“Something told me I’d find you here.”
When you’ve incorporated a part of yourself into the character you portray on television, there’s an expectation to deliver every show. Much like a champion would never leave behind his title or an egomaniac would never forget his aviator sunglasses: a trademark accessory always makes the journey.
Zeb really wasn’t thinking about that when he made the decision to bring his retractable rod and reel to Japan, though. And despite presently sitting on a milk crate with the pole in hand, he really had no intention of using it for its primary purpose when he’d packed it. He had something else in mind for it for later that week, but it ended up coming in handy today.
Author Lewis Grizzard once recalled a story when fishing with his grandfather. The young Lewis had landed his first catch, but upon inspection by his elder, was told to throw it back. “That’s a carp,” he proclaimed. “It’s too hard to clean and too bony to eat.” This was a similar sentiment that Pawpaw Martin had echoed too. He’d once joked to the seven-year old Zeb that he’d rather catch a waterlogged shoe, as it was more edible than a carp.
However, in Japan, this particular fish was regarded as a delicacy. When Zeb had asked the concierge for any nearby spots to “have a cast or two,” he was recommended to check out the Benkei Fishing Club. He’d expected a lake with plenty of available space to sit on the shore and enjoy some of his own form of meditation, but was disappointed to find a relatively small dock that only allowed about ten feet of distance away from the next angler. Further, the lake was stocked primarily with his most despised species.
A pond full of carp was better than nothing, though. It was a great way for Zeb to take his mind off of everything that gobbled up brain space. All of the possibilities that lay ahead at War Games. His recent trip back home with his family. The developing romance between him and Danielle. And the biggest dark cloud that seemed to pop up: all of the potential negatives that might result from all of those events.
For the first time in his life, carp was exactly what he needed to see come out of the water. An unsung hero, providing him much needed relief from the grinding in his skull. He’d been here for hours, casting his line and landing around ten of them. He’d successfully been able to communicate with another fisherman, advising him that he would not be able to take his catch back to the hotel room and offering to drop anything he might get into his bucket. The local was more than happy to accept his offer, able to double his normal count with no extra effort on his own part.
Conor Fuse had arrived at the spot about ten minutes prior to approaching the Watson Mill Kid. He observed him from afar, contemplating whether or not it was wise to approach despite making the trip specifically to find him. He too had asked the concierge about any “cool fishing spots” and received the exact same answer, taking a chance that he’d find his teammate there.
The members of the Grapplers Local 214 had all picked up that something was a little off with Zeb as early as a couple of weeks ago. The vigor of his promo prior to the HOFC match was somewhat uncharacteristic (yet well received), but it was followed up by a quiet presence in the lead up to Refueled. Not that Martin had particularly ever been a kid to dominate a conversation, but responses were shorter than usual, limited to either a nod or a head shake. Shortly after watching the recent clip shot outside the construction site, Lindsay, Ray and Conor called a huddle. The conclusion was drawn that the brushing aside of his presence by members of the Best Alliance had gotten to him. This, coupled with the fact that his radar seemed to be solely honed in on the World Champ, would not be the Zeb Martin that they needed to win.
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise to Lindsay and Ray that Conor had immediately volunteered to be the one to have the heart-to-heart. He’d established from the beginning that he was willing to step up for the good of the group. What was particularly impressive was the candor in the offer. Absent was the highly-caffeinated enthusiasm that The Vintage was known for. It was direct and dead serious. No likening to rescuing the princess from the clutches of Bowser, and no metaphors to compare it to Link’s quest to find Zelda. Simply that he would handle it, and that he would not let them down.
After the ten minutes of hesitance, it was the promise he’d made that ultimately motivated him to walk onto the dock and greet him.
Conor breathes a sigh of relief as Zeb cranes his neck behind him with a smile and his own version of hello. “Hey man. Sorry to sneak up on you like that.”
Martin removes his Snickers Racing cap and wipes a few beads of sweat off his brow with his arm, slightly chuckling. “Nah bud, you ain’t sneak up on me. I saw ya over there standin’ next to the entrance. Was wonderin’ when you were gonna mosey over here. Woulda come and got ya but thought I got a bite.”
