They are not dishonest, mirrors. Including the distorted metal ones I’m staring into. My face appears bloated as it floats above the chipped porcelain sink, the one with the all too familiar squeaky faucet handle. It’s 2:43 A.M. I’m as high as a kite in this poor excuse for a gas-station restroom. I’ve been scratched and clawed, screwed tight against the crusty white wall of peeling paint. I’m nothing, coated in dried saliva and gang graffiti. Hard years have chewed on me and spit me out. I’m partially retired, here in Cincinnati, not by choice. My last paid gig fell through, and so I stayed.
Nothing is turning out as planned, so many years ago, not remotely so. These days, I’m poor company, especially when I am alone.
After I barf the sink and take a leak, I’ll smack open the ice-stuck door and trek back to the bad side of town apartment. The cigarettes I purchase each day are the only entertainment I can afford, each one a nail in a self-destructive coffin. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
It all started as a mustard seed, the idea. To communal kids, everything in our universe starts this way. Everything that exists, exists in our heads. Every idea begins as a theory.
One hell of a long time ago, I have my third last drink at a neighborhood sleaze bar. A heavyset contractor friend says, “Jesus, you’re built like a brick-shithouse. I looked that way once.” He chuckles to himself. “You know I was in a gang before, right?. I had to stay fit back then, all the thieving and running away. But, I knew exactly when to bail out of the lifestyle. Building houses is better than shooting them up in a drive-by.”
Before the last call, Elijah orders more drinks. Dinner is Bay-View pickled eggs and Hormel pig’s feet. We use the barkeep’s long spoon to scoop out the floating food, deep in the large jars on the mahogany countertop. We speak in-depth about our work, construction, and how the lifestyle jibes with the gritty, ruff, and tumble world of pro wrestling.
Elijah barks, “Its performance art, no different than the dancing ballerina’s over at the Joffrey Ballet. It’s inexpensive to see, rough-neck entertainment that the blue-collar folks can afford. It combines athleticism and the theatrical competence of Shakespearean performance art. It’s a unique brand of sports glamour. A special racket that allows you to sell yourself as a fleshy product sell yourself as a brand.”
I ask, “So It’s like becoming a Tuesday afternoon soap opera star, but with cabbage rosettes for ears and a nose pounded flat into the shape of a small eggplant?” I suck down a pig knuckle, wipe my hand on my dirty work jeans, and await his answer.
“Funny, McKenzie, with your good looks, that’s not going to happen. You could get run over by a freight train and still get laid. It’s all about how you attract the women with your excessive pheromones. So the answer to that is hell and no, son. You’d surely keep your rugged, good looks and sex appeal,” says the man who’s not quite old enough to be my run-away father. And the real kicker is that he’s a few shades the other side of caramel. Elijah is the natural, handy-dandy lady’s man. We both know it.
“Think of it this way Mack. You wouldn’t need any studios, only gyms, and those humongous arena events. Maybe if you’re good enough, you could play to outdoor stadiums.” Elijah sours his face a little and fumes, explaining he never had half a chance. “Mack, it’s like a fraternity, the pro-wrestling circuit. You become part of a roving theatrical group, not unlike the Old English traveling troupes.”
Only true friends call me Mack. The few friends I have know I was named after a wild river, the McKenzie. The McKenzie River is near Cottage Grove, Oregon. It’s not often you get to bathe and fish in the same bathwater. Growing up in a commune, absent an ego, and feeling a sense of detachment have made real connections difficult. Commitments are a challenge. I am a work in progress, though, I tell myself.
“Get the hell out of here,” I say to Elijah. “You make it sound as if I’d be like a rock star in a rock band?” I attempt to sell him an authentic smile. Just as quickly, I look down at my warped grin in the shot glass. Down there, I almost look happy. In truth, my whiskey reflection is an inside joke, one I never share. Come to think of it; I don’t know anyone who shares sad caricatures.
“Each venue takes on the aura of a monumental event,” He says, “Remember the famous Royal Rumble Matches of the 80s’ and the infamous King of the Ring Match in 1995 that featured the killer Tag Team Match. Bam Bam Bigelow/Diesel and Sid/Tatanka, hot-damned, remember them? Damned, how could anyone forget those bouts?
“Elijah, sure I remember, dude. I saw all the CD’s from back then. It doesn’t seem that long ago.”
