Night Train ignored the squeeze of his wrestling mask by thinking of how badly he wanted to beat up Magic. The silver mask, adorned with a black locomotive on both sides, had been Night Train’s signature for nearly forty years, but now his chin oozed from the bottom edges, the lower ties left undone. Night Train parked his Lincoln Town Car in front of the Biloxi Bomber’s house and leaned across the bench seat to open the passenger door. The car had been a symbol of the prominence Night Train had achieved in wrestling; now the leather seats were cracked and faded, the cushions worn out and uneven. The creak of the passenger door reminded him of the snap of the ring ropes, drawing a smile from beneath the spandex.
The Biloxi Bomber moved slowly towards the car, wearing his World War I pilot’s hat, goggles sitting on the top, with a white three-piece suit. He leaned on a cane with one hand as he curled the other into a fist beneath his chin, contorting his face and snarling his lips as he had for decades.
“The train keeps a rollin’!” Biloxi shouted out Night Train’s catch phrase as he steadied himself against the door.
“I haven’t heard that in a long time.” Night Train smiled beneath his mask. “You look up for a brawl.”
“It’s been a long time since we had a good one of those.” Biloxi paused at the door to catch his breath.
“The suit’s a nice touch,” Night Train said.
“If we end up in the paper I want to look presentable.” Biloxi passed in his cane before lowering himself into the car. He still measured his movements, only now to protect himself instead of an opponent. “My daughter gave me this suit. If we make the news I want her to see it.”
“We’re going to be in the paper, just like in the old days,” Night Train said. Decades before, after twice-monthly shows at the Greensboro Coliseum, the wrestlers went to The Sucker Punch, a smoky poolroom with cinder block walls, poor lighting, and a greasy plywood bar. A few locals would try to test the wrestlers, to see if they were as tough as they claimed, and they always found out it was true. No one called a lawyer. No one called the cops. But the promoters called the papers, because an article about their wrestlers clearing out a bar of good old boys made for great publicity.
Night Train smiled at the memory. “We’ll not only be back in the papers, but we’ll be the biggest story on the World Wide Web pages.”
Biloxi let out a high pitched laugh. When Night Train was booking a territory he had never let him laugh on camera. A man over six feet tall and an athletic 300 pounds should have sounded like an angry bear, not an anxious horse.
Night Train looked in the mirror before he pulled back onto the road, the mask covering what it always had: cheeks too chubby to be intimidating, a face too round to strike fear into the good guys. In time it had come to hide teeth lost to misplaced elbows, a nose misaligned by errant punches, ears cauliflowered by headlocks held too tight.
Biloxi patted his old friend on the shoulder. “I’m amazed the mask still fits. Goes great with a polo.”
“It’s a little snug. But it’ll do for one more fight.” It had been over twenty years since they were last in The Sucker Punch, before the Global Wrestling Experience killed off wrestling’s system of regional territories, replacing them with a nation-wide product emphasizing entertainment over wrestling and body builders over wrestlers. “Here’s what I wanted you to see.” Night Train patted a stack of papers between them. The papers were pages from wrestling web sites that covered the GWE, chronicling not only current storylines but also discussing backstage politics, listing salaries, and spoiling future plans. On top of the stack was a picture of a muscular wrestler with long blonde hair, holding up a championship belt like a rock star would a guitar. “That’s Magic, the one I’ve been telling you about. He’s their top guy.”
Biloxi studied the picture before interrupting Night Train’s thoughts. “Nice looking. Great physique.”
“They all look like that now. They look good…”
Biloxi chimed in with his friend to finish the familiar line they had used for years in promos. “…but barbells don’t hit back.”
Biloxi let out his high-pitched laugh again.
Night Train adjusted his mask and kept talking. “Let me tell you what we’re going to do.” He was used to scripting events. Late in his career he had been the head booker in the Carolinas, telling wrestlers who was winning, who was losing, and where they could go if they didn’t like it. “We’re headed to The Sucker Punch. But now it’s not The Sucker Punch. It’s called the Gate City Tap Room.”
“That doesn’t sound nearly as fun.”
“The GWE had a show at the Coliseum tonight. From what I’ve seen on the computer Magic and his buddies hang out there after the matches, just like we did.” Night Train adjusted his mask around the neck. “This won’t be hard to get going. Look at how much money these guys are making. Six figures. Travel covered. And they only work 200 dates a year.”
“We worked 350 when business was slow. Double shots every Sunday.”
“This generation is spoiled. They don’t know what it means to be tough, to sacrifice, to work your way up. That’s the only way you learn to respect the business. We’ll tell them that, and a little bit more.”
“There’s no way they can respect the business.”
“Of course not. So we’ll teach them how, remind them whose coattails they’re riding on. Run them down and wait ‘til they make the first move. Then we can do what we want.”
Biloxi turned the picture of Magic towards Night Train. “How do you know a guy who looks like this will fight?”
Night Train looked at his friend, glad he had the mask to hide his exasperation. “He has to fight. He’s a wrestler. He’s not very good, but he’s still a wrestler.”
