, September 2023

Uniondale, NY, in a nondescript diner hidden within a weekend-empty industrial zone several blocks from the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which would later be packed with over 15,000 World Wrestling Federation fans witnessing the first of the aftermath cards following WrestleMania 3, with a huge double main-event featuring the Hart Foundation defending their tag team title against the British Bulldogs, then, in a steel-cage match, the “Macho Man” Randy Savage trying to win back the Intercontinental belt from Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat—

Carl and his younger brother followed their father into the diner, a large, high-ceilinged space that used to be part of a warehouse now painted Wonka white with red-padded booths, no music, the room very quiet, the only noise the gentle tinkle of silverware from a man and woman seated in a booth in the far corner, the man with long, wet, curly black hair and mirrored sunglasses, the woman with long blond hair and black leather jacket.

The waitress told their father to seat themselves anywhere and said she’d be right with them.

Their father chose a booth far from the man and woman.

The waitress came over with menus. Carl ordered the cheeseburger deluxe with double-mozzarella fries and a Coke. His younger brother ordered chocolate chip pancakes with chocolate syrup and whipped cream, and, to drink, a hot chocolate topped with triple whipped cream. Their father ordered a “bottomless” cup of coffee, his usual cheapskate move to order no food for himself and pick at their meals. He did spring for the tickets, but they were in the second-to-last row at the very top of the arena.

The longhaired man at the other end of the restaurant slid out of the booth and headed towards the corridor where the restrooms were. He was much larger than he initially appeared, and very muscular, like a professional wrestler.

“I think that’s Bret Hart,” Carl said, quietly.

“Who?” his father asked, lighting a cigarette.

“Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. He’s one of the tag team champs. They’re on the card tonight.”

His father turned around, then turned back when the man emerged from the corridor.

“It’s definitely him,” Carl said.

“You should go ask for his autograph.”

“Nah. I don’t really care about autographs.”

“I want his autograph,” Carl’s brother said. Carl was fourteen, his brother nine.

“Do you want me to go ask for it?” their father asked.

“I’ll go ask,” Carl said.

“I want to go too,” his brother said.

Their father equipped them with a PROPERTY OF U.S. CUSTOMS clic-stic pen and the Ticketron envelope, minus the tickets. The walk across the restaurant seemed eternal. About halfway, the Hitman, over the woman’s shoulder, locked eyes with Carl’s, warning him not to proceed any further, but Carl looked down and kept going, brother on his heels.

He didn’t look up again until they were at the table. He saw the woman first looking at them with an expression of surprise, then looked at the Hitman. Undoubtedly it was him, and he didn’t look happy.

“Are you Bret Hart?” Carl heard himself ask.

The Hitman’s sunglasses stared him down. Carl’s brother hid himself behind Carl. Time slowed. The wrestler was smirking slightly, making him even more terrifying. Perhaps, Carl thought, part of the act, and he would soon break into a smile and happily sign their envelope, especially since there was no one else here and he would not be mobbed.

“No,” the man finally said, smirking a little wider.

“Oh,” Carl said, turning around to his brother hiding behind him, then back to the table, only now the woman was looking at the man.

Carl turned and said, “Let’s go,” to his brother, and they started back. After a few steps, Carl stopped and turned around. The Hitman was still looking at them.

“You are Bret Hart, and you’re a dick,” Carl said, seeing the wrestler’s eyes widen just before turning back around and hurrying his brother back to their own booth.

“What happened?” Carl’s father asked.

“He said he wasn’t Bret Hart,” Carl said. “And I think we annoyed him. And here he comes.”

Carl’s father turned and watched the approach of the large, longhaired man in the black tank top and mirrored sunglasses. Carl peeked under the table to see if his father had his gun in the ankle holster. He did.

The wrestler was holding two of the diner’s table placemats that had ads for other local businesses on them, each now covered with huge autographs signed in thick black marker, “Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, WWF”.

“You got some balls, kid,” said the Hitman to Carl, dropping the placemats on the table, then heading back to his own booth. ▪