“Quit Match–Mankind vs. The Rock, in Anaheim. I was on the undercard.
“I know, Elijah. You always tell me the same thing after you’ve had too much to drink.”
“That’s the night I broke my back, “he says. I finish his sentence, “It ended my career.” I say.
“Exactly,” He says from somewhere deep in his gloom cupboard.
“But that was freaking awesome,” I reply. “Not the part about breaking your back, Elijah.” Elijah’s bright face rises and mimics my building excitement. He knows he’s sparked the fires of interest in me.
He continues, “WWF has touring companies. Maybe you could become part of one. Everyone travels for all the heady wrestling matches. Man, some of the events have marquee titles matches nearly as rich as the classic Roman Coliseum sporting days.” He cracks ice with his teeth, and stabs at the egg, and continues, “These days, those old school events couldn’t get insurance. It’s because of all the God-damned downside: mangled limbs and broken bones from all the lions, tigers and bears, even the painful deaths.”
Elijah’s grin is engaging, second only to Chris Rock’s. But Elijah is honest enough to keep the gap between his pearly white teeth. I slap the sticky bar in excitement and ask, “Where do I sign up?” The barkeep mistakenly delivers two more bottles of beer. I end up drinking them both.
After a lot of training and medicinal alcohol, I connect with my thespian roots. I become a well-trained foil, a match loser, and a damned good one. I do failure well. I’m hated by most of the wrestling community. That is what pays well. I am not a leading man like Elijah promoted, but I make about the same amount of money. I’ve become an honest to God anti-hero, here and at home with my family. Sore losers in wrestling are gifted with drama. I have plenty of that.
Deep in the middle of my pro wrestling career, I count seventeen years now. I’ve experienced limited success. Yet, I find myself addicted, yes, addicted, not to all the alcohol and drugs, but all the carnival canvas highs. I’m hooked on road rash and the smell of sweaty theatrical blood, broken and splintered bones, cheap tattoos, and the women that love them. Guilt and anxiety have become my most formidable opponent. My family life is in the shitter. Only I’m the last to get the memo. It’s because I’m good at burring things under all this surreal consciousness. Zen is a wonderful thing.
I admit I’ve been in better shape. But playing a villain doesn’t require a tip-top physique. Still, I continue to be paid very well and send most of my earnings back home to Elisa and the girls. I convince myself the money is enough to meet Elisa’s wants and needs and that the contributions are a solid substitute for being an absent husband and father. It’s that simple, how I lie to myself. It’s counter-intuitive bull-crap as if you don’t already know that?
My limited fame is excuse enough to convince me to cheat on the love of my life. It’s not like I have groupies. It’s more about how many drinks I buy them. If I get them drunk enough in my distorted way of thinking, they’ll use poor judgment and take me home.
What haunts me: Calling my teenage daughter a week after her sixteenth birthday and asking what her plans are? When I send her a twenty-five dollar check in a greasy belated birthday card, forget to send sixteen roses. An Amazon delivered anniversary gift to Elisa, our fifteenth. As it turns out, it was our sixteenth. Luckily, the box was insured. Elisa ran over it. I missed the holidays, working and getting stuck in a foot of snow at the Lake Tahoe airport, and spending New Year Eve holding down a bar with my elbows and endless rounds of empty Coors longnecks.
When I finally arrive at the house, Elisa and the kids have gone. Shazam, it’s a cheap circus trick. There isn’t a note, or a forwarding address, plenty of ghosts. The house is empty, except for the master bed. That night, sleep is a restless lion I wish to devour me. When I drift off, maybe for minutes at a time, I can’t rid myself of the residue of nightmares. Each time I wake, I obsess Hamlet: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Somehow I survived, and that was years ago.
After the girls left, I beat the hell out of myself at the gym. Mellissa refused child support. I’m sure it was to cut all the strings and obligations of keeping in touch, a means to avoid any continued drama. She’s had enough. Her final words were that she and the kids never wanted to see me again.
I brooded, quit a litter of jobs, got, and ran out of unemployment. I did me some construction labor. Using a neck as thick as an elephant’s trunk, I hung some ceiling gypsum board and framed a few of Elijah’s houses. The day he fired me, he said he did it to keep our friendship. He wasn’t going to pay good wages to a down and out has been, one that didn’t believe in himself. He said I’d look back someday and see it as a favor.
