He Swung and He Missed

.... It was Miss Donahue of Public School 24 who
finally urged Rocco, in his fifteenth year, out
of eighth grade and into the world. She had
watched him fighting, at recess times, from his
sixth year on. The kindergarten had no
recesses or it would have been his fifth
year. She had nurtured him personally through
four trying semesters and so it was with some-
thing like enthusiasm that she wrote in his auto-
graph book, the afternoon of graduation day,
"Trusting that Rocco will make good."
....Ultimately, Rocco did. In his own way. He
stepped from the schoolroom into the ring back
of the Happy Hour Bar in a catchweight bout
with an eight-dollar purse, winner take all.
Rocco took it.
.... Uncle Mike Adler, local promoter, called the
boy Young Rocco after that one and the name
stuck. He fought through the middleweights
and into the light-heavies, while his purses in-
creased to as much as sixty dollars and expenses.
In his nineteenth year he stopped growing, his
purses stopped growing, and he married a girl
called Lili.
.... He didn't win every one after that, somehow,
and by the time he was twenty-two he was losing
as often as he won. He fought on. It was all he
could do. He never took a dive; he never had
a setup or a soft touch. He stayed away from
whiskey; he never gambled; he went to bed early
before every bout and he loved his wife. He
fought in a hundred corners of the city, under
a half dozen managers, and he fought every
man he was asked to, at any hour. He substi-
tuted for better men on as little as two hours
notice. He never ran out on a fight and he was
never put down for a ten count. He took beat-
ings from the best in the business. But he never
stayed down for ten.
.... He fought a comer from the Coast one night
and took the worst beating of his career. But
he was on his feet in the end. With a jaw broken
in three places.
.... After that one he was hospitalized for three
months and Lili went to work in a factory. She
wasn't a strong girl and he didn't like it that
she had to work. He fought again before his jaw
was ready, and lost.
.... Yet even when he lost, the crowds liked him.
They heckled him when he was introduced as
Young Rocco, because he looked thirty-four
before he was twenty-six. Most of his hair had
gone during his layoff, and scar tissue over the
eyes made him look less and less like a young
anything. Friends came, friends left, money
came in, was lost, was saved; he got the
break on occasional decision, and was occa-
sionally robbed of a duke he'd earned. All things
changed but his weight, which was 174, and his
wife, who was Lili. And his record of never hav-
ing been put down for ten. That stood, like his
name. Which was forever Young Rocco.
.... That stuck to him like nothing else in the
world but Lili.
.... At the end, which came when he was twenty-
nine, all he had left was his record and his girl.
Being twenty-nine, one of that pair had to go.
He went six weeks without earning a dime before
he came to the realization. When he found her
wearing a pair of his old tennis shoes, about the
house, to save the heels of her only decent pair
of shoes, he made up his mind.
.....Maybe Young Rocco wasn't the smartest pug
in town, but he wasn't the punchiest either. Just
because there was a dent in his face and a bigger
one in his wallet, it didn't follow that his brain
was dented. It wasn't. He knew what the score
was. And he loved his girl.
.... He came into Uncle Mike's office looking for
a fight and Mike was good enough not to ask
what kind he wanted. He had a twenty-year-old
named Solly Classki that he was bring along
under the billing of Kid Class. There was money
back of the boy, no chances were to be taken.
If Rocco was ready to dive, he had the fight.
Uncle Mike put no pressure on Rocco. There
were two light-heavies out in the gym ready to
jump at the chance to dive for Solly Classki. All
Rocco had to say was okay. His word was good
enough for Uncle Mike. Rocco said it. And left
the gym with the biggest purse of his career, and
the first he'd gotten in advance, in his pocket;
four twenties and two tens.
.....He gave Lili every dime of that money, and
when he handed it over, he knew he was only
doing the right thing for her. He had earned the
right to sell out and he had sold. The ring owed
him more than a C-note, he reflected soundly,
and added loudly, for Lili's benefit, "I'll stop the
bum dead in his tracks."
.... They were both happy that night. Rocco had
never been happier since Graduation Day.
.... He had a headache all the way to the City
Garden that night, but it lessened a little in the
shadowed dressing room under the stands. The
moment he saw the lights of the ring, as he came
down the littered aisle alone, the ache sharpened
once more.
.... Slouched unhappily in his corner for the
windup, he watched the lights overhead swaying
a little, and closed his eyes. When he opened
them, a slow dust was raising towards the lights.
