It felt like a part of my face was dangling below my hips. My head - it felt like it was locked in a vice grip and the fluids protecting my brain were leaking through corners of my eyes. I had no idea where I was - who I was - and was simply walking with each step more subconscious than the next.
What is my name?
Why the hell am I here?
They tried to help me.
“Harley - take a seat. Let us check you out to make sure that ever---”
Nothing else registered.
It was like someone had blocked the space between myself and the EMT and used some sort of extraterrestrial filtering device - rippling the clarity and infecting the tones until there was nothing but deep, oblique murmurs. And then there was Dad - and Mom, transparent bodies that felt so real; unaffected by diseases and unweathered by age. They were dressed up as if going to a ball - but their expressions were that of disappointment and dejection. I opened my mouth to greet them, even though they weren’t there.
Nothing came out of mouth. Nothing but stagnant air..
“Son --” My father said to me. “What’s become of you? Where have you gone wrong?”
I remember - I remember shaking my head. I was trying to force myself to speak - to say anything I could, but the words were blacklisted. All words. I couldn’t shape a fucking sentence through my lips; like a ball of panic in the middle of my throat and no way to swallow it down.
And then my dear Mother.
“Harley, why don’t you come home. I’ll make you my special chicken noodle soup and you can get some rest. There’s an Andy Griffith marathon on. I know how much you loved your Andy Griffith.”
She was comforting. She wanted me to feel better - to protect me no matter what. I could have killed an entire family, and she’d find some sort of way to excuse me. My father though? His eyes were like flaming darts - shooting straight at his way in disbelief for how she was treating me. Expectations - a standard - a code - my Dad wanted me to succeed, or die trying. Instead, he saw me now - barely able to keep my swollen eyes open, bleeding from side to side - almost completely lacking natural operation.
“You’ve no need to ramble on about with your excuses, Harley Walter. You and I both know what you should be doing and this? This is not that.”
I tried with every dash of spirit in my heart and soul to tell him.
Please forgive me.
Please---but nothing. I was dead on the inside - or perhaps dead just as much externally. Forty-four years on this planet and I had been beaten in such a way that most twenty-year-olds would be getting rushed to a hospital.
“Don’t listen to you fatha’. Don’t do it, Harley. You did ya’best out there, and you should be proud of that. We should get you home so you can put that face on ice.”
I’m sorry Dad.
I was no longer walking. I wasn’t even in Madison Square Garden anymore. Mom and Dad? They were gone. I was flying - in blackness? Space? I was gliding through a dark field - stars, they were everywhere. I could do anything that I wanted - or so I thought. It didn’t last long, because there was a boom, followed by a screaming statement, that sent me nosediving back into what I could only assume was the same realm I belonged to before.
“A STUBBORN FOOL WILL ALWAYS BE A STUBBORN FOOL”
Like the end of a violent section of orchestration, my eyes opened up.
My eyes opened up.
Mom and Dad were gone. And here I am, sitting up in the middle of the floor of my dressing room within the heart of Madison Square Garden. I can feel every contusion, every scratch and bump - and I wanted to scream with rage, but what was done was done. A stubborn fool will always be a stubborn fool - what the hell was I thinking?
What the fuck were you thinking?
To have thought, for even an instant, that the right play would be to stand up to Styles, King, Jones - and take a crack at the bat. I had no bat - there was no bat. I was fucked since Jump Street, but little ole’ stubborn bastard engine that could just had to stake his claim, pump his chest out, and forget about the fact that he is a 44 year-old man that hasn’t picked a fight with anything beyond his iMac for months.
And then the EMTs arrive. They’re stitching me up - icing the rocky hills that was now my forehead - bearing the same question:
“What in the hell were you thinking, Hodge? Those guys - they’re savages. A world order movement, if I’ve ever seen one.”
I shrug - he had a point. It hurt to talk though.
“They’re out for blood - and they’re getting it.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t give a shit.”
The EMTs glance up at him with a smile as they continued to bandage wounds. “Fair enough, Hodge. You just relax - we’ll get you back to normal.”
Back to normal?
What was normal? Who was to say that I wasn’t normal to begin with? What made me appear any different than before? He dropped his bag of magic tricks on the floor and started to take my blood pressure - then he checked my pupils - all of which I never gave him initial permission to do to. And in my stupor daze, that was more than enough to feel like I was being invaded. There were no good guys - no such thing as angels. They were all disguised as ordinary human beings, but clearly just devil clones.
Was I losing my mind?
