That was the final number at the gate of those who were in the attendance for Harley Hodge’s official retirement from active competition. He was taking on a local slug they called The Zombie, whom was set to spend a few years behind bars in Beijing Municipal for tax fraud and evasion.
In fact, a few of those 1,615 in attendance were police officers playing travel advisor for The Zombie’s real-world vacation as soon as the match concluded.
When things got really bad for Harley in the states, not excluding his punctuality weaknesses and relapse, he met a shady agent in Chicago that had connections to the Asian wrestling circuit - typically made available for the washed-up has-beens that were far-too institutionalized in the game to make a steady paycheck elsewhere but still needed a paycheck to survive.
This was Harley’s ticket away from the disgrace that he plopped onto his plate. It was supposed to give him a reboot in the sport, an easier living based upon a veteran/legend-status clause that the agent worked out, and a way to keep his debt from reaching his eyeballs.
Unfortunately, Harley hadn’t figured a way out of his relapse yet. Thus, he let alcohol and drugs be his gateway to recovery from one match to the next - and sex with the easy-come-easy-go traffic that seemed to cover Beijing like a blanket with bullet holes in it. In this particular world however, nobody cared. The only thing that mattered to people that bought tickets was that they would see The Accelerator appear and perform; anything above or below that was simply out of mind.
Like a caged zoo animal with three heads, Harley had become a foreign attraction.
Once the “Winner Leaves Town” match had concluded, with Harley being wrapped up in a small package by The Zombie, Harley took a few minutes to wave towards the darkened venue that had more empty seats than humans, and then wandered to the backstage in a wounded haze - anxious to tear down a couple of Tsingtaos, run a line of cheap coke up his nose, and shove a Chungwa between his lips. He was told by a translator that there were “five or six people” waiting outside for autographs, but Harley didn’t give a shit about them. He was sore, tired of the grind, and ready to take an elevator up to the Beijing TV Centre for his final leap of faith.
Instead, he stumbled into his dressing room, sat down on the shabby couch and reached for a small bag of white powder that sat on the glass coffee table. After opening it up, he poured a line and started to bend over to snort it.
He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
Harley didn’t even turn his head.
“Who the hell is it?”
“It’s Zhao, sir.”
Zhao was assistant to the so-called stars. A do-boy essentially, Zhao would get the wrestlers water, adult beverages, towels for their rooms, pornography of all varietals if requested, and - of course - their paychecks. Dejected by the fact that the only meaningful thing in his life was now over, Harley didn’t really care about communicating with anyone - and ever again if he had his way.
“Not in the mood for company, Zhao. Door’s closed for a reason.”
“Oh yes, I understand, Mr. Hodge. I just have your paycheck and then I’ll be on my way for the night.”
The thing about Zhao was that he seemed to be a legitimate Harley Hodge fan. Harley still remembers the first day that he met Zhao - and that smile of his. It was like the kid was meeting Evil Presley reincarnated; he couldn’t get his words out properly, he was sweating profusely, and was willing to wait on hand and foot for Harley.
Harley couldn’t understand the excitement.
To him, he was just a washed-up piece of shit with nothing more to offer but coffin occupancy.
Something told Harley, however, to get up and open the door. He let out a deep sigh, stood up with crackling knee caps, and wandered over to turn the doorknob. There was he was, in all of his five-foot-three glory, with that same smile that proclaimed undeniable ecstasy. He held Harley’s paycheck towards him.
“There you have it, Mr. Hodge. Final paycheck. Well deserved.”
Harley scoffed while taking the paycheck and half-grinned.
“I don’t know about that anymore, kid. But, look, thanks. You have a good night now.”
Harley began to shut the door, but Zhao started to speak again.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I really am. It’s just that -- I probably won’t see you again. Realistically, you don’t see very many people after they’re seperated by 7,000 miles.”
Zhao laughed, but the laugh was short-lived. Harley held his breath and looked around, unsure of what to say.
