Short Fiction by Wes Brown
Shelton had one arm round the server and the other headlocking a giant plastic lobster. Red long antennae peeped from his grip. He grinned while a wrestling fan snapped a pic on an instamatic. Lucy, his wife, watched with her head in her hands.
He came back to their booth.
“Oh my God,” she said.
“What else am I going to do for God’s sake?”
“You always do.”
“You know what.”
She looked deeply at the menu. Smoothed her hand down her neckline. Not knowing where to look while another fan, and then another began to queue for photographs; everybody still hot from tonight’s show at the Sportatorium. There were other wrestlers – or workers as they were known – would clear off, as far away as they could after a match, but not Shelton, this was his arena.
Now he was climbing on top of a table, lobster in hand. The waiting staff howled with laughter. Lucy laid her head flat upon the table. Some more fans entered from the Sportatorium and began drunkenly chanting his name; Shel-ton Ma-this! Shel-ton Ma-this!
Shelton saluted them with a giant lobster-claw, giddy with his own ego, the chant growing stronger while he got up in the fake creature’s face, trash-talking, telling that pink-faced punk that he was going down before slamming the thing to the floor below. The crowd went wild.
Shelton looked for something to use as a microphone and settled for a fork.
“You know what, Dallas?” Shelton shouted. “You guys are the best fans in the world! Next time I’m here, I’m taking the World Title, I promise you! Whoo!”
Fans beat the tables of the Chop House. Fans chanted. This could’ve almost been the Sportatorium. Shelton didn’t want this to end but saw Lucy by his feet, looking sad and tired. She had a moody, beautiful stare. He climbed down into his side of the booth.
“Everything okay, chicken?” he asked.
“You know,” she said.
“You know,” she said. “I feel so watched.”
He scratched his head and sighed. He figured he just needed to let her cool off. They sat awhile in silence, without moving, until the server came to take their order. He was a jock but hovered near the table, not quite confident enough to approach.
“You alright dude?” Shelton asked.
“That was really great” the server replied goofily. “Do you mind?”
He handed over his ordering pad to Shelton who autographed it with his stage name.
“No problem, buddy” Shelton answered.
“It must be great having such an athlete as a husband?” the server asked Lucy.
She raised her eyebrow.
“It’s really something,” she said. “I really don’t know how lucky I am.”
“We’ll have two hamburgers and fries with root beers, please,” Shelton said. “And throw in a couple of pork loins.”
Shelton had big, paw-like hands and a stoner face. He filled his half of the booth.
“I don’t like tenderloin,” Lucy said.
“They’re not for you,” he smiled.
Shelton liked to play the hero in and out of the ring. Tonight, he had wrestled one of the biggest villains in the territory, Bruiser Brodsky in the main event. Brodsky went stiff with him, punched him too hard, opened his head up on purpose. This was part of paying your dues. If a veteran didn’t like you, instead of working with you as part of the show, they’d hit you for real. Shelton fingered the suture. The gash throbbed.
Lucy slipped on her jacket.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he said.
“We haven’t eaten yet.”
“I’m not hungry.”
She crumpled in her polkadot dress.
“Are you hot at me?”
“No,” she said. “Not at all. Why would I be?”
“I’m sure,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
He told her to sit and she did. When the food came they ate silently, like mimes, and halfway through the meal, another boyish server came over and asked if everything was good. Shelton nodded. A pink sign glowed outside. His wound wept. Lucy folded her napkin and dampened it with clotting from his head.
“I hate it when you get hurt,” she said.
“Brodsky is crazy.”
“I like it when you actually wrestle. Not all this brawling and blood.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t show off all the time,” she smiled again. Her red lipstick meeting his red wound. “Just be a real person.”
“I will,” he said.
When a fan walked past they stopped talking or immediately switched subjects. He did everything he could to maintain the illusion. In a fake sport, he wanted to be real. If Bruiser Brodsky were to walk in right now they’d have to fight to protect the business. The fiction that wrestling was competitive and not choreographed.
