When I was seven, I was playing in the backyard and gashed my shin on a piece of exposed pipe.
The pain in my leg was searing and blood ran down the contours of my ankle, cooling and becoming crusted dark on the top of my foot in my sock. The throbbing that accompanied the pain reminded me every time a new wave hit that I would carry that scar for the rest of my life. This is the type of memory that haunts you as a youth and feels like, for a day, the entirety of the world revolves around your pain.
However, I will also remember what didn’t happen. My Dad was in Detroit, far away from my brother and I. He never called me. He didn’t blow on the iodine soaked wound. He didn’t put three Spongebob stickers over the cut. He didn’t take me out for ice cream and let me pick out any flavor I wanted. He didn’t do any of these things because he wasn’t there.
He was never there until he wanted to be there. Then he was the only person in the room.
Sometimes I wished he would just stay at home and let us be on our own. At least then we wouldn’t have to be reminded of how much we had failed to live up to him. That’s not really how family works though, is it?
The ring creaked as if to implode. The ropes were patched, the canvas torn, the plywood starting to separate with the glue giving way to physics and allowing the laminate to spread like an old man’s smile. It was only a matter of time until all of these issues would come to a head and Dave Gibson would be forced to address his ancient training facility, but unlike the rest of his life, he had not seen the need to update what had worked for so many years.
Keening and wailing like the spirits of so many recruits before, the four posts swayed as the two men in the ring ran the ropes perpendicular to one another in rhythmic time, so crisp that a person could set a pace watch. Finally the older man slowed and in an unguided movement, the younger man did as well. They locked up together in a collar and elbow, no words exchanged, but their eyes guiding one another to the next transition. The older man grunted and dragged the young man into a side headlock.
“Good,” the older man said. It was all he needed to say. The silence following seemed to beg the question “what’s the escape sequence?” to which the young man had drilled an answer thousands of times.
“Elbow twice and throw,” the young man replied from inside the lock.
Two stunted but effective elbows to the lower right quadrant and a shove off, and the older man runs to the ropes once again. The youngster dropped, a hop, creaking ropes, an athletic leap…it’s familiar as the sunrise to these men.
A few minutes after a grueling session Eddie Cross sits in the center of the ring, breathing deeply with his eyes closed and posture correct… breathing is a prime tenet of success… Dave always says. His mentor sits across from him cross legged controlling his own breaths.
“Time.” Dave Gibson says sharp as the cool wind blows out of the South Mountains.
With a final exhale, prolonged and measured, Eddie opens his eyes. “Dave, why do we do this?”
The elder responds to his student “Eddie, why are you asking me this? You know where wrestling came from.” Dave paused. “In the 1920s, we were part of the strongman act in carnivals. Back then it was mostly fixed, but we still put on the greatest part of the show. Before that…well…I suppose you have the Greek folk to thank for grappling.”
“That’s not what I mean, Dave.”
“I see; you mean to ask me ‘why am I going to face those two men in the ring?’”
Eddie doesn’t answer his mentor verbally. The look of trepidation that has been absent leading up to his debut in PRIME on ReVival says enough.
“Jitters, eh?” Dave cracks a wry smile. “Good. I was starting to think you didn’t know how to feel emotions. Look kid, any man or woman steps foot inside that ring and ain’t a little bit scared…well they’re lying to you.”
“I guess… I’m not scared of wrestling. I know how to wrestle. I know I am better than both Larry and McGee. It’s just, I look around and people are getting hurt badly.”
A pause. A sigh.
“Yeah. They are. I don’t know what to tell you there, kid.” Dave nods to himself a bit. “With what I’ve taught you, you just assess the situation, you stay cool, and you’ll know where to attack and when you gotta escape a bad situation. Trust that. It will take you a long way. The rest, well, we’re gonna have to see how special you are.”
Eddie leans back, looking at the water stained ceiling of the gym forgetting his breathing for just a moment. He finally snaps his eyes back to Gibson.
“Is it true? What Ivan said about you?”
“All of it.”
Eddie wished Dave wasted some time thinking about this, but he doesn’t.
“I see,” Eddie stood up and grabbed a towel that was hanging on the middle rope. He started to wipe off the sweat from his arms and turned back to his mentor. “What in the hell could you want from me?”
Dave stood up and walked over to the corner where his gear was stacked up in an untidy half zipped duffle bag.
“Well, I’m gonna be honest Eddie, I want to feel again. Winning, losing, the crowd. When you lose that feeling there ain’t a drug on this planet that can bring it back.” Dave mimics the younger man and grabs a towel.
