“How did I get roped into this?” Larry wondered to himself, as he watched the scene unfold before him. Three shopping carts were rolled out onto black-tiled floor, with three unrealistically small shopping bags hung onto the sides of each cart. Behind them were several aisles much like you’d see in a typical supermarket. They had various groceries stocking each shelf, and an L-shape of produce aisles cornering against a couple walls. To the right of the shopping carts is a long table with three seats. Blinding LED lights shine down from the rafters.
“Mr. Tact,” a woman abruptly stands in front of him, plunking a stool down that would topple if not for the bag she drops on it with seemingly practiced hands. She glances back at him from the bag as he opens it, then more forcefully, “Larry Tact.”
Larry snaps out of his observance with a blink, “Sorry, I was just… thinking.”
“You’re free to keep at it, as long as you sit down,” a jerk of her head indicating the seat behind him.
“Oh, right,” Larry says, although he had forgotten the chair was even there. He sits and the woman doesn’t waste a second, applying makeup to his face. Larry, trying his best not to consider why this makeup artist was making sounds while assessing his skin, or face, decided to give her something to say, instead. “So, Guy called out today, huh?”
“Yeah right, he knew… well, some days they don’t mind calling in a guest host,
Miss Cosmetician remarked, causing Larry to mentally quirk an eyebrow. “Stay still,” she demanded. Oops, apparently not just mentally. “Anyway, I hadn’t heard of you before. What brings you to Flavortown Market? Well, the ported one here in Las Vegas.”
“I, uh, I’m doing some promotional work. It’s most definitely out of my comfort zone, so I hope I do alright,” Larry said, feeling a tingling in his neck. “Do you need to put makeup on my neck?”
“Just following the directive, friend,” as she continued her brushing expedition. “The common viewer doesn’t want to see veins popping out of you, I guess. Maybe they think it would be intimidating for this show.”
“Yeah, sure, makes sense,” Larry managed, unsure whether to be insulted or flattered.
Miss Cosmetician took a step back, surveying Larry’s face, and neck one could assume. “I don’t know much about this, and to be honest, I don’t want to. But from what I’ve seen on set, if you deliver the lines and make a few jokes, I’m sure you’ll make it out to the other side. We’re done here.” With that, she closed the bag and was off to the next person in need of a touch-up, or more.
“Welcome everyone, to the next edition of Guy’s Grocery Games! I’m your host for this special edition of the show, Larry Tact.” Polite applause from the crowd in the basement studio. “Tonight, we are filming at the MGM Grand Las Vegas, and that’s not the only surprise. The winner of today’s competition will receive the typical cash prize of 20 grand, and in addition, they will have the dishes they create be on the menu for PRIME’s ReViVal shows throughout their tournament, The Seymour Almasy Invitational!” he gave a showtime smile as her read the teleprompter. Truthfully, it wasn’t a bad deal for the roster, considering the usual catering fare at wrestling shows.
He then took on a more sobering expression. “The Seymour Almasy Invitational is a professional wrestling tournament in honor of its namesake, who was a PRIME wrestling alumni. While he is sadly no longer with us, PRIME has decided to dedicate their reopening to him with this tournament. In addition, there is a charity effort that PRIME has organized, with all proceeds being made in the name of Seymour Almasy. Please give a round of applause for PRIME wrestling and their charitable efforts, plus this great opportunity for today’s winner.” The crowd put more enthusiasm into their applause.
Larry figured less than 10% of this audience even followed wrestling, much less knew of Seymour Almasy or PRIME. They’re fed a story, really a basic overview and carefully constructed to pull the heartstrings. It will broadcast on Food Network, which is nationally broadcasted and not exactly a political engine. Guy Fieri, the usual host of the show, probably draws more of an audience that is into wrestling, rather than merely the tourists and those handed ticket to this live airing. On top of that, there’s a charity hook, so of course it must be for a worthy cause. It was a well-produced piece of second-wave advertising for PRIME’s return. That said, if these people knew who the roster consisted of, their opinion may not be as rosy. Still, the show must go on. “Let’s introduce our contestants!”
