Everyone thinks this is a fluke. Thinks that the wolf guy with the teeth should’ve won.
“I know. Maybe they’re right.”
The Father has been absent since ReVival 41 and that voice has crept back in. What started as a whisper is a deafening roar. Worn down through attrition, our dear Legend has been reduced to a near catatonic shell. All that exists is the constant feeling of impending calamity and this god damned voice. So here he hides, in a dark room talking to himself, but that’s not exactly new hat. His eyes are red from crying and a visible manifestation of the shattered pieces of the vase of his mind.
You’re scared shitless aren’t you?
Cecilworth Farthington, if you dig. The ALMOST undefeated 5 Star Champion. This aforementioned feeling of impending calamity is married to him. Conceptually, of course. The only thing accompanying Rob in this room are his big feelings and a black and white television. Reflected in those fragments that are his eyes is Farthington’s promo leading up to the Almasy final. It plays over and over, like a distress signal.
Cecilworth Farthington: I am the final line of defense for this sport.
They’re checking a box. Champions have to defend their titles. This guy is going to push your shit in. You’re not even in the same sphere talent wise. It’s going to be a slaughter. He’s more handsome, he’s definitely funnier, he speaks better, and people like him more. Nobody fucking likes you. You’re a cancer.
“I don’t blame them.”
Oh and the tears. They rise up uncontrollably like vomit, Rob completely unable to control them. How violated he feels crying in public when he is trying his best not to. Not little “let me yawn and wipe this away quick” tears, either. Big, hairy sobs.
Just run. Run away like you always do. Sandbag this one. Hell, no show. Everyone deserves a mulligan and you’ve had a LOT going on. Go find a warm bed and a warmer woman and oblivion in some Motel 6.
“But what about Charlotte? John?”
That’s not your problem. They shouldn’t have harnessed their boats to yours. That’s what they get for believing in a fucking fraud like you. Taking care of them isn’t your job. And you aren’t good enough to do so anyways. They both deserve more than… this. Do you want to embarass them even more? Cut your losses, you gave it a good shot.
Ah, there it is. The old “you’ve tried your best” card. This is usually where our antihero (or antichrist depending who you ask) folds like origami. That self-serving fallacy gets him every time.
But he doesn’t move.
Cecilworth Farthington: I am the final line of defense for this sport.
You’ve been getting your ass kicked by men like Cecilworth Farthington your entire life. Look at you. Worthless. Sitting here sobbing like a goddamn child in a dark room, just like you always have. When your dad beat the shit out of your mom and you hid in your room crying. What’s changed?
That’s right, nothing. Just like you. Have to write legend on your shirt because no one will remember you. You’re still bleeding from Arthur Pleasant. You’re scared, Rob. Scared.
But the fighter still remains.
“Why am I scared?”
What’s this? Are we on the precipice of something real here? Rob stares at his hands, all gnarled and gashed and bruised from waging war with Prime’s Worst Nightmare mere days ago. These hands, these giant mitts. Why, they could crush The Financier’s head with ease.
“Why the fuck am I scared?”
A flint sparks into a flame in one corner of the room, the fire transferred to the end of a cigarette. The Father. “It took you long enough.” He calls out to Rob.
“Where have you been?” Rob hisses at the Father. Some might think it unnatural to be angry at the figure that represents your conduit to the other plane, but what is a relationship with no conflict?
“Some things you need to come to on your own, child. Focus, now. Why are you scared of this man? That feeling in your gut when you hear his name, his voice, where does it come from? Do not turn away from this or redirect. Dig in.”
Rob is an emotional cocktail. But mostly relieved. Relieved that the Father is here and has not abandoned Rob. Rob’s mouth opens to speak, but no words come out. A rare occurrence. He has nothing. No witty quips, no history lesson. It’s all gone. This could be it, the crescendo. This is the bridge he has been trying to weld in the young Williams’ mind all along.
“I…” Rob stutters mindlessly.
Here it is, the moment the Father has been waiting for. Finally some real fucking delicious food: honesty. All of the gusto and guzpah has run out and the machine of Rob’s ego is finally sputtering out like the jalopy it is. Will Rob be honest for once? Will he face his fears and walk into the storm without poking and prodding? Ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seatbelts.
