Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

eric rampson


"villains"


            My dad crippled a guy on TV last night. Broke his neck with a snap so loud the mics picked it up. He was howling, my dad, when he did it—an animal sound from somewhere high up in his chest. The guy twitched a few times and then laid still while my dad stood over him, all heaving breath and crazy eyes, hair wild and wet with sweat.

            Across the ass of my dad's shiny red spandex trunks it read "Señor Sinister" in Gothic script black as his leather boots and wristbands, his hair, his thick goatee. The guy with the broken neck was in a silvery singlet, waves and waves of thick blonde hair, a pair of aviator shades, skewed from impact, across his eyes, his robe fluttering like a flag from the post in his corner, "ALL-AMERICAN ALAN" on the back in star-spangled letters.

            Those aren't their real names. My dad is Vito. All-American Alan is actually Albin. He's Polish. My dad's Italian, mostly.

            The crowd was silent for a full minute, waiting for All-American Alan to get up and when he didn't, the booing and hissing started, scattered here and there at first but pretty soon everyone got into it, plastic beer cups sailing from the cheap seats, and my dad ran off like a frightened coyote.

            Two hours later, my dad and Albin and I were at Dougie's. Sitting together. Laughing. Eating patty melts and drinking milkshakes. There are pictures of my dad on the wall behind the counter: a promotional shot from his earliest days in the league, my dad baring his teeth in a snarl, his huge hands curled like talons above his head; Dougie and my dad, ten or so years ago, shaking hands at the diner's Grand Reopening after that whole rat thing; my mom sitting on one of my dad's shoulders, her hair and makeup perfect, him looking up at her like there's nothing else in the world. That's really my dad, those pictures. He shook Albin's hand in the parking lot. Then Albin walked to his car and we walked to ours.

            This girl, though, this reedy brunette in her black turtleneck and wire-rim glasses working the Sunday morning shift at the register here at Painted Soup Art Supply, she doesn't know about that second part. She only saw the first, the stuff in the ring. Probably she was drunk or high with her friends, sitting in a dorm room at the University of New Mexico or maybe a shit-box off-campus apartment. She didn't see Albin have to help my dad out of the booth, doesn't notice the pained way he's leaning against the edge of the counter, doesn't recognize the softness in his teddy-bear-brown eyes. All she's seeing is Señor Sinister, the Madman of the Mesas, the Bastard of the Buttes, the Southwestern Scoundrel, the most evil, unrepentant villain of the American Wrestling Federation's Desert League.

            Everyone watches the Desert League now. It's the cool thing, watching these jacked-up old guys duke it out on local cable access. My dad says it's like the old days, the salad days. 1,500 people booed my dad last night. A packed house. He made $800.


Everyone watches the Desert League now. It's the cool thing, watching these jacked-up old guys duke it out on local cable access. My dad says it's like the old days, the salad days. 1,500 people booed my dad last night. A packed house. He made $800.


            Anyway, my dad hands over the tubes of oil paint he wants to buy and the brunette drops them on the counter like he handed her a pile of scorpions, makes a little squeak noise when she does it—"eep."

            My dad just gives her his widest, toothiest, goofiest smile and gently picks the tubes up again. Laughs. "Let's try them one at a time, sweetie," he says.

            "Dad," I say, shaking my head.

           "No," she says, regaining her composure, "I'll take them all, thank you." She only flinches a little this time. Scanning and bagging is a blur. I'm not sure she actually charged us for all the paint. She reads the total off her screen, "$97.86." My dad pulls out the money from last night, peels off two 50s, and hands them to her. She holds each of them to the light for a long time, scrutinizes them then opens her register, puts his change on the counter, and takes two steps back, arms crossed.

            My dad smiles again, tells her to have a great day as he takes the money off the counter.

            When we get to the car, he puts his hands on the roof, leans toward me and says, "That cute girl knew me. Did you see that, Keith?"

            "Yeah, dad," I say, "and she hated you." I dig the keys out of my pocket, unlock the driver's side door. "I mean, you calling her sweetie probably didn't help, but I thought all those arty smart kids watched ironically."

            "That's the magic of it, Keith." I lean inside, reach across and unlock the passenger door for him. When I stand up again, he repeats, with a smile, "That's the magic of it."

            "Doesn't it ever bother you, though?" It's a question I've heard all my life, the one my mom was still asking as she put her last suitcase in the trunk of her car, that echoes through the rooms at home to this day.

            He's about to answer when someone shouts, "Keith!" My dad turns to see who's calling my name. He sees a party girl standing at the door of the tanning salon: waves of blonde hair jet-black at the roots, big bouncy tits in a bra you can see through her v-neck tee-shirt, high heels with tight shorts, a cigarette dangling from her fingers. I see Maggie: a sophomore Elementary Education major at UNM whose real passion is, apparently, fucking while high. My dad turns back to me, gives me a tilted head and crooked eyebrow. I smile at him, then at Maggie.

            "I'll be right back," I say.

            "Take your time, Romeo," my dad says and slides, slowly and painfully, into the passenger seat. He closes the door but rolls the window down, sticks his huge arm outside, trying to look like he's staying cool and not like he's trying to hear what me and Maggie say to each other.

            "Keith," Maggie says. She kisses my cheek when I reach her.

            "Maggie," I say, turning my head to let her get the other one. "I'm not holding. I'm with my dad."

            "Oh, I know. I just, well, I was going to call you, I was just about to dial you up, and then, poof, here you are, like I have psychic powers or something—"

            "You were going to call me?"

