Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Sam Wiebe


"heel turn"

 

            I had it easy compared to Joe Morris, who finally got over, age forty, working a gimmick as a wrestling retard. No fooling. Joe would cut the nipple off a sinus spray bottle, shove that in his nostril to make his face look all scrunched. Come staggering out to the ring like Boris Karloff, slobbering and grinning, thrilled when the emcee called his name. Lot of people thought that was shameful, but Joe had a family. The guy earned off that gimmick, he drew, and for a while the fans loved him.

            End of the day, it's whatever elevates you from being a jobber. Boss says you're a fireman, you start hitting up the pound for Dalmatians. He says you're a punk rocker, you start putting safety pins through your tits. It's all about the draw. You don't draw, you don't get paid more than gas money. Just how it works.

            I was Hammerin' Abe Henry for two years. Came to the ring with a hard hat, tool belt. Hard to grapple wearing overalls, but I only had five or ten minute spots. Hammerin' Abe lost a lot. The kind of good-hearted guy, things don't ever seem to work out for. Who wants to see more than ten minutes of that?

            One day, Boss calls me in. His office is next to the locker rooms. Cramped and dusty, but every big decision in the promotion gets made out of there. Says he's had a thunderbolt. Hammerin' Abe is dying out there. Henceforth I'm Chief Red Stick, Apache warrior prince, mortal foe of the white man. My finishing move is the Buffalo Lance, a deadly flying clothesline taught to me by my medicine man father.

            Now, I got my status card. I got Squamish and Ojibway in me, as well as Finnish and some Dutch. I spent time on reservations. I can pull this off so it's not a red Amos 'n Andy. But it sits ill and I say so.
 


End of the day, it's whatever elevates you from being a jobber. Boss says you're a fireman, you start hitting up the pound for Dalmatians. He says you're a punk rocker, you start putting safety pins through your tits.


            Boss's reply is simple. You're over thirty and under six foot. You got a bad ankle and a repaired ACL and various other ailments. You can gig as Chief Red Stick with a scrawny but real chance to draw, or you can job for pretty boys with no skills till your knees give out.

            A gig's a gig. Me and Ernie hit up the Superfluity for a buckskin vest and a bear claw pendant. I'm hating this. Red Stick's going to fail and I'll be out of work. Ernie tells me it's not so bad. He should know. He's stuck as a weak mid-card playing this British aristocrat, Lord Falsingham. Prairie boy and that's what he ends up with.

            First night, I'm scheduled to job to the Yokels. They're a three-man tag that used to be the top heel team when they were Critical Condition. Their mistake, they asked the Boss for an even split on merch. Why not ask him to open a vein? Boss's reply: I can make and unmake anyone I please. Critical Condition became Clete, Pete and Gomer, the Yokels.

            I thought at the time it was resentment that made him change things so I'd come out ahead. Or generosity to me. Any case, I get to cut a promo before my win.

            The emcee sets me up nice. "Chief Red Stick, what is it you wish to tell this capacity crowd?"

            And I launch into it. "I'm here tonight to tell all you palefaces that war is coming. The red man will have his revenge this Sunday at the Cloverdale Arena. Get ready, Yokels. Get ready, palefaces. Your scalps are mine."

            Know the throat-cutting gesture, the thumb across the jugular? I do that, only I draw my thumb across my forehead while lifting up a hank of my hair. Boss liked that touch. "Sold it nicely," he says.

            Sunday. I come out to war drums on the PA. My new red tights have a feather decaled on the ass. I step through the ropes and repeat my scalping gesture. Boss told me to war whoop, but I can't quite bring myself to.

            Crowds are funny. They're cattle, slow and stupid and set off by the weirdest things. You can't get them to change direction, or stop, or go the other way. But if they're set off, and you get out in front, you can steer them a bit.

            Our crowd isn't that big, isn't all that into the match. But boy do they hate Chief Red Stick. Booing. Catcalls. A whole sea of white middle fingers.

            The Yokels come out, do their inbred shtick. I'm wrestling Gomer, who's a CPA now, did pretty well in futures after hanging it up.

            Ding ding ding.

