The first time Louie’s hand came down to the mat, six inches from my face, that’s when I spotted it. That his hand was not covered in skin, was not flesh. That it was plastic.
            I tried not to stare as I collected hints as to why I should have noticed sooner, why any fan watching closely wouldn’t have been aware. It was just a little wrong-colored, a shade fairer than his skin, though I imagined that could be explained away by a tan line or a skin abnormality. But he was the lone ref in the territory to work in long sleeves, so it was impossible to tell where his arm ended, where the prosthetic began. There was also the fact that he unmistakably kicked his foot against the mat each time he brought his hand down, to register the sound of counting the pin with a hand too light, too fragile to slam down right, too weak to support his body if he switched off and tried to count with the left.
            He raised my hand with his left, a tough, firm grip. Made me wonder if it was like the way a blind man’s sense of hearing gets better—lose your right hand, and your left has to get twice as strong.
            I never asked him.
            But I got used to Louie. Learned that if any of the boys called him handicapped, he assumed the pun was intended and punched them in the stomach with his left.
            He can hold his own, the boys said of him. In a fight. Drinking liquor. Even in the late-night trivia rounds the boys were prone to. Who was the first world champion? Who beat him? Who invented the atomic drop? Quizzes that kept the driver awake on the road, that kept the passengers grounded, fifth town in five nights. Louie knew all the answers.
            And it was Louie who broke the news to me, when he officiated one of my matches, that I’d be going up against Fat Freddie Phelps. A new guy so fat he couldn’t deny it, that he took pride in his girth as his signature character trait. A smelly son of a bitch too, who, rumor had it, only washed his gear once a week. A guy who’d only gotten worse to work with since his knee went wonky. I can’t land on it anymore for the splash, he told us. So it’s gonna be a little stiffer.
            A splash sees a man leap and land with his upper body perpendicular to his prone opponent’s. A trope of fat-man offense made to look like he’s crushing his victim’s rib cage, when really he’s meant to absorb most of the impact in his hands and in his knees.
            Word around the locker room was that Phelps was getting stiffer, landing on three points rather than four to cushion the blow. Then, that splash was more legit, all that four hundred pounds of pudge and muscle belly-flopping onto whoever had to face him.
            The three of us—me, Louie, and Phelps, got to the far side of the curtain, awaiting our entrance. Apparently, that’s the first Phelps saw of Louie’s hand.
            What the hell is that? He took the hand in his, and for a second I thought he’d pull it off, but he only studied it, turning it over, palm to back. How the hell do you ref like this?
            Louie brushed him off.
            No really, can you count?
            I told him about Louie kicking the mat.
            Phelps looked deep in thought for a minute, then shook his head. I don’t think so. Let’s get a real ref.
            I tried to tell him Louie was as good as they came—that he could think on his feet, that he knew his spots. Asked wouldn’t he have to be that much better to earn his spot? But Phelps wasn’t hearing it.
            Louie had his left balled into a fist, but seemed to think better of it. Phelps was two and a half times Louie’s bodyweight, easy, and new enough to be unpredictable. Hit him, and he might hit back a lot harder. That’s the line of thinking Louie explained to me after.
            I didn’t have the same concerns.
            I hauled back and slapped Phelps across his face, hard as I could. Hard enough to ring out. Hard enough for boys to come from the locker room because they’d heard something, hard enough for my fingertips to tingle, and hard enough for big fat tears to well up in Phelps’s eyes.
            Louie worked our match.
            And when Phelps hit his splash, you’d better believe he landed on all fours. Soft enough it probably didn’t look right, and he sold his knee after, as if to emphasize the sacrifice he’d made for me. Or maybe he really hurt himself. Who gives a shit?
            Phelps won the match, and hightailed it afterward, into the shower, into his car, on to the next town.
            Louie shook my hand, prosthetic to skin the way I’d come to recognize he only did when he trusted a man. I owe you one.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Knudsen Prize for fiction and has published in journals including The Normal School and Passages North. Find him at and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Photography by Adam Stanzak.