Esther lived in corners. And behind the backs of armchairs. In the black and white shadows cast by the TV which Ma sat in front of all day. Saturday afternoons was wrestling—Ma’s favourite—and the other kids, the other ‘no-hoper-kids’ the ‘wargs of the state’ all gathered round to watch.
‘That’s the Black Bomber,’ Ma would shout. ‘Sergeant Nitro. The Masked Intruder,’ she would shriek and holler from her sunken nicotine throne. Haloed in cigarette smoke—powder blue and sulfurous yellow.
Esther was a mark, a low-carder; the perpetual victim of the rowdy, hyped up boys and their fighting ways. Clotheslines, DDT’s, backbreakers, German suplexes, powerslams and piledrivers—all meted out on thin mattresses and worn out sofas. ‘Roughhousing,’ Ma called it.
To Esther, all the names of all the moves just sounded like fear, tasted metallic. Like the cat spatula, which Ma used to make scrambled egg on a Sunday and to fling pieces of shit out of the cat’s litter tray into the yard.
Esther liked the cat though, his name was Arnold and, well, he’d curl up at the foot of Esther’s bed, on the rare nights when no one came. Arnold was her tag-team partner.
When there was no wrestling on TV, and when Ma took to drinking—which was most days—Ma liked to pick two kids to fight in front of her. She’d make everyone gather round and chant FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! while the two chosen contestants duked it out. Ma knew which kids had a mean streak, and she knew which ones didn’t really want to fight. So she’d put them together. Said it was ‘character building’ for the weaker kids. Ma liked to be entertained, so you’d better look as though you were really trying and make it a good fight otherwise you’d be in even worse trouble.
When Esther was picked, she made a big show of whirling her arms around to try to land a blow, but she rarely succeeded, and she was always pinned eventually. Esther had come to know only too well, that it’s damn near impossible to shift the weight of a teenage boy once he’s lying on top of you.
‘Quit daydreaming and fetch Uncle Charlie’s Bicycle,’ said Ma one afternoon, and Esther flinched at the sound of Ma’s words—they all sounded like wrestling moves. ‘Then you get your ass to the store and get me a fifth of bourbon and a carton of smokes.’ Esther wasn’t sure what those things were.
Uncle Charlie lived next door. He wasn’t Esther’s real Uncle any more than Ma was her real Ma. Uncle Charlie was a ‘Handy Man’, which sounded to Esther like a wrestling name. The Handy Man was one of the good guys, a ‘face’. The others were bad guys or ‘heels’ and she had names for them too; The Angry Principal, The Curtain Jerker, The Night-Time Visitor.
Uncle Charlie was kind. He’d taken Esther to the drug store on the day Esther had seen the blood in her underwear. She’d found blood there before, but this time it was different, because it just appeared all on its own. Ma said it was Esther’s own fucking problem and if she was old enough to bleed, well then she could damn well fix it herself.
Uncle Charlie knew what to ask for at the drugstore, and he told Esther to hide the box in her room for next time.
The Handy Man was out back in his woodshed, and Esther walked across the yard to ask him for the bicycle.
‘Sure you can borrow it any time, but first—come inside girl, I want to talk to you.’
Esther stood still, she didn’t know if she should go in to the woodshed with The Handy Man, even though she liked him.
‘Well now don’t be afraid girl,’ said The Handy Man, ‘just come on in here.’
As always, Esther did as she was told. She stepped in to the woodshed, which was warm and smelt of sawdust and tobacco, just like Uncle Charlie.
‘You love Jesus?’
Esther nodded, like she knew she was supposed to, and this seemed to make Uncle Charlie happy.
‘Good. You like the wrestling on TV?’
Esther shook her head from side to side, looked down at the wood shavings on the dusty floor.
‘Me neither. It’s fake you know, all of it. It ain’t real, but you gotta admire the theatricality of it. You know that word, theatricality?’
Esther thought she did, but she was just a dumb little girl, that’s what Ma said. So she stayed quiet.
‘It means wrestling is all about timing. Timing, and winning the crowd. Me, I likes fishing. Fishing is about patience and perseverance. You run along now to the store or they’ll be a hiding waiting on you from Ma.’
There was always a hiding waiting from someone, Esther thought. She started thinking about Jesus, and she heard The Baptist Preacher saying ‘Jesus Saves! Christ is your saviour!’ But Christ was no saviour for Esther. She thought about the wrestler on the canvas—face contorted in pain and suffering—trapped in a figure-four leg lock or a Boston Crab. All he had to do was submit. Just tap out and it’d all be over, the bell would ring and the fight would end. But Esther couldn’t even tap out. For her there was no bell and there was no saviour.
Esther thought about the words Uncle Charlie had said to her as she rode the bicycle to the store, at first they didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.
Patience and perseverance. Esther got the smokes and the liquor from the store, and when she got back to the house, she took the elbow-drops and the flying-knees and the stink-faces and the full-nelsons and she let Ma call her a dumb little whore when she found the box in her room.
Winning the crowd. Esther smiled and told the Angry Principal that she’d just gone and blackened her own eye, that she was always so clumsy even though it was Ma who’d bounced her head repeatedly off the turnbuckle.
She smiled at Ma through all of it, and she choked down Ma’s rancid cat-shit eggs on Sundays.
Timing. She waited under bedsprings and kitchen tables, learned to play possum. Then one afternoon, when the boys were out in the yard and Ma was asleep in her armchair, Esther took her chance. She tiptoed out from the shadows and snuck up behind old Ma. The one wrestling move she had learned best was the sleeper hold, and she clamped it down on Ma’s neck before she even woke up, gripping on tight for all her life.
Esther knew that wrestling was fake, but there was nothing fake about the way Ma’s legs kicked and spasmed as Esther held on to her neck. There was nothing more real than the way Ma gurgled and drooled as Esther crushed the breath right out of her jerking body. Ma scratched at Esther’s forearms, tearing away strips of red-raw flesh. But Esther didn’t feel the pain of it, for she’d learnt to feel nothing at all.
Esther rolled back exhausted on to the canvas. She reached up from the mat and tagged her partner Arnold into the match, pulling herself up on the ropes. And to the roar of a thunderous crowd, the two victors left the arena as the bell finally rang, Esther the Shadow Girl and Arnold the Protector, riding away on Uncle Charlie’s bicycle.
He did say she could borrow it any time, and she hoped he wouldn’t miss it too badly.