“Nothing to do now but the best we can.”
Zeb was too young to remember the first time he’d heard his mother utter those words. After the jury had ruled in favor of the defendant at his father’s wrongful death trial, it was what Allison Martin had said in order to cushion the blow.
The sum of money that plaintiff counsel demanded seemed lottery-like, much to the point to where she had already spent it in her head. True, while she had no claim in the Estate of Richard Hart, it would still substantiate a much better life for her and her three-year old son. A home that wasn’t held up by stacks of cinder blocks. A car that didn’t need to have water poured into the radiator every other day. She’d be able to send him to Athens Academy as opposed to the two-star rated public education system within Oglethorpe County. Hell, they wouldn’t even have to live in the meth-addled rural community anymore if the trial had gone according to the expectations of their attorney.
Despite her cloak of positivity, she had beaten herself up for harboring such unrealistic hopes and dreams. What was worse is that she had essentially lied on the stand in an effort to paint a prettier portrait of her ex-boyfriend to the jury. Allison had it in her mind that if the ends justifies the means, it would have been well worth the effort.
Not only did the year and a half long journey end with a zero-sum resolution, she had actually defended Ricky’s absentee parenting in front of several strangers. Words that would be forever etched in the court record, collecting cobwebs within a file yet never to be erased or destroyed.
It was something that would remain a sprig of broccoli in her craw. The bitterness dripped in the form of subtle remarks to her son that would latch into his subconscious and stay with him forever.
“You better pay attention to your teacher, or you go’n end up like yer daddy.”
“Damn runnin’ around gettin’ inta everythang. I ‘idnt do that when I was yer age.”
“Must be the Hart in ya.”
That last statement certainly rang in her head upon his initial announcement that he was attempting to make a career out of professional wrestling. His mother refused to accept any path for her son that didn’t involve college. Sure, she had begun to come around after a month or so into his stint with High Octane Wrestling, but it was a point of heavy contention for a couple of years around the house. One which led to shouting and the setting of an uncomfortable cloud that still lingered over their otherwise perfect relationship.
Zeb wasn’t a complete idiot. Sure, most wouldn’t label him a Rhodes scholar, but amidst the performance measures of his alma mater, he’d finished in the higher 10% of his graduating class. Yes, there were only about 130 students in the OCHS Class of ‘19. And yes, earning A’s in such mind-bending electives as Weightlifting and Auto Mechanics may have had a little influence in his GPA. But, there were several schools in Georgia that would have welcomed him with open arms: just none who would offer him a debt-free ride to go there.
This was the shotgun shell in Zeb’s argument against his mama’s wishes. But it wasn’t really about a dislike for having to take out student loans. It was the lie he’d initially told her until the truth finally came out in their knock-down drag-out argument on the issue.
After the closing bell
The eGG Basket
In what had seemed to be a rerun performance, the majority of the eGG Bandits had once again suffered losses at the hands of their opponents at Refueled. The recent memories of the events at hand would not exactly be forgettable based on Jiles’ iterations of the fact pattern that led to it.
As if the locker room were doubling as a dais, Bobby, Zeb, Rick, and Doozer had been strapped to the spit. The shoulda coulda wouldas had accented the aroma of stale sweat and painful defeat. The Beautiful Man from Honalee’s blatant telegraph of his finishing maneuver. Comer’s Favorite Son’s inability to cinch in the Tangler to assure the victory over Conor Fuse. And despite telling them time and time again to watch for that deadly Hughie Freeman fist, Doozer was still caught with his own head up his rear end.
To Jiles’ credit, it was his own personal version of tough love. The exact dose of medicine to try and cure the disease that he’d felt had set in after the intense highs of No Remorse. He meant no real harm, but emotions at that point were elevated, especially after Rick and Zeb had turned the tag championships over in as little as two weeks to the Hollywood Boyz. Martin had heard a similar dressing down almost a week prior to this, and normally, he’d have written it off as one of his mentors just blowing off some steam.
However, tonight was different.
Prior to Refueled, all seemed well in the camp. A renewed vigor and a strong sense of enthusiasm permeated within the locker room. It was a new leaf being turned over: an opportunistic rebound to get back to the success that they had enjoyed as a legitimate threat to the High Octane roster. Zeb himself felt well-prepared to finally crack the unbreakable code to defeat the hot-streak gamer. Even after the loss, he’d kept a positive mental attitude and eagerly encouraged his brethren to make up for it with a decisive victory over Freeman and Harrison.
