Fiction By Chris Koslowski
Photo by Katy Warner
The Last Pay-Per-View
WHEN THE WRESTLERS appeared and we got the closed circuit humming, we weren’t the only old folks’ home that had a line out its door. Centers from Detroit to Memphis saw their waiting lists explode. Veterans, bankers, homemakers, and teachers. Artists, teamsters, managers, and tax agents—they all begged their families to put them away.
It was Ric Flair versus Dusty Rhodes, a nightly bout billed The Most Electrifying Dinner Theater in These United States, waged in our very own dining hall at St. Cecilia’s Assisted Care. Though management served our chicken, our peaches, our greens and lemon cake, we didn’t eat much, for it took superhuman will to pry our eyes from the fight, from the sculpted bodies. Even the men felt a tingling, the likes of which medical science had failed to roust, when Also sprach Zarathustra boomed from the drop-ceiling speakers, and The Nature Boy strutted into our hall. Flair’s feathered, shimmering robes cascaded off his shoulders. His presence rarefied the air like an angel on loan from God. Then, we raised our speckled fists and beat our hollowed chests as Rhodes, The American Dream: Son of a Plumber, strode through the hall’s double doors, his gaze locked on his opponent. Within his mighty ribcage, if you were to somehow penetrate the leather, meat, and bone, you would find, distilled and pure, our nation’s frontier spirit.
When the wrestlers began, their impacts shook our seats. Our cameras captured everything—every chop, every drop of blood, every eye-rake and low blow. Thousands, maybe millions, were watching our feed, but we were there. We were special. The hours ticked by, one near-fall after another, but no victory was won. Late into the evening, the referee froze the match and scheduled the restart for the next dinner service. And so it went, each day more harrowing than the last.
Watching made us stronger. Our voices carried farther than before. One evening, about a week into the match, Rhodes’s right hand connected with Flair’s jaw. The silver-haired son-of-a-gun stiffened to attention, and his feet carried him in taut line away from Rhodes before the blow registered and sent him face first to the canvas.
One witness to this, Barn Owl McGarry, who had the biggest beak in the place, threw down his walker, scrambled atop a dinner table, and chanted, “Dust-y Rhodes! Dust-y Rhodes!”
On day eleven, Agnes Henderson stood up from her wheelchair. On day twelve, when Flair locked Rhodes in the Figure Four, Christine Crawczak, who hadn’t said a word since her admission a decade prior, screamed, “Woo!”.
The match had soon worked us all. Our muscles hardened. Our faces smoothed. Mortar and pestle hips rolled back a half century overnight. In the ring, the wrestlers fared much worse. Flair’s spine curled him into a question mark. The droop in Rhodes’s belly fattened at a perceivable rate until it fell past his belt, his groin, and kissed his knees, swollen to the size of honeydew melons.
Though the battle still raged, our wrestlers were no longer sights to behold. The cheers quieted. We caught Flair stealing from the med cart one morning. He dropped an armful of pill bottles and ran off with crazy in his eyes.
We decided we could do better. We picked two of our best, patched together ring attire from curtains and clothes now too loose to fit, and had them lift suitcases crammed full with birthday cards. In no time, they were chiseled and beautiful, far better than Rhodes and Flair.
When we told the wrestlers to leave, they didn’t put up a fuss. We cut them their checks and tried not to laugh when they took a few minutes to creak into their car.
The day of our first match, we bullied management and threw open St. Cecilia’s doors. A thousand sleek bodies of the newly young jammed the dining hall. We pressed against each other, amazed at our elastic skin, our perky breasts, our proportionate ears and noses.
Our wrestlers posed and flexed and absorbed the wild adoration as they approached the ring. Our lungs, once like thin paper bags, expelled a roar that pulled our eardrums taut. Our wrestlers were perfect. They were just like us.
When the fighters finally engaged, a loud crack silenced the crowd. A wrestler grabbed his elbow, and even with our 20/20 vision, it took a moment to see that his arm had bent ninety degrees the wrong way. The point of his elbow pushed through the bend in the joint so that he almost, save for his terrible howls, seemed unhurt.
Our doctors helped him from the ring, and we sent in our first alternate. After a few punches and a bad step, an ankle rolled, and fibula broke through skin. Four would-be wrestlers dropped before we were forced to call the match and shut down our cameras. We returned to our rooms, our bones feeling phantom aches, unable to remember our last early night.
It was there that many of us, clicking through channels, stumbled upon a fuzzy, cheaply produced broadcast of Flair and Rhodes fighting live from a high school gymnasium outside Texarkana, a thousand miles away. Though they looked beaten and tired and bruised, they weren’t too far from how we first remembered them—Flair in his angelic glory, Rhodes thick-necked and proud. We watched, clenching white our bony fists, as our bodies shriveled and teeth cracked from our paper smiles. After Flair heaved Rhodes past his shoulders and slammed him down with an Atomic Drop, he went for the pin. We counted one, two, and then Rhodes kicked out.
