The high-striker—you know, that game with the sledgehammer and the bell?—was gaffed. But the belly gaff was out of whack, so when the carny running the game pressed his stomach against the gaff button, it got stuck, and nobody even came close to winning. Every able-bodied man in Scranton, PA was thereby an official Sissy, no matter how hard or accurately they swung the hammer. Worse, the carny running it was a new hire, a real First of May, so couldn’t talk his way out of it when even the local football jock—and the son of a leading member of the Keystone White Citizenship Association—failed to make the meter climb past Puny Weakling. There was a small panic, threats of a fight—the carny called out “Hey, Rube!” but nobody came to back him up—and so the carny bailed the counter and ran to the woods, the football jock on his heels with the carnival’s sledgehammer in hand. “The beef had left the awning,” as an old-timer, which Jeff Gordon, owner of Jeff Gordon’s All-Star All-Comers, might say. The carnival’s official patch—whose job it was to make nice with the cops, or make fast with the bribes—was officially out for the evening, and the police were officially in and handing out citations, mere moments behind a wave of the whispered excuse “Baby needs milk!” from carny to carny.
Fraud or battery? That was the choice Jeff Gordon was given by the local constabulary. An officer was rounding the backside of All-Star All-Comers trailer, poking at it with his truncheon like the whole set-up—the trailer and the wrestling/boxing ring that opened up out of it like a Murphy bed onto the midway—was gaffed. Gordon was pacing the cop, not saying anything. Then the cop ran into the Black Raja, in mask and cape.
“And what are you supposed to be?” the cop said. “The Black Negro?” He laughed at his own joke. The Raja looked down at the cop through the eye-slits in his Zorro mask, and said nothing.
“The Black Raja,” Gordon corrected. “Our star attraction.”
“So tell me, Mr. Black. I mean, Mr. Raja. Do you engage in unsanctioned, non-permitted fights, or fixed matches?” The cop had landed on the classic question: is pro wrestling a shoot, or is it a work? Are you really dressing up in panties and booties and beating one another up, or is it all just a show? The cop tucked his truncheon into his belt and pulled out a pad and pencil. He brought the graphite point to his tongue and flipped open the pad with a flick of his left wrist.
“I exhibit my grappling skills,” the Raja said, his voice like a truck. “I perform with fellow professional wrestlers, and with members of the community who wish to understand the nature of scientific wrestling via a hands-on display.”
The cop lowered his pad and squinted his eyes. “Where are you from, anyway?”
“Hehehe,” Gordon said, sliding between the cop and the Raja. “Why the Black Raja is from the black hole of Calcutta itself! He struggled his way, with nothing but the power of his limbs, and an understanding of the human joint system, from the depths of squalor to the heights of the world championship in just eight years!”
“World champion. Huh?” the cop said. “So, if I were to ask your Raja for some identification, he’d produce an eight-year-old passport from the old Indian Empire, stamped by the Viceroy and governor general and all that.”
Gordon found his patter leaving him. This cop was an unusual one—he was more with it than his big white pie-face suggested. The Black Raja stepped in. “I can do exactly that. I do not normally carry a passport in my trunks, but you are welcome to pat me down now.” With a flourish of his cape, the Raja revealed his body—skin taut and leathery over well-defined muscles. The cop looked a little pudgy next to him. The pad went back into the belt and the truncheon was slipped out. The cop twirled it by the leather loop, casually.
“I’ll just have to come and observe the exhibition of grappling skills this evening, then.”
“So we can stay open?” Gordon asked, too excited for his own good.
“This evening, gentleman,” the cop said. And he left without giving Gordon a citation.
Gordon glared at the Black Raja, “Kalmatas, why the hell did you have to go and live your gimmick and tell him that you had an Indian passport? How are we going to get a reader that looks like that?” he said. A reader was a fake ID. So many words for bullshit in the carnival business. “You know they’re going to drag us in—on fraud charges or battery—and you’ll need ID.”
The Raja only said, “Don’t worry about it, boss.”
This particular carnival was a real fireball show, so crooked it never even used the same name twice. Poor ol’ Jeff Gordon was stuck with his real name on his trailer, and as carny wrestling was being displaced by Gorgeous George and the DuMont Television Network, there wasn’t much other truck and traffic for Jeff and his crew. He could no longer even show boxing, though there was a white pugilist, dukes up, painted on the side of his trailer.
