I started wrestling because of Eddie Barno. I saw him wrestle at a high school match with my dad—he went to all the matches. Dad was State Champ when he wrestled in the ‘70s, two years in a row. All the time, he told me how he trained every night in his room, taking low-leg shots against the wall just to get faster, quicker—to build the reflex. How wrestling made him a better fighter in everything, but mainly in streets, in bars. He’d move side-to-side, laugh.
Never go down to the ground with a wrestler.
And I’d shake my head all, Right, damn right, hell right, because it felt good to know he was a tough bastard, and I’d always, since I could remember, wanted to be a tough bastard. So I went to the matches with him while my mother stayed home with my baby sister.
The year before I started high school is when I first I watched Eddie, the 103-pound freshman, limp out onto the mat. Everyone had said he was sick, hadn’t eaten to make weight, had caught the flu, and he acted like it: ill-looking, haunted, blue-green in the face. People stomped the bleachers. The gym filled with screaming voices from the crowd, the teams, coaches. Turn ‘em Eddie, twist him; move, move. I felt exhilarated, electric—I stood up. Everyone stood up.
Eddie spilled onto the mat, his face twisted. My father screamed, but his voice disappeared in the cacophony of voices in the gym. I wanted to scream too but didn’t know enough to say anything so I kept laughing and cheering for a guy I’d never met before, my father grabbing my arm occasionally, grinning.
You see that, Josh? Watch, watch.
The other wrestler wiped the mat with him, whipped him around like a strip of rubber, and for nearly three full periods, Eddie had taken it without getting pinned. Grunting, growling as he lay on his stomach, cheek pressed against the mat.
He’ll tech you, Eddie, stand up, the coach had shouted. People pushed into me as the timer clicked away, bright red numbers descending. I had this feeling like running down to help him, kicking the other guy. I could hardly contain it, the anxiety and thrill, the energy.
Then it happened. As if it materialized from a shadow. Eddie screamed this half-man scream, reached his arm around, legs spreading the guy open. People must have recognized it—the most elusive move in Flysdale—the Saturday-Night Special.
Every wrestler I would ever know said he invented it; more than a move, kind of a Spladle, like a Banana Split, but reversed—a leg ride, face in the mat. Something more than a Nelson, a Cradle, an Arm Bar. The ‘Special broke boundaries. Created style, color—like an art form. Everybody wanted to master it. But it takes a double-sided wrestler, a guy who can lead with his left foot or his right, to circle the mat lightly, meticulously, a whimsical face frightening his opponent. Some guys would smile—teeth out, delirious looking. Others sneered. Most on the other side of the move were scared and they showed it, eyebrows raised, nostrils flared, shifting their weight to hide their shaking chests. But you could never tell the guy about to wrap you up in the Special. He’d move like he could read your mind, and that motherfucker was scary. Not because of the movement, or the smile, or the wrestlers screaming, Hurt him, break him, from the bench, but because in his eyes, in his glistening, narrowed eyes, he wanted to hurt someone. Walking off the mat heaving, vanquished, was not an option.
Eddie won that night. Pinned the guy. He stood straight up after the ref had slapped the mat and faced a screaming crowd, green cheeks brightened with red, his eyes crying, flexed his arms and chest and stomach, growling in all the noise and the vigor and the hair stood up all over me. Beautiful, that feeling. Doesn’t last forever; never does, but to feel it, for that second, is worth all the hours waiting, hoping, working. My father signed me up my freshman year, and it didn’t take long before I wrestled varsity.
* * *
Mid November, my junior year, Eddie broke his neck in the mat room—a wrestle-off with Victor Davis. Eddie was a senior, and by then no one questioned whether he would start; he was the best. Victor was my age and had wrestled most his life. We all knew the rules: if two guys wanted to wrestle the same weight, they wrestled off for it—a simulated match at the start of practice.
Victor had smiled as he stretched. Eddie tied his wrestling shoes and clenched his jaw, periodically, like he was chewing gum.
Everyone laughed, even the coaches. Scott Jacobs said he had five hundred dollars on Eddie. But there was an uncomfortable atmosphere spreading across the mats—the feeling that it wasn’t funny stinking like sweat in the room.
Victor was a rough wrestler, a guy that pinched skin, smashed his forehead into ears, jammed his chin into your spine. He laughed on the mat in the middle of matches. Used to freak everyone out, even the crowd, with his scary clown laugh like he’d been toying with his opponent, vindictive, frightening. I loved it; we all did—because he won every match. Would walk off the mat with a huge smile and six points for the team.
He was a good guy outside of the mat room—when he wasn’t grinding ears into cauliflower or tight-wasting your stomach so hard you couldn’t laugh for a week, he was decent. I wrestled him every day in practice—on purpose—to get tougher, stronger. My first two years, I had braces. Victor made it a priority to cross-face me like a punch across the mouth, to slice my gums. Once, he brought his wrist so hard across my mouth, it blew one of my brace-brackets straight through my cheek. He apologized without expression, and I wanted to fight him, not wrestle him; fight him. But he made me a better wrestler, a stronger, faster wrestler. He was better than me, and I owned it.
