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Authors: Angelina Mirabella

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BOOK: The Sweetheart
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“I'm sorry. What do you want us to do?” she ventures.

“What do you mean, what do I want you to do?” Joe asks, his hands extended in front of him. “This is a match. You are opponents. So wrestle, damn it.”

“Oh,” you say, blinking back at Peggy. The two of you stare at each other for a while, each waiting for the other to begin, to offer up some clue as to how this might go. Thankfully, Peggy steps forward and takes you by the shoulders, granting you permission to do the same. It is a strange sensation, to be locked in ref's position with her—not just another woman, but a buddy. It is a decidedly tentative press, and it makes you tentative, too. How real should this be? What are the boundaries? And what is she to you, exactly? Is she your colleague or your rival?

“Well, this is boring,” says Joe. “Would either of you care to do anything that might keep a paying customer from walking out?”

“Like this?” says Peggy, and she drops down and grabs your legs out from under you.

“Better,” says Joe. “Nice fall, Leonie.”

Yes, it was, you realize, already back on your feet, crouched and ready to go. You hadn't even thought about it, just let your body unfurl and meet the mat as you'd practiced so many times. Maybe you were getting somewhere after all. Peggy, similarly crouched, snarls ironically, which further deflates the tension.
It's a joke,
she seems to be saying, and you acknowledge your understanding of this by comically baring your teeth. You feel confident enough to take her by the arm and launch her into the ropes.

From the other side of an open window come the snap of twigs and the crunch of pine straw.

“There's no free shows,” shouts Joe. “You want to come in here and buy a ticket, or should I go out there and bang your skulls together?”

At first, there is stillness, but then the sound starts again, recedes from the window, and picks up again by the entrance, where the two boys from the boat—olive-skinned, sharp-nosed boys with wiry muscles—­stroll in with cocky smiles. You do not have to look at Peggy to know her reaction; the exhilaration radiating from her is palpable.

Peggy's admirer, his ball cap tucked into his back pocket, digs into his pocket and pulls out a fistful of change. “Oh, we'd never try to cheat you, Mr. Pospisil. What's the going price these days?” he says, examining the contents in his palm, his hair clinging damply to his head. “Seventy-five cents, right? Here you go. Four, five, six quarters.” He pinches the short stack and walks toward Joe, the price of admission extended in front of him.

Joe eyes him warily but accepts the money. “Sit on that bench,” he says, pocketing the change before pointing to a far corner of the gym. “Tick me off and you'll eat these quarters.” He returns his attention to the ring, claps his hands together rapidly. “Let's go, let's go, let's go.”

So it's back to the awkward two-step of ref's position, and the frantic wracking of your brain. What next? Just as the rules of engagement were beginning to become clear, the presence of Peggy's would-be admirer muddied them. You should care only about Joe, of course: he is your boss, and this is your work. But for Peggy, it has also become some strange dance of courtship, one you want to help her with but aren't sure how. When she takes your wrist and wrenches your arm behind your back—this time, she means business—you simultaneously work to free yourself and worry over the sight of your extended chest. Should you try to turn away, or will that only obscure their view of Peggy? You manage to walk her back into the ropes and knock her off, but when you spin around to face her, she throws an arm forward and slaps you on the sternum. It is a feeble hit—if it weren't for the sound of her exertion, you might have thought that was intentional—and so you are at least a beat too late when you cry out and fall back.

“Atta girl!” comes the cry from the bench. “Don't hold back, honey. I like a strong woman.”

“Try that again, Peggy,” says Joe, firing a look at the boys that dares them to say another word. They clam up but keep their smug grins: they will not be chastised. “Put your whole body into it,” Joe says to her. “Like this.” He demonstrates for her in slow motion, and indeed, the movement is a fluid rushing-up from the sole of his boots through the heavy palm that strikes the air. For perhaps the first time since you first stepped in the ring with him, you feel something for this man besides abject fear. Not affection, but something akin to it. I might call it respect. “Go ahead, Leonie. Come at her again.”

