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Worker [Fiction]

by Hannah Withers

I’ve always told Miles that he can do anything. You’re a smart guy, I tell him, and handsome too. I know how hard he works, but he beats himself up about things, makes it worse for himself. You’re just saying those things because you’re rooting for me, he tells me. No, dum-dum, I’m rooting for you because I believe them.

It’s why I can’t stay in my seat for more than a minute, keep getting up to buy another diet coke or run to the ladies’. I’m antsier than I thought I’d be, waiting for him to come out of the locker room. It’s not as if there’ll be any surprises. It’s planned down to the move, like my spirit squad routines from high school. But it’s like I can feel him through the concrete walls to the green room, can feel the way his hands are shaking as he pulls on his tights.

The men before him are finishing up in the ring, a Fatal Fourway with two beefy Canadian guys and two locals, one dressed in red white and blue, trying to be some kind of American hero type theme, and another dressed like a break dancer, doing a bunch of fancy flips and spin moves. He’s showy, but that kind of gimmick is too flashy to go far in the circuit; people get tired of it, and it’s hard to root for a clown. My guess is it’ll come down to the Canadians and Mr. USA, and then one of the beefy guys will turn on the other and win at the last second. Miles tells me that you need the flashy guys to put butts in seats, but the simplest contender is usually the winner. They translate better into higher circuits and it’s always more fun to have a hero you can double cross. You can’t stab a cartoon in the back, Miles says. No one cares when they bleed.

Miles knows, just like I do, that this night can make him a star if he plays it right. The producers like his finishing move and his style; they say they’ve been looking for a strong all-around athlete, someone who really knows how to play the game. Miles is what they call a good worker, someone who can do the moves like a pro, and knows how to work the crowd. They’re testing out how he does in front of a mid-sized audience, if he’s ready to go to Japan for the training circuit, ready to take steps towards the big show. They threw me into tonight’s script because they figured it’d be more dramatic, the whole damsel in distress thing. I’m supposed to step in at the end of the match, interfere, and resolve the scripted narrative going on.

I get up again to stretch my legs. I hate sitting still for too long anyway—it makes me feel heavy and tired. When Miles and I were nine and being driven the couple hours to Columbus, my mother told me to buckle up and sit still in the car instead of fidgeting around all the time, and Miles piped in to say that sitting still for too long can give you a deadly blood clot. He said that actually, Mrs. Cartwright, it was called an embolism, and who knows who taught him that word at nine, but that people got them all the time and slumped dead in their seats because not moving their legs had made them form a glob of blood and fat that got into their hearts or whatever and killed them. My mother said that was ridiculous and disgusting and that we both needed to sit still even if it killed us.Ever since then every time I sit still for too long I can feel little lumps of fatty poison collecting in the bottoms of my thighs, getting ready to shoot up into my heart and stop it beating.

Miles lived on the other side of the school district from me, but my house was on his brother’s way home from work, so he came over after school every day to make me watch Power Rangers with him and help me melt the faces off my Barbies in the woods behind my house. I was always afraid of scorching my fingers or else setting the whole woods on fire, but Miles said he did it all the time at home, and I never stopped to ask why he or his much older brothers had Barbies. By now I just assume they didn’t, that he’d never done it before, but just figured it out as he went like everything else he did.

Miles was my first friend when I switched to St. Xavier elementary in the third grade. My mother and I had moved two counties over to Zanesville, and she’d taken me shopping for a first day of school outfit to impress all my new friends. While Arthur the Aardvark had been cool at my old school, when I showed up to St. Xavier in my Velcro Arthur sneakers, every kid at recess noticed, laughed, and decided to punish me for it. Arthur was cool last year, I was told. A little boy named Chase started the chant “Jenna likes Arthur,” and every kid on the playground joined in. Chase poked me in the stomach accidentally while trying to point at me, but when I flinched he did it again, and the other kids joined in, jabbing my middle with their buttery little fingers, leaving tiny bruises along my ribcage.