            "What? Oh, yeah, yeah." She steps closer to me, practically whispering in my ear. "There's a party. I'm invited and I thought, you know, I could bring you with, introduce you to a whole new, what do you call it, client something?"

            "Client-base," I say. "What kind of people are we talking?"

            "Grad students." She smiles. "Finance and shit. Not actors or artists. The ones with some money."

            "When?"

            "Next Saturday."

            "Ok," I say, "sounds good." Maggie's smile is gone, replaced with an almost-pleading straight-lipped stare. "Like five-hundred good," I said.

            "Five? How about eight?" She pushes her elbows in toward her belly button as she leans forward, her breasts straining against the fabric of her shirt, her cleavage deepening dramatically. "Pretty please?"

            I nod once and like that, Maggie owes me $800 less. It's not like she isn't going to run it right up again.

            She puts her hands on my shoulders. "Thank you, Keith, really," and comes at me, head tilted.

            I step back and throw a look at my dad in the car. He pretends that he just noticed us, acts surprised when he waves. Maggie makes an ah-ha face, smiles, and starts to back away. "I'll see you Saturday. Pick you up at, say, nine?"

            I nod again and she blows me a kiss as she disappears into the tanning salon next to Painted Soup.

            "And who," my dad drawls when I get in the car, "was that?"

            "That was Maggie. I know her from school."

            He whistles. "Well, now I'm really sorry you had to take time off to take care of me." He pats my knee. "So, were you two… in classes together?" There's an unhealthy clunk as I shift the station wagon into reverse.

            "Uh, no. No. She knows people I know and we have, you know, similar interests. Books and things."

            "Things, uh-huh."

            "She wants to be a teacher."

            "I'd audit her class, if you get my drift."

            Dad's laughing, so I smile and nod as I twist in my seat to look out the rear window.

            "You know," he says, suddenly serious as we back out, "you can… entertain a guest at the house. I'll just make myself scarce. Quiet as a church-mouse, I'll be."

            "I know, dad." Another clunk as I shift into drive. "Maggie… she isn't my type."

            "Yeah," he says, shifting his gaze out his window. "Yeah, she seems a little over-the-top, I guess. Still…"

            "I know, dad. And when I meet someone, I will." I turn out onto the road without stopping or signaling. "You can hide in your studio and pretend you aren't listening at the vents, ok?"

            He laughs, a big, barking laugh, and my grip on the wheel relaxes. My fingers ache, the joints throb. That was close. We drive the three miles home in relative silence.

            The process of getting my dad out of the car is involved, to say the least—his knees are more or less shot unless he's doped up, and his back's a mess, as is, if you believe my mother, his head, which she says every time I visit her: anyway, I have to get out first, go around and open his door, help swing his legs around and out the door, then stand, hunched, as he uses my back to leverage himself to standing, his hand firmly on my back so I start to stand, too, pulling him—he's 240 pounds and I have to do it without letting him know I'm doing it, which is the hardest part; he's a proud guy, my dad, so I give him that.

            Once he's on his feet, he's usually good.

            Inside the house, which is ranch-style, my dad spends most of his time in an ergonomic desk-chair with black casters on the end of each of its six feet. We've pulled up all the carpet and removed the thresholds in all the doorways so he has access everywhere except the basement and attic. The attic is where we keep all the stuff mom couldn't fit into her new apartment, including the carpet we pulled up, carpet she had picked out when she and dad moved in, right after the wedding. He wouldn't want to go up there, anyway, is the point.

            The basement is mine. It's finished—we left the carpet since he can't do the stairs. It's nice enough. A little gloomy, but nice.

            My old bedroom on the main floor is now my dad's art studio. He paints there three to four hours every day, more on days when he has a match. When he and mom got together, he was a landscape guy, these primeval cave-drawings of the desert at night. After he fell in love with her, he moved on to portraits—he painted everyone he knew, wrestlers, promoters, Dougie in his greasy paper hat. But he never painted her because he never got good enough, he said, to do her justice. His current thing is blasting old jazz records while he loads up a couple brushes with too much paint and spins in his chair, spattering paint across primer-covered chunks of plywood, some the size of paperbacks, some like dinner plates, even our old back door. Square, round, any shape, any size he can get. He says he can't hold his hands steady enough anymore for anything precise, that his shoulders would burn after a few minutes even if he tried, but I think he's tired of the artifice of it. It's like little kids doing spin-art—nothing getting in the way of the colors doing their thing. And the sound of his wheels whirling on the wood above me as I lay on my bed in the basement? That's the closest thing to real happiness in our house.


And the sound of his wheels whirling on the wood above me as I lay on my bed in the basement? That's the closest thing to real happiness in our house.


            The downside is that my dad goes through a lot of paint and the League pay obviously isn't great. All his money goes to the mortgage and pain pills and doctor appointments. The rest—food and clothes and lights and gas and paints, the phone and the cable, all of it—comes from me. He doesn't know it. Or rather, he might know it but he's set things up so he doesn't have to know it. When mom left last summer, he asked me to take care of all the financial stuff like she used to, balance the checkbook, put the bills in the mail, all that. I don't mind. Really.

            My dad thinks I'm doing freelance copywriting jobs, writing marketing material for different companies, which is what I told him so that he wouldn't worry about my leaving school—I'm doing work that'll go on my resumé.