“There’s a world beyond you, beyond wrestling,” Lucy said.
“I know,” he answered.
She reached out for his hand. His grandmother’s engagement ring knuckled round her finger. He grabbed it, holding it harder than he had the lobster claw, closer than he’d hold anybody in the ring, until it hurt.
“You know,” he said, “whenever I’m with you, I feel like I’m on trial. Nothing’s ever good enough. And I like that. It makes me try harder. To be a better man.”
They walked across Elm Street in downtown darkness. The smell of hotdogs and buttery popcorn lingered in the dark. The sky was starry. After a few blocks, his leather sports bag was getting heavy. Signs and symbols lit up the boulevard. Old liquor stores, Planter’s Peanuts, Haverty’s. The theatres ahead; lucent, ablaze with neon. Lucy stopped when she saw Franklin’s clothing outlet and Shelton reached his arm around her, the huge limb sat around her neck like an anaconda.
She shrugged it off. Then she stood tiptoed, a ballet dancer, almost afloat.
“It’s beautiful,” she said to the mannequin wearing a pink, ruffled dress she already owned and then began to cry. “Do you still love me?”
“Of course, I do,” he said.
Her reflection hovered somewhere between the mannequin and her body, spectral and pale, only half-present.
“I bought a dress just like this in high school.”
“I remember,” he lied.
She smiled consolingly.
Toward the theatre district people lined the sidewalk in dress coats; men in Stetsons, women in gowns. They were ready for the performance. People pretending to be other people. Make-believing what’s real. Lucy eyed the show names in the marquee. There were performers she’d only seen on TV. In school, she had been a straight-A student, popular and pretty while Shelton was the school hero. He was always his own best friend. She took roles in plays in high school. Without realizing, she soloed; a Fred Astaire moment, tap-dancing down the sidewalk like it was a high-school musical.
Shelton laughed, “You look like you just fell off a turnip truck!”
She stopped dead.
“I was a good dancer,” she said. “I was very good.”
“I know you were.” He kissed her deeply in the coming and going of the street. A taxi pulled up with a medallion on the grill that looked like a wrestling belt. “You only gave up because you didn’t believe in yourself.”
Shelton opened the backdoor and turned back to say, “A girl like you has no reason to be down on herself.”
“I don’t have your ego, I guess.”
“Thank God,” he said.
They sprawled on the backseat. Shelton shouted the address of the hotel to the driver. Lucy went limp on his upper body. He groaned and sighed. The adrenaline fizz was wearing off. He could feel the blows on his cheek and eye-socket now. The air stung his head. He’d never been opened up the hard way before. It was usually self-inflicted, a nick with a blade kept in his wrist-tape, the ritual letting of blood.
She sniffed his winged shirt collar and said, “You’re a bit musky, honey.”
“Good musky or bad musky?”
“Mm, I like it. But it’s probably bad.”
He saw the taxi driver’s face in the rearview mirror. Then sniffed his own armpits anyway.
“I didn’t get a chance to shower.”
The driver turned down the radio listening attentively now. His neck was pock-marked, leathery and brown. A bald patch sat in his thinning rug. He drawled at Shelton snatching glances in the rearview.
“Hey, aren’t you that guy?”
Lucy hung her head.
“Maybe,” he shouted. “Depends who you think I am.”
“I’ve seen you on TV?”
“Oh, what was it, you’re an actor?”
“I know your face. Don’t tell me.”
They waited in traffic. An aurora of reddish light ahead. All the vehicles brooding.
“Darn,” the driver said. “I give up.”
“I’m a wrestler.”
“Sorry, Sir! I’m a boxing man. That stuff’s not for me.”
Shelton sunk into his seat.
He felt a pain cross his foot, a sharp careening, and found it was Lucy’s heel. She had a smirk on her face.
Shelton settled the bill and they got out of the car.
“No more showing off, you said,” she smiled.
“Don’t tell me you weren’t about to launch into your act.”
“He didn’t even know who you were. It was embarrassing,” she said. “My God, aren’t you embarrassed?”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Are you really not embarrassed? Oh my God.”
