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March 29, 2019 Fiction

Fable of the Everyman

Tucker Leighty-Phillips

Fable of the Everyman photo

My mother and father are stuck in an optic deadlock, her looking at him like she is trying to solve a puzzle or remember the name of a particular film, him looking like he’s just deciphered answers to both.

“Professional wrestler?” she asks a second time. 

“Professional wrestler,” my dad repeats with a toothy smile. “I’m sick of crunching numbers, I want to crunch opponents.”

Angela, my eleven year old sister, is in the living room with the television on and a bible-sized tome in her lap.

“Honey, don’t you want to come sit at the table?” My mom asks.

“The worker must have bread and roses,” she responds from the next room. She’s been getting really into Communism. 

The evening is spent debating my father’s new mid-life crisis and comparing it to his previous post-forty pursuits. Mom brings up the three-legged coffee table in the garage, a relic from his month-long foray into woodworking, and the eight hundred dollar metal detector beside it that would “practically pay for itself” despite being used only twice, once to scan the backyard for treasure on the property (forty-one cents, some old pull tabs, and a rusted Prince Albert tin), and again after Dad lost his wedding ring during a particularly nasty slip while mowing the lawn. Mom eventually found it after Dad gave up, as he had somehow set the machine to only search for lead.

I watch from the center of the table like a silent moderator. After some back and forth, Mom folds because Dad’s oblivious ambition is impervious to logic or public shame. 

“The heart gets what the heart wants,” Dad says. He says this a lot, his misremembered proverb. Mom sighs, taking his plate. She does this a lot, cleans up his messes.

Dad begins spending his evenings practicing punches, taking jabs at lightning bugs in the driveway. I watch him through the living room window as he blindly fires his fists at the flickering lights. The first time he tried this training method, he gave up after seven or eight minutes and spent the rest of the evening reading online encyclopedia articles about firefly flight speeds. I sat beside him and he rubbed my back.

Tonight, he sulks through the door with a tear rolling down his cheek and a small black mass of bugs in his cupped hands. He places them into a jewelry box and we hold a small ceremony in the backyard. My father’s knuckles glow with a yellow flare in the whispering summer night as Mom scoops the loose dirt back into the hole, covering the box. We hold a moment of silence for each insect, eight minutes in total.

We play tic-tac-toe with vanilla wafers and oreos. There is nothing to mark the lines, but we know the boundaries. The game is played back-and-forth as we strategically place our cookies until the victor claims the spoils. This is Dad’s way of giving us sweets. He’ll capture all of the corners and say he’s “orchestrating his attack” and then I’ll place three oreos right across the middle row and pull the cookies like I’m claiming the pot at a poker table. My sister objects to the winner-take-all ideology of our game. We tell her she’s not allowed to play anymore.

It’s not long before we replace the living room couch after Dad’s repeated elbow drops make the frame give out. Mom keeps the plastic on the new one and tells him if he’s going to practice, he’s going to have to do it somewhere else. He finds a gym the town over and begins going to training sessions. Dressed in a pair of cotton long johns and a tight black leotard, he announces that he is on a journey to become a champion. He comes back each evening wearing a varnish of sweat, his outfit stretched and tattered. His chest shines a deep shade of flamingo pink from all of the forearms and chop-slaps he’s received. 

“Pain is just leaving the body,” he announces to himself in between bites of grilled chicken. We tell him that’s not how the quote goes. He tells us champions should have three course meals. 

Later that week, Dad bursts into the house with armfuls of shopping bags from department and craft stores and begins scrapbooking together various pieces of clothing. He splays his goods around him across the living room rug and begins assembling his costume, taking breaks to shovel canned pinto beans into his mouth. We hear the sounds of tearing fabric, stomping feet, and exasperated moans before he re-enters the kitchen, wearing a red-and-black checkered flannel shirt with the sleeves torn, a pair of dark blue jeans that have been shaped into a pair of tight-fitting trunks, and a black luchador mask that appears to have been crafted from a sports bra. 

Dad puts his knuckles to his hips and gleams like a superhero.

“I am the Everyman, as I fight for the sake of every man.”

He looks like a kidnapped lumberjack. We stare at him. He glances at Mom, and then at Angela and me.

“And for you all, too. I fight for you also.”

Mom jokes and calls him Daisy Duke. Angela says that he looks like a fauxletarian, and also that his shorts are too tight. We offer to help him make alterations and he wears the outfit to bed that evening. 

