In retrospect, and with the benefit of hindsight, the curry was definitely a mistake.
Detroit’s not usually a place I visit willingly. No offense, guys. Your cars rule, your weirdo pizza is fine, and the whole hockey-octopus thing is neat. The city’s just not for me. But I’d got a little mouthy in the all-company chat, so I had to be there. I was officially off to “fight the ladder machine” at Timo Bolamba’s gym.
My decision-making skills, I should note, are impeccable. Unassailable. As evidence I submit one mannequin, one taser, me dressing like a fetishized VeggieTales character, the theft of one forklift, the theft of many tiki torches, one backstage campfire, and the rest of the all of it. Also the curry, but we covered that already.
Those same decision-making skills are what landed me back in all-caps PRIME to begin with. Well, that and wanting to give myself a better run there than the one I had back in early ‘09 – one where Brian Dawkins and his pineapple ass dropped me on my head into a bucket of tomatoes. And if recent trends were any indication, this current run was off to a resounding LOL-fuck-off.
I thought that maybe, if my trajectory towards a win inside the ring was crashing harder than a fat guy with a faulty jetpack, then maybe something to boost the ‘ol morale outside of it was in order.
Spoiler alert: there was a win, for sure, but that didn’t mean I suddenly stopped taking L’s.
I had decided to mask up for the event, not because I’m particularly fond of the thing, but because invariably someone has a camera, and I prefer to have some plausible deniability in situations where I might make an ass out of myself.
Oh, that guy? Totally different Blueberry. See how that person still carries themself with dignity and pride? That’s how you can tell. Also the tattoo on his chest is like a quarter inch out of place, so, yeah, can’t be the same guy.
Look, I’m not saying it holds up under scrutiny, but having the out is nice.
One of Timo’s associates, a former luchador by the name of “El Tembler”, was responsible for getting me setup and going over the basic operating procedures. I thought, seeing as he wore a mask as well, that we might have some common ground. Nope.
“El Tembler will buckle you into the machine,” he said, “and then you will climb.”
“And if anything goes wrong, or something happens to this thing?”
“Then El Tembler will remember your treachery.”
“And if something happens to me?”
I didn’t catch his entire response. He spoke too quickly, and I took French in high school, so my understanding of Spanish generally sucks. What I did catch before he wandered off was, “Dia de los muertos.”
Real peach, that guy.
Things went pretty good at first, aside from the sweating. There was a lot of sweating. You can blame my father’s side of the family for that one. I couldn’t have been blessed with any other, ahem, gifts. Nope. Instead I got hyperactive sweat glands. Woe betide my poor tee-shirt collection.
From there, things get a little hazy. I find that in moments of focus that the world around me just vanishes, and I lose sight of everything except what I’m up against.
I’m told that at one point I started cursing at the ladder. I was told this both by the people who were present, and also anyone on the internet who happened to watch this when it was streamed live. Did I mention it was streamed? Because it was streamed. Like the majority of my fuck-ups, this one will live forever on a server in Russia, or Switzerland, or wherever, either until the heat death of the universe or someone forgets to pay their hosting bill. And even if it’s that second one, the files are probably all backed-up or mirrored somewhere else, so I’m still fucked.
When the swearing was done – or maybe while the swearing was still happening, I was kind of in another world at this point – I evidently decided to remove all of my clothes. Well, most of my clothes. I had enough of my senses (don’t laugh) to keep my underwear on.
“I’m a blue god!” is something that I said. I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen the video. Dozens of people thought it was hilarious to send my way.
I do remember someone counting the minutes, then the seconds. Maybe it was Timo, maybe it was El Tembler. The timer ticked down. The 26-minute mark grew closer and closer.
Then it was over.
Somehow, in defiance of the laws of physics, and as an affront to the core tenets of mechanical engineering, I was stuck inside the ladder. I don’t know how it happened, but I’m assuming a combination of exhaustion and gallons of curry-flavored sweat were responsible. Regardless, the machine was at a dead stop, and I was wedged inside it.