After the close of the show, though, the negativity bug had bitten him. The most reasonable assumption was most likely related to Jiles’ comments to Blaire Mose, but was that actually the case?
To be honest. Martin was somewhat aloof when Rick and Doozer had made their abrupt exit. It wasn’t until Bobby had his emotional outburst that Zeb began to show life in the hateful monologue.
For some odd reason, as the cavernous echo of Bobby’s sobbing sound escaped his nostrils, Zeb briefly recalled a memory of his friend Amie from back home. The literal opposite of an ostentatious person, Amie had an undeniable magnetism and a wit to rival even the edgiest New York stand-up. However, those qualities also came paired with a vulnerable heart: one that was exposed to Zeb after they’d both spent hours until sunrise taking pulls from the same fifth of Four Roses on the dock of a public campground. A raucous crew of thirty had decided to celebrate the beginning of senior year, which had ultimately pulled the two into thoughtful conversation for the first time in their friendship.
Zeb had divulged to her his vision for growing up and getting out of Comer for good. She shared the same sentiment of sharing the beautiful view of Oglethorpe County in her rear-view mirror, and as the alcohol took a stronger grasp on her tongue, she continued to lament her life as it presently was. How she would never find love being around “all these rednecks, no offense, you’re different,” how she didn’t even really know what it was she was looking for, and how the only thing she knew is that she didn’t want to end up in a situation like her own parents.
Amie broke down with that particular shift in the conversation. Her usual shield of humor and ruggedness had been tossed thirty feet out into the water via the brown hand of cheap whiskey. The announcement of the separation was a fresh wound for her, and one to where she’d meant to keep bandaged completely out of sight from anyone else. But the blood was now visible to Zeb, and it streamed clear from the corners of her eyes and down her cheekbones.
His reaction was the same then as it was now, watching something that a friend thought was impenetrable being stabbed repeatedly like a pencil through a wet Kleenex.
“Go’n be alright, Bo. I’m sorry.”
Even though it was no fault of his own, in the absence of anything else to say, Zeb apologized.
“We go’n do the best we can.”
The Aftermath of the Aftermath
“Reckon you need tuh calm yer ass down.”
It was proclaimed without any increase in volume, without any sharpness in tone.
But its impact was like an atomic bomb, delivered from a man who’d never so much had made a mouse peep of an interjection in their hundreds of conversations.
The Maestro didn’t quite know how to respond to it at first. Honestly, he’d hung around the parking lot with the expectation that Bobby Dean would be the first one out, waiting impatiently in his car as to how best to make sure that the evening ended on a less sour note.
If this were to be the end of an era, it could at least be a little more bittersweet. Even still, Jiles’ own desire to ensure he had the last word was the subconscious little flea that tap danced in his brain. It prevented him from cranking the engine, putting the car in reverse, and calling it a night.
That said, it wasn’t Bobby who walked out with his bags in tow. It was the long-haired, slow-talking trailer trash wearing a hat twice his age. Still donning the same ring-worn jeans, Zeb hadn’t noticed that the COOL one was still hanging around as he retrieved a can of Welfare Bear out of the back pocket and thumped on it instinctively with his forefinger.
Jiles quickly opened the passenger door and hustled toward Martin.
“Is he finished crying, or did you have to hop on a dingy to get out of there?”
There was a short pause, and then that very statement uttered that had left CJ temporarily speechless.
“Have you been drinking?” Jiles asked, breaking the silence.
Zeb merely shrugged off the question, continuing his walk to the truck without dignifying it with a response. The Maestro was not content with this, however, as he proceeded to trail him to the Toyota.
“You better pay attention to your teacher…”
“Good! I hope you have! Go ahead, take ‘the ol’ pickup’ for a spin! Hope you don’t run into a telephone pole!” Of course he didn’t mean it, of course he was just trying to get under his skin. Of course it was just the heat of the moment.
“…or you go’n end up like yer daddy.”
Zeb stopped short of climbing in the cab. He took a breath, his brain working overtime to bury the toxic mixture of his mentor’s and his mother’s voices deep down inside and completely out of reach.
And with the closing of the door behind him, that was it for harsh words for the evening.
Zeb Martin had much more important things to worry about than this petty squabble.