“The Match,” by Colson Whitehead
Audio: Colson Whitehead reads.
The boys rooted for Griff, even though he was a miserable bully who jimmied and pried at their weaknesses and made up weaknesses if he couldn’t find any, such as calling you a “knock-kneed piece of shit” even if your knees had never knocked your whole life. He tripped them and laughed at the ensuing pratfalls and slapped them around when he could get away with it. He punked them out, dragging them into dark rooms. He smelled like a horse and made fun of their mothers, which was pretty low given the general motherlessness of the student population. Griff stole their desserts on multiple occasions—swiped from trays with a grin—even if the desserts in question were no great shakes; it was the principle. The boys rooted for Griff because he was going to represent the colored half of Nickel at the annual boxing match, and, no matter what he did the rest of the year, the day of the fight he would be all of them in one black body and he was going to knock that white boy out.
If Griff spat teeth before that happened, swell.
The Nickel Academy was a reform school for boys: juvenile offenders, wards of the state, orphans, runaways who’d lit out to get away from mothers who entertained men for money, or to escape rummy fathers who came into their rooms in the middle of the night. Some of them had stolen money, cussed at their teachers, or damaged public property. They told stories about bloody pool-hall fights or uncles who sold moonshine. A bunch of them were sent there for offenses they’d never heard of: malingering, mopery, incorrigibility. Words the boys didn’t understand, but what was the point when their meaning was clear enough: Nickel.
The combat served as a kind of mollifying spell, to tide them over through the daily humiliations. The colored boys had held the boxing title for fifteen years, since 1949. Old hands on the staff still remembered the last white champion and talked him up. Terry (Doc) Burns had been an anvil-handed good old boy from a musty corner of Suwannee County, who’d been sent to Nickel for strangling a neighbor’s chickens. Twenty-one chickens, to be exact, because “they were out to get him.” Pain had rolled off Doc Burns like rain from a slate roof. After he returned to the free world, the white boys who advanced to the final fight were pikers, so wobbly that over the years the tall tales about the former champion had grown more and more extravagant: nature had gifted Doc Burns with an unnaturally long reach; his legendary combo had swatted down every comer and rattled windows. In fact, Doc Burns had been beaten and ill-treated by so many in his life—family and strangers alike—that by the time he arrived at Nickel all punishments were gentle breezes.
This was Griff’s first term on the boxing team. He’d arrived at Nickel in February, right after the previous champ, Axel Parks, turned eighteen and was released back into the free world. Griff’s emergence as the baddest brother on campus had made him Axel’s natural successor. He was a giant, broad-chested and hunched like a big brown bear; his daddy, it was said, was on a chain gang in Alabama for murdering his mother, making Griff’s meanness a handed-down thing. Outside the ring, he made a hobby of terrorizing the weaker boys, the boys without friends, the weepy ones. Inside the ring, his prey stepped right up, so he didn’t have to waste time hunting. Like an electric toaster or an automated washing machine, boxing was a modern convenience that made his life easier.
The coach for the colored team was a Mississippian named Max David, who worked in the school garage. He got an envelope at the end of the year for imparting what he’d learned during his welterweight stint. Max David made his pitch to Griff early in the summer. “My first fight made me cockeyed,” he said. “And my farewell fight set my eyes right again, so trust me when I say this sport will break you down to make you better, and that’s a fact.” Griff smiled. He pulverized and unmanned his opponents with cruel inevitability through autumn. He was not graceful. He was not a scientist. He was a powerful instrument of violence, and that sufficed.
Given the typical length of enrollment at Nickel, most students were around for only one or two fighting seasons. As the championship approached, the boys had to be schooled in the importance of those December matches—the prelims within your dorm, the matches between your dorm’s best guy and the best sluggers from the other two dorms, and then the bout between the best black fighter and whatever chump the white guys put up. The championship was the boys’ sole acquaintance with justice at Nickel.
