Milo, Shark, and Hedley pick me up at ten o’clock in Milo’s dad’s white Lexus.
“Hop in,” Milo says. “We’re going out of town.”
“Where?” I ask.
Milo looks back at Shark and Hedley in the back seat and smirks: “You’ll see.”
I’m nervous, so I rifle through the glove compartment for cigs. I find Winstons, not my brand, but light one up and puff on it. We zip past the park and get on the interstate.
I ask whether we’re going to the gay bar in Greensboro. I twist my head and see Shark and Hedley making out. Hedley’s drunk. His lips are shiny wet, the way he gets when he’s drunk. His shirt is open to his navel, and Shark wraps his fingers in his chest hair. Milo puts his hand on my knee and squeezes it. “I thought you like surprises.”
“You’re drunk,” I say.
Milo reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out a silver flask. He holds it to my lips. “I’m not drunk. Hedley’s drunk. Shark’s drunk. You need to catch up.”
I pull the cap and take a swig. Whiskey. It chases the tobacco smoke down my throat. I shouldn’t do whiskey anymore. The last whiskey I had I passed out cold. Milo told the bouncer at Legends I had seizures. The bouncer helped Milo carry me to the car. I don’t remember any of it, but Milo told me about it because I had told him earlier I thought that bouncer was hot. He thought I would want to hear that, in a way I would never recall, the bouncer’s arms had held me.
“I’m not drunk because I,” Milo says, “am the designated driver, and you, Hedley, and Shark, you are responsible partiers.”
I’m thinking it is not wise to go out with Hedley already drunk. Hedley drunk is trouble. But I don’t say anything. Shark’s a scary drunk, too. But I don’t say anything, instead taking a sip out of Milo’s flask and then sucking on the cig.
“We’re having fun, bro.” Milo winks at me and makes kissy lips. “You’re going to shit when you see this place.”
“I know I will,” I say, but I don’t know what I mean by that. Two sips of whiskey on an empty stomach and already I’ve got a low-grade buzz. I say, “I know I will,” because the way I say it makes it sound jaded and jokey, like I’m on to something—but it sounds a little Southern queeny too. I hate the way I must sound.
We pull off the interstate and ride through a town the interstate created in the 1960s, all gas stations, truck stops, and outlet stores. Milo drives through it in a minute, and then we’re on a two-lane cutting through farm country. Our headlights the only illumination out here for miles, besides a moon smothered in the early winter haze overhead.
“Watch out for deer,” Shark tells Milo, his sing-songy words slurred. “Deers are cool.”
Twelve minutes from the interstate, Milo pulls us into the gravel parking area in front of a cinder-block roadhouse, two portable marquees on wheels out front. One marquee reads, “K RA K ,” meaning (I am only guessing) “karaoke” with letters missing. The other marquee says, “LIVE RASSLIN TONITE.”
We walk into a bar full of rednecks. There’s a regulation-size wrestling ring to one side, where it looks like some pool tables would usually be. Sticks and chalkboards are on the far wall. Milo orders Shark, Hedley, and me drinks, and, true to his word, a Diet Pepsi for himself.
A couple of wrestlers are in the ring, wearing skimpy woolen trunks and making grunting noises, spotlights on them from overhead. The crowd squeezes in to the ring’s perimeters, drinking. A banner tells us that the evening’s spectacle is courtesy of something called All Dixie Wrestling Promotions.
Both wrestlers are big. One is just fat, with a bald head and a bushy red beard. His skin is pale and freckly. A little hair on his chest, but smooth everywhere else, including his legs. The other looks like he might be a real-estate agent in his day job. He looks youngish, just short of thirty, with a square head, dark hair, big arms and shoulders, and about thirty pounds of fat around his waist. He actually looks okay, except for the extra baggage. A skinny, overly solemn referee in a striped shirt looks on from one side.
“Look at those guys!” Hedley blurts, in his too-loud voice. “My niece Tookie wrestles better.”
Shark laughs like Hedley is the funniest man this side of Will Ferrell.
A few of the rednecks turn and glare at us. We’re probably the only gay guys in this joint. And now Hedley’s shrill, sibilant S’s have given us away. Hedley laughs and puts his hand over his mouth and coyly ducks down. Then he puts his arms up and strikes a double bicep pose for Milo and me. Shirt still open to the navel, Hedley’s suntanned torso looks pretty nice.
