UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 09/2012
Ed Vecszik hunches his arthritic back forward to counter the perverse engineering of the plastic white chair below him. The VFW hall is a graveyard of fleeting glory and Ben Gay tubes. On the foldout table before him lies a fading array of rubber dolls, trinkets and 8 x 10 glossy’s of a ridiculous gimmick, The Sultan. He was an old man then, the sagging skin under his arms evident under his exploitatious mud brown robe; the tired purple wrinkles under his hood looked like a bad makeup job from a student film. And this was thirty years ago.
Other relics commandeer similar tables, shamelessly reliving once recognizable characters in their shrinking spandex and face paint. They all look like Ed, once proud physiques melted like a candle into a sickly version of their former selves. For five dollars a pop, the small scattering of spectators at this convention might buy a worthless autograph to prolong the ruse, giving back just a little bit to the broken shells that provided childhood memories. Both the wrestler and the fans understand the charity of it all, though it goes unspoken. The sadness of a seventy something man in tights is like a chokehold that squeezes tighter and tighter with each passing glance of empathy.
Ed Vecszik knew a thing or two about chokeholds. Before the business was exposed and rebranded as “entertainment”, before bodybuilders who did not know the difference between a leg drop and a lemon drop were recruited to the sacred secret, Ed Vecszik was a mat technician. This was in the days that tanned bodies were accidental and the violence in the ring was scripted but not entirely fake. There were no national big leagues then, like that wretched place where The Sultan was born, that old man dressed up as the anti American manager of some Cold War super villain. There was no pyro, no music, no corporate arenas. This was the era of the territories.
Ed scribbles his initials onto a photo, the Sharpie jerking side to side under his yellow, cracked fingernails. Every third or fourth paying costumer asks the elderly grappler to pretend to apply a wrestling hold, a hellish photo-op that causes a piercing pain in his obliterated rotator cuff.
These people, they remember The Sultan, but their grandfathers would know Ed Vecszik. Depending on the territory. In the South he wore a black mask, though his top heavy muscular frame, barrel chest and enormous, hairy forearms should have given him away. In this territory he was known as Yankee Hank, an arrogant heel out to denigrate the traditions that ran strong from Alabama to the eastern most point of Georgia. If Yankee Hank did not need a police escort to leave the fairgrounds, the promoter would dock his draw ten points. In the North, Ed Vecszik wore a blonde wig and a bedazzled silk robe. The off-white hair clashed with his coal black handlebar mustache, but the fans in this territory loved him; after all, he was Sam Justice, beloved hero and combatant of the villainous, Gestapo-like Hermann the German.
Hermann the German, from Terre Haute, sits at a table ten feet away, grunting his dementia between intermittent beeps from the oxygen machine that keeps him alive. His tip jar is empty; make believe patriotism runs deep.
In the West, Ed played the part of a cowboy named Peso Pete. Even then the campiness of it all lingered throughout the armory, but once Peso Pete hit the Stampede Slam, everyone cheered “yee-haw!”; in the East, he donned a hangman’s hood and billed himself as the heinous Gil Itene. This was a stolen gimmick, as the original Gil Itene faked his reign of terror in the Canadian regions. But the marks in the audience would have had no way of knowing. These were the days when the only web was in the corner of the high school gymnasium where the shows found a home. Television was for the rich folks who drove around in polished Studebaker’s. Even the promoters had a difficult time sorting it all out. Railroad transients, carnies and wrestlers were one and the same.
A wispy man in his fifties shakes The Sultan’s hand just a bit too hard, the crunching of his knuckles sounding like a stepped on bag of potato chips. Ed grimaces on the inside only, his commitment to his tough guy brute alter ego remaining stoic on the exterior.
It was when the territories banded as one and went national that Ed became disposable. They wanted faux muscles to match the faux sport. They wanted long hair on grown men and they wanted the in ring stories to be told in five minute bursts of flying elbows and cartoonish finishing moves. The old guard was being replaced and along with it, nuances were burnt at the stake. An opponent could pretend to be a stereotype but it was forbidden to call him a dumb Pollack. American pride was encouraged but calling the man across the ring a rice-eatin’-sonofabitch was banned. True life prejudices were acceptable behind closed doors, but in the four corners it had to be so over the top that it became parody.
They wanted no dark alleys. They wanted Main Street.
None of these people in this room know Ed Vecszik, it occurs to him. They know The Sultan, that conniving, cheating ringside distraction. They made an action figure of him once, when the action stopped. The paint was two shades lighter than his actual melanoma. Everything was fiction, it seemed.
But old Ed gave ‘em real. He gave it to them before the reality of unreality was forced upon him.
It was in the South that Yankee Hank first discovered how good it felt to strangle a man to his end. The insanity of pleasure derived from feeling a final breath on the inner forearm as a chokehold lasted too long. The audience in Tupelo learned authenticity as they sipped sugar water and spit at the air, though by the time the murder hit the newspaper the next day, Ed Vecszik was on a bus headed to Cincinnati.