I sat there crying in the middle of the ring of bullies until Miles pushed his way through, grabbed Chase, and kicked him square between the legs. “You don’t make fun of girls,” Miles said matter-of-factly to Chase, who’d doubled over and was crying on the ground. Miles got suspended for that, and until he came back to school a week later and introduced himself, no one spoke to me.

 

I decide to find the ladies’ room again, because I’m nervous and I don’t want to have to go in the middle of Miles’s match. I slow down as I pass the snack bar. Hot dogs and nachos, triple bacon burgers. I wonder if the cheese and salt would take away the nervous itch in my belly, maybe shut up some of whatever feels like it’s gnawing at me from the inside. But that’s just an excuse, I know, to sink my teeth into some fatty meat and drive my weight up fifteen pounds, back to middle school. I keep going and walk straight past the ladies’, start a lap around the arena to get some energy out. The Canadians must be duking it out by now, throwing the sucker punches the crowd likes so much. Miles called his finisher “The Fireworks Splash,” which he figured described the spinning flips (modification of a double twist basket toss I taught him from cheer) he did onto his opponent, and was also a family friendly enough name to follow him to the big show. The producers liked the move, but told him to change the name to “The Shrapnel Bomb Splash.” They said they had some character changes they wanted to discuss with him.

 

We were fourteen when Miles first showed me WrestleMania. He was bashful about it at first, tried to play it down. Just a thing I watch sometimes, he called it. Did I want to hang out on Saturday night and watch it with him, or whatever? When I got to his house, it was quieter than I’d ever heard it. His brothers were all at some house party, and I didn’t ask where his mother was, since I knew she’d been gone for a few weeks on one of her trips, probably losing money at Indian casinos with her sisters or flirting with the bartender at some TGI Friday’s on the other side of the state. Miles microwaved us some pizza bagels and we huddled down on the dirty carpet by his TV, paper towels for plates. Talking was easy between us, but we’d always known how to be silent with each other too. It’s something that comes from being friends so young, learning to treat each other like furniture when we need to. When his show came on, though, it felt like I’d disappeared from the room. It was just Miles and the TV turned up too loud, all his focus lasering in on the stories on the screen.

We’d only been kissing for a month or so at that point, and the whole thing had the shine of newness and experimentation. We didn’t touch at all that night, though. We just sat and watched these huge men toss each other against the ropes, making speeches about allegiance and betrayal and honor. Their slick-skinned muscles tensed as they slapped their bodies full into each other, tangling on the ground like knots of taffy. We watched one match between a handsome blonde man with a tan and long silver tights, and an overweight barrel of a guy with a greasy looking mustache, dressed in what looked to be one of those old timey bathing suits, stretched over his gut. They were both oiled up like seals. I gasped when the bigger guy heaved the blonde into some chairs, grabbed him by the hair and looked like he was fixing to bash his brains into the corner of the ring. Don’t worry, Miles told me. He said the guy was just a jobber, there to do one good match and go, make the blonde look like a champ. You can tell by his costume, Miles said, and the way he moves. He told me that you can always tell the good and bad guys in wrestling, and even if they switch, you can see exactly when it happens.

I asked him if the good guys always win.

He pushed his shaggy ginger hair out of his eyes and told me no. Sometimes they lose, he said. But it’s just so they can make a comeback the next week.

So they always do win, eventually, I said.

His eyes held onto the screen as the blonde wrestler flipped out of the fat one’s hold and scissor-kicked him to the ground. The right person always wins eventually, he said. That’s what makes it good.

I asked if he thought that’s what made it fake.

He didn’t answer.

 

If I help Miles win tonight, we’ll fly to Japan together and start training for the big show. He’ll learn all the moves and tricks the pro Heels use, make it to the show in a couple years if he’s good, which he is. He’ll get paid, be a star. He’ll be a good guy pretending to be bad, making money to scare children. Girls in the business will fawn over him. I might lose him.

