He sleeps just fine. He’s wracked with nerves, riddled with anxiety, and his anger has congealed into venom. He can only think about losing the match. Chandler Tsonda knows it should keep him up at night, should have him tossing and fitful as he eyes the skeletal LED lights of his alarm clock. But he sleeps like a baby that night. It’s the waking up that’s the problem. Because when Chandler wakes up, he has still lost. And he’s one hell of a sore loser.
Tsonda aches with anger. He’s in bed now. Stares at the ceiling, as if it’s the ceiling’s fault that his grand re-debut was spoiled. But he knows he’s not actually mad at the ceiling, nor is he mad at Kohime Mori, who went out and earned a tough win. They’re all tough; he saw that as soon as he stepped into the rumble at Culture Shock. This era of PRIME has no walkovers; he’s not mad at Lindsay Troy for building the best damn wrestling promotion on earth. He thinks about the trainers and friends who have sharpened his game over the years, and he’s not mad at any of them either. He knows that on his record, ReV 27 goes into that opaque third column like he’s some kind of damn English soccer (football) team, and that it’s technically a draw. He also does the champion’s math: anything but a win is a loss.
It’s a giant bed that he lays in, king-sized to fit the Model Citizen sleeping alongside his ego.
Years ago, he paid a well-dressed white woman to consult on interior decor. She oriented this bedroom so that the angle of the sun comes in, March through September, as a natural alarm clock. But alarm clocks have snooze functions. No such luck with the sun, which beams in at eye level. Chandler remembers that the woman invoiced him for $2,350 for a couple hours of time during which she bossed around laborers who rotated beds and desks and couches. They moved a sideboard from one wall to another. $2,350. He remembers thinking about the strange specificity of the number, the key to a good grift being in the details. He’s not mad at her either. He should have known better.
Chandler is only mad at one person, the only person he’s ever mad at, and the only person he really truly thinks about: himself.
In this bleary, irritated, anguished space between his ears, Chandler finds himself thinking about what it means to lose.
It’s 2003, and the way you know is by looking at the jeans. The men’s denim is enormous, double dark blue parachutes below the waist. Women in the crowd by and large wear low-rise jeans, a few with chain belts that draw the eye. All of them stand at attention in the mid-sized gymnasium, focused on the action in the ring. Underneath the apron, the edges of a logo – the high school mascot? A sneering raptor? – can be seen. The lights are entirely too bright, which Chandler Tsonda notices only now that he’s on his back, staring up and feeling the thump of the referee’s palm against the canvas. Once, twice, three times a lady.
The bell jolts him into something approaching consciousness. He sits up and hears the other team’s music, sludgy rock by some band with a name like Incarnate. The tinny sound from the borrowed speakers mixes with the polite-but-middling cheers for the tag team that just beat Chandler and his partner. Foggy and distant, but coming from nearby is the promoter’s voice.
“Your winners, by pinfall, Destiny’s Reviled!”
Tsonda spies Jimmy Nguyen, his partner, mixing it up with some middle-aged fan in a ballcap on the outside. He and Jimmy are known as 2GVC, 2nd Generation Viet Cong. And here they’ve just put up a crooked number in the loss column.
Chandler rolls out from the ring; it’s not because he cares about decorum, although it gives their victorious opponents their moment in the sun. Chandler stalks out the double doors to the “staging room,” a dressed-up name for what is clearly this high school’s teachers lounge.
When Tsonda kicks the first folding table over, the sound shocks the room into silence. The other folks on tonight’s card might be mildly impressed with the amount of pastries and finger sandwiches that go airborne, but no one stays around long enough to say for sure. They all seem skilled at becoming scarce during a blown gasket event such as this.
When Tsonda kicks the second folding table over, he stops and listens to the sound of his heaving breath. In the background, Tsonda hears the promoter shout into his megaphone to intro the next match. While Chandler unsheathes his tantrum, the show goes on.
He yells once more, and slaps several water bottles off a nearby table.
“Hey man, do you mind?”
The voice comes from the doorway. Chandler turns around, and sees a man with a hangdog face below a receding hairline. Hair is down to the man’s shoulders, but it starts nearly halfway back his skull. If the man is anything younger than sixty, then Tsonda thinks to himself that he looks, for his age, like microwaved shit.
“Who the fuck are you?” Chandler snarls, balling his fist.
