Introduction by Jean Kyoung Frazier
I’m not comfortable often, let alone at peace. In conversation, at work, in a crowd, around the people that I love—I’m constantly contorting myself to fit into spaces, to be a neat shape with smooth edges. On low and bad days, I feel like I’m not built for this world. Then, I lace up my Nikes and step out onto the basketball court and, for at least a little while, I seem to make sense.
From the opening lines of Gene Kwak’s debut novel, Go Home, Ricky!, his narrator had my restless, anxious heart. Ricky Twohatchet is a semi-pro wrestler in Omaha, Nebraska. Half Native American, half white, full bravado, mouth always moving, arms constantly swinging—a shape out of place anywhere but a wrestling ring. It would be easy to take Ricky at face value, to observe his loud and brash exterior and dismiss him as a troubled mess. But all his noise and movement is a shield, a stutter step designed to mask his vulnerability and pain. Because when Ricky is out of the ring, quiet and unmoving, he is unable to avoid the truth—that he is twenty-five, floundering, unsure of his identity, angry at the father he’s never known, scared of the father he will soon be, and unable to move through the world without leaving a trail of wreckage behind him.
It takes a writer of extreme talent to handle a narrator so rough-edged, and Kwak is indeed talented. Like Ricky, his prose is deceptive. It will draw you in with its humor, its easy flow, but to craft a voice that feels so true and lived in takes a careful and delicate hand, a writer unafraid to be completely open and exposed.
Every time before Ricky steps out onto the ring, he says a prayer cribbed from Mr. T under his breath —“I am a tender man. I am a tender man. I am a tender man”—and despite not being a man, the first time I read this passage, I had to stop reading and get up from my couch to walk the length of my cramped, narrow apartment—fifteen steps to one end, fifteen back—stretching, wiggling my arms a bit, a sort of malfunctioning windmill. To read a line that makes you feel seen and loved for all your weirdness and flaws is a rare and beautiful joy.
This opening, this entire messy, gorgeous novel, is my pleasure to recommend to you all.
– Jean Kyoung Frazier
Author of Pizza Girl
An Amateur Apache Wrestles with America
An excerpt from Go Home, Ricky! by Gene Kwak
Listen to those blue collars. All slab bellies and seed-and-feed hats. Screaming my name in their gut-deep, cig-scorched voices. Heard a stat that the most prone to playing sad sax solos are ag hands. Farmers. Laborers. Ranchers. If I can bring them a little Wednesday-night joy to stave off any self-inflicted sad-sack shit, well then, watch me hop the ropes and fly.
I’m pacing in the belly of Sokol Auditorium. Slapping the concrete-walled hallways that work underneath and around and eventually lead to the center-set ring. Sokol has a stage and a balcony, and close to fifteen hundred people can cram in, max. Outside the squared circle, lean one way or the other too hard and you’ll feel so many fingertips you might as well be the cutest goat at the petting zoo. The exterior of Sokol reads all church, with its brick facade and high, arching windows. A stone eagle also presents majestic above the entrance, with an actual cloth-and-dignity American flag waving overhead. Backstage is all business. A couple of rusty folding chairs. Banquet tables. A fruit plate. When we get the call, we emerge from behind a set of heavy purple drapes, a cheap programmable electric sign jerry-rigged to sway above us buzzing our names as the announcer calls us forward and the crowd roars. My name doesn’t fit within the word limit, so it always reads RICKY2HAT, confusing the newcomers, because I’m not even wearing a hat.
Ricky Twohatchet is my name, although the government recognizes me as Richard Powell. I run half-Apache and half–Euro mutt: a mix of Irish, Scottish, and Polish. While fifty percent of the blood that courses through my veins is Native, I came out looking like I could model Scandinavian activewear. I’m naturally blond-haired, blue-eyed, with a smile so white it could run a Fortune 500 company. To help the sell, I dye my hair black twice a month at a boutique where the stylist can never shore up the sideburns, but she’s a good listener and spends extra time on the complimentary shampoo, so I tip well. I also hit the tanning booth weekly, but that’s more for muscle definition. Pops the lats. Lines the delts.