            I let Gomer start. We lock up and he overpowers me. Medium cheer from the crowd. We try it again and this time when it looks like Gomer's going to outpower me I boot him in the groin, show him that Red Stick doesn't horse around. Irish whip followed by a scoop slam. Once he's down I cinch him in an old school grapevine leglock.


"I'm here tonight to tell all you palefaces that war is coming."


            Gomer's writhing in pain, pounding on the mat trying to summon the strength. What he's really doing is catching his breath. We're doing ten minutes, which is eight more than Gomer has wind for. Why he usually works tag.

            Even though I got it clinched textbook, Gomer manages to power out of the grapevine. We're on our feet. I try to clock him in the mug but he grabs my fist, wags his finger, not today. He muscles me back into the turnbuckle and fires off knife-edged chops to the tit. They make a nice loud sound but they sting like hell.

            Gomer hits a big splash, mashing me into the turnbuckle. He's got it all sealed up now. He goes up to the top rope. Turns out Red Stick's playing possum. I slither over and pop him in the abdomen, crotching him on the post. He falls back into the ring as I prance around, telling the crowd what a diabolical cuss I am. I even spit on Clete, who pops up onto the apron. While the ref's dealing with him, I work over Gomer in the corner.

            Then I call the finish. Gomer somehow fights back and seizes me in a bearhug. The crowd's loving it, this hillbilly squeezing the guts out of a red devil. But Red Stick's wily. I have a little medicine pouch around my neck. I open it and toss a handful of Apache Blinding Powder into Gomer's face. He drops me, staggers back, "My eyes, my eyes!" I bounce off the ropes and clobber him with my patented Buffalo Lance. Lights out. The ref counts. One, two, three.

            My first win in years, Red Stick's first ever. And what do I do? I kick Gomer while he's down. Then I fetch my tomahawk. And now I war whoop. This is John Wayne I've got before me. First I scalp him, then I go after his womenfolk.

            But Clete slides in, nick of time, and rolls Gomer to safety. I'm left holding my tomahawk, furious because even though I won, my vengeance against the white man will have to wait till the next show. And the crowd is pissed. Soda cans and hot dogs bounce off my chest. Someone hucks a chair that doesn't make it over the ropes. When I swagger out of the ring it's all security can do to keep the Cloverdale Arena from lunging at me with six hundred hands. I'd hear in the locker room that folks were waiting in the parking lot for Red Stick to come out.

            Best night of my life.


#


            It's not resentment or reward that led the Boss to give me the win. He thinks long-term. His regional title is held by the Young Firebrand Billy Donnelly. Good guy, nice guy, nice looking kid. Blond locks and one of those physiques. The pop he gets every night is ten times what I got from trying to scalp Gomer.

            But the Young Firebrand's now thirty-six and his blond locks are starting to thin out. Why the Boss is a genius, he figures, if Red Stick takes off, he's got a heel who can upset the Firebrand, not only upset but sheer his hair off as part of my gimmick. I hold the strap a couple weeks, then Billy comes back with a shaved head and the determination to get his rightful property back. The promotion draws, Billy stays a babyface while losing the look that made him one, and the villainous Red Stick draws all sorts of righteous heat.

            And if it fails he makes Ernie into some kind of demented barber and proceeds exactly the same.

            There's heat and there's heat, and I'm drawing heat. People loathe Red Stick. They despise him. Not the way they hated, say, the Butcher Boy or the Perfect Specimen, rascally heels, heels that were fun. This is the kind of hate that Colonel Von Stroheim drew in the early fifties, or the Defectors pulled in during 'Nam. This is serious, death threat, escort-from-the-building shit. This is hitting something in people they don’t really like about themselves.

            See, a heel can be a lot of things--cowardly, duplicitous, sadistic--sadists are my personal favorites--but he can't be too genuine. He can't make arguments that have too much truth in them. 'Cause the babyfaces aren't all that genuine. You get a genuine heel and a face that's a phony, it throws things off.

