Van found his way back to the changing room along the grey tunnel lined with crates and cables that lay in stacks and bundles. He occasionally passed a uniformed navy-clad stage-hand scurrying this direction or that carrying some piece of equipment, but he barely noticed them. Presently, all of his faculties were concentrated in his legs which transported his sagging torso along its bee-route, sparing a bit of energy every few seconds to raise the bottle of water to his parched and gaping mouth. The water was cool, and even though it took on the burning taste of battery acid in Van’s aching throat he forced himself to drink. His eyes wandered from the floor only briefly to affirm the distance to the door. Although most stadiums and sports arenas are built the same, it can be easy to get lost in the chaos of the show if you don’t pay attention.
He passed a stag talking into a phone attached to the tunnel wall. It was Ben Ravage, sweat still drying and still clad in his singlet after his brutal match with Psycho Bones. As he spoke into the receiver he held an ice pack to his left knee, occasionally wincing in his face while never breaking stride in conversation, a smile struggling for purchase.
Yeah? (a pause) And what did you and Suzie do on Saturday? (pause) Oh, that sounds like fun. You two are best friends, huh? (pause, adjusts the ice pack again, winces) Yeah.
Van found the door to the changing area and as always hoped it would be empty. Sometimes he was lucky and all the other stags were out getting ready to go on or grabbing food from the mess or warming up or cooling down or shooting promos or just finding ways to kill time around the stadium. His body felt chewed up and he wanted nothing more than silence. Buzz Grayson actually insisted on a period of meditation before and especially after every match. Van supposed every stag could be said to engage in some form of post and pre-match meditation, but Buzz was one of the only guys he’d ever seen who actually went off to a corner of the room and sat cross-legged and stared at the wall for a good twenty minutes or so. You couldn’t talk to him during that time. Not that Buzz would snap at you or ask you to leave him alone, he would simply be oblivious, not responding if you said anything from Your mother’s on the phone to Your house is on fire, just tune you out and go right on staring at the wall. Van was far too permeable for that sort of thing, but he enjoyed his quiet.
His hopes of having the room to himself were dashed as soon as he opened the door and saw the slouched figure of a stag in full gear sitting on the bench more or less directly in front of Van’s storage space. Van could just see his battered old duffel bag behind the hulk who upon hearing the door open raised his bearded face from his hands and looked up. It took a moment for Van to realize that it wasn’t just another stag sitting there but John Q. Cadaver. The light from the overhead fluorescent tubes reflected in the gold championship belt worn around his waist and twinkled in Van’s eyes. Cadaver’s eyes showed no anger at being disturbed, but even so Van stood unsure as to whether or not to enter.
Cadaver studied Van for a long moment, straining a bit. Landen, right?
Come on in, sorry if I’m taking up your space.
Van came in. Still lacking the faculties to engage in full sentences, he awkwardly indicated the path to his duffel was impeded. Cadaver nodded understanding and shunted over on the bench and Van nodded thanks and took a seat next to him. There followed silence, and it crossed Van’s mind that under different circumstances the silence would be awkward. These thoughts found no purchase though, his body was simply too exhausted for his mind to care for social formalities. Cadaver seemed happy enough to sit in silence and in Van’s mind at least was more than entitled to it. Van rubbed his legs which had stopped their quivering. His breath was coming normally but still burned his lungs and he still tasted the bitter remnants of adrenaline in his saliva. The water helped, and he drained the bottle of the last of its contents.
A long, exasperated sigh drew out of Cadaver’s mouth. S’all crazy.
How old are you, Landen?
Had a good match tonight.
You got a nice moon-sault. Saw you pull it out against Kip Smithers in that cage match last year.
The one at Holocaust?
No. That one was sloppy. You took too long setting up and Kip had to wait for you. No, it was the show we did in Jersey I think maybe a few months before Holocaust. That one was perfect.
That was a good show.
The air became dead again, Cadaver pulling back into himself. Van put his empty bottle aside and began to unlace his boots.
They’re not moving you up, you know.
You’ve been out of development for how long now? A year? They still haven’t put you in the running for a belt. They forgot about you. If you don’t make a fuss in this business or unless you got an angel making a case for you they forget about you.
A friend who’s higher up who can vouch for you.
