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Evangeline & The Wrestlers

Spikes of sunlight pierced through Evie Rose’s thin jacket and pinned her to the unyielding concrete beneath her feet.

 

Her eyes narrowed the world to what she could see through the wide window of the wrestling gym: the two combatants struggling to outmaneuver one another. Their power, their visible power, in apparent balance.

 

Evie absorbed the movements of the grappling men—their intense focus on one another, their arms locked in intimate embrace, drips of sweat mingling on their brows as they leaned their heads against one another. She studied their feet, how lightly they shifted, maneuvering to stay upright, and how, once down, they torqued their bodies, calculating their opponent’s weakness.

 

She peered into their faces. In the eyes of the man on the right Evie recognized a minute shift, a shock of fear trembling through him. Her own body stiffened, bracing for danger.

The referee’s whistle released the men and they rose, stepped away from one another. When they had retreated to separate sides of the mat, she exhaled. Then her brain began sending signals to her body: “Time to go. Cort’s waiting.”

But Evie did not move until the jostle of a bag-laden woman passing behind awoke her to her surroundings. The slam of a car door, the rumble and wheeze of a bus slowing to a stop at the corner to her right. Evie’s fixed gaze finally gave way and she looked down at her feet. She recognized the worn bulge on the outside of her left shoe where the leather had conformed to the shape of her bunion.

 

Tentatively she lifted her heels and rose up the slightest bit onto her toes; she took a couple of dancing steps in the manner of the men in the window. She clenched, unclenched the coils of her fists. She bit hard on her back teeth.

Letting out a stale sigh, Evie stretched her fingers wide apart. Her nails were chewed to the quick; the soft flesh at the very tips of her fingers was raw.

 

Finally, she turned her back to the window and rejoined the bustling city. Repositioning the frayed strap of her purse on her shoulder, she looked around her and inhaled the city perfume of diesel exhaust and smog; then she walked away from the sight of men engaged in physical struggle.

 

Evie needed to get back home.

 

She needed to hurry. She’d wasted too much time standing there like an idiot. When she got home Cort’s face would be hard; he would scream at her. “Damn it, Evie!” His voice echoed in her mind as she rushed down the street to the grocery. “Where the hell have you been? Who have you been flirting with?”

 

Cort couldn’t help that he loved her and wanted her to himself. He needed her. Since he lost this last job, he needed her even more. She repeated these words to herself, mantra-like, intended to calm.

 

Evie Rose ran the last block.

The glass door of City Foods automatically swung open to welcome her. She picked up a green plastic basket from the stack and stood a moment catching her breath. Then she tightened her jaw and headed for the cereal aisle. Evie put a box of Cort’s favorite Crispy Coco Puffs in the basket. She’d manage without her Cheerios for another week. Milk—whole, none of that “filthy blue crap” she’d brought home once. Lesson learned. Then to the freezer section. It was expensive and gave her heartburn, but Cort loved his frozen pepperoni pizza. She hesitated by the beer aisle; she couldn’t go home without it. Calculating totals in her head, Evie pulled her wallet out of her purse, counted.

 

At the check stand, she held her hand out for the few coins of change, picked up the brown paper bag in one hand and the six-pack in the other. As she exited the store she made a decision. She turned right, going the longer way, the way that did not take her past the wrestling gym.

 

The apartment smelled like it always did--mold mixed with the tang of Cort’s aftershave. Evie had gotten used to stepping over the loose threads in the carpet and had given up on trying to clean the yellowed linoleum on the kitchen floor.

 

Cort stood in the bedroom doorway, shirtless. Evie recognized the impatience of his muscled arms and her body threatened to betray her with a longing flush. She turned her head, erasing him from her line of sight. Behind him a TV announcer was screaming about the Bayonne Bruiser, “He’s over the ropes again! He’s taking this battle into the stands. Watch out for flying chairs!”

Cort loved those fake wrestlers. Evie bit her lip.

“Where the hell have you been?” Cort’s voice echoed the scene that had played in her head. Cort’s voice, she reminded herself, not Dwayne’s.

 

“The lines were long. Sorry. Got your pizza and your Coco Puffs.” Offering a meager, pleading smile, she set the beer and the bag of groceries on the counter. Cort stuck his hands in the back pockets of his jeans and took a few deliberate steps until he stood in front of her. “I’m late for work,” she said and started for the door.

 

He put an arm out to block her way. He moved up tight against her body, pushing her back against the kitchen counter, and stood there, his face so close all she could hold in focus was his mouth, the line of his pink lips.