“He doesn’t look like much to me.” Biloxi held the picture of Magic up to catch a few flashes of passing headlights. “How many guys he’ll have with him? I can only take three or four now.” He rubbed a thumb across the top of his cane.
“It doesn’t matter how many.” He pointed towards the pages in Biloxi’s hand. “Even with all of this out there, if he gets his ass kicked by a couple of old men, it’s going to look bad.”
“We’ll cost him a few weeks’ worth of missed shows at least.”
“That’s the thing. They get paid when they’re hurt. Don’t even have to wrestle. Magic got two weeks off for a concussion.”
Biloxi shook his head and tapped the side of his bomber hat. “I probably had so many concussions that my grandkids will inherit them.”
They rode in silence for several minutes, passing by new billboards and unfamiliar exit signs. Night Train finally resumed the conversation. “What I can’t figure out is why they call him Magic. He doesn’t look like a magician or a wizard.”
Biloxi squinted at one of the pictures blurred across the sheets of plain paper. “Why did they call you Night Train? Who were never a train.”
Night Train paused. “You’re still quick on the comeback. Verbally, at least.”
Biloxi smiled and held up his fists. “These are still pretty quick, too. Let those young bloods try something.”
Night Train looked in the rearview mirror. “It’s because I hit hard like a train. That’s why.”
Biloxi looked over his friend. “I never knew that. You were already Night Train when I met you.”
“You know why you’re The Biloxi Bomber?”
“I’m from Biloxi and I could fit into this hat.” He let out his laugh again. Night Train thought that maybe, in the car at least, it didn’t sound so bad.
They settled back into silence while Biloxi continued to read Night Train squinted against the headlights and listened to the familiar sound of tires running the road. He had driven to Greensboro hundreds of times over the years. It was much faster now with the new bypasses, but he preferred the old roads and highways they had traveled for decades.
Biloxi read through several sheets before looking up. “It says here that they’re not allowed to blade anymore.”
“It might scar up those pretty faces and scare the little kids they want watching.”
“How do you believe in a chair shot if there’s no blood? How does anyone figure that?”
“They don’t have to. The fans don’t think it’s real anymore. They do chair shots every week now, and the guys just get up. It’s not like we did it, when a chair shot meant something.” He patted the stack of papers again. “It’s these pages. The fans know what’s really happening. Everyone’s in on it.”
Biloxi looked at Night Train. “Why would they want to be?”
Night Train felt his heart pumping at the exit for High Point Road. As they passed the Greensboro Coliseum they saw the GWE trailers lined up behind the building. The crew would be tearing down the ring and getting ready to drive it to the next town. The parking lot was mostly empty, so the show had been over for a while. Magic and his boys would be well into their evening by now.
Greensboro had changed in the twenty years since monthly wrestling shows left. The Coliseum was renovated, and the area surrounding it gentrified to please the outsiders flooding the region. The Sucker Punch was razed and replaced with The Gate City Tap Room, a hip micro-brewery.
Night Train checked his mask in the mirror while Biloxi pulled himself up by the peeling vinyl top of the Towncar. He got out of the car and said across the roof, “They don’t get fired anymore for losing a bar fight. The big shot owner probably doesn’t even want them scrapping.”
“Maybe because he knows they won’t win.” Biloxi steadied his cane on the pavement. The gravel lot of The Sucker Punch had absorbed the blood of bruised locals decades ago. The newly laid asphalt was easier to walk now.
Night Train tugged on the cast iron handle of the front door and held it for Biloxi, who was reading a sign explaining how the new building’s floors were made of wood from abandoned barns.
“You ever heard of ‘reclaiming’ before?” Biloxi asked as he shook his head. In the light coming out of the door Night Train noticed how much weight Biloxi had lost. He was a shrunken version of the man who could throw loud mouthed locals into the gravel dust two at a time.
“No,” Night Train quickly responded.
The Gate City Tap Room was shiny and polished. A chalkboard hung above the bar, covered in the names of strange beers: Fat Tire, Fox Barrel Blackberry Pear, Old Rasputin Stout, In Heat Wheat. The front of the room was filled with people sitting on high leather stools. The voices at the bar died down as customers turned to look at Night Train and the Biloxi Bomber, but the stares were momentary. A man with a waxed moustache walked by and said, “I like your style, dudes.”
There were no pool tables; instead a trio of skeeball machines occupied a back corner. The Gate City Tap Room was much larger than The Sucker Punch. It wasn’t filled with cigarette smoke or lit with flickering fluorescents. The air smelled clean, even as it passed over the nosepiece of his old mask. Night Train led the way through sections of tables, scanning the crowd, the mask making it hard to see.
Night Train recognized the figures playing skeeball. He saw them on Monday Maniacs, performing their high-flying acrobatics and posing for the camera. Some of the wrestlers playing skeeball were supposed to be faces and others heels, but here they were, in public, socializing as if good and bad no longer meant anything. In the middle of the group was Magic, the center of attention of his fellow wrestlers, his bleached blonde hair illuminated by the floodlights dangling from exposed ceiling beams.
