at McBride. She said, “All hell’s broken lose.”
“Say it has?” McBride got up, walked naked to the windows. The wind was so furious it pushed him. “Damn,” he said. “It’s dark as midnight. This looks bad.”
“Bad?” The madam laughed. “Worst hurricane I’ve ever seen, and I don’t even think it’s cranked up good yet.”
“You don’t think they’ll call off the fight do you?”
“Can you fight in a boat?”
“Hell, honey, I can fight and fuck at the same time on a boat. Come to think of it, I can fight and fuck on a rolling log, I have to. I used to be a lumberjack up north.”
“I was you, I’d find a log, and get to crackin’.”
A bolt of lightning, white as eternity, split the sky, and when it did, the darkness outside subsided, and in that instant, McBride saw the street was covered in waist-deep water.
“Reckon I better start on over there,” he said. “It may take me a while.”
The madam thought: Well, honey, go right ahead, and I hope you drown.
Li'l Arthur was standing on the porch, trying to decide if he should brave the water, which was now up to the lip of the porch, when he saw a loose rowboat drift by.
Suddenly he was in the water, swimming, and the force of the water carried him after the boat, and soon he had hold of it. When he climbed inside, he found the boat was a third filled with water. He found a paddle and a pail half-filled with dirt. The dirt had turned to mud and was beginning to flow over the top of the bucket. A few dead worms swirled in the mess. The world was atumble with wind, water, and darkness.
Li'l Arthur took the bucket and poured out the mud and the worms and started to bail. Now and then he put the bucket aside and used the boat paddle. Not that he needed it much. The water was carrying him where he wanted to go. Uptown.
Uptown the water was not so deep but it took McBride almost an hour to get to the Sporting Club. He waded through waist-deep water for a block, then knee-deep, and finally ankle-deep. His bowler hat had lost all its shape when he arrived, and his clothes were ruined. The water hadn’t done his revolver or his razor any good either.
When he arrived at the building, he was surprised to find a crowd of men had gathered on the steps. Most stood under umbrellas, but many were bareheaded. There were a few women among them. Whores mostly. Decent women didn’t go to prizefights.
McBride went up the steps, and the crowd blocked him. He said, “Look here. I’m McBride. I’m to fight the nigger.”
The crowd parted, and McBride, with words of encouragement and pats on the back, was allowed indoors. Inside, the wind could still be heard, but it sounded distant. The rain was just a hum.
Beems, Forrest, and the two oldsters were standing in the foyer, looking tense as fat hens at noontime. As soon as they saw McBride, their faces relaxed, and the elderly gentlemen went away. Beems said, “We were afraid you wouldn’t make it.”
“Worried about your investment?”
“I’d have come if I had to swim.”
“The nigger doesn’t show, the title and the money’s yours.”
“I don’t want it like that,” McBride said. “I want to hit him. ‘Course, he don’t show, I’ll take the money. You seen it this bad before?”
“No,” Beems said.
“I didn’t expect nobody to be here.”
“Gamblers always show,” Forrest said. “They gamble their money, they gamble their lives.”
“Go find something to do, Forrest,” Beems said. “I’ll show Mr. McBride the dressing room.”
Forrest looked at Beems, grinned a little, showed Beems he knew what he had in mind. Beems fumed. Forrest went away. Beems took hold of McBride’s elbow and began to guide him.
“I ain’t no dog got to be led,” McBride said.
“Very well,” Beems said, and McBride followed him through a side door and down into a locker room. The room had two inches of water in it.
“My God,” Beems said. “We’ve sprung a leak somewhere.”
“Water like this,” McBride said. “The force... it’s washing out the mortar in the bricks, seeping through the chinks in the wall ... Hell, it’s all right for what I got to do.”
“There’s shorts and boots in the locker there,” Beems said. “You could go ahead and change.”
McBride sloshed water, sat on a bench and pulled off his shoes and socks with his feet resting on the bench. Beems stood where he was, watching the water rise.
McBride took the razor out of the side of one of the shoes, held it up for Beems to see, said, “Mexican boxing glove.”
Beems grinned. He watched as McBride removed his bowler, coat and shirt. He watched carefully as he removed his pants and shorts. McBride reached into the locker Beems had recommended, paused, turned, stared at Beems.
“You’re liking what you’re seein’, ain’t you, buddy?” Beems didn’t say anything. His heart was in his throat.
McBride grinned at him. “I knew first time I seen you, you was an Alice.”
“No,” Beems said. “Nothing like that. It’s not like that at all.”
McBride smiled. He looked very gentle in that moment. He said, “It’s all right. Come here. I don’t mind that.”
“Naw. Really. It’s just, you know, you got to be careful. Not let everyone know. Not everyone understands, see.”
Beems, almost licking his lips, went over to McBride. When he was close, McBride’s smile widened, and he unloaded a right uppercut into Beems’s stomach. He hit him so hard Beems dropped to his knees in the water, nodded forward, and banged his head on the bench. His top hat came off, hit the water, sailed along the row of lockers, made a right turn near the wall, flowed out of sight behind a bench.
McBride picked Beems up by the hair and pulled his head close to his dick, said, “Look at it a minute, ‘cause that’s all you’re gonna do.”
