Aaron lay on the mat, looking up at the arena lights, waiting for Jim to take hold of his feet.
The small crowd, a few hundred people, booed and hissed, for Jim was the heel, six-foot-three and just shy of three-hundred pounds, a former All-State football player, and was about to execute his finishing maneuver, the Boston crab.
Aaron watched Jim slap his hands together and flip them—the signal, both to the audience as well as to his opponent. A second later, Jim gripped his ankles. Aaron pulled his leg back and kicked, catching Jim above the groin. As he doubled over, Aaron kipped up to his feet and caught Jim with a solid clothesline as the crowd rose. Jim crashed backwards and Aaron lifted Jim’s legs from behind the knees, flipped forward and over him, and planted his feet on the mat while bridging his back in a Sunset Flip.
One… two… three!
The crowd popped.
Climbing off his opponent Aaron whispered, “Thanks, man,” then got to his feet, and Dave, the ref, raised his hand.
“The winner of this bout: Aaron Armstrong!”
The energy of the place, even with just a few hundred people, was electric, even with the silent group of serious men in suits who sat down in front, but Aaron didn’t give them much thought. They seemed out of place, but it takes all kinds, and he was too energized by the crowd, pleased with what he and Jim had just done: Put on another great show.
Both were mid-card guys, but everybody knew they were putting on some of the best matches in the SCW. Some of the best in a long time. The way things were going, Aaron could almost taste a contract from the WWE, for himself and for Jim. That’s where the real money was. The SCW had come a long way in the past few years, but still, it was a far cry from the glory and money that could be made in the big league.
Back in the dressing room Aaron stripped out of his red and blue tights, spent considerable time unlacing his pain-in-the-ass boots, and showered. As he dressed into his street clothes, Pat, the booking agent, approached him, wearing an expensive suit which he managed to make look cheap, and he congratulated Aaron on another great match. “You and Jim are doing great work,” he said. “I just want you to know that it isn’t going unnoticed.”
“Thanks, appreciate it. I’m sure Jim does, too.”
“Yeah.” Pat scratched the side of his nose, then dug a finger into his ear. “Yeah, you and Jim are doing some innovative stuff. Everybody knows it.” A pause, then, “Can I talk to you for a sec?”
“Sure.” Aaron slid a foot into a sneaker.
“We’re gonna mix it up for tomorrow’s show. You won’t be wrestling Jim.”
“I thought we were wrestling each other this whole tour.”
Pat dug deeper into his ear, then removed the finger, looked at it, whittled his fingers and sat down on the bench. “There’s a new guy, this kid. Goes by the name Nails… something or other. Nails Nathan, that’s it. You’re gonna wrestle him tomorrow.”
“Here? Tomorrow? Why?”
“Well, he’s from here. He’s got some influential friends, and they’ve convinced Lance to give him a shot while we’re still in town.” Pat reached to finger his ear again, then stopped. “We’re wondering. You’re one of the most professional men in the business. And we know you’re always willing to—”
“You want me to put him over.”
Pat let out a puff of air that almost sounded like a laugh. “Is that all right with you?”
Pat already had the answer. If it was good for the business, he would do it, because if it was good for the business, it was good for him. No longer a jobber—Aaron’d broken out of that, thankfully, before it had become too late—he was on his way up the SCW ladder, starting to make some good money, and so far he hadn’t been seriously injured, nor had he seriously injured anyone he had worked with. Pat, Lance, Jim, everybody knew Aaron’s respect for the business and the people in it. If it would help, he’d put over a platypus at Madison Square Garden.
“You know it’s all right with me, Pat. What about Jim?”
“I’m gonna have him wrestle Wontorski.”
“And this is just a one-time thing? Test him out, see how he does?”
“But you want me to put him over. You want him to win.”
Aaron looked at his feet; one shoe on, one shoe off. “You know I’m happy to do it, but why? I mean, why put him over so quickly, first time out?”