In the North, the crowd delighted as Sam Justice snapped a Nazi’s neck in three places. The kid really sold it, lying dead in the center of the ring long after Justice made his exit. The authorities had a hell of a time describing Justice to a sketch artist-not many men roamed the town in sequins and underwear. Even Hermann the German had never seen Sam Justice without the wig; fifty years and a few feet later, he still had no clue. Had he not been bitten with a nasty hangover that night, it would have been him filling the interior of a coffin and not his last minute replacement.
In the West, Peso Pete murdered a pretend Indian and rode off into a jaded sunset. In the East, Gil Itene did not behead a man but he did try to. The original Gil Itene was arrested; luckily for him two hundred witnesses saw him wrestle The Flyin’ Hawaiian to a draw in Ontario.
The kids in this crowd are walking billboards for the current product. It grates at Ed, each obnoxious teenager with a replica championship belt, every adult man holding a rolled poster of a child’s hero.
Ed Vecszik left the business as Nixon was booking rooms at the Watergate Hotel, though the business left him as RFK was becoming the next player in a tragic lineage. When the actor-turned-Governor of California became President, he returned for a paycheck from the industry that betrayed him. He was The Sultan, a dastardly manager of a throng of unskilled workers. He was close to it again but a galaxy apart. The homicidal thrill never returned; it never left in the first place.
The crowd is scarce now. On the other end of the bingo hall, a one time Rookie of the Year is signing baseballs for twenty bucks per round. Hermann The German, from Terre Haute, is sleeping now, his wet noodle neck causing his cranium to plummet onto his left shoulder, wading in the undignified drool. The few people that do stroll by glance at the five dollar asking price and their eyes decide it is too steep. Ed overhears a child ask his father, “Daddy, who is that man?”. The father replies, “No one.” It seems somehow that there is more memorabilia on the table then when he started. As he looks at his sparsely filled mason jar, the singles tell him that dinner will be chopped up Spam and ramen. Again. Spam, fake food to the fake life he has built. How he would kill for Martha’s chicken fried steak and lumpy gravy.
He really would kill for it.
But it has twenty five years since Martha last oiled a pot. Sometimes he misses her. But he has decided it was worth it, that last thrill. He has come to terms with her sacrifice.
A twenty year old kid appears from nowhere and fires off a machine gun of questions that feel like an assault. He is a punk with no manners, as Ed sees it, asking about certain crossover entertainers that pollute the once sacred ring that Ed and his ilk bled in. This kid, he is wearing a distracting neon t-shirt, the name and image of the pop star paper champion from one of the majors emblazoned on the chest. It slaps Ed in the face, this t-shirt, pissing on the forefathers such as himself. This current flock of performers, they have no road adventures; they fly in corporate jets. Enemies in the ring don’t drink beer together after the show until they drop; they sip lattes and compare PR reps. And they sure as shit don’t shake hands in the locker room. They have individual suites now.
There is no code. There is no respect. Even the fans have pissed on the legacy. They root for bad guys and boo the good guys. They are supposed to do as they are told, but now they think for themselves. Like this kid. Rambling on and on about video games and fan sites. Telling Ed how his era was a joke, a necessary evil, a jagged path to the glorious present.
He doesn’t break character on the outside, but Ed Vecszik, his blood is heating up. Suddenly his joints don’t ache so much. The vein in his forehead is growing, a wavy serpent under the sand. As he scans the room, it is the territories again. To the North, the baseball has-been garners most of the attention of the crowd now. To the East, Hermann is knocked out cold. In the West, a former main eventer who now sells alarm systems has already packed up and skipped to the next podunk town to sell his soul and home security.
In the South, Ed Vecszik and the snot nosed kid are the only ones standing. Only it isn’t Ed Vecszik. Ed Vecszik has taken his Sultan hood and wrapped it around his face-a mask- and the cocky little dipshit kid has been so caught up with his own voice that he didn’t even notice. Whoever this old man is suddenly has raw testosterone swimming in his veins. His meaty forearms are tingling, the still thick hairs shooting upwards in an excitable menace. Whoever this geriatric fossil of destruction is, his eyes are now squinted sharply, instant crosshairs. His decaying back molars are grinding into one another, his jaw line quivering in controlled rage.
But it isn’t Ed Vecszik.
No, Ed Vecszik is on his way home for Spam and ramen and fake television on his fake leather couch. That’s what should be reality. But in an instant, this is the South. Yankee Hank is here now. And he’s in no mood to whistle Dixie.
“Hey kid, can I show you my favorite hold?”
And ding went the bell.Jon Allen is on the Editorial Board of americanproject.tv, where he profiles/interviews street artists, celebs, and all in between. Additionally he freelances business ad copy at jonathanallen.biz. His columns have been featured in grantland.com , getkempt.com and the Cincinnati Enquirer. In fiction, he writes gritty, satirical and dark pieces that skewer elements of society. His first novel, Throwaway Kids, is written in the same manner. A second novel is in the works.
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