“How’s your head?”
It was flattering. The oldest of Zeb Martin’s two half-sisters had just shown her cards to him. When he kept his residence in Comer, Kendra and Mackenzie could have cared less about the weekend nights he’d spent taking his licks in the ring. Spending more money in gas than he brought home from a show to impress a half a hundred in several two-light towns within a hundred miles.
Naturally, now that he was marginally recognizable to the public, at least one of them seemed to have been taking an interest.
Zeb’s upper lip began to tilt into one of those same sneers that an older brother just lives to deliver, right before they’re ready to embarrass their kinfolk. His eyes darted first to Kendra’s boyfriend as he grinned knowingly to him.
“Reckon somebody’s been seein’ big bubba on the TV, huh?”
She was quick to retract.
“He’s into it,” Kendra spat, jamming the point of her elbow into her significant other’s arm. “I usually jus’ play on my phone when he’s watchin’.”
“Ow, dang!” Kendra’s boyfriend winced in pain. To the amateur eye, it was pretty amusing. Billy Yarborough was the current shining star of Oglethorpe County High School’s summer practice. A sophomore who weighed in at about 275 and stood taller than a dogwood tree, he had been a starting offensive tackle the prior year and was set to play both sides of the ball this autumn. While Kendra herself wasn’t exactly a string bean, the force of her strike should have amounted to nothing more than a leaf gently grazing onto his meaty tricep from her buck and a quarter frame.
Zeb had felt that same elbow several times, so he immediately sympathized with the big boy’s reaction. For him, it was usually delivered to a rib or a gut as defense for a side headlock, so Billy had gotten off easy for the time being. Even though he didn’t do anything to deserve it, Zeb figured that by now the kid had learned that a contingency of dating his sister would also mean being a human heavy bag.
The Watson Mill Kid couldn’t help but be a little intimidated by the Greek-like stature of guys like Dan Ryan and Chris Kostoff. He was at times uneasy about the complete lack of regard for the well-being of others that Scott Woodson and Hughie Freeman seemed to display. However, the only individual that Zeb Martin feared was the teenaged blond standing across from him in a Simply Southern “Just Peachy” T-shirt.
“It’s fine, thanks fer askin’, Kennie.”
“Gah,” she mutters, rolling her eyes and flipping her hair back. “I’m ‘bout to knee your ass in the head if you call me that again.” Zeb’s nickname for her was something that she’d thought she hated for the longest time, but it had secretly grown on her with him being gone. She still managed to keep up appearances though, making sure that Billy didn’t get any ideas about using it himself.
Zeb grins, turning his attention back toward Billy. “What’d yew thank about the match, man? Any pointers fer next go?”
Another quality that Martin admired in Kendra’s apparent taste in men was their eloquent use of the English language, and how most of the time they opted not to speak too much. It was pretty reminiscent of most of his own interactions with women: keep your mouth shut so you don’t say something stupid. However, despite the fact that Billy and Kendra had been dating since junior high and he was essentially an extension of the family by now, he was still in slight awe of her older brother.
Zeb refused to be the type of sibling that came off as overprotective. Especially since his step-father, as nice of a guy he was, still fit the trope of a man who both liked and shared “Rules For Dating My Daughter” memes on social media. He was fully confident in Kendra and Kenzie’s judgement of character, as Mark and Pawpaw Martin had been great role models for the girls’ upbringing.
Maybe he had been, too. Even if he wasn’t, the least he could do was set Billy at ease.
“Man, I don’t know,” Billy shrugs. His Southern drawl was not as distinct as his present company, barely even recognizable at all. “Thought you did pretty good. I guess maybe next time lock ‘em in the Tangler real quick. Nobody gets out of that move!”
Billy is suddenly interrupted by yet another elbow strike from his girlfriend, this time to the stomach. So much for getting out of that for today for the giant. “You dumb ass, don’t you know ANYTHING ‘bout ‘rasslin?”
Zeb shoots Kendra a look. She was about to do it. She was about to drop the F-dash-dash-dash word, the word that he and all his colleagues absolutely despised to hear when an outsider offered an opinion on their sport. He prepared for yet another family argument, something he very clearly wanted to avoid when he’d boarded the plane back to Georgia earlier this week.
“You can’t just put someone in yer damn main move at the START of the match, Billy. You gotta wear ‘em down first!”
The Baccy-Spittin’ Bandit, although bewildered, was pleasantly surprised at this hot take from the girl who used to think pro wrestling was a step down from a Sunday school puppet show in entertainment. So much so that he didn’t even notice that someone had snuck up behind him.
“Yeah! Like puttin’ ‘em into a SLEEPERHOLD first!” Zeb’s younger sister cries out, leaping onto his back and wrapping her arms around his head and neck and clamping down with all of her might.