Pat looked at him, smiled. “The people who spoke with me and Lance. They wanna see their local boy win a match. Good for community morale or some such shit. If he makes you look good, and you make him look good, Lance may sign him to a short-term contract.”
“You already have a contract, man. Ironclad.” Another puff of air, then Pat clapped him on the back and rose to his feet. “But there’s an extra hundred in it for you.”
“All right, fair enough, thanks.”
“And—ta-da—a title shot with Terry Blitzkrieg.”
Aaron paused. “For real? No kidding?”
“No kidding. Just put this kid over and we’ll get started on setting the stage.”
A bud of pride bloomed inside him. This was far more than he’d expected. He was good. He really was damn good.
“I’ll go find Jim,” Pat said, and disappeared around a corner as Aaron slid on his other shoe. He stuffed his gear into his bag, stood up and slung the bag over his shoulder. He had to wait for his buddy Ox Merkins, a loveable big man, as they’d split the cost of a rental car to save a bit of cash. Money was decent but corners were cut whenever possible. Nobody in the SCW was really getting rich.
About an hour later they met up with Jim and some of the other guys at the Roly-Poly Club, their nightly hangout since they’d been in town, dark and loud, rock music pumping from unseen speakers. Most of the guys, Ox included, spent their time drinking and hitting on women. Aaron and Jim sat alone at a table, each with a beer, Jim also with a double shot. As a general rule Aaron did his best to avoid the hard stuff. A few beers, maybe a few more, but that was usually it.
“So I’m wrestling Wontorski tomorrow. Guess you’re putting over some green kid?”
“Who is he? Why’s he coming in and getting over so quick?”
“He’s friends with some friends of Lance’s,” Aaron said with a shrug, then sipped his beer. “They wanna just try him out, I guess, but Pat said they want him over for some community morale. That part sounds like a crock, but whatever.”
In truth, Aaron hated the idea of working with someone so green. It was too easy for them to clock you for real, or to screw up even the simplest of moves. The extra hundred was nice, but it was a shitty gig. He and Jim were setting off fireworks almost every night. Aaron couldn’t help but think how their matches had become a big part of the SCW’s success, and he couldn’t help but worry that a match with this Nails kid was going to disrupt the dance he and Jim had been orchestrating so well together.
“Pat promised me one thing, though.”
“A title shot.”
“What, with Blitzkrieg?”
Jim whistled, said, “Get outa town.”
“Believe me when I say I can’t wait to do just that.”
The small eastern New Mexico town they were in, La mano de la Muerte, was dirty, most of the people looked like convicts, character after character, and even the arena itself was a bit of a rat-trap. Just the walls of the locker room hadn’t been cleaned in probably ages. He knew Jim was looking forward to leaving it as much as he was. But it was part of the job. Drive here, drive there, fly over there and then drive back to here. The non-stop traveling was the worst part of the whole thing. They’d seen so many dives in their time.
Jim downed his shot, chased it with beer, winced as he said, “Has the kid ever even wrestled before?”
“I’ve no idea, but I assume so.”
“Can I ask you something,” Jim said, “y’know, friend to friend?”
“You ever feel like Lance, Pat, those guys, are taking advantage of you? I mean, you and me, we’re good together. We’re both having some of the best matches of our careers, and we’re moving up. The whole business is moving up. They put us together so often because they know we’re gonna deliver and give the crowd something exciting and unique.”
“True, what are you getting at?”
“I just sometimes wonder if some of the things you do aren’t so much you being a good guy and a hard worker—you are those things, so please don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I wonder if, rather than for those reasons, you simply find it too difficult to say no.”
“No,” Aaron said. “It’s not difficult. I just said it. No.”
Jim held up his hands. “All right, okay. I’m just trying to look out for you, that’s all.”
“Thanks, but if it’s good for the business, it’s good for me, and if it’s good for the business, it’s good for you. It’s good for all us guys. Plus, a title shot.”
Jim smiled, raised his beer. “To climbing the ladder.”
Aaron raised his own.