“Harley, my name is James. I’m not here to hurt you. You took a couple blows to the head out there and I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay. Do you understand that?”
“Tell me… tell me where I am?”
“Madison Square Garden, Harley. New York. Hey, can we get him a bottle of water please? He appears to be in some sort of shock.”
And that’s when I saw another set of EMTs storm past us and through the curtain that led to the ring. No matter how psychologically dislocated I was, I knew something was wrong. I tried to stand up, but it felt like the world beneath me opened up.
“Take it easy, guy.”
No, you don’t understand. I have to go out there. There’s trouble - and I just need to go out there and take care of it.
I try to get back up, but he pushes me down at the shoulders.
He pushed me down?
“Look, I get it. The world needs heroes like you, Harley. Right now though? Right now, I need you to sit down and cooperate so that I can determine if you need to go to the hospital or not.”
I looked him square in the eyes.
Dead in the eyes.
“I don’t need the fucking hospital. I need to go out there and beat the pieces of shit that are out there right now until the cops come. What’s fair in this world if I can get mobbed by a bunch of punks, but never get my retribution.”
The EMT smile - widely.
“It appears you’re coming to.”
“It appears that you’re going to let me get up, take that scaffolding pipe over there, and act as if you know nothing. That’s what you should do.”
“Is it? Well, I guess I’ll have to take the controversial route. Three versus 1. Do the math, Harley. You want to go back out there so that they can finish the job? Take a deep breath.”
He presses the stethoscope against my back, and I cooperate - breathing in and out slowly several times. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized how tired I was. The more I realized how tired I was, the more I believed that I was legitimately injured. The more I believed in my injuries, the less motivated I felt to get back out there and double-up on my bad luck. I let out a deep, resigning breath, and glanced back up at James the EMT.
“I find it extremely difficult to say this - but, you’re right.”
He simply nodded, staying true to the task at hand.
“Vitals are good. Drink this.”
He hands me that water. I suck it down like my life depended on it.
“Go take a cold shower, Harley. The night’s over. Time to go home and rest those bones are of yours. You need to take it easy.”
Fuck that entirely.
“Take it easy? You know, there was a time - a time where I didn’t have to take it easy”.
“Well…” The EMT gets to his feet and pats my shoulder. “Times they are a-changing, my friend. Take care of yourself.”
The EMT grabs his bag of magic tricks and walks away. In the meantime, I’m left picking my self-esteem off of the floor. I heard the crowd - like a raging fire - and opted to walk away. Unbeknownst to me, my presumptions were accurate. The Glass Ceiling had taken another a victim - one of their own in Jace Valentine - and again, I failed at making sure this didn’t happen. I took a long, cold shower, packed my shit up, and left the city in an Uber.
I only told him to stop when we reached a small pub - Mickey’s. I needed a drink, and no one was going to stop me from making good on my wish.
45 minutes Post-Wrestlefest..
Harley let that glass of gin lick his wounds, as he hung his head low in a corner booth. He giggled to himself, thinking back on how that waitress looked at him. Another homeless loser, beaten up by society, using his last few scheckles to feed his alcohol problem. Little did she, or mostly anyone know, that Harley had managed to get his alcohol chaos in order. A drink here and there never hurt anyone, and Harley wouldn’t be the exception to that rule tonight.
Just a quick drink Harley, and then it’s time to hit the fucking sheets and move on from this night.
Easier said than done.
Harley looks up, only to find a relatively older gentleman - likely double his age - with black glasses, a five o’clock shadow, and greasy black and white hair that was matted down by a cabbie hat. His Brooklyn accent is thick - much thicker than Harley’s. Harley lifts his eye up toward him and his eyebrows follow.
“Clearly the old fuck standing before ya’. Name’s Frank McDowell. People call me Mac, and so will you. Do you know who I am now?”
Harley wrapped his fingers around his glass and thought about it for a second. “No, no I don’t think - wait, you said Frank McDowell? Like, Frank The Body?”
No way was this Frank The Body.
Of course, Harley was referring to a former professional wrestler - a rather big deal in these parts. He had made appearances across the country, making pan-flashes with various large outfits - on television many, many, many times and even was close with Dino Bravo, right up to his death.
“Yeah, at one point time in this long, miserable, neverending life, I was Frank The Body. Ancient history though, you got me? I’m Mac. Who the fuck am I?”
Mac sucks his gums and winks at Harley. He pulls a card out of his pocket and tosses it at Harley.