            Red Stick rises through the ranks. I nearly scalp half the promotion, but luckily there's always someone there to roll 'em out of the ring. I make war on Cocoa Jones the Inner City Stud. I fight a solid mid-carder with Bayou Johnny Tide. My favorite is a ten-man mixed tag against Ernie. It's Lord Falsingham and four midgets done up like little aristocrats versus Red Stick and his tribe of face-painted pygmies. Nobody works harder than a midget wrestler.


People loathe Red Stick. They despise him. … This is the kind of hate that Colonel Von Stroheim drew in the early fifties, or the Defectors pulled in during 'Nam. This is serious, death threat, escort-from-the-building shit. This is hitting something in people they don't really like about themselves.


            During that match, I'm outside the ring, rallying one of my little braves back into the squared circle. My back's to the crowd. This is the Agriplex, the staff are all dopers and security's looser than some of the ring rats. This guy in the second row who's smoking a big cigar, he leans over and puts out the stogie on the back of my neck.


            Talk about pain you're not ready for. I turn around and present that paleface with a gift-wrapped haymaker that plays musical chairs with his teeth. Sucker actually filed suit on us. Boss had to pay his dental bills to shush him up.

            Now, if a jobber had done some Tennessee dental work to a paying customer, the Boss would hand him his papers there and then. But Red Stick's drawing. He's got a cheering section that grows with every fight. Lot of Indians and mixed race people are getting behind him, and they're bringing their friends. Fights are breaking out between them and the crowd of whites who want to see Red Stick get his comeuppance.

            I'm getting road pussy too, like I've never seen before. Ring rats and waitresses, strippers and young runaways. I meet this one girl in a waffle house in Golden. Debbie. Long black hair, real pretty. I ask her if she wants to play Red Stick's valet. We spend a fun night coming up with names. I remember she suggested Running Sore, which was pretty good. It was the Boss that decided she’d be Spirit Wind.

            The big night. I'm three seconds from tapping out to the Firebrand's deadly Spider Clutch when Spirit Wind distracts the ref with a little leg. I gouge one of Billy's eyes, break his hold and split him open with a folding chair. When the ref turns back I've got a foot planted on a comatose Firebrand, my arms crossed. One, two, three.

            There's a sound of animal pain from the crowd. Except my fans. They're silent. They can't believe it.

            The ref hands me the strap and I shove him away and get on the mic to crow. "'Bout time this belt was held by a real man. This is only the beginning. We're gonna take back every rock, every stream, every piece of land you cheating palefaces stole from us. This sorry sonofagun is the best you got?" And here I kick Billy, who's selling it perfectly.

            Spirit Wind hands me my tomahawk and sits on Billy's chest. She's got sheers up the sleeve of her buckskin kimono. As she hunkers over, the crowd leans forward. "Is he--they're not--surely they can't--" I stand up and hold aloft a big hunk of yellow hair. The Firebrand’s hair. The ex-champion’s hair.

            There's a second where the outrage is so powerful it stops all noise. We can see what's coming, a tsunami of bottles and chairs and white grief. Debbie and I break character and scramble out as the Palace erupts.

            We don't even change costume, we just bolt for the car. We get in and lock the doors. People are swarming to us, violent-looking bastards. The engine on the Volvo doesn't turn over. Someone taps on the tires with a pipe. Popcorn and soda flow over the windshield.

            It's Ernie who saves us, pulling up his car parallel and clearing a path for Debbie and me. He drives us back to the hotel. His teeth are clenched.

            I ask him what's wrong.

            "Nothing," he says. "Pissed is all. Boss offered me that Red Stick character first. Turned him down, said I didn't think he'd fly.

            "You're a lucky sonofabitch," he says.


#


            The rematch is three months later. I'm riding a five-win streak. Since I'm the champ, if Billy wants another shot, it has to be on my terms, in my backyard. We're fighting at the Wigwam, which is Red Stick's sacred battleground. I stipulate that it won't be your average run of the mill match. I don't trust paleface refs with their obvious bias. No, if the Firebrand Billy Donnelly (he'd ditched the "Young") wants his shot, he'll have to summon the courage to face me in an Apache Wolf Den Match.

            In the locker room later, Billy asks me what the hell an Apache Wolf Den match is. That's a good question. We take the matter to the Boss, who tells us it'll be a cage match. With wolves. Loser gets staked out and eaten alive.