 

Evie knew better than to speak. The heat of his body engulfed her. She closed her eyes.

 

Cort grabbed the hair on the back of her head; her short curls barely filling his hand. He jerked her head back and stared down at her. “You need to move faster, then, don’t you?” he whispered.

 

He held her there a long moment. The announcer shouted from the bedroom “It’s pandemonium here, folks! The crowd is going crazy!”

 

Cort opened his hand and released her. Evie pushed herself up and walked slowly to the door. She did not look back at him. She took hold of the doorknob and turned it, pulled the door open, and stepped out. She closed the door behind her and, slowly, let her breath out.

~

 

In the back of The Second Time Around, by the loading dock, Martha was waiting to take her break. Also waiting were the piles of discarded clothes, smelling of other people’s sweat and of rich perfume and cigarette smoke. Overstuffed plastic garbage bags filled with the most recent donations leaned against the wall of the building. Martha and Evie shared the job of sorting through these piles and bags, finding the pieces with holes and ugly stains—the ones too ruined for another go round—and pulling them from the stack. These, Evie knew, were headed for pulping; they’d be ground down into unrecognizable shreds and made into cheap carpeting to be walked over, stomped on.

 

As soon as Evie stepped out onto the loading dock, Martha headed down the concrete steps to the side, landing on the gravel driveway. She leaned against a utility pole a few steps away and pulled a Bic from her pocket. Waving the unlit cigarette in her hand, Martha teased her friend. “You know how I worry when you’re late, Evie.”

 

“Yeah. I slept in.”

 

Martha caught the edge of sarcasm in Evie’s voice, looked up at her, shrugged. The two women had met the first night Evie spent in the shelter, that distant time she tried to leave Cort. Martha had looked her new roommate over and concluded, “Well, it’s about time you got away from that dirt bag. Good for you.”

 

Evie was stunned at this woman’s apparent clairvoyance, her ability to voice exactly what Evie was feeling. But it soon became apparent that Martha’s greeting was generic and universally comforting to any woman who found her way to that desperate sanctuary.

 

It hadn’t been long before Cort tracked her down. A week had passed when she saw him through the thrift store window, watched his hands shake as he lit a cigarette. He looked lost, confused. When it came down to it, she was relieved by his offer of another chance. A few days after she returned, he made sure she understood: if she ever tried to leave again, he would go straight to the police and tell what he knew.

“I walked past a wrestling gym this morning.” Evie looked down at Martha. The vision of those men moving against each other, the sensation of her own muscles twitching in sympathy—Evie wanted to erase it all. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the images stayed vivid.

 

Martha lit her cigarette and took a deep drag. “Yeah? That one on Folsom? Isn’t that wild? I always want to just stand there and watch those guys, but it feels a little…you know…perverted or something.”

 

Evie nudged the bag closest to her with the toe of her shoe. “It caught me by surprise. I don’t usually walk past there.”

 

Martha stared up at her friend, exhaled a cloud and squinted her eyes against the smoke. “You ok?”

 

“Cort watches that WWF wrestling. Those jerks—pretending to be dangerous.” She gave the bag another shove. “But those guys in the window were different.”

Martha grinned. “Yeah.”

 

Evie knew what Martha was thinking, but it wasn’t the sexuality that had caught her, held her on the street, staring. It was the recognition of the gut-clench of fear, fear morphing into violence.

 

~

At five years old, Evie Rose pressed the heels of her hands against her ears and hummed Baa Baa Black Sheep as her father struck his fist against his open palm and threat leaked from his mouth. At ten, she screamed at her father to “Stop it! Stop it!” and then she ran to the neighbors in her bleach-blotched Minnie Mouse sleeping shirt and her bare feet. Her father dragged her home and tormented her with his silent fury and the calloused palms of his grasping hands. At 13, Evie begged her mother to leave. By 15 she’d given up and lied about her age to get a job waiting tables at a diner; she worked the late shift.

 

Her mother’s name was Evangeline and she hid herself beneath faded housedresses with long sleeves; her red, swollen hands were never still. She took her comfort from stolen cigarettes, smoked in hidden corners. This Evangeline had given up on fear long before her daughter was born; she’d become numb to her own adrenalin and more like a worm than like the mouse that her husband insisted she was. When Dwayne slapped her with his open palm, the weight of his thick ring clunking against her cheekbone, she dropped to the floor and rolled onto her stomach; in the first year of their relationship she had learned the danger of looking him in the eye. Back then, it was worth a few bruises to get the tender, tear-filled apologies the next day, to hear her husband berate himself and swear to never hurt her again. No one had ever spoken to her with such love before she met Dwayne.