“The janitor, he’s gotta clean this up,” the man says, pointing to the impressive mess that CT has caused. “He’s already coming in on Saturdays to accommodate us, and he lets us in here as a courtesy.”
“Get fucked, old head.”
“Okay, dude,” the man replies. He bends down and starts scooping up pastries. The scones look hilariously small in the man’s mitts. From behind him, Tsonda can see a tattoo in big gothic letters poking out from behind his singlet straps. It reads: J U N K.
“Ah, shit,” Chandler mutters. “You’re Junk Dixon.” Now he knows why the melted facial features and grody hairline look familiar.
The man doesn’t turn around or say anything. He keeps on collecting baked goods. Tsonda curses the situation.
“For fuck’s sake, stop doing that by yourself,” Chandler says with a sigh. He brings over the nearby trash can, and without saying anything else, starts shoveling food scraps in.
The two men don’t talk as they clean. They get most of the grabbable bits up off the floor. The two upturned tables sit as witnesses.
“You good?” Junk asks, standing up to full height. He winces and Tsonda notices him do a little wiggle thing that seems to be an attempt to loosen up his back.
“Do I look like I’m fucking good?” Chandler snaps back.
Junk Dixon looks the twenty-eight-year-old up and down with impassive gray-green eyes, before going over to one of the flipped tables. The man is wide and strong, and he puts the table back up with ease.
“You talk like that out there?” Junk asks, nodding his head towards the gymnasium.
“I don’t talk,” Chandler says. His petulant tone is all scorned teenager. An ungenerous person might observe from his histrionics that Tsonda is the world’s most only child.
“How’re you gonna get heat if you don’t talk?” Junk says.
“Jimmy and me, we don’t talk.”
“Ain’t no surprise that you lose out there if you don’t talk,” Junk says.
And like that, it rises again, in Chandler’s chest, his shoulders, his toetips: the hot pinch of anger.
“The fuck do you know about me? You wanna wake up in traction?” he says, puffing himself up, and stepping towards Junk Dixon.
The veteran ignores the fighting words. He has six inches and a hundred pounds on Tsonda.
“Hey bitch,” Tsonda continues, “I’m talking to you. Say it again. Say some shit about me losing.” He’s like a kid who’s playing dress-up in emotions that he’s only seen in adults. Little dog, big bark.
Junk Dixon turns his back on Tsonda and walks over to the other upturned table. When he can’t get it to stand up straight, he gently lowers it back to the floor. Junk plays with the metal undergirdings on the table, and cocks his head to the side.
Chandler fumes at being ignored, but he also feels some piece of control come back to him. He hears the sound of his breaths.
“This needs a hammer ‘n maybe some glue,” Junk Dixon declares. “If you ain’t too proud to help, you can follow.”
He walks out the door, momentarily freezing Chandler in his tracks. It’s true that Tsonda isn’t used to losing at anything, and is equally unfamiliar with being ignored. By hook or by crook, he gets attention, and usually on his terms. It’s sort of his thing. Chandler finds himself off-center at his treatment in the bowels of some random private high school. But after a moment, he follows.
Junk Dixon and the upstart Chandler Tsonda walk down an anonymous school hallway lined with lockers.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Chandler asks, acidic.
“To the grave. Slowly, but sure as sin, I’m going there. You too.”
“Just bein’ poetical, but yes.”
“I thought you said you don’t talk,” Junk says, and confidently turns left at a fork in the hallway.
Stung, Chandler bites his tongue, as the veteran wrestler pulls up to the small janitor’s closet. He opens it and fiddles around inside. Chandler bides his time in the hallway, trying to strike an air of detached standoffishness.
Junk reemerges with a hammer in hand. He holds it aloft for Chandler to see.
“They don’t let us talk,” Chandler says.
Junk looks confused. Just another typical day of a giant man with a puzzled look waving a hammer at a model trying to be a wrestler.
“They don’t…” Chandler tries, and fails to say the words without sounding helpless, clueless, a true blue idiot rookie know-nothing. “They said that we’d be more believable as a tag team if we didn’t talk, and the guy said: ‘You know, pretend to only speak Vietnamese.’ He said it was, ya know, easier to root against.”
“That sit right with you?” Junk asks.
“The fuck do you think?” Chandler replies. Vitriol is his armor.
“Can’t believe they didn’t want a charmer like you near a microphone. C’mon.”
Junk leads them back to the teachers lounge and the mangled table. He says nothing. Chandler follows. Junk points to a metal diagonal rod on the table’s underside.
