A Wrestling Story
People often ask me, or perhaps it's I'd rather they ask me, "what's it like being a wrestler after high school and college?"
Some get rather demanding about it. To satisfy their demands, here is short story I did a few years ago while at a fiction class at the University of Vermont.
BREAKFAST AT BENNY’S
by John Horchner+
For months, Randy had been looking forward to this weekend. He wanted to recapture the feelings he used to have when he lived in town, before his marriage failed, before he was completely burned out by his career, before wrestling became a forgotten sport and the university's football team was everything. Back then, his place in the world was unquestioned. His team was the only undefeated Division I wrestling team in the country. Eight of them had perfect, undefeated records which was how they came to be called the “Eighty-ates” all across the state. For that one year, his last year at the university, wrestling surpassed football in spectator enthusiasm.
Ten years after most of them graduated, a national sports magazine did a story called “Ten Years After.” The magazine paid for everything: airfares, hotel rooms, food and a night on the town. The question came up, as it did every time they were interviewed, about their so-called “tribal meetings” out in the woods, in the snow if necessary, and if these were in fact the key to their success. The interviewer wanted to be taken to one of the spots where they used to meet for a series of photographs, but none of them would ever say anything about it.
They practiced together every day at the gym for four hours a day, but once a week, on Wednesday night, it was true - they would descend that hilly slope, bringing firewood on their shoulders, some quick starting solution and an old tire rim.
Once they reached the camp, everything would be laid out on the ground, and someone would strike a match. Within minutes, they would circle around a blazing fire and he would see the faces of the eight others, eight others that he respected more than anyone else.
They had one rule for each meeting: you had to step toward the fire where the group could see you and unload any personal problems. He remembered what Josh Heiner said to that, at first. He didn’t want to speak about his personal situation, an assault charge hanging over his head from some fight that summer. But eventually he opened up, and let the team help.
Randy remembered when they first talked about Hank’s sister. Hank's family had a farm nearby with a good reputation, but someone in the group had seen her ask a stranger for $40 at the local bus station, allegedly for bus fare into Harrisburg because her car had broken down. When she got the money, she turned and quickly asked someone else.
At first, Hank said this wasn’t true, and tried to kill the messenger; by the time the meeting ended they were all in a pile on the frozen ground.
It was this way always; they not only talked about their troubles, but they solved them. Maybe the writer of that article was right, maybe these meetings were the key to their success.
On his way into town for this, the 30th reunion, he passed where Hal's used to be and looked over at the University on the right (now twice the size), before he hit the university's main drag which turned into a direct route to the enlarged football stadium. He circled around it and even though it was night, the size was unmistakable. It was so enormous it reminded him of the Soviet style apartment complexes he'd seen in Moscow. It went on for blocks and blocks.
Feelings of jealousy rose up within him, just like they did sometimes during his years in college when he discovered the end of the football season competed for attention with the start of the wrestling season. It had been so long, he wondered who would remember them.
He had a string of negative thoughts, like how he spent the last twelve years working his way up through New York City’s bureaucracy, of the sacrifices he had made for little monetary reward compared to friends on Wall Street, and how in the end, his wife had never appreciated anything.
The next morning, he awoke abruptly at 4:00 a.m., as he did every day; the only difference was he was now in his mom’s trailer. He got in his rental car and drove two miles to the the university's main buildings then into the downtown but found nothing open. He drove around some more and finally spotted a familiar sign with red lettering: “Benny’s, open 24 hours.”
He put two quarters in the red box for the local paper before he went in though the front door. He took a seat at the counter and started to started to read the headlines.
There was sports commentary playing loudly from a small radio sitting on the open window where the cook dispensed plates of food. He looked over and saw a solid, well-defined back of a guy in a t-shirt who stood facing the cook. The guy was of average height with light brown curly hair and had huge forearms hanging at his sides. He looked down the two isles and saw that the rest of the restaurant was empty.
“If they don’t win tonight, they have no chance.”
It took a moment before realizing that the guy must be talking to him not the cook. The guy turned around and Randy looked up from his forearms and stared at his faded yellow t-shirt. It had a saying in red letters across the front "It is better to give than receive" with a cartoon of a guy jumping up and down on another guy and the logo of a gym from someplace. It reminded him of a cartoon poster they used to have in their wrestling room that said the same thing.
Randy didn't feel in the mood to talk, especially about football, so he mumbled something about never having time to follow sports, especially college sports, especially football, he said with emphasis. He put his head down and continued reading the paper.