Then McBride pulled Beems to his feet by his pretty hair and went to work on him. Lefts and rights. Nothing too hard. But more than Beems had ever gotten. When he finished, he left Beems lying in the water next to the bench, coughing.
McBride said, “Next time you piss, you’ll piss blood, Alice.” McBride got a towel out of the locker and sat on the bench and put his feet up and dried them. He put on the boxing shorts. There was a mirror on the inside of the locker, and McBride was upset to see his hair. It was a mess. He spent several minutes putting it in place. When he finished, he glanced down at Beems, who was pretending to be dead.
McBride said, “Get up, fairy-ass. Show me where I’m gonna fight.”
“Don’t tell anybody,” Beems said. “I got a wife. A reputation. Don’t tell anybody.”
“I’ll make you a promise,” McBride said, closing the locker door. “That goddamn nigger beats me, I’ll fuck you. Shit, I’ll let you fuck me. But don’t get your butthole all apucker. I ain’t losin’ nothin’. Tonight, way I feel, I could knock John L. Sullivan on his ass.”
McBride started out of the locker room, carrying his socks and the boxing shoes with him. Beems lay in the water, giving him plenty of head start.
Henry couldn’t believe how slow the line was moving. Hundreds of people, crawling for hours. When the Johnsons were near the end of the bridge, almost to the mainland, the water rushed in a dark brown wave and washed the buggy in front of them off the bridge. The Johnsons’ wagon felt the wave, too, but only slid to the railing. But the buggy hit the railing, bounced, went over, pulling the horse into the railing after it. For a moment the horse hung there, its back legs slipping through, pulling with its front legs, then the railing cracked and the whole kit and kaboodle went over.
“Oh Jesus,” Tina said.
“Hang on,” Henry said. He knew he had to hurry, before another wave washed in, because if it was bigger, or caught them near the gap the buggy had made, they, too, were gone.
Behind them the Johnsons could hear screams of people fleeing the storm. The water was rising rapidly over the bridge, and those to the middle and the rear realized they didn’t get across quickly, they weren’t going to make it. As they fought to move forward, the bridge cracked and moaned as if with a human voice.
The wind ripped at the tarp over the wagon and tore it away. “Shit,” said Clement. “Ain’t that something?”
A horse bearing a man and a woman, the woman wearing a great straw hat that drooped down on each side of her head, raced by the Johnsons. The bridge was too slick and the horse was moving too fast. Its legs splayed and it went down and started sliding. Slid right through the opening the buggy had made. Disappeared immediately beneath the water. When Henry ventured a look in that direction, he saw the woman’s straw hat come up once, then blend with the water.
When Henry’s wagon was even with the gap, a fresh brown wave came over the bridge, higher and harder this time. It hit his horses and the wagon broadside. The sound of it, the impact of it, reminded Henry of when he was in the Civil War and a wagon he was riding in was hit by Yankee cannon fire. The impact had knocked him spinning, and when he tried to get up, his leg had been ruined. He thought he would never be that frightened again. But now, he was even more afraid.
The wagon drifted sideways, hit the gap, but was too wide for it. It hung on the ragged railing, the sideboards cracking with the impact. Henry’s family screamed and lay down flat in the wagon as the water came down on them like a heavy hand. The pressure of the water snapped the wagon’s wheels off the axle, slammed the bottom of the wagon against the bridge, but the sideboards held together.
“Everybody out!” Henry said.
Henry, his weak leg failing to respond, tumbled out of the wagon onto the bridge, which was now under a foot of water. He got hold of a sideboard and pulled himself up, helped Tina down, reached up, and snatched his cane off the seat.
Clement and the others jumped down, started hustling toward the end of the bridge on foot. As they came even with Henry, he said, “Go on, hurry. Don’t worry none about me.”
Tina clutched his arm. “Go on, woman,” he said. “You got young’uns to care about. I got to free these horses.” He patted her hand. She moved on with the others.
Henry pulled out his pocketknife and set to cutting the horses free of the harness. As soon as they were loose, both fool animals bolted directly into the railing. One of them bounced off of it, pivoted, made for the end of the bridge at a splashing gallop, but the other horse hit with such impact it flipped over, turning its feet to the sky. It pierced the water and was gone.
Henry turned to look for his family. They were no longer visible. Surely, they had made the mainland by now.
Others had come along to fill their place; people in wagons, and buggies, on horseback and on foot. People who seemed to be scrambling on top of water, since the bridge was now completely below sea level.
Then Henry heard a roar. He turned to the east side of the bridge. There was a heavy sheet of water cocked high above him, and it was coming down, like a monstrous wet fly swatter. And when it struck Henry and the bridge, and all those on it, it smashed them flat and drove them into the churning belly of the sea.
Bill and Angelique Cooper, their buggy half-submerged in water, saw the bridge through the driving rain, then suddenly they saw it no more. The bridge and the people were wadded together and washed down.
The bridge rose up on the waves a moment later, like a writhing spinal column. People still clung to it. It leaped forward into the water, the end of it lashing the air, then it was gone and the people with it.
“God have mercy on their souls,” Angelique said.
Bill said, “That’s it then.”
