Sobola’s standing on his head against an artist painted wall, pumping upside down pushups. The backs of his feet slide up and down the surf wave mural bricks. From his close to ground position, he views a reversal world, the feet of the curious street crowd. Beside him, on left and right, two volunteers participate. Cindy Lou and Nick. They pushup for their totem animal. They volunteered to participate in this busker challenge.
Sobola’s working for the coyote. Cindy Lou’s got the Rhino, and Nick the tiger. Each participant threw ten dollars into the hat. All three compete for the original thirty bucks, plus what the crowd offers. The winner’s funds will be charity bound, to his or her totem animal’s cause. That’s what Sobola tells them. It’s all his idea, he dreamed it up the night before, a new angle for hard to find cash.
Sobola believes the coyote resides within him. He sees from its eyes. It’s a way he can partly force his Dad’s voice from his brain, and be in his own space. He hears his father’s commands constantly, his cerebrum echoes. Now Dad coaches him about the art of the upside-down pushup. There’s no escape from the voice, except by hunkering down deeper into coyote mode. With the contest, he can satisfy both his Dad’s orders and his urge to help the animals, and maybe earn enough on the side for some marijuana cigarettes to mellow out.
Sobola has street smarts and cunning, and he has set this game up well. It’s a pushathon for a good cause. Cindy’s Rhino’s almost extinct, and Nick’s tiger is in trouble too. Sobola has a different problem. There are many coyotes, but his Dad’s trying to make him extinct. The voice says “you’re no good,” though Sobola pushes so hard his neck cracks. Dad tells him to be strong, be a winner not a loser. The skinny, sunken-cheeked Sobola lifts up with the power of Dad in his mind, the annoying Hungarian accent binds him to the contest. He makes all his upside-down pushup busker money listening to that voice.
Each night he dreams he’s living out his life through yellow eyes, skulking through downtown neighborhoods, a cunning four foot long form, free and living only for what’s around each corner.
In the contest, he’s moving fast, ten pushups already. Next to him, Cindy Lou’s thin thighs slide up the wall, then back down. Her dog Lars is right there panting and inspiring her game. Fifteen pushups for Cindy. Banks, the droll and long-limbed dishwasher from Haro’s down the street, where quality is expensive, moves his tall frame vertical over the surf wave bricks. He’s at twenty pushups.
Sobola feels the power in lifting everything away from the dirt where he slept last night. He put his last ten bucks into this contest. His hands plant firmly, like cement blocks, as he fights gravity and weight to shove higher. Then, it’s the descent back, and away again. Dad cheers. Twenty-five pushups so far, and Sobola’s just starting.
He announced the contest twenty minutes ago, did the spiel and warm-up, right there in Downtown Plaza. Nick and Cindy Lou happened to be intrigued and off work enough to join.
Cindy Lou, pent up from her job doing daily therapeutic activities with mentally disordered offenders, needed exercise. When Sobola yelled to the assembled crowd that whoever beat him would receive the collected money for the animal charity of his or her choice, she could not resist. “This is a win-win idea,” she thought. “More money for the cause and I can work off my stress.”
She’s been involved with the “Animal Advocates” society for years, but more than that, triumph is the best. Just to put strength and endurance against two lithe guys is fun itself, win or lose.
Cindy’s a spinach-eating bodybuilder wearing tight jeans. She has short hair, blue runners, and a swagger. She’s always loved the look of rhinos, stampeding and horny. Physical terrain dominance is her mode. She’s on her thirty-fifth upside-down pushup. Her face turns a red shade of sunset purple.
Nick pumps himself up and down like he rocks his body in his room, to push forth anxiety and make himself calm. The tiger charity intrigues him. He’s always admired that animal’s confidence and purpose, qualities he wishes more of in himself. He’s not used to this body reversal, though, all the blood going to his head.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and Nick misses his girlfriend Susan, who says he’s too closed in. She no longer wants a relationship.
