Read More: A brief interview with Michael Chin
Oslo’s twin brother Red had a saying, “Out of any two people, there’s always one who pulls the other up, one who drags the other down.”
Red wrestled while Oslo watched his brother’s silhouette from the opposite side of a sheet of black cloth. He was clad in a purple spandex body suit. Hands on the back of his foe’s neck, Red dropped to one knee, ducked and scooped the taller man’s body up over his shoulders before he slammed him to the ground.
Red had made it to state finals at 185-pounds. Coach told him he’d get a scholarship, not realizing Red didn’t have the slightest interest in college.
The summer after graduation, Red and Oslo took a couple of girls to see a traveling circus. They spied the portly, balding wrestler named Bruno challenging passersby as they waited in line to enter the big top.
Red took the challenge and won handily enough to get a job offer. The brothers joined the circus.
Before each show, Red, like his predecessor, stood on a blue wrestling mat in the grass, challenging men. “What about you, pencil neck? Man enough?”
Men paid five dollars to wrestle Red and got back ten if they could pin him or make him give up. The circus hadn’t paid out since he started. Oslo was there to make sure they never would.
Oslo sat on a stool behind the curtain, a hammer on the ground beside him. Unfinished wooden handle, tarnished steel head. If Red came up against an opponent he wasn’t sure he could beat, he was to maneuver the man as close to the curtain as he could, where Oslo would hit the other wrestler with his hammer. A shot to the back of the head would render most men unconscious. At the least, it would distract him long enough for Red to steal a pin.
Oslo’s services hadn’t been necessary yet, and he got into the habit of half-watching while he tended to his other work. In addition to seconding the wrester, he earned his keep as a seamster. That afternoon, he patched the conjoined twins’ jacket. One side was pristine, the other run ragged, a hole you could fit a baseball through worn away at the elbow of the sleeve. Oslo wondered how two people attached, could live so differently.
Gina sat beside him, paying more attention to Oslo’s needlework than the wrestling match. “If you hit him, won’t the audience notice?”
Gina was a dancing girl, with curly black hair. She was dressed to perform—bare feet, bare midriff, metallic green top covering a triangle of her chest, matching pants that were tight around her hips, baggier as the material drifted down her legs.
“They can’t see us,” Oslo said.
“But if the guy gets knocked out—”
What little Oslo knew over wrestling he’d gleaned from his brother, or from what Bruno, demoted to a stagehand, had taught him about working behind the curtain.
“They’ll figure Red struck a nerve, or the guy had a heart problem.”
Today’s opponent was good. Tall and lanky, but deceptively strong to resist a pin after one of Red’s slams and keep struggling. He hooked one of Red’s legs.
“That’s so interesting.” Gina touched Oslo’s bicep.
Oslo slowed his work. When they had first joined the circus, Red had slept with each one of the dancing girls, Gina first, because it was clear Bruno was infatuated with her. Gina was just the kind of girl Red would have slept with in high school. The kind of girl who didn’t pay Oslo any mind. And yet, there she was, behind the curtain.
The tall man had caught Red—face down, head between the man’s thighs.
A second later Red had him in the air. Head still between his opponent’s legs, but the tall man waving his arms unsteadily. A second after that, Red whipped both of their bodies forward. The back of the tall man’s head smacked against the mat. Red dove on top of him, pinning his shoulder for the fall.
The closest Oslo ever came to leaving his brother was to be with Angie. Angie, with her dimples, little toe longer than the one before it so she could never be comfortable in a pair of shoes. Oslo and Angie started going steady junior year of high school. She was college-bound and he intended to follow her and find a job. He’d do the cooking, the sewing the ironing—tasks he’d taken on after Dad died and Mom stopped caring. He and Angie would make their own lives over the days and spend their nights together. He proposed the April before graduation. In lieu of a diamond ring, he knotted a piece of twine around her finger. To her credit, she kept it on for nearly three months.
That July, she cut the twine and dropped the knotted, frayed remains in Oslo’s palm.
“Angie was perfect.” Oslo sat with Red that night, under the stars, after they’d taken the big top down, and they rested for the night. They drank warm red wine from plastic mugs and ate.
