by Fate Kitchens
Gabe could barely see the trailer from the road. The grass in front, weeds really, had grown up high. Scrubby trees stood at random intervals, with just enough overlap to block his line of sight. Brush and something that looked like the handle of a push mower poked up through the grass. Kudzu covered the shrubs at the edge of the yard. The whole lot looked like someone had decided to let it return to nature. He passed twice before he realized someone lived there.
That suited him fine. One of these days, when he’d made it big, he’d tell a story about driving all over hell and half of Georgia to find Moondog Fido. “He just saw something in me, I reckon,” he’d say, “Like he was looking at a young version of himself.” He’d pause, play thoughtful. “Well. A better-looking young version,” he’d say and wink at the camera. That’d play well, he thought, a little charisma, a little star quality. You never knew who might be watching.
The trailer was a single-wide, low and faded. He turned by a dented mailbox and stopped beneath a dying scrub pine. The sheet metal on the outside of the trailer was white, marked with wide, ugly streaks of rust. A stack of concrete blocks took the place of steps. He half expected a pack of mongrel dogs to come out of the bush, or a rattlesnake to strike at his legs, but he made it to the door without trouble.
He knocked and the windows rattled. Rustling sounds came from inside and something that might have been a groan. Nobody answered. He could’ve yanked the door open if he had a mind to. He knocked again. It made a tinny, hollow sound.
“Yeah! Come on in!”
He noticed the smell first. It was musty, like old cigarette smoke, but there was a sour odor like dirty socks in there somewhere and a sweet, pissy stink at the end.
He couldn’t see any windows besides the ones in front. They were closed tight. Someone had tacked bath towels over them to block the light. The room was barely big enough for both Gabe and the man in the wide-bodied recliner. It sat by a low coffee table and a clunky big-screen TV, top of the line sometime in the 1980s.
The man wore a chambray shirt, unbuttoned to the waist. A raised zipper scar stood in the middle of his chest. His face was large, shapeless and red. It ended in a bushy white beard. He could have said he was forty-five or seventy and Gabe would have believed him.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Gabe felt foolish as soon as he’d said the words.
The man looked wary. “Depends who you think I am, I guess.”
“Moondog Fido, the wrestler.”
“Yeah, you could say that’s me. Or was once upon a time. My real name’s Jeff.”
“Gabe.” He pointed at his chest with both thumbs and felt like an idiot. “I’m a wrestler, but if that doesn’t work out, I might hunt down Bigfoot.” He gave a nervous laugh. “I got damn near enough practice just finding you.”
“Jesus Christ.” A sigh started, caught, and finally rattled up from his chest. “I try to get some sleep, and the world sends a third-rate comedian to pester me.”
When he wrestled as Moondog Fido, he went barefoot and shirtless with a pair of ratty jeans, torn off at the knee. His hair was long and matted around the sides. He was bald on top and wore a wild, shapeless beard. When he got angry, he grunted and snuffled and howled. Gabe loved the act when he was a kid. Now he was standing in front of the man, grinning like he was eight years old again.
“You’re not here to tell me I’m your daddy or something, are you?”
“No. At least as far as I know you’re not.”
“How old are you?”
“You could be one of mine then, come to it.” Jeff looked him over. “Big enough too. What are you, six-three or four?”
“Six-two. About two-sixty.”
“You carry it pretty good. Probably better than I ever did. You don’t have much belly. So what is it you want with me?”
“I’ve got a proposition for you.”
Jeff shook his head. “Not interested. Got everything I need right here. Own the trailer free and clear. Gave 4900, cash. That was,” he paused and counted, “eight-seven? Eighty-eight? Somewhere in there, right after I did some shows with the WWF. Bought that bike out front too.”
“Well just hear me out.”
Jeff ran a meaty hand over his face. “I’m not in the mood for this shit, kid. I haven’t even eaten breakfast yet.”
“It’s three in the afternoon.”
“Is it? My sleep’s so damn messed up I can’t keep track.”
Gabe laughed. “I put off coming until after lunch to make sure you’d be up.”
“Well you sure woke me up, beating on the door.”
“I’m real sorry about that.”
Jeff waved off the apology. “How’d you track me down anyway?”
“Tommy Parsons said you lived out this way.”
“Good God. Old Tommy can’t still be wrestling. He’s older than me.”