            The truth isn't that far off really: I'm dealing MDMA. I get the stuff from this University of New Mexico Organic Chemistry TA who I met through a friend of a friend at a party. It was the first time I'd rolled and, by the time I'd come down, we'd come up with a whole business plan. Anyway, my three years of Marketing classes come in handy as a drug-dealer: social media management, consumer psychology, even branding—I get these little bluish plastic baggies at the fabric store that are supposed to be for jewelry-makers to hold beads and stuff, but they are the perfect size for a dose of molly, and I call them "party-favors." No one around here says "molly" or "E" or "X" anymore, they ask for "party-favors" because of the bags and, therefore, they're willing to pay a little more for "quality" even though I'm selling them basically the same stuff as every shit-talking hood-rat tweaker. I'll go back to school someday, finish. Maybe I'll write a paper on all this. But for now, my dad needs me, so this is what I do.

***

            Tuesday nights, I go to mom's for dinner. Dad always makes sure he's painting when it's time for me to leave, and today is no different. I used to stick my head in the studio door and say goodbye but then, the next Tuesday, he'd have his music a little louder, and again the next Tuesday, and again. Now I just leave, quickly and quietly.

            The drive to mom's isn't long. She moved to the other side of town, to a small apartment in a brand-new building: gleaming white kitchen, thickly gorgeous carpets, the smell of paint still slowly fading. Everything inside smacks of the future: the swoopy appliances in the kitchen, the tiny tankless toilet, even the way all the doors slide into the walls instead of swinging open. Everything, that is, except the answering machine. The black plastic and faux-wood finish stick out in the whiteness of the living room, the red glow from the message light bouncing off the walls. And the light is always blinking when I get there. Last time, when I hit play, I deleted seventeen messages that all began with my dad saying my mother's name. "Lulu." Delete. Click. "Lulu." Delete. Click. "Lulu." Same cadence. Same volume. Same brief pause before he spoke, same sigh in his voice.

            I slip the key mom gave me into the lock, slide the front door into the wall and step through. The light on the answering machine isn't blinking—I had a talk with dad after the last time, told him, lied to him, really, that he was never going to get her back if he kept calling and calling. The truth is he's never going to get her back, period. I'm twenty-one, I have no illusions about my parents getting back together, living happily ever after. I think the only happily ever after for either of them is apart. Maybe, maybe, if he quit the League, let go of Señor Sinister, maybe. But even that may be too little, too late now. Anyway, it was a white lie and it seemed to have worked. I slip my shoes off on the mat just inside the door.


The light on the answering machine isn't blinking—I had a talk with dad after the last time, told him, lied to him, really, that he was never going to get her back if he kept calling and calling. The truth is he's never going to get her back, period.


            There's clinking and clanking coming from the kitchen, so I pad quietly to the doorway, lean against the aperture where the door disappears into the wall, and just watch for a few minutes. My mother is beautiful. Not hot or sexy or any of that, but beautiful—long, maple hair in a loose braid, the end bobbing wildly as she shimmies to some old country tune, chopping peppers and singing softly, an apron around the waist of a dress that she stole right out of June Cleaver's closet, her bare feet thumping the tile. It's more than her long neck or her pale green eyes, it's the shimmying, the singing that makes it easy to see why dad loves her like he does.

            She does a little turn, sees me, and nearly jumps up onto the counter, the knife clattering to the floor.

            "Oh, god, mom, sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to scare you." I wrap my arms around her quickly. "Hi," I say.

            "I could have cut my toes off, Keith," she says, nudging the knife handle with her bare foot, but she squeezes me anyway.

            "Maybe you should wear some shoes, then, hippie."

            She slaps my shoulder. "Fajitas okay?"

            I pick the knife up and hand it to her. "Always." She rinses it off and goes back to chopping. "So, what's the word?" Mom's an English teacher and we've played this game our whole lives, trying to come up with an interesting word to describe how we're feeling or what's been going on.

            "Intrigued," she says, pushing the strips of pepper off the cutting board with the flat of the blade. She picks up the fat onion and cuts it in half. "I heard your father is doing a fundraiser for pediatric cancer."

            "Oh, yeah, Dougie's grandson has leukemia, so dad offered to do a thing. Arm-wrestle Señor Sinister for a chance to win stuff, that kind of thing." I pick up a strip of pepper, shake the water off it, and pop it in my mouth. "How'd you find out? Did dad—"

            "No." She finishes pulling the skin off the onion and starts slicing it into thick strips. "Marsha told me. I was at Dougie's and she mentioned it." She stops slicing for a second. "It's a good thing he's doing." The knife begins to click-clack again. "It's the kind of thing he should be doing. He's a good man, your father."

            "I know, mom." I put a hand on her shoulder. "I think he's, you know, trying to make some changes."

            The knife stops again. She puts her hand on mine, takes a deep breath, lets it out. "That's… good. It's good. Good for him." She shakes her head, lets go of my hand, and resumes chopping. "So, what's the word with you?" She finishes the onion. "And please let it be 'offspring' or 'matrimony' or at least 'paramour.'"

            "Hungry is the word, mom. Starving. Famished. Ravenous. Esurient, even."

            "Oh, that's a good one," she says, waving the knife at me. "Esurient. Where'd you learn that one?"

            "I looked it up on the internet before I left home. I keep a list of them on my phone."

            "Cheater," she laughs.

            By the end of dinner, I smell like a fajita. I can smell myself in the car all the way home, so I don't even stop to say hello to dad, just head straight downstairs and strip off my clothes, climb back upstairs to the bathroom in a robe and flip-flops—my dad's athlete's foot is an invincible, monstrous strain that I want nothing to do with.

            My dad calls from his studio, "Hitting the showers, champ?"

