"The Retired Wrestler" by Michael Chin
He grabs a headlock. Tight. Never let the fans know it’s a work. Hold on.
He has dementia.
He knows that sometimes and clings to that explanation for lapses, for lost time when he knows he wasn’t sleeping but he’d might as well have been.
The nurse isn’t kind. Black fella with broad shoulders, but not a lot of meat on his bones. He says the retired wrestler’s last name, his real name, Garner, with Mister sharper before each iteration, underscoring he’s not really being deferential or respectful, just professional, because every patient had might as well be a number.
Crank that headlock. The kids call it a rest hold, but the point isn’t to rest. It’s to build tension.
The retired wrestler wishes it were brighter. Wishes there were a window. Wasn’t there a window?
He talks to Lou about the lineup tonight. Asks if he’s got to curtain jerk again and awaits the repeated explanation that the first match on the card is important because it sets the tone for the whole night, no acknowledgment that the crowd’s still filing into the arena during that first match, getting settled with their popcorn and their sodas, still talking amongst themselves. The wrestling is pure atmosphere, a backdrop for the night out.
But this isn’t Lou. This is the angry, hunched man who glares from across the chessboard, waiting for him. How long has he been waiting?
The fans clap. The headlock is working. They’re waiting, now, for the flurry of action.
He’s at a diner. One of those twenty-four-hour joints with tough steak that pile more eggs on your plate because they can see you’re a big guy, no extra charge. Those nights on tour, when there isn’t time to chase tail at a bar, they pass a flask beneath the table. They laugh. They feast and Bastion Malone eats baked beans not in spite of the fact but because it’ll make him that much gassier in the car.
Mister Garner, you can’t be out here. You know that. Another nurse. Maybe ten, fifteen years from a nursing home herself. He tells her he’s hungry, and she says he needs to get back to his room now, so he goes.
He grabs a headlock. Not sure who he’s got or when. Only that he needs to hold on. Tighter.
Never let go.