“Pain favors the unfortunate but love favors the strong.” For some unknown reason, those words echoed in Lorenzo ‘Ren’ Castile’s mind as he stood at the stainless steel paring table hacking pigs into manageable cuts on a walnut board with a cleaver. Wearing shiny, black, padded leather boots and a thick, black, plastic apron, the burly 24-year-old butcher’s apprentice had been standing on his feet in the huge windowless freezer working for hours. The naked bodies of dead bovines and domestic pigs dangled from hooks everywhere in the cold metallic stall. His boss had given him the assignment of preparing the hogs for some impressive barbecue involving big shot actors and politicians over at the Waldorf Astoria. Was Ren invited to the shindig? Of course not. Why would anyone invite a high school dropout with a criminal record like his to such an impressive black tie event?
Ren knew from birth that he was given the short stick. A blind man could see he was doomed to a life of penury and injustice. When good looks were being given out, his name was inextricably erased from the list. His father disappeared when he was two, and because he was an only child, there was no manly figure around to look up to. His mother was a drunk, never cared that he was always made fun of in school because he was the biggest student in his classes. It’s a wonder, for his size, he didn’t become a bully.
Years of ribbing and bad grades took its toll and, at 16, he quit school altogether and started working at various fast food joints. Always being mindful to punch their clocks on time, he never faltered at the grills when the clerks up front yelled, “Cheese on twelve!” or “Extra pickles on that garden burger!” Unfortunately, those jobs never lasted because he’d get into fights and, instead of pulverizing his enemies, simply quit to avoid doing something he’d really regret.
This abstinence didn’t last for long, however. A short stint in the army at 21 ended with a less than honorable discharge when the medicos discovered his heart was compromised. At 22, while working on a fishing boat in the North Atlantic waters, he threw a man overboard who was pestering him, telling him he had the intelligence of a slug and the looks of an orangutan. The man didn’t drown, but Ren was thrown in the brig as he was deemed unpredictable and not a team player, and when the ship returned to New York, was arrested and sent to jail.
After ten months of cooling off at Riker’s Island, he stayed in a halfway house located in the Bowery District of lower Manhattan as he had nowhere to go. Although he tried to avoid it, he did get into a few scrapes with some of the tenants. Several more nights in jail cooled his heels, but he’d always return whenever someone challenged him. Perhaps they thought he was too big to ignore. Maybe they thought they’d gain points for beating up the big man on campus. All they did receive for their efforts, however, were black eyes, cracked ribs and piercing headaches.
Ren’s mother died of cirrhosis of the liver during his last incarceration. Because he couldn’t attend the funeral, it made him angrier than he’d ever been, avoiding everyone, even those with good intentions. Out of boredom and frustration, he lifted weights at Goldie’s Gym, the one place in lower Manhattan that didn’t treat him like a criminal. That went well till, one day, a co-owner of the gym he hadn’t met before told him he couldn’t workout for free anymore. Since the other owner wasn’t around, there was no one to corroborate Ren’s story. The co-owner, making a move he, no doubt, regretted later, tried to physically remove Ren from the establishment when he wouldn’t leave, resulting in Ren picking him up and throwing him right through the glass wall to the sidewalk. Ending up right back in jail, some of the inmates suggested he should look into becoming a bodyguard or bouncer, as gainful employment for the previously incarcerated were few and far between.
Released a year later, he spent many months shuffling from one job to the next. He also made attempts at securing bodyguard positions, but it never always worked out. Maybe they didn’t like the way he looked, or his heavy deadpan manner, or some other unforeseen item. In any case, constant rejection only served to make him more and more bitter and discouraged.
It was probably just sheer dumb luck that caused him to walk into the West Side Meat Market one Saturday morning. He was actually just looking to buy some ribs with the few food stamps left in his possession as soup kitchen fare was beginning to wear thin on his nerves. While he was there, he noticed a ‘Help Wanted’ sign below the counter. Deciding to give it a shot, he spoke to the cashier who spoke to the manager who interviewed him on the spot. Could he lift fifty lbs? Yes? Can he stand freezing cold temperatures? Yep. Does he have any experience with shipping and receiving? You betcha. Does he work well with others? Yes. He wanted to say not really, but he knew better.
