Two Stories

Two Stories
Flying Squirrel

They call you the “Flying Squirrel.”

It’s a stupid moniker, one you used to try to drop. Back when you cared about those kinds of things. You used to care about a lot of things you’ve sacrificed over the years, along with your pride, your relationship with your son, and plenty of your brain cells.

You step through the top two ropes, the rubber exterior brushing against your back. It’s pale, unlike so many of your colleagues—you’ve always had the complexion of a vampire. You used to worry the promoters would force you to wear fangs or some shit. That would be even worse than the “Flying Squirrel.” You can live with a degree of silliness.

That wasn’t always the case, which is why your son dodges your calls these days.

“Look, Dad, I appreciate the effort,” he told you the last time you talked. That was six months ago, and only the third time he relented and answered your call this year. “But you can’t make up for a decade of bad parenting with a few birthday cards and phone calls.”

Fuck. You knew he was right. He’s no longer afraid to call you on your bullshit—if he ever was. He got that from his mom, who could always tell when you’d been drinking too much or sticking your dick where it didn’t belong. Mostly inside ring rats (what your kind calls groupies); they were willing and didn’t judge you. Shit, they actually thought you were something. Still do.

You lift your right foot onto the second rope to begin your ascent. You’re wearing the black leather boots with yellow lightning bolts you sprang for before your tryout in Cicero, in case it might sway the bookers. (It didn’t. Or maybe it was because one of their writers caught you getting handsy with a younger wrestler in the back.)

You’ve always had bad luck like that. Tanya got pregnant just when you were building up some buzz on the indies, and you needed to keep a full-time day job to pay for car seats, cribs, strollers, the endless list of “essentials” for this parenthood entrapping you.

You lean back and pull your left leg onto the top rope, hoisting all of your 187 pounds atop the ropes, your boots on either side of the red vinyl turnbuckle pad. You know these material details from setting up this pain-in-the-ass ring with eager wannabes, refs, and other awkward hangers-on too many times to count. You figured you’d leave them all behind at some point, but the bigger promotions were too caught up in gimmicks to appreciate your wrestling skills—the whole damn point of this business in the first place.

You remember wrestling with a couple drinks in you, once. Never again. You might be a low life, but not that low. Doing this sober is hard enough, despite what these people in the crowd think. Actually, they appreciate what you do. Clearly. They’re willing to pay to watch you, buy your scratchy, screen-printed shirts for $20 a pop.

It’s your coworkers on the line at the plant, the guys at the bar who whisper behind your back, people like your ex-wife and her new man. The ones who turned your kid against you. You’d like to see them all try to take a bump. No, you’d like to dump them onto the canvas-covered plywood yourself.

You rise, your thigh muscles tightening, your abs squeezing, demonstrating the physical core strength you’ve built while hollowing out your moral core. Maybe once you give this up, you’ll rebuild that interior, volunteer with kids, make your own proud.

You look up at the off-white popcorn ceiling that’s probably hiding asbestos. You used to rip that shit out of houses all around this town, back before people cared so much about remediation and government red tape. Before you needed a permit to build a fucking deck.

The black-haired kid lying about 10 feet below your eyeballs on the mat looks up at you while feigning unconsciousness. You two have grappled before; he’s a good kid who could—should—make it out of here. If he’s smarter than you.

You take one final breath, then leap, arching your back and rotating backward, wishing you could roll back the years just as easily.

Instead, you soar through air that reeks of cheap beer and body odor, your legs rotating up as your head whirls back.

And then you continue your descent.


Doing the Job

The rubber soles of my boots slam against the cement floor in the bowels of this arena. Green Bay, right? We’re in Green Bay tonight? I can’t always keep track, especially when I’m pissed. And I always walk too aggressively when I’m in this state—my girlfriend tells me that, every time, without fail.

Where is she? Not this shit, not tonight. And here I thought our news had smoothed over this recent rough patch.

“Hey, you seen Shelly?” I ask one of the writers, a tall, lanky guy who would get broken in half if he stepped into the ring. He shakes his head, then goes back to his show notes while drinking a coffee. There’s perpetually talk of trimming the budget, cleaving the roster, but there’s always plenty of coffee.

