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PG-13, at worst
“What the hell do you have to be sorry for?”
Joe looked up at his friend’s battered face, hesitated, then continued taping Braddock’s hand. “I wish I could say you didn’t have to go out there, Jimmy,” he said, trying not to replay the moments from that last fight in his head. It was useless; they came anyway, in harsh sepia tones, like old filmstrips out of a clicking projector. Corn Griffin’s wild haymaker to Braddock’s face, and you could almost hear the bones crunch. Jimmy’d stayed in there, sure, stayed with Griffin for fifteen rounds and won ... but his face, God. The man’s goddamn face.
“No room for useless wishes,” Braddock murmured in his thick Jersey accent. The stolidity of it froze Gould in the act of taping. How could the man be so calm, so cool, when everything he had was riding on this fight?
“Got some composure there,” Gould said, resuming the wrap. Extra tight on the right hand, tape it double. It wasn’t just Braddock’s everything riding on this fight, and to have that fierce right break again... Until now, he’d been able to keep natty in his three-piece suits, but the Depression had a way of making natty look ratty quick. Braddock loses this one and it’s back to the breadlines for him ... and Gould wasn’t sure he wouldn’t be joining him.
“Have to. Can’t let what’s at stake overwhelm me, you know?” Braddock leaned back and sighed heavily. “Mae, the kids. Can’t let them down, not again.”
“Jimmy, you never let them down,” Gould said. “Not once.” A month before the first fight – what Gould was starting, perhaps dangerously, to think as Braddock’s comeback bout – Braddock had come to the boxing commission’s office with his hat in hand, quietly asking for some help. He hadn’t had enough to turn his heat back on so his kids wouldn’t freeze to death, and the arrogant pricks he, Gould, was forced to work with threw a few coins in the hat and probably walked away feeling magnanimous. Braddock – Jimmy – had approached him, not looking in his eyes, only at his hat. Stood in front of Joe Gould, his old manager, his old friend, and had apologized.
Gould, wanting nothing more than to jab a few uppercuts at the fat cats in their fine suits and fine lives, bit back the bile of his anger and had said to his friend, “What the hell do you have to be sorry for?”
That moment came back now, as he worked on Braddock’s other hand. “Not once,” he said again.
“I just want to do what’s right,” Braddock said. “For Mae, for the kids. For you.”
Gould looked up sharply at that. “Jimmy, you don’t owe me a goddamned thing.”
“I do,” Braddock said, his eyes closed. “I do, at that. Joe, you helped me out when no one would. You got me a fight when everyone else said I was washed up. You took chances on me, and I won’t forget that.”
“I took chances on you because I believed in you, Jimmy,” he said. The boxing footage in his head sideslipped, became something brighter, joyous. That day he had been able to come to Braddock’s apartment – one step up from a shantytown, that – and stand in the lot outside and tell Jimmy he had a fight lined up for him. A sunny day that had been, and the look on Jimmy’s face as he heard the news. “For two hundred and fifty I’d fight your grandmother!” Jimmy had shouted happily, tears in his eyes, then rushed forward to grab him in a fierce hug. Braddock’s strength rippled though his shirt like fire, embracing him, binding him. Joe had hugged back, as tight as he could, feeling tears prick the back of his own eyes.
“Thank you,” Jimmy’d whispered into his ear. “God, thank you.”
Now Braddock said it again, leaning back against the cold concrete wall with his eyes closed and his hands taped. “Thank you, Joe. I couldn’t have done any of this without you.”
Emotion roiled within him, and Gould took a step back from it. From Braddock. Slowly, Jimmy opened his eyes. “What’s wrong, Joe?”
“Nothing, buddy,” he said, turning around. His heart was beating hard in his chest and he didn’t know why.
Gould spun around. “You win this fight, I can get you more fights. More wins, more money. You win this one and I can get you anything.”
“I know,” Braddock said. “Always looking out for me. But if I don’t win, you know what I got?”
“What’s that, Jimmy?”
“You in my corner.”
Gould stared at him from across the locker room. “Jimmy...”
“I gotta go out there in two minutes and pound John Henry Lewis’s face in,” Braddock said. “But that’s in two minutes.”
Gould stepped closer. His heart stopped thumping altogether and now simply raced. Raced to beat the devil. “I gotta tell you something, Jimmy,” he said, sure that the words were coming out harsh, choked with the furious rhythm of his heart.
“I know,” Jimmy said. “Come on, come over here.”
Gould stepped closer, and now he was face to face with his old friend, his prizefighter. Sweat, hot and sweet, backed off Braddock’s bare shoulders and glistened on his chest. “Joe,” Braddock said, his eyes rolling up to meet Gould’s.
“Goddamn it, Jimmy,” Gould said. “You know I...”
Then one of Braddock’s taped hands came up and around Gould’s neck, bringing him close. Suddenly, Braddock’s lips were on his, pressing tight, and Gould found his mouth opening against his will. Braddock’s opened in response, and for a brief, bare moment, Gould tasted Braddock’s tongue on his own. Gould closed his eyes and no movies played in his brain. Inside it was only now, almost fight time, and in the silence before, Jimmy Braddock was delivering a haymaker to his heart.
When he opened his eyes, Braddock had sat up and was looking at him. “Jimmy.”
“What is it, Joe?”
“I love my wife,” he said. “With all my heart.”
“And I love Mae,” Braddock told him, without looking away.
“But,” Gould said, then couldn’t find any other words.
“Yeah,” Braddock said, with a slight smile that told him everything. “But.”
The announcer appeared in the doorway. “Braddock, you’re up.”
Gould looked at his friend and put a hand on his shoulder. For a second, he let his hand grip a little tighter, stay a second longer. “You kick his ass, Jimmy,” he said. “I’ll be at ringside. And after the fight, I’ll be here.”
Braddock smiled wider now, his battered face rugged in the harsh arc-sodium lights. Battered, but not broken. “So will I, Joe. So will I.”