From the Publisher
Starred review, Booklist, March 15, 2007:
"Saldaña delivers another moving coming-of-age novel about the perils of friendship and the burdens of parental expectations."
“Readers will keep turning the pages to see just how far the young protagonist will go. . . . Challenges traditional notions of what it means to be a winner.”—Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
Alby didn't even see it coming. One second he was standing in his yard talking to his best friend: "Barry, I overheard a couple of guys at school talking; they said that for an older lady, your momma's still got it going, if you know what I mean--"; the next second there was Barry's fist on Alby's nose and the pain and shooting lights that came with it. He crumpled to the ground.
Alby tried to get hold of himself. How had it happened? He hadn't even seen Barry cock back his arm, nor the
look in the eyes a guy gets when he's about to punch your lights out.
"Am I bleeding?" Alby hid his nose in his hands.
"Man, Barry, I was just telling you what I heard. What's your problem?" Alby rolled onto his side and shook his head. "Stars. You've got me seeing the whole sky full of stars."
Barry stretched out his hand to his buddy. Why'd he have to bring Momma into this? Barry thought. Talking about her like she's some kind of a . . . He couldn't even finish the thought. His buddy bringing his momma down with that sort of gutter talk. But was it reason enough to punch your best friend? After all, Alby was just the messenger.
"What kind of friend pops a buddy on the schnozz for no good reason?" Still, Alby took Barry's hand, stood, and brushed the dirt and grass from the seat of his pants. "Can I trust you to swipe this junk off my back without whack-ing me?"
A thought was beginning to take shape in Alby's head.
"Yeah." Barry wiped Alby's back, then pulled a twig from his hair. "You know, maybe a friend shouldn't talk about another's momma," said Barry. He'd never hit a person outside of his sparring partner at the gym or that one time Pop let his guard down, training in the garage. He'd always wondered whether he'd be able to knock someone down with one blow. Here was his answer. Alby was smaller, but he had a big mouth on him. "Anyway, sorry if it hurt."
"If? If? It hurt like a mean dog, man. What's your problem? We've known each other a long time, Bare. You've got to know I didn't mean no disrespect." He touched his nose. "From now on, I got it, your momma's off limits. But still, popping me like that? Anyway, I'm sorry too."
And now, Alby's idea had taken shape. Man! Barry sure can hit. If I can just talk him into putting these boxing skills to good use, it could be a win-win situation for the both of us. He'd seen an ad in the paper a couple of days ago. "That was a solid smack--one shot, and I went down. I've always thought you were tough, but that tough? All that training you did with your pop--it's paying out. Ching, ching, ching." Alby made like he was pulling the arm of a slot machine.
Barry picked at the broken skin on a knuckle. His fists, wide like Pop's, were scarred from hitting the bags for so long. He and Pop had been training in the garage since he was in the fifth grade, then in the gym for a few months before Pop died. Barry looked at Alby, who was rubbing the bridge of his nose. Lately, Alby had started using gambling lingo: paying out like those one-armed bandits in Vegas would do: ching, ching, ching. This kind of talk wasn't like Alby. But Alby'd been acting strange. He'd even started dressing in flashier clothes: black button-downs, tan slacks, dress shoes, and sunglasses that he usually wore across the top of his slicked-back hair.
"You know what this means? You're ready." Alby was pacing back and forth, talking with his hands.
"Ready for what?"
"We need to get you into that Man o' Might competition coming into town in a week. I read about it in the paper. I'll look it up online to make sure."
"What are you talking about?"
"You fight good. You still working out, right?" said Alby. He couldn't have planned it any better.
"Sure. Not at the gym. At home I'm working the bags, lifting weights, running ten miles. But are you nuts?" Barry said. "Those kinds of fights are more like brawls. I've heard stories of people fighting and then keeling over two or three days later." Even as he spoke, he imagined himself climbing into the ring, his name being called out, the crowd chanting "Barry, Barry," drowning out his opponent's introduction. Then he saw himself bobbing and weaving, quick-footed, stepping out of the way of a reckless punch and countering with a one-two combination, stunning his opponent just long enough to land a blow square on the liver, one that would bring him down for good. He could see the announcer holding his hand up in the air in victory, wrapping a champion's belt around Barry's waist. He'd be the people's champion.
But no. This event Alby was talking about was more like a rock 'em, sock 'em clash between guys with chips on their shoulders who needed to prove something to somebody, who dreamed of big prize money. All the wrong reasons to fight. "Sorry, Alby. I can't."
"Oh, come on, with a whacker like that, you got the makings of a champ, like your pop used to say. No one would get close enough to you to hurt you. They'd have to watch out for you."
Barry's brow wrinkled.
Quick, Alby said, "Tell you what--I'll manage you. There's good money to be made. Big payouts. Easy money. Whatever we make we'll split sixty-forty, heavy on your end, of course. What do you say?"
Barry cocked his head. There it was again: "easy money," "sixty-forty split," and "heavy on your end." Who talks that way? He shook his head. "No way." Barry and Pop had been planning on him trying out for the school's boxing team when he got to be a junior, then seeing where it took him. They knew Momma was dead set against Barry fighting, but Pop had trained some good fighters in Mexico in his youth. Two years ago, he'd said, "Mi'jo, you're a natural. I think you're ready. Together, I know we can talk your momma into it. She just doesn't want to see you get hurt. We'll start up slow at the gym downtown. Do it right. That way she'll see she's got nothing to worry about." But Barry had quit thinking about all this when Pop died last year.
There were more important things in life, like helping Momma with the bills. Pop's life insurance had run out quick, and so had his savings. Could that be why I slugged Alby? I just hate seeing her so tired; worse, I've got no clue how to help her out.
From the Hardcover edition.