The Twins, Then
When their father loaded Andy into the car, Jared retreated to his bedroom. For the last half-hour he sat unmoving on the edge of his bed across the hall from the room the two children once shared. In his hands he held a book, hard backed with a cracked binding and worn at the edges – the result of many bedtime stories.
“Nothing to be afraid of, just a quick check-up,” their father had said, but his words had done little to assuage Jared’s fears. Even though the bruise on Andy’s arm had finally started to fade, the nosebleeds were becoming more frequent.
His eyes focused on nothing and his mind left to wander, he spun the book between his hands until his attention was drawn to the figure in the doorway.
“Hi, Jared,” his sister said, “can I please play with your Legos?”
Elizabeth – Lizzy, she preferred to be called – watched him from across the room. She was six years younger than her brothers, and had been keeping the Tooth Faerie quite busy as of late.
“Okay,” he said.
She drew a quick breath, and her mismatched smile beamed at him. The silence of the room was broken by the sound of tiny hands sifting through bins of colored bricks, looking for just the right color in just the right shape to start building her masterpiece. Jared fell back into his trance, oblivious.
“Lizzy? Can I talk to Jared for a minute?” Their mother, Mary-Ellen, stood in the doorway leaning against the frame.
“Aw, but he said I could play Legos,” Lizzy protested.
“Is it okay if she brings some to her room?” their mother asked. Jared nodded. “Okay, you can go play with those in your room, just make sure you put the toys away when you’re done, alright?”
“Okay, mama,” Lizzy said. She grabbed one of the plastic bins and dashed from the room before anyone could change their mind.
Mary-Ellen moved across the room and sat down next to her son.
“‘Yertle The Turtle’,” she said, taking the book from his hands. “I can’t imagine how many times I must’ve read this to you two. Probably hundreds. One of you would ask for it one night, and then when it was the other’s turn you’d ask me to read it again.”
Jared offered a weak shrug.
“I know you’re nervous,” she continued, putting an arm around his shoulder. “I know it’s a little scary. And you know what? That’s okay.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“I think so.” She pulled him in a little closer. “But I know for sure that if anything is wrong that he’s really going to appreciate having you there to help. And I know that you’ll be there. You’re a sweet boy, Jared, and such a good brother to Andy and Lizzy.”
She set the book down on the bed, and drew him in for a hug; holding him tight until she was sure that his nerves had settled. She picked the book back up and opened the cover, thumbing her way to the first pages. Then she began to read.
“All mine!” Yertle cried. “Oh, the things I now rule!
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!”
New England weather can really fuck with you, if you’re not ready for it. The transition between the heat of the gym – heat augmented by the fact that I’d just been in an unexpected fight, and then being chastised for it in the locker room right after – clashed pretty hard with the bracing cold.
Winter had come a little early, and the ground was covered by a thin layer of snow. The thing about New England is that the deeper into the late-year seasons you get, the worse everything looks. Sure the leaves are pretty for a while, but then they fall and mix with the dirt, and the rain, and then it finally snows and all the muted colors are blanketed by pristine white. Well, okay, it’s pristine for about six minutes and then it all turns into a slushy gray catastrophe.
This wasn’t anything like that. The dusting we’d received while inside barely hid the browns and yellows of late November, making everything look like shitty French toast.
Willie stood next to his van among the corpses of a dozen cigarettes. He looked defeated, like the last gunner in a foxhole surrounded by spent shell casings, but determined to hold his position even if it meant his own life. At some point while I was sulking indoors, Willie had moved his van directly behind where I had parked, making it impossible for me to leave without having to deal with him for a second time that night.
Lonnie, Ned, and the rest were out there as well, congregating about thirty yards away. I wondered what they were discussing, tried to convince myself it was about anything other than what just happened inside, but knew better than that. I’ve had decades of experience under my belt in watching people try to discreetly whisper about me. They weren’t fooling anyone, but I don’t think they cared.
There was no ignoring Willie. My options for getting out of that lot were either to drive up a hill and through a fence, or get this over with. I threw my bag in the back of the car and leaned against the hatch. Willie took a last drag and tossed the cigarette butt to the ground. Another bullet in the trench.
“You don’t belong here,” he said. This was something I imagined Willie said – or thought – about a lot of people. Some of his opinions could at best be called problematic.
“Well, Bill, if you move your van I can fix that problem for you right now.”
He looked upset, hurt, like someone who’d been trying to hide the fact they’d been caught in a vulnerable moment. I knew that look; I’ve seen it in the mirror too many times to count.
“S’not what I mean,” he said. “I mean you don’t belong here. With us. Doing this shit in a gym with fifty people who only came out because they were bored on a Friday.”
“This is all I know. And it’s not like people are beating down my door to get me to go do it. So it’s either this or nothing, and lately there’s just been too much nothing.”
He pulled another cigarette and lit it. From the ground scatter it looked like he’d already burned through most of a pack.