            "Fajita-stink," I say. "They were tasty, though." Without thinking, I stop just outside the bathroom and add, "Marsha told mom about the cancer thing, the benefit." Dad rolls into the doorway of his studio. "She thinks it's good. That you're being good." I smile. Again, I really don't think they'll get back together, but it seems like such a small thing to cheer him up a little. I don't want to make to big a thing of it, though, so I sniff my armpit and say, "Man, those fajitas are powerful."

            I duck into the bathroom and shut the door. As I slip the robe off, I look in the mirror. I'm thinner, ropier than my dad. I take after my mom's side that way. Reedy is how they put it. My dad, he's a mountain, was one even before he started wrestling. That's what she loved about him, mom always said, how big and mean he looked and how sweet and silly he really was, his stupid jokes and his paintings and the way he would always scoop her off the floor when he hugged her, which was often. It killed her that they made him a bad guy. She hated everyone hating him. And she hated that he didn't. More than the injuries and the stubbornness, that's why she left, because she couldn't stand being the only one who saw him for what he really is.


It killed her that they made him a bad guy. She hated everyone hating him. And she hated that he didn't. More than the injuries and the stubbornness, that's why she left, because she couldn’t stand being the only one who saw him for what he really is.


            I turn and twist, checking out the hard lines of the muscles under my skin. They don't bulge like dad's but they are there. And I have his hands, thick, massive things that dwarf the hot water knob of the shower when I open it up all the way. If my skin isn't bright red when I'm done showering, I haven't showered.

            When I come out of the bathroom, my dad's chair is twirling empty in the middle of his studio. "Dad," I call. No reply. I drip water in the living room. The kitchen. The dining room. All of them empty. I push open his bedroom door and he's not there, either. Before I pull the door closed, I hear mumbling, so I walk to the closet, these big mirrored sliding doors, and open them.

            My dad is lying on the closet floor, flat on his back, whispering into the cordless phone, pleading really, "…pick up and let me hear your voice, if you'd just do that, just that, for me—"

            I snatch the phone out of his hand. He puffs up his chest, growls, grabs for the phone but I know it's all an act: he isn't going to armbar me, give me the old flying cross, or snap my neck with his signature Destructor de Vértebras.

            I thumb the TALK button and hang up on mom's answering machine. He deflates. I drop the handset on his chest.

            "Need help out of there?"

            "Yes."

            I need to shower again once dad is back in his chair, I'm so sweaty. The hot water's mostly gone, but that's ok—I deserve the slowly chilling stream pouring over me. This is my fault. This is why I keep my mouth shut. I ruin things when I talk. Stupid. It's not that they were going to get back together, not really, but, I can't help it; for a second there I saw something like hope. As the water finally reaches its coldest, my face is still warm.

            When I get out the second time, dad is wheeling around the kitchen, prepping his dinner. I can smell a batch of his lasagna baking. I hear the crack of the Romaine lettuce as he makes a huge Caesar salad in one of the serving bowls.

            "Need some help?"

            "I took a Supernatural Suplex from Magic Martin, kid. I can whip up a lazagnee." That's how he says it, even though he's mostly Italian. He thinks it's funny. Most people around here think he's Mexican—hence his stage name—and he lets them, although he also says "ta-COOS" instead of "TAH-coes." Not much of a comedian, my dad.

            I give him an obviously fake laugh and he smiles. He wheels to the fridge for the salad dressing, the bowl bouncing in his lap, shakes the almost empty bottle close to his ear, eyes closed to better hear the swish of the dressing. Unsatisfied, he rolls to the pantry and comes out with a fresh bottle, rips the paper seal with his teeth, and empties it into the bowl. With a shrug, he adds the dregs from the old bottle, too. The salad goes on the kitchen table next to the French loaf he's going to eat in several large, butter-slathered hunks.

            He seems fine. Like there's nothing wrong.

            I stop at the table on my way to the basement door, pick out a dressing-soaked crouton, shavings of parmesan sticking off it like dry skin.

            "Hey, hands off," dad says, slapping my wrist. I lose the crouton, a red outline of his fingers rising on my skin even though he was just screwing around. He's stronger than anything. I shuffle to the stairs, shaking the sting from my hand.

            I know I don't have to mention the phone call. He's whistling. Whatever mood hit him has passed. He'll leave her alone. But I can't help myself, I need to relieve some of this guilt. "Why'd you do it, dad?"

            "I like the croutons."

            I cock my head. I'’s something every time I do it, my dad says I look just like my mother. He knows what it means, what I mean. "The call, dad," I say. His shoulders slump.

            "They gave me a choice, Keith. The AWF guys. They needed heroes and villains both when I joined up, so they let me choose. I mean, they wanted me to bleach my hair blonde if I went the good-guy route, but still, I could have. I chose to be a villain." He picks up the crouton I tried to steal, holds it between his thumb and forefinger. "You know why?" He crushes the crouton to powder. "Because people need villains, Keith. That way, they can look at themselves, at their lives, what they've done or not done, and say, 'Well, at least I'm not Señor Sinister.'" He sucks the crouton dust and dressing off his fingers. The oven timer dings and he spins away from me, grabs the pot holders, takes out the lasagna. I open the basement door, close it behind me without a word.


"I chose to be a villain.” He picks up the crouton I tried to steal, holds it between his thumb and forefinger. "You know why?" He crushes the crouton to powder. "Because people need villains, Keith. That way, they can look at themselves, at their lives, what they've done or not done, and say, 'Well, at least I'm not Señor Sinister.'"