 

The baby was born, and Evangeline named her Evangeline Rose; she called her Rosie, but Dwayne called her Evie, the Evil One, and that stuck. He took photos of his darling girl to the office; buddies patted his back and took him out for drinks.

When Dwayne pinned his 15-year-old daughter to the wall and whispered, “filthy whore,” his spit soaking into her shirt, Evangeline watched from the doorway, tears on her cheeks, a nicotine-stained finger pressed hard against her lips. Evie Rose did not say a word; she kept her eyes down and trembled until her father released her.

 

Back then, when Evie showed up at the diner for her shift, Claudia, the woman who ran the kitchen and wore her gray hair pulled into a taut bun on top of her head, would smile at her and ask, “How’s my sweet Evie Rose this fine day?”

 

Every day was fine in Claudia’s world and most days Evie pretended she lived in that same world, replying “Fine, thank you.” The way she imagined a good girl would do.

 

At 16 Evie began stowing her tip money in a tampon box.

 

One night, when the box had gotten too small, she brought her savings with her to work. She answered Claudia’s greeting question, “Not so good.” She met Claudia’s eyes and declared, “I’m not going back there.”

 

In the story Evie Rose told Claudia, the police refused to do anything. And her mother couldn’t keep her safe.

 

The fact was Evie had never called the cops, never would. Her mother had begged her not to. “They’ll take him away and what will I do? We’d lose the house, everything.”

 

But Evie Rose knew it wouldn’t matter anyway; her father had a way with words. People believed he was a good guy. But Evie wouldn’t go back there.

Claudia lost her smile. “Well, sweetie, if you want, you can stay with me. He’ll probably come here first thing looking for you, but I’m a good shot.”

 

A laugh, sharp and surprising, burst from Evie’s mouth.

 

“I’m not kidding, sweetie.” Then Claudia pointed her wrinkled index finger at the door and cocked her thumb. “Ker pow! And it’s all over. My pleasure.”

 

Evie bit her lips together hard to stop the wild jostling inside her. She wrapped her arms around her waist and bent over. The laughter rocked her body until tears streamed down her face.

 

~

Claudia had a brother who owned a hotel on the coast about 100 miles south. He could be kind of gruff, but he wasn’t a bad guy. If Claudia asked, he’d give Evie a job and a small room if she didn’t mind sharing with the other maids.

Evie Rose was fine with gruff.

 

In her new job, she scrubbed toilets and changed sheets and felt safe.

 

Claudia’s brother had a son, Cort, who also worked at the hotel, sweeping the hallways and keeping an eye on what the girls were doing. Cort kept a particularly close eye on Evie.

The first time she ran into Cort in the narrow passage between the laundry and the kitchen, Evie Rose could feel his dark eyes roving over her body. His funny, lopsided grin made her put a hand out to steady herself.

“Excuse me,” was all he said. A gentleman. Then he turned and walked away from her. He wore cowboy boots with heels that announced his step and made his hips move like an invitation. Evie pictured dancing with him, twirling under his arm, sliding her body against his, her feet following those boots.

 

She did her work and watched for him. She knew when he’d been in a room ahead of her--the sharp sweetness of his aftershave set off a prickling under her skin.

 

He learned her name, but did not use it often. When he caught her with her arms full of dirty sheets, he would smile and push past her a little too close. Sometimes he whispered (she thought it was him, not her own voice in her head) “Nice.”

But in her bed at night, when Evie thought about the cute twist of Cort’s smile, memories of her father’s mouth on her uncoiled from the darkness.

 

After half a year, Claudia called. “Your mother showed up here. She wants to talk to you.”

 

A sharp breath. “Does she know where I am?”

 

“I didn’t say a word. Not to her and not to that asshole of a father you’ve got.”

 

Claudia had checked up on Evie in the first weeks at the hotel, but they hadn’t spoken since. Claudia worried too much contact would make it hard for her to keep Evie’s whereabouts secret. “I nearly did shoot him, you know. First time he showed up here acting like he owned the place yelling ‘Where’s my god damned daughter?’

 

He grabbed a chair and threw it across the room. Scared my customers half to death. That was all I needed. I picked up the gun and pointed it at him. Told him ‘I got a nice bunch of witnesses here who know I’m acting in self-defense.’ That shut him up and he didn’t come back.” Claudia laughed. “That was fun. But now your mom’s

looking pretty frantic.”

