The Ref’s Bad Call

Frank Eldridge only felt in control while locked in a cage.

An inevitable divorce stabbed at Frank’s future. His children—old enough to realize how much undo stress their delinquent father brought into the household yet young enough to not have completely severed all emotional ties—continued holding out hope that he’d become the dad they remembered as youngsters. The spirit of the forty-four-year-old mechanic—at least on the handful of days he hadn’t been suspended from the job site—was punctured, but not yet deflated.

“I’m off to work,” Frank called to anyone in the house willing to listen.

Even if anyone had heard him—and they all did from their bedrooms—only his voice returned—echoing from the end of the empty hallway—sending him on his way. Along with filling some unresolved void in his life with alcohol for nearly two decades—an abuse with the substance that, eventually, led to a five-year stint behind bars—Frank also failed to string one truthful sentence after another; everything he’d say marinated in some sort of bullshit. Today was no different. He blamed his dishonesty on the drink, which could have been the case—however, his system, as of now, was merely riding on the residuals from the night before.

Frank was off, except he wouldn’t be heading to Petey’s Pit Stop for an nine-to-five because he was, for the second time since starting several months ago, caught drinking on his lunch break. Human resources, in the meantime, was determining Frank’s fate with the company. Until then, he placed his lunchpail in the passenger seat, turned the key to the ignition, and aimed his 2000 Chevy Silverado in the direction of San Francisco—the destination of a day-long training course for MMA referees with the best in the business, Todd McGovern.

As the balding tires hit the highway, Frank, as was normally the case, justified his lying to himself. This is important. Of course, anything a selfish alcoholic does for themselves would seem important, but he really was only a rung or two from reaching a dream he’d been chasing since just before his children entered the world. Unlike the weekdays of recent memory, Frank was a bit disoriented by how sober he was—as if all of the Bay Area’s fog had settled on the sill of his cerebral cortex. Withdrawal was a bitch.

The only day Frank, for certain, abstained from alcohol was Saturday—Fight Day. The thickness of these Wednesday morning clouds in the cab of Frank’s truck made him realize how weak he was under the chemical’s power. Frank’s right hand, the skin more leathery and loose than it should be for his age, trembled on the wheel while he was lost in thought—something never noticed, until now. By imagining the deep pull he’d take on an ice-cold longneck later on, some more of the fog lifted.

Another boost to Frank’s fragile mental space was the anticipation of meeting his idol, Todd “The Tank” McGovern. Frank was introduced to mixed martial arts—and McGovern—at the age of twenty-one, when The Big Show premiered the world’s most extreme sport inside the Tomahawk Casino in Turlock, California. The fights, as promised on the poster, were fireworks, and the never-ending flow of drinks fanned the hell-raising intensity as if doused in gasoline—from the beasts inside the cage as well as the raucous, heavily-intoxicated crowd filling the convention room’s perimeter. From that historic evening until the present, Frank studied McGovern’s approach. McGovern was a lion-tamer, and Frank was engrossed in acquiring the same whip-cracking skillset.

After The Big Show hosted a couple more events—with McGovern at the helm—its popularity spread across each continent. Smaller ‘Big Shows’ sprinkled Northern California’s landscape—Frank’s backyard. Frank, as a newly minted father to a daughter, Kelsey, and son, Tanner, volunteered his services as a referee on the weekends in any cage that didn’t ask for actual credentials, mirroring the decision-making of McGovern, gaining experience with every round. Following a night of reffing, Frank often wondered if McGovern had any tips about dealing with an uptight wife, two infants, and day-to-day job that drained him; Frank’s answer was grabbing a drink or two with anyone willing to follow him to the nearest watering hole. More often than not, Carl Flemming, a fellow fan with a similar desire as Frank for learning the art of the referee, would abide. Fast-forward a handful of years: The Big Show had gathered a rabid following—adding a fresh crop of referees under McGovern’s microscope; Frank’s one or two drink habit had ballooned to eight to nine; and the possibility of refereeing in The Big Show snuck into Frank’s psyche.

“Whoa…Slow down Frank,” Carl encouraged, watching Frank pounded beers as if he were at a frat party.

“Don’t be such a pussy.”

Carl asked, “Want me to order you a cab?”