***

            Thursday morning, the sound of my dad's wheels whirling wakes me. It's 5am, so I reach out and turn off my alarm—it's set for 7am and I don't see any reason why either of us should get what we want. I shamble upstairs in my robe and flip-flops, stomp to the studio, and promptly take a wad of lilac paint in the chest.

            My dad notices on his next rotation, says "Sorry," on the third, and coasts to a stop on the sixth. He drops his brushes in the plastic bucket in the corner, tosses me a beat-up rag from the pile next to it. "It's acrylic," he says, "it'll wash right off." I rub at the paint and it smears across my chest. "Did you wax?" My dad chins at the bareness of my sternum.

            I keep my eyes on the rag. "Mom's favorite color?"

            "Is it?" My dad wheels across the room, his back to me, inspecting a chunk of wood the size of an CD cover. "Hadn't noticed."

            "You're up early."

            "Nerves."

            "I'll shower, then Dougie's?"

            "Can we afford it?"

            I squint at him. "When did you turn into Scrooge McDuck? Want me to fill your bedroom with gold coins so you can go swimming?"

            "I just… I put a lot of strain on you. A lot of responsibility and—"

            "We can afford couple of haystacks, pop. My treat." I stop and look at the painting nearest the door, a piece of old wood paneling. These pieces are different, brighter colors, thinner streaks, smaller globs. Pretty, almost. "I like these," I say.

            "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, they're something new."

            My dad's leg is bouncing on the way to the hospital from Dougie's. The meal went by mostly in silence, which I took for leftover tension about money. Now, though, I'm not so sure. "You're shaking the whole car, King Kong," I say, reaching out and putting my hand on his knee.

            "Sorry. Sorry."

            "It's just going to be some college kids and middle-aged dads."

            "Your mom's coming." He cricks his neck. "She called. She's going to come by."

            I take a deep breath. "Well, that's good, right?"

            "We'll see, Keith."

            When we get to the hospital, we're ushered through the loading dock into a large, empty room. In the center, under a bright work light like the ones in the operating rooms, is a small wooden table and two chairs. Two people, local news anchor Donny Donaldson and the hospital's PR rep, who doesn't give us her name, are standing around. The PR lady tells my dad he'll sit in the left chair, the "sinister" one, laughing at her own cleverness. Donny laughs, too. My dad nods curtly, so she composes herself quickly, asks him if he needs anything, water or a snack. He just nods again, unzips and shrugs off his sweatshirt, yanks at his snap-sided warm-up pants, revealing the full Señor Sinister outfit underneath, and sits in the left-hand chair.

            "Ok, then," the lady says. "I'll go tell them to start letting people in."

            "Vito," Donny says, "great match on Saturday. It really looked like you snapped Albin's neck. You've got the Destructor down to an art. All those years of practice." Even I can tell he's calling my dad old. Donny used to wrestle, back in his early 20s. His ring-name was The Kid. He may be the only person my father ever hated. Called Donny a "tourist" back then, wasn't at all surprised when he used his connections to land a gig doing weather. His signature move was called, unsurprisingly, the Next Big Thing. It was just the Destructor de Vértebras where the sound guys played an electric guitar sting at impact. "Maybe we should set up a charity match, me and you."

            "Fuck you, Donny." The words hang there.

            "He's getting in character, Mr. Donaldson," I say, stepping between them. "It takes some time for him to, you know, get sinister."

            Donny slowly smiles. "Old school. This'll be fun."

            The doors on the far end of the room open up and a group of people filter in, mostly, as I guessed, frat guys with their girlfriends and athlete-gone-to-seed dads with their kids. A few of the children are in hospital gowns, their fathers or mothers pulling an IV stand along behind them, tubes of varying colors running into and out of the backs of hands, the crooks of elbows. One kid, he can't be older than six, is in a wheelchair, his dad pushing with one hand, pulling the stand with the other.

            "I've been looking forward to meeting you." I turn my head and there's a police officer standing there. I stumble back a couple steps when he puts out his hand. I wonder who gave me up—it had to be Maggie.

            "Can we not do this right now?" I ask the cop but I'm looking at my dad.

            "Oh, yeah, sorry, it's just, your mom…"

            He trails off because I'm staring at my mom and dad chatting. They both seem wary but they're talking. She turns to me. "There he is."

            I wave as the cop steps past me, his hand still out. "Phil Ruiz," he says, shaking my dad's hand. "A pleasure to meet you. Luellyn has told me a lot about you and, if I can be honest, I'm a big fan. Well, not a fan but, you know. You're a great villain."

            "Keith," my mom says, this time actually talking to me, "did you meet my friend Phil?"

            Just then, the kid in the wheelchair starts wailing. "No, daddy, no!" His dad is pushing him up closer to the front, closer to my dad, and the kid's shaking his head and trying to scoot over the back of the chair. "No, he hurt All-American Alan! No! No, he's a bad guy!"

            The kid's dad is trying to soothe him, telling him it's all made up, that my dad isn't what he seems. My dad rises up from his chair, squeaking it back a few inches with his calves. The noise draws everyone's attention.

            "Oh, I am a bad guy," my dad growls at the kid, who goes silent and motionless with terror. Dad shifts his gaze to the dad. "What are you gonna do about it?" Without waiting for the dad's shocked mouth to move, he continues, "What? What did you say?" my dad shouts, putting his hand to his ear, "You think you can beat me at arm-wrestling? Ha! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!" He hops onto his chair so fluidly, so gracefully, that it's hard to believe this is the same man who needs help out of the car. "Do you hear that, everybody? This… weakling thinks he can beat me in an arm-wrestling match! Who here thinks he can win? Huh? Speak up! Or better yet, put your money where your mewling mouths are! Who'll bet $20 that this pathetic chump can best the mighty Señor Sinister?"


