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Dan Mancilla, 3/22/2010

Current occupation : English instructor
Previous occupation: Forklift operator
Contact Information:Contrary to popular belief (based primarily on his size and the tendency to refer to himself in the third person), Dan Mancilla is not a professional wrestler. Dan teaches creative writing at Kendall College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is pursuing his PhD in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in: Specs Journal, The Pinch (formerly River City), New England Writers, and the Chicago Tribune. Most recently his fiction was a winner of the Chicago Tribune’s 2009 Nelson Algren Literary Award.

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Gimmicks

Twenty years in the ring and you wonder what brought you to this point. Was it the first time you put on The Mask? When you took it off? No. It goes deeper than that. You’re twelve years-old, you and your mother are living in a flat above the taxidermist’s shop. That’s when it begins, the first time you risk body for money. For being brave you win fifty cents. The bet, proposed by Jack Juarez, your best friend, is to stick a hand inside the mouth of the raccoon for ten seconds. The raccoon more than any of the other more imposing beasts in the taxidermist’s is by far the most frightening. Everyone knows there’s still some life left in it. You can almost see it twitch from the corner of your eye, hissing its purple tongue through yellow teeth bared in a perpetual snarl.

You close your eyes and stick your hand into the raccoon’s mouth. Knuckles brush against the roof. You feel the ridges, you think you can feel its breath. Jack Juarez counts out the seconds—one Mississippi, two Mississippi—slower than the referees count when matches spill outside the ring. Ten seconds to get back in the ring, ten seconds to keep your hand in the raccoon’s mouth. Both seem a lifetime. Jack Juarez holds his count on nine. Nine and a quarter, nine and a half, nine and three-quarters. Ten. You pull your hand out as fast as you can and drag it across buzz-saw teeth. Show Jack your bloody hand. Proof that you’ve earned your dollar and a half. There’s a fang imbedded in the soft meat of your palm. You dig the tooth out, hide it in your shoe, and wipe the blood off on your jeans.

You’ve accrued scores of other injuries risking your body for money. Twenty years in the ring and there are stitches: 525. Six herniated discs, two missing teeth, three ribs cracked—all of them bruised at some point, concussions too numerous to count. There’s the separated right shoulder that occasionally pops out of place during matches. Bone chips float in both elbows. The fluid in your knees is drained more frequently than your hair is cut. A broken right wrist, a broken left thumb. Bruised kidneys make you piss blood for three months. Broken nose. Shattered cheekbone. Torn meniscus. Cartilage in your body has been worn away; bones and joints are free to grind together, to cannibalize themselves. But you work through the pain as best you can because the show must go on. You eat pills and inject serums not to cure, only to patch. Duct tape for your insides. There is no off season in wrestling. No time to rehab. You become your own practitioner.

Twenty years in the squared circle and you’re a walking pharmacy. You eat Vicodin, Lorcet, Percodan, and Percocet like they’re M&Ms. Demerols remind you of Pez. You spike up Cortisone injections with the same indifference as a diabetic pumps insulin. You take all this knowing the best you can hope for is to numb the pain. What you need is a body transplant. Sometimes, even your hair seems to hurt.

Pain requires medication, but so does success. You’re a hotrod and your body is the cherry paint job. It’s your armor and your billboard. It’s your life. It’s the difference between mid-card and main event. To tare down and rebuild your muscles faster, to get bigger, to get monster big, you stack Dianabol, Anavar, Halotestin. Deca and Depo. You mix and match, whip up testosterone cocktails. You get legitimate prescriptions when you’ve got the cash, but you’ll take what you can. You buy some Teslac from a guy at the gym, trade one of the Cannonball Crew a few grams of coke for Maxibolin. You start dating a ring rat even though she’s balled more wrestlers than you’ve pinned. You date her, you fuck her, because during the day this ring rat works at a veterinary clinic and she can score Boldenone for you. They shoot up race horses with Boldenone.

After a show you’re still rolling on the rush of the match. The adrenaline keeps you going. Helps you make it to your motel. At three a.m. you’re still amped because the Dexedrine and Dianabol keep punching away at you. You grind your teeth loud enough to wake the other guys you’re rooming with. They call you an asshole, a hophead, juicer, speedfreak. You laugh because they are all of these things as well. Someone tosses you a baggie of pills, says sweet dreams, and you count Nembutals and Seconals instead of sheep. You wake up in another town; they’re all different, but the rooms are the same.

In the beginning you wake up in places like the parking lot of the Boys and Girls Club in Dubuque. You wake up at a Howard Johnson’s on your way to a match in Joliet. You wake up in front of the YWCA in Kenosha. At an armory in Muncie. In the gravel parking lot of a VFW hall in St. Cloud. You wake up in Kalamazoo.