“She was not perfect.” Red devoured his third patty of ground beef, bun-less, hot off the grill. “If she were perfect she wouldn’t have left you.”
Wine spilt over Oslo’s bottom lip, down his chin, onto his shirt. It would stain. “She was too perfect.”
A line had formed at the barrel of wine closest to them. Most likely, the other barrels had run dry.
Red shook his head. “Pussy.”
Bruno arrived at their side. Paunch where old circus photographs once showed him to be chiseled. Cauliflower-eared. “Brothers shouldn’t call each other such things.” He planted his hands on his hips. “I used to have a brother. Joined the army and I never saw him again. Never told him I loved him. Men don’t say I love you enough.”
Red straightened his legs and crossed one ankle over the other. “If men don’t say it enough what’s holding you back? Make your move on Gina.”
Bruno talked to Gina at every stop in the circus’s journeys. Carried her bags. Did his damnedest to shoot the breeze, but inevitably she would cut short their conversations.
Red pointed what was left of his burger toward Gina. “You don’t make your move, you know someone else will. Hell, she’s so horny she was practically humping Oslo’s leg last night.”
Oslo elbowed Red and might have corrected him, too, if it weren’t true. Gina had gravitated closer to Oslo in recent weeks after he fashioned her a new headband out of glittery gold cloth. She’d switched tents to lay her sleeping bag beside his and nestle close. Red lay on his opposite side, pushing his tongue against his cheek to pantomime a fellatio.
“Oslo’s a good man.” Bruno put a hand on his shoulder. “Loyal.” Still, a few seconds of thinking about it and he stood up straight, puffed out his chest, and marched to Gina’s side.
“You shouldn’t have put him up to that,” Oslo said.
“Enjoy the show.”
Bruno touched her elbow to get her attention. She recoiled when she saw who it was. “Bruno and Gina aren’t so different from you and Angie.” Red rotated his shoulder in in the palm of his hand, part of his nightly stretching. “Gina won’t sleep with Bruno because he’d drag her down. Just like you were dragging down Angie. Lucky for you, Gina is in your league. You have any sense, you’ll get a piece while the pie’s warm.”
“One’s always dragging the other down,” Oslo said.
“One pulls the other up.” Red nodded. “Any two people.”
Bruno advanced toward Gina, as if to grapple her to the ground, the only way his body knew to interact with another.
“Here it comes,” Red said.
A man’s body moves a particular way under particular conditions. There are hurts too powerful for even the strongest man to resist. A man talks about his feelings. Open, honest, bearing himself to the world the way a wrestler has so rarely done.
“We shouldn’t watch,” Oslo said.
Bruno’s shoulders melted from their peaks, where they almost connected to his neck, down his sides.
Oslo knew this feeling. The smell of his own sweat. Ugly and unwanted. The alternating sensations of burning and freezing.
Bruno returned to them.
“How’d it go?” Red asked.
Oslo glared at his brother. “Leave him alone.”
“Can’t you see he needs a shoulder to cry on?” Red asked. “Bruno, if you want to cuddle up with Oslo and have a good cry—”
Bruno cut him off. “You think that you tricked me into making an ass of myself? You didn’t. It was only a question of when I’d do it.”
“I’m glad you got it off your chest,” Red said.
Bruno turned around and stared. He might have been looking at Gina. “Young people think they know everything. But you’ll get old, too. You won’t care what some young prick thinks about you. You’ll tell a woman how you feel, not to impress anyone You’ll do it because it’s the only way you’ll ever make something happen.” Bruno folded his arms over his chest, his forearms bulging. “She was my last hope.”
Red smirked. Oslo wanted to tell him to stop.
“You take away a man’s hope, and you leave him with nothing,” Bruno said, “but to rebuild.”
Oslo’s head ached the next morning. He woke to find Red drinking.
“Alcohol takes the edge off the hangover.” Red tipped his head back to finish a new cup of wine. “There’s a whole barrel that went overlooked last night.”
About fifty yards out, Bruno did pushups. Twelve by Oslo’s count. Then sit ups. “What’s the old man doing?”