            I can't object since it's my idea. But I ask where he plans to get wolves, and how I'm supposed to survive getting mauled by them when I lose the strap to Billy. The Boss says he doesn't care about piddling details. Work it out, he tells us.

            We find a guy that runs a shelter for show biz dogs that are too old for TV work. He has a couple of defanged, doddering old German shepherds. Some silver spray paint and we have our wolves.

            The Boss oversells the Wigwam, which means people are packed onto the benches, the stairways, standing in the aisles. Fire codes be damned. I see a lot of red faces filtering in.

            For a solid sixty Billy and I tear it up in the cage. I rake his mug into the mesh, giving him time to work out the blade and give us a little juice. A good wrestling match doesn't need blood, but if it's tasteful, if it's done night, it adds that little bit extra.

            I've juiced plenty. Kind of an expert. But Billy, he's been a face so long he's out of practice. Worse, he's nervous. This is his comeback, his chance to prove he's more than just his hair. And Red Stick is over a lot more than he is, meaning the crowd hates me more than they like him.

            Billy juices but he cuts too deep and too wide. We wanted a little paint to make his fans worry. Instead we get Old Faithful. You check that ring canvas today, you'll still see faded brown blood stains from Red Stick-Fireball II.

            Bloody Billy takes a piledriver and as soon as he finds his footing he's knocked back by the mother of all Buffalo Lances. It's adios to the Firebrand. I start to climb the cage. First one out takes the title. People are hissing, throwing things. It can't end this way. When I reach the top of the cage I strike a few poses, show that not only am I going to beat Billy, but beat him bad.

            This gives Billy the time to crawl over to the door, unlock it and flop onto the concrete. I fall back into the ring as he lets slip the dogs.


#


            Being gummed by mutts isn't a bad end for Red Stick. When I get called to the Boss's office I'm expecting a bump back to the mid-card, maybe another run against Ernie. I'm thinking it'll be nice to drive home every night without looking over my shoulder.

            But the Boss as usual has other plans. "You're turning face," he says.

            I tell him Red Stick can't turn face. He's the sworn enemy of the white man. White men are nine tenths of our ticket sales. Ten tenths, some nights. I scalped the Firebrand. There's no coming back from that.

            Thing is, Boss says, Billy's price is going up and his skills aren't. He's no blond Adonis anymore, he's a pudgy cue ball with a scar on his forehead and a trick knee. But Red Stick has legs. If they can hate him, they can love him. And he's getting the belt back. 

            Next event I'm lacing up next to Billy, who's not being standoffish, just cordial. Boss sold him a different line, I'm sure. He goes out first, holds up the belt, and gives this soliloquy, how he's never had a more worthy opponent, I really took him to the limit, and he hopes things are settled. Cue the war drums. I stomp out, scowling. I snatch the mic from him. I tell him I’ll never be the white man's friend...but I'm no longer his enemy.

            Billy extends his hand. I ham it up, let the crowd teeter between will-he and won't-he. I shake.

            And the crowd, white and red, loves it.

            And then Rear Admiral Krusher, Iceberg Payne and the Circusmaster come down and stomp the living shit out of us.


I tell him I'll never be the white man's friend...but I'm no longer his enemy.


            This sets up a big tag match, which we win, and a singles match where I manage Billy and through no fault of mine, cost him the strap. Billy's last words in the territory are "Make those lousy bums pay."

            In the locker room we shake hands. He's dressed to the nines, he's got new rolling luggage. Tells me he'll put in a word for me in the bigs. He went to Atlanta, didn't draw what he should've, and they dropped him. Died of a coke and Soma cocktail a few years later. 

            So it's me against the three biggest heels, and that's got to carry the promotion until the new gimmicks start to catch on. I finally get the chance to do something nice for Ernie. I sell the Boss on making him a Daniel Boone type, Trapper Jack. Ernie in fringed buckskin pants and a coonskin cap is a sorry sight, but it's worth another headline tag match, and at least Ernie gets to show the Boss he's still got a few good combinations. That's a threat, this business. You job too much and people forget you can do more than lose.