During the show, contestants answered basic trivia questions that served as ‘clues’ to finding items they were required to prepare their respective dishes. As they raced through the aisles to gather those and their preferred ingredients, Larry figured he would pick a few spots to inject some good-natured humor. The situations he ended up being compelled to comment on, however, were more head-shaking ones…
He noticed one of the contestants trying to fit a broccoli crown into the aforementioned, woefully small bag that was already filled to bursting. As the guy tried dropping it in, the broccoli nearly fell to the floor and he barely caught it in hand as he was rushing ahead, contorting his body and nearly falling on his ass. “Nice catch. I bet you didn’t think you’d be willing to break your neck for a head of broccoli,” Larry commented.
“My family sometimes ate only two meals per day because my parents couldn’t afford three. I think they’d kill me if they saw me dropping food while on TV,” Mister Poorhouse said. “But when I cook, I like to prepare hearty meals with plenty of flavors. It’s best when you can fit it all in.”
“That’s what she said,” Larry smirked. At this, Mister Poorhouse’s head shot at Larry, a disgusted look about him for Larry making light of his story. “I mean… your broccoli!” With the comment distracting him, Mister Poorhouse didn’t realize he missed placing the broccoli back in the overstuffed bag. It subsequently bounced off the floor before resting there. Mister Poorhouse glared at Larry, who threw his hands up. “Got to pay attention, man! You can’t think about it now, go get another one,” and still glary, Mister Poorhouse doubled back to the fresh produce shelves in the corner.
“LARRY!!” he heard in his earpiece, trying not to swear at the producer’s sudden outburst. “NO SEX JOKES, PLEASE!!”
For the love of Miller Reese Hutchison, Larry thought, take it down a notch, dude. It’s a game show, not a meeting with a president.
Another contestant, it turned out, was a chef who refined his recipes by volunteering at a food kitchen in San Francisco. “I hope PRIME’s charity efforts help inspire people to help others. I try and inspire people with food dishes they may not receive at most shelters,” the guy said. Larry decided to name him Mister Al Dente in his mind, since he seemed to be making some pasta dish with the items at his food station.
“Hey man, that’s great. Personally, I hope you win this so it draws awareness. Of course, if whatever you got cooking here doesn’t go well, people may find out what shelter you volunteer at and start sending THOSE poor saps food, so they don’t have to try yours!” That didn’t exactly go over well with Mister Al Dente, who scoffed in irritation. “Well, good luck out here,” Larry tried, and was flatly ignored.
When it came time to taste test, things weren’t exactly as Larry expected. The judges received Mister Poorhouse’s dish, a bowl of vegetable stir fry with a soy garlic chili sauce for each of them. They ended up gagging at the heat of it. Mister Poorhouse looked directly at Larry as he walked back to his food station.
Mister Al Dente went next. He served a vegan version of Fettucine Alfredo, with cashew cream sauce. The judges looked perplexed at one another, then at Mister Al Dente. “Are you sure you used cashew milk? It tastes, well… milky.”
Upon inspection of his food station, Larry pointed at a container. “Wait a second, isn’t this a container of dairy milk?” Mister Al Dente walked over and looked, then shot a disdainful look back at Larry. Somberly, he looked at the judges, “I-I-I accidently used full-fat dairy milk. The container was the same color label. But you know what? I would never make that kind of mistake if it weren’t for… this environment,” he said, again firing visual daggers at the guest host. “I’m sorry,” he told the judges, and returned to his station.
Last was a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, who presented her take on a chicken parmigiana sandwich on a ciabatta bread. While the judges were tasting it, she looked to Larry. “I just have to say, I’m a big Level Up Wrestling fan! I theme some of my food truck’s sandwiches in the mold of foods from video games. You’ve got such a fierce attitude in the ring, and don’t mind wrestling in different matches. I find that so inspiring to be creative and not be afraid to take chances.”
“Well, thanks. Hey judges, we have a winner right here!” Larry claps in applause for Miss Ciabatta.
