“Big thang in high school for me was to get a group tuh go up tuh the Mall of Jawja ober there in Buford. Now, ain’t nobody that live over forty miles from Atlanta call any other city within forty miles anythang but ‘Uh-lanna.’ All of it’s big and intimidatin’ if you from the cut.”
It was a mild afternoon on the back patio of a ranch-style residence just outside of Chicago. It was one of the bonuses of sharing a house with three other people as opposed to a studio apartment within the city limits. The yard, while still fairly lackluster compared to the acres and acres of trees and pine straw that he was accustomed to back in Comer, was still much better than being stuck inside a multi-level slab of blocks and concrete.
It was a spacious deck, extending almost the entire length of the house. Come summer, this would be fondly referred to as the Party Porch and set to entertain the friends of the other occupants. Zeb looked forward to this when it was first mentioned upon the tour of the place, as his loneliness for the familiar faces in Georgia had still welled up in him from time to time.
Presently, he had the house all to himself. As luck and connections would have it, 2929 Birch Avenue consisted of four people involved directly with professional wrestling. His roommates were all currently booked at a card in Aurora for Friday night and had pooled together this evening to handbill the show around town, leaving the Watson Mill Kid with some adequate lead time to address the High Octane audience.
With plenty of sunlight still left, Zeb stood on the edge of the wooden deck with his hands resting on the railing. Facing away from the camera, his Ricky Rudd hat was still pulled at its now-natural position low on his forehead. A heather gray T-shirt hugged his frame with sweat stains revealed around his armpit area. Black running shorts extended to just above his knees as he nervously raised and lowered his calf muscles in mid-story: almost unaware that the HOTv camera had started rolling.
“Guy that graduated with me moved from Fulton County when he was in middle school, and when we was goin’ to the mall, he started bullshittin’ how ‘bout ‘Buford ain’t ‘Lanna. It’s OTP.’ OTP what they called ‘outside the perimeter,’ and purty much used by anyone who lived in their city limits,” he continues.
“That’s why I’m tellin’ everyone at home that I’m livin’ in Chicago ‘stead uh Berwyn. Ain’t nobody down there know where Berwyn is. Shoot, I’m not even sure I know where Berwyn is in relation to anythang else. Still learnin’ my way ‘round.”
Zeb turns his head slightly toward the lens, finally acknowledging the crewmember. “Sorry,” he mutters, flustered. “Startin’ to sound like them old men I always been sayin’ I ain’t want to be. I know y’all ain’t here to hear ‘bout country goin’ to town. Lemme get down to it.”
Making a full turn, Martin hoists himself up on the railing to a seated position, purposefully trying to position himself at an angle to keep the shot at profile. It is clear that he is completely sober and fully aware. Much like his whereabouts, being filmed is still something that he’s having trouble getting accustomed to despite now having almost two months of it under his belt. Satisfied with his position, he changes gears with his tone.
“Reckon I chuckled a lil’ bit watchin’ Lucien gettin’ a few words in on me. Don’t misunderstand nothin’, though, it ain’t ‘bout the confidence he’s brangin’ to the ring. Shore not go’n take his credit away. Y’all can shake yer head ‘bout him bein’ a lil’ bit delusional on what went down with us in the War Games qualifier, but we’re livin’ in a world where spinnin’ yarns happens purty often. It don’t matter neither if there’s any truth to it: if Lucien believes it himself, he’s go’n use it tuh put a shot uh steroids in his game against me.
“So, nothin’ funny ‘bout how he thanks he’s go’n handle his bidness with me this weekend. Both of us in the same spot. Fresher’n baby’s breath and stuck in a dogwood tree with nobody lookin’ out to make sure we’re steady Eddie. It’s go’n be me or him tryin’ tuh climb that next branch up ‘til somebody takes notice uh how high one of us is.”
“I got uh taste uh what Lucien kin do,” Martin proclaims, slightly nodding his head. “Cain’t say I’m excited bout the full supper. I ain’t lookin’ too much forward tuh bein’ dropkicked in the kneecap again.
“Top that off, he done had himself a parade announcin’ a fair comin’ tuh the Allstate Arener, but shore don’t seem like no Big Ol’ Slide ‘er Pop You A Balloon Fer a Realtree Cuzzi comin’ with it. Just a whole buncha hurtin’. Go’n hafta dish a lil’ bit more out if I’m wantin’ ta have my paw raised at the end, and I reckon I’m gearin’ up fer it.”
Giving his triceps a bit of a bump, Zeb casually pushes down with his hands to slightly lift his thighs off of the railing. Holding the position briefly, he sets himself back down and presses forward.
“Reason I laughed weren’t ‘bout the braggin’, and wasn’t ‘bout the theatrics he brought with him though. Lucien gave me a purty good piece of advice. He told me I needed tuh ‘be prepared.’