“I own a gym. Stars and Stripes. Patriotic, right? Ahem, anyway. I’m one of the contracted trainers with CWF - a small time promoter as well, but I guess they figured that this 64 year-old tired, sack of shit frame was more beneficial teaching assholes how to get their shit in order. They want me to tag up with you.”
Harley was taken aback at this. Mixed up in emotions, he’d never had a trainer. Why did the CWF think he needed a trainer anyways? Mac was clearly a reactive man - not well known for his patience; easily determined in this basic face to face.
“Listen, I don’t have time----” Mac begins to hack up a lung, seemingly bracing himself from the pain by grabbing his kneecaps. He gets back to his feet. “I don’t have eternity to wait for your responses. I’m old. I’ll be dead soon. Meet me over at the gym tomorrow morning.”
“It’s just that---it’s just, I’ve never had someone train me before, Mac. And honestly, it’s lovely to meet you, but with respect, I can take care of myself.”
“Can you?” Mac cocks his head to the side, following that up with a shit-eating grin.
“Because from what I caught tonight, in between a couple power naps, I don’t think you should be so certain, Jack.”
“Whatever. The world is full of young, raging little shits that are full of piss, cum, and vinegar. You think you’re even standing on the same platform as they are? Do you honestly think that you’re even riding on the same train? Look at you.”
Harley nods his head, not tremendously willing to start a war with a man that was far and away his senior. Something about respecting your elders and all that jazz.
“Ya’know, kid. I remember when I was under that fading light of my career. Fuckin’ kids were taking over - super kids, that could run these ultra-marathons while they jerked off. Watching them made me want to take a dirt nap. I knew - eventually - that there was no way I could take them on - not without looking exactly like you look now. Got me, Jack?”
Harley raises one eyebrow, confused.
“So, you’re saying that I should retire? Because if that’s what you think…”
“You fucking pony.” Mac rubs his head. “I wouldn’t invite you to my gym if I thought you were at the end of your rope. You can’t carry out this career, at forty-plus, thinking that everything is just going to change for the better with some rest. Eventually, you won’t wanna get out of that bed - fightin’ these crazy bastards day in and day out. You do know that you’ve got that creepy bitch, Loki, on her tail now, right? So you’re just going to come out of the shadows of defeat - after getting manhandled by The Glass Dildos - and get lapped again?”
Harley finishes off his gin. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Wrestling’s all I’ve ever known, Mac. I’m just - you know, doing what I know - all that I know.”
Mac presses his wrinkled finger against the card that he threw at Harley.
“Stars and Stripes - tomorrow, at 8AM. No bullshit. No excuses. We ain’t friends either, got it? We’re associates. I get you where you need to be, you win, we both reap the monetary benefits. I’m sixty-five years old, God damn it. I don’t want to manage a gym that smells like balls until I’m dead - just as much as you don’t want to end your career at the bottom of the barrel. We have common interests - similar ambitions, understand?”
“You want a drink?” Harley offers.
Mac sighs. “I want a fuckin’ keg, Can’t though. Cirrhosis. Be there at 8AM.”
And with that he walked away. I ordered another drink, but opted to leave before it came out to me. Instead, I walked outside, rested against the brick building, and lit up a smoke. Frank The Body invites me to a gym, after I get the piss beaten out of me. Sounds like CWF have assumed my position as being nothing more than a liability. I could talk to Rish - I knew that - but was there a point? Would anything change? .
No. Nothing would change. Not until the results were there. Maybe I needed to mind my own business? Perhaps it was too late to mind my own business. Look at where poking my nose has got me? I could walk away - just like we did in Vietnam - with my tail between my legs, resigned to the fact that they’re all just too good for me - but then I’d be lying to myself, right?
I could easily turn away from all of this - give Loki a cheap disqualification win - but I’d never let myself live that down. This new generation of people - dedicated to being unique, unorthodox for the sake of compensating for something else - are the ones that will ultimately shape our future. That position has long left me, and that’s fine, but I won’t let the youth run wild on my watch. I won’t give into their tactics with fear - because I’ve seen dogs far bigger, far more vicious, whom wanted all of this so much more than their predecessor.
So, we will walk away from the pub and begin again - starting a brand new chapter that’s initiated with Loki Synn, followed by finishing this mess with Jarvis and his league of extraordinary assholes._
Stars and Stripes Gym
The following morning…
The gym is set up in a massive inner-city brownstone with a huge green entrance door. I enter, assuming the place to be booming, only to find nobody. It’s completely empty - with the exception of dusty equipment, a mock-up wrestling ring, and --- battle weapons on its canvas? I continue to walk into the main warehouse, scanning in hopes of seeing some sort of civilization.