This time, when you walk toward Peggy, she plants her feet, rears back slowly, her torso moving back in unison with her arm this time, and then hurls her hand at your braced chest. It is still not enough to force you down of its own accord, but you are more prepared this time, so your fall is timelier and more convincing.

“Now you hit me,” says Peggy.

“Okay,” you say, and you do, but the hit is halfhearted and Peggy is not inclined to be generous in the same way you were: she rocks backward but stays on her feet. “That all you got?” she jeers. Before the taunt even registers, let alone the shock that might rightly accompany it—is she serious, or is this part of the act?—she rears back and takes aim at you again, catching you off guard and legitimately knocking you down. “Get up, weenie.”

Now you're confused. Is this a real competition now? And for what? Her expression is hard to read, as is Joe's—he's not sure what's going on, either. “Come on,” growls Peggy. “Hit me. I can take it.”

Okay, she asked for it. You close your eyes, stop attempting to understand the dynamics at work among the people in this room, and give yourself over to the strength and knowledge of your limbs. Your intention is to strike her in the chest and send her flying into the ropes, clutching her sternum and struggling for breath: potentially embarrassing but not unforgivable. Just enough to show everyone that you can hold your own. But what happens is this: when you throw your arm out, you hit the considerably shorter girl in the bull's-eye center of her pretty face. Again, it takes you a while to pick up on what is happening. You don't hear the crunch of bone; you don't feel the warm rush of her blood on your hand. You begin to come around when you see Joe dive for a fresh stack of towels, when you hear Peggy's pitiful wail, but you do not feel the full weight of your action until you catch sight of those feckless boys slowly backing out of the gym, their self-satisfied expressions fully gone.

So now you know what it's like to play the heel, to prove your might only to send the audience toward the door. No one enjoys her first bite of this, Leonie. It takes time and experience to acquire the taste, to savor, even crave, its complexities. Even then, not everyone gets there. I certainly didn't, and I would guess the connoisseurs are few and far between.

•    •    •

Peggy does not wait until morning to leave; she is gone before night falls. She would have none of your comfort, none of your apologies. She does not even say good-bye. That makes three girls gone in less than a week. Tomorrow, you will make it four. You have no intention of staying beyond this evening, not when you've driven the only other girl currently in residence—and your only friend—away. You might as well go home, where the love is imperfect but still measurable. Besides, if there's anything you've learned, it's that disaster is inevitable. Better get out now while the getting's good.

When Joe knocks on your door that night, having just returned from the train station, you attempt to speak to him through the thinnest of cracks. You don't want him to see that you are packing your things. Maybe he would try to talk you out of it, maybe he wouldn't, but you don't want to take a chance. You want your farewell speech written and rehearsed before you approach him with the news.

“Yes?” you ask, pressing one eyeball against the gap.

“Can you come out here, please? I want to show you something.”

“I don't know, Mr. Pospisil. I'm so tired—”

“Just open the door and come out here, Leonie.”

Despite your misgivings, you do as instructed, closing the door behind you to keep the tornado-tossed room and half-packed trunk out of view. Once outside, Joe holds up a pair of emerald-green wrestling boots. “These are for you,” he says, dangling them by the knot of their white laces. You watch them swing back and forth, forgetting that you have no need for such things, since you are never setting foot in a wrestling ring ever again. “If you didn't lie about your shoe size on your application, then they should fit.”

What does that mean? That he knows you lied about your height, or that everyone lies about something? Either way, this small shame refreshes the day's bigger one. You shake off their trance and return to your senses. “Why are you giving these to me?”

“Why do you think? I just put you on the schedule. You can't go barefoot in a real match.”

“A real match? But I just got here!”
And tomorrow I am leaving on the first train out
.

“I think you'll be okay, kid.” He thrusts the boots at you. “Go on. They're yours now.”

