Prologue: The Pre-Competition (Final) Media Interview
He glances about, obviously avoiding the camera eye with each turn of the head or shift of the eyes. Outside the cordoned-off, well-guarded lobby sways a raucous crowd of perhaps two-hundred fans of the rabid variety. Another six to seven-hundred cheer and clap outside the thick glass walls, the sub-freezing temperatures doing little to damper their wild enthusiasm.
Eventually, as the gleaming, silver-tipped microphone is thrust just inches from his chin, he focuses on the unseen individual at the device's other end. His smile is painfully forced; more grimace than grin. He inhales deeply as the initial query is tossed his way.
"So, man from Lexington, how are we feeling less than sixteen hours from day one of the ultimate gauntlet?" spouts the interviewer in a tone that reeks of faux dramatics in true pay-per-view, second-rate pro wrestling style.
"Ready as I'll ever be," he responds with a playful wink towards the camera, though his lips appear to have freeze-dried-severely chapped-in a matter of seconds, "it's a great relief to finally have all the preparatory jazz out of the way. "
"Final physical exam a success? I didn't notice any undue limping... "
"Fit as the proverbial fiddle, or so the staff sawbones said. I guess if he's lyin', I'll be dyin'. "
Standing before a fluorescent green backdrop of the hotel lobby's far wall, the man's red and white striped, sleeveless tee appears practically blood-spattered.
"Clever! I like it. On a more serious note, I would imagine the pressure of representing one of the lowest ranked states in terms of overall economics is enormous. Does the recent unemployment numbers released just yesterday by the State Department add a layer of apprehension in what your Kentucky brethren might expect from you?"
His response is without hesitation, spewing forth with a sudden surge of confidence fueled by what he rates purely a soft-toss question when a blazing heater had been expected.
"Not at all, since the same exact stats weren't much better a month ago. Sad fact is, we've been scraping the bottom for the past several years. Rest assured I'd be in there swinging with all I've got even if we were on the other end of the spectrum. "
"Fine then, understood," the interviewer replies while shifting the microphone away from the interviewee's squared chin. Pursing his lips as to drop the frozen grin, Kentucky steps back, places both hands on his hips and peers at the shiny waxed floors below. Once his audio-video sparring partner resumes, it is with a tone so dramatically altered, so darkly shifted, it is as if another personality entirely has gained possession of the mike.
"So I take it getting your rear-end waxed by the representative of say... New Hampshire or New York State, two of the more fortunate republics, would bother you no more than say, the rep from Arkansas, Tennessee, or poor old Mississippi passing you by? Come on now, you old log-splitter, talk to me... no deep-seeded grudge from an old southern boy towards the rich yanks sharing the trail? Better yet, how about this scenario to smoke your down-home sausage? Let's say the rep from the recently added state of Puerto Rico whizzes by wearing a big ol' sarcastic grin?"
Unable to completely disguise his comic dismay, Kentucky reaches up and runs curled fingers through his graying coif. Though his words are relayed calmly enough, there is no denying the tensing of his upper body and the gleam shining from both ocean-blue eyes, each birthed from an underlying layer of barely-submerged anger.
"Log-split... ? Brother, I'd as soon kick the ass of an Alabama corn farmer than that of a New York cabbie. Once the game starts, all fifty are my enemy, just a mass of bodies in the way of my claiming the prize. I didn't come here to lose, geography be damned. I'm sure my esteemed opposition feels the exact same way. Otherwise, they're fools. In other words, check your cliques at the door. The only loyalty one has to him or herself is to the state they were so proudly chosen to rep. Besides, if you don't mind my saying, your questionnaire guru desperately needs some updated material. The North versus South thing was played out... oh... bout a dozen or more decades back. Pretty much the whole of the nation is sharing the same leaky boat these days and damned if any of 'em can locate the crack to properly seal it up. "
The interviewer pauses yet again, clearing his throat in the background while possibly scrambling to reset his bearings. In the interim, Kentucky crosses his arms, blows out a labored breath and grins, only this time with unmistakable sincerity.
"Point well taken, Kentucky," his interrogator politely retorts with the cheery tone of personality one securely back in tow, "and I have to say, I did feel a bit foolish attempting to bait a southerner who possesses nary a twinge of the resolute accent.
Now, bear with me as we cover the mandatory personals. You're listed as forty-seven years of age; recently divorced; six-feet-one, one-hundred and eighty pounds, and appear quite fit. In the six months since being chosen state rep, how did you prepare both physically and mentally for what's to come?"
Seemingly deep in reflection, Kentucky appears to stare over the camera, squinting mightily as if focusing on a faraway object.
"Well, first off, I took a slew of long, contemplative walks. "
Following a brief respite, and once it was apparent the man behind the mike wasn't the least bit amused, all further attempts at levity halted.
"Actually, the physical aspect was less daunting. In retrospect, the job I'd held for twenty-plus years was a godsend. In the aftermath, I tried to stay in shape via daily workouts, more so when I hit the big four-oh and the gut began to expand a bit. Once the word came down on the gauntlet, I increased said workouts two-fold. Added three-times-a-week jogging sessions to the list and dropped my body fat by an extra six percent. "
The interviewer could be heard frantically flipping papers.
"You were... let's see. . . my oh my... a mailman in your former life... daily snail-mail route delivery, no less. Wore out many a sneaker, I'd venture... "
"Easy bet. Probably covered five, six miles a day, five days a week, that is until paper delivery went the way of home telephones and wired cable; museum pieces... relics to be gawked at and snickered over by the generations to come. "
"And the mental preparation?"
Staring unblinking into the camera he'd so readily avoided just moments earlier, Kentucky juts out his jaw and frowns.
"Pardon the cliches to follow, but the way I look at it, you can't measure heart or determination, meaning there's no way to obtain either if you don't already possess 'em. Mental toughness can be developed to a degree, but in the end it's all about one's personal experiences. Besides, there really is no mental prep for the colossal challenge the fifty-one of us have coming. I figure all of us qualified for this competition with a butt-load of grit intact. Thing is, which one will prove to possess that little bit extra that it's gonna take to come out on top?"
"Butt-load of grit? Hey, I like it... now there's a little nugget you can only hear below the Mason-Dixon line, I'll wager. And, speaking of which... Vegas odds currently list you at twenty-two to one, Kentucky, a middle-of-the packer, one might say. Does this boost or hinder your confidence?"
"Neither. Nada. Means nothing. The odds-makers don't know me or what I've got in here," he says, lightly pounding a clenched fist against his chest, "in the end, it's all gonna come down to will power... Iron-Will power, pardon the play on words; the host with the most, you might say. No matter what we've went through as individuals throughout our lives, none of the fifty-one really know the limits of our inner competitor. "
"You truly believe you have what it takes to be last man. . . um, person standing, Kentucky?"