“And,” Jim added, “to the next SCW World Champion.”
“A stretch, but I’ll take it.”
They clinked bottles, drank, and as they did Aaron’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket. “It’s Arlene”—he stood up—“Excuse me”—and made his way outside as he answered.
“Brian broke his arm.”
“He was riding his bike and crashed.”
“Shit. Is he okay?”
“No, Aaron, were you listening to me? He broke his arm. He was—”
“Yes, I heard you. Riding his bike and crashed.” There was a cigarette butt on the sidewalk. He kicked it away, thinking about his little boy with a cast on his arm.
“He misses you.”
“I miss him too. Just one more week and I’ll be home.”
“Yeah, for what? A day? Two days? Your son needs you.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“No, I really don’t think you do. You’re on the road so damn much, I don’t think you even realize you have a family.”
“I’m all too aware that I have a family. That’s why I’m on the road so much, because it’s this, or I’m bagging groceries for a fraction of the pay.”
“Maybe you should consider that. Maybe it’s time to grow up and stop playing make believe. Hell, Aaron, you’re not even a real fighter. You’re a fake, a phony, and the money—”
“You know I’m making better and better money, Arlene. I’m doing this so you guys can be taken care of. It’s because of what I do now that we actually own a house. Not real? Phony? It’s the beatings and risks I take every night that’s kept us from living on the street, and has allowed us, small as it may be, to actually have a savings account. And frankly, and you know this, it’s the only thing I really know how to do.”
“You’re such a little shit.”
“And did I mention I’m getting a title shot?”
“That’s potentially thousands more than I’m making now. And with that, the WWE may—”
“Screw the WWE, they’re not interested in you.”
“Well, thank you so much, for that.”
“And potentially thousands. Nothing guaranteed.”
“Fuck it, whatever. When will you be home?”
“One more week. Finish up here tomorrow, then a week in Amarillo, and I’ll be home. Hell, I’ll even talk to Lance about taking a little time off, how’s that sound?”
“So am I,” she said. “This is getting old, Aaron. Really old, really fast.”
She hung up.
Aaron returned his phone to his pocket and went back into the club. He went straight up to the bar and ordered himself a shot of bourbon, downed it, then joined Jim back at their table.
“Everything all right?”
“I’m not home enough.”
“Ah, the phone conversations of the married pro wrestler. Forget it, man. You’ll be home in a week.”
“Brian broke his arm.”
“That sucks, I’m sorry.”
“He broke his arm and I’m not there.”
“But you will be in a week.”
“Yeah, great, a week.”
He finished his beer.
Aaron thought about Brian’s broken arm as he got ready for the match, and about how Arlene had told him it was all getting old. How she’d called him a little shit.
As he laced up his pain-in-the-ass boots, Pat came to him with a young man in tow.
“Real quick. Aaron, this is Nails. Nails, Aaron Armstrong.”
Nails was close to Aaron’s size, yet his expression was like a deer caught in spotlights.
“Nice to meet you,” Aaron said, and extended his hand.
Nails’ hand trembled slightly as he gripped tight, and tried to crush Aaron’s. In such a strange rough and tough business one might think that it would be normal, but if you wanted any respect in the business, and if you had any respect for it or for your fellow brothers, a gentle handshake was the proper decorum.
Pat had already disappeared.
“Make me look good out there,” Nails said, a quake in his voice.
“That’s why they picked me,” Aaron told him. “You wanna go over some key spots while we still have time?”
“No, just make me look good,” then with emphasis: “Please.” And with that he turned and walked away to go get ready.
Aaron watched him until he was out of sight. He thought a little about what Pat had said, about community morale or whatever bullshit he’d conjured on the fly. If that were the case, then why was Nails coming out as a heel? A baby-face would do much better if this match had a damn thing to do with the community, unless this little desert town was really just full of assholes. A face putting over a heel didn’t make much sense in this situation…
Fuck it. One night with him, and then to Amarillo, where he’d be back to wrestling Jim, with the prospect of a championship match. Then home, where he could spend some time with his son and let Arlene pretend like he wasn’t there and make him feel bad about it.