After the show ended, and Larry got an earful from the production team, he was excused and decided to head back to the hotel bar. He wasn’t going alone, meeting his friend and chief business associate at Tact Enterprises, César Salvador Ramón. César was, in fact, training to become a wrestler. Larry thought it may be a fleeting project he got in his head during isolation, but he was in Year Two and progression had yet to plateau. If César’s father could see him, Larry wasn’t sure if he’d be impressed or pissed at him for taking his son under his wing. He wasn’t exactly a role model of a man, and César knew some of it through watching his father fight in his later years. Still, Larry wasn’t ready to reveal the past his protégé likely wasn’t aware of, and possibly dash his motivation after all the effort he had put in.
He sat down at a booth near the bar area, golden blonde hair tied back and scratching his chinstrap beard as he reflected on fulfilling the promotional obligation for PRIME. After a minute, César brought two glasses and placed one in front of Larry. “Water with a lime twist for the active competitor,” he said with a grin, “Mojito for the man who wishes he could be in the Almasy Invitational.”
“Patience and persistent training, that’s what will get you to the dream, César. Well, that and a few connections could help, but I can handle that nuance,” Larry remarked as they toasted. “I swear, the next time I want to get out of my comfort zone and take on the game show opportunity for promotional work, slap me in the face a few times. That would be far less painful than the five hour torture session I had today,” he laughed mirthlessly.
“I’m sure it didn’t go as bad as you think,” César sipped his drink. “Anyway, post-production will work their magic even in the worst-case scenario.”
“Have you checked the social media comments?” Larry asked.
“Uhh, well, maybe a few,” César hedged, clearly knowing what was being said.
“Yeah, the stupid twidiots are having a field day. People are bringing up conspiracy theories that the show was rigged, considering Miss Ciabatta ended up winning,” Larry took a drink.
“Those theories have been around forever, even when Guy runs the show,” César shook his head.
“How do you know that?”
“Well, you know, my mom is a fan of the show,” César looked down at his mojito. “I’ve seen some episodes, too. Guy’s really rehabbed his image, too.”
“Guy Fieri’s a dumbass and from what I know of him, this show fits him like a second skin,” Larry scoffed, “But me? I don’t play to these lowest-common denominator audiences – no offense to your mom. I just don’t give a damn about playing to crowds. I give the humble truth, even if people won’t like to hear it. I don’t need to be a man of the people because I’m simply above that. I worked my ass off to get where I am, and I don’t need to be a ‘lift me up’ for some people who can’t find their motivation, and resort to watching food shows with their TV dinner to deny their miserable lives,” he said with gritted teeth, involuntarily slamming his glass on the table. Fortunately, it did not shatter, but Larry felt more and more like his expectations for PRIME were cracking, and he was played for a fool taking this assignment.
“At least it’s over, and now you can just focus on the match,” César tried to get his mentor onto a different topic.
“Did you see who I’m going against? Nicholas Pfefferman. A guy who they included about as little as possible in the press release. He’s either one of the more dangerous competitors in this match, or exactly what it seems like… a caricature of himself – whether that’s a math professor or a wrestler – who may have missed tenure at his school and is holding a grudge over everyone for it. That’s the competition they put right with me. That’s what they believe I have to offer.”
“Or, it’s someone with a very different type of personality than you’ve stepped in the ring with in round one. You always tell me– ”
“I don’t need a pep talk,” Larry snapped, but held a hand up. “Sorry, César. I don’t intend on overlooking anyone. If anything, this tournament has been a wake up call to rededicate myself for the new year. I won’t be an easy out for anyone, and especially not in the first round.”
“No way did I think you would be unprepared, Larry. You haven’t let up for the past year since you returned. You had to make some adjustments for sure,” César began his thought, and paused.
“You’re right, I didn’t have an easy first year back. It started rocky. I had to reevaluate whether I was even approaching matches in the right way. I decided to change up my style, use more power than technical wrestling. I reinvented myself on the fly,” Larry nodded, taking a drink as he thought back to 2021.
“It worked, though. You made the changes you needed to, and now you’re presenting a completely new challenge to even the few people who know you in PRIME.”
“Inevitably, there will be people checking off the tropes: calling me old, past my best years, and only here to collect a paycheck and relive my glory days,” Larry considered.