I should be thrilled. After all, I am still recognized as one of the industries’ most rewarded losers in all of professional wrestling. My MMF handle is Cork Screw. Don’t ask! One of my fired managers gave it to me. My fans call me Screw-Ball, even though I was born McKenzie Gibson. Mack is not nearly as romantic as the legend I have in my mind. After all, I’m Screw-Ball, the infamous circus master.
I’ve been paid well to piss off the fans, in person or on television. Somehow, I’ve managed to piss most of my savings away too. I’ve broken twenty-seven bones, mostly mine. My favorite move has been a forearm chokehold during sex. I enjoy the pinholes of light as they morph into stars before I almost blackout. It’s punishment and pleasure. There have been times I haven’t wanted to come back. I get so blue, I wake up in different beds, in different towns. It’s a method I use to confuse myself about who I am. Who wants to think about losing everything they had or loved?
If you haven’t figured it out, I was bullied as a child. Since then, it’s been a matter of payback. I’ve been accused of being extra rough on my opponents, all the ear smashing and mashing of noses into vegetable rosettes. Even though it’s the wrestling entertainment industry, there is such a thing as making the unreal real. I’ve convinced myself that the misplaced anger is a byproduct of the crazy sport. Yet, I offer no excuses. It’s not like we’re in the movies where the director yells, “Cut.” None of the big boys complain. Most of us have a lot of past to beat the hell up.
Jack, the barkeep, always asks, “How ya doin”; That’s his job.
I have my answer down to a science, “I had a wife once, two teenage daughters. They’re grown now. I have two granddaughters. I forget their age. They all outgrew and divorced me, Jack. I’ve heard my oldest daughter Mellissa lives over in Boston. We quit looking for each other a long time ago. It’s something you do when you are not wanted.”
Jack fills the shot glass with more Jack Daniels. “That sounds terrible, dude.”
“It is. My chest is as heavy as an empty vault. The Word is, Jack, my girls have grown up into beautiful souls and very grounded, unlike me. My Ex has happily remarried. I am glad, she deserves a good man.”
“So no hard feelings, Mack, that’s good.”
“I’ve moved on too, just not ahead. My motto is life is chock full of decisions, but very few involve choices. I can’t blame my family for not wanting to stay in touch with me. I’m the embarrassment that we all agree on.”
“Drink up, Mack, don’t be so hard on yourself. This one is on me.”
These days, I tip real good at Junker’s Tavern down on Chase. It’s so they don’t forget to overfill my shot glass. I’ve moved up to higher spirits, mostly hard liquor. I have a special nostalgia for ghosts. Lemmy with Motorhead drank nothing but Jack Daniels. And we all know how Janis Joplin loved her some of that Southern Comfort. In large part, I invite the phantoms through heavy drinking to mix things up, in an effort to interrupt any contemplation. It’s cheaper than paying a psychiatrist.
For the last few months, I’ve been on a call list, in the event a backup foil calls in sick. None of the gigs involve major headliner events. I also make myself available in case a promoter needs a training partner to prepare one of their headliners for a match. It’s been a few years since I’ve wrestled in front of a paying crowd though. The ring doctor believes they’re plenty of reasons I should quit, “All the concussions, and the fire alarm tinnitus that never stops ringing. Did I mention the refractory depression? ”
Quit the business, I scoff at the Doc? “I can’t quit until everyone gets their pound of flesh.”
And so this early morning, I find myself freezing, in this dead of winter crappy gas-station bathroom in Cincinnati, Ohio. The gritty mirror mocks how I’m balding. What’s left of my hair is bleached yellow, just like one of those God-damned Barbie Dolls. Though we share the same color and ponytail, I doubt that she shaves her chest? My six-pack and peck’s never let me relax, twitching muscles and ingrown hairs. This causes me to itch and scratch this side of insanity. I’m sure it’s from all the steroids and my shitty diet. I rationalize; bad habits keep me in character.
I take the long way back to the apartment, away from the dumpster fire restroom. When I arrive, I Unlock the front door and switch on the sixty watt light hanging over the kitchen table. After firing up another cigarette, I scoot the chair close enough to finish reading the mail, mostly late utility bills. I finger through some of the usual advertisements, cruise ship vacations, and air-conditioning repairs, yah right. Lastly, I pick up the worthless yellow envelope. It’s the large one my agent sends each month. It’s much too large to hold the ever-dwindling letters of fan mail. I thumb open the one letter.
