Despite the weight of the Bible belt bound around his waist, there was nothing appealing to Zeb Martin about church.
Growing up, it was really more of a social club than anything. As a waitress, his mother’s schedule didn’t allow her to bring him in for the regular service. But they found themselves there almost every Wednesday night. After a couple of years of years, the deacons at Sonlight Baptist Church had eventually collected enough funds from the plate to purchase a van. Young Zeb then became an (oftentimes unwilling) passenger every Sunday. If anything, it was free babysitting.
Once Allison married Zeb’s stepfather, the working weekends ended. Now in a position where she didn’t have to keep up appearances with the community, the big man upstairs took a backseat to the family’s priority list.
However, that wouldn’t be his last record of routine attendance for praise and worship. Once he had begun to take an interest in trivial things like girls and popularity, there was one requirement to improve your standing in a rural middle school social hierarchy. You had to go to church.
The message conveyed was received loud and clear to him and every other adolescent that sat in front of the youth pastor. Everyone sins — that’s just what humans do, but so long as you accepted Jesus, you’d be just fine. So, that’s what they did. Church activities were fantastic experiments to highlight the failures of the honor system.
The first cigarette he’d ever smoked? In the woods out back behind the fellowship hall. The first time he’d ever kissed a girl? During a game of “sardines” at the New Years lock-in. And that same Dodge passenger van that Zeb rode to church in as a kid? The first time he got to second base. Ironically enough, this was just after the group had attended a walk-through performance known as the “Judgement House,” a drama that led you through the course of someone’s life who ultimately ended up in hell for the decisions they had made. It’d apparently had a tremendous emotional impact on Zeb, so much so that he had to seek the comfort of his then-girlfriend in the back seat on the drive home.
It had helped the Watson Mill Kid to develop a solid foundation in “spiritual accountability.” Until one of his best friends got a driver’s license, of course. This departure from the faith didn’t even afford God the luxury of the backseat. There just wasn’t any room for him. They had other friends that needed a ride.
Maybe he should have made some space.
Zeb officially left his teens behind just two days before Refueled. Despite being just a year from legal drinking age, it was the first birthday that he’d spent sober since, well…since he stopped attending church. What was once a celebration that he’d looked forward to, circumstances back home did not exactly put him in the mood to cut loose. News that Russell Martin had fallen ill had raised his anxiety, and it just did not seem right to him to bury it down with a cooler full of hunch punch.
The man that Zeb affectionately referred to as “Pawpaw” was never the prototype of athleticism or good health. He had all of the makings of a miniature grizzly bear: plenty of hair, plenty of fat stored for the winter, and an uncanny knack for catching fish. However, he lacked the ability to climb trees or run thirty miles per hour in order to burn off all of those excess calories. His taste for corn liquor and a pack and a half of Pall Malls a day were a thick icing on a full sheet cake. That he once ate in an entirety in one day.
Despite all of this, seventy was just too soon for the stubborn old bastard to go. Like most of his kind in rural Georgia, the last time he’d stepped foot into a clinic was over seven years ago. At that time, he’d been given a pretty stern warning. If he kept going like he’d been with his bad habits, it would eventually cut several years off of his life.
Last week, what started out as “just a dadgum runny nose” had developed into fatigue and a dangerously high fever. Through some sort of miracle, Allison Martin was able to drag him to the doctor, who advised that he needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately due to potential complications of the flu. The helpful and extremely patient staff at Athens Regional had worked hard to get him to the point of discharge, but Pawpaw did not leave with the best of news.
Heart disease. But, it wasn’t too late for him: if he made some changes to his diet, put the alcohol on the shelf, and kicked the smoking habit, it might tack on a few more good years to his life.
The possibility of those three things happening was about as likely as Max Kael clawing out of the dirt to unwrap a Christmas present. From Sutler.
Once the bell had rung on Saturday and Jiles’ arm was raised in victory, Zeb’s sole priority was to provide his holiday goodbyes to his friends backstage and head back to the house to catch a decent night’s sleep. His flight to Atlanta boarded around 11:59 the next morning, so he’d planned to wake up early and pack his bags for a much-desired month off.
Instead, he found himself here today. Bundled in layers of flannel and Carhartt fleece and simply staring up at the steps leading to the entrance of Our Lady Immaculate Chapel.
