What happens when a secretive pro wrestler they called the strongest man in the world passes his prime? That's what a jaded documentary filmmaker wants to find out in "Massimo," from the wonderfully inventive writer Juhea Kim, whose debut novel Beasts of a Little Land came out this year.
Always here for stories about people with murky pasts who can also pull trees out of the ground.
It is dark and cavernous in the arena. Someone turns on the lights, one by one—the heavy, metallic sounds of industrial lighting echo through the cold air. No, it is too bright now. I tell Stephanie and soon only light remains, over the ring in the center of the floor. We set up the camera and the equipment around it. He is seated already in front of the ring, looking at the camera and the lights. He is wearing his usual clothes, the gray tee that obviously used to be white, the threadbare jacket, and baggy jeans with the huge waist and deep gashes over the knees. His hair drapes over his couch-like shoulders like a curtain of Brillo. But in this space, even he shrinks, so that he appears almost normal-sized. Or at least, like a normal large human. Not a giant.
The cameras start rolling. We’d practiced this many times already. He needs to say just a few lines, but he struggles. This isn’t a problem I expected, since he is constantly saying things about himself. He has no difficulty speaking but only when it’s on his own terms. Ask him to say something, even just to repeat what he’d already said, and he becomes petulant, unwilling. Stephanie coaxes him—I am too tired and she is more effective. He softens for her whereas he’d treat me with a curious mixture of cockiness, bravado, and desire to impress with false stories. She gives me a thumbs-up; so he is calm now. The cameras start rolling again. He says in a booming voice, “I am once strongest man in the world. I am Canadian Pro Wrestling Heavyweight Champion in 1970. I fight Joaquin Ventura, Arturo the Giant, and Hiroshi Suzuki. I am Great MASSIMO!”
I’d grown up watching Massimo on TV, and in Escape to Shangri-La, where he has a cameo as a visitor from a planet of giants. When I stumbled into him almost a year ago now on a park bench, feeding dozens of pigeons from a bag of sandwich bread, I immediately recognized him—even before he started pulling out handmade pamphlets and his photos, back in his prime. He offered to sell me a signed photo for $50, and as soon as I agreed to buy two, I could see the disappointment in his face from having low-balled the asking price. I took him to a deli nearby, where he ate five massive sandwiches, one after another. I asked him if I could visit him again, and he said to come find him at that park bench, or at the Dunkin’ Donuts on rue Sherbrooke. As I was walking back to my apartment I was already calling Stephanie. So that’s how I started this project—which, with the benefit of hindsight, I now think of as one of the worst decisions of my life.
The day after the monologue scene, I’m sitting at my neighborhood café with Stephanie, discussing the previous night’s shoot.
“So you still want to put the monologue at the beginning. I feel like that’s...aggressive,” she says.
“I don’t know what other choice I have,” I say. “It wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.”
“But what is it you want to do? That’s not giving him a voice.”
“I want to show the truth. The truth. That’s all I care about.”
“Mathieu, truth is complicated. There are many truths. A documentary is just one story but this is someone’s life we’re talking about. Don’t be brutal.”
Stephanie pouts. She is half-Irish and half-Quebecois but looks all Irish, with fair skin, angular, straight shoulders, and red-brown, wooly hair piled high on her head. She’s a nice-looking girl but she’s all business when it comes to her art. I’ve never been even a little attracted to her—no drunk fooling around, even after my divorce— which makes our working relationship so uncomplicated and productive.
“I have an idea,” Stephanie says. “Let’s show him some of the videos we have. And documents. And then he will have to admit where he’s been bluffing and what’s actually true.”
“At this point, I wouldn’t trust anything he says. Even if we confront him.” I sigh, raking my hair off my forehead. “But we can try, if you think it’s a good idea.”
Stephanie smiles, happy to arrive at some agreement. Then she says, “By the way, that barista is totally checking you out.” I look behind me, and catch the barista’s eyes.