Eddie, though, was the best. Eddie was a natural, the guy that rolled around almost beautifully, as if he painted moves on, they were so precise—a real damn artist. He was a chess-wrestler, knew all the moves, the counter moves, the counter to the counter moves. So when Victor wanted to wrestle Eddie for his weight class, we were all a little tense, but glad, thinking it’s about time someone beats Victor down. No one expected Eddie to break his neck.
Painful to watch. Eddie didn’t see it coming; no one did. They locked up. Victor took the inside arm, grabbed the elbow, and with vicious execution, spun himself like an axle, jamming Eddie’s face hard into the mat without an arm to protect himself. A loud smack snapped through the silence—could have killed him. We all thought it had, until Eddie lay there groaning, sounding terrified, as if he didn’t understand what had happened, but knew he shouldn’t move.
Coach sat next to him. Victor popped back for a second, a glimpse of shock and fear across his face. Someone called 911, and we were all, You’ll be alright; it’s alright, pull through, as they took him out of the mat room on a stretcher, past the boilers, up the steps, and into the winter cold. People whispered, but no one actually spoke it: Victor Davis screwed up. Maybe did it on purpose.
For a while after that, I was the only one who would wrestle him in practice or talk to him in the locker room or while running. Until the coach sat us down and said it wasn’t Victor’s fault, that it was no one’s fault, and every time we walked onto the mat, we were at risk of the same thing happening. We were wrestlers.
Can’t be afraid to get hurt. Accidents happened.
Get tough or stay home.
Victor stared at the floor while the coach spoke, but later, when we were running far ahead of everyone else, like always, he told me he didn’t feel bad.
“It happens,” he echoed the coach. “The minute you’re too scared to wrestle’s the minute you lose.”
I nodded, added an occasional, “Sucks, you know.”
“Yeah,” he said. “For Eddie.”
“Hope he’s alright.”
“I’m not too worried,” Victor said, and I felt angry, like I should tell him he was wrong, and that he hadn’t understood what he’d ruined. Or that I had seen his face, had seen that look pouring into Eddie’s broken body. But I ran beside him in seething silence, my steps hardly contained from sprinting ahead, alone.
We finished out the season. Most of us lost in Sections. Couple guys made it to Regionals, but no one went to States. Should have been Eddie winning States his senior year. Instead, he had a broken neck, and he and the other seniors graduated, Flysdale Area High School, known mostly for the police that patrolled its halls and for failing to produce a State Champ out of Pittsburgh for nearly a decade.
* * *
When Eddie showed up my senior year to visit, a month into the season, everyone cheered for him. He looked brand new, no neck brace, but fatter. He must have weighed nearly one hundred and fifty pounds. He smiled, but it wasn’t the same Eddie smile, the same I-don’t-give-a-damn-because-I’m-the-best smile he used to have. He looked beaten, almost out of place in the steaming heat of the mat room, the ceilings feeling lower with him there, concrete walls feeling darker. Made me look away, toward Victor, who didn’t cheer, but tucked his shirt tighter.
“Eddie,” my coach smiled. “Back from the dead.” Everyone laughed and Eddie shook his hand.
“I just want to wrestle,” Eddie said. Coach grinned.
“You’re welcome here, you know that.”
“Don’t stop practice for me,” Eddie said. So we started wrestling, each with a partner. Victor and I paired up—mainly because we were close in weight, some because we were the best on the team, but mostly, we’d become close friends.
By then, most of us were doing speed before our matches. Scott Jacobs would sneak Adderall into school in his socks, walk right through the metal detectors and searches at the school’s entrance, and later we’d push our food away at lunch, talking non stop, speeding, spitting thick white foam into bottles to shed those last few ounces before a match. We’d skip our late classes and head out in Jerry Paler’s old ’82 Toyota Camry to smoke cigarettes and blast the Beastie Boys—“Brass Monkey” banging straight treble through the parking lot—and Scott or Jerry or I would flip off the security guard and laugh our asses off until we turned onto the street. We’d always make it back for practice, though—wash the smell of smoke from our hands and faces before we walked into the locker room.
To see Eddie standing there, whole again, thick, a sad smile smeared on his face, made me happy and angry at the same time: happy to see him, angry he couldn’t wrestle, or that something had changed that I couldn’t put my finger on. I wanted to hug him, shout, You bastard, I thought you’d never come back, and laugh like we used to laugh when I first started wrestling and he taught me every move, every reversal. Like when I asked him my sophomore year why they called it the Saturday-Night Special and he said, “Just another move.”
“It’s not just a move,” I said, leaning against the frosted window on the bus to a match, one I’d lose, and Eddie would win in the first minute without effort or struggle.
“Coach told me he invented the Special.”
“Everyone invented the Special. Eric Goodman told me, when I was a freshman, that he invented it. Named it after the gun his brother used to shoot himself.”
“Told you that?”
“Don’t know why. Maybe he lied—wanted to freak me out. But it made sense to me. Of course it was, I told him. Named after the gun. Of course it was. And I meant that, man, I really meant that, because why not? Why the hell not? He named it after a gun, his brother’s gun, and that seemed right.”
“Seems right,” I said.
“Maybe it is right.”
“Jerry says his dad came up with it in the ‘80s. After a drink. Whiskey or something; I don’t remember.”
“Jerry’s a prick,” he said.
I laughed and kicked the seat in front of us, where Jerry sat, and he turned around to face us.
“You’re lucky I’m not a lightweight, Eddie,” he said and turned back around. Eddie flipped him the finger.