I could look past that. Being stuck? That was just a temporary problem. It would resolve itself in time, and then I’d be free, but the fact that I’d made it beyond the 26-minute mark would get me a spot on the wall. Finally, finally the win I’d been looking for had come my way. I had it: my moment of vindication, and it came with a sense of relief.
Someone pressed my phone into my hand, and that’s when I made my second questionable decision of the weekend: I opened the PRIME-issued Jabber app.
The first message I saw after Timo’s blow-by-blow recap of the situation was the last thing I wanted to read:
@LT: Why is everything you do a disaster?
Whatever energy, whatever resolve I had left by that point bled away. The ‘ol ego is a fragile thing, and that shattered it. Done.
I contend that you will never truly understand confusion on a basic, fundamental level until you’ve heard someone say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got Crisco,” while you’re trapped inside an auto-ascending ladder machine. Yes, I understand that’s an incredibly specific set of circumstances, and most people on the planet will never be able to relate to what that was like, but it happened. Oh boy, did it happen.
Someone named “Six Finger Cisco” had a bucket of vintage Crisco from 2005 – and look, I was just as surprised to learn that Crisco could even be vintage. What I know for absolute goddamn certain is that Crisco rash is a real thing, and it took me 4 days to get over the itching, and the burning, and looking like I’d just tried to fuck the sun.
After they greased me up, after they’d disassembled the machine and I found out it would never run again, I collapsed onto the nearest mat and yanked the berry mask off my head. I laid there in all my glory like a starfish, draining the last sweat from my body into the mats. For a moment I closed my eyes and thought that when I woke up this would all be a dream, but no. Instead, I opened my eyes and saw El Tembler standing over me.
“Let me guess,” I said in between breaths. “You’ll remember the treachery?”
He was hard to read, emotionless behind a solid black mask.
“Si,” he said, “El Tembler remembers your treachery.”
If you’ve never been casually threatened by an aging luchador, I do not recommend it. That shit stays with you.
For weeks she’d put it off, telling herself that he wouldn’t be home, or his number had changed, or that maybe he’d just decided to stay in Vegas full-time, but Darren had been relentless.
“Something is wrong with one of my kids,” he’d said, “and he won’t tell me what.”
Justine had agreed to step in, albeit reluctantly. It had only been a few months since she’d been back on the east coast, and despite their circles having a considerable overlap had thus far managed to steer clear of Jared. Their reunions were always rocky. Their good-byes – if she could bring herself to call them that – were no better; done under the cover of darkness without a chance for him to react or respond.
The first gap lasted ten years, ending purely by coincidence and with a solid right to the jaw that she hated herself for throwing. The second was longer, though they hovered in each other’s periphery until she started a life for herself on the west coast and left him adrift again.
Darren kept the pressure on. He’d trained them both. He’d watched their relationship grow from hostility, to friendship, to something he couldn’t quite explain. To him, Jared and Justine – Cal, they all knew her as – were as much his children as Marty and Robin, his own flesh and blood. Darren knew that if something was wrong, despite their history – or maybe because of their history – that she had the best chance to break through.
“I feel like this is some covert ops bullshit,” she said. Her car, connected to her cell via bluetooth link, took a lazy turn into a residential neighborhood north of Boston.
“You’re not wrong.” Darren’s voice reverberated through the speakers. He sounded amused. “But if you believe all the stories then he’s got a history with folks who do that sort of thing, so at least we’ll fit in.”
“I can’t shake the feeling this is all a terrible idea.”
“Why? You didn’t try to kick his ass again, did you?”
“No, Darren. That was a one-time thing, and it was, like, twelve years ago. Thirteen, maybe.”
“Well then you should be fine. Besides, it’s not like he knows you’re back in town, or anything.”
She didn’t answer.
“Cal? You still there?”
She sighed. “So, about that…”
She eased the car down a wide residential road that ended in a cul-de-sac, and felt her heart rate spike when she saw the car in his driveway.
“-that you won’t punch him again,” she heard Darren say. When she went quiet for the second time, he asked, “Shit, you didn’t run him over, did you?”