You take the boots by their soles and hold them out in front of you. They are not new—the toes scuffed, the tongues wrinkled—but still, they are a possession worth prizing, so much so that you can't quite bring yourself to hand them back, to give voice to the sentence spinning around your head like a train on its tracks:
Thank you, Mr. Pospisil, but I think you better save these for someone else
. “These weren't—who did they belong to?”

“A really terrific wrestler—Kat Fever. Katerina. My daughter.”

“Your daughter?”
I love it when I get that question,
he told your father.
It's my ace in the hole
. Most people would not treat a dog the way that Joe has treated you this past week. Could he really have put his own flesh and blood through this same demanding and humiliating program? What does that say about him? And what does it say about you that he would give you these boots? He wouldn't give them to just anyone, would he? You thought you had the man figured out; now you don't know what to think. “Your daughter is a wrestler?”

“Not anymore. That was a long time ago.” Joe gets a funny look on his face. “Look, there is nothing symbolic about this, okay? This is practical. You have big feet. So did my daughter. That's it.”

“I didn't think—”

“Good.” Joe turns to walk away without so much as a good-bye or even the barking of an order—but after a few paces, he stops and rubs the back of his neck. “Peggy was going to leave sooner or later,” he says to the dark line of trees in front of him. “If you hadn't scared her off, something else would have. And if you ruined her chances with that joker, then believe me, you did her a favor.” He continues on his path and is soon swallowed by the night, leaving you alone under the light above the door, the boots still cradled in your hands.

It is only when he is long gone, after you have been sitting at the foot of your bed for some time, neither packing nor unpacking your wide-yawning trunk, that you decide to slip on the boots and lace them up. It doesn't hurt to just try them on. It doesn't mean you are staying. And, even if you do stay, you are not betraying a friend—if you can give that weighty name to the brief relationship—by accepting these boots. They did not fit her; they fit you. And they do: they are soft and snug and perfect in every way. How could a pair of secondhand boots be so particularly suited to
you
? Much of what you will keep of this era will be too imbued with multiple meanings for you to feel anything but ambivalence. These boots will be the one exception. Forever and ever, they will say only what they say in this moment:
You belong.

Joe is wrong. This has to mean something. Fate has brought you here; fate has sent Peggy away. There are forces bigger than you at work here, you suppose, returning a stack of folded clothes from the trunk to the dresser. You might as well see how far they will take you.

FIVE

L
eonie Putzkammer, I am sorry to tell you, is no name for a wrestler. It is certain to be spelled wrong on cards, to be stumbled over by announcers, and to take up valuable time during introductions and autographing sessions. It is also too ethnic, too
German,
and the powers that be (men, I feel obliged to point out, who continue to use names like Costantini and Pospisil) want everyone to think you are an all-American girl. Luckily, David “Monster” Henderson, the man Joe pays to take publicity photos of his girls, has a special talent for ring names. He has named dozens of wrestlers over the years, including not only Joe's daughter, Katerina (Kat Fever), but also Joe himself (Cleveland Joe) many decades prior. All of this you learn from Joe on the way to Mr. Henderson's house for your photo session. What he neglects to mention is the man's size. Henderson is a giant, and not in the figurative sense. All the classic features are there: the big forehead, the large jaw, and the staggering height. The scant literature from his days in the ring puts him at an impractical and cartoonish seven and a half feet. If this is an exaggeration, it isn't much of one. When Monster Henderson answers his door, you forget your manners and say, “Wow.”

Who could blame you for this response? It isn't every day that someone makes you feel small. Besides, this is surely not the first time Monster has gotten this reaction. It's clear from his smile that he's good-natured about it, which makes it easier for you to recover. You consciously make the effort to look into his eyes and allow him to take your comparatively tiny hand into his own. Joe does the introductions—“Leonie, Monster. Monster, Leonie”—and Monster stoops down to briefly hide all of your knuckles with his lips. Then, a final shocker: the voice.