“You saw me?” Fuse stammers, slightly embarrassed.
“Welp,” Zeb reveals, “a six foot blond-haired man don’t exactly blend in around these parts. And since you ain’t got tackle with ya, figured it might be someone I know.”
Conor nods, not even having considered the fact that he might be recognizable. No matter, as it was only ten minutes that he could never get back.
“Go getcha a chair and pop a squat,” Martin invites, pointing to an open milk crate to his left. “Unless you ain’t here to see me and are doin’ some fishin’ with yer bare hands.”
“Do people actually do that?” It was a genuine question as Conor steps toward the makeshift furniture and retrieves it, placing it next to Zeb and sitting down. The Comer native laughs and shakes his head.
“Not if they wanna catch somethin’. So what brangs you out here? Need tuh talk strategy?”
“No, no, I feel like I’m doing that enough with Teddy,” Fuse responds. He sighs, realizing the scenario he’d imagined this conversation going on the ride over was a lot more cinematic than it would end up being. Conor had envisioned the opening slightly more aligned with the memorable scene from An Officer and a Gentleman, stumbling on a melancholy Zeb and ripping down the remnants of his chain link fence only to be the one to start building it back up again.
But it was nothing like that. His friend seemed to be in much better spirits today as opposed to the past couple of weeks. Conor started to wonder if Zeb was simply just in a short-term mental slump: something that all wrestlers would experience from time to time. Perhaps Zeb’s venom just needed to be drained by way of a verbal bite to Jiles’ neck, and that was what he needed to tap into his motivation for the weekend ahead.
If that were the case though, why was Zeb still aloof with the rest of the 214?
Zeb could very well be holding a bad hand that his demeanor wouldn’t allow him to reveal. Conor knew that he couldn’t let him attempt to play it.
“Something going on with you, bro?”
Fuse wasn’t certain what to expect after blurting out the question, but it was clear that the Watson Mill Kid had seen it coming from a mile away. He knew as soon as he’d caught the glimpse of his friend’s arrival at the docks. The excuse of a pull on the line was an outright lie as to why he didn’t greet him at the shoreline. He’d spent that time preparing himself for exactly how he needed to respond to the concerns of the team.
Zeb found it odd that it was Conor who was acting as the intermediary for communication. But, he was secretly relieved that it was him and not Lindsay who was posing the question. She had a steady hand about her that had a much better chance of wielding a knife and slicing a wound to get him to spill his guts. There was no way in hell that he wanted to run the risk of bringing down the morale of his team. He knew that he would be in the right headspace by the time the bell rang in the Tokyo Dome, but just needed these next few days to make sure that it was clear. If doing that meant he had to spin a yarn to Conor to reassure them that he was ready, it was a breach of trust that would be easier to forgive once they won.
“Well, I ain’t wanna come right out and say it, but my bark on that interview was a little louder than my bite right now. Reckon I don’t wanna show no fear, but I’m skeered, Conor. What if they right? What if I’m just a warm body that ain’t no use to us in the long run?”
Conor exhales, relieved. They were spot on. The Best Alliance had wormed their way into his head. And luckily, this was the scenario that he’d prepared for.
“Dude, you’re one of the main reasons we are where we are. I mean, even before Teddy came back, it was Zeb freaking Martin who watched Doozer align himself with Lee Best and called his shot. It was Zeb freaking Martin who told them that he was going to find a way to tear through them all, starting with goomba Solex, and rip that group from the inside out. And look where you are since that declaration of war. We are on the verge of doing EXACTLY what you said you were going to do,” he cries.
Zeb smiles. Although he’s withholding true emotion, the speech is resonating as it’s a side of Conor that he’s not used to. Not wanting to interrupt the flow, he stays quiet.