Night Train made eye contact with Magic. He saw them standing across the ring from each other, waiting for the bell. As Magic moved forward, Night Train could feel their lock up, the push of their weight against each other, the heads close enough to whisper last minute plans before starting the match. He listened for the crowd to tell him it was time for the first move.
Instead Magic’s arm fell across Night Train’s back with a strong slap. Night Train jerked as Magic shouted, “The train keeps a rollin’!” His voice sounded clean like it did on television, with no accent, no conflict between the sound and its source. “I used to follow you in Pro Wrestling Illustrated before we got TBS in Omaha.”
Night Train stared at Magic’s deeply tanned cheeks and smooth forehead. The light reflected off of his white teeth, fully intact. Night Train had always been prepared for an opponent who would go off plan, or a star who decided he didn’t like the finish. But tonight he hadn’t planned on anything happening in The Gate City Tap Room that wouldn’t have happened in The Sucker Punch.
“Is that the Biloxi Bomber?” Magic stepped over to Biloxi, shaking his hand and telling him a similar story about wrestling magazines. He had even seen Biloxi once, on a card in Kanas City, in the dying days of the territories. “Let me buy you gentlemen a drink.” Magic waved down the bartender. In a few moments he returned with two bottles of beer.
“Thanks,” is all Night Train said. He looked at Biloxi, surrounded by several of the other wrestlers who had made their way over, all tan, well-built, and alike.
Magic stood opposite of Night Train. “So were you at the show tonight? What’d you think?”
Night Train thought of matches that had gone awry. He always used the noise of the crowd to figure out where he was in the ring, but the voices in the bar weren’t directed towards him. The sound was just in the air. He kept listening for a cue. “No, we didn’t make it.” Night Train grasped the beer without looking at the bottle.
Magic took a drink and kept talking. “That’s too bad. I’d love to hear what you think about the way I was working over the leg tonight. It’s old school, but at a house show you have the time to tell a story by working on a body part. You can’t do that on TV. Not enough time.”
Night Train felt like he was grabbing a headlock in the middle of a match to give a confused opponent time to compose himself. “That’s right. That’s what you should do.”
Magic stood in front of Night Train in an awkward silence before patting him on the back again. “Look – we love it when the legends come visit.”
Legends. Night Train listened to the word. The background chatter faded. He could see Magic’s lips moving but there was no sound. Night Train felt his mask tighten around his skull. He tried to shake off the blow. He wasn’t sure how much time passed before Magic’s voice broke back in.
“…I loved that angle you did with Dusty Rhodes when you turned on him in the cage. And the promo you cut afterwards. Whoa—that was the stuff.”
Night Train turned towards Magic. “You’re supposed to be an asshole.”
Magic threw his head back and laughed, the sound fitting and natural. He then leaned forward and rested his hand on Night Train’s back. “Nope. I just play one on TV.” He laughed again and the man and the character separated, the line between them clear.
He kept talking. “You’re welcome to come backstage anytime. Guys like you don’t need tickets. Here,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a smartphone, “let me give you the number of Talent Relations. They’ll be sure you can get in whatever show you want.” He showed Night Train the number. “I’ll text it to you.”
Night Train paused. “I don’t text.”
“Ok,” Magic said. He picked up a napkin and waved to one of the bartenders for a pen. “We’ll do this the old fashioned way.” He jotted down the number and handed it to Night Train. “They’ll get you in backstage, too. All the performers would love it. We’d all love it.”
“Performers?” Night Train listened to the word while Magic furrowed his smooth, unscarred brow. “Is that what they call you?”
“Yeah. That’s what we are. Me. You.” Magic pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “All of us. Right?”
“Thanks for the drink,” Night Train said. He could hear the crowd clearly now. The audience was alive. He sat the beer down, untouched, and looked around for Biloxi. He couldn’t find him, but he could hear his laugh, the high-pitched cackle that was out of place in a wrestling promo but fit well in a hip new bar. Night Train thought about where he would be standing right now if The Sucker Punch hadn’t disappeared into this strange room. He took a deep breath and smelled nothing familiar: no smoke, no cheap beer, no dried blood on his lip.
The only thing he knew was the noise of the crowd. He could hear the voices fill the Coliseum, restless, waiting for a reason to pop. It was the right moment to make his move, to create momentum. He looked at Magic, perfect, polished, slick like a movie star, the warm lights making him easy to see. He thought about the compliments, the acknowledgement, what he had expected and what had actually happened. He heard the sounds of the ring: the snap of the hose wrapped-cables, the thud of the canvas covered plywood, the cheers of the fans telling him what to do next. Night Train tugged on his mask, feeling the fit, and then charged his opponent. He heard the roar of the crowd, the rush of air, the scream of voices, revealing what was real, signaling the moment the match would get going, letting him know that soon there would be impact.
W. Scott Thomason began watching professional wrestling while growing up in Winston-Salem, NC, and has been hooked ever since. He holds an MFA in fiction from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA. His stories have appeared in a number of journals, including Broad River Review, The Lindenwood Review, and The Roanoke Review. He lives outside of Philadelphia with his wife and two dogs.