Mimicking a choking sound, Martin flails his arms about and oversells the grip of Mackenzie, slowly dropping down to his knees in the grass below.
It was good to be home.
March 14th was the first time that High Octane Wrestling was introduced to both the Watson Mill Kid and Watson Mill itself. The scuffed-up jeans, the Levi Garrett Racing hat, and the buttermilk-soaked accent all but fit the fishing pole and the Mountain Dew bottle-turned-dip receptacle that accompanied Zeb Martin.
As the early throes of spring had just begun back then, he was alone in solitude and the only one there at the pond that led up to the five-foot waterfall just underneath the old covered bridge. Now, it was the last day of June, and the state park was packed with families spread all across the area. Most of whom found themselves at the base of the falls, wearing worn-out shoes in order to carefully navigate the slippery stones on the way to the holy grail of rock slides.
In the same year that Allison Martin would get a new last name, it was Zeb’s first time being allowed to venture out on those stones with just distant supervision. He and his buddy Adam immediately tiptoed their way to the sliding area where all the big kids were. The first few slides weren’t exactly fast and furious: it was a cautious butt-scooting down the slope followed by a complicated climb back up via a large mossy patch on the rocks next to it.
By the end of the day, Zeb and Adam had graduated to full-on running starts into a rocket-style belly launch, outstretched arms as if they were Superman flying into a crime scene.
As the years progressed, Zeb’s daring was tested. Several yards away from the rock slide was about an eight-foot ledge. Measured properly, you could leap off the small cliff and land into the safety of the only known deep part of the river.
He wasn’t even in double digits in age yet, but everyone who’d taken a trip to Watson Mill had heard the rumors. “Kids have died jumping off that.” It was certainly plausible. A bad jump or a slip could bust your head wide open. A headfirst jump would be equivalent to Elmer Fudd attempting to land in a glass of water.
Oddly enough, the eight-foot ledge was the safe option.
Several feet above it was yet another ledge, with the slope of the hill making it not only further from the ground in height but also in length. This was where Zeb Martin presently sat with his back turned to the water. His hair was wet yet still tucked underneath his trucker cap, the sun glistening to dry off droplets of the river that still tried to hang tight to his skin. His farmer’s tan had begun to blend in with the rest of his body thanks to the changing of seasons.
Resting his weight on his hands and his knees pointed at an angle, Martin lounges with a smile on his face. A pair of Costas covered his eyes, eliminating the need to pull his bill down to shade them, yet it was characteristically still low on his forehead.
“Place seem fuh’miliar to y’all?”
Turning his neck to look toward the covered bridge, Zeb invites the invisible audience to take in the sights and dull roar of the waterfall.
“Done brought y’all back tuh Watson’s Mill. This here’s part of it they call Heart Break Cliff. Figg’red they named it that ‘cuz a feller named Cliff and his ladyfriend done broke up here and she threw his butt off inta the crick,” he chuckles. “Naw, that ain’t why. Also, it ain’t actually called Heart Break Cliff neither. It don’t have no special name, just a dern cliff.
“I just wanted tuh spin a yarn fer ol’ times sake. Jiles, Dooze, Bobby’n them always askin’ me ‘bout if ‘ever’body wears boots with jean shorts down there’ or ‘do y’all have sex with yer cousins,’ so it’s fun tuh make up stories tuh mess with ‘em,” he explains. “By the way, answers tuh those ‘er ‘yes’ and ‘only in Aluh-bama,’ if yer wonderin’.”
Martin turns back to face away from the river again, popping his neck slightly to correct the awkward angle back into place.
“Came back tuh Comer fer a spell this week be’fo Refueled. Ain’t really no reason, jus’ missed ever’body. Hadn’t stepped foot in Jawja clay since I been done moved tuh Chicago, so reckon it was time fer a visit,” Zeb murmurs. “As I figg’red, ain’t much different ‘round here. Mamma and Mark doin’ good, them girls doin’ good, and my buddies back home from college and what not doin’ alright too. Rode up to the Bread Basket and got me a biscuit yesterdee mornin’, them old folks still there drankin’ coffee and shootin’ the bull.”
“Naw,” he trails, “only change is it’s about two degrees hotter than usual. Reckon due to the impacts of global warming on our ecosystem.”
Well, nice to hear a surprise every once in a while.
“Sorry tuh get political. That was actually go’n be one of me’n Bobby’s excuses as tuh why we came up short at War Games: we ain’t prepare fer the effects of climate change. In an outdoor match. In a country neither of us done been in.” Zeb grins, laughing to himself at the sheer ridiculousness of the idea. Of course, he and his eGG compadre had tried to make the best out of a disappointing situation on the flight home, prepared to go all in on just fucking with Brian Bare or Blaire Moise should they be asked for an interview.