All he had left now was the Black Raja, and Johnny the Plant. So many layers of kayfabe—fakery, or ake-fery, or plain old bullshit—so hard to keep track. Kayfabe was the key—never let anyone know that wrestling, and everything about it from the origins of the wrestlers to the outcome of the matches, was a lie. Fake wrestling was harder than the real thing, that’s why the boys always called it work. Always keep kayfabe up, even if you had to wrestle for real—to shoot— to keep the marks bamboozled by the worked matches. The Black Raja had always told his bosses, at All-Star All Comers, at Midwestern Entertainments Inc., and Big-Time Pro Wrestling, that his name was Kalamatas—that’s how deep into kayfabe he was. Once in a while, back when he was touring the territories and showing up on local Saturday morning TV, the brass would have a bit of an education, and stick him in a toga and call him Atlas or Ajax the Great.
But mostly Chattopadhyay was The Black Raja. An Indian pretending to be a Greek pretending to be an Indian. So he did have an Indian Empire passport, with the photo of younger self, before the cauliflower ear and smashed nose, staring out into the world. And he had another secret as well. He could actually fight. Work or shoot? Fraud or battery? Chattopadhyay could pick and choose.
The carnies had a meeting in the beer tent about the afternoon’s heat. Almost all the joints had been shut down, for either safety violations or fraud charges. All the carnival had left was the big ol’ simp-heister of Ferris Wheel, dodge’em cars, the usual cheap shit food from the butchers, the beer tent itself thanks to some thirsty police officers and obliging servers… and All-Star All Comers.
Chattopadhyay wasn’t at the big meeting. He was working out with Johnny the Plant. “Hey Greek,” Johnny the Plant said. “Should I say from over yonder, or from down the holler? Should I even say anything? I mean, can the police arrest me for lying?”
“Just practice the spot,” Chattopadhyay said. He took a long step, scooped Johnny the Plant up, and slammed him to the grass. Johnny the Plant whumped, but was all right. Chattopadhyay was a real pro. “Good. And make sure you say the last town’s name right.”
“Wilkesberry,” Chattopadhyay said, rolling the r. He picked Johnny the Plant up by the wrist, spun the arm, and tripped him. Johnny the Plant landed hard onto his face, then rolled over with a smile.
“You look like an amateur,” Chattopadhyay said. “Good.”
That night at the far end of the midway, around Jeff Gordon’s All-Star All-Comers trailer, a small but hot crowd gathered. It was a sultry summer night; fireflies and the sticky smell of beer and candy everywhere. An improvement over the usual cow shit stench of Scranton. The trailer was open, the Murphy bed ring open, the lights on, and a nice tip of gawking gillies in dungarees—true fans of the Sport of Kings—were standing on the grass around the ring.
“Five minutes!” Jeff Gordon addressed the tip, his lungs practically busting the buttons on his red sequined evening jacket. There were plenty of police in the crowd, in plain clothes, and a lot of other big men milling about, but he didn’t bother to rewrite his bally for the evening. “You’ve seen such shows before—dare any of you step into the ring with our champion wrestler? Go five minutes without being pinned… without being horribly injured! And you will win one hundred dollars, guaranteed and backed by gold!”
The ring was empty. Chattopadhyay was wrapped up in the blackout curtains behind the ropes, sweating as he did every night.
“But our man is different!” Gordon went on. “The Lackawanna County Sheriff’s Department has declared the grappler we have with us tonight too dangerous! After an evening of destruction and devastation at our last engagement, you will not be allowed to step in the ring for five minutes, even with all waivers signed, a nurse for a wife, and an undertaker for a brother-in-law.”
The hick chuckles subsided after a moment. “Tonight,” Gordon began again, “and tonight only, you’ll need only last three minutes… in a non-sanctioned match that no referee bonded by the state of Pennsylvania would dare officiate! Risk your lives, against!”
He ran a finger under his starched collar, then flourished with his arms.
“The Black Raaaaja!”
Chattopadhyay stepped out from behind the blackout curtain, and swung his matching black cape ostentatiously. He shrugged it off and struck a pose, flexing his pecs and biceps. The crowd hooted and booed appreciatively. Through the slits in his Zorro mask he sized up the likely competition from amongst the tip. It was the usual mess of underfed shitkickers and laid-off coal miners whose lungs wouldn’t keep them upright for more than sixty seconds.
And the Klan.
How can you spot Klansmen, when they’re not wearing their hoods? Chattopadhyay could tell. It went beyond the certain self-satisfied swagger men have when they’re large and walking down to ringside with a group of their friends. There were signs, subtle ones. The fellow with his hand tucked into his pants, but with three fingers sticking out uncomfortably. The muttering of “thirty-three…” followed by the counter-call of “six.” And as Gordon continued his patter, the Klansmen shouldered their collective way to the apron, and grew very interested in Chattopadhyay. That was the final tell. Chattopadhyay’s skin tone and physique and accent often just confused the cracker townies on the circuit. But the eyes of the Klansmen blazed.
