The first thing you need to know if you’re going to wrestle in Damphry is not to cross The Emperor. Case in point—1998,when The Emperor caught wind Wild Bill Grady meant to jump to the big leagues and leave Southern Fried Wrestling hanging without its champion.
The Emperor—Akio Fujinami—was legendary by then for spitting fireballs. It was a trick of flash paper and slipping lighter fluid into his mouth and spewing flame. The gimmick was a spectacle, and it was safe—he must have done it a thousand times without serious harm to himself or his opponents. But Bill Grady?
Have you heard a three-hundred pound man cry?
Have you seen him disfigured and clutching at his melted flesh?
According to the denizens of Damphry tell the tale, you want no part of The Emperor’s fury.
I got word I was heading south to Damphry. An old school trade between regional promoters. I wasn’t under any obligation to honor the deal—I couldn’t stay where I’d been, but there wasn’t much keeping me from going elsewhere. I was skilled female hand, still relatively young, still relatively unscarred. I’d be insome demand
“Go to Damphry,” the promoter, Lily Lance, said. She’d been in wrestling herself almost as long as The Emperor. Shehad liver-spotted skin that made her look older than she was. Every word she said elbowed its way through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Early on, I thought the smoke made her look mystical.
But everything that looked supernatural in the wrestling world was more smoke and mirrors than magic. I knew all that going in. I understood it by the time I was leaving her territory—three years and not so much as a women’s title match. I spent valeting for guys who couldn’t lace my boots than getting into collar-and-elbow tie-ups myself.
“Go to Damphry,” she repeated. “You won’t learn technique, but you’ve already got that. You’ll learn showmanship. You’ll learn heat.”
So, I went.
Millions of fireflies invaded that summer. Damphry always had some, but there were now swarms of them, flying like torches across the night air, lighting up the sidewalk outside bar row after last call, finding their way through cracked windows and into bedrooms at night. Everywhere flight, everywhere light.
Fujinami isn’t just the long standing top star and often times champion of SFW (eighty-four reigns to date and he’s challenging for the title again at the end of the month) but he’s also the part owner, promoter, and booker of the territory. Thatmeans he decides most of who stays and goes, who wins and loses matches. He’s a goddamn local institution, not just famous, but tight with police and slum lords and doctors and mechanics and reporters and hairdressers and school officials and the mayor’s office. Anybody who’s anybody in Damphry.
He owns the Lucky Dragon, too. A genuine shithole with fat cockroaches dotting the floor, and some of the shittiest Chinese food on the planet. Everything chewy and deep-fried grade D meat, slathered in hot sauce that, to be generous, approximates sweet and sour or General Tso’s.
But wrestlers eat free, so it serves its purpose.
Wrestlers eat free, so the Lucky Dragon draws a crowd every night, because the citizens of Damphry loves wrestling and if they can bump elbows with the boys, they’ll sure as hellhave dinner there.
The free eats are one reason for a wrestler to aspire to Damphry There’s also the convenience of travel, the central location. Move to Damphry and you’re at the focal point of a fifty-mile radius of other small towns to wrestle in on a loop, month after month. The SFW office sits on Main Street, right next door to the Lucky Dragon.
The Emperor is not Chinese.
Rabbit Johnson schooled me while we waited for The Emperor at his hole-in-the-wall office—a narrow room with a desk, lit by the restaurant next door and its neon sign that read laundry in Chinese characters. Fujinami bought it from a laundromat when it was going out of business a decade ago, certain no local could read what it meant. Why bother with overhead lights in the office, when The Emperor’s other business could illuminate the place enough to do the business of a regional wrestling promotion? We sat on a futon with a badly ripped cloth cover, foam mattress innards peeking through, the wooden frame creaking every time either one of us shifted our position.
The other rooms of the little building were for merchandise storage, mostly t-shirts The Emperor had wrestlers drive from town to town for him. There was also a bench press and dumbbells no one but The Emperor was allowed to touch. Rabbit warned me about that, as if I could see the weights, as if I had mind to sneak in a workout then and there.
“He opened a Chinese restaurant because working people like Chinese food and it’s cheap.” Rabbit was a wrestler himself, and wore the tell-tale too-tight t-shirt over bleached blue jeans and snakeskin cowboy boots. “It’s a rib on white people anyway—because he knows they can’t tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean anyway. He knows nobody’s going to call him a fraud.”
There were banners on the wall, just behind the desk, with metallic writing that almost shimmered in the lamp light. To Rabbit’s point, I didn’t know if they were Chinese characters or Japanese or something else altogether.