“This should be interesting,” Milo deadpans.
The bald wrestler puts the real-estate agent in a headlock and flips him over his hip. The younger-looking guy hits the canvas with a thud and a groan. The crowd cheers for the young guy to get up and fight the baldy, whom nobody seems to like.
The young guy’s name is apparently William—not Bill or Will or Billy, but William—and some of the younger women in the crowd, some of whom still have all their teeth, shriek his name like he’s a rock star.
Milo puts his arm around my shoulders and whispers in my ear, “You like em big and burly, Joe. You should be cheering for ‘William’ too.”
I chug down the shot Milo just bought me, and no sooner does the glass hit the bar, than the tender refills it to the brim, no doubt on orders from Milo.
Hedley continues to mug for Shark’s untiring amusement. The regulars seem to have pulled through the initial shock of our presence in their watering hole. Everybody’s attention is on the wrestlers.
William is on his knees now, but the bald guy bears down on him, twisting his arm behind his head.
William’s soft body is covered in sweat. The fabric under his waistband is dark for an inch or two down. His skin glistens and wobbles as the bad guy exerts more pressure on the arm.
I move in a little, Hedley and Shark at my back.
The younger wrestler may be even younger than I thought, closer to twenty-five than thirty, not that much older than me. He’s got a blandly elegant face, wide jaw line, regular features, not unintelligent looking or mean. He could play, as I said, a rural real-estate agent in a movie—or a kindhearted Southern trooper troubled by the racism of his captain.
Three red-haired girls sitting on stools against the wall begin to chant, “William William William William,” holding their longneck beers against their thighs. They look like they could be the older wrestler’s granddaughters. But who knows? Maybe everybody in here is related.
Behind me, Hedley shouts, “It’s all fake! They’re phonies!”
I tighten my shoulders and instinctively move up and away from my friends. Somebody far away tells Hedley to shut up, but it looks like this place is used to unmannerly outsiders, and there’s no commotion.
With great effort, William rises up from a crouching position, pushing his own elbow up as he goes. He stands and spins around and grabs the bearded wrestler by the arm and slings him up against the ropes.
The old guy bounces off the ropes and comes charging back at William, who clouts him cross the forehead with his balled-up fist. The baldy’s legs fly up, and the guy crashes to the canvas-covered plywood floor. The crowd cheers.
William smashes the heel of his boot to baldy’s face, and the downed grappler’s whole body thrashes upward dramatically.
I’m feeling woozy. The place is hot. Gas heaters glow on either side of the wrestling ring, then there’s the press of the crowd around me, not to mention several ounces of alcohol coursing through my veins.
William circles the ring inside the ropes, pounding his chest, jutting his head forward, and bellowing. His boots clop noisily. A drop of his sweat plashes down to the back of my hand. He climbs up on the middle rope, straddling a turnbuckle, and spits on the barroom floor.
The fatter wrestler gets up on his feet and creeps up on William. He drives his right fist to the young man’s lower back. William moans as he loses his footing. His legs slip through the ring ropes on either side of the post.
The baldy rolls out of the ring and grabs William’s boots. He pulls, racking William’s crotch against the corner post. The wounded wrestler howls, and the crowd gets angry, flinging plastic cups at the bad guy’s back. William’s body slumps back to the canvas. He pulls his knees in and lies on his side in a fetal position.
Old baldy climbs up to the top rope at the turnbuckle. Seeing this heavyset guy in his fifties balancing eight feet off the ground makes me feel dizzy. The wrestler leaps, but William rolls out of his path, and the guy lands on his shoulder. His whole body twitches and collapses like a steer shot with a captive bolt pistol.
William pulls himself to his feet and drops down on top of the other wrestler, his smooth sweaty belly burying the old man’s face, while his impressively thick right arm crooks up the guy’s knee and pulls it up tight against his ribcage. The skinny ref bends over and slams the palm of his hand to the mat ten times.
The crowd cheers and applauds, and I hear Hedley behind me shout, “Disco!”
The ref grabs William’s hand and raises it over his head in victory. The sweat off the young man’s bicep runs through his hairy pit and slides lightning-fast down his side and disappears into the wool of his briefs.
Milo sneaks up behind me and kneads my shoulder muscles with his thumbs. “Time for refills, bros,” he says, steering me and Hedley and Shark back to the bar.
