Twenty-nine

“What are you going to do next?” Dali asks.

“Play Inter-Milan,” the Kid says.

Dali is surprised by the Kid’s frankness and his gravelly voice inflection. Besides this, he hasn’t shared anything. Dali eyes the stippled silver band of his watch the oval face glommed tight onto his wrist. He’s sure the second hand is moving backwards.

“Are you going to follow me there?

Dali is irked by this sarcastic tone, has never hit anybody, but in a playful manner and wants very much to clock this punk in the jaw. Dali’s neck swells, feels too tight like he’s being choked and his blood temperature kicks up a couple of notches. He sizes up this Kid, who isn’t a kid, but a twenty-four-year-old man lying about his age to wreck havoc for the boys’ league. Dali is itching to knock sense into him. He balls his fist, squeezing until his pencil-lead veins bump to the surface.

The Kid doesn’t have a chance to taunt Dali or flinch. He takes a good hard punch off the temple. His head lobs back and Dali lunges forward and takes another swing with his southpaw this time laying the Kid out.

A wide, mouth-open grin fills Dali’s face. He’s elated and mortified. He’s ashamed to have this mixed bag of emotions. As the moment wears on, Dali helps the kid back onto his feet. The Kid licks his bloody lip. Dali touches him behind his ear and the kid shakes as if he’s a wet dog.

“Get lost,” the Kid says.

“I can’t,” Dali says.

“You don’t have the balls.”

Dali smirks. This comment would’ve infuriated him, stuck in his craw. He flexes his knuckles and the Kid wipes his bloodied mouth. Dali doesn’t see himself as a bully or a meddler any longer he feels more committed to this kid. And on top of all that he finally feels, in some odd way, he’s both paying back and honoring Benga.

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Twenty-eight

Black curlicues of hair sloped around his head like mischief. He lost the gist of the chase. His nerves mellowed into flat cola. The mottled sea is berry-stained and aloof as beach glass. Two wiry fishermen gaff over the starboard side of the boat, their weathered hangdog faces both gruff and elegiac.

Dali, garbed in a bright orange inflatable life vest, stood far from the boat’s rail didn’t realize he stepped closer to the other edge. Slight steps breaking thresholds seemed to Dali his destiny. The wind whipping underneath his life vest almost appeared to send Dali into flight. What did he know about tuna? He didn’t even like to eat it. This whole trip made him physiologically and mentally seasick. Should he find the lynchpin of this nefarious operation, whenever and wherever they docked, he’d add a new feather to his cap.

The more Dali reflected on his new duties he couldn’t shake from the cold hard fact he was betraying others and biting into their livelihoods.

Dali decided he’d let these fishermen make their catch and getaway clean. He fastened rubber trolling squid to the hookless spreader bar and with a grunt and toss the rig went splat. The trailer dipped like an old man dogging paddling to the milky currents and the glorious hum of the motor reached a new octave.

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Twenty-seven

He slid off the scale. The LCD flashed 171 and his synapses fired this message to his brain as the doctor scratched figures into his notepad. Some of the ink smudged, left behind a swirly dash. Then the doctor grabbed a tape measure, stretched it as if fitting an air conditioner into a dusty window frame. The metallic ting of the elastic band sent the hairs on the back of Dali’s neck into a spindly flux. The doctor snapped the band and Dali watched as the fan of numbers stretched into a long straight line. He snapped the band once he’d reached bowhunter pose, scrolled the measurement with his free finger. Dali stood a fraction over five foot nine. Dali reflected on the 5’11 stamped into programs, trading cards, and websites. He’d always known his true height, but had hid it from his daily burdens. This brief recollection made him almost choke back his tongue.

In his stocking feet, could he be more average?

The doctor gave what passed for a smile in his profession and Dali interpreted it as pity. Did he plan to report this devastating fact to the Federation? Bad enough Dali had to live up to this humiliation, but to break the news to idyllic fans. Monsourri wouldn’t let it slide, he’d tuck it away as if stumbling upon a lost pearl buried in a fishmonger’s pile of slop and he’d keep it, savoring the pearl until seizing upon Dali’s stark desperation. Monsourri was already on his case about the kid. Here goes a smear campaign. He had such a clean record. He didn’t drink, carouse, or make an ass of himself in public. Far too the other extreme he was almost a bore as far as the paparazzi were concerned.

