The Arm Wrestler By Andrew Paul Grell
THE ARM WRESTLER
By Andrew Paul Grell
You wouldn’t think an arm wrestler needed a manager. No matter. There are many things you wouldn’t think would be, yet be they did. This is just one of them. Cuba didn’t work out for us; Castro, the current Castro, not the original, was touchy about anything Hemingway. We were made quite unwelcome at The Terrace when we showed up. If the Reds didn’t want our money, no matter. Reds. Ha. I can remember the real Reds. A man like the current Castro, the real Reds would have him strapped to their guillotine quicker than you could say A la Recherche a Temps Perdu.
And so we found ourselves, Arph and myself, scouting out a seen-better-days bar on the Bight in Key West, the Eddystone Light. Somebody down here must like The Weavers. It was perfectly low-rent. We picked up a split-level ranch a few blocks away, front and back yards, a couple of trees, and a hurricane shelter. We scooped up some of those cats, the ones with too many toes and bent tails. Now we were a family. Now we were ready to start again. Tomorrow we would do the town: Southernmost point of the U.S., southernmost ice cream, southernmost bathroom, the hotel where the tranny drops down in the big slipper on New Year’s Eve. Tonight, we would see who serves food to my taste.
I can remember when we used to look from the top of a hill to see where the fresh feeding opportunities were. Now I just have to say “Hey, Google!” The three top places for conch were two hotels, probably wrong for me, and one promising entry: The Jah Lee Roger. We had heard his music from time to time while bouncing around the Caribbean before the disappointing Cuba expedition. Looks like he parked his money in a U.S. business. That was the place. I ran it by Arph, and he whole-heartedly approved of the choice. We biked over. Nothing on Key West can be too far from the beaten path, Duval Street, but this place managed it. Out front there was a papier-mâché skull (with a jaunty beret) and crossed bones; one tibia was a bike rack and we added ours to the eclectic collection already there. To enter the restaurant, we had to walk a plank. Arph gave the Maitre D’ some secret boy-to-boy signal and we got a perfect table on the “fo’c’sle.” Water was served and menus were laid down; we declined alcohol ‘for right now’ and we knew we had a good ten minutes to chat. It was that kind of place.
“Adira, my dear.” That never grew old for Arph. “Let’s talk about how we’re going to play it at the Eddystone Light. Hustle? Attraction? Try something we haven’t tried yet?”
“I think we should play this one natural. Or to look natural, anyway, Puppy.” Arphaxad Jones bristled when I called him that. He was one of 13 Welsh siblings and 59 first cousins; all the good Bible names were taken, only Arphaxad was left. No one knew what the name meant or what language it came from, but when I met him, I thought the Arph was a dog’s bark. We’re stuck with each other and he’s stuck with Puppy.
Where there are net men, there will be arm wrestling.
“I’ll come in ‘after work’ a few nights a week, wait till I get a challenge opportunity. Take it from there. Remember Singapore? Maybe I’ll let someone be my ‘manager’ again. Or maybe we shouldn’t push our luck. You can’t kill the same bear twice, you know.” It had taken a while for Arph to get my idioms. Libra was just kissing the horizon. Two-minute warning, time for one last exchange.
“Give any thought to what we’re going to invest in, Puppy?” The US would let anyone in if they had $500,000 to invest.
“You sound like you already know what we’re investing in.”
“Of course I do. Bicycles and windmills. I’d hate to have people go through what my ancestors went through. Carbon reduction is the way to go. I understand it’s quite popular, as long as no one makes you actually do it, use it, or depend on it. And… Oh, right on time.”
The waiter, eye patch and stuffed parrot and all, came by to take our orders.
“Bon soir, Jean.” I took a flyer and turned out to be right. What other fake name would a waiter in a French-ish place take? They say that rich people never order from the menu; I decided to try that.
“I’ll start with a dozen steamed conchs, then a two-pound stake rare; and when I say rare, I mean just wave it in front of the oven for a minute. And a fruit salad. Make that two fruit salads, please.” American waiters can be so forward, and Jean (probably Bill or Drew or something like that off-duty) was no exception.
“Jean, you have absolutely no idea.”
“D ’accord. Rolls for just one, then.”
Arph’s restaurant strategy was to find what looked like a signature dish, except when the menu stated that the Grozny Salad or the Chuckchee Soup or whatever was the signature dish. He picked what sounded like a practical joke menu entry, Conch, Havarti, and Hemp Leaf Lasagna in a truffle sauce. I couldn’t remember ever seeing that, on a table or a menu. It was another 15 minutes with water for me and Arph breaking down and getting his favorite, Jameson and soda. Nectar of the Gods, he called it. Maybe, if your God is short, wears green clothes, and has a pot of iron pyrite counterfeit coins. It was a night I was less concerned with the overall plan than with the “investment.” Being in the Keys brings a different perspective on things.
