By:  Jim Sanders


            “Sound blared from the tiny speakers underneath a TV mounted on milk crates. Empty beer bottles with “Milwaukee’s Best” labels lined the top of the TV. On the screen, a muscular man with a shaved head, round face, and rippling muscles held under his armpit the head of a smaller man with bleached blond hair. With his free arm, the bald man knocked his captive to the mat, and stomped him with his leather wrestling boot. On a faded yellow couch facing the TV, Joe Smith pumped his fist in the air. He wore faded blue jeans and T-shirts proclaiming allegiance to his favorite wrestler, Diamond Dog, who was on the giving end of the violence. Diamond Dog then strolled to the edge of the ring and slapped the hand of a taller man dressed in a long black robe upon which “The Great Tribulation“ was stitched in silver letters. He strode to the man lying on the mat, lifted him to his feet, and threw him against the ropes before pouncing on him and pinning his shoulders flat on the mat. A referee pounded his fist on the mat three times to signal the end of the match.

            “About time they pinned that pretty boy Surfer Jimmy,” Joe exclaimed as he slouched in the broken upholstery in the middle of the couch. The couch and the TV were the main articles of furniture in his modest house. His social calendar revolved around each Thursday night’s telecast of the Extreme Wrestling Coalition’s Wrestling War. Joe took a long swig from his beer bottle and tossed it onto the faded carpet. “Get me another Beast, Ross,” Joe said, turning to a man sitting next to a cooler.

            Ross, a stout balding man in an oversized blue jean jacket, reached into the cooler and grabbed a full bottle. He tossed it to Joe, who popped the top and took a long swig. The Beast was the nickname the guys had given their favorite beer, Milwaukee’s Best. It wasn’t the sour taste that appealed to them, but it was the cheapest brand available at the liquor store down the street

            Joe smiled, satisfied at how the wrestling ring offered instant justice against the weak, the stupid, the cowardly, and anyone from California. It didn’t matter to Joe that the professional wrestling action was scripted. At the ripe age of 30, Joe’s ambition in life was to watch wrestling on TV while he and his best friend Ross drank cheap beer and smoked cigarettes. The noise and violence from his TV helped dull the pains of regret of his divorce the previous year. Joe pictured his ex-wife Brenda in his mind, her petite frame, her delicate face framed by brown curly hair. He met her when she was a waitress at a local bar, and married her five years ago. Their relationship was going OK as long as Brenda was interested in going out every Friday night to shoot pool with Joe and his friends. However, after she had caught Joe cheating on her, she became bitter and withdrawn. She then started going to church and hounded Joe to give up drinking. Joe considered church a place for sissy men who played golf and watched poker on TV. He found solace in one-night stands with women that left him feeling empty the next morning. After the divorce, alcohol and TV anesthetized Joe’s regret.

            As the wresting action broke away to a commercial, Joe’s eyes perked up in anticipation that his favorite beer commercial would come on, which featured tall blond women in bikinis playing volleyball on the surface of the moon. Instead, a man with perfectly groomed blond hair appeared, leaning against a tree overlooking a lake filled with crystal-blue water. Joe‘s heart sank. Dressed in a white sweater and jeans, the man looked into the TV camera and said, “There are many people looking for hope for their lives. Some look to alcohol, some look to drugs or pornography, but they never find anything that satisfies them. If you are seeking purpose in your life, I would like to invite you to come to Hereford Community Church this Sunday.”

            While Ross snorted, Joe sighed and took a long swig from his bottle. The Reverend Perry Morrison’s commercials were unwelcome intrusions into Joe‘s television watching routine of wrestling, auto racing, and late-night movies on cable. Every time the preacher appeared, he pleaded for whoever was watching him to get their lives right with God. What tore at the scab in Joe’s heart is that it was his church that Brenda had started attending. To Joe, that preacher had stolen his wife. What was worse, the only other person in whom he felt cared about him, his grandmother, had also fallen under the preacher’s spell.

            Each time he visited her, before Joe could dig into his grandmother’s biscuits and gravy, she prodded Joe to start going to the Reverend Morrison’s church. If he didn’'t get his life straightened out, he would have to endure something called the Great Tribulation and his soul would be lost at the end of the world. Then she always smiled and told Joe she would be praying for him, and gave him a pamphlet featuring a picture of a man standing next to a stock car. Inside was a story of a stock car driver named Nutt Nesbitt who had wrecked his car badly during a race. This had made Mr. Nesbitt realize that he needed to get religion. Joe always smiled politely and accepted the pamphlet, only to toss it in the trash when he got home. As far as Joe was concerned, Nutt Nesbitt’'s problem was that he drove a Chevy, not a Ford, and if Joe lived his life by any convictions, it was that he was a Ford man through and through.