The Emperor is American. Born and raised in Damphry, when it wasn’t quite so Podunk, back before the one-two punch of the town light bulb factory going out of business and a soft drink company moving on to greener pastures. It was still a small southern town, where people made squinty eyes at Fujinami and asked if he knew karate, until he did sign up for karate classes and started not only getting into but winning fights. At eighteen, he round-housed a wrestler who was bullying him at a bar, and got an offer to join the team.
That was all a long time ago.
When I told other wrestlers I was moving to Damphry, they told me what to expect. Because everyone had spent time in Damphry, a badge of honor, a rite of passage, a trial to withstand—like most things, it all depended on whom you asked.
“Forget technique and your flippity-floppities,” Jimmy Jack James told me. He referred to any move that called for one or both wrestlers to leave both feet a flippity-floppity. “In Damphrythey punch and they kick, and they grab headlocks. You want something flashier than that, it’d better be your finisher.”
Though The Emperor used variations on his roundhouse kick to finish opponents early in his career, he gave up using martial arts strikes before long, not wanting to get pigeonholed into Asian stereotypes.
Kung fu wrestlers are mid-carders, he’d explain when he was disposed to offer up wisdom from his career. The Emperor learned to throw great big overhand punches—the kind that would never work in a real fight. Just the same, the kind of blows fans could see from the cheap seats. He built anticipation with every wind up.
His signature finisher was a sit-out power bomb that he called the Grave Digger.
The Damphry Civic Center was a dump. It was a little arena that I heard had hosted an array of local sports teams that came and went, mostly going because there came some point when their schedule or scoreboard, or the condition they’d left the locker room in, came into conflict with The Emperor.
The arena was for wrestling. The occasional convention for organizers who played nice—taking care of the space, acting obsequiously, and often as not making some arrangement to pay The Emperor to make an appearance, or for the privilege of touting the arena as the home of Southern Fried Wrestling.
By default, the ring stayed up from week to week. A hard ring, with dead spots that didn’t have as much give or that threatened to give way beneath the weight of a body. The ring ropes weren’t rope at all, but rather garden hoses wrapped in electrical tape, meaning only the most sure-footed visiting luchador would fly.
Most wrestling companies provided rings when they traveled, but SFW was the exception. It was written into contracts to have a ring waiting for us, and most of the rings were nicer than the one at our home arena—newer, cleaner, more solidly built, if only because The Emperor would complain and threaten not to come back if the ring wasn’t up to snuff. Then there were the towns we did a bring a ring to—we in the sense that it was all hands on deck to transport the parts and to help with set up the afternoon before such a show. The Emperor charged a premium—separate fees for providing, setting up, and taking down the ring. These practices weren’t unique to him as a promoter, but those of us doing the labor never saw our payouts change for the extra hours worked, for the extra money coming in.
Rabbit warned me never to get caught alone with The Emperor. Least of all after hours, or after he’d been drinking.
I could read between the lines when Rabbit gave me this advice because I was a girl, and a girl who might be considered pretty, at least by the standards of women who got punched in the face on a regular basis. I rarely let myself be alone with a man from the wrestling business. I’d been watching Rabbit’s long fingers for any sign he meant to touch me.
When The Emperor arrived, he was bigger than I’dexpected. That’s the thing about the wrestling business. Everyone’s big, so by comparison hardly anyone looks that big at all. Take a guy like The Emperor, only 5’9”, 5’10”, maybe two-twenty-five and he looks like an everyday joe who’d sooner be working an insurance office than wrestling.
In person, The Emperor’s hands were enormous. I stood up to shake his hand and watched mine disappear.
“Rabbit been takin good care of you?”
I told him he had, as Rabbit and I sat back down on the futon and The Emperor pulled out his leather office chair from the desk. He was wearing a dark blue suit, his collar loose like he was at the end of his workday.
There was an old school desktop computer, complete with a CRT monitor and CPU that took up half his desk. A printer hard-wired in, my contract waiting in the tray.
He’d gone over the terms with me on the phone. Standard issue. No days off, except for injury—confirmed by a doctor, paid for by the wrestler. Complete submission to the office’s creative control of my character. Base pay, plus a percentage of gates, though the promoter had no obligation to tell wrestlers what any of the gates were.
A lot of promoters didn’t bother to put it all in writing. A lot of wrestlers didn’t bother to ask.
I thought that spoke well of The Emperor, and signed without reading it all. A show of trust.