If I don’t play my part, Miles will lose and we’ll go back home. He’ll make us turkey sandwiches and broccoli for dinner, and I’ll do my workout tapes. A year or two from now he’ll have stopped wrestling altogether, and for the first time since he was a kid, his muscles will start to soften. We’ll both soften into our routine. He’ll know it was my fault. I will still probably lose him.

Do you stab the nice guy in the back to save him? To save yourself? Who’s gonna care if he bleeds?

And who am I in all this? I figure I have two choices: the sidekick or the villain.

The whole world simplified down into black and white, good and bad, yes or no.

 

I finish my lap, go to the bathroom, find my way back to my seat just as the bigger Canadian pins the smaller one on his belly. There must have been some back and forth here, each of them trying to pin the other for a while, because the crowd cheers and the two guys look totally exhausted. I sit down and look at my feet, but just from listening to the crowd I can count the number of times the smaller guy kicks out of the hold. Once it passes seven I can tell they’re losing the audience. You can do these kinds of near-misses in threes, fives, or upwards of fifteen, but you have to be able to read what the crowd wants. That’s the problem with these lower circuit promotions—the guys get so excited about their big shot out of the gate that half of them overdo it, don’t listen to each other or worse ignore the crowd, and they end up throwing their backs or the match for the sake of a few extra seconds in the limelight. I’ve always liked sports, but wrestling is something different. Aside from all the acrobatics, there’s a predictability here that’s nice. More than the good versus evil stuff, it’s comforting to know that under all the show and frills these guys are on the same page. They’re whispering to each other and signaling their moves, catching each other off the ropes if they’re any good. What they’re here to do is put on a show for us. This isn’t about the way they pretend to hate each other; it’s about the way they really do love the audience, the viewers, everyone they can get to.

Finally, the smaller Canadian flips the big one and pins him, probably about six minutes after the bout should have ended.

Miles and I went to different high schools. I went to the big Catholic school near my house and learned that the extra bulk my body had started to put on wasn’t just chub, like my mother called it, but breasts and hips and everything else that made people look at me differently, listen to me when I talked. My body had never felt like a tool before, something I could use. I stopped eating cheese and bread and joined the spirit squad, watched my cheekbones peek out from what were once my round, full moon cheeks. I learned to put on makeup and dyed my hair black and dramatic to bring out my eyes. Miles thought this was all cute and funny, said I was already pretty before all the makeup and dieting. He didn’t understand what any of it had to do with the way he buried himself in the football, basketball, and soccer teams at his big public school. How he’d started to stack muscles on his small, 5’8” frame, and inhaled whole pizzas to bulk up. He didn’t think that cheer counted as a sport, but he came to all my conferences anyway, getting more and more attention every season from the other girls.

“He looks like one of those English princes,” one of them told me once, and then asked how often he took me out to dinner.

I didn’t know how to say basically never, so I said basically twice a week. It seemed too big an answer to try to explain that we had dinner together every night at my house, Weight Watchers frozen entrees for us and my mom, and then off to White Castle or Dominos for a second dinner for Miles before pawing at each other in the back of his car and dropping me off at home again. I didn’t correct her that his last name was McCaffery, which makes him Irish, not English, and I didn’t say that princes don’t have muscles from playing sports or scars and a crooked nose from getting into a fight with some drunk men who catcalled their girlfriends outside of a Blockbuster, so that wasn’t right either. I didn’t explain that he wasn’t a collector’s item or goal post, and so she could stop looking at him like he was. I didn’t say that boy sitting there looking handsomer every month and bored as a doorstop at this conference was better than any person I’d ever met, or that the way he kissed my ears even when my face was splotched red from crying over the things girls said to me at school ought to make him the king of something, not a prince.

Would you listen to that, she said, and then looked me up and down and said: can’t imagine how you make it worth his while.

 

Some scrubs wipe down the ring and start to get the audience hyped for the main event. I drain the last slurps of my diet coke and fidget in my seat. The crowd around me starts to growl and throb for the final match, between an old favorite who goes by Rick Nicely, and Miles, a newcomer to the arena. The crowd starts chanting Start The Show! Start The Show! and I can’t help but think of those kids in third grade, shouting words just because they heard them, just because they liked being loud and agreeing.

