“Reckon you don’t owe me nothin’.”
Zeb Martin stopped short of pushing the chapel door ajar.
The statement he’d uttered was true of both the literal and figurative versions of the Alpha and Omega, both entities staring down at him from separate ivory pedestals. Though he’d had more history with the omnipotent one, the Watson Mill Kid had instantaneously come to terms with the fact that their relationship was now a thing of the past. Crawling back on all fours and folding his hands into the shape of a steeple would likely not produce a miracle. The holes in the knees of his jeans were already wide enough.
The other one certainly wouldn’t generate any positive results. Had he caught wind of the situation, it was likely that Lee Best had already coordinated a care package to be sent to his grandfather. Cheap whiskey and cartons of unfiltered cigarettes. A true beacon of festive cheer.
Yes, neither God nor GOD owed Zeb anything. They’d both provided him with life. With purpose. With the tools and the opportunity to make something of himself. Wasn’t that enough, you greedy hick?
Truth told, it was. Despite the bumpy dirt road he had to run down to get to this point, Martin was a #Blessed individual. The fact that he was even in the position to consider turning down work instead of spending the holidays with his family was a testament to it. In addition to the opportunity at Iconic, he’d gotten a call for a one-off feature on Christmas Day that he’d also agreed to accept.
However, it was not out of sheer desire to compete. Since agreeing to take part in the battle royal, it had been a welcome distraction from thinking about his Pawpaw’s condition. Like a recovering addict, as long as he could keep occupied, it helped to fight off a heavy heartbeat.
Zeb started for the side ramp to make his way back down towards the parking lot of the church. Midway across the patio, he instead turned and opted to walk back down the same staircase that he’d climbed only minutes ago. The ramp provided a direct path towards the comfort of his Tacoma, but he’d still felt a rebellious urge to continue to defy all concepts of symbolism. Descending the ladder would never prevent him from going up it again.
There was a metric ton of snow covering the entirety of the ground at 2929 Birch.
At least that’s what Zeb Martin saw, his brain apparently affected by all of the heat and humidity he’d endured for most of his life. It was actually about half an inch: barely enough to form a footprint. If he’d had places to go and people to see this afternoon, there’d have been no issues with hopping into the truck and venturing out into the cold. As it stands, he was quite content lounging in the sole recliner of the living room. It’d afford him the opportunity of having a quick fireside chat, sans the fire.
Denim as usual, a pair of thick wool camping socks, and the top half of long johns: he’d obviously not bothered to gussy up for the appearance. The Levi Garrett hat was firmly in place, and a can of Bud Heavy sat within arms reach on the coffee table. Four other empties sat in a nearby trash can. He was loose enough.
Ain’t nobody ever content.
Back when I was a youngin’, way be’fo I ever put that ol’ plastic white headgear on tuh rastle on some old gym mats, I was focused on two other thangs. Football’s one of ‘em. Ol’ Randy Boyd was Oglethorpe County’s Pee-Wee coach where I learned the funduh-mentals. Gettin’ used tuh runnin’ in pads and a helmet, playin’ Bull In the Ring, jus’ overall teachin’ kids not to be skeered uh gettin’ hit. Back ‘en, you ain’t have enough people in the rec leagues tuh where you weren’t playin’ both sides uh the ball.
Coach Boyd wudn’t the type tuh get fancy. We ran I-formation: two tight ends, fullback, halfback, kawtuh-bak. I had a lil’ bit uh talent so I got tuh be a tight end, but mighta got a ball thrown my way maybe once ‘er twice in three whole seasons. Where I was at home though was defense. Got shifted around a lot ‘til Boyd stuck me at outside linebacker, and dang if I ain’t love it. Rushin’ edges, knockin’ the fool outta a ball carrier, and gettin’ a little taste uh pass coverage. After any big stop, you’d celebrate it fer a minute, but you’d always be lookin’ for more. ‘Mebbe next time I’ll get a sack.’ Then you’d get a sack, and it’s on tuh ‘mebbe next time I’ll strip and cover the fumble, after that I’mma pick one and take it to the house.’
