After 12 hours of fast food and freeways, I reached the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina. I pulled over to the side of the road and checked my map. This couldn't be right. No way a professional lady wrestler's school would be stuck in a little suburban neighborhood like this. But there it was, amidst the single-story ranchers, the block-long Moolah Drive.
A quick left turn and I was on a driveway just past the brick gate. A tiny woman in a stretch pants was setting down bowls of food for a pair of white German Shepherds and a scrawny poodle. Another woman, with dark circles under her eyes, scowled at me from the sky blue Cadillac she was buffing. Not exactly a warm welcome.
Behind them, a plantation-style house stood at the edge of a small lake. To the right of the house loomed a large boxy building. Looking at its padlocked black door made me feel itchy. I must've sensed something because I would spend the next six months in that building learning how to wrestle and developing a whole new relationship with pain.
I walked over to introduce myself to the strange duo but got distracted by a petite woman in a sparkly blue top in a doorway behind them. She did an excited little hop and waved me over. Though the welcome committee hadn’t actually greeted me, I thanked them and turned towards the house.
“You must be Pippi. I’ve been expecting you,” the woman said. The “you” came out like “yew” in her thick southern accent. She held open the screen door with a hand encrusted with flashy rings. One of them, a diamond-studded dollar sign, matched a long gold medallion that swung from her neck and disappeared into deep cleavage. A wall of White Shoulders perfume hit me and I automatically began to breathe through my mouth.
Was this world famous Fabulous Moolah? She was old and small, her face was a doodle drawn by a bored teenage girl. Penciled in eyebrows arched over tiny eyes. Dark red lipstick stuck to her front teeth in the middle of a mask of pancake makeup. Full war paint at home? Surely, this was not for my benefit.
“How was your drive, sugar?” she said, looking over my shoulder. With the flick of her finger, she caught the attention of the woman who’d been buffing the block-long car. “Donna, finish the car.
Darlene can show our new girl where she’ll be staying. I’m just going to have a little chat with her first.” She gestured me into the house. The tiny woman followed closely on my heels.
“Welcome hon. I’m Moolah but you can call me Lillian if you like. Lillian Ellison.” She gestured towards the living room, leading me past shelves of angels, owls, and unicorns. Tacky times ten. Heavy red velvet curtains banished the blistering afternoon sun and the air conditioner was on full blast.
She trailed scarlet-tipped fingers along the back of the zebra-striped circular couch framed by a pair of red bordello lamps. Moolah moved to what was obviously her regular seat. Two magazines, Home and Gardens and Ringside, lay on the table next to an icy drink. She patted the seat next to her.
She took a long sip. "You thirsty?" I shook my head but she ignored me.
“Get this girl a Coke. I know she’s thirsty after that long drive," she called to the diminutive woman in the kitchen. “That’s Darlene, my damned midget.” I held my tongue, uncertain whether this was an insult or a joke.
The tiny, muscular woman yanked a can of Coke from the fridge and, before I knew what was happening, threw it at me. I gasped and snatched it from the air just before it smashed into my head. I set it on the coffee table and carefully popped the top.
“Darlene, dammit. Bring her a glass of ice too," Moolah scolded.
“So, are you ready to get started?" She clicked her long nails along her glass.
I didn’t respond right away. I was mesmerized by a black and white photo of a much younger, much prettier Moolah bookended by Elvis Presley and another man in a white cowboy hat. The men towered over her and she had them both around the waist. She followed my gaze to the photo.
“I liked Elvis right fine but Hank Williams, Sr., was my special buddy," Moolah said. She paused and twiddled her ice with her index finger.
"We might still be together if he wasn't such a bad drinker. It’s sad really. We could’ve made beautiful music together,” she said, nodding to the guitar case in the corner. “Sometimes, I think if I hadn't gone into wrestling, I’d of been a country 'n western singer.” She didn't appear to require a response from me so I sipped my drink and listened.
