Private: Matt Ward
APRIL & THE GRAY
George pulled her gaze away from the dark storm clouds smothering the horizon and glanced down at the console screen, the Android Auto app showing her destination approaching. ETA two minutes.
Her left hand squeezed and twisted the steering wheel so tightly that, for a moment, she thought she might wring the last drops of blood from the leather hide wrapping. With a heavy breath, George eased her grip, color flooding back to her knuckles as she made the final turn of a journey she should have never begun.
Georgie parked the Mercedes GLS and gathered herself a moment before exiting the SUV and heading for the front door. She didn’t bother to bring her bag; if the answer was ‘no’, it’d just be dead weight to trudge back to the car, and she didn’t need anything else on her shoulders.
“Ok.” George didn’t hesitate, not wanting to give her mind a window to go to war with her body. Her fist rapped four quick times on the front door. “Shit.”
She wasn’t sure if anyone would even be home, hadn’t bothered to call ahead, but her answer came quick as the door in front of her swung open, and Georgie fired her shot.
“My dad is gonna be so pissed. He told me not to drag family into this, but I want to be a wrestler.” As soon as the last word escaped her lips, she braced for an emphatic ‘no’, maybe complete with a slamming door, but instead, she got a gentle hand on the shoulder.
“Come inside, kiddo.”
Confetti does strange things when mixed with blood. It compacts, hugs to curves and crevices, as it dries and molds itself to the skin.
The early days of his 2006 had been woeful, limping into the New Year with the most crushing loss of his career, The Clydesdale shocking the world and robbing him of the gold he had barely come to know. In the hours after the loss, he had vowed that the embarrassment would be the fuel he’d burn on his journey back to the top.
In the weeks that followed, he’d laid waste to numerous names, though he’d forgotten most of them. He had extracted his revenge on the man who felled him, trading gold for gold, but the pinnacle remained just ahead in a structure no one understood, but everyone feared.
The Dual Halo.
That February night in Tokyo, Japan he had steadied himself in the Gorilla Position, each breath he took inhaling the success he knew was coming, tasting the dominance he was to reclaim. For what seemed like hours, he had fought, battered his body, broken many others and, as everything filtered its way down to two men, he had simply lost. While the celebration rained around him, his vision had tunneled.
In fury, in confusion, in a devastation so powerful that it ripped all air from his lungs and caved his chest, he had culled handfuls of tiny paper from the ground, crushing the confetti in his fists and burying his brow through the shame of it all. Through defeat.
Sometimes, confetti & old blood make useful tools. They cover the face, a paper mache mask of stains, meant to hide the torment and tears, shielding the truth from thousands of gazing eyes. He had worn that mask.
THE DAY BEFORE THE GRAY: MORNING
Early spring in Ohio was a hundred shades of gray, like a classic black & white film playing out day after day, but on this particular morning, blue sky blanketed the still-brown earth of the state’s capitol. Little of that sunlight, though, fell on the shoulders of Matt Ward as he trudged between the towering offices of downtown Columbus.
For thirty minutes, he had sat and been emasculated, lectured by a kid, maybe ten years his junior, about contract clauses and how his endorsement deal had an option for a second year, at a 10% increase, which Nike was already prepared to decline. They had ‘strongly urged’ him to try a new knee brace for Culture Shock, and when he’d politely declined, citing concern over unfamiliar equipment negatively affecting his performance, they had so plainly responded by stating his performance couldn’t possibly suffer any further.
Perhaps most insulting of all was the business card… a referral to a sports psychologist, as if Nike had signed him to a deal without a single clue as to who he was, what he had accomplished, where he had come from. Worse yet, Matt had come up with the enlightened idea to bring his daughter along for the soul-sucking lecture.
“Well,” Matt flipped the business card over in his fingers, “Fold that up and tuck it away in the back pocket.”
“Just sorta a thing I do… a mantra or something. When life hands you this nonsense, stick it in your back pocket and be done with it. Ya know, put it behind you.”
