“Kuchizi,” by Lucas Schaefer, Part III
“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 III.
And so it went for two rounds, three rounds: Carlos relaxing Hassan’s shoulders, lifting his elbows, adjusting his right foot this way or that, all without laying a finger on the panting butcher. Once, he looked back to Felix, worried that his defection might be revealed, but the heavyweight was circling a heavy bag, throwing combinations with such velocity that a few of the younger fighters had gathered around to watch.
Carlos continued on.
He liked how Omari furrowed his brow when taking advice, the way the others imitated his motions with precision. Sometimes, Mama Aisha would veto Carlos’ instructions, waving George away dismissively. Hassan wasn’t improving, exactly, but Carlos felt the rush of the old days, when he could lose himself in the nitty-gritty of strategy and the drama of the fight, when his exuberance for battle seemed justified, necessary. Anyone who knew Carlos knew he was always punching, but the man made more sense when he was actually in a ring.
“Hey,” said Carlos, motioning to Omari. “How bout I spar him?”
“You want to spar Hassan Hassa?” asked Omari.
“Just show him what’s what,” said Carlos, already shadowboxing in place.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“A good idea?” repeated Carlos, amused. “You think any of this is a good idea?”
Omari tapped his forehead as he had when describing Mama Aisha. “Kuchizi.”
“Kufuckinchizi,” said Carlos, shaking his head.
With a push of his glasses, Omari approached Kadara, who stalked over to George, who limped over to Mama Aisha, who scowled and shook her head and seemed to laugh, and soon enough the three men surrounded Carlos, helping him climb into a body cup, Velcroing his head gear, wrapping his hands and tying on a pair of gloves. Kadara held up a mouthguard.
“It used?” asked Carlos, before opening wide.
“Open palms,” said Kadara sternly. He inserted the mouthguard. “No fists.”
Hassan Hassa, a foot above the cutman, looked down on him wearily as they tapped gloves to start the round. At first, Carlos did as promised. He stuck with a jab to the chin, over and over until the heavyweight remembered to keep his glove up. Next he moved to a hook—3! 3!—forcing Hassan to protect himself with his elbow.
The Butcher was stronger than Carlos but too slow, and for much of the second round Ortega dodged punches without throwing any of his own, leading Hassan into the corner before ducking out of it. He went back to the chin, tapping, just tapping, The Butcher still dropping his left, opening himself up, then tried his 2, his glove, palm wide, landing just under the other man’s throat.
Thwap! It was a harder hit than Carlos intended and throwing it electrified him: the smack of leather on bone, moisture pooling under his headgear, the sound of his own breath, urgent, steady, a ventilator only he could hear. Carlos slapped his gloves together and side-skipped around Hassan, then swooped back in, jab! jab! hook! jab!
The warrior in Carlos now fully reawakened, he clenched his fists and, with thirty seconds on the clock, forgot his mission entirely and began punching in earnest: a few swift upper cuts, a left hook to the jaw, an unintentional liver shot that caused Hassan to groan and buckle. Omari yelled Enough, enough from the sidelines but Carlos couldn’t stop himself, couldn’t hear him even, had to keep going until the bell sounded.
When it did, he looked to Omari’s corner of the ring, sure that Mama Aisha’s intermediaries would be impressed with his performance. Instead he saw Felix, arms crossed, staring at Hassan Hassa, who was curled in pain on the canvas. The heavyweight seemed gloomy, serious, like a man awaiting an execution, though whether Felix was to be hangman or hanged, Carlos couldn’t say.
“Am I a boxer or a hit man?” asked Felix from the back of the van.
“Or a hooker?” said Carlos, splayed out over the front row of seats. He was used to Felix’s grim resignation, but this mood was new—somber and pensive. “You gotta admit I still got it, boss,” said Carlos, hoping to cheer his fighter.
Felix ignored him. “I’ve made mistakes. No denying it. But this… It isn’t sport. I could kill that man.”
“You sore at me for working with him?” asked Carlos.
Felix grabbed his headphones from his bag. “I can get my ass kicked for money but this…,” he said, voice fading. “You watch, Ortega: They’ll cheer me when I’m beating him to death and yell How could you? once he’s dead.”
Back at the Grand, a bevy of hotel staffers had taken over the beach to assemble the ring. Shirtless workers in denim shorts slung thick red and white ropes around their shoulders, men hammered boards and posts. The green canvas was spread out near a cluster of guest huts, its edges held down with cinder blocks. A woman with a broom stood at its center, brushing off stray sand.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” muttered Felix. “Doesn’t this all look a little close to the water?”