“Maybe that’s it,” I said. “Maybe you have to invent it to use it. I don’t know. I can’t hit the Special.”
“Maybe,” Eddie said.
“I can barely ride legs,” I said.
“I mean maybe you’re right.”
“I’m always right.”
“No, maybe you’re right about the Special. We invent it, man. Why the hell can’t we? It’s too damn pretty, I’ll say that. Let some old wash-up name it after a drink. Nah, it’s not a drink. It’s a ride, man.”
“A leg ride,” I said, and dangled my legs over the seat in front of me, beside Jerry.
“A leg ride, yeah, but it’s a ride, man. At this amusement park I went to for the first time when I was a little shit, bout this big,” he said, smiling with his hand flat out in front of him.
“Played music, oldies—fifties music. I still go there, every summer. Down in Brownsville.”
“Chipper Park,” I said.
“Yeah, Chipper Park! You know the ride? Spins round and round. Just a big old circle.”
“I know the ride,” I said. Perfect ride to take a girl on, let her sit on the inside, throw your arm around her. The moment the thing started spinning she was smashed right up next to you laughing, her hair blowing back in the wind. And the music!
“Great damn music,” I said.
“You can hear the music, man, from all around the park,” Eddie said, a big smile across his skinny face.
“Sinatra, Bobby Day, Elvis. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ jammin’ in the trees. That was it, brother: the music, the stars. Every summer, the Saturday-Night Special. Always the last ride of the night.”
“That the name?”
“If it’s not, it should be,” he said. “The lights, the spin. That’s what it feels like man. That’s it. Never lasts as long as you want, but why the hell should it? Any longer and the match is over, the night’s over.”
And I remember thinking Eddie was right, with all the life and energy he used to throw around, voice so booming you could hear him, like the ride, from all over the school. But standing in the mat room again, my senior year, a little fat in his cheeks, a little rubber in his arms, I didn’t see the energy; couldn’t feel it, or hear the boom in his voice, and that made me angry. Like the old Eddie had died when he broke his neck, and the beauty and the art and masterfulness of the way he wrestled died too.
He stood beside Victor and me wrestling and watched. For some reason, I pushed harder, faster, like wrestling a real match, and I felt Victor do the same. Maybe to impress Eddie, or intimidate him. I couldn’t tell, but I could feel him watching, analyzing our moves. I tried to remind myself that the old Eddie was gone, that this chubby reincarnation probably couldn’t take a shot, or lock up. Still, I pushed. Victor pushed. I felt frustrated, pissed. Why didn’t I stop wrestling, turn and shake his hand, the guy that made me want to wrestle in the first place? I wanted to say, You should have won. You weren’t supposed to break. Then suddenly, Victor and I were pushing harder than we’d pushed all season. My heart raced. Maybe Eddie was impressed, surprised. It felt good to think of how far I’d come, how much better of a wrestler I was, how tough I’d grown, used to cross-faces, mat-burn.
Then, before I could see it coming, Victor dropped me hard on my face, the same Gator Roll he broke Eddie’s neck with, and though it hurt, he’d perfected it, understood how to use it: inflict pain, win—no broken neck. For a moment, I was afraid to look up, afraid to see the look on Eddie’s face, but when I did, I saw him reaching his hand down to help me.
“Looks like you’re training for States,” he said, trying to smile that old Eddie smile. “You have what it takes, man; you really have it.”
* * *
I had wrestled 145 for most of the year, had won my matches, a couple tournaments, and had a strong chance at taking States. Had a winning streak growing when Victor, who wrestled 140, decided he wanted my weight class. He didn’t tell me; he told the coaches. Before practice, Coach yelled, “Wrestle-off: Josh Wheeler and Victor Davis—for 145.”
“The hell is this?” I said.
“You don’t own the weight,” Victor said, smiling as he opened his gym bag. He pulled out his shoes.
Eddie walked out of the office shaking his head. He had stayed on as a sort of assistant coach that year.
“Vic,” I said. “I can’t wrestle 140. I’m hardly making 145 without skipping lunch.”
Eddie pointed at me through the cages, waved his hand for me to follow him. “Vic,” I said again while he pulled his shorts over long-johns.
“Josh, come with me,” Eddie said. All the other wrestlers were piling in, shouting, taunting, Wheeler and Davis, bout time, and laughing.
Victor smiled, but wouldn’t look up.
When I followed Eddie through the back hallway and into the weight room, he turned and said, “You can win this.” I felt dizzy with anger. Like Victor had betrayed me somehow, even though he was right. We didn’t own the classes. Anyone could wrestle the spot if he wanted it enough, or was good enough to take it. I couldn’t wrestle the next class up. The 152-pounder, who dropped nearly seven pounds to make weight, would break me to pieces.
“You’re better,” Eddie said. “You can beat Victor.”
“He’s got half the talent you got.”
“Wrestled his whole life.” I felt childish and disgusted and angry. “I worked for it. I can win at 145. Why’s he have to take it?”
“He’s six pounds over,” Eddie said.
“So am I—five over. I can’t wrestle up.”
Eddie shook his head. “Just wrestle.”
“He’s got no discipline, man. Not like you.”
“Bullshit,” I said again and kicked the flat bench over. “He hurts people. Fucking bullshit.” Victor walked in as I said, “Selfish asshole.”
