Buddy made a wrong turn on his way to the head and found himself in this room. Muted light shone through a grimy window overlooking the river. There was a blue parlor set in desperate need of reupholstery between two caskets—one open, one closed. An old man in a powder blue suit that had come and gone out of fashion several times lay in the open casket. A rosary coiled around his clasped hands. He cradled a bottle of very good Scotch in the crook of his arm.
On the closed casket was a miniature Christmas village decorated with lights and cotton snow. There was Santa Claus and a crèche with Mary and Joseph and Jesus in his bed of hay. A shepherd with a lamb slung over his shoulders as if he were about to deliver a Samoan drop or some other devastating wrestling move stood behind the Holy Family. There were the three wise men—of which, one had fallen over. Buddy reached out a shaky hand, contemplated for some time whether or not to right him. A Christmas village and Jesus manger in August, on a coffin had to be some kind of powerful bad luck. Unnatural at the very least.
As far as ill-fortune was concerned, there were days when Buddy wished he’d never met Babe the Blue Fox for that first drink. It was nearly a year before the EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! Paul had broken his leg. He and Buddy were forced to vacate their newly won tag team championship. While Paul was laid up at home, Buddy asked Babe to meet him after a show so they could discuss business. She was the one to float the idea. It would explain the broken leg and give them a reason to split up the tag team. Paul Runyon would show up on crutches at the next television taping and tell Smilin Joe Spiceland that Babe and Buddy conspired to get rid of him by cutting the break lines on his car because the two were in love.
The feud, which drew big money and put all three of them over, was to culminate with the EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! The loser was going to quit the CWA. The winner would get the honor of Babe’s hand and, in all likelihood, shoot up to be the number one contender for the championship.
Buddy could have lived with that loss. Could have moved on to a new territory, perhaps said goodbye and good riddance to Babe right then and there had he known she was already done with him. He was sure Paul could have done the same. But that power to decide the outcome for themselves had been ripped away with more force than one of Paul Runyon’s Bark Peeler piledrivers.
Buddy picked up the toppled Magi and studied him. The wise man wore a robe like a wrestler. His beard resembled Paul Runyon’s.
After the EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! Paul returned to the locker room and quietly shaved his beard, his head, his eyebrows. He hadn’t taken a razor to his face since that day. There had been no period of mourning following that match for Buddy. He was on to the next show. Babe talked him into working as many matches as possible, hinted at the prospect of a “real” wedding if they had enough money. She whispered her magic words: Nest egg, wedding, family between gasps and convulsions. So night after night Buddy wrestled. In 10,000 seat arenas and 100 chair VFW halls. In Black Hawk, in Marquette, in Peoria, and in a hundred other cities across the Rustbelt with the hope of making things official, making things permanent with Babe.
But even if he weren’t busy with work, chasing a dream, there wouldn’t have been a mourning period following the EXPLOSION OF LOVE!!! since Buddy had no idea that he’d already lost her. That realization, like a bruise, was only to take shape well after the body blow.
He turned from the Christmas scene and reached out a shaky hand into the open casket. Removed the dead man’s bottle. Unnatural, but it was a damn fine bottle of Scotch. He sat down on a faded blue sofa older than the dead man’s suit, drank, and stared out the window, watching the polluted river flow by, brown and lifeless.
By the time Buddy stumbled back to the wake his cheeks were as pink as his pocket square, his tie loosened and collar open. He joined Paul and El Gaucho and Monsignor Kinski who was going to say a few prayers at the undertaker’s before they carried Babe to the funeral mass at St. Alphonsus. The Monsignor pointed in the direction of the church down the street. “Would you fellas believe that this hulk used to serve as an altar boy for me when I was pastor at St. Al’s?”
“Everyone’s Goldbricker. Forever the altar boy, huh. Get that, padre? El Gaucho. Everyone’s Goldbricker. E.G.?”
Buddy elbowed El Gaucho and patted him on the shoulder.
“You Catholics are a bunch of wet-eyed, sentimental drunks about these funerals and your parades. Gimme a hellfire preacher. Gimme a hanging judge and a shotgun. Forget this commiserating.”
“Don’t listen to this guy, Monsignor. He’s a Baptist,” El Gaucho said.
“Padre, you ever hear of the storied championship reign of Buddy Frazier Jr.? Or the great champion, Paul Runyon?” Buddy asked then answered his own question. “You never heard about that on account of this glorious bastard, this big champion alter boy of the world. He done usurped me and Paul.” Buddy stumbled to the television. Turned up the volume. “Just keep watching.”