She began to recite the conversation back to him, summarising the way he eagerly sat up in hope that he would be recognized. She spoofed him well. It was well-rehearsed; a routine she had performed before. His manner was caricatured cruelly.
“A lot of people do recognise me,” he said.
“Trailer trash, hicks, weirdos.”
“You’re such a hard-ass.”
The hotel was a few yards ahead, a prominent high-rise of magnolia stone with asymmetric facades. The lobby had an air of majestic quiet. Shelton spoke softly as he checked in. Lucy glossed her lips.
They sat a while at the bar.
“Nobody’s stopping you doing what you want,” he said.
“I didn’t say you were.”
“But you’re pissed.”
“Your body doesn’t have to go through what mine does.”
She shook her head.
“My body is my art, he said.
She could’ve slapped him, but she didn’t.
He ordered a cocktail and an orange juice, and they moved near the window. Lucy didn’t talk. He looked out into the night. A row of magnolias. An empty dumpster. The gash flamed in his head. He ran a finger along the bruised orbit of his eye. The final blow had brought a white flash, forearm like a plough. His brain as rattled as a speedball. He hadn’t been hit this hard since he played linebacker. There was no expression in Lucy’s face. It was as if she had broken down. There were a pair of staring eyes and no emotion.
“Fine,” she said. “It’s fine.”
Some of the boys from the show were lining up in the lobby. Brodsky. That bastard was difficult to know Shelton thought. He’d let his guard down and you would think you were finally getting on before Brodsky used the intimacy to hit you harder. Embarrass you. Break you down. Shelton led Lucy to the table and greeted the boys with weak, respectful handshakes. It was part of the business. To show you could be light. Nobody wanted to work somebody who was going to hurt you.
Shelton felt his hand in Brodsky’s crushing grip and was first to blink.
Brodsky had a reputation for refusing to work with wrestlers he didn’t respect. He would go off script and do whatever he wanted. Everybody let it go because it was Brodsky. He was six-foot eight, three hundred pounds, and could legitimately hurt people if he wanted. Promoters booked him because he was a draw. Guys would give him their best shots and he’d just stand there, no selling, refusing to react to the staged violence in a believable way, just standing there staring into space.
“Everything okay with the match?” Shelton asked. Brodsky still had him in his crushing handshake.
The gash on his head began to itch unbearably, as if it was about to burst.
“You did catch me a couple of times,” Shelton said. “Sorry to have to bring it up. We don’t have a problem, do we?”
Brodsky’s eyes went black.
“Everybody else you work with is your friend,” he said. “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not your friend. I fucking hate you.”
Brodsky suddenly let go of the handshake and Shelton’s hand dropped limp. Shelton didn’t move. He felt his body, heavy and useless.
“That’s one hell of a handshake you’ve got there,” he said.
“Stop being such a pussy.”
“I’m trying to be respectful.”
“You’ve been in this business ten minutes and you think you’re something. You’re green as goose shit.”
“What can I do to be better?”
“Do you even know why I opened you up tonight?”
“Your punches looked like dogshit. You except me to sell for you? You got to give me something to sell. I’m not saying go stiff. But man, you were killing the goddamn business.”
“You’re so goddamn green. I don’t know where to start.”
“The crowd seemed into it.”
“Look, you’re a good-looking kid. The crowd cheer for you because you’re local. The boss likes you because you can sell tickets. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Without the work in the ring, you’ll soon come unstuck. He knows you’re rotten and so do I.”
“Thanks, Brodsky.” He scratched his squat neck. “It means a lot, you helping me.”
“Stop being such a fucking pussy hole.”
Shelton looked back at the man looking back at him. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Get me a beer.”
“Guess,” he snarled. “But if you make the wrong choice, I will break your fucking legs.”