Frank, again, called Carl a pussy and assured his compadre in combat supervision, “I’m fine.”

His words weren’t more garbled than other instances he’d driven home and he stepped with confident, sturdy strides toward his car; Carl, though he regretted not sending Frank home in a cab—and would for the rest of his life, watched the taillights of Frank’s Silverado disappear into the distance.

Frank’s life, along with a collective of other lives, changed forever about a mile from his home. Reaching for his phone that dropped to the floorboards, Frank never saw the stop sign, which meant the 2016 Toyota Camry in the middle of the intersection, filled with Linda Sanchez and her five-year-old son, Flavio, were never in his view—not until both machines rested in heaps of twisted metal. For the next five years, Frank spent each day inside his prison cell wishing he had died in the wreckage, instead of the mother and son he senselessly murdered. When Frank was freed from behind bars, his wife’s detachment, the shame painted on the face of Tanner and Kelsey, and mind-boggling guilt would forever be harbored in his heart.

During today’s seminar with the referee pioneer, participants would inch one step closer to possibly attaining a position in The Big Show. A certificate of completion from the World MMA Referee Federation Mastery Class, authorized by McGovern, meant you qualified to enter a scouting pool for acceptance onto MMA’s grandest stage.

“When did you meet Todd McGovern?” Tanner asked after cracking the kitchen’s threshold.

The break in the silence startled Frank. He quickly positioned his whiskey from view and turned to sponge any interaction he could from his son.

“I attended the WMMARF Mastery Class today, and McGovern was there to verify us. He’s a great guy.” Frank added, “I got you a signature, too.”

Every MMA fan revered McGovern because he was one of the few original faces of The Big Show. He approached the table to see McGovern’s catch phrase scribbled in a personalized message across the glossy picture: “Tanner, Bring the pain!—Todd “The Tank” McGovern.” Rejoice immediately turned to resentment when the rancid smell of whiskey and bad breath entered Tanner’s nostrils.

“I hope McGovern signed off on your drinking because you’re definitely a master at that!”

The way Frank discerned how Tanner said “McGovern” gnawed at his nerves long after Tanner retreated to his room. He wasn’t mad at Tanner—in fact, he respected his son’s brutal honesty; he was furious at himself. MMA was the last link still bonding Frank to his kids. If he soiled the sport for them, their relationship—what little left there was—may never be able to mend.

***

“Mr. Eldridge?”

“Yeah.”

“This is for you.” 

Frank didn’t need to ask about the contents of the manila envelope; he knew. He had been expecting such a delivery since his wife left with the kids several months earlier.

Who the hell delivers divorce papers on a Saturday? The thought sloshed around in Frank’s brain as he forced himself not to reach for the nearest bottle. She did this on purpose. As easy as it would have been for Frank to proclaim why his soon-to-be ex-wife was such a bitch, he admitted: he poured his current lot—one fluid-ounce at a time—into his own lap.

The shakes, along with a blanket of fog, were prominent while dumping some stale cereal into a bowl, and neither subsided in the least, not the way they used to. An empty house, a spiteful wife, and disappointed children who deserved better wasn’t Frank’s rock bottom; it, consequently, sent him into a dangerous tailspin.

Frank didn’t drink prior to the evening’s Fight Night, Barnyard Brawlers 3, but he questioned why he hadn’t since the moment he left his house—and even more so upon entering the Sky High Sports Complex. The scent of sweat and the chills of impending violence usually snapped Frank—like smelling salts—into an alert state; BB3, the nearly 600th event of Frank’s long-tenured career, would be a different story. Many of California’s local MMA crowds, regardless of the city, resembled a traveling circus, featuring many of the same fighters, coaches, fans, and other officials. The greetings—“Good to see you!”, “Tonight should be fun!”, or “Let’s get a picture.”—didn’t change, but everyone sensed a mile of separation between themselves and how they’d become accustomed to Frank—jovial, easy-going, and laser-beam focused—over the years.

Not only was Frank off outside of the cage, locked inside, charged to protect gladiators from their own warrior spirit, was no different. To error is human, of course, but Frank was, aside from the referees in The Big Show, as reliable as they come.