“She’s pretty,” Stephanie says with that easy generosity that women have toward other women who don’t threaten them. “You should talk to her.”
I briefly entertain the idea, but it loses its hold on me almost immediately. When I first moved to Montreal, I went out and met girls all the time. Then I got so tired of it. It wasn’t the sex that bothered me as I find it to be worthwhile whether or not it’s meaningful. What I really couldn’t stand was waking up in the middle of the night and seeing these unfamiliar waves of hair fanned out over my pillow, a snapshot that is both vulnerable and tender and yet inspires in me only an anxious feeling like nausea. Something about a stranger’s hair being so close to my face would strike me as not only uncomfortable, but wrong—and I would wish badly that she would get up and leave, and imagine how good it would feel to be alone again once she’s gone. Then I’d wonder if I’m truly incapable of feeling something warm and natural, whether I’m messed up for good. Now I go to bed alone and wake up alone so as to not be horrified by my own indifference.
After we finish our coffee, we go to our office and focus on putting together the materials. It takes several days to plan out how we will approach this. As Stephanie says, Massimo is definitely mixed up, definitely irrational, but definitely not insane. It is hard to put a finger on the distinction though I completely agree with her.
On Thursday, I go to the park to find Massimo. It is another warm and breezy day so I envision him sitting on his usual bench, his haunches covering almost the entire width like it’s his personal chair, hands folded over his rotund belly. But no, he is standing, showing off his biceps to a couple of spectators. They are politely embarrassed; their eyes are rounded and lips are smiling uncertainly, which says they are being pushed with something that they don’t want. Like when industry people are told that you are working on a film, or in absolutely the worst-case scenario, a documentary. Oh, you are working on it? Great! Terrific idea. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Nice seeing you!
Fuck—I say quietly to myself, and some tension in my body dissipates. When I approach the group, the others walk away, since people feel allowed to leave without seeming rude when there are new arrivals. Even as his audience dwindles down, Massimo keeps up his narrative, in his usual mix of broken French and a little English. Right now he is at the match against Hiroshi Suzuki, the Japanese pro-wrestling legend.
“...So I kick him in stomach, he goes down, really losing it. I give him more forearm clubs then finally finish him off with elbow drop—oh, hey, it’s you,” he says to me.
“Hi Massimo,” I say. “How’s it going?”
“Good, good. Hey, should we go dinner?”
“It’s still only 4. How about we do a little interview session first? After that I will take you out to dinner. That Chinese buffet we went to last time.” I figured out pretty quickly that taking Massimo out to dinner is like taking five normal people. The buffet owners complained with their looks last time, but they couldn’t change the rules just for one person. Massimo starts to haggle with me yet again, and I promise him everything (booze, dessert) until he follows me back to the office. When we walk in, Stephanie rises to greet Massimo and surrenders to the eager clasp of his oven-mitt-sized hands. He imperiously ignores Guillaume’s little nod and a wave.
We all sit around a table except Guillaume, who sets himself up behind the camera.
“So, Massimo. We’re going to look at some photos and videos together, and you’re going to tell us what they’re about,” Stephanie says. Massimo looks at her obediently, like saying Okay.
“Let’s start with the earliest photo we have of you,” she says, pulling out a photo of him as a young man. “How old are you here?”
In the photo, Massimo is completely unrecognizable. He is wearing only a slim-fitting trunk; he is muscular and toned, if not exactly sculpted—the strongmen back then looked softer, without protein shakes or steroids. But it’s his face that mesmerizes me. His eyes, looking off into the distance, are large and mild. The slope of his nose, almost perfectly straight from between the eyebrows all the way to the tip, and the defined jawline, remind me of Greek statues. His face is handsome in a way but more than that, it is like a blank slate.
“I might be, twenty-five, twenty-six.”
“So this was around, 1950 or so?”
“Yeah, that sound right. I start doing shows just few years before.”
“Tell us how you started performing, and what you did before.”
