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Authors: William Campbell Gault

Canvas Coffin

BOOK: Canvas Coffin
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the
CANVAS
COFFIN

WILLIAM CAMPBELL GAULT

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

Dedication:

For

VIRGINIA

Chapter I

I
REMEMBER
he hit me with a high right hand about halfway through the seventh round. That’s really all Charley ever had, that right hand; it’s what kept him from the title and now it was keeping him in beat-out blondes. A great spoiler, Charley had been.

Had been, had been, had been.

I was sure getting the has-beens. Not hundred-percent Punchinellos; they all had some savvy left or there’d be no ink in knocking them over. But there hadn’t been a real contender in the string. Max saw to that. Oh, he’s sharp —

I’m getting away from the story. I say I remember the high right hand in the seventh, above and in front of my ear.

Then the sun was coming through the full-length windows in this plush Beverly Hills rattrap, and Max was eating corn on the cob. The first week in February, but Max loves corn, even if it’s frozen.

He was licking the butter from his fingers and reading the
Times
sport pages and smiling. Max smiles a lot.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Me,” he said. “Sitting in this snob asylum, eating corn on the cob in February. Me, sitting here with the middleweight champion of the world, me, Max Freeman. How you feeling, Champ?”

“All right.”

It was warm in the room and the warmth was coming from outside, through one of the sliding glass doors. February, and they’d just had the wettest week in a hundred years, but now it was hot.

The suite had its own little enclosed patio where I figured to get a lot of sun, that afternoon. I wanted to rest, to soak up the sun, but mostly to rest.

Max was pouring coffee from a big silver urn. “Ain’t we fancy? Max Freeman pouring coffee in his Beverly Hills suite. Ain’t this the cat’s nuts?”

I heard some people talking in the hall outside, two women. I thought about Sally and asked Max, “What time is it in Chicago now?”

He smiled. “Noon. She’s probably just getting up.”

Maybe she’s taking a shower,
I thought, and saw her slim, firm body under the spray, saw her stretching under it, arching toward it, and was jealous of the water that caressed her.

“That seventh round,” Max said. “I thought the bum got to you, for a second, there.”

“He did,” I said.

“Sure, sure. But you damn well went to work on him after that.”

“Did I?”

Max had the cup of coffee halfway to his lips. He set it down very deliberately.

His voice was quiet. “Luke — what’s wrong? Something’s wrong?”

“Maybe I’m punchy,” I answered. “It happens to all of us, sooner or later, doesn’t it?”

“No,” he said. “God damn it, no. I can name you dozens that never — Luke, for God’s sake, this is a gag?”

“I don’t remember anything after the seventh,” I said, “after that high right hand, that haymaker.”

His voice was still quiet, which isn’t like Max. “After that — until when, Luke? When can you remember again?”

“Now,” I said. “You sitting there, eating corn.”

His eyes moved over my face, digging at me. His voice too calm. “I read an article by Tunney once. He had a little exhibition with Eddie Egan. Eddie got to him with a solid one. Gene remembered nothing until next morning, at breakfast. Luke, Tunney’s punchy? Like Einstein, he’s punchy.”

“Keep selling me, Max,” I said. “I want to buy.”

“You’ll rest,” he said. “You’ll — retire. That’s it, step down while you’re still champ. That’s the classy way to do it.” Moisture in his eyes? “But don’t worry about a little memory lapse. Just don’t worry about a damn-fool thing like that, Luke. It happens to everybody, one time or another.”

“I’ll bet,” I said.

“It’s happened to me,” he went on. “Often. Must have left fifty watches in washrooms, in my time. Take ‘em off to wash my hands, you know — Luke, damn it, quit staring.”

“Okay.
Okay!”
I stood up and went out to the patio. I stretched out on the canvas pad of the redwood chaise longue and closed my eyes. I could feel the sun on my eyelids and see the redness of their blood through them.

I’d seen a lot of blood in fifteen years, too much.

Rough linen was being draped over my eyes, a napkin. Max’s voice was tired. “You had a couple drinks, you know. It could have been that. It was probably that. You’re not much of a drinking man, Champ.”

I didn’t answer him. I could smell his cigar and hear his feet scrape on the concrete patio, and feel the sun soaking into my body.

A plane droned overhead and tires hummed along the asphalt of Sunset Boulevard and I thought of Sally in Chicago, where it was probably cold, this February day.