“That’s a cliché.” Eddie answers. “But I suppose it doesn’t make it less true.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Well, I guess if you want to.. feel… again you’re going to get your chance.” Eddie responds to his mentor.
They hop out of the ring and walk toward the locker room. Outside the door frame with a door that has long since been missing, Dave stops Eddie. “You know who your opponents are?”
“Dave, we have been watching these guys for almost a year. Of course I know who they are. Larry is a big mean fuck. Mike is fucked in a big way.”
“You’re simplifying and trying to make jokes to hide your nerves, Eddie.” He looks into his students eyes. “Do you know who your opponents are?”
“I do. I’ve watched hours of tape on Larry and I found what I could on McGee.”
“Then you know that ‘big mean fuck’ can paralyze you with that irresponsible finisher.”
A pause as the gravity of the room suddenly multiplied.
“Yeah, I do.”
Dave walks through the doorway first, and Eddie pauses before following. Just on the other side of the doorway, a pair of shadows hold a hard conversation.
“Does it hurt?”
“Hurts like hell.”
“Do you get used to it?”
For his seventh birthday, Eddie got his first gaming system. It was a special edition Master Chief Xbox360 that came with Halo 3 and ODST as a package deal along with a life size Spartan helmet. He remembered how the fatigued green and bronze metallic case put all his friends black and white boxes to shame. He remembered his brother getting a bike, some expensive black monstrosity that was too big for his frame that he would “grow into.”
He remembered his mothers eyes looking over at the clothes and book she had bought. Her eyes then tracked back to his father. He was living up the moment with Junior showing him the independent suspension, gear change, and braking systems on his bike.
For a moment, Eddie considered putting the Xbox down and not picking it up again, but before he could go hug his mother, he was swept up from behind by his supernaturally strong father.
“Waddaya think, kiddo? Do you know how hard these are to find?”
He was seven. It was an Xbox360. Of course he was excited. It was a hell of a lot better than some boring clothes and books. Eddie did what any little kid would do; he laughed and hugged his dad. “Thank you Papa!”
After his dad had hooked up the system, they sat in the den and played Halo 3 on easy mode. Of course his father insisted on being Master Chief because he was the hero. Eddie was fine with being The Arbiter because he looked cool and he sounded like a tough guy. Eddie would have liked to be Master Chief just once, but being The Arbiter was okay, too.
It was during this night that Eddie realized he was different from his friends. He didn’t enjoy social gatherings. They always overwhelmed him and when the groups got together, he was always quiet. And yet when he played the game with his Dad, he saw reality differently. He felt at peace, like he belonged, and the awkwardness melted away.
He couldn’t put his finger on it exactly, but something about playing that game made sense to Eddie. Fire, fire, track head movement, throw a grenade to lower shields, strafe, push your enemy with measured bursts, track them into a predicted movement, melee… kill. Simple. Easy. Routine.
Of course these skills didn’t come naturally and his memory of how good he was at seven are the memories of a child. In reality, it took hours upon hours of practice before and after school, on holidays, long after he red-ringed the original gaming system he had received on his birthday and replaced it with another less expensive model. (He was later able to salvage the Master Chief version with a towel and a trick he learned on the internet.)
His father didn’t realize what was happening at the time. He was just playing games with his kid. He saved Eddie dozens of times before he learned how to dive out of the way of the Jiralhanae “Brute” force. They played well past his bedtime… “it would be fine for one night” he told the boy’s Mom.
Eddie woke up the day after his birthday with two controllers in hand. He was ready to play the next level of Halo with his Dad. They had just made it to The Tsavo Highway the night before and Eddie was really excited to try his hand at driving the Wraith tank. He looked in every room for his father. But he was gone and Eddie remained, waiting. He didn’t play Halo again that day, or any day after until his brother Junior finished the level with him two weeks later.
At a small bbq joint in Charlotte, Dave and Eddie are sitting down at a picnic table eating an assortment of meat and sides off a paper covered trash can lid. The pulled pork with the house made tangy bright flavored bbq sauce is particularly good. The cornbread is an old family recipe. The potato salad is rumored to make the dead come back to life.
Dave rolls a piece of cornbread in his hand and gestures to his student “So, you want to talk about these guys or what?”
“I guess.” Came the reply from a half interested twenty year old. “What’s to talk about? I’ve seen their matches, I’ve been over their videos. I don’t see anything too concerning.”
“Concerning? Eddie, you haven’t even had a match yet. How can you be so casual about this? Look…” he grabs a big rack of assorted condiments from the table. “You have your hot sauce here, that’s Larry Tact. You have to watch out because a little is pretty easy to handle, but too much and it will burn your ass.”