“Well, I tell you all this million times!” Massimo says. “But I say it all over again for you only,” he winks at Stephanie.
“As I say, I born in a little village close to Bologna and my family move to France when I am baby. Even when I am little I always lifting heavy things, just for fun. When I am five I lift cow off the ground. When I am ten I pull out a tree, tie to rope around my waist. People call me Hercule.
“Then after war, I don’t want to stay in Europe anymore, so I come to Montreal. I work at shipyard, loading and unloading cargo. I do dozen men’s job all by myself. One day I just hang around during lunch break, and one of fellows bet I can’t lift girder. I say, ‘How about I lift girder, and anyone who want to bet against me.’ Ten guys jump up and say, ‘I bet against you!’ And they all stand next to girder, in line. Five to my left, five to my right. I go, ‘I am Massimo!’ and I lift girder clean off ground, and hold it against my chest. Like this, in my elbows. Then ten guys all reach up and hang from girder like monkeys. I still hold girder, no problem. After that, I am called Great Massimo.”
“Like this picture?” Stephanie holds up another black and white photo. In it, Massimo has grown his bushy beard, and thus looks more recognizable. He is lifting a huge tree from which twelve men are hanging in a row. They are all laughing—Massimo included.
“Yeah like that. I do shows like that for years. Docks, park, Old Town, wherever people go. I pull four buses with people inside 50 meters. I go on Guinness Book for pulling train 20 meters. Train weigh more than 400 tons. I am strongest man in world, say Guinness. Back then, when I am young, I feel I can pull or lift anything. Maybe even ships.”
“What about this picture?” Stephanie holds up another photo, which shows him lifting up a glamorous showgirl, who is balancing on tippy toes on his right palm.
“Ah, yes. I tour with Ringling Brothers. I meet my wife Selena. She is beautiful when she do her act, beautiful when she end it by flying off rope and land on net, and spin in air once more and stand on her feet. She is like butterfly. One day she jump too far and miss net, but I catch her and she is okay. We fall in love.”
“Then what happened?”
“We marry, we are so happy. We tour all over, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Detroit, Miami, New York. One day Selena is practicing and she jump too far and miss net, and I am not there. She die before I get there.
“After that, I don’t want to stay with circus. I come back to Montreal.”
We are all silent for a moment.
“How about this photo here,” Stephanie flips to another photo in an arena. He is clearly older, with hair that reaches to his shoulders. His arms are crossed over his massive, soft chest, and he is wearing an odd expression—half menacing growl, half idiotic grin.
“Must be promo photo for match. Canadian Heavyweight Championships. I am champion in 1970. I am famous all over. I go on TV, meet Johnny Carson. I do kids’ shows. I make Escape to Shangri-La, and meet Brigitte Bardot at award show. She is beautiful, here, see?” He pulls out the photo from inside his jacket pocket. He has shown me this one before, and I know that this is one of several photos he keeps on his person at all times. Of hundreds of photos I’ve seen, this is the only one of him in a suit. He is seated at a round table, and Brigitte, in a black dress, is standing next to him with her hand lightly on his shoulder. Massimo is grinning in that peculiar, uncontrolled way, and she looks exactly like she does in her movies, supple and ethereal at the same time.
“After that...I wrestle with Arturo the Giant and win. Japan pro-wrestling call me and ask me to fight Hiroshi Suzuki, their best wrestler. I go to Tokyo and I win, it make everyone in Japan so mad.” Massimo says with a smile. Then he turns petulant again. “I am hungry, I been talking on empty stomach. Can we go dinner?”
