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Authors: Angelina Mirabella

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BOOK: The Sweetheart
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The only person who doesn't cheer audibly is Costantini, who slurps his coffee and stares shamelessly. After accepting the congratulations of the diners, you return to his booth to collect your money.

“Impressive,” he says, handing over the twenty. While you pocket the dough, he reaches inside his coat and retrieves a fountain pen and a notebook, which he flips open. “Do you think you could write your name and address down here for me? I want to tell someone I know about you.”

“I can't tell you where I live,” you say, thankful that, despite your excitement, you can still exercise some common sense. “I just met you.”

“How about just your name, then?” This much, you can manage. You write your name in your clear, precise hand. He attempts to read it aloud, and you correct him twice before he gives up.

“Yowzah,” he says. “If you do become a wrestler, first thing we're doing is changing your name.”

“We are?”

“Young lady, I can see you signing a lot of autographs, and trust me,” he says, waving the little pad in the air, “when that happens, you're going to want a lot less name.”

•    •    •

The days that follow are the longest and slowest of your life. Wrestling, it now seems, may be the solution to all of life's problems. One, it could give the sole bedroom of the little row house back to your father, a gift you aren't sure how you might give him otherwise. Two, it's
something
. What have you got going now? A whole lot of
nothing,
that's what. But most of all, the memory of Rocca's riveting performance is still fresh enough for you to imagine that this could be more than something: it just might be
it.
If you never hear from Costantini or his friend, you may never recover.

Thankfully, by the end of the week, a large envelope postmarked Otherside, Florida, arrives at the diner. When the owner hands it to you, eyebrow raised, you offer no explanation before shoving it into your bag, hurrying home, and ripping it open in the privacy of your bedroom. Inside is a letter from Mr. Joe Pospisil, trainer, manager, and proprietor of the Pospisil School for Lady Grappling, in which he dangles the possibility of your coming to the Florida Panhandle (on a trial basis, of course) to learn to wrestle so that you might join the pantheon of lady grapplers he has personally trained and managed. In addition to outlining the careers of the most notable figures (Kat Fever, Screaming Mimi Hollander, and, of course, The Ragin' Cajun), he has included a half-dozen publicity shots of wrestlers he manages: strong, beautiful ladies in pinup attire—bathing suits, platform heels. Some flex biceps and smile, their mouths stained with lipstick; others stand with their hands on their hips, staring aggressively back at whoever dares look their way. The most mesmerizing of the lot (not one of his girls, he admits, but meant to inspire) is photographed in this latter pose: a petite, brawny brunette with a deep
V
in the front of her suit, upswept bangs, a cleft in her chin, slightly pointed ears, and a large belt around her waist, a trophy that “with hard work and a little luck, might someday be yours.”

This, you will soon learn, is Mildred Burke, the former (and, by some accounts, current) Women's World Champion. True enough, the belt—a reported twenty-four-karat-gold accessory studded with seven diamonds, six amethysts, and four sapphires and weighing roughly the same as a four-month-old child—is still in her physical possession, as it has been for nearly two decades, but it is currently at the heart of a fierce custody battle. Make no mistake: Mildred Burke is one tough old broad. She is a tenacious road warrior, spending up to six nights a week defending her title, all the while suffering nose fractures, knee injuries, and the loosening and subsequent removal of
all of her teeth.
But in anything as duplicitous as wrestling, it takes more than grit—or talent, for that matter—to be a champion. Burke has kept the title this long for one reason, and one reason only: she's married to Billy Wolfe, her manager. Wolfe had a vested interest in keeping his wife on top and enough force to make it so. But now, after years of exploitation and public humiliation, Burke has finally decided to part ways with him, which has led to fierce contentions over the belt and caused an already dubious championship to become even more suspect.
I

But it will be a long time before you know this history, or understand anything resembling the truth about wrestling. What matters now is that in this image, all of your vague longings find their form. You tape Mildred's glossy to the back of your bedroom door, a place where it should not draw your father's attention but can continue to inspire. Now you know who you want to be. You want to be the champion.

•    •    •

Last but not least, the letter invites you to answer a few questions in order to see “if you have what it takes” to be a professional wrestler. The enclosed questionnaire is brief and perplexing. Oh, it begins straightforwardly enough, with questions about your experience with athletics in general and wrestling in particular. The next few are more peculiar and more personal—questions about your relationships (“Do you have a serious boyfriend whom you intend to marry in the foreseeable future?”), your domestic skill set (“Do you cook?”), your personal habits (“Do you practice good hygiene?”), and your characterization of yourself (“Would you consider yourself a feminine woman?”). It is hard to see what any of this has to do with your qualifications to be a wrestler; still, you answer the questions easily and honestly. The only real snag you hit is when it asks for your measurements, including your height, which apparently has to be between five foot two and five foot nine.

