He was tired of being a jobber. Losing every night sucked, even if you got paid for it.
There were times he'd be in a headlock, thinking: I should have been a goddamn plumber.
When he told her this, her response was always the same: When was the last time a plumber got to strut into a room full of screaming lunatics who love you more the harder you bleed?
As they hurtled north on Route 55, he thought out loud: Hey, why don't you see how it feels lugging a 400-pound Samoan on your back?
She suggested he find another line of work, such as florist or professional croquet player.
He shrugged, too tired to admit she was right, and reached for the sweating Yuengling balanced between his thighs, which looked like they belonged to one of those loons who could squat a Honda Civic in a strongman contest on ESPN.
When Luscious Luke looked down, the Mustang swerved violently left. Foamy beer sloshed from the green bottle onto his fuchsia tights and puddled in the driver's seat.
An air horn bellowed from the passing lane.
He checked the rearview, saw the filthy grill of an 18-wheeler coming on hard, and mouthed the words without saying them: Christ Jesus.
Grabbing the wheel with both hands, he steered the muscle car out of the speeding truck's path. The semi roared past, rattling the windows of the smaller vehicle.
The Mustang veered right and onto the shoulder, over a rumble strip that made the car go thunka-thunka-thunka-thunk, like a Boardwalk ride.
He regained control and guided the Mustang back into its lane just before it could mow down a small white cross jutting from the grassy edge of the shoulder, a memorial to another unlucky stiff.
Luke had to be careful; the Mustang was his inheritance.
All his old man had left behind when he'd croaked six months earlier was metallic blue, with a rebuilt engine and four new tires. V-8, zero to sixty in 8.5 seconds, rolled off the assembly line in late '72, the cranky bastard had boasted, slapping his boy hard between the shoulder blades. The black vinyl interior still smelled new. Or it had until a little while ago. Now it reeked of warm beer and sweat. The old man would have been pissed to see his prized possession defiled like this.
Luke shot a look at Ivy. He didn't call her Poison Ivy, ever, because he knew.
The girls in the high-school lunchroom, snickering at her crooked teeth and chanting: "Poison Ivy's such a bitch, don't touch her or she'll make you itch!" Her blue eyes had gone cold, like a river iced over, when she'd shared this distant memory with him.
Now she was a diva named Ashley Kane, "manager" to the stars of the independent wrestling circuit in Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Smashing metal folding chairs over gigantic, sweaty men's heads several times a week was one way she could level the past, Luke figured.
She wasn't officially his manager, since he wasn't a name – yet. But sometimes she would saunter beside him as he strutted to the ring, and catch his sequined robe when he hurled it over the top rope. He liked having her around, liked her smarts, the way she would get lost in paperback novels in the passenger seat on the long rides between shows. Sometimes she'd read out loud to him, embellishing the story in a porn queen's voice: "Maggie turned from the window toward Frank. She stared at him, her green eyes filled with longing, and said … unnnhhhh, yessss, right there, no, not there, spin me upside down, oh yeahhh!"
Ivy had told Luke she didn't date wrestlers. Anymore. But she found him attractive because he was just smart enough to know the ride didn't last forever, and that sometimes it ended quick, like a six-car pileup with no airbags.
When she finally caught his glance in the car, she shook her head to say: No more beer in the cooler.
Luke pushed platinum-blond bangs out of his eyes and squirmed in the slippery seat. Just my luck, he thought: I'll walk into the place stinking of booze and I won't even have a buzz.
A burnt-orange sun sank slowly behind tall evergreens bordering the opposite side of the four-lane freeway, casting long black shadows across the road.
The bridge from Jersey to Philly was not far, but it was getting late.
He'd already worked the undercard that afternoon in the stinking hot gym at Vineland High School, in South Jersey. A singles match against Alika, one-half of a championship tag-team with his twin brother, Amana. They called themselves the Angry Samoans, like the old punk band.
Trying to lift Alika was like hoisting a great oak, and after the match, Luke hobbled out of the ring convinced there was another busted disc in his back. When he finally made it backstage, there was no bottled water, the fountain was broken and he refused to drink out of the faucet in this dump, so he dry-swallowed three Percocets to slice the edge off the pain.
He sat on a bench in the locker room thinking about how these bastards were finally going to listen to him: When would he get the push he deserved? Every time his joints made that grating sound, the one that reminded him of loosening rusted bolts, he was reminded that thirty was closing in.
Luke was rehearsing his lecture when the wooden bench sagged. Syd, one of the bookers, plopped down next to him and sighed. It sounded like his fat body had a slow leak.
Before Luke could start bitching, Syd made a show of clearing his throat and said, "hey, you want to make an easy grand tonight?"
Show me a grand that's easy, Luke thought.
"See, what happened," Syd said, "is Montero busted his ankle in Altoona last night, and he's not making the Philly show. Somebody's gotta fill in. This one is for the strap. Going out on local cable, too."
Luke's heart raced. A shot at the championship belt without having to beg for it? About time someone in this backward organization wised up.