“Just one more thing, Massimo. It’s a video,” Stephanie says, turning on the clip on her laptop. It is Massimo’s match against Suzuki, filmed by a Japanese network. It starts with Massimo’s arrival, walking through the airport and waving at all the reporters and cameras. It cuts to the packed stadium, and close-ups of fans waving the Japanese flag. Suzuki makes his entrance to wild applause and cheer—he is the best and most famous Japanese wrestler, a legend to this day. He is 2 meters tall, as tall as Massimo but much leaner and more muscular. Then Massimo enters the arena, and the crowd responds with a deafening jeer. He waddles to the ring, naked on top and wearing just a baggy bottom; he is so fat that his pecs droop and fold over his belly. They make a striking contrast even before the match begins: Suzuki, handsome, powerful, athletic, and focused; and Massimo, wild-looking with his long hair and beard, flabby, uncouth.
The Japanese announcer shouts something rapidly, and they begin. Suzuki cautiously circles around his opponent, squatting lightly and positioning himself slightly to the side—he is a trained fighter with legitimate shoot skills. A “shoot” means anything that happens unplanned in pro-wrestling, which is an elaborately scripted act, an entertainment rather than a sport. And this match is one of the most famous shoots in the history of wrestling. I brace myself even though I’ve seen what happens many times.
Massimo swings wildly at Suzuki, landing punches haphazardly over the neck and back. Suzuki looks surprised—that wasn’t in the script. He darts around Massimo, who clumsily chases him around the ring. The crowd laughs at Massimo’s obvious lack of any skills, and this seems to make Suzuki angry. He wants the crowd to be excited by the ferocity of the match, rather than entertained by the poor form of his opponent. He runs toward Massimo, landing an elbow smash on his belly—but Massimo’s body simply jiggles in place, as he raises both his hands, shrugging it off. He’s no-selling Suzuki’s move, which means not reacting to an attack. Suzuki tries again to draw out the appropriate response with a dropkick that sends both his feet into Massimo’s chest. But Massimo just keeps standing, apparently unaffected by Suzuki’s attacks.
By this point, Suzuki realizes that there is no going back to the script, one in which they were supposed to land certain blows on one another, sell one another’s moves to the audience, and then finish with him coming out on top. Massimo swings clumsily again; and this time, Suzuki ducks as he slams his knee into Massimo’s belly with all his force. Massimo stumbles a little, and Suzuki starts pummeling at his head with both fists. Massimo tries to cover his head with his arms crossed in an X, like a child; the crowd breaks out into laughter. Massimo’s face is bleeding. He stumbles and comes down on his knees, as Suzuki moves onto kicking him ferociously over his head and shoulders. Massimo finally falls on his back, head covered in blood, and Suzuki still keeps kicking him, over and over...
“Stop, that’s enough,” I say. Stephanie shoots me a quick look, before pressing pause on the video.
Massimo is quiet and stone-still. And yet without any hesitation, Stephanie says:
“Massimo, you didn’t win against Suzuki. You also didn’t win the heavyweight championship in 1970. In that match, you remained standing through all of Ventura’s attacks—you let him beat you up, and then when he tired you knocked him down with an illegal punch. That wasn’t in the script, either. They called the match a draw by disqualification, and Canadian pro-wrestling promotion never allowed you back in the ring again.”
Massimo is still silent, looking intently into Stephanie’s eyes. Suddenly the hair on the back of my head rises up as I fear for Stephanie. We’ve all assumed his delusions are of the harmless variety, but just now, his eyes are turning black with rage. He is still a freakishly large man, even in his 80s. I flash back to the myth of Hercules, how he brought entire armies to destruction in fits of insanity. Mad men possess superhuman strength, and perhaps Massimo’s craziness is what had always endowed him with his power, even before he lost all semblance of normality and became a rambling, homeless lunatic. He was never harmless, and even now he can break someone’s neck with a single hand.
“Massimo, we’ve talked to the Ringling Brothers. There is no record of you touring with them. And there is no record of a performer named Selena, either…
“What we want to know is only the truth. Why did you go off-script in your matches? Who is Selena? Can you tell us who you really are?” Stephanie finishes and glances at the camera, which draws Massimo’s attention, as well. He notices for the first time the red light on the camera, and Guillaume looking at him through the viewfinder.