“Wow. Real deep, Dad” Though no one within earshot was paying any attention, George shook her head in embarrassment and picked up her pace, hoping to make it back to the truck as quickly as possible. “What do ya keep in your front pocket, Socrates?”
“Wallet, car keys and the shit that needs dealt with.” He turned to his daughter with a look far more serious than pants pocket philosophy probably warranted.
“Why the hell did you drag me to this?”
“Because I want you to see the world of business in action, even all its humiliations. I want you to understand contracts, endorsement deals, sponsorship requirements. To see what all is out there. You could be the lawyer who’s drafting up these one-sided, ego crushing contracts someday.”
For a minute or two, the father & daughter walked in silence, the only sound the clack of George’s heels on the fractured concrete of downtown Columbus sidewalks. They crossed the street and turned up a dimly lit parking garage stairwell, leaving any sunlight behind. As they approached Matt’s F150, they parted the vehicle, but he was the only one to open a door. With a foot inside, he paused when George didn’t follow. Stepping back, he slammed the door and glared across the metallic blue hood of the truck.
“You brought me here to try and change my mind about wrestling.”
“Georgie, I don’t need to change your mind about wrestling. I’m not training you. You’re not training at the school. You’re not gonna be a wrestler.”
“Why are you doing this?” As she posed the question, George raised her hands in the air, then brought her palms crashing down on the hood of the pick-up in mounting frustration. “How the fuck can you go back to PRIME and sit there and tell me I have to stay as far away from this stuff as possible?”
“First of all, easy on the truck. And your mother made me go back.”
“Mom made you? Jesus, that’s more embarrassing than the lashing Nike just gave you.”
“I know you’re almost eighteen, but there are lines, and you are real damn close to crossing them, kid.” Matt was fed up, biting at his bottom lip as he stepped back to the door, but his first-born was having nothing to do with his dismissal, and he wasn’t surprised.
“Just tell me why this is such a big deal for you. Why can’t I wrestle?”
“Georgie,” Matt leaned on the hood of his vehicle, folded his arms and dropped his head into the cave he’d just made for himself. Briefly, he wondered what he should say, but he quickly realized she wouldn’t buy any of his bullshit, and so, he looked up and let his truth echo through the half-empty parking garage. “I dunno what wrestling would do to you, but I know what it did to me, and it isn’t anything I’d wish on the worst of humanity.”
“It made me an addict. It ripped me away from my family. It put every aspect of my life into a blender and liquified them into some gross concoction that I choked down. It wrecked my priorities. And that’s just the mental and emotional shit. Maybe you’d do better. Maybe your mind would be cut out for it. You’re sure as hell smarter than me…”
“Not true” Georgie began to blush as she shook her head, dismissing her dad’s praise.
“Sure it is. But it doesn’t matter. Even if you’ve got the chops for that, the business will break your body. On the good days, I hurt. On the bad days, I don’t want to make it to sunset. Can you imagine what its like… telling your four year old that you can’t run around the yard and play tag? Seeing that look in her eyes, listening to her ask ‘you don’t wanna play with me, Daddy’?”
He paused and stared off at the chipped white paint on a nearby concrete pillar. He was unsure of how long he stood there silent, but he was still lost in those cracks of the column when he heard his daughter speak again.
“There was day last fall, random Thursday, your Mom had gone off to run a couple errands.” Matt turned his attention back to George, though he avoided eye contact. “You and Hunter were at school. I was home, chillin’ with your little sister. Hailey wanted to play magna-tiles. So I crawled my ass down on the floor and we built a castle . Then we built a couple small houses and a grocery store… a whole little town. And like she loves to do, she was Godzilla, smashing up all the buildings, and we laughed while she stomped away and roared. Then I tried to get up. I couldn’t climb to my feet, Georgie. My knee physically wouldn’t let me. I laid there for 40 minutes, Hailey asking again and again ‘you ok, daddy?’. I laid there for almost a full fucking hour until your mother could get home and help pull me to my feet. Do you have any idea what it’s like to not be able to run and roll around with your little princess because you’re worried… absolutely terrified you won’t be able get up?”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Georgie, I don’t need you to be sorry. Just know that I’m not coming from a place of experience and I only want for you to be healthy and happy.”
