He pummels the heavy bag as if it’s his inadequacies. Despite the fact that Chandler Tsonda is tightly wrapped in athletic compression gear, sweat flies bidirectionally with each thunderclap kick. The twinkle of the metal chain that holds up the bag, the sound of his own choppy breath, the slight give of the canvas as he squarely connects: he loves this. He missed it, lacked it.
Early morning sunshine enters through the floor-to-ceiling window. The Tstronghold, his compound in Carlsbad, sits quiet as a tomb other than his training. He unleashes right elbow strikes on the bag.
Chandler Tsonda, never one to accept what he can’t change, thrashes against the passage of time. Or at least he refuses the notion that it is happening to him. So he keeps farmers’ hours. He’s up with the sun. If he’s going to lose – and he is, though like any maniacal high achiever, particularly among athletes, he has a misfire of the brain that rejects this possibility – he won’t be outworked.
He switches to left elbow strikes. In his halcyon days, Tsonda could show up with last night’s vodka still on his breath, pop a couple Tylox to quiet the pain, and put a three count on any living human. He knows this time is different. Men his age quit the business, enter the loathsome part-timer’s guild, zombify themselves with pill and drink. A few are dead. A few more are dying.
So he works as if the devil is chasing him.
Chandler focuses on his breath. Left leg strikes now.
He’s halfway through a set of twenty when the voice interrupts him.
“Thought I might find you here.”
He knows she’ll wait, and relishes the end of his solitude. A machine gun burst of kicks to finish the set, and he’s back in the real world.
“Hey,” he says, turning and toweling off his face.
Standing across the way is Aubrey Calvino. Her auburn hair falls in loose curls on her shoulders, in a way that both she and Chandler understand has the appearance of effortlessness that only comes with a great deal of fuss. Her five foot nothing frame is, like Tsonda’s, enveloped in athleisure.
“Carmen just lets me in at this point,” she says, referring to Tsonda’s longtime housekeeper. “That little towel’s not doing much, huh?” She grins, a toothy smile that’s just for her.
Chandler rolls his eyes. He tries not to let his mood sour; she’s being cheeky. Work satisfies him like nothing else can, and so anything that pulls him from work is unsatisfying, unsatisfactory.
“Why are you dressed like that?” he asks, wiping his face. “Did you catburgle a Lululemon?”
“Get in, loser. We’re going for a hike.”
“You’re the assistant, remember?” Tsonda snipes. “I’m the famous one.”
“Say it right,” Aubrey says, her face going coldly serious. Tsonda rolls his eyes.
“Aub, it’s the asscrack of dawn, give me a b—
“Hey,” she cuts in. Her dark, full eyebrows tighten. “Don’t be a dick.”
Chandler and Aubrey stare at each other. It has all the intensity of his staredown with Paxton Ray on ReV 26. She widens her eyes. He relents.
“Sure, fine, yes. I’m the famous one and you’re the consulting associate.” It was, Tsonda recalls, a non-starter for Aubrey to cross the family-to-business membrane with anything but that job title. She had negotiated with the ferocity that made it clear she would thrive in the role.
“Would an assistant be willing to put a foot this far up your ass?” she asks, triumph in her tone. “Now dry off, and change your shoes.”
They’re a mile into the Rancho Costa Reserve when Aubrey gives him the real reason they’re out in the splendor of nature.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she says halfway up the dirt path, surrounded by the chaparral that makes the area so ripe for fire.
Chandler, two steps behind, stops. Dust rises and he looks at Aubrey with screwed up features.
“Are you resigning as my cousin or my employee?” he asks, incredulous.
Aubrey faces uphill, away from Chandler.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she says, even-keeled. “I’m not quitting.”
“That’s so funny, because a classic thing that people who aren’t quitting say is: I can’t do this anymore.”
“Will you just keep walking and act normal?” she replies. “I’ll explain.”
Tsonda pulls his phone out, and scoffs at the bars not seen.
“I can’t even text anyone about what a betrayal this is,” he grumbles. “The perfect crime.”