And everything happens at once: he gets up with surprising agility, and knocks Guillaume down to the floor with a backhanded swing. Guillaume curls into a ball and covers his face with his hands; Stephanie screams, and maybe I do too. But instead of attacking any of us, Massimo picks up the camera and throws it against the wall where it explodes into a hundred pieces.
“Fuck you all,” he says before stomping out of the room.
After Guillaume goes home, Stephanie asks if I’d like her to come over. For a moment I get a strange feeling that she might mean something other than our usual professional tête-à-têtes, but I say No before thinking too much about it. Yes, I’m sure. Yes, I’m okay. Are you okay? We’ll talk about this tomorrow.
I go back to my car and rest my head on the steering wheel. I try not to think about how everything about this is so fucked up. First of all, the project is over, just like the camera he smashed. My money’s gone, what reputation I had as a rising filmmaker is gone. This documentary was supposed to turn things around for me, and now I realize I’ve been chasing a dead end. I shouldn’t have cornered a madman, someone who is not only delusional but also has nothing to lose—the most dangerous kind of man there is. And anyone with sense would have known that he wouldn’t suddenly start speaking the truth after years of living inside his lies and fantasies. He needs those fabrications like a crumbling building needs scaffolding—it’s what’s keeping him stable. What I’d done is nothing more than knocking that scaffolding down, and for what? The word that appears in my mind again and again is shame. Guilt is the leaden weight over your heart after you do something knowing that it is wrong. Shame, on the other hand, is the burnt red embarrassment at not having known better, like when you suddenly remember something stupid and cruel you said as a teen to your parents. Or not inviting to your party that kid in class who had to wear a hearing aid. You only later see so clearly that there are things one shouldn’t do, even if they are not technically sins. At the time you didn’t know, you were just a kid.
But I am not a kid anymore, and yet I continue to do shameful things.
I park the car in front of the café near my apartment. It is one of those places that becomes a bar at night; the overhead lighting has been lowered and candles have been lit, and people are drinking beer, talking and laughing with their friends. I take a seat at the bar, where the barista from the other day is making drinks. I order a beer from her, noticing that twinkle in the eyes that says she is interested. At that moment, I realize exactly what I need to recover from the nightmarish day. Alcohol only numbs your pain, but women—the right kind, anyway—can cure you.
Watching the barista busy herself with drinks, I’m reminded of how much I love women, the way their eyes become brighter when they see you and how warm and soft they are when you embrace them. And then just as suddenly I remember my ex—she was the brightest, warmest, softest—and I lose my steam in a drawn-out exhale. I sigh a few more times—gutturally, miserably—while raking my hair away from my forehead. The barista looks at me and smiles.
“I don’t know what it is. I’m sitting here and I just feel so tired all of a sudden,” I say to her. She lays her elbows down on the bar and bends forward, so that I can see down her top. She leans in until her lips are almost brushing my right ear. And then she says:
“I feel tired right here, too.”
“Then maybe this is just a tired spot,” I say. She laughs.
Her name is Anouk and she is a student at McGill. She is one of those girls with a face that isn’t typically pretty, but is interesting due to its proportions and angularity—dark eyebrows, flashing eyes, and a prominent nose with a slight bump in the middle. She also looks terrific in jeans. I ask her what time she gets off, and she says her shift will be over in less than an hour.
At seven, the evening bartender comes to take over and Anouk and I walk out of the bar together with our arms around each other’s waist. I can see the faces of the men wondering how the hell I managed to walk in by myself and walk out with a girl who looks terrific in jeans. I’ve always been able to do that—not just with women, but people in general. Even Massimo who, being a crazy homeless man, is almost by definition extremely suspicious, let me into his world so readily. It has come in handy all my life, and when I was younger I was quite cocky about this ability to charm, but now I wonder if I deserve any of that easy trust.
