Kuchizi by Lucas Schaefer
For years, I had heard about Fat City by Leonard Gardner. I don’t care much about boxing, though, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a novel about it. When I finally did, I was amazed at how Gardner is able to echo the physicality of the fighting in his prose. But Fat City is about so much more than boxing: it’s about hard work and poverty and resolve. It’s about life’s journey. The book comes alive because of the compassion that Gardner had for his characters and for his setting.
“Kuchizi,” by Lucas Schaefer, works in this way as well. It’s also about boxing—two fighters from Texas head to Africa for a professional fight—and much of the story happens in and around the ring. Schaefer explains this sub-culture in detail, but he never condescends to the uninitiated. We instantly feel as though we are there, too, as though we are somehow part of this world. And how fun it is to be there: Schaefer’s wit shines through. It is the characters, though, that make this story soar. Carlos Ortega, a retired boxer, who’s described as “an acquired taste no one’s yet acquired.” Felix Barrowman, an alcoholic heavyweight, down on his luck. Omari, Kadara, and George, three twenty-somethings who manage the gym in Malindi. And, my favorite, Marco Giordano, who works at the hotel. “Hakuna matata, arrivederci and have a most wonderful day,” Marco says to Carlos and Felix when they arrive. How can you not want to learn more about this world? Prepare yourself for a most wonderful journey.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.