“He’s not. Wrestling, I mean. He’s a promoter now.”
Jeff appeared to consider this. “Now this proposition, is it yours or Tommy’s?” He found a crumpled cigarette pack down in the chair. He lit one and waited.
“A little of both. We got to talking the other night about bringing back some guys from the 80s and 90s. He asked who and I said you straight away.”
“Huh.” Jeff took a long drag and started coughing.
Gabe heard the rumble of phlegm in his chest. “You alright there?” He hoped the pack was empty. He didn’t mind people smoking, but the room smelled bad enough already.
“Yeah. Yeah. Damn cigarettes got me in a state.” He cleared his throat. “I’m too old and worn out to be wrestling.”
“The plan was you’d be my manager.”
Jeff stared hard at Gabe but didn’t give any indication of whether he liked the idea. “Who else are you bringing back?”
“Tommy brought up Kamala.”
“Hell, he’s another one older than I am. Still alive last I heard. Shouldn’t be too hard to replace him if he’s not interested. Just find you a big, scary-looking black bastard and put him in one of those African masks. Ought to be easy enough in Memphis. Won’t nobody know the difference.” Jeff winked.
“Jesus, man. Give that a rest. I didn’t come here to find a long-lost racist uncle.”
Jeff cocked his head to one side. “Was that racist?”
“Close enough. Let’s leave it at that.”
Jeff hunched a bit, like a scolded child. “Well. Things were different in my day. You had to give as good as you got. I’d call old Billy Rains that and every other name in the book, and he’d come back at me with white boy, honky, fatass. All kinds of shit. We’d still go out and drink after the show.”
Gabe remembered Billy Rains. He wore showy outfits in teal and purple. He could’ve passed for a bodybuilder. He had a lean, handsome face that would have suited the movies. Gabe also knew how it felt after certain matches, when someone mistimed a move and nearly got hurt. A beer then didn’t always mean friendship.
“Women loved Billy, I’ll tell you that. We got us a couple one night down in Starkville. Or was it Hattiesburg? Anyway, young things, from the college.” His eyes got big. He ran his tongue over his few remaining teeth and wet his lips.
Gabe cut in before he could finish the story. “How long’s it been since you heard from him?”
“We had a falling out several years ago.”
“You don’t say.”
Jeff turned a glare on him. “Got it all sized up, do you?”
“I could hazard a guess.”
“Go on then.”
“You owed him money.”
Jeff’s whole, slumping mass heaved up and down with a sigh. “I can see why you’d think that. It was the other way around though. I loaned him money to help get a ring for his first wife. Anyway here a few years back, I was bad off. Well not me really. My health’s been a problem for years, but I can deal with that.”
Gabe nodded at Jeff’s feet. “Yeah it looks like you have trouble getting around.”
“That’s from my weight, and the sugar diabetes. But the reason I fell out with Billy was this. My daughter had a little girl, my first grandchild. That grandbaby of mine needed an operation, and I couldn’t put my hands on more than a few dollars straight away. I wanted to help, so I called up Billy. He must have run up on some hard times too. He said he didn’t appreciate me chasing up ghosts, that was how he put it. I guess that first wife was pretty far behind him by then.”
“What did you say to that?”
Jeff gave a dry, quiet laugh. “I told him to quit whining. Said I’d mail him a box of tampons.”
“I don’t imagine he took that well,” Gabe said. He was surprised when Jeff’s face fell.
“No, he didn’t. I can’t remember offhand what he said. Called me every kind of sonofabitch he could think of probably. That was the last I heard from him.”
Gabe glanced at Jeff, but he was staring down at his hands, thoughtful or at least quiet. “I’m real sorry to hear that, Jeff.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head as if he still couldn’t believe what had happened. “Listen, I’ll tell you what. Go get us something to eat and we’ll hash this out.”
“What can I get you?”
“Take a look at me, son. I’m not picky.”
Don’t go back, Gabe thought. Make a right at the highway and head home. But he was working forty hours a week as a security guard and on weekend nights as a bouncer at a club. Each week was tougher than the one before. He got himself to the gym by promising it was temporary. Something big would break his way, a nod from the right direction.
