Fiction by Michael Chin
Content warning: Gun/shooting-related content
I dated Danny Derkins while we both wrestled for a little Midwest indie. We made a loop of bingo halls and fairgrounds that summer, barely making ends meet. They were the kinds of shows where the gate was lousy, and it was understood a portion of our compensation was free food from the concession stands. Danny and I got love drunk feeding each other sweet cotton candy that melted so fast you could forget you’d tasted it in the first place.
Danny was a shooter, an old school grappler who’d wrestled in high school. He’d learned the for-real holds from old-timers to choke out a fan who’d hopped the barricade or put a rookie in line if he was going too fast in the ring. Occasionally, the two of us grappled in hotel rooms, him going half-strength, half-speed to offer me a chance. Skill aside, he had a hundred pounds on me. We tangled in headlocks and body scissors until he inevitably pinned me down.
It was all fun and games until we got to Camloon.
It was a county fair this time, but a big one with a ferris wheel that didn’t creak when it turned and bright lights—none of the bulbs blown—lining bottles stacked for kids to chuck balls at them and the game where you slammed a mallet down to ring a bell and show your strength.
My opponent most of the summer was Hermione McGonagall. We were smalltime enough not to attract any sort of mainstream attention or legal action. She was a college girl who’d majored in English. The pedigree left her over-educated and ready to offer unsolicited thoughts on the story of the match or the canonical implications of a title change. The philosophy behind her gimmick—wearing a school robe and a red and yellow striped ascot, waving a wand like a Hogwarts wizard—wasn’t uncommon on the roster. Tap into the ethos of something bigger to get attention and make it to the big time. Then ditch the trademark infringements once she’d made it there.
The gimmick wasn’t bad.
Hermione was the shits in the ring, though.
She couldn’t take a hit right. She might have made a decent heel for her instinct to cower and whimper before any kind of impact, but she was supposed to be the hero to my villain. I had to keep her supported on my abdominal stretch and strike for sound—stomping my foot when I hit her with a forearm smash, slapping my thigh when I chopped her chest to mask how softly I hit her. When she was on offense, I had to cinch her arm in across my throat and lean in to her spinning heel kick to make any contact at all.
Still, we got to know one another the way you do when you’re up against the same opponent night after night. You work out a degree of trust and figure out which annoyances you have to put aside. By the time we got to Camloon, we had a match down—not as much improvisation as I’d like, but a series of respectable spots to get us to eight minutes, bell to bell.
Hermione was the one who spotted the note.
The fairgrounds had a shed that housed a series of toilet closets, once painted white, now chipped, dulled, and dirtied to gray-brown. The red ink read, July 3, no mercy. Everybody gets shot.
She found it July 1, our first night and gathered us all around to see it.
Hermione went to Calvin Gordy, the promoter. The head of our band of musclemen and misfits. He went to the guy who’d booked us, who went to whoever was in charge of the fair, who went to the police, who sent out an officer by nightfall. He poked around, looked at the red-ink warning. By then, the fair manager had sent a pimply faced teenage team to cordon off the area with caution tape that read UNDER CONSTRUCTION. The officer was short and slim—neither the bodybuilder nor the doughnut-eater we might have expected. He looked almost comical when The Blue Brothers, a tag team that worked a cop gimmick, walked by, each dwarfing the real policeman.
When Gordy addressed the lot of us after the fans had gone home—everyone stinking in the summer heat given the absence of showers at an outdoor event—he told us the specialist deemed the threat, “not credible.”
That announcement went over like a chili cheese dog fart with the windows rolled up. Questions about what determined credibility, and if everyone still had to wrestle and whether somebody would get metal detectors set up at the entrance gate.
Here was a threat hardly anyone knew had been made. Hermione asked if we would get the word out to fans.
Of course not, Gordy said. There were some rules of wrestling that were unimpeachable. First among them: no one did anything in an effort to get fans not to show up.