You start to make a name for yourself and graduate to working civic centers in Rock Island and Gary and Muskegon. You’re booked at state colleges in Minnesota, Missouri, the Dakotas. You can almost live on your share of the take. You can afford things like meat and eggs graded higher than D, an occasional trip to the ER to set a broken bone, matching boots and trunks, to sleep in a motel room rather than your car. Fans begin to recognize you. Some chant your name before you’re announced, some know your moves and call for your patented finisher when you’ve got your opponent on the ropes.

You wake up to a packed house in a real city, maybe The Joe in Detroit or The Kiel in St. Louis. You get lucky and there’s a guy from the Global Wrestling Federation or the Continental Wrestling Alliance sitting ringside, probably an Upper Midwest talent scout. If you’ve built up a following, created enough of a buzz, an actual V.P. catches your show and takes you out for a steak dinner. Hands you papers. He wants you to come work for Mike O’Malley Jr. or Smilin Joe Spiceland. You wake up in the GWF. You wake up in the CWA. Instead of living out of your beater car, sleepwalking and bodyslamming your way through the Rust Belt, you bounce from region to region. You’re in the big time now. National wrestling is the new thing, cable television and pay-per-views. No more fiefdoms run by cheap carnies. Now it’s CEO’s. You wake up in VIP lounges of hub airports instead of interstate rest stops. You wake up in O’Hare and do a show, a Friday Night Free For All or a Tuesday Night Demolition for 25,000 live and millions more watching on TV. Then you rent your Continental or Deville and drive to Grand Rapids, to Milwaukee, to Indianapolis, Peoria, the Twin Cities; every night a packed house. After the last show in the last city of this leg you catch a redeye for New York, San Francisco, Denver, LA, even Atlanta, now that the southern territories have finally opened up to the promotion you work for. And you do it all over again. Three hundred days a year you wake up someplace else. For most of your career you wake up someone else. And you wonder if it was your talent or your gimmick that got you here.

In twenty years there have been nearly as many personae. You begin as yourself: Earl Atlas. The man who trained you, Art Stigma, said it best. “Son, you’ve got one ass kicker of a wrestling name, but you got the charisma of a monkey turd.” Of course he’s right, but you are nineteen years old and want to prove the old man wrong, so you wrestle as Earl Atlas. Your career goes nowhere. You lose to midgets and women; little kids and old ladies give you the finger, chuck D cell batteries and frozen hardboiled eggs at you. They aim for your head. You become Rockabilly Elvis Atlas, the heel Elvis impersonator who bashes guitars over unsuspecting opponents’ skulls. Fans don’t completely hate this version of you, but you can’t afford to keep buying guitars so you become someone else. Now you’re Atlas Vespa, the snobby European artist who smokes in the ring and wears sunglasses and a black beret. This gimmick, you think, is shit. It wasn’t even your idea; some promoter handed you the glasses and beret and told you to talk like Frenchman. Maybe it isn’t a bad gimmick, but once you begin to think it’s stupid the fans can tell. Self doubt kills careers in the squared circle. You wonder if you should try for a babyface gimmick so you change your name to Atlas God of Thunder, a good guy with the official superpower to use thunderclaps as a weapon and the unofficial power to empty out the bleachers. Somebody suggests you do what Pete Nostrovia did. You remember how Pete had struggled to get over with the crowds until one day he announced to everyone that he had legally changed his name to Ultimate Dingo. He showed you the documents to prove this. Months later he showed you the contract he’d just signed with GWF. But you want to keep some part of yourself in your character. Earl Atlas is your name. It’s all your father left you with. It’s who you are. The problem is, no one wants to see Earl Atlas.

You’re twenty-four, you’ve been wrestling for five years now. At some point you give up on keeping your name. You call yourself The Paper Boy, The Plumber, The Garbage Man, Major Tom Strange Love, The Space Cowboy, and The Space Coyote. You’ve experimented with countless adjectives to enhance these names: super, grand, magnificent, remarkable, abominable, friendly, gorgeous. You’ve considered insignificant, ineffectual, invisible.