He turned the buggy around in the water with difficulty, headed home. All around him, shingles and rocks from the roofs of structures flew like shrapnel.
Li'l Arthur, as he floated toward town, realized it was less deep here. It was just as well, the rain was pounding his boat and filling it with water. He couldn’t bail and paddle as fast as it went in. He climbed over the side and let the current carry the boat away.
The water surprised him with its force. He was almost swept away, but it was shallow enough to get a foothold and push against the flow. He waded to the Sporting Club, went around back to the colored entrance. When he got there, an elderly black man known as Uncle Cooter let him in, said, “Man, I’d been you, I’d stayed home.”
“What,” Li'l Arthur said, “and missed a boat ride?”
“A boat ride?”
Li'l Arthur told him how he had gotten this far.
“Damnation,” Uncle Cooter said. “God gonna put this island underwater ‘cause it’s so evil. Like that Sodom and Gomorrah place.”
“What have you and me done to God?”
Uncle Cooter smiled. “Why, we is the only good children God’s got. He gonna watch after us. Well, me anyway. You done gonna get in with this Mr. McBride, and he’s some bad stuff, ‘Lil’ Arthur. God ain’t gonna help you there. And this Mr. McBride, he ain’t got no sense neither. He done beat up Mr. Beems, and Mr. Beems the one settin’ this up, gonna pay him money.”
“Why’d he beat him up?”
“Hell, you can’t figure white people. They all fucked up. But Mr. Beems damn sure look like a raccoon now. Both his eyes all black, his lip pouched out.”
“Where do I change?”
“Janitor’s closet. They done put your shorts and shoes in there. And there’s some gauze for your hands.”
Li'l Arthur found the shorts. They were old and faded. The boxing shoes weren’t too good either. He found some soiled rags and used those to dry himself. He used the gauze to wrap his hands, then his dick. He figured, once you start a custom, you ought to stick with it.
When Bill and Angelique and Teddy arrived at their house, they saw that the water had pushed against the front door so violently, it had come open. Water was flowing into the hall and onto the bottom step of the stairs. Bill looked up and saw a lamp burning upstairs. They had left so quickly, they had forgotten to extinguish it.
With a snort, Bess bolted. The buggy jerked forward, hit a curb, and the harness snapped so abruptly Bill and his family were not thrown from their seat, but merely whipped forward and back against the seat. The reins popped through Bill’s hands so swiftly, the leather cut his palms.
Bess rushed across the yard and through the open doorway of the house, and slowly and carefully, began to climb the stairs.
Angelique said, “My lands.”
Bill, a little stunned, climbed down, went around, and helped Angelique and the baby out of tbe buggy. The baby was wet and crying, and Angelique tried to cover him with the umbrella, but now the wind and rain seemed to come from all directions. The umbrella was little more than a wad of cloth.
They waded inside the house, tried to close the door, but the water was too much for them. They gave it up.
Bess had reached the top landing and disappeared. They followed her up. The bedroom door was open and the horse had gone in there. She stood near the table bearing the kerosene lamp. Shaking.
“Poor thing,” Angelique said, gathering some towels from a chifforobe. “She’s more terrified than we are.”
Bill removed the harness that remained on Bess, stroked her, tried to soothe her. When he went to the window and looked out, the horse went with him. The world had not miraculously dried up. The water was obviously rising.
“Maybe we’ll be all right here,” Angelique said. She was drying Teddy, who was crying violently because he was cold and wet. “Water can’t get this high, can it?”
Bill idly stroked Bess’s mane, thought of the bridge. The way it had snapped like a wooden toy. He said, “Of course not.”
The fight had started late, right after two one-legged colored boys had gone a couple of rounds, hopping about, trying to club each other senseless with oversize boxing gloves.
The crowd was sparse but vocal. Loud enough that Li'l Arthur forgot the raging storm outside. The crowd kept yelling, “Kill the nigger,” and had struck up a chorus of “All coons look alike to me”—a catchy little number that Li'l Arthur liked in spite of himself.
The yelling, the song, was meant to drop his spirits, but he found it fired him up. He liked being the underdog. He liked to make assholes eat their words. Besides, he was the Galveston Champion, not McBride, no matter what the crowd wanted. He was the one who would step through the ropes tonight the victor. And he had made a change. He would no longer allow himself to be introduced as Li'l Arthur. When his name had been called, and he had been reluctantly named Galveston Sporting Club Champion by the announcer, the announcer had done as he had asked. He had called him by the name he preferred from here on. Not Li'l Arthur Johnson. Not Arthur John Johnson, but the name he called him, the name he called himself. Jack Johnson.
So far, however, the fight wasn’t going either way, and he had to hand it to McBride, the fella could hit. He had a way of throwing short, sharp punches to the ribs, punches that felt like knife stabs.
Before the fight, Jack, as McBride had surely done, had used his thumbs to rearrange as much of the cotton in his gloves as possible. Arrange it so that his knuckles would be against the leather and would make good contact with McBride’s flesh. But so far McBride had avoided most of his blows. The man was a master of slipping and sliding the punches. Jack had never seen anything like that before. McBride could also pick off shots with a flick of his forearms. It was very professional and enlightening.
