Atalanta

By MEGAN CLARK

FICTION HONORABLE MENTION

When Toby, Beeville Junior High’s best wrestler, snatched George’s glasses off her face during study hall, George knocked his knees out from under him and pinned him to the concrete floor by sitting on his back. Their teacher, Ms. McGraw, fresh from college, told them not to move and rushed to get the principal. The principal, who was also the wrestling coach, took one look at the pair–George, her glasses back on, perched on top of a gasping Toby–and hustled them to his office.

George had never been in Coach Hines’ office before. A banner proclaiming “Beeville Lion Pride” hung above his door. Pictures of unsmiling wrestlers in gold and maroon uniforms lined the walls, and a large trophy sat behind his desk. Squinting through the smudges on her glasses, she could make out the date on the trophy–1998–the last year that the wrestling team went to state.

“What do you have to say?” Coach Hines asked, looking at George.

“He took my glasses, so I got them back. I asked for them back first.”

Coach glanced between George and Toby, tapping a pen on his desk. He asked her, “Could you do all of that, but on the mat, in a match?”

It hadn’t been too hard to knock him over; she’d liked gaining the upper hand. She looked over at Toby. He slumped down in his chair, and he didn’t look at her. Toby was a ninth grader with blond hair, a strong jaw, and wrestling medals. Nearly six individual medals from district. He was always talking about them. Well, she hadn’t meant to steal his glory.

George met the principal’s eye and nodded. “I guess I’d like to try.”

“Good. We’ll see how you do. Wrestling practice is at three, every day, right after final period. You can make that? Now don’t worry; Kingsville has a couple girls on their team. You’ll need to have your parents sign a few waivers about bodily harm and death, but that rarely happens. Very rare. We’ll get you something to wear until we can find you a girl’s uniform. All right?” Coach leaned back in his office chair. “No more fighting. Save that for later. You’ll take detention with Ms. McGraw at lunch today, and don’t give her any grief. You’ve done enough of that.”

She left the office in a daze, and Toby stalked off to the bathroom. Last year, George had shot, sprinted, and sweated for over two hours in basketball tryouts to be told she wasn’t good enough. Her dad shook his head at the news and told her maybe if she had practiced more like he’d said, then she’d have been given a jersey. But now she’d received her first detention and a spot on the wrestling team within minutes. Everything she knew about wrestling she’d seen on television, watching men clothesline and pile drive each other. George guessed that was a good enough place to start.

Up until now in the seventh grade, George hadn’t been good at anything. She was smart enough and looked average enough to avoid any real bad teasing, though that wasn’t always enough to save her. She got snickers for her name. Her mother watched too many soap operas and settled on Georgette after a busty redhead who pined for a man and his twin at the same time, but later forgot because she got amnesia. Her father soured on Georgette and shortened it to George. She was a bit taller than the boys in her grade, but so were most of the other girls. Her shoulders were solid. Her thighs made it hard for her to fit in the small, plastic desk seats. Her only pretty feature was her lips. They were a perfectly shaped cupid’s bow with defined edges. Her bottom lip was full, and she sometimes caught boys staring at her mouth.

However, those lips were all God graced her with. Her face was too round; her eyes too narrow. When irritated, George knew her eyes reduced to slits behind her glasses. Sometimes people in the halls would pull the corners of their eyes to their temples and cross their eyes at her. George cried about such an instance once. Then her father, during one of his brief visits home from hunting, sat her down and told her a story. Despite her stupid first name, as he put it, she could at least be proud of her last name. “Bernhard,” he said, “is German. Do you know what that means? Brave as a bear. Or bold as a bear. Or something about a bear. Listen, your grandpa didn’t put up with shit during the war for you to cry. They broke his windows out. You show those kids who you are and where you’re from.”

