x

Excerpt

The Gimmicks

Chris McCormick

January 7, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Chris McCormick's novel. Chris McCormick is the author of a collection of stories, Desert Boys, winner of the 2017 Stonewall Book Award. Born in 1987 and raised on the California side of the Mojave Desert, he is a graduate of the University of Michigan MFA program and now lives and teaches in Minnesota.

It’s a marvel how memory works on the road, how it holds its shape like smoke in the cold. I bet there are people in the world who appreciate that, who find the power of a long drive to undo the process of forgetting a divine gift. But most of my best forgetting is done on purpose, after many years of dedicated work, so as far as I’m concerned, the power of the road is a danger. A threat. That’s why I retired all those years ago, I think, and why I’m dreading so gravely the trip I’m embarking on now.

Clearly, the journey was not my idea. After a lifetime on the road for the wrestling business, driving across the country from territory to territory, I’ve chosen to lead a steady life with my cats out where my brother and I grew up, just on the verge of Seattle. Aside from a meet-and-greet convention here and there, when old-timers from the territory days—Buddy Rose and Dutch Savage and all us lesser gods—are corralled into high school gymnasiums for 15 dollars a photograph, or aside from a biennial phone call from folks I used to manage or manage against—Mickey “Make- shift” Starr, for instance, or the vulgarian Johnny Trumpet—my life in wrestling hardly ever enters my mind. Those years feel waxen to me, that part of my history, decades and decades of a life I hardly recognize as my own. Waxen and contained, road stories told so many times they might as well be myths.

No, nowadays for me it’s the cats. Breeding, selling. Just the other day, I sold a litter of golden-eyed Persian mixes—Maine coon blood for the size and fur, Siamese for the flatter nose and the temperament—and made more money than I used to make in six weeks on the road. I’m never lonely, not even out on the coast, near the docks where my little brother shipped off to Korea a lifetime ago. Between my cats and my customers, between the barn house and the ocean, that purple skim over the world, I’m happy. That’s rare, you know, after all those years in a business like the one I survived, to be living a happy old life.

So this trip I’m taking isn’t an attempt to relive my glory days in wrestling. And I’m not trying to exploit any of the wrestlers I outlasted, either, the ones who strangled their pain with drinks or drugs or worse. Those terrors might be real, but sometimes a real story wears so thin it no longer rings true. Besides, I couldn’t explain all that dying and killing, when all we were taught to do was to protect ourselves, to protect one another, and to protect the business.

No, this trip didn’t begin with wrestling. And it didn’t begin with a breed of cats. This trip began with something I never knew much about at all. It began with a woman.

She called last December—on Christmas Day 1988, in fact—and I only mention the date because I’d gone out, as I usually do on the holidays, to the docks, where a bright white cruise ship had taken the place of the USS Juneau. The pier that morning was gray and emptied of folks, and the windblown whitecaps in the glassy water sprouted like threads from worn buttonholes. Nearly frozen but lifted, I returned to the barn house, where I was surprised to find the answering machine flashing its auburn light. It was peculiar to receive a business message on a holiday, but just as strange was the voice belonging to the woman on the tape. She spoke with an accent I couldn’t immediately place, and I pegged her for an Arab, or an Israeli, or—as soon as I heard the name of the breed she was calling for—a Persian. Her little daughter, she explained, badly wanted a pet but suffered from severe allergies. Through the testimony of some previous customer, she’d discovered that Angel Hair Kittens—even my longhairs—were bred hypoallergenic, and she was interested in making a visit. She lived all the way down in Los Angeles but was willing to travel up the coast. She left a return number, a home address—700 Orange Grove Avenue, as if I were supposed to respond by mail—and her name, which was Mina.

At the docks that morning, I’d been entirely alone except for Gil, the one I’d gone out there to remember, and a Salvation Army Santa Claus who, upon seeing another soul for the first time since daybreak, slung his hands out of his coat pockets and started rattling his bell. I put all the money I had into that bucket of his. It wasn’t much, but the man said, “God bless.” I’m not a believer myself, but the truth is Idid feel, fora moment, anyway, as I sometimes do whenever kindness springs a bridge between two strangers, a little bit holy.

