March 8, 2021
Echo Rehabilitation Center
“Less you plannin’ on totin’ me outta here on yo shoulder, I don’t know why ya bothered makin’ the trip down.”
Russell Martin’s skin looked like the remnants of a rawhide bone that a pit bull had chewed on for years. Any rugged attractiveness that he might have carried in his youth had been chipped away by an oncologist’s worst nightmare: a constant cocktail of chewing tobacco mixed with a Marlboro Light on the hour, every hour. The corn mash and Natural Ice certainly hadn’t helped either his complexion or his weight. His only saving grace was that even at his age, he still had a thick head of hair, although barely kept and typically covered by a fitted Snickers Racing cap.
They didn’t let him bring his nicotine or alcohol inside the rehab facility, but hell would have welcomed their newest resident had they tried to take that thing off his head. Until today, that is.
“Post office been screwin’ up lately so I figg’red I need tuh brang you yer present in person,” Zeb joked as he retracted his free hand from a firm shake and presented a brown grocery bag to his grandfather.
Pawpaw gave the sack a quizzical look. “You get me some Vi-anna sausages?”
The Watson Mill Kid shook his head. “Open it.”
The senior Martin reached inside, pulling out a brand new brown-and-white trucker hat. It was the latest piece of HOW merchandise that would be a few weeks out from its release. Pawpaw grinned as he examined the base of it.
“They dun made you a ball cap! Dang,” he remarked. “That’s purty cool righ’chere.”
Zeb nodded as he watched him try it on for size, instinctively bending the bill together with both hands as he pulled it snug on his head.
“Yep. First souvenir uh my career, I reckon,” Zeb added. “Hopefully ain’t my last.”
“Naw,” Pawpaw Martin responded. “Why th’ hell you gonna say that? Next time y’all come down here, I wawnt me a T-shirt.”
His grandson shrugged a response, shuffling over to a chair next to the bed and taking a seat. “H-O-Dubya ain’t one fer makin’ shirts fer folks that don’t get much work done in the rang, Pawpaw. And here come lately I’m dang shore shocked they bothered sendin’ hats tuh the printers,” he proclaimed.
“I’m barely treadin’ water. I mean, I s’pose I’m startin’ tuh wonder if I’s even ready fer all this. Or’f I done been better off doin’ what Mamma said a year’r two ago and went tuh trade school. Coulda been well on my way tuh buyin’ my own place down here, makin’ a decent livin’ weldin’ or workin’ a CNC machine. ‘Stead uh runnin’ my body ragged an’ gettin’ whooped week in ‘n week out.”
Pawpaw blinked and sighed as he tried to temper down his initial spot reaction to tell his grandson to quit his bitching, instead opting for a slightly less harsh approach.
“Reckon so, boy. Or, ya coulda got on at the Midas an’ spent yer life changin’ mufflers. Spendin’ yer free weekends runnin’ trot lines an’ catchin’ catfish cause ya needed the extry money payin’ on a trailer an’ tryin’ tuh make life better fer yer only daughter. An’ when ya couldn’t even do that, yew at least tried tuh make up fer it by helpin’ yer daughter raise her youngin’ and tellin’ him time and time again that he done needed tuh make somethin’ better’n what Ogle-thoap Canty go’n give him. Only tuh have him come visit ya in some dang nursin’ home and tell him that he’s thankin’ ‘bout givin’ up.”
“Well hold on a second,” Zeb interjected, “I ain’t at that point yet.”
“Ain’t ya though?” Russell Martin fired back, raising a brow. “Son, you down here on a whim seein’ an old man who shore ain’t ready tuh die yet. Yew findin’ any excuse ya kin tuh come on back here makin’ sure e’rbody knows you still consider Comer home. Up in Chicago where ya might hang this new fancy ball cap uh yers, but yer mail and yer driver’s license still says Jawja on the address. You still right here, Zeb.”
Zeb could only stare back in response. Which was fine for Russell, as he still had plenty more to say.
“I told ya ‘bout my grandpaw growin’ up with ol’ Ty Cobb, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Zeb muttered, not sure where he was going in referencing the ball player “affectionately” known as the Georgia Peach, who was originally from the nearby town of Royston.