“Don’t cry,” he said.
“Get out, Davis,” Eddie shouted.
“Try me, Eddie.”
“Dirty fucking prick, man,” Eddie said.
“Get over it,” Victor laughed the clown laugh he used on the mats, a maneuver to rev people up, to crawl under their skin, to win without having to win.
I gave him all three periods in the wrestle-off, crushing my forehead into any part of him I thought I could hurt, but in the end, he won. I’d have to drop ten pounds. Wouldn’t be the first time, but I had already started stretching out the days without meals. A piece of jerky and a few sips of water before the matches. But ten pounds—I would have to cut the jerky, peel the regimen back tighter. The thought of it made me sleepy, like I could sit down right in the school hallway, my back against the cool block wall, and fall asleep. I’d have to wear bags in practice—hated wearing bags. Only the bingers wore bags; they’d eat anything they wanted until the day before the match and drop water weight, throw up, wear plastic under their clothes, and mostly, those guys lost. I made weight: slow diet, running faster, pushing. Builds strength that way—true strength, winning strength.
Somehow, it didn’t seem fair. After Victor had won, not even I would practice with him. The assistant coach had to wrestle him. I knew I was overreacting, that if I wanted to change things, I would have to wrestle better, be better. But the fact that every one of us knew that I could never wrestle better than Victor Davis pissed me off. I wasn’t going to run ahead of everyone else with him again, laughing, talking about the girls we’d had sex with, or how annoying Jessica my ex was—the only girl, really, I had ever had sex with, that told me I was handsome, despite the pocks in my cheeks from a few years of acne—or whether or not you could take more than one Adderall without it looking obvious you were speeding. I wasn’t going to wrestle him, give him the right to hurt me with impunity, knowing I’d never complain because I wanted to be stronger, tougher. No, fuck him. I’d practice with Paler, or Eddie, Scott if I had to, even though Scott sucked, or with the heavy weight, whatever it took to shed the weight, both mine and Victor’s weight, all ten pounds of it, until I weighed one hundred and forty pounds—powerful, fatless.
* * *
That night at dinner, I told my dad I couldn’t wrestle 145 anymore, that Victor had taken it because he couldn’t make weight. He licked mashed potatoes from his spoon, then told me it was 140, yeah 140, that he took States.
My little sister, Sandy, who was eleven and still slept with the Tasmanian Devil she’d had since she was a baby, slopped her chicken in gravy, gnawing every last strip from the bone, talking through a mouth of half-chewed food.
“Mmm, so good,” she sang.
“Shut up, brat,” I said, a glass of water a quenching presence in front of me, shots of pain striking in my ribs on the left side—probably from practice, or the wrestle-off, or the tight-waist Victor sliced like he’d wanted to skin me.
“I thought you said 125. That you were a lightweight?”
“At one time.” My father took another scoop of potatoes. “140 in States, though.”
“This is boring.” Sandy dropped her forehead onto the table.
My mother came in from the kitchen. “Sit up,” she said.
“Every year,” my mother laughed. “The Olympics, too!” She winked and slid a salad in front of me, pulling her graying hair back as she sat.
“Can’t eat that,” I said.
“Just eat,” she smiled
“He has to make weight,” my father said.
“Just eat it.” Sandy reached into the bowl, took a piece of lettuce and ate it.
“Mmm,” she said.
“What year, dad?”
“Weighs as much as a fingernail.” My mother pushed the salad closer.
“Years,” my father said. “But your grandmother threw it all out. Threw out all the trophies, the medals. Everything’s gone.” She had needed the room in the basement, he would say.
“Listen, you’ve got more of a chance now. You’ll be a 150-pounder wrestling 140.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Eat the salad,” my mother said. “You’re thinner every day. I don’t like it.”
“The kid’s started something,” my father said. “Now he’ll finish it.”
“Can’t finish without eating.”
“I’ll finish,” I said.
“He’ll finish.” My father looked up and pointed with his spoon. “Piece of lettuce won’t kill you.” He glanced at my mother, but she was watching the salad in front of me, waiting.
I picked out a round leaf of lettuce and spread it on my burning tongue just to feel it there, cool, sparking taste buds. She was right, my mother. I could have eaten it, could have eaten the entire salad—wouldn’t have gained a pound. But it wasn’t about eating the salad, or the lettuce. I could always throw it back up; it was breathing it in, the smell, watching steam rise up off of the chicken, noticing a line of potato that my father had missed drying on the spoon.
“Junior Year,” my father said. “Freddy Sanchez came to our school. That was the ‘70s. Everything was different. Weights were different. Used to bench press with sand, can you believe that? Sand? Me and Freddy, couldn’t get us off the mats.”
I wanted to move away, crawl into my bedroom, sleep. I had my first 140 match that Friday, and I wondered what would happen, if, just before the match, I made a little cut on my ankle—after all the running and the sweating and the hunger and the spitting until there was no more spit left to spit—if I just gave a cut to let a little blood out, just to drip a few extra ounces. Or if that might make me weak. If you needed all that blood in your body to wrestle. We bled all the time in matches: from the mouth, the nose, our eyes even. I could make weight if I let a little out, from my ankle, maybe, where I could hide it with my socks.
“Half the battle,” my father said. “Making weight is half the battle.”