So maybe I was after that feeling again when I picked up the phone to return Mina’s call. When she answered, I could hear a celebration in the background, laughter and other mysterious music. She said, “When are you letting me to come see the cats?” I told her I appreciated her business, but that if she was looking for a last-minute gift, I could refer her to the names of some fellow breeders located nearer to her, in Los Angeles. Seattle, I explained, was a long way off.

She made a spiteful sound with her teeth that made me feel stupid for explaining the size of America. She said, “I am coming in three days, you will be there?” And what could I say except “Sorry, thank you, yes ma’am, travel safe.”

When the lime-green taxi stalled on the muddy path up to the barn house three days later, I slushed out to the car with an umbrella to welcome her. Despite almost reinjuring my neck cleaning the place before her arrival, I hadn’t anticipated the rain unearthing so much of what the cats had buried. I knew as soon as I saw her pretending not to notice, pretending not to be pinching her nostrils but only scratching them instead, that she hadn’t really come for a pet. Still, I went on talking about the specific kitten I’d set aside for her, a nameless black American Curl. “And look,” I said once we got to the stables, plopping the kitten into her open palms like soup into a bowl, “she’s even got some of your features.” I meant that the kitten’s fluffed ears reminded me of the woman’s hair, which was dark and teased to enormity in a way I remembered being stylish some years earlier. Instead of being flattered, she let the kitten down and said, “Are you drinking coffee?”

I left the couch and got as far from her as I could without leaving the room, off near the fireplace.

Sometimes her English had english on it, and it spun out in strange directions before I could pocket the message. In this case, she meant to ask if I generally enjoyed coffee and if I’d like some now. In other words, she wanted to leave the stables. I said right this way, and before she followed me into the kitchen, she walked down to the cabdriver and tipped him for his patience.

While the coffee brewed, the charade went on a while longer in the living room. Mina asked vague questions about the American Curl’s feeding habits, potential size, and temperament, and I went on and on, offering answers and the occasional suggestion for a name. “The right name’s vital,” I said. “The right name allows a personality to vessel forth.”

She’d glided over to the fireplace to look over a 40-year-old picture of my ex-wife and my brother, Gil, arm in arm on the docks. Its frame anchored an old championship belt whose sweat-bloomed leather strap draped from the mantel. Mina touched the leather softly, once and then twice. Then she asked again if the coffee was ready. By the time I came back from the kitchen, my guest had pulled a pillow onto her lap to keep the cats at bay. Three of them peered judgmentally from the armrest. I set a mug of Folgers in the center of the table, safe from the cats but slightly out of Mina’s reach.

“Nice of you to be getting a kitten for your kid,” I said, “when you so clearly don’t like cats.”

“I used to love them,” she said. “But—Mr. Krill, I’m having to tell the truth now.”

“The truth?” I said. I could feel the rust flaking away from my acting chops.

“I’m not coming here for the cat.”

“Now, hold on a minute,” I said. I stood. I put my hands on my hips for the back rows to see. “Then how come you’ve been asking all those questions about the American Curl?”

“You are Terry Krill, yes? Angel Hair?”

Here she reached into her coat pocket and unfolded a large flyer in black and white, staple holes in the corners like rips in the fabric of time. I took it from her and examined my waxen life. The flyer promoted a card at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles in 1979, main-evented by Rowdy Roddy Piper and Playboy Buddy Rose. Underneath their enormous names and faces, in smaller print and unphotographed, were the midcard matches between guys like Thunderbolt Patterson and the Mongolian Stomper. And even farther down, in a typeface so miniature I had to hold the page up to the light to read it, I found: the brow beater, accompanied to the ring by his manager, Terry “Angel Hair” Krill.

At that point, I straightened my ponytail like the cats with their tails and considered, for the first time in many years, rebleaching my hair. “What do you think,” I said. “I still fit the bill?”

A long time had passed since a fan had come searching for me. This woman didn’t come off as your typical mark—she wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with a catchphrase of mine, for instance—but nonetheless I was enlivened by her recognition of me, and was just on the verge of retrieving a quality pen so I could sign her old poster, when she disrupted my delusion.

