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“Kuchizi,” by Lucas Schaefer, Part I


“Kuchizi,” by Lucas Schaefer, was serialized in four parts during the week of October 1, 2018.

The full story was published on Friday, October 5.

This is Part I.


Carlos Ortega roaming Africa was a ridiculous proposition, which was why everyone who heard the idea savored its deliciousness. For all his thirty-nine years, Carlos had prowled the same few blocks east of the interstate, and to conceive of him elsewhere seemed impossible to those who knew him. At Terry Tucker’s Boxing Gym, where Carlos spent most days, folks had long been urging their leader to give Ortega the boot. Terry always refused, fearful that his one-time fighter might burn down the place in retribution. He instead warned newcomers to treat Carlos like a grizzly bear: regard him from a distance and never make eye contact. “Ortega’s not all bad but he always goes too far,” Terry would explain. “He’s an acquired taste no one’s yet acquired.”

In the years since his retirement, Carlos had become increasingly isolated. Boxing was, he knew, his one talent. Without it, he was left skulking around the gym at all hours, offering tips to younger fighters who didn’t know what to make of this hunched, surly character sidling up to them and yelling out combinations as they worked the bags.

Carlos wore baggy jean shorts and white athletic socks with work boots, untucked polos and a ribbed beanie. He claimed to be in the flooring business but most days showed up at the gym around eleven, settling into one of the barber chairs along the far wall to shoot the shit with the old-timers, who did their best to ignore him.

Their disdain was moderate compared to the young black fighters, whose contempt for Carlos came from his use of the n-word, which he employed as both salutation and slur, and which everyone, from Terry on down, had pleaded with him to erase from his vocabulary. The Mexicans were more forgiving. They’d shake their heads when they saw him, but would at least pretend to listen to his suggestions. Carlos himself was especially interested in the non-boxers, mostly white boys in bright running shoes who could jog and do pull-ups but tripped over themselves trying to pivot around a heavy bag.

“Let me see what you got,” Carlos would rasp, not so much speaking as coughing up words, stroking his chin and circling as they shadowboxed or skipped rope. “Wasting your money here, fool,” he’d offer after a minute. “You hear me?” he’d add, punctuating the question with his favored racial epithet.

Female gymgoers wanted little to do with him, either. Once, Carlos spotted Jocelyn Carter in the H.E.B. parking lot and gave her a bear-hug from behind, slapping his palm across her mouth and whispering Gimme all your fuckin money before collapsing into a fit of exaggerated guffaws. Jocelyn managed a playful slap at Carlos, but she lingered in Frozen Foods longer than necessary, shaken and hoping he wouldn’t still be lurking in the lot when she returned.

Carlos’ journey to Kenya was the result of a favor Terry called in for Felix Barrowman, a gifted heavyweight whose alcoholism had reduced him from major-league contender to mere opponent, a human punching bag whom younger fighters could pummel to build up their records. Unlike Carlos, who’d rarely fought outside the Texas Triangle, Felix had been walloped for pay in New York, Warsaw, even Tokyo. His low-point had come the year before, at a bout in Boston, when two rounds in a clover-tatted up-and-comer named Mad Dog McDermott knocked him through the ropes, out of the ring, and onto the judge’s table. The fight received some coverage, mostly because of the pathetic visual, but also because of the whiteness of the crowd, whose sneering triumphalism at a black man’s humiliation led to a brief round of “How Far Have We Actually Come?” on a smattering of sports blogs.

“Shit,” Carlos bellowed the first time Felix appeared at the gym after the fight. “Mad Dog fucked you up.” The Boston incident, Carlos knew, riled Felix. Now thirty-three, the fighter was nine months sober but suffering an existential hangover, the result of a decade-long bender that left him almost broke. It didn’t help to find Ortega standing below the ropes whenever he sparred, yelling “Don’t fall on me!” in mock horror.

The fight Terry arranged for Felix at the Malindi Grand was an exhibition, entertainment for the guests and little more. The payday wasn’t extravagant—$5,000, win or lose—but Felix wouldn’t have to squander his earnings on the support staff a sanctioned match required. All he needed was someone to stop the bleeding, and while Carlos wasn’t a trained cutman, he’d watched enough of them attend to his own wounds through the years to play the part. Plus, Terry was already giddily imagining the respite to come: five days Ortega-free.

“I get my own room?” asked Carlos, when Terry proposed the gig.

“That’s Felix’s only requirement,” said Terry. “We have a deal?”

 

In the month leading up to his departure, Carlos Ortega wondered if he’d made the wrong decision. He imagined missing major gym news, say a sparring session that devolved into an actual fight, and worried about being forgotten entirely. As the weeks passed, Carlos began to hope that the expedited visa Terry Tucker was paying for would not be expedited enough, that his first-ever passport might get lost in the mail. And then the day was upon him, and before Carlos quite knew what was happening, Terry was dropping the fighters off curbside, helping to unload their duffels from the bed of his truck. Carlos kept waiting for Terry to tell him that the plans had changed, that they needed him back at the gym, but the old man just wished Felix luck and gave Ortega a goodbye whack on the shoulder. “Don’t forget me, you piece of shit,” Carlos called out hopefully as the truck sputtered off.

Not until he boarded and was stuck in the aisle, waiting to claim his seat, did Carlos’ doubts begin to melt away: tiny, twig-armed women struggled to lift leopard-print roller boards, men yakked into cell phones, trying to out-shout crying babies and the crackle of the intercom. This was what Carlos loved about the gym, too, the teeming physical fact of the place.