“Walk,” Aubrey says. She follows her own advice and resumes the trek. Chandler shakes his head, and falls in line. The springtime sun out here is warm and dry, and the woody shrubland leaves little natural shade. They are out here with nowhere to hide.
“You’re not just doing a legacy act one-off,” Aubrey says. She turns over her shoulder to look downhill at Chandler, a casual way to see her cousin’s current level of pout. “You’re on the show. Unretired. It’s a career change.”
“I’ve only had two jobs in my life,” Tsonda snorts. “Being pretty, and being pretty while doing moonsaults. Going back to the ring isn’t a career change.”
“So you say. How much time have you spent on anything other than wrestling since the start of the year? How many times have I seen you face to face? Don’t tell me this isn’t different.”
“Ok,” Tsonda says, hand-waving the part where he agrees with the charge. “So what is it? You want more money? You want to be my executor? Be the name on my DNR? Spit it out.”
They crest a hill. Chandler feels like he is chasing after his cousin. You’d never know it from the elfin figure she cuts, but she’s the pace-setter. Quads like an oak barrel.
“Cousin, I signed up to do this when you told me you wanted someone to manage the business while you trained for a match. A match as in one match. The singular form.”
“You keep saying you’re not quitting, and yet you keep ticking off polite rejection mad libs,” Tsonda says, needling her. She ignores him. A horned lizard idles in the sun, just off the dirt path, as they pass by.
“You know the phrase ‘getting the band back together?” Aubrey asks.
“Alright, Aub, you can either put me out of my misery and quit, or you can lecture me about etymology, but not both.”
“The Chandler Tsonda corporation is a band, not a solo act.”
“I’ve been reading online that I’m a product of being in the right factions, rather than a good wrestler or performer, for about two decades. So you can’t hurt my feelings any worse than I’ve already hurt them by reading every single one of those comments, finding where those people live, and sending them boxes of scorpions.”
“God, has anyone ever told you that you’re the most only child of all-time?”
“Do you have a point?” Tsonda asks.
“I’m trying to say that if you’re going back to this life, then we both need help. Not more money, more people.”
“No. I don’t like other people.” The Sultan of Style says this with full self-awareness. He knows he is hard to tolerate, and harder to like. The most likable version of him is the one that exists in the minds of PRIME fans, and on TV. It’s funny as a bit; it’s calamitous as a whole human person.
“Well, then you better train ChanGPT pretty quickly. Because we have a lot of work to do, more than two people worth. Unless you’d like to become your own travel agent, scheduler, e-commerce manager, and babysitter?”
The cousins reach a high crest where the path switches back. Off to the right side, the path juts out and overlooks a grassy outcropping. Taking a beat, Chandler steps off the path. He imagines that he is staring out in a very “pioneer of the plains” fashion. The hills appear to roll with light, a riot of yellow clover among the dust and brown of the reserve.
Aubrey walks over and plays along, taking a sip from her water bottle.
“ChanGPT, that’s pretty good,” he says, breaking the silence.
“Yeah, I’m pretty good.”
“Major nepo hire, though.”
“I’m just here because you’re not legally allowed to eject someone from your family tree,” Aubrey says. She gives as good as she gets. There’s a long and sordid history in the Tsonda family, and its Calvino branch, that led Chan to reckon with his gangster father, Ettore Calvino. As a result, Chandler didn’t meet Aubrey until they were both adults, but they have taken to each other. There are no idyllic summers of picnics and watering holes, as some cousins might have as a pillar for a relationship. Aubrey and Chandler have found something different: like minds, complementary and different approaches to problem solving, an easy understanding of what’s important. She is, he admits in his heart of hearts, all the family he has, and all the family he cares to have.
“I feel like this country’s legal system is plenty regressive that I could figure out a way to do it.”
“Told you I wasn’t quitting,” Aubrey shoots back.
What Chandler does not say: I hired you because most of the people who’ve worked with, or for, me ended up leaving, and emotionally I am a little stick insect of a man whose insecurities would swallow me whole if another person left. He doesn’t think or feel this, not actively. He simply feels a warm closeness that many people describe as the joy of a normal human relationship, but has rarely occurred to him other than in the warm embrace of a PRIME crowd.