He watched Brodsky sit down at the far end of the long table next to Lucy, grinning back at Shelton. He went to the bar, ordered every beer they had and sent them Brodsky’s way, feeling the other wrestler’s glances on him. Knowing what he was doing. Wishing it wasn’t them who Brodsky had decided to screw with. There was Lucy in somebody else’s gaze. She was always polite with the boys, but he could tell she was bored. She was naturally poker-faced. Others found her humourless and disapproving but he liked it. There was something bitter-sweet about her. He wasn’t sure what mood she’d be in. Sometimes she punished him for ignoring her too long. Other times she knew business was done at the bar. She was an asset when she wanted to be. She knew how to make him look good. Or so he thought until he raised his drink and realised she was smiling, deep in conversation with Brodsky. She looked to be performing her spoof of him. Her whole body became a puppet to affect her mimicry. She held her hands big and dopily as it they were heavier and more solid. The difference in Brodsky was remarkable. He watched, fond and alert, speaking with a sly, soft manner.
There was pressure on his fingers and Shelton realised he was holding the glass, almost to breaking point. He could have smashed it. Right there. The line on his forehead throbbed. He watched Lucy as if she was another woman now. There was a new allure in her features. The ambit of his jealousy. Everything about her, her everyday glow, gleamed brighter. They shared laughter, rife with condescension and conspiracy. She was the girl he met in high school. The drama student. The girl who was his homecoming queen.
Shelton went to the bar and ordered a maple and bourbon cocktail. In the mirrored back wall, he saw a version of himself who was more perfect in every way. He wanted to dissolve himself into it. All he could think about was Brodsky. His eyes on her body. How he had demeaned him.
He emptied his glass.
In the hotel room Shelton undressed and went into the shower. He hadn’t wanted a shower at the venue because the staples in his head were still fresh. But now he stood naked in the gleaming rush of the coming water. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been in there. Time passed. When he stepped out a fug of moisture wrapped around him and he could barely see anything but his own physique in the mirage of the mirror. His upper body was thickly developed but his legs were still long and a little slim. He barely had calves. His shins were too long. He stood there negatively self-assessing. Whatever routine he used, his calves were always left behind. They were shit. He flexed angrily into the mirror, enough to raise his blood pressure and the seam on his gash.
He dried himself and pulled on a pair of shorts.
He opened the door and saw Lucy in her underwear eating ice-cream in bed.
“Wow,” she said. “Brodsky can really talk, can’t he?”
“The guy’s a crank.”
“Well, you left me with him for God knows how long.”
“I don’t want to argue.”
“Neither do I,” she said.
Shelton sat behind her and began massaging her shoulders, her lower back, and then cupped her breasts.
“Don’t,” she said. “They’re tender.”
Her belly looked full rather than pregnant. He rolled onto his side.
“I’m sorry,” he said,
“I enjoy the attention, but it’s also because I want to impress. I don’t want you thinking you married a nobody.”
She held his face in her palm, “I don’t.”
“I was before wrestling.”
“I know the story,” she stuck her spoon in the ice-cream. “You were down and out. You missed the football draft. You went to wrestling school and now you’re the next big thing. But I don’t know where Shelton Mathis ends, and you begin.”
She put the ice-cream on a side table and sat cross-legged.
“Is that what you think?” he said.
“You don’t know when the show’s over is what I’m saying.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Hang on, is this what you think?”
“I’m saying you need to keep a sense of perspective.”
“I do this for you,” he said.
She grabbed his face and kissed him, “No, you don’t sweetie.”
“I saw the way you were with Brodsky.”
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it,” he sighed.
“Then shut up then.”
She rolled over and fell asleep. A half-smile on her face. There was a large Colortrak concealed in a bookshelf and Shelton turned it on. He sat up eating peanuts and drinking gin. He knew the time and the channel the tapings from the Sportatorium would be on. The opening credits showed a globe and then a World Class Wrestling logo popped up with graphics like a feature film. It was a four-camera shoot. Handheld cameras ringside and on the apron, close to the action. His gaze fixed on the screen. The shot followed him dressed in his college jacket and burnt-orange trunks, hair bodacious white, being led to the ring by security, then panned to a view of the whole ring as he paced back and forth, awaiting his opponent.
He recognised only himself.
