When you contemplate the interior design of a place like this, you’re going for a certain aesthetic. White specks to saturate the ceiling. Thin, chocolate-colored carpet with circular Persian patterns in a lighter shade of sand to glue on a cement base. Cut-rate pine to provide a single end table and a dresser doubling as an entertainment center, atop which sat a television that you’d try to put on Facebook Marketplace for twenty bucks, but ultimately stick it next to your mailbox for any takers after a few days without a bite.
The duvet covering the king sized mattress almost mirrored the ceiling, and the rest of the bedding followed in kind. Thankfully, the four walls brought the spice alive in these luxury accommodations: containing both brown AND white, as a spattering of murkiness broke up the monotony in the wallpaper.
The aesthetic, familiar in most modern art circles, was “forty bucks a night, cash welcomed.”
Zipping up a duffel bag, Zeb Martin sat on the unmade bed and peered upward.
“Good seein’ ya again.”
While still content wearing the brim of his Ricky Rudd hat pulled down to shield half of his face, the part that we could see revealed the sincerity of his greeting. A hospitable smile spread to accentuate slight indents in his scruff-covered cheekbones. Close to a month had passed since we had first seen him next to a pond with tackle in tow, but it was apparent that he had still not quite gotten used to the fanfare involved with having a camera pointed at him.
Rays of sunlight pierced through the open window of the unit, and not a liquor bottle to be found anywhere in sight. The HOTv crew member, once again drawing the assignment to tape the Watson Mill Kid, wondered if the monologue would pour as freely as it did from their camping trip a couple of weeks ago without the aid of his grandfather’s medicine.
He wasn’t surprised when he pulled into the parking lot of a Best Western that Zeb would be here of all places to shoot. The trope had proved true: Martin didn’t quite seem like the Hilton Garden type. Verbal diarrhea had come sputtering out upon shaking the man’s hand prior to setting up, and as soon as he’d uttered the words, he immediately regretted it.
“You’re in the big leagues now, Zeb. Why are you staying in this dump?”
Whether oblivious or just cordial, Martin had only smiled and shook his head. “Bed slept purty alright. Shit, anythang’s fancy long as it’s bigger’n yer bedroom. But I’ll be checkin’ out tomorrow to head to the new quarters, so ain’t gotta worry ‘bout gettin’ mugged or nothin’ after today. Reckon y’all will be comin’ along for the ride then, too.”
The truth was that the newness of his recent travel into the Chicago area was reminiscent of the vacations of his youth. Every year since he was around nine or ten, it became like clockwork in the first week of August. Whether it was to the Great Smoky Mountains to explore the lore of the Cherokee reservation or down to Daytona Beach (his personal favorite) for a week, his mother and his stepfather would load all of the kids into the pickup and make the half-day drive in one of those directions.
The accommodations by most standards never exceeded two stars. Privacy was non-existent for the entirety of the trip, and it wasn’t exactly a high point that his bed was a roll-out cot, but at least he didn’t have to share it with his sisters. Like most people, those trips were among the fondest memories that he’d had as a child. Whether it be racing go-karts and feeding bears (or dropping shitty food pellets onto the bears to get stuck in their fur) in Cherokee or spending hours catching waves on a cheap Styrofoam boogie board, he felt an immense amount of joy just being somewhere other than home.
In between reflection of his first experience in the limelight of High Octane, Zeb spent most of this week reminiscing about those vacations. Although he had the freedom of space and a bed all his own, he sorely missed his family.
Since those things had waterlogged his brain, it was all he could really think to discuss as the camera began to roll.
“I ‘preciate the company. Gotta be honest with y’all, as much as I like spendin’ time by myself, it ain’t preferred when it’s fer longer than an afternoon or so,” Zeb confides. “Got up to Chicago Wednesday night, went in and ‘rassled Saturday, and in between time done worn out the charge on my phone bein’ on it so dern much talkin’ to folks back in Jawja. Not really missin’ Comer all that much already, jus’ lonely, I s’pose.
