“Kuchizi,” by Lucas Schaefer, Part IV
“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 IV.
Go here to read Part I.
Go here to read Part II.
Go here to read Part III.
This was how it came to pass that on a windy Friday evening in Malindi, Kenya, fighting out of the red corner, at 143 pounds, all the way from Austin, Texas, USA, came Carlos Ortega, in shackles and a loin cloth, once-taut skin now loose with age, wrists wrapped and gloves tied. At his side stood Felix Barrowman, fanny pack filled with cotton swabs and Vaseline.
Some two hundred spectators sat on folding chairs surrounding three sides of the ring, under speakers blasting what sounded like tribal music gone electronica: conga drums and heavy bass, scratching turntables and ululations.
The Butcher entered first, throwing light punches at the incoming sea breeze as he ambled down the sandy aisle, his handlers moving in concert close behind.
Carlos followed, fully in his element. He delighted in the thrum of the crowd, bopping his shoulders awkwardly to the music.
“You sure you want to do this?” called Felix over the din.
Carlos raised his shackles above his head, basking in the horde’s boozy warmth, declaring victory before the fight had even started.
The ring was regulation size, three feet off the ground, and once Carlos ascended the steps, Felix followed, unlocking the fighter’s shackles and slinging them over the ropes. As the crowd rose for the Italian national anthem, a wave broke behind the ring and a few flecks of saltwater tickled Carlos’ thighs. Felix shot him a look: I told you so.
The referee, whom Carlos recognized as one of the lifeguards from the pool, reminded both fighters of the rules and introduced the judges, seated in front of the ring at a folding table in the sand. They included Marco Giordano, who waved to the crowd in the style of a pageant contestant.
Just as Carlos and Hassan tapped gloves, it started to drizzle.
So unexpected was this trickle of moisture that as the first drops stained the canvas, both boxers fell out of fighting position and looked up.
“It’s raining,” yelled Carlos, befuddled. His loincloth flew up in the breeze and he nudged it back into place over his black compression shorts.
“Mvua,” agreed Hassan.
“Fight!” yelled the spectators. “Dai, combattete!”
Both men raised their gloves.
It didn’t take long for Carlos to see that Hassan had heeded his advice: The Butcher’s stance was not too forward, not too square, and he kept his hands up, blocking Carlos’ jabs, even fending off a right hook with his beefy elbow. Hassan was boxing, really boxing, and Carlos enjoyed testing the bigger man, 1! 2!, seeing how well The Butcher could protect himself.
For all his improvement, The Butcher was still slow, and each time he swung at Carlos, the smaller man slid past. It didn’t take long for the crowd to become restless. Cherry-faced and beer-drenched, they booed each time Hassan lunged for Carlos, annoyed that the beast that was The Butcher wasn’t clobbering this defiant slave. Send him back to Mexico! cried a voice in stilted English. Kill him! shrieked another.
During the break, Hassan’s handlers, stationed next to the ring on stools in the sand, bounded up to his corner, wiping the rain from his forehead and pantomiming vigorously, reminding The Butcher to keep his arms up, his shoulders low, to stay calm.
“What you think?” Carlos asked Felix, who’d leapt onto the canvas but saw no need to unzip his fanny pack.
“I think it’s wet up here and I want to go home,” said the new cutman, as the bell sounded for the next round, the drizzle turning to downpour.
A minute into the second round, the winds picked up and a wave broke against the platform, sending a sheet of saltwater cascading across the canvas. Both men stumbled and had to catch themselves against the ropes, the ring now slick, their gloves heavy. As the deluge continued, the crowd covered their heads with anything they could find but stayed on the beach, screaming for a knockout, a knockdown, anything, e rapido!, as Hassan clomped across the canvas, desperate to catch Carlos, who continued to bob and weave, slide and pivot.
Carlos, energized from the whoops of the crowd, punched with abandon, his hair matted against his forehead, the rain so torrential it was becoming hard to see. The physical challenge of the storm exhilarated Carlos, and he yelled for The Butcher to keep going. Hassan, unsettled, began gunning for a knockout, his crosses morphing into windmills and hooks into attempted haymakers, anything to make contact with the welterweight scurrying around him.