Now George’s dad came around when he felt like it. Most of the time, he hunted wild boars in the very south of Texas, so close to Mexico you could smell it, he’d tell her. He would nudge her shoulder and say, “Do you know what that smells like?” George would shrug; of course she didn’t, since she’d never left Beeville. She’d have had to drive over two hours to get a whiff of Mexico. After pausing for an answer, he’d lean in real close, squint at her, waiting for any strangers to walk by, then whisper, “Donkey shit and burritos.” Then he’d laugh like he’d told the best joke ever. George always chuckled, because she didn’t know what else to do. Her mother hated when he cussed in front of her, but George had heard her father say much worse.

Reluctantly, her mother signed the papers absolving the school of any responsibility should George suffer a brain injury or die during wrestling. She sighed as she handed them back over. Her mother, fresh from having her hair dyed blonde, kept fussing with George’s ponytail, trying to floof it higher and higher on her head.

“You know I don’t care for this one bit.”

“But you said last year I could play,” said George.

“That was when you tried out for basketball. This is rolling around with boys on the floor. There’s a difference.”

“I didn’t try out. They just offered it to me. They want me.”

“Did you say that you beat up that poor boy? What have we talked about?”

Scowling, George remained silent.

“Missy, what have we discussed?”

“Do unto others.”

“Right. Do we hit people in this household, Georgette?”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Exactly. Do like your daddy has to do – count to 10. He’d have killed half the staff on that ranch if he didn’t count to 10.”

Her mother turned away toward the living room. Her hands searched along the bottom shelf of the china cabinet for her cigarettes.

“When’s he coming home?”

“He hasn’t said. He’ll be around when he gets the time.” Her mother glanced up. “You know how he is.” Now she rifled around for her lighter amongst the pens in the junk drawer.

“So, I can do this?”

Her mother looked at the forms in George’s hands and nervously rattled the cigarettes in the pack. “I signed them papers, honey. I’ve signed you over. I’m sure your daddy will be happy to hear.”

Over the next several weeks, George sometimes wished that her mom had refused to let her be on the wrestling team. Coach remained as patient as he could with her. He’d gone over the mat setup, the points system, basic moves, and even his preferred pin moves. Coach grabbed her by the shoulders and screamed at her like everybody else if she messed up. George messed up a lot. Every practice hurt; it hurt the first day and even more the day after and the next. Each slap to the mat reverberated off the gym’s white cinderblock walls. The boys’ fingers dug into her ribcage. They inched up, pressing her sternum, flattening her breasts painfully with their palms. She’d try to unseat them, but their legs straddled her, keeping her immobile. Their breath would be loud in her ear, their thinner and leaner bodies pushing against her, forcing her to the ground. Their hands would grasp up high on her thigh, pinching her fat, and George would flush. As she lay panting on the floor, she felt anger and a strange ache wash over her.

Despite the fact it was fall, the gym’s air conditioning unit strained to cool the large space. Large wire industrial fans blew warm air across the court. George placed her pink, sweaty face in front of them between drills. Her teammates stood in line to take turns grappling. The gold lions on their uniforms all roared at her, showing sharp white teeth. She still didn’t have a jersey. The boys always laughed as she attempted to throw them. She chanted “brave as a bear, bold as a bear” in her head whenever they shoved her down so hard that her bones cracked or whenever they whispered in her ears about her small eyes or her large thighs. They kept grabbing at her, lingering on her breasts or backside. But George didn’t say anything. One word and they would win. She would press her palms against her eyes to keep from crying. She envisioned herself as a large black bear; she imagined claws sprouting from her fingers. She willed this strength into her limbs as she recovered on the bench, waiting her turn to take the mat.

As soon as her father walked through the front door, he smiled big and hugged around her waist. He smelled like sweet pine and sweat. “You did it,” he said. “Look at this. We’ve got a wrestler, Suzette. She’s done it.”

He dropped his bags by the kitchen table and George’s mom visibly stifled a comment as dirt fell off his boots. George couldn’t care less if he showed up covered in mud like a hog. He’d shown up.

“How’s practice? What can you do? Can you take me down yet?” he asked.

Feeling her cheeks redden, George told him about wrestling practice, the moves, how many bouts she’d nearly won until her mother interjected.

“You also got the best grade in algebra, didn’t you? For the whole class.”

“I mean, of course, she did. Always been smart. Remember when you won that spelling bee?”