“What? No. Not yet.”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘not yet’? Are you planning on running him over?” Another moment of nothing followed. “Cal, you’re killing me here.”
The car moved to the curb in front of his house and she threw it into park.
“Gotta go, Darren,” she said. “Need to check in on an old friend.”
Her thoughts wandered as she walked to the house. She imagined him behind that door with a family; a wife and half-dozen children running around carrying the legacy of weaponized nonsense he was famous for. She thought about what it might look like if he’d gone through a chubby phase, like that one pilot from Battlestar Galactica, or worse, Ben Stiller at the conclusion of Dodgeball.
She wondered if he would find something to apologize for, then cry, and then apologize for crying. That, she thought, was probably more inline with reality.
She paused at the top of the stoop and pressed her ear to the door. There was a voice coming from deep inside the house, and it sounded pained. She listened for a moment trying to make sense of what she was hearing. Were they screaming? Crying? In any case the doorbell probably wouldn’t cut through the cacophony, so she tested the knob and found that it turned easily.
A wall of sound hit her when she stepped into the front hall. The voice of Jessica Simpson was carrying on about wanting to love her forever, that this was all she was asking, and was ten thousand lifetimes together really too much to give. Cal rolled her eyes and debated stepping back out into the cool April afternoon. The feeling only intensified when she heard Jared’s voice join in for the second verse.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she muttered to herself.
Maybe she would run him over after all. She would go to prison, sure, but at least her argument would be compelling.
I’m sorry, your honor, but there are only so many Carson Daly fuck jams that a person can take before they lose control.
She moved down the hall towards the kitchen, taking a moment to pause at a table along the wall. The top was covered with framed photographs, with a few cards scattered throughout. One she recognized immediately, having sent it herself shortly after Thanksgiving.
Her attention was caught by a second card, one that depicted a traditional holiday scene, but with a wire running from the tree to a large, cartoon-style detonator. A blond man was preparing to blow up a tower of presents while the rest of his family tried to stop him. “Merry Perfectly Normal Christmas”, it read. She couldn’t help but smile.
She set the card back down and glanced at a large barren spot on the wall, convinced that a mirror once hung there.
She found him lying on the floor half-buried in the cabinets beneath the sink, a collection of tools and cleaning supplies around his feet. Jared Sykes: old friend, king of a blueberry bush, and ardent champion of sappy pop ballads.
The shirt he wore, one for a long-departed wrestling company that bore the outline of Minnesota in Matrix-inspired green, looked like its previous wearer had been shot to death, run over by a combine harvester, and then shot again all while wearing it. It felt appropriate, she thought; he did so cling to his memories.
She stepped back to a nearby table and unplugged the small speaker. Sia, busy singing about being a restless girl who needed to pack it all away in one suitcase, found her voice silenced. Jared, also a restless girl if his own singing was any indication, kept going for a moment until the surrounding silence caught up to him.
“Goddammit,” he muttered. “Alexa, continue.”
Justine had to fight to keep the laughter at bay.
“Alexa?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” Justine said, trying and failing to mirror the monotone response Jared no doubt expected. “This playlist sucks.”
“The hell?” he said. In the moment he seemed to forget where he was, so when he sat bolt upright the motion was reflexive, and he whacked his head on the underside of the counter.
“Guess it’s a good thing I have that mask,” he said, moving aside the bag of frozen peas pressed to his forehead. “So I don’t have to answer a ton of questions about why my face has a racing stripe.”
“Does it hurt at all?”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
“So just your pride, then?”
“Lost the last of that years ago. But if you find any of it around town let me know. Or try to catch it in a bucket if you can.”
“I’ve got to say, I wasn’t expecting this, but it works.” She reached across the length of the small table, careful to avoid the brand new dent in his forehead, and fluffed the shock of pink hair that hung over his brow. “Kinda suits you, actually. How long have you had it?”
“About six months now. Did it when I knew I was going back. It’s my way of paying tribute, I guess.” He set the peas down. “Jason – Seymour – did the berry thing with me way back. I was a blueberry. He was Sultan Strawberry. Figured I can’t be both at once, so went with this.”