Syd saw the look on Luke's face, and shook his head.
"No, we promoted the hell out of this thing, so it's too late to sub you in as … you. And you know Montero and the Hurricane have been working this feud …."
This guy's got to be shitting me, Luke thought. Montero wrestled as the "The Big ?", wearing a black mask with a silver question mark stripped down the center of the face. It was a catchy gimmick, but it wasn't Luke's.
"You're built about the same," Syd said, thumping Luke between his wide shoulders, just the way Luke's father had.
When Syd saw that Luke still wasn't sold, he wrapped a fleshy arm tight around his wrestler and pulled him closer.
Syd was somewhere in his 40s, but he smelled like an old man, heavy on the talcum powder. Luke tried to pull away, but the fat bastard held tight.
"What?" Syd asked, leaning his bulk on Luke. "All out of favors?"
Syd reached into a blue duffel bag at his feet, pulled out Montero's mask and black singlet, and shoved them toward Luke.
Luke glanced down into the bag and noticed what looked like the grip of a gun sticking out from beneath a white towel.
Just another prop? Maybe.
Luke wanted to say: Hey ham hock, why don't you roll into the ring and do it yourself?
Instead he shrugged Syd's arm off his shoulders and said, "yeah, sign me up. But after tonight, we need to talk."
Syd grinned. "We have plans for you, don't sweat it."
Luke knew this was as much of a lie as the hair plugs sticking out of Syd's sunburned scalp.
Syd said the match was a drop – Luke, posing as "The Big ?" would lose to the Hurricane.
So he would go down twice in the same day, as two different people, in two different towns. Luke wondered if that was some kind of record.
"Just go over the spots with him in the dressing room before the match," Syd said. "He'll finish with The Crash. Help him sell it. You're good at that."
The Hurricane was even more of a mountain than Alika, and there was talk he had landed The Crash wrong once, killing a greenhorn in New Mexico.
"Don't forget to wear your black boots," Syd said. He heaved himself off the bench and waddled off without a goodbye or a "good luck."
"Sure," Luke muttered to himself. "Wouldn't want to ruin the illusion."
He threw on his favorite T-shirt, the one with "Dy-No-Mite!" printed across the chest, grabbed the rest of his things and rushed out of the locker room. Ivy was standing near the door, signing autographs for some leering, overweight guys who were stumbling over their tongues in the presence of a real, live woman. He took her by the arm and hustled her into the parking lot.
"Another meth binge?" Ivy asked, laughing as they sped off into the evening haze. Luke wondered why he could never find the world as funny as she did.
He said he had a second gig, explained it the best he could.
When he was finished, she scrunched her face and said, "I hope the fuckers are taking care of you for it."
"Yeah, next week I get my own reality show."
He flipped the radio dial past a call-in station, where a guy was practically screaming: Phillies suck, you can't just blame this slide on injuries, our manager is so dumb he thinks Iraq is in Africa ….
Luke finally landed on "Lost in the Supermarket" by The Clash. I wasn't born, so much as I fell out. He'd always liked that line, could relate.
A guy like the Hurricane had it easy, living off the name he'd made in his years in the big show. And he never let the other wrestlers on the circuit forget who he was, or had been.
"You assholes couldn't fill a room if you were Jesus and they gave free tickets to blind lepers," he would shout backstage.
Maybe the Hurricane needed some hard religion.
Traffic was light when the Mustang reached the bottleneck where Route 55 met the highway to the bridge; Luke leaned on the gas, taking advantage of the open road.
He decided it would go down like this: When they went over the spots in the dressing room, Luke would nod, play it cool. Inside the ring, he'd stick to the script for the first 20 minutes or so. Then, he would use Montero's running clothesline to put the Hurricane on his back and leap on top of him for the pin. The Hurricane would be expecting a two-and-a-half count, but the confused ref would have to go to three when Luke didn't help sell the escape.
Luke would have just enough time to snatch the jeweled belt from ringside and take a victory lap around the ring, as they crowd spat insults and hurled plastic cups of beer at his head. He might even take a second to pose for the TV cameras, so everyone at home could see that "The Big ?" was the new champion.
Then, he would hustle to a side door as the goons who ran the operation pulled brass knuckles from their briefcases.
He wasn't even sweating the thousand bucks. Once he got to wherever he was going, he could find a collector willing to empty his wallet for the Mustang. That would set Luke up until he found an independent outfit hungry for a fresh new face.
He was thinking of a new name, something he'd scribbled on a napkin one day after it came to him: Beautiful Bobby Watts. Yeah. That had a nice pop to it. And Luke figured he'd look even better with his hair a different shade, maybe jet black for a change.
At the foot of the bridge, he thought of telling her. Instead, he said, "Funny thing. I had this dream the other night I had my own action figure. Kid's mom brings one home from Goodwill, maybe it's his only birthday present. Little bastard takes it right out into the back yard, tapes a bunch of bottle rockets to it, shoots the thing thirty, forty feet in the air. But when Luscious Luke comes back down, he still has his legs, arms and everything. Like he's never even been touched."
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