Anouk is hungry and I am too. She takes me to a hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant with actual Japanese owners who speak as little French as is possible to while living in Montreal. I order sushi and am presented with a plate that looks barely decorated with a few wispy pieces; she gets ramen, which looks more inviting and filling. She glances at my plate and asks the server for an extra bowl, and gives me a good portion of her ramen without even saying anything. And that makes me feel really good for the first time in a long time. I stop eating, lean back in my chair and just stare at her, which makes her go, “Well, don’t be so moved. You’re paying, right?” She winks.
We drink sake and Sapporo from the same cups until I forget everything bad that has happened. I feel like my old self again. We walk back to my apartment, and I ask her to wait outside my front door so I can do a quick sweep and pick up the dirty clothes from the floor. I leave the lights off, letting the room fill with the blue ink of a clear summer evening. I turn on some music and ask her if she’d like anything to drink. She looks around the apartment while I fix her a gin and tonic.
“Who is that in that picture?” She asks, standing in front of my living room wall. It’s the signed black and white photo of Massimo, age 25 / 26.
“Oh, it’s a long story,” I say. “Not sure you want to hear.”
She looks at me like saying, Why don’t you try me.
“It’s this man who used to be the strongest man in the world. I was making a documentary about him.”
“Is he still alive?”
“Yes, you might have even seen him in Montreal. He’s been living on the streets here for decades.”
“No, I don’t think I know him. But I also only moved here for school. So what happened to the documentary?”
I shrug. She lets it go, distracted by a photo of Julien, age four.
“Is this your son?”
“What’s his name?”
“He looks a lot like you. So he lives with his mom?”
“Yeah, they live in Paris.”
“So what happened?” She asks and I think to myself, how much can a twenty-year-old understand about marriage?
“Love, marriage, child, divorce. In that order,” I say.
“Don’t give me that. Being honest is more interesting than pretending to be interesting,” she says.
I look her straight in the eyes. And I begin the kind of monologue I wanted from Massimo. Truth, only truth.
“We met when we were both in art school. She was a painter and I was a film major. We were so in love back then. It made perfect sense to get married. We were only twenty-four.
“And then I made a short film that got quite a bit of attention. It made its rounds at festivals and won some awards here and there. I felt very cocky about it. My ex, on the other hand, wasn’t selling a lot of paintings. Really, I still believe in her work. But she did a few shows over several years that didn’t get a lot of coverage, and it was like she was always missing success by just two inches. Do you know what I mean by that?
“So we were drifting apart in a way, although any other couple in a similar situation might have become closer. I don’t know if it was just our lack of togetherness that is to blame, rather than the circumstances. At any rate, money was always tight, because of what we do. And then we became pregnant with Julien. He—and I don’t mean this in any bad way, he is the love of my life—he wasn’t planned. At first we were both angry at one another, and also trying not to appear angry.
“Then around the time Julien was born, my ex received an inheritance from her grandmother. It wasn’t an astronomical sum, but a lot of money to us. I had been trying to do a feature film, even in the very smallest scale—something very fluid and beautiful and Nouvelle Vague. I thought maybe she could invest in the film. But she refused. She said she couldn’t gamble her money on something like that, especially now that we had Julien. She meant, something that may or may not succeed. I never recovered from her lack of faith in me. I thought she was being vengeful because I was more successful at filmmaking than she was at painting. I thought she wanted me to fail.
“She decided to use that money to open a bakery, instead. She gave up painting and threw herself into that business, which started picking up after a year or so. And in the meantime, I couldn’t get enough money to execute the project that I’d envisioned. I felt stuck, and some part of me blamed her for it.
“And then—and this part is really just a footnote—I cheated on her. At the time I only felt the rush of being adored again. And the freedom of feeling affection without any prior resentment. It still feels to me like I couldn’t have changed how things unfolded, though I’m not sure where exactly things started going out of my control. And then after all was said and done, I didn’t want to stay there and face the broken pieces. I fled—like a coward.” I smile.
She puts her hand gently over my shoulder.