Dad begins spending less time at the house. He’s training nearly every day and has left his accounting job. “That’s what nest eggs are for,” he says, “following dreams.” He’s put on fifteen pounds of muscle and stops eating at the table with us. He throws out the coffee maker and puts a name-brand juicer and blender in its place and protects them like family heirlooms. There’s enough protein powder in the cupboard to build a sand castle. Dad mixes the powder with peanut butter, spinach, and whatever’s left in the fridge. “Nutrient drink,” he says. “I need my nutrient drink.”

After a couple weeks, The Everyman earns his first match at the local wrestling federation. He’s competing against an older guy in a beige outfit named The Zookeeper. He has a potbelly and loses his breath walking to the ring. He berates the crowd before the match.

“I don’t care if you’re a lion, a tiger, or a bear — I’ll cage and tame you,” he slobbers into the microphone. “The Zookeeper can break your spirit.” He flexes his softening biceps four or five times, turning to show each corner of the crowd. A number of parents try to coax enthusiasm out of their tired-looking children.

The bell rings to start the match and the two grasp one another by the shoulders and start grappling. They slam one another around and you can see the men’s sweat vibrating on the white canvas mat. Dad panders to the crowd, raising his arms in a “let’s make some noise” motion while the Zookeeper hisses from the floor of the ring. Climbing the turnbuckle, Dad makes a diving elbow drop from the top of the ringpost, directly onto the Zookeeper’s chest. The ref counts the pin and raises The Everyman’s hand in a showing of victory. My mother, sister, and I all gasp at one another as if we’ve just won the lottery — the flattening silent shock that proceeds a cheer. Dad’s never bested anything or anyone. He exits the ring and makes us group hug, leaving a snail-trail of moisture across the back of my neck.

We sing We Are The Champions on the car ride home while Dad shadow boxes from the passenger seat. He wears his outfit to bed again.

The next day, Dad steps in front of my view of the television and slams two boxes of cookies onto the coffee table.

“Let’s battle.”

I win the first game. He smashes a fist into the table, crushing one of the Oreos. When I reach for the broken cookie, he knocks my hand away and sweeps the crumbs onto the floor. “Prizes must be earned,” he says. We tie six times in a row before he sends me to bed.

The Everyman’s matches continue, the victories keep rolling in. He gets offered a match for the championship the same day he receives a phone call from the world’s largest professional wrestling company.

“How’d you like to wrestle on television?” they ask.

Dad wrestles on television. The Everyman panders to the crowd again, letting the audience know that he’s just like them, blue collar, a good ol’ boy. They boo him and call him boring. 

“You suck,” someone heckles. 

“This guy blows.”

“I’d rather watch someone wrestle a coat rack than you.”

He loses ten matches in a row. He forces a smile at the audience every night even though they make him want to cry. His shorts rip when he enters the ring and one kid in the crowd calls him “shitstain.” He smiles at the boy like his job depends on it. 

One day, he stops pandering to the crowd. He calls them “average joes” and spits in the direction of the stands. The Everyman approaches a child eating popcorn in the front row and smacks the bottom of the bucket, spilling buttery kernels onto the rest of the section. He takes a drink of a woman’s soda and crushes the paper cup with a closed fist. He’s a bad guy now. He starts winning matches again, driven by his new attitude.

He doesn’t come home for weeks at a time. When he returns, he throws out all of the Oreos, Vanilla Wafers, Thin Mints, even the Ritz crackers. “You are who you eat” he says. He wins the championship. The referee raises his arm in victory and awards him a large golden title belt. The Everyman hoists the championship into the air, making declarations that aren’t captured on any working microphone but are probably against FCC broadcast laws. “I am The Everyman,” he bellows, “because every man wants to be me.” The hard camera zooms in on the championship title around his waist and he points at his inscripted nameplate as the channel shifts to an episode of Cops. A man with a tall can of Budweiser shoved into the crotch of his jeans is being arrested for trespassing. The Everyman flies home the next day and sits on the couch with his championship.

“Can I touch the belt?” I ask. 

“It’s not a belt, it’s a championship title,” he says, pulling it closer to him. The plastic on the couch sticks against the skin of my thighs.

Sometimes, he brings his co-workers home with him. Patton Painter spills color swatches and paint chips from his splattered white jumpsuit. The Astronomer bashes holes in the ceiling so he can “make us all see stars.” Jerry Atric crashes his walker into the dining table, shattering the glass into a hundred shards. They tussle and fight until they pass out in various corners of the living room. 

Mom picks up a second job tending bar to make up for the lost income. She comes home after we’ve gone to bed and leaves before we’re awake. Angela and I become a tag team of latch-key kids. Dinner is eaten in front of the television. Dad defeats one challenger after another, breaking long-standing records for title reigns. He sticks a toned finger into the camera, calling out any and all who dare step to him. We begin preparing our own meals and washing our clothes in the bathtub since neither of us know how the machine works. The water sloshes like a high tide as we baptize our shirts in the soapy tub. 