Let Me Tell You Something, Brother
1. When it comes crashing down and it hurts inside – Trump Plaza – Atlantic City, NJ – March 25, 1989
ALL YOU HULKAMANIACS out there know that when you step into the ring to face the man with the largest arms in the world, you’re entering a different universe, brother. You’re stepping foot on a planet of pain. You’re in a galaxy of grief, a solar system in which your solar plexus is Swiss cheese, brother. And that goes for every boot-stained wannabe in the entire World Wrestling Federation. You want to be a champion? You want to stand atop the mountain? You want to look down on all the little Hulksters out there and tell them that their hero is second best? Well let me tell you something: you’re not ready to stand where I’m standing. You may think you’re man enough, but no man is man enough to do what I’ve done. How much raw iron and steel have you lifted above your shoulders? How many toes did you break when your bicep tore in two, and all that weight came tumbling down? Do you enjoy the burn of canvas on skin? How will you walk when your joints start to grind to dust? How many hours have you slept shivering in a Toyota Starlet, brother, with your knees in your pits and your back broken open? When you get color, do you wonder if X-rays will kiss the scrapes on your skull? When you push, will you look a kid in the eye and tell him to take his vitamins? How many friends have you double-crossed? Can you sell that injury, your family, your pride? Whatchu gonna do, brother, when Hulkamania, your ego, and a U.S. House Oversight Committee run wild on you?
2. Elizabeth! – Boston Garden – Boston, MA – May 11, 1987
NOTHING MEANS NOTHING. Nothing means nothing. Insomnia infects my fingertips like bolts of dark lightning, heavy water seeping through tiny holes in the earth. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat? You’re a lucky man. Yeah. You’re a lucky, lucky man. Not because you’re about to step into the ring at Wrestlemania III with the Macho Man Randy Savage, yeah, but because you are nothing. Total, metaphysical, existential emptiness, the absence of all matter. Arms spread wide into thin air as I look directly into the video scope and say that I am something, and that makes me monumentally unlucky. I am the Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion, the Macho Madness, the cloud settling over your spring picnic, Ricky Steamboat. I rain madness in all space and on all people—wrestler or child, man or woman, it doesn’t matter. And that means something, something that’s unforgettable, yeah. Contents un-describable, unpalatable, and invisible, but still something, Ricky Steamboat. But I have no regrets. I’m above regretting, and below it too, all sides, all angles, yeah. Madness has no memory. But the people, they will remember. My fans, my brothers, and even my lovely wife Elizabeth—they will always remember what I’ve done and who I’ve hurt. You don’t truly know a tornado’s wake until you get some perspective. Can you dig it? Ask yourself this, Ricky Steamboat—when we meet in the Silverdome, in front of the largest crowd in wrestling, the world’s biggest stage, and I climb the top rope and leap into history, what will you remember? What words will fall from your busted mouth to describe that crushing defeat, that outrageous fortune? How will you tell that perfect bride and that perfect little jabroni of yours that you are nothing?
3. The Best in the World – Allstate Arena – Rosemont, IL – September 3, 2012
NOW THAT I have this microphone and you’ve paid your pittance to watch this so-called sports entertainment, I want you to listen to me. Then I want you to eat your nachos and drink from your commemorative cup without my face on it, and after that I don’t care whether you boo me or cheer me or sit there with your hands folded, but I want you to hear me say this: I despise you. I despise everything about you. I’m ashamed that after I leave this arena, I’ll wake up tomorrow outside another sorry arena just like it, filled with more nameless, faceless marks just like you. I hang my head every morning at the prospect of cashing a paycheck funded by you, an ocean of deluded children, wave after wave after pigheaded wave, too stupid to abandon this company after years of the same old, same old. Well I’m not the same old, same old. I’m CM Punk. I’m the best, and you don’t deserve the best. I want you all to quiet down and listen to this very, very carefully. This is torture. This is agony. I forfeited my soul to be your god, and if I could, I’d lay it all down to wait for a bus, to say hello to strangers, to ride an elevator in silence. And as repulsing as you are to me, I have to face the truth: we are no different. I came into this company with my own delusion—the idea that my talent and work ethic and straightedge virtue would elevate me above the scum tainting every corner of this business. But I was wrong. I can’t leave this place. You can’t leave this place. It’s the best and the worst part of our lives, and it’s never going to change. On Sunday, when I stand tall as your new champion, criminally rebuked, censored, and overdue, know that you are all I have, and this is all I am.
Mae Young’s Hand
IN A VEILED office in Madison Square Garden’s labyrinthine backstage, Mae Young brought her first-born into the world, broadcast live to nineteen thousand in attendance and millions more on cable television. Mae was seventy-seven years old. Her child was a human hand.
The birth capped one of the World Wrestling Federation’s signature storylines of its late 90s renaissance. WWF President Vince McMahon called it the most depraved thing we’ve ever done. For Mae, her prime in the squared circle some fifty years prior, the new spotlight burned red. It tinted the backstage sets where she, despite her ripe old age, wrapped the four hundred pound Mark Henry into a torrid love affair. It bled through her eyelids shut tight as she tumbled from the top rope in the clutches of a Bubba Ray Dudley Power Bomb. Splayed on the canvas in the wake of the throw, her ears stinging from the crowd’s shouts of disbelief, Mae concealed her grin with a textbook sell.
