There she was. Smokey the wrestling bear riding in the back of a pink Cadillac. De-clawed, de-fanged and drugged out of her mind. Earl Black pulled up at The Dreamland Motel, one thumbless hand on the wheel.
“Get in,” Earl stretched for the door. “She ripped the truck apart. I had to belt her up in the back.”
Harley Cage was waiting on the sidewalk, wearing aviators and a leisure suit, hazy in chassis gleam.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Harley said. “She’s happier than ol’ Blue layin on the porch chewin a big old catfish head.”
Harley was one of the toughest guys in the business. His in-character and out-of-character voice sounded exactly the same. It was enough to make grown men quiver. He had beaten polio as child, shaken off cancer and survived several near-fatal car crashes he mostly caused. Nobody would ride with him. He got in the car.
Earl was wearing slacks and a t-shirt with a bear on the front.
“You’re a kooky ass guy, do you know that?” Harley said. “Crazy as a pet coon.”
Smokey was famous. She had wrestled over three hundred matches. Most barely lasted a minute. She starred in films. Earl let her wrestle on set with film stars like Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. Football players like Rod Marinelli or Dick Butkus. Everybody wrestled Smokey. She was only six-two and three-hundred but was regularly billed as eight five and six-fifty. This was wrestling. Showbusiness. Smokey was a special attraction and got Earl Black booked across the mid-South. But the act was getting old and the shows were drying up. Earl had side-lined himself. Everybody said so.
Harley growled at the bear, “Who you looking at beautiful?”
Then looked sadly at his flannel jacket and gold medallion.
“The boys keep ribbing my threads.”
“It’s because you wear the same Goddamn suit every day,” Earl answered. “You look like Iceberg Slim.”
There was a bottle of dog shampoo on the creamily-upholstered backseat above the sheets of bedding and Smokey snored, drool windswept from her snout.
“There’s even a lizard on the circuit now,” Harley said. “Some punk is wrestling gators in the Great Lakes.”
“You need to change up the act. Keep yourself fresh. Everybody’s looking for the next big thing. One guy has a snake in North Carolina.”
“What do I do with Smokey?”
“Send her to a retirement home, a circus, a zoo. I don’t know. Just let her go out the same way we all do, on top.”
“People love Smokey,” Earl responded angrily. “People don’t just see her as a bear, a special attraction, she’s a character. A worker in her own right.”
“I’m not trying to ride you or nothing.”
Smokey sat up. The rear-view filled with the small black eyes, rounded ears and long snout of the three-hundred pounder he rescued from the roadside as a cub and called his daughter. They had a lot in common. Both had been orphaned. Both ate five thousand calories a day and they could share the same meals.
She wasn’t the love of his life but he wished she was.
They drove passed El Dorado falls. There were ranches, hikers in the distance, and a waterfall. Before he was a wrestler, Earl was a merchant seaman. He sailed the world for five years. He was scouted in a gym in New Zealand and found work ever since. He went country to country, territory to territory.
Smokey fell asleep again, ramrod straight, still dozy. Paws rested on her grey-pink belly, racked with nipples. Earl was the son of a clergy-man. Something about the sea, like the night sky, scared Earl and he liked it. The immensity. The sense of the infinite. The road felt the same way. The great pink ship of his Cadillac sailing down the highway sky stretched out before them. This was life on the road. The wilding sun. On the long straights the car streaked into a blur.
“Wichita was hot last night,” Harley said. “Some hillbillies tried to invade the ring and we had to fight them back to the dressing room.”
“I had similar in Calgary but I got caught in the top rope. They’re loose up there, you know? A woman wrestler laid out a lumberjack with one punch.”
Earl’s spoke in a low monotone staring at the road.
“Anyway, when I got back to the dressing room a pair of twins were waiting for me. Russians, I think and I made a real pig of myself,” Harley stroked his whiskers. “How about you? Any luck?”
“You got to get yourself out there. I bet that thing is a pussy magnet.”
“She’s been a good friend to me. That’s for sure.”