Even so, Jack found he was managing to take the punches pretty well, and he’d discovered something astonishing. The few times he’d hit McBride was when he got excited, leaned forward, went flat-footed, and threw the uppercut. This was not a thing he had trained for much, and when he had, he usually threw the uppercut by coming up on his toes, twisting his body, the prescribed way to throw it. But he found, against all logic, he could throw it flat-footed and leaning forward, and he could throw it hard.
He thought he had seen a bit of surprise on McBride’s face when he’d hit him with it. He knew that he’d certainly surprised himself.
It went like that until the beginning of the fourth round, then when McBride came out, he said, “I’ve carried you enough, nigger. Now you got to fight.”
Then Jack saw stuff he’d never seen before. The way this guy moved, it was something. Bounced around like a cat; like the way he’d heard Gentleman Jim fought, and the guy was fast with those hands. Tossed bullets, and the bullets stunned a whole lot worse than before. Jack realized McBride had been holding back, trying to make the fight interesting. And he realized something else. Something important about himself. He didn’t know as much about boxing as he thought.
He tried hooking McBride, but McBride turned the hooks away with his arms, and Jack tried his surprise weapon, the uppercut, found he could catch McBride a little with that, in the stomach, but not enough to send McBride to the canvas.
When the fifth round came up, Jack was scared. And hurt. And the referee—a skinny bastard with a handlebar moustache—wasn’t helping. Anytime he tied McBride up, the referee separated them. McBride tied him up, thumbed him in the eye, butted him, the referee grinned like he was eating jelly.
Jack was thinking maybe of taking a dive. Just going down and lying there, getting himself out of this misery next time McBride threw one of those short ones that connected solid, but then the bell rang and he sat on his bench, and Uncle Cooter, who was the only man in his corner, sprayed water in his mouth and let him spit blood in a bucket.
Uncle Cooter said, “I was you, son, I’d play possum. Just hit that goddamn canvas and lay there like you axed. You don’t, this shithead gonna cut you to pieces. This way, you get a little payday and you don’t die. Paydays is all right. Dyin’ ain’t nothin’ to rush.”
“Jesus, he’s good. How can I beat him?”
Uncle Cooter rubbed Jack’s shoulders. “You can’t. Play dead.”
“There’s got to be a way.”
“Yeah,” Uncle Cooter said. “He might die on you. That’s the only way you gonna beat him. He got to just die.”
“Thanks, Cooter. You’re a lot of help.”
Jack feared the sound of the bell. He looked in McBride’s corner, and McBride was sitting on his stool as if he were lounging, drinking from a bottle of beer, chatting with a man in the audience. He was asking the man to go get him a sandwich.
Forrest Thomas was in McBride’s corner, holding a folded towel over his arm, in case McBride might need it, which, considering he needed to break a good sweat first, wasn’t likely.
Forrest looked at Jack, pointed a finger, and lowered his thumb like it was the hammer of a revolver. Jack could see a word on Forrest’s lips. The word was: POW!
The referee wandered over to McBride’s corner, leaned on the ring post, had a laugh with McBride over something.
The bell rang. McBride gave the bottle of beer to Forrest and came out. Jack rose, saw Beems, eyes blacked, looking rough, sitting in the front row. Rough or not, Beems seemed happy. He looked at Jack and smiled like a gravedigger.
This time out, Jack took a severe pounding. He just couldn’t stop those short little hooks of McBride’s, and he couldn’t seem to hit McBride any kind of blow but the uppercut, and that not hard enough. McBride was getting better as he went along, getting warmed up. If he had another beer and a sandwich, hell, he might go ahead and knock Jack out so he could have coffee and pie.
Jack decided to quit trying to hit the head and the ribs, and just go in and pound McBride on the arms. That way, he could at least hit something. He did, and was amazed at the end of the round to find McBride lowering his guard.
Jack went back to his corner and Uncle Cooter said, “Keep hittin’ him on the arms. That’s gettin’ to him. You wreckin’ his tools.”
“I figured that much. Thanks a lot.”
Jack examined the crowd in the Sporting Club bleachers. They were not watching the ring. They had turned their heads toward the east wall, and for good reason. It was vibrating. Water was seeping in, and it had filled the floor beneath the ring six inches deep. The people occupying the bottom row of bleachers, all around the ring, had been forced to lift their feet. Above him, Jack heard a noise that sounded like something big and mean peeling skin off an elephant’s head.
By the time the bell rang and Jack shuffled out, he noticed that the water had gone up another two inches.
Bill held the lantern in front of him at arm’s length as he crouched at the top of the stairs. The water was halfway up the steps. The house was shaking like a fat man’s ass on a bucking bronco. He could hear shingles ripping loose, blowing away.
He went back to the bedroom. The wind was screaming. The windows were vibrating; panes had blown out of a couple of them. The baby was crying. Angelique sat in the middle of the bed, trying to nurse the child, but Teddy wouldn’t have any of that. Bess was facing a corner of the room, had her head pushed against the wall. The horse lashed her tail back and forth nervously, made nickering noises.
Bill went around and opened all the windows to help take away some of the force of the wind. Something he knew he should have done long ago, but he was trying to spare the baby the howl of the wind, the dampness.