He saw it sweep suddenly, swift and sideways,
high over the ropes and out across the dark and
watchful rows. Below him someone pushed the
warning buzzer.
.... He looked through Kid Class as they touched
gloves, and glared sullenly over the boy's head
while Ryan, the ref, hurried through the stuff
about a clean break in the clinches. He felt
the robe being taken from his shoulders, and sud-
denly, in that one brief moment before the bell,
felt more tired than he ever had in the ring before.
He went out in a half-crouch and someone called
out, "Cut him down, Solly."
.... He backed to make the boy lead, and then
came in long enough to flick his left twice into
the teeth and skitter away. The bleachers
whooped, sensing blood. He'd given them their
money's worth for a couple rounds, anyhow.
No use making it look bad.
.... In the middle of the second round he began
sensing that the boy was telegraphing his right by
pulling his left shoulder, and stepped in to trap
it. The boy's left came back bloody and Rocco
knew he'd been hit by way of the bleachers
began again. It didn't occur to him that it was
time to dive; he didn't even remember. Instead,
he saw the boy telegraphing his right once more
and the left protecting the heart slipping loosely
down towards the naval, the telltale left shoulder
hunching- only it wasn't down, it wasn't a right.
It wasn't to the heart. The boy's left snapped like
a hurled rock between his eyes and he groped
blindly for the other's arms, digging his chin
sharply into the shoulder, hating the six-bit bunch
out there for thinking he could be hurt so soon.
He shoved the boy off, flashed his left twice into
the teeth, burned him skillfully against the mid-
dle rope, and heeled him sharply as they broke.
Then he skittered easily away. And the bell.
.... Down front, Mike Adler's eyes followed Rocco
back to his corner.
.... Rocco came out for the third, fighting straight
up, watching Solly's gloves coming lunguidly out
of the other corner, dangling loosely a moment
in the glare, and a flatiron smashed in under his
heart so that he remembered, with sagging sur-
prise, that he'd already been paid off. He caught
his breath while following the indifferent gloves
thinking vaguely of Lili in oversize tennis shoes.
The gloves drifted backward and dangled loosely
with little to do but catch light idly four feet
away. The right broke again beneath his heart
and he grunted in spite of himself; the boy's
close-cropped head followed in, cockily, no
higher than Rocco's chin but coming reckless
straight down to the shoulders. And the gloves
were gone again. The boy was faster than he
looked. And the pain in his head settled down to
a steady beating between the eyes.
.... The great strength of a fighting man is his
pride. That was Young Rocco's strength in the
rounds that followed. The boy called Kid Class
couldn't keep him down. He was down in the
fourth, twice in the fifth, and again in the
seventh. In that round he stood with his back
against the ropes, standing the boy off with his
left in the seconds before the bell. He had the
trick of looking impassive when he was hurt, and
his face at the bell looked impassive as a
catcher's mitt.
.... Between that round and the eighth Uncle
Mike climbed into the ring beside Young Rocco.
He said nothing. Just stood there looking down.
He thought Rocco might of forgotten. He'd
had four chances to stay down and he hadn't
taken one. Rocco looked up. "I'm clear as a bell,"
he told Uncle Mike. He hadn't forgotten a thing.
.... Uncle Mike climbed back into his seat, re-
signed to anything that might happen. He under-
stood better than Young Rocco. Rocco couldn't
stay down until his knees would fail to bring him
up. Uncle Mike sighed. He decided he liked
Young Rocco. Somehow, he didn't feel as sorry
for him as he had in the gym.
.... "I hope he makes it," he found himself hoping.
The crowd felt differently. They had seen the
lean and scarred Italian drop his man here twenty
times before, the way he was trying to keep from
being dropped himself now. They felt it was his
turn. They were standing up in the rows to see it.
The dust came briefly between. A tired moth
struggled lamely upward toward the lights. And
the bell.
.... Ryan came over between rounds, hooked
Rocco's head back with a crooked forefinger on
the chin, after Rocco's handler had stopped
the bleeding with collodion, and muttered some-
thing about the fight going to far. Rocco spat.
....."Awright, Solly, drop it on him," someone
called across the ropes.
.... It sounded, somehow, like money to Rocco. It
sounded like somebody was being shortchanged
out there.
.... But Solly stayed away, hands low, until the
eighth was half gone. Then he was wide with a
right, held and butted as they broke; Rocco felt
the blood and got rid of some of it on the boy's
left breast. He trapped the boy's left, rapping the
kidneys fast before grabbing the arms again, and
pressed his nose firmly into the hollow of the
other's throat to arrest the bleeding. Felt the blood
trickling into the hollow there as into a tiny cup.