Seven years of making the rounds has led to this moment. From backyard wrestling to bar brawling in Seattle on a bunch of scummy mattresses to middling start-up conferences to this: I’m one level away from being one level away from the big leagues. And tonight is supposed to be my big hurrah. Here, in the belly of Sokol, surrounded by loved ones and onlookers ready to bear witness.
Only I’ve got to deal with 240 pounds of pissed-off Mexican before the ticker-tape parade.
Picture a preteen boy, sugar-sick off mainlining Mountain Dew, who spends too many hours on a video game and has amped all his character’s stats to max to create this Uncanny Valley–looking cartoon version of a man shredded to the high heavens. That’s Bojorquez. All brawn. He looks like he had back-alley surgery in Venezuela to fill all major muscle groups with motor oil. I only wish they were filled with fake fluid and weren’t solid slabs forged by testosterone and effort.
I sidle up to the purple curtain, finger the folds. Wait for my cue. Under my breath, I say, “I am a tender man. I am a tender man. I am a tender man.” My own little prayer cribbed from a quote by Mr. T about toughness. But don’t peg me as a Bible thumper; prayer to me is only pleading words on air. Something we all have in common, whether you’re Christian, Muslim, wide-eyed child, or wizard. I am a tender man. I am a tender man. I am a tender man.
Now, two ways generally exist to enter the ring. The slow go: the my-balls-are-so-big-I-have-to-walk-wide-legged-being-a-dude-so endowed. Under deposition, Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, said Hulk Hogan’s dick is ten inches. Terry Bollea is not ten inches. Big difference. Flourishes include a finger point or a head turn toward different sections of the audience—always acknowledge the cheap seats. Or the full-out, Ultimate Warrior–perfected sprint so fast toward the ring that the announcer barely gets to finish your intro and there’s zero chance the audience could Shazam your theme song. Sure there are other variations, but in general, there’s fast and slow. Little in-between.
Now I’m back to full sprint. But I took a few years off. Switched tempo. Not out of any marketing gimmick; I was scared.
When I first started, seven years ago, I’d run hard, but once I slipped on a rubber, nonslip mat, skidded across the slick concrete, and ate it into the stairs. The audience gasped and I let out a weird, little, high-pitched yelp. Back then, I went by a different name, a whole different persona, so nobody except a handful of basement-dwelling, hard-core wrestling brains knew it was me when it went semiviral. This was also back when YouTube barely had walking legs, so viral then was about fifteen thousand hits. Still, the fewer people that know I was the “KISS THE STAIRS ZOMG!!!” guy, the better. It hasn’t made it to Botcha mania, a YouTube series that highlights wrestling fuckups or “botches,” and for that I face Coral Gables and say a short prayer to the neon god, Macho Man, on a daily basis.
But I’m not scared anymore. I jaw on fear like bubble gum.
Once my music goes, I’m gone. No easy-does-it. Full-on adrenaline dump run. “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden has a tough-talk last half, and these fans are not the type to reflect on their great-great-great-grandfather Clovis’s role in slaying Natives during the New World migration west.
Cue the Maiden. I go running.
As I make my way ringside, one voice rises above all others. Frankie, my love, my dear, my heart, carrier of my kid. Frances Rae Dillashaw. Being from North Mississippi, she has a slight Southern lilt that is more pronounced when she’s drunk and also when she lucks into decent Keno payouts. It floats above the din. Above the flat, nasal tones of my fellow fly-over crowd. Like brown butter on plain toast.
She is sporting denim overalls that I once accused her of wearing as a sarcastic knock at Midwesterners. Although she told me they were legit and that she was volunteering part-time at an urban farm, I’ve never even seen her cradle a rutabaga, so I’m skeptical. Still, she looks stunning in a white shirt and overalls.
Frankie is at every show. She’s a support system, a lifeline. Even if she doesn’t do signs.
“Where the hell do you put a sign when you’re in the bathroom? While you’re waiting in line for a hot dog?” she asked me once, mimed a whole routine where she wrestled with a poster board as big as a flatbed truck, and I never brought it up again.
