TWO STORIES: "Getting Ready" and "Cowboy" appear in Michael Chin's upcoming book from Cowboy Jamboree Press--The Long Way Home, a 3-part collection of good grit lit about the carney world of pro wrestling, available now!
by Michael Chin
Erica used the grass as a mat for sit ups, the back-deck railing for a chin-ups. In lieu of a sparring partner, she wrestled the air. Her imagination might produce an opponent of any size, any strength level, and if she couldn’t power out of full nelson, she learned to drop down and slip free from the hold.
She never practiced in front of her mother when she came home. It was counterintuitive not to want Mom, the wrestler’s help. But Erica wanted to be ready not because of, but for Mom. To see Mom’s lower lip tremble the way it did when Erica first showed her she knew how to read, or the time she handed her the brown paper bag with the turkey sandwich with the crusts cut off she’d made her for her next road trip.
Erica’s stepsister, Val, had aspirations of going to college, and Erica had heard her talk on the phone about how she’d leave this Podunk town and this Podunk family and never have to hear a bunch of mouth breathers talk about wrestling again.
The two of them didn’t have much in common, just parents who were married, and the same rotted roof overhead. Mom told her in confidence they’d meant for the girls to share a bedroom, but Val threw a fit, so Erica wound up sleeping in her stepfather’s old office, that still held his motley assortment of paperbacks and VHS tapes. Erica hid her shoplifted copies of Pro Wrestling Illustrated behind rows of dusty books.
One day, Erica practiced flipping into a fall in the grass. She was smart enough to the wrestling business to understand that when she fell, it was as much about pitching her body as it was anyone throwing her, and a safe landing was her responsibility. She’d advanced from falling flat, to somersaults, to a front flip, but tended to over-rotate and land on her butt instead of her back. Get enough height, like she did a couple times, and she could feel her spine contracting, and knew she couldn’t get in the habit of taking falls like that.
That afternoon, after her sixth or seventh fall, she heard the laughter Val’s window. Val and her chubby friend with the freckles and the prettier one who always wore blouses instead of t-shirts, and wore lipstick that made her mouth look like she were bleeding.
Erica might have let it go. Instead, she asked, You think this is funny?
Erica had been scraps at school. Two years earlier, fifth grade, Johnny Reds pinned down a girl and kissed her. Erica punched his nose bloody. The principal told her stepfather this was the first time he’d ever suspended any fifth grader for a full week, and her stepfather assured him she’d face consequences at home, but that was the last she’d heard of it from him. When she got home, Mom sat Erica down and asked her to tell her the whole thing. At the end of the story, Mom said, You shouldn’t have done that, but could barely keep from grinning.
Mom wouldn’t like her fighting her stepsister, but she was already hot in the face and felt blood flowing to her fists. Sometimes she could defuse that feeling by cussing, but she didn’t want to cuss out Val, because that would only make them all laugh.
Her stepsister said, I think you’re a joke.
Erica knew to be careful. Lay the bait, and let Val at least equally start the fight. Erica knew she’d wind up in trouble, but she could spit the blame.
You think you could take me? Erica was always taller, but Val was two years older, probably forty pounds heavier. She probably meant to sit on Erica, punch her a few times and humiliate her while her friends laughed. Or are you chicken?
The last bit was improvised, born out of a wrestling fan’s vocabulary of insulting someone’s courage to lure her into something foolish. Val clumsily climbed from her window, directly into the yard. Her friends didn’t come with her, but did lean out to get a better look.
Val came at her quickly, both hands shoved forward.
Erica took a step to the side, caught Val’s left arm and tripped her legs so her momentum pitched her to the ground. It was Val’s own fault that she broke her fall with her right hand, the instant that Erica would, in retrospect, know broke her wrist. Erica pinned her back against Val’s left shoulder and crank up on the arm. In wrestling, they always applied the Fujiwara armbar slowly, but Erica pulled Val’s arm as hard as she could as straight as she could and felt Val’s shoulder dislocate.
All right, I give, freak! Get off of me!
Erica thought she’d enjoy the moment more, but it was there and it was gone and soon Val’s friends were out the window and holding her, the chubbier one eyeing Erica as if wondering if she ought to fight, too.
Mom came home early. She never cut trips short, but as Erica would understand years later, she had an agreement with her husband that they’d each parent their own daughter and leave the other. Her stepfather must have called, and must have told her to get home.
Mom listened again, and, after Erica was done with her story, said, You can’t go breaking people’s arms.
Erica started to explain, but Mom knew everything she was going to say. Erica could sense it then, a way she never had before.
You’ve got to get ready for this world. This world’s going to give you every opportunity to screw up. You’ve got to learn not to if you’re going to make something of yourself.
Erica couldn’t look her mother in the eye. She said she was sorry.
But Mom wasn’t interested in apologies. Erica understood this, too, not as a reprimand but a lesson, when Mom repeated, You’ve got to get ready.
