I drive a truck, and have done so for years. I’ve roamed along every highway from coast to coast, and gotten into my fair share of trouble along the way. The job would pay well if women and liquor didn’t cost so much, and were I a decent man I would have driven past the isolated roadside bar in Arizona that sported an enticing sign: ‘Arm Wrestling Champion. $500’. I parked my rig and walked in looking for trouble.

A crowd of locals clustered about the dirty bar. They wore faded blue jeans and button up shirts. They had leathery faces, lit up by a buzzing and flickering sign offering the local drink. The place smelled as any self-respecting bar should, of cigarette smoke, spilled beer, and sweat. The pool table was idle, and only a handful of patrons sat in the common room, most having chosen to drink at the bar like pigs at a trough.

A man with so many wrinkles as to have hidden his eyes, sparse hair of a wintery complexion, and gangly arms protruding from his stained wifebeater, sat at a tiny table, with a solitary chair pulled up across from him. The ancient man smiled, revealing more than a few gaps. “Stranger,” he said.

The locals halted their drinking and turned to look at me. They smiled, whispered and pointed. I decided to show no fear.

“That’s right, old-timer. I’m here to give your champion a go.” I knew that arm-wrestling was as much show as action, so I held up my arm and flexed, while clenching my fist until the knuckles audibly popped.

“He only challenges strangers these days,” one of the haggard women and the bar said. She puffed on a cigarette and nodded to the old man. “Go on and sit.”

The crowd clustered together and advanced. I looked at the decrepit man who sat hunched in his seat. He smiled again.

I laughed. “You’re kidding. Who’s the champion?” I looked around, half-expecting some bear of a man to announce himself and face me.

“He’s the champion,” one of the locals said.

“Ain’t been beat,” said another.

I opened my mouth to object, but the old man cut me off.

“Drink, sit or get the hell out, son.” He plopped his elbow on the worn table and wiggled worm-like fingers.

I sat and shifted in my chair. All around me the locals gathered and chattered like birds to one another. I kept my eye trained on the ancient figure before me. My doubts only increased when his offered hand beckoned and the other slid off to rest beneath the table and on his lap.

“You know kung-fu?” I ventured.


“You take some strange drug that makes you all strong-like?”

He shook his head.

“These assholes are all going to jump me soon as I break your arm off?” I glared at them and they laughed in response.

The old man chuckled. “Nope. Now, you game, son?” He sniffed. “Ten dollars to give me a go. You win, you get five hundred. You lose, well, it’s just ten bucks.”

I gingerly took his hand in my own. I nodded. “Ten dollars, fine.” My fingers clenched around him and I squeezed. I could feel his skin, like paper, beneath my own. I could feel the warmth of his blood and the fragility of his bones. I could crush him before we even started. As I squeezed harder, an expression of pain flashed across the old-timer’s features, but faded quick enough.

“On three.” He looked at me with a concerned expression. “If you’re ready that is?” His eyes met mine and I could see one of them clouded over with cataracts. He leaned close to the table, and I did the same.

The table was so small our foreheads nearly touched. As the spectators crowded around us I felt myself wedged into my seat and the table. The flimsy wood pressed into my gut and I growled. “I’m ready. On three.”

“One,” the old man said and licked his lips.

The locals started to hoot and shout. They cheered on their champion to inspire him, and made references to my mother and livestock to do the opposite to me.

“Two,” the man said and leaned close enough that I could feel, and smell, his beer-stained breath.

Something beneath the table slid between my legs. I couldn’t be exactly sure what it was, other than that it was sharp and well-placed.

The faded eye winked. “Three.”

I suppose I could have revealed the champion’s trick then and there. However, I’m the type who gives a nod of respect to a worthy opponent. Be it some bearded biker who’s whipped me good under the neon-lights of a strip-club, or some old man in a dive of a bar with a knife under the table. Besides, I had fun making a good show of it. We put on a three minute match! We yelled like men on fire and sweated in the great struggle.

When it was over, the locals bought me more than a few rounds and I had been paid back my ten dollars, and then some, in the form of beer. The hour was late when I strode out. I looked back, long enough to see the old-timer grin and give me a nod.

I often think, if and when I retire, I’ll take up arm wrestling professionally.

# # #

Champion by Richard Marsden
originally published September 1, 2010



Richard Marsden was born in Canada and currently is a resident of Arizona. He has been fencing with the rapier for fifteen years, dabbles in economics and holds a Masters Degree in Land Warfare courtesy of AMU. Richard blogs at www.freewebs.com/rmarsden/.

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