WRESTLING THE BEAR - Page 4
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He decided to stop by his mom’s place as the day warmed up. She was a hairdresser who once worked at Antoine’s Style Salon on Woodward Avenue trying to save enough money to open her own shop. She had established a cult following of suburban women with hair emergencies but had never managed to save enough to open her own business.

Then a couple of years ago, a customer, Mrs. Fitzgerald had rescued Betty from the endless supply of matrons in crisis. She was the wife of William Fitzgerald, who owned and operated a line of funeral parlors, and Betty’s new customers became silent patrons of her art. Mr. Fitzgerald would hand her a picture of the deceased and Betty would replicate the hairstyle on the corpse. She traveled from parlor to parlor throughout the metropolitan area whenever her services were needed. It left her with plenty of time for crossword puzzles, soap operas, and WWF wrestling on TV.

Bert drove into the Flamingo Trailer Court. A dozen flamingos that once were pink but now were a faded gray lined the drive. They leaned every which way, in odd directions, like a disheveled hairdo. Betty’s home was along the back row. Bert drove slowly, trying to decide whether or not to tell her about the bear. His mother was a true wrestling fan. It transformed her into a dragon lady, into a wild screaming banshee. At one of his high school meets, she had attacked another mom who she had overheard criticizing Bert’s wrestling style. She had to be pulled off the woman by two strong men in the audience and carried outside, cursing all the while. Bert remembered feeling trapped somewhere midway between amusement and embarrassment. Betty was banned for the rest of that year from attending meets.

Bert should have been a state champion his senior year. He’d had a perfect record going into that last meet of the regular season. Then he’d lost his first match. The hair on the back of his neck had stood up when he realized that the ref had intentionally made the bad calls that caused him to lose. An ever so slight leer appeared in the ref’s face as he raised Bert’s opponent’s arm in victory. Bert walked out of the gym and into the hall. He punched the first thing he saw - the door, with its window of glass and embedded mesh. It ripped his hand, just missing the tendons but tearing it up badly. So ended his high school career.

He opened and closed his hand, thinking of it. Then he squeezed his hand and made a tight fist as he walked up the dusty path to his mom’s mobile home, kicking up little clouds of dirt. He released it to pick up the crushed cigarette packages that were tossed all about.

Betty answered the door with an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. Her platinum hair was highlighted with a cranberry tinge. The color changed from week to week. Blue and cranberry were her favorites. Bert was relieved that today was a cranberry day. He could handle that color. The occasional lime green days made her appear ghoulish. And made him slightly seasick.

“Bert, baby, how are you?” She stood on tiptoes, removing the cigarette to kiss him, as he bent down. She planted a red lipstick mark on his cheek, which he rubbed at, smearing it like blood across his face. “You look good, sweetie. Welcome back home. Aren’t you early this year?”

“Norman called down to grandpa’s. He’s got work for me starting next week, so here I am. Money was getting tight anyway. Time to be back home, I figured. You been OK?”

“Lots of work on the dead heads. Kept me out of trouble. Been real quiet around here this winter otherwise. C’mon on in – don’t stand out there like some stranger.”

“Listen Ma. I can’t stay today. But I wanted to tell you something.” Bert thought for a moment. “I’m going to wrestle again, two weeks from today. At the Light Guard Amory.” He could see that her face looked puzzled. “It’s the Hunting and Fishing Show and I’m going to wrestle Victor the Bear.” He waited for a response. Her face, which had hardly aged except for a few fine lines around her eyes and mouth, took on the same tone as her hair.

“Bertie! Honey. You can’t wrestle a bear. You’re teasing me, aren’t you.” She stepped past him, outside for a smoke. The little bit of wind blew her flimsy bathrobe, flapping it against her body, which looked wispy and frail standing next to Bert. Betty cupped her hands around the cigarette to light it. She crossed her arms over her chest, and blew smoke up into the air. It hovered over her head like a nuclear cloud.

“No, Ma, I’m not. You can watch if you like. On the twenty-second, sometime between one and three, at the show. Hulk Hogan is the referee. You like him, right?”

He felt her softening, the smoke settling around her head. She took another puff, then smiled.