“Not that good with goodbyes, kid. It’s been - you know, it’s been a pleasure to serve you guys here in China. A good thing, you guys got going. Real good. Take care of yourself.”
Harley began to shut the door once again, but Zhao put his foot in the way of it shutting.
“I just want you to know, Mr. Hodge, that I watched you when you were in CWF. The great Accelerator, right?”
Harley raised his eyebrows and nodded with artificial curiosity.
"And - well, anyway - the shows you were on were broadcasted the day after, very late, and only accessible online through a streaming service exclusively available through a proxy. Chinese laws are kind of funny. I could have been thrown in jail for watching wrestling - but I couldn’t resist. My father was very ill at the time - kidney disease - and as he was failing more and more every night, you helped me get along. You gave me the strength that I needed to keep a smile on my face for my father while he fought against the test of time. I don’t know what I would have done without you…”
Harley sniffles back what feels like emotions that were seemingly dormant and simply shrugs.
“There would have been plenty of other guys out there - with clean noses and no rap sheet at that. That’s good of you to be there for your Dad. You keep being there for him.”
Zhao gave off that uncomfortable smile; the one that told a much different story on the inside.
“Wish I could, Mr. Hodge. I wish I could. Time got the best of my father, unfortunately. What’s it called? Irony? There was this irony tto all of that. My father died mere weeks before I found out that you were going to be doing a temporary stint for the China1 Wrestling Circuit. Fate is quite real, as you can see. I learned pretty quicjly through that chain of events that everything is sort of like - I don’t know - sort of set up for you already. The only thing that really changes your course is personal choices made along the journey - those choices become the true controller of your navigation.”
Harley couldn’t believe the sophistication he was hearing out of this kid’s mouth.
“How old are you, kid?”
“I’m 22, sir.”
“Yeah, 22. Quite a head on your shoulders for 22. You should be proud about that.”
“Oh I am….” Zhao says while nodding his head, before pointing back at Harley. “And I hope you’re proud of yourself too. You have changed many lives, Mr. Hodge, and I think that when we get too busy, or too tied up with trying to survive out there, we forget to remind ourselves of the good things - the things that really etched our legacies into the stone. Do you forget?”
Harley blinked his eyes, trying to keep up with the kid.
“Do I forget what?”
Zhao shrugged his own shoulders this time.
“Do you forget to remind yourself of the good things?”
Harley didn’t respond. He looked down at the ground, back into Zhao’s concerned eyes, and then up towards the ceiling before closing his eyes altogether.
“Have a----” Harley opens his eyes and attempts to half-smile, extending his hand toward Zhao for a shake. “Have a good night, Zhao. It was nice meeting you, okay?”
Zhao looks down at Harley’s hand, seemingly disappointed that his self-proclaimed hero, was hinting at the conclusion of this dialogue. He takes Harley’s hand, but doesn’t let go initially - instead, he looks back into Harley’s eyes.
“Gather ye rosebuds, Mr. Hodge, while ye may. Old time is still a-flying. And this same flower that smiles today - tomorrow will be dying. Don’t close your eyes to fate. It was a pleasure - take care of yourself.”
Zhao shakes Harley’s hand and then takes his cue down the hall. Harley, on the other hand, was motionless; adjacent to where he stood was a mini-fridge stocked with whiskey and scotch and merely fifteen feet behind him was a line of coke waiting patiently for him like the demon cackling on his right shoulder.
“What the hell am I doing?”
He turned around and wandered over to the coffee table and stared down at the cocaine. In that moment, everything came back to him. He remembered the night he woke up in that trailer park to darkness, because his landlord cut the power off. He was a penniless, broken excuse of a man that relied on the act of the beggar to make it through one day to the next - never taking into account his drug and drinking habits as playing the royal factor in the sham of an existence that he crawled within.
Then, something snapped.