“You know what I think is really courageous? When someone is completely honest with himself. It’s not easy admitting the truth to yourself, perhaps even more so than to others.
“You’re not a coward.” She loops her arms around my neck and leans in close to me, and we kiss for the first time. The taste of her awakens something in me that I thought I’d lost, and I pull her closer to me. I bury my face in the nook of her neck, breathing in the smell of her hair, and run both my hands over her supple back. We rock together in that space where you speak most clearly with your body. Like a man finding an oasis in the desert, I drink her in.
We sleep naked. Our legs stack together so comfortably like our bodies were always meant to find and fit into one another. I don’t mind her long dark hair on my pillow, and I don’t wake up in the middle of the night.
My eyes open early in the morning. Anouk is still sleeping. I get dressed quietly so as to not disturb her. I go to the living room and sit on the sofa; I’d left the window open overnight, and the apartment feels breezy and sunny. I think about what I should do next. Go get breakfast with Anouk. Come home, take a shower, relax. Talk to Stephanie on the phone. I’m going to give up on the project. The past year of my life has been completely wasted, not to mention a substantial amount of money, energy, and most importantly, pride. But in the clean light of the morning, this fact is not as terrifying as I’d have guessed. I intuit that by giving this up, another, better thing may begin. I might fall in love with Anouk. I could find work as a cinematographer for various projects and take on side gigs while I get back on my feet.
Anouk calls my name and I go back to the bedroom.
“How are you feeling?” I ask, sliding back into the bed.
“Good, you?” She says in her slightly scratchy voice. It’s like wet sand on the soles of your feet when you put your shoes back on, at the end of a beach day.
“Good. Are you hungry at all? We can get breakfast, around the corner.”
“I wish I could, but I have class at nine.”
“We could get it to go. And I’ll drive you back to campus.”
She pulls on her underwear and goes to the bathroom, then comes back and gets dressed. We head to the deli around the corner and each get a breakfast sandwich to go. When we reach my car, still parked by the café, I open the door for her. She beams at me.
We start driving up north on boulevard Saint-Laurent and I feel good about the car smelling like eggs and cheese, and Anouk sitting with those sandwiches in a white paper bag on her lap, and the houses and restaurants on either side of the street and above their pointed tops, a cloudless blue sky. For once, I appreciate that things can be just good without pain.
Then I press on the brake. There are several cars not moving in the middle of the road when the light is clearly green. I wait behind them while the light changes to yellow, then to red, then back to green. The line of honking cars grows longer behind our car.
“What’s going on?” Anouk asks with just a hint of impatience. “Hold on, let me check it out.” She gets out of the car and walks toward the source of the traffic.
“It’s some crazy homeless guy in the middle of the street. He is blocking a bus,” she says as she gets back in the car.
“What kind of crazy guy?” I ask.
“I don’t know, a really big, fat, scary-looking man. Anyway, I think the bus driver called the cops. See, we’re moving now.”
The cars in front of us start going around the bus; and as I get closer, I see him.
“What are you doing? Why are you pulling over?” Anouk says in a panicked tone even as I stop the car next to the parking lane. Between the bus in the middle lane, and my car just outside the curbside parking, there is little room for the other cars to squeeze through, which causes all of them to start honking at once. I ignore them as I get out of the car and run toward the bus.
Massimo is standing in front of the bus, shouting something at the bus driver. We make eye contact but don’t speak. I am terrified of what he will try to do this time after yesterday’s violent outburst, and yet I can’t turn away. I took an interest in him and so he is still, in a way, my responsibility. I knock on the bus driver’s window, miming at him to roll it down.
“Who are you? Do you know this guy?” He asks.
“Yes, I know him. What’s going on?”
“He jumped in front of me as I was driving. Keeps saying he will pull the bus. I get that he is some insane bum but I don’t even understand what he’s saying.”
“He isn’t insane. I mean, yes, he is crazy. But he means he will pull the bus to show how strong he is.” I try to explain, but the bus driver only looks at me blankly.