He turned left instead, toward a gas station on 45 that sold fried chicken. He didn’t like Jeff, or much more than pity him, but he’d fought in the big arenas. Gabe was stuck in high school gyms, VFW halls, and the cracker-box TV studio in Memphis with a local weatherman calling the action. Jeff had lived the moment Gabe craved. He’d stepped from the locker room into the lights, that sea of faces, the screams and taunts and booming music. Live in hope, he thought, and picked up a six pack of beer. Either they’d celebrate with it, or he’d get started drowning his sorrows.
Jeff was on his hands and knees, hunting something when Gabe walked in. He looked around, startled when he heard the door close. He finally focused on Gabe. “Oh, hey. Didn’t know you’d be back so soon.” He straightened up, on his knees. “You see a pill on the carpet down here? My prescription’s almost out.”
“What have you got there?”
Gabe fished a baggie from his jacket pocket and tossed it on the table. “I’ve got a shoulder that plays up every now and then. That and my neck. But you’re welcome to these if you want them.”
The excuse sounded phony, but Jeff flattened the bag against the table and counted the pills. “Yes, lord.”
Gabe sat down and put the grocery bags on the floor between his feet. “I got fried chicken, potato wedges, RC Cola, beer.” A warm, oily smell came from the bag.
“Chicken and beer will do me for now.”
Gabe handed him the box of chicken and a beer. “You didn’t sound interested in my proposal earlier.”
Jeff paused and looked at him over a drumstick. “I’m not raring to go.” He put the chicken down and wiped the grease on the front of his pants. “But I’ll hear you out.”
“Alright. I think we can make a go of this. We bring back the Moondogs, set me up as the new generation. Maybe show some old clips between matches for the kids too young to remember.”
“Saturday mornings, you mean.”
“Yeah. We’ll be the main event before long.”
Jeff emptied his can and crushed it. He pitched it into a corner and held out his hand for another. “Why me?”
“I used to wait every week to see you all wrestle.”
“You’re supposed to like the good guys, kid. Jerry Lawler and them. Hulk Hogan. Whoever they’ve got going now.”
“No fun in that, is there?”
Jeff didn’t answer. He sucked stray bits of meat from a bone and looked at Gabe. “What’s the plan then? I’d be your manager, you said.”
“Yeah. We’ll get you a big bone like you used to carry, maybe a cane. If I’m losing a match, you slip me one or the other and I’ll knock the guy out with it.”
“You reckon people will buy into that old shit we used to do?”
“I’d like to give it a shot. If the character’s good enough, I believe they will.”
Jeff shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t set foot in Memphis in years. Can’t say I miss it either.” Gabe passed him another beer. Jeff opened the can and slurped foam off the top. “Are you just getting started at this or what?”
“No, I’ve been at it a year or so.”
“Why are you coming to me now?”
“I lost a loser-leaves-town match. This is a good chance to start over.”
“That what the beard’s about?”
Gabe nodded. “Yeah. It’s not a full Moondog beard yet.”
“What was your name when you lost?”
Jeff laughed. “Well that ain’t worth a shit, now is it? I can see how come you’d want to change. Jesus.” He threw his head back and took a long gulp. He gave a wet belch and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “How are we doing on beer?”
“Four left. Yours if you want them. I’ve got to drive home.”
“Four you say?” Jeff swallowed the dregs from his can and took another pill. “Hand them here.” He swallowed another pill and chased it with half a beer.
“Go easy, man.” At this rate, they wouldn’t settle anything before Jeff got too far into the beer and pills.
“Don’t you worry about me. I saw Andre the Giant put away a case and a half by himself one night in Tallahassee. Honest to God. I heard he could go through a hundred cans in a sitting, but I never saw him do it.”
“Sounds like a tall tale, and even if it’s not, I doubt he was popping pills like you are.”
Jeff went into a sulk. He munched on a wing. His breath was loud and fast.
Gabe said, “I just about forgot. I picked up a couple of scratch-offs at the store.” He held up a pair of lottery tickets.
Jeff perked up. “Pass me one over.” He laid the ticket flat on the table and looked at Gabe. “You gonna make me split this with you if I win something?”
“Goddamn right I am.”
Jeff threw his head back and cackled. Thick strands of saliva crisscrossed his open mouth. “That’s the truth right there. Now we’re starting to understand one another. We hit it big and you can forget about me being part of this wrestling shit.”
“You and me both,” Gabe said, but he didn’t mean it. They scratched the boxes in silence. Gabe didn’t win anything. “What have you got?”