“Y’all gon’ laugh, but done talked to my Mamma ‘bout seven ‘er eight times since I got here, and it ain’t ‘cause she’s blowin’ me up neither. Hell, she probably sick of her grown one botherin’ her! But, she ‘ought tuh know she done raised her a Mamma’s boy by now. I ain’t never been this fer from her before, but figgger’n twenty-one’s ‘bout long enough to go tuh get out on yer own. Plus, she got ‘er hands full with havin’ tuh chase dem boys away from my two sisters, makin’ sure they don’t ‘go off and do what she did’ at their age.
“Surprised I turned into someone that gets beat up fer a livin’ now, considerin’ she ain’t never took so much as a switch to my ass. Cain’t day the same fer Kenzie ‘n Kendra, though. Bein’ sebenteen with yer first born baby is one thang: you ain’t know nothin’ but how to coddle and protect yer youngin. After that one, though, shoot.”
Martin chuckles, shaking his head. The sound of anything meeting the back of a thigh was all too familiar despite the fact that he’d only felt it as an adult. In wrestling, no less. He’d taken quite a few licks as a stipulation when a feud culminated with Satchel Kegtapper and his lovely manager Phi Kappa Kimberli Amber-Christina (a well-executed parody of the prominent Greek culture found on the campus of the University of Georgia), where both proceeded to wail on him with a paddle back in Classic City Pro while handcuffed to the ropes. Zeb immediately felt sorry for Kimberly’s future children after that incident.
“Reckon them butt-whippins did some good, though. She ought tuh not be worried too much ‘bout havin’ a granbaby too soon. Mamma ‘n Mark did a dang fine job bringin’ us up, and they gon’ be alright. If anythang, she needs tuh be more concerned ‘bout Kendra knockin’ the hell outta someone and gettin’ in trouble fer that. She ever grows up and wants tuh foller in her big bubba’s footsteps, the rest of this roster best be tuckin’ a piss pad under their trunks! Kenz gotta lil’ ornery streak in her too, but thankfully, that girl’s smarter than a dern racoon with a Ph. D. in huntin’ trash. She’ll be the one sewin’ me up one day after I done took too many cuts doin’ this stuff.”
Rising to his feet and stretching out his arms toward the antiquated ceilings, Martin re-adjusted his cap to ensure he didn’t make full eye contact with the lens. He adjusted his gaze to the television set before trudging through the monologue.
“Needs tuh get on the ball with it, cause I might need that doctorin’ quicker’n ten years from now,” Zeb mulls. “Got a lil’ wear and tear befo’ HOW, but ain’t nothin’ compared tuh the taste uh brick ‘n steel I felt last week. Know that’s just a lil’ sip of it tuh come, I reckon.
“Shore was a good go with ya, Brian. Cain’t say I much cared fer the the fact that I hadda give a lil’ nod to Mr. Ventura on it, though. Might never even got ya in the stock tuh drop down the Cricker if he hadn’t walked you up to the platform. Toe-matchin’-toe, you might’s well uh been behind the steerin’ wheel of a tractor-trailer, ‘cause you brought a lotta power in with that dang kick. Executioner almost the one with his head taken plum off after that.
“I’ont know what exactly yer lookin’ for, but you gon’ be much tougher tuh tap whenever ya find it, that’s for shore and certain. What I brought last week may not get the job done a second time, so I’ma keep that in the back uh the ol’ noggin’ if we get the pleasure of makin’ acquaintances again. Heck, mebbe this Saturday we end up with an encore. Or sharin’ a length of rope and slappin’ five on the same corner turnbuckle. Whether it’s sooner ‘er later, both them thangs ain’t somethin’ I won’t be happy to oblige. And just tuh make it clear, mean no harm tuh Mr. Ventura on that lil’ remark. Truth be told, distractions shook me a fair bit bein’ in such a big arena.