The Emperor liked that. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
The Emperor took my photo before we left the office that first time, after I’d signed over the next year of my life to his discretion. He printed out a black-and-white copy that stretched across a 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, and brought it next door to the restaurant to tack to the wall in an empty space amidst thirty-something other headshots. He gave me a red Sharpie and had me sign. I figured the pictures were for the fans to marvel at. I’d learn that, like any opportunity to make someone or something pull double duty, the photos were there, too, to confirm wrestlers’ identities for the staff, so they’d know it was OK to feed them whatever they wanted.
After The Emperor and Rabbit, the first SFW wrestler I met was Tully Anderson, a guy who’d made his rounds and had a cup of coffee in WWE, but explained he’d moved to Damphryto settle down some in a place that’d be good for his daughter. “Here with salt if the earth people, where she won’t get a bunch of wooly-headed liberal ideas dancing in her head.”
He had his daughter Silly—short for Priscilla—for the summer. She was seventeen, eighteen at the end of summer, and I got the distinct impression that her mother had sent her off to slow the momentum of worse influences back home.
“And check this out.” Tully held up a mason jar, three fireflies trapped inside, one flying from one side of the glass to another, flickering its light every now and again , the other two more sluggish. “The two of us caught them together at dusk. Pretty cool, right?”
Silly rolled her eyes. She rolled her eyes at half of what Tully said, a lot of dad jokes and references to things the two of them might do this summer together, like teaching her how to fish, and taking her to the great big doll store the next town over, and going to the father-daughter dance in the fall, if he could convince Silly’s mother to let her stay long enough.
“I’ll have school by then.” She picked out peas and chunks of carrots to eat from her fried rice, unlike me using chopsticks, and Tully who mostly left his fork sitting at the side of his plate in favor of picking up dumplings and water chestnuts between his thumb and forefinger.
“She’s studious, this one.” Tully tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrank from him until the distance was awkward and he snapped his fingers in the air, as if that’s all he’d meant to do all along. “She’s going to college next year.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “What’ll you study?”
She shrugged. It was a small mercy, then, when a mother and son came to the table, the boy too shy to ask for Tully’s autograph, the mom extending one of the black-and-white programs The Emperor sold for a buck a pop. Tully signed, and suggested they get my signature, too, to be the first in town to get an autograph from a new talent, and then that they get Silly’s autograph, because out of all of us, she was the one who was really going to be somebody someday.
Before they could agree, Tully swung his arm to give Sillythe program in grand fashion. His big forearm caught the masonjar and sent it off the table, crashing to floor, all sparkling shards, Tully cursing, the mom covering her kid’s ears, the fireflies flying free.
My first match I worked Casey Heart, who wrestled in a neon pink unitard and was billed from Calgary, Alberta, Canada—with the suggestion she was connected to the famous Hart wrestling family of Stu, Bret, Owen, et al. The gimmick wasn’t getting over with the fans, which was a shame because she waspretty good with her jiu jitsu-informed offense of arm bars and chokes that passed for technical wrestling, with the added wrinkle that anyone who knew real fighting could see that if she actually torqued any of her holds, she really could hurt someone.
I finished her with a German suplex into a rolling bridge. Afterward, The Emperor would tell me in the locker room that that finisher was too complex. “Keep it simple, silly.” He slapped my ass, as if by way of punctuation.
Silly was with him there, and laughed. Silly, the only one not in spandex. The Emperor didn’t like non-wrestlers in the locker rooms, least of all kids, but to hear the bustle backstage, after he met Silly, he went out of his way to invite her come see how things looked behind the scenes.
But I recognized the way The Emperor stood over her, bare chested, a casual lean, hand to a wall, arm supporting at just the right angle to flex without looking as though he were trying to flex. I recognized in her, too, the short shorts, the blouse carefully unbuttoned low, the little cross necklace that suggested a sort of virginal virtue, daring the boy she looked up to through fluttering eyelashes to tear it loose.
Rabbit warned Tully, “Watch your girl.”
Maybe that’s why Tully came to me.
If you lived in Damphry you came to learn firefly trivia that summer.
For example, you learned a firefly couldn’t burn you. Theirs was a cold light.
There was speculation that given fireflies spent a year-plus underground before they took flight, they had arrived in secret the year before, only to make themselves known now, Trojan horsed in the soil, patiently waiting.
You learned that even before they hatched, firefly eggs glowed, too.
Tully asked me to protect Silly, because protecting her himself would’ve been too obvious.
Too obvious to Silly, and damn it, I’m not blind. I know she doesn’t want to listen to me.
Too obvious to the Emperor. He doesn’t care that I’m her father. The only way he’d care is if I were willing to help him get in her pants, and for Chrissake, she’s seventeen years old!