"Do you hear that, everybody? This… weakling thinks he can beat me in an arm-wrestling match! Who here thinks he can win? Huh? Speak up! Or better yet, put your money where your mewling mouths are! Who'll bet $20 that this pathetic chump can best the mighty Señor Sinister?”


            Hands shoot up throughout the crowd as my dad drops into his seat. Donny sputters into action, turning on his mic and directing folks to place their bets with one of the nurses circulating with clipboards. "All money goes to the fight against pediatric cancer, but each bet you win is another entry in our grand prize raffle!" Donny flourishes his arms, brandishes his smile. People around the room hand over their $20. Dad puts his elbow on the table, rotates his wrist, flexes his bicep. The dad gulps. I don't blame him. Even I can't tell if my dad is faking it this time. His eyes are flicking all over the room, the crowd—at Donny, the nurses, my mom, me, the wheelchair kid—the only one he isn't looking at is Phil.

            It is possible that my dad is going to rip this poor guy's arm off.

            The kid is hysterical. The dad is almost catatonic. My dad turns his gaze directly at the guy, and he isn't in there. Those are Señor Sinister's eyes. He raises a hand, calls the dad forward with his index finger. The guy stumbles forward, pushed by the cheering crowd, sits down across the table, arms loosely at his sides. The crowd goes silent. Except for the kid—he's crying now, big ugly sobs. I don't know what else to do, so I squat down next to him. "It's ok," I whisper, "Señor Sinister is my daddy. He's just pretending. He isn't going to hurt your daddy. He's really a nice guy, he's just playing a part." The kid turns big, wet eyes toward me. "I promise," I say, hoping that my dad isn't going to make a liar out of me.

            My dad waggles his fingers and the kid's dad snaps to attention, wraps his hand around my dad's gingerly, tenderly. Donny steps up, wraps both his hands around their locked hands. "One, two…" After a suitably dramatic pause, he lets go, shouting, "Wrestle!"

            My dad almost slams the guys's hand to the table immediately. Just before contact, he stops, or the dad stops him, but from the surprised look on the guy's face, I'm pretty sure he isn't actually doing anything. Suddenly, though, he's got my dad back at 90 degrees. My dad's arm is shaking, his bicep bulging, but to no avail. Slowly, slowly, the guy starts winning. And now he's into it. Grinning. Mugging for his son. Giving thumbs up to the now-cheering crowd as he pushes my dad's hand closer and closer to the table top. The guy locks eyes with my dad at the last moment, slams his hand into the formica with a loud slap, then jumps up out of his seat, hands above his head, triumphant. The crowd goes wild. My dad just sits there, silent, his hand laid out on the table.

            The kid asks his dad, when he returns from high-fiving the front row of the crowd, "What's the big deal, daddy?" The kid nods at me as his dad wheels him toward the back. "He says that Señor Sinister was gonna let you win."

            The rest of the event goes similarly. My dad lets most of his opponents win, with the exception of the biggest douchebag frat guys—those guys he disposes of in seconds. One guy, a security guard for the hospital, beats my dad fair and square. My dad gives him an appreciative nod and the guard slaps him on the arm, says, "You've still got it, man."

            "We have time for one last opponent," Donny calls.

            “Well, I'll kick myself if I don't at least try,” Phil says, unbuttoning the cuff of his dark blue police uniform shirt. He rolls up the sleeve to his elbow as he takes the chair across from dad. He smiles, putting his arm up in the middle of the table.

            The crowd starts betting, Donny goading them on. "This is your last chance to get in on the grand prize raffle! Señor Sinister will fight the law—will the law win?" Donny really is a toolbox.

            I look at my mom. Her face is so neutral, I can't tell if she's doing it on purpose, trying to hide her horror or pleasure at this turn of events, or if she really doesn't care one way or the other. If I asked her what the word was, would she say "mortified?" Or would she go with "vindicated?"

            My dad is just staring straight ahead. He's breathing heavy. His face, too, is blank.

            Donny waves his arms, "Ok, last bets, last bets!" The nurses finish taking money and drift back to the edges of the crowd. Things go silent. Phil waggles his fingers and my dad slowly clasps his hand.

            "Don't hold back, now," Phil says, still smiling.

            Donny wraps his hands around theirs. "One, two…"



 

            In the car on the way home, my dad's leg is still, his hands in his lap. "So, did he beat you straight or did you let him win?"

            "Why did you say that to the kid?" He's staring out the window, not looking at me.

            "What?"

            "Why did you tell the kid in the wheelchair I was acting?"

            "He was a mess, dad. I didn't want him to be scared."

            "If you had left it alone, Keith, that kid would think his dad was a hero. He would be a hero, as far as that kid was concerned." He cricks his neck. "You ruined that. Don't do it again."

            We ride home the rest of the way in silence. I help dad out of the car and he says, "Thanks." Inside, I ask if he wants some lunch and he says, "No," goes into his studio, and turns on his music. I eat a ham sandwich lying on my bed in the basement, the sound of dad's wheels above me just noise now.

***

            Saturday night, I take my time picking out my outfit for the party. My competition would show up in a stained, threadbare Lakers jersey and baggy jean shorts, a backward baseball cap covering greasy hair. I go with some dark cords and a button-down in a complementary color, roll the sleeves loosely, leave it untucked. Comb my hair, put a little product in it. Spritz a little cologne on my neck. Fill my pockets with party-favors.