“Well,” the senior Martin continued, “he was a racist and a sunovabitch. And shore as shit didn’t make him no more likeable that he carried all the ballplayin’ talent in Franklin Canty, ‘cause he knew how good he was. Much of a bastard as he was, still had sense tuh know all that ability wudn’t go’n do nothin’ fer him stickin’ around where he done grew up. He’s ‘bout your age when he had his first pro season, and dang dribbled piss fer it. Know what happ’ned after that?”
Zeb chuckled a bit, not destitute enough yet to resist shoehorning in a joke. “He stabbed a bunch uh shortstops with his cleats?”
“Damn right he did,” Russell responded, no-selling the punchline completely. “On his way tuh bein’ one uh the best in the majors. And it don’t stop with him, neither. Much as I hated his damn guts, yew know how many races Dale Earnhardt done won his first season? None. An’ just like Cobb, man’s on the fuckin’ Mount Rushmo’ uh NASCAR.”
“Dang,” Zeb mulled, “hell must be gettin’ cold. You praisin’ the Intimidator. They go’n boot you outta the Ricky Rudd fan club once I tell ‘em this story.”
“Th’ Rooster was always the better driver,” Russell clarified. “Childress Racin’ just had mo’ money tuh hire a better pit crew for Earnhardt. Anyway, you missin’ the point, boy, so lemme put it to ya in a way me’n you both kin understand.”
Russell leaned over and looked his grandson dead in his deep brown eyes — another genetic trait he’d passed along to him. “Castin’ a line in Lake Sinclair don’t make you ready tuh charter a boat an’ catch one in the Gulf uh Mexico. Them basics the same, sho’ nuff. You kin bait the hook, you kin hold the rod, and you know tuh start reelin’ when you get a nibble. But sharks pull a lot goddamn harder than a Largemouth. And even if you do get one on the boat, they’ll still liable tuh bite yer arm clean off.”
“You ain’t lyin’,” Zeb muttered as he leaned back into the chair.
“Still don’t need to be why you opt tuh settle just fer fishin’ in a pond, son,” Russell emphasized. “Seafood’s better eatin’ and pays a whole helluva lot more’n bass. But you still gotta lot more tuh learn ‘bout how tuh work them bigger waters.”
The Watson Mill Kid paused for a split second, unsure if he even wanted to breach the subject. This place that they were in seemed to be a breeding ground for the elderly to dwell on the what-ifs. To look back on their lives and wonder how things would be if circumstances were to have played out differently. He didn’t want his grandfather to be left to navigate those doldrums once he’d ended his visit.
But he just had to know.
“Why not you? When you’s my age, what stopped ya from…goin’ after bigger fish?”
Russell pondered the question for a moment before coming to his answer.
“My arms wudn’t as big as yours. You kin prolly take a shark bite.”
He grinned, the direct effect of the statement also allowing for a smile to spread over Zeb’s face.
“Reckon my daddy never had no talk with me like this ‘un. Heck, only advice he ever done give me was tuh never trust no politician. And tuh never drive a Chevy.”
“Well, he was at least right ‘bout them two thangs,” Zeb said.
“As rain,” Russell agreed. “And you kin bet I’m right on what I done told you, too.”
April 7, 2021
Grapplers Local 214 Retreat
St. Louis, MO
Zeb Martin sat by his lonesome on the penthouse patio. The newness of the view had since worn off, despite the parallel patterns formed by countless black roofs and busy downtown streets. Just to the right of the kitschy wooden table, a ferris wheel and a giant praying mantis atop the converted warehouse beckoned served as a marquee for the City Museum.
The Catfish Whisperer had particularly liked the barnhouse red water tower that had been converted into one of the attraction’s several slides. It was a reminder of the time where he had climbed the ladder of one and spray painted his name on it. While he thought he had made it big enough to see for miles, perspective wasn’t exactly on his side. It was a structure that had been defaced time and time again, and once he had made his way back down the ladder, it simply blended into the collage of others’ tags.
The last time he’d passed by it before the county ultimately came in and repainted the whole thing, a more ambitious youngster had decided to position a testicle right above his name. All in all, it finally took a giant dick to finally whitewash history.
Martin had taken the afternoon to indulge in a more recent form of historical preservation: wrestling events posted on YouTube. A fresh can of Natural Light in a bright orange cuzzi sat nearby. A souvenir from his recent getaway that featured palm trees and the words “Fort Myers Beach” in faux-cursive. While he’d definitely been spoiled on his introduction to the world of microbrew, they tended to get him a little too tipsy too quick: thus his decision to opt for the swill. He was a couple in shortly after completing a workout, making sure to pace himself to keep his focus on his homework.