“See that?” Junk says. “You’ll never believe it, but some jagoff blew his lid and kicked the busted thing so hard it bent the frame.”
“Fuck if I’m gonna—”
“I’m gonna hold this steady,” Junk says, pointing to the brace holding the rod. “And you’re gonna smack it right here with the hammer. Got it?”
“I do speak English, regardless of what that promoter thinks.”
“Ok, hit it.”
Chandler smacks the spot as instructed.
Junk uses three fingers to test the rod. Satisfied, he lifts the whole table up. He doesn’t ask for Chandler’s help. When it stands on its own, he gives a cheesy double thumbs up, looking every part the character that he is, at least locally, famous for playing in the ring.
“Looks like you’re off the hook with Raoul,” Junk says.
“Who the fuck is Raoul?” Chandler says.
“Dude,” Chandler says, eyeing the veteran. “No offense, but why the fuck do you know some janitor at a high school’s name? For that matter, why are you helping me? You’re Junk Dixon. You were on, like, Wheaties boxes and shit.”
“That was actually just the Ralph’s store brand,” Junk says, breaking into a sly grin. “Enriched wheat squares, they gotta call ‘em. Or the Wheaties guys will lawyer up and take ‘em for a ride.”
This makes sense to Tsonda, whose mother coupon-clipped and thrifted with the best of them at the Ralph’s location in their San Diego neighborhood.
“Raoul’s a good guy, though,” Junk continues. “Workin’ man, treats us well. Brings his youngest to come watch the show every once in a while.”
“Sounds like the world’s most fucking fascinating mop wielder,” Chandler says with a roll of the eyes.
“Ya know, whoever told you that your team shouldn’t get on the mic is wrong,” Junk says. He makes demanding eye contact. “That’s just plain wrong, and it sounds like you’re gettin’ bad advice or bad management or both. But if you wanna do this, if you wanna do the job, then you might consider how to get through two sentences without dropping an f-bomb.”
“Why, you a holy roller or something?”
“Not by a mile. I don’t care that you talk salty. It’s nothing personal, you just come off like a bit of an ass.”
“Well fuck you too,” Chandler says, taking it personally.
“You haven’t done this for long, have you?”
“Long enough,” Chander lies.
“Well, boys don’t usually snuff out tables after a loss if they’re used to taking ‘em,” Junk says, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t plan on getting accustomed to losing,” Chandler says. “And since you asked, yeah, that’s the first time.”
“What, the first time you and him tagged together?”
“First loss.” Chandler avoids eye contact as he says this and, having let it out, he studies a particular piece of floor with zeal.
“Ha haaaaaaaa!” The older man lets loose with a laugh that’s also a yell. Chandler’s gut reaction is defensive, the anger of the insecure. But before he can react or overreact, Junk is up on his feet. He goes into a cabinet and grabs something. Once produced in his hand, Tsonda can see that it’s a silver flask.
“Not-so-secret stash,” Junk says. “To losin’ and goin’ out on our backs.” He tips it up towards Tsonda, whose expression is pure confusion, and downs a merry mouthful, before offering him the flask.
“What’s wrong with you?” Chandler says. “I’m over here mid-fucking meltdown and you’re…cheersing me with… what is that, Canadian Club? I’m…fucking angry!”
“Course you are!” Junk man-roars back, smiling. “And don’t it feel somethin’ marvelous? You popped your cherry, took one on the chin, lost a couple shreds of dignity, and you know what? You’re still alive, brother man. Fight another day. Go collect that tag partner of yours and come up with a better plan to beat those Destiny mopes.”
“So you saw the match?” Chandler asks.
“Just a bit,” Junk says. Though Tsonda is clearly seeking validation, he doesn’t get much back from the main eventer. He eyes the flask, still being offered in his direction.
“I hate losing,” Chandler says, skeptical and stubborn.
“C’mon, dude. You seem smart enough to know that nobody out there likes losing. Coming in here and busting up tables doesn’t mean you like losing any less than them. Now figuring out a way to get your mind right after a loss, to get yourself to climb the mountain again, that’s how you make it a career instead of a hobby.”
“And? What’s the secret, Dalai Lama?”
Junk Dixon offers the flask to him once again. Tsonda is a total lightweight, and if he’s drinking, it’s mostly likely a wine spritzer or a vodka soda. This man hasn’t taken a pull of brown hooch to the dome since his teenage days. He understands little of Junk’s motivation to be cordial with him. And Tsonda loathes the idea that wrestling has some secret brotherhood; it’s winning, and losing, and making it on your own merits.