“The Brow Beater,” she said. For the first time, I noticed her wedding band. “You were being his manager, yes? What was his name? His real name.”

In many ways, I’m not so old-school anymore, but one tradition I try my best to keep is my allegiance to kayfabe, the illusion of pro wrestling’s reality. Nowadays, guys expose the business all the time, but too many of my brothers killed themselves protecting it for me to go around revealing industry secrets to every housewife-turned-detective in America. I said, “Brow Beater was who he was, in and out of the ring, ugly and mean, the baddest foreign monster I ever had the privilege to manage.”

Her mug of coffee, untouched, still waited on the table out of reach.

“I keep milk around for the cats,” I said after a minute, “if that’s too dark for your liking.”

“No,” she said, taking back and folding the poster into her coat pocket. “Actually, it’s the opposite. In my culture, we’re making the coffee in small, strong amount. Dark. Thick.”

I want to say that was when I placed her accent, but that’s not true. I’d known as soon as she asked about The Brow Beater. But now I knew for certain where she was coming from. More important, she knew I knew what she was really after. I said, “You’d better go tip that cabdriver again.”

She did. And when she returned, she took off her coat for the first time since arriving and said, “He moved to my town as a boy. We were growing up together.”

We were growing up together, too, I wanted to say, but I was afraid she’d mistake me for making fun of her English. It was the precise truth, though: we really were growing up together, Brow and I, even though he was younger than half my age when I knew him. I was one man when I discovered him and another when he left me. In that way, we’d been growing up together.

“You were in—the USSR?” I said, trying to remember. “Yes,” she said. “Armenia.”

At the corner of the couch, Fuji, my oldest cat, had taken the little black-haired American Curl into his paws and was licking clean the kitten’s ears. Seeing this, Mina smiled. She was wearing a turtleneck sweater and kept tugging at the collar, pulling it up to her bottom lip. I figured she was the same age as The Brow Beater, which would’ve made her 32. She had a bright, striking face—all nose, like a Hershey’s Kiss—and big, heavily lashed eyes. I might’ve fallen for her, too, if I’d been a young Soviet and not an old American carnie. “You still in touch with him?” I asked, as casually as I could.

“I’m not speaking to him since 1983,” she said. “I’m hoping, actually, you are the one knowing where he is.”

But the truth was she’d been in contact with The Brow Beater more recently than I had. I told her so, that in 1980, after we’d spent two years on the road together, in a town just outside Greensboro, North Carolina, he up and disappeared. I didn’t tell her the full story. I’ve never told anyone the full story.

Mina looked around the living room. Several towers of carpeted cat trees lined the eastern wall, and between them, oak shelves bowed with the weight of several dozens of my brother’s old records. Their spines were cracked and colorful and thin. I finally took a seat on the other end of the couch.

I should’ve learned what is always the case with self-righteous people: every measure I took to appease them became a piece of evidence that they’d been right in the first place.

“No wife?” Mina asked. “Children?”

“I was married once. But it was unconventional, let’s say.”

“Because always you’re traveling?”

“That and—well, the business we were in, it’s a tough business.”

“He was telling me he was coming back to work with you. That’s why I’m coming here. I’m thinking he’s here, maybe, with you.”

“He said that? In ’83? Coming back here? For me?”

“He was saying a few possible places.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, he clearly didn’t mean it. Look, you should take him—the kitten, I mean.”

“Were you knowing also a man named Ruben?” I’d honestly never heard the name. “Who?”

“Ruben. He was the other one of us. Three of us, growing up together in Armenia.”

“Look, I’m sorry the kitten’s all I can give you. I told you not to make such a long trip for a cat, but it’s all I’ve got, I’m afraid.”

I’d placed the coffee out of her reach, but she’d reached it. I’d thought I was sitting out of her reach, but now she reached me, a hand on mine.

“I’m knowing him his whole life,” she said, “except two parts: his time in America with you, and where he is now. I’m thinking if I learn the first part, I learn the second. Like you are one half, I am one half, and together we are finding him.”