            “I’'d like to see one of these wrestler guys drag that pretty-boy preacher into the ring,” Ross said.

            “"You got that right,"” Joe said as two more muscular men took turns throwing each other against the ropes. The guys downed beer after beer, with more and more empty bottles piling up on the floor. After another hour, the last wrestling match came to a close with the robed wrestler reappearing and getting thrown through a table by a black man dressed in a dog collar, chain, and black shorts with a skull and crossbones painted on them. Joe said with slurred voice, Diamond Dog got robbed, man! I hope he takes on Demon Hunter at the cage match next week and takes his championship belt. Hey, you want to watch a video? I’ve got the new College Girls Gone Crazy Volume 6.”

            "“Nah, I’'m going home. Shoot, I can barely stand up,"” Ross said, struggling to his feet. “You know I’ll be back tomorrow to get my truck.”

            “"Yeah, I'‘ll have your keys here. I’m going to bed,”" Joe said as Ross stumbled out the door. Joe switched off the TV, and shuffled into his bedroom. “Man, I’'m wasted,” he muttered to himself. A blurry picture of Brenda kneeling in prayer started to materialize in his mind, but faded in a vapor of drunkenness as Joe fell forward onto his bed and drifted to sleep.

            Joe suddenly found himself standing inside a wrestling ring surrounded by screaming fans. “Cool, I’m in the middle of Wrestling War,” Joe thought. Then Joe tried to walk, but couldn’t move as his feet felt like they were encased in concrete. Joe looked up at a large Jumbo-tron screen at one end of the arena, which showed an

image of a grimacing face and a finger pointed at Joe. “You’re dead, boy!” the face sneered. “I am the Great Tribulation!” Joe then saw the man materialize in front of him, his finger only inches from Joe’s nose. After a moment, the wrestler turned away to pump his fists in the air, causing the crowd to roar. Then another wrestler with curly black hair and a bushy beard appeared in front of Joe. He wore a ripped T-shirt with “The Beast” emblazoned upon it. In both of his oversized hands he held bottles of Milwaukee’s Best beer. “Wanna drink, punk?” he said.

            Joe tried to answer, but no sound came out of his mouth. The Beast then poured the contents of one of the bottles over Joe’s head, then drank the other one. As he crushed both bottles in his hands, Joe winced, but the man didn’t appear to be hurt in any way. Now sweating profusely, Joe scanned the crowd for anyone that might save him. In the first row of seats, Joe spotted Ross laughing and pointing at him. He tried to call to them, but the roar of the crowd drowned him out. Joe anxiously turned to look at the wrestlers, but they had disappeared. Instead, a tall woman with fluffed blond hair, long legs, and a wearing a miniscule black halter top and miniskirt smiled and sauntered up to him. Joe’s heart raced when he realized it was Diedre, the Hooters waitress that Brenda had caught him with in the back seat of his Camaro. The woman stroked Joe’s chin with her fingernail and cooed, “See something you like, Joe?” Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Brenda sitting in the front row of the audience, tears welling in her eyes.

            Joe was then jerked into the air and thrown against the ropes. As he landed in a crumpled heap on the mat, he saw The Beast lift him back to his feet, and then the Great Tribulation started pounding Joe in the face with his massive forearms.

            After more punches than Joe could count, he stood unsteadily and in pain. “I thought this stuff was supposed to be fake,” he thought. Then he saw The Beast leap from the top rope and smack him to the ground again with an elbow to the face. Joe slowly turned his face upward, only to see Diedre reappear and scrape the sharp heel of her shoe against his cheek. Wanting to die, Joe’s mind flashed back to his grandmother, and he wished he could be back in her kitchen listening to the story of Nutt Nesbitt. Then Diedre hoisted Joe overhead and carried him toward the corner of the ring. Joe frantically looked toward Ross, but he continued pointing and laughing. Joe sighed, then cried, “Oh, no, no,“ as he saw a table underneath him. “I knew I never liked these chick wrestlers,” he groaned. He tried to pray to God, his grandmother, and Nutt Nesbitt as the woman suddenly hurled Joe downward.

            However, an instant before Joe hit the table, he awoke and sat upright in his bed, drops of sweat pouring from his forehead. Joe’s eyes darted around the room until he realized he was safely in his bedroom instead of a wrestling ring. Joe breathed a sigh of relief and arose from his bed with a splitting headache. He walked into the living room

and surveyed the collection of empty beer bottles lying on the floor. “I’ve got to quit drinking,” he muttered. He flopped down on the couch and stared at the ceiling for a couple of minutes, wondering if God or someone in the sky was trying to send him some kind of message. Hearing nothing but silence, Joe grabbed the remote control and flipped on the TV, hoping to find a late-night movie that would take his mind off his dream. To his chagrin, though, the first image that appeared was the Reverend Morrison, perched against the same tree and preaching the same sermon as he had before. The preacher’s eyes blazed, and Joe felt himself pinned to the couch.