“Really big windmills. A lot of them. All over. Enough to make a difference.”
“You know that’s going to take more than half a million dollars, Adira, my dear. A few more runs of the plan, and we may be able to do that. After all, if anyone can take a long view of things, it’s you.” Arph was right. If there’s anyone who should learn from history, it’s me. Jean came with the food, offered the obligatory fresh pepper from a grinder with an uncanny resemblance to an arquebus. I could remember the switch to guns with triggers. Death marches on. Arph dug into his pasta with a contented smile. The lasagna was the winner of the bunch by far, according to the look on his face; and he hadn’t even tried anything else! I took my prong out of its sheath in my left pants leg and started spearing the conchs. After four of them, I took a look at the steak. The old family life-saver knife came out, and I started cutting the steak into strips, then pronged the strips into my mouth. Exquisite. And it took a kid to bring me down from my reverie and remind me where I was.
“You don’t eat like other people, miss…” Miss. Hmm. He was about Southpark age, but well behaved, and seemingly intelligent, as far as I knew, if curiosity was a component of intelligence.
“Young man, I’m not like other people. To tell the truth, I’m not eating the way I ordinarily prefer. Did your parents ever take you hunting?” Mom started getting nervous, Dad was smiling. While Mom was inspecting her son for psychic trauma, Dad gave me the once-over look, and decided to engage. Mistake. No matter what he says, he’ll hear it spun and repeated tonight. All night.
“Last year we got some impalas, a wild ass, very hard to get, a lion and a herd of elephants. Photo safari.” I looked at the kid.
“Not so long ago, people would hunt to eat. They would cut up some of the kill right there and eat it, then take the rest back to the mommies who had babies, the grandparents, the people who made sure we had enough fruit, nuts, and honey in case the hunting didn’t go well. There is nothing like eating what you hunt. The hunters would thank the spirits of the animals they killed. Everything was in balance.” I gave his tow-head a little tousle and smiled at the parents. Arph had been observing me the whole time, probably a good idea. I needed to be a bit on the wacky side for the plan to move forward, but couldn’t be allowed to go, well, ape-shit, one might say. I had more water and another fruit salad while my Puppy had coffee and cheese cake.
= = =
The next night was my debut at the Eddystone Light. We were in luck; a small trawler was docked in the Bight and the Eddystone was the nearest alcohol. I was wearing Everlast sweats and bridge shoes, and literally ran into the place, not pulling up until the long bar.
“Hey Bartender. Come down here.” Obnoxious is as obnoxious does. Time for me to be noticed. The old landlord didn’t know what to make of me, on the one hand, but on the other hand, owning a bar in Key West, he’d probably seen it all. I explained to him what a Stalin was—white wine in a shot glass, looks exactly like vodka, what Stalin was drinking at Yalta with Truman so he wouldn’t be too drunk to negotiate. Three of those in succession made an impression on whoever was looking at me. And there it was. Off-shift fireman and a net-hauler. That would be a good match. They locked left hands on the table, right above the money, and went to work. I would bet the fisherman every time. A fireman can carry a 200-pound unconscious body while wearing 60 pounds of equipment, but not every day. The fisherman continually hauls nets. And I was right. They went two out of three and I was still right. Time for my move.
“Hello sailor. Are you tired after going twice, or do you have enough for one more?” The swabby with ‘Dave’ stitched on his shirt was trying to parse what I was asking. “What kind of odds would you give me, Dave?” Realization was pushing its way through the rum haze; a girl was challenging him to an arm wrestling match.
“Five to one, darlin’. I’ll give you five to one if you can beat me.” I put a Franklin on the table, and he piled four more on top of mine. We assumed the position, and the guy Dave just beat signaled the start. Dave was still hesitant even though his money was already down.
“Is that all you’ve got, Mr. Man? You’ve got to get my knuckles on the table, that’s the point, right?”
“Oh, I’ll get you down on the table, sweet thing.”
“Oh, really, sailor? Is that what you think? We’re just betting Franklins, were you looking for something else?” Sure as a girl tiger has balls, he got riled and went for the full court press. Under my shirt and skin, my unusual ulna and elbow architecture was invisible to him. He couldn’t put it together that he couldn’t beat a girl. I gave it another 20 minutes of spectator gathering before I let him win. I saw that Carter, the match’s judge and previous loser, was getting a hard-on for something, either me or a hundred dollars. Maybe both. Fortunately, he couldn’t count the mitochondria in my striated muscle tissue.
“Ten to one! I’ll give you ten to one, one match, Sheila.” Drunk. An Australian drunk. The things I do for the plan.
