Arms crossed beneath the elbows, the top arm holding a cigarette between middle and forefinger, leaning all of his weight onto the white marble facade, the twirl of smoke from the stick dancing in the mild breeze coming down the strip.
The fountains of the Bellagio conspired to ruin the eternally sour mood of Pete Whealdon, wearing aviators, mustachioed mouth musing a frown. He could do without the music, some kind of poppish sounding concern that wasn’t noisy, nor raucous enough for him. Some feet behind him arms crossed and mildly annoyed stood a man watching Whealdon stare at the fountains leaning over and smoking.
The fanfare of water shooting off held many passerby’s less cynical than Whealdon equally rapt.
Money well spent.
Somehow, even in the deadest blackest parts of Whealdon’s heart were moved on a primal level seeing water blip and blop majestically. All to the soundtrack of the worst movie ever.
“Not to interrupt.” said the man in the back.
“As he said interrupting my moments of mindfulness.” Whealdon snickered slightly as he said this.
“But you wanted to come here to talk. Said the office was too stuffy.” Ah, his court and PRIME appointed counselor.
“Yeah. It is. Is it some Good Will Hunting bullshit that makes all of you sit underground surrounded by books and stacks of ungraded papers or is that what I can afford or is that what PRIME thinks I’m worth?” Whealdon asked, that gentle caress of cynicism returning to his voice.
“Don’t answer that.” Whealdon finishes before his counselor can start making his point, his arms uncrossing and an authoritative finger and a monolog about individual worth not being tied to materialist trappings no doubt well thought out and used once or twice on his lips and mind.
Whealdon waves it away with the hand holding the cigarette. The smoke traces abstract topological patterns in the air.
“So, we’re here to talk, and you did silently muse during our last meeting.” Said the counselor with the appropriate professional annoyance.
“Had a counselor.” Whealdon states matter of factly. “In Los Angeles, where I live. Liked him too. More Dead Poet Society, less GWH, know what I’m sayin’?”
Whealdon turns around and leans against a column.
“Not sayin’ that YOUR problem specifically. But it is a problem. PRIME said to be given money in exchange for ruining my body for them I had to do this.” Whealdon took a long drag, releasing a bilious cloud of smoke heavenwards where it will be intercepted by Las Vegas, turned into a commodity, and sold back to you, dear reader at a reasonable markup! “Opening up once is hard enough. Oh, Captain my Captain and all that.”
“I see, well, I will say that PRIME did choose me for some surface-level familiarity…” His counselor began.
“Look, you mean well, but I was told to move here, take up residence, in a neighborhood not of my choosing, anyways you know all this..” Whealdon’s voice had that mild hint of defiance that marks some defeat where even falling on the sword doesn’t reveal deeper honor or release.
“Yes, PRIME did choose to based on their financial investment to have you move here, as it makes the regular drug testing cheaper on them, I do believe your neighborhood isn’t near any known drug haunts or liquor stores. That had to have been a tough task…” Whealdon cut him off.
“Of course. As I was saying…”
“Maybe don’t? As I said, we both already know this and I don’t really care to relive it, emotional labor and all that. Anyways, if you wanted me to talk, here’s something for you. I knocked a man clean out with my fist in a wrestling ring.” Whealdon looked at his fist.
“You’re not supposed to think about these things, but I paused, long enough to look him in the eyes before I took his bock off. I haven’t done that before.”
Whealdon looked directly at his counselor. Scratched his bare chin and continued.
“You are SUPPOSED to just hop in the ring, make faces at the paying stiffs, and then all of a sudden you’re stopping because… I don’t know. He died because of shit like this, and I have to go out and do it and let’s be honest I can’t really do anything else at this point in my life. I need the money. I don’t need to feel like I am killing my friend over and over and over and over every time I’m in the ring.”
Whealdon stares ahead, a long pillar of ash collapsing to the sidewalk below.
“He just sat there, ended up in a wheelchair, wasn’t even negative about it. That was the hardest fucking part man.”
Whealdon takes what appears to be a satisfying drag.
“That it gave HIM a new outlook on life. Short as it ended up being.”
Whealdon’s voice wavers.
“Now, I have to go into the ring and do the same goddamned thing that killed my friend, and I’m stopping to look at the bastards? I do not need this shit man.
