Fiction by Dan Mancilla
The last time they’d seen each other Buddy Frazier Jr. and Paul Runyon were digging thumbtacks and plywood splinters from one another’s tormented skin, the aftermath of their EXPLOSION!!! OF LOVE: BLACK HAWK STREET FIGHT thirteen years ago. “Black Hawk,” because that was where the show had taken place. “Love,” because they had been feuding over Babe the Blue Fox.
Now the massive wrestlers, a decade past their prime, wearing suits instead of trunks, looked like junk refrigerators on the curb as they huddled in a corner of Zampillo’s Funeral Parlor. “What kind of spread they putting out afterwards?” asked Buddy Frazier Jr.
“Cheese platter. Fruit tray,” said Paul Runyon.
Buddy sighed, ran a hand through his thinning bleached-blond hair. “That little gal was stingy with her heart. Figures her sendoff would be stingy.” The wake was for Babe the Blue Fox. The beautiful valet had died alone and unglamorously, slipping on wet bathroom tile, knocking herself unconscious, and drowning in tepid bathwater. And the great regret for the mourners, at least for Buddy, was Babe’s closed casket. Three weeks passed before her body was discovered. Nature had rendered the undertaker’s arts useless; Zampillo couldn’t restore Babe to that state of perfection, that uncommon beauty which made boys tremble and grown men weep. And Buddy and everyone else were robbed a final glimpse of that beauty, forever left to wonder what incarnation of Babe the Blue Fox now slept inches from them inside that aqua blue casket.
Paul produced a flask from his coat pocket and offered a taste to Buddy. “Thank you, my brother,” said Buddy. “Mortality has a way of putting a powerful thirst on a man.” Paul nodded in agreement and took a pull for himself.
The wrestlers turned their attention to a television near Babe’s casket. “Damn, son. You packed on the pounds since then,” said Buddy. A video of THE EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! played. That match was the high point for Babe, for all three of them really. Smilin Joe Spiceland was conducting his pre-match interviews and talking to Paul Runyon. The little announcer held a big microphone up to the bearded lumberjack.
“Let me tell you somethin’, Smilin Joe. That low down, no good, ex-partner of mine better pack his bags. Because tonight, right here in Black Hawk, this EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! STREETFIGHT is gonna be a ‘loser quits’ match!”
“That’s right, Smilin’ Joe. Loser quits being in love with my wife AND—woo yeah—quits the Continental Wrestling Alliance. Forever. A dull ax ain’t gonna keep Paul Runyon from clearing out the forest. I can see the trees just fine! Don’t you forget that. Woo yeah!”
“Uh, trees? What are you talking about, Paul? Do you mean Babe The Blue Fox, your wife, and how she was caught dancing the Texas Two Step of Love with your former partner and best friend, Buddy Frazier Jr.?”
With a heavy heart Paul Runyon replied, “Woo-yeah.”
Paul patted his stomach then gut shot Buddy. “You ain’t exactly skinny ten years on either,” he said.
“But I never had your physique. You know I’m a powerlifter. Not no bodybuilder. This apple shines on the inside, brother.” During the EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! days Buddy would hit the gym with a bucket of fried chicken and a case of beer and finish off both in the course of a workout in which he’d bench press, squat, and deadlift the weight of a small car. “I’m a lunch pail man through and through. Like this old boy,” Buddy said and pointed to Zampillo. The undertaker was a doughy man in short sleeves. He wore a clip-on tie and a cheap gold watch. A faded-green tattoo of an eagle decorated his forearm. Though there were few in attendance, Buddy counted eight, Zampillo busied himself, hustling from one mourner to the next, offering condolences, running back to his office and barking orders to Inez, his lazy-eyed assistant, then back out on the floor to re-arrange floral sprays.
“Mr. Undertaker,” Buddy called to Zampillo. “Can’t you get that AC to crank out a little more juice?” Buddy unfolded a pocket square—pink like the ring attire he was famous for wearing—and dabbed sweat from his razor-scarred forehead. “I know heat. I’m a Texan. But this, sir, is some kind of unnatural hotbox.”
Zampillo’s building was more than a hundred years old, like most in this part of Black Hawk and offered no central air conditioning. Zampillo made due with a shabby window unit to provide minor relief from the heat. There was a light breeze outside, but doors and windows remained closed. The funeral parlor was only one block downwind of the LaSalle Ironworks and its perpetual sulfuric stench. “Even if it didn’t stink, I wouldn’t chance opening the windows with us being right on the river,” Zampillo told the wrestlers. It was the end of summer of an odd-numbered year. In this part of Black Hawk, so close to the Fox River, that meant the return of cicadas, a blight of them swarming in clouds thick as smokestack plumes wafting from the ironworks. An open window or door would invite disaster.
“Just get you a flyswatter,” said Buddy “Ain’t that right?” he said and elbowed Paul a little too hard in the side.
“You’ve never seen a Black Hawk cicada infestation,” Zampillo said. “My grandfather used to tell me stories of August wakes with windows open, how cicadas burrowed into the departed to lay eggs.” Zampillo lowered his voice to a confidential tone. “Thought it was bullshit until I took over the family business and saw the little buggers crawling out of graves filled two years before.” Zampillo pointed to the window. “Listen,” he said.
Buddy heard it now, the steady metronome of bug after bug kamikazeing into the windows.
Buddy wanted to ask Zampillo the location of the nearest tavern to see about a quick cold one before the funeral procession carried Babe down the street to St. Al’s, but the undertaker had hustled away, offering condolences to a huge man in a black suit wearing a black wrestling mask. It was, of course, the great luchador, El Gaucho.