Earl turned on the stereo, Wichita Lineman. I hear you singing’ in the wire. I can hear you through the whine. Smokey, paws waving, bellowed.
“Please,” Harley groaned. “I’m hungover.”
“You’re always hungover.”
“That’s because I’m always drinking,” he growled pilling his cap over his eyes. “You should party, you know? I’m serious, I worry man.”
“Most music is just noise to me. This is a real song. Smokey likes country. It seems to keep her amused. Bears have a great sense of humour, you know? They like to play around.” “I’ll bet.”
“They also stink of shit. I think the bitch has shit herself.”
“Of course she has.”
“It’s rotten. I might puke.”
“It naturally stinks of fucking shit, hombre.”
Smokey sat up hearing raised voices. The car rock and rolled. Her long sloped snout, mouth half open, grunted a moan. When her massive head moved it was animatronic and fabulous, night shade dark
Harley gagged and quivered.
“Let me out dude. I’m gonna retch.”
“We’ll be there soon.”
“Let me out.”
“We don’t have far.”
Harley pulled a snubnose Smith & Wesson from the glove box and pointed it at Earl’s head.
“Jesus Christ, motherfucker.” He yelled. “Stop the Goddamn car.”
Earl slammed the brakes. The car drifted in a skid-marked half moon, prairie dust rising.
“The fuck is wrong with you?” He bashed his fist on the dashboard. “For Godssake. You trying to get us killed?”
Harley doubled-up, Smokey roared. Then he puked. They sat wordless in the spun-out vehicle. Brake pads scorched. Earl checked on Smokey and then walked into the flatland. What could he do? Harley was a veteran. He couldn’t risk being kicked off the show. He had Smokey to feed. A luxury flat in Wichita with a swimming pool, floral wallpaper, a refrigerator, etc.
Bushes, loamy grasses, silt. The afternoon sunshine was overwhelming. He walked in the heat to cool his anger. The flies buzzed static. He stopped for a whiz by a wire fence where a wooden sign read Keep Grassland Free: No Government Acquisition painted with the kind of psychedelic styling, hand-lettered, like the placards of the peaceniks who protested outside shows, only to tell him what he already knew.
Animals are humans.
A shot fired. Greyish-brown topsoil spun. Another shot drilled past his trouser leg. Harley laughed smoky-eyed. Then he fired again.
“You’re an asshole!” Earl shouted. “Do you know you’re an asshole?”
At five forty-five they arrived at The Memorial Hall. Outside fans crowded, trying to get closer to Smokey. Earl pushed past. The hippies were waiting with animal rights slogans on placards. The venue hosted Pink Floyd last night. Thursday was All-Star Wrestling. The first of the month was a television taping. The matches would play across the state on cable. There would be three and a half thousand people in the arena. A hundred thousand watching on TV. When they parked up, Earl chained Smokey’s muzzle and walked them to the stage door.
Who would stop them?
Harley carried his bag in silence. Earl wheeled his luggage in a duffel bag, all black.
They hadn’t spoken for nearly forty minutes. They had spats like this. It was part of riding with Harley. He was always getting them in trouble with promoters for being late because he got them into a scrap with truck drivers or rode around a hundred miles an hour.
He didn’t have to be buzzed to go crazy.
“You’re not still hot because I goosed ya?” Harley asked. “It was a prank for God’s sake. You know I’m a good shot. I was aiming for your trouser leg.”
“What if you missed?”
“I’ve shot squirrels between the eyes as they jump tree to tree,” he laughed. “I’m the best Goddamn shot for twenty states.”
Earl scratched his head so he had a reason to not make eye contact.
“These slacks cost nearly fifty dollars.”
“You’ll earn nine times that tonight.”
They entered the locker-room making sure to shake everybody’s hand, softly, almost not-touching. They were only practicing the illusion. A queue formed and the boys greeted her like a dog. The promoter had ordered a bucket of meat and salad from a nearby diner. The room was large and bright and Earl began to undress and re-dress, pulling on his black tights and sitting down on a cantilever bench he laced up his knee-high black jackboots with a skull down the side.
