Kathy Hill pours a beer and slides it across the bar to her boyfriend, Charlie Barton, seated on a stool. Her shift is winding down, and they have most of the evening in front of them. They look at each other a long time. The jukebox is quiet. The way they look at each other they don't need music.
They reach out and take each other's hand. Then it happens. Suddenly their thumbs are locked in a soul-shake grip, and they begin applying pressure. Kathy Hill's smile fades. Her teeth clench. Charlie Barton's face turns pink.
If anyone believes that Kathy Hill isn't one of the biggest and best women arm-wrestlers in these parts, let him take up the matter with her. But be forewarned. At 24 she weighs 230 pounds, and she's dead serious about her goal to become the best in the world. In May, here in Washington, she finished third in a national tournament sponsored by the American Armwrestling Association. She can be No. 1, Charlie Barton is convinced, "if she sets her mind to it."
Right now, in this basement bar along the road to Upper Marlboro, her mind is fixed solely on Barton's right arm. Slowly, surely, his arm descends. That's it. Pinned. They both dissolve in laughter. Just a friendly little challenge.
The three men at the end of the bar don't even look up.
It was October 1980. Kathy Hill was tending bar in Suitland when a man sized her up and said something that changed her life. "Have you ever arm-wrestled?" the fellow asked.
Is there a girl who hasn't tried arm-wrestling? she wondered. Professionally, he meant. So they clasped hands on the spot, and he pinned her. That gave him the distinction of being one of the last men to beat her at arm-wrestling.
Among women arm-wrestlers in this area, she casts a large shadow. In February 1981, competing in the women's open division, she won a Prince George's countywide tournament sponsored by the American Armwrestling Association. Later she took two Maryland state titles, one sponsored by the AAA, the other by the World Professional Armwrestling Association. Along the way, she's pinned any number of skeptical men. Usually, they ask for it.
Charlie Barton, who weighs 145, was no exception. They met on March 4, 1983 -- she knows the date -- during a dart game in a bar in Forestville. "He said he didn't see how he could lose to a woman," she remembers. He found out in a hurry.
"It sort of kills their ego for a little while," she says. "A lot of guys won't even wrestle me, I guess for that reason . . .
"A lot of 'em are surprised. Some of 'em feel embarrassed. But some of 'em take into consideration the titles I've won. And they take into consideration the other men who've lost to me, and they don't feel alone."
Just the other night, at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89 on Largo Road, where she works, she was challenged again. A test of ego? A matter of image?
"One of the policemen -- they were having a party for the homicide division. We had a left-handed match. I didn't want to take a chance hurting my arm. I beat him. I'm much stronger left-handed -- I can get more of my body into it."
The problem is, tournaments rarely offer competition for left-handed women. But there are a surprising number of tournaments -- three or four nationals a year and a myriad at the local, state and regional levels under the aegis of various associations. And there are a surprising number of women arm-wrestlers.
"There are probably 4,000 to 5,000 on the circuit, and the number is growing every year," says Bob O'Leary, chairman of the World Arm Wrestling Federation and publisher of the quarterly magazine The Armbender. He has worked unstintingly for 25 years to make arm-wrestling an Olympic sport, and is said to have the fortitude to go another 25 if necessary. "Women have been involved in the sport about 10 years, but in the last two to three years they've come on strong."
In arm-wrestling, everybody seems to know everybody. Kathy Hill, for instance, speaks in reverent tones of April Alm, of Arnold, Md. As well she might. Alm is 6 feet 1 -- eight inches taller than Hill -- and weighs 245. And there's Cindy Baker, daughter of arm-wrestling legend Mo Baker, considered by many to have been the greatest of all time. But size isn't everything, Hill insists. It's technique.
Take Tonya Dees, 19, who works at a pizza parlor in Gaithersburg. "She's quick," says Hill. Dees, who has won two state tournaments and a national, competes in under-140-pound divisions. Her favorite technique is tucking -- getting your wrist around an opponent's and pulling toward you. Hill prefers another popular method, called top rolling -- getting your wrist above an opponent's and dropping down on her with all your weight.
There's more to arm-wrestling than one might think. Some rules: You can't lift your elbow off the table, only one foot can leave the ground in standing matches, you can't raise up in seated matches, no head butting.
In wrist wrestling, a cousin of arm-wrestling, one pins an opponent's right arm to his left forearm. The contestants join left hands, rather than holding vertical pegs on the table as in arm-wrestling. Over the years ABC-TV's "Wide World of Sports" has televised the annual World's Wristwrestling Championship from Petaluma, Calif., which began there 20 years ago with a match in a bar and went on to become the Super Bowl of wrist wrestling.