He watched, in love with the beauty of his own body, deep in Brodsky’s embrace as they locked up. Brodsky snatched a headlock and punched him between the eyes. Then stomped his foot and slammed him into the mat. While he beat Shelton down, he made a strange hussing noise and chewed on the ring ropes. The crowd roared. Shelton helped himself to more liquor from the drinks cabinet and sat back down to the image of himself that rippled and shivered and haunted.
“That’s very loud,” Lucy groaned.
“I thought you were asleep?”
“You keep moving around.”
“I’m reviewing my match. I think I just saw you in the front row.”
“You could see me right here if you paid any attention.”
“You’re still pissed with me?”
“Look at your head, Shelton.”
“It was an accident.”
“We spend our lives going place to place.”
“When I’m champion, I’ll be made. We’ll be made.”
“You know that’s horse-shit.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “I know how it works. You’ll be working even more, and I’ll be left looking after a baby.”
He didn’t say anything. They both knew she was right.
“What else do you want me to do?”
“I want to have another go at acting.”
“Anywhere. I’ll audition.”
“What if you get a part?”
“That’s the idea, numbskull,” she addressed him with the ice-cream spoon.
“You didn’t answer me, for God’s sake,” he shouted.
“Don’t shout at me.”
He shouted again, “I’m not shouting.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Maybe you should go and find Brodsky,” he said.
“You’re being an idiot.”
She turned off the light and rolled over.
“Hey,” he said. “We haven’t finished.”
“We haven’t finished talking.”
She turned again, and he shot his huge hand beneath her arm and forcibly muscled her back round with a half-nelson. She tried to bite his forearm, but he slapped her round the head.
“Get off me,” she screamed, lashing out at him. Her nails caught and bloodied his gash.
He shouted. “When the hell are you going to become an actress? This is crazy.”
“I don’t know. Next year. Whenever.”
“It’s like that, is it?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s like,” she said. “It’s like you hitting me because you got bitched on by Brodsky.”
His face and grip tightened.
“I saw you were having a good time with him?”
“I was trying to tell him not to be so rough with you.”
She enunciated every syllable slowly, “Actually.”
“How fucking much of a pussy am I gonna look now? It looks like I sent you to tell him to back down from me, like I’m scared of him.”
“But you are scared of him, aren’t you?”
He grabbed a fistful of her hair.
“What?” he growled.
“He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be.”
He had his hands around her throat. Unlike the wrestlers he worked, she bucked and resisted under his grip and he forced his weight down harder.
“Say it again,” he said. “Say it again, bitch.”
“Fuck you,” she said and spat at him.
He blazed her the face with the back of his hand. Snarling. She was frozen in an agony. But he squeezed her harder. There was a faraway look in her eyes. Her body stiff, an embodied scream, and he reached down to pull aside her panties, but found himself limp and rolled off her, rocking in a fetal position.
The television played on. Crowd roar. From the corner of his eye, he could see himself mounting a comeback on Brodsky after the beatdown he had faced. Shelton hit a flurry of forearm smashes and scooped him upside down for a body slam, hard into the canvas. Just as he was about to lift him skyward for a brainbuster and win the match, the bastard raked his eyes and rolled him up for the three-count with a handful of tights. Shelton stayed like this. Not doing. Just brooding. He had no idea how long had passed. His limp dick white as the soft meat from the lobster claw. His body as red as its shell. Lucy lay beside him not talking. He gazed at the screen waiting for his image to come back, but it had disappeared from the transmission stream. Only himself now. Laying there, sweating, like he’d just wrestled a match. He looked up at the blade ceiling fan whirling above them. The cooling revolutions. The silence was unbearable. He blamed the lobster, himself and then Lucy. When the broadcast finished, a test card appeared on the screen. Lucy turned off the television with the clicker, sat up, and started talking. It was as if she couldn’t stop and everything she said came out uninterrupted. She talked about her plans to become an actress. How things would be different. How they would raise their child. She said the slap wasn’t as bad as it looked. She said he was the only person who listened.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”