I exhale smoke over the mess and stare through the vapor at the letter’s return address. It’s from a Mellissa Conrad, Mellissa Conrad, a fan, Mellissa Conrad, my daughter, hell no, Mellissa? My heart begins to beat and scratch as if it’s a poisonous toad is trying to find its way out of my acidic belly and up through my dry throat. I gasp and swallow hard.
Instinctively, I stand straight up and ready myself for fight or flight. In doing so, I clip the incandescent light fixture that hangs over the graveyard of paper cuts. It begins to swing back and forth, not unlike a metronome.
Somehow I’ve transformed the kitchen into a three-ring circus. As I spin around, the swinging light washes left then right over my back. The leftover strobes of light are enough to guide me in the direction of my refrigerator. Inside the fridge is a tiny freezer, a freezer insisting on rasping and wheezing its mechanical asthma. Nested in ice cubes is the chilled business end of what’s left of a pint of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. The whiskey, like any good cirrus barker, is pitching me to come closer.
On the kitchen floor, I align myself on a tongue and groove crack that separates two planks of laminated oak. The straight line leads directly to the fridge. I begin to walk the line as if it’s a train track—something I often do to prove to myself that I’m not drunk. I walk as fast as I can and pause. To my left and right, the kitchen walls alternate shades of whitewash in the near darkness. I begin walking again, but more deliberately.
I imagine I’m on the high wire without a balancing stick, at my delusional circus. Step by step, the noise of the crowd gathers in volume. I pause once more. I look left, far below. In the stands next to the main ring sit all the people I’ve hurt. They are yelling up at me, “We want our pound of flesh. And we want it now.” I falter, barely keeping my footing, then commence my journey, one foot in front of the other. It all seems so unreal. As I still once more, off to my right, down below, a man is shouting. “Flesh, I want my pound of flesh, nothing less asshole.” I am that man.
I’m paying dues. All my black crows have come home to roost. I’m having an emotional breakdown, a day of reckoning. I’ve demanded myself to face all the misery that has come before me or choose to fall into an abyss, off this imaginary wire. I can feel everything from my past, including all the free-floating anxiety from my dysfunctional childhood. A childhood in which normalcy was another word for being misunderstood.
I attempt another step forward and nearly fall to the ground. Lions are roaring. Clowns want blood. Fans are demanding refunds. As I stop for the final time, I shudder, inside and outside. I’ve become my very own freak show, prepared to fall into a million pieces.
From somewhere deep inside comes an unrecognizable sound. It’s both guttural and primal. I hear myself yelling at the top of my lungs, “Screw-ball deserves a second chance, the hell with all of you. You aren’t getting your pound of flesh.”
In an instant, an instant that seems like forever in my echo chamber, the old witch below is screaming, “Shut the hell up, you crazy son of a bitch.” She pounds the end of her broom on the ceiling. I feel some sort of release, so I can’t help but break into a real smile. This whole thing is so unbelievably insane. With ease, I startle myself and spin back around on the wire. I walk briskly back to the kitchen table. The ticking lamp has settled at the table, now focusing all of its light directly over the triggering envelope.
I sit back in the chair again, take a deep breath, and scoot toward the letter.
The return address lists Mellissa Conrad. The address is a street in Boston. How could I ever forget the green, rolling hills in her letter, ‘M’ or the lower case ‘a’ at the end, as it swoops its infinite, elegant tail? That’s my Mellissa, alright.
After a long hesitation, I find the courage to thumb open the envelope. It’s certainly not fan mail.
She and the two girls are headed west in the spring. Can they pass through Cincinnati and spend a few days? She leaves her email address.
After the longest time, I raise my head and notice dawn as it begins to seep through the cracks in the faded drapes. I stand and switch off the kitchen light.
It’s then. I contemplate a busy morning. Two eggs, sunny-side up, coffee and toast. I’ll contact my AA sponsor and ask if I can join the meet-ups again. And later, I’ll shave and get my hair cut short.
When I return home, I’ll gather my thoughts and fortitude and send that email.
I’ve given enough, more than a pound of flesh. I commit to the gift of receiving, the slow process of forgiveness.