The lights dim and Rick’s theme music starts to blare, some messy dub step that sounds like lasers and monsters whining. The arena is filled with spotlights and multicolored strobes, everything just visible in flashes and pinpoints. The big screens all around announce Rick’s entrance, displaying pictures of him flexing his biceps, veins popping out of his football-sized arms. He looks mean in his pictures, but the crowd loves him. He’s a Face from the wayback, Miles told me last week when he found out who he’d be performing with, sounding a little excited but mostly just tense.

In wrestling, you’re either a Face or a Heel. Faces are the good guys, either innocents or heroes, the ones who always win eventually until they retire and go out on their backs with a noble loss, making way for a new Face to take the stage with a victory. Heels are the villains, sneaky and mean and usually cartoonish, the ones you love to hate and who win and win until justice prevails and they get taken down in a pay per view match. Bouts are almost always a Face and a Heel—good versus evil. Sometimes the less important matches will pit Heels on Heels for comedy, and two Faces pretty much never fight each other unless one of them is retiring—it’d betray the fans, the built in sense of justice. You can’t have good go up against good; there’d be no order.

Miles had a whole persona built up for himself when he auditioned. He said he was small for a pro, but he could use that. He could be the underdog, the good guy who wins, even though he doesn’t look built for it. He wanted to use his real name, Miles McCaffery, and he’d use me in his scripts, the Adrian to his Rocky, the nice girl he was fighting for. He wanted kids to watch him the way he’d watched wrestling, see the nice unlikely guy come out on top, teach them to trust that the Faces always win. When Miles told me that he was fighting Rick Nicely, I asked if that meant Rick is retiring. He paused long enough that I knew the answer was no.

 

Rick does a somersault out of his wing of the arena and onto the catwalk. The crowd roars and teenagers jump to their feet, everyone a disorder of excitement. Rick wears tight black briefs and boots and wrist cuffs to match. Everything else is just muscle, oil, and his long blonde curls, slicked into a mullet that runs between his puffed-out shoulder blades. He poses in a few flexes, does another somersault, and runs into the ring, a first-base slide between the ropes. The crowd shouts his name in two syllables, “Riii-iiick! Riii-iiick! Riii-iiick!” and the row of girls next to me is gasping and shaking, each of them close to crying from the frenzy; this man here is their Adonis, the one they came to see. He’s huge and powerful, and the front left row reserved for all the ring rats in halter tops and lip gloss exists for him; they came because they know that seeing him like this makes them feel like that.

I learned the term “ring rats” last week, when one of the producers explained to me where I needed to sit for my part, with the other ring rats. I looked to Miles but he wouldn’t look at me, just kept his eyes on the script, all business. This is his dream, I know. He is twenty years old, and this is his college, his training, his career. He is the best man I know, and this is what he wants.

The lights fade again, and the sound of a pipe organ fills the arena. It’s the spooky trill from all those midnight horror films, the one they play when cartoon lightning flashes over the haunted mansion on the hill. Purple spotlights go up around the ring, and fog machines spill sick looking grey smoke into the space. The screens around the ring just show videos of flames crackling. A lean silhouette creeps out from the opposite wing and spider walks to the center of the catwalk. After a dramatic pause, posing backlit by one white spotlight, the creature-looking thing runs full speed at the ring and does a flip into it off the top rope. He climbs up the corner and poses on the top of the post, flexing both fists into the air. He’s wearing purple tights and black boots, a thick black belt, and a black mask over his face like those Mexican wrestlers everyone jokes about. He shouts at the crowd and I can see flecks of spit dribble onto his chin, which makes me feel sort of queasy. Though that might just be nerves.

The screens flash his name in sharp red font: The King of Death. The crowd boos.

