Lawrence Block

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse

Matthew Scudder #09

For Philip Friedman

If God should punish men according to what they deserve, He would not leave so much as a beast on the back of the earth.


Chapter 1

Midway into the fifth round the kid in the blue trunks rocked his opponent with a solid left to the jaw. He followed it with a straight right to the head.

'He's ready to fall,' Mick Ballou said.

He looked it, too, but when the kid in blue waded in the other boy slipped a punch and groped his way into a clinch. I got a look at his eyes before the referee stepped between the two fighters. They looked glazed, unfocused.

'How much time is there?'

'More than a minute.'

'Plenty of time,' Mick said. 'Watch your man take the lad right out. For a small man he's strong as a bull.'

They weren't that small. Junior middleweights, which I guess would put them somewhere around 155 pounds. I used to know the weight limits for all the classes, but it was easy then. Now they've got more than twice as many classifications, with junior this and super that, and three different governing bodies each recognizing a different champion. I think the trend must have started when someone figured out that it was easier to promote a title bout, and it's getting to the point where you rarely see anything else.

The card we were watching, however, was strictly non-title, and a long way removed from the glamour and showmanship of championship fights staged in Vegas andAtlantic City casinos. We were, to be precise, in a concrete-block shed on a dark street in Maspeth, an industrial wasteland in the borough of Queens bordered on the south and west by the Greenpoint and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn and set off from the rest of Queens by a half-circle of cemeteries. You could live a lifetime inNew York without ever getting to Maspeth, or you could drive through it dozens of times without knowing it. With its warehouses and factories and drab residential streets, Maspeth's not likely to be on anybody's short list for potential gentrification, but I suppose you never know. Sooner or later they'll run out of other places, and the crumbling warehouses will be reborn as artists' lofts while young urban homesteaders rip the rotted asphalt siding from the row houses and set about gutting the interiors. You'll have ginkgo trees lining the sidewalk onGrand Avenue, and a Korean greengrocer on every corner.

For now, though, the New Maspeth Arena was the only sign I'd seen of the neighborhood's glorious future. Some months earlierMadisonSquareGarden had closed the Felt Forum for renovations, and sometime in early December the New Maspeth Arena had opened with a card of boxing matches every Thursday night, with the first prelim getting under way around seven.

The building was smaller than the Felt Forum, and had a no-frills feel to it, with untrimmed concrete-block walls and a sheet-metal roof and a poured concrete slab for a floor. It was rectangular in shape, and the boxing ring stood in the center of one of the long walls, opposite the entrance doors. Rows of metal folding chairs framed the ring's three open sides. The chairs were gray, except for the first two rows in each of the three sections, which were blood red. The red seats at ringside were reserved. The rest of the arena was open seating, and a seat was only five dollars, which was two dollars less than the price of a first-run movie inManhattan. Even so, almost half of the gray chairs remained unoccupied.

The price was low in order to fill as many of the seats as possible, so that the fans who watched the fights on cable TV wouldn't realize the event had been staged solely on their behalf. The New Maspeth Arena was a cable phenomenon, thrown up to furnish programming for FBCS, Five Borough Cable Sportscasts, the latest sports channel trying to get a toehold in the New York metro area. The FBCS trucks had been parked outside when Mick and I arrived a few minutes after seven, and at eight o'clock their coverage began.

Now the fifth round of the final prelim fight was ending with the boy in the white trunks still on his feet. Both fighters were black, both local kids from Brooklyn, one introduced as hailing from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the other from Crown Heights. Both had short haircuts and regular features, and they were the same height, although the kid in blue looked shorter in the ring because he fought in a crouch. It's good their trunks were different colors or it would have been tough to tell them apart.

'He should have had him there,' Mick said. 'The other lad was ready to go and he couldn't finish him.'

'The boy in the white has heart,' I said.

'He was glassy-eyed. What's his name, the one in blue?' He looked at the program, a single sheet of blue paper with the bouts listed. 'McCann,' he said. 'McCann let him off the hook.'

'He was all over him.'

'He was, and punching away at him, but he couldn't pull the trigger. There's a lot of them like that, they get their man in trouble and then they can't put him down. I don't know why it is.'

'He's got three rounds left.'

Mick shook his head. 'He had his chance,' he said.

HE was right. McCann won the remaining three rounds handily, but the fight was never closer to a knockout than it had been in the fifth. At the final bell they clung together briefly in a sweaty embrace, and then McCann bopped over to his corner with his gloves raised in triumph. The judges agreed with him. Two of them had him pitching a shutout, while the third man had the kid in white winning a round.

'I'll get a beer,' Mick said. 'Will you have something?'

'Not right now.'

We were in the first row of gray chairs over on the right-hand side of the ring as you entered. That way I could keep an eye on the entrance, although I hadn't been looking anywhere much outside the ring. I looked over there now while Mick made his way to the refreshment stand at the far end of the hall, and for a change I saw someone I recognized, a tall black man in a well-tailored navy pinstripe suit. I stood up at his approach and we shook hands.

'I thought it was you,' he said. 'I ducked in before to watch a couple minutes of Burdette and McCann from the back, and I thought I saw my friend Matthew over here in the cheap seats.'

'They're all cheap seats in Maspeth.'

'Isn't that the truth.' He put a hand on my shoulder. 'First time I saw you was at the fights, wasn't it? The Felt Forum?'

'That's right.'

'You were with Danny Boy Bell.'

'You were with Sunny. I don't remember her last name.'

'Sunny Hendryx. Sonya, her name was, but nobody ever called her that.'

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