The maps lied. Distances between towns had to be longer. I drove the minivan dangling an elbow out a window. A bone in my neck grated as I changed gears. Wind cut bluntly over an arm. After long trips skin mottled red. Land lay flat, stretching into haze smeared by dust storms two days ago. My shoulders ached slightly from that full nelson Eric had me in yesterday.
Across a paddock, a dust devil spun. Stalks and dirt swirled then plunged. It hadn’t rained so long the last downpour could be carbon-dated a newsagent said in the previous town. Dams were empty, patches of half-dead grass fringing them. Birds arrived early, picking at ground, disappearing during the heat of the day.
Across a paddock, a dust devil spun
“El Nino. Whatever that means. I call it a bloody drought,” someone said after our last show. I’d stood in my striped shorts, bruises pocking my arms. Where Eric jumped on me. I was polite, wanting a beer and a shower. I’d been thrown, drop kicked and bear hugged, yet now I stood discussing the weather. That was always the topic. Aside from the whispers of suicides.
I always lost. That was our routine. Eric fought cleanly, hooking his arm under my shoulder, slamming me onto my back. Walls and ceilings turned in my sight as if watching the earth’s orbit. I fought back with illegal kicks and eye gouging. In these desperate towns, we spared them someone winning by cheating. They’d had enough of that. Banks, rains that never came, bulldozed orchards and cotton growers stealing water upstream were the real cheats around here.
Eric said our job was escapism. For them or us I said the first time he told me. He explained our show was a way to forget the drought and cost of hay feed. Towns had little else. A library, three television stations and an annual wood chopping competition if they were lucky.
Long drives between shows were like falling into comas. Before the first building roused us. Often a bluestone church. Probably only filled with life on Sundays. Although after so many crop failures how could anyone believe in prayer? Then we’d pass a war memorial before entering the main street, empty in the heat.
We usually stayed in different hotels. To preserve the illusion we hated each other. Bitter rivals couldn’t be seen enjoying a craft beer together. Eric suggested next time we stayed in the same place. Create an argument, start pushing and shoving. Threaten each other. As long as no kids watched. Might bring more people to the show. Separate accommodation also made rehearsals difficult. After practice sessions, we lay in the ring set up in a conference room, out of breath. Once after sitting up I joked they’d have to re stump the building afterwards.
Our arrivals coincided with festivals. There’d be handball clinics, cheese tasting and local kids performing a dirt bike show before they changed clothes and sang garage band versions of “Khe Sanh.”
Eric wrestled barefoot. He said boots were too hot. He offered to apply heel balm before his moves. Bruises appeared on me like dirty bubbles on water. I rolled an ankle, strained a calf muscle, chafed skin and waited on the town doctor to reposition a dislocated finger. Last year the doctor at my annual checkup suggested he should travel with me, the same way football teams hire a doctor. He smirked at his own joke.
“You’ll need a hip replacement one day,” he’d said, holding up an x-ray. His eyes swept over the curves and lines as if my bones were words in another language he translated. “Can see where the pain in your knees is coming from. Keep this up and we’ll need to do something about these bone chips.”
“We should diversify,” Eric said in the next town. “Maybe do stand up. What makes people laugh out here? Sometimes it’s as if towns are in a time warp. They’re still catching up on Laurel and Hardy.”
I said we were the ones in a time warp. The world had moved on from wrestling. It’d been fading since the end of black and white television. People only watched us because hardly any other performers came through town. A couple of folk singers and a home ground cricket match brought a bigger crowd.
“Social media destroyed what we do,” Eric said. “People watch it on laptops in full split lip glory. The ones that turn up to our shows spend their time jeering.”
They booed the next day. I’d swung wildly at Eric, my open hand blurring across vision the way sight fuzzes before a stroke. Eric collapsed because that’s what we rehearsed. Even though I’d missed. Sometimes the tips of my fingers singed as they clipped his chin. But this time it looked like my hand blew him down.
“A low pressure trough just went through and knocked him over,” someone called.
“A prosthesis would put up a better fight!”
He finished me with a scissor hold. Not around the neck, that move wasn’t perfected yet. Feet locked behind my back like carpentry. I was meant to struggle for about thirty seconds before tipping over beaten. But Eric shook me, small convulsions banging up my body into jaws. In pain, I toppled before I was meant to. Eric clamoured up beside me. Spasmodic clapping came from three rows down.
He finished me with a scissor hold
We showered in the change room.
“What was that?” I said. “You could’ve dislocated a rib. Or broken it.”
“I had to give them something,” Eric said. “Your stupid swing at me missed by so much it was closer to hitting people in the front row. Did you hear them mocking us?”
I said it was bound to happen. We weren’t robots. Moves could go wrong as they did in stunts.
“Not like that,” Eric said. “I thought they’d be demanding refunds.”
“And you’re so good at this,” I said sullenly. “You’re the showman. You decide if it’s slamming into turnbuckles or a triangular choke. I just do the accounting. Book the hotels. Find the festivals. Do the banking. Decide the schedule. Check the bloody tyres. How long before I run your bath and trim your nose hair?”
Eric turned from me. I faced his side profile; shaving rash, wisp of ear hair and twice-broken nose.
“What do you want to do?” Eric said. He stared out a window. I didn’t need to follow his gaze, knew what was out there. Soil so powdery after windstorms sunsets glowed blood red for days. Splintering trees long dead from salinity. Twitchy lightning inside anvil clouds that never brought rain. I reached past him, yanking down a blind. Shards of plastic shredded off.
“Keeps the heat out,” I said.
In the morning we drove to another town. I didn’t care that people saw us leave together. We wouldn’t be back. It didn’t matter that they saw me tear open a package of sandwiches and hand one to Eric. That he’d tossed our bags side-by-side into the back. Soil changed to deep orange as we drove. In the wind drifts of dust rushed over bitumen the way tide frothed up a beach. I wanted to tell Eric we should promote it as our farewell tour. That I’d had enough. Too many times biting the inside of my mouth, people booing, sheets leaving me smelling of stains and perfumes. Doubling over from aches I didn’t expect until my seventies. I glanced across at Eric driving, thinly whistling “Bow River,” so that for a second I sang along, lyrics fracturing in my voice dried by windscreen glare. But as I started Eric stopped, whistling silenced as if he’d stopped breathing. I waited for him to restart but only the radio station scratched in and out of reception.
Together we watched the dark ribbon of road ahead.