George nodded. That had been a couple grades back. Her mother had dressed her in a horrible sunflower dress. After the spelling bee, she’d gotten to replace that dress with camouflage and sit in a deer stand. When she’d been even younger, her dad would bring her candy from the store and beg her for a kiss before he’d give it to her. She’d oblige, kissing his cheek quickly because of the stubble. But candy was for little kids. Since spelling “onomatopoeia” correctly, a rifle had replaced chocolate bars.

“I think we should head out to the ranch later. It’s time you bagged yourself a hog,” her dad said.

“We’re going clothes shopping on Saturday,” her mother said. She reached over to straighten George’s tank top strap. “You can go shooting later. Pretty sure those pigs will keep.”

“But we can go to the mall anytime. I want to go hunting.” Her mother frowned, so George said, “I promise I’ll go shopping, too.”

“See? She wants to go. I’ll bring her back in plenty time for whatever you girls had planned.” He clapped George on the back. Her mother retreated to the back porch, tossing a “fine” over her shoulder at the two.

***

Anybody can hunt wild hogs anywhere with pretty much anything. They’re considered a nuisance and have no bag limit. Nobody likes them. George’s dad used to work in north Texas, showing city people how to kill boar and deer, until the hogs pushed south toward the border. Smelling the money, he followed them. So instead of the usual swampy, low-lying areas where boars typically wallowed, her dad took her out to brush country, that flat land covered in red dirt. It stretched out for miles, a sea of tall grass, dotted with mesquite and prickly pear cacti. There weren’t any real trees, only gnarled thorn bushes. As a ritual, he went over the hunting rules again while they drove. George nodded, even though she hadn’t forgotten any of them.

“Now remember, they all have a hog shield around their face and on down their neck. It’s tough–tougher than the rest of their hide. All that scar tissue has been building and building with each fight until those old sons-of-bitches are near impenetrable. So, while we respect them, we still want to take them down the most. If you see one, go for it.”

“And I always watch out for the tusks, even if it’s down,” she added.

“That’s my girl,” her dad said. Adjusting his cap, he gave her a smile before putting the truck in gear and pulling out onto the empty highway.

They sang along whenever George Jones came on the radio. The sun sank low in the sky. By the time they reached the hunting grounds, it was late evening. George knew her dad wasn’t worried about nightfall. Spotlighting hogs was legal, and her dad enjoyed skulking around in the dark after boars. He didn’t drive up to the ranch, but rather parked by their vehicle shed. Unlocking it, he then backed out a camo four-wheeler. Before getting on, he doused them both in Scent-Away–“one scent of human, and they’ll high-tail it out of there,” he said. He drove them to one of his favorite spots where he baited the pigs. Around the ranch, they buried soaked corn that’d gone sour and waited for the hogs to root it up. Since there weren’t as many wallowing holes, it drew in reluctant pigs and kept them around long enough for a shot. Thorny limbs and thick grass smacked Geroge’s legs and arms as the four-wheeler bumped along the back road. The smell of spicy mesquite hung in the air, and the wind picked up. George ducked behind her dad to avoid the waves of dust that swept over them.

He let her get in the stand first.The blind was made of rusting tin and sat on wooden stilts. Two windows faced the clearing and the buried corn while the other two faced the brush. George knew that her dad also led dangerous stalking trips where the men went after the boars on foot, which was riskier and cost those city folks more money. She didn’t know how anyone could be that stupid as to face a snorting, slobbering hog in an open field. Money must make life boring enough to want to do that.

Once they were both in the stand, squished together on the metal seating, he handed over his Winchester .308 rifle. She paused as she took it. The metal still felt warm from soaking up the sun in his truck’s gun rack.

“Where’s the .243?” she asked.

“At home.” He looked over at her; she tried to keep her face straight. “Something wrong?”

“You’ve never let me shoot this one.”

“Come on, it’s no different.” He positioned the butt of the gun against her shoulder, placing her hands along the barrel and next to the trigger guard. “See? Same thing. I’ve been shooting that caliber since I was younger than you. Since I was probably 10 years old.”