There might have been a lot more bitching and haggling had Danny not spoken up. He was at least as respected as Gordy, but without the baggage of being management.
“Some idiot tries to jack a wrestling show, and he’s gonna catch a beating.” He leaned over the ring ropes to spit outside, marking his territory. For these three nights, this plot of land was a wrestling arena, and wrestlers claimed what they could through physicality. “Anybody tries anything on us, we take care of it,” Danny said.
A quiet rumble of approval. Gordy tried echoing the sentiments in his own words—a lukewarm imitation of Danny’s confidence and call to arms. The crowd dispersed, and I held Danny’s hand on the way back to his pickup truck.
At the hotel, after we’d showered and eaten, Danny wasn’t so sure.
“Somebody comes at me with his fists, with a knife even, I’ll handle him. But a gun? I may not even get him in arm’s reach.”
I reminded him of what he’d said in the ring. “It’s all of us in this together.” I coiled an arm around his mid-section, pulling him into bed. “We’ll all be there.”
“It’s everybody.” He stared straight ahead toward the television. We had it turned off. When we started sharing a room he’d told me he couldn’t sleep without it on, and I told him I couldn’t sleep with it, so we went back and forth. Whoever was up later got their way, turning it on or off after the other wouldn’t notice. Except those nights when the sleeper woke and we grappled over the remote and more often than not it tumbled to the floor. It didn’t matter anyway because wrestling gave way to kissing to touching to not sleeping at all.
There was no back and forth that night. “I’m worried about everybody,” he said.
I dreamed of wrestling in a USO show in the middle of a combat zone. Gordy was there at ringside. I leaned through the ropes and told him this didn’t seem safe. A bullet whizzed past my ear and exploded a turnbuckle. He reiterated the threat wasn’t credible.
Danny wasn’t the only one concerned. It may have been his vote of confidence that had swung the momentum after Gordy’s announcement, but an undercurrent of fear lingered, too, amplified by a night to reflect and worry.
At the show the next day, Odin Alexander, a six-foot-ten mountain of a man with poor coordination, but the size to always ensure him a job in wrestling, told a story to anyone who’d listen. He was a junior in high school. A sophomore who got bullied at school and knocked around by his dad at home finally lost it and brought in a gun. He opened fire in the lunch room and killed a basketball player, clipped his cheerleader girlfriend’s shoulder with a shot before a social studies teacher tackled the shooter. A bunch of the other kids dogpiled him to keep him down. The gun went off again in the melee but the stray bullet only hit a water fountain.
Odin wasn’t part of the pile on. Six-ten, pushing three hundred pounds he might have helped, but he’d seen himself as the biggest target in the room. He took cover under a cafeteria table, head in his hands and rocking until after it was all over. He told us it was the scariest moment of his life.
But the moral of the story wasn’t what I’d expected about fear and trauma and chaos and death.
“Somebody wants to kill a bunch of people, they aren’t going to announce themselves,” Odin said. “That’s asking for fewer targets, more security. If they mean to shoot, they’ll come at you when you least expect it.”
When you least expect it can mean different things to different people. Maybe it meant a prior warning is a surefire sign of a hoax, like Odin would suggest.
But maybe it meant the shooter would come a day later when everyone was heaving a sigh of relief. Or maybe the shooter comes a day early. Not the end of our three-night stand, but the middle.
Maybe the shooter would come to the backstage tent where the wrestlers were getting ready and pick off as many of us as he could, instead of going after the fans.
I tried to visualize hiding places. Not only the quickest, but the subtlest means of getting out of the glow of the spotlights trained on the ring. How effective it might be to hide under the time keeper’s table, or if there’d be room when the time keeper, ring announcer, and front row fans inevitably took that refuge first.
I overheard two of the boys talking from ringside before the gates opened, before the inevitable trickle of early comers who’d chosen the fair for their day’s entertainment specifically to see the wrestlers. They were the ones who would stake out front row seats and sit for hours to ensure their close up look at the action, and maybe get rewarded by some of us coming by to chit chat before opening bell. Wrestlers would talk openly with fans now, not like the olden days when it was so engrained to stay in character whenever a fan might be listening.