"Now, my first husband was a real looker. He had real broad shoulders and a tiny waist, shaped just like a V. We got along fine at first, but he wanted me to stay home and be his little wifey. But I wanted my own money so I got into wrestling. That’s how I met my second husband, Buddy Lee. You ever heard of him? He was a big time promoter in Nashville.”
"He gave a lot of people their start. He was into wrestling and then later got into country music. You ever hear of Garth Brooks or Tricia Underwood?" I shook my head. Country music had been banned by my mom, who’d heard way too much of it growing up in a small town in Oklahoma.
"Anyway, we got married. Things were pretty good for a while but then I realized that he thought he was smarter than me," Moolah said, a crease developing between her eyebrows. "He told my girls to dress in short skirts and scream when his talent entered the arena.” From the kitchen, came the clatter of Darlene slamming the silverware drawer shut.
"I told him, ‘Don't mess with my girls.’ I know we're married but this is business. I won't have you telling my girls what to do.’ He was smoking a cigar and, when I said that, he reached over and tapped his ash right onto that coffee table right there.” She pointed to a half-inch scuff in the veneer.
“I saw red when he did that. I grabbed the telephone and wrapped the cord around his neck three times and then I pulled on it real hard," she said, miming the action.
"He got real focused when I did that. I told him, ‘Listen, you little fucker, don't you ever disrespect me in my own house. I bought and paid for this place with my own money and I won't have some jackass treating me bad in it. Not even someone I’m married to.’ He was turning blue when I let go of the cord. I didn't see him for three months after that argument. And that was just to finish up the divorce.”
She sighed. "Men are more trouble than they're worth," she said. "How about you? Did you leave anybody behind in Tampa?" She looked at me.
I took a sip of my drink and thought for a second. “Nobody important.” I thought about the cute guys I’d be been dating but there had been no one I’d change my plans for. I gathered my courage.
“I was curious about something. When I called to ask you about getting trained, why’d you ask me if I was a lesbian?” She shifted in her seat.
“Well, I shouldn’t tell you this but I had a couple of girls get involved with each other last year. They ended up leaving me. I don’t care who has sex with who but I can’t afford to lose my girls. It takes too long to break them in,” Moolah said.
I changed the subject. "So you got into wrestling to make money, but how'd you get into it in the first place?" I asked.
“Darlene, get me another Coke," she yelled at her tiny servant. When she'd refilled her glass, she turned to me.
"I got started real early.” Moolah explained that she'd been raised not far from where we were sitting in a whistle-stop town called Tookiedoo.
“I had 12 older brothers. I don’t know how my momma did it. Anyway, she died when I was eight. Things went downhill after that,” she said. “My dad did the best he could but he had his hands full just keeping us fed. Once in a great while, he’d take me to the matches, just me and him. I saw Mildred Burke wrestle and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. You know who she is?”
I shook my head, biting the inside of my cheek.
"You don't know much, do you," she teased. "Well, she was one of the big glamour gals. She was a tiger in the ring but a lady when she stepped out of the dressing room.
”Moolah leaned back and laid her arm across the back of the sofa. “That’s how it was back in the day. You had to look your best outside the ring. Hair done, nice clothes.” She scratched the ears of her old poodle, her long nails trailing through the sparse fur. She closed her eyes and seemed to fall asleep.
I was sitting cross-legged, wondering if she’d wake back up, when Darlene came over and kicked my foot. “Time to go see your new home,” she said, herding me to the door.
The next morning, I woke in a panic. I couldn’t remember where I was. Squinting through my lashes, I recognized a hairy orange rug and a painting of a Japanese pearl diver, little pieces of home I’d brought with me. The events of the previous day fell into place and I stretched. From my nest of pillows, I surveyed the bedroom in the house I now called home. A built-in headboard had space for my books and the mattress wasn’t too bad. One of the few things Darlene deigned to tell me last night was that Moolah’d gotten a great deal on these duplexes from Fort Jackson, an army base that I’d passed on my way here.
The small house felt familiar and new at the same time. It was just like all the shabby homes we lived in early in my father’s military career. I never thought of them as lousy but my mother always pulled a face when she talked about their salad days. This is what I was after: a life outside the lines, divorced from the middle class lockstep of school and work, marriage and family, retirement and death.