Halloween Horror sounded cheesy. It was the only show booked each year at the Single Star Arena, an unofficially closed dump. No one wanted to buy the land, so the dilapidated arena remained available year after year for an event flyers said offered Frightful Family Fun. The year Erica was booked, the show featured a match in which the winner sealed his opponent in a wooden coffin, plus a main event Barbed Wire Match that guaranteed gore, strategically positioned past ten o’clock, after families took their kids home.
Erica’s match was a standard one-on-one with Debbie Doom, though they’d each wear witch hats and carry brooms to the ring. The bookers offered minimal guidance, besides that Debbie would win by clocking Erica with one of those broomsticks when the referee wasn’t looking.
It’s hard to believe people still pay for shows like this, Erica said to Tigress Numero Uno.
Maybe they want to see a ghost.
It wasn’t the first time Tigress smartened up Erica to some aspect of the business. Tigress’s base of knowledge came from first-hand experience, working a variety of wrestlers, a variety of towns. The knowledge came back practical, like don’t drink the tap water at this casino, and don’t go to the east side of this town.
He went by Cowboy, she explained. He wore the hat, the spurs, the whole gimmick. A small crowd gathered around them. Fair enough, because Tigress had flipped the switch from conversation to storytelling mode.
His opponent was a rookie. A roughneck who hadn’t finished his training, but had the right look to get on shows. Cowboy figured out he didn’t know what he was doing, so he put him in a chinlock to buy time and figure out what to do next.
Old timers loved their chinlocks to build drama and catch their breath. Erica always thought chinlocks were lazy.
The rookie used a chokehold, and didn’t know his own strength. Before Cowboy could even signal the ref, he was hurting.
So, Cowboy died at the hands of a novice. The legend went on—Erica should have seen it coming—that Cowboy haunted the arena to this day. She paused at the end of the story, eyes widening before she pointed forward, over Erica’s shoulder.
They all looked. They had to, certain the apparition had materialized behind her.
And Tigress laughed. Happy Halloween, ninos.
Perhaps Erica should have seen it coming, then, when she sat down to pee and heard the sound of spurs from the hallway. Soft and slow first. Enough to register that it was probably her mind playing tricks on her, until the sound got louder. Then the cowboy boots appeared on the other side of the stall door.
The cowboy outside kicked the stall door open. The door hit her knees and they smarted, but she was much more concerned with covering her privates. It wasn’t Cowboy on the other side, just Juan Riviero, a fringe main event talent who would turn out to be one of a half dozen veterans who knew the Cowboy tale and broke out their own cowboy boots annually to terrorize the uninitiated.
Sometimes Cowboy will show up in the arena. He loves to watch wrestling, Tigress explained later. They say sometimes he’ll even get in a wrestler’s body and take over for a minute.
Erica decided Tigress was just trying to scare her and that she wouldn’t be duped, but a baby-faced young man with a roman haircut and big blue eyes asked what happened then.
He’s out for revenge.
In the ring, Debbie ad-libbed not striking Erica with the broomstick, but rather choking her with it. Erica mouthed to ease up.
Debbie didn’t ease up.
Erica saw a man in the front row. Portly, bare-chested with a leather vest. He slouched in his chair. A foot propped up on the railing. A foot in a cowboy boot. Cowboy hat on his head.
She thought to point him out to Debbie. That’s the last thing she remembered thinking.
Debbie had pinned her, after improvising a minute-long choke rather hitting her with the broomstick. I thought I’d save you a concussion, she explained backstage. I didn’t mean to choke you out for real.
Erica was past that, even if Tigress wasn’t and wanted to fight Debbie on her behalf. Erica asked if Debbie had seen the cowboy in the front row.
Debbie hadn’t seen a thing.
Tigress didn’t see him either when she wrestled. Neither did the men after that, and Erica peeked around the curtain, trying to get a look at where he’d been. She heard two of the younger boys saying they thought Erica was ribbing them with this ghost talk.
Sometimes you see things. When you’re hurt. When you can’t breathe. Tigress stood by her side. Behind them, the crew disassembled the ring. All that clinking and clatter of removing scaffolding, unhooking turnbuckles from ring posts. You could hear the clicking spurs in that if you listened for it. But Erica wasn’t listening. She was looking.
No one believed her. Not Tigress. Not the young boys. Not the veterans in their own cowboy boots.
Why does it matter to you so much? Tigress asked, back in their car with the windows down. Erica searched on her phone for Cowboy and the Single Star Arena until she found the picture. The man from the front row. Cowboy, days before he’d been choked to death. Nobody got charged; it was all deemed an accident, part of the liability every wrestler assumed.
Did you find a picture? Tigress alternated between watching the road and peering into Erica’s lap. Is it him?
The man in the photo propped his foot on an overturned bucket. The spur on the boot reflected light from the camera’s flash.
What do you think?
Tigress hesitated. A car drove past, high beams on, lighting their car for a moment, blinding them.
Erica closed her eyes, content in this moment of belief.