“I miss our family,” I say.

“I guess it’s about time we fully seize the means of production,” Angela replies, but says it with sad necessity rather than revolutionary fervor. We play a game of tic-tac-toe with the buttons that have fallen off of our clothes. 

Neither parent shows face nor heel in the house for weeks. Our pantry dwindles to a half-empty tub of Quaker Oats and a dust-covered can of sweet yams.  Late notices come from the water company, the electric provider, and the cable company. Angela and I live like feral children, claiming corners for our personals, battling for the master bed, mustering wordless grunts when the other invades our territory. We make truce during family time when Dad is on television. We both still want to root for him, to welcome him home. 

At school, kids hold us to a higher standard, asking us what it’s like to have a champion for a father. We say we aren’t sure; then we say it’s great. Nobody is making us go to school at this point, but it’s the best meal we have each day. Gloria, a lunch lady who wears a black beret instead of a hair net, lets us charge extra meat to our account. 

The house continues to crumble from neglect. The backdoor’s been blasted open, turned into a half-completed entrance ramp concocted by The Everyman so he could arrive in style. Pieces of the ceiling, covered in burn marks from The Everyman and his friends lighting fireworks in the house due to their claims of pyrotechnics being a primary component of an entrance, crumbles and  falls at random intervals. 

One evening, the show opens with The Everyman standing in the ring flipping a black-bar censored hand gesture to the audience. It is the one-year anniversary of his reign and he is celebrating by issuing an open challenge. He is wearing a well-fitting suit with his championship draped over one shoulder, and various hired goons are inflating balloons and shooting off confetti streamers around him while he gloats and makes brazen claims about singlehandedly carrying the industry on his back. 

“I am a champion,” The Everyman bellows, “and I deserve respect!” He kicks over a paper mache pinata of himself that is resting on a ringpost, knocking its arm off and spilling jujubes onto the canvas.

As he bellows further insults, an unfamiliar music trumpets through the arena, momentarily halting the champ’s diatribe. Strobe lights flash and flicker and The Everyman lowers his gaze and squints through the pyrotechnics to get a better look at the adversary who dares interrupt him. 

Standing tall at the entrance ramp is a muscular figure wearing an orange hard hat and a reflective vest. One hand holds a wide-blade trowel, the other a microphone. The camera pans and works its way up towards the face of a new wrestler, the face of my mother, the face of the only opponent who stands a chance at defeating the incumbent champion. The Bricklayer, she calls herself. She bellows a challenge into the mic as she makes her way to the ring in her heavy work boots. 

“I’ve come to make some repairs,” she says.

The Everyman holds his microphone to his mouth but it’s Dad that speaks. He accepts.

The competitors stand in opposite corners, separated by the referee holding the championship into the air like an offering to God. “This match is for the World Championship,” the announcer proclaims into the microphone. The Bricklayer gives a cursory glance to the might of the stadium and then returns her gaze to the man who is now her opponent. The fans cheer at unmatched decibel levels, the bell rings signaling the start of the match, and the two approach one another and engage in a shoulder lock. They grasp one another for several seconds, both blocking the other’s attempts at gaining the upper hand, both battling for something much more important than any gold championship belt. Angela and I hold hands. The pair finally break the grasp, and The Everyman stares down his opponent, orchestrating his attack, and marches forward. The two grapple for nearly a half hour, throwing an absolute barn-burner, until they’re both gasping and soaked in sweat, preying on their opponent to make a fatal mistake. 

The two both rise from the canvas at the same time and Dad goes for a finishing strike, missing, allowing Mom to catch him with a shot of her own. She pins him for a three count and gasps for air as the ref raises her hand in a showing of victory.  Dad collects himself from the mat, looks up at his wife with wide eyes and stands to rival her from the other side of the ring. The two stare each other down as the television cuts away to a blank screen and a NO INPUT message, the cable company finally taking action after months of unpaid service. 

Angela and I look at one another, back at the screen, and back at one another again. She slowly stands up and gazes around at the house, observing the cobweb corners, the dirty tile floor, popcorn kernels, paint chips and crumbs, and the dishes tucked in every crevice like pieces of a scavenger hunt. She stacks two bowls onto a plate and carries her load into the kitchen, muttering something under her breath like a chant. I pick up a solo cup that is half-filled with orange juice; the orange juice half-filled with a fuzzy blue mold, and carry it to the kitchen, following her. We don’t know what we’re doing, or if Mom and Dad are a team again, but we figure we can stick to the script, climb the top turnbuckle and hope the world doesn’t knock us back down before good can win out.

image: Pixabay