FICTION February 2, 2024

Phantasmal Ric Flair

Ric Flair visits you at the brewery in South End, the arcade in NoDa, the patio bar in Plaza Midwood. He wears a boxy suit, a shirt with a gigantic dual triangle collar, an anodyne striped tie, orange-tinted aviator sunglasses. His platinum blond hair ramps down his neck like the trough of a wave. He claims he is pretty, and yet his face is a tapestry of punches, a history of falls. He is tall; he leans over you disciplinarian and haughty. His front teeth are crooked and sprinkler spit like a broken faucet. He stands too close to you; he smells like clove and burnt rubber, like dry sweat. He doesn’t care about Krissie, and she doesn’t notice him, and she doesn’t notice you noticing him. He is a ghost—or some kind of ghost-like thing—which is troubling because Ric Flair, the actual person, is not dead.

You’ve gotta be like Slick Rick, baby, the Franchise, the Nature Boy, he says.

Do you know how many women I have waiting for me? More than you’ve had in the last six months, he says.

Woo, he says.

You and Krissie both work from home and spend the entirety of your days in your apartment in Ballantyne. It is not a walkable area. You moved here to be closer to her family. You moved here because other young people were supposedly moving here, too. You moved here because that’s the way you make a life for yourself—through independence, but also through others, through community. The city of Charlotte is spread out, a fracturing of itself. Its heart is impossible to find; drifts, drifts; is centered nowhere. No one is anyone and no one comes from anywhere: Ohio, Massachusetts, New York. Michigan. Illinois. Ohio again. Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania. The city is not a soup, but a lukewarm parfait, people stacked on top of people, men with faraway looks in their eyes, in soccer club shirts, who like riding bikes and crypto apps; women who are rude to wait staff, who are pregnant or may become pregnant. The city has been gentrified to excess. Culture is a recently-washed SUV refusing to use its turn signal.

You do things. Salsa dancing classes. Wine and watercolor painting. An event at the natural science museum for people new to town, at which everyone seemed to know each other, at which the attendees were cut out of a mold of an American dream, blond and broad-chested and smelling of patchouli and false sandalwood. You and Krissie talked only to each other the whole time—about who would win in a fight, Bigfoot or one hundred pigeons; about what would be the most bizarre thing to see inside of a Dairy Queen Grill & Chill; about, out of all of the couples there, which ones were actively having affairs with each other, which men with their serpent eyes and rock faces, which women with their affects of annoyance and ambivalence and their noses that hooked to the ground like fishing lures. 

But Ric Flair found you. Krissie, as always, did not see Ric Flair. Only you saw Ric Flair.

They’re the man, he said, pointing a ringed finger at the button-down-shirted horde. They’re the man. You’re not.

How often he’d do this, while you and Krissie were sinking into yourselves. His interruptions; his baritone bark; the rasp in his cadence. His “Woos.” He is a fire siren blaring down a busy road.

It takes only cursory research to discover that people used to see Ric Flair when Ric Flair, the real Ric Flair, not the specter of Ric Flair, lived in Charlotte. He’d visit dive bars, buy a cheap beer, play a round of darts. He’d appear at a Harris Teeter in Cotswold, grocery shopping for pears or chicken breast or bags of brown rice. He’d be seen driving down E.W.T Harris in a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce, flicking someone off as he dangerously merged into a left-turn lane. 

Charlotte used to be different, the people who share these stories online claim. It used to feel like a small town.

And Ric Flair? He was quiet, they say. Nothing like the ostentatious, womanizing persona that he embodied on the WWF promos. He never went “Woo.” He never wore a large suit or bedecked himself in rings. He was not the Nature Boy.

You ask him questions. When he approaches you as you walk through the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. As you drive Krissie to the airport for a business trip, Ric Flair in the backseat, his arms extended over both headrests, his legs spread wide, his pants unnecessarily tight. Why are you here, you ask. Why are you here, with me.

I’m a helpful man, Ric Flair says. That’s why I’m talking to a K-Mart-shopping son of a gun like you.

This is reality, he says. Stylin’ and profilin’. 

Trust me, he says.

Krissie works a lot. Stares at her computer until nine p.m.; gets up at seven and gets on the computer again. When not working, she watches television on her phone, plays video games. She gets tired; she is an indoors person; all of the things you’ve done in the city have been spearheaded by you, all of your stabs at culture, your successive and consecutive outings. Ric Flair is not afraid to come into your home, look at her playing Switch in a large t-shirt and pajama pants. He crosses his arms and tssks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. You look at Krissie as she asks you who would win in a fight, Bowser or one hundred Toads, and you give an answer.