After working at the job for only two months, he felt confident enough to leave the new shelter he’d been staying in on Randall’s Island and get a studio close to work, as the commute cut too deeply into his waking hours. In New York City, small apartments could run as much as $2200 a month, and that’s a conservative estimate. He was lucky, though, to find a tiny, one room studio in a fourth floor walkup close to the waterfront, just mere blocks from the meat district, on the Lower East Side. The paltry rent of $550/month suited him just fine.
The studio, no bigger than the bathroom at a fast food restaurant, had mirrors on all four walls. And these weren’t just vanity-type mirrors. These were full body, ceiling to floor, corner to corner mirrors. It was like walking into rear-view hell. Mirrors, mirrors everywhere, like Bruce Lee’s last fight scene in Enter the Dragon. Obviously, they were put up to create the optical illusion that the room was as spacious as a Marriot hotel suite. Ren didn’t care. This was his first pad and he was happier than a pig in shit to have it.
Besides the mirrors, the room had a twin-sized bed sitting in a corner and a chest of drawers painted blood red. In fact, since both the ceiling and the floor were red, the studio may as well had been Satan’s bathroom. Whoever designed the joint, he had eclectic tastes.
For the next few months, Ren labored hard at the meat factory. Busting his rump from sun up to sundown, he arranged huge slabs of meat on baking trays, maintained their integrity off the ceiling hooks, prepared larger cuts for the big spenders, loaded and unloaded the meat trucks, assisted with shipping and delivery, and helped with the general care and maintenance of the plant, both inside and out. So it came as some surprise when, one morning, the manager took him to one side and told him his services would no longer be needed.
“Why?” he asked. “I’m never late. I’m always here on time. I don’t steal. I keep the backroom and the freezers clean.”
“It’s not you,” the sad-eyed, big faced manager told him. “The corporate office is downsizing these plants so the new guys get the shaft. You know how it goes.”
Ren ripped off his bloody apron and threw it on the stainless steel table.
“This isn’t fair!”
“Life isn’t fair,” the manager told him. “I hope you know it has nothing to do with me.”
Those were his last words as he turned and exited the store.
He spent the next few hours sulking alone on the roof of his apartment building. It seemed like no one ever ventured up there but him. It offered a spectacular view of the West Side Highway and the Hudson River, but because it was covered with bird poo and contained several bulging HVAC devices, its appeal was less than admirable. It was perfect for him because it allowed him to set his bird trap without detection.
A few months ago, Ren had built a large chicken wire snare using discarded materials from his job. Perfecting it on the roof for days, it resembled a rabbit cage and was approximately the size of an old-fashioned twenty five inch console TV. Springs, hinges and hooks completed its foreboding appearance. On the bottom was a trough for food and water. Planted out of pedestrian sight between two huge gray air conditioning vents, he loaded it up with small pieces of meat from his job then went out around noon to look for a new job.
Returning jobless that evening, he found two frightened pigeons trapped inside. Jubilant, he ran down the stairs to his studio, grabbed an old rusted hot plate with a rotisserie built into it, and quickly returned to the roof. Plugging the stove in a covered outlet near one of the air ducts, he turned it on. Then, pulling out the long shaft of the rotisserie, he walked over to the bird cage. Opening it, he grabbed one of the pigeons and shoved the shaft in its mouth right clean through its hind parts. As it twisted and struggled from the impalement, he grabbed the other bird and did the same with it. He then walked over to the stove and gingerly anchored it over the edges of the rotisserie. Sitting cross-legged in front of the hot plate, he turned the birds slowly over the blue flames. As the feathers burned, he inhaled the pungent scent deeply. It seemed to transport him to some distant clime, like an ashen land long forgotten and abandoned.