I watched him shout the same stories he’d shouted a hundred times before. Funny how little you care when you’re hungry. I pictured wrestling my father and winning, crushing him. He didn’t get it the way I got it. I wished he could understand that. I thought he looked old, or weak, nearly pathetic telling those same damn stories. The way he tilted his head and the skin on his neck folded and the smile on his face hooked into his dry, hanging cheeks. Tell me about States, Daddy, I wanted to say, Talk to me of winning, but instead, I listened, a pain ripping through my ribs and into my chest on the left as he said, “You’ll wrestle 140 for Senior Rec, then, before Christmas.” Must have torn something. Victor wrestled tough.
* * *
On Saturday, after I had won the match the night before in over time—a Granby Roll kicked straight out from the bottom—I drove with Jerry Paler and our buddy Luke to a pizza place on the other side of Pittsburgh. We usually went there to look at pretty girls and hang outside stuffing our mouths with pizza we’d regret the next week in practice. We’d smoke cigarettes and swear loud so people could hear us. Victor was there that night with a girl, gorgeous, as usual, like Victor had more than a strong face, but some kind of charm, at least enough to have a girl like that sitting by him in a booth. Paler and Luke shook his hand and I ignored him. Couple of guys with soccer letterman jackets walked in after we’d sat down in a booth in the back.
“See these fuckers?” Paler said.
Luke stared, but didn’t say much. He never said much. He was the type of guy to mirror, give the okay, okays or the right, rights that said, I’ll think what you think; I’ll do what you do.
“Soccer,” I said loud enough for the group to hear. “Fucking pussies.”
“What’s that?” One of the soccer guys said, his arm around some girl, a pretty blonde girl with a pink skirt wrapped tight around her tall, smooth legs. Their letterman jackets were yellow and blue.
Jerry stood up; we all stood up.
“Eat shit,” Jerry snarled.
“You scum drive out here every Saturday night.”
“To fuck your girls,” I said.
“Stay in the slums,” the blonde spit at us, shifting her legs a little, looking sexier standing there as she turned to me and yelled, “Go to hell, scar-face; I don’t screw monsters.” And I felt sick with anger, with something like jealousy for these guys that didn’t know us or what we’d done or seen or who we’d become or hoped to become and there were many more of them than us. But I knew—we all knew—that you never go down to the ground with a wrestler. We had that. If nothing else, if they took us to the ground, we would always win. Off the mat, wrestlers never lost. The three of us believed that.
Eddie had told me the night before to start wrestling on Saturdays and Sundays. That I should stay after practice for a few hours with him—work harder. He said he’d teach me the Special, that my shot was slow. Christmas was coming, and every year around that time was Senior Rec night, the one time when everyone came to the matches: friends, parents—all the girls. It’s the one night the gym is packed—glory night. Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, all the blues and greens and reds glowing on the bleachers, dipping down in smiles across the walls, a giant lighted tree at the back of the gym. Everything colored, bright, and glowing. We’d run out, some song blasting, spilling into the gym, shaking the floor, transporting everyone for a moment away from Christmas. Lights dimmed, spotlight hitting the center of the mat—thrilling. After all the work, the sweat, the bingeing and purging, so many sit-ups you’d find yourself crying into your shirt when you’re working out, but happy to be crying because it’s weight—the tears are weight, and you can shed that too. After everything, you’d run onto the mat, lights melting all over you, stretching while the crowd cheers—the one time in all of our lives we’d ever feel that important, like great men, cherished. Before everything faded, disappeared, and most of us would end up working trades, welding, steam-fitters, heavy highway, dead or in jail or jobless or finishing some degree from college that would mean nothing when looking for work in the cold of winter, wishing to be back in that mat room, the smell of steam and sweat, the smell of tears, of perseverance, dreaming for something we couldn’t understand, that we were never willing to understand.
Eddie had said that everyone thought the Special was nothing more than a reversed Spladle, that if you mastered the Spladle, you had the Saturday-Night. He told me if I put the time in, he’d show me how to really know it. You invent it, man, he told me. Your words—we all did. But by then, I didn’t believe it anymore. I barely believed in Eddie the way I used to—admired him, trusted him the way I once did. I didn’t need him pushing me. What did he know? He’d become the wash-up we made fun of, the guy naming the move after a drink. How could he teach me anything, if he couldn’t wrestle?
The thought made me sick, disgusted with myself, and I wanted to crush this guy in front of me at the pizza place, punch his face in, take his girl home, touch her damn fine thighs, but before I had a chance, as they were calling us scum and shouting for us to go back to where we came from, back to Flysdale, where good people never came from, Victor swept in and grabbed the first guy by the face, open palm. He bent him backward over a booth with a huge smile on his face as if he enjoyed it, shoving his fingers into the guy’s eyes while he punched him, his pretty girlfriend crying, please, please stop, while Jerry and Luke and I went after any soccer player we could reach.
Later, when we were arrested, our own faces smashed against the counter, arms behind our backs, Victor and I were turned toward each other. He laughed the whole time, that clown laugh, and I was forced to stare him in the face. I couldn’t close my eyes; I couldn’t look afraid—not in front of him. So I watched him laugh the same demonic cackle from all his matches, his cruel moments, as our cheeks flooded onto the wooden counter. For the first time, I noticed he had tears in his eyes, and something shifted in me. I suddenly wanted to run from Victor, from the police. I wanted to disappear.