In one swift motion, Harley lifted the glass coffee table up and sent it flying like explosive shrapnel, sending it crashing into the drywall like a weightless, porcelein ragdoll that had it coming. Heaving like a mad man, Harley then turned his anger towards a television replaying his swan song departure from the ring and shoved his fist into it. With a face crinkled into ruthless frustration, Harley began to step once he realized that his hand was now covered in blood - until he crossed by the vertical vanity mirror that leaned up against the wall.
He turned to add it towards his body count, only to be left frozen by something that took his breath away.
His face loosened up - as did every muscle in his body - as he turned toward the mirror and stared at the man that he had become, which was a pale shade of what it was only a year ago. He slouched, conforming to the rush of despair that chased his bloodstream like coyote to roadrunner. He looked down at his hand, and studied the worn skin that was still noticeable through the crimson stain, and then heard a voice.
“So, this is where the train stops, eh?”
Harley looked behind him quickly, having quick flashbacks of The Ripper viciously attacking him within his own home, but nobody was there. He then darted his eyes toward the adjacent door leading out of his dressing room - but no one either.
“Look at you. Don’t take this moment for granted, because it may never come again.”
That’s when Harley realized two things.
The voice was coming from within the mirror.
And that he was probably having a mental breakdown.
It was Harley’s reflection - and it was talking to him?
“Don’t pretend for a moment that you haven’t talked to me before. What about those times when it stormed real bad? When you were afraid of the darkness - or the shadows that looked like evil people in the corners of your room when you were just a boy? Oh, what about when your parents fought about bills and their insecurities? I was there for you when you didn’t have anyone, so what makes you think I would leave you now?”
Perplexed, Harley moves closer to the mirror and presses his fingertips against it.
“Who am I?” The reflection interjects.
Harley nods, still confused.
“I’m your internal. I’m the voice you choose to drown when things get bad, because you don’t want to hear what it has to say. It’s my understanding that this is because you know what it’s going to say - and you agree with it - but don’t know how to stifle the pride inside of you to accept the truth. What made you decide not to destroy the very mirror you’re looking at?”
“Myself.” Harley responded confidently.
“You’re not wrong, but I’m every bit of you - just like you’re every bit of me. You’ve crashed against ground zero, where every bit of the bottom calls home - and now it’s time for me to help you find a way to not only learn from it - but move on from it as well. You have neglected the people that love you, because you don’t know how to reciprocate - and the reason you don’t know how to reciprocate is because you’ve never known love to begin with. All that you have let yourself become is an isolated speck hurling through the cosmic space - unprotected, unpredictable, and unbridled. As much as you believe you have a handle of the road that which you travel, you couldn’t be more blind from reality has in store for you.”
Harley slowly dropped to his knees and let out a deep exhale. He eyes began to well up as he covered his face with his hands.
“What is happening to me?”
“The better question is…” Harley’s reflection follows up. “Do you enjoy what is happening to you?
Harley responded only with a shake of his head, as he sniffled back further tears. He surveyed the damage in the room and couldn’t believe that he hadn’t been questioned by security, or officials within the arena, yet.
“Look at me.”
Harley shook his head again.
“Harley. LOOK AT ME.”
Harley lifted his up and stared at the reflection with swollen eyes.
“Don’t let this be your eulogy. Our eulogy. The night you woke up and the lights were off? When you had to stumble out of that shanty you lived in to plead for that scumbag slumlord to turn your power on? Promising him that you would somehow come up with money? A mere week later, you were wrestling again. And not only wrestling, you were back in the neighborhood that brought you the happiness that you longed for when you were just a boy. If the power hadn’t gone out, you would have woken up from your drunken stupor and took the fatal dose that was eagerly awaiting you. You don’t realize that, do you?”
Harley opened his eyes and began to think back.
“You were going to die the next day, Harley. It was a wrap - series finale - the credits were starting to peer out from the bottom of the screen. Instead, you made a change for the sake of rediscovering your purpose. And guess what? You found it. You figured it all out. And then what happened? You took for granted the good things that come out of effort and sweat equity - and you rested on your laurels, ultimately allowing yourself to fall back into what you surrounded yourself with now.”