Trevor Nickel had instituted the matches in 1946, soon after he came on as the director of the Florida Industrial School for Boys, which was opened by the state in 1899. Nickel had never run a school before; his background was in agriculture. He’d made an impression at Klan meetings, however, with his impromptu speeches on moral improvement and the value of work, the disposition of young souls in need of care. The right people remembered his passion when an opening came up. His first Christmas at the school gave the county a chance to witness his improvements. Everything that needed a new coat of paint got a new coat of paint, the regular beatings were relocated to a small, white utility building, nicknamed the White House, and the dark cells were briefly converted to more innocent use. Had the good people of Eleanor, Florida, seen the industrial fan that was kept in the White House to mask the sound of the screams, they might have had a question or two, but that was not part of the tour.
Nickel, a longtime boxing evangelist, had steered a lobbying group for the sport’s expansion in the Olympics. Boxing had always been popular at the school, but the new director took its elevation as his remit. The athletics budget, long an easy target for directors on the skim, was rejiggered to pay for regulation equipment and to bolster the coaching staff. Nickel had maintained a general interest in fitness. He’d possessed a fervent belief in the miracle of a human specimen in top shape, and had often watched the boys shower to monitor the progress of their physical education.
“The director?” Elwood asked, when Turner told him that last part.
“Where do you think Dr. Campbell got that trick from?” Turner said. Nickel was gone now, but Dr. Campbell, the school psychologist, was known to loiter at the white boys’ showers to pick his “dates.” “All these dirty old men got a club together.”
Elwood had met Turner shortly after his arrival at Nickel. In the mess hall, which was loud with the rumble and roil of juvenile activity, Turner had bobbed in his own pocket of calm. Over time, Elwood saw that he was both always at home wherever he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t be there, inside and above at the same time, a part and apart.
They became friends in the school infirmary. Turner had swallowed soap powder and made himself sick to get out of his work assignment, and Elwood was recovering from his first White House beating. On his second day at Nickel, Elwood had had the dumb idea to break up a fight. The school’s superintendent, Spencer, didn’t care who’d started it or who’d tried to stop it, and had whipped the lot of them. Elwood had come to in the school hospital. The beating had embedded bits of his dungarees into his skin, and it took the doctor two hours to remove the fibres. It was a duty that the doctor had to perform from time to time. Tweezers did the trick.
Now Elwood and Turner were hanging out on the bleachers, while Griff sparred with Cherry, a mulatto who had taken up boxing as a matter of pedagogy, to teach others how not to speak about his white mother. He was quick and lithe and Griff clobbered him.
Catching Griff at his regimen was a favorite occupation those early days in December. Boys from the colored dormitories made the rounds, as did the white scouts from down the hill who wanted the skinny. Griff had been excused from his kitchen shift since Labor Day to train. It was a spectacle. Max David kept him on a diet of raw eggs and oats, and stored a jug of what he claimed was goat blood in the icebox. When the coach administered doses, Griff swallowed the stuff with a lot of theatre, then mortified the heavy bag in revenge.
Turner had seen Axel fight two years prior. He had been slow on his feet but as solid and abiding as an old stone bridge; he had weathered what the skies decreed. Contrary to Griff, with his mealy disposition, he’d been kind and protective of the smaller kids. “I wonder where he is now,” Turner said. “That nigger didn’t have a lick of sense. Making things worse for himself, probably, wherever he is.”
Cherry wavered and sank on his ass. Griff spat out his mouthpiece and bellowed. His friend and training companion Black Mike, a wiry youth from Opelousas, stepped into the sparring ring and held Griff’s hand up like Lady Liberty’s torch.
The likely white contender was a boy named Big Chet, who came from a clan of swamp people and was a bit of a creature. “Do you think Griff’ll knock him down?” Elwood asked.
“Look at those arms, man,” Turner said. “Those things are pistons. Or smoked hams.”
To see Griff quiver with unspent energy after a match, two younger boys unlacing his gloves like retainers, it was hard to imagine how the giant could lose. Which was why, two days later, Turner sat up in surprise when he heard Superintendent Spencer tell Griff to take a dive.
Turner was napping in the warehouse loft, where he’d made a nest among crates of industrial scrubbing powder. Turner had warehouse detail, so none of the staff bugged him when he went alone into the big storage room. No supervisors, no students—just him, a pillow, an Army blanket, and a transistor radio. It was his second stint at Nickel, after a brief free-world excursion that had ended when he threw a concrete block through a windshield. The owner of the car, a dumb redneck, had had it coming; the state of Florida thought otherwise. Turner’s parents were dead, and there was no one else to speak for him. The loft was a little place he’d carved out for himself. He spent a couple of hours a week up there.