Evie Rose agreed to call the diner on Thursday at 5. Claudia would tell Evangeline to be there.

 

###

 

“I figured you’d want to know.” Evangeline’s voice sounded strange, unfamiliar.

 

“Mom, are you ok?” Though Evie had never known her mother to be ok.

 

The pause of exhaled smoke. “Oh, well. It’s not easy, but he won’t last long. The doctors say they can’t do anything. Can you imagine that? Nothing.” Evangeline sang these last words and Evie realized the strangeness in her mother’s voice was hope.

 

“Do you … does he want me…” Evie wondered if she should go home, if she should make some sort of effort, if she should try to forgive him. Her hand held the phone like a weapon, her knuckles turning white.

 

“Says he does, but he doesn’t deserve you. You got yourself out of here. You stay away.” Then her mother said, “When it’s over, I’ll come see you.”

 

Evie breathed again. “Okay.”

 

But Dwayne was stubborn in his dying. Six months passed after that phone call and he still lived.

 

Evangeline called again. “He can’t do much except shoot off his damn mouth. Doctor keeps saying it’s any day now.” Her lightheartedness had faded.

 

Since she’d first heard about her father’s illness, Evie had gotten a notion to go home wearing her new fearlessness. To see him one last time and not cower.

Cort asked why she was leaving. “My dad’s dying. Mom needs me.”

“Give me your number. I’ll come by.” His father wouldn’t let him date the girls who worked at the hotel. “Once you leave, we could go out.” He grinned.

 

“I don’t know. I’ll be pretty busy.” She couldn’t look him in the eye.

 

“Look,” he said softly, “I’ll give you a little time. But I want to see you.” He handed her a pad of paper and a pen with the hotel logo on it.

 

As she wrote the number, her hand shook.

 

~

Evie stepped into her childhood home, into the slap of bitterness that rang in the red air. She was knocked back by the undigested pain that rose in her throat. The courageous swagger she’d practiced turned mincing and failed her.

 

The sprouting hope she had heard in her mother’s voice was wilted now. Evangeline slunk through the house, clinging to the walls, dragging her shriveled shadow behind her. Dwayne’s impotent fury took up every inch of open space.

 

A week into her stay, Evie looked at her reflection in the bathroom mirror and gasped. Her eyes had sunk deep into purple rings and resignation puckered her lips. She looked as old as her mother.

“Get in here, bitch.” Her father’s voice, reduced by the thing that was eating him from inside, still stung. She walked out of the bathroom, stood a moment in the hallway, staring at the wall where he had held her as she trembled years before. She pulled herself tall. She forced her shoulders back and balled her fingers into fists.

 

“What do you want?” She snarled. That morning Evie had insisted that her mother go outside, even if only to sit on the porch steps and smoke in peace.

“Just get in here,” the voice demanded.

 

One, two, three. Evie stood in the hall and counted to herself. She would not run to him. She would make him wait. He did not have the strength to walk or even to raise his hand. She would make him beg.

 

Four, five, six. “Where the hell are you?” His voice was getting weaker. Evie thrilled to hear it. “God damn cunt! What good are you?”

 

Seven, eight, nine. How long could she stand there? Longer. A good while longer. Ten, eleven, twelve.

 

A groan, then the loud thump of a heavy weight hitting the floor.

 

Still she resisted the urge to rush in. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Silence.

 

Finally, Evie Rose advanced. In slow motion, her feet savoring the familiar creaks in the floor, her fingertips tapping along the dusty wall, she neared his room. At the open door she stopped. He lay on the floor, sprawled between the bed and the chair where he had spent the last days stewing in his own vile juice.

 

His eyes were closed. Beads of sweat glistened on his brow. His chest rose and fell in a relentless rhythm. He did not move. He did not speak.

 

She stepped closer to him. She held her breath, lifted her foot a few inches and moved it forward so that the toes of her shoe touched the bare sole of his foot.

 

Nothing.

 

She swung her foot forward with a bit more pressure. Nothing.

 

She placed her foot back on the floor and inhaled deeply. She could not look away from his chest, from the shallow rise and fall.

Bile came up in her throat. She started to turn away but thought better of it. She pushed the chair aside and moved around to his head, nudging his arm as she did. His hand rocked limply like a sea creature passively waving in hopes of seducing its prey. She stood above his face and tasted wrath as it pooled on her tongue. She drew her head back and flung the spittle into his eyes.