“Gawd, this is lame,” Shark says, pulling a bowl of boiled peanuts towards us.
“I like it,” I say.
“I figured Joe would like it.” Milo holds up three fingers for three more drinks, and the bartender slides them over, with an iced cola with a lemon wedge on top.
I turn around and rest my back on the edge of the bar. Two lady wrestlers with aggressively tinted hair have entered the ring. They engage in what looks at first to be straight-up freestyle wrestling. But within two minutes, the match devolves into hair-pulling and kicking each other in the tits. The crowd, especially the overall-wearing men, sit up and take notice. I watch from a distance, slurping whiskey through an ice cube at the rim of my glass.
“Why do all the women in here look like POSSUMS?”
Hedley blurts this out loud, and conversations within eight feet of us come to a chilly halt. The bartender reaches across the bar and grabs Hedley’s loose shirt and pulls him in: “Best you watch your tongue, young fellow.”
Shark bends over in convulsive giggles.
Hedley pulls himself free of the tender’s grip and repeats, even a little louder this time, “Why do all the hicks in this joint ALL LOOK THE SAME?”
Milo holds his hands up to the bartender and says, “I’m sorry. My friend’s drunk. I’ll talk to him.” Milo yanks Hedley towards the door and talks to him in a low even tone over by an empty cigarette machine. Shark muzzles his giggles by burying his face in my shoulder. I gulp the last of my drink and munch on the ice. The tender mutters under his breath and walks towards the customers at the other end of the bar.
The match in the ring ends as one lady with shrill yellow hair hurls the skinny referee into the other lady with shrill orange hair. Milo and Hedley walk back to the bar arm in arm, and Milo slips a twenty to the tender’s side of the bar. Shark has stopped drinking, so Milo pushes his untouched drink towards me. I grab it and saunter back towards the wrestling ring, and my troublesome friends trail behind me.
The crowd around the ring chat, but they stay clumped close to the raised platform, leading me to believe they expect another match. I notice that the jukebox is unplugged.
“What do you like about this? Those sweaty overweight guys were HIDEOUS.” Hedley speaks his mind a little more tactfully now, his slurred voice lowered, but still loud to my way of thinking.
I’m too drunk to respond coherently. My mind rolls towards what promises to be a snappy comeback, but when it arrives, there’s nothing there. I mutter something about violence, ending with “I don’ know.” I’m leaning against a column, swirling ice cubes in circles in my whiskey in one hand. Everything from the shoulders down feels numb to me. In my imagination, though, I swing my arm and slug Hedley across the face and he's out cold.
The girls on the stools whisper into each other’s ears and giggle. One of them sways her hips and lets her wrist fall limp, and I figure they’re making fun of me and my friends. My suspicion is confirmed when one of them looks up and makes eye contact with me and abruptly looks away.
My ears are ringing.
A man in a NASCAR sweatshirt, jeans, and baseball cap enters the ring, carrying a microphone and cord. He taps on the mike, and the crowd hushes. He says something, but the words sound garbled and there’s a shriek of feedback. William reenters the ring and stands next to the man. He’s in clean yellow trunks, and it looks like he’s showered after his fight with the fat baldy. His hair is wet, and his square face looks pink. Drops of water or sweat glide down his chest and stomach to his drooping navel.
“Sorry,” the man with the microphone says. “This fixed yet? Can you hear me okay?”
The crowd in unison responds in the affirmative. Even I grunt out a loud, drawn-out “yeeaah.” Shark giggles behind me, and Milo shushes him.
“Tonight’s star attraction William Noble has some words for you folks.” He hands the mike to William. William smiles shyly and thanks everybody for coming out tonight. The girls on the stools scream out, “We Love You William!” William blushes.
I see that William has coal-black eyes and high cheekbones. He thanks the crowd again and murmurs some boilerplate compliments to everybody in charge of bringing him here this evening and making the night possible.
Then the guy in the baseball cap grabs the microphone. He says, “Now it’s time, as promised, for ‘Beat the Champ.’ Anybody here wanna test his strength and endurance against the All Dixie junior heavyweight champion?”