Frankie is playing neighbors with Mom, because she’s always next to Mom. They’re so close they even have a secret handshake that involves kissing thumbs and a quick whisper to the wrestling gods that I emerge unhurt.
Arlene “Lena” Powell. One of those sports moms who show at their offspring’s every game and wear their child’s jersey along with some oversized sign or hat or other show of I’m-the-one-who-pushed-him-through-the-meat-curtains. The loudest to whoop and holler. She yells, “You’ve got this, Ricky! Kick their dicks in!” Usually in the vicinity of another parent covering her kid’s ears with her hands from whatever else might come out of this strange lady’s foul mouth; it’s embarrassing, but that’s Mom. You can’t earmuff that kind of energy.
It’s only been Mom and me for the past twenty-five years. Mano a momo. Pops is a goner. Never showed. Never mailed a card. Never phoned. Over the years I got accustomed to the seat beside her being empty, or else it was occupied by one of her latest dates. Few of the dudes cared enough to show, and if they did, it wasn’t in good faith. None really tried. No attaboys. Life tells me I’m supposed to feel a pang of dad absence whenever I see that empty seat, but mostly I’m thinking, Damn, that could’ve been a good place to rest a sign. Maybe that’s a deflect, but I prefer that alternative, otherwise I’d have to take on all two and a half decades of complicated dad abandonment issues, and sans therapy and popping pills it’s easier to adopt the give-zero-fucks act.
When I make it to the ring, I hop up on the apron, center myself. I exhale loudly through my mouth, inhale through my nose for four seconds, hold my breath for seven seconds, and then exhale for eight seconds. It’s a focusing technique Mom taught me. Next, I grip the top rope with both hands, and do a front flip into the ring to wild applause. A child could do it with the proper training, but it’s a move that always wows. As they cheer, they can’t hear me mutter to myself. I say my prayer and stomp down into the mat, because I need to feel grounded; I need to feel my weight in the balls of my feet. Something is off, though, because I don’t feel the brunt of my body in my legs; everything below my knees feels floaty, like I sat down crisscross-applesauce-style for a long stretch and stood up right before stumbling out here.
Bojorquez comes out to mariachi music. All up-tempo brass and strings. He’s dressed in his bad-guy getup: black tights, black boots, black pads, black bands. His hair slicked back into a wet ponytail. He used to wear brighter colors. More on the Roy G. Biv scale, in line with most Mexican wrestlers. Until his manager, Facundo, in an inspiration binge off peyote and old Mike Tyson YouTube videos, decided to redo Bojorquez’s whole demeanor. Gives him the air of someone who does downtime at funerals. Goth jock vibe.
Before he even enters the ring, I snatch the mic from the announcer. Bojorquez’s music comes to a halt. It’s all preplanned, but he probably hates that the top brass okayed it. Bojorquez stops in his tracks fifteen feet from the edge of the ring. The audience noise simmers to a low roil. A few bold-faced drunkos scream obscenities at me. Tell me things they’d like to do with oblong fruit and my mother. It’s expected. Bojorquez is the people’s champ. He’s been the reigning and defending king. I’m the new dude—fresh meat.
I’m hit with the spotlight; I clear my throat. “History lesson, folks. Apaches and Mexicans have had a long-standing hatred for each other. Before we knew the first names of every member of the extended Kardashians. Before 3D printers. Self-driving cars. That handsome mallard. Go way back. Sixteen hundreds to early nineteen hundreds. Three hundred years of warring. Bloodshed. Rivers and hills ran red. My people irked the Mexicans so much that Mexican governments even offered mucho pesos for an Apache scalp. Well, I’m here tonight to turn the tables,” I say. “After I win, I’m coming for that head.” I pull out a wig that looks like Bojorquez’s, only it’s a ratty renter that would never pass for his real sheen up close. It works for my purposes. I throw it on the ground. I stomp on it with my boot. The crowd loses it.
Bojorquez has heard enough. He comes flying full keel into the ring, and I see that Mexican meathead shoot at me with his forearm, the size of the barrel of a Louisville Slugger, aimed at my neck.