“There are nine of us going into that cage. Nine of us that want to strike a blow to the cold, black heart of this High Octane system. It should be a testament to what you have helped create that not one of us is solely focused on walking out of there as the HOW World Champion. We can’t do this without the guy who pointed his finger at The Final Boss and called for his head so many months ago. We need you ready to put on the executioner mask and drop that guillotine. You want to know the most effective way to never have to hear someone call you a weak link, Zeb? Split their throat in half.”
Fuse pauses to collect his thoughts, meaning every word.
“Or stomp on their heads. And if there’s anything we can do to help get you ready,” Conor closes, nearly out of breath after his motivational speech, “just let me know.”
Zeb peers up to him and nods. Raising a spare hand away from his fishing pole, he offers up the acknowledgement that he knew Conor wanted: a high five.
“Man, I dunno where that fire came from, but I shore do appreciate you, buddy. I promise ya I am comin’ with everythang I got. I feel a helluva lot better now that you talked to me.”
It was the second lie Zeb told Conor that day.
May 27, 2021
Zeb could have easily placed blame on the fact that the full-sized bed in his childhood room was not equipped for two people. Especially when the person beside you was notorious for finding her way right up against you, commandeering 7/8ths of the mattress herself and leaving you teetering on the very edge. At some point in the night, Danielle’s hand had made her way directly on top of Zeb’s face as she slept, but it was oddly comforting. He had lay awake for the majority of the night like this, finally opting to get up and head toward the living room couch to at least log an hour or so of rest before the long flight back to the Far East. He didn’t worry about the jangle of his belt buckle as he pulled a pair of jeans on. Danielle could have slept through a bombing.
He wasn’t the only one in the Collier house who’d had the same idea, though.
Zeb tiptoed around the coffee table and reached down to the floor, retrieving the wool afghan that had fallen off his mother. He drapes the blanket over her, making sure to do it as gently as possible in order to prevent her from waking up. At a loss for what to do next, Zeb meanders toward the dining room table, noticing a brown Kroger bag stuffed with several articles of clothing.
Stuff that Allison had retrieved from the nursing home.
The Watson Mill Kid peers into the grocery sack, his eye immediately caught by the bill of a Snickers Racing cap. Carefully maneuvering his hand inside, he reaches in to pull it out. The slight rustle of the bag was sufficient enough to stir the slumbering woman on the couch, unbeknownst to Zeb who held the hat in his hand to examine it.
Placing her chin on the arm rest, she watches him. Twenty years had gone by so fast, it was still difficult for her to believe that her little bald and chubby baby boy was now a wall of muscle and shoulder-length hair. The house had been a whirlwind since his arrival, and the two had not had a single moment alone the entire past couple of days. Not that either of them were too much about sentimental conversations in the first place.
“You can have that, if you want,” Allison finally pipes up, breaking the silence and startling him. He nods, bringing the cap up to his nose and inhaling it.
“Smells like him,” he blurts. “Marl-barrows ‘n Pert Plus.”
“His signature perfume,” she affirms, sitting up on the couch and wrapping herself up in the blanket. The two exchange a knowing look before Allison pats the cushion next to her. Zeb knew her well enough to know that this wasn’t simply an invitation, although she would never come out right and say it. In the early morning away from the rest of the family, this could be a reprieve from putting on the face of a soldier at war. Zeb places the hat on the coffee table as he takes a seat next to her.
“He shore was proud of you.”
“I know, Mama.”
No words, no tears. Everything that needed to be communicated would take place in the way that both of them knew how to. She leans toward Zeb, resting her head against his shoulder as he maneuvers his arm around her. Their moment alone had finally come: their first one since Kendra was born.
It had been too long.
With heavy hearts, we must announce that on May 24, 2021, we said goodbye to Russell Martin of Lexington. In lieu of flowers, family and friends can make a donation to the Shriners Hospital for Children of Greenville, SC.
Martin was predeceased by his parents, Randy and Judith Martin (Hanson), his wife Angela, and his sister Marielle. He is survived by his daughter, Allison Collier and his three grandchildren; Zeb, Kendra, and Mackenzie of Comer.
A visitation will be held on May 27 at the Barrett Funeral Home in Crawford, to be followed by a ceremony at the Watson Mill Bridge State Park.