Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Two For Flinching"

The following short story first appeared online a couple of years back over at the DF Underground (a now-defunct ezine).

Two For Flinching

by Joe Nazare

“—uggy black!”  

The cry knocked me out of my daydreams.  Blinking, I turned to my brother.  “Hunh?”

“Punchbuggy black,” Jake repeated, smirking and nodding towards the rear window of our dad’s Cadillac.

My knees squeaked on the slick leather as I twisted around and peered warily over the backseat.  There it was, parked in front of Happy’s Luncheonette: a Volkswagen Beetle, its licorice-colored shell glinting in the afternoon sun.  It wasn’t hard to spot, squatting by the curb looking more like a product of H.R. Giger’s imagination than of German engineering.  I should tell you (since I see you’re so determined to make your notes) that this was still years before the cutesy makeover, before all those pastel bubbles driven by college girls and yuppies.

The pine-tree mobile dangling from the rearview mirror marked the old Beetle as Mr. Schuman’s.  I scowled, mentally stringing every curse word I knew at the time.  Not that Mr. Schuman wasn’t a good guy.  He’d bought Jake and me plenty of Cherry Cokes when we straggled into Happy’s after school.  I just wished he wasn’t such a man-about-town.  That he stayed home more of the time, kept his damned car nested in the garage.
I could be on the lookout all day for that punchbuggy grand prize and never spot it.  Jake, meanwhile, had an uncanny gift for the game.  At least twice a week he would chant the portentous words, always the first to notice the Beetle no matter where it had popped up.  Mr. Schuman’s car had to be the safest in all of Oakhurst back then.  Even if anyone ever stole it, Jake’s bloodhound senses would’ve tracked it down in no time.

“Ten shots in the arm, squirt,” Jake said, his right hand already curled into a fist.

He jabbed at me before I could even reply.  A slave to instinct, I cringed towards the car door.  I knew how much these shots hurt; my shoulder was already tattooed black and blue.  But Jake pulled up short at the last moment, adding insult to impending injury.

“Ha, you wuss!”  His right index finger now pointed in accusation. 
“And two for flinching.  That makes twelve all together,” he informed me, as if an eight-year-old on the honor roll couldn’t do the math.

I clenched my jaws and grunted my frustration.  There wasn’t much else I could do.  He had me, and I needed to brace myself for my punishment before the total escalated again.

“Here we go.”  Jake began to pound, methodically calling out the sequence.  The thud of his fist against the exposed flesh of my upper arm reverberated inside the frigidly air-conditioned car.  It reminded me of our favorite movie, of Rocky Balboa working over the frozen slab of meat in preparation for his first title fight.  Suddenly that scene seemed a lot less cool.

“Owww!” I wailed, desperate for rescue from the front seat.  But just like on every other Sunday drive to Aunt Sarah’s, my dad had tuned in to the Mets on WFAN and had tuned out his family.  My mom’s attention was trapped in her People, and Jake had reached number nine by the time she finally looked up.

“Jake,” she spoke in flat voice, requesting more than rebuking,
“stop teasing your brother.”

Darling Jake obliged at once, of course.  He held fire on his last three salvos—right up until the very first instant we were alone at Aunt Sarah’s.


“Ready, squirt?” Jake prompted.  This close up, I could see the pubescent fuzz dappling his upper lip.  He was fourteen and had started using an electric razor three times a week.  I was twelve and hadn’t sprouted a single whisker yet.

We stood in the narrow channel between our beds.  My arms were outstretched before me, palms up.  Jake faced me in the same pose, except his palms were turned down and resting on mine.  Our arrangement had nothing to do with prayer.

Magnanimously, he’d let me start the game he’d just finished explaining.  I nodded my readiness, and set off a deliberate tremor in my hands.  I wanted to keep him guessing as to when the strike was coming.

Locking eyes with him, I immediately understood that I wasn’t going to psych him out.  If anything, his gaze seemed to pierce me, to root around my head in search of my attack plan.  I grew conscious of my own blinks.  Jake might have learned this game just this afternoon from one of his freshman teammates, but he already seemed an old pro.

The longer I waited, the more disadvantaged I felt.  So I quickened the vibration of my hands, then abruptly stilled them.  A second after that lull, I sprang.

My left hand swept out from under his right.  In one fluid motion, my palm flipped over and slapped down.

On nothing but air.

The instant I broke contact, Jake’s hands had retracted from harm’s way.  He executed the maneuver gracefully, like a bullfighter with an invisible cape.  My would-be blow hadn’t come close.

“Jeez, dying turtles move faster than you.”  Jake was all smiles now.  “My turn.”

We went palm-to-palm again, this time with me on top.  The shakiness of my hands was no longer tactical.  I had a sudden suspicion I’d been baited into this game.

Jake’s hands bobbed beneath mine.  His eyes never left the dual targets.  I held my breath, readied myself to recoil.

A blur of motion, and before I could even twitch, Jake’s right hand slapped down atop my left.  The smack of flesh against flesh rang out in our otherwise silent bedroom.  His blow hurt, sure, but I was stung more by his instant success succeeding my failure.

