“Kuchizi,” by Lucas Schaefer, Part II
“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 II.
In the afternoon, Carlos and Felix were scheduled to train at the facilities of The Butcher. On the ride downtown, the men the sole passengers in a twelve-seat van, Felix relaxed into his headphone-protected daze. Carlos, meanwhile, felt as if he’d been plunged into an especially pleasing hallucination. He lay across his row of seats, playing with his wristband, as they sped along the newly-paved road that separated the hotel from town. A mile in, the road gave way to pockmarked highway and soon they were chugging past mud-flecked pick-ups and mini-buses crammed with wizened men in white skullcaps, women wrapped like mummies in black cloth. The mini-buses—matatus, said the driver, a genial pug of a man called Luigi—were themed, which was how, during a spell of traffic, Carlos found himself parallel to one with a Wu-Tang Clan decal splashed across its windows, stickers featuring the life-sized heads of RZA and Method Man covering the sliding door.
Malindi was not the Africa that Carlos had anticipated. The city consisted of a few overcrowded blocks of Kobil gas stations and Internet cafes, advertisements for Coke and Bayer Aspirin hand-painted onto the sides of dirt-smudged apartment buildings. The roads were noisy with traffic, horns blaring from Peugeot 504s, the tail pipes of Isuzu pick-ups hiccupping exhaust. Conductors hung off the sides of their matatus, hawking cheap rides to Marereni or Mombasa, and from the mosques, competing muezzins blared the call to prayer through loudspeakers mounted on minarets.
Carlos had expected dark women with baskets on their heads, their breasts substantial and uncovered. The women here were lighter and wore buibuis—black robes with head coverings—only their hands and faces exposed.
“Al-Qaeda!” Carlos exclaimed as they drove down an alley, two slender women in oversized sunglasses with plastic Nakumatt grocery bags brushing past.
“No, no,” assured Luigi. “Swahili, Swahili.”
“Swahili,” repeated Carlos, shaking his head and smiling. How stupid do I look?
Luigi parked down a puddle-smeared side street and nodded toward a small concrete building that tilted ever-so-slightly to one side, as if it had been constructed during a mild wind storm. Outside the van, it was hot but not Texas hot, heavier, balmier, and as the boxers entered the gym, the familiar stench of sweat and leather mixed with the smells of the city: newly butchered marlin, charcoal from the seaside vendors, wet cement.
Inside, men in track pants and tank tops jabbed at real opponents and shadowboxed imagined ones. Wrapped wrists thwacked speedbags, sneakers squeaked on sharp pivots, jump ropes cracked against concrete. Carlos recognized the hangers-on immediately: so-called managers with loud voices and no clients, would-be champions who expended more energy acting exhausted than moving their feet. In the back corner across from the ring, a round woman in a buibui slouched in a chair, head down, possibly asleep.
“Look at this fuckin place,” said Carlos approvingly.
Felix slid onto a bench near the entryway, tossing his bag down next to him. “Gym’s a gym,” he said, unsmiling.
The gym was ostensibly run by three twentysomethings—Omari, Kadara, and George. All elbows and knees, they gangled about the room, slapping backs, collecting dues and offering guidance. Carlos spotted Omari first, squeezed between two double-end bags, playing hacky sack with a coiled hand wrap as flyweights threw jabs on each side of him. A few sweat-stained fighters looked on, and when Omari saw the Americans, he kicked the wrap high enough for one of the spectators to catch it, straightened his back like a child playing grown-up, and strode over. Kadara, droopy-eyed with a pointed goatee, soon followed, just ahead of George, a jaunty power-walker whose swinging forearms did little to mask a pronounced limp. Soon, all three Kenyans were huddled around the guests. A trio of long men in mismatched outfits, they looked as if they’d been given thirty seconds to choose their wardrobes for the day, and had thus ended up in camouflage pants and a Celtics jersey, or a plaid sarong and a tie-dye T-shirt from United Way.
“Karibu, karibu,” said Omari solemnly. He bowed toward Felix, his glasses sliding down his nose as he took the fighter’s hands.
“It is wonderful to have you here,” said Kadara, clasping Felix’s shoulder.
“Your presence means more to us than you can know,” said George, hanging his arm around Ortega, completing the circle. Carlos recoiled from the stranger’s touch, his squint now so vigorous it looked like he was experiencing daylight for the first time in months.
“Thanks for having us guys,” Felix said sullenly.
“What might we do to help you get started?” asked Omari, pushing his glasses back into place.
“We good,” said Carlos, puffing out his chest. He leaned into Omari. “You know,” he added, not unkindly, “this fool could fuck up everyone in this joint.”
The Kenyans exchanged quizzical glances.
“I’m all set,” said Felix, ignoring the cutman.
“You ready to throw some mitts, boss?” said Carlos, stretching his elbow behind his head.
Felix unzipped his gym bag and started rifling through it. “Hey, Ortega, it look like I’m bleeding?”