Well, didn’t have no fumble recoveries er interceptions in Pee Wees, and shore as heck didn’t have none in high school. We got our butts beat pretty bad all four years uh that.
Other un, uh course, was fishin’. Ain’t as much tuh learn as football, but same train uh thought still chugs along through. You land a big ‘un, and you always go’n be chasin’ somethin’ bigger or tryin’ sumptin’ new. First step is gettin’ rid of the bobber. Soon after that, yer wadin’ in the crick and castin’ fly, usin’ differn’t test, whatever. Heck, even runnin’ the trot line, you land ‘bout thirty forty a night, you always wantin’ more. I ain’t never hear Pawpaw say he had a good day on the lake: we’d have tuh catch ever last one of ‘em in there tuh do that.
When I finally started rasslin’ in junior high though? That’s where you done found a whole ‘nother level of thangs you gotta get good at doin’. Learnin’ holds, makin’ shore yer not gettin’ worn out thirty seconds inta a match, gettin’ stronger ‘n faster ‘n smarter than the one you go’n be fightin’. All the while makin’ shore you ain’t eatin’ too much ‘er too little tuh miss weight. I ain’t remember too much ‘bout Biology class, but I got a good education on how the human body works through this here sport.
In the here and now though, the textbook’s differ’nt but the gradin’ is still the same. Even the ones dun hung up the boots and pads still sit at home with bad backs and worse knees and wonder ‘bout the ‘what if.’ Every soul in any locker room, whether it be in Chicaga, Illinois ‘r Bucksnort, Tennusee, we all celebratin’ our victories but lookin’ down the way fer the next one. Winnin’ titles but always lookin’ to exchange ‘em for a purtier belt or trophy that totes more pride than the one you got. And then when you finally get tuh the top, you lookin’ ahead tuh make sure you stayin’ there.
I’s dumb enough tuh think when I come in HO-Dubya that it was jus’ ‘an honor tuh be nominated.’ I then got thrown in uh cage with ol’ Bobby fer a chance tuh get my hands on a lil’ more, and we come up short. By proxy, I did get tuh hold one uh them championships fer a minute, but y’all know what? I wuddn’t too upset when we let ‘em get put on the waists uh the Hollywood Boyz.
Now, I caught me a glimpse uh the polish that’s done been rubbed on the DeNucci Cup. The hill tuh scale is purty steep tuh get there. But if I win the dang thing? I know that’s the first lil’ tippy-toe in what I’m guessin’s go’n be a whistle-wetter in my career goin’ for’rd. Down that path that everybody who’s a little good at somethin’ wants tuh keep hikin’ on. But shit, I cain’t be puttin’ on the backpack jus’ yet.
Gotta get through Iconic first.
Gotta make dang shore that a pair uh yokey hands tossin’ me head first onta the floor. CJ, long time no see I reckon. Glad you could tell us all yer intentions on top of an imaginary horse. Don’t make no difference if yew woulda been on a real ‘un no ways, ‘cause we all could still smell the contents that come from its hind end jus’ fine ‘n dandy. Odd goin’ that I’d have tuh be right concerned ‘bout a fella I done stood behind fer a chunk uh time bein’ the one I’ll have tuh glance backerds tuh make sure he ain’t behind me.
S’pose you and me still ain’t got much unfinished business left tuh tend to. We took care uh the givin’ and receivin’ well befo’ Christmas. Still hope maybe me ‘n you kin sort out our own petty bull hockey in the new year, but until then? If I kin get hold uh that Zack Morris-lookin’ mop uh yours, I’m draggin’ ya by it and throwin’ ya back toward Bayside.
Got a couple other familiar faces punchin’ their time cards too. Tuh be honest, if it ain’t my night, they’d be the ones I’d like tuh see settin’ the table fer the Cup. Darin, you ain’t the same man you was when I first walked in here. Integrity done seemed tuh got hold of ya, and I right ‘preciate it despite what others go’n say. I consider both you ‘n Brian friendly folks, and wuddn’t no bad feelins to’rds ya when you put me an’ Rick down fer the tag championships. We all in the same pontoon with sumptin’ tuh prove at Iconic, but only one of us go’n make it count. Brian Hollywood’s prolly done seen me in the ring more’n anybody in HO-Dubya, and I know he’s prolly shared the playbook with ya, Darin. So I may need tuh pull a new lure out uh the tacklebox tuh get one over on y’all both. Luckily, I got plenty.