Dali had no idea a few mustaches and horns sullied his billboard headshots. He’d never seen one.

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Twenty-six

“What is this I hear, you taking on the Kid?” Monsourri said.

“What do you mean?” Dali replied.

“I gave you a task. Don’t blow smoke at me.”

“I’m not.”

“Give me names,” Monsourri said, drumming the table.

“It’s complicated. I need more time.”

“Don’t do this now. You’ve got so much potential. People trust you.”

Dali curled his brow in disbelief.

“You’re more than a player,” Monsourri said.

The half-hearted gravitas only made Dali made Dali shrug.

“You’re a god to so many— don’t let them down.”

“I’m not planning to.”

“Just don’t get mixed up with that kid. I want him out,” Monsourri said, making a slash across his hairy neck.

“He’s talented.”

“He’s a cheat.”

“Pushed through the system.”

“And now we’re going to make an example out of him.”

“Not him.”

“Why not? You see yourself in him. Is that it?”

“Not sure what you’re implying, but I’ve never lied about my age.”

“True. But, you’ve lied about other things.”

Dali locked into Monsourri’s nebulous, coal gray eyes. Dali, hard-knocks scrapper from his greenest years, made the effort, whenever, wherever to defend his honor. This, although he perfected with Benga’s help, innate pulse charged within him.

He only looked away for an instant, caught sight of the takeaway bag of Kenyan ground coffee and grew enamored with the elephant logo. The tiny, glossy stamp looked ridiculous, but something about that thumbnail image, the demure trunk and the majestic swirling tusks opened Dali up to the endless possibility of hope. Perhaps, this thumbnail picture symbolizing his country stacked on a shelf within the splendid Mexican capital made him realize a bridge already connected his people to all people.

Dali snapped from his short trance, scratched his chin as if making sure he was there, in the lilywhite coffee shop.

“What have I lied about?” Dali asked his palms flat on the table.

“Tell me why it is nobody has seen you on a beach or relaxing by a pool. Hmm. Oh, I imagine fear of swimming is not such a terrible thing. I never go into the water above my waist. Never visit. Never visit Asia during monsoon season, but I always get my feet wet.”

Dali bit into his bottom lip, leaving a crescent clench of teeth then snatched his cup of coffee. He took a quick chug then slapped it back onto the table, couldn’t take his hand off of it, turned it clockwise like a screw.

Even all these years later, almost thirty now and the sting of boyhood shame whisked back. No matter how he’d planned to hide his toe the odd scab of it kept snaking into his life. Dali wore a stern battle mask though he swore he’d heard creaks and cowardly groans waggling in his intestines.

Monsourri pointed with a bent finger.

“It’s Benga,” Monsourri said.

“Benga,” Dali repeated. “What about Benga?”

“He’s had a hand in this whole Kid mess.”

Dali leaned closer, his ears tingled.

“I’m still mad at you for trying to buddy buddy with the Kid, but I need you to find Benga.”

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Twenty-five

Girma Dali sipped his venti macchiato while he waited for Monsourri to return with whatever he planned on drinking. The slurp and whir of the cappuccino makers and the shuffle and slur of the baristas fascinated Dali. For a nanosecond, he had the vexing déjà vu he’d once been sucked into a time warp something akin to a ya-ya sci-fi flick where all he really knew for sure was that he, the earthling, was better off for not knowing the indubitable truth of the cosmos.

Dali let his lispy thoughts swill into his macchiato. His unquenchable sense of duty rumbled in his belly. Monsourri returned clutching his café latte, misto, mocacinno— whatever it was— like a grenade. Dali had the dervish impulse to sprint out of Starbucks, bolt down Plaza Reforma, jump into one of those green VW taxis and go to Teotihuacan. He was in Mexico for the first time in his life and he wouldn’t feel whole if he hadn’t made the pilgrimage to the great Aztec Empire. He didn’t care about a steakhouse, a stroll through Chapultepec or tuna tacos in Polanco he wanted a hair of transcendence.