The wind comes off the lake, in Chicago, and sweeps along the Outer Drive, along Michigan Boulevard, and throws the sharp snow into your stinging face. The Windy City.

I’d fought Muggsy Ellis there and Joe Lane and Tommy Burke. I’d met Sally there, three winters ago.

Good fight town, Chicago, good girl town.

A party in one of those towering apartments on the near north side, a guy Max knew from the Bronx originally, an artist, sort of. Great big apartment with the bedrooms off the balcony, one of those.

Paintings on the walls I didn’t understand, angles and planes and splashes of gaudy color. People I didn’t know in knots all around the big room, most of them drinking. A girl sat on the piano bench, looking at her hands, which were in her lap.

Her dress was black wool jersey, her hair was almost white, her eyebrows were as black as the dress.

Max stopped to talk to a couple sports scribes and I kept walking, over to the piano bench.

She looked up and smiled.

“I’m a stranger here, myself,” I said. “My name is Luke Pilgrim.”

“Hello, Luke,” she said. “Where’s your tambourine?” I didn’t say anything.

“The name,” she explained. “You’re an evangelist or something, aren’t you, with a name like that?”

“I’m a fighter,” I said. “I’m middleweight champion of the world.”

Her face quiet, her eyes mocking. “What am I supposed to do, genuflect?”

“I thought maybe you’d talk to me,” I said.

A pause, and she patted the bench beside her. “Sit down, Luke, and tell me the thrilling story of your career.”

I sat down, and asked, “Are you an actress?”

“No. Aren’t we going to talk about you?”

“Not unless you want to. What’s your name?”

“Sally. I’m an artist, Luke. Free-lance, commercial. Do you like to fight?”

“Yes. Why?”

“You tell me. Why do you like to fight?”

“I don’t know. One of the sports writers claimed I was a sadist, once. Why do you like to paint or sketch or whatever you do?”

“Sublimation of the sexual drive,” she said. “I thought all fighters were lumpy-eared and beetle-browed and talked in hoarse whispers.”

“A lot of them do and are,” I agreed. “I’ll probably wind up like that. Is your hair naturally that color?”

“Gray? If I were going to dye it, would I dye it
gray?
Prematurely gray, I add coyly.”

“It’s very attractive,” I said. “You’re — striking.”

“So I’ve been told. I’ve been called everything but beautiful. Why doesn’t anyone ever call me beautiful?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “because you are.”

Right from that first minute, she was for me. Her divorce wasn’t final at that time, but it didn’t stop me from moving in. Her divorce was final now. Why weren’t we married?

She claimed she was allergic to marriage. She claimed George had done that to her. He worked for Sears Roebuck. He was blond and tall, and Max shared my opinion of him.

Max said one day, “I wish I could buy him at my price and sell him at his. I’d be richer than Baruch.” And she’d been married to
him.

Tires hummed and the sun worked into my bones and the smell of Max’s cigar stayed with me.

I said, “Where’s all the money gone, Max? I haven’t enough money to retire.”

“Taxes,” Max said, “and convertibles and fancy hotels and all your hungry friends. My fault, I suppose. You haven’t got any sense; I should have watched your money for you, boy.”

“Who’d watch yours?” I asked him. “You’re as broke as I am.”

“Sure, but I didn’t take the punches. Don’t worry about money, kid. A pair like us can always make a buck.”

“Us?” I said. “You mean you won’t be digging up another boy after I retire? You’re quitting the game?”

“Why not? I had a champ. How many of them ever get a champ? And especially one like you.”

“Aw, Max,” I kidded him, “you say the sweetest things.”

“I’m your pal,” he told me. “You want to tell me about the redhead now?”

I took the napkin off my eyes and stared at him. He was smiling.

“That loss of memory, Luke. A gag, huh? Account of the redhead?”

“You’re not making sense,” I said.

He took a deep breath. “You left the party with her. Brenda Vane, remember?”

“I don’t even remember the party. I don’t remember anything after the seventh round. I told you that, Max.”

“I know you did, I know you did. I figured it maybe was because — of Sally, and you didn’t want to talk about the redhead. Oh, hell, I was just — ”

“Hoping,
Max? Hoping I wasn’t punchy?”

“You’re
not
punchy. You never trained enough to get punchy. That’s where the guys lose their marbles, training.”