“So what now?” Chandler says. “We start a small business whose mission statement is… enhancing my already fabulous wealth and generational good looks? I somehow can’t see that having a lot of sway on ZipRecruiter.”
“You haven’t gone to a bank or paid your own bills in 15 years. How do you know what Ziprecruiter even is?”
“Ads on my skincare podcast.”
“Yes,” Aubrey says. “We need to hire some people. And yes, you do have to be part of the interview process.”
“Can’t I just delegate to my trusted consulting associate? What do I talk about with some Gen Z kid making 40K a year? Should I compare notes on the outrageous rising costs of employing multiple landscapers, or maybe I’ll ask their opinion on how to choose which Hemsworth’s birthday party to attend?”
“Sometimes, you’re like if a cartoon of a vapid, rich person came to life.”
“Aubrey, you know Liam is possessive about who goes to his birthday!”
“Let’s go,” Aubrey says, turning and getting back on the path. Setting the pace once again. “And you’re interviewing them. And you’re reading the notes I send over about illegal interview questions. And you’re banned from asking candidates which of your title reigns they find most inspiring.”
“Shit, that was illegal?”
“Start walking.” Chandler purses his lips and is about to rebut. “I’m faster than you, there’s no cell service, and mountain lions attack from behind.”
Tsonda squints his eyes at his cousin suspiciously, and then, just to be sure, looks behind him. By the time he turns back, Aubrey has started up the path. He jogs after her.
Aubrey and Chandler sit inside the LED-blasted confines of a conference room. They’re both freshly showered after their outdoor excursion. The pair sit on opposite sides near the head of a long conference table. To the near side of the room is a whiteboard that takes up most of the wall.
“Where’s all the tech bros with their whale vests and untailored khakis?” Tsonda asks.
“I rented the place,” Aubrey replies, gesturing to the co-working building. “Well, your dollars and my entrepreneurship rented the building. The whale logo is called Vineyard Vines, by the way.”
“It’s called shame. And people used to have some about leaving the house looking like they’re on the way to a suburban divorce.”
“Cute. Let’s talk about our plan,” Aubrey says, standing up and walking to the whiteboard. She grabs a marker and writes
WHAT WE NEED
“When you had your business up and running last time around, what kind of employees did you have?”
“Oh, Tsuperstar Enterprises? We had it made in the shade. We had…” Tsonda puts his finger to his lips. “Hmm. I think Dam was on the payroll for security. He works for PRIME now, though. Some accountant guy. I think Derrick or Darren? Oh my god, he had this ingenious thing where he would put groupies on the payroll as contractors for as long as they…oh.”
Aubrey shakes her head with the absolute most “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” energy you’ve seen in your ilfe.
“So your institutional knowledge from the last time you had a successful business empire is a guy named either Darren or Derrick—
“Yes. Definitely. Or Dylan.”
“So 33% chance at a first name, and maybe a slush fund trading cash for sex?” Aubrey asks. She doesn’t wait for the answer as she starts writing on the whiteboard.
“It was the wild 2000’s. We were young, had all the Flo Rida we could want, and some mistakes were made. Wait, Aub, no, c’mon.” He has seen what she has written on the whiteboard in her looping handwriting:
“Why? We’re trying to rebuild my empire of in-ring success and astronomical merch sales. We don’t need some goodie-two-shoes fun police.”
“I agree,” Aubrey says. “What we need is a solid foundation. We’lll follow all state and federal laws. We’ll make sure employees – me – get paid accurately and on time. We’ll give and administer time off. Compliance and competence, cousin.”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’d been waiting for exactly an opportunity like this,” Tsonda says.
“Strike while the iron’s hot. I’m gonna square away your retirement money, and I’m going to get my nest egg for my company.”
“Clever girl,” Tsonda says. He kicks back in his chair, and puts his feet up on the table. “Alright then. If you wanna run this place like the CEO, let’s see your moves.”
Aubrey lets a smile creep across her face. She takes the marker in her hand, and points it back at Chan.
“Ok. Let’s get to work.”