“JOE! JOE! JOOOOOE!!!” Hedley’s screaming right in my ear. His voice cuts right through me, and I can’t even remember what the guy with the mike just said. Hedley puts his hands against my shoulder blades and shoves me towards the ring. I stumble forward. I feel feverish as soon as light from the overhead spots strikes my forehead.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I just clamber up into the ring and stagger towards the two men standing there. Everybody in the place is yucking it up, at my expense, I figure, rightly.
“A big guy.” The emcee smiles appreciatively. Close up, I see his face is pitted with pockmarks and the hair sticking out from under his cap is oily. Standing there, I realize that William is about the same height as me, maybe a half inch taller, with maybe thirty pounds on me, at least half of it on his waist. “What’s your name, son?”
“Well then, Joe, do you think you’re ready to tangle with the All Dixie junior heavyweight champion here?”
“Ever rassled before, son?”
“High school. I, um, wrestled in high … school.”
I am talking like I am in a dream. It feels like a dream.
“Well, then, who out there would like to see our friend Joe here take on the Tennessee Gentleman William Noble tonight?”
The crowd erupts into cheers. Through blurred vision I see that even the bartender has his arms in the air, pumping his fists up and down. Milo, Hedley, and Shark are shitting themselves at ringside. The skinny ref reenters the ring, clapping his hands together.
Smiling broadly, William reaches over and shakes my hand, his grip is solid, rough, and warm. His hand is a good inch and a half broader than mine.
The man in the baseball cap takes my arm and walks me to the corner of the ring. I pull my rugby shirt up over my head and turn to face my friends, bare-chested. The crowd is chattering. Shark buries his face in the palms of his hands. I lean against the turnbuckle and loosen my laces and drop my Skechers over the edge to the barroom floor.
When I unbutton my cargo pants and let them drop to the mat, everybody gasps. The emcee chuckles and picks up my pants and then ducks between the ropes. I’m standing there in my black mid-calf socks and royal blue square-cut boxer briefs. I roll the socks down and off, kick them over the edge, and grab the top ropes in my fists, like I’d been preparing for this fight for months.
In the opposite corner William stretches his arms from one side to the other, limbering up. I mimic his gestures and feel my joints pop. I grab my foot behind me and press the heel up to my butt cheek. Then the other foot.
The ref talks to William and then walks over to me. He asks me some basic questions about myself, and I answer them, though seconds later I can’t remember what he asked me. He crouches down and talks through the ropes to the guy with the microphone.
The emcee announces the start of the match. “In the red corner, from Durham, North Carolina, weighing in at one hundred and ninety three pounds, JOE NELSON!” Milo, Hedley, and Shark clap, hoot, stomp their feet, and whistle. I see them, but I can barely hear them.
“And in the blue corner, visiting us from Kingsport, Tennessee, weighing two hundred and twenty pounds, the current All Dixie junior heavyweight champion, the Tennessee Gentleman, WILLIAM NOBLE!” The locals yell, happily, and somebody I don’t even know sings out my name: “Nelson, you are gonna get yer goddamn ass handed to you.”
For a second there, my mind clicks into focus, I feel the hot lights on my skin, and I ask myself what the hell I’m doing up here.
The startup bell clangs, and William barrels across the ring like he’s been shot out of a cannon. We lock up, collar and elbow, and his big belly shoves me back against the ring ropes.
I can smell the soap still fresh on his lightly freckled shoulders.
I’m in pretty good shape, physically, but his arms totally overwhelm me. He’s a guy who knows what he’s doing up here, clearly.
He pulls me by the shoulders to the center of the ring, whips around to my side, and pinches my head between his right bicep, hard and round against my ear, and his right pec, flexed and sandpapery with stubble.
My left hand lands on the waistband at the small of his back, and my right hand holds on to his stomach. He bends at the knees and squeezes my head in a slow grinding circle as he straightens himself up, arching back and thrusting his belly forward.
The pressure on my temples hurts like hell, even though I can tell that he is holding back. I hear my blood thrumming in my ears and feel the pounding of the gentleman wrestler’s heart.
I ball up my fist and punch his gut. Under the pillowy surface, the man is solid, steel belted. I punch again, harder, and William’s body shudders, how much for real and how much for show I cannot tell.
The voices of the patrons surrounding the ring seem to slip off to the distance. All I hear is William’s churning mass up tight on me and the thunder of his boots on the plywood floor.
William pulls me over to the edge of the ring and rubs my nose against the top rope. My nostrils feel like they're full of bees for a second. Then I feel a speck of blood on my upper lip. I jerk back, but William’s got a firm lock on my ears.