I left the couch and got as far from her as I could without leaving the room, off near the fireplace. I said, “All that time on the road kind of bleeds together. I don’t remember anything that’d be useful to you. I just wouldn’t be able to tell you what you need to hear.” Finally, she wrapped herself back into her coat and, coming to say goodbye, threw out a hand for a shake. She pumped my hand twice and then bent to pick up the American Curl. “Okay,” she said. “What name am I giving him?”

I could tell she’d imagined all the possible outcomes of our old friend’s whereabouts. Lost by design, his or someone else’s. I said, “Give that kitten a strong name. Something real.” And then I spoke it out loud, the name I hadn’t said in almost a decade. The name behind The Brow Beater, the man behind the gimmick. “Call the kitten Avo,” I said. “As in Bravo.”

I’d thought it might be a moment of profound connection, as if speaking the man’s name would lace this strange woman and me together in some final and intricate way. But Mina only tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. She said, “You’re wanting that I give Avo’s name to a cat?”

*

Soon I was left to do my work, profound or not. But in the months following her visit, Angel Hair Kittens came under a fresh and ugly scrutiny from the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, concerned—so they said—for the safety of migratory birds. I spent the better part of the first quarter of the new year construct- ing measures to ensure the health and happiness of both the cedar waxwing and Angel Hair Kittens, LLC. It was all very tedious and personality-blunting work, and whenever my mind drifted to the conversation Mina had traveled so far to begin, I blamed the monotony of installing plate-glass walls on either side of the chain-link fences in the stables, or else stitching miniature bells into every collar on the premises. Of course, every solution led to a new problem. Suddenly, the plate-glass wall—which successfully stopped the cats from scaling into the woods—became itself a culprit, smashing unsuspecting warblers in mid-flight. I should’ve learned by then what is always the case with self-righteous people: every measure I took to appease them became a piece of evidence that they’d been right in the first place (why else would I agree to appease them?), and as they drifted deeper into the sea of their own indignation, every sincere effort I made to build a raft of compromise seemed increasingly futile, and my frustrations turned to bitterness, and I sat cross-legged and mean on the shores of my own resentment. I tried to explain myself, but I could only come up with the sea metaphor, which many people said felt forced.

One day in May, I was called into town over a petition of 300 names, many of which I recognized and, to my surprise, hurt me to see listed. The paperwork aimed to limit the number of cats I could keep. In order to show how unprofessional such a low number would appear to my clients, I showed up to my city council hearing with the allotted twenty-two cats in tow, packed in my camper-covered truck. Admittedly, it was a confusing publicity stunt that ended with not only a failed appeal against the petition but also a citation from the regional branch of the Humane Society, not to mention an expensive detailing of my Ford Ranger.

All of which is to say, during the summer after Mina’s visit, I found myself in need of money.

At those wrestling conventions I used to go to, behind the booths where we splayed out collectibles like the scavenged debris from a catastrophe, I was almost always approached by this one well-meaning and well-traveling mark. He was middle-aged and soft, gluttonous for nostalgia, and he enjoyed telling me his opinion that, during the height of my mouthpiece work for Mickey “Makeshift” Starr’s two IC runs in the mid-’70s and then again in the early 1980s, there was no managermore scandalously underappreciated in the history of the sport than me. The first time he said it, I was profoundly moved and grateful, going so far as to climb out from behind my booth to give the mark a hug. I’d harbored the idea of my unappreciated greatness myself, secretly, and to hear an outsider give voice to a belief I’d dreaded was unfounded not only shined my ego but seemed—momentarily, anyway—to release me entirely from fear. Maybe I’d expressed my gratitude in too strong a language because, from then on, every few months when I participated in those meet-and-greets, the same mark would find me, pin me behind the evidence of my bygone life, and recite to me the exact same speech. Needless to say, the more often he duplicated his compliment, the more threadbare I found the texture of his respect, and his looming, certain presence at almost any event within a hundred-mile radius played an overwhelming part in my decision, a year or so prior to Mina’s visit, to stop attending those conferences once and for all.