Tonya Dees is passing on some of these truths when her father walks into the pizza shop. He practically fills the doorway. He weighs 310. Technique may be important, but size can get you to put your wrestling hand into your pocket.
Carl Dees sits down at the counter next to the visitor, who falls to rapt attention. He taught his daughter arm-wrestling, though her mother also was a noted power puller. He is, besides a black belt in karate, a former drag racer who used to remove his car engines at night for safekeeping, picking them up like the average person might lift a carton of eggs. He says he has five methods of arm pulling, any one of which, one strongly suspects, is enough to make opponents scarce. "I have to hunt them," he admits.
Yet there's always Cleve Dean blotting out the horizon, waiting. "My hand," says Carl Dees, holding up a hand that could almost cover a small pizza pan, "is as little as a baby's hand in his."
And who is this Cleve Dean?
He lives on a hog farm in the southwestern Georgia town of Pavo. He stands 6 feet 6. His weight? "About 4 1/2," Dean replies over the phone. That's 450 pounds.
He laughs. The rumble sounds as if the earth is moving. Dean practices with -- or on -- his brother.
"He's big for his size, but he's nowhere as big as I am," says Dean.
He says he can lift a 4020 John Deere tractor. "That's about a 12- to 14,000-pound tractor. I'll get the back end, hold it and let 'em put it in reverse. It'll go spinnin'."
Recently, a promoter staged a come-one, come-all challenge in Valdosta, Ga. Whoever stayed with Dean the longest would win $200. For two days, men of almost all sizes except Dean's stepped up, only to get put down in a hurry. One man lasted 72/100ths of a second.
He was the winner.
"Today I started training," says Kathy Hill.
Behind the bar she opens a large can of pineapple juice and pours a cupful.
"It's better than grapefruit juice, anyway."
She wants to "drop weight and keep the strength." She's going to be running and lifting, and arm-wrestling with Charlie Barton. She's taught him well. He's even taken up the sport competitively. "He's stronger than I am, so he gives me a lot of competition. He points out things he thinks I am doing wrong. He boosts my ego, as far as my getting psyched up for a match."
Psyching up can be serious business for some. Like John "Mad Dog" Bosley. At the World Professional Armwrestling Association's Maryland state tournament in June, Hill says, two colleagues put a collar and leash on Bosley's neck and a rawhide dog bone in his mouth. Having achieved the proper disposition, Bosley finished second. Then there's the guy Carl Dees mentioned who eats live crickets for the benefit of his opponents.
Women, Kathy Hill says, use more subtle -- but just as effective -- intimidation. "Some of them will try to stare you down. Or they'll pretend you're not even there, make you feel completely unimportant." Not her. She likes to shake hands, friendly-like, then get a quick jump and get her top roll going.
Most matches are decided quickly, though occasionally stalemates develop. At the World's Wristwrestling Championship one year, two men "got in like a death grip," according to promoter Bill Soberanes. Neither would give in. Eventually, both fell to the floor, one of them out cold. Billie Jean King, who was doing color for "Wide World of Sports," "ran over -- she thought he was really gone."
It's a wonder more aren't hurt. As Carl Dees says, "Bones can break. They don't give you any warning." Injuries occur more frequently in barrooms, where amateurs are apt to try their hand. "The wrist starts to bend, the arm follows, the body follows. It's all together -- it looks like one move," says Carl Dees. If not, and you're on the way down, you could hear something belonging to you snap.
It gives one pause.
Still, it's early afternoon at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, and nobody's around.
"Want to arm-wrestle?"
"Yeah, if you want." There's a note of resignation in her voice.
Her hand is large.
"I get to say 'go' . . .
Granted, there's no audience. Yet there's no hiding from the bald fact: She wasn't even trying.
"There's no doubt she can become the best in the world," says Charlie Barton. "She has a lot of heart, and a lot of spirit. What she needs is endurance."
Kathy Hill is eager. Arm-wrestling offers her "the feeling of being best at something. Although I'm not the best, I want to be the best. Someday I hope I will be."
As they walk out of the bar into the fading light, they have their sights set on arm-wrestling dates in Glen Burnie, outside Baltimore, in Chicago or Houston, maybe Petaluma. "We're going to be practicing together," says Barton.
They know: It's a big arm-wrestling world out there, and they're at one remote end of it.