Carlos wrinkled his forehead. “You’re not bleeding.”
“That’s right,” said Felix. “I’m not bleeding. And I don’t plan on bleeding today. So unless I trip and cut myself, you best find something else to do.”
As Felix loosened up, Omari led Carlos past the rope-skippers, through the thicket of heavy bags that swung across the gym’s midsection, and to the back, where The Butcher, Hassan Hassa, was practicing combinations in the ring.
At the hotel, Carlos had noticed a chrome signboard advertising the fight, The Rumble In OUR Jungle, underneath an old photograph of Felix, shirtless and fists up. Watching Hassan train, however, did not exactly call to mind Kinshasa 1974. Six foot something, 250 pounds of bulging, veiny muscle, head shaved and beard patchy, The Butcher had the bearing of a Hummer and about as much finesse. His sparring partner, wearing focus mitts, called out combinations for The Butcher to throw, and whenever the big man made a mistake—jabbing when he’d been instructed to cross, hitting his partner’s right mitt when he’d meant to aim left—he’d knock his glove against his face, a self-deprecating move that also looked brain damaging. The partner, short and squat, was swathed in protective gear, a necessary precaution, and held the mitts high above his head like he was being taken hostage.
From behind the ropes, the men watched Hassan lumber drunkenly around the canvas.
“That’s The Butcher?” asked Carlos.
“This is The Butcher,” said Omari, pokerfaced, glasses clinging to the tip of his nose.
Entranced by the spectacle of the plodding fighter, Carlos began bouncing lightly on his toes, suppressing the urge to offer Felix’s opponent instruction from the sidelines. With a minute left, each of The Butcher’s punches wilder than the one before, the cutman couldn’t stop himself. “You should be hitting here!” Carlos yelled, punching at an invisible body. “Here! Here! Here! Here!”
Omari, unstirred, kept his eyes on the action until the end of the round, then hopped onto the floor.
“You gotta hit here!” Carlos cried from behind the ropes, poking himself in the jaw as the sparring partner stood on tip toes, emptying a water bottle into the mouth of the crouching Butcher. “You hear me, fool?”
Hassan offered an unconvincing nod and kept drinking.
Vaulting back up the steps, Omari called Hassan over, whispering instructions to his wheezing fighter.
“I got you, man, I got you,” Hassan told Omari, his voice high and singsong. The Butcher clumped back to the center of the canvas.
“What’s his problem anyway?” asked Carlos.
“He has lost his job selling meats and needs money badly,” explained Omari.
“A butcher, yes.” Two months before, Omari explained, Hassan Hassa had answered an advertisement in a local paper looking for a fighter to star in tonight’s exhibition. Desperate for money and looking the part, he secured the job, then showed up at their gym asking to learn how to box. “Have you encountered this type in America?” Omari asked.
“Welcome to my fuckin life, man,” said Carlos.
As the rounds wore on, Carlos noticed a curious pattern: Each time Omari left the ring, he’d seek out Kadara and whisper in his ear. Kadara would nod and find George, whisper whisper, and then George would hobble over to the corner across from the ring, to confer with the woman slumped in the wooden chair, a few feet removed from the action. Then they’d reverse course, the woman sending George a message, who fed it to Kadara, who passed it to Omari and back to Hassan.
The woman, the only one in the building, was unusual looking, with a head wrapped to enormity and a lazy right eye that pointed up, as if it had seen enough of the world and was trying to seek refuge behind her head. Her flowing buibui did little to hide her girth, and with legs spread and back hunched, her pose and expression reminded Carlos of the veteran coaches who slouched their way through Texas State Golden Gloves.
“Who’s she?” Carlos finally asked Omari, after witnessing four rounds of this peculiar charade. Across the room, the woman scratched at the start of her hairline, as if her buibui was wrapped too tight.
Omari tilted his head toward her, glasses sliding. “Ah, Mama Aisha,” he said casually. “Kuchizi.” He tapped his forehead, a gesture Carlos knew well. “Not right in the brain.”
“Why she here then?”
“Maybe she feels more comfortable around so many who have been hit in the head.”
“Maybe,” said Carlos, but he had his suspicions. “Listen,” he said, testing his hypothesis. “You tell that woman your butcher’s right foot needs to turn in, OK?” Carlos got into position, the gold wristband sliding down his arm. “Like this, you hear?”
Omari didn’t seem to be listening, but the next time he jumped off the canvas to consult with Kadara he repeated Carlos’ motion with his right foot. Kadara imitated the motion for George, and on it went until Omari was back in the ring, instructing The Butcher to turn his right foot in.
“Motherfucker,” said Carlos, clapping triumphantly, happy to have cracked the code. “Now listen,” he said, unable to mask his exuberance. He poked Omari in the chest, then once on each side. “Here! Here! Here!” he instructed. “That’s the key.”
This is the end of Part II. Return Wednesday to read Part III.
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.