“Rebuilding?” Red said. “I hear he used to do this routine when he was the wrestler. A hundred pushups. A hundred sit ups. A hundred jumping jacks. A hundred pull ups if he can find a tree branch or something. As few sets as possible. No breaks.”
“He’ll give himself a heart attack.”
“I give it a week.” Red drank again. “I don’t know what he’s so worked up about. You had the decency to turn away Madam Gina.”
The previous night, Gina had brought Oslo an extra cup of wine. She sat on his lap and leaned in close enough so their noses touched. Red got up to leave them alone, but Oslo didn’t last long before telling her had to pee and retreating. It didn’t seem respectful to kiss her the same night she’d broken Bruno’s heart.
Oslo found some left over corn on the cob for breakfast. Red drank two more cups and his face turned pink, a shade closer to the wine, before he said they should hit the road.
Red drove their truck. Oslo probably should have fought him on it after all the wine, but the truth was Oslo hated driving—hated it more when Red rode shotgun and provided a running commentary on the myriad ways in which Oslo drove like a woman.
The two of them were responsible for navigating one of the circus’s smaller trucks in the middle of the caravan, hauling tarps, tent fabric, and a portion of the bleachers. Oslo studied the road ahead, awaiting a swerve every time his brother’s head lolled. He tried not to watch Red. He was an angry drunk, and resented criticism.
Red was gaining on the truck in front of him—the one hauling the lion—inching too close for comfort. “I ever tell you that I get off to the idea of wrestling a woman?” He rolled down his window and spat. “Sometimes I picture bending a girl. But usually it’s the other way around. She’s choking me. Her hands all smooth and soft.” The wind carried his saliva back and Oslo imagined it hitting the windshield of the truck behind them. “Every time I stand out there on the mat, I imagine what would happen if a lady answered the call. I think I’d let her win. Then I’d ask her to join the circus, too.”
Oslo cracked his own window. The air whistled. “What if she really did beat you?”
“I suppose I’d marry a woman like that.”
They set up the big top next to a playground. Bruno fired off seven pull ups, knees bent as far as they’d go, bobbing up and down at the center of a children’s jungle gym.
Oslo didn’t approach Bruno until he had extracted himself from the maze of red steel bars built too close together for a man his size to escape comfortably. He wore a once-white tank top, hanging over one shoulder by its last remaining threads. The type of garment most men would throw away. In a circus, he’d wear it until the strap broke, then bring it to Oslo to mend.
Bruno lay down and set to work on his sit ups, and Oslo spoke at last, to tell him he wasn’t sleeping with Gina.
“Why not?” Bruno grunted the words. In motion. Bending forward. Straightening back. “Out of respect.”
Bruno kept going. “You want to respect me, you take advantage of your opportunities,” Bruno said. “You’re different from me and your brother.”
“Different,” Oslo repeated.
“Like my wife,” Bruno said. “She was a harp player with three arms. Made the most beautiful music.” He turned his head to the side and slowed his pace. “You’re a softer soul. It makes you a lousy second man behind the curtain. But it means you can offer a woman something we can’t. If she likes you, you should enjoy her.”
Enjoy her. Like wine. Like meat. Oslo wondered how Gina would taste.
“So you’re not training to beat me up?” Oslo asked.
“Not you. Your brother.”
“Red says a lot of things—”
“He’s got a smart mouth and he took my job. When I’m ready, I’ll take it back.”
Red wouldn’t turn away the challenge, and he wasn’t above hurting an old man. Oslo didn’t like the idea of the two of them wrestling again, especially when it was personal. “I’ll talk to Red—”
“Don’t.” Bruno rolled onto his stomach and propped himself up on his hands, extending his arms to full length for his first pushup. “I’ll come for him when I’m ready.”
Gina lay perpendicular to Oslo’s body, hands beneath her head, feet on his stomach. She had changed out of her dancer’s costume, and wore a long-sleeved t-shirt and a denim skirt. Removed from the rest of the camp, they stared at the stars, in a bare field. He massaged her soles.
“He wants to fight Red?” Gina asked.
“He wants to wrestle him. There is a difference.”