Rocco put his feet together and a glove on both
the Kid Class's shoulders, to shove him sullenly
away. And must of looked strong doing it, for
he heard the crowd murmur a little. He was in
Solly's corner at the bell and moved back to his
own corner with his head held high, to control
the bleeding. When his handler stopped it again,
he knew, at last, that his own pride was double-
crossing him. And felt glad for that much. Let
them worry out there in the rows. He'd been
shortchanged since Graduation Day; let them be
on the short end tonight. He had a hundred -
he'd get a job in a garage and forget every one
of them.
.....It wasn't until the tenth and final round that
Rocco realized he wanted to kayo the boy - be-
cause it wasn't until then that he realized he
could. Why not do the thing the right way?
He felt his tiredness fall from him like an old
cloak at the notion. This was his fight, his round.
He'd end like he started, as a fighting man.
And saw Solly Kid Class shuffling his shoulders
forward uneasily. The boy would be a full-sized
heavy in another six months. He bulled him into
the ropes and felt the boy fade sidewise. Rocco
caught him off balance with his left, hook-fash-
ion, into the short ribs. The boy chopped back
with his left uncertainly, as though he might
have jammed his knuckles, and held. In a half-
rolling clinch along the ropes, he saw Solly's
mouthpiece projecting, slipping halfway in and
halfway out, and then swallowed in again with a
single tortured twist of the lips. He got an arm
loose and banged the boy back of the ear with
an overhand right that must of looked funny
because the crowd laughed a little. Solly smeared
his glove across his nose, came halfway in and
most steady until Rocco feinted him into a knot
and brought the right looping from the floor
with even his toes behind it.
.... Solly stepped in to let it breeze past, and
hooked his right hard to the button. Then the
left. Rocco's mouthpiece went spinning in an
arc into the lights. Then the right.
.... Rocco spun halfway around and stood looking
sheepishly out at the rows. Kid Class saw only
his man's back; Rocco was out on his feet. He
walked slowly along the ropes, tapping them
idly with his glove and smiling vacantly down at
the newspapermen, who smiled back. Solly looked
at Ryan. Ryan nodded toward Rocco. Kid Class
came up fast behind his man and threw the left
under the armpit flush onto the point of the chin,
Rocco went forward on the ropes and hung there,
his chin catching the second strand, and hung
on and on, like a man decapitated.
.....He came to in the locker room under the
stands, watching the steam swimming about the
pipes directly overhead. Uncle Mike was some-
where near, telling him he had done fine, and
then he was alone. They were all gone then, all
the six-bit hecklers and the iron-throated boys in
the sixty-cent seats. He rose heavily and dressed
slowly, feeling a long relief that he'd come to
the end. He'd done it the hard way, but he'd done
it. Let them all go.
.... He was fixing his tie, taking more time with it
than it required, when she knocked. He called to
her to come in. She had never seen him fight,
but he knew she must of listened on the radio
or she wouldn't be down now.
.... She tested the adhesive over his right eye
timidly, fearing to hurt him with her touch, but
wanting to be sure it wasn't loose.
.... "I'm okay," he assured her easily. "We'll cele-
brate a little 'n' forget the whole business." It
wasn't until he kissed her that her eyes avoided
him; it wasn't till then that he saw she was trying
not to cry. He patted her shoulder.
.... "There's nothin' wrong, Lil' - a couple days'
rest 'n' I'll be in the pink again."
.... Then saw it wasn't that after all.
.... "You told me you'd win," the girl told him.
"I got eight to one and put the whole damn bank
roll on you. I wanted to surprise you, 'n' now
we ain't got a cryin' dime."
.....Rocco didn't blow up. He just felt a little sick.
Sicker than he had ever felt in his life. He walked
away from the girl and sat on the rubbing table,
studying the floor. She had sense enough not to
bother him until he'd realized what the score
was. Then he looked up, studying her from foot
to head. His eyes didn't rest on her face: they
went back to her feet. To the scarred toes of the
only decent shoes; and a shadow passed over his
heart. "You got good odds, honey," he told her
thoughtfully. "You done just right. We made 'em
sweat all night for their money." Then he looked
up and grinned. A wide, white grin.
.....That was all she needed to know it was okay
after all. She went to him so he could tell her
how okay it really was.
.... That was like Young Rocco, from Graduation
Day. He always did it the hard way; but he
did it.
.... Miss Donahue would have been proud.