“Hello, Leonie,” says Monster, the words surfacing through gravel.

“Hello,” you squeak, and follow the sweep of his massive arm into the house.

Inside, Joe asks, “Anything leaping out at you?”

Monster runs his thumb and finger over his chin. “I don't know yet. I have to think,” he says, lending the task more seriousness than you might have expected. “Let's start with the pictures.”

Monster offers you a spare bedroom. It doesn't make much sense to use it—you've worn your suit under your clothes; why do you need privacy just to strip down to it?—but you accept the offer anyway. The room's decor is outdated, the muted greens and browns of two decades prior, and startlingly girlish: wall vases filled with silk peonies, a vanity crowded with celluloid brushes and dusty glass atomizers, a shelf lined with felt cloches, feathers rising jauntily from their bands. A tape measure belts a headless dress form that stands in the corner; next to it is a cube-shaped leather trunk with brass accents. As fine a space as any in which to unbutton your blouse, step out of your skirt, and take a few calming breaths before presenting yourself.

Monster, standing by a tripod-mounted Bolsey, nods toward the white wall and you take your place. Your bathing suit is simple: black with boy-cut legs and a halter top with a shallow
V
and a bit of a ruffle. Your heels are black, too. You wanted to pose in your beautiful new boots—the Green Goddesses, as you have come to think of them—the way Mimi had posed in hers, but Joe insisted that this deviation from the script was particular to Mimi and instructed you to bring your pumps.

“I know, it's stupid,” he told you. “But this is how it's done.”

Monster takes a seat behind the camera, puts his eye up to the range finder, and begins to offer instructions. He snaps photos of you with both biceps flexed, with fists on hips, in profile, looking over your shoulder. Over and over, he holds down the shutter and raises the film wind knob to advance to the next frame. You've worn your hair down, long and wavy, instead of the usual ponytail, and parted it far to one side so that it dips over your forehead. You are not used to all the hair in your face. You tuck it behind your ear time and time again, but it refuses to stay put.

“Here,” says Monster. “I have an idea.”

He opens a wooden box on a side table. Inside, interwoven like mating water moccasins, is a collection of what appear to be ribbons. He walks over to you, combs your hair into his hand, and curves the ponytail over your collarbone. With the other hand, he winds a ribbon around the stick of hair. He tries to tie the ends, but struggles; he is clearly in pain. “I can do that,” you say, taking the ends from him.

He sighs his relief. “My hands aren't so good anymore,” he says.

The truth, you will learn, is that while everything of Monster's is
great,
none of it is so good anymore. Carpal tunnel syndrome isn't even half of it. Vision deteriorating, diabetes settling in, the heart losing its will to pump. Monster is a giant who is about to fall.

•    •    •

Seconds later, Monster snaps the photograph that will adorn wrestling cards across the country for the next few months. Your later photos will be of better quality, with all the benefits a studio and a professional can bring, but this will be the one most prized by collectors. The washed-out black-and-white image will feature your hands resting just behind the small of your back so that the elbows bend into little wings, your front leg raised so the knee is at the barest of angles, your mouth toying with the idea of a smile, your head thrown back, the floppy bow sagging in your band of hair. But the real moment in history happens once the image is committed to film, when a look—recognition, perhaps?—comes over Monster's face. He cocks his head, as if turning something over in his mind until, finally, he smiles and nods.

“Gwen Davies,” he says to you. “Your new name is Gwen Davies.”

•    •    •

Monster, it turns out, is a collector of kink. You won't see the items that are more difficult to explain (issues of
Eyeful
and
Wink,
photos of bondage models Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr mail-ordered from Irving and Paula Klaw, other photos taken with his own Bolsey) for months, when they are pulled from the trunk where they are normally kept under lock and key. Today, you see only the more socially palatable material, like his eagerly anticipated and hot-off-the-press copy of Kinsey's
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,
which is displayed on the bookshelves that line one wall of his living room.

