The three people responsible for the most colorful days of my life all had the same reaction when they first saw me.

“You are one ugly bastard,” they said. But, although the words were the same, the soul and feeling behind each were different. Mr. Art, the head of Peeper Pictures, a third-rate independent studio with surprisingly deep-pocketed backers, called me ugly to my face. A handshake and a contract followed after that. You see, Mr. Art needed a plug-ugly heavy for a heel role in his new picture. He liked the bad looks of me, so I was hired. A week later I found myself in the arid wastes of New Mexico.

“This is going to be a spectacular picture, just spectacular,” Mr. Art said in front of the assembled crew on our first day of shooting. A dark cigar hung loose in his mouth. It bounced as he made his dramatic pronouncements.

“Yes, sir. The Creature from Los Alamos will set the drive-ins on fire. You can take that to the bank.” A few in the audience clapped. I mostly kept my eyes on a shapely blonde who hung in the far back of the circle. She had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. Her face too was something out of a poem—perfectly contoured with strong lines articulating jaw and cheekbones. In the noonday sun, her pale skin radiated like the moon at midnight. I was hooked, but obviously knew to keep my distance. I am Wayne Delano Jones, better known as Bulldog Brocker, and I am one of the world’s ugliest men.

Because they only needed me for a single scene on that first day of shooting, I kept myself out of the heat by relaxing in the trailer I shared with the film’s other heavy, Alonzo Kolb. I read and re-read the script and drank cold beer (which was complimentary) until Kolb stumbled into the trailer after dark. I could tell he was tight by the way he tried to sit down, and by the way his hands shook as he attempted to pour a glass of straight bourbon.

“Welcome to the movies, my dear friend.” He raised his glass towards me. Several swallows of the brown liquid escaped the glass, thus causing Kolb to curse loudly.

“Damn, blasted hands! This is what one has to show for a lifetime of make-believe,” he said. I could feel a soliloquy coming on, so I did my best to interrupt him before he could get rolling.

“Damned funny logo,” I said. I pointed to the small stenciling on the trailer’s door. The logo for Peepers Pictures featured an owl being licked by flames. The image did not sit right with me the first time I saw it, and it continued to make me uncomfortable for reasons that my lunkhead could not properly articulate.

“Everyone is funny around here, including you.”

“What’s funny about me?”

Kolb smirked and took another gulp of bourbon. “You are one ugly bastard,” he said. “And it’s double ugly too.”

“What do you mean by ‘double ugly?’”

“I mean that you were born ugly, and then got uglier due to occupation. I’m right, yes?”

“You hit the nail, alright. Ain’t a secret that I’m a wrestler. Mr. Art hired me because of it.”

“Mr. Art likes his freaks. It’s his peculiarity.”

“Freaks, eh?”

“Don’t take offense, boy. I’m just an old drunk. I shoot my mouth off. But tell me—how does one become a pro wrestler?”

I broke open another cold bottle and settled in. For the first time in a while, someone else seemed genuinely interested in my story. Of course, that someone was a has-been silent film actor seemingly months away from liver failure. Still, ears are ears.

“Been hard to look at my whole life. Momma says that I fought my way into the world. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I grew up hard. I come from Mississippi sharecroppers. White trash. Raised on buttermilk biscuits and whatever my father could haul out of the bayou. Despite my parents setting a poor table, I always managed to eat enough. I was a big kid—the kind other kids liked to pick fights with to prove their toughness. Dumb curs. I usually whipped them all without breaking a sweat. Well, sir, by the time I reached sixteen, I had a reputation for brawling all across Jackson County. Word got around enough that when the circus came to town, the wrestling show singled me out. My friends did not need to encourage me, but they did anyway. They all whooped and hollered when I agreed to challenge the state champion, Big Jim Barnard.

“And he really was big, let me tell you. That man had hands that could squeeze a watermelon dry, and his legs were thicker than tree trunks. I can distinctly recall how he growled at me as soon as I stepped into that shoddy old ring they set up by the carnie trucks. The announcer droned on about how Big Jim was responsible for maiming hundreds of boys between Tallahassee and Tacoma. I did my best to drown it all out, but I am not afraid to admit that I was worried.

“When the bell rang, old Big Jim dove for my legs. I sidestepped the first attempt, but he shot in again and got my left one. Before I knew it, I was airborne. He brought me down hard on my back. So hard in fact that I heard the boards underneath the ring crack. Big Jim heard it, too, but he thought that it was my back that had cracked. Believing that he had just landed the killing blow, Big Jim relented just long enough for me to stick a thumb in his eye. We backcountry folks used to produce champion gougers back before the Revolution. I figure I have that blood somewhere in my veins, for I attacked Big Jim’s eyes until both bled profusely.