 

He did not move.

 

Evie Rose heard the front door open. “Mom,” she called. “It’s over.”

 

But it wasn’t. Not yet.

 

Evie’s mother stood in the doorway, her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with terror.

 

“It’s ok, Mom. He’s not dead, but I think he hit his head or had a stroke or something. He can’t move.” Evie Rose was still looming over her father’s body, a dribble of spit hanging from the corner of her mouth.

 

Evangeline let her hand drop and she took a deep breath. “Are you sure he can’t move?”

 

“Come over here. Look at this.” Evie Rose lifted her foot and gave her father a hard kick in the ribs.

 

Her mother gasped.

 

“Go ahead, Mom. It’s safe now.”

 

Evangeline slowly shook her head as she stared down at her husband. She stood there for several seconds, not moving. Then a deep growl began to work its way up from the depths of her chest. A wild animal giving warning, she began to hiss. Evie watched her mother’s shoulders rise toward her ears, her lips pulled back, and she lunged, falling on Dwayne’s immobile body, her hands like claws, scratching and digging into his flesh. Evie’s foot rose of its own accord. As her mother clawed at him, Evie kicked him again and again.

In a short while—or maybe it took hours—both women were spent.

 

Evangeline pushed herself off of him. Evie stepped back. Dwayne’s chest continued to rise and fall.

 

The two women looked into each other’s eyes. “I’m finished.” Evangeline said, then stepped across her husband’s body and leaned down to grab the pack of cigarettes and lighter from his nightstand. Staring into his face, the older woman drew a cigarette from the pack and lit it. She bent down and blew a cloud of smoke into Dwayne’s unblinking eyes. Then she turned and walked from the house.

 

Her mother left the front door unlatched and did not return. But Evie stayed there all afternoon, staring at her father’s chest till it sank and did not rise again. A chill blew down the hallway and settled around Evie’s shoulders.

That was the first time Cort rescued Evie. It was dark and she was slumped against the bedroom wall, hugging her knees. She recognized the sound of Cort’s boot heels on the porch. She heard the door swing open to his touch.

 

“You gotta call the cops, “ Cort insisted when he recognized death in the room with her. Then he looked closely at Dwayne, this father whose fury Cort knew of only through Evie’s quivering withdrawal from his own caresses. “What happened here?” He held up a finger—this was not a question for Evie. “Let’s see.” He began pacing back and forth in front of Evie. “The mother-fucker had a knife, didn’t he? Took it from his plate at dinner, right? You got close to help him to the shitter or the bed or somethin’, right? He tried somethin’, put the knife to your throat. Clear as day. Self-defense. What could you do? He fought you. Stronger than anyone thought. Strong but nasty.” He stopped in front of her. Reached his hand out and helped her stand. “Got it? Your mother won’t say nothing, will she?”

 

Evie shook her head. The need for all this had not occurred to her. She would have to explain the damage to her father’s body. Cort’s manufactured tale did not feel like a lie between her teeth; it was only false in its chronology.

 

“We wore ourselves out beating him,” is what she would have told the police, if Cort hadn’t rescued her.

 

~

Evie Rose reached for one of the black plastic bags and stretched the opening wide. She sighed as she pulled out a threadbare housedress, its pattern faded to grey. Bunching the garment into her fist, Evie growled. Then she buried her face in the cloth and started to cry.

 

Martha climbed up the steps and stood next to her friend. She put her arm around Evie’s quivering shoulders. Her smoky breath crawled through Evie’s hair, trailing its familiar scent.

 

At the end of her shift, Evie hugged Martha goodbye and climbed onto her homeward bound bus. Wedged into a seat, she let her eyes drift closed. Her mind was crowded with images of Claudia, her finger pointed, her thumb cocked; of her mother huddled in a dark corner, a cigarette cupped in her hand; and the sensation of Martha’s arm on her shoulder.

At the next stop she got off the bus and as darkness sank down to lay upon the city streets, Evie walked till she stood again in front of the gym. In the window two men hunched together, struggling in the dimming light. Evie searched for the blush of contact on their bodies, the fierce intent in their eyes. She stared until she saw fear join them on the mat.

 

Behind her the street lights flashed on, Evie Rose watched as her own shadow slid across the circle where the men grappled, then she turned her back to the window. Taking one deep breath, Evie stepped forward into the world.

Based in the USA · Serving Students and Readers Worldwide

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© 2020 by Deborah Nedelman