“Look,” he said, “I know we don’t see eye-to-eye, and I’ve talked enough shit that you’ve got plenty reason to hate me-”
“I don’t hate you, Bill.” It was the truth, though I doubted he believed me. “If anything, I’m maybe a little jealous.”
His laugh was humorless. “You? Jealous of me? Fuck off.”
“No, I’m serious. You’re here because you want to be. You had a shot years ago, and things went sideways, but you figured it out. You found something else – a new job, a new profession, a new life, a new whatever-the-fuck. But you did it. You moved on. It may not have been what you hoped it would be, but you still goddamn did it. So when you come here, when you do this, it’s because you want to.”
I could feel my pulse quickening. Could hear it thundering in my ears. And worse, I could feel something tightening in my chest that I did not want to deal with right there.
He finished the cigarette and let it fall to join the others on the ground below.
“There’s always something else,” he said.
“Not for me there isn’t.”
“But you can-”
“No, I can’t. You can. You did. But, I can’t.” A lump formed in my throat, and I choked out the words around it. We were treading on dangerous ground. There are some subjects that I don’t like discussing even with people I care about. I wasn’t about to have this particular conversation with Willie. “Please just let me get out of here.”
Willie said nothing else. He just nodded, then got into his van and gave me the space I needed. But he didn’t leave. Instead, he killed the engine and then hobbled over to where everyone else had gathered. They welcomed him back into the congregation with laughter and handshakes.
But not me. I didn’t belong there.
“I’m king of a house! And, what’s more, beyond that,
I’m king of a blueberry bush, and a cat!”
Sweat beaded on Mark’s brow as he tried to balance the awkward weight of a mannequin across his shoulder. Twice now he had found the doll stuffed in the trash in a dark corner of the arena, and twice now he had been forced to fish it out and clean it off. That was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out where else his charge, the man named Jared who dressed like a blueberry, had run off to. Mark recalled something he had seen on the Discovery Channel the previous summer, and wondered whether the blueberry was a candidate for RFID tagging, and what the paperwork would look like to get Mr. Beauregard’s office to approve it.
He assumed Ms. Troy would have no qualms about any procedure involving Jared getting stabbed by something sharp and pointy. Less so if she was the one holding the needle.
The doll’s head, dislodged as a result of Bobby Dean’s bulk turning the mannequin’s torso into a makeshift cannon, slipped from his hands and toppled to the floor. He shifted his grip, making sure not to also drop the roll of gaffer’s tape and tube of epoxy he carried. Getting those from the facilities crew was hard enough the first time. He’d had to barter a week’s worth of coffee and donuts, plus a promise to “keep that dipshit the fuck away from the loading zone” for the foreseeable future, and the thought of having to renegotiate that deal made him uneasy.
Mark rounded a corner, certain he had just completed his third lap around the arena, and found his quarry seated among a stack of production crates. Jared held a small, tattered photo, and when Mark approached he moved it from his hand and into the sleeve on his left forearm in a motion that looked very well-rehearsed.
“I swear, Mark, the next time I see a lost dog sign tacked up to a telephone pole I’m going to call you to come find the poor thing,” Jared said.
“I don’t get it.”
“Did you put one of those tracking chips in my neck, or something?” Jared said, and for a brief, fleeting second Mark wondered if someone had microchipped him. “And can you please just leave that thing in the next barrel I toss it in? I’m kind of trying to get rid of it.”
“But you don’t have to.” Mark set the remains of the mannequin down on a nearby crate and pulled both the tape and epoxy from his pocket. “Look, I got stuff from the facilities people so that we can fix it.”
“There’s nothing to fix, Mark.” Jared’s voice was calm, and somehow that unnerved Mark more than the forklift or the taser of previous weeks had. “I’m not a scientist, but I know a failed experiment when I see one. I’m watching old friends of mine – Jon to an extent, and now Coral – and they’re back, just like I am. But they’re back with other people, and I have that. I have a fucking mannequin. So that’s what we have here, Mark: a failure.”
“I don’t understand. Survivor’s coming up, and Mister Beauregard booked an appearance at the pool, and-”
“‘And today the great Yertle, that marvelous he, is king of the mud’,” Jared said. His voice was barely above a whisper. He met Mark’s gaze and shrugged. “‘That is all he can see.’”
“You’re not making any sense to me right now, and it’s kind of freaking me out.”
“It’s Dr. Seuss – a story my mother used to read when I was younger. It’s about a turtle that thinks he’s something more than he is, and manages to piss off everyone else trying to be that thing. But he fails, Mark. He fails hard. At the end he’s just king of the mud. A stupid turtle that climbed too high and fell on his fucking face.” He slumped back against a crate. “Remind you of anyone you know?”
Mark’s shoulders fell, and he sighed an invective. They remained in silence for a minute; Jared watching as a stream of emotions played out on Mark’s face.
“Did they tell you what you might be in for when they offered you the job?” Jared said at last.