The wind charged through the open windows and the rain charged with it. Bill could hardly stand before them, they were so powerful.
Fifteen minutes later, he heard the furniture below thumping on the ceiling, floating against the floor on which he stood.
My God, thought Jack, how many rounds this thing gonna go? His head ached and his ribs ached worse and his insides felt as if he had swallowed hot tacks and was trying to regurgitate them. His legs, though strong, were beginning to feel the wear. He had thought this was a fifteen-round affair, but realized now it was twenty, and if he wasn’t losing by then, he might get word it would go twenty-five.
Jack slammed a glove against McBride’s left elbow, saw McBride grimace, drop the arm. Jack followed with the uppercut, and this time he not only hit McBride, he hit him solid. McBride took the shot so hard, he farted. The sandwich he’d eaten between rounds probably didn’t seem like such a good idea now.
Next time Jack threw the combination, he connected with the uppercut again. McBride moved back, and Jack followed, hitting him on the arms, slipping in the uppercut now and then, even starting to make contact with hooks and straight rights.
Then every light in the building went out as the walls came apart and the bleachers soared up on a great surge of water and dumped the boxing patrons into the wet darkness. The ring itself began to move, to rise to the ceiling, but before it tilted out from under Jack, McBride hit him a blow so hard Jack thought he felt past lives cease to exist; ancestors fresh from the slime rocked from that blow, and the reverberations of it rippled back to the present and into the future, and back again. The ceiling went away on a torrent of wind, Jack reached out and got hold of something and clung for dear life.
“You stupid sonofabitch,” Uncle Cooter said, “you got me by the goddamn head.”
Captain Slater thought they would be at the bottom of the Gulf by now, and was greatly surprised they were not. A great wave of water had hit them so hard the night before it had snapped the anchor chain. The ship was driven down, way down, and then all the water in the world washed over them and there was total darkness and horror, and then, what seemed like hours later but could only have been seconds, the water broke and the Pensacola flew high up as if shot from a cannon, came down again, leaned starboard so far it took water, then, miraculously, corrected itself. The sea had been choppy and wild ever since.
Slater shook shit and seawater out of his pants legs and followed the rope around his waist to the support post. He got hold of the post, felt for the rest of the rope. In the darkness, he cried out, “Bernard. You there?”
“I think so,” came Bernard’s voice from the darkness. And then they heard a couple of bolts pop free, fire off like rifle blasts. Then: “Oh, Jesus,” Bernard said. “Feel that swell? Here it comes again.”
Slater turned his head and looked out. There was nothing but a great wall of blackness moving toward them. It made the first wave seem like a mere rise; this one was bigger than the Great Wall of China.
Bill and Angelique lay on the bed with Teddy. The water was washing over the edges of the feather mattress, blowing wet, cold wind over them. They had started the Edison and a gospel record had been playing, but the wind and rain had finally gotten into the mechanism and killed it.
As it went dead, the far wall cracked and leaned in and a ripple of cracking lumber went across the floor and the ceiling sagged and so did the bed. Bess suddenly disappeared through a hole in the floor. One moment she was there, the next she was gone, beneath the water.
Bill grabbed Angelique by the arm, pulled her to her feet in the knee-deep water. She held Teddy close to her. He pulled them across the room as the floor shifted, pulled them through the door that led onto the unfinished deck, stumbled over a hammer that lay beneath the water, but managed to keep his feet.
Bill couldn’t help but think of all the work he had put in on this deck. Now it would never be finished. He hated to leave anything unfinished. He hated worse that it was starting to lean.
There was one central post that seemed to stand well enough, and they took position behind that. The post was one of several that the house was built around; a support post to lift the house above the normal rise of water. It connected bedroom to deck.
Bill tried to look through the driving rain. All he could see was water. Galveston was covered by the sea. It had risen up and swallowed the city and the island.
The house began to shake violently. They heard lumber splintering, felt it shimmying. The deck swayed more dynamically.
“We’re not going to make it, are we, Bill?” Angelique said
“No, darling. We aren’t.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
He held her and kissed her. She said, “It doesn’t matter, you and I. But Teddy. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t understand. God, why Teddy? He’s only a baby ... How do I drown, darling?”
“One deep breath and it’s over. Just one deep pull of the water, and don’t fight it.”
Angelique started to cry. Bill squatted, ran his hand under the water and over the deck. He found the hammer. It was lodged in its spot because it was caught in a gap in the unfinished deck. Bill brought the hammer out. There was a big nail sticking out of the main support post. He had driven it there the day before, to find it easily enough. It was his last big nail and it was his intent to save it.
He used the claw of the hammer to pull it out. He looked at Angelique. “We can give Teddy a chance.”
Angelique couldn’t see Bill well in the darkness, but she somehow felt what his face was saying. “Oh, Bill.”
“It’s a chance.”
“We can’t stand against this, but the support post—”
“Oh Lord, Bill,” and Angelique sagged, holding Teddy close to her chest. Bill grabbed her shoulders, said, “Give me my son.”
Angelique sobbed, then the house slouched far to the right—except for the support post. All the other supports were washing loose, but so far, this one hadn’t budged.