We lined up again.  A second later Jake’s left caught me flush on the right.  He chuckled, obviously pleased with how easy this was proving.

“C’mon,” I said, holding out my hands, eager to win back my turn.

We resumed play, and Jake continued to strike.  His advantage didn’t stem simply from bigger hands or quicker reflexes.   Jake, with his unabashed joy of tormenting, had the perfect demeanor for the game.

He grew cocky.  Instead of slapping down straight, he crisscrossed his blows, attacking the far hand.  He still couldn’t miss.

“I explained how this works, right?” he asked with mock sincerity. 
“That the object is not to get hit.”

“Very funny, butthole,” I said.  “Let’s go again.”

“You’re a glutton for punishment, you know that?”

Part of me wondered if he was right.  By that age, I should’ve known better than to get roped into such games.  I was always so eager to play, though, embracing the dream of winning, of being able to take a payback-free, just-abiding-by-the-rules shot at my big brother.

Maybe, too, I was seduced by Jake’s seeming willingness to include me in the fun.  Like the time he invited me to join him and his eighth-grader friends in a round of “Asses Up.”  We had to play on a Saturday, when the teachers were all absent and we could feel free to bounce the tennis ball off the redbrick exterior of Sacred Heart School (inside, in weekly gym class, dodgeball represented the only sanctioned bloodsport).  Unfortunately, hand-eye coordination was hardly my forte, and I continually fumbled the carom.  Jake or another player would retrieve the ball and fire it against the building before I could run and touch it, and I soon acquired the successive marks of a-s-s.  Inevitably, each game ended with me facing the wall bent at the waist, while the others tried to pelt my titular target with the ball from twenty yards back.  Even through my denim shorts, the striking ball would hurt plenty, but I found it almost worse when the throwers missed and the ball boomed nearby on the wall.  The obvious jolt it gave me seemed a greater indignity than being stationed there with a proffered derriere.

What kind of schoolyard De Sade thought up these games, anyway?

The whack of Jake’s descending hand on mine snapped me back to reality.  “OWWW,” I yelped, mostly in surprise.

(Miles away in the living room, my grumbling dad ruffled his newspaper.  A beat later I heard my mom tell him, “Oh, Kurt.  They’re just being boys.”)

“Daydreamers don’t do so hot in this game,” Jake advised me.

By that point it wasn’t just my hands that were smarting.  I glared at him as I got into position once more.  He would miss this time.  I willed prestidigitation into my battered paws.

Jake initiated the familiar bobbing.  I concentrated on timing his rhythm, anticipating his strike.  My hands were poised on a hair-trigger to fire backwards.

I was more than ready—and that’s what doomed me.  Sensing Jake’s muscle twitch, I peeled off my hands fast enough to shame lightning.  But even as I did so, I saw that Jake’s hands remained in place, palms still pointing at the ceiling.  Like a QB trying to draw the defense offside, Jake had merely feinted attack.

Shit,” I cursed my misfortune, mouthing rather than sounding than word.  Flinching and breaking contact before the other player slapped constituted the game’s cardinal sin.

Jake’s eyes positively gleamed.  He’d achieved what he’d been setting me up for all along.  I stammered a protest, but he insisted rules were rules and I had to accept the penalty shot.

Wincing in anticipation, I extended my arms palm down and offered up my hands to him.  My parents’ horror stories about ruler-wielding nuns flashed through my brain.  Jake stretched his own arms above his head as if praising hallelujah.  I heard the air slice when he brought them crashing back down.

A pair of angry beehives engulfed the ends of my arms.  Finger shapes flared white for an instant on the backs of my hands, then flushed a more lasting pink.  Biting off my cry of pain, I hopped around the bedroom and tried to shake off the sting.  Jake took it all in appreciatively.

When I finally gathered myself, I saw that Jake’s expression had changed to something much worse: sudden boredom.  “Alright, squirt, game’s over.  I don’t want to be responsible for maiming my baby brother.”  He turned and stepped toward his roll-top desk.

“NO!  We gotta keep going.  You gotta give me a chance to get even.”

“Bug off.”  He swatted my grasping hand off his shoulder.  “You’d better go find someone to practice with before trying me again.  Besides, I got homework to finish.”

I begged for one more round, knowing I was whining but not really caring.  My futile pleading continued right up until the moment my dad’s bulk clogged the bedroom doorway.

“Goddammit, Danny,” he growled at me.  “Would you leave your brother alone!”


Are you getting the picture here?  How about one more snapshot…

Riverside Park, a game of 3-on-3 football.  Jake’s best friend Tim Bryant teamed with us against Steve Henderson, Charlie Nix, and Doug “Mongo” Kupchak.  Pretty much the same rogue’s gallery that had welted my backside with a tennis ball a few years earlier.

In the huddle, Jake called the play with customary authority.  We moved to the line of scrimmage, where Charlie and Steve mirrored me and Tim in twinned alignment.  Mongo, who wasn’t built for pass coverage, assumed his natural nose-tackle position.

“This is it,” Charlie announced, fussing with his Deion Sanders jersey as if he were rubbing a charm.  “You guys gotta score here or we win.”

