Every inch of walkable space outside of 2929 Birch Avenue was smothered by a blanket of snow. The frigid hands of a Midwest winter was new for the Watson Mill Kid. Whenever he would dare to venture outside, not even the scarf that his great aunt crocheted for him could protect from the icy fingers wrapping around his neck. While he’d built up plenty of resistance to the soul-sucking humidity of a Georgia summer, Zeb was a vulnerable, shivering mess as soon as the temperature dropped to the teens.
With it being February, Martin had now come to expect days in Oak Lawn where hopping into his truck for a trek to the gym or the grocery store was just not in the cards. Despite his Tacoma being equipped with four-wheel drive, his tendency to lead foot both the gas pedal and the brake made him a rolling insurance liability: one that he simply could not afford at this point in his life.
These days were where having three roommates tied to the wrestling community was a positive thing.
Maddie and Antonio were the owners of the home that was affectionately referred to as the Grap House. Well, to be fair: Maddie was the owner of the home, but come April, until death or divorce would the real estate part. Quarters were fairly close despite the couple sharing the master and two other tenants filling up the spare bedrooms, but the rent was certainly helpful to their financial situation.
Zeb was the only one fortunate enough at this point to not have to work additional jobs outside of wrestling: he was the only housemate that had actually gotten a break in the business. The reason he’d even landed the room was due to the close-knit networking of independent bookings. Prior to signing with High Octane, Martin had met Antonio when he’d inquired about potentially filling a slot on a local show the evening before his meeting with Lee Best. It was at the show that Maddie had mentioned a room for rent in case he got the job, “so long as he wasn’t a creep or a fucking slob.” Aside from occasionally leaving his boots in front of the door, he checked both of those boxes.
Recently, there’d been more and more hints dropped that after the wedding, the couple would be giving up on the goal of a steady income within the squared circle. The cat had been let out of the bag when Zeb walked into the living room that morning to see Antonio pulling a black pea coat over his only suit. Likely, both the bride and groom’s parents had given them a heart-to-heart about it being time to grow up: especially if they were footing the bill for the ceremony.
Since they’d kept their plans in the dark, both Zeb and the other housemate Danielle wondered if they’d need to look for a new place this summer. Much like the dirt circuits of the small-time cards they’d wrestled, there were no written agreements to reference when their welcome would be worn out.
Today seemed like an opportune time to talk about it.
“Ah don’t thank he was attendin’ no funeral,” Zeb mulled, his right hand firmly gripping the Oh Shit handle above the passenger door of the maroon-painted 2007 Saturn Ion. The Catfish Whisperer silently prayed that Danielle’s maneuvering of the car was good enough to keep them from skidding into a telephone pole.
The cute brunette with the pixie bob haircut did not seem the least bit concerned about the weather, nor the reliability of the small sedan. The road could have been a Mario Kart track for all she cared: it was a confidence that she’d developed while learning to drive in her hometown of International Falls, Minnesota. The dichotomy between the two from a dashboard view was apparent. Zeb looked prepared to spend the night in an igloo, while Danielle paired a lime green tank top with yoga pants. As she opened her mouth to speak, there was at least one common thread to link them: a very distinct regional accent.
“Not a chance,” she agreed, coming to a brief stop at a four-way intersection. Martin’s hold on the handle loosened for a moment, but his knuckles immediately grew white again as they rolled forward. “Betcha a dollar he was headin’ to a job interview. Ya know he’s got a college degree, right?”
Zeb shook his head. “He’s a smart guy. Figg’red he might’ve.”
“Mmm-hm,” Danielle said, glancing down at the cellphone on her lap and sending her passenger further down a spiral of anxiety. “Maddie told me it was in Information Systems, doin’ spreadsheets or something like that. Apparently it’s pretty high-demand. But to be honest with ya, I seen it comin’.”
“How yuh figure?” Zeb inquired.
“Kids. She wants kids. Him too, I guess. But she’s gonna demand ‘em. And she knows that’s not gonna work out if they both don’t have steady income.”
Zeb nodded. “Guess they ain’t plannin’ to shack them critters up with me’n you.”
Danielle tilted her head and smiled back at him. “What’s it gonna be come May, hon? If I don’t get signed to a big fat contract, I don’t think we’ll be able to go halfsies on a RV.”