I lolled for while longer, just taking it all in until the need to pee became unbearable. I padded into the kitchen, a 20’ by 20’ space defined by a gangrenous piece of linoleum. A pressed wood dinette table and four splay-legged chairs anchored the middle of the room. I walked to the bathroom, ignoring the grimy stove and fridge sprinkled with mouse droppings. I would have to chip the crud off the appliances but I wasn’t ready to think of that yet.
Before crashing the night before, I had unpacked my cheery red and yellow can of coffee and my stovetop expresso maker. I made myself a giant café con leche, adding a generous dollop of sweetened condensed milk I’d brought with me from Tampa. I’d cultivated a taste for this aromatic rocket fuel in Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood where Cuban cigar makers had rolled their way into smokers’ hearts 50 years before. Their dark-eyed progeny still filled the neighborhood with the spicy food and music that I loved.
I sipped my giant bowl of coffee and went out to the front steps. A slight breeze ruffled my brightly striped robe. From the porch, I could see identical little houses surrounding the lake. Midway through my second coffee, a family of ducks waddled towards a stand of pine trees near the lake.
They slipped into the water from a shore trail, the mom and dad ducks waiting until the half grown youngsters were fully launched before diving in themselves. I took that as my cue to dive into my own day.
I slipped on red running shorts and shoes and stretched my quads, balanced against the barrack’s warped wooden siding. I set out for a slow jog, heading counter-clockwise on the same path the ducks had followed. Across the lake, the three dogs barked from behind a white wood fence jigsawed in a sunrise motif.
A few minutes into my run, I noticed a pair of tall black boots airing on the steps of the house nearest mine. Black lycra tights and a red, white and black Nazi flag waved from a clothesline. I did a double take, the blood draining from my head.
I took a deep breath and got a grip on myself. This is just the beginning. You’re probably going to see a lot of heinous things, I told myself. You need to be an observer and pretend like it doesn’t bother you. Either that or give up the idea of doing a participatory journalism project where you write about being a real wrestler. It was my dream. All through college, I’d admired George Plimpton, a writer who’d made first-hand explorations of baseball, boxing, football and golf. The difference was, I wasn’t telling anyone what I was doing so I’d get the real unvarnished truth.
The curtains twitched and someone step back from the Nazi’s window. I started jogging again. Twenty strides away, a dozen cats hunched near the steps of the next duplex. I slowed to a walk and moved towards them with my hand outstretched. Dry cat food sat scattered in plastic margarine containers around the packed dirt yard. A thick haze of cat urine scorched the air. But these weren’t nice pussies. They hissed and flattened their ears and I moved away, a little faster on the trail. A bramble of blackberries twined in the gap between the cathouse and the next one on the other side of the lake. Thorny branches reached out across the path to snare me.
The house closest to Moolah’s manse was a cute pink trailer straight out of the 1950s. Someone had built boxy lean-tos onto the original structure, doubling its size. Next to the trailer’s side window slumped a baby blue Chevette, an air freshener shaped like a confederate flag hung from the review mirror. Wonder what that smells like, I thought, burning crosses?
I loped four times around the lake, gathering additional bits of information about the lady wrestlers who lived there. Racks of antlers hung from the porch rails of one duplex and, in another, Wayne Newton’s likeness curtained a front window. I tucked away these details for later inspection.
Back at home, I showered and changed from my sweaty duds. A little before 8, I headed to the workout ring. Butterflies flapped in my throat above my pounding heart. Several older women, probably in their early thirties, sat on a shaded bench next to Moolah’s house. Perched like birds on a telephone wire, they chittered among themselves and shot me looks over their coffee cups.
Yeah, I’m tall. Get used to it. I stood up straight and stuck out my chin. And then I tripped. Instead of falling all the way to the ground, I flailed and fought for balance. It was a classic pratfall. I looked like a complete klutz, which was pretty much the last impression I wanted to give.