“Looks the same.” She kept the rifle at her shoulder; it felt heavier than the .243. George peered through the scope, keeping the bait trap in her crosshairs. “Feels about the same.”

She laid the gun to the side, pointing the barrel away from them. Now came the waiting, the part George hated the most. Her dad held up a hand every time she started to talk.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to speak since it scares the hogs away, but she wanted to keep telling him about wrestling. During their last practice, Coach had kept putting George up against Toby. She’d watched Toby rise off the opposite bench, swinging his arms back and forth, warming up for her. She had yet to repeat her—as she saw it— amazing takedown of him during study hall. Toby glared whenever Coach called her to the mat and whispered, “Bitch,” in her ear when he pinned her. Usually, Toby pushed her flat on the mat, lying across the length of her. She’d be face first on the ground. His thighs would hold her in place, his athletic cup hard against her lower back. Toby would refuse to budge after Coach blew the whistle. Again, George’s stomach would coil in anger and something like desire, though she was sure she hated him more. But this time when she had managed to grasp his ankle, loop her arms through his, and successfully lay him out flat, he’d said, “Not bad,” before deflecting her arm bar and pinning her for the win. When he had rolled off her, Toby had offered her a hand up, then sat back on the bench without looking at her.

George catalogued that as a win. She even had a few bruises on her legs that her dad hadn’t seen. But he’d wave her off any time she opened her mouth, so she kept quiet.

The sky was turning dark when a large boar emerged from the brush. Her dad smacked her arm; she jerked upright. She’d been reciting wrestling moves to herself (tie ups, duckunder, hip heist, spiral ride) and still had nearly fallen asleep. He gestured to the gun and George raised it, resting the barrel on the window’s ledge and placing the butt on her shoulder. The stock felt so heavy that it indented her flesh.

“Deep breath and squeeze,” he whispered into her ear. “He’s yours.”

George inhaled and exhaled. Brave as a bear, she thought. She saw the boar’s large head. It shoved its snout in the dirt, nosing and pawing at the ground. Soon, mud and corn caked the shaggy fur around its mouth. She waited for it to pause. The hog lifted and sniffed the air. Now, her mind screamed, now. Exhaling, she squeezed the trigger, keeping the space below the boar’s ear in her sight and the barrel steady. A loud crack resounded across the open space. The recoil reverberated through her muscles, deep down into her bones. The boar’s head jerked to the side. Its hooves stumbled across the dirt. But the boar did not fall. It buckled, almost dropping, then found its footing and ran off, grunting and squealing.

“Goddammit. Goddammit, he’s on the run,” her father yelled. He almost pushed her down the ladder in order to get on the four-wheeler. “How in the hell, George? He was right there–right there for the taking. Get on.”

George slung the Winchester over her shoulder and jumped on the back of the four-wheeler. She hung onto her dad’s waist as he plowed through the underbrush, following the trail of the wounded animal. Night was on them. The landscape became a mish-mash of dark shapes, inky outlines of twisted branches that loomed close. Crickets thrummed louder and louder as they drove. The moon hung like a white sliver in the sky. Only the four-wheeler’s headlight broke through the darkness. At one point, her dad needed to get off and, with the spotlight, look the ground over to reorient their bearings. The wheels kicked up sandy dirt that stung her face. Her father kept cussing under his breath.

They found the hog in a wire trap set up in a nearby empty field. When George saw the pig, wild-eyed and snorting in that trap with the door closed tight, she knew her father would never forgive her. He always said, “You can trap them, but trapping is for pussy landowners who can’t get off their asses and shoot a hog.” She kept back at the four-wheeler and did not follow him through the ruined barbed wire fence separating the farrow field from the brush trees. The hog had run through the metal, tearing it from the post and leaving the wires in a jagged coil. Her father clicked on his spotlight and shone it inside the trap. Under the bright glare, she could see the blood matted on the boar’s back. She’d grazed it. She’d missed completely.

“Bring me the revolver,” her father said. His voice was calm, which scared her more than his cussing. She didn’t move. “You better bring that gun to me,” he said.