Carlos had to admit it seemed they were building the platform quite near the shoreline. “Maybe they know something about the tides,” he said, hopeful, but Felix wasn’t having it.
“You trying to see how many people we can humiliate in one night?” Felix yelled to the bemused workers, who shook their heads and kept hammering.
The Rumble In OUR Jungle fell apart the next morning. Marco Giordano, the hotel manager, interrupted the boxers’ breakfast—neat rolls of prosciutto, balls of mozzarella, and a grey slab of meat labeled Venetian sow—to announce it was time for Felix’s fitting. Unclear on the meaning of this order, the men followed Marco to his office, heavy on the mahogany and adorned with both a stuffed zebra head and a portrait of Sophia Loren, where a diminutive tailor with the unlikely name of Leonardo Mazzafaro took measurements.
The costume featured a loin cloth and actual shackles. “For high, high drama,” Marco declared, tossing Carlos the key.
“I’m not wearing this,” said Felix, examining the loin cloth.
“You’ll try it on and then decide,” said Marco, smiling.
“It’s not happening,” said Felix.
As the two went back-and-forth, the hotel manager reminded the Americans of the money involved, and Felix grew more incensed at the idea he could be bought so easily. Marco became increasingly agitated, too, rubbing his neck, unsure where to look, working hard to keep the officious glimmer in his voice.
“A slave? You want me to go out there as a slave?” said Felix.
“You must admit, $5,000 is an extremely generous offer,” said Marco. “Especially considering your Gold Membership.”
“You think I’ll just do anything for money?”
“We believe $5,000 is more than fair,” said Marco, with a final-offer stiffness to his posture.
This was enough for Felix. “You call Terry Tucker, call whoever,” he said, brushing past the tailor and heading for the door. “The fight is off. C’mon Ortega, let’s bounce.”
Under normal circumstances, the outburst would’ve amused Carlos, but there was a certainty to Felix’s tone that suggested this time it was best to go along with the heavyweight, and he did.
The corporate chieftains in Naples were not happy with Felix’s breach of contract, and within an hour they’d dispatched three block-shouldered men in Hawaiian shirts, ear-piece wires snaking down their backs, to escort the Americans back to the Malindi airport.
One guard stood on the porch of each hut, urging the men to gather their belongings, while the third made Carlos offer up his wrist and snipped off the cutman’s gold band with a small pair of scissors.
It would’ve gone on like this until their departure were it not for the scene Carlos observed through the window as he packed his bag. On the blustery beach, trotting toward them, were the three men from the boxing gym: Omari pushing at the bridge of his glasses so they wouldn’t fall off; Kadara taking exaggerated steps, like a child trying to avoid the cracks on the sidewalk; George in front, in a baggy suit, holding a fedora in place atop his head.
Carlos expected the men to seek out Felix, but they came to his hut instead, each bowing to the sentry more grandly than the one before, Omari last, leaning so far forward that his glasses almost touched the ground.
“Bwana Carlos,” said George, winded, shambling through the open door, “It is urgent that we speak with you.”
The others followed, spreading out across the room, as Carlos sat on the bed, unsure what to make of his visitors.
“As you have seen,” said Kadara, running his fingers along a bamboo armoire, “Hassan Hassa is a terrible boxer. Do you know what rivals his terribleness?”
Omari was inspecting the bookshelf. He turned toward Carlos, a frayed paperback open in his hand. “His persistence.”
Hassan Hassa, it seemed, would not take no for an answer. “He has threatened to continue his training until a new opponent emerges,” said George.
“It is absolutely essential that the match occurs,” said Omari. “The Butcher takes up too much of our time and too much of our space.”
“He is a drain on our resources,” said Kadara with a slight smile.
“Where’s the woman if it’s so important?” asked Carlos, skeptical.
Kadara raised an eyebrow. “The woman?” He glanced at George.
“What woman?” said George.
“Kuchizi, kuchizi,” said Omari, knowingly, and the three laughed.
“Ah, yes, the woman,” said George. “Do you think the prestigious Malindi Grand Resort and Hotel allows the insane onto their property?”
“A crazy woman in a prayer shawl,” said Kadara.
“Allahu akbar!” called Omari, hands raised in praise.
Carlos glared at him. “So fuck you want from me then anyway?”
“We believe, Bwana Carlos, that you are the sort who will never take less when more is an option,” said Omari.
“Plainly,” said Kadara, “you like to fight. Which is why…” He hesitated, turned to George.
The suited man smiled. “We have a proposition.”
This is the end of Part III. Return Thursday to read Part IV.
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.