This past summer, however, after practically liquidating Angel Hair Kittens, I called an old contact and arranged to sell photographs and signatures in an overheated community center in downtown Kent. Of course I expected to see the mark in question, and so when he lumbered toward my booth, starting in on his practiced remarks before he’d even reached handshake distance, I changed the topic immediately. “Forget Mickey Starr,” I said. “Do you remember the guy I managed between my two stints with Makeshift? From 1978 to 1980?”

Under one arm, the mark was carrying a small stack of signed photographs he’d purchased before finding his way to my corner of the room. He nearly dropped the stack several times, moving them from one armpit to the other, as he searched his memory. He said, “You’da been managing a few of the boys, yeah?”

“No,” I said. “Just the one.”

“Huh,” the mark said. “Couldn’ta been a Don Owen guy. Musta been someone you corralled outside the territory.”

“Met in Los Angeles, matter of fact.”

“No hints, no hints. Wasn’t a tag team, was it? Wasn’t, maybe, Psyche and Fathom?”

“Look,” I said, “there’s no shame in not remembering,” though of course that was a lie. What greater shame was there in the world? “Los Angeles, huh? Musta been Chavo, or Tolos, or, hell, I wouldn’t be struggling if the guy’da been a star like that, I suppose.

Go on and tell me,” he said. “It’ll drive me crazy now if I don’t hear you say the guy’s name.”

That was when I agreed to relieve his pain if he bought one hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise.

“The Brow Beater,” I said, counting the money and then studying the mark’s eyes for what wasn’t there, the shine of recognition. I tried all the gimmicks Avo Gregoryan ever wrestled under, but the mark didn’t know those, either. He didn’t know The Ugliest of God’s Creations, or The Biggest of God’s Creations, or The Meanest of God’s Creations. He didn’t know The Unique Unibrow, or The Brow Bruiser, or, simply, The Brow. He didn’t know Harry Knuckles, Harry Krishna, or Hairy Harry, and he didn’t know The Shah, The Ra, or The Beast from the Middle East. He didn’t know Gregor the Ogre, Killer Kebob, or Bravo Avo. He didn’t even blink at King Kong of the Caucasus. He didn’t remember Avo at all.

“What happened to him?” the mark finally asked.

“No one knows,” I said. “We were just about to make real money, and he—poof, straightaway—disappeared.”

*

And so it was in this state of mind—beleaguered and involuntarily reflective—that I received, just last weekend, a phone call from my old associate, the vulgarian Johnny Trumpet, asking me to go back on the road.

“I hear you’ve been poking around about the old days,” he said, “and it got me reminiscing, too, especially about that favor I never called in.”

If he’d phoned at any other time in my life, I would’ve hung up and ignored him forever. I said, “What do you want from me, Trumpet?”

“Your cheeriness continues to dazzle. You do know that the business is booming, right? Hogan and Warrior up in New York, trickling down the golden age of our sport? Even the yokels I’m working for—who sing fuckin’ homilies about the territory days—even they have to admit the new monopoly’s been good for wrestling. What I’m saying is I’m calling in a favor that’s actually going to end up costing me money. I’m calling in a favor that’ll actually get you paid, you understand, because I know you, I trust you, I don’t want to rub your dick under a bridge or anything, but I like you, and I’m financially unwise and exceedingly generous, and besides, I’m willing to buy anecdotes like these to be used by my future biographers, all right?”

“Get on with the favor itself,” I said.

“So I’ve got a bunch of tongue-tied motherfuckers down here in the California desert who could use you as a mouthpiece. I thought California would be smarter than Kentucky, but I find myself in confederado territory, all cowboys and Indians, both of which have to formulate and remember what the English fuckin’ language sounds like before saying a goddamn word. You can practically see them diagramming sentences in their heads as they speak. Right now I told ’em all just to grunt—at least that has feeling. I still got athletes to book, though, and if you can get ’em talking all right, they might be able to draw real money. I need you here Thursday.”

“This Thursday? You’ll send me a plane ticket?”

“That’s the favor part of it, motherfucker. The territories are dead. Our travel budget is zero. All our work’s done in-studio, straight to VHS. That old Catalina still running?”