His anxiety sent vapors above his brain, like the fog over a lake in the early hours of the morning. It was silly: he’d spent almost ten minutes coming to terms of whether or not he was even allowed to go in. Zeb was a Protestant, or at least that’s what he’d grown up as. He’d never set foot inside a Catholic church. Would he have to take some kind of test to prove that he could come in? Worse yet, what if someone happened to recognize him? His employer had not necessarily been in the good graces of the moral majority as of late. Or ever.
Up ahead provided a path to forgiveness for the kid. Hell, it was the primary appeal to the religion as a whole. If you should ever fall, salvation was the mattress that could cushion the blow. And if anyone did happen to be inside at two in the afternoon on a Monday, they most certainly would welcome him with open arms.
There was nothing that any of Pawpaw’s friends, family, or doctors could do to get through to him. It was time for Zeb to stop internalizing his actions, and shut his brain off from the conjured excuses. He needed a favor from someone a lot more powerful than any of them. He needed to swallow his pride, and walk up those stairs.
Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.
“I do like me uh battle royal,” Zeb mulled.
“You love anything with a bunch of half-naked men in it.”
The wise-cracker adjacent from the booth to the Watson Mill Kid was a very unexpected yet welcome surprise that evening.
When he’d seen the name pop up on his cell phone, Zeb immediately picked it up. The voice on the other side nearly punctured a hole in his eardrum as they let out a shrill scream of joy.
“Oh my, is this really you? Is this the Zeb Martin? This is Muriel Puddings, and I am going to get you drunk and fuck the scruff off of your crotch tonight.”
“Hey, Bobber,” Zeb had replied as he shook his head and smiled.
The two old pals had agreed that it’d been far too long since they’d caused a little trouble together, and Zeb could certainly use the distraction. His other option for comfort based on the present circumstances had not exactly panned out for him, so the two agreed to meet up at a local dive downtown. It was the one that his roommate Maddie worked at, so there’d be no ID needed for him. Depending on how the night went, maybe they’d pop in elsewhere for some shrimp cocktail.
So much for a week of sobriety.
The Beautiful Man from Honalee had only made one brief appearance on High Octane programming since the duo had lost to Starrsek Industries back in September. The aftermath of the turmoil within the Bandits had left him with two options: fight through the heartache or dissociate completely. The latter was just easier for him to help cope with his fragile state.
Even at the memorial show, Bobby Dean remained aloof in conversations with his former colleagues backstage. However, his ears had perked up as of late. It was an ulterior motive for his phone call, cloaked underneath a belated birthday wish and a desire to catch up.
“I hope you’re planning on showing up to it,” Dean encouraged, dropping a single seed into the hole he’d purposefully dug to lead up to the mention of the event at Iconic. “And when you win it, you better name the team something cool! Like The Bobby Deans or The Deaner Weiners.”
Zeb rubbed his jaw in contemplation of the suggestions. “Purty catchy. Reckon that’s one less thang I gotta thank about. Now that the pressure’s offa me, should be easy tuh win from here. Thanks bo.”
Martin took a swig from his pint glass. A new accessory for him, as he was mostly accustomed to swilling Miller Lite directly from a can or a Solo cup. His roommates had successfully introduced him to the concept of “craft beer” as of late, and he’d eagerly embraced it. He was slowly morphing into a city hipster right before their eyes. Soon enough, he’d be wearing skinny jeans and T-shirts with ironic slogans.
“I ain’t made no decision yet, ferreal,” Zeb admitted. “Ain’t give the thumbs up to the office whether ‘er not I’m go’n be there. I thank I oughta be home.”
“Then why are you still here? Why haven’t you left?” Bobby fired back.
Martin could not immediately respond to him. He instead wistfully glanced around the bar, unable to come up with a straight answer. Bobby refused to let up.
“It’s because you know you have to do it. That you’ve been coming out the past month with your ugly fishing vest and your stupid-looking hat…”
“Hey!” Zeb cried, adjusting his headgear in defense.
“Shut up, I’m providing you with fuel to the fire, don’t interrupt me,” Dean continued, mowing over the objection. “You came out and said that the days of ‘hee-hawin’ Zeb Martin are over, and you whipped your dick out on LIVE TELEVISION and told the owner of the company and his men that Max Kael wasn’t going to be the only one with a pole jammed through their eye socket this year. LITERALLY.”