“Bein’ in good hands with Allstate ain’t quite somethin’ I’m used to. Won’t sugar coat it: it really is a whole dif’rnt ball game in front of that type uh gatherin’. Guess I better get settled in quicker, though, ‘cause I don’t ‘spect less of a hootenanny at the Lethal Lottery.”
A little internally peeved at a lack of a better term for a gathering, there is a slight pause to collect himself. He shrugs his shoulders and gives a slight shake of his head before continuing.
“I ‘member turnin’ 18, headin’ in the mornin’ to ol’ Ogletho’p County High School and stoppin’ in at the Golden Pantry befo’ class. Couldn’t damn wait tuh buy some dip and pick up a scratch-off jus’ ‘cause I could.”
Zeb titters a bit, lifting his eyes up to survey the room and subtly indicate the audience to follow suit.
“As you can see, I ain’t win shit off of it. Got kinfolk that need dem tickets every day like they crack, n’ guess what? Ain’t none of them win shit neither, ‘cept mebbe a hundred ‘er two. Every dollar went right back into more of ‘em, like a one-legged man chasin’ squirrels: get to a tree and cain’t climb the sombitch.
“E’ry one of em swears they done got the system figg’red out, too. ‘Gotta look for the tickets that’s almost out, then buy a couple mo’ so they gotta get a new roll out — the winnin’ ones always in the front.’ ‘Make sure if you got two that don’t win back-to-back you buy the next ‘un, ‘cause them odds is three-tuh-one.’ Reckon the sayin’s true on all thangs: those that cain’t do it too well usually teach,” he scoffs, shaking his head. “Hell, if y’all want lotto advice, I can put ya in touch with ‘em. Ain’t gon’ be much help with this one, though. Or even the regular one, but don’t be tellin’ them I said that.”
The artist formerly known as Yung Trailer Hitch winks, albeit we can barely see it under the brown bill.
“Sorry, I know y’all done sick of gamblin’ references prolly by now from all us ‘rasslers all week, so I’ll quit it. Dern lot of us purty excited ‘bout the event, though. Not like goin’ tuh the gas station and rubbin’ a quarter on a card, ‘cause it ain’t gon’ be no ten second thrill with a five second disappointment. That emptiness’ll linger a lot longer’n losin’ a dollar if ya end up starin’ at the sky after lettin’ a opportunity slide through yer fingertips. Ain’t no mind if it’s a shiny gold belt, a couple shiny gold belts, or gettin’ penned on the card in permanent marker fer one uh the biggest shindigs that High Octane’s got.”
Putting a left hand against the Levi Garret Racing logo, Zeb reprimands himself. “Shit. Shindig. That’s what I was lookin’ for a minute ago.”
“Anyway,” he picks up, “mystery ‘round it makin’ me jus’ as shaky as last week. I might end up gettin’ the night off, but ain’t no one gon’ be in the mood tuh shoot the bull ‘til we find out who Mike Best’s opponent is. Then again, might well be pullin’ the trunks up and adjustin’ the pads fer someone I ain’t had no time to prepare for. Fishin’ with a bamboo pole and a shoestring. Nothin’ but some chewed up ol’ gum fer bait.
“Thankfully, we all in the dark ‘bout who we goin’ in against, so ain’t no advantage on either side uh the turnbuckles. Much as I ain’t a fan of shinin’ a flashlight in the water tuh catch um in the net, looks like that ol’ gag’s gon’ be the only way I can fill my belly. But, like I dun said, just grateful for the chance. Whether er not I get the arm raised up, it’s gon’ be a good one. Shore look forward to seein’ y’all there.”
Reckon we will. As the film rolls out from the dreary, colorless motel room, we catch a slight glimpse of Martin reaching into the front of his jeans pocket to retrieve a small bottle of empty whiskey. Dropping it into the tiny wastebasket, it appears as though he had started a little early prior to the shoot. The question remaining: how long will it be until Zeb Martin feels comfortable in his own skin? What will it take?