But he feels not quite as rotten about losing after this conversation. So he takes the flask and drinks up.
It’s 2008, and you know by the posters for Colossus V. They’re everywhere in what at the time is known as Bank of America Stadium, advertising what has become, as of tonight, a nostalgia act. The PPV is over. Even the markiest of fans left the venue hours ago. Ushers and concessions are home already if they parked somewhere smart. Security loiters with a few grumbles about how they can’t go home until tonight’s tenants, PRIME, skedaddle.
The posters are on the wall of a large and spacious locker room. In a folding chair sits Chandler Tsonda. Tonight has been his coronation and with a win over Devin Shakur, he has climbed the mountain. The proof of this climb, the prize at the summit, sits on the floor, draped wide. He can’t take his eyes off it, barely wants to touch it. THE Universal Title.
His entourage left over an hour ago, after the beginning of what will become an epic celebration. He told them he would catch up. Instead, he has stared at the belt, called his mom, wondered how he can suspend this moment forever, called his agent, continued to nurse the bottle of Dom that someone (Rayne?) had at the ready. What he feels now is wiped, bone tired. The adrenaline will subside and the pain in his back will rise at some point, but now is the forever moment.
He dials the number, a little liquid courage in him. Gets voicemail and feels sheepish. He knows that celebrity voicemails can be a payday, and even though he trusts Junk, even though tonight is perfect, some part of him says “don’t get TMZ’d.”
His phone trills with an immediate call back and the Model Citizen answers. His voice is light.
“Sorry, who is this?” a woman’s voice answers.
Tsonda looks down to his Blackberry’s screen, but of course it’s not his technology that he doubts; he saw the contact and number, dialed it himself, even got a call back.
“It’s Chandler,” he says, and laughs off the nerves. “Did I get the right number for Junk Dixon?”
The woman takes a long pause on the other end. Maybe she sighs. Tsonda can’t tell.
“Yes, this is his girlfriend. It’s quite late to call.”
“Right. Of course,” Tsonda says, biting his bottom lip as he looks at the clock on the wall. It’s past midnight here on the east coast, so even with the time difference, he’s intruding on a Sunday night. “I know it’s late. I’m really sorry. Your boyfriend and I used to work together. I was just hoping he might be around to talk for a minute.”
“Chandler, is it?”
“I don’t know how close you and Junk are, but he recently had a stroke. He’s completely non-verbal.”
Tsonda barely notices his own reaction and finds himself fixated on the smallest detail: she sounds…robotic. Of course. She’s answered this phone dozens of times, had this same call, developed this short, clear explanation through the crucible of repetition. Ugly, painful repetition.
“I’m…I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you explain any of this to me. It’s not my…we were in a small promotion together, and I haven’t really kept up with him. I thought he might like to know about a thing I accomplished. And now that I say that out loud, it’s of course, I wouldn’t want to—”
“It’s alright,” she says softly. Chandler feels worse every second, spiraling out and making this poor woman comfort him.
“No, it’s not. I’m really sorry, ma’am. For calling. And for the shitty situation.”
“Would you like me to hold the phone up for him? He likes the sound of familiar voices.”
Tsonda pulls the phone away from his ear.. “Fuck,” he mouths. He isn’t ready.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” he says into the phone.
“Ok, you’re on with him now,” she says.
The echoing sound suggests to Chandler that he’s on speaker, rather than in Junk’s ear. He just went out and put on the show of his life for 70,000 screaming fans, and he’s nervous to perform in front of two people he can’t even see.
“Hey man, I…umm…listen, that’s fuckin’ terrible about your stroke. I’m real sorry. But I’m sure everybody calls and says that. Anyway, I meant to call and tell you that I won a hell of a piece of gold, wanted to see if maybe you’d been watching on TV, or even just reading about it online or whatever.”
This isn’t right. It’s no good. Chandler realizes that anything good that ever came out of this drinking buddy relationship was in the give-and-take. Now it’s all one side, and the words are sawdust in his mouth.
“I gotta run, but I’m rooting for you,” he says. He clicks the line dead before the woman can say anything.
He stares at the title on the floor. The championship of a place that humbled him with losses and missteps, education he needed before he could win. In the swell of his triumph, Chandler finds himself thinking about what it means to lose.