* * *
The next match I wrestled at 140. I had hardly made weight, lost in the first period—pinned. My chest burned, and the pain in my ribs felt worse, like maybe I’d broken a rib. Victor couldn’t wrestle; coach wouldn’t let him for getting arrested, and he wouldn’t let me wrestle 145 in his place. Only the heavyweight had won his match, by forfeit, because the other team had no one to wrestle the spot. Eddie kicked his chair, the one he sat in beside the coaches, shaking his head while I left the circle.
After the match, as we rolled up the mats, quietly, all of our minds already on the drills and the sprawls and lunges we’d endure as punishment, Victor’s dad, Barry, started shouting.
“Tough guy, huh,” from beside the bleachers. “Big tough guy now.”
I looked up, leaning into the warm foam of the mat I was carrying. Some people still lingered in the gym. Coaches talked to parents. Wrestlers stacked chairs, talked to their girlfriends. Everyone noticed Barry shouting, Victor in front of him saying, “C’mon, dad.”
Barry had a leather vest on with a jean-jacket beneath. Had a long and dirty beard and looked too old to be a dad, too haggard, like maybe he was Victor’s grandfather. He wore black boots, black jeans, and had been asked, quasi-politely, to leave the gym on a number of occasions for smoking inside.
“Little fucker,” he said. “No respect for your old man.”
“Dad, please,” Victor said, everyone turned to watch. The coaches had stopped talking and turned toward them.
“You don’t wrestle,” Barry said. “I’ll knock that fucking coach in his mouth.”
“Hey, Coach. You fucking tie-wearing piece of shit.”
We all stood gawking. I felt ashamed, self-conscious. I wanted to look away. I said, “Let’s go, guys” to some of the wrestlers rolling up the mats to steer the attention from Victor, but without much conviction. We all watched, waited for the security guard to intervene.
Coach walked over to Barry with his arms out, not maliciously, but as if to say, My hands are tied.
Barry spoke louder.
“Dad, please.” Victor didn’t shout, didn’t disrespect, or call his father a drunk. He kept repeating, Please, dad, and, Just go, dad; go home. One of the parents of a freshman, a large man whose son had hardly made starting line, who sat on the bleachers every match yelling wrestling moves that none of us had ever heard of, walked over to Barry.
Victor didn’t push back when Barry pushed him. He didn’t walk away when his father slapped him. And there was no more laughing. Once in a while he turned around, faced us with a reddened face and smile that tried to say, I don’t care, but said, instead, I’m sorry, or, I could crumble now, and turn to dust.
The freshman’s dad stirred Barry up some, but eventually, got him to leave; Victor left with him. Everyone laughed when they left. I laughed. Don’t know why, it wasn’t funny, but I laughed anyway, even though I was embarrassed and sad for him and angry I had lost my match, angry that I had starved again to make weight and lost without a fight. All I wanted was to curl up under a blanket and sleep forever.
Outside, the night was cold. Snow had fallen for days, but that night we were left only the cold, snow freezing into ice over grass. Eddie walked with me beside the school, the wind washing over us, my face burning with want of sleep.
“You sucked, man,” he said. “Let’s face it.”
“We’re all tired,” he said and I thought of saying, All of us? What have you done? You come to practice, stand over me like a damn bird, critiquing every move, telling me to push harder, harder, Josh, you have to push to win, but what have you done? You’re a no one now, Eddie.
“My chest hurts,” I said. “Think I bruised a rib.” Tried talking about how “Victor’s dad’s an asshole, right?”
“Hell with Victor,” Eddie said.
We reached the bottom lot, the one with the football stadium behind it, lit up and glorious; massive. Even in the cold and inactivity of the winter, it seemed better and brighter than everything around it—better than the gym, better than us, the wrestlers.
“If you want a chance at States, you have to practice. I’ll stay with you. Teach you anything, Josh, you know that. You’re better than this, man—getting pinned first period.”
“No I’m not,” I said. “I didn’t get no shit tonight, is all. Fucking Scott. Was supposed to bring the shit. I’m tired, is all,” I said, wishing Eddie would leave me alone, go home, stop pushing me.
“Don’t take that, man,” he said. “Makes you weak.”
“I wrestle faster,” I said, thinking, Who are you, Eddie, Mr. Goddamned-know-it-all, talking to me like you got all the answers?
When we reached our cars, he said, “Shit’s for pussies, man.”
“Fuck you, Eddie,” I said.
He stopped, a confused look on his face. He looked cold and chubby and hurt. I only wanted to sleep—wanted to forget losing the match, forget the prying pain in my ribs. Wanted food, any food, a pickle, pasta, salt. I wanted salt. Could take a salt shaker and dump it in my mouth. Maybe then my head might stop hurting; the little headaches in the back of my eyes might go away.
I wished I hadn’t said it, wished I could tell him, Listen, I’ll stay after practice; I’ll push harder, buddy, I will; I just want to go home tonight and rest, but I said, again, “Fuck you, Eddie,” and watched him shake his head like, Okay, if it’s like that, as he dropped into the driver’s seat of his old Acura Legend. And I thought for a second that Eddie should have been a king. He was the best. He changed wrestling, invented it. I hated Victor for ruining that, hated myself for seeing how chubby Eddie looked in the cold, the football stadium glowing behind him.
