The small apartment smells of cooked rice. A teenage boy sits at a yellow Formica table slurping a spoonful of Lucky Charms. A young man wearing a wrinkled black suit and thin black tie stands in the corner of the kitchen, leaning back on a piece of plywood that acts as the kitchen counter. He takes a drag from his cigarette and looks at the buzzing fluorescent light above him.
“He eaten yet?”
“Yeah, right now,” the teen replies, milk running down his chin.
“Well, go get him ready then.”
The boy pushes his bowl away and gets up from the table.
The man in the suit walks slowly to the table and looks down at a purple horseshoe floating in the pinkish sticky looking milk. He drops his cigarette butt in the bowl and smoothes the front of his jacket.
A massive form of a man squats in a crouched position with his back to the room. He scoops the last handful of a rice and stew-like mixture from a metal plate. His back muscles extend like a shell around his gigantic frame. The teenage boy enters the room carrying a gym-bag on his left shoulder. He places the bag down on a wooden table as the huge man stands and walks toward him. The two figures stand in front of each other, separated by at least a foot in height.
“Tape… oil… Vaseline?” the boy asks.
The man shakes his head no and breathes slowly through two slits that used to be nostrils. His nose is almost nonexistent. Crushed into his face or perhaps never even there at all. The boy squirts a water bottle into the man’s mouth.
A voice from the door, “They’re ready for him.”
“Let’s go,” the boy says as he drapes a wet gym towel over the man’s bald head and thick neck.
A crowd is gathered into a large cellar, three deep against brick walls. The lighting is dim and a number of the metal hanging fixtures flicker. The watchers are not quiet. Some speak of what they have come to see, some don’t even know what it is they are about to witness. Men and women, couples, teenagers, and old people.
An iron gate opens at one end of the cellar. The large man enters wearing an old pair of boxing shorts, barefoot, holding the wet towel. His eyes, sunken into dark sockets, look slowly around the room as he touches a scar on his right chest with massive hands and knuckles that look like thick leather pads rather than flesh.
Less than ten feet in front of him stand three brutal-looking men; two hold chains dangling to the cobblestone floor and the other holds a Louisville Slugger. Their eyes dart around the room as they dance in place.
The man wearing the black suit walks to the center of the room. He looks toward his gigantic masterpiece and then to the gathered crowd. The beast exhales and his nostril slits flutter like a racehorse. He beats on his massive chest and roars, half man, half lion.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… THE ANIMAL!”
The kitchen is quiet as the teenage boy pours new milk into his bowl. He sits down as the man in the black suit walks into the room holding a folded brown paper bag. He picks up a lighter from the table.
“You fix him?”
“Yeah,” the boy replies.
“Finish that up. I’m tired.” He holds the paper bag up. “Let’s get home. She’ll want to know how we did.”
The boy walks to a gated and chained doorway as the fluorescent lights are turned off. He looks into the cellar at the Animal sitting on the wooden table and wonders how many more times he can stand to do this. As he puts a ring of keys in his pocket he whistles, tossing a pack of cigarettes and the lighter onto the cobblestone floor. The man slowly looks up at the boy then his head sinks back down into his bloodstained hands.
The time on the boy’s watch reads 3:12am as the fluorescent lights of the musty kitchen flicker on and warm up, cockroaches returning to where they came from. He wipes tears from his eyes as he looks at himself in a stainless steel mirror that hangs on the inside of the worn metal cabinet.
The beating he’d taken earlier in the night wasn’t as bad as it had been before, but it left him with one black eye and a bad cut on his ear. His mother barely paid him any attention as she counted the night’s money and her drunken boyfriend beat him while his brother in the black suit watched.
Now he eases himself down onto the linoleum floor, his back against the locked gate. His tears dry in streaks down his face as a large bruised hand moves through the darkness past the bars. The hand rubs the boy’s sweaty head and then pats his back gently.
The boy stares at the water-marked ceiling of the kitchen and holds the giant hand that now rests on his shoulder. He fingers the key in his pocket and entertains the idea of using it, but doesn’t know where they would go.
Eventually they sleep.
Joshua Tate works and plays near Memphis, TN.