Monsourri sat like a fat man, rocked the table with his bulbous knees and broke his muffin in half. Dali declined. Monsourri practically fed the muffin slop to the star and Dali took a piece to keep Monsourri’s unctuous, bureaucratic finger from touching his mouth.

Dali noticed a sleek, tightly packed kilo of coffee-to-go. An elephant’s face stamped on the front of the package. He got up to get a closer glimpse. Aha, the coffee came from Kenya. Dali recalled the growers he’d met a while back who gave him their Mancala stones. How did their strike turn out he wondered? All this time their plight had slipped his mind. The crush of other qualms had weighed on him, the constant flux of life kept him from plumbing deeper.

Mexico, the city, the match, the meeting would all slip away, get slurped up in the sounds of the cappuccino maker. Dali picked up the bag of coffee as if he were a surgeon grabbing another heart.

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Twenty-four

Benga stared at the nub sprouting from Dali’s left foot. while the other toes squirmed, this scabby nub remained still like an old beggar betrayed by a cruel wash of light. The earth swelled under his feet cracked wide into bronze wedges a few withered grass blades wafted in the breeze. Benga counted eleven toes. His bushy brows bunched when he counted again as if this fact had uncovered the strange underbelly of life.

Dali scratched a dead piece of skin behind his ear, flicked it to the ground. He felt Benga examining his feet and wished in that grinning instant he was like everybody else. Dali shut his eyes and squeezed his fists hoping when he reopened his eyes he’d find ten normal toes. His nub ballooned, grew into a gargantuan claw, a T-rex-sized imprint— not the fossil, but the flesh and bone. He kept bumping it and the more he tried to wash it out of his mind the more it crystallized.

He peered down at his feet at the crunch of skin bubbling from the side of his small toe and when he looked back up Benga was gone, his mad shuffle steps had taken his place.

Dali lulled in solitude on the caked soil. He stumbled, didn’t know how to get his grip. Then he felt a quick jab and his thoughts ebbed into a tiny drip like beads of water fading into the mouth of a mirage. Benga poked Dali’s shoulder once more and made a gesture to follow him. Together they plowed onward.

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Twenty-three

The day slid into a cul-de-sac. Dali stared into his bowl of Cheerios expecting assurance. Flecks of whole grain oats, corn starch, and Tripotassium Phosphate sullied the whitewash. Dali let his spoon splat to the bottom and his thoughts curled with the milky ripples. Already two hours late to address another age-cheating club, he only had the cranial capacity and will to handle the one self-absorbing problem. It walked in on him all five feet nine inches of stolid crust. Dali almost swiped the cloth clean off the table somehow it hooked onto a snap on his shorts. His magician reflexes saved the cloth and various dishes, silverware, and sugar cubes from meeting the rug. The kid made no effort to avoid Dali and this frustrated the great striker who was too big to be hiding under tables.

The kid unveiled the first metal lid, dumped four sausages onto his plate and proceeded to unveil each of the lids until he’d piled scrambled eggs, onions, red peppers, pancakes, apple fritters, melon slices, and some other brownish goop on his plate. Then the kid searched the quiet room as if it were a stadium of hooting and vuvuzeling fans. He grabbed a seat, two chairs over from Dali. He slumped down without bothering to pick up his knife and forked his way through his pile of food with the ferocity of a man who’d just broken a fast.

A truculent wedge of regret seized Dali. It had only been a week since he’d slid off course and veered away from pursuing Benga. Getting mixed up in this had him discombobulated. He’d moored himself to this kid, to the slim, far-fetched possibility of transformation. In one fell swoop, he’d remake this kid and himself, morph into a pearlmaker and polish this rough stone within himself. Dali hadn’t abandoned Benga. This obsession with saving the kid was no tangent. This was Dali’s subconscious jab at self-realignment or more precisely unhitching his burden of debt. If Dali could polish this new rough stone he’d stumbled onto he could pay off what he owed Benga. So he hoped, but he would still need to find Benga.

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