“I don’t know.” Rob admits, dropping his head in shame.
The Father claps his hands, carefully collecting all the little pieces of the vase.
“Bingo. Now, come, there is much work to do.”
“Fuck him. I don’t care if he has gone crazy, John. Sober, drunk, dead. Whatever.” The venom drips off each word as they leave Charlotte’s painted red lips.
She’s not wrong. Walking out is just a bullet point on a long, long list of wrongs Rob Williams has done to her. You can add bringing Don Winters’ lackey home with him and this new alliance with “The Muse” Anna Daniels to the list, too, and somehow none of these will even broach the top forty hits. No witty commentary from Casey Kasem here, just the ruins left behind in the wake of an alcoholic tornado that is now bordering schizophrenic. Why does John care?
“I know, Charlotte.” John sighs, wiping at his upper lip with a silk handkerchief. It feels soft sliding against his skin and he pauses for a moment. Is this why? Because the handkerchiefs in his life used to be tissues and now they’re monogrammed silk? No, it’s because… “We’re all he has left. Whatever we loved about him is still in there. He’s sick.”
“Oh, he’s sick.” Charlotte’s sarcasm hits John like the sharp end of an ice pick and all of the hairs on his neck stand up. She cocks her head, “Well golly, John, why didn’t you say so?”
“Ok, Charlotte, you want the truth?” John adjusts the winchester collar of his tailored dress shirt.
“I’d love for someone to give me the truth, for once, John.” She replies, just the top of her blue eyes peering at John over her glass of wine as she takes a hearty pull.
“The fool has bitten off more than he can chew. This Farthington guy is dangerous. He’s coming off a big loss on the biggest stage in wrestling. You know Rob as well as I do, hell, maybe even better. This is the kind of guy who has his card all day long. If he loses to this guy, Rob’s liable to ride off into the sunset with a bottle of vodka and bag of blow. And as much as his latest dramatic bullshit chaps my ass, I love him. You do, too. He’s got another drunk in him, but I don’t think he’s got many more recoveries.”
A chill runs down Charlotte’s spine. She pictures Rob in the bathtub at some fleabag motel. He’s always said he’d do it in the tub. Easier clean up.
“Fine.” she shudders through gritted teeth. John’s right, there isn’t much road left. “What’s the plan? I don’t even know where he is or how to find him.”
“We know he’ll be in Philadelphia this Saturday. We’ve got credentials, so catch him backstage. He has to know he’s not alone. He has to know we’re still here for him”
Charlotte rolls her eyes dramatically, but she knows that right is right.
“I guess I’ll pack my fucking bags.” __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The VW runs rich, the sweet smell of self-destructive resource depletion coming off the engine and filling Rob’s nostrils as he stands outside the machine. Gray and indifferent to his feelings, the sky begins to spit tiny little flakes down into his open eyes. He takes a deep breath of the unleaded air and exhales through pursed lips. His grasp on the hood is that of a child afraid to let go of their parents warm embrace before the first day of school and his heart rate races the same.
“No fucking way.” He calls out to the apathetic atmosphere. “I’m not going in there.”
“There” seems to be Leisure World of Shady Grove, judging by the large monument sign in front of the spot the VW is currently cheapening with oil slicks. You can tell it’s a retirement home based off the shitty branding that tries to convey a life of carefree luxury. In reality, it’s another stick built cage we put our old in so we don’t have to face the sad finality of their fading light.
“So man wastes away like something rotten, like a garment eaten by moths. Robert, your path is one of molting. You are shedding the bondages of self that have held you back.” The Father stands on the other side of the hood, leaning in as if he can will Rob’s eyes to meet his own. “This is all a part of your ascension. You must be free of the weight, the power, that men like this wield over you if you ever hope to reach the summit.”
Rob’s grip lessens ever so slightly. “Isn’t there any other way?”
“No, child, there is not.” The Father assures him affectionately.
“Fine.” Rob concedes, for he truly does want to reach the summit. He wants to look down upon all that has been sacrificed with a grateful heart and if this is the path through the crag, then climb it he will. His feet feel heavy and disobedient and for a moment he worries they may fail him. But, alas, they do not and he enters through the sliding glass doors of Leisure World.