But we wouldn’t talk with fans about the specter of a shooter.
We talked about it early, just us around. New York Nick Nettles pointed to a scaffold rig. “That’s where a shooter would position himself. Open fire during the show, from the highest point available, or maybe after the show. Pick people off while they’re exiting, all single file, pushing to get in the line of fire before they realize what’s happening.”
“I thought the same thing, the minute I saw the set up,” Justin Ovative added. The premise seemed absurd, that he’d have considered the likelihood of where a shooter would position himself before anyone knew there was a threat.
We were all looking around.
When Hermione worked our match that night, she was late to catch me on a plancha to ringside. I had to adjust mid-air and wound up hitting my hand hard against her shoulder, jamming my index finger.
While I iced my hand, Hermione noted which finger was swelling. She speculated it was a symbol. “If you can’t use your trigger finger, maybe that represents how the shooter won’t be able to pull the trigger. Maybe we’ll all be spared.”
My finger hurt like a bitch.
I told her to shut up.
If somebody had a gun and tried to hurt us, there was some small pleasure in the fantasy of the fight.
I imagined getting the drop on the shooter. Some combination of happenstance, maybe distraction. I’d nail him with a flying drop kick that momentarily knocked the gun from his hands, and follow up with a rear naked choke. Keep pressure on his throat until he was desperate. Keep squeezing until he passed out or was dead. Or straddle his torso and punch him with all I had. One of the ironies of being a wrestler is you learn to hit people without really hurting them, but you also learn to fight for real as your body hardens into callouses, and a fan gets handsy at ringside or somebody recognizes you at a bar after the show and wants to try you. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine beating someone until my knuckles bled.
I might be a hero. Get some good press, maybe a key to the city. Maybe build some sort of action hero element into my wrestling gimmick. That’d be all well and good, but mostly I imagined the satisfying crunch of his nose beneath my fist.
Other wrestlers talked about a prospective shooting, too. Some of them about their own future heroism, tackling a gunman, clobbering him with a legit chair shot to the head.
Andre Funk talked about snatching the gun from the would-be shooter and turning the tables just to watch the little fucking shit shit himself.
“And what’d you do after that?” Danny asked.
The response came back meeker. Something about turning him over to the police, and something about popping him one in the nose on the hand off. Nick Nettles patted his back and nodded along. “You think the police would be OK with you popping some kid in the face right in front of them?”
“Who said it’s a kid?” Danny asked.
“What if it’s a girl?” Nick asked.
Andre wasn’t making eye contact anymore. “We’d take care of it.” He looked to me. “Maybe I’d hand her over to your girlfriend to teach her a lesson.”
When we spotted him, he was male. Pale, white, tall and lanky, wearing a black trench coat.
Nick Nettles pointed him out, but Danny was already watching the kid when he took his seat in the back row of folding chairs set up for the show. Duffel bag at his side.
Word spread. We all watched him, crowded at the edge of the makeshift curtain positioned to block the audience’s view of us coming out of the tent we used for a backstage area.
The kid in the trench coat tapped on his phone with a fury.
“There might be more of them,” Hermione said. “He’s plotting.”
“Or he’s a teenager with a cell phone,” I said. But no one listened. It was transparent what I was doing—the conditioning to minimize a threat, to set everyone at ease, even when there was every reason to be on high alert.
“Do we tell Gordy?” Nick asked. “Or go straight to the police?”
Danny stepped past him.
He shot past the kids in the front rows, reaching out scraps of paper for autographs, and blew past the portly guy in the third row who tried to snap a selfie with him.
He got to the kid in the trench coat.
Danny didn’t say a word at all, but rather reached past the trench coat to snatch a hold of the kid’s t-shirt, rip him up into the air, and turn him around. Danny pinned the teenager’s arm back in a hammerlock, and then threaded his own arm up through the space between the kid’s arm and back. Another arm slid around the kid’s throat and he clasped his fingers.