He finished lacing up his boots.
If anything, the crowd was smaller than last night. Not being a televised event, the crowds were always smaller.
Making his way to the ring, the meager audience cheered for him. Aaron high-fived as many people as he could, then climbed into the ring and nodded to Dave, who nodded back, his face straight and business-like.
The ring announcer introduced him, and he raised his arms as though already victorious. Then the people quieted down and a second later Nails Nathan was announced.
A mixed welcome from the people, as though they hadn’t yet decided whether to love or hate him. He wore a solid black singlet and looked to be in another world, yet when he climbed into the ring, Aaron saw something puzzling within his eyes, and he thought back to just a short time ago, the tone with which Nails had stressed the word please.
Waiting for the bell, he looked out at the crowd. Those same silent, immobile men in suits he’d seen the night before sat in the front row. None of them appeared to be having a good time.
The two circled, sizing each other up, then lunged forward and locked arms. A brief struggle, then Nails brought Aaron down into a tight side headlock. Aaron pushed him off and against the ropes. Nails ran under a leap frog, and when Aaron turned around, Nails had stopped, spun around, and Aaron ate a spinning heel kick, which sent him to the mat—hard. Feeling with his tongue, a couple of teeth had just come loose.
Staggering back up to his feet, they locked arms again.
“Go easy, man,” Aaron told him. “This is entertainment, not a fight club.” He took him down with a headlock of his own. Nails elbowed out, then threw Aaron into the corner and charged him, brought up a knee and cracked it right into Aaron’s sternum. As all wind shot out of him, Nails unloaded with a series of punches, all of them very hard, very real.
“What are you doing?” Aaron just managed to sputter with what little breath he had, just before he took a strong elbow to the face and was hip-tossed down into the center of the ring.
This wasn’t entertainment, not a performance. This was a shoot. What the hell was going on? Was this some kind of set-up, had this kid just gone into business for himself, or had nobody ever bothered to explain the art of professional wrestling to Nails Nathan?
A knee drop. Aaron felt pain zigging and zagging through him. He looked up to Dave, whose face wore a strange sort of deadpan sadness.
“Nails, what are you doing?”
“The fuck’s wrong with you?”
An elbow to the face. Aaron clipped him with a short uppercut, but Nails slammed a closed fist near Aaron’s ear.
That was it. If this kid wanted to wrestle for real, then Aaron was gonna show him how to do it.
He threw a hard right, connected with Nails’ jaw, then tossed jabs as he got to his feet. A short range lariat and then a kick to the stomach, he scooped up Nails and body slammed him with all his might, then grabbed him by the hair and pulled him up.
“Watch it, Aaron,” Dave said.
Nails took a swing and smashed Aaron in the nose. Warm blood poured over his lips and chin. Bringing his arm back for another shot, Aaron side-stepped it, grabbed him, lifted and turned him in the air, and brought him down in a backbreaker.
For the first time Nails cried out in pain, and for the first time he whimpered the word “Stop.”
Aaron brought him back up, hooked him, and flipped him with a snap suplex.
He rose and dropped an elbow across his chest, and heard Nails whisper, “Stop.”
Paying no mind, Aaron gripped him into a three-quarter facelock.
“Please,” Nails said, his breathlessness laced with agony. “Please stop.”
“I’m just wrestling here,” Aaron said. “You wanna join me or continue this bullshit?”
As he released the facelock, Nails thumbed Aaron’s eye. Blinded, he backed off and dropped to one knee. A second later a knee-lift sent his world spinning, and when he crashed down he noted that one of his loosened teeth was now looser. Vision clearing, he saw the suited men in the front row. In the quick, semi-blurred glance, the men had become quite interested.
Then Nails reached down for a handful of hair. What he got instead was a strong wristlock, as Aaron got to his feet once more, twisted the arm, then pulled him forward in a short-rang clothesline.