I’ve got Banks tonight in the main event for the Heartland title. Not winning it, of course. Not yet. I’m still establishing my character here, trying to act like the cocksure douchebag that I apparently resemble. That’s how the wrestling nerds on Reddit see me, at least. The phrase “punchable face” gets used a sobering amount of times. Pretty sure my high school girlfriend would agree.

Stevens is doing his pre-match routine in the hallway, pushups to make his pecs swell even more, stretches that someone with his burly frame has no business mustering. He looks up and nods at me. We’ve played Fortnite together in enough hotel rooms for him to read my mood.

“Looking for your girl?” he asks.

I nod, hoping I seem more in control of my shit than I am, knowing I’m probably failing. I’ve never had much of a poker face.

“I think I saw her with Tanya before,” he says.

Tanya, a continual pain in my ass. Always up in Shelly’s shit and, by extension, mine. Despite having plenty of her own drama involving half the locker room.

“Thanks,” I mumble, then clasp his hand, gently out of habit from all these years trying to show promoters and other wrestlers they can trust me, that I know how to work in the ring, not too rough. The opposite of the approach favored in the phony business world that shaped my dad, with all his judgment about my lack of financial stability and a respectable career.

I stomp up a set of stairs, push through some metal doors toward where I think the women’s locker room is hidden in this labyrinth. They all start to blur together after a while, night after night of shows in front of rednecks, marks and jocks like me who secretly loved this more than any of the “real sports” we were forced to play as kids.

Framed photos from the concerts and shows that have passed through here adorn the walls, old rockers, B-list pop stars, dance troupes. Some mid-major college basketball team plays here, along with a junior hockey team. Kids who think they’re hard because they get into shirt-pulling contests dressed up as fights while slipping around the ice. Shelly used to date a hockey bro, back in her teenage days in Canada. I hate it when she references him.

Up ahead, Banks is shooting a promo for our match, so I’m forced to stop. God, he’s so much better than me on the mic, one of those guys who could probably go do standup comedy if his preferred method of torture was mental instead of physical. I need to call that improv coach when I get back home after this run of shows.

Now I’m pacing. The camera guy notices, turns from Banks and Alex, our fake backstage reporter, to film me. Thinks it’s part of a bit, that Banks and I planned this to hype our match.

“What, you couldn’t wait to get your ass whooped?” Banks hollers out. Of course he pivots seamlessly into this. When I glare at him, I think I catch a glimmer of concern in his eyes, like he can tell I’m not putting on an act. He shuts down the segment, yells something about how I’m going to need to wait a little bit. I don’t really hear it, just see the camera light turn off before stomping my way past them.

“Hey JT, are you OK?” Alex asks in her Minnesota accent. I know I’m being an asshole not even acknowledging her.

And then, as I walk past utility room doors and carts filled with extra folding chairs, I hear her crying. Sobbing, body-shaking wails. She looks up at me, mascara streaked down her cheeks, Tanya sitting next to her, arms wrapped around her shoulders, and at once I know that she deserves better, that all those fans online are right, that I have no business being a father anyway.

I do the minimum that’s expected of me, kneel down, pull her toward me until our foreheads meet and our tears intermingle.

My dad used to tell me to “Meet the moment,” during cringy pep talks before my high school football games. What he really meant was, “Don’t embarrass me, after everything I’ve done for you.” (Translation: “I didn’t beat your ass like my dad did to me.”) But the phrase drops into my mind amid thoughts that slam into each other like my coworkers and me in a battle royal.

I hold her, try to think of comforting words, fail, my throat burning from suppressing my own wails. I have no concept of time passing as the show starts and people blur past us, the roars of the crowd leaking back here, into my ears.

A hand gently rubs my back, and I turn to see Alex, red-eyed, fighting back more tears of her own. Word has gotten around. I know it’s time for my match. I kiss Shelly on the forehead, stand, wipe my eyes, try to run through the plan in my mind while I walk toward the entrance.

On this cold January night, what’s one more loss?


About the Author

Tom Ziemer is a writer who lives in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin (the self-proclaimed Troll Capital of the World) with his wife, Hannah, two sons, and two dogs. He is a former sportswriter for the Wisconsin State Journal and Wisconsin Soccer Central. Find him on Twitter @tomziemer.


Photo by Martin Martz on Unsplash