“How can this be?” thinks Nick, who never gives up on anything. The news ruined his entire week. Up until now, as he finds the fire of competition. He pushes up against his disappointment and longing, and notices all the watchers’ shoes pointed his way. Big crowd! He strains his body skyward, feet first into the blue. Upside down lift up number forty.
Sobola does not sleep these days. He keeps himself thin so there’s less weight to pump. Crystal Meth helps with alertness, pushups, and diet, though recently he’s imbibed mostly espresso. He wishes to be in coyote form, be his own creature. First thing he hears, as he awakens, is his Dad’s voice telling him to move his lazy ass. “Get on your head, up against the wall, do twenty five!”
Now his father’s tone increases in volume as Sobola ramps the pushups close to fifty. He’s barely sweating, though his heart’s pounding wildly. Maybe it’s nerves. The two competitors strain frantically beside him, Cindy Lou whooping with every lift. Sobola tries to summon his wily coyote nature forth. He glances for a second at the hatful of money. He has overdue rent on his storage locker and a bag of dope to buy. His Dad screams at him now, but so do his muscles, sixty-two upside-down push-ups, way under the limit of previous attempts, but Sobola’s only eaten a half bag of stale sea salt potato chips in the past two days. He’s not been hungry, with all the noise in his head.
Nick wobbles, leans, then topples over. He dizzily raises himself upright. He’s lost again. What meaning is there in today without his girlfriend Susan or the satisfaction of at least one win? He should be a tiger, and a tiger should take what it wants. One negative thought tips upon another, yet he hears clapping from the crowd and a young man offers his hand “I’ll help you up, man.”
Nick clasps the man’s wrist.
Now Sobola and Cindy are shouting louder with each rise. Sobola’s yelling the words of his father, “you loser, you loser!” and Cindy’s making noise to help her focus. Their bodies inch up the surf wave wall. Each count means a struggle and a shiver of the biceps. The crowd cheers. Sobola’s wiping his Dad’s voice away, as his strength as a son disappears, he’s forcing in the wild coyote power, held in reserve, for an unpredictable push.
Cindy’s happy with her game so far. She’s no longer drinking or smoking, she’s pulled herself out of a downward spiral, friends say it’s a miracle, but Cindy knows she had no choice. She has Lars the dog to thank for that, and he’s standing beside her now. Animals have always saved her ass. As she pushes, she realizes her will turned stronger than her addiction. She willed her way out of the drinking and now she’s pushing her own body limits and it’s great! Every upside-down moment now a sweet torture.
Nick stands unsteadily. “Thanks,” he says to the young man who helped him rise. He looks across the plaza, views Sobola bending his arms, and pushing up, then arcing right over and dropping. No sound, just a roll and a leap to his feet. Sobola balances on his toes for a second, then runs. In a haze, Nick sees the skinny push up busker grab the money filled hat and zig-zag through the crowd and out into the street. How could he fly so fast after such effort?
“I won! I won” It’s Cindy Lou finishing her last lift, and letting herself go, “Three cheers for the rhino!”
Nick jumps forward, the young man in front of him’s already bolted after Sobola. Nick follows, lurching a bit, as his body’s adjusting to normal, going from upside-down head heat to a pale drained dizziness.
A couple of guys from the crowd have already pinned Sobola against a light post.“O. K., O. K.” he whimpers. Weak now and lacking breath, he drops the hat and sees Nick rush in and grab it before all the money spills.
“I just wasn’t fast enough,” Sobola pants. “At least hand me back my ten dollars.”
“Let the guy go,” Nick says. “He gave it his best shot.”
The men shake their heads but release Sobola, freeing their own pent up aggression with a couple of pushes. He turns, ducks his head briefly, as if in deference, then lopes off up the street and around a corner.
Cindy Lou’s laughing and right there as Nick turns around.
“I won!” she grins.