* * *
The practice before Senior Rec, we all burned for losing. Coach had turned up the heat in the room, shouted, You’ll pass out before you die while we ran, made us sprawl, pushup, sit up, shadow wrestle; he paired me up with Victor. Eddie didn’t show to practice—no one mentioned it. Victor was quiet. We wrestled in a painful, sweaty silence, each with the thought of Barry showing up to the match still rolling in our memory.
After practice ended—after a couple sophomores took turns puking in a bucket we had shoved outside of the mat room; after coach, for the first time, stepped onto the mat and wrestled with us, with the 185-pounder; after my nose had started bleeding down the top of Victor’s shoulder and he wiped the blood away, wrestled harder; after everyone had given up their tough-man pride and screamed, or cried, and the heat had reached a point that we began to feel like floating—the assistant coach blew the whistle and everyone dropped to the mat simultaneously—heaving, spinning. So much sweat in the eyes, we were nearly blind. The coach flicked off the lights and blackness filled the room like ink in water.
“Take this time,” he said. “To imagine your match tomorrow night. This is how you feel when you reach over-time.”
In the darkness, the smell of the room circulated, different scents of sweat, half-deodorized armpits. Heat dissolved everything, like we had ceased to exist in the black. Coach’s voice seemed everywhere at once, as if it came with the dark.
“What will you do now? When you have nothing left. You’ve wrestled all your moves,” he said, his voice sounding honest. I thought, then, of sleeping. Maybe I would doze—just a minute.
“You have to find power,” he said. “We can’t walk onto the mat with you. We can’t throw the Half, or hit the reversal.”
I wondered if people imagined their match, seriously, while I pictured my father, in his truck the night before, the look on his face while he told me, “Just eat something, Josh. I’m worried.”
“Two pounds,” I said. “There’s nothing left to lose.”
“Just eat,” he said.
“You know I can’t,” I said, somehow feeling like I could, if he’d approved, but also that he was supposed to know what it felt like to drop weight, to hunger for more than food, to thirst.
“You look terrible. Your eyes,” he said. “I’m worried about your eyes. They’re dark, Josh.”
In the truck, I leaned heavily into the seat, reached my hand up to rub my temples like an attempt to will away the pain.
“I think I’m falling apart,” I said.
“Pull yourself together.” My father, the old hero, the State Champ. “You can wrestle a different weight,” he said, knowing that it wasn’t true, that I’d never beat Victor, that I was too light to wrestle 152 or any other weight, that I would be forced to string myself out just a little longer, long enough to shiver off the two pounds, wrestle 140, and sleep. After the match I would sleep.
“How will you win,” my coach said, and I opened my eyes in the darkness, the heat surrounding me, to let the sweat burn in them. “How will you win tomorrow night, in front everyone?”
I tried to imagine my moves, my stance, circling to the left, but I could only see the mat, could only smell the foam, dirty rubber liner, the stink of sweat. I could see my father driving his truck, telling me to eat, looking like he wanted to say more but didn’t know where to begin, or how. I could see Eddie, hitting the Saturday-Night Special with beautiful precision, his opponent a canvas to paint any move. The bleachers filled with empty faces shouting, cheering cheers I couldn’t hear. Victor’s embarrassed smile when he turned around. My father laughing as he told us the same stories he’d told a thousand times, Freddy Sanchez, his best friend, the way they’d ruled the mats those years, how good it was then. The way my father’s cheeks had grown pale over the years; had lost the color in them.
* * *
Scott pulled through, and that’s all that mattered. I made weight: one hundred and forty pounds to the ounce—naked. Shaved my chest, my face, even my legs—no extra weight. Spit, pissed every last drop, and waited to float the rest.
We took Adderall on the way to the mats before warm-ups and we were all hyper, laughing. You see all the people out there, Jerry, stuffing chicken he’d saved for after weigh-ins into his mouth as we stretched. I smiled at Victor and he smiled back. In the locker room my coach had pulled me aside and said, “You got a fish,” big smile on his face. “The kid’s a Junior, but don’t toy with him. Show him that Wheeler talent. Get the Pin. We’ll need the points.” And I wished he hadn’t told me.
Eddie hadn’t shown again, and in a way, I didn’t know what to do without him standing over me, arm around my shoulder, telling me to watch out for this or that. My chest still hurt above the ribs, and I wondered if I was only feeling the initial shake, the wavy, nervy stomach feeling before most of the matches. Everyone had come. Coach’s kids; Victor’s dad—pacing by the door with an unlit cigarette hanging from his bearded face. Half my family was in the stands, somewhere. I wasn’t hungry anymore, like once I’d stepped on the scale I didn’t need food—wouldn’t crave it until the next match, then the next one. I wondered if I ever needed to eat again.
When we ran out onto the mat, everything was the way we had imagined, or I had imagined or dreamed it would be: entire gym packed, lights wiped across the walls. Christmas tree. An iridescent gymnasium, the faces, the lights, the music pouring in from the speakers as we ran around with a spotlight on us in our warm-ups. It felt good, and my heart was flying. I saw Eddie for the first time since the night in the parking lot, standing by some people on the gym floor, talking, and when we finished stretching he waved at me and said, “Just wrestle.”