Blazed, at first, with confusion, like those of everyone else. But whereas most people just ultimately decided to keep Chattopadhyay at arm’s length, Klansmen kept careful track of the races of man and all their terrible attributes. But what was Chattopadhyay—a villainous Sicilian, a savage Comanche, some atavist subhuman Jew from the deserts of Palestine? Or a tainted quadroon, as they call a fellow with one Negro grandparent on the southern circuit? They had to know, and individually, every man before the ring apron made their decision. Their eyes still blazed, but now with hatred.
No, not hatred. Anticipation.
Chattopadhyay was on automatic, with his usual posing and gnashing of teeth. He pulled off his cape and threw it behind him into the back of the trailer.
The Klan was a carnival in its own right, Chattopadhyay thought. Lingo, hand signs, a code of honor of sorts. And almost always capable of paying off the cops, unlike the outfit he found himself working for in these later days of his career.
“Are there any challengers at all?” Gordon demanded to know, “Or shall we mark it down in the record books, yet another victory for the Black Raja via collective forfeit?”
“I’ll do it,” Johnny the Plant said. He jumped right on to the ring apron and with a practiced misstep, stumbled and grabbed the ropes. The crowd laughed and booed and someone shouted “Go on home to mama!”
“Yinz don’t understand,” Johnny the Plant said. “I’m from Wilkes-Barre!” He said it right, and the hecklers quieted down. “I seen what this man can do! He hurt my paw and my best friend last night, and I followed him on down here to Scranton. I’m going to give him a licking!”
“Go on home and lick yer mama!” someone—probably Gordon throwing his voice—shouted. Chattopadhyay, now the Black Raja in every sinew and muscle, put his hands on his hips and laughed a bellyful at that. Ha ha ha ha ha!
“Ring the bell!” Johnny the Plant shouted, and he slipped between the ropes. Gordon grabbed a ballpeen hammer and plunked the old school bell twice and Johnny the Plant walked right into the Black Raja’s boot and doubled over. He geeked himself then, nice and light to start the bleeding. The Black Raja’s wrapped his thick brown arms around Johnny the Plant’s torso, slammed his boots against the canvas, and gutwrenched Johnny the Plant onto his back. Johnny the Plant bounced off the apron and howled and grabbed at his own ass like his tailbone had been shattered. He shook enough that his geek opened up and he started bleeding from the forehead.
Behind Johnny the Plant the Black Raja picked himself up and held out his arms, fingers splayed wide. He moved in for the kill. The Black Raja planted a knee between Johnny the Plant’s shoulder blades, wrapped his thick arms around Johnny the Plant’s neck and clamped down.
“Go niyazuts,” he muttered to Johnny the Plant. Johnny the Plant went nuts, arms swinging, legs thumping off the canvas, tongue out, drool and spit flying. The Raja stood, bringing Johnny the Plant with him, then dropped him back to the canvas with an extra-loud thump, landing on top in a pinning position. The ring announcer counted aloud, “One, two, three!” and then rang the bell himself.
The Black Raja stood up, dragged Johnny the Plant up with him, and then reared back and punched Johnny the Plant right in the chops, punctuating the strike with a stomp to the canvas. The crowd booed again, and Gordon hammered a beat on his bell.
Now it was time for the finisher. The Raja grabbed Johnny the Plant’s left foot, placed his leg against the back of Johnny the Plant’s knee, and then twisted Johnny the Plant’s leg. Johnny the Plant howled and begged. Raja stepped over and cranked Johnny the Plant’s foot, then got back into position, and did it again, and again. The townies erupted at the sight of the spinning toehold, and finally Johnny the Plant screamed, “Uncle! Uncle!” When the rage of the crowd finally drowned out the bell, the Raja dropped the leg, stepped up to the audience, and took a graceful low bow. Johnny the Plant crawled to the apron and rolled out of the ring, favoring his tortured leg.
Most nights, that was the first act of the show. Despite the All-Comers name, it was a rare gilly that would get between the ropes after witnessing the beating Johnny the Plant took. Normally, Black Raja retires, and the still bleeding plant stalks the midway, pounding his palm with his fist and working up his courage for a rematch loudly and publicly. An hour later, Johnny the Plant brings a new tip back to the ring and manages to get a few licks in on the champ before the Raja takes him down and hooks him with yet another crowd-pleasing spinning toehold.
Tonight though, when Jeff Gordon said, “Just barely a minute! A spirited effort by the young lad who saw what the Raja had to offer and followed us down the trail forty miles, but he leaves no richer… but infinitely wiser. Would anyone else like to test his mettle against the Black Raaaa—” he was interrupted.