I stomp and drive my knee into the back of his leg. He slides me over to the turnbuckle, butts me back to the ropes, and then snapmares me to the center of the ring.
I scramble up to my feet. He charges, and I run away. He chases me around the ring, and I can hear the crowd laughing convulsively.
I try to duck through the ropes, but William grabs me by my head and one arm and hurls me to the center.
I get up not entirely by my own effort. William hauls me up and bashes his forearm to my nose and mouth. The blow sends me stumbling backwards to the ropes.
William is on me in half a second. His jellied gut smacks wetly against me. His feet wide apart, he tilts his 220 pounds on me, the ropes pinching into my shoulder blades. I feel his grunted breaths hot on my face.
The pushing and slick slip of skin on skin gets me hard. My dick cranks up a few degrees towards my waistband. The hot blood tingles as it fattens the branchlike veins up the shaft.
Then I notice something else. William’s dick is right there with it. It’s thick as a Polish sausage and hard as a turkey neck.
William slides his right knee up my hip and rests his boot on the bottom rope to my left. He thrusts in and grinds himself on me. It’s pretty bold and intense, but it lasts only a second.
Then he squeezes the back of my neck into his armpit, grips the elastic at the back of my briefs, and rolls backwards, flipping me over his shoulder and slamming my back to the canvas. There’s a deafening crash, and the plywood floor undulates for five seconds.
I figure Milo and the guys can surely detect the bulges, as William and I stretch out on our backs, head to head, in fact I think I hear Shark let out a clipped shriek at the edge of the ring, but as far as I can tell, the regulars act like there’s nothing out of the ordinary here.
William pitches himself to his feet. He stands over me, the toes of his boots nudging my head.
He bends down, and the sweat rolls off his shoulders and splatters on my chest. He grabs a fistful of my hair and snaps me up. I feel a blast of heat off his body, and then he tosses me belly down cross his shoulders.
One squat hand holds me by the jaw, and the other pinches the inside of my thigh. He slowly spins me around. The spin accelerates.
I see flashes of light and darkness, hear screaming voices rise and fall like when you cover and uncover your ears as a child, and feel my chest slide on his sturdy shoulder.
Abruptly he stops. He falls back, and I hit the floor, the back of his head ramming my gut.
He sits up. I hear the crowd chanting his name: “William William William William.”
I roll over to the edge of the ring and spit. But spitting is not enough. A pint of bitter whiskey squirts out of my mouth and splashes on the ring apron. I grip the bottom rope, feeling lightheaded. Then a handful of smashed boiled peanuts follows the whiskey to the floor.
I wipe my mouth and stand up. I lean on the ropes and turn in to face my opponent. A burning sensation in my stomach and chest. William stands at the center of the ring, waiting.
I rush towards him. William dodges and strikes the back of my head as I pass. I hit the mat face down.
William sits on the base of my spin, his smooth thighs straddling my ribs. He pulls my arms back behind me, the knuckles of both hands brushing up against his crotch. He braces my chin on his clenched fingers and pulls up.
The pain shoots down my arms, and my fingers tremble. I hear my spine pop and feel an electric shock jolt the whole length of my body. My throat stretched taut, I can hardly breathe.
The skinny ref kneels in front of me. “You wanna give up, son?” he asks.
“Hell yes,” I say without hesitation.
In an instant, my head is free to fall back to the mat. I roll to my side and see, high up above me, William standing, arms stretched up in victory, the ref by his side. Then, as if somebody just turned up the volume, I hear the roar of the crowd.
After that, just a clutter of sense impressions in no particular order.
Hedley looking dazed, almost comatose in the front seat of Milo’s father’s car.
Milo dabbing me with crisp paper towels to soak up the sweat.
Milo telling me, “You were GREAT up there.”
The bartender shaking his head from side to side.
The darkness of the country road on the long ride home.
Me drifting in and out of consciousness. Head resting on Shark’s thighs in the back seat, his white shirt open to his ribs, the chocolate birthmark at the center of his chest.
William handing me a scrap of paper—scribbled words: an autograph? a cellphone number beginning with “423.”
The girls on the stools tittering and hiding their faces.
William taking my hand in his broad, rugged hand and patting me on the back.
Waking up at noon the next day on Milo’s couch.