“Ain’t too worried,” he responded. “I got a tent. If I pull a strang or two, might be able to rent us a backyard tuh pitch it in.”
If luck and fate were absolute truths, the proof of it sat in the wear and tear of that very Saturn. On the passenger side was a kid who’d be challenging for a title in one of the premier wrestling promotions in the world that same week: the only thing that made him truly stand out was an intonation and a gimmick based on his love for the great outdoors. The driver was a tremendous athlete blessed with the knack of in-ring legends at the young age of 23 who had so far not caught the eye of the big leagues. Before Zeb had moved in, Danielle worked under her birth name. She was then inspired by him to try to spice up her character work, adopting a pioneer/environmentalist schtick and calling herself Jennie Appleseed. The leap of faith had paid off, as the odd quirks that she added to the performance had given her some attention throughout the Internet. Local audiences would deliver the biggest cheer of the night when she’d reach for her map and compass to “find the weak spot” on her opponent, then follow it up with her finisher that she called the Oregon Trail.
“Hard pass on the tent. I’m gonna need a workin’ toilet.”
Ironically, the woman who wore buckskin shorts and a racoon hat in the ring was not a big fan of roughing it. But Jennie Appleseed drew no inspiration from Danielle Pierce aside from a similar desperation to need to succeed. This was also the common thread between driver and passenger. Unlike their roommates, Danielle would not soon be selling her ring-worn gear to afford brand new heels for the sake of a different career. Neither her nor Zeb had entertained the thought of stepping away from what they loved.
Although the concern had begun to set in for both in looking for a new place to call home, right now there were more important things to focus on. For Zeb, it was getting to the present destination without making a detour to the hospital. Especially since the next opportunity for success was only a few days away.
Keeping his grip tight on the handle, Martin scanned the horizon and the familiar strip mall sign that housed their gym slowly came into view. Finally relieved from the tension of the trip, his spirits began to lighten a little more as he posed an important question to Danielle.
“You think I oughta buy me a suit?”
“You betcha,” she responded. “You’d look hot in one.”
She immediately regretted the word vomit.
Zeb Martin, being the atypical dude, had failed to pick up on something during his time at the Grap House.
Danielle would also place a hand from time to time on his arm or shoulder without prompt while he’d be lounging in the living room. To him, it seemed perfectly normal and in no way flirtatious. Which was the intent: she wanted to keep things subtle.
However, the clearest signals came only a couple of weeks ago. A certain new Defiance signee had shacked up with Zeb during her time in Chicago and wasn’t exactly treated warmly by Danielle during her stay. He’d thought something might be up, but had just assumed that she was in a bad mood over something else. Or that the home was just a little too crowded for a one-week visitor.
Jennie Appleseed had harbored a huge crush on the guy who slept only a few feet from her bedroom door. And Zeb was completely oblivious to the fact.
Because there were more important things to focus on.
Pride ain’t nothin’ I’m wearin’ on a flannel sleeve.
I dun got useta the fact that folks’ll take a glance at my dresser draw’s and closet and look at ‘is here ball cap an’ shake they heads. They dun hear me not speakin’ the proper English sometimes and figg’r that grade school prolly stopped in the single digits. I tote a fishin’ pole with me where I go and laugh and laugh at the dumb ol’ yokel.
A fuckin’ inbred hick.
A nobody from a nothin’ town that sho’nuff go’n end up a never-was. That’ll eventually get uh dose uh reality and go back tuh pumpin’ gas at the ‘fillin’ station’ ‘er pushin’ buggies at Walmarts.
Heck, most of ‘em thought that once I got turned loose uh the coattails uh the Bandits, that’d been it fer ol’ Zeb and his crazy, kooky Clampett-esque family ever realizin’ their rich-folk fantasy of a cement pond in the backyard holler. Couple mo’ rips in them dingy, cheap pair’uh jeans bein’ the only thang tuh show fer my time in H-O-Dubya.
Welp, here we are. Less’n a year since I walked inta Lee Best’s office with a crooket tie and a pair uh khaki pants. Few months since the egg done broke and the shell pieces rottin’ in the compost pile. Miserable as a rooster in a thunderstorm tryin’ tuh make it through my first real winnertime.