“Uh, Bob, I ain’t d–…”
“I said shut up, this is pure gold here! Now, where was I?” Bobby paused, regathering his train of thought. “Oh yeah, you word-for-word told the Best Alliance to fellate you. Then something else happened that we won’t talk about, and not because I haven’t been paying much attention, but after that? You then said VERBATIM that Steve Solex was a liar and that being in the Army JROTC isn’t the same thing as actually serving, and that he was only using his uniform as an excuse to get a military discount and muff.”
Zeb’s jaw loosened. “No I did n–…”
“And then you kicked his old geriatric ass! You put his head between your legs and put your dick through his brain! Just like you said you would! And to sit here and tell me that you aren’t going to take that momentum and finally climb up that ladder? Lee somehow managed to stumble his way to the gate and leave that mother fucker wide open for you. And the only way you’re going to burn down heaven is to walk right on through it.”
March my way into the God of HOW’s kingdom and set it ablaze, Zeb thought. Bobby continued to rant and rave, but he’d been hung up on that last line. The Bible wouldn’t necessarily consider that an act of heroism, but he had to admit that the Book of Robert was awe-inspiring. He’d only seen this side of Bobby Dean once before, but it damn sure motivated him then.
“…just make sure you don’t lose to Jiles again. Now,” the Beautiful One commanded, “are you in or are you in?”
Zeb smirked. “Fine. I’m in.”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I SAID, ARE YOU IN OR ARE YOU IN?”
“Bo, calm down. This ain’t no French cafe that neither of us’ll ever go in again, it’s the only bar I kin get inta. I’m in. Turn’er down a coupla notches,” Zeb pleaded.
“Sorry man, I’ve got an inner ear thing, I really couldn’t hear you.” Bobby apologized while sticking his pointer knuckle deep in his ear hole. “Anyway, you should enter that battle royal, is what I’m saying.”
“I was prolly g’on to anyways. Jus’ fun tuh see you get riled up again,” Martin kidded. “Heck, you oughta come enter it, too.”
Bobby stared back with a blank look.
“…can’t hear you.”
Only a month after completing his training, Zeb got a curtain-jerking opportunity for the Living Word Wrestling Organization. It was dubbed as “the nation’s premiere faith-based wrestling experience.” While it sounded like a hokey Christian alternative to the sport, the undercard didn’t really deviate at all from a normal show. The good guy was cheered, the bad guy was booed: it was nothing out of the ordinary. However, at the climax of every main event, the talent would then conclude the match and the referee would “interpret” the angle and compare it to scripture. The heels and faces would then end the show in emotive prayer, falling to their knees to atone for whatever gimmicked sins they had committed.
At that point, you’d think that everyone who was just there to enjoy some wrestling would have gotten up and left after the bell. However, the promoter had circled the gym and locked all the doors about five minutes prior to the pinfall, ensuring that the audience stayed for the most important part of the show: the message. Ironically, he’d not considered the obvious fire hazard created in his goal to prevent eternal damnation amongst the flames of hell.
While still green, the promoter took a keen interest in his potential and invited him to become a permanent member of the roster. Zeb politely said that he would give it some thought, but ultimately never called him back again. It wasn’t as much about the fact that the niche bothered him: he was fine with the preaching, and it was no more over the top than a tent revival. The Watson Mill Kid’s main concern was that the wrestling seemed to take a backseat to Jesus. The teams in the main event sold the theatrics of the message with twice as much effort than they’d put into the actual match.
But, that was the Bible’s biggest sell, too.
Jacob dreamt of the pathway to the promised land. A ladder that ascended into the sky flanked by angels. Artists would eventually interpret it in other formats. A spiral staircase constructed of ivory marble, a gold-plated escalator: anything to heighten the senses and spread the appeal of the story. It didn’t matter if they took creative liberties: the message stayed the same. “This is the way to the top. Climb me if you want to be happy.”
Zeb grasped the handle of the church’s doors. He’d made his ascent and now prepared himself to walk in.
He was a hypocrite. The only difference between what they did and what other wrestling promotions were doing? The overexaggerated theatrics usually came before the match instead of after.
Both still had a ladder to climb, though. And both had plenty of pesky angels in the way that he’d have to throw off to get to the top.
The way you hold a match so steady
How heaven is collapsing under so much joy