Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State's MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Prairie Schooner online, and Bellevue Literary Review. He currently works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
I knew the look. When blood not only pours from a man’s head, but rather cobwebs across his face. The proverbial crimson mask. Insides on the outsides. A man dying by degrees.
I knew that look. It’s just that I’d never felt it.
It’s easy enough to bleed in a wrestling ring. Hard-way cuts when someone’s knuckles catch your brow just wrong or you knock your head against the back of a man’s skull. Hell, every day a million office works must papercut their thumbs and dribble blood over the papers they’re pushing.
But getting color means opening a cut wide enough in the right spot to flow into sweat, all at the right time. That’s the art form.
I asked if Cowboy Sam would do the honors. He shook his head. Never ask another man to cut you. It’s messy business and that’s how people wind up deformed.
So I had to do it myself. After he sent me careening into the ring steps outside the ring and as he flexed to draw the attention of the crowd, I buried my face in my arms and retrieved the razor, hidden in the tape wrapped around my fingers.
There were two ways to blade. Lateral slices or digging and twisting.
I’d heard the latter left bigger scars, so I dug and I twisted. I dug and I twisted. I touched my forehead and couldn’t feel the blood. So then I dug and slid the blade between two of the initial dig sites.
Then—then, I felt it.
I felt my face hot and wet. Cowboy reared back at the sight of all that blood. The crowd fell silent. Then Cowboy set to wailing on me. Wide-arching, windmill forearm clubs on top of my head. Shots to remove any doubt that he was a killer. Shots to communicate that I was not only being bested, not only beaten, but slaughtered.
I grew light-headed. Walked the tightrope between pretending to stagger and realizing my legs were rubbery, and I had trouble focusing on Cowboy.
He pulled me in close. Want to go home early?
I didn’t answer. Forgot how to force words from my vocal chords. But Cowboy understood. Hit the spine buster into the Boston Crab.
Afterward, while I was turning a white towel red and wet and hot, I asked Cowboy how he’d known I was hurt. How I might tell for myself if another man were playing dead or truly on the cusp.
Cowboy had himself a good laugh. Kid, you’re not that good an actor.
HAVE IT ALL
When I was a kid, when I was just starting to understand what commercials were, I nonetheless had trouble telling the difference between the show and the ads. Call it a short attention span. Call me stupid. I couldn’t follow the thread of most shows more than a few minutes—forget about the space between scenes.
I wasn’t much better at reading either. Always losing my place and rereading the same line over and over again, until I figured I’d read it enough times I’d might as well have read a whole page, so I turned the page and got more lost and wondered why anyone bothered with this frustration, this waste of life.
So, I got it when the old wrestler, Cowboy Sam, talked about his son—his youngest, from a girl he didn’t even attempt to marry, having learned his lesson three times by then. He sent the girl a check once a month and stopped in to visit when we were passing through or near their Iowa town. Had dinner with them all, read the kid a bedtime story or goofed around with him with his stuffed animals.
This time around, the kid was older than Cowboy would have imagined. Older than his calculations allowed for and he wondered if it had been one year since his last visit or three. And all the kid wanted to do was watch TV.
Four years old now, Cowboy said. And he stares. I told her she’s got to get that kid outside.
But Cowboy had succumbed to it. Sat on one end of the couch, the mother on the far side, their child in between. The kid pointed at the TV. At a bright red sports car. He says, Want that!
New York Nick Nettles chuckles. Sounds cute. He was never reading Cowboy right. Read him even worse than me.
Materialistic, that’s what this boy’s getting to be. But that ain’t even the worst of it.
Because the next commercial was for wrestling. And Cowboy beamed. Started to tell the boy that’s what his daddy did for a living, thought maybe he’d teach the kid how to put him in a miniature Boston crab, a cobra clutch. That he’d tap out his bit meaty paw, the size of his son’s whole little back, in mock-submission.
You think the kid listened to me? Hell no. He pointed again, when Jeff Hardy did a senton off a ladder, and said, Want that! Like all of us were toys he could own. Play things. That’s the kind of son she’s raising.