Ken Hutchinson, a gritty, young prospect with loads of potential, screamed in Frank’s face when his chances of victory were ripped away by a poor stoppage: While Hutchinson was locked in a rear-naked choke, his eyes bulged and his face turned cherry red—though he was still trying to fend off the strangulation attempt—and Frank waved off the fight. Hutchinson sprang from the canvas with his arms raised above his head and exploded, “What the fuck!” 

Frank had stopped a fight too early before, yet the recently served divorcee questioned whether a couple drinks would have cleared his mind from its overwhelming stress. With four matches left, Frank injected, I can make it through tonight, into his thinking.

Though not egregious, Frank, in the co-main event, lifted the hand of the wrong person following the ring announcer’s reading of the scorecards—strange, but at least it didn’t affect the competitor’s record, or pay. It was during this point in the evening Frank’s kids each filled a seat in BB3’s audience; they wanted to visit their dad, knowing their mom had served him with divorce papers, and they also didn’t want to miss BB 3’s main event: Bobby “Hit Em’ Hard” Hill versus Malachi “Self-Made” Mitchell.

Hill was undefeated, and The Big Show was interested in his handiwork. A dominant win over Mitchell meant ownership of the Barnyard Brawler Heavyweight Title, and, potentially, a position on The Big Show’s roster. From the back row of the venue, Tanner and Kelsey spotted the President of The Big Show, Timothy West, saunter in and find a seat in the V.I.P section; his ridiculous top hat was recognizable from a mile away. 

“He must be here to watch Hill,” Tanner said.

“Dad has the best seat in the house!” Kelsey chirped. She hadn’t ever mentioned it aloud, but the idea of refereeing, especially with no female in such a position, appealed to her. She knew once she’d mention the topic to her father that he’d glow with pride and do everything in his power to support her; aside from watching her Dad do his thing in the cage, she wished she could glow the same way about him.

The bell sounded. A common rule in combat sports adheres to the logic: The bigger they are, the harder—and faster—they fall. Hill folded Mitchell like a lawn chair seconds into the title affair with a shin to the solarplexes. Frank could have stopped the fight at this point, as Hill—agile as a 250-pound cheetah—had begun moving in for the slaughter of an already dead thoroughbred. Hill followed up his intestine shifting kick with a pair of hammer fists to Mitchell’s unprotected temple. Everyone inside the Sky High Sports Complex screamed for an end of the fight; Hill even turned toward Frank and gestured as if to say, You really want me to hit him again? No response from Frank; he had been distracted, noticing West just beyond the fence’s perimeter. Hill returned to the task at hand: dropping deadly punches like a piston. Frank, finally, waved off the contest, and he almost had to suffer Hill’s wrath himself for not doing so sooner. 

While the final decision was announced over the loudspeakers, Frank was well aware: Hill would be moving on to The Big Show, and he looked like a buffoon before the promotion’s President. While hoisting Hill’s arm in victory, the father of two spotted his children like a lighthouse amid a wide sea of crazed screams. 

Kelsey greeted her father with the meat and potatoes, “What happened in there tonight?”

Frank shrugged.

A slacker than usual jawline with eyes sunken deep into his skull due to minimal sleep and a diet consisting of gas station entrees, washed down using every drop of liquor in sight, raised Kelsey’s and Tanner’s concerns for their father’s well-being. Their eyes met; they knew their father hadn’t been drinking today, but they almost wondered if it were better if he had. 

Although Frank always cherished moments he could share with his children, he was pining to drown his sorrows in front of the T.V. in what he’d renamed the “dying room”—there was no living, not in that room or any room for that matter in the house, at least not happily.

Kelsey and Tanner planned to attend Man of the Mountain 7 the following Saturday; the next event their father would appear front and center. 

The work week crawled by, and Frank could barely walk after making anything with alcohol in it disappear. He hadn’t called his manager at the ECO Friendly Station—a job Frank recently acquired and was on pace to lose— to share his absence; he just didn’t show up. They called and left messages for clarification on his whereabouts, but those calls slowed by Wednesday and disappeared altogether by Thursday. Frank still cared about Saturday, except it was more like his passion was flailing in the water, hoping to stay afloat.