“Heck, that one was the most believable. Dang better’n the other ‘uns. ‘We were done paid off by Scott Woodson 2.317 purcent of the ownership of HOW tuh throw the fight,’ ‘me ‘n Bobby suddenly got a sex fetish fer Andy Murray’s knee,’ and reckon my personal favorite: ‘the Bruvs were jus’ the best team on that day.’
“Y’all know I’m just jokin’. At least on the last un,” Martin smiles. “Truth be told, and y’all ain’t go’n be shocked by this revelation, we dun tried. Hard as we could and the Dean Martin Show wudn’t must-see TV compared tuh Mikey Unlikely ‘n Jesse Kendrix.
“It dang shore felt good tuh see y’all on social media given the eGG Bandits a lotta love afterwards, though. It’s funny: I come back here tuh my home and ain’t many ‘er none puttin’ up a fuss fer lil’ Zeb Ricky Martin.”
His middle name is NOT Ricky, is it?
Well, it’s Richard, so close enough. Rest in peace, Zeb’s real dad.
“But y’all makin’ me ‘n them kinda uh big deal. Want y’all tuh know how much I ‘preciate that. How much all of us ‘preciate it. I ain’t never thank I was go’n be the least bit famous growin’ up, but it’s jus’ overwhelmin’ a bit that a buncha folks ya ain’t even met knows who ya are,” he stammers, still trying to cope with his newfound recognition.
Zeb is able to catch himself, though. Catapulting him into another subject that has often come to light in recent interviews, he feels compelled to address it.
“I know it ain’t all that bad ass tuh be ‘in it fer the fanfare,’ and reckon that’s go’n be told tuh me prolly more’n a few times,” the Watson Mill Kid at Watson Mill recognizes. “We’ll come tuh Jesus right here with that. All of us done in this as a job. We all tryin’ tuh earn a livin’, an’ most of us as ‘rasslers also love what we doin’ as the cream and sugar in it. Some of us jus’ like provin’ our worth: whether it bein’ titles, beatin’ the tar outta people, whatever. Few of us jus’ meaner’n shit and don’t give no care ‘bout belts or winnin’, but want them thangs just tuh deny OTHER’NS that opportunity. Me, I like a roof over my head, puttin’ smiles on faces, gettin’ tuh travel tuh dang France fer free, and bein’ part uh somethin’ bigger’n myself.
“But I’m startin’ tuh come tuh terms that I kin want more,” he reveals.
“I kin do all them thangs and still prove my worth. I kin deny them victories an’ championships to the folks that’s tryin’ tuh deny me of ‘em, like a dang double whammy. Ever’body likes a good against bad story, and most folks wanna see the good actually beat the bad.
“Now, I’on’t know if wantin’ mo’ necessarily means I’mma get it,” Zeb admits. He cautiously begins to climb to his feet, making sure he doesn’t accidentally stumble backwards and thus start the process of a 45 minute funeral segment on the next episode of Refueled.
“And not sure it’s real right tuh be insinuatin’ that Jesse Kendrix is the ‘bad,’ neither. Questionable morals, mebbe, but hell, that applies tuh all of us in High Octane tuh some measure,” he chuckles. “All I know is him ‘n his Hollywood Bubba carryin’ company of two others who don’t give two damns ‘bout nobody but 24K, and’ll be the first tuh tell ya so. So I reckon if we judgin’ on the company yer keepin’? Kendrix is the bad on Saturdee, I reckon.
“One thang that ain’t up for debate is that I’mma be across the rang with half of the rightful and deservin’ HOW Tag Team Champions,” Zeb declares, bending his hips from side to side in an attempt to prepare himself for a death defying leap into the makeshift swimming hole below.
“Funny excuses out the way, the Bruvs won at War Games. Me ‘n Bobby lost. Then, next week, ol’ Dooze and Maestro went out there and put ebery one of dem social media supporters’ minds at ease by gettin’ ‘er done on Refueled.
“That’s what the eGG Bandits done did. Gassed her up again with diesel. Now it’s done mine and Bob’s turn in one-on-one. He’s go’n mash his foot on the pedal and steer the 18-wheeler, tryin’ tuh leave MJ lookin’ like a dead squirrel in the highway. Me? Ain’t such a good driver, but I dang shore know a thang or two about haulin’. I aims ta grab ya, Jesse, and unload on ya like toilet paper to a Krogers.
“Back a few months ago, another’un goes by Hollywood done got Dang Tangled. ‘Bout time somebody else got hooked by the bait again.”
Turning around to face the water again, Zeb creeps slowly to the edge of the rock and peers down. While the distance certainly seems a lot shorter than when he was just a young guppie, he still remains frozen and in poise to make the leap.
For about fifteen or twenty seconds.
At which point, he spins around again.
“Man, I’on’t know. People done died jumpin’ off this.”