The closing of the warehouse door woke him. Then came Griff’s dumb donkey voice: “What is it, Mr. Spencer, sir?”
“How’s that training coming along, Griff? Good old Max says you’re a natural.”
Turner frowned. Any time a white man asked you about yourself, he was about to fuck you over. Especially Spencer, who never passed on a chance to send a boy to the White House for a licking or to one of the third-floor cells for an attitude adjustment in solitary confinement. Griff was so stupid that he didn’t know what was happening. In class, the boy had struggled over two plus three, like he didn’t know how many damned fingers he had on his hand. Some foolhardies in the schoolhouse had laughed at him then, and Griff had stuck their heads into toilets, one by one, over the next week.
Turner’s assessment was correct: Griff was unable to grasp the reason for the secret meeting. Spencer expounded on the importance of the fight, the tradition of the December match. Then he hinted, “Good sportsmanship means letting the other team win sometimes.” He tried euphemism: “It’s like when a tree branch has to bend so it doesn’t break.” He appealed to fatalism: “Sometimes it don’t work out, no matter how much you try.” But Griff was too thick. Yes, sir . . . I suppose that’s right, Mr. Spencer . . . I believe that is the case, sir. Finally, the superintendent told Griff that his black ass had to take a dive in the third round or else they’d take him out back.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Spencer,” Griff said. Up in the loft Turner couldn’t see Griff’s face, so he didn’t know if he understood. The boy had stones in his fists and rocks in his head.
Spencer ended with “You know you can beat him. That’ll have to be enough.” He cleared his throat and said, “You come along, now,” as if herding a lamb who’d wandered. Turner was alone again.
“Ain’t that some shit?” he said later. He and Elwood were lounging on the front steps of their dorm. The daylight was thin, winter coming down like the lid on an old pot. Elwood was the only person Turner could tell. The rest of these mutts would blab, and then there’d be a lot of busted heads.
Turner had never met a kid like Elwood before. “Sturdy” was the word he returned to, even though the Tallahassee boy looked soft, conducted himself like a goody-goody, and had an irritating tendency to preach. Wore eyeglasses you wanted to grind underfoot like a butterfly. He talked like a white college boy, read books when he didn’t have to, and mined them for uranium to power his own personal A-bomb. His education, in fact, was to blame for his presence at Nickel. Though still a high-school senior, he’d been taking night classes at the local colored college. He was hitching to campus when the cops stopped the car that had picked him up; it was stolen. Nonetheless—sturdy.
Elwood wasn’t surprised at Turner’s news. There was no question that Griff would make it to the final match. “Organized boxing is corrupt on every level,” he said with authority. “There’s been a lot in the newspapers about it. Only reason to fix a fight is because you’re betting on it.”
“I’d bet on it, if I had any money,” Turner said.
“People are going to be upset,” Elwood said. Griff’s victory would have been a feast, but almost as delicious were the morsels that the boys traded in anticipation, the scenarios in which the white contender lost control of his bowels or threw up a geyser of blood or spat white teeth “like they were chipped out with an ice pick.” Fantasies hearty and fortifying.
“Sure,” Turner said. “But Spencer says he’s going to take you out back, you listen.”
“Take him to the White House?”
“I’ll show you,” Turner said.
They walked ten minutes to the laundry, which was shut at this time of day. Turner asked Elwood about the book under his arm and Elwood said a British family was trying to marry off the oldest daughter to keep their estate and title. The story had complicated turns.
“No one wants to marry her? She ugly?”
“She’s described as having a handsome face.”
Past the laundry were the dilapidated horse stables. The roof had given way long ago and nature had crept inside, with skeletal bushes and limp grasses rising in the stalls. You could get up to some wickedness in there if you didn’t believe in ghosts, but none of the students had arrived at a definite opinion on the matter, so everyone stayed away to be safe. There were two oaks on one side of the stables, with iron rings stabbed into the bark.