New life marked the passing of the old. After the medic pried the hand, dripping with goo, from Mae’s shrouded nether region, kayfabe stretched so thin, it vanished. Any remaining delusions concerning professional wrestling’s authenticity were put to rest. The world, in a small, strange way, grew up.
But Mae Young’s hand was real.
The cameras turned off, and the hand—adult, Caucasian, eight inches in length—flexed its digits, cracked its knuckles, and, as Mae would always remember, waved hello.
“It’s beautiful,” Mae said, and she took it home.
Raising a strong hand is hard work. There is no Dr. Spock’s Common Sense Book for Newborn Hands. Instead, Mae had Katie Glass and The Fabulous Moolah, her two best friends from the old days, the golden age of wrestling. Together, the sisters shared a modest, palmetto-lined ranch in South Carolina, and together, they’d seen it all. They’d witnessed pro wrestling’s evolution from carnival sideshow to global phenomenon, from arm bars to barbed-wire bats, from singlets to lingerie. When interviewers asked about their peculiar arrangement, about their lack of husbands and children, the women said they’d always been travelling partners, that they’d seen every two-bit ballroom in the West and then some in Japan, and that they were still traveling, only this time the motel was cleaner, their layover a little longer.
Moolah and Katie welcomed the hand home with the gentle touch of those whose trade is pretending to hurt. Moolah crocheted a fuzzy mitten for the hand to sleep in. Katie studied sign language. Mae clapped along as the hand learned to dance, its nails clicking the countertop like tiny tap shoes. She was unfazed when the hand tuned the radio from Perry Como to Twisted Sister. She cut thin strips from her old ring gear and tied them in colorful tassels swinging from the hand’s knuckles. The hand clicked from one end of the dinner table to the other, sliding as the guitars reached their solo’s climax. It never lacked an audience. Mae offered praise, high-fives, and when the hand needed help with a difficult move, she ignored her ache and tapped its routines with her arthritic fingers.
At night, when the hand was resting, Mae lit a cigar and rocked in her porch swing. City lights, reflected from afar by low-hanging clouds, cast the fairway-short lawn in a pale glow and lit the unlikely blues of Mae’s potted silk flowers just the way she liked. This, the twilight of her life, wasn’t quite as she expected, but it was good.
Then one morning, before the sun had a chance to rise, Vince called.
He wanted Mae back. The fans were hungry for spectacle. Mae’s last run was perfect, fit for a legend. But how could she bow into obscurity without a swan song? Wouldn’t she love to enter the ring once more, only now with her son, or whatever she called that thing, at her side?
Mae had her doubts. A comeback was nostalgic and fun. A second was kind of pathetic. But the hand was excited. It swung its tassels and pumped its veins until they threatened to burst. The hand tugged on Mae’s shirt cuff and pointed to the television. It was ready, but Mae still wasn’t sure.
Katie told Mae to stay. There would be a spectacle, she said, one from which the hand could never return. It would be a curio, a joke, an outright monster for the rest of its days. For Katie, the hand was a miracle, and the world wouldn’t hesitate to do what it always did with the miraculous—exploit, destroy, and forget.
Moolah disagreed. Performance was in the hand’s blood, its birth. To deny it a shot, she said, would be no better than those who declared, all those years ago, that pro wrestling was no place for women. Mae had never held her sisters back from a job, no matter how dangerous or degrading. Here was Mae’s chance to be the advocate they never had, to give the hand what every performer around the world dreams of, but what most never get.
The argument escalated. Limbs were stretched and tables broken. Mae took Moolah in a headlock, wrenching her sister to a knee just as she’d done in the ring. Though Mae’s pocked, leathery skin hung loosely from her arm, she felt her bicep swell beneath. Her heart thumped. Her toes curled. She could taste the arena lights, and feel the drum-tight canvas underfoot. When Moolah tapped, Mae kissed the crown of her head and, slackening the hold, raised an arm in victory.
Once the house had settled, the hand climbed to the kitchen counter with a sticky note adhered to its back. With blue pen, in a child’s script, it read, “Call Vince.”
A few months later, after Mae had her singlet refitted and retouched, radish red with her name curling in silver across its front, she became the oldest person in history to rappel from the rafters of the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, South Carolina. The hand grasped her shoulder the whole way down. As she’d practiced, she released the harness, climbed the turnbuckle, and posed for the fans.
Those in attendance applauded. Some cheered. Even fewer yelled her name. All of it drowned in the cavernous arena. Though the fresnels were cooking and spotlights hit them from three corners, she saw the empty seats, thousands of them, stretching high and far into the shadows. Her face glowed forty feet high on the arena’s Titantron, and that same image ran through countless miles of wire, beamed through the atmosphere and back to die in the cable boxes of millions who’d found something else.
Mae Young’s hand gripped tighter.
A native of Metro Detroit, Chris Koslowski is an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches writing and co-edits Yemassee. His fiction can be found in Amazon’s Day One. Follow him @KozlowRazor.