            Now I've got the title. Circusmaster and Trapper Jack go off in a feud, and Krusher takes one of his frequent retirements to dry out, leaving me to work two shows a week with Iceberg Payne. He's a big bald ex-wide receiver who spent three years in Japan playing a scary drag queen. Great gimmick for someone with more charm. Payne has a rep for working stiff--our first bout he leaves welts all over my chest and gives me a stinger that makes rotating my neck a three-step chore. The next night, as he's powerslamming me onto the concrete, I realize what's different about him. Payne's the first guy I ever wrestled who has no gimmick. He's a ferocious kid from the Midwest who digs hurting people, and that's who the Boss pays him to be. Maybe the wigs and eyeliner did it to him, trying to prove to the locker room he wasn't queer.

            For two months he whups my ass good. I drop the belt to him thanks to the Circusmaster's meddling. Worse, the next week he ties me up in the ropes and makes off with Spirit Wind. He does things to her that leave her out of commission for a long while, which is great. Deb wants to spend time with her kid, and I'd rather not have her at ringside watching me get pummeled every night.

            It's sixty days of humiliation, but it's tolerable because it's leading us back to the Wigwam. I'm the mastermind of the Wolf Den Match. That's how I'll get back my strap. Iceberg Payne doesn't have a chance.


#


            Ten days to. I'm sitting in the Roadhouse having meatloaf and brown salad. Four of them come up to me. The wait staff tenses. They're red, they're happy, they've got a six pack of beer, and they're not dining in.

            Knew it was you, one of them says. He sticks his hand out. Kid's maybe legal, his pals a few years younger. One of them looks like he's not even in high school yet. He's the one not drinking.

            They ask how I'm going to pay back Payne. How d'you scalp a dude with no hair? I tell them I'm thinking of cutting off the Iceberg's ass and gluing it to his head.

            I don't know much about heritage. I don't know what these kids know. I wonder what it is about Red Stick that reaches them. That he wins? That he's not a sucker? How do they feel about seeing me get my ass handed to me every couple weeks?

            They snicker. We know you can kick Iceberg's ass, the youngest one says. He has an encyclopedic knowledge, all of which he tries to get out over the course of one diner conversation. He tells me all I need is a chance, that if the white man will get off my chest for just a second, I'll take out Iceberg no sweat.

            The kid's faith unnerves me a bit. I'm walking home, thinking about things differently. I've been champion. I'll be champ again. But whose champ? Red Stick is drawing native fans and whites, but only one of those groups is big enough to call the shots.


I don't know what these kids know.
I wonder what it is about Red Stick that reaches them.
That he wins? That he's not a sucker?


            Every night Payne rocks the mic at my expense. He's taunting me. I can't tell if he feels it or if it's his character. He brags about what he did to my squaw. He says after he's done with me the only thing I'll be able to do is crawl off in a bottle. Night before, he brings out one of those cigar store Indians and sets it ablaze.

            The crowd is now on his side, at least a lot of them. Even though that night I chase him back to the dressing room with a two-by-four, I don't feel good about things any more.

            When the Boss calls me in, day of the match, I know what he's gonna say.

            "Iceberg's going over."

            I'm not bitter. I've had a good run. Payne is the franchise. He's drawing more than the Young Firebrand used to. So what if I don't like his shtick, or him? Red Stick got made by better guys than me, guys like Ernie and the Yokels. It's not only fair that I put Payne over, it's the way to ensure we get to keep lacing up our boots.

            I get to the venue early to run up and down the bleachers a few times and slam a couple brews with the locker room boys. Iceberg comes up to me, big smile, says he appreciates me putting him over. Glad to do the honors, I say. Deb comes backstage with her boy. I notice how round her belly's getting. She's got a present for me wrapped in butcher paper.

            It's a gift from her brother, who's friends with some of the coastal chiefs. She says it's a loan. Inside are elegant rawhide hoops and musty old eagle plumes. I try it on.

            The drums start. I walk out to ringside with my warbonnet on, passing the wire kennels that house our two broken-down timberwolves. One is taking a nap. The other's had soda dumped all over her by a fan.

