BY LIAM KRUGER
Rodrigo the matador – which is what his family calls him when they need to differentiate from his cousin, Rodrigo the poet – squats on the cement lining the outside perimeter of the stadium, and lights a cigarette.
His cape, a rental, lies on the ground. It is, but was not always, a mottled red; the odd fleck of gore stains it, drawing sand up into the thing, which he knows will be a bitch to clean up. He’s tired, though, so his cape stays where it is. He leans back against the imitation-clay wall and works at the neck of his sequined uniform, his sweat already cooling in the shade; eyes closed, Rodrigo pictures the smoke rise from his mouth in regular, quiet breaths. It is fanciful; in the late afternoon, in the shade, the smoke is barely visible.
Rodrigo the matador hears heavy, irregular footsteps approach, and he opens his eyes, scoots a little along the cement lining.
“Good game today,” he says to Manuel, the bull. “That kid was quicker than I thought he’d be.”
Manuel – his right shoulder split open, leaking a pale, thick fluid – steps closer to the still-warm cement wall, and leans his flank against it. Rodrigo looks hard at the wound for a few seconds, and shakes his head. “Yeah. Saw that cheap shot he made before you got him.” He spits once to his right. “That’s unprofessional.”
Manuel is still panting slightly from earlier exertions; cooling sweat slides down his dark-furred sides, mingling with the blood and the pus, and his thick bull tongue lolls obscenely from the side of his mouth, although Rodrigo says nothing about this.
He finishes his cigarette, carefully stubbing out the butt on the sole of his shoe; in the stadium behind him, there is a flickering hum of excitement, quickly extinguished. Rodrigo immediately reaches into his tunic for another smoke. Attempting to shift his weight to his left-hand-side, Manuel moans softly. The man pauses in the process of finding matches, and looks up at the bull.
“You want one?” he asks.
The bull swallows convulsively. “No, thanks. Told the missus I’d quit.”
Rodrigo lights up, and nods. “Hey, good for you, man. Gotta keep your health, right?”
Manuel seems to try shrugging, but is stopped by the gash in his shoulder, made by a young man with a sharp stick in his hand, and nowhere else to put it.
Rodrigo whistles in sympathy. “That’s nasty, guy. You getting that looked at?”
The bull’s nostrils flare, but it occurs to Rodrigo the matador that they’re always doing that. Manuel says, “Nah. Figure they’ll keep it like this for the next round. Makes me look battle-hardened, right?”
Rodrigo shifts in his seat to get a better look. “Hell. It does at that. Can you run?”
Another shift of weight, as Manuel tries to find a way of standing that hurts less; he’s wincing a little when he says, “You’ll have to wait and see.”
“Cold, Manuel, that’s cold. I thought we were friends.”
The bull doesn’t say anything, or if he does, he says so quietly enough to be drowned out by a sudden roar from the crowd several feet of concrete away; something, finally, has died.
It takes a number of minutes before either Rodrigo the matador or Manuel the bull are audible to one another again; the roar goes on far longer than either expect. They are in a small space; to their right lies the stadium mouth, to their left a small wooden door. Before them is sand and more concrete; above, the suggestion of sky. Rodrigo chews at a fingernail, trying to dislodge a small stone from beneath it; Manuel watches Rodrigo’s hands and teeth with an attention particular to herbivores.
By the time the crowd is quieted down enough to allow for conversation again, Rodrigo has succeeded only in tearing the flesh of his right index finger; the stone remains in place. He sighs, and gives up.
“What do you think?” asks Rodrigo.
“Bull,” says Manuel. “They never cheer like that when one your guys goes down.”
“I guess,” says Rodrigo.
They sit for a while, trying to figure out whether or not they can hear the sound of a body being dragged anywhere. Manuel’s hearing is better than Rodrigo’s, but Rodrigo’s sense of the morbid is more developed than Manuel’s.
“Say,” says the matador. “Did you get a dye job?”
“What?” snaps Manuel, his head crooked to catch the roar of the arena next to them.
Rodrigo shrugs. “I don’t know. I could’ve sworn you had brown fur the last time we talked. It’s black now.”
“It’s the light.”
“If you feel like you’re getting old, you can tell me,” says Rodrigo, grinning stupidly.
The bull turns to face the matador. “Nobody gets old in this business, guy.”
Rodrigo doesn’t know what to say to that, and he sits quietly for a while, in the small, diminishing space near the arena’s entrance.
The shadows have moved a couple of inches more when Rodrigo speaks again. “How long you been in this business, Manuel?”
A slow, one-sided shrug. “Four years? Five, maybe. I don’t really care to keep track. Gets depressing, you know?”
Rodrigo nods. “I hear that, I hear that. Lotta blood under the bridge.”
“River flows into the ocean, either way.”
There isn’t much else to say after that, so the two remain silent by the side of the stadium, listening to whatever there is to listen to; the sounds that could be strange music, and could be the buzzing of some huge insect, familiar and awful to them both.
A young man with a clipboard and a painful-looking headset opens the wooden door to their left; he steps out, and stares at the two.
“Rodrigo what the hell are you doing with the new bull?” he asks, managing to shout and whisper at the same time.
Rodrigo the matador shrugs. “Oh, hey. We’re just, y’know. Hanging out.”
“Jesus. Why?” The young man looks like he’s going to step forward, and stops, reconsidering what this job is actually worth to him.
Rodrigo shakes his head, looking at Manuel. “Why, he asks. This kid.” Raising his voice to be heard by the clipboard and the headset, Rodrigo says “I’m getting insider tips. Manuel here’s been in the business four years.”
“Five,” says Manuel quietly.
Rodrigo shrugs. “Alright, fine. Five years, sorry.”
The young man cocks his head to one side, taking in the dusty cape and limping bull. “Are you drunk?” He asks it without inflection, or expectation; it is one of the phrases that was worn down his mouth by repetition.
“Nope,” says Rodrigo, smiling a little. “That’s just my face.”
The young man with the headset looks down at his own feet for a couple of seconds, watching the red dust settle on his black office shoes and listening to someone that wasn’t there. After a few seconds of this his had snaps back up again. “Just get to your dressing room, alright? You’re on in fifteen.” He opens the door again and steps back into his void, his lips moving soundlessly.
“On in fifteen,” says Rodrigo. He stubs out his cigarette needlessly, and stares ahead for a while. He looks at Manuel.
“What the hell, you’re lousy conversation anyway. Let’s go kill each other, huh?”
He stands up stiffly, shakes some of the grit off of his cape like a beach-bum shaking off a towel; he heads towards the stadium’s thick-walled entrance, with its short interlude of church-quiet before the noise and the crush. The darkness and the cool air make him feel, for a moment, as if he is underwater; for a few seconds, he stands very still and holds his breath before pressing on, to the light he knows he was to get to.
On his way through, Rodrigo passes some bull-wranglers armed with pikes and hooks, and nods to them grimly; he imagines they probably have names, but thinking them up seems beyond him just now.
In the shadow of the mouth of the stadium, Rodrigo the matador feels like another cigarette; he buttons up his tunic, instead. The distant buzz grows closer, ennobling, already beginning to efface his conversation with a bull.