            I can't drive dad's busted-up wood-paneled station wagon to the party, so Maggie picks me up a few blocks from my house. Her debt will be right back to what it was by the end of the night. I'm feeling magnanimous, though, so instead I give her a party-favor for free as soon as I get in the car. She reaches over and paws at my crotch in return, so I pick her hand up at the wrist and drop it back on her lap. "I wasn't doing that to get more," she says.

            "I know," I say and stare hard out the window.

            When we get to the party, I have to pry her off my arm—my appearing single helps me sell to women. Once I get her dislodged, I ask her who she knows here that would appreciate meeting me. She says she'll go get Diamond, whoever that is, and she kisses me, her tongue and teeth pressing against my closed lips before she disappears into the crowd.

            It's a good party: music; lots of sweaty, half-dressed girls dancing, knots of not-yet-gone-to-seed ex-high-school athletes watching them; a couple kegs of half-decent beer. I get myself a red plastic cup and stand in line.

            This is the kind of party, I think, that Phil busts up. I can't stop thinking about Phil. Phil and my mom. My mom bringing Phil to the hospital. My dad has been quiet since Thursday, one- or two-word sentences. He's been painting a lot, lavender and lilac and white, even a few shades of pink. I'm worried. But I've got bills to pay, so I've got to get my head in the game. Need to focus up, make some sales. Maybe dad and I can take a trip, camping or something. Get out of the house, away from everything. This is the kind of place I can make some extra cash, enough to take a few days off. Focus. Up.


This is the kind of party, I think, that Phil busts up. I can't stop thinking about Phil. Phil and my mom. 


            "Keith?" Someone taps me on the shoulder. "Keith Alduino! Oh my god!" The tapper is Paul Kirkland. We went to grade school, junior high, and high school together. He's the first guy I kissed. We had a thing for a few weeks before we realized it was too hard to keep secret. "Keith Alduino," he repeats, shaking his head, looking me up and down. He looks good: black v-neck tee, tight jeans, shit-kickers. Pale green eyes peeking out above the freckles spattered across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, like someone splashed him with paint.

            "Paul." I shuffle up to the now-unmanned pump. "After you," I say, sweeping my arm toward the keg. He nods once and steps up, his red cup raised. "Say when," and then I fill it to the rim. He laughs.

            "How's things?" He sips his beer, waiting for my answer.

            "You know," I say.

            "No, I don't, which is why I asked."

            "Well, I'm back home. With my old man."

            "I saw the match last weekend. Intense. Weird, too—he was always so nice at meets and stuff." Paul and I had run track together. My dad came to every meet.

            "Yeah, well, he's getting too old for the wrestling shit but he doesn't want to stop."

            "So you're helping your mom take care of him? That's sweet."

            "No. Mom split. She lives on the other side of town, now."

            Paul sips his beer but doesn't break eye contact. "I'm sorry, Keith," he says after swallowing, and he means it. "That's gotta be hard." He gives me a sad smile.

            "It isn't so bad. I keep busy."

            He smiles again, less sad this time. "I hope not so busy that you can't grab a drink sometime."

            "No," I sputter, "no, I could, uh, make some time for that, I think."

            "Good." He stops halfway to his next sip. "Wait," he says, "you don't have a boyfriend or a husband or anything, right?"

            I laugh. "No, uh, I'm, you know, single."

            "Good." He tips his cup at me then takes his sip.

            A douchebag in pre-stressed jeans, a popped-collar pastel polo, and leather sandals walks up. He looks like my ideal customer: young, dumb, and flush with cash. I nod.

            "Hello," he says.

            "Hey."

            "I'm Richard. This is my house. Who are you?"

            "Oh, hey, hi, Richard," I say, switching my cup so I can offer him a handshake. "I'm Keith. I'm a friend of Maggie's?"

            "Oh, yeah? And how do you know Maggie, Keith?"

            Paul, standing behind Richard, shoots me a What's this guy's deal look. But I know his deal. His deal is he knows my deal. He knows why I'm here. "From work. How do you know her?"

            "From work, huh? And what is it you do, Keith?"

            Just then, up walks Maggie.

            "Keith! I found Diamond!" Maggie's beaming like an over-proud toddler. Trailing behind her is a girl. Black turtleneck. Wire-rim glasses. Straight, fine, brown hair that looks dusty. I recognize her at the same time she recognizes me. She's managing to look as bored in the middle of a party as she does behind the counter of an art supply store.

            The music thumps and all around us bodies writhe. Someone has found the light switch and is flipping it in a syncopated beat. Richard looks from Maggie to Diamond back to me. Paul is still confused, his mouth screwed up, his left eyebrow cocked, head pulled back on his neck so his chin is tucked to his chest, red cup paused halfway to his mouth.

            There's a moment in all my dad's wrestling matches where the hero reels from dad's last move, stumbling around blind from an overdramatic eye-rake or swaying almost-unconscious from a well-choreographed and perfectly executed La Vida Loca (a simple side-slam during which my dad screams, "AYE-YI-YI-YI!") and dad stalks around the edges of the ring, circling the hero, enjoying, the crowd thinks, or pretends to think, or pretends to pretend to think, his evil handiwork, savoring the hero's pain before performing the coup-de-grace or, in this case, El Destructor de Vértebras, a moment that he always seemingly relishes a bit too much, lets ride a beat too long, because when he finally moves in for the finisher, when he crouches low and grabs for the dazed hero's waist, he finds the hero recovered, the powerful arms of Glitterboy wrapped around his neck in preparation for a Glitterdust, Louie Lapin leaping over his back and hooking his ankles under dad's arms to deliver a Jackrabbit Slam, or All-American Alan simply bringing one star-spangled kneepad up into dad's face, apparently laying him out cold, playing possum so Albin can whip the crowd into a frenzy before climbing the ropes and pinning dad with his patented Shock and Awe just as dad stirs on the mat—this is that, but I'm not sure if I'm dad or Albin, if I'm swaying or stalking or, more importantly, what everyone else, what Paul, sees.