            He grabbed his remote and changed the channel, but the reverend’s face still filled the screen as the channel number climbed: 45, 46, 47, 48. “Some look to alcohol”, the reverend said. Joe’s eyes gazed at the pile of beer bottles on the table. “Some look to drugs”, Joe’s fingers reached instinctively between his sofa cushions and closed around a shriveled cigarette butt. “Some look to pornography,” Joe’s eyes fell upon the videos piled inside the milk crate underneath his TV. Joe smashed his thumb on the Off button on his remote, but the TV screen refused to go black. Joe threw the remote on the floor and buried his face in his hands. In a vivid TV screen forming in his mind, he saw himself in the wrestling ring, with the Beast holding his forearm over Joe‘s head. Anticipating a flash of pain to his cranium, Joe was stunned to hear his grandmother’s voice. “Jesus left the ninety-nine sheep looking for the one that was lost. And that one was you, Joe” she said.

            “Me?” Joe asked himself. “This can’t be happening.“ Suddenly he saw his ex-wife Brenda sitting in a rocking chair with her Bible open on her lap. She looked up with tears filling her eyes, and Joe felt a punch to the gut that hurt him more deeply than anything either the Beast or The Great Tribulation could do to him. Joe felt stabbed with guilt that he had cast Brenda aside like an empty bottle of Milwaukee’s Best, and he had done the same to Diedre, then another girl, then another. A six pack, or was that a twelve pack, Joe wondered?.

            Then the wrestling ring disappeared. Joe landed on the floor of a white room. Nutt Nesbitt stood next to his race car, holding a Bible. Joe ran toward him and started shaking him violently. “Why don‘t you people leave me alone!” he exclaimed. Nutt simply smiled and said, “Jesus loves you. Come on, you’re tired of finishing second in the race of life, aren’t you?”

            Joe screamed and ran. He slammed into an invisible barrier and fell to the floor. Joe pounded his fists on the floor and screamed, “I can’t stand this. I’m tired of getting my rear end kicked! Get me out of here!”

            Then Joe felt himself being lifted gently to his feet. He saw Perry Morrison lifting one of his arms and his grandmother lifting the other. The two of them led him through a golden gate. “Just believe,” Grandmother said. “Jesus died for you, if you’ll only believe in him.”

            “I believe. I need Jesus, man,” Joe said, sighing like he had endured ten minutes in the wrestling ring with the Great Tribulation. He took a deep breath, and was surprised at the first pure air he had breathed since his last fishing trip to the Colorado mountains. He looked up to see Brenda stood smiling at him for the first time since their divorce. He started running toward her.

            Suddenly he opened his eyes and found himself lying on his couch. He stood, realizing he was once more in his house. He glanced at the TV, and flinched as he saw Perry Morrison again, leaning against the same tree. Only now his eyes radiated softness and warmth. “Congratulations, Joe”. A man with curly brown hair wearing a white robe appeared next to the reverend and Joe understood what was happening. Words Brenda used came to his mind, saved, born again, redeemed.” Is that me now,“ Joe wondered, and his mind felt pure. However, guilt stabbed him when he glanced at his collection of porn videos underneath the TV. He grabbed the crate, and chucked it out the front door. He then threw and kicked out the door the beer bottles littering his floor until not one remained. Then the TV screen went blank.

            Joe grabbed his jacket and ran out the door. He climbed into his truck and slammed his foot on the gas pedal, kicking up a storm of gravel as he sped down the road toward the city. He determined to first go to Brenda‘s house and apologize for leaving her, and to tell her he had found her faith, even if it was three o’clock in the morning. Then he was going to track down the Reverend Perry Morrison to thank him for interrupting wrestling with his commercials. Joe decided he would quit watching wrestling forever, or at least after he found out if Diamond Dog won next week‘s cage match. But for sure he resolved he was through with porn, pot, and beer. He also wanted to ask the reverend how he had done that trick to get on every channel on the TV, as well as make his teeth gleam so brightly.

            Joe looked over at the empty seat next to him, and his eyes widened as he saw his grandmother’s beaming smile. “Welcome home,” she said.

            “Yes, I’m a little sheep that doesn’t want to wrestle anymore,” Joe said, smiling. “And I’m hungry for some biscuits.”