Bam! A wild cross struck Carlos in the gut, sending him skidding into the corner. He ducked a left hook, as a second wave arced over the ropes. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he yelled, encouraging The Butcher to fight on. He slammed together his sopping gloves in exclamation.
A thick gust of wind caused the spectators to finally retreat. They ran toward the stone path as water flooded the beach. Marco and the other judges followed suit, and though Felix wanted to stay put, the water was at his shins so he fled too, calling for Carlos to jump down to safety. Omari and Kadara put George between their shoulders and went with the crowd, yelling for Hassan. Carlos kept throwing jabs and hooks as a third wave, then a fourth, glided over the ring, past his hips, his chest. He kept going, at Hassan’s head, at his belly, at first not even realizing when The Butcher tumbled into the water and crawled to safety.
The absence of an opponent didn’t dampen Carlos’ bellicosity. Jab! Hook! Cross! Hook! He kept at it, slashing at water, uppercutting air.
As the cinderblocks that had once secured the canvas tumbled past him, Carlos paid no mind. He was focused only on the rhythm of his feet, the rotation of his hips, the familiar sense of feverish possibility that coursed through him every time he jab jab jabbed, never more comfortable in his own body than he was now, in the center of the canvas, in the center of the fight.
From halfway up the beach, Felix could make out the stooped silhouette of his former cutman, now fighting the ocean itself. “What you doing, man?” Felix called above the mayhem.
Carlos never faltered, punching punching with such ferocity that he almost seemed to be dancing, electric and alive, as the current pulled the ring into the sea.
The next morning, fishermen in the village of Marikebuni, eight miles north of the hotel, reported that the remains of a boxing ring had washed up on their shore. The padding had fallen off the posts, the canvas was salt-stained and torn and, most curious of all, someone had double-knotted a set of shackles around the wilted ropes.
With Luigi, the driver, Felix spent the morning interviewing locals, hunching his back and scrunching his face into Carlos’ likeness. No one had seen him.
At Hassan’s gym, they hadn’t seen him either, and when Felix asked to speak with Mama Aisha, Omari told the boxer that he must be mistaken. Mama Aisha was not only crazy but mute and had been since birth. She shrugged when Felix approached and mouthed I don’t know in Swahili, before motioning George over and whispering instructions into his ear.
Their flight was to leave that evening and Marco Giordano made it clear to Felix that they would not be extending his reservation. “If you’d like to contact home first we do offer phone cards in the gift shop,” said Marco. Out of options and money, Felix climbed aboard the van and departed for Malindi Airport, figuring Carlos would turn up one way or another, or that he’d drowned.
Back at Terry Tucker’s Boxing Gym, Felix recounted the details of the storm to anyone who asked. “He just kept going,” he’d say solemnly, wrapping his hands, as the others leaned in, heads shaking. Some wondered if it was all a complicated prank, if Carlos might pop out from behind the bathroom door once they’d stopped paying attention. But as days became weeks, and the reality of Carlos’ disappearance set in, a wary nostalgia took hold. Hearsay about what had become of the missing cutman dominated the gossip between rounds.
To all who knew him, the rumors seemed strangely plausible: Carlos had fallen in with Somali pirates and was patrolling the Indian Ocean in a ramshackle speedboat; Carlos was hunting Joseph Kony in Uganda with a motley crew of mercenaries and renegade Peace Corps volunteers; Carlos had befriended an octogenarian carpenter on the island of Lamu and spent his days as an apprentice, carving intricate designs into the backs of expensive wooden chairs.
The closest to hard evidence came in the form of an anonymous postcard that arrived at the gym the following spring from Botswana: a photograph of a lion lunging after a gazelle with SAFARI TIME! in bright red script across the top. In pen, someone had drawn little droppings underneath the lion. There was no message and no return address.
Terry Tucker tacked the postcard to the wall behind his desk and inspected it on occasion. No one would argue Carlos was missed, exactly, but no one could deny he was a topic of conversation: a “person of interest,” as Terry might say. Newcomers who asked about the postcard were given Carlos’ entire history, as told by whatever assemblage of regulars happened to be around at the time, and as the years passed, it became impossible for gymgoers to conceive of Carlos Ortega anywhere but Africa, laughable to think that anyone had ever believed a few blocks or a single city could contain him.
This is the end of Part IV. Return tomorrow to read “Kuchizi” in its entirety.
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.