Where do you go, Krissie asks you. Sometimes it’s like you’re looking at angels.

Sometimes you leave, she says. Mentally, I mean.

Are you good, she asks you.

She has her brother, who lives in Gastonia, thirty minutes away. Her parents live in Rock Hill, right over the state border; you see them every couple of weeks. She seems happy. That, you suppose, is what matters. Her happiness. Her comfort. 

In your research you have found that Ric Flair is, in summation, a bad person. He’s problematic, unsavory, has incorrect political views. His wrestling persona is not entirely detached from his real-life one. The stories of him appearing to people in Charlotte are largely legend and mostly unsubstantiated. He was born in Memphis, grew up in Minnesota. His connection to this city is tenuous, synthetic, a connection that, like everything else here, is transplanted, burrowing into the concrete of the city like a jackhammer into salted ground. He glued himself here, contributed nothing, and left, leaving Charlotte worse than it was before.

While you are burrowed in your computer, and while Krissie sits next to you tapping through a farming game on her phone, she asks you who would win in a fight, Bigfoot or one hundred Asian giant hornets. 

You tell her you don’t know. 

As Krissie sleeps one night, you stay awake. You put on clothes, look at yourself in the mirror, your eyes puffy, your face tired. 

You can take him. He is not a real man, as large as he is. He is a phantom. He is unreal.

Inevitably, outside of your apartment’s living room window, he appears. In your building’s parking lot, illumined by streetlight, stands the Nature Boy, in his feathered robe, blue and white, golden glitter on the underside, glistening towards you, the nuclear blue of fluff over the arms revealing his hands, his tanned chest bare in the suit’s deep V. He wears wrestling shoes, a periwinkle blue, tied with white laces. They are boyish; they are small.

He rises from the ground. Elevated, his arms extended and the wings of the suit turning darker when backlit by the moon, he hovers, swaying back and forth. 

He drifts away.

You exit your apartment, and you follow him. Your feet carry you across Charlotte’s parking lots, its characterless roads. You smell cut grass; you feel the humid Carolina air on your skin. Ric Flair steers you into trees, a copse near the South Carolina border. Somehow, no sticks slash you; no rocks have cut your feet. You lose him in the dark, in the deep cover of the pines. You stumble around. You yell his name.

In a clearing stands the Nature Boy. He’s lowered his arms, hiding the gold under his robe. Far away from you, he looks small, like an action figure that you could pick up, smash against a different, better toy. The robe’s sequins, silver and pearled, shimmer like animal eyes.

To be the man you’ve got to beat the man, Ric Flair says.

He removes his robe, tosses it to the ground beside him. You see his body—square, muscular, a brick made out of flesh—and a baby blue pair of trunks, a bulge where his dick and balls are. He does not look intimidating. He looks ridiculous in his wrestling Speedo and his tiny shoes and his ridiculous mullet of platinum blond hair. What idiot ever thought that looking like this was the definition of opulence. Who defined this as heroic, as something that a viewer would see as aspirational.

He stares at you, a smile stretched across the jagged teeth in his mouth.

I hate you, you say.

Woo, he says.

I hate you so, so much, you say.

What are you going to do, then, he says. What can you do. 

What you do is cry. You cannot remember the last time you cried, but you cry, in the grove, in front of this malformed man. You hunch over, face contorted, eyes shut, tears warming your face. It is a heavy cry, an exhausted, exhaustive cry, a depletion of everything in you. It is a weeping.

Hey, Ric Flair says. Stop that.

You weep openly, gasp for air, let your face remain open to the elements, open to the ghost. You echo around yourself; you are loud; you are a megaphone of pain.

What are you doing, Ric Flair says. Cut that out.

You hold your face in your hands, feel the salt of your tears against the smooth skin on the inside of your fingers.

Please, Ric Flair says.

You hold yourself that way, crying, for a long time. Ric Flair is either in front of you or he is not in front of you; he is either asking you to quiet or he is not asking you to quiet. You are here, in this emotion. It is something warming your limbs. It is something that mists around you, like a hug, like an expression of okay.

Paul Riker is the winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Fiction, the recipient of the Indiana National Society of Arts and Letters' Holl Merit and Jones Merit Award, and the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Salt Hill, CutBank, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in creative writing from Purdue University and currently lives in Asheville, NC.