“Why would he do that?”
“Because he’s a strongman. That’s what he’s always done. He used to be famous, don’t you know the Great Massimo? From Escape from Shangri-La?” I say a little too abruptly in my impatience. “Come on, just let him pull the bus for a little bit.”
“Look, I don’t know the great whatever. It’s against the transit’s rules to allow any kind of disruption to schedule, except passenger illnesses and accidents. Also, I’m trying to get these people to work.” He glances backwards, where the passengers are murmuring angrily. Someone shouts, “What the hell is that guy’s problem?”
“Ah thank God. Here’s a policeman,” the driver says, pointing behind me. The cop walks up next to me and asks the bus driver about the situation, zero expression on his thin, perfunctory lips. Ah ouais ouais, he declaims coldly. Like most cops he’s heavyset without any jolliness.
“I’m sorry, officer, but do you know the Great Massimo?” I interject hopefully. “He was a pro-wrestler and a strongman for decades.”
The officer turns to scrutinize Massimo. Then his eyebrows go up to his hairline.
“That’s him? My God, I used to watch him on TV as a kid, when he was a wrestler. I once saw an old black and white video of him pulling a train. That was unbelievable,” he says, the governmental coldness on his face replaced by a childish twinkle.
“Yes, that’s Massimo. So you see, he just wants to show his strength… It’s what he does, it’s the only thing that will make him go away. Don’t you think letting him have that is just easier and quicker for all involved than arresting him and putting him in jail? He’s crazy and old but he’s not—” I struggle to find the words—see, again I struggle— “he’s not bad, you see.”
The officer shrugs in a way that could mean either yes or no—but he says, “I wouldn’t mind seeing him pull this bus.” The bus driver throws his hands in the air, rapidly complaining to the cop, but the cop tells him to just chill out.
I turn to face Massimo, who is sitting on the ground in front of the bus. He gets up and hooks a cable to the front of the bus. We don’t speak to each other, even as the cop stands by and cars inch past us slowly. Besides myself and the cop, there are only a few curious passersby who have stopped to see what’s going on. I try to look extra interested in his every movement to make up for the smallness of the crowd, but instinctively I glance over to my car; it’s empty, and Anouk is gone. A sharp bitterness comes over my mouth and I feel suddenly tired and weak again. But no, I decide to ignore that fatigue, and instead sigh deeply to get rid of that ache in my chest. I breathe her out, for now.
Massimo gets in his position, and our eyes meet for just a split second. I wonder what he is trying to say with that look, whether it contains his hatred or friendship for me, or something else entirely. Then I know. Just watch, he is saying. I am strongest man in world.
He grips the cable firmly and walks up several feet so that it is loosely hanging between his hands and the bus. He stands with his feet together, and takes a huge breath. A sharp grunt escapes from his throat as he hinges forward all the way, his whole body leaning nearly parallel to the ground until the cable stretches completely tight. His worn-down shoes slide back an inch as he digs the balls of his feet into the ground. The taut cable shakes tremulously but the bus, packed with angry and annoyed passengers, doesn’t move.
His giant, old body covered in tattered clothes is straining with the effort. He is breathing hard; he is too old. Then I realize how wrong I’d been to try to help—he should never have been allowed to do this.
If he dies from this, I will feel shame for the rest of my life.
But just then, he steps forward with his right foot, as if saying, that was just getting into position. The actual pulling hasn’t even begun.
“I am Great MASSIMO!” He bellows, so loudly that his name fills the sky.
And then with all his might, he pulls.
Juhea Kim is a writer, artist, advocate, and editor of Peaceful Dumpling, a sustainable online magazine. Her bestselling debut novel Beasts of a Little Land (Ecco) was named a Best Book of 2021 by Harper's Bazaar, Real Simple, Ms., and Portland Monthly. It will be published around the world in 2022.
She earned her BA in Art and Archaeology from Princeton University. Find out more at juheakim.com and Instagram @juhea_writes.