What’s happening is:

When Miles was eighteen he told me he wanted to be a wrestler. Not when he grew up, but now, for his job. So he auditioned for the lower, local circuits and he started fighting a match here and there, training, getting used to the ring. He worked at a carwash by day; I worked retail, took my teaching certification classes at a community college. He wanted to wrestle, I wanted to coach high school girls. Both of us thought our goals were reasonable. Compatible, because we loved each other wanted the things we wanted. We lived together and worried about money and our futures and him getting hurt and he told me not to worry because the good guys always win. Sometimes they just have to lose a little first, he said.

And then he auditioned for the incubator circuit, and the scouts liked him. They sent him to Columbus for the next round and the producers liked him too. They gave him a match in Columbus and he nailed it, finished some ugly Heel off with The Fireworks Splash and won the fans over at hello. So they offered him a big match in Florida, to be televised with the other breeders.

But they already had an up and coming Face they were grooming. They needed a Heel, someone small and sort of goofy, someone who’d look good on trading cards. Miles could do all the acrobatics I’d taught him from cheer, was small and nimble, but strong as a hurricane. They’d dress him up, they said, make him evil as all Hell and have him beat a crowd favorite. If the audience liked it, if they booed enough and raised a ruckus about it in the right ways, if he could get them angry just so, disgust them in just the right amounts and degrees, they’d send him to Japan, gear him up for the big show.

Miles told them that wherever he went, I went. And they said fine, fine, they’d pay for my airfare and everything, and I could even earn my keep, work with the other girls, jump into the ring and add a little pathos. I was pretty enough to play, they said, and asked if I had any spandex. They asked if I couldn’t lose a little weight, and how did I do with choreography. Miles looked pained and said I looked good in anything as it was. They just smiled and said they don’t send chubby girls in sweatpants into the ring.

So now we’re in Florida and Miles is dressed up like a cartoon monster and my big play tonight is that at the end of this seven minute match—and it is of course a quick one, because they want it to be a real upset, cause a true stir—I’m supposed to jump in the ring right when Miles is about to finish Rick off, and shout No baby! Don’t! You gotta spare him! The fans love him! And Miles is supposed to look at me and consider it, look back and forth between me and the possibly concussed Rick Nicely and decide between his well-meaning, weak willed girl, and the career match title. And while he’s thinking, Rick is supposed to get up, creep behind him, and try to attack, which all leads to one or two more choreographed moves, ending in The Shrapnel Bomb Splash and an ugly victory for Miles. And if he has enough gumption and performance and grace, he’s a star.

He’s spent the last few weeks practicing like a madman and explaining to all the halter-topped girls who hang around him that yes, he’s always been athletic, and no, he doesn’t think he’s free for drinks tonight but thank you very much and maybe next time? And I’ve spent the last few weeks not eating and getting highlights in my hair and feeling myself turn invisible like that first night we watched wrestling together.

But, if someone misses her cue. If, say, Miles walks up to put the finishing touches on Rick and I don’t stop him, what then? The mark of a good worker is that you can improvise, communicate on the fly. Some of the best workers call their matches as they go, guessing what the crowd wants between points A and B, but Rick (whose real name is Clarence) and Miles (who goes by The King of Death) don’t know each other too well, have never played together, and this is Miles’s first career match. If his cue doesn’t come he might falter, or worse, freeze. He could stumble or stutter or look like a fool and the fans can always smell bullshit when the pros muck up. And that’ll be the end of it. His dramatic win will be broken and dull, and The King of Death will be sent packing, ring rat and all, back to the little life we built for ourselves, Lean Cuisines and cheer routines and no one directing our bodies but the two of us. The crowd may not admit it, but everyone loves stabbing the nice guy in the back. It makes them feel out of control of their tiny little lives in all the right ways, because they know the order of things will right itself in the end.

But I know it’s not as simple as that. There’s no order of things—we just figure it out as we go, like everything else.

 

It may be true that the life he wants and the life I want aren’t compatible, but maybe the question isn’t which one is better. Maybe it’s just: does either one have room for the both of us?