The guy wasn't satisfied with the answer and asked him why he was up so early and Randy told him how he was up at four or five every day and at his desk at six every morning, and even if he was home before eight, he always had work to do. He looked back at the size of the guy’s forearms and thought how out of place he looked, especially without an apron or anything else signifying the name of the restaurant, just jeans, and apparently, a gym's faded yellow t-shirt.
The guy continued jovially about the morning’s breakfast specials, causing Randy to wonder if he was this intimate with all his new customers. As he came closer with some menus, Randy looked up and into his face for the first time.
There was a pause.
Randy wondered why he didn't recognize him before; then he looked at Hank and realized how much he had aged and hoped his face didn't look so sagged. He stood up.
“What are you doing here?”
Hank came around from the counter and put his arms around Randy in a bear hug.
“Man, good to see you.”
“Finally, a familiar face.”
“Yeah, same with you.”
Randy sat down and they reviewed the rest of their teammates, the last time they saw each other and top events from the past. They were filled with excitement but Randy avoided telling Hank about his current life-- it seemed so nondescript, so ordinary compared to where they were thirty years ago. Finally, the flow of quick reminiscences broke off, and there was nowhere left to go. He didn’t know how to start tactfully, but figured he would ask after Hank’s life first.
“How’s your sister, Hank?”
“She’s all right, clean.”
“Good. How’s the farm?”
“We’re not farming anymore.”
“What? With your family’s name?”
“We tried.” Hank frowned. “You just can’t do it here. There’s no way you can run a farm, not anymore. Not with the price of milk and with what things cost. Everything around here got way too expensive. No, we moved to South Dakota.”
“Yeah, $24,000 got us a farm, another $6,000 to ship the animals. I still tried to keep the brand alive, but even that became too expensive. Too much competition. So we just made the best of it out there. But I’ll tell you, it was unbearable.”
He looked up at Randy.
“Lonely. Jeanette couldn’t take it. She’s from Vermont. Well, you knew that. She really missed her family. She lasted ten years, but I wasn’t going to give up. I lasted another five. Finally, I couldn’t take it no more. I told my brother I was leaving, coming home. Jeanette was already back in Vermont with her family. I just left everything there. My brother says, ‘How sad.’ He asked how I was getting home, and I told him, ‘I’m walking -- I have anger to burn off.’ No shit, I walked all the way from South Dakota. That’s how come I’m in such good shape.” Hank rubbed his hand across his stomach.
“Where’d you stay?”
“I would camp; if I stopped in cities I’d stay in shelters. There’s always room for one more.”
“What’re you doing?” Hank eyed him suspiciously.
“I’m doing okay; I’m Director of Public Debt for the City of New York.”
“Think of that. I always knew you could do it. Shit, Director of Public Debt, City of New York. Big change from here.”
Randy didn’t say anything because he hated his job. Instead, he asked Hank if he knew about the reunion later. Hank grabbed, and then quickly put away some menus from a small slot to his left, saying he knew that they were suppose to meet at the Collingsworth Hotel, but didn’t think he could get off.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think I can get off working.”
Randy took a sip of his coffee and shook his head. He hoped someone would be there. After a moment he asked:
“Why you working here, anyway, Hank? Why so late at night?”
“They need me here. You should have seen this place before. After the bars close, there used to be food fights every weekend. You remember, there’s thousands of college students in this town. Now it’s worse, because even after they graduate, they still stick around. They get ten to twenty in a house and pay $200 a month each in rent, which leaves them plenty for beer. ”
“How much you making?”
“$5 an hour, plus tips.”
Randy thought of what separated him from Hank. Back then, it was only one weight class. Today, it was probably $80,000 a year.
They talked for the next twenty to thirty minutes. Randy told Hank how he brought back the wrestling belt that used to designate the champ for the week, much to the displeasure of their coach who hated professional wrestling and especially the belt.
After some time, Randy got up and said he would let Hank get back to work, but Hank ran after him on his way out and caught him by the arm.
“Hey, that was a twenty.” Hank stuffed the bill forcefully into Randy’s top pocket. “Save it.”
“Sorry Hank, I didn’t mean anything by it. Guess I just wanted to be nice.”
“You wanna be nice, come over after the reunion, come back then. There's a football game you know. The place will be crazy.”
Randy said he would but couldn’t believe Hank wouldn’t be going, but Hank insisted he was needed at work that night. As he walked past the lunch counter's circle stools, he gave one a spin, to relax his nerves, because he had no idea who else would actually show that night or when he'd see Hank again.
The daytime reunion activities consisted of the football game which didn’t interest him despite the fact that the football program had grown so big that they televised the school’s games on national TV. He was just looking forward to seeing wrestling people that night at the Collingsworth Hotel.