It was possible to imagine from the previous questions that you might in fact “have what it takes” to be a wrestler, but there is no way around this problem: you are simply too tall. But you cannot let a couple of inches keep you from realizing your destiny. And so, after scrawling a
5
in the space allotted for “feet,” you press the pen against the paper, loop around and, hand shaking, come down, creating a
9
in the space for “inches.”

When you failed to tell your father about
Bandstand,
you didn't exactly lie; you simply withheld information. This action, however, is unmistakable: you have represented yourself as something you most certainly are not. But what is the alternative? It seems a reasonable and justifiable move, but so will many that you will take over the next year, until you find yourself neither where you meant to go nor where you might turn back. Of course, that is impossible for you to imagine now, in this early leg, with all that is familiar just a turn of the head away. Only those of us burdened by hindsight can see this act as dangerous. You fold the completed questionnaire three ways, stuff it into an envelope, and send it on its way.

•    •    •

It takes ten excruciating days for Pospisil's response to arrive, but it is everything you hoped it would be. He is convinced that a career in wrestling is in your cards and hopes you'll take the next southbound train so you can attend his school and get this career off the ground. When he gets the green light from you, he will wire the money for a train ticket. Not only that, he will pay you fifty dollars a week plus room and board for the first month. If, after a month, you want to return home, he will pay for that ticket as well and wish you a happy life. And, of course, he is happy to answer any questions that you or your parents might have, as he is a father himself and understands that fathers often need personal reassurances on these kinds of things. A business card is provided for this purpose.

As thrilling as all of this is, there's an element of ice-water-to-the-face about it. What reassurances could Pospisil possibly offer that would convince your father, a man who doesn't even believe in eating in front of the television, to let you just pack up your bags and travel unescorted to
Florida
for the purpose of becoming a professional wrestler? It takes a day, and another brisket dinner, for you to summon the courage to broach the idea with him.

His response is definite: “Women don't wrestle.”

You provide him with the only evidence you have to the contrary, fanning the publicity shots out in front of him like a winning card hand. As you should have expected, Franz stares at them in saucer-eyed horror.

“This is what you want?” he says, gesturing toward them. “To parade in front of a bunch of men you don't know in a suit like this?”

“I want to be a wrestler,” you say with forced patience. “I want to give it a try, at least.”

“I don't understand,” he asks, his face pained. “Why?”

Why? It's an impossible question to answer. The reasons are complicated and unspeakable. Eventually, you say, “I can't stay here and take care of you my whole life.”

“I think you've got this backwards, Leonie. I'm your father. I go to work, I pay the mortgage, and I keep my daughter from making bad choices.
I
take care of
you.

You've put your foot in it now. You feel your opportunity slipping away; you have to blink your eyes and look up at the ceiling so you won't cry. “What else can I do, Father? This is my best chance.”

Franz looks down at his feet; you are still looking up. In another minute, you are sure, he will slam his fist on the table, and that will be that. When moments later this still hasn't happened, you dare to look at his face, one that has always looked old to you but now seems even older. He looks up at you. You are prepared for him to say anything. You've never crossed your father, no matter the stakes. If he says no, you will accept it and never mention it again.

Who can know what he is thinking in the minutes before he says his next words. I have always imagined that in this moment, he understands how little he knows about what the world has to offer, what you might need from it, and how you might get it. You are as mysterious a creature to him as he is to you and me, and none of us will know much about what is or isn't a best chance until it has been taken.

“I will call this man,” he says. “I'm not promising anything, but I'll call.”

•    •    •

Your father has plenty of questions for Mr. Pospisil. How safe is it? How often will you have to travel? How far? Who will go with you? A number of his questions concern men: at the school, on the cards, in the audience. Apparently he believes his entire sex is bad news from which you must be shielded. This conversation is difficult for you to endure. Complicated negotiations regarding your future are in process, and you are barely even a spectator. You have no idea what Mr. Pospisil is saying, or whether your father finds these answers satisfactory; his flat expression reveals nothing.

At the end of this torture, Franz asks, “Tell me, Mr. Pospisil, would you let
your
daughter do this?” Franz listens to the answer, stone-faced, and then wordlessly hands the phone to you and steps outside. Once he is safely out of earshot, you thank Mr. Pospisil for his patience.

“It's my job,” he says. “I love it when I get that last question. It's my ace in the hole.”