Mark shook his head. “No, just that there was someone they needed me to shadow.”
“What happened when they gave you all the details?” Mark winced. Just a little, but enough that he worried Jared picked up on it. “You can be honest with me. Nothing will happen. I don’t operate like a lot of guys in this business do, bud’. I’m not going to get mad. You don’t have to be afraid. But honestly? I won’t blame you if you don’t trust me.”
“I have a file. It’s not super detailed, but, yeah. There are a lot of notes from a guy named Nigel Kensington.”
“Ah, the old boss. I’m sure ‘Crumpets’ had plenty to say.”
Mark didn’t answer.
“Do you have a dog, Mark? My neighbor’s got one. Chubby little basset hound. Super sweet thing. Most of the day it hangs out in the house; you’d never know it was there. I know hounds can be loud as shit, but this one just chills out. At least, it chills until the dog walker shows up. And the dog knows, Mark. As soon as that car starts coming down the street that dog loses its goddamn mind. It barks, and it howls, and you can see it jumping by the window. Do you get where I’m going with this?”
Mark shook his head. “Not really, no.”
“The point is that a few times a week that dog just gets to be. It can run around with other dogs, and do dog stuff, and just be out of its house. I’ve spent a lot of years in a house. I’ve sort of forgotten what it feels like to run. So when I get here sometimes things just, you know…” He shrugged. “Can I ask why you’re so afraid of me fucking this up and you losing this gig? I’ll understand if you don’t want to answer. I totally get wanting to keep some things personal.”
“Student loans, mostly. This is my first ‘real’ job, I guess you could say. I spent the months between graduation and getting this job freaking out about not being able to pay, and having to default.”
“You’re not going to default, Mark.”
“But if something happens, or if you throw Cool Guy away and run off, then I don’t have anyone to shadow, and-”
“You’re not listening to me.” Jared leaned forward on his elbows. “You’re not going to default. Do you follow?”
Mark thought for a moment, and then it clicked.
“Why would you-”
“Because you’re in a shit position. Because a safety net never hurt anyone, maybe. I think? Honestly, I wouldn’t google that, there are probably some horrifying pics of dudes just splattered on the ground.” He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Because there’s a non-zero chance that I just don’t fucking belong here. And because no one should suffer for my mistakes other than me. Cool?”
“I can’t ask you to-”
“You’re not asking.”
Silence fell over them again, but Mark could feel some of his unease start to bleed away. Not entirely; it was hard to take seriously the words of a man who dressed like a fruit and fought with a mannequin at his side, no one could deny that, but for a moment the panic had lifted. And that was enough.
Jared nodded to the mannequin, whose head had fallen onto the floor. The beginnings of a grin played at the corner of his lips.
“So how do we fix this?”
“I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!”
You sat in the shadows of Auerbach, Russell, Bird, and Bourque. This time not as a spectator, but as a performer graced with the honor of walking the same halls as some of those giants. But you could never count yourself among them.
Your journey back to American wrestling had landed you in Las Vegas, in a promotion that shared its name with one you worked for in your younger days: Sin City. You had never been a company man, never rallied behind the flag of your chosen promotion, but tonight you had been called to serve in a conflict you didn’t start, and one you had no stake in. The wolves had gathered. They had slunk through the shadows and sunk their teeth into the soft underbelly of a rival promotion, and so you fought.
They called it a Cataclysm. Such gravity ascribed to what was, in essence, a pissing contest between theater nerds. Costumes. Music. Advanced lighting patterns. The spectacle of you is profoundly ridiculous.
And yet even in that sea of absurdity you stood out like a beacon. A shining light along the coast signaling to every passing ship that you demanded to be seen, to be heard. And how very loud you were, as if pretending to be a blueberry could mask what you were. What you are.
For the first time since stepping foot inside a ring you were graced with the distinction of performing in front of your home crowd, though most would not realize it, because you hid yourself behind a shield of blue and white. The picture you held, one taken almost two decades before, was well-worn and frayed at the edges; the result of a ritual you undertook every time you prepared to step out in front of an audience. It would never bring him back, no matter how hard you prayed, but it gave you solace and that was often enough. But not that night.
You failed. The only one of your tribe to do so. You failed before future friends. Before future allies. Before a future lover. None of that concerned you. At the time their opinions were trivial; whispers in the deafening chorus that sang your judgment for years. The only voice that mattered to you was silenced before you were old enough to drive.
The spot where you sat, how close was it to where you stood as children? When he chided you for not paying attention, and reaffirmed his dream before the second symptom revealed itself. Ten feet? A hundred? The old building was torn down, razed to the ground so that something new could take its place. The facade changed, but the foundation remained. The ghosts still lingered.
Behold, the king of the blueberry bush! Witness the king of the mud! Ruler of echoes. Champion of the departed.
Long may he reign.
“For I am the ruler of all that I see!”
Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, 1951