“This is out back,” Turner said. “Once in a while they take a black boy here and shackle him up to those. Arms spread out. Then they get a horse whip and tear him up.”
Elwood made two fists, then caught himself. “No white boys?”
“What about your family?”
“How many boys you know here got family? Or got family that cares about them? Not everyone is you, Elwood.” Turner got jealous when Elwood’s grandmother visited and brought him snacks, and it slipped out from time to time. Like now. The blinders Elwood wore, walking around. The law was one thing—you could march and wave signs and change a law if you convinced enough white people. In Tampa, before coming to Nickel for the second time, Turner had seen the college kids with their nice shirts and ties sit in at the Woolworths. He’d had to work, but they were out protesting. And it had happened—they’d opened the counter. Turner hadn’t had the money to eat there either way. You could change the law but you couldn’t change people and how they treated each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked there probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but, the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.
Which was why Turner had brought Elwood out to the two trees. To show him something that wasn’t in books.
Elwood grabbed one of the rings and tugged. It was solid, part of the trunk now. Human bones would break before it came loose.
Betting had been small-time when Director Nickel ran things—purity of the sport, etc. Nowadays, the fat cats turned out, anyone in three counties with a taste for wagering. The big match was split up over two nights. On the first, the white campus and the black campus settled on whom to send to the main event. For the past two months, three boxing rings had been set up in the gymnasium for training; now only one remained, at the center of the big room. It was chilly outside, and the spectators stepped into the humid cavern. White men from town claimed the folding chairs closest to the ring, then came the staff, and beyond that the student body crammed into the bleachers or squatted on the floor, ashy elbow to ashy elbow. The racial division of the school re-created itself in the gym, with white boys taking the south half and black boys claiming the north. They jostled at the borders.
Director Hardee acted as master of ceremonies. He rarely left his office in the administration building. Turner hadn’t seen him since Halloween, when he’d dressed in a Dracula outfit and distributed sweaty handfuls of candy corn to the younger students. He was a short man, fastened into his suits, with a bald pate that floated in a cloud bank of white hair. Hardee had brought his wife, a robust beauty whose every visit to the school was thoroughly annotated by the students, if furtively—reckless eyeballing called for mandatory beatings. She’d been Miss South Louisiana, or so the story went. She cooled her neck with a paper fan.
Hardee made a few remarks. The chairman of the board, Mr. Charles Grayson—the manager of the bank and a longtime Nickel supporter—was turning sixty on Friday. Hardee made the students sing “Happy Birthday.” Mr. Grayson stood and nodded, hands behind his back like a dictator.
The white dormitories were up first. Big Chet squeezed between the ropes and bounded into the center of the ring. His cheerleaders expressed themselves with gusto; he commanded a legion. The white boys may not have got it as bad as the black boys, but they were not at Nickel because the world cared overmuch about them. Big Chet was their Great White Hope. Gossip nailed him for a sleepwalker, punching holes in the bathroom walls without waking. Morning found him sucking on his bloody knuckles. “Nigger looks like Frankenstein,” Turner said. Square head, long arms, loping.
The opening fight went three unremarkable rounds. The ref gave the decision to Big Chet and no one argued otherwise. He was regarded as an even personality, the ref, ever since he’d slapped a kid and his fraternity ring had left the kid half blind. After that he’d bent a knee to our Savior and never again raised a hand in anger, except at his wife. The white boys’ second match opened with a pop—a pneumatic uppercut that whisked Big Chet’s opponent into a childhood fear. He spent the remainder of the round and the next two skittering like a rabbit. At the ref’s decision, Big Chet rummaged in his mouth and spat out his mouthpiece in two pieces. He raised his big old arms to the sky.
“I think he could take Griff,” Elwood said.
“Maybe he can, but they have to make sure.” If you had the power to make people do what you wanted and never exercised it, what was the point of having it?
Griff’s bouts with the champs of the colored dorms were brief affairs. Pettibone stood a foot shorter than Griff, an obvious mismatch when you saw them toe to toe. At the bell, Griff barrelled out and humiliated his quarry with a battery of zip–zip–zip body blows. The crowd winced. “He’s having ribs for dinner!” a boy behind Turner shouted. Mrs. Hardee shrieked when Pettibone floated up dreamily on his tippy-toes and then toppled to kiss the dirty mat.