“Here’s your winnings!” Nick hands her the old brown bowler Sobola put down just ten minutes before. It’s full of bills and some folks in the crowd pick up the change that fell and hand it over to Nick.
“Thanks!” He offers a couple of the impromptu enforcers a few bucks for their Sobola restraint efforts. One takes the money, one shrugs and says “no problem, man, I don’t need a cash reward.”
“Hey, you’re a great guy,” says Cindy Lou to Nick. “Offering some dough to the good Samaritans. How about we “personal train” together sometime?”
Nick regards her flushed, triumphant face with its pinkish dimples and tiny eyes. She keeps on grinning.
“Hey,” he offers. “You’re one strong woman. Maybe we could at least go for coffee.”
They disperse with the crowd and move around a few corners and there’s Perry’s, where all the blends are true, so they pop in and order, using some of the newly won cash. Lars sits tied up outside, Cindy drops him a bowl of Perry’s best water.
It’s a great conversation. Less than thirty minutes ago they didn’t know each other and now the exercise challenge has brought them together, more as friends on Nick’s part but it has lifted his day considerably. He relates about his recent relationship breakup. It seems that now Cindy and Nick have shared this eccentric space and time they can be personal and confidential. Cindy speaks of her struggles and triumphs over smoking and booze. They make chat together for almost two hours.
As they leave and step side-by-side chatting down the street, Lars bounding ahead at the end of his leash, they glance along an alley and perceive Sobola sitting against a wall, head down, his hands over his face. Cindy and Nick can tell it’s him because of the big hair puffing out and the black jeans with all the patches and the tone of his whimpering. He’s got a sleeping bag wrapped around his middle.
“We should give the busker his hat back at least,” says Cindy Lou.
Nick steps into the alley and stands there a moment. Sobola senses a presence, looks up, Nick says “here you go man, no hard feelings,” and Sobola views his hat and his original ten-dollar game entry fee returned within it.
Then Nick throws in the rest of the money.
That night, all three dream. They dream in the personas of their totem animals.
Cindy Lou the Rhino charges up and down a vast plain, stopping, turning around, charging again. She feels the power and the strength of her body. The Rhino is rare. It is in danger of extinction, and she will do anything to preserve and protect it.
Tiger Nick regards the Rhino with amusement. He’s a rippling furry giant and he feels courage, he fought the good fight today and did well.
Sobola Coyote watches the Rhino and Tiger from the vantage of a prickly pear cactus bush, he’s under the sticky spines, not exactly trapped, but secure. The Rhino snorts and lifts the cactus with its horn, Sobola views its tiny eyes and strong horn. The Tiger squeezes its face in beside the Rhino. They all regard each other. Sobola breathes. There are no other voices, just the breathing of the three totem animal entities. They inhale and exhale in rhythm. Sobola thinks he may experience this soft quiet for a long, long time, and he crawls out of the bushes on his forelegs, pushing with his back, to find a better view of the savannah. The Rhino and the Tiger stand next to him, breathe in, breathe out.
Sobola awakens with a start. He’s rolled off his cardboard bed, in his sleeping bag, tumbled halfway down the slope. Must’ve been moving around. Something is different. His Dad’s voice still there, but whispery and weak. Perhaps as the day goes on it’ll strengthen again. But maybe not. He’s never heard it so muted. Sobola still feels he’s in the skin of the coyote, alert and clear, looking out at vast, peaceful plains with feral eyes. He recalls the animals that lay down beside him, on the dream savannah.
After a few moments, he clambers out of his bag and staggers up the slope, begins panhandling. The first person he sees gives him five dollars. The second person ten.
“Wow, I’ve never felt so calm,” he thinks.
And now, he softly approaches a third person, a girl with a briefcase and a blue blazer, to ask for whatever she will give.
He’s a stealthy creature, on this new morning, and he wonders what more good fortune will appear out of this ever expanding quietness.
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