“So you think he'll say yes?”

“You know that better than I do. But I hope so.”

You would not typically follow your father outside, but you do it this evening, sitting quietly beside him, your arms wrapped around your knees, while he puffs on a Winston. Somewhere nearby, a group of men sit in a living room playing an improvised jazz number, and the muffled notes drift into space. A door opens; the sound has drawn Ms. Riley out of her house. She puts her hands on the small of her back and arches, thrusting her chest forward. She sees the two of you sitting there and waves down at you.

“Leonie. Franz. How goes it?”

Your father gestures toward you with his thumb. “My kid here wants to move to Florida and be a wrestler. What do you think of that?”

Ms. Riley gives you a curious look and laughs in a way that strikes you as more than a little sad before turning to your father. “My kid got herself knocked up by a meathead bum. Want to trade?”

Your father says nothing.

Soon, the engine of a sedan drowns out the music, and Ms. Riley waves her good-byes and returns inside. When it is just the two of you, you dare to ask your father, who stares ahead, his eyes glazed, what he is thinking.

“I'm thinking,” he says, “that you are going to Florida, and nothing will be the same.”

He has decided; he will not give you his blessing, but he will not stand in your way. You could burst from relief, but, to your credit, you keep your feelings under wraps. This is big—as much as you could hope from him. He deserves your gratitude, which you attempt to demonstrate by following him inside and drying the dishes after he washes them. When you finish, Franz gets a beer from the refrigerator, turns on the radio, and lies down on the couch. You take your cue and disappear into your bedroom, excited by your father's decision, but saddened by it, too. You understand his fear, that he will lose you, and this scares you as well. Not enough to drive you out of the bedroom and into his arms (if you had any idea just how complete the loss will be, you would do exactly that), but enough to keep you up well into the night, so that you are still awake when Franz turns up the volume on Perry Como and cracks open your bedroom door.

“This one's for you, Leonie,” he whispers into the darkness, barely audible above the crooner.

I.
In wrestling, even the asterisks have asterisks.

THREE

A
nd so begins your unlikely transformation into an icon of the golden age of wrestling.

Perhaps the only thing more incredible than the wild success you will achieve is the amount of faith you place in this possibility. You know almost nothing of the sport, and yet you are so capable of imagining yourself as its champion that before the week is out, you bid your father good-bye, board a train, and head toward an alien world on the invitation of a stranger. On the first leg of the journey south, this dream sustains you. You see nothing of the passing landscape, only the bright future you are headed toward. Your surroundings begin to come into view only after you cross the Mason-Dixon Line, when the passengers with darker skin are relegated to the cars farthest from the engine, the shoeboxes carrying their dinners bouncing in their laps. Later, when your books are read, your sandwiches eaten, and sleep is still eluding you despite a restless night, you watch the sun set over endless fields of farmland. In this moment, it occurs to you that the only givens are that it is late in the day and you are far from home. By the time you step out onto the near-empty platform, the vision that propelled you here is almost impossible to recall.

One of the few people waiting is a square-shouldered, jut-jawed gentleman with dark-rimmed glasses held up by cauliflower ears. While an attendant heads off to retrieve your trunk, he approaches you with an outstretched hand.

“Leonie Putzkammer, I presume,” he says.

“Hello, Mr. Pospisil.” He gives you a quick once-over, as he might any newly acquired merchandise. You hope that in whatever assessment he is making, he isn't wondering about your height. You might have some newfound doubts about your decision, but you don't want this man to tell you that you don't belong.

Whatever conclusions he draws, he keeps to himself, offering instead a well-rehearsed “Hot enough for you?” Soon after, the attendant arrives with your trunk, and in no time, you and Joe have hauled it into the back of his DeSoto and are heading down the highway. In the quiet of the car, you try to recall the sights and sounds of Rocca in the ring, details that might reinforce your faith and steady your nerves, but it is difficult to ignore the endless miles of slash pines. Just as you begin to wonder if you will ever again see anything besides trees, a light appears in the distance.

“Welcome to Otherside,” says Joe as he rockets past the illuminated sign.

It is hard to believe this place merits identification. When you finally see houses, they are few and far between, and set so far back from the road they seem like shadows of themselves. Those old Victorians must retain a hint of what made them grand in their day, but all you can see are the sunken porches, the boarded windows, the yards littered with trucks and boats in various stages of repair. The only signs of life are a few mangy dogs and the occasional scratching chicken. To you, it seems like the land that time forgot, halfway between nowhere and nothing.