At five o’clock, he put on one of his best outfits and checked his hair several times on the chance Jody Cherish would be at the reunion. He wondered what she really looked like now and how the years had treated her.
He arrived at the hotel early, put a drink in his hand and went right to a corner and imagined her sitting in one of the last rows of the small church they both went to. She had brown hair, was thin, sweet, and feminine - but just stand-offish enough to make you want to earn her look. He almost saw her sitting there now, in her short t-shirt with the sleeves riding up her arms, with her perky breasts and thin body... Jody Cherish. After all these years, he found it incredible how the one experience they had together was etched so deeply in his mind.
She always told him she was not allowed to date until after college, but he thought that was only because her parents wanted her to meet someone from a city like, Boston or New York, not this place, which back then was considered a hick town. Back then everyone wanted to leave this place.
He was disappointed after looking around and not seeing her. Soon, however, he was glad to see three other wrestlers, Bill Hartsburg, “Harts”, who lived on the other side of Pennsylvania, Richard Weed, called “Weeder” for more than one reason, who was living with his family in New Hampshire, and Robbie Gerland, the former team captain, who was a cop in town.
Gerland was still built like a “brick shithouse” while Weeder was still tall and lanky, but his hair was almost pure white now and he had a big bald spot. Randy wondered if it was because he was already married and had four kids that he made no effort at preserving his youth. Harts still spoke as if he was shouting everything -- the only thing different was that he gained at least 200 extra pounds and kept saying he wanted to smoke a cigar.
Other that that, the crowd was small, especially since it was their 30th, with only about twenty to thirty people in attendance. They talked with a few others about their team thirty years ago, a few of the regulars who were connected, like Jonathan Miller, the team’s manager, but people’s interest in them as wrestlers was subdued compared with twenty years ago when they had the magazine covering them; that was the last time they felt like celebrities.
After the reception, Randy suggested they go to Benny’s to see Hank, and everyone agreed except Gerland said he had to check in to work at 11 p.m. but would try to stop by later.
Hank was behind the counter when they walked in and so the three of them sat there to be close to him. Hank put one leg up on a milk crate, his massive forearm across that knee, and went on about the latest group of college kids:
“When they come in here, the whole #%#% football team, the first thing I tell them is exactly where to sit. You’ll see. There’s also Rockers. I’ve got to keep them apart or there’s going to be trouble. I learned that right away.”
“They’re all drunk?” Weeder asked him.
“Oh yeah, as soon as they walk in the door you can tell. Last Saturday night, one of them, from the football players - they’re the worst - takes the back of his arm and sweeps his plate and a couple cups right to the middle of the floor. Thought this was funny. I went up to him -- and this is a big guy -- and said, ‘You’re going to mop, soak, and then polish that floor, just like I would have to do. That’s what you’re gonna do.’”
“What’d he say?”
“‘Make me, you ain't my father.’”
“His one line, he kept repeating it. Pissed me off. That's why I've started wearing this t-shirt."
Hank pointed to the lettering across the front of his t-shirt.
"Could it have been an accident?" Weeder asked him.
"That’s what he said, but there’s no way, I saw him. This was no accident. So I said to him, ‘where you from anyway? Where’d you grow up? You can’t come into this town and do that.’”
“What’d he say to that?”
“‘You ain’t my father. You can’t tell me what to do.’ I’ll tell you, if he wasn’t surrounded by a whole table of other football goons, I would have decked him flat.”
Weeder put his hand to his chin. “The owner knows about this shit?”
“Yeah he knows.” Hank shook his head. “The owner thinks, ‘So what it if there are a few broken plates.’ He doesn’t care. Not when “his” team is winning. Not when this is the most profitable Benny’s in the whole Northeast.”
“Would I shit you?”
“So Hank, you must be making some real money,” Hartsburg shouted.
“I try. But it’s more work than money. I just got a cell phone.”
Hank pointed to his pocket and mentioned the speed dial on his cell phone and how he programmed it to reach the police. He said he was glad to have them there that night.
“No respect, kids these days.”
“You sound angry Hank,” Weeder said.
“Angry? They’re getting worse and worse. These kids come into town, act like they own it, take a shit and leave.” He shook his head. “You’ll see. They’re due here in another half hour or so. Just wait. The minute they get kicked out of the bars, those punks will all be here.”
It wasn’t long before students began piling in, in packs as Hank had described. Every so often, he would have to jump up with menus. Soon, he got so busy that he left the three of them there talking. Randy mentioned his divorce and what a bitch his wife turned out to be.