“Jah!” said a huge white man that even Chattopadhyay hadn’t previously spotted. He must have joined the tip during the match, and thanks to his friends in the Klan, he had gotten all the way up to the ring apron. They’d set themselves up and then parted like the Red Sea for him. The big man pulled himself up onto the lip of the ring, his strong arm bending the ring rope as he gained his footing. “I’ll fight this Hindoo! This… Black Negro!” he declared, and the crowd roared.
Gordon shot Chattopadhyay a look. Chattopadhyay nodded, then turned and focused on his opponent. The big man wasn’t one; he was a big kid. Maybe a college boy, corn-fed and on a football scholarship, with a familiar face.
He looked just like the cop, but huge. Everyone in the tip seemed to know him. The kid took off his shirt to reveal a blacksmith’s physique— a huge barrel chest and cannonball biceps.
Here’s something to know about wrestling. It’s all about leverage, and angles, and being game. Every hold has a counter, and all else being equal the man who keeps his wits about him wins.
Here’s something else to know about wrestling. A good big man beats a good little man, almost every single time. College boy was big enough that he didn’t even have to be all that good. The cop had been a normal-sized man, half a head shorter than Chattopadhyay.
His wife must be fucking enormous, Chattopadhyay thought.
Gordon rang the bell. Work became shoot. Fraud transformed into battery. A flash tackle and college boy was on top. He rained punches down on to the Black Raja, trying to get a little claret going. Finally, the scarred-over skin on Raja’s head burst open and the blood started to pour. That’s when the Raja grabbed the college boy’s wrist, jerked it forward, swung his freed leg over the boy’s torso to get him into a scissor-hold.
College boy crunched up and slid an arm behind the Raja’s neck, not to crank it but to whisper. “We’re gonna burn you out, so just lie back and count the fucking lights. My daddy and his friends just wanted to see the show first.” Then the college boy tightened his grip and went for the can opener neck crank, driving Raja’s chin to his chest.
Raja smiled. The college boy was strong, but not too smart. He let go of the scissor-hold, and the pressure from the can opener all but vanished. He bumped the kid off him with a hip thrust, rolled to his side, planted a hand on the kid’s ass and shoved him onto his face. Raja took his back. This would be easy.
Except that the college boy did a press-up, then got to his feet, with the Black Raja hanging off his back like a child. The crowd howled with glee, and someone screamed “Jack him!” and the boy did, smashing Raja under him.
Gordon, still outside the ring, reached under the bottom rope and slapped the mat twice but Raja jerked a shoulder up. Gordon was eager to slap the mat a third time anyway, to ring the bell, to make a mad dash for the shotgun under the ring if he needed to, but something stopped him.
The Black Raja stopped him, with a glare. Chattopadhyay was gone.
College boy didn’t try to rock his opponent back into a pinning position; he just pushed down on Raja’s knees and turned, looking to sneak in a few punches. Which is what Raja wanted.
Raja snaked his right arm under the college boy’s armpit and behind his neck, the other over the boy’s left shoulder. A three-quarter nelson—he owned the boy’s upper body now. The boy could take a pin, and get humiliated in front of the town. Or the boy could try a neck bridge, and Raja would just hook, making the hold so painful that the boy would have to submit.
Raja shifted his weight and drove the boy’s shoulders toward the mat. But college boy was smart after all. He put his fists together behind his head and flexed hard. Raja felt his grip being pried open. The boy thrashed and was free. He planted a knee on the Raja’s belly and sank near 300 pounds into it. One paw swallowed the Raja’s neck. The boy’s right hand was a fist, held high, ready to come down.
Chattopadhyay thought it looked like the moon. The Black Raja was gone.
He wondered if he was going to die.
Here’s something to know about Chattopadhyay. Raja is a gimmick. Kalamatas is a gimmick. Chattopadhyay wished he was a raja, dressing in gold, riding in a palanquin. Sometimes he wished he was just a simple Greek moron, herding goats and spitting olive pits onto the table.
What was Chattopadhyay actually? He was a little boy. Chattopadhyay was placed in an akhara—like a gym, or a monastery dedicated to breaking bones—by his parents at age four, and did the work wrestlers do. Up before the sun to perform a thousand squats and a thousand push-ups. Twenty-five matches in a row, real matches, with his fellow students. Endless swinging of Indian clubs, sometimes while wearing a stone gar nal around his neck to build up his bridge. As the gym’s own boy, he’d cook the food and clean up the messes and jerk off his teachers, who were barred by the traditions of the sport from handling themselves or lying with women.