George unzipped the 9mm revolver from its case. She made her way over the tangled barbed wire, trying not to trip over the divots in the dirt. The rifle still hung heavy on her back.

“You realize what you’ve got to do now?”

She shook her head.

“You’ve got to finish him off then drag him out of this trap. Then I’ve got to explain to MacArthur why I was shooting in the middle of his field at night. Do you think I want to do that?”

“No.”

“’No’ is right. Come over here.”

With the revolver in hand, George stood back from the trap. She tried to keep her hands steady. All around them was dark, except for the boar, which glowed with slick sweat underneath the spotlight’s beam. Taking aim between the wire, she lined up her shot. The boar wheezed, struggling to breathe. George could not breathe at all looking down at its massive head, the dirty tusks and the rows of scars that ran up its neck. The boar struggled to keep its eyes open under the glare. When he blinked, George squeezed the trigger. Blood splattered onto the dirt. The boar stiffened and buckled, then slid into the cage wall. Its open eyes were flat under the harsh spotlight. If her dad had shined that light on her, George knew she would have looked the same.

She didn’t know what happened to the boar–her boar. She drew first blood, she finished it off. He didn’t make her haul it out. Pulling it from the trap himself, he hitched it onto the four-wheeler and took it back to the ranch. The boar’s bristly head bobbed up and down as they drove; the thick lines of scars running up and down the boar’s neck were pale compared to its fur. Her dad forced George to sit in the truck until he came back from the ranch house empty-handed. They drove home in silence with the radio off.

***

The next day her father left before George woke up. All she had from that night was a shell casing she’d recovered from the field. At the time, it’d felt warm like the gun had. Now the cold metal bit into her palm as she squeezed her fist around it. Her shot. She kept it hidden in her backpack, but she rolled it across her palm one last time before she went to her first class.

Coach Hines surprised George with a female uniform the week of their district tournament. She’d pestered him about it until he told her to shut up about her stupid jersey. In practice, she wore the tightest workout clothes she could find, but the boys still used any loose fabric against her by pulling it. Whenever the team dressed out for a match, George sat on the bench in her street clothes–jeans and a “Beeville Athletics” T-shirt–and wished that she’d die from embarrassment. Nothing in her life had ever looked as beautiful as that golden lion, open mouth roaring, upon a field of maroon. She tugged it on, wincing at its tightness. Nothing for them to hold onto, she told herself. But that didn’t keep her from poking each roll and bulge now showing. Toby laughed outright when she emerged from the locker room, then attempted to apologize between snorts. The other boys kept laughing.

Toby didn’t laugh when Coach picked George to start off the district tournament. In her first match, George pinned her opponent to the mat in less than 15 seconds. Her heart pounded and sweat soaked her uniform, causing the words “Beeville” and the lion underneath to darken. Her opponent’s cheek lay flat against the floor, his mouth slack-jawed as her knee pushed into his shoulder blade. With one hand, George twisted his left arm behind him, and with her other pulled his right leg back at an acute angle. She gritted her teeth against his attempts to throw her backwards. The ref rushed in before giving a short whistle, indicating that George won the round, and then separated the two.

The boy, wearing a cherry red uniform, wiped the drool from his lower lip and glared at her. “Fucking slut,” he muttered. The referee was well out of earshot.

George tried counting to 10. Maybe she made it to around five before she grabbed the boy’s neck in a choke hold. He slapped against her grip, sputtering. His neck muscles tensed against her forearm, and she could feel his Adam’s apple beginning to cave. Coach Hines pulled her off, swinging her around to face the bleachers filled with spectators. Several had their hands over their mouths. George could only see her mother’s disapproving frown, and then, as Coach dragged her to the bench, she saw her father standing at the back by the exit. He winked and gave her a thumbs up. At first, she stared at him; her stomach in knots. He’d never come to a match. Then George grinned around her mouth guard and barely heard Coach yelling in her ear, yelling at the ref that she had been provoked. Her father had shown up, and she’d clobbered that Corpus Christi asshole.