“Pounder, whatever happened to you?” Weeder looked him in the eye. “I thought you had a good rap going. You could be with whoever you wanted. Didn’t you sleep with that piece from town, Jody?”
“Cherish…Yeah, once. I think that’s what screwed it up. After that, I was kind of waiting for her. Always thought in the back of my mind that something could happen, even after college.”
“Did anything more happen?”
“No, nothing, I spoke to her a few times.”
“And then I thought maybe once she saw how successful I became, she’d come around.”
“No. Well, there was like a minute after graduation, she was in the city for an interview, but it didn’t turn into anything.”
“Man, that’s sad.”
Randy said he didn’t know where the years went.
Weeder interrupted him. “Look at that,” he said, flicking his chin quickly toward the door.
Hartsburg looked over at the door and rubbed his chest. Four girls were standing there.
“Were the girls that nice when we were in school?” Hartsburg asked, more to himself than the others.
“They were,” Weeder said. “They just didn’t dress like that.”
The girls had six eyes following them as Hank led them to a booth. They all wore low hanging sweatpants with a crack of skin showing between the top of their sweats and their jackets. The cutest of them had the university’s logo stitched right across her bottom. The eyes followed them all the way to their seats.
“Don’t you wish there was something like time travel?” Weeder pondered.
“What do you mean?” Randy asked him.
“I mean you take yourself as you are now with your rap and you go back in age thirty years. Think, with all you know now, you could score every night.”
“Look at that,” Hartsburg yelled over to Randy. “The one with the logo looks like that girl of yours, Jody Cherish.”
Randy felt a stab go up his spine and he wished they would stop talking about her.
The girls sat down and immediately took off their jackets. The eyes continued to study them admiringly. One of them swung a big pocketbook onto the table and took out some lipstick and a mirror. Another one took out a brush and began brushing her hair.
“They’re doing that on purpose,” Weeder mumbled. “They have to be.”
Weeder fidgeted on his stool, looking right then left, but within less than a minute he was on his feet and walking toward the girls.
“Where is he going?" Hartsburg looked at Randy.
“I don’t know, but this could be embarrassing...” Hartsburg answered.
Randy thought that Weeder didn’t realize how old he looked. Then he thought that maybe if he went over there he could counterbalance the situation. At least his hair wasn’t completely gray.
He pushed himself off the counter and walked toward Weeder and the girls.
“You girls go to the University” Weeder asked them.
“What’s it to you?” one replied.
“I’m taking a survey,” Weeder sat down in the booth next to her. “I need to ask you some questions.”
“Why?” the girl with the logo sitting across from Weeder asked.
“Well, we went to the University too, but we don’t remember any girls as pretty as you.”
“Looks to me like you’re married.” One pointed to Weeder’s ring.
“Oh that! That’s not a problem.” Weeder put his hands together and rubbed them around real hard and then held them both up in the air. “See. Disappeared.”
“Pig,” one of them said.
“Not really,” Weeder barged on. “So tell me what your major is.”
“We’re film majors,” one of them said. She put her arm around a girl next to her.
She pretended to move the other girl closer to her in a deep embrace. They all giggled and looked at each other but after that, seemed to purposely avoid looking at Weeder.
“Let me think,” Weeder began, “Film majors, hum. I have more questions I have to ask you….”
The girls started an unrelated conversation among themselves, ignoring Weeder’s next question. Randy reached down with his left hand and grabbed Weeder by the arm, but before he got up, someone was already behind them and loudly said, “Is there a problem here?”
Randy turned and looked at the guy standing behind them, then at the table where he came from. It was the football players, judging solely by the size of their necks. He realized the girls must have been putting on their show for them and not for him, Weeder and Hartsburg. The guys at the table were watching but didn’t seem amused.
Weeder turned and asked the big fellow to kindly move along, saying he had the situation under control, but the guy said he would move when he was ready. He didn’t have time to say more. Hank was there in a flash.
“Don’t I remember you from last week?” Hank asked. “Sit down.” Hank pointed to the table where he had come from.
“This guy is harassing my cheerleaders.”
“I doubt that,” Hank said.
“You ain’t my father.”
“Same thing you said last week. Sit down,” Hank repeated, moving his face within a centimeter of his face.
"Jason, don’t worry," one of the girls said.
“No, I’m tired of this guy’s shit. He hassled me last week. Wanted me to sweep the floor. What’s it going to be this week, Popeye.”
Despite being at least a foot smaller, Hank stiffened his back and pulled back his head, putting his nose almost to the guy’s face. His huge forearms dropped to his sides and both his shoulders moved forward.