So I helped. Within limits. Silly didn’t have the same levels of contempt or distrust around me, as a woman, and more to the point, as someone who wasn’t her father, Being new made it easier to play dumb when I lingered around her, like a friend, maybe a third wheel to her and the Emperor, but a third wheel that could keep them from balancing the axel of their twowheels into a smooth ride. I’d ask the Emperor questions to keep him occupied as well, until the locker room filled up with more bodies, more obstacles.
I’m not sure when the switch flipped, but before too long, I found the Emperor watching me closer. How much of my bad timing could be chalked up to coincidence, to an oblivious new girl?
Fireflies lined the biggest tree in Damphry, an out of place fir tree the town planted some decades before. However momentarily, the bugs lined up to form perfect circles. Long enough for passers by to take pictures because it looked like a Christmas tree, there in the hottest, most humid part of summer.
One of those times, lingering around Silly, I got a look at her on her laptop computer, submitting her senior quote for her high school yearbook.
She invoked Neil Young. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
The Emperor made a big deal about Silly’s eighteenth birthday.
I got the impression that birthdays weren’t ordinarily special, not least of all when Rabbit’s came and went with a smattering of well wishes, with a handful of the boys going drinking after a show.
But for Silly, the Emperor declared we would put on a show. She got to pick the main event—who would compete and the stipulations. I could only imagine that he assumed Silly would pick him, maybe opposite her father, maybe opposite a top contender like The Kaleidoscope Warrior.
Instead she picked me.
The Emperor let her have a live mic in the ring to announce the match in front of the Damphry crowd two weeks out. That was rare in wrestling—for someone to make an announcement when management didn’t know what she’d say in advance. It was sure as hell the only time I heard of anything like it in Damphry.
But I’d face Geri the Giant, a redhead who stood a legit six-foot-eight in her bare feet, billed as a seven footer, referred to alternately as an Amazon and a monster by the announcers at ringside.
And Silly, who I hadn’t seen show any glimmer of interest in wrestling when her father introduced her around or tried to show her holds and reversals or talk wrestling history, nonetheless ran her tongue over her lips and finished with a smile, “in a steel cage match.”
A pair of women approached me at the Lucky Dragon that night. The crowd at the restaurant was always biggest the night of a show, when it was one of the few places open late and when there were sure to be wrestlers to mingle with, standing room only, more like a wedding reception than a typical restaurant experience.
The restaurant served from small, disposable containers on show night under the twin premises that the dish washers couldn’t keep up with the customers, and they were easier to hold in your hand. Rabbit filled me in that it was really a matter of shortchanging the customers. Sell enough undersizedcontainers of Kung Pao Chicken and you’d save a whole serving or two or ten. Saving food. Compelling customers, still waiting to talk to their favorite wrestlers, to buy more to eat because they were still hungry and weren’t going home anytime soon.
The women who came to me didn’t seem to have much trouble asserting their will, bumping through crowds, zeroing in on who they wanted to talk to. They both looked fiftyish, one’s hair dyed maroon, the other blond, each wearing different Emperor t-shirts. The blond said that I must have done something to make The Emperor really mad.
I asked her what she was talking about.
“Sweetheart, I know you’re new here, but we don’t have a lot of cage matches. And Geri the Giant’s not just a name. She’s enormous.”
Her friend chimed in. “She’s going to eat you alive, buttercup.”
I’d learned, those first couple weeks in the territory, that the line between fans eager to lose themselves in our wrestling drama and full-on marks who took it for granted that what they saw in the ring was one-hundred-percent real were razor thin and fluid.
“It wasn’t the Emperor who made the match,” I said. “It was—the girl.” I tripped over that last part. The Emperor had presented her as just another fan, not a wrestler’s daughter, posing it as good will that she’d been given the chance to match-make for her birthday.
“Honey, ain’t nothing goes down in Damphry without The Emperor’s endorsement,” Maroon said. “That girl was the messenger, plain and simple.”
I nodded along. Put on the combination of trepidation andcourage that seemed appropriate to my character. It wasn’t until after they’d left that I found myself standing across the way from Geri, talking to another fan, that I started to wonder if the two women with the warning could’ve been right.
I didn’t realize that a cage match meant an outdoor show. The Emperor stored the cage at a local warehouse, owned by fan all too eager to have to do the wrestlers a favor. The Emperor stored it there because it wouldn’t fit in his office or his home. It wouldn’t fit in the arena either.
So, the show took place in the high school football stadium, ordinarily reserved for big, climactic shows that would draw larger crowds. The steel cage would draw itself, though, not to mention that from what I heard there’d never been a women’s cage match in Damphry before.
Fireflies, as we recognize them, in their glowing adult form, only live for about two months, and that’s if they survive their natural predators like birds, spiders, and frogs. Fireflies are known to eat each other sometimes, too.