“You know that strawberries are red though, right?”
He chuckled. “I think given my history with redheads in wrestling that this was about as close as I could get without it being a little weird.”
“Then I’m even more surprised,” she said, “I figured you’d have been in that title tournament instead of, you know, the other thing you’ve got going on right now. Never really imagined you as the boulder-rolling or puzzle-solving type.”
“Well, see, the thing about an ‘invitational’ is that you have to be invited. It’s like a birthday,” he said, then paused for a few seconds. “Or a wedding. They didn’t want me at their party. I don’t blame ‘em. I wouldn’t invite me either.”
By reflex Justine’s thumb began rubbing at the spot on her finger where the ring once sat. It had been almost a year since she’d last worn it, and the indentation it left was long gone, but for a moment she could still feel its weight. She wondered if Jared noticed.
Strange, she thought, that his comment would trigger the first hints of irritation. Already she could feel herself getting warmer, muscles tensing on the defensive.
“So your back-up plan was a mannequin?”
“No. That was a last resort. I called everyone I could think of. Nobody wanted in.” He shrugged. “Roddy and Cam were too far gone from the business. Couldn’t find Thad or Charlie. Darren just laughed when I brought it up with him. And I could never ask Gabe to be away from his kids.”
“And that’s everyone?” Justine quirked an eyebrow. “Couldn’t think of anyone else?”
“Cal, I called you, too. But I didn’t think the Greek lady who has your old number would be able to run the ropes.”
“And that was enough for you?” Her voice found its edge. There was no hiding it now. “You just let it die there? Didn’t maybe think to reach out to Darren?”
“Okay,” he sighed, “I guess we’re doing this today. I don’t mean to be an asshole about it, but – look, the way things have historically gone between us, I hit a point where I realized that if you wanted me in your life that I would actually be in your life.”
“And it’s fine if you don’t. It really is. I mean, sure, it sucks, but I’ve made my peace with it twice now, and-”
“You’re fucking insane,” she barked.
“If you don’t think I care about you, then why do you think I’m here?”
“Educated guess? Because someone asked you to be. Am I wrong?” He looked at her across the table, but her eyes were elsewhere. “Okay. Answers that, I guess.”
“And what the fuck am I supposed to believe here, Jared? You’ve still got my Christmas card in the hall, despite the fact that it’s April. You wanna tell me what that’s about?”
“Because it’s still nice to feel remembered sometimes? Don’t read too much into it. Pretty sure it’s not the only one out there – I think Charlie’s is still on the table, too.” He leaned back in his seat and pressed his palms against his eyes. “Let’s just get this out of the way: who told you to stop in? Who called for the wellness check?”
“You know exactly who,” she spat. “Darren said that he’s tried reaching out, but you’re not answering. He’s worried, so I’m here.”
“The hell is he worried about?”
“Oh, I dunno. Maybe the mannequin, or the taser, or the forklift, or the boulder, or – really just take your fucking pick.”
“Well when you report back after your little mission is over, tell him I’m fine.”
“The hell you are! You think this shit is normal?” He opened his mouth to answer, but she cut him off before he could speak. “I know you get a little weird sometimes. It used to be kind of endearing. But this is all so fucking bizarre. Like I can’t get my head around it.”
“People are worried, Jared. You go off the grid for years, and then come back and do this?! Who are you right now? Is this really what you want?” Her next words were out before she realized it. She found the gap in his armor, sunk the blade deep, and twisted. “Is this what you think your brother would want?”
He was quiet for a long while. A stream of emotions played out on his face, but he wouldn’t look at her. He couldn’t.
“Coming here was a mistake,” he said at last. “I need you to go.”
“Yeah,” she said, standing. “Coming here usually is.”
He stayed at the table for a long time before he was able to will himself back to his feet. Half of the kitchen was still in disarray from his attempt to fix the pipe under his sink, but he trudged past the mess and moved to the faucet to test his handiwork.
Jared turned the knob and listened to the sound of water pelting the cabinet below.
h/t Nick for El Tembler, and planning the original ladder fiasco