Barrett Calvin had only been on the circuit for two months before a promoter tagged him with the nickname “Leadfoot”, and it stuck for the rest of his career. It was his footwork. Every step was slow, plodding. He shuffled around the ring with a measured, deliberate gait like a child taking their first steps on winter ice.
A stocky man with broad shoulders and calloused hands, what he lacked in speed and dexterity he more than made up for in punching power. To many of the men he shared the ring with over the years, Barrett was proof that time travel existed. Thirty-two of his fights ended via knockout, as opponents were sent careening into the future – groggy, dazed, and with no knowledge of current events.
All four of his children tried to follow him into the fight game, but the one who stuck with it, who pushed past the pain and the hardship, was his only daughter. She, like him, never appeared on the national stage, but she understood. She knew what it meant to dig her heels in, to stand her ground, the unspoken pact between rivals that everyone walks away in one piece.
“Mom’s going to be sorry that she missed you.”
His voice carried all the hallmarks of the Boston dialect. There were no hard R’s to be found in this part of New England. Centuries ago, Bostonians had effectively voted to remove the letter from their alphabet, and jettisoned it into the harbor with the rest of the sewage and tea. A multimillion dollar cleanup project eventually fixed the water, but the accent was still brewed fresh every day at the hundreds of Dunkin Donuts dotting the Bay State.
“Everything okay?” he continued. “Looks like you’ve got something on your mind, Tina. Having second thoughts about Vegas?”
Justine made a show of rolling her eyes at the name, the way she had since turning thirteen and protesting that, no, in fact, she wasn’t Tina anymore. Barrett chuckled then, and he smiled now. She’d been his Tina since her first minutes of life, when his ring-hardened hands held his baby girl for the first time. She could roll her eyes until they fell out of their sockets, because she’d still be Tina until the day he died.
“Can’t have second thoughts if I’m not really sure I ever made up my mind to begin with,” she said.
“Why’d you sign your papers then if you wasn’t sure?” He lifted his bottle from the table and took a swig, wiping away the ring of condensation left behind with his free hand. “This because of your boyfriend? You worried what he’s gonna think?”
“It’s not like that,” she scoffed. “And Jared is not my boyfriend.”
“Yeah. I ain’t worried about him either. Good head on that kid. Don’t think he’d ask you to do nothing you weren’t ready for.”
She didn’t say a word; she didn’t need to. Justine simply turned in her father’s direction and raised one eyebrow. The first time she weaponized this look was her eighth birthday, and he conceded to a makeover in seconds. A week later, he walked into the locker room of the Worcester Centrum with purple fingernails. If any of the other fighters on the card that night noticed, none of them said a word. They knew better. There were only two people on the planet that Barrett Calvin didn’t dare fight: his wife June, and his baby girl. Everyone else was fair game.
“Long time ago, when you were kids, I see you getting out of the car of a boy I don’t know. It happens once, no big thing. Then it happens again, and again, and a father starts to ask himself questions. Got to know what his intentions are, you know?”
Justine nodded along, never changing her expression.
“So one day I’m working on the mower, and he pulls up. You get out, and I wave him down as he starts to back out of the driveway.” He drained the last of his bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I introduce myself. I figure he knows what I do for work, so I invite him up to see a fight in Manchester. Tell him that I’ll have a ticket with his name on it at the box office.”
“So, okay, wait… A guy brings me home from training a few times, and you just casually threaten to kick his ass on the sly? Is that what I’m getting from this.”
“Nah, not really.” Justine folded her arms and cocked her head. Her father caved immediately. “Alright, kind of, yeah. But that’s the thing… The night I told him to be there, I get a call from Sully at the box office. Says your friend came to get his ticket.”
“So, wait, if you were supposed to fight, but you got a call…” The gears turned as she tried to work it out. “Yeah, I’m going to need you to explain this one.”
“I was never supposed to be there. I trust your judgment, Tina. Always have. But I’m old-fashioned. And if a guy’s willing to drive fifty miles to watch your dad beat someone’s ass, then he’s got my respect.”
For a moment they were both silent. Barrett thought he might wilt under the weight of his daughter’s stare, laser-focused as it was.
“Do I want to know how many times you pulled this stunt, dad?”
He grunted, and reached into the cooler for another bottle.
“Probably not,” he said.
“Okay, and how many people passed your little test? How many showed up?”
Barrett held up a single finger.
“That guy ain’t gonna let you fall, Tina. That just ain’t who he is.”
It was a few minutes and a few beers before their conversation got back on track. Justine pressed her father with follow-up questions, and Barrett sweated under the heat of her interrogation. The girl had certainly inherited his knack for intimidation.
“Can I ask you something? I know you fought a lot around New England, but did you ever think of trying to go national?”
“Nah,” he said. “Maybe at first, but that idea passed pretty quick. Don’t get me wrong, there were offers. Had a few guys trying to get me to go twelve rounds in LA, or Vegas, or San Francisco. One time a guy comes to me with an undercard spot in Plaza Mexico. Turned him down, too.”