When Saturday arrived, the thought of a morning drink was initially repelled, however its magnetism eventually brought the two together. Those who recalled Frank’s behavior from the previous week were thankful he appeared a little more like himself, except his odd movements, rambling, and incoherent speech registered with some. Alcohol wafted on Frank’s breath, but those who connected with him at close range assumed he had a beer at The Burger Hut before arriving to Howard Arena—not illegal, just not typical.

Frank had stuffed several mini bottles of bourbon in his duffle bag and killed those before the opening bell. Carl Flemming was scheduled to oversee Man on the Mountain 7’s first fight of the evening, so Frank found his seat next to the cage to admire an up-and-coming clubber out of Sacramento, Brendan Wiley, against Alonzo Lewis, a weathered veteran from Livermore with something left to prove. 

Several minutes into round one, Frank drew attention to himself, primarily from the other cage side officials. Instead of the consummate professional everyone had grown to respect and admire, he transformed into the fan watching at home and commenting, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched, on their Hear Me social media app. Before the final seconds of Wiley and Lewis drew to a close, Tanner and Kelsey made their way past the security checkpoints and into the belly of the arena. 

Normally, the two would simply find a seat and watch from afar, catching up with their father after all was said and done. Tonight, in contrast, they saw their father sitting along the cage and wanted to let him know they were there before vanishing to locate a hard, plastic chair absent of any nacho cheese or beer spilled on it.

“DAD!”

Frank turned, saw the loves of his life, smiled at them like he had before going to prison, and went to welcome them with a warm embrace. Both Kelsey and Tanner knew he was drunk. They also knew Todd McGovern was sitting several rows back—probably evaluating the local talent. Neither said a word—not about the drinking or “The Tank.”

Frank was set to officiate the second scrap; therefore, he bid ado to his kiddos and cautiously climbed, one unsteady foot after the other, into the cage. Nobody noticed Frank’s war with gravity because two hard-bodied middleweights were being welcomed to the battleground with energizing music, spotlights, and adoring fans. Jimmy “The Tooth” Duncan and Carl “Couldn’t Care Less” Lester were well-known forces in “The Golden State”; a win meant another huge leap forward in their careers as well as regional bragging rights. 

Upon Frank’s instructions: Show everyone you want it, the pair charged one another like two massive bulls. Duncan connected to the jawline of Lester with a looping left hand, sending him in the direction of the fence—and Frank. Frank’s fandom had a tight grip on his attentiveness, and he stood in admiration of the punch for far too long. In Lester’s attempt to regain control of his senses, he smashed into and flattened Frank into the canvas. 

The horn used to announce the end of a round was sounded, thereby creating a brief break in the action. “I’m good,” Frank told the medic who entered the cage to check on him. If Frank hadn’t been holding the cage for some balance, he may have been more obviously swaying than he was. Action resumed once the cage was cleared of everyone except for Frank, Duncan, and Lester. 

Duncan believed Lester was still stunned from his thunderous strike, so he rushed to test his theory. Lester possessed considerable punching power of his own, and he shot a right straight into the grill of the Duncan express. The combination of Duncan’s forward pressure and the dynamite in Lester’s knuckles dropped Duncan onto his caboose. Frank witnessed and heard the punch land with a deafening smack, but it was, due to the alcohol swimming in his system, still processing. Frank’s first move to call a halt to the contest was all left feet. Lester was trained to kill until ordered otherwise, so he continued smashing Duncan’s skull while Frank gathered his balance. 

Carl Flemming, with a spat of quick thinking, leapt over the cage and pushed Lester off of Duncan, who spent several, scary minutes flat on his back. The only person with more slurred speech when Duncan finally awoke was Frank. Other officials who raced into the cage after the fact wanted to be sure of Frank’s welfare, too. As Frank struggled standing on his own two legs and spent more effort than necessary constructing  simple sentences into any sort of coherence, his level of impairment couldn’t be concealed any longer.

Somehow, through blurred vision, Frank was able to lock eyes with Kelsey and Tanner, yet only long enough to see their heads hang in shame before leaving. Then, from much closer to the cage, Frank’s dream of making it to The Big Show sank like a pebble in the ocean when he saw Todd McGovern recording the incident with his phone—likely some evidence for the “What Not to Do” portion of his seminar. Frank found his rock bottom. 

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s