“Lay it down, Hero. I’m all yours.” Carter put a week’s pay on the table, and I put my Franklin on top of the pile. Dave would judge. I let Carter pull at me for about ten minutes, and then I let him have it, slam, bam, thank you, Stan,
“Okay, Carter, you put up a good fight. Step outside for a smoke with me, would you?” He looked suspicious. No, he looked like he couldn’t believe his luck. We went up to the “lantern room,” a private meeting area, and I laid out my purpurea kit.
“What is that? What’s the point of going to a bar to smoke dope?”
“It’s not dope, Hero. It’s a lot bigger than that. It’s an ancient recipe, so old, I may be the only one who still remembers it.” I pulled on the pipe. I would be transported back to Gibraltar, I had no idea what would happen to Carter. Most likely just mildly stoned. We giggled a bit, me at a joke I was just remembering from the Neolithic. He was probably giggling at me. I remembered what I needed to know. He would forget what he remembered, if he in fact remembered something.
“Okay, Carter, you put up a good fight. Time to get your booby prize. I decided to make it a real “booby” prize just for fun. And then I replenished my strength with him. Pure superstition, of course, but I enjoyed it. It was what my people did. And what I had to do to get some rumors started.
= = =
The matches went well. We would show up a few random days each week, Jameson for Aph, Stalins for me. If there were matches going on, I would discreetly observe and maneuver myself closer to the last unbeaten man. Or woman. Empowered women started showing up. I would lose about one out of every seven matches, just to put a little reality into the odds. Everyone I beat got a trip with me to the Lamp Room, but not everyone got the purpurea. Very few “replenished” me, but everyone downstairs probably thought they did. People started showing up from as far away as Tavernier and Marathon. The Dry Tortugas rangers and staff started showing up. Supposedly, delegations from Devon and Cornwall—which the actual Eddystone Light protected—were supposedly coming.
And then, as it always seems to happen, we got “the conversation.” The Official Sigil, Banner, Standard and Bar Rag of The Light was embroidered with, of course, a porgy, a porpoise, and a plug-ugly rendering of Stiffy. There were two gross of replica rags in the store room, but he handed the official, original, authentic one to Doll, the assistant keeper and woman of eternal good cheer, no matter what. And invited us up to the Main Gallery. It was a narrow and precipitous circular balcony. Stiffy used it to hold private discussions.
Stiffy poured out three glasses of “local manufacture” rum. His “special reserve.” Rotgut. We chatted about hauls and cargo, the peculiarities of Key West politics, the ridiculous price of gas. He finally decided we were all sufficiently lubricated to begin.
“So. Arph, Adira, how did you two meet, anyway?” Small talk. Arph would handle that.
“I was her knight in linen armor, so to speak. This isn’t exactly classified information, but neither is it publicized or even known to many people. As a youngster, I got out of Wales as fast as my miner boots could carry me. When I broke through on the other side of adolescence and came to my senses, I decided to take my responsibilities seriously. We had a long-standing family connection to the Regiment. The Prince’s Own. We were technically uniformed, but the “uniform” was generally a suit and tie in the local style of whatever trouble spot we hopped to. That’s why we called ourselves the Welsh Rabbits. We subtlety and discretely look out for the interests of British subjects when there are rumblings.”
Rumblings. Arph was camp as a row of tents. He needed a few years of being manly. Those of us native to the Interzone, as William Burroughs dubbed Gibraltar, for good reason, were used to rumblings. Spanish, Moroccan, British, original inhabitants; politics, economics, love. There were always rumblings. I decided to fill in the rest.
“Stiffy, when the Spanish want the Rock back, or the British want independence, it’s the old native families that get stepped on. You know the island has been inhabited a long, long time, 75,000 years, maybe more. Multiple species of people, it goes back that far.”
I saw the lights switch on in Stiffy’s eyes as he looked at me. I guess he called a meeting about money but wound up in a different place.
“Adira, The Light has never made this much money.” He wanted to keep us. Drink revenues doubled and, with the matches more organized, he got a 5% take on non-participant action. I handed him a pamphlet from the Finlayson Special Foundation.
“We’re good with what I win, Stiffy. If you want to do anything more, this is the place. Clive has a special interest in the native Gibraltar families.”
= = =
We lasted another six weeks. One night during the early matches, a professorial-looking man introduced himself as Doctor Berger and shook my hand. And European style, turned it up and kissed my palm. And looked at it. For too long.
“I’m not like other people, doctor, wouldn’t you say? Not the usual one to four percent of the genome, considerably more, is that your guess?”
“What else did you inherit besides the arm construction? Certainly not the skull or the face. Or the legs.”
I had taken to wearing a costume when I came to the Light, the good doctor had, of course, eye-balled my hips and legs.
“Something you didn’t even know existed. My heart can remember thousands of years. Who among you can say the same?”
I took Arph by the hand and we left. It was a good run, $270,000. Another few stands like this one, and we could do something about climate change and start seeking out my “relatives.” The ones who could remember, anyway.