John Irving needed someone to talk to, someone who knew the drill.
He called Ken Kesey.
A woman answered and told him to call back, said Ken was working on the bus.
“I thought the bus was rusting in a swamp out in a field,” John said.
“That’s one of the busses,” the woman said. “Around here, being on or off the bus means something. We’re all on the bus, and it needs a tune-up. Call back in an hour.”
John Irving knew Kesey-Time was an unknown to all clocks. He waited three hours, and then called.
A man’s voice came on with the first ring. “Irving? Is that you?”
“This is John Irving for Ken Kesey,” he said.
“Faye left a note. If you’re calling about your fight with Tom Wolfe, I already know,” Kesey said.
“It wasn’t much of a fight. He fell down and wouldn’t get up.”
“What do you mean? He got grass stains on his white suit. That’s a big win for you, buddy.”
“He’s upper eastside by way of Virginia, and he thinks status is the greatest difference maker in the world, getting it and maintaining it. How funny is that?” Kesey said.
“I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll tell you: it’s high-lariously funny. The grass stains finished him. Tearing his shirt would have broken him. No one wants that.”
“Wouldn’t bother me.”
“Me either, but we know the difference breaking and broken. Take my broken down bus, for instance.”
Irving shook his head. “I called to say I don’t want anymore MMA matches. And I don’t want to referee any, either.”
A deep breath came over the line. “Okay, maybe the thing with Oprah wasn’t such a great idea. I liked the idea, but the execution left too much out.”
“She got into the octagon with Jonathan Franzen so she could get even with Steadman? These things ought to be more straightforward. If I’m in a match, at least I know what the goals are.”
“We are wrestlers, John. Is Oprah? Is Franzen? Is Tom Wolfe? The best they’ve got is what you see. That’s it,” Kesey said.
“None of them are going to change styles to win. They’ve barely got a style to begin with. They don’t know how to attack and defend against the short opponent or the tall.”
“Oprah pounded the living shit out of Steadman after she knocked him out. I was the ref and I didn’t get there in time. When I pulled her off, she was still swinging and clocked Franzen.”
“I wish I’d been there for it. You’re lucky she didn’t take you out.”
“The worst part was listening to Clinton afterward. He thought the whole thing was great fun. Now he wants a fight, but he says with his record of heart problems he can’t get a fight.”
“President Clinton wants to go? He’s held his own with Hilary, he’d be tough.”
“The heart thing is a deal breaker.”
“Not if he gets in with someone with equal or greater heart problems,” Kesey said.
“It would have to be someone of equal status to make the match.”
“Status, huh? Now you sound like Wolfe. I’ve got it, President Clinton versus President Cheney.”
“Dick Cheney wasn’t the President.”
“He was, unless you can think of a higher office. And he’s got a heart problem.”
Irving ran his free hand through his hair.
“The last time people saw him, he was in a wheelchair during the Obama transition. MMA isn’t for cripples.”
“He’s not crippled,” Kesey laughed. “He didn’t get the pardon for Scooter like he’d been promising, so he sat down and pouted. He’ll be fine to fight.”
“When you say it like that, it makes sense.”
“Speaking of sense, John, your new book, Last Night In Twisted River?”
“You’ve read it?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell, Ken. Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ll keep fighting and refereeing. You sold me on it.”
“The Stamper family of gypo loggers; one of them drowns in a logjam accident,” Kesey said.
“Sounds like we’re on the same bus. I’ll call later.”
John Irving checked the calendar in his wrestling room for his next MMA match; he already knew how he would get there.