Geri looked nervous before the show. The two of us walked upto, and then on the stack of four sides of the steel cage that would be erected around the ring and clamped together for our main event. I was going to win, climbing up and over the top to escape the cage. In the past, cages were meant to keep everyone else out, to leave the two wrestlers to battle it out until one finished the other. In these modern times, fans wanted to see the climb—for one wrestler to scale impossibly high before descending back to the masses, somewhere between fallen angel and super hero.
Winning a cage match that early in my tenure in Damphrywas a good sign. I might be a champion before long.
I knelt down and slapped a hand against the center of the mesh, establishing the sweet spot in the cage for Geri to slam my head against early on, so the most fans could see it, so the cage would rattle its loudest. Hit the sweet spot and the fans would question if I’d make it out alive.
A ticket got everyone in attendance a slice of birthday cake. The Emperor had gotten a big one donated by Chewy’s Bakery, across the street from the Lucky Dragon. A big, tiered devil’s food cake. The kind any wrestling fan would have been conditioned to expect some mystery wrestler to pop out of at just the right time and launch an attack, were it not for the sureness with which the Emperor sliced through the icing to remove the first piece. Were it not for the fact that the cake was gone by the time the opening bell rang, enough fans in attendance to consume it all.
Silly didn’t want cake. She said she’d get fat.
The Emperor smeared frosting on her nose.
The crowd waited after the penultimate match, through the set up of the cage—longer than some of the undercard matches themselves. The other wrestlers carried the cage walls and held them steady, as the stage hands fumbled with the clamps they hardly ever used.
It was the biggest audience I’d ever had for a match. The Emperor claimed, on the house mic, an attendance of five thousand, though no one checked his numbers, and the wrestlers all assumed he’d exaggerated. It was my first proper main event—the opportunity to close a show, and the fans stayed there to watch, even after they’d emptied their beer cups and the cotton candy had long since dissolved on the children’s tongues, and all that was left in the popcorn tubs were the dry kernels that had never blossomed.
The match went as planned. I ran and rolled and jumped to keep away. The classic rope-a-dope waiting for Geri the Giant to tire herself out from chasing me, or to run face first into the cage off of a charge and give me an opening.
Then she went for a choke slam.
The choke slam has two parts.
The first is a work. The goozle—catching me by the throat in what looks like a choke, but is really more placing her hand under my chin—followed by the lift, which is more a matter of me jumping in the air than her lifting me by my neck.
The slam is real. Maybe Geri didn’t throw me down as hard as she could, but falling flat from a height of six-feet-plus—there’s no faking that. She knocked the air out of me, and I only just barely caught my breath before she dropped an elbow on my chest.
The heat was on. When Geri slammed my head against the cage, I noticed Silly and The Emperor sitting on the far side, in the front row. It was rare for The Emperor to sit among the people, but Silly’s birthday was a special occasion.
He had his hand on her leg.
Geri put her sweaty hand on my leg, applying a half crab. Part of the psychology for a giant in a cage match is to work the leg and limit the hero’s ability to climb, to have any hope of escape.
But I fought back.
Sweat flying with every connection of a forearm to Geri’s chest. Then a dropkick. Pause to sell that knee was hurt, that I should have known better than to go leaping in the air, then grit my teeth and come at her again with a flurry, all leading up to a sleeper hold.
Geri’s arm flailed for the ropes, desperation setting in.
This was the finish.
The sleeping giant prone on the mat, I made my climb.
I climbed up The Emperor and Silly’s side. I only paused for a second when I notice that his hand had slid up her leg, up her skirt.
It was a short skirt to begin with.
She didn’t have her legs crossed, not the way women do on instinct. She sat with her legs open, girlish.
I tried not to react.
Fireflies flooded the stadium that night as the show was letting out. As if they’d all chosen to come see the cage match, too.
To hear the people of Damphry tell it, those fireflies lookedless like bugs than demons, dive-bombing the populace.
I thought I was supposed to win the cage match, but I was at the top—just about to hoist a leg over—when Geri caught my ankle. She stood, balanced on the top rope as it sank beneath her weight, threatening to give way. She stood balanced with her back to the cage, head between my legs. I could just barely make out the words when she said she was sorry.
She looked sorry.
In the front row, The Emperor whispered in Silly’s ear.
Geri planted me with a powerbomb off the ropes, to the center of the ring.
I’d seen stars before.
Maybe I saw them that night.
But it looked like fireflies. A whole flood of them rushing in, children screaming, hell itself raining down.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of three full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books, Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, and most recently The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.