He must have known before I did that I could never just wrestle, that I didn’t understand it the way he did, that I would lose. But that night, beneath the lights, drowning in the screaming voices of people who had never come to see us any other night of the year, we were supposed to win—it was tradition. You win at Senior Rec. And I had a fish; a punk, a squid, just a damn kid, like we were men or something. We were nothing but kids ourselves, thinking we were brave because we’d faced the last few months—disappointment, starvation—like it might shape us into people, good people. We’re good people, we must have thought.
My heart was massive inside of me. I felt like a bull—could hardly contain it, the energy, the excitement. I saw my father in the stands with my mother, who had balloons in her hands, and my little sister standing next to her waving to get my attention. Everything had fallen into place and after that, hopefully: Sections, Regionals, States. It takes a tough bastard to win States, and I was a tough bastard. I wanted, with everything in me, to be a tough bastard and a State Champion—all that had ever mattered in the first place.
Two or so minutes into my match and I had racked up nearly ten points on this kid, bent him sideways, pulled his legs out from under him to drop his face on the mat in front of the cheerleaders, the crowd, his team. I wanted him to hurt, to feel it. I wanted him to be so ashamed of how much he sucked that he would quit wrestling. People like him shouldn’t wrestle. Cowards. Weak. I didn’t have the patience for it, none of us did, so I tried, with every slick move I could muster, every ride, fall, or roll to hurt this little son-of-a-bitch, little fish, squid.
Then I felt my heart trying to claw its way out of my chest, stabbing me from the inside. I could feel the fish flopping in my hands, but I couldn’t see him. My eyes hurt, suddenly, flames in my face. My skin burned, and I was turning this fish to his back without seeing, dizzy, everything a colorful blur around me as pressure left my hands, as the sound of cheer-screaming voices exploded, as my heart raged, as the blurry lights grew more luminous, more magical, as, cutting through the voices and the lights, the stomping bleachers, I heard Eddie’s voice laughing, It’s a ride man, just a ride, as the Saturday-Night Special came alive, transported me, spinning, laughing, a pretty girl smashing against me smiling, her hair whipping all over me as every organ in my body shifted in the turns and the heat of the summer, the wind soft, innocent, crashing into my face, as C’mon let’s twist again! sang in the spinning, the laughing, Like we did last summer, as the night grew darker, colors brighter, clearer, as Eddie said, The last ride of the night, and I believed for a moment that I understood—the Special—as the rest of the world fell away, music dying, girl in my arm disappearing, smile on my face dripping off my chin like hanging spit, as the last spectacle left was the glowing lights against the night, the feeling that it might last forever, though it never does, as everything fell away, disappeared, and blackness, fear and sleep stole everything back from the light.
* * *
What doctors later called “a transient ischemic attack,” or a mini-stroke—a combination of the non-prescription drugs they found in my system, high anxiety, high blood pressure, and the abuse I’d put my body through over the months preceding the attack—is what I referred to as the reason I never wrestled again. Not because once they discovered the speed, they tested the team, and along with me, half the seniors wouldn’t be allowed to finish the season, or that, after an attack like that, no one could finish the season, for fear maybe, but because I had lost the vision, or most of it, in my left eye, as well as the ability to lift my left arm above my shoulder.
Victor, one of the only seniors who wrestled in Sections, lost in semi-finals to a guy who was unafraid of his clown laugh, a guy who won more matches, had wrestled longer, and when it came down to it, had more talent. I went to all the remaining matches, sat in the bleachers, shouted for my friends on the mat. Eddie, who had stood beside the stretcher on my way out of the gym that night I stroked out, giving an easy win to a fish, who had driven down in the ambulance with my father to the hospital, who had been the only great wrestler to ever come out of Flysdale, never came to another match. We kept in touch for a while, but a year later, he wrestled an open tournament, was scouted and asked to join a college wrestling team, where he excelled, despite his being one hundred and sixty pounds, despite his breaking his neck two years before, and he finished a degree. Eddie was the best. Anyone who watched him wrestle saw that. He saw everything like a canvas lying open and empty to fill up with something that mattered. Not like me, who saw the end. Or Victor, who saw the win—who never wrestled again after high school, who crawled away from everything, who I lost touch with quickly, a guy I had loved in the face of his cruelty. Eddie saw through a different lens, and he wrestled like it: beautifully.
Some of us would show up in the mat rooms the next year, accept the damp cheers of the younger kids who’d become seniors, fighting for the same things we had fought for, electrified by the same, You pass out before you die type rhetoric that festers in the heart for years after wrestling. We’d stand there, shake hands, smile like some old heroes, and say, “I just want to wrestle,” until those kids graduated, and eventually, there’s no one left, no one to stand witness to the struggle, the hurt, the rage, the fear you felt of losing, the blood and sweat you spilled onto the mats, and all the original team that you had fought with and loved was gone, working, in jail, away at school, or just gone.
Before I started work as a layout man at a tubing company east of Pittsburgh, years after high school, my father, who had worked in the Herr’s warehouse, stacking boxes filled with chips for most of my life, told me, “Keep your head up. You’ll be alright. Before you know it, you’ll own the whole damn tubing company.” And he smiled when he said that, his eyes large and beautiful, really, inevitable, shining, sad and wonderful as he spoke.