“Oh, she’s going to be great in the ring,” one of them said. “The next world champion,” another woman guffawed. Blood rushed to my face and for a second I heard a roaring in my ears. They all laughed. I ignored them and kept walking to the training ring.
The one silver lining was that the women crowding into a sliver of shade on the west side of the training ring hadn’t witnessed my gaff. They were younger trainees like me. I was determined to make a better first impression with this group.
“Hi,” I said to no one in particular. My voice was higher than usual. I took a deep breath to calm down. Someone sniggered but no one said hi in return. I shrugged and began stretching my hamstrings.
Bent over in a toe touch, I heard, “You just got here, right?”
I peered up through my knees at a slender woman crowned with blond curls. I grinned at her and slowly straightened.
“Yep. I just got in yesterday,” I said. “How about you? You been here long?”
She giggled. “That’s kind of a long story. But the short answer is ‘no,’ this is not my first rodeo,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Angelle.”
“Pippi,” I said, shaking her hand. I waited for the inevitable comment about my nickname but she just smiled.
“What’s training like?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re in good shape. You’ll be fine. Just don’t piss off Donna.”
Before I could ask more, a heavyset woman in black leggings and a black t-shirt — the one who had been buffing the Caddy when I arrived -- pushed past us.
Angelle mouthed the word, “Donna.”
“Get out of the way,” she growled at a young woman, really no more than a teenager, who had been sitting with her back against the door. The girl hopped up and muttered, “Sorry,” and stepped out of the way. She was short with long dark hair pulled up in a messy ponytail. Her most distinguishing feature was a gargantuan bosom, impossible to ignore in her cut off Orange Crush t-shirt.
Donna opened the padlock and led us into the cavernous space. Butcher paper covered two small windows. She flicked on the light, which was no more than a bare bulb. The wrestling ring hovered in the middle of the room like a flying saucer.
A chunky woman jumped up on the ring’s apron, pulling the top rope in a show-boaty stretch. Taller than the buxom teen, her Callipygian proportions tested the elastic limits of a purple butt-floss leotard and a Wayne Newton t-shirt. I knew where she lived.
“That’s Lana,” Angelle whispered. “She’s a Mexican Mormon.”
“Good morning, ladies!” Lana enthused. “Are you ready to stretch? You’ll avoid injury if you just do 10 minutes of stretching before we start!”
Pairs of eyes rolled almost audibly to the ceiling. The big-bosomed teen mumbled, “Go fuck yourself.” Some of the girls made some half-hearted efforts to stretch.
“Lana’s annoying but harmless,” Angelle said. “I kind of feel sorry for her.”
We climbed into the ring and gathered in a semi-circle around Donna. It was my first time in a wrestling ring. I walked to the middle and gave it a tentative bounce. It bounced up and down at least three inches. The ring had a sweet spot, I realized, just like a tennis racket.
“What’s your name?” Donna asked. When I told her, she frowned.
“That’s a stupid name. I’m calling you Stretch,” she said. I shrugged. As long as I didn’t get on the bad side of this formidable woman, she could call me anything she wanted.
“We’re working on bumps today,” Donna said. “For those just starting out,” she looked at me. “I want you to do a handstand and let your legs carry you over. Land on your back with your knees up and head off the mat.”
To help distribute the impact, she told us to slap the mat hard with our arms extended in a palm-down crucifix position. “Make some noise, ladies,” she croaked with the whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. To rise up, she told us to rock forward with our legs crossed at the ankle. Momentum would propel us to a standing position, she said. Angelle demonstrated the move perfectly and then moved to the end of the line for another turn. I stood nervously behind Lana who managed quite a respectable bump despite her pulchritude.
How hard could it be? It’s like a handstand and then you go over, I told myself. My heart was racing when my turn came. I did a handstand and tried to send my legs over but they splayed in either direction, my head thumping hard on the canvas. It was harder than I expected. There were too many things to think about at the same time. The momentum that was supposed to propel me back up had fled. I went to the back of the line and tried again.
The teen was up next. She was short with a low center of gravity. Her bosom seemed to weigh her down and her bump was almost as disastrous as mine.