            Diamond pushes her glasses back up her nose. "Hey, you're Señor Sinister's son. Sell me drugs, Little Sinister." She could call that move The Heartbreaker. Paul steps back two paces, bumps into the wall behind him.


"Hey, you're Señor Sinister's son. Sell me drugs, Little Sinister." She could call that move The Heartbreaker. Paul steps back two paces, bumps into the wall behind him.


            Richard pulls out his cellphone.

            "Hey, hold on now," I say, putting my hand on his arm but it's already too late.

            He pulls away from me. "I'm calling the cops."

            "The cops?" Maggie and Diamond look at each other. "See you around, Keith," Maggie says and the two of them melt back into the crowd.

            "Maggie's a fuck-up," Richard says, "but you're just trash. Mexican drug-dealing trash."

            And suddenly it doesn't matter to me anymore whether I'm stalking or swaying, whether I'm the hero or the villain. I feel my hands, the huge, powerful hands I got from my dad, I feel them curl tight, feel the knuckles whiten. "My dad's Italian, you stupid fucker," I hiss and it might as well be AYE-YI-YI-YI because I'm crossing the space between him and me before I even finish.

            I've never punched anyone. Never. Hands like mine, I've always been sort of afraid of them, of what they can do. When my knuckles slam into Richard's face, I can't describe the feeling. There's horror, yes, at the crunch, at the cold, wet sound, but there's also elation, a surge of something like joy, something awesome in the Biblical sense. I'm in awe of what I've just done.

            Richard goes down flat on his back and I move to follow him toward the ground, to fall on him the way my dad falls upon The Ambassador or The Dandy or All-American Alan, teeth bared, hands like claws. A hand on my shoulder stops me. It's Paul. He's strong. He pulls me back, slams me up against the wall. "That's enough," he says.

            "Yes, hello, I want to report a disturbance at my home…" Richard has his hand over his nose, blood welling from between the fingers. Paul pushes me toward the front door. I let him push me a few times. People jostle and scramble out of our way. When my back hits the door, Paul shoves me one last time.

            "You're a drug dealer?"

            I nod sheepishly, then add, "It's only MDMA, it's not, like meth or heroin or anything."

            He blanches. "Well, it was nice to see you, Keith. Good luck with your… career or whatever."

            He turns to the coat rack and I grab his elbow. "Paul, wait." He shakes me off, pulls on his black coat, opens the door into me and squeezes out into the night. I slip out behind him, follow him to the edge of the yard.

            "Seriously, Keith, get away," he says as I tug on his sleeve.

            "Wait just… wait, ok?" He cocks his head, doesn't leave. "Yeah, ok, I'm a drug dealer. But we need the money, Paul. My dad's a nightmare, you know? Won't quit wrestling even though he's a mess. All his money goes to doctors for pain pills so he can stay in the ring. That's why mom left." I sit down in the front yard gravel. "I couldn't let him just crash. I'm doing the best I can. If he'd just get his shit together… You think I like this? You think I don't want to be finishing school? This is his fault, Paul. And… I don't know what to do."


"Yeah, ok, I'm a drug dealer. But we need the money, Paul. My dad's a nightmare, you know? Won't quit wrestling even though he's a mess. All his money goes to doctors for pain pills so he can stay in the ring. That's why mom left."



            Paul considers what I've said. Then he shakes his head. "Bullshit," he says. "Bullshit, Keith. The way you went at that guy in there?" He shakes his head, pulls out his keys, presses the fob and the lights of a black pick-up at the curb flash. "I hope you can get your shit together, Keith." He salutes me, turns, and walks to his truck.

            I watch his taillights fade. I'm still on my knees in the front-yard gravel when the door opens again behind me.

            "Keith, you gotta go," Maggie says, hustling up to me. "Seriously, the cops are on the way." She puts a hand on my shoulder. "Can I drive you someplace to hide out or whatever?"

            I put my hand on hers. "They gave him a choice, Maggie, my dad. The league. He told me he could've been a good guy, but he chose to be Señor Sinister."

            "Keith," she says, "I can hear sirens."

            "When he calls my mom? Over and over and over? That isn't for him. It's for her. To make it easier for her. To let her hate him."

            "We can go to my uncle's fishing cabin for a while, if you want. Lay low."

            "He's a good man pretending to be bad in order to be good."

            "Keith?"

            "That's the magic of it."

            "Let's go, Keith. Right now."

            The lights of the cop cars splash colors all over the houses as they go, rubber wheels whirling on the pavement, the reds and blues dulled to pinks and purples by the night, and somewhere out in the desert, on the other side of the backyards and fences, a coyote howls before scurrying away, into the darkness.


Eric Rampson is a Chicago-based writer who spent almost two decades studying and performing improv comedy before getting his MFA in Fiction from The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His fiction has appeared in The Logan Square Literary Review, Trembles, and Change Seven Magazine. His comic book work is published by Markosia (The Silver Bullet) and Lonely Robot Comics (The Redeemers). When he isn't writing, he is spending time with his family and/or playing board games.