“Of course people will say those things, and it’s no surprise to you,” César grinned. “They’re going to have their asses kicked because they’re the ones who aren’t ready for what you’re bringing to PRIME. Not to mention, you hardly need a freakin’ payheck,” he laughs and they cheers to that.
“I guess it didn’t really matter who I was paired up with in the first round of this tournament,” Larry considers. “It’s about what I’m doing here in PRIME. There isn’t any glory to relive because I was never apart of PRIME. I’ve heard the headlines about them, and that’s all well and good for the fans who want to see actual retreads to trigger their nostalgia. Maybe one or two of them won’t be washed. Those are bridges I’ll cross when I arrive at them. For now, this Matt Parker wannabe facing me is going to find out the strength my intentions for being here.” He finished the water and set it down, palms resting on the table. “In a sense, it’s great young Pfeffy is my first opponent. He’s new competition, something I was seeking out in coming to PRIME. Hell, he’s younger than you, César,” Larry quipped.
“Hey, this isn’t about how long it’s taking me to get in the ring. I’m a late bloomer,” César winked.
“I’ve got to say, it’s a little surreal. Nicholas was born three years before I reached the national wrestling circuit. Three years, are you kidding? Nuts,” Larry mused. “I was holding a regional heavyweight title while he was spitting up his momma’s milk and facing down the challenge of solid foods. But that’s all part of the cycle of wrestling, right? This is as much of a professional melting pot as you’ll find. Each wrestler has their story, and I’m not going to let mine be silenced at the start. Instead, I’ll be humbling the opposition and showing this tournament that I’ve got plenty more to offer.”
“So why be on edge? You sound like you’re ready to storm the gates and put ReViVal on notice, Larry. The last thing I sense from you is trepidation,” César looked carefully at Larry’s face, not finding a doubt within it.
“Sure, I’m ready to go now, but I’ve got mental hurdles to overcome like anyone else. Last year, I came back to a wrestling company where I knew nobody. I had no connections, no presupposed opinions levied about me, no track record. I was starting completely fresh, and just like here, finding fresh competition to challenge and take down,” he traced the tablecloth with a finger, momentarily gathering his thoughts before looking around. “Here, the venue may be different, but the talent isn’t completely alien. Like you said, there are a few people who know me. Moreover, they have an expectation of how I’ll do and where I’ll end up on the card. Hell, that could go for fresh blood like Cecilia Ryan, to a veteran like Rezin or… Impulse,” his eyes narrowed, but only slightly and for a moment. “Even straight to the top, with Lindsay Troy. I don’t claim to know her well, but I’ve known of her since she came around the F-Wrestling circuit around the same time as Pat Gordon, that old Five Star sonuvagun,” he felt a grin forming, but shook it off. “Point being? This tournament is something of a rebirth for me. People’s expectations versus what I bring to the ring post-hiatus. You know how I’ve told you to understand when it’s worth taking something personally, and when it’s just bait to throw you off?”
“Yeah, I remember you having plenty of back-and-forth promo exchanges. They could get pretty heated, but you had a sense for what was legit and what was bluster,” César recalled, taking a drink.
“Well, this tournament may not present me opponents I have personal issues with, but the importance of this tournament for me could be as personal as it gets,” Larry explained. “If I show well, I could be in line for a title shot. Hell, if I happen to come across Brandon Youngblood, and take him out, that gets me a title shot. If I get eliminated by Nicholas, or at a point early on, who knows where I’ll fall after the tournament. Who knows when the next time I’ll get a title shot will be. So yeah, I made damn sure I was ready to go for this tournament when I sent back my contract.”
“Speaking of ready, how about we look into Mr. Math a little more with dinner in us?” César suggested, eyebrows twitching.
Larry chuckled, “Sure, let’s see what we can find. Room service isn’t gonna cut it. Like Cecilia said, it’s got too much shit in it for me and my diet. Truth is truth.”
“Isn’t Joel Robuchon’s restaurant in this hotel?” César asked.
“That’s right. Going straight to the Michelin star spot?”
“Hey, better safe than food poisoned,” César grinned.
They stand from the booth and go to cash out at the bar.