“Not a damn thing.” Jeff Frisbeed the ticket across the room and muttered to himself. “Same as always.” His face closed. The brightness went out of his eyes. He murmured to himself, then he was silent for long enough to make Gabe uncomfortable.
Gabe got to his feet. “Listen, maybe I ought to go.”
“Sit down,” Jeff said. “Let me show you something. Take that top tape off the pile over there and play it.”
Gabe put the tape in and listened to the VCR click and whirr. “What’s on it?”
“A match me and Billy Rains had, back there somewhere.”
The picture was faded and the audio warbled but Gabe could pick out Lance Russell’s voice, calling the action from Memphis. “You want me to skip ahead?”
“No, let’s just watch it.”
Jeff asked Gabe what he knew about everyone who came on screen, where they were now. Anytime he heard someone was successful, his face clouded and he fell to muttering. It went on for most of an hour, Jeff slurping beer and trying to tear down anyone who impressed Gabe. “Jerry Lawler’s an old tight-ass. Don’t drink or smoke, sure as hell don’t do any kind of drugs.” Gabe let him talk. “Buddy Landel. He thought he was hot shit. Pretty boy. Damn Ric Flair wannabe. Couldn’t handle being in the spotlight.” He sounded satisfied, like he’d set a mark in his own life no one could approach.
Moondog Fido came on screen. He looked pretty much the same, except he carried less weight in his belly.
“Was this at the Coliseum?”
Jeff belched and grunted, “Yeah, I believe so.”
“These matches weren’t on TV when I was a kid.”
“That’s not why I’m showing you this. Pay attention to what’s going on, not what the fans think is happening.”
All Gabe could think was what he could borrow from Fido’s entrance and moves. He looked wild and untrustworthy, all the way down to his walk. He slumped his shoulders and let his arms hang down past his knees. If anything or anyone came near him, he lashed out like a wounded animal.
Jeff jabbed his finger at the screen. “See that right there? The pad on Billy’s elbow? Bone spurs. He couldn’t afford to have it operated on. And you know he couldn’t stop wrestling that long. He was still building his name then.”
“How’d he handle it?”
“Same way you do, judging by that bag you gave me.”
Gabe nodded. His neck really did hurt sometimes, and one shoulder, but he didn’t worry much. If the pills didn’t work, a Toradol shot would. Adrenaline took care of the rest. He heard Jeff shift in his chair. His breathing was louder, like he was sleeping. Gabe was surprised when he spoke again.
“I’d be glad to help you if I thought things were different now, but I know they’re not. Pack it in, son.” He sounded on the verge of tears. “They don’t give a damn about you. They won’t look after you.”
Gabe didn’t say anything. Jeff slumped further down in the chair. Neither of them spoke for the rest of the match.
Hard as he tried, all Gabe could see after that was the hammy acting and general phoniness. Near the end, he heard the deep gurgle of Jeff’s snoring, and seconds later, his breath catching with a sick pause. He jerked awake and sank back into the chair at a more comfortable angle.
On the screen, Fido pulled a small chain from the pocket of his jeans. The referee was distracted, so he knocked Billy Rains to the canvas. Fido clambered to the mat and threw an arm across Billy’s chest. The referee turned and rushed to count three. Fido stood and played to the crowd. They jeered and protested as he staggered down the aisle toward the locker room. Before he was off the screen, the tape went to static.
Gabe stopped the tape and turned off the TV. He debated whether to tell Jeff he was leaving, but he couldn’t see any sense in it. He walked to the door and shut off the light on his way out.
Outside, the sky had clouded over. It was dusk, but it felt later. A dog barked somewhere far off. He looked again at the sad hulk of a bike out front. Jeff couldn’t have been on it any time recently.
No road signs or landmarks pointed the way back to the highway. Parts Unknown, he thought. He’d loved wrestlers billed from those places, unpredictable characters full of meanness and dirty tricks. He’d savored the phrase, the hint of wildness it carried, but now he’d been around enough to know that the words called up a banjo-soundtracked nightmare. All of a sudden it wasn’t a place he wanted to be, or be from. He slowed down and made sure not to miss the first turn. It was dark and he didn’t want to have to turn around. There wasn’t anything he needed back the other way.
Fate Kitchens was born and raised in West Tennessee. He’s not lived there in years, but you wouldn’t know it to hear him talk. He is currently finishing his first novel.