            Payne comes out to a big pop from the crowd. We're locked inside the cage.

            He overpowers me and shoves me into the corner and stomps me, real stomps, till I'm seeing test patterns and the crowd is a loud liquid poured into my ears. I fight to my feet and endure a bodyslam. Iceberg Irish whips me into the cage but I swing the momentum, planting him into the wire mesh. I grind his face into it. I kick him. My back suplex is butter-smooth, but this time I stiffen it, just a bit, so Payne understands.

            He muscles up and we slug it out. He potatoes me pretty good. The next day my face will look like a mumps outbreak. He tries for a sunset flip but I kick him in the throat and bulldog him into the canvas. When he staggers up I nail him with the Buffalo Lance.

            It's the cue for the end. Our story goes like this: the Lance has won me the match. I climb up the cage and throw my leg over the top. All I have to do is drop down to the outside and the title is mine. But Red Stick hesitates. There in the ring is an unconscious white man, a man who's dogged him for months, ravished his woman and done evil to his way of life. Instead of dropping down he--I--mount the top of the cage and soar down upon him with an elbow drop.

            In the aftermath of that carnage, it's whoever can get to their feet first. I'll start for the cage door. Then, last-second, Payne will pull himself up the cage by sheer intestinal fortitude, dropping down a split second before I crawl out the doorway.

            It's a long way down from the top of the cage. I look at the long drop that means victory, and the shorter drop that means revenge on my mortal foe. And I go for it.

            When my feet hit the concrete I feel a sting drive up my leg, and I worry I'm going to number two. I manage to limp up the aisle, not looking back at the officials, or at Iceberg, who’s probably on his feet, wondering what happened.


#


            Deb knows it's over before I do. She relays the Boss's message. "Don't expect a paycheck. Last time you wear trunks in my territory."

            I do alright. I'm good with my money, aside from the odd beer or steak dinner. Red Stick bequeaths me enough to buy a piece of a scrap yard. Good honest work if you're into that kind of thing.

            Close as I was to the guys, the sheer number of hours we spent together in cars, hotels, locker rooms, rings, you'd expect to hear from someone. Not the case. It's its own world. I don't hear about Ernie's death until two years later.


I walk out to ringside with my warbonnet on, passing the wire kennels that house our two broken-down timberwolves. One is taking a nap. The other's had soda dumped all over her by a fan.



            Iceberg managed to do alright for himself. The Boss built him into an unstoppable three-count machine, plowing through everyone in the promotion. They imported heels for him, until New York decided to snag him. That just about killed the territory. The Boss hung on as long as he could. I heard he died less than a week after signing over what remained of his promotion to the boys in Atlanta. Probably better that way. I wasn't invited but I sent condolences to his kids.
 

            I won't say I never get the itch, but I'm mostly happy. Deb's been good to me. My kids are fine. That's probably what's important.

            Deb's kid, though. August. He's been a handful. Expelled from two schools, then a dishonorable discharge. He was born hot-tempered, but the drugs didn’t help.

            After his last stint in rehab we didn't see him for a couple years. Broke Deb's heart. When August got back in touch, though, he looked better than he ever had. He'd been hitting the gym and it showed.

            I don't like earrings on men and I don't like most tattoos, but I'll admit he pulls it off. Six three, two twenty. He's got the build.

            So I showed him a few things. How to get hurt and how not to hurt anybody. You hoist a guy up in a suplex, he's got to know you'll take the impact before letting anything happen to him.

            He wants to use the music. I tell him there's no copyright on drums. There's another red-skinned grappler, short, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the business. August asks if I'll manage them. The Boss's daughter-in-law has ideas on how to jumpstart the promotion. Ways to draw.

            There's a long, long line of cowboys.

 


Sam Wiebe's first novel, Last of the Independents (Dundurn Press), won an Arthur Ellis Award and the Kobo Emerging Writers Prize, among other distinctions. His second novel, Invisible Dead (Random House Canada), was released this June. His short fiction has appeared in subTerrain, Spinetingler, and Thuglit, as well as in publications from Houghton-Mifflin and Image Comics.


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