Harley sat across the bench changing into his new red trunks. He had three-quarter boots, hockey socks pulled up to his shins. He rubbed baby-oil into his grizzly body. He told Earl his theory that the soft slick would gleam right through the tube. Colour-transmission changed everything.
“I don’t believe it,” Harley spoke into his hand. “I’m down to take a clean fall against The Coyote. Jesus, that guy is the shits.”
“Isn’t he the promoters nephew?”
Running order, match length, and results were taped to the door. Earl pointed at the card.
“He wants me to go ten with Smokey.”
The first bell had rung. The show was under way and the locker room looked like it would before a football game, a team of guys talking through high spots interspersed with wrestle-talk, what was going on in other promotions, who they should look out for, who was getting over.
Trainees were running ring-jackets back to the locker-room. Stage-hands. Now and then, the ring crashed with a slam. The crowd came in a crescendo and sounded like day-trippers going down a roller-coaster. Earl barked at one of the trainees to change the sheets on the backseat of the Cadillac. Smokey would shit about five times a day and constantly sprayed the upholstery with piss.
He sat there drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola.
Smokey was feeding, face-deep in the bucket.
Ted Walker, the promoter, introduced himself and they all shook hands. He had a white beard and uneven tan lines. Walker and his brothers had served in the Vietnam War. He was part of an underwater demolition team.
“Do you guys have everything you need?”
“Smokey likes a Coke after her match.”
“We can arrange for that.”
“Make sure it’s in a bottle, please.” Earl said without eye-contact. “She can’t drink out of a cup and things like that can make her cranky.”
Walker looked him in the eye.
“Anything else? What the hell. I can get her a bowl of porridge too if you want. I’ll make sure it’s just right.”
“She doesn’t like porridge,” Earl said with no sense of irony. Walker glanced at Harley circling his finger round his temples.
“Have you got anything different?” Walker asked.
“I don’t need anything,” Earl said.
Walker looked at the tattoo on Earl’s name reading ‘Rebecca.’ “I don’t understand why people get tattoos,” he spoke like a sergeant, “Who is it? Some darling?”
“She was my daughter,” Earl said.
Then he spent a few minutes doing free squat and push ups, working up a rhythm. Blood-flow.
When he got the call he led Smokey by the muzzle down the walkway. There were two-tiers of fans already cheering her on. At ringside he asked for a mike. Then he told the crowd nobody was man enough to wrestle him. Earl Black was a specimen. All the women in the audience should go home and wash the dirt from their husband’s fingernails because this is what a real man looks like. The crowd booed. He held his hands to his ears and squirmed. Boos, louder. Somebody threw a can of soda. It just missed his head. A smile shaped on his lips.
The referee kept his distance near the corners of the ring. Earl circled his opponent. They locked up in the middle of the ring. Smokey up on her hind legs, toe to toe. He grappled her with one arm over hers and the other slipping inside, trying to knock her down. He slid his forearm across her snout, wet-nose streaking down his arm knowing one whip of her head could break a rib. Smokey knew how to do a flying mare and used it, multiple times pulling Earl by his neck. Earl rolled. The crowd cheered. Smokey clambered over him and he had a face-full of smooth-skinned belly. Her six nipples rubbed over his face. She was lightly-odored maybe even a little cat-like. She smelled like home. He swung his weight out from under her and took her head in a grovit, burying his face in her fur, the blue-black darkness. The chain was long enough to allow them to manoeuvre the twenty foot by twenty foot square ring but easily tangled about Earl’s feet. This is how his thumb was pulled clean off. Without him having to look, Smokey swept his legs from beneath him and he tumbled to the matt. He grabbed the referees legs who fell comedically over him and everybody laughed. Smokey lay her bulk across the Earl’s chest and the referee made it back to a conscious footing to count the three. The crowd half cheered, half sighed.
Smokey sat down, grunting, on her rump in the middle of the ring enjoying a Coca-Cola from a glass bottle, fizz on her cold wet nose.
Earl somehow knew then it was over.