“Traded it in for a truck years ago.”

“Good, so you’ll make it. What I can offer is a place to sleep when you get here. I got a bungalow out in the desert with a mustard- colored veranda. Brand-new cedar decking, really a beautiful job.”

“Thursday? You know tomorrow morning is Tuesday, yeah?

From where I stand, I’ve got about a 20-hour drive, no stopping.”

“Don’t stop, then, and you’ll be here a whole day early. Besides, you miss the road, I bet.”

“I really don’t,” I said. “I’m sure it misses you.”

*

And so here I am, steeling myself against the undoing of all my best forgetting. Tuesday morning, I left about as early as a man my age can leave a place he calls home, just before the light flared up in the east. A hard rain had started in the night, and I swaddled Fuji, the only cat I hadn’t sold or given away, out to the Ranger under my coat. The truck rumbled. The wipers waved goodbye to the barn house. We backed up and turned our wheels and drove.

Almost immediately on the slick Washington lanes, I remembered an afternoon downpour in Alabama. The deluge was so biblical we had to pull over to wait it out. This was in 1979, a full decade ago. I was surprised to see The Brow Beater get out of the car, all six feet six of him, bald-headed and unibrowed, wearing nothing but a Gold’s Gym tank top and a pair of track shorts that, on him, looked like a napkin auditioning for the role of a tablecloth. I watched from the dry safety of the car as it thundered in Tuskegee. When he crunched back in beside me, drenched, The Brow Beater said the storm reminded him of home, of the green hills of Armenia, where the rain fell so thick it felt feathered.

In the two years I spent with him, that was about as much as he ever said about home. Much more interesting to him was the question of America, of Americans. Again and again I told him he was in luck: there was no better way to get to know his new country than through professional wrestling. People would claim baseball or football, I explained, but our sport was the true American pastime.

He winked his Soviet eye and said, “Why, bro? Because it’s an elaborate fiction staged as honest competition?”

“Don’t be cynical,” I said. I put it to him this way: What was the American Dream if not the ability to trade gimmick after gimmick until you got one over? Life as a citizen of this country was an “I Quit” match, I said. The only way to lose was to give up.

He pawed his heart and belted the national anthem.

“Go ahead and laugh,” I said, “but I’m going to turn you into a patriot yet, big fella.”

The truth was I hadn’t talked that way about my country since before my brother had set sail for Korea. But that was one of the effects The Brow Beater had on me. His company somehow got me excavating versions of myself I’d forgotten I once believed in. The question of whether or not he found my refurbished patriotism convincing, I don’t know. But he laughed a lot, more and more often the longer we spent on the road, which boded well. Maybe it was different in the Soviet Union, but in America it was easier to believe someone if you found him entertaining. That could be dangerous in the wrong hands, but it’s a lesson I’ve been glad to know. With The Brow Beater, I could tell when he believed me because he had this wheezing glee about him, and sometimes he’d cap my skull with his enormous mitts and befoul my trademark hair. I was his manager, already past 50, and he was just this big foreign boy, twenty-three, I guess, greener than the hills where he came from, stashing all the money we made together in a cheap red fanny pack manufactured for tourists. He never let that fanny pack out of sight (it became a trademark of mine, wearing it at ringside as he wrestled). There in the squared circle—brow down, arms outstretched and wide as history—he’d look down at me to make sure I hadn’t lost the damn thing from around my waist. When he disappeared, he’d spent the money but left that red fanny pack in my truck, where it still remains, cash replaced with knickknacks and little nothings he must’ve collected from around the country.

There it is, nestled beside my cat on our trip south to Johnny Trumpet’s bungalow, where I’ll finally repay the favor I owe. In the meantime, I ask Fuji to help me keep my focus on the task at hand, but he rolls onto his side, facing the other way. He’s not ignoring me but paying attention to something else, already under the spell of the road.

__________________________________

From The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Harper, a subdivision of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2019 by Chris McCormick.




More Story
Kim Barnes Reads From Her Memoir Hungry for the World Storybound is a radio theater program designed for the podcast age. Hosted by Jude Brewer and with original music composed...