Shortly thereafter, Joe's car turns off the highway, crosses over a set of train tracks, and rattles along an old shell road that takes you through a scrubby forest into a clearing, where the dozen weather-worn cabins that make up the Pospisil School for Lady Grappling stand in a semicircle near the river. Not that you can see much. It is dark out here, purple dark, which makes it difficult to see anything other than whatever lies directly in the path of Joe's headlights. Eventually, these are aimed toward your new home: something more than a shack but less than a motel room, its wooden siding scabby with green growth. As Joe nears the cabin, he spins around and backs the DeSoto up to the door, which sweeps the headlights toward the cypress knees in the river.

After he parks, you step out of the car to investigate. You have lived near the Schuylkill all your life, but this belongs to another category of nature altogether. You can't see much in the dark, but you can smell its ripeness and hear its laps against the boat ramp. You also hear something chirping—frogs, or maybe crickets.

“Why Otherside?” you ask. “Other side of what?”

“I guess that depends on who you ask.”

You slap at a mosquito. “I'm asking you.”

“Me?” Joe walks around to the back of his car, unlocks the trunk. “I think this place is the other side of heaven, but I suspect some of the girls will say differently. Hey, you going to help me with this or what?”

Joe lifts one end of your trunk out of the DeSoto and motions for you to take the other. “Your training begins now,” he jokes, and the two of you hoist it out of the car and into the dark, wood-paneled room where you will live. Joe wasn't lying about the heat. It sure doesn't feel like September in that room—not any September you've ever known, anyway. By the time Joe locks the room up and hands you the key, your dress is drenched in sweat.

“Living out here might be a bit of an adjustment for you. Was for me, too. I'm from Cleveland myself. But I love it now. Winter's a lot easier, and living on the water has its perks. Mullet will be running soon. Sometimes I catch ten, twelve with one throw.”

“I have no idea what that means,” you say, and Joe laughs.

“I didn't used to, either. Here's something else that's nice.”

Joe points over your head and you look up. Through the flags of Spanish moss, you discover one more thing that makes it clear just how far you are from home: a hazeless sky thick with stars.

It is easy for me to imagine you in this moment, your mouth open, your ponytail stretching down your back as you tilt your head back to look at the universe above. I only wish that I could see now what you saw then: the water in front of you, the sky above, and your whole life ahead of you, sparkling.

•    •    •

After Joe walks you quickly around the grounds to orient you—the gym is this concrete-block building
here,
his office is in this cabin
here
—he escorts you into the diner, which, believe it or not, is even drearier than your room. Black paths are worn into the heavily trafficked carpet. The orange vinyl booths are outlined in greasy nautical rope. All of these are empty save one, where three young women chat over the remnants of their dinner. As you follow Joe past their table, you sense furtive glances.

“I was just about to give up on y'all,” calls a woman from the flattop.

Joe walks you over and introduces her as Betsy. “My girl Friday,” he says, but she is hardly a girl. There are faint lines around her eyes and some of the hairs that have escaped her hairnet are gray. Betsy wipes her hand on her apron and extends it over the counter. “Looks like you made it in one piece.”

“I think so.”

Betsy's smile gets your attention. Not just because it is unusual—one of her front teeth is significantly larger than the other—but also because there seems to be some maternal concern embedded in it:
I sure hope you know what you've gotten yourself into
. She seems like someone who will look out for you, which is one more reason to feel good about being here. “You must be starving. What can I get you, hon?”

Moments later, a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes arrives at the booth where you and Joe have taken up residency, and for a while, everything and everyone else disappears. You don't just eat this food: you inhale it. It is not until you lick a finger that you remember where you are and who is watching. When you look up, Joe stares back. “You have a healthy appetite,” he says. No kidding. You had no idea you could devour so much so quickly. You slow down and chew your food at what you hope is a reasonable pace. “I meant that as a compliment,” he says, laughing a little.

A bell on the front door signals another arrival, and when Joe looks up and waves over whoever has arrived, you can't help but turn to see for yourself. The woman entering is stocky, with a dark complexion and a heavy, textured mane of hair she has attempted (and failed) to confine to a ladylike bob. Perhaps you do not immediately recognize her—in her publicity shot, taken years prior, she is crouched and snarling—but from the way the other girls labor at continuing to talk without making eye contact, you understand that she is someone to be reckoned with. She walks toward you with a forced stride, its power restricted by her high heels and pencil skirt. She seems a wild animal restrained, a trained bear balancing on a ball.

There is no single person who will feature more prominently in your life as a wrestler than this woman. She will be in the opposite corner for your first bout, a modestly attended card (just weeks away!) at the local armory, and the last one, just a year later, when the two of you will make history in the Memphis arena under the watchful gaze of over nine thousand marks.

