Sweat trickled down James’s forehead. The screaming from the crowd was earsplitting. The lights were so bright around the ring, and he couldn’t even hear his coach, Lee, yelling at him. His mouth was moving, but no sound could be heard.
James focused on his opponent;h didn’t like the way this white man acted. He wasn’t even trying. The man already thought he was better than James just because he was the preferred breed of man – Caucasian, tall and muscular, with white-blond hair and crystal blue eyes.
A punch to James’s right cheek sent him rocking back toward the ropes. He hit the ropes and he felt people from the crowd spitting on him and calling him a n***er and a pickani**y. He was considered lower than dirt to these fucking idiots.
Throw the fight, James. I have a lot of money riding on that big German fella.
James bit down on his mouthguard. The tang of blood in his mouth made him shudder. Screw what Vincent Anthony had to say. His dignity as a man— a Negro man— was on the line. Somewhere, out in the colored area of the crowd, his wife, Amie Rue, was watching. She wanted him to listen to Vincent and throw the fight. Vincent was a powerful man and James may have been the best underground boxer in Waco, Texas, but he still knew not to cross him.
He would never forget the day he got tied up with Vincent Anthony and the underground boxing circuit in Waco. Two of Vincent’s thugs showed up to James’ workplace. He had been summoned, and his boss was willing to let him leave early once the thug said it was Vincent Anthony that requested him. He sat in the backseat of his car, twiddling his thumbs. Not only was he seeing Vincent Anthony, a man he had encountered several times at the motor shop, he was going to the white side of town.
James stared in envy at the pristine, colored houses in the North Waco neighborhoods. Amie Rue dreamed of living on this side of town, but she said it would never happen. They would be terrorized out of the neighborhood in the first week. They both worked menial jobs. He worked on motors for a low wage, and she was a maid for a big family in East Waco. There was never going to be an out for them.
He was escorted inside the house by the thugs. James stared in awe at the yellow wallpaper, the expensive décor in the foyer, and the giant family painting that hung above them. They moved into the den, where Vincent Anthony was waiting for them. He had pitch-black hair with a few gray streaks here and there. He was drinking a glass of whiskey, frowning at the bitter taste.
“Sit down, boy.” Vincent gestured to him to take a seat in the chair next to his.
James grew hot at being called a boy, but he pushed down his anger and took a seat anyway. The two men exchanged pleasantries before Vincent got down to business. James felt uncomfortable with the multiple guards, dressed in black suits with black ties, standing in the room. Watching him, judging him. Vincent was involved in Waco’s underground boxing ring. He had heard stories about James, about how strong he was. He used to box for fun but gave it up once he graduated high school. James was peeved that someone was running around town, flapping their lips about him. Still, this could be a good opportunity.
James wasn’t stupid though, despite what white people thought. He made good grades in all his classes and he loved reading novels, like Of Mice and Men and Huckleberry Finn. But, that didn’t matter to anyone else. Despite all this, James was greedy and that’s why he asked Vincent why he was doing this – helping him.
“James, the Civil Rights movement may be gaining speed, but you’ll never get respect. When these white people look at you, they see a dumb ole n***er , who they wish was still on a plantation. Someone they can whip and beat.” Vincent leaned forward and whispered. “Earn some respect. You got talent. Use it.”
“You mean my hands have the talent,” James said. “You just wanna use me to beat your rivals.”
The guards surrounding Vincent glared at him, with one stepping forward with his hand raised. Vincent gave all his men a dark, intimidating look, a look and they backed down.
“James, we will be helping each other. I’m not going to slight you on money. You’ll get paid and you’ll be a champ in the underground fighting ring. You got that new woman of yours? You’d be helping her and securing your future.”
“How much you gonna give me?”
“$300 per fight. The more fights you win, the more money I make. Then I can pay you more.”
Sign a deal with the devil and you’ll regret it, his mama used to say that all the time. He could imagine her now, shaking her head at the choice he was going to make.
“You have a deal.”
