Jack Welch paid the man eighteen dollars and walked out the office door, wincing as the buzz of the neon “OPEN” sign drilled into his already aching head. He walked through a parking lot paved in gravel and cigarette butts and got in his car, a 1972 Chevrolet Caprice, four years old and already pushing 200,000 miles. He backed it up and drove down to the end of the Pine Lake Motel, saw the door with the number “3” on it, and parked in front of it. He sat there, gathering the strength to once more unfold his lanky six-foot-four frame from the car. In addition to his throbbing head, his eye was hurting like a sonovabitch and his knees were singing with lightning-strike jolts of agony.
Eventually he opened the door and swung his legs out. It was a warm evening, and he was still sweaty from the night’s work. King County High School had two showers in its gym, and neither of them worked. After his match Jack had air-dried as best he could while he sat in the stale locker room, waiting for the last of the crowd to take off. They’d been rowdy all night, and a bunch of them hung around in the parking lot for a while, drinking beer and bragging about how they’d handle themselves against the boys if they had a chance. As usual, their patience didn’t last, and eventually they took off, presumably to find some bar or some field where they’d drink some more and take their aggressions out on each other.
Jack limped to the trunk of his car and opened it. He grabbed his bag, filled with fresh clothes, toiletries, boots and ring gear, and his title belt, and dropped it to the gravel. The belt was a pain to keep up with, but—and he’d never let the boys in on this—he was kind of a mark for it. He liked wearing it as he walked out in front of the crowd; liked holding it high over his head as he was leaving, soaking up the boos and dodging the beer and balled-up programs and the occasional glob of spit the crowd lobbed at him. That belt told those people he was the best; better than their hero, and better than them. He didn’t really believe that, not deep down, but he acted like he did. He enjoyed acting that way, and he was good at it. That’s why he’d spent most of his career working as a heel. He liked being the bad guy when he didn’t have to really be a bad guy.
The only other thing in the trunk, besides a spare tire he wouldn’t trust on a bicycle, a cheap jack and a tire iron, was a styrofoam cooler he’d loaded with ice and beer before the show. Most of the ice was melted now, but the water was cold and so were the cans floating in it. Jack knocked the top off the cooler and pulled one out. He pressed it to his eye, hissing as the cold bit into the bruising. He held it there a minute, then opened the can and took a deep pull. He set the can down in the trunk, pulled a threadbare handkerchief from his pocket, rooted around in the cooler for a few of the remaining ice cubes, and dumped them into the handkerchief. He folded the cloth around the ice and pressed the makeshift pack against his eye. Then he picked up his beer and took another drink.
He was tired down to his bones. The older he got, the more these constant swings through the state got to him. He had to be up early in the morning, drive all the way down to Mobile. He was supposed to be on a local sports radio show at noon to hype that night’s show, then move on to the arena to supervise the setting up of the ring and the chairs, film a couple of promos for TV, and get ready for his match. The match would be the easy part. Same opponent as tonight and the night before that and the night before that; same match, too, for the most part, although they’d feel out the crowd and go with the flow, so long as they reached the same conclusion: Jack wins, walks out with the belt held high, come back in two weeks to see if the good guy can finally prevail.
He finished the beer, crumpled the can, tossed it in the trunk. Thought about grabbing another one, but figured he’d better haul his stuff inside and grab a shower first. He could dump the cooler and refill it from the motel’s ice machine when he was done, maybe have another beer then.
A pickup truck pulled in three doors down. Jack knew that truck, and the man that got out of it, stretching and groaning and grinning over at him. It was the man that had blacked his eye earlier that night.
“The hell are you doin’ here?” Jack asked the man.
“Same as you,” the man responded. “Gettin’ some rest. Gotta drive to Mobile tomorrow.”
“You can’t stay at the same motel as me,” Jack said. “You know that.”
This feels like a Stephen King tale. Very mysterious and suspenseful.
Very well conceived and executed. 10 out of 10 story.