Angelique gave Teddy to Bill. Bill kissed the child, lifted him as high on the post as he could, pushed the child’s back against the wood, and lifted its arm. Angelique was suddenly there, supporting the baby. Bill kissed her. He took the hammer and the nail, and placing the nail squarely against Teddy’s little wrist, drove it through the child’s flesh with one swift blow.
Then the storm blew more furious and the deck turned to gelatin. Bill clutched Angelique, and Angelique almost managed to say, “Teddy,” then all the powers of nature took them and the flimsy house away.
High above it all, water lapping around the post, Teddy, wet and cold, squalled with pain.
Bess surfaced among lumber and junk. She began to paddle her legs furiously, snorting water. A nail on a board cut across her muzzle, opening a deep gash. The horse nickered, thrashed its legs violently, lifted its head, trying to stay afloat.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 4:00 A.M.
The mechanism that revolved the Bolivar lighthouse beam had stopped working. The stairs that led up to the lighthouse had gradually filled with people fleeing the storm, and as the water rose, so did the people. One man with a young boy had come in last, and therefore was on the constantly rising bottom rung. He kept saying. “Move up. Move up, lessen’ you want to see a man and his boy drown.” And everyone would move up. And then the man would soon repeat his refrain as the water rose.
The lighthouse was becoming congested. The lighthouse tower had begun to sway. The lighthouse operator, Jim Marlin, and his wife, Elizabeth, lit the kerosene lamp and placed it in the center of the circular, magnifying lens, and tried to turn the beam by hand. They wanted someone to know there was shelter here, even though it was overcrowded, and might soon cease to exist. The best thing to do was to douse the light and hope they could save those who were already there, and save themselves. But Jim and Elizabeth couldn’t do that. Elizabeth said, “Way I see it, Jim. It’s all or nothing, and the good Lord would want it that way. I want it that way.”
All night long they had heard screams and cries for help, and once, when the lighthouse beam was operating, they had seen a young man clinging to a timber. When the light swung back to where the young man had been, he had vanished.
Now, as they tried to turn the light by hand, they found it was too much of a chore. Finally, they let it shine in one direction, and there in the light they saw a couple of bodies being dragged by a large patch of canvas from which dangled ropes, like jellyfish tentacles. The ropes had grouped and twisted around the pair, and the canvas seemed to operate with design, folded and opened like a pair of great wings, as if it were an exotic sea creature bearing them off to a secret lair where they could be eaten in privacy.
Neither Jim nor Elizabeth Marlin knew the bloated men tangled in the ropes together; had no idea they were named Ronald Beems and Forrest Thomas.
A crack of light. Dawn. Jim and Elizabeth had fallen asleep leaning against the base of the great light, and at the first ray of sunshine, they awoke, saw a ship’s bow at the lighthouse window, and standing at the bow, looking in at them, was a bedraggled man in uniform, and he was crying savagely.
Jim went to the window. The ship had been lifted up on great piles of sand and lumber. Across the bow he could see the letters PENSACOLA. The man was leaning against the glass. He wore a captain’s hat. He held out his hand, palm first. Jim put his hand to the glass, trying to match the span of the crying captain’s hand.
Behind the captain a number of wet men appeared. When they saw the lighthouse they fell to their knees and lifted their heads to the heavens in prayer, having forgotten that it was in fact the heavens that had devastated them.
The day broke above the shining water, and the water began to go down, rapidly, and John McBride sat comfortably on the great hour hand of what was left of the City Hall clock. He sat there with his arms wrapped around debris that dangled from the clock. In the night, a huge spring mechanism had jumped from the face of the clock and hit him a glancing blow in the head, and for a moment, McBride had thought he was still battling the nigger. He wasn’t sure which was worse to fight. The hurricane or the nigger. But through the night, he had become grateful for the spring to hold on to.
Below him he saw much of what was left of the Sporting Club, including the lockers where he had put his belongings. The whole damn place had washed up beneath the clock tower.
McBride used his teeth to work off the binds of his boxing gloves and slip his hands free. All through the night the gloves had been a burden. He feared his lack of grip would cause him to fall. It felt good to have his hands out of the tight, wet leather.
McBride ventured to take hold of the minute hand of the clock, swing on it a little, and cause it to lower him onto a pile of rubble. He climbed over lumber and junk and found a mass of bloated bodies, men, women, and children, most of them sporting shingles that had cut into their heads and bodies. He searched their pockets for money and found none, but one of the women—he could tell it was a woman by her hair and dress only, her features were lost in the fleshy swelling of her face—had a ring. He tried to pull it off her finger, but it wouldn’t come off. The water had swollen her flesh all around it.
He sloshed his way to the pile of lockers. He searched through them until he found the one where he had put his clothes. They were so filthy with mud, he left them. But he got the razor and the revolver. The revolver was full of grit. He took out the shells and shook them and put them back.
He stuck the gun in his soaked boxing trunks. He opened the razor and shook out the silt and went over to the woman and used the razor to cut off her finger. The blade cut easily through the flesh, and he whacked through the bone. He pushed the ring on his little finger, closed the razor, and slipped it into the waistband of his trunks, next to his revolver.