I swung my feet around and sat up, facing him. “Tell me all about it, from the seventh round on, everything you know.”

“You knocked him out in the ninth,” Max said quietly. “I thought you’d killed him, for a second, there. You hit him twice, when he was going down.”

I took a breath and looked at my hands.

“You’ve done
that
before,” he said.

“I know. What happened after that?”

“You wouldn’t talk to the scribes in the dressing-room. We took a cab from there to the party. It was at Sam Wald’s house. That’s where you latched onto the redhead.”

“And I left the party with her?”

“We
left the party with her. In her car. She dropped
me
off here. The rest I wouldn’t know about.”

“Brenda Vane,” I said, and shook my head. “Sounds theatrical.”

“She was. Her name was probably Bertha Schtunk, originally, but you’d never know it to look at her now.”

“I wonder if Sally’s home,” I said. “She probably is, huh?”

“Probably. It’s only twenty-two hundred miles; why don’t you phone and find out?”

“She’d like that, wouldn’t she? I think I will.”

“Tell her you’re retiring. Tell her it’s time for both of you to settle down.”

I stood up. “Think it is? Think I’m through, Max?”

He smiled. “Fighting, yes, for money. Though you can still lick anybody but the good boys. You haven’t fought a good boy in three years, Luke.”

That hadn’t been my idea, fighting the bums. But neither had I kicked about it. I went into the suite to phone Sally.

And she was home. And from two thousand miles her voice could charge me.

“Honey,” she said. “You’re lonely.”

“Yup.”

“Me, too. Is it still raining out there?”

“It’s over eighty,” I told her. “It’s setting a new record. It’s like Miami.”

“Tempt me.”

“I love you. I miss you.”

“I’ll see about a plane. Charley didn’t hurt you, did he? Charley never hurts
you,
does he?”

“In the seventh, a little,” I told her. “Hurry, kid; see about that plane.”

A silence, and then: “Luke, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Max thinks we ought to settle down. I should retire and we should raise kids. You like the sound of that?”

“I’ll see about a plane,” she said, and hung up.

I stood there, waiting for it to die down, so Max wouldn’t laugh at me, waiting for the excitement to go down before I went back to the patio.

A lot of times she’s told me what we have is all physical, that we can’t seem to find a communication beyond the physical. I didn’t know if it was all physical or not, but I knew it was
all,
whatever it was.

The sun seemed brighter when I came back to the patio and the foliage greener and there was a clean smell to the warm air.

Max had the paper again. “It says here you were a new man in the eighth and ninth rounds. It says you looked like the old Luke Pilgrim, the old killer.”

“What do you know about that? They’ve got to write something, I suppose. That’s what they get paid for.”

“You’re sour. She’s not coming out, and you’re sour.”

“She’s coming. I’m not sour. But writers give me a pain in the ass, and especially Los Angeles sports writers.”

Max looked at me for seconds, not smiling for a change. Finally, “Luke, what the hell’s the matter with you?”

“Maybe I’m sensitive,” I said. “Maybe I didn’t like your crack about me fighting bums. It wasn’t my idea, you know.”

“Relax,” he said. “Stretch out and get that sun again. Since when are we polite to each other?”

I stretched out on the pad again. “Why did you make that crack about me hitting him twice when he was going? I’m the only boy who ever hit a man on the way down?”

“No. I shouldn’t have said it to you, not this morning. It’s the way you used to fight, in the old days. Every fight was personal with you then. The last couple of years, you fought a different fight, since — ” He stopped.

“Since I met Sally?”

“All right, yes. I’m not kicking. She’s done you a lot of good. You’re a better man today.”

“And a worse pug.”

“I like you better this way.”

“But the fans don’t, and the writers.”

“We won’t worry about them, not any more,” Max said. “We’re retiring.”

When I was a choir boy at All Saints, when I was ten years old, I boxed with the big gloves. And licked a kid of twelve. In the Golden Gloves, I’d won the novice title the first year and the open title my second.

I’d had seven kayos in a row my first year under Max; in all the years under Max, I had lost one fight, to Jeff Koski in Buffalo. And put him away in the fifth, the next time we met. Jeff hadn’t fought again.

Yes, it had been personal in the early days. And why? My family weren’t rich, but there had always been food and warm clothes and the Saturday movie. There’d been a full four years of high school. The hungry ones were the killers, usually, the boys from the tough districts.

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