WRESTLING THE BEAR - Page 5
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“O.K. Sweetie pie – if Hogan’s there I wouldn’t miss it for the world. What a man! And my darlin’ son wrestling too! Just so’s you know, I think you’re crazy, wrestling a bear. What’s this world coming to anyway? Next thing you know, it’ll be alligators.” She tossed the partially smoked cigarette into the yard and ground it into the dirt with the heel of her brocade slipper. “Just remember, you didn’t get the crazies from me. That’s your daddy’s fault.” She gave his arm a squeeze. “Lord, feel those biceps. You did get those big strong muscles from me, don’t forget that!”

Bert gave her a peck on the top of her head and made a quick exit to spare himself any rant about his father. He knew that if she got started, he’d never get her to stop. She’d spin her tires, which had gone bald long ago, with that old speech about what a cold fish his father had been. Bert knew when to exit.

During the next two weeks, Bert increased his gym time and, with construction work starting, he was pumped up. He cut and pinned photos of bears to his bedroom walls and to the ceiling so it would be the last thing he saw as he fell asleep. He taped a photo of a large grizzly standing on its back legs with its mouth opened to the bathroom mirror. A huge solitary creature. Hibernating in winter. Mating in spring. It watched him shave every morning. He stared it down.

On the morning of the meet, Randall, a carpenter on Bert’s crew pulled up in his blue Dodge pickup alongside Bert’s apartment. He was a pimply-faced kid with oily blond hair partway down his back who had volunteered to chaperone the expedition, to be the corner man.

“Look what I got, Bert!” Randall said as Bert climbed into the truck. “I fixed me up a real repair kit.” He leaned over the seat and hoisted a beat-up brown leather bag into the front seat between them. “Got me tape and gauze. A sling and bandages. Some of them butterfly strips to hold you together. And I got some smelling salts too. Found ‘em in my ma’s medicine cabinet. Think they’ll work, though’ they might be older than Granny Jones. If you don’t need this stuff, maybe the bear will!”

Randall bounced around on his seat as he drove, his eyes popping. He lit up a cigarette.

“Hey! Mind waiting on that?” Bert rolled down a window. “I’m gonna need my lungs working on all cylinders today.”

“Sorry man. No problem. You call the shots today. You the man. Yessir. I’m working for you today. I’m right here. Woo! Woo! One squeeze from you and that old hairball’s gonna make for the north woods. You’ll be rich and famous. On all those talk shows. The he-man who beat the bear.” He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirty ashtray.

Bert stared out the window after rolling it part way back up. He opened and closed his hand, which throbbed in the peculiar way it always did when he thought about wrestling. He clenched it and the throbbing traveled up his arm, squeezing at his chest.

The truck jiggled and skidded its way down Baseline Road, jumping sideways as it hit numerous potholes. Road repairs were either a non-priority issue or else the potholes formed at such a speed that the crews could not keep up. Bert wistfully thought of the miles and miles of smooth Texas blacktop he drove across each winter. Spring back home was the worst time for the roads. He expected, one day, a pothole to yawn open and devour him, leaving no trace. Anything seemed possible.

Above the emptiness of the potholes, dozens of billboards shouted messages:

“Stay on the right track, to Nine Mile and Mack” “Invest in Your Future” “Phone 1-800-I Sue Big for big results” “God is Watching You” “Talk Line – Connect with Sexy Women” “Merry Maids to Clean your home”.

The final message was some graffiti scrawled on an overpass as Baseline Road dipped below one of the octopus arms of the Detroit freeway system. The blue pickup slipped under the overpass in slow motion; at least that’s how it seemed to Bert. The words painted on the overpass read walk backwards.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Bert thought, as they approached the LightGuard Armory. “Maybe it’s the name of a local garage band. Walk backwards – what for? From where?”

Randall swung the truck into a space in the crowded lot. They spotted Entrance C and walked towards it. A security guard sat in front of the entryway, armed with a box of donuts and coffee. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“The bear, we’re here to wrestle the bear,” Bert replied.

The guard grinned. “Sure thing, mister. You look like one of those crazy guys. Big enough anyway. Right that way.” He pointed with his thumb down a dingy hall. The hallway mixed the smell of popcorn with ammonia and sawdust. It led behind the grandstand and out into the center of the arena where a stage had been set up. The rest of the Armory was divided down the middle. Fishing gear on the right, and Hunting supplies on the left. A strip of food concessions ringed it all.

Bert and Randall walked up to a man in an ill-fitting grey suit, possibly Jones and Jones, who held a clipboard.

“Bert Jenkins.” He reached out with one of his big paws to shake hands. Jones and Jones pushed the clipboard at him.

“You’re number three on the card. Final bout. Just sign this here waiver so’s the front office knows you’re a volunteer. Like that I didn’t hold no gun to your head and make you do this.” Jones and Jones was a short, scrawny man with a neck like a chicken. "If you like, why don’t ya watch the action from out front? I’ll let ya know when you’re up. Victor should have a good warm-up with the first two wrestlers. Just don’t go flying the coop on me if it gets too wild,” he said, scribbling some note to himself as he talked.

Bert and Randall stood in the back of the crowd, which let out a cheer as Victor, a massive brown bear with a slight hump on his back, lumbered onto the stage. He wore a loose muzzle which allowed him to open his mouth part way and appeared to lack front claws. He walked out on all fours, then stood up. And up. Maybe seven feet up, maybe eight. The crowd went whooped and hollered. Victor seemed unfazed.

Hulk Hogan, dressed in gold spandex, walked over to the mic. His oiled pecs reflected the lights pointing from the exposed rafters above towards the stage. Hogan was almost as broad as the bear.

“All you wrestlin’ fans, turn your eyes this way! In the far corner is the undefeated champion of the world – Victor the Bear! Four-footed and undefeeeeted!” He turned towards a nervous squat man in blue wrestling tights who puffed and blew out his cheeks as he waved his arms over his head. “And in this corner the first challenger of the day – Matt Newman. Down and dirty in Motown! Let the blood battle begin!” He stepped aside as the challenger charged into the ring.