Zeb had never been much for tape analytics. For the longest time, he felt as though surviving on his wits and ring sense was of the highest importance, but the recent string of defeats had finally clicked. Listen to those who have been around. Who have come in and out of those same slumps.
The sound of the storm door opening followed by the popped top of another cheap beer revealed one of those people who had offered the advice to him.
“Bet you guys don’t have a bridge as big as that one over there where you’re from.”
Startled, Martin turns and glances up to the familiar face of Joe Bergman. He immediately sets his cell on the table and rises to his feet, eagerly extending his hand to the man he hadn’t seen in quite some time. Bergman accepts the shake and pulls him in for a power hug, the two patting one another on the back to finish the gesture.
“Dang shore good tuh see ya, man. When’jda get here?” Zeb inquires, pulling the extra chair out and offering Joe a seat at the table.
“About fifteen minutes ago. I thought I’d pop in before I headed back to MVW’s HQ to pick up my wife. Surprised you didn’t hear me come in.”
Martin motions toward the display on the phone and the pair of pods that lay next to it. “Nah. Watchin’ some E-Dubya-C. Needed tuh do some diggin’ back a lil’ further on ol’ Clay since only thang I got in H-O-Dubya was him in the cage. ‘Cept for when he whooped me, that is.”
“Find anything yet from his Japan days?” Joe inquires.
“Ain’t got far enough down that road yet I reckon,” Zeb replies, gripping the beer and bringing it in for a pull. “Spent yestidy tryna rewatch ever’thang I could on yo’ formah buddy and prolly didn’t scratch the dirt too much.”
Bergman nods knowingly, adjusting slightly in his chair to face the youngster. “Well, there isn’t much to scratch there when it comes to Solex. Watch out for the shoulder blocks and don’t let him hit the clothesline. But watching tape must be helping since you decided to make a run of it two afternoons in a row.”
Zeb shrugs his shoulders and leans back, the red tomahawk-crossed “A” logo of the Braves stretching across his chest. “Not too shore. I mean, amma s’posed tuh be retainin’ anythang? Most uh what I kin tell is what I’m seein’ ‘em throw at me, which I thank I got their go-to’s down so far.”
“Well,” Joe advises, “that’s what you’ve got to do. Preparation helps out… a lot. The more you prepare going in means you’ll make better choices during the match. You played football in high school?”
“And you watched tape?”
“Nah. Coach wudn’t worth a damn tuh put much effort to’rd us winnin’ and it shore as heck showed,” the Watson Mill Kid replies.
“Gotcha,” Bergman acknowledges, leaning back toward the table and taking a closer look at the paused video clip. “Well, think about it like this. In football, a big part of tape review is mostly watching what the opposing side is running. So you know what to look for. But the great minds? They examine it a little deeper than that. They’re looking at tendencies of the players instead of just the plays they run, and not just at the skill positions, either. Looking for patterns: footwork, how a lineman sets the block, whether or not the quarterback consistently turns a blind eye to one side or another.”
Zeb offers a second knowing nod. “Lookin’ fer flaws tuh expose,” he says, positioning himself back upright in the seat.
“Not necessarily flaws,” Joe corrects. “Patterns. Tendencies. Watching tape does give you an indicator of how your opponent will react in the heat of the moment that with some creativity, you can capitalize on. In HOW, don’t need to be too focused on finding weaknesses because at this level of competition there aren’t a lot.”
Joe gestures at the video.
“Instead,” he continues, “find where you can get an edge. If the big Texan takes a step back toward a corner off of pure instinct after missing on a punch, for instance? Save your energy on trading fists when you’ve got an opening, because a guy that’s got reach on you is going to win that battle more often than not. Instead, put your head down and barrel him into the corner. That’s what a good offensive lineman would have done to him on the field.”
Martin moves his left hand to his chin in deliberation of Joe’s advice. “I mean, I reckon I wouldn’t punch back, but I’d prolly woulda kicked him.”