I’ll be brangin’ the trusty ol’ nightcrawlers too, though. Got a couple that ain’t seen the new dog’s old tricks yet, but they’ve worked purty good befo’.
Mr. Frost, you come off as a feller after my own heart. Look across the rang, give a nod tuh the referee, and proceed tuh deliver a country whoopin’: all tuh look to keep thangs cordial at the end. First impression makes me thank you purty alright. Good hearted man, polite in yer observations, all the stuff that makes fer a good drankin’ buddy. Reckon the only thang I take real issue with is that goddamn cowboy hat. Ain’t nothin’ on you, but where I come from, it’s a purty common ‘sessory tuh pair with a loud mouth or a phony. Jus’ cause you ate a steak once don’t make you no cowboy. Hell, I ain’t never herded cattle myself, which’s why I opt fer the ol’ ball cap. But, I ain’t here to judge. Hope yer able tuh prove you a good ‘un like yer personality seems tuh come off.
Now, fun part uh this thang is finally mixin’ it up with folks that you got a genu-wine admiration fer as a youngin’. Befo’ his departure, I was really hopin’ tuh be able tuh match up one-on-one with Andy Murray. A guy I grew up watchin’ and idolizin’ in GCW. Know who else I got introduced tuh? A man who’d made a big ol’ dent here that I didn’t thank I’s ever go’n get tuh tussle with: Teddy Palmer.
Teddy, you dun showed this entire roster that you the type when the odds stacked against ya, yer chances end up improvin’. Comin’ back from rehab and puttin’ yerself in a match with a ringful uh folks is exactly the way yer fans want tuh see you return. Include me in that group uh fans, too. I know I dun endorsed Matthews ‘n Hollywood tuh be the ones namin’ a group if it ain’t me. If it weren’t fer them stakes and not quite knowin’ where yer head’s at, I’d be rootin’ you on as the alternate. That bein’ said, I got real good recently at separatin’ adulation from the job I gotta do here. There’ll be plenty uh time tuh reflect on livin’ a childhood daydream after Iconic. Either way, go’n be a pleasure.
Not go’n come to much surprise when I tell y’all this ain’t go’n be easy. Ever’body there’s got a tonna talent, lotta desire, and kin pull out the big guns at any moment. Most of ‘em got a lotta experience, too. ‘Cept a couple of ‘em, that is. Two guppies in the ol’ pond.
Me ‘n you, Sutler.
Purty sure we probably ain’t sharin’ much mutual on a Spotify playlist or choice uh clothin’ brands. But hey, we’re both young. Both lookin’ tuh get uh leg up sooner rather’n later. And heck, luck have it: both of us don’t have much nice tuh report ‘bout our deceased daddies. Other’n that? You a lil’ tough tuh get a good read on. Plenty uh highlight footage on ev’rbody else I’m gunnin’ against, but only a match or two on ya. I’mma assume whatever yer kinfolk had, though? It’s prolly there. All the more reason tuh keep an eye out.
Shoot, didn’t mean it like that.
Thank I gave y’all a nice brochure uh the Appalach’n Trail I got in front uh me. I told an ol’ friend last week that outta all the creative types uh matches this sport dun thought of over the years, a battle royal’s one I love. So many thangs can go right, but one lil’ misstep changes the whole dang book fer e’ver last one uh us. On the other side uh the lake, yew kin cast yer line out all day without so much as a bite but end up stickin’ it out and landin’ a six pound smallmouth.
At Iconic, ol’ Zeb’s go’n leave it in the hands uh fate and give it the best go I can, I reckon. Heaven ain’t much willin’ tuh help me here, so I’ll have tuh give ‘em hell.