“When Big Jim took me down for a second time, he called me a bunch of dirty names that I will not repeat. Suffice it to say that he called forth scorn on myself, my mother, my father, and the entire county that bred me. Those words made me mad. So mad in fact that I bit Big Jim’s ear off. I just threw out my jaw, opened my mouth, and let her rip. The whole top half of his ear came off fairly easily. I didn’t even have to chew, really. Just bite and pull.

“It was at this time that Big Jim let out a wail of a cry. That sent the crowd into a blood-mad frenzy. They wanted more. Too bad for them that Big Jim refused to keep going. With tears in his eyes, he told me that I fought dirty. I would have responded, but the other wrestlers on the show had arrived from somewhere to put the boots to me. About five beefy boys imprinted leather on my forehead and teeth until I was as beaten and bruised as Big Jim.

“About an hour after that, the announcer man from the wrestling show cornered me. He told me that his name was Percy Eugene Fuller, and that he was the owner and operator of a full-time wrestling territory all along the Gulf Coast. He called me ugly. Told me that I looked like a bulldog and fought like a criminal. He loved it and wanted to make me a star. He offered to teach me how to become a wrestler. There were promises of big payouts, which, for a boy whose future included nothing but endless rows of cotton or maybe stinky boats full of shrimp, sounded like manna from Heaven. I accepted.”

“And now you’re here,” Kolb slurred. “One wonders how a mighty professional wrestler fell so far.”

“Is the picture business really such a slum life?” I asked.

“Before I answer that one, tell me what you did to wind up here.”

I did not like the forthright manner of the question, but I respected the old actor’s intuition. He sensed that I wasn’t acting out of a love of the craft. No, sir; I started acting out of a sense of desperation.

“Between you and me, partner, Mr. Fuller sent me out this way to avoid further trouble. You see, the folks along the Gulf Coast have this funny way about them. Sometimes, when a heel gets so dastardly that he might as well be Hitler and Mussolini combined, the more anti-social strain of fans start cheering for him. It would appear that there are a lot of anti-social types in New Orleans and Natchez. I started hearing sizable pops whenever I would cut up a pretty boy’s face. Also, and I have no corroborating evidence for this, word got around that I was a local boy. Mississippi rednecks find it impossible to hate one of their own. To solve this problem, Mr. Fuller started shopping me around to different territories. I spent a few months in Texas. Amarillo, to be precise. From there I did a spell in Phoenix and San Francisco. But boy, nothing beat the heat out in Hawaii. They hated me in Honolulu. It was great. By day, I’d go as incognito as possible on the beach, and then that night I’d start near-riots. I really got them going when I’d rag on their women. Calling them too ugly for me. They threw bottles and cans at me then. It was wonderful, and best of all, it drew money.

“Things were so bright, but bright like the atom bomb that they tested around these parts. I did something real stupid during a sold-out cross-promotion show with the New Zealanders. My match was a squash. I twisted the kid into a pretzel and beat him easily. Afterwards, I got on the mic and ran the crowd down. Pretty routine stuff. Except this time, I singled out someone in the crowd. He looked to me like a shriveled walnut. A real string bean with too much sun exposure. A wimp, basically. Even had the spectacles to complete the outfit. But this goof stood next to one of the most gorgeous women I had ever seen in my life. She was much taller than him, and her dark brown hair flowed freely past her shoulders. She did not look Hawaiian; I guessed Japanese with maybe something else thrown in there. I cannot measure how bad I wanted her, but as everyone knows, I’m the ugliest dog in the world. So, I cooked up all my resentment and let her have it. I called her a jezebel, a scarlet woman, and the disgrace of the Pacific. I then cut in on the peanut next to her. I insulted them both as a chorus of jeers rained down on me. It was the sound of money. I left the ring with dollar signs in my eyes and a burning sensation in the seat of my pants.

“After I got dressed and left the locker room for my Chevrolet, I found a surprise waiting for me. That skinny brown beanpole from the arena was waiting for me outside, and he wasn’t empty-handed. A long switchblade pointed at me. The craziest thing was that he did not say a word. Never cussed me out or nothing. Just let out this big war cry and ran straight for me. I parried him easily, but the fact that the chump would even try me sent my blood boiling. I picked him up by his collar and throttled him. I threw him around the parking lot like a ragdoll until his head cracked on the concrete. I knew I had messed up the moment I saw the blood ooze out of his nose and mouth. When I saw that, I hoofed it back to my hotel room and called Mr. Fuller. He told me not to worry, that he would take care of everything. He also informed me that I would be laying low for a while. Well, this is me laying low. I’m making money acting, and nobody will know it’s Bulldog Brocker in the monster suit.”