Hang around wrestlers long enough and you lose sight of how big they are. Danny’s fist wasn’t much smaller than the kid’s head. The cross face chicken wing hold could easily dislocate the kid’s shoulder, all Danny had to do was flex.
The kid was whimpering when I got there, Nick a step behind me. Here we were, living what must have been Danny’s particular daydream about a shooter. And still the question: what next?
“Check the bag, numb skulls.” Danny said it through gritted teeth, not because he was applying the pressure or it was difficult to hold the kid. Because it was difficult to strike this particular balance between holding him and not really hurting him.
I unzipped the bag.
Nick pulled out the bottle of lotion. “What the hell?”
The spout was baby blue. Also in the bag: diapers, wipes, a packet of apple sauce mixed with crushed strawberry.
“Let him go,” I said.
Gordy got involved. There was a commotion of course, of people taking videos on their phones and the kid selling like he was half dead on the ground after Danny let him go. Next thing, the kid’s mother and toddler brother were on the scene—the ones he’d come early to save seats for, while the little one watched the carousel go around one more time before the wrestling show.
I read an article about false alarms. That they may not have the same catastrophic effects on a community as a shooting—not the same mourning of lost lives, not the same trauma to the survivors.
Still, once you’ve put yourself in the position of considering a shooting, eyeing the person standing next to you as a prospective mass murderer, reckoning with your own mortality—it’s hard to come back from that.
We got lucky. It wasn’t only the kid in the trench coat who was curious to see a wrestling show. It was a whole family of marks, who recognized half the roster by other gimmicks we’d played in other territories. The kind of family that went to a match anyplace within a few-hours drive and didn’t give a second thought to bringing a toddler along because it was important to indoctrinate him early.
They agreed not to press charges against Danny or the company in exchange for the opportunity to go backstage. Gordy made sure every last one of us posed for pictures with them, last of all Danny who, at the kids request, put on the cross face chicken wing again—not the shoot version, but rather a looser, sloppier hold than would ever pass Danny’s standards in an actual wrestling ring.
A lot of us stuck around the extra night after our last show in Camloon. We had a week before our next spot, no rush to get out of town, and the fair was having a fireworks display.
We didn’t want to pay to get in, but that’s one of the nice things about pyrotechnics, as opposed to wrestling. You don’t need to get up close. You can watch what happens from the parking lot.
It wasn’t all that impressive of a show, but I’d always found something romantic about fireworks, and held hands with Danny when they started going off. Our bodies both went rigid before long, though.
The reality settled in that the explosions sounded an awful lot like gunshots.
If you were in a certain state of mind, the red embers falling from the sky could look an awful lot like blood.
The two of us left before the fireworks were over.
I didn’t stay in the Midwest long. They had the kind of territory where the roster ballooned in the summer months with so many opportunities to perform and then shrank back down when temperatures cooled and fair season was over.
Danny and I said our goodbyes. It was understood we weren’t in it for the long haul, no point in kidding ourselves about long distance. That was for rookies and dreamers.
The word about the shooting threat spread—a story that made the rounds here and there through other territories.
I heard through the grapevine that the warning on the shed hadn’t been new. It had been there at least three years earlier, according to Big Poppa Cool, who said he and the boys had told Gordy about it then and gotten brushed off.
I was angry.
But that next summer, Danny worked the fairs again. He sent me a picture of where the warning still stood, the red ink bright against the white shed, as if someone had stenciled over it in a fresh coat to keep the threat alive.
I texted him back to tell him what I’d heard from Big Poppa Cool, and to ask if they talked to the police again, or at least the man who managed the fairgrounds. They couldn’t let a threat like that sit there forever, could they?
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. His debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours (Cowboy Jamboree Press) came out in 2021, and he is the author of three previous full-length short story collections. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Photo by Katherine Auguste on Unsplash