That night they were headed back for Wichita. Earl had read in a guidebook that Kansas was named after the tribe meaning “people of the wind”. He had tried to tell Walker but he pretended he already knew. Harley had been staying in The Dreamland Motel for three weeks and had six more left in Missouri. Before this, Harley worked Florida, Kentucky and Texas before then. He was always in demand. Earl had done the Missouri circuit for five years, since she died. Going round in circles. He led Smokey to the car and sat her down in the Kansas City dusk. The sky was a purplish dark, rivulets pinked in the clouds. A brown moth scattered across the bonnet.
Harley came a few minutes later, a couple of blondes on his arm, kissing goodbye. The Russians, Earl guessed. He watched him run across the car park and vault into the pink Cadillac, throwing his overnight bag in the backseat.
“You’ll rip my damn wing-mirrors off,” Earl said.
“Harley has still got it, baby.”
For the first few miles they didn’t speak. The whole journey would only take about two hours. They were soon past Wilson Lake. There was already nothing here. Bush, desert, telegraph poles, leafless trees. Smokey sleeping in the back. Earl turned the stereo on. I hear you singin’ in the wire. I can hear you through the whine.
The song relaxed his mind and he thought about his car. A 1956 Cadillac DeVille.
A two-door coupe.
Automatic three-speed gear box and he didn’t care he was doing near one-hundred mph in the dark.
Facts like this eased him. He liked to recite them. Over and over.
“I’m a simple guy,” he began. “I don’t want to be recognised everywhere I go. I don’t want a thousand women hanging off my arm. I don’t like people taking liberties.”
Harley turned his head.
“I have your back buddy, don’t you ever forget that.”
“My back? You like me driving you around.”
“Nobody else will ride with you.”
“Here’s something you might not like to hear. I can get a ride wherever I like. Goddamnit, I’m so hot right now I could get Walker to drive me there by limousine while I entertained a whole troupe of Kansas City Chief’s cheerleaders,” Harley said. “I ride with you because I’m quite of the few guys who likes you. I get it man, I get what you’re going through.”
The night was chilly and now totally dark. Already ten thirty. Earl kept one thumbless hand on the wheel. Blends of streetlight captured on the pink gleam of the chassis wings almost afloat. The car made a moaning sound. Brake pads still sore.
Earl answered, “I’m not going through anything.”
“You need to see the bigger picture, no matter how much it hurts.”
“And what is the bigger picture?” Earl was disconsolate. “I didn’t realise you were some kind of shrink now too.”
“Smokey is holding you back man. In every way imaginable. You don’t go out. You don’t get bookings. You’ve let your act become a sideshow.”
“She is not a sideshow.”
“If you even cared about her, you wouldn’t drive her round in the fucking car like one.”
“What did you say?”
“I mean, she’s a wild animal. You gotta let her go. You gotta let go for your own sake.”
Earl pulled up. This time he snatched the revolver from the glove box and pointed the weapon at Harley. Snubnose to his head. “Get out,” he said. “Get out of the fucking car.”
“Get out and walk.”
He felt the gun’s cold scorch on his skin. His neck tighten for the pulsing metal.
“I’m going, man. You’re fucking beyond help.”
Harley loosed open the door. He looked back shaking his head. Then set off, overnight bag in hand, down the roadside.
Earl sat in the car playing the same song on a loop. He couldn’t get past it. Earl clambered into the backseat and reached both arms around Smokey. He thought of Rebecca. He muzzled his face in Smokey’s blue-black fur finding solace there. She made a motor-like noise and they butted heads in a friendly way as if they were wrestling. She could never be his daughter. After Rebecca died he drove through deserted streets every night alone until he found Smokey, a bearcub, still blind, lapping her fallen mother, a totalled pickup rolled on its side, blood spattered like a horror scene.
Smokey moved a single comforting paw across his face, claws stubby-shorn though still scratchy and he looked at her eyes dark sadness. Humans are animals too. He opened the door: unmuzzled, she ran into the night. He looked up at the stars recalling some things he had hoped for and some things he hadn’t.
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