I thought to explain my own childhood confusion between ads and substance. That maybe it was better the kid understood some things were advertisements and for sale, rather than accepting it all as story to consume.
But Cowboy wasn’t going to hear that. That’s how kids get started on thinking they can own people, on thinking they’re better. It’s parents like that setting the kid in front of the TV to watch it all. Watch it from their ivory towers. Dance, monkey, dance!
He was in a state. Best to let him talk it out for himself. Talk out the anger. Talk until his mouth was dry and he was more angry about that and got up to get some water.
And his mother, do you think she corrects him? No! She laughs. Messes up his hair and tells him—actually tells the kid!—he can have it all.
She found us wrestlers at a diner. A place that played James Brown on the jukebox and seemed to look for any excuse to smother an order in whipped cream—Betsy Biggins’s hot fudge sundae (fair enough), New York Nick Nettles’s milk shake (OK) my root beer (a little over the top), the side of Fireman Phil Styles’s fresh fruit platter (he sent it back, which made us all groan because etiquette dictated that none of us ate until the veteran with the longest tenure was fed, not that that stopped him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he sent it back just because it’d make the rest of us wait when we were starving).
She came up to us and, in my bleary-eyed state, concussed from superplex Phil had given me two hours before, I mistook her for a manager who’d come to apologize for the delay, and I thought we might land a discount on something.
But no, she was too pretty for to be a manager working the swing shift at a twenty-four-hour diner. Didn’t have the tell-tale bags under her eyes. I followed the pinstripes on her blazer to her skinny jeans.
I’m writing a series on the psychology of wrestling. She was talking directly to Phil. Fair, because of all of us, he was the closest thing to a star.
Nick was the one to call her out. You know we’re all wrestlers. He flashed that big city grin full of pearly whites and scooted inwards, butting shoulders then hips with Betsy until he had her all the way into the booth, so the there was room for this reporter to sit with us, next to Nick, across from Phil.
This reporter started dividing her attention between Nick and Phil. She read the both of them right. Noted Phil was such a big star that she’d heard all about him, and she wasn’t even a wrestling fan. Touching Nick’s arm more than she needed to, touching him every time he talked.
Our waitress brought back Phil’s fruit, the cantaloupe and honeydew and pineapple chunks bare now. She bought the reporter her salad, too, chopped up iceberg, tomato wedges, and a dipping cup of honey mustard.
By the time we’d finished eating, it was settled. Phil would stay in touch with her on the phone and get her backstage when she wanted to meet up with us. She offered to pick up the tab for the night, but Nick interjected himself, said he was getting the check for everyone. I do this all the time. It feels good to take care of people.
Betsy snorted, barely stifling laugh, and I had to cover my mouth with my napkin as I cracked up myself.
But the reporter bought it. An eager, blushing schoolgirl, her lily white skin tinged pink. She gave his bicep a squeeze this time. She called him a gentleman and she got up to leave.
One more thing. Phil stopped her in her tracks. I’ll be reading everything you write about me, and if I sniff out something I don’t like, that’ll be the end of this arrangement. Do you understand?
She nodded. I’ll treat your story with the utmost respect.
Phil watched her. Studied her. Then shifted his eyes to Nick. It’ll be the end of this arrangement and I’ll break pretty boy over here’s arm.
She didn’t know what to do with that. Maybe she didn’t care so much about losing Nick, or Phil, or any of us as long-term interview subjects. But to be responsible for someone else getting hurt—that’s a burden most people don’t carry day to day.
Nick didn’t say anyting. Though Betsy watched him with a wide-eyed stare, as if starving for a confrontation. He put his head down and went on sucking down the last bits of his milkshake.
When the reporter was gone, Nick dared to eye Phil. You didn’t have to do that.
No. Phil ran his big index finger around the inside of Nick’s glass, gathering up a dollop of whipped cream on it. I suppose I don’t have to do much of anything.