Unlike many bibliophiles, Monster doesn't sort or discriminate by genre. His only concern is subject matter. Not that this is apparent to you. Perusing his bookshelves as Joe takes his time in the bathroom, you also see
Lady Chatterley's Lover
and
Tropic of Cancer,
which seem to have the wholesome ring of literature. You forgo these, instead leaning in to examine a row of paperbacks, Bantam and Gold Medal titles, their prices (25 cents each) prominently featured in one corner. You stop at one and gently coax it from where it is wedged:
Halo in Brass.

“Is that the sort of book you like?” Monster asks.

You stare at the cover, on which a lone blonde holds a smoldering cigarette beneath this phrase:
She expected her lover, but death walked in
. “It looks like my kind of book,” you say.

“That's interesting,” he says. “I wouldn't have guessed that about you.”

You are much too naive to know what it is that he has assumed or why it might amuse him. If you knew what I know now, you would shudder. From this, I can fairly guess the picture he has created in his mind: you, on the floor, hair fanned around you, a darker, more domineering woman straddling your chest.

“I like my name,” you say, purposely moving the conversation toward surer ground. “What made you think of it?”

Monster doesn't answer right away. It can't be because he is having difficulty remembering. This only happened moments before. His silence can mean only one thing: there is something unpleasant about the answer.

“You reminded me of Sweet Gwendoline. But you probably don't know who that is.”

“Can't say I do.” And why would you? When would you ever have occasion to come across John Willie's cartoon serial or its busty blond protagonist, a girl always bound, in peril, desperate for rescue? You might have gone your whole life without knowing if he hadn't given you reason to seek it out.

“What about Davies?”

“Well, now,” he says, eyes twinkling. “That's my name, isn't it? A bit of vanity on my part, I suppose. I hope you don't mind too terribly.”

David. His name is David. You'd forgotten already.

“No, of course not,” you lie. The truth is it is rather uncomfortable to be so intimately connected to someone you have just met, especially this particular someone. Over time, you will come to read something else into this gesture. You will see it as a need to pass on some part of himself that he otherwise couldn't, impotence being, as you will later discover, another cruel side effect of his condition, and you will be glad to have been honored with this task. Remembering this about him—
his name was David
—will help to fill out your memory, help him remain the man he was instead of the caricature he could so easily become.

Henderson looks down the hall—no sign of Joe—and leans in. “Just so you know, I sometimes take . . . other kinds of pictures. Just for my personal collection. No one sees them except for me. I pay well, and I'm very discreet.” This time, you understand him perfectly. It is hard to hold such a bold proposition in your head. Before this moment, no one has so much as asked to hold your hand. He searches your face, like he's expecting—maybe even hoping for?—a reaction. But while you are feeling many things (shock, anger, and fear, to name a few), you keep your eyes locked on the book cover, your lips sealed shut. This is the only strategy you have for dealing with this kind of attention: withdrawal.

When Henderson speaks again, his voice is an octave higher. Perhaps he hopes to sound friendly and jocular, but that's hardly the effect—his bass is a weight too heavy to lift. “Sometimes the girls find the extra money useful.”

Ignoring him is clearly not going to work.

You turn to him with wide eyes and say, “That's something to consider, Mr. Henderson.”

“Please,” he says, attempting to smooth things over. “Call me David.” He takes the book from your hands and returns it to the bookshelf, pulls down another one. “This is a much better book. I'll just put it in a bag for you so Joe won't ask questions.”

The two men return at the same time, Joe smoothing his trousers with his hands, Monster—David—holding a paper bag.

“Okay, we're gone,” says Joe. He points to the bag. “What's that?”

“A birthday gift.” David places the bag in your hands. “Welcome to the world, Gwen Davies.”

BOOK: The Sweetheart
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