On the mat, Nails Nathan lost it. He threw a little tantrum as he got back up, and became a whirlwind of punches.
Aaron back stepped. The kid had to win. For reasons he didn’t know, the kid had to win. He glanced at the men in suits again, and in that split second a punch caught him square on the jaw.
Maybe the kid had to win, but Aaron didn’t have to take this kind of abuse. If he could just slow him down for a few seconds. Long enough to just try and explain to him, but it was as though the kid had lost his mind. The kid was supposed to win, but Aaron was supposed to get a title shot—one he’d earned, even deserved. This punk was jeopardizing everything, for both of them.
Throwing an overextended punch, Nails stumbled on his own feet. While still off balance the two of them hit back to back, and in that instant Aaron reached back and pulled Nails’ head over his shoulder, then dropped to a sitting position, causing the back of Nails’ neck to impact on his shoulder. He gave it a little more strength than he normally would, just to get the guy under control. Except his own world spun and he saw nothing but fireworks. The maneuver took just as much out of him as it did his opponent.
After a small eternity, he heard the bell. Aaron climbed off him, in shock, and saw the kid’s semi-conscious face drenched in tears.
“The winner of this bout: Aaron Armstrong!”
His arm was raised by Dave, who said, “Stupid, Aaron. That was really stupid.”
“You pinned Nails.”
“When you both came down your arm flopped across his chest.”
Shit. Now that was a fuck up if there ever was one. Aaron knew that Pat and Lance were going to give him utter hell for not putting the kid over, but what the hell was he supposed to do? The punk had been doing everything for real, really trying to kill him. He was gonna put the kid over, he just needed to slow him down a little. The match couldn’t have kept going the way it was.
Feeling the blood on his face, the sweat on his skin, Aaron saw the men in suits get up and make their way to the exit.
As Nails slid out of the ring, one hand to his neck, Aaron caught sight of his weeping face again, and something told him it wasn’t because of the pain. It was a face riddled with terror. This fight had been something much more than a mere wrestling match. Something inside him sank.
Back in the dressing room Aaron looked for Nails. He wanted to ask him just what the hell was going on, but there was no sign of him. No sign of Lance or Pat either.
After a futile ten minutes, Aaron showered, got dressed, stuffed his gear into his bag and decided to take it out to the car while Ox wrestled. He wanted to prolong the soon-to-come new asshole Lance and Pat were gonna tear him.
The sodium lights of the parking lot gloomed as Aaron walked to the car. Not ten feet from it he heard someone cry out, begging and pleading. To Aaron, it sounded like Nails.
“He was supposed to win,” a voice said from the darkness, and Aaron suddenly found himself surrounded by men in suits. “Did you know he was supposed to win?” They moved in closer.
“He was too rough. He was—”
“Well, now he’ll be dead.”
Something hard slammed Aaron in the head. He smacked to the asphalt, his bag dropping from his shoulder. Then everything became a dark whirlwind of pain. Countless feet kicked him—kicked and kicked and then his hands were held down. In a flash of the dreary yellow light a hammer winked, then a crowbar, and in a dark flash he felt a blaze of insanity as one hand was shattered, then the other. He heard the cracks of his legs being broken, and even louder the bones in his arms snapped as a voice in his head called him a little shit.
“Next time Lance or Pat tells you to do something, you do it.”
Then fading footsteps and he was alone. Somewhere far off he heard Nails cry out once more. Then, dreamlike, car doors closed, engines revved, and automobiles drove away.
Aaron lay in a broken heap, pain so intense he was quickly losing consciousness. He didn’t have time to wonder what had happened. Just before he blacked out, he thought about his son, at home with a cast on his arm. Now they would have some real time together. Arlene was going to get what she wanted. His meal ticket had more than likely just been cashed out, his ability to provide for his family flushed away. No chance now ever of a championship match.
He heard the surreal sound of a door opening. Even more surreal, someone shouted his name.
Then he went to sleep.