This was a hell of a thing to happen. He had hidden his money back at the whorehouse, and he figured it and the plump madam were probably far at sea, the madam possibly full of harpoon wounds.
And the shitasses who were to pay him were now all choked, including the main one, the queer Beems. And if they weren’t, they were certainly no longer men of means.
This had been one shitty trip. No clothes. No money. No whipped nigger. And no more pussy. He’d come with more than he was leaving with.
What the hell else could go wrong?
He decided to wade toward the whorehouse, see if it was possibly standing, maybe find some bodies along the way to loot—something to make up for his losses.
As he started in that direction, he saw a dog on top of a doghouse float by. The dog was chained to the house and the chain had gotten tangled around some floating rubble and it had pulled the dog flat against the roof. It lifted its eyes and saw McBride, barked wearily for help. McBride determined it was well within pistol shot.
McBride lifted the revolver and pulled the trigger. It clicked, but nothing happened. He tried again, hoping against hope. It fired this time and the dog took a blast in the skull and rolled off the house, and hung by the chain, then sailed out of sight.
McBride said, “Poor thing.”
The water was falling away rapidly, returning to the sea, leaving in its wake thousands of bodies and the debris that had once been Galveston. The stench was awful. Jack and Cooter, who had spent the night in a child’s tree house, awoke, amazed they were alive.
The huge oak tree they were in was stripped of leaves and limbs, but the tree house was unharmed. It was remarkable. They had washed right up to it, just climbed off the lumber to which they had been clinging, and went inside. It was dry in there, and they found three hard biscuits in a tin and three hot bottles of that good ole Waco, Texas, drink, Dr. Pepper. There was a phone on the wall, but it was a fake, made of lumber and tin cans. Jack had the urge to try it, as if it might be a line to God, for surely, it was God who had brought them here.
Cooter had helped Jack remove his gloves, then they ate the biscuits, drank a bottle of Dr. Pepper apiece, then split the last bottle and slept.
When it was good and light, they decided to climb down. The ladder, a series of boards nailed to the tree, had washed away, but they made it to the ground by sliding down like firemen on a pole.
When they reached the earth, they started walking, sloshing through the mud and water that had rolled back to ankledeep. The world they had known was gone. Galveston was a wet mulch of bloated bodies—humans, dogs, mules, and horses—and mashed lumber. In the distance they saw a bedraggled family walking along like ducks in a row. Jack recognized them. He had seen them around town. They were Issac Cline, his brother Joseph, Issac’s wife and children. He wondered if they knew where they were going, or were they like him and Cooter, just out there? He decided on the latter.
Jack and Cooter decided to head for higher ground, back uptown. Soon they could see the tower of City Hall, in sad shape but still standing, the clock having sprung a great spring. It poked from the face of the mechanism like a twisted, metal tongue.
They hadn’t gone too far toward the tower when they encountered a man coming toward them. He was wearing shorts and shoes like Jack and was riding a chocolate brown mare bareback. He had looped a piece of frayed rope around the horse’s muzzle and was using that as a primitive bridle. His hair was combed to perfection. It was McBride.
“Shit,” Cooter said. “Ain’t this somethin’? Well, Jack, you take care, I gonna be seein’ you.”
“Asshole,” Jack said.
Cooter put his hands in his pockets and turned right, headed over piles of junk and bodies on his way to who knew where.
McBride spotted Jack, yelled, “You somethin’, nigger. A hurricane can’t even drown you.”
“You neither,” Jack said. They were within twenty feet of one another now. Jack could see the revolver and the razor in McBride’s waistband. The horse, a beautiful animal with a deep cut on its muzzle, suddenly buckled and lay down with its legs folded beneath it, dropped its head into the mud.
McBride stepped off the animal, said, “Can you believe that? Goddamn horse survived all this and it can’t carry me no ways at all.”
McBride pulled his pistol and shot the horse through the head. It rolled over gently, lay on its side without so much as one last heave of its belly. McBride turned back to Jack. The revolver lay loose in his hand. He said, “Had it misfired, I’d have had to beat that horse to death with a board. I don’t believe in animals suffering. Gun’s been underwater, and it’s worked two out of three. Can you believe that?”
“That horse would have been all right,” Jack said.
“Nah, it wouldn’t,” McBride said. “Why don’t you shake it, see if it’ll come around?” McBride pushed the revolver into the waistband of his shorts. “How’s about you and me? Want to finish where we left off?”
“You got to be jokin’,” Jack said.
“You hear me laughin’?”
“I don’t know about you, peckerwood, but I feel like I been in a hurricane, then swam a few miles in boxing gloves, then slept all night in a tree house and had biscuits and Dr. Pepper for breakfast.”
“I ain’t even had no breakfast, nigger. Listen here. I can’t go home not knowing I can whip you or not. Hell, I might never get home. I want to know I can take you. You want to know.”
“Yeah. I do. But I don’t want to fight no pistol and razor.”
McBride removed the pistol and razor from his trunks, found a dry spot and put them there. He said, “Come on.”
“Here’s all we got.”
Jack turned and looked. He could see a slight rise of dirt beyond the piles of wreckage. A house had stood there. One of its great support poles was still visible.