“Don’t think you can tell me what to do. You’re just some old fart that works at Benny’s.”
“Jason,” one of the girls called over.
“Sit down before you get hurt,” Hank said. His nose made contact with the student’s chin.
“Oh yeah?" The big guy took his right arm and swung wildly at Hank, but before Hank could react or the punch could land, Randy crouched down and shot in the middle of the two. He wrapped both his arms around the football player’s legs and lifted his massive body off the ground, holding him several feet up in the air.
Hartsburg got up and moved his own massive body off the stool where he was sitting and toward the three as Randy gently lowered the big guy to the floor. Hartsburg put two fingers in the air and pointed at them, yelling, “two points!”
Just then one of the other players from the table also got up, but before he could reach Randy, Hank took his legs out from under him with a single kick. Hank pounced on top of him and dug his chin into his chest as the kid twisted like a snake trying to get away.
Hartsburg crouched down with the flats of his hands on his knees, then took out an unlit cigar and put it into his mouth.
“Two again!” he shouted, turning to Hank and the kid on the floor. “And three!”
“Would you guys just stop,” one of the girls called out from the table.
“Wish we could honey, wish we could,” Hartsburg shouted.
Hartsburg circled the football table in his own wrestling position, cigar still in mouth, looking for more takers. One got out from behind the table and headed toward him.
“Help Harts,” Randy yelled over to Hank. Hank sprang up so quickly it looked like his feet had just magically appeared under his body. His hands were extended out in front of him above the knee caps just as they had drilled in practice a thousand times before.
The player reached Hartsburg first but Hank tackled them both to the ground.
Randy switched positions and held the first student solely with his legs in a scissor lock, freeing up both his arms. He reached under the neck of the kid Hank had just let go of, grabbed his chin with the flat of his hand and twisted his head back hard. He moved his chest on top of him. At the same time, he tightened the grip of his legs and squeezed tighter and tighter.
Just then, cries were heard.
“Wagon, Brags, Hoosick, do something!” the student between Randy’s legs yelled. “This old fucker is killing me!”
One of the three kids left got up from the table and put his hand on Hank's shoulder. Hank turned and grabbed him under the armpit and used his forward motion to keep him moving in the same direction passed him. He then took him behind the neck and began pounding his head against a table.
“Hey Hank,” Hartsburg shouted from the ground, “remember the rules.”
Hearing this, the last two students got out from behind the table, knocking it over in the process.
They moved quickly toward Hank.
Suddenly – as loud as he could -- Randy yelled up from the floor.
“Look out Hank, they’ve got chairs!”
Randy pointed up at the last two students with his free hand. They stood ominously behind Hank, holding chairs high above their heads. The chairs were about to come crashing down on Hank’s head.
“Hold it!!” a shout came from the doorway.
Robbie Gerland, practically bursting out of his uniform and wearing an over-sized State College police cap, crouched down with his gun pointed at the students holding the chairs.
“Slowly now,” Robbie said to them. “Drop ‘em.”
The students looked shocked. They slowly put down the chairs.
Gerland came over to Hank and asked what had happened. Randy continued to hold the two on the ground. Gerland could not keep from smiling, but he tried to put on a serious face. He took Hank to one side.
“What do you think happened?” Randy heard Hank say loudly to Gerland as they were walking away. “This is our town Robbie, our town.”
It took a few minutes of talking outside; the light and some muffled voices came through the door which was enough to keep them all distracted so they wouldn't have to look at each other. Finally, Gerland returned with Hank. He rested his hand on his gun and stood by the students. He lined them all up and told them sternly that they could either all be arrested or they could leave. The students quickly gathered their stuff and scurried out. Their girls followed.
Gerland and Hank stood together without talking further. Randy went up to Gerland and asked him what Hank could have said to bring about that outcome.
"Why'd you let 'em go? Why'd you let us go?"
Hank put his arm around Randy and said not to worry.
Gerland agreed: "I'd give up my job if I have to. There's no way I'm turning back on my friends. It reminded me too much of old times."
Randy said Hank needed help, and he would like to be there, at least for the next few weeks. He would fly next time from New York.
Gerland said he would change his hours or find some way to station himself there ever Saturday night from then on, until things calmed down.
Hank told them all to sit down and order whatever they wanted for breakfast. He said it was “on the house.” When Hartsburg began to shout an order, a tear crossed Randy’s eye.
He realized that although he hadn’t gotten everything he wanted in life, he got a reminder that night if he wanted to relive the glory day of his team, he just had to go back for Breakfast at Benny’s.