“Why? Didn’t you ever want to know if you do it; if you could hang?” She was getting close to the end of her third bottle. Any more and she’d be calling an Uber to bring her home. Justine would be the first to admit that the years had made her into something of a lightweight when it came to alcohol. “Plus there’s all the extra purse money.”
“Was never about that.” He eased back in his chair, rocking on the balls of his feet. “As long as I had the fight, as long as I could get inside the ring and go a few rounds, it didn’t matter if it was in Madison Square Garden or the local Knights of Columbus.”
“I get that, too,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out. Jared said that I should have been on that stage a long time ago, that he should have talked to someone or called in a favor to make it happen. Thing is, I don’t know if I want it. I used to, I absolutely used to, but now? To be honest I don’t know why I said yes.”
“Tina, a thing you’ve got to realize is that when it comes to the fight, the ‘who’ is a real big part of the ‘why’. I never had to go nowhere far. Any place I went was a day’s drive at most from the house.” He let his eyes wander to the yard, watching the specters of his children play in the grass. “Because everything I needed was here.”
She called that afternoon. Said she was just leaving her dad’s house, and wanted to know if I was home. When I asked Justine if she wanted to join me in PRIME, I thought there might be an outside chance that we’d be competing for championships, but despite everything that I’d been able to pull off in Survivor – with a fucking mannequin, no less – I had managed to convince myself that the likelihood of it actually happening was slim.
Being offered a contract had spooked her a little, that much was obvious, but the added pressure of what was at stake just ratcheted up the anxiety. Hey, how do you feel about your first match on the big stage being in the main event of a major promotion with titles on the line against a guy I used to be tight with? No pressure.
I assumed talking to her dad helped, because she seemed relaxed at the house. I’d only met “Leadfoot” a few times, and none of those were particularly calm experiences. Well, for me at least. I saw him fight Bobby McAvoy at the TD Garden in late ‘99. It took more time for the trainer to wake McAvoy up than it did Calvin to knock him out.
I don’t know what was said between them that afternoon, but our conversation had a different angle, like an operating room surgeon trying to figure out where to make the first incision.
“Do you think you’ll ever really be friends again?” she said. “After everything that’s been said?”
“He and I haven’t been friends in years, Cal. It’s much, much worse than that. We’re family.” I shifted on the couch. Across the room was a shelf full of framed photos, Jon’s still among them. “Sort of. At least to me, but I don’t think he’d say the same.”
Her eyes found the same shelf, which is probably why her next question was an all-timer.
“Do you ever think…,” she trailed off for a second to compose herself. The last time she tread this ground things got bad for a while. Real bad. She was looking at a picture of Andy, my brother. “Do you ever wonder if you’re trying to make up for what you lost?”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Yes. All the time. Just don’t think it matters here.”
The answer, as so many of them are, was complicated.
Before the fundraiser, the last time I was in New Orleans was for the funeral of Katie Malick, Jon’s girlfriend. I didn’t know her all that well, but she was important to Jon, and that was enough. I went because it’s what he needed.
Having to deliver the eulogy had him big-time flustered. He didn’t understand how he could talk on a microphone in front of thousands of strangers, but be terrified at the notion of having to speak in front of only a few hundred people. It was the intimacy involved, I said. It changes everything. But there was no way he could fail, not in front of that crowd. We simply wouldn’t let it happen.
When the moment finally came, and he got up to talk, do you know where he looked across that sea of people to find an anchor? Me.
I wasn’t always his favorite person, but I was his favorite punching bag. When things went south with Katie, I was there to take the brunt of it.
Towards the end of 2009, before she passed, their relationship was going through a difficult healing process after his affair came to light. Around this time I started to build relationships with a few of the less-popular members of the locker room, and I never heard the end of it.
The first, Alexandra Pierce, was the closest thing we had to an actual dragon, who burned everyone that came at her, roasting them alive in their own armor.
The other, Amy Campbell, is both very complicated and very personal, so here’s the short version: she busted me open with a chair a few times, we became friends, and then we fell in love.
As you can imagine, the locker room had Some Thoughts about this. For a year I was ridiculed privately and publicly by that roster every time I stepped foot in an arena. Do you know who had my back?
Jon seemed to take it personally. A year before we started to get close, Amy had “ended his career.” Granted, not long after that happened he and I came to PRIME together for a while, and then a few months after ended up back in SCCW, but the way he bitched about it meant that those two weeks off must have been the hardest goddamn days of his life.
Ended his career? Seriously? Fuck off.
“Is this really all about some old grudge? Some petty bullshit from ten years ago, or whatever?”
“No, it’s not. Justine, I…” She tensed. To me she was always ‘Cal’, unless she pissed me off and then she was ‘Calvin’. I only used her first name when I was serious. “That’s just context. I need to tell you that story before I can tell you this one, and I really don’t want to, but… I need to. Before it eats me alive.”
Please don’t think less of me.
“And I’m so, so sorry for what I’m about to say.”
I was pretty banged-up going into the last match with Wyatt Connors. The previous July, on the night that I won our version of the Universal Championship, I re-aggravated an injury to my right shoulder – my dominant side. It happened in my first match of the night, and only got worse as the show went on. By the time we went off the air I could barely hold up that belt.