“And that right there is why you need to spend just as much time looking at your own matches. I use that as a tool to teach my students how to mix up their tendencies so they’re not inadvertently telegraphing it in the heat of the moment and so should you. You’re a grappler, Zeb. Not a kickboxer.” Bergman reminds the youngster. “Sure, ramming him against the turnbuckle is going to piss him off just as much as a boot to the gut would, but you can’t immediately grab hold of his body and toss him backwards after the impact of a kick.”
“Makes sense you puttin’ it like that. I guess it ain’t all shock and awe tuh get the upper hand. A buh-havior I ain’t never took the time to think I done had. And here I thought I knew ever’thang there was tuh know ‘bout this,” Zeb jokes.
“Well, I could have corrected you on that just by looking at what you’re drinking,” Bergman grins, picking up Zeb’s can of Natty and removing it from the cuzzi. “You do realize it’s only about fifty cents extra for a case of PBR, right? Let’s pour this down the drain and get you a real beer.”
“Don’t be suh hard on me, Joe. I’m still learnin’.”
April 8, 2021
St. Louis, MO
“I’m pickin’ the big sumo ‘rassler. He any good?” Zeb inquired, looking to the left at the newest member of the union and his tag partner for the coming week.
Conor Fuse’s smile widened. “Yeah man, E. Honda’s the best one in the game. I’m really in for it now!”
The Vintage hated lying directly through his teeth, but any opportunity to show off his skill in a classic like Street Fighter 2 was one that he simply could not pass up. He knew full well that the slow lumbering pace of the game’s fattest man was not an ideal pick for a novice such as Zeb. It would serve him much better to go with an all-around fighter which might have given him a fighting chance to at least get a few hits on him.
However, it was best to keep the southerner’s confidence up. It would make his victory all that much sweeter. He motions the cursor with the joystick over to highlight Ken, and with a preparatory crack of his knuckles, presses the “Fierce Kick” button to make his selection. Watching the plane take flight, Conor follows in unison with the arcade console’s proclamation.
“JA-PAN! Round one…FIGHT!”
Wasting very little time, Conor directed his 16-bit martial artist to perform a tornado jumping spin kick that he himself had tried to replicate once or twice in the ring. Granted, Ken was able to rotate about twelve times whereas Conor could only achieve about a half a turn. Much to his surprise, Zeb was aware enough to reverse course and block the attempt at the attack…
…and then went with the tried and true method of any gamer’s biggest pet peeve.
The random mashing of buttons from Zeb’s right hand had Honda grabbing hold of Ken tightly and squeezing the ever loving shit out of him in a bear hug. Then, once that was over, he’d left Ken very little time to recover: the continued rapid-fire pressing let loose a wave of hands that struck him down yet again.
“Dang it! Get away from me!” Fuse cries, maneuvering Ken back with a jump to separate the two. Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to do much good, as E. Honda flew across the digital dojo with a flying head butt directly to the midsection. At this point, Conor began to realize the ruse: the simple man standing next to him may not have been so simple. In fact, he knew exactly what he was doing.
“Dadgum, how’n the heck that big ol’ boy do that? Oh well.”
Maybe not. As the game waged on, Honda continued a quick onslaught of simply jumping near Ken and locking the bear hug back in, adding additional damage with Zeb’s quick trigger finger. Mere seconds later, the exaggerated groan of the blond-haired American falling to the ground in slow motion signaled the end of round one.
“PLAYER 2: WIN!”
Fortunately for Conor Fuse fans, it was a simple instance of beginner’s luck. When faced with a novice, a true e-sportsman can quickly adapt and conquer. While Zeb had snuck one by him, it was the only one. Ken had been the ultimate victor, extending Conor’s streak to 397 wins in a row.
“Good game,” Zeb smiles, extending his hand for a shake.
“You too, man,” Conor reciprocates, casting a wide glance around the facilities lined to the walls with flickering light screens and other electronic boxes of amusement. “What’s next? You ever try pinball? That might be something you’d be pretty good at!”
“Up tuh you. I’m jus’ the student here, Teach. Go pick somethin’ out, I’mma see if the ol’ phony ID works here as good as it does in Chicaga,” Zeb responds, motioning toward the bar. “You need anythang?”
“All set. I’ll see you in a minute!”
Martin nods as Conor took off for the Addams Family pinball machine, leaving him to his vices. It had certainly been a week filled with learning experiences for Comer’s Favorite Son, whether in the real or digital combat world.
He’d hoped there would be more to come.