Harley started to get back to his feet, seemingly snapping out of the manic moment he was in. As he did, the regret for his actions came thundering in like hungry warriors towards their opposition.
“The buck doesn’t have to stop here. Your purpose is forever, Harley, but it isn’t invincible. It needs to be protected and most importantly? It needs to be appreciated. The world longs for the man that used to accelerate - not the one that back-pedaled in the wake of fear.”
Harley started to half-grin, almost beside himself in light of his actions. It was in this moment that something started to change - as if a thrush of cold rain began to fall upon his bare back. He turned around and reached for a folded towel on the arm of the sofa and wrapped it around his fist - wincing from the lingering pain of his ignorant choices.
“So what are you going to do now, Harley?”
Harley doesn’t respond. Instead, he reached for his backpack and slung it over his back after his hand was decently wrapped up. He flipped his sweat-soaked, curly blonde hair back and stared back at his reflection once more time.
“I’m going home.”
Brooklyn, New York
May 21th, 2019
I left China ten days ago a very different man than who I am today.
I left the cocaine there.
And every drop of the drink.
And today, on the twenty-first day of May, I stand in front of Globknocker’s Gym - just east of Brighton Beach - to begin my personal detoxification journey for the sake of embracing every bit of the purpose that came to me when I woke up to darkness so long ago. I have lost so much - so many people that most likely needed me just as much as I direly needed them - and feel like I’ve walked out of prison to a very different world that I don’t know how to handle yet.
There is something in my pocket that influences me though.
And for once, it isn’t drugs.
For once, it isn’t the bottle.
It’s the answer to the chaos that both of these things brought into my life.
It’s a plane ticket - laminated with golden intentions.
You see, I was never ready to retire. It just felt like the right thing to do because my body couldn’t handle it anymore. What couldn’t it handle though? Was it really the wrestling? Was it age? Was it some sort of complacency?
You know what it was?
You know what it’s always been?
My self-doubt. My neuroticism. My self-inflicting bullshit that slowly tied the will power I once had - physically and mentally - into a knot the likes of which I never knew how to undo. It was me looking at everything that I had in the moment, and then pushing it aside so that I could bitch about all of the so-called issues I had. They weren’t issues.
Not even fucking close.
They were gripes that I let escalate to the point at which they weren’t controllable. I became an defiant toddler that would piss and moan when the world wouldn’t turn at the pace I wanted it to. And when nobody wanted to hear me complain anymore, I complained to myself.
And when I didn’t want to hear it anymore, I loaded myself up with every drug that I could think of until I was so numb that I couldn’t feel any pain. I could walk into that ring and get the absolute shit kicked out of me and never feel a thing - until I came down.
And once I came down, I began to convince myself that I was too old for this game - that all of these young shooters were breaking me in half because I was barrel-rolling over the hill.
I did all of this.
I did every bit of this to myself and because of it, I’ve lost some of the greatest years that I could’ve ever had, I’m sure. I turned my back on people that would’ve fucking died for me - that would’ve laid their bodies across a pair of train tracks if it meant that I’d give them the time of day.
But I didn’t.
Because fuck them, right?
I took this bag of fame, cashed it in, and road the horse until I was thrown off far too many times. And when that final crash happened, I saw the results of my idiocy. Those results end today. I let myself fall apart and the pieces of that I appreciate - that everyone appreciates - have been missing for far too long. I not only owe this ressurection to the ones that stood by me even when I chose to step away from them, but also to myself.
There’s a golden opportunity on the horizon - one that is rich with new beginnings. And even if a new beginning isn’t exactly in the cards, what a mighty conclusion to have available to me. I was never made to simply give up because it was the figurative time to do so.
I was made to push through opposition without hesitation. I was made to live life on the wildside, stare into the eye of the flame, and jump like I’ve never jumped before.
I was made to fight - for the right to succeed, for the right to move forward - I was made to fight for to earn my life. And I’ll be damned if I ring that bell, throw in the towel, and call it a career just yet.
My name is Harley Hodge.