And you wake up in a motel room sardine packed with nine sweaty, snoring wrestlers. Since you were the last to leave that evening’s show bed space is nonexistent and floor space is scarce. You walk to the lobby, find a soft chair, and try to get a couple hour’s rest before you’re on the road again. The night clerk knows you are a wrestler and that you are cramming nine guys into a room that’s been charged to one person—that you are stealing space—but he doesn’t care. He is sixteen or seventeen and only cares about the midnight movie he’s watching. It’s a black and white film. A Zorro movie. And the movie reminds you of something. There was a show that you watched as a boy. It was a low budget Western, even as a kid you noticed how cheap the sets seemed, how the pistol shots sounded like cap guns, how the horses looked sickly, almost dead; the animals in the taxidermist’s shop you lived above seemed more alive to you. But you liked this show. There was something about the hero. He was like Zorro, like the Lone Ranger––a masked man. What was his name? What was the name of the program? Deathmask something. The Deathmask of El Gaucho. Like the Lone Ranger, El Gaucho carried two ivory handled pistols and had an Indian friend. No, the sidekick was a fat Mexican, like Pancho from The Cisco Kid. Instead of a sword like Zorro, El Gaucho carried bolas that he swung around his head and captured fleeing villains with.

The memory of this show does not transform you. You don’t magically become a superstar. You don’t even become El Gaucho then. Instead you toil on, gimmick after gimmick.

Tonight your name is The Zodiac Thriller. You’re getting ready for your match, the main event at a Knights of Columbus hall in Peoria. You’re fighting “Samson” Greg Samsa in a “Peoria Street Fight.” The name changes depending on the city. Last week it was an “Omaha Street Fight.” Tomorrow it will be “Springfield.” You open the white canvas duffel that’s filled with gimmicks to find a suitable weapon. You’re allowed to bring one to the ring for these “Street Fights.” You sort through brass knuckles, lengths of chain link, piano wire, clubs, a cattle prod. You’re considering a sledge hammer, checking the balance of the weapon in your hand, when you see something stuffed inside a football helmet. A black mask. You hold it to your face, take in the musky smell, feel the sheer black silk, the laces zipping up the back, the leather patchwork around the eyes and mouth. You put your hand through the mouth hole and think of Father Kinski giving you First Communion. You remember the raccoon in the taxidermist’s.

You pull your hand from the mask’s mouth and the leather scrapes your palm, tries to bite you. This time there is no blood. You roll the mask down over your head, the satin is cool and sheer against your face. You tighten the laces in the back so that it fits true. You enter your “Street Fight” without any other weapons.

You wake up and you’re a masked wrestler. But The Mask isn’t a bag of beans that sprouts a stalk for you to climb to the top. It’s only a stepping stone. You call yourself El Gaucho, but you’re still Earl Atlas. Change is gradual. You keep working, dogging yourself, night after night. If there is any magic in The Mask, it’s the wall it throws up between you and the crowds. It frees you from the weight of their stares. You stop worrying about them and concentrate on your matches. The Mask frees the crowd as well. They can see you as who or whatever they need you to be.

Slowly Earl Atlas becomes El Gaucho. You begin to make a name for yourself. With The Mask on you win titles. On the independent circuits the recognition comes in belts that are smaller than most cowboys’ rodeo buckles and titles with grandiose names to make up for their small stature. You win the CCMAW Super Mega Wattage Championship, Dream Team Wrestling’s Trans-Galactic Championship, and the Interspecies title at Friar Tuck’s Wrestling Road Show. Independent Wrestling North crowns you King of the Lumberjacks on three separate occasions. You raise the Last Man Standing trophy over your head after winning the Tournament of Tough Guys.

All that hardware means nothing though. It’s not what keeps you going, pushing through the pain of the endless injuries, the horrible food of the road, of wrestling in shithole nightclubs in Flint, Michigan and Rockford, Illinois. You want real gold. You want CWA or GWF titles. You want to be the best of the best. So you do time in a semi-national promotion, a blood and guts act like the Rinaldi Brothers’ Action Alliance Wrestling, just so you can get to the next level; if they don’t kill themselves, the top talent for the Rinaldis often make their way to the big show. A referee almost bites your ear off in your first match with the promotion. You juice, bleed, bald. One night, during a ladder match in Pittsburgh, a drunken fan rushes the ring and tackles the ladder you’re climbing. You’re standing on the top rung, twenty feet in the air, reaching for the belt when he topples you. Nothing’s broken but now there’s a hole in your tongue you can pass cigarettes through. And then that scout, that V.P., Bodacious Bill Boscoe in your case, shows up after an AAW show where you’ve lost ten pounds in one match, not sure how much in blood and how much in sweat. He’s wearing a fake beard and a baseball cap, incognito because the Rinaldi Brothers don’t take kindly to the CWA and GWF raiding their talent. He takes you for prime rib and shoves contracts in your face. Tells you that Smilin Joe’s seen you in action. Thinks you’re gonna be huge. You’re the future for the CWA. The Future, he whispers in your ear.

You sign on the dotted line.

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