 

The match begins and the two men dance around each other, doing some flashy geometry with their bodies and the mat and ropes. Their torsos collide and from where I’m sitting I can hear their fake grunts and real breathing. Rick chases Miles out of the ring and up a catwalk, making it look like the reigning champ has the upper hand and will win the match easy. I count moves down to when I have to jump into the ring, initiate the final sequence of holds and flips to the champ’s defeat. One thing that’s crazy is to realize that no one thinks this is real. What’s crazier is to realize that every single part of this is real.

A little boy reaches out into the aisle to get a better look and Miles roars at him, faking a jab towards the little guy, who bursts into tears. Miles told me you can always tell the good guys and bad guys apart, and you can always catch the moment when they switch over, if they do. He forgot to pick me up at the hotel before the match today, and I caught a cab to get here late when he didn’t answer his phone. Busy prepping.

They run and jump and fly. I stick to my seat, counting down seconds and footsteps and holds. I can make this all go away, I know, and I don’t have to do anything. I can explain later, to Miles, that this wasn’t his dream, was never quite it, that being the Heel for money wasn’t just not what he wanted but the opposite of it, that this was just another way for the good guy to lose, for the opposite of justice, which is trickery. I could explain to him later that I don’t want to have to play a part to be with him. That he never had to play a part to be with me. I just want to believe that there’s a script where I don’t lose him. There has to be a script where I win.

They get back in the ring and Miles throws Rick to the ground. He gets in a kick, then an elbow, and the crowd gasps and groans. Rick is really starting to eat it, and the match is turning just at the moment it’s due to. I watch this spider thing, this monster man attack the Face the crowd so loves, and I know that this isn’t what Miles ever wanted, not to be a carnie making the kids squirm. He hefts Rick’s huge mass up and throws him back to the ground, and the family across the ring from me looks grief-stricken. This is not the justice we ever talked about watching the show at home on his floor when we were fourteen and his mother was passed out in her room with a bottle of Jack and some guy named Dale. And we’d talked about justice a lot back then, just like we’d talked about love and families and righteousness, wondering if any of them could be real for us. Miles always seemed very sure. I would just wonder about his mother, always so proud of leading a big, a rambling life. What good did the size of her life do her when to me she looked so very, very small?

He moves into his lock before my cue and they fudge it a little, Rick having to grab at Miles’s mask for support before his body hits the ground again with a sharp smack. Rick tosses the mask away as Miles approaches him, waiting for me to rush the ring. It’s my turn to do something, but I can’t bring myself to get up, and nothing feels scripted or certain. Miles hovers over Rick, everyone breathing heavy, waiting. All I can think about is a kid who kicked someone for me because I needed help, and I don’t know who to hurt to protect this man.

Everyone cheers for Rick to get up.

I feel a little dizzy, try to breathe.

Maybe because I’m late on my cue, or else just because he can’t wait for it, Miles looks back at me, still sitting in my seat, quiet. It’s funny to see his face there where before it was a monster. Excited, and clear. We make eye contact for less than one second, and here he is, under his big disguise, the thing I love. That’s bigger, suddenly, than me or my tiny, frightened thoughts. My capacity for love feels suddenly like the only real part of me. I jump up and scream “No! Don’t do it!”

And it’s as easy as that.

It’s as easy as looking at his face for one second and knowing that you can’t trust nothing, so I’ve gotta choose to trust him. And as I cling to the side of the ring and shout my lines up at Miles I’ve got a sick feeling in my gut, but it’s my feeling, and I chose it. I watch Rick and Miles finish their match, land Rick back down on the mat, truly breathless, getting older. I hang on to the ropes while Miles climbs the corner post, so far up and away from me, untouchable.

He stands up, balanced on the ropes, ready to jump, back arching into the air, my best friend, my King of Death. He’s poised to jump and kill the hero. I can feel the blood pound flawlessly in and out of my perfect heart. I hope it never ends.

 

 

***

Hannah Withers is an MFA candidate at the University of Montana, where she is a Special Editor at Cutbank Literary Magazine. Her work can be found at McSweeney’s, the Santa Clara Review, The Red Branch Journal, The Believer, NPR.org, and The Kenyon Review.

 

 


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