People always wonder how thick or thin between kayfabe and real life. Who really dislikes whom? Which marriages were even legal? Which friendships were for show? Like in any other sport, fans love it when there’s real dislike on the line. Tyson vs. Holyfield. Bulls vs. Pistons. Red Sox vs. Yankees. You can notch us up among the all-timers. Because Bojorquez fucking hates me.
Probably has to do with the fact that when Bojorquez and I first met backstage, six months ago, we had a minor miscommunication. It happened around a fruit plate. Donnie Deutch, our racist ringleader, for all his deep-seated hate, believes in the roster maintaining high Vitamin C levels. Not to pardon Donnie’s dumb takes, but I never saw him actually treat anyone different. Hell, he keeps his roster stacked in absurd amounts of slightly bruised fruit. Figure he does back-alley delivery deals; probably pays high school kids to dumpster-dive for ditched Edible Arrangements. But he definitely gripes. He gripes every chance he gets to gripe, to anyone who is in the room. And they’re always antiquated in nature. Donnie is like your racist uncle’s racist uncle.
On this particular day, I kept pronouncing Bojorquez’s name wrong. I’d throw a hard J, followed up with an even harder Q, and it came out “Bo-jork-quez.” Then he’d say it right. Then I’d repeat it wrong. And on and on. Partly because I failed high school Spanish, and so I never wrapped my head around the subtleties of their tongue. Also because fuck him.
Truth is, I have no valid reason to dislike Bjork, except he and I have the same goals and it’s easier to psych myself up by inventing overblown motives.
For those who might be wondering who’s the heel and who’s the face, the answer is we’re both heels. Takes two to dance. If you’re looking for a face, a do-gooder, someone as American as Superman swigging Coca-Cola with a bald eagle taloned on his arm, look no further than Johnny America. Big Boy Scout, Johnny Proper. He’s a sunglasses-wearing, American-flag-pants-festooned goober. He smells like saddle leather and sweat. Comes out to the ring waving the Stars and Stripes to a backing track of Springsteen. You can’t get more American than this motherfucker, except for the fact that he’s actually German.
When I first made my way onto the Pro Magnum circuit, America was the first one who showed me the ropes. His real name was Johann Ammer, but I called him JA or America. America was actually a German immigrant who could only fake an American accent if he did a big Texas twang. He’d only been in the States for five years, but had such allegiances to the red, white, and blue way of life, he’d shout down anyone who didn’t stand correctly during the national Anthem: full-on facing the flag with right hand flat over your heart. Even if his version of the American Dream was an old-timer’s pipe dream, he believed so fervently, he decided to hop a plane at twenty-three with zip in the way of savings and fly to a city he randomly pointed to on a map. Wrestling was just a means to an end. He dreamed of zany neighbors rushing into his oversized apartment in a nineties sitcom America.
After matches, we’d grab Double Pony Burgers or Pork Tenderloins at Bronco’s. Drunk, we’d hit back nines at night or sneak into hotel swimming pools for quick dips. We were each other’s emergency contacts. We lifted, ate, and practiced together.
He and I were tag-team champs and actually good buddies beyond kayfabe, but two weeks ago he was asked by higher-ups to take a new angle, and he was paired with Bojorquez. When we ran the tag-team division, we were known as the Trail of Terrors. When Bojorquez and America teamed up, they called themselves NATO: Naturally, Allies Take Over.
When he told me that he was going to have to screw me and switch sides, I was rightly upset. Business is business, but if Donnie wanted America on Bojorquez’s side, he was saying something without saying something. It was a not-so-subtle dig to say, You’re not tops. This was after weeks of them whispering in my ear that I was the next man up. I’d been outselling Bojorquez and America and Roscoe Smoke ‘Em and everyone else on the roster in apparel and merch. My tomahawks were flying like tomahawks. Plastic headdresses were popular. Not sure if the white kids who copped them were fans or folks who wanted to wear them to sweaty music festivals. T-shirts with my face and bold logo were draped as seat coolers in old Corollas all over Omaha. I was resonating, as they say. Or said.