“Hell of a story, my good fellow. A toast to you.” Kolb’s bourbon glass tapped my lager bottle. It made a sweet sound—the sweetest in the whole desert.

“That’s my yarn. What’s yours?” I asked.

“A much more prosaic one than yours, but no less tragic.” Kolb tried to stand up but found the task impossible. He not only stayed seated but managed to sink even lower in his chair.

“I once rivaled Lon Chaney for the most popular creature feature actor in the world. I was wined and dined by European royalty and America’s faux royalty. It was all very, very decadent. I loved every second of it.” Here, Kolb stared at the remnants of liquor in his glass. “Maybe I enjoyed it a little too much. John Barleycorn started tap dancing in my skull. He whispers things too, you know. Tells one to slack off, to go enjoy the sunny afternoon. That is all well and good if one lacks responsibilities. It is another thing entirely if one is a major player in Hollywoodland.” Kolb refilled his glass for the fourth or fifth time. “Liquor and the Reds. They did me in.”

“The Reds?”

A dark shadow covered Kolb’s face. What had once been boozy and wistful became angry. “Yes. The Reds, damn them. Everyone nowadays bellows about the menace of communism, but many of those same people stumped for the New Deal 20 years ago. Well, what the hell was that? American-style slow communism, I tell you. Sure, sure. I didn’t believe it at first either, but over time I saw firsthand what was happening. Hollywoodland in those days was a microcosm of Washington, D.C. And boy, did we have a Red problem. It first began with the writers’ unions. A bunch of dissatisfied college boys who came out West to make a fast dollar formed reading clubs in the silent era that then became full-on unions during the Depression. Those types were bad enough, but usually more noisy than effective. Then the war came, and these same cocktail commies began writing propaganda on behalf of Uncle Joe instead of Uncle Sam. Few noticed or cared, and even then, they figured that Russia was our ally and all. Balderdash! Nothing but subversive garbage. I kept my mouth shut, though. I was in the middle of a comeback, see, and I did not want to lose my spot.

“Then men like Herb Sorrell showed up and brought Bolshevik-style tactics to the backlots. Those bastards were good too. We even had riots in ’45 because of them. I saw those riots up close. Nasty business that churned my stomach. After years of biting my tongue in order to keep my job, I went to the LAPD and their informal ‘Red Squad.’ Spilled my guts to a mean-looking Mick sergeant named Mulligan or Molloy. He then took my testimony to the D.A., and on it went to HUAC.”

“Did you testify?”

Kolb spit on the floor. “Never got the chance. They used bits and pieces of my original report, but I never walked the line.”

“Any reason?”

“Sure. Some heavies visited me one night in my apartment in the Valley. They were polite at first. Asked me nicely to make a public retraction. They even offered me a sweetheart deal involving a supporting role in a monster movie for Universal. It was tempting, but I stuck to my guns. That’s when they got physical. One of them smelled terrible, like a mixture of olive oil and tuna. I smelled him as he hit me for what seemed liked hours. The other one merely held me down throughout the whole thing. The only noise he made was when he laughed at the fact that I had soiled myself due to the beating. At some point, one of them stuck a syringe in my leg.”

“A syringe full of what?” I asked.

“Morphine. Opium. God knows. It was something that put me to sleep long enough for them to…uhm…shall we say…renovate my undercarriage.” Kolb let the words linger in the air. He struck a profound pose without moving a muscle.

“Safe to say that your love life has been on the fritz, then,” I said with overdone levity.

“An understatement, my boy, an understatement.” For a second, I caught a glimpse of mist in Kolb’s eyes. I looked away in shared embarrassment.

“Guess the Good Lord has found yet another way to get us freaks together for a good cause,” Kolb mumbled.

“The good cause being this picture?”

“Yes, and even though we’re working for veritable pornographers, we shall make it a worthwhile picture for all the beautiful rubes out there. To them, and to my new friend.” Kolb leaned over and connected with my empty beer bottle. I told him that I appreciated the gesture. We continued to talk about more aimless matters until both of us drifted off to sleep.


For all installments of “Dig Two Graves,” click here.