I. DO. NOT. NEED. IT.”
The emphasis in his words overcomes the wavering melancholy.
“You know what I saw just before I spun around and knocked out that useless clod of dirt? I saw HIM. His smiling face in the fucking hospital bed. I saw the entire goddamned tragedy’s endpoint, and I had to do it, because what, I’m gonna get all sentimental when there is a job to do?
I used to drink my way out of this. I wanted to get good and hammered fucking smashed. But I didn’t. I didn’t throw away my last chance.
I’m a fucking bastard for not doing it.
Every excuse in the world. Nothing to lose. Could’ve become the sad sack of shit everyone is expecting me to be. Inert at the street corner begging for just enough change to end the day at the bottom of the strongest bottle I could get.
No one left who’d give a fuck if I was dead or alive.”
Whealdon took a much longer drag.
“I couldn’t do it. I’m a fucking coward.”
His counselor nodded and spoke slowly, moving towards him, somehow this scene was not entirely out of place on the Las Vegas strip where more often than, this type of moaning and groaning is preceded by losing all of your hard-earned college coins for the kiddies in a game you never had a chance in.
“Look.” The counselor was resolute. “If you think staying sober is cowardice, you have a strange sense of honor.”
“But, I think having moments of regret and consideration sound more like to me that you have a developing sense of empathy. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Whealdon waved it away. “Everyone I’ve known says that I need to talk this out, that I hesitate in the ring and it is as obvious as the sunrise that something’s off. I lost to a buffoon who probably thinks that I’m from the television show Pete and Pete, and then some other dude, emphasis on other because I went through the motions on the show and beforehand, guess what?”
His therapist continues listening intently.
“I couldn’t muster the courage to pop him in the mouth hard enough to make it mean something.”
Whealdon chain lights the next cigarette. Casting the previous one directly into the fountain, ignoring the rather bold, white, and red “No Littering” sign that also indicated there would be a fine of some sum.
“Great Scott? I looked at him and it was like I was looking into the eyes of a puppy, you know what I mean? Plaintive, simple, no understanding. What am I supposed to do?” Whealdon took a long sour drag. “I can’t hit a child. Naw. Not after what I’ve seen.”
“What have you seen?” His therapist offered.
“Too much, not enough, the cliches.” Whealdon snapped.
“Anything you felt like talking about?”The response was practiced in its calm.
“Sure, when I was spending more in a week on Activis than I make in a year now, I dressed up a woman to look like someone else and I abused her verbally and emotionally…” Whealdon trailed off. “I treated her like shit, for a spot, for a ruse, for a gambit. I used her like she was disposable.”
Whealdon took another drag.
“But I made sure I was nice and faded constantly. She had a daughter. We’d go to her place and get fucked up… I did unforgivable things. We did unforgivable things. For a while, I couldn’t think of her, because it didn’t work. The gambit didn’t pay off. I filled her head with promises of glory, money, drugs, whatever. Tossed her on the trash heap of my life though.
Now I sleep in fits because she is there. Mocking, mascara running down her cheeks from tears that only come in the shame of the morning after. It runs from under dark sunglasses. Sun cracks through blackout curtains, you know what I’m talking about? That sliver of sunlight that reminds you it’s daytime. It accuses you. Just that single beam, dust motes floating in it. All the shit in the air, and it cuts through all of it. Cigarette smoke even looks romantic in it. Like the smoke from a bullet hole in some shit noir.”
Whealdon looked long, the smoke trailing from the stick.”Like I get it, I was a bad guy, and I didn’t need to veer too far from reality.” Whealdon mused. “Of course, what happens when that doesn’t stay tenable.”
Whealdon turned to look at his therapist. “I wasn’t used up by this industry. I used myself up. I woke up every day called every person I knew, and no one would answer. Why the fuck should they? If they did, they’d ask if I was clean, and know I was lying when I said “yes”.”
His Therapist waited before responding. “Do you think this episode with..”
Whealdon crossed his arms tight. “Doesn’t matter.”
Eyebrows raised and looked over his glasses. “Do you think this episode had something to do with your difficulty in finding gainful employment?”
“That and the Blackout Curtains over all the windows.”
Whealdon was mildly flippant and defensive, his arms crossed tighter. His cigarette had a long tail of ash, which he reflexively sputtered off. He just tosses the stick on the ground with a descending flip arcing into the concrete. A heavy-handed metaphor for his career.