Before the match, Bojorquez and I went over the ins and outs. Figured out what’s going to happen to who when. I told him to watch my neck. I’d been hit with a stinger two nights before and it was still a bit sore. Plan was I’d lose to Bojorquez after a fifteen-minute back-and-forth. Lots of action. Figuring out our spots. We’d set up a monthlong rivalry that’d lead to our big event, MagFest, which sounds like a convention for gun nuts. Right before we split to get things going, Johnny walked into the backstage area and told us that he’s going to illegally ring Bojorquez with the bell. This will disqualify me, setting me up for MagFest, send some sympathy toward Bojorquez, and allow America to come back to my stable. We all agreed. Had a handshake deal.
But now, in the ring, I’m questioning everything. Not only the wrestling-related. I mean every turn, every door, every meal order that led me here, staring at this behemoth of a dude who is so yoked that it looks like his kneecaps have abs. Really only wrinkles, but the point stands. Did I mention how much hate he harbors for me? In truth, I’ll be fine in the broader, cosmic sense. But there’s no guarantee he doesn’t put a little mustard on his punches. No matter what, I have to sell them. This is my time to deliver.
Only, our flow is all off. Sometimes you grip a hand, kiss a girl, high-five a stranger, and it all goes wrong. Like in another dimension, you have aced it, but this version of you is two beats late, an inch left. There’s a natural ebb but very little flow. Kicks, flips, ropewalks, flying splashes. Our two styles should mesh well. But it’s no classic. No Macho Man vs. Steamboat. Hitman vs. Heartbreak Kid. But we’re doing our part to appease the greasy patrons. Bojorquez really sells the chest slaps. Rings my ear for real with an elbow to the head. I reverse his hold, send him flying across the ring into the ropes. What we do was long ago repackaged as sports entertainment. It is now universally acknowledged that the end results are arranged. But it’s still murder on the body. Cactus Jack getting his ear ripped off. Droz getting paralyzed after being dropped on his head. Sid Vicious snapping his leg. Sometimes you get a weird sense that there’s a bullet with your name on it, a supernatural nod that you’re next. I feel that shiver deep in my bowels when I Irish Whip Bojorquez for the third time and see Johnny America crawl into the ring with the bell in tow.
You know those old fogeys who watch the same whodunits and expect to find different culprits? They’d be the only audience surprised to find I’m fucked. There is no hitting Bojorquez. I’m the target. And although I don’t think Johnny means to make as much contact as he does, the bell rings me good. So much so, I jerk and hear something snap in my neck. When I go down, I actually black out for a few seconds. When I come to, I hear a scream from a stranger that’s so loud, the response is instant silence. People can tell this is no act. I broke something. Bojorquez stops. Johnny lets the bell drop. Facedown on the canvas, I try to move my neck, but I’m in so much pain that I’m sure I’m paralyzed. The ref calls it. Bojorquez’s mariachi music gets cued in to cover up the silence. The rest is Vaseline over my memory. The shock numbs me crazy, and I try to wiggle my pinkie toes, because I saw it in a movie once. Mom and Frankie are in the ring and asking what the hell is wrong with my ankles, because my feet keep doing weird flexes and points like a bad ballerina, and I say, “My pinkie toes! They won’t move,” and Frankie has the wherewithal to tell me that almost no one can wiggle their pinkie toes. Paramedics rush to my side, a stretcher in tow. They turn me over and snap a temporary brace on. I’m lifted by four men in blue polos and powder-blue latex gloves. As I’m wheeled out, I’m almost dropped, so they have to lift me and right me again. As I’m taken away, I see Johnny America out of the corner of my eye. He gives me this bullshit grimace and tries to touch my hand. I scream, “Fuck you, America! Fuck you!” as loud as I can. Adrenaline courses through my body. I’m spitting, I’m so amped. One of the paramedics puts his hand on my chest and tells me to calm down. I keep screaming until they wheel me into the ambulance. People have their phones out, documenting the whole ordeal.