“Fighting. Wrestling. Kung fu.” She waved one hand in a chopping motion above her. “Men say there’s a difference. They just want an excuse to hurt each other.”
Oslo couldn’t imagine Gina hurting anyone, when she seemed so perfectly at ease. He recalled the last time he’d felt that way with another person.
He pictured Angie lying in her dorm room. Or maybe up late studying. Maybe staring info some college boy’s eyes. Maybe that college boy would rub her feet the way Oslo had and, for a split second, she would wonder where Oslo was.
“A man walks into a room, he sizes up every other man, wondering who he could beat up,” Gina said. “A woman walks in and wonders if she’s pretty as everyone else. That’s the difference. Strength or beauty. To fight or to be loved.” She paused. “Do you hear that?”
Crickets chirped. Loud. Aggressive.
“Only male crickets do that, so they can find a mate, or to chase off other males,” she said. “I read it in a book once.”
He had never seen Gina read. He wondered what else she might do that he’d never seen. Red always told him they’d never know a woman’s private life and to bother thinking about it, because the harder they tried, the more they’d wonder.
“You know, not all men are like that,” Oslo said.
“What do you mean?”
“All fighting and trying to find a mate. Men can be more complex.”
Gina propped herself up on her elbows. Her hair over the sides of her face, hiding her ears, framing her cheeks, dark and lovely. “I know.”
He tickled her feet.
She laughed, squirmed, and kicked at him. Caught him square in the jaw with her heel. “Are you all right?”
Oslo held his throbbing jaw. “I see what this is about.” He scooted upon onto his knees. “You want me to fight.” He took hold of her arms and pinned her to the ground.
“I thought your brother was the wrestler.” She coiled her thighs around him. “Let’s see how tough you are without your hammer.” She straightened her legs and squeezed.
He leaned into her, planted one hand on the ground, and cradled her head with the other hand, guiding her face to his armpit.
She shrieked. “No!”
She weighed surprisingly little. Less than Angie, even, and her arms were weak so that he could lift her and slide from her every grasp. But Oslo tumbled to his side, feigning exhaustion.
She sat down on his rib cage, then scooted up on him. Knees on his shoulders. “Ready to give?”
“You’ve got me.”
“I didn’t hear the magic word.”
“Uncle,” he repeated.
She edged up again, knees beside his cheeks, shins on his shoulders. “You took too long. Now you have to say please.”
“Now pretty please.”
“Now put some sugar on top.”
She smelled of the same warm, animal scent as Angie. The way his fingers would smell after she let him reach inside, except without the citrusy soap smell that Angie had. The road didn’t allow for such delicacies.
He kissed her, the cotton of her underwear damp and hot.
And she was up.
She patted his cheek. “Another time, sweetheart.”
Oslo reached out a hand for her to help him up.
She skipped away. Girlish. Swinging her bottom from side to side.
Oslo folded his hands behind his head and looked up at the stars.
Competitive and quick.
When Red first started wrestling for the circus, Bruno advised him to make each of his matches look competitive. Never to lose, but to lure the marks into thinking they’d win. Just the same, no match was to last more than a couple minutes.
Keep things quick and there would be time for five-to-ten matches. Keep them competitive and at least five men would want to try their hands. If they ran out of time, one more man, desperate to prove himself in front his date or his kids, might offer to pay double for his shot at circus glory.
Red was good with the quick, not as good with the competitive. He had a wrestler’s instinct to score the fall as quickly as possible.
After he dispatched a high school football player in ten seconds, no other challengers were forthcoming.
And so, after the match, and after a round of calling out men from the line, trying to incite a challenge, Red sat down and watched the line pass him by. Oslo set down his hammer and joined him. He brought The Ringmaster’s coat with him to fix a busted seam along the side.
The passersby didn’t watch the brothers or peculate about how they might fare against Red. Some talked amongst themselves, but more looked to the side of the line opposite the wrestling mat, watching Bruno engage in a series of pushups.
Oslo told Red about Gina. About rolling around—wrestling—in the grass.
“I bet you didn’t let her win,” Red said. “I bet she beat you fair and square.”