He sat there for nearly thirty minutes as the avian vapors enveloped his body. Because no smoke alarms were set off, and perhaps because the smoke itself was thin and wisp-like, no one alerted the fire department. Without using marinade, meat rub, or any kind of seasoning, he extracted the remaining feathers by hand, picked up the spike, and chomped into the first bird. Its skin was already bronzed from the heat but its innards were raw. Tearing the meat apart, something primal stirred within him, as if the bloodied muscle, gristle and veins excited it.
After finishing off the second bird, he cleaned up the stove and immediate area, then gazed out to the west. The sun was already gone but the vestiges of its presence remained. He watched as cars zipped up and down the highway, each driver’s mind suffused with anticipation of their own destination. Getting his fill of the surroundings, he stuffed the remains of the birds in a black plastic bag, returned to his room with the electric burner, and promptly went to bed.
Now that his first day of gainful unemployment had arrived, he set his trap and went on another job hunt, bringing along his resume just in case it was requested. Walking from meat packing plants to butcher shops to sausage makers in the early morning sun, he discovered none were hiring, or at least that is what he was told. This became an all too familiar refrain for the next couple of weeks. Typical slogans such as “Sorry, not at this time,” or “We’re going out of business” became routine. At least he didn’t go hungry.
His trap, as it turned out, was successful in ensnaring not only pigeons, but crows, starlings, gulls, an errant red tailed hawk, and a deep blue hyacinth macaw, an eye-catching parrot with a yellow circle around its probing eye that must have escaped from its owner’s home or a local pet shop. All animals met the same fate – lunch. At times, to break up the monotony of his avian diet, he’d set his trap in the back of his building at nights. The next day, he’d dine on squirrels, raccoons, skunks, rats, cats and any other unfortunate critter he’d captured.
Eventually, his eccentric gastronomic habits got the best of his personality. He thought he was on top of the world, invincible, like a man suddenly made of steel. His neighbors avoided him because of his faraway look, occasionally devilish grimace, and teeth that resembled cobblestone. Pedestrians crossed the street when they saw him ambling towards them, and he even made the mailman nervous. Because he’d had enough money saved to pay his meager rent, he was never evicted. He was advised by his manager, however, to keep his room clean as a foul smell would emanate from it intermittently.
Seeking work was not entirely out of Ren’s mind, but because he drifted between raw blood euphoria and questionable sanity, it usually lingered on the back burner. Out of spite, the times he did look for work, he was so belligerent with the employers that they threatened to call the cops if he didn’t leave. Even dog walkers feared him. His eyes, like glowing coals of smelted magma, seemed to pierce right through anyone who stared at him. The dogs barked viciously when he walked by. Citizens immediately got up and walked away when he went and sat down next to them on park benches. Three gang-bangers who harassed him one night got the scare of their lives when he used his tremendous fists to create a massive dent on the hood of their car.
Eventually, the huge and mighty Ren, professional scourge of the Universe, proud owner of flower-slaying body odor, started running out of money for the rent. Robbery crossed his mind; after all, who would say no to a fella who looked like he could crush your skull with his bare hands? But then he thought about jail cuisine. He’d become so accustomed to his own dishes that it seemed like he could no longer eat anything else.
He thought about strong-arming his landlord about the rent but, again, the prospect of jail prevented it. It did occur to him to spend the rest of his life in Central Park, but he felt he’d be harassed continuously, not just by the police, but by dog walkers whose attentive pets barked at him whenever he came by. Maybe a return to the shelter might work if only his grotesque dietary habits weren’t forbidden.
One night, while he was out for a late stroll, he saw a cheap flier attached to a light pole. It was from a group looking for fighters for a strong man contest. Ripping the poster down, he read the address. To his surprise, the location pointed towards the south-western edge of the meat district. Without any preparation, save a stomach full of rock dove, he headed towards the spot.