If you don’t give them a reason to keep you around they’ll move you back to development after a time. That’s worse case. Best case they’ll keep you around as a work horse to put the other guys over. You’ll be in there with the champs and the contenders and you’ll get your face on TV, but you’re not gonna move up.
Van said nothing. There was a short period of silence as Cadaver stared down at the floor.
They’re making me give up the belt.
This Friday on Heat.
Doesn’t matter why. This came out with a bite and Cadaver tempered himself with an exhalation and when he continued the bite was gone. They know that I’m leaving and they want me to drop it before I go.
Van began to ask a question, then thought that he knew the answer already and decided it best not to follow through. Instead, he nodded in understanding and shoved his boots under the bench and began to unravel the tape from his wrists.
Cadaver got to his feet. You’re good, Landen. You’re solid. You got what it takes to make it here for a long time.
But right now they don’t even know you exist. Sometimes just being a good isn’t enough. You have to want to be more. You have to want to be a champion.
Cadaver walked over to the change room door, pausing to look back at Van for one last moment. Unless all you want to do is wrestle. Maybe that’s enough for you, he said and left.
Van peeled the last of the white tape from his wrists and rolled them up into a sticky and sweaty ball and tossed them into a nearby trash can. He put his head back against the concrete wall and sank into the ocean of silence that once again had settled on the room.
Back in the hotel room Van sprawled across his single bed with his head and shoulders propped at an angle against the headboard by two pillows which allowed him to watch television. He surfed through channels, never staying anywhere too long. In the lavatory Dejon Dee was inspecting his dred locks in the mirror, fixing stray strands with a small instrument.
That’s kind of strange, man. He say anything else? Dejon said.
Just that he was dropping the belt this Friday. Didn’t seem too happy about it. Van had kept most of what Cadaver told him to himself, but he wanted Dejon’s opinion on Cadaver’s odd behaviour seeing as how Dejon had a few more years under his belt than himself. Dejon was a good guy, a talented performer, and a straight shooter. Van had grown to trust his opinion.
Weird, Dejon re-iterated, shaking his head. I knew he was leavin’ after SuperSlam, but I just figured he’d drop the belt then. Makes sense, right? Why you gonna drop the belt when the big one’s right ’round the corner?
This had occurred to Van earlier with Cadaver. It didn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t you have your champion drop his belt in grand fashion at the main event of the biggest show of the year and then make his tearful goodbye with the whole world watching? Why would you have him drop his belt on cable TV in front of a house audience and then go into SuperSlam fighting a mid-card match in your farewell performance. It didn’t make sense. That is unless there was another match that people wanted to see at ‘Slam. Unless the company had already been looking past Cadaver to the next big thing, like the champ was already retired, dead and gone. This is what Van believed, it had been obvious to him for a while now. Cadaver held the belt, it was true, but the fans had stopped coming to see him. They came to see Psycho Bones and his feud with Carl E. Orson, who had a no-holds-barred match last month that was surely in the running for WAW Magazine’s “Match Of The Year.” Most of all they came to see the Iraqi veteran Mark Newbury, who was building up a heated feud with Ace Vincent, who himself was slated to be Cadaver’s opponent this Friday. It made perfect sense, in a way that was very cruel to the future Hall Of Famer. Cadaver would drop the title to Vincent, who would naturally go into SuperSlam to face Newbury in the main event. Most likely, Newbury would come out on top and the WAW would have their new baby-faced leader to take them into the next era. It seemed a natural progression of things and made good business sense. But it hurt Van when he thought of John Cadaver. Twenty years, he thought.
Van settled the television on a news program. They were talking about the economy. Maybe they would go to sports soon and he could see some high-lights from today’s games. If he could stay awake that long.
Cadaver’s words ate at him. Did he want to be a champion? A John Q. Cadaver, a Railway Jackson, a PT Daniels? The face of the company, leader of the locker-room, top of the whole, sordid dog pile – is that what he wanted? Or was he happy enough just to be working, doing the thing he loved and actually getting paid for it? Was it enough to simply be a wrestler? These questions made his brain heavy and Van had only the vaguest awareness of the bathroom light being turned off and Dejon dropping down on the other single bed and then he felt his eyes falling closed and the television news drifting away into the sweet embrace of sleep.