The second match was less lopsided. Griff tenderized the boy, Wilson, like a cheap cut of meat for three rounds, but Wilson stayed on his feet. He had two bouts going—the one that everybody could see and the one that only he could, in which he was trying to prove his worth to his father. His father was long dead, and thus unable to revise his assessment of his firstborn son’s character, but that night Wilson slept without nightmares for the first time in years. The ref gave the fight to Griff with a concerned smile.
Turner surveyed the room and took in the assembled marks, the boys and the bettors. You run a rigged game, you got to give the suckers a taste. Back in Tampa, a few blocks from where he lived, a street hustler had conducted rounds of Find the Lady outside a cigar store. Taking suckers’ money all day, weaving those cards around on a cardboard box. The rings on his fingers sparkled and shouted in the sun. Turner liked to hover and take in the show. Track the hustler’s eyes, track the marks’ eyes as they tried to follow the queen of hearts. How their faces collapsed when they saw they weren’t as smart as they thought. The hustler told Turner to beat it, but as the weeks went on he got bored and let the boy hang around. “You got to let them think they know what’s going on,” he told Turner one day. “They see it with their own eyes, distract themselves with that, so they can’t see the bigger game.” When the cops hauled him to jail, his cardboard box lay in the alley around the corner for weeks.
At Nickel, Turner was transported back to that street corner. Watching a game of Find the Lady, neither hustler nor mark, outside the game but knowing all its rules. The next evening, the white men would put up their money and the black boys would put up their hopes, and then the confidence man would turn over the ace of spades and rake it all in. Turner remembered the excitement of Axel’s fight two years ago, the deranged joy at the realization that the black boys were allowed to have something for a change. They were happy, existing for a few hours in the free world, then it was back to Nickel.
Suckers, all of them.
The morning of Griff’s big match, the black students got up wrung out from sleeplessness and the dining hall bubbled with chatter about the dimension and the magnitude of Griff’s looming triumph. That white boy’s gonna be toothless as my old granny. The witch doctor can give him the whole bucket of aspirin and he’ll still have a headache. The Ku Klux Klan’s gonna be crying under their hoods all week. The colored boys frothed and speculated and stared off in class, slacked off in the sweet-potato fields. Mulling the prospect of a black champion: one of them victorious for once, and those who kept them down whittled to dust, seeing stars. Griff strutted like a black duke, a gang of young boys in his wake. The younger kids threw punches at their private, invisible adversaries and made up a song about their new hero’s prowess. Griff hadn’t bloodied or mistreated anyone outside the ring in a week, as if he’d sworn on a Bible. He was unbothered by Spencer’s order, or so it seemed to Elwood. “It’s like he forgot,” he whispered to Turner, as they walked to the warehouse after breakfast.
“If I got all this respect, I’d enjoy it, too,” Turner said. The next day it would be as if it had never happened. He remembered Axel the afternoon after his big fight, stirring a wheelbarrow of concrete, gloomy and diminished once more. “When’s the next time the fools who hate and fear you are going to treat you like Harry Belafonte?”
“Or he forgot,” Elwood said.
That evening they filed into the gymnasium. Some of the kitchen boys operated a big kettle, cranking out popcorn and scooping it into paper cones. The younger boys chomped it down and raced to the back of the line for seconds. Turner, Elwood, and Jaimie squeezed together in the middle of the bleachers. It was a good spot. “Hey, Jaimie, aren’t you supposed to be sitting over there?” Turner asked. Jaimie’s mother was Mexican, and the Nickel staff didn’t know what to do with him. First he’d been put in with the white kids, but after a day of working in the lime fields he’d got so dark that Spencer had had him reassigned to the colored half. Now he went back and forth.
Jaimie grinned. “Way I see it, I win either way.”
Turner crossed his arms and scanned the faces on the floor. There was Spencer. He shook hands with the fat cats in the front row, the director and his wife, and then sat down, smug and sure. He withdrew a silver flask from his windbreaker and took a pull. The bank manager handed out cigars. Mrs. Hardee took one and everyone watched her blow smoke. Wispy gray figures twirled in the overhead light, living ghosts.