George plunked down on the bench next to Toby. Glancing at him, she’d say he looked impressed at her attempt to crush that kid’s windpipe.

“You’re lucky they didn’t throw you out,” he said to her, muttering out the side of his mouth.

“He called me a slut,” she said. George readjusted her ponytail and patted down her head. Her mother insisted on hairspraying it into a shiny, hard helmet.

“We’ve called you worse than that.”

She tried not to look at the back corner, at the far emergency exit, where she knew her dad still stood. George gripped her knees, keeping herself still. When she’d seen him, she couldn’t help but smile. He was here. Since the night with the boar, he’d spoken with her once, indirectly, as her mother looked up from their phone call, and said, “Your father says ‘hi.’” George parroted the phrase back, meaning so much more than, “Hi.” Eventually, she stopped asking when he was coming home, if he was coming to a match. But now there he was. Leaning against the opposite bleachers, he held a Coke bottle, quarter filled with a lumpy, brownish slosh, and spat into it. Again, he winked in her direction then moved towardstheir bench.

“Come on, Georgie,” her father said.

He leaned down behind her. He smelled like soured tobacco and manure. George guessed he’d just driven up from the south. He pulled her hair then patted her shoulder. “You’ve got this.”

When George returned to the mat, she growled, grabbing her opponent’s thigh, buckling his knees, and throwing him flat. She beat everyone in her bracket. Her body hummed. Not even her mother yelling “Go, Georgette, go!” could stop her. She cracked her knuckles and sized up her next opponent–the boy who’d won the losers’ side of the bracket. After seeing her dad, she’d lost track of the names descending down the whiteboard. Toby, back from the water fountain, wiped his mouth, shook the ref’s hand, and then looked over at her.

“This is it, Bernhard,” Coach said. “We got a Beeville final. We’re gonna win either way. Remember, he favors his right.” He pushed her toward the center circle. “Come on.”

She took her place on the mat. Toby didn’t grin at her or make a wisecrack. He looked the same as the day when they’d been called to the office. His eyebrows furrowed, and he sneered at her.

“Ready?” asked the ref.

George inhaled and exhaled, flexing her fingers. Her mother’s voice rang out above the crowd—“Georgette!” Her teammates stood and clapped, towels strung around their necks. The gym’s lights were too bright, and George imagined how loudly they hummed, like cicadas, when first turned on. The ref gave each of them a nod. Toby gazed through her, staring as if she didn’t exist. The whistle blew.

In an attempt to grab Toby’s middle, George was left unbalanced and unready for his double leg takedown. He grabbed behind her knees, his chest against her thighs, offsetting her center of gravity toward him. She flattened against the floor; the thwap of her back slapping the mat filled her ears, drowning out the crowd. She tried to use her legs, her large thighs to upset him, to flip him back over and gain the advantage. This just caused her to tangle their ankles. She gritted her teeth, her face now flush with the floor.

Out of the corner of her eye, as she struggled with Toby’s shoulders and head, her father stood next to the door. She knew the ref was counting the points. Toby had too many points. She imagined his head as boarish, shaggy with tusks, and she was grappling with a hot-breathed beast and not the blond boy she wrestled with every day. Brave as a bear, she repeated, bold as a bear. She wanted to catch her father’s eye, to somehow relay to him how hard this all was, how hard she was trying.

Toby dug his feet into the mat. Now his chest lay flat on her face. Both of her shoulders touched the floor, and she failed to lift them. The “Beeville” on his uniform loomed in her vision. The lion, its maw open and roaring, stared down at her. Then the whistle blew and that gaping mouth swallowed her whole.

 

Megan Clark graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Arkansas, where she was a Carolyn F. Walton Cole Fellow in Fiction. Currently, she is attending the PhD program in Creative Writing at Georgia State University as a Virginia Spenser Carr Fellow in Prose. Having grown up in north central Arkansas along the Ozark foothills, she believes that the South still has stories to tell and most of them are a bit weird. Her fiction has appeared in Deep South Magazine and The Masters Review.


Save pageEmail pagePrint page
Share