“She weighs ninety pounds.”
“What do you weigh?” Red lifted one of Oslo’s arms by the wrist. “A buck-ten?”
Oslo took his arm back and pulled at a thread of errant stitching. “We go through all those motions and she up and walks away.”
“That’s control,” Red said. “See the big football stud over there?”
The football player—still clad in his high school’s jersey over a long-sleeved t-shirt, broad-chested and big-shouldered, looked straight ahead, on the fringes of a conversation with smaller men and a couple of girls who could have been cheerleaders. He had the familiar face a beaten man. The kind Red left in his wake from town to town.
“I took him down fast because he’s an unknown commodity,” Red said. “I don’t know if he’s wrestled before. Or if he’s stronger than he looks. Or if his girlfriend just dumped him and he’s looking for a fist fight. So I take control and I keep it.”
Oslo assessed the tear, worse than he’d thought.
“A girl like Gina can smell a wet noodle from a mile away. She gets you to mend all her dresses the fastest, gets her foot rubs, gets you paying her compliments to build up that ego of hers.”
Oslo felt his face grow warm, and was sure it was turning pink. “I love Angie.”
Bruno shifted his weight onto one arm, and stretched the other high above him. It looked more like showmanship than anything functional.
“That’s the first time you said Angie’s name today,” Red said. “Used to be she was the first thing you’d talk about any day of the week.”
Bruno leapt to his feet in one fluid motion out of his last pushup. Onlookers clapped.
“She doesn’t control me,” Oslo said. “She controlled Bruno. Probably controlled a hundred other men. But not me.”
“She’ll test that.”
The line started moving. Four-dollar flat rate at the door. No change given. When the last of the spectators had passed, there was nothing but a faint cloud of dust and dirt, and an uneven line of footprints between Red and Bruno.
Bruno crossed the line. “Next town, I’m ready.”
The next town, Red made his call, “Five dollars to wrestle the champion. Ten dollars back to you if you can beat me. Step right up if you’re man enough.”
Oslo watched from the edge of the curtain, hammer in hand. Bruno waited by the side of the mat and had raised his five-dollar bill. He wore a sky blue sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, ratty sneakers.
“It looks as though this elderly gentleman wants to wrestle,” Red announced. “I have to warn you that the circus assumes no responsibility for your health.”
Bruno rocked his head from shoulder to shoulder, one last stretch.. “Let’s go.”
They walked to the center of the mat. Oslo retreated behind the curtain.
And Gina was there.
Not in her performance gear, this time—she must have been scheduled for the second act. She wore a red dress, sequined, cut off at mid-thigh.
For a second, when the sequins caught the sun and sparkled, it reminded Oslo of the dress Angie never got to wear. Before prom, she had grown enamored with a red gown in a store window. She dragged Oslo into the store to see how much it would cost.
Five hundred dollars.
He mowed lawns and collected bottles and cans. He’d never make enough money to buy her the dress for prom, he knew, but gathered enough for the fake silk, the thread, the phony jewels.
Making her that dress was his first foray into the life of a seamster.
It came out awful. Misshapen. Too large in the chest, too narrow at the waist, and he couldn’t get it tapered evenly at the bottom. In the end, he was too embarrassed to even show it to Angie, and dumped the monstrosity in the trash.
Months later, he wondered if he should have shown her the dress. Maybe she wouldn’t have left him if he showed her how hard he’d worked.
And for that fleeting second behind the curtain—as his brother prepared to wrestle, as the crowd grew loud with the initial circling of two gladiators, and as the sun peaked between clouds—he thought the moment had returned to him. Angie had returned to him. Only better. Not running off to college. Not severing his ring.
But when they were closer, when the sequins dulled and he heard the first grunts from the other side of the curtain, he saw the dress for what it was. Cheap. Ill-fitting. It put her legs and her breasts on display, to be fair, but not in a way that accentuated them. Only in a way that left them bare. Lazy craftsmanship.
“I’ve been thinking about the other night in the field,” Gina said.
Oslo alternated looks between the curtain and her dress. […]
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Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Read More: A brief interview with Michael Chin