He filters through the rack of bottles and grabs the most bland thing he can find, picking up a generic bottle of ketchup. Dave is surprised a place like this even has ketchup on the table.
“Then you have Mike McGee.”
“Let me guess, he is plain and if you put too much on he drowns out the flavor of everything?”
Dave nods. “Good, you’ve played this game.”
“So what am I then? Mustard?” Eddie retorts, somewhat annoyed.
“Nah, you’re the honey, kid.” Dave beams and lays on that southeastern charm he is known for. “You make everything and everyone around you better. Especially this cornbread.”
Eddie’s hands drop and he looks at Dave pounding the chunk of cornbread into his mouth. His alien green iris’ shine in the light. “Honey? Cornbread? Are you serious right now Dave?”
“Look Eddie, I’m just trying to…”
“Well stop, OK? I know what I am, and I know who my competitors are.” Eddie spits. He leans forward and makes sure he has Dave’s attention before continuing. “Larry Tact is a below average waste of good genetics. Have you seen his record? Have you read about this guy? Was, was, was… isn’t”
Eddie pauses before leaning back in his chair and snorting. “Mike McGee? Come on Dave, the guy thinks he is an HR manager. What the hell is he even doing in a ring?”
Dave looks at his student. He knows Eddie thinks he has this figured out. He is twenty, and he has plenty of his Dad’s cock sure bravado. He also knows his student is scared and projecting confidence. He measures his response, to make sure Eddie knows it is not wasted breath.
“He’s trying to win. Just like you.” Dave’s tone is stern, absolutely chilled. “You think this is a game? You think these two guys just fell out of the sky and landed in your lap to lay down? They are in PRIME, which, the last time I checked, was still the mark of excellence in this sport.”
Dave leans forward now, shrinking Eddie in his seat. “You listen up kid, you take these guys as a joke and the only one left who ain’t in on the laughter at the end of the night will be you.”
There is a prolonged, unpleasant, ugly pause. The kind of pause so wolf ugly that it might never become pregnant.
“I know that.”
“Then don’t you be a damned fool and talk shit about them when you ain’t but a whelp.” Dave leans back and exhales. He rubs his eyes and looks up at the kid before him. “Look Eddie, you are good, but you ain’t great. Not yet. You have a long way to go before you can look at these guys and say anything. You have the best training I can give you and you’re ready for this, but until that bell rings and you win, you ain’t shit. You get me?”
“Don’t call me sir. You know I hate that.”
“Yes, Uncle Dave.”
“You go show them, get that three count, then you talk shit.”
Dave grabs a piece of pulled pork and runs it through a small pool of barbeque sauce that had gathered on the trash lid. He sometimes forgets that Eddie is still only twenty. He’s still just a rookie, after all. After he swallows, the kindness returns to his voice.
“Eat your lunch, Eddie. We’ll talk about this later.”
I should go out today. I don’t feel like it. I feel nervous, almost sick with anticipation. I can’t sit around playing MW2 all day, though. I better go for a run or something, and burn off this energy.
I put on my socks slowly, pulling up the right sock, and then the left. I paused and looked down at the bare knitted patch of skin where the pipe had worked its anger out on me all those years ago.
You remember that scar? Funny thing is now enough time has passed that if you held a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you which leg it was without looking. I just know that the scar is still there and every once in a while I see it and think I remember how it all happened.
Except I don’t really remember. Not all of the details, anyhow. I imagine in another ten years I might not remember anything about the event at all except that it happened.
Time is a funny thing. They say that as you get older, the passage of time accelerates until at the end of your life, days feel like minutes. I wish that were true and November the eighteenth would just get here already. I wonder if my opponents feel the same way? I don’t really care, I guess. I don’t particularly give a shit what they think.
Yeah, I respect you two. I just don’t think either of you can beat me and nothing I’ve seen so far suggests otherwise, no matter what Dave says.
Shit, I almost forgot! That’s a relief, I’m not supposed to forget this next part. Every damn day I have to remember.
I walk over to the end table by my bed and open a drawer with a grating creak of wood on wood. I retrieved a small translucent orange bottle with a paper sticker that had my name on it as well as a dosage, twenty mg/day. It rattles like a baby with a new toy in my hand.
Thanks again, Dad.
I pull out a bottle of water and put one of the small half orange, half clear caplets full of tiny white spheres in my mouth, take a drink, and swallow. I hold the bottle up and take a look at the label. The next refill looks like it is about sixty-three days out of ninety days away. I put the bottle back in the drawer and turn for the door with a wisp of thought in the back of my mind:
Good. I hate talking to Dr. Hannerman.