What the hell was going on?
“FIRST” Mac screams directly behind Harley, mere inches away from his head. This causes Harley to jump and collapse to his knees. “...things first, you hit the pager button to the right side of the door. Otherwise, I may as well be taking a shit for all you know.”
“What the f---”
I nearly react out of anger.
“Did you need to scare the shit out of me, Mac?”
“Yes.” Mac answers immediately. “Gets the blood flowing. Anyway, let’s get started.”
“Where the hell is everyone?” I look around the room again, with my arms spread out. “This is an active gym right?”
Mac giggles, like he did last night. “You don’t typically pay attention to your surroundings, do you? Hours of operation. Right side of the green door. We don’t open until noon. This is a private party, kid. Mac and fucking Harley. Yeehah, right?”
Those battle weapons, though.
I point at the ring.
“What the fuck are those, Mac?”
“I mean, I know they’re battle weapons. Why the hell do you have battle weapons in your wrestling ring?”
Mac walks past me and makes a b-line toward the ring. “Conditioning training has to be relative to the circumstances, kid. They got you in some strange gimmick match - and there’s weapons. Jester’s something or other. You ever used weapons like those before?”
Mac picks up one of the weapons - one that looks like a giant mallet.
“Like this one?”
I shrug my shoulders, confused.
“Why the hell would I need to use weapons like that? Did Loki set this up? This sounds like a Loki type of thing, doesn’t it?”
“Who gives a flying alien shit who set it up, Harley? If I told you, would it change anything? Fact of the matter is that you’re obligated to go into the wicked jungle with that weird bitch - so it’s probably high noon that we do some mock-duels.”
Wait. What? Mock duels?
“No offense, Mac, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh really?” Mac picks up what can only be described as a pierced staff. He stares at it and responds. “And why wouldya’ say something like that, Harley? You think I’m incapable? You think the old man can’t get it done?”
“Wait a second…” I hold my hands up in defense, clearly aware that I was upsetting the old man. “I didn’t say that. Did I say that? All I said is that it’s probably not a good idea. That’s all, man. Somebody is going to get hurt.”
And then, Mac does it. He swings - with all of his might - toward Harley’s midsection. Harley reacts quickly enough to backstep, but is beside himself. What the fuck just happened?
“Are you fucking kidding me right now? Stand down, you old bastard.”
This dude is absolutely insane.
“Mac, stop. You’re going to hurt somebody.”
“Just like they hurt you last night, right? You let them take it to you, and now you’re going to let me take it to you too? What’s going to happen when Loki takes it to you as well? You just gonna go back to that fuckin’ pub and drown out your sins, you slobby sack of shit?”
Mac takes another swing, this time connecting with Harley’s ankle and sending him crashing to his side - screaming like a banshee.
“MAC! Stop it. That’s enough.”
“You think that’s going to stop Loki? OH STOP LOKI. PLEASE. ENOUGH. Did that stop anybody that you’ve fought before, Harley? Wake up and smell the fucking roses - this is your reality. You want to call it quits? Then you walk back over to the exit door, ring the bell, and get out of my sight. But if that’s what you want, you ain’t leaving here without a fucking beating. That’s how it works at Stars and Stripes, kid.”
Mac walks over to Harley and starts swinging again. This time, however, Harley starts to roll away - dodging each swing with calculated measure. He backrolls until he’s on his feet. Mac pushes the action, pursuing him with the staff - chopping away.
“This is going to stop, Mac.”
Harley reaches for a linked, steel chain and and wraps one end of it around his fist. Mac spins around, attempting to executing a massive blow, but Harley catches him at the legs, sweeping him down and forcing Mac to crash on his back. Harley pounces, using the chain to lock his ankles together and then steps backwards.
“I told you, didn’t I? I told you that this shit was going to stop - but you wouldn’t listen.”
Mac lays there, bound at the legs, and starts to laugh. He even applauds Harley, who’s huffing and puffing.
“That’s the Goddamn spirit, kid. You need to work yourself through the problem - or the problem is going to come for your life each and every single time. Do you understand?”
Harley puts his hands on his hips and shrugs his shoulders, somewhat beside himself over what just happened.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.”
“Now untie me, you asshole.”
Harley lets out a sigh and takes the chain off of Mac’s ankles. Mac gets back up. “This is just the start, kid. You want to dust the cobwebs off of your career?”
“Then you listen to me. And you listen good. Because it’s showtime.”
Mac nods his head with a smile.