“Over there,” Jack said.
They went over there and found a spot about the size of a boxing ring. Down below them on each side were heaps of bodies and heaps of gulls on the bodies, scrambling for soft flesh and eyeballs. McBride studied the bodies, what was left of Galveston, turned to Jack, said, “Fuck the rules.”
They waded into each other, bare knuckle. It was obvious after only moments that they were exhausted. They were throwing hammers, not punches, and the sounds of their strikes mixed with the caws and cries of the gulls. McBride ducked his head beneath Jack’s chin, drove it up. Jack locked his hands behind McBride’s neck, kneed him in the groin.
They rolled on the ground and in the mud, then came apart. They regained their feet and went at it again. Then the sounds of their blows and the shrieks of the gulls were overwhelmed by a cry so unique and savage, they ceased punching.
“Time,” Jack said.
“What in hell is that?” McBride said.
They walked toward the sound of the cry, leaned on the great support post. Once a fine house had stood here, and now, there was only this. McBride said, “I don’t know about you, nigger, but I’m one tired sonofabitch.”
The cry came again. Above him. He looked up. A baby was nailed near the top of the support. Its upraised, nailed arm was covered in caked blood. Gulls were flapping around its head, making a kind of halo.
“I’ll be goddamned,” Jack said. “Boost me, McBride.”
“You got to be kidding.”
Jack lifted his leg. McBride sighed, made a stirrup with his cupped hands, and Jack stood, got hold of the post and worked his way painfully up. At the bottom, McBride picked up garbage and hurled it at the gulls.
“You gonna hit the baby, you jackass,” Jack said.
When he got up there, Jack found the nail was sticking out of the baby’s wrist by an inch or so. He wrapped his legs tight around the post, held on with one arm while he took hold of the nail and tried to work it free with his fingers. It wouldn’t budge.
“Can’t get it loose,” Jack yelled down. He was about to drop; his legs and arms had turned to butter.
“Hang on,” McBride said, and went away.
It seemed like forever before he came back. He had the revolver with him. He looked up at Jack and the baby. He looked at them for a long moment. Jack watched him, didn’t move. McBride said, “Listen up, nigger. Catch this, use it to work out the nail.”
McBride emptied the remaining cartridges from the revolver and tossed it up. Jack caught it on the third try. He used the trigger guard to snag the nail, but mostly mashed the baby’s wrist. The baby had stopped crying. It was making a kind of mewing sound, like a dying goat.
The nail came loose, and Jack nearly didn’t grab the baby in time, and when he did, he got hold of its nailed arm and he felt and heard its shoulder snap out of place. He was weakening, and he knew he was about to fall.
“McBride,” he said, “catch.”
The baby dropped and so did the revolver. McBride reached out and grabbed the child. It screamed when he caught it, and McBride raised it over his head and laughed.
He laid the baby on top of a pile of wide lumber and looked at it.
Jack was about halfway down the post when he fell, landing on his back, knocking the wind out of him. By the time he got it together enough to get up and find the revolver and wobble over to McBride, McBride had worked the child’s shoulder back into place and was cooing to him.
Jack said, “He ain’t gonna make it. He’s lost lots of blood.”
McBride stood up with the baby on his shoulder. He said, “Naw. He’s tough as a warthog. Worse this little shit will have is a scar. Elastic as he is, there ain’t no real damage. And he didn’t bleed out bad neither. He gets some milk in him, fifteen, sixteen years from now, he’ll be chasin’ pussy. ‘Course, best thing is, come around when he’s about two and go on and kill him. He’ll just grow up to be men like us.”
McBride held the child out and away from him, looked him over. The baby’s penis lifted and the child peed all over him. McBride laughed uproariously.
“Well, shit, nigger. I reckon today ain’t my day, and it ain’t the day you and me gonna find out who’s the best. Here. I don’t know no one here. Take ‘em.”
Jack took the child, gave McBride his revolver, said, “I don’t know there’s anyone I know anymore.”
“I tell you, you’re one lucky nigger,” McBride said. “I’m gonna forgo you a beating, maybe a killing.”
“Uh-huh. Someone’s got to tote this kid to safety, and if’n I kept him, I might get tired of him in an hour. Put his little head underwater.”
“You would, wouldn’t you?”
“I might. And you know, you’re a fool to give me back my gun.”
“Naw. I broke it gettin’ that nail loose.”
McBride grinned, tossed the gun in the mud, shaded his eyes, and looked at the sky. “Can you beat that? Looks like it’s gonna be a nice day.”
Jack nodded. The baby sucked on his shoulder. He decided McBride was right. This was one tough kid. It was snuggled against him as if nothing had happened, trying to get milk. Jack wondered about the child’s family. Wondered about his own. Where were they? Were they alive?
McBride grinned, said, “Nigger, you got a hell of an uppercut.” Then he turned and walked away.
Jack patted the baby’s back, watched McBride find his razor, then walk on. Jack watched him until he disappeared behind a swell of lumber and bodies, and he never saw him again.
“The Big Blow” was originally published in 1997 in Revelations. “The Big Blow” © 1997 Joe R. Lansdale.
Blow on back this way Thursday, November 22, for another can of Mojo cola!