“Are you not happy?”
“I am.” Matt gave a small smile as he opened the door to his pickup and climbed in the cab. “But less so than if I’d never wrestled, I think.”
His daughter joined him in the truck. As he started the engine, and she buckled in, they both went for the console touch-screen to get some music playing. Matt laughed, but they both knew they were reaching for the radio because they had nothing more to say to each other.
Other times, when the confetti showers the carnage of battle…
Though he was ignorant, oblivious to the fact at the time, Spring of 2007 was the beginning of the march towards his first ‘retirement’. His knees were beginning to show the damage done from years of waging war with the greatest athletes the world over. By Colossus, he would need to step away for the sake of any semblance of a future. First, though, there were mistakes to correct, redemption to be seized.
Months earlier, he had regained his crown, emperor of the universe, proving there was nothing fleeting, no luck, to his reign, but tournaments and titles aside, one achievement alluded him.
The Dual Halo.
That March night in China, he had poured every ounce, of everything worthwhile, he could conjure up into ensuring he wouldn’t fall short again. No silver medals. No ‘close but not quite’. The only devastation would be what he left in his wake. He fought an entire night, fought everyone, and when the evening was through and the confetti and fireworks were unleashed, he had his arm raised in victory.
The blood loss was severe and the fatigue engulfing, leaving his vision blurred and a revolting ring in his ear, but it was his anthem they played through Guangdong Olympic Stadium. By the aide of officials, and adrenaline, he had risen to his feet, walked up that long aisle with broken body.
In the days and weeks that followed, he would occasionally wonder how he had physically survived through the night, back in that foreign hotel room.
Sometimes, confetti & old blood make useful tools. They cover wounds, stop the pain, hold it together just enough for a man to raise two defiant fists in victory. He had worn those bandages, raised those fists.
He would again.
THE DAY BEFORE THE GRAY
Mary was curled up on the couch in the living room, staring at the television. By the disembodied hand that scurried across the screen, Matt knew she was binging Wednesday on Netflix. Her second time through the series. As his shadow cast over the couch, she turned her glance over her shoulder and offered up a quick “Hey, babe.”
“Anything different happening this time?” He nodded toward the TV.
“No Hunter?” Matt searched around the room with his eyes, as if, somehow, he had simply overlooked a sixth-grader. “He loves this show. Figured he’d be glued to your side. Think he’s got a crush on Wednesday.”
“He was tired. Went up to bed about twenty minutes ago.”
“He didn’t come say goodnight.”
“Yelled at you through the door.” Mary plucked the remote from the armrest and thought for a second about pausing the show, before opting instead to turn up the volume.
“You haven’t exactly been giving him a lot to work with lately. And you kinda just disappeared on us after dinner tonight. What’re you doin’ in there anyways?”
“First time in a decade. Little rusty.” Matt kissed his wife on the top of her head as he lumbered for the kitchen. “I know Hailey’s sleeping. What about George?”
“Said she was going over to Thea’s and probably staying the night. She packed a small bag and bolted maybe ten minutes after you went to hibernate in the office.”
“OK.” Matt opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a bottle of water. As he turned to head back for his study, he almost missed it. For just a brief second, the light from the fridge caught a piece of yellow paper, ripped from the spine of a small notebook, sitting atop the quartz countertop of the kitchen island.
He reached over and flipped a switch on the near wall, turning on the pendant light, trading one for another, as the refrigerator door closed and extinguished its glow. Matt looked down at the note and gave it a read.
Matt dropped his water on the countertop and picked up the note, the back of his neck hot from boiling blood. Slowly, with the deliberate precision of a surgeon, he folded the letter in half, and then again. As he turned to head back to his office, Matt carefully placed the note in his front pocket, next to his wallet and keys.