Still chasin’ them dreams of a in-ground pool for the folks back home. Ain’t gone yet, and ain’t fixin’ tuh go nowhere no time soon.
Ah reckon them’s might just be nothin’ more’n a buncha big wishes left in the magic lamp tuh those folks. Zeb Martin ain’t nothin’ but a walkin’ catalouge model fer the Salvation Army. And once he’s been done bounced outta this business, he’ll settle down in a doublewide with three ‘er fo’ youngins-slash-cousins twice removed. Drank a case uh Natty Light a day and try’n keep family clout by reminiscin’ ‘bout the days when he’n Bobby Dean almost won them tag team titles. All this here muscle done changed inta fat so rich you could cook green beans in it.
And come years from now? I’ll jus’ be a fluke an’ a afterthought in the minds uh the guys in the Best Alliance.
Did I paint y’all a purty accurat’ picture, Jatt? That seem tuh be ‘bout right, John? If that’s what’s goin’ through yer minds right now, then I’m a pig in shit. ‘Cause from what I kin tell, them two brains uh yours ain’t exactly thankin’ too clear.
My good buddy Sutler might be usin’ y’all as Exhibits A ‘n B on his infatuation tuh push out the old and brang in the new. Prolly go as far as tuh say that th’ StarrSek Alliance is in the late stages uh a mid-life crisis. Now, me and Kael not on the same page there. As a dumb fuckin’ hick from the sticks, we got it bored in our gene-sharin’ skulls that we needed tuh carry respect fer those who led the charge. There’s a whole lotta value in havin’ veterans ‘round here, and I ain’t about tuh complain’ when I’m told tuh wait my turn.
Reckon as far as I kin guess, though? My turn come up when I wrapped ya up like an elf in Santa’s workshop a coupla weeks back, John.
And I ain’t ign’rant ‘nuff tuh write either of ya off like this here run is yer version of buyin’ a Corvette convertible an’ takin’ up tennis. This not no mid-life crisis fer you two, aw naw.
Y’alls resurgence in High Octane’s a helluva lot more desperate than that.
Most folks that I hear tryin’ tuh sow the last of their wild oats tend tuh court and have affairs with someone a decade ‘r so younger than them. Y’all fell into the open arms of a blind man yer own damn age. Lately here that don’t seem tuh be scratchin’ the itch, so I reckon yer out there explorin’ other parts uh that kinky universe. Tryin’ tuh squeeze out anythang’ll get ya that there dopamine drip tuh distract from the fact that the glory days are comin’ to an end. And makin’ sure that yer throwin’ weight ‘round the locker room to anybody within arm’s reach as uh added form uh pleasure.
Part uh that thar weight? Diggin’ bottles ‘n cans out of a recyclin’ bin in the form uh the same ol’ Southern sterea’types tuh throw at me. Makin’ trophy room comparisons between what you got and what my brother Teddy’s got. Hell, if yer that into history so much, John, why’d you go so far back into Teddy’s ‘rasslin career? You coulda stopped at two weeks ago ‘n reminded us what happened in yer own.
When y’all all got yer claws on Doozer, I come out and made a purty bold proclamation. I made it a goal uh mine to gut the Best Alliance like I’s preparin’ a fish fry. Now that Doozer ain’t around no more? Mission’s still the same, fellers. An’ while I never took winnin’ a belt ‘er two in consideration, I figg’r this week is go’n make up fer the lack uh benefits package in my H-O-Dubya contract. The fact that them shiny trinkets are sumptin’ y’all hold in such high regard makes takin’ ‘em from ya that much more important. Once they ain’t around yer waists, that you ain’t got somethin’ tuh validate why StarrSek Industries are here now? That’s the first step.
An’ when John’s got no more use in coverin’ yer back, Starr? When that LSD title gets snatched up from yuh too? That there’s the second step.
An’ when Lindsay sends Steve Solex back tuh the VA missin’ a limb? Step three.
The people y’all wrote off as nobodies and nothin’-doins: Dorothy, the scarecrow, and the tin man: we cut the curtain. Exposin’ that the big scary voice behind it all was nothin’ more than a tribe uh sad old men.
Palmer ‘n Martin wudn’t the vision Mario Maurako had in mind. But he better get used to it.