“It took me drying out, convincing people that I hadn’t fallen off a wagon before anyone would even take a chance on me, and look at all of this” He gestures broadly to Vegas. “ Who would’ve thought this would be the culmination of all my hard work to clean myself up. Watching the sunset with a therapist in front of a family-friendly playground. I’m halfway to nowhere with my career again.”
Whealdon looked at his watch, a digital Casio that said as much about his position in life at this point as anything else.
His Therapist does something similar with a watch incongruous with his dress.
“Guessing that’s about time Dr. Woods”
Whealdon didn’t seem finished.
Dr. Woods nodded. “Maybe our next session can be in my office.”
Whealdon looked around as the first pink streaks raced through the pollution of the sky and the sun lowered towards the west with significance.
“Yeah, we’ll look into that.”
Something dimly shines in the darkness.
It’s a hand-held floodlight, the kind your stepfather would ask you to hold while he leaned over the engine of a third-tier “muscle” car, somehow you’d hold the light in just the perfectly right way to be of no use.
This is no different.
Sitting on a steel-legged stool with a black leather seat cushion. Was a set of legs so fine sea lions purr and denim shorts short enough to violate a court order. A mostly sheer paisley shirt completes the outfit, the hair is a little longer than the last time we saw him, but the mustache is still the same.
No sunglasses this time. Just those eyes. Haunted.
“I guess Phil Atken, this is the part where I’m gonna ask you straight up. Has Been, or never were? “
He places the hand not holding the flood light, yellow by the way. Out in a gesture of offering.
“I don’t want you to work yourself into some kind of tizzy, I don’t mean the question to be insulting, but I ain’t heard of you, so I figure you either flamed out early and quick like me, and this is your take on the fucked up redemption tour I’m on. Or.. well you never amounted to anything anyone cared about. I mean beyond the obvious accolades of being someone in your family’s favorite, some room collecting the dust of your youth.
But again, don’t think that this is coming from a place of Malice Mr. Atken, I’ve done both…
Well, I don’t think my mom has kept any keepsakes from the burning trash fire of my career. I think the two of us, you and me, should go out after the show, I’ll get whatever urine-based non-alcoholic drinks that pass for DD gimmes, and you can… get whatever a man of your age and stature normally drinks. We can discuss rooms collecting dust, and whatsis, because I’m gonna let you in on the worst kept secret in PRIME wrestling.”
He gestures us in closer. Hey, why the hell not. You’re here already. His voice doesn’t pick up any fake rage. If anything cynical fatigue rounds the edges out.
“If you’re facing me, it ain’t because PRIME wrestling has painted you for glorious success. You’re not facing the gatekeeper of the bottom rung of the ladder. Shit Phil, PRIME doesn’t even have me in the same warehouse as the ladder of success. Something to think about.”
He shrugs, the light moving up and down with the gesture.
“I mean we’ve both faced the pants-by-the-pound crowd favorite and future wellness suspension GREAT SCOTT.”
Saying Scott’s name correctly has seemed to annoy Whealdon, The disappointed school teacher’s visage seems to suggest that the outburst of saying his name isn’t worth the energy it took.
“To what I believe those in the know might suggest was of little effect. I don’t Mr. Atken, are you excited to be included in what is surely going to be a straight to commercial cut and return to more important business? Scott, if you don’t mind I don’t really see the point in shouting his name, trying desperately to sort out the difficulties of Automatic Doors for example, while we sit and watch it at the local watering hole, musing aloud about how this wrestling thing is just a hard business?
Alternately, we can both come out to the ring, like what we are doing means something.”
Whealdon doesn’t smirk. All of the former mannerisms are just gone.
“You know really, really, I mean reaaaallly show the six people who aren’t rolling out to grab concessions and take a piss break what wrestling is all about. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters to you, I don’t know. You’re the one being groomed for a future in janitorial service by having the opportunity to face the vaunted Pete Whealdon on Revival.
But you probably knew how entirely useless this whole charade is. One of us is going to win, and the other is going to lose, and neither of us will be any closer to grabbing not just _the_ brass ring, but even being given the address to where they keep such things. Your… whatever it is you are doing here in your sixties, and me working through whatever issues my therapist thinks will help me really round the bend to being a productive member of society again.”
“But hey chief, you do you.”