“Joe,” she says, “can I talk to you for a moment?”

“Can you at least say hello to my newest protégé? I'd like you to meet—”

“Yeah, yeah. The gymnast. You told me.” This mockery is the only acknowledgment you get. It seems you are not worthy of either end of an introduction. She doesn't care to hear your name, nor does she bother to share hers. “It's important, Joe,” says the woman.

“Fine, fine,” he says, sliding out of the booth. Before he leaves, he turns to you and says, “It's on the house tonight, so get some pie or coffee or whatever you want. Tomorrow, come by my office around ten so we can talk before you head to the gym. Bring your suits. All of them.”

All of them? You are lucky to have one.

Once the bell rings them out, you relax and return to your plate, anxious to finish and head to your room for some much needed rest. But before you can shovel in the last bite, you find yourself encircled by the women from the other booth, who, judging by their Capri pants and wide eyes, are closer to you in age and experience than the woman who spirited Joe away. With these girls, you feel less need to put up your guard.

“Hi,” says the blonde. “You're the new wrestler, right?”

You nod, even though it still seems strange to think of yourself in these terms. “Leonie,” you say.

The girls slide themselves into your booth uninvited, introduce themselves quickly—the blonde is Peggy; the brunettes, Bonnie and Brenda, are sisters—and begin bubbling with questions for you and anecdotes from their own lives and recent adventures. All of this girlfriendliness makes you nervous. Previous experience has taught you that groups of women don't easily welcome new members into the fold. To be sure, the sisters do seem to be sizing you up, but Peggy has a smile that would be suspicious only to the thoroughly jaded. She slurps her vanilla Coke and tells you that tomorrow night will be Bonnie's first match.

“I have to fight that cow you just met,” Bonnie whispers. “That's how it works around here. Your first match is always against Mimi, and she always wins.”

At last, you have a name. “
That
was Screaming Mimi Hollander?”

“In the flesh,” says Bonnie. “I should know. She plays a starring role in most of my nightmares.”

“You worry too much,” Peggy says to Bonnie. “You'll be great.” She slaps her on the thigh before turning to you. “Brenda and I are going to the match tomorrow night to cheer her on. It's about an hour out of town, but Brenda has a car. Want to tag along?”

“I guess so,” you say. “I've never actually seen women wrestle before.”

“What? Then you have to come. You have to!”

Betsy swings by the booth to ask you if you want some pie. What you really want is to go back to your room and fall into bed, but Peggy begs you not to go just yet, the coconut cream is
to die for.
The possibility of friendship is too appealing to say no, so you stay for another half hour, growing dizzy with sleepiness and sugar.

When you finally wish them good-night, you walk back to your dank little square of a room and open your trunk. There it is: the gift from your father, a little Philco Bakelite AM/FM radio. He'd given it to you just the night before, mumbling something about your mother and music and summer nights. You pull it out from its nest of sweaters and set it on the nightstand, but you don't plug it in. Instead, you lie on your bed, head spinning, listening to the frogs and crickets, absorbing the weird world into which you have just leaped.

•    •    •

The next day, Betsy waves you into Joe's office, and you walk in, holding your bathing suit in a sweaty hand. Joe tosses it in a bag, explaining that his wife will need to do some work to it before you can use it in the ring, and pulls out a contract. He reiterates his original offer: salary and expenses for the first month and, if you change your mind, a train ticket home. If you decide to stay after that, you'll have to pay your own way, including travel. He has a hard and fast rule against advances, and he's heard every sob story out there, so don't bother. Finally, his booking fee will be forty percent of your purses.

“Standard,” he assures you, and hands you the pen.

Had you been listening, you might have found this gasp-worthy, but your attention has moved to the area behind his desk, which has been wallpapered with wrestling pinups that flap with each periodic blast of the oscillating fan. This morning, waking up to your depressing new home, your only connection to your father and your former life a radio you had yet to turn on, you felt homesick and once again plagued by doubt. But here, surrounded by these confident, hard-thighed women, your sense of opportunity returns. Many of these images are the same ones that lured you here; now, they seem to beckon you into their ranks. You take the pen and sign on the dotted line.

Once you're done, Joe whisks the contract away and deposits it in his desk. “Good,” he says. “Now that you're officially one of us, we can discuss the rest.”

•    •    •

The rest
can be boiled down to these two syllables: KAY-fabe. The origins of the word are sketchy at best, part carny slang, part pig Latin. Kayfabe. Be fake.

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