Then came the war, and the Indian Army, the Italian campaign. Then on to London, which smelled like a fire, and on to Canada on his hard-earned passport. It was only a single midnight truck ride in the bottom of the truck to get him to the United States, where a man could make a living wrestling—especially a man who knew how to shoot as well as work. When Chattopadhyay wanted to win, he could pin pretty much any longshoreman or pituitary gland case the brass put up against him. That’s how the promoters used him, to cut young workers down a peg when they made the mistake of asking for more money, or threatening the boss with their big canned-ham fists. In the lingo of the field, Chattopadhyay was a stretcher. His job was to get in the ring and hook them but good, to make his opponents realize that wrestling was real, even when they were paid to fake it.
Mostly though, Chattopadhyay counted the lights after putting in his pantomime offense. Nobody was going to put a championship belt on an Indian man, even if he wore a turban, or a Native headdress, or a sequined mask, or a Roman tunic. One night, after Strangler Frankhauser mouthed off in the locker room, Chattopadhyay decided to shoot. The Strangler was a fat old man with a fused ankle and thanks to his brother the promoter held the Mid-Western State title. Chattopadhyay played heel and spent most of the match sweating it out under Strangler’s armpit, then grabbed an ankle, flipped Strangler over and hooked the leg hard with a toehold.
Strangler had two choices: listen to his ankle break, then his kneecap pop, then his groin tear; or he could just roll onto his back. The ref that night had two choices too: count to three, or blow kayfabe and let eight hundred paying customers and the WEO-TV 44 camera operators and everyone else out there in Televisionland know that professional wrestling was a work. Ah work, just another word for bullshit.
Strangler Frankhauser rolled over. The ref counted to three. The camera operator zoomed in for a close-up. Chattopadhyay—what had been his gimmick at the time, anyway? The Savage of Borneo? Chief Pow-Wow?—held the belt high.
Back in the locker room, it took six guys to pry it out of his hands and dump Chattopadhyay, a bleeding wreck minus three teeth, out on the edge of town. Television was over for him, forever. So he signed up with Jeff Gordon’s All-Star All-Comers, and wrestled the same exact match, night after night. He let himself get soft, let himself do the dumbest spots for the dumbest rubes in ten states.
But that little boy knew how to live. He could work, he could shoot, he could hook.
And he could rip.
Ripping is hard to train. You can’t live-drill it, unless you want a crippled sparring partner. But Chattopadhyay knew how to do it.
He’d practiced it on goats, since the age of eight. Under the watchful eyes of his teachers.
He kept up the practice, even in America. He’d known a man in Pittsburg with a small herd. That man’s name had been Kalamatas.
And now, under the college boy, with his breath fading fast, he reached up till his fingers found the collarbone. And he ripped it out of college boy’s chest.
There was a sound like a wave. Then a shotgun blast, and the smell of powder. The last thing Chattopadhyay saw that night was the sledgehammer from the high-striker coming down on him.
There’s no carny wrestling these days. And there are precious few sideshows, but there’s one nameless carnival known to travel the Pennsylvania-Ohio circuit, and it has a sideshow. Jeff Gordon’s All-Star Plights of Humanity, that’s what the sign reads. And there’s a painting of a man, green with outstretched arms that end in blobs of purple putty, on the trailer front too.
But there’s no such exhibit as that green man. The All-Star Plights of Humanity is a pure geek show—not a birth defect or a hairy doll to be seen.
Gordon’s dead and buried, and Johnny the Plant runs the geek show.
He’s got two prize geeks. One’s called Mr. Whiplash. A promising young college boy who made the near-fatal error of drinking and driving while listening to jungle music on his car’s AM radio. He sits in a stool, dribbling onto his lap, a long and very realistic-looking bone protruding from the flesh of his chest. Multiply concussed during the post-match riot, the college boy wasn’t one anymore. College boy wasn’t much of anything, anymore. He could dress and feed himself though, so Jeff Gordon had taken him on.
The other Plight of Humanity is the Human Dent. He’s an older man, and he can even talk, though for the most part nobody can understand what he’s saying, but it sure ain’t English. Where his left temple used to be is just a huge gouge. Some say that Mr. Whiplash ran this poor man down, and that’s how they both ended up geeks, sitting on a raised platform, four feet apart, on separate stools.
And there’s even proof that the story is a true one, ladies and gentlemen. Get too close to Mr. Whiplash on his stool, reach out to touch the shank of bone to see if it’s legit, and the Human Dent will turn his head, stop his chilipepperese mumbling for once, and growl in an accent that sounds almost British…
“Hands off! He’s mine!”