I say this because I spend a lot of time thinking about what would’ve happened if I was healthy. Maybe it doesn’t change anything, it’s impossible to know for sure. But if it did? If it could have?
There were other wounds coming out of that night. Fingers were broken or dislocated on both hands. The medics backstage spent a fair amount of time picking glass out of my back.
It would have been one thing if I lost. I could have taken time to heal, to recover, maybe get myself in a better mental state.
Wyatt made his move that summer, and everything went to hell.
It started at an event in Springfield, Massachusetts – the closest thing I’d had to a hometown crowd in years. The night ended with Terrence Kingsley introducing me to the business end of a light tube, and Wyatt standing on my face in the middle of the goddamn ring with a microphone in his hand. Someone in the crowd threw a battery at him, and he just ground his foot in harder.
“None of us truly know you, Jared. Perhaps, not even you. But that’s going to change. In the coming months, I will lead you on a journey of discovery: one that will not end until I have shown you the truth.” He leaned in close, his next words an intimate threat. “And you will know it is the truth, because it is going to hurt.”
During his time in professional wrestling, Wyatt Connors was never to be trusted. It was a defining characteristic of his. Well, that and hitting people in the dick, but for the sake of this story that’s not super relevant. If there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s that Wyatt Connors lied to anyone and everyone all the goddamn time. Except me. Never to me.
He took my title, and I resented him for it. That belt was the culmination of a promise I made to Andy when he passed, and Wyatt Connors made me break it. I thought that meant the end of it, but his experiment wasn’t finished.
Our last fight started the same as pretty much every other match I’ve been involved in. We stood in the ring. Someone rang a bell. The crowd cheered when I got the upper hand, and let Wyatt know what they thought of him when the tides turned. Looking back, I should have pieced together that something was off. The fight that night is the rare case when saying I didn’t get hit in the crotch should have been cause for alarm.
Eventually we spilled out of the ring, and he took his first steps towards the back, kiting me the entire way. He was smarter than I was, no surprise there, and after six months of torture he knew I’d follow wherever he went: through the locker room; into the stands; past the nacho carts on the mezzanine level; all the way up to the catwalks.
I remember everything about those next few minutes: the faint smell of fish as we took out first steps out onto the steel, the first sign that the insulation around one of the wires had started to fail; the way the third handrail wobbled when I touched it; the droning hum of a generator like a nest of hornets; how for a moment it all reminded me of Star Wars, where Luke meets his fate against Darth Vader deep in the bowels of Cloud City. Let someone else be Han Solo; I was never cool enough for that.
My eyes stung from a mix of sweat and blood, so I didn’t see Wyatt’s shot coming. It staggered me towards the railing. I braced against it, just praying it would hold long enough for me to get my bearings. That’s when he charged. When I dodged, almost collapsing to the grates in the process, his momentum took him over. A wave of panic leveled me until I saw that he’d caught himself on the railing with his left hand, and then renewed when his grip started to falter.
He wasn’t heavy, not by conventional wrestling standards, but the act of catching him shredded the last bits holding my shoulder together and pain shot down my arm like a bullet. But I had him. God, I had him. I would pull him up, and this would be over. I could get my shoulder fixed. I could walk away and get my head right, maybe try to patch things up with Amy and see if we could try again without the looming shadow of wrestling hanging over us for a while. Life beyond that god-forsaken company would finally start, and I could just be for a while.
Wyatt had other plans.
I struggled to hold him, to pull him up, and he just smiled at me.
“This,” he said, “this is who you are.”
He let go.
There was nothing I could do to stop him. Within seconds my dreams were dashed, shattered. All I held was air.
Wyatt Connors fell. He didn’t scream, not once. I thought I heard him laugh, but that might just be my mind playing games. What I know for certain – for absolute, fucking certain – is that he smiled the entire way down.
Lance Marshall would have stopped it.
Jon would have made sure it never got that far.
They were the real heroes, the real standard-bearers, the good people. They were Superman, not some bullshit dreamer who couldn’t even make a convincing Clark Kent. I was a pretender. A fucking fraud.
This is who you are.
Yeah? Who the fuck is that?
Wyatt Connors fell, and took everything I was with him.
The house felt smaller, like every photo had just turned into one of those paintings of Jesus – the ones that seem to watch you no matter where in the room you stand. I sat on the couch and trembled before a silent jury of the people I cared most about – Mervin, Andy, Ames, even Jon – knowing I’d just disappointed them all.
Cal didn’t move from her spot on the couch.
“Do you know where Jon was after that happened? When I needed him?”
“Neither do I.”
It all hit me at once, and I pressed my eyes shut tight. The truth of it was out now, no taking that back, and yet I felt all the worse for it.
“I tried to stop it, I tried-”
Her arms were around me before I could finish. She listened to my story, let me spill the poison I’d been infected with for so long, and then stayed until the shaking stopped.
Five words from Wyatt took everything, saw it disintegrated, and scattered it in the wind. The next four from Cal set the first pieces back in place.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Eleven years, four months, and six days I carried this, hoping and praying for a chance at absolution. Tomorrow? Day one of something different.
Day one of a new life.