On all three flights, Carlos was assigned the aisle and Felix the window, with one unfortunate passenger or another stuck between them. From Austin to Dallas the men didn’t speak at all, the music from Felix’s headphones so loud that Carlos could have sung along if he knew the lyrics. On the flight to London, Carlos, knees bobbing, could stand the silence no longer. He began unfastening his food tray, catching it mid-fall and then repeating the process again and again until Felix leaned over the elderly woman in the center seat and fastened the tray himself.

“I’m not fucking around anymore, Ortega,” said Felix as they walked through Heathrow to their next gate. The two made an unusual pair. Carlos was slight and stooped, a single swoosh of black hair escaping his beanie, his face scrunched into an expression of bewilderment and suspicion. In his jean shorts, a small backpack slung over his shoulder, he looked almost deformed next to Felix, whose red-and-white track suit accentuated his muscle. Broad and handsome, Felix’s drinking and fighting had flattened his good looks but not erased them entirely, his pale green eyes sunken yet still striking, a once delicate nose now crooked and compressed.

“The loudmouth managers, the shit contracts, the guys like you. I’ve been around guys like you my whole life.” Felix stopped beside a water fountain. “We’re gonna make our money and leave. No silly stuff.”

“You know your problem, man,” said Carlos. He tapped his forehead. “You think too much.”

“I drink too much,” said Felix, walking again. “And this whole fucked up world leads me to it.”

“Bullshit,” called Carlos from behind. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t think. You know why?” Carlos threw up his arms, presenting himself to all who passed. “Carlos Ortega don’t give a shit.”

“And look how it’s turned out for you,” said Felix, putting his headphones back on.

Carlos nodded. “And look how it’s turned out for me.”

 

If any Kenyan city was designed for the seamy spectacle of boxing, Malindi was it. Fifty years after independence, a visitor to one of the seaside resorts there would be forgiven for assuming the British had simply transferred their power south to the Italians, who ran the tourism industry with the sort of wink-wink malfeasance that the Sicilian Mafia would appreciate, and probably did. At the Malindi Grand, the marble-floored guesthouses were designed to look like thatch-roofed huts and tiki lamps outnumbered people. In the restaurant, bright and airy, the masks lining the walls came from Benin and Togo, or so claimed the maitre d’, who was also responsible for destroying the boxes they arrived in, stamped Fragile and Handle With Care in Chinese.

The moneymakers themselves were rarely on-site, outsourcing the day-to-day management of the Grand to Malindi locals, who donned gold metal nameplates engraved with Italian pseudonyms. Urbano Abbascia was the head chef. Giovanni Cracchiolo waited tables. For years and without fanfare, Donatella Versace managed housekeeping, each morning filling heavy-duty garbage bags with half-eaten pizzas and used condoms, curled and slick. As for the guests, their interactions were confined to short, flirty back-and-forths with muscled men in puka shell necklaces who trolled the lobby and the pool area, offering massages and short lessons in Swahili, windsurfing instruction and, on Tuesday nights, a beachside African dance class that included a tutorial in the Electric Slide.

“The great champion has arrived,” said Marco Giordano, the hotel manager, when Carlos and Felix entered the lobby. Marco was a short, pudgy Kenyan in pinstripe, an unlit cigar dangling between his fingers. “There is Las Vegas, there is Macao, there is Malindi,” said Marco, his hand on Felix’s shoulder. “What does it feel like to be home, my African brother?”

“Yeah, my African brother,” snickered Carlos. “What’s it feel like?”

As Marco led Felix around the hotel grounds, Carlos dallied a few steps behind, poking his head down hallways, plucking a mint from an abandoned housekeeping cart. Occupancy was high in January—warm temperatures, low precipitation—and Carlos observed the clientele with the thoroughness of an anthropologist. It was an older crowd at the Grand, and on the rare occasion a young woman passed, bikini-clad and flip-flopping here or there, Carlos bowed slightly, trying to contain a smile.

More frequent sightings included hairy potbellies dripping over tiny nylon swim briefs, so ghoulish an image that Carlos found himself tucking his chin into his chest whenever one passed, his cheeks tingling with shame and glee. Standing over the saltwater pool, Carlos could contain himself no longer, aghast at the pink, gelatinous creatures basking in the sun. “You fuckin seeing this?” he asked Felix, who shook his head, signaling for Carlos to be quiet, as Marco fastened gold paper bracelets around their wrists and explained the colored bands all guests wore on the property: bronze if they’d paid for food and drink but not alcohol, silver for food and well drinks only, gold for the highest level of inclusivity.

“What’s blue?” asked Carlos.

“Our blue guests pay for everything a la carte,” said Marco. “Mostly Germans.”

The fight was scheduled for the next evening against a Kenyan opponent whom Terry had referenced only as The Butcher. Marco led the men down a stone path to the oceanfront guest huts, set back from the water and semi-circled around an expansive shore. “This is your new residence,” he said proudly. As the men approached the water, zigzagging between lounge chairs, shoes kicking up sand, Marco explained that they’d construct the ring here, just far enough from the ocean that the waves wouldn’t reach the canvas.

“I suspect it is not a night any of us will soon forget,” said Marco, before suggesting the men settle into their rooms. “Hakuna matata, arrivederci and have a most wonderful day,” he added, and marched back toward the hotel, leaving Carlos and Felix gazing at a just-departed snorkel cruise zipping out to sea.


This is the end of Part I. Return Tuesday to read Part II.


LUCAS SCHAEFER’s fiction has appeared in One Story. A graduate of the New Writers Project at UT-Austin, he has received a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center and has been a recent resident at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods and the Studios of Key West. He lives with his husband in Austin, where he is at work on a novel. Find him on Twitter @LucasESchaefer.