“How many weeks have you been here, screwup?” Donna said. “I’m talking to you Tammy. How long have I been showing you how to take a bump?”
“I’m trying. I’m really trying,” she whined.
“What did you say? I can’t understand you,” Donna shouted. “Get that gum out of your mouth. You want to choke to death?” She walked to the other side of the ring, shaking her head in disgust.
Tammy shot eye daggers at Donna’s back but swallowed the gum and joined the line behind the other girls.
This time, when I did the handstand I couldn’t convince my legs to go all the way over. I teetered on my hands, trying to go over and resisting the move. I finally just crumpled to the mat. Back to the end of the line.
I kept at it but couldn’t do a decent bump. An icy shard of dread crystallized under my solar plexus. Each bump hurt worse than the previous one. I fought the impulse to protect myself. The longer it went on, the tenser I became, making it even harder to perform what was supposed to be a simple move.
Two hours later, I limped home. Behind me, Donna reminded us to be back at four for another two hours of training. I grimaced but kept walking. I had barely made it through the morning practice. How would I survive?
At home, I kicked off my shoes and walked into the shower fully clothed. I soaped and rinsed my clothes and myself until the water ran cold. I walked stiff-kneed to the bed and fell into a coma, awakened by my growling stomach a couple of hours later.
I scarfed down a peanut butter sandwich, grateful for the provisions I’d brought with me. I was just rinsing my plate when someone knocked on my door. I opened it to a heavy blond woman in long basketball shorts.
“Hi, I’m Big Job,” she said. “I just wanted to introduce myself and see how you’re getting along. Actually, I was on my way to see if I could find someone to help with my hair,” she said, shaking a box of hair dye. She had such wide smile and open manner that I instantly liked her.
“I can help you with that,” I said. “Come on in.” She limped into the room.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s just a sprain,” she said, sitting down hard on a kitchen chair. It squeaked from the strain.
I gave her ankle a good look. A red bump pushed out at the top of her right ankle.
“I’m not sure that’s a sprain. I’ve had a lot of them and usually the whole ankle swells up. That looks like something else. A break maybe,” I said.
“Nah, I’m okay,” she said, dismissing my concern. “Got anything to drink?”
I poured water for us. After arranging the comb and dye on the table, I wrapped one of my towels around her wide shoulders.
“How long have you been here?” I asked, staring down into the mass of dark roots.
“I worked for Moolah up until five years ago when I got married. My husband wanted me home and that was fine at first,” Big Job said. “But I want to get back into the business before I’m too old. I need to lose a bunch of weight first so I do a lot of walking, mostly around the lake.” She crossed her legs.
“I help out with the new faces sometimes and she gives me a break on rent,” Big Job offered.
“New faces?” I asked.
“People who are just starting out, like you,” she said.
“Any advice on how to take a bump without killing myself?” I asked.
“Nah, just keep at it. It’s the most basic thing. Once you get that down, everything else will come easier. Just hang in there.”
After she left, I went back to the kitchen table and thought about it. I didn’t see how I’d survive training. Everything hurt. I gently touched the goose egg on the back of my head. The matt was padded but it wasn’t cushy like a mattress. Less worrying but still painful were my bruised elbows and aching (sprained?) ankles and calves. The idea of doing it for another two hours made me slightly nauseous. And this was just my first day. I almost sank under waves of panic. This was familiar territory. I often leapt into things too fast, my enthusiasm outpacing my good sense. But at 24, I knew how to handle this feeling.
I took a deep calming breath and closed my eyes. I imagined myself in a beautiful place, floating on a mountain lake in summer. I invented affirmations that might give me courage, “You are large and in charge and you will dominate the squared circle.” Too militaristic, I decided. I stood up and reached for the ceiling in a nice long stretch. I exhaled and moved my hands slowly to my hips. Arms akimbo, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “One good bump. One good bump.” One good bump and I’ll be over the hump.
Jeannine Mjoseth now works as the deputy communications director for the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health where she hardly ever has to bodyslam anyone. This story is a chapter in her first book that she'll publish in 2014.