Stories by Michael Chin
One of Them
My first time with a ring rat, she said I was one of them.
You know how long I’ve been bringing wrestlers back here? She asked.
There were clues. Her bedroom something like a pro wrestling museum, wallpapered with advertisements. A newer, full-color glossy flyer selling El Generico vs. Kevin Steen. Old school posters that listed the card in red ink, red and white photos of the main eventers on top. Ted Dibiase and Randy Savage on one. Harley Race and Tito Santana on another. I think it’s Bob Backlund on another, but it’s too faded and my eyesight was too bad to really make it out from her mattress on the floor, to that upper, cobwebbed corner.
A long time, I guessed.
You ever hear of Paul Steer? She had varicose veins on her forearms, on her shins, neither of which I could see under a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, but it was all on display now. The both of us naked, her leg snaked around mine, cheek to my chest until she propped herself up to look at me. The boys used to call him Steer the Queer, no malice behind it, just was what he was. Bisexual actually. We hung out a few times, and he’d have me help him out, shoot the juice up his ass. Said he was too scared of needles to do it for himself. You believe that? Great big guy, gets smashed with steel chairs and ring bells, but he’s scared of a little needle?
I’d never stayed this naked this long with someone, just talking, not even kissing. This exposed and this free to explore.
It wasn’t so different being in the ring, I told myself, out there in my underwear for all the world to see.
It was real different, though. No underwear, no kneepads, no boots. It was my feet I was most self-conscious about. I had a great big blister on my right foot, second littlest toe. I lost my right boot (I have to assume one of the boys stole it—a rib until he didn’t give it back) and another one of the boys gave me one of his extras and it was too small and clearly faded next to my left boot’s newer, glossy black exterior, but what else was I gonna do, and it wasn’t like I could afford another pair of boots, so I went on using that little right boot until I’d hurt myself.
You’re one of them, she said again. New school. Not like one of the old tough guys.
I’ve been trying to be like the old guys. Tough. Hard. Following all the rituals like shaking everyone’s hand in the locker room when I come in and offering to carry the veterans’ bags for them. There’s something about this ring rat seeing through all that that hurts my feelings, but I guess that proves what she said was true.
But that’s not all she said. She looked me straight in the eyes. You’re already dead inside. Nothing in there. You shouldn’t look like that so young.
I accepted this all as true. When she closed her eyes and kissed me, I was grateful I could close my eyes, too, and keep all that emptiness hidden. She grappled with me. Wanted me to get her in a Camel Clutch. Wanted me to get her from behind. Wanted me to pin her down. She bit my trapezius until it hurt, until she drew blood.
Afterward, in her bathroom, where only one of the three bulbs above the sink worked, where the bathmat sparkled, made of some sort of jelly and glitter, was so soft beneath my feet, I looked at myself in the mirror. In the eyes. I tried to see if I could spot anything. To see what she saw, when said, I was one of them.
Ring rats today, The Midwest Warrior Darrell Fowlkes says from the passenger side, they ain’t like they used to be. They’re smart.
They’re smart? I’ve got driver duty. Three hundred miles of white-knuckled steering across Kentucky back country to make the next town overnight. Overnight so we can take a snooze in the park in daylight without the cops giving us a hard time, and so we don’t have to pay for a hotel room. Then to the arena. We wrestle. We go to the bar. We find the ring rats—the girls, ranging from teenaged to middle-aged that I’ve been assured follow the wrestlers with no greater ambition than to run their hands down our pecs and abdomens en route to tonguing our units.
Not that smart. Smart. Jesus. Darrell knocks on his bruised temple. His eyes are closed, body slumped. Always resting on long drives, though he still tries to help me stay awake. Smart to the business. They know the fix is in.
I crack open the window. Girls didn’t know that before? A breath of the cold, dark outside rushes in.
Well they knew we wasn’t fight for real, but now they’re wise to the business. They speak the language—babyface, heel, heat, squash, schmozz.
We’re from different generations, me and Darrell. He’s old school. But that’s because someone told them, right? The boys?
Of course they did. Louder now, but eyes still closed, body still docile. You did. You young guys and your Internet and your podcasts. Your blocks.
He means blogs. These words might as well be Greek, spoken more slowly, like he’s trying them on. Darrell doesn’t even have a cell phone. The boys tell me he only just started asking to borrow one to call his wife and kids—that for the longest time, he insisted on tracking down payphones.
But when you get them to pipe down and get to business, Darrell says, ring rats today are the same as they’ve always been. Just want a piece of the action. And ain’t like we haven’t earned their services, living the way we do. He laughs and coughs and rolls down his window to hock a loogie. Comfort women, one of the Japanese guys used to call them. Mr. Fujawara. Hell, there’s a girl, Darlene, I oughta see in Kalamazoo next week. Been seeing her twenty years—she might remember him. And she never looks like she’s aged a day.
Like a ghost, I say.
He’s got his right hand down his pants jostling slow and steady in the dashboard light.
I didn’t much want to go out after the matches on Halloween—had an old-timer’s mentality, I guess, wanting to avoid crowds and scenes, but a bunch of the young guys were all hyped up about it, and though fell between young and old, I wanted to be young still, so I took them up on it.
It had been years since I did anything in honor of Halloween, besides watching whatever slasher flic or ghost move came on cable at the hotel. I had it in my head Halloween was a children’s holiday, but all around me were these people who were not children. Buxom young nurses, a man dressed in full astronaut regalia up top, nothing but his boxer shorts and a pair of flip flops below. A bartender in a sleeveless jean jacket over a Whitesnake t-shirt who had sunglasses propped over his hairline, his hair covered in a navy bandana.
A pregnant cheerleader with graying hair and dark rings under her eyes sat at the bar with a double shot of whiskey in each hand and eyed us up. It was hard to tell which parts of the costume were pure imagination versus pieces of her past. Which parts were real. She finished one tumbler, slammed it down on the bar, put a hand on my chest, and asked What are you boys supposed to be?
I caught a glimpse of us I the mirror behind bar that made it look like there were twice as many liquor bottles lined up in rows. From that angle I could get a good look at our little group. At New York Nick Nettles with his tattooed bulging biceps and too much gel in his hair. At Death Head with his tangled rock-star long hair. At four-hundred-pound Big Don, who’d borrowed Cowboy Sam’s hat for the night out (without asking). At Bucky Bean the midget, standing up on top of a barstool so for once he was at eye level with the rest of us. At myself, a bandage on my forehead, a black eye.
No point beating around the bush. I told her we were wrestlers.
Good costume. She cackled sucked up whiskey through her cocktail straw. She adjusted her baby so she could scratch her stomach, and left the bulge just a little to the side. It suits you.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State's MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine's Knudsen Prize for fiction and has published or has work forthcoming in journals including Passages North, The Normal School, Iron Horse, and Bellevue Literary Review. Find him at MikeTChin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.