For over a year, James had been Vincent’s champion. A champion he could claim. Yet he wouldn’t let James sit at the same table as him, touch the same cups or plates, or associate with him in public. Vincent didn’t want to be seen in public with him.
For over a year, James’s dignity had been crushed.
The money helped him and Amie Rue a lot, but a lot of it they saved. Amie Rue believed this deal would last forever. James was a bit more practical, and always took a bit of the money and hid it underneath his bed. No one else knew about it. He hoped to send the extra money to his Momma.
Unfortunately, his contract with Vincent ended that night. Vincent had bet on the German fella instead of him; his champion. James was tired of feeling inadequate. In his marriage, his job, and in the ring.
James began his counterattack. He punched his opponent in the face, feeling the crack beneath his knuckles despite the padding of the gloves. Back on the defense, he attacked again and again. James landed a vengeful blow to his opponent’s right temple. The man stumbled backward and keeled over.
The referee’s eyes widened.
He bent down and put two fingers to the man’s neck.
“He’s dead!” The referee announced.
The crowd roared. James couldn’t tell if it was excitement or anger. He couldn’t believe it. Did he kill a man? How? He looked down at his gloves, mottled with the blood of a white man.
God, I just murdered someone.
A hand on his shoulder pulled him back. Lee was dragging him out of the ring, toward safety. “We need to you out of here, now! Anthony will be looking to hang you for this!”
Everything went by so fast. Next thing he knew he was outside; the sharp, winter air burned in his lungs. The metal door behind them slammed shut. There was an idling 1964 Chevy Impala by the curbside. Amie Rue was sitting behind the wheel. Lee pushed James into the car.
“Go far away and don’t come back! I’ll keep them from following your car,” Lee said.
He took off down the street. A few white men with guns and clubs came busting out of the arena, then setting their eyes on Lee, took off after him.
Amie Rue grumbled under breath, put the car in drive, and sped off down the street. James was breathing hard, and he shifted in his seat.
“Go to Ohio,” James said. “I got family up there,”
“What about my family, James?” Amie Rue demanded. “What about them? My parents need me to look after Lawrence!”
“You really fucked up. We can’t come back here. Vincent is going to come after us. He won’t let us go!”
“I’m sorry, Amie Rue. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“What about my family?”
James sighed. “Amie Rue, we will send for them, get them somewhere safe.”
“I told you. I told you. I told you. You never listen to me. Never have!” she screamed.
James wished she would shut the hell up. His hands. His hands that fixed machines. His hands that caressed his wife tenderly in the middle of the night. His hands that he used… to kill someone with. What could he possibly do with them now?
James closed his eyes, yet he could not sleep. Memories of the fight came flooding back like quick flashes. Dispersed in the memories were images of his childhood: his mother crying, a white man yelling his face for using the wrong water fountain, and the moments of shame he felt for being a Negro man.
The dream stopped when he was thrown forward, hitting the dashboard of the car. Amie Rue cursed, and she tried bringing the car back to the road, but it was already heading toward the brush.
Once the car stopped, James put his hand on Amie Rue’s thigh, squeezing. “Don’t get out this car, Amie Rue. Go to Ohio. Akron. The address is 1412 Cornwell Street. Tell Momma what happened and she will let you stay there.” He did not wait for his wife to respond. The ugly scowl etched on her face said enough.
He stepped out the car, holding his hands in the air. It was wishful thinking, but maybe if he surrendered peacefully, they would let him live.
Two cars pulled up behind them. Men exited the vehicles and pointed their guns at James. That’s when he knew he was never going back to Waco or Ohio. This was the end of the road for him.
The car started up and Amie Rue got it back on the road, speeding off. The men shot at the car, the bullets ricocheting off the metal.
On impulse, James ran toward the men, his hands balled into fists. If anything, he would die with his dignity, he would die fighting.
James felt satisfied as his hands, the same hands that Vincent called registered deadly weapons, connected with one of the men’s left cheek, the crunch of bones and firing guns sounding in the night.