Twenty years ago the interior of this place would be white washed: pale white tile floors and painted plain white walls with cream white trim. For the rate they charge per door, in this day and age, that just won’t do. No, now the walls are adorned with a dark red wall paper boasting intricate designs in gold and black. The flooring is a commercial grade, low pile carpet of the gray color family with a seemingly jungle-esque scene woven the threads in black. But under it all, under the fancy finishes and smiles of the support staff, you can still smell death. No matter how many refreshes an hour the HVAC system promises, you cannot be rid of the undercurrent in a place where the occupancy is always in flux.
Together they walk down the hall, the Father and Rob, past the dining hall and entertainment room and various golden agers. Lions walking among grazing gazelle.
The green apartment-like door is closed. Rob takes a deep breath, thinking of an excuse not to knock. Maybe the occupant is sleeping, and wouldn’t want to wake them. No, he knows better. The occupant is in the room and listening to the television on full blast.
Closing his eyes, the anxiety in his stomach like a rat gnawing to get out, Rob slowly raises a closed fist. He holds it in the air as if charging it up before laying it on the door two times.
“Yeah, hold your goddamn horses.” A weary voice calls out from the other side of the door.
Rob’s eyes dart to and fro, searching for an escape route.
“No, this you must do.” The Father affirms with a wave of his hand. “Into the storm. Burn the ships. All of that.”
The door swings open to reveal a man that looks remarkably like Rob, but like you left Rob out in the sun too long. There are far more wrinkles, lines, imperfections in this man’s face. Either way, the resemblance is uncanny. Too uncanny to be a mere coincidence. Could it be? Could the Father really be pulling out the “complicated relationship with daddy” card this early?
“Who the hell are you?” The Rob-like figure fires at Rob.
Phew. Shit, almost had us there.
“I’m you, dumbass.” Rob says as he pushes past the man in the doorway. There he is, there’s that swagger we all love to hate.
This is your captain speaking. Please make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in their upright and locked position as we approach our cruising altitude of bat-shit crazy. Two Robs. Is this real, any of this? Everything is relative and this is an experience Rob Williams is having, “real” or otherwise.
“I don’t understand.” Old Man Rob puzzles as he watches Our Rob stalk through the room, judging with utter disdain. Very interesting, nearly catatonic thinking about Cecilworth, but freely critical here. The apex predator senses no threats in this environment.
The walls are mostly empty, symbolic of a life lived at arms-length from all who entered the magnetic field of someone as hellbent on self-destruction as Rob. There are no photos of family. No janky turkeys scribbled in crayon by loving grandchildren. A single table lamp on the bedside dresser gives off the only light besides the television. The TV is black and white and it’s apparently on the receiving end of Cecilworth’s distress signal.
“I don’t either, cochise, but I’m walking a path of faith as you may have picked up on. Somehow you’re part of it. So what great wisdom do you have to bestow on me so I can get out of this depressing shithole?”
There is nothing but silence and distance between these two men. Our Rob squints his eyes, peering at the manifestation of himself. He’s just another gazelle. Weak and diminutive. Nothing like what Rob pictures he will be like in his twilight years.
“Nothing.” Our Rob repeats.
Old Rob smirks, rubbing a thumb across the white hairs outlining his bottom lip. He moves slowly across the room, body worn down from years of fighting. looking through him almost and moving side to side like a doctor pondering over a patient.
“I guess I was always a prick. You’re a little fucked up, huh? We been getting our ass beat since we were knee high to a grasshopper. Sure, we learned to fight, but every now and then someone comes along that has something we don’t: status or looks or money, whatever. Bam! We’re right back to that boy waiting on dad to burst through the door swinging. Sound about right?” Old Rob asks with a raised eyebrow.
Tower, we are losing cabin pressure. Please put on your oxygen mask. Our Rob begins to shrink into himself.
“Listen closely.” Old Rob commands Young Rob. He begins to tell a story about a lion that nobody ever told he’s a lion. Maybe this lion’s dad kicked his ass some as a cub. As this lion grows he only goes after prey he’ll conquer. Domination or nothing. Any time he’s really tried, this lion runs. Can we guess who he’s talking about?
He ends with, “Do you know what makes the lion king of the jungle?”