“Any uh y’all out there been in the Boy Scouts prolly heard that phrase a time’r two, huh? I shore as hell did. My Pawpaw wasn’t go’n be satisfied ‘til he got himself another fisherman in the family, and the Martin stubborn gene was purty good in makin’ that happen. My step-daddy, though? Ain’t a mean bone in his body, but the one thang he was passionate ‘bout was encouragin’ me tuh join Scouts. Reckon he figgered after Kenzie was born and Momma called the stork to tell ‘em tuh fuck off, he knew he weren’t go’n get a boy of his own. So he really wanted that fer me.
“He weren’t too thrilled when I quit at fourteen, but by that age ain’t nobody wanted tuh wear that lil’ uniform no more. Still remember the hand signal, still kin recite the oath word fer word, and still clicks in my noggin whenever I hear the word ‘prepared.’ I cain’t forget it even if I try to.”
Without any sound, Zeb simply mouths the words “be prepared,” momentarily distracted by the reminiscence of the phrase.
“Those that ain’t been through Scoutin’ prolly thank of it as just a bunch uh dorky boys out campin’ and tyin’ knots’n stuff. Know there’s more’n a few got they opinions on perverts usin’ it tuh doin’ kids’ dirty. All I kin tell ya ‘sides the memorizin’ slogans and sayins and knowin’ what a Totin’ Chip is is that my group spent most uh the time singlin’ someone out and bully’n ‘em instead uh singing songs and gettin’ merit badges.
“You brought the Sam’s Choice brand on yer night tuh cook, you go’n be Wal-Mart Boy that whole weekend. You brang cotton balls as a firestarter, somebody go’n say you have tampons in yer pack. And gawd help ya if you brand new and show up on the Monday night meetin’ in a pink shirt.”
Zeb laughs at his own comment. “I ain’t never claim to be too brilliant at makin’ fun uh nobody, and ‘Pink Dude’ shore wuttin’ the best insult anyone’s ever heard. But dang did it stick. Ain’t nobody know his name, but I reckon bein’ new, he wanted to do anything he could tuh fit in. That included joinin’ in on our pre-meetin’ ritual of playin’ a lil’ game called Kill the Carrier.
“We actually called it somethin’ else, but I ain’t tryin’ tuh offend nobody, so I’mma keep what we called it back then tuh myself. Anyway, this wiry new kid joins in with us, and I sook him out like a dern laser scope. ‘Give it to Pink Dude,’ I told my buddy Justin, who pitched it right to him. He caught it and took off. If y’all ain’t played Kill the Carrier, there ain’t no winnin’ to it: you either get kilt by someone or uh bunch of people tacklin’ ya, or ya toss it away and get called a pussy.
“Pink Dude made the worst mistake he could fer a new kid,” Zeb recalls, a bit of a pause included as he smiles. “He started runnin’ a few yards befo’ the panic set in, and tossed it behind his head.
“Now, proper Kill the Carrier manners say that ya ain’t s’posed tuh wreck nobody when they ain’t got the ball,” he informs. “But I reckon it was jus’ my night tuh be a horse’s ass. Pink Dude got himself a welcome tuh Troop 119 from me with a poor-lookin’ belly-tuh-back suplex. Like tuh hope my form’s done got a lil’ better since I was twelve, but I’ll let y’all be the judge of that. He took it like a champ, though. Got up, ain’t even try to wipe the stains off his ugly ol’ shirt, and kept on playin’.
“Next week, he came right back. Don’t remember what kinda shirt he had on that day, but I’ll give y’all a guess as to what color it wasn’t. Ain’t stop us from changin’ his nickname to Ordinary Shirt, though. Reckon everybody recalls when you’re ‘round that age, embarrasin’ moments got them a shelf life of a can uh Vienna sausages and ain’t nobody go’n forget it quick.
“Not tryin’ tuh make myself seem like a saint ‘er nothin’, but I’ll tell ya that week I didn’t have no intentions uh pickin’ on him. We had the rest of the troop tuh do that, though, so I’m sure it irritated him purty bad. Anyway, Pink Dude eventually wound up with the ball again. This time, he’d done learned his lesson, but he had a lil’ different strategy in mind.
“I was down at the end of the yard and not payin’ too much attention ‘til I saw him comin’ at dang Corvette speed. Squared up my shoulders and got ready to try and catch ‘em if he juked, ‘cause there wasn’t nobody else around down there to pick up the slack.
“He didn’t have no desire to juke, though. I was about a head and a half taller’n him and a good bit heavier, and he ran through me like a sackful of Krystals through a digestive system. Knocked me flat on my rear end. Balled up that rage into ever’thang he had and proved himself a point. Wanted tuh make me regret ever comin’ up with that nickname, regret gettin’ mad at his momma for buyin’ him that shirt.
“We still called him Pink Dude. Heck, I called him that when he started lecturin’ me on how Buford wasn’t A-lanna over six years later. He’s prolly sittin’ here watchin’ on HOTv right now and go’n call me all pissed off that I’m talkin’ ‘bout him! But, he sho’nuff hit it home that the ol’ Scout Motto wuttin’ lyin’.
Maneuvering his way off of the deck’s ledge, Zeb turns and looks back out into the yard. Shoving one hand into his pocket, he stares down at his sneakers and mutters to the wooden floor, as if it were his intended audience.
“Lucien, I kin promise ya I will be.”