Maurer, who is holding his own wrist, watches this interlude of domestic tenderness and says, with his smile glinting like a razor, "I hurt mine so bad I can't lift it over my head, but you won't see me go crying in the corner."
Table time—that's all he needs. Once he arm wrestles "hundreds and hundreds and thousands of times," Paul Walther says, then he might be pretty good, then he might fulfill his dream of becoming world champion. He did come pretty close to something, though, in Hartford. Damn, he was having a night, just slamming people, coming over with his shoulder—bang! bang! bang!—and everybody was talking about him, even Dave Patton, even Sue Patton, Dave's mom, the godmother of arm wrestling, a fierce, sharp-eyed little woman who travels with her son and is a consultant for Yukon Jack.
"He has the eye of the tiger"—that's what Mrs. P was saying about Walther, and Mrs. P is never wrong about arm wrestlers. Walther is no character, that's for sure; he is, in fact, one of those earnest fellows from New Jersey, a big, serious, almost impassive guy with a long face and dark eye-F brows. He wasn't putting on a show for anyone; he had come to Hartford to win, and all night long he went quietly and politely about his business, telling everybody, "Good match," even if he flashed them in a quarter of a second, and it seemed he could go on that way forever—until he ran into George Givens.
Givens is an eight-time national champion who lives in Connecticut, works in construction and came out of retirement just for this tournament, because if Yukon Jack was going to give someone two hundred bucks and a trophy in his own backyard, he figured it might as well be him. He is about the same size as Walther and has a red beard and a headful of red curls and a hand with the texture of sandpaper and a thumb as hard as the handle of a hammer. He had had an easy night of it too, and when he got to Walther—well, Givens had the table time. He used to train with Dave Patton, he keeps an arm wrestling table at his house, and so when Walther got the jump and almost nailed him, Givens knew what to do. He waited Walther out, let him burn and then worked a top roll. Slowly, he pulled Walther's arm toward himself, stretching it, lengthening it, until Walther was just a wrist, just a hand, and Givens turned him over and pinned him. But Walther had come close! He has a future in the sport, everybody says so—hell, serious, dignified guys like him are the sport's future—and when the Yukon Jack tournament made its next stop in New Jersey, even Mrs. P expected him to win.
Walther didn't win the first night. In Yukon Jack tournaments there are three weight classes for men: lightweight (under 161 pounds), middleweight (161 to 190) and heavyweight. (Yukon Jack is the most prominent commercial sponsor of arm wrestling. The American Armwrestling Association sanctions the national amateur championship, to be held next week, in Kansas City.) Walther had to lose weight to pull as a middleweight, and that first night he felt weak from his ordeal and lost to someone he should have beaten. The second night, though, he won easily, and now, on the third night, when he comes back for the championship round, he feels pretty confident. Not overconfident—Walther isn't the kind of person who gets overconfident.
What kind of person is he? The arm wrestling kind. Arm wrestlers conform to a limited range of psychological profiles and usually turn out to be quiet guys who played some sports in high school or college, did pretty well and now, as adults, just want to do something—to compete, to prove themselves. Walther, as his wife, Christa, says, "relates" to arm wrestling—"It's in him now. He lives and breathes, sleeps and eats arm wrestling." He works as a steeplejack, repairing and demolishing industrial smokestacks, and he squeezes a hand gripper as he drives to and from the job. He wants to go to the Olympics, his whole family wants him to go to the Olympics, and now, here in New Jersey, they've come out to see him win. Of course he's gonna win. The guy he's up against, nobody even knows who he is. He's never arm wrestled in a tournament before. He doesn't have the table time, doesn't have the technique, doesn't even know what a top roll is. His name is Neil Policastro, and—well, nobody even knows how he got here.
The tournament is being held in another barroom, this time it's LT's, New York Giant star Lawrence Taylor's sports bar, off a highway in the shadow of New York City. In the middle of the room there is a big, black table, four feet high, constructed of thick black pipe. People congregate around the table—the two tribes, the large one composed of nearly everyone who knows Paul, the small one composed of a few friends of Neil and his girlfriend, Debbie. Debbie's a sexy woman, 23 years old, with long, shiny dark hair and 10 earrings in one of her ears, and she's also got a voice—"C'mon, Neee-yul!"—but Christa, with her beautiful huge eyes, has got a voice too—"C'mon, Paw-wul!"—and by the time Paul and Neil come to the table, the women's voices are dueling in counterpoint, and the sound in the barroom is rising like the sound of a jet before takeoff.
Each man grabs a peg with his left hand—his free hand—and rests his right elbow in a padded cup. They grab each other's right hands, and, with the referee overseeing the tangle—this guy Neil doesn't even know enough to seek an advantage!—they "get a grip," in arm wrestling parlance. Then the referee says, "Go!" and...