“Think about it. Elephants are bigger. A few breeds of gazelle are faster than him. Cheetahs and leopards got prettier spots. So what is it? It’s that he doesn’t fucking care what everybody else is. He knows what he is. Imagine the chaos if he sat sulking in his den wondering how he would catch the gazelle or how the elephant might crush him. There would be no order and this world craves order.”
The light begins to return to the Young(er) Williams’ eyes. Could the vase be repaired?
“The lion doesn’t stop just cause he’s scared he might lose. You don’t get to be the king of the jungle by worrying if you deserve to be.” Elder Williams puts the exclamation point on his diatribe.
“Now do you see?” The Father asks.
“I think so.”
Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking once again. I’m pleased to inform you that we have successfully completed our journey and are preparing for our final descent in Philadelphia. The time is just right for a title change and the weather is clearing. We hope you’ve enjoyed your time with us today, we look forward to serving you again in the future.
“City skylines remind me of how small we really are.” Lem says, more to himself than Rob, through a thick veil of cigarette smoke.
Along the watershed of Camden, Lem and Rob sit on the furthest edge of New Jersey, staring across to the twinkling mosaic of the Philadelphia cityscape. The Ben Franklin Bridge’s reflection shimmers across the ripples of the Delaware below like fireflies dancing in the night. Despite all of the beauty that can be distilled from this view, Rob has always thought the way city lights choke out the vastness of the stars and space above is an act against both God and man. It’s almost as if man cannot allow himself to enjoy the miracles provided by this world, attempting to recreate some perverse inverted carbon copy of the starlit heavens above in his inert drive towards self destruction. You can’t escape your nature.
No, the light pollution snuffs out all but a few of the most animated stars in the vast dark sky above even on a clear night like this one.
“Sure, they’re nice.” Rob replies thoughtfully, his own hazel eyes providing an abstract reflection. There was a time where he would have needed to correct Lem, force him to agree that man-made farce across from them was just a thrift store copy. He would’ve needed Lem to agree that the type of rightsizing Lem described paled in comparison to that of standing below a black canvas shot through with thousands of glimmering holes in some desolate landscape. But, not tonight.
What is in front of him? His thoughts turn to Cecilworth Farthington. Rob chuckles to himself, thinking how close Farthington is to Fartington. Lord Fartington. How jaunty his thoughts are now. Lem interrupts his musings.
“Rob,” Lem blurts out, as if giving in to an itch, “do you, uh… do you think you can beat Farthington?” The words leave his cracked lips in a single exhale, like a great float that’s just been deflated now that it has served its purpose.
A fair question, asked at an opportune moment. Just like the night sky, he would’ve needed to convince how he was going to crush Farthington and how much meaner than the man he was. But, not tonight.
“I think I’ve got all the makings of someone who can. All the essential parts. Can I beat Farthington? Sure. Will I beat him? Maybe so, but I’m going to be fine even if I don’t. My worth isn’t from the cheers or the W/L column. I’ve got the fire inside, boy. So do you. We are the torch bearers and ours is a grave responsibility. We’re charged with keeping the order. This world, its people, are sick. Plagued with the inequities of their beliefs about themselves and others.”
Rob delivers these words with the fiery intensity we are used to seeing.
“They are trapped under the foot of pimps like Don Winters. Like Farthington. Men who exploit their fears. Men who play puppeteer to damaged souls, preaching about some sham deity. Be it “word and light” or their own perceived martyrdom. The last line of defense,” Rob snickers at this now. “How dramatic. And for what? For their own gain. They are liars and we have been given the armor of truth and sword of righteousness. Who can stand up to that? Cecilworth Farthington? No.”
The commune between with old man seems to have removed whatever sickness was driving his fear, root and stem. It’s natural. He’s not pretending.
“I’m the king of the jungle.” Rob pats Lem on the back. We’re back, baby.
There are still holes in this man, cracks in his foundation, but he is well into the process of his kintsugi. The vase has been meticulously reconstructed and all that is missing is the gold. Farthington’s to be exact. Rob is already something wholly new to this world. Beautiful and abstract, perfect in his imperfections. Resilient. For the first time, Rob is truly seeing himself and that makes him a very dangerous man. Watch out Philly, there is a lion loose on the streets.
Next Friday the King of the Jungle will restore order.