Minutes later, he was facing a large, roll-down metal gate in the back of a gray, nondescript, industrial two-story building. To the left of the building was a junk shop; to the right was an open field where several homeless people were standing around an oil drum fire telling stories of the good old days. Knocking on the gate, he waited for a response. Receiving none, he knocked on it again, this time pounding so loudly he could’ve awakened the dead on the other side. Then, rapping on the small metal door next to it, he stood patiently, waiting for a response. Satisfied no one was there, he crumpled the flier, threw it away, and turned to leave. Just then, the small metal door opened. Turning around, he saw a petite Asian man about 5’2” with short black hair and circular glasses standing in the doorway. The man, wearing a traditional Tang suit, that is, custom-embroidered red, floor-length skirt, matching black, long sleeve, high-collared shirt with red arms, and a matching red cap, looked like a dignitary from a Shaolin movie.
“Can I help you?” the diminutive gentleman asked, his hands hidden in his wide sleeves.
“I’m here to fight,” Ren answered. Even to him, those few simple words escaping his lips seemed unlikely, given he’d spent half his life avoiding conflicts. Incessant bullying and false conjectures stiffened his spine, though. Almost overnight, he’d transformed from wuss to strongman, surprising those who thought he’d never get past being the village punching bag.
“Oh, you like wrestling?” the Asian wondered.
“I just need the money,” Ren nodded. “Is this the venue?”
“Yes. You’re right on time.”
Ren followed the wrinkled little stranger, who must’ve been pushing sixty, down a dark staircase, through an unlit hall, and into a room the size of a convenience store, lit by the most meager light known to man - one, low wattage, incandescent bulb dangling from the ceiling. For a brief moment, he felt like he was entering a darkness synonymous with death. Were it not for his own voluminous heartbeat, he would’ve believed he’d already crossed over to the other side.
“Is this it?” he asked, quickly surveying the musty room.
Looking around more, he saw a handful of chairs off to each side and a few boxes sitting in a corner. Neatly placed, they looked as if a conscientious maid had been working there recently.
“Where’s everybody?” he asked the wiry stranger.
“You’re the only one.”
“Who am I fighting?” he queried, walking into the middle of the room.
“You?” Ren laughed.
“Yes. Are you ready?” the old man asked, slightly bending his knees and cuffing both hands.
“You must be joking, right?” Ren asked.
“I assure you,” the stranger avowed, “this is for real.”
“What are you?” Ren asked. “Some kind of karate expert?”
“Did you come to talk,” the old man asked, “or to fight?”
Ren shrugged. “Bring it one.”
As he bent to adopt a wrestler’s pose, the man quickly ran once around him then sliced though the back of both his calves with his ultra sharp fingernails.
“You motherfucker!” Ren howled, the agonizing pain in his legs temporarily paralyzing him.
The stranger jumped up on the back of Ren’s wide shoulders, brought his thin hands backwards, and slashed Ren’s neck with his nails. Screaming, the burly animal trapper dropped to his knees, grabbing his neck as blood poured out on the floor.
“I’m gonna kill you!” Ren promised him.
The man, standing behind him, grabbed his throat, dragged him backwards across the room, and slammed him into a wall, dropping him in a sitting position like a rag doll. Then, as Ren shook his dazed head, the elderly man jumped on his thighs, lifted Ren’s left hand, and bit off his index and middle fingers. Ren, grabbing his left hand, screamed as blood gushed out. The man then quieted him by placing his hand over his mouth.
“Shh,” he told him. “It’ll be okay.”
“My fingers!” Ren screamed. “You’ve taken my fingers!”
“Shh,” the man whispered, rubbing Ren’s hair. “You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.”
“But, my fingers!”
“You’ll be okay.”
The next day, Ren threw out his animal trap, cleaned up his room and, finally, himself. It was a little difficult because of the huge bandage and lingering pain in his left hand. Later that day, after obtaining new clothes from a drop-off center, he put them on and applied for a job doing maintenance work at a fast food restaurant. Because of his newly reserved temperament and past employment in similar restaurants, he was hired. They said he still works there to this very day and may have even met someone new. Will that last? Only time will tell.