On the other side of the room, the white boys stomped their feet on the wood and the thunder bounced off the walls. The black boys picked it up and the stomping rolled around the room in a staggered stampede. It travelled a full circuit before the boys stopped and cheered at their racket.
“Send him to the undertaker!”
The ref rang the bell. The two fighters were the same height and build, hacked from the same quarry. An even match, the track record of colored champions notwithstanding. Those opening rounds, there was no dancing or ducking. The boys bit into each other again and again, trading attacks, bucking the pain. The crowd bellowed and jeered at every advance and reversal. Black Mike hung on the ropes, hooting scatological invective at Big Chet, until the ref kicked his hands away. If Griff feared knocking out Big Chet by accident, he gave no sign. The black giant battered the white boy without mercy, absorbed his opponent’s counterassault, jabbed at the kid’s face as if punching his way through the wall of a prison cell. When blood and sweat blinded him, he maintained an eerie sense of Big Chet’s position and fended the boy off.
At the end of the second round, you had to call the fight for Griff, despite Big Chet’s admirable offensives.
“Making it look good,” Turner said.
Elwood frowned in disdain at the whole performance, which made Turner smile. The fight was rigged and rotten, another gear in the machine that kept black folks down. Turner enjoyed his friend’s new bend toward cynicism, even as he found himself swayed by the magic of the fight. Seeing Griff, their enemy and their champion, put a hurting on that white boy made a fellow feel all right. In spite of himself. Now that the third and final round was upon them, he wanted to hold on to that feeling. It was real—in their blood and their minds—even if it was a lie. Turner was certain that Griff was going to win, even though he knew that he wasn’t. Turner was a mark, after all, another sucker, but he didn’t care.
Big Chet advanced on Griff and unfurled a series of quick jabs that drove him into his corner. Griff was trapped and Turner thought, Now. But the black boy gathered his opponent in a clinch and remained on his feet. Body blows sent the white boy reeling. The round dwindled into seconds and Griff did not relent. Big Chet squashed his nose with a thunk and Griff shook it off. Each time Turner saw the perfect moment to take a dive—Big Chet’s rigorous assault would have covered even the worst acting—Griff refused the opening.
Turner nudged Elwood, who had a look of horror on his face. They saw it: Griff wasn’t going down. He was going to go for it.
No matter what happened after.
When the bell sounded for the last time, the two Nickel boys in the ring were entwined, bloody and slick, propping each other up like a human tepee. The ref separated them and they stumbled crazily to their corners, spent.
Turner said, “Damn.”
“Maybe they called it off,” Elwood said.
Sure, it was possible that the ref was in on it, and they’d decided to fix it that way instead. Spencer’s reaction dispelled that theory. The superintendent was the only person in the first row still sitting, a malignant scowl screwed into his face. One of the fat cats turned around, red-faced, and grabbed his arm.
Griff jerked to his feet, lumbered to the center of the ring, and shouted. The noise of the crowd smothered his words. Black Mike held back his friend, who appeared to have lost his wits. He struggled to cross the ring. The ref called for everyone to settle down and delivered his decision: the first two rounds went to Griff, the last to Big Chet. The black boys had prevailed.
Instead of cavorting around the canvas in triumph, Griff squirmed free and traversed the ring to where Spencer sat. Now Turner heard his words: “I thought it was the second round! I thought it was the second round!” He was still screaming as the black boys led him back to the dormitories, cheering and whooping for their champion. They had never seen Griff cry before and took his tears for those of triumph.
Getting hit in the head can rattle your brains. Getting hit in the head like that can make you addle-minded and confused. Turner never thought it’d make you forget how to calculate two plus one. But Griff had never been good at arithmetic, he supposed.
Griff was all of them in one black body that night in the ring, and all of them when the white men took him out back to those two iron rings. They came for Griff that night and he never returned. The story spread that he had been too proud to take a dive. That he had refused to kneel. And if it made the boys feel better to believe that Griff had escaped, broken away and run off into the free world, no one told them otherwise, although some noted that it was odd that the school had never sounded the alarm or sent out the dogs.
When the state of Florida dug him up, fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested to by the broken bones.
Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen. ♦