“Relax, Charl,” Jake told him, twirling the pigskin in his hands.  “I don’t need a scrub like you to set the stage for me.”

The smack talk was typical Jake.  He’d been showing off his physical skill and presumed wit all afternoon.  I couldn’t really point fingers, though, since I’d been trying my best to impress as well.  There were girls present, you see, gathered at the picnic table alongside our grass field of play.  Most of them had lost interest in the game by now, had given in to their own chatter.  Only Adele Cartwright still watched raptly, batting those lashes that could’ve made a Buckingham Palace guard go all jellylegged.  She stood clutching Jake’s varsity jacket, which he’d slickly asked her to hold while we played.

“Hut…Hut…Hike!” Jake called, and I got a late jump on my pass route.  Charlie matched me stride for stride.  But when I broke off the fly pattern and cut diagonally across the field, Charlie kept running long, virtually double-teaming Tim.

By now Mongo had finished counting his mississippis and was blitzing my brother.  Jake easily sidestepped him.  Spotting me running wide open, Jake unleashed a throw with textbook form.

I pumped my legs for all they were worth, snorting with each stride.  Even so, I didn’t quite have the requisite speed to catch up.  The ball sailed high past my outstretched arms, glancing off my fingertips incomplete.
“Yeah!”  Charlie and his teammates exchanged cheers.  Jake stood staring downfield, hands on hips.

“Nice catch,” he told me moments later as our paths veered together walking back toward the picnic tables. 

“Worse pass,” I replied, probably louder than necessary.  I didn’t need him to remind me who the football star in the family was.  Whereas I’d been cut from my freshman tryouts last year, Jake had just capped his senior season by being voted First Team All-County QB.  Next fall he was headed to Rutgers on scholarship, which would be interesting, considering I still wrote all his term papers for him.

The playful glint in Jake’s eyes flickered out.  I could almost hear the mental gears grind as he studied me, pondering his next move.  Suddenly he thrust out his arm, knocking the Giants cap from my head.

“Hey!”  I moved quickly to retrieve the cap.  Jake, though, had already scooped it off the ground.

I felt my ears burning beet-red.  My hair was a disheveled mess—the very reason I’d donned a hat that morning.  I ventured only the briefest glance in Adele’s direction.

“You just can’t hang on to anything today,” Jake said, holding the cap away from me high in his left hand.

“Give it back.  C’mon, I’m serious.”

“Calm down, you big baby.  I’m just messing with you.”  But he didn’t relinquish the cap.

The eyes of everyone present now spotlighted our little scene.  I made a desperate grab for the cap, but Jake snatched it back further out of reach, fending me off with his right arm.

“I’m gonna kick your ass if you don’t give it back to me right now.”  My warning appeared to strike him funny.  He stood there chuckling, then, out of nowhere, faked a jab at me.  I couldn’t help my reaction.

“Ha!” he rejoiced, pointing.  “Two for flinching.”  I’d had those three words directed my way so many times growing up, it’s a wonder I didn’t mistake them as my Christian name.

I tried to play it cool.  “Oh, grow up.  What are you, like ten years old?”

Jake shook his head emphatically.  “Un-uh, squirt.  You’re not going to weasel outta your two shots.”

“Forget it.  I’m not going to stand here and let you punch me.”  In front of everybody.  I turned to walk away, but barely had lifted a foot when Jake’s fist lashed out and tagged me on the shoulder.

I didn’t give him the chance to say “One.”  I lunged at him, my game-grimed palm smushing into his leering face.

An instinctive assault, and boy did it feel good.  At least until Jake launched his second punch—a roundhouse right that exploded on my jaw and sent me crumpling to the grass.  I was instantly, painfully reminded that Jake had two years and twenty-five pounds of muscle on me.   

Jake stepped forward, looming over me.  “What’s the matter with you?” he barked, as if he couldn’t fathom what I had done.  “I let you tag along with us and you try to punk me out?”

Then Tim was there pulling Jake away, telling him to take it easy.  The postgame entertainment thus concluded, the gathered crowd of coeds gradually dispersed.

I drooled blood and oozed embarrassment in the meantime.  And not just because I’d been cold-cocked in front of Adele.  The deeper affront was getting caught out, losing the flinching game yet again.  I was sixteen, yet continued to get gulled like a dull child.

As I lay there, insight struck me harder than any fist to the face.  I realized that all along it’d been Jake blocking my rightful passage into manhood, into respectability.  And I figured out that the only way to break out of big brother’s shadow would be to turn the tables, to finally get him to flinch.  Otherwise I’d be sentenced to a perpetual adolescence of ear-flicks, purple nurples, and myriad other petty torments.

Eventually I hauled myself to my feet.  My head throbbed yet my mind spun.  I hadn’t even left the site of my latest ignominious defeat, but I was already game planning.


Anxiously I watched Jake begin to stir at last.  He lifted his slumped upper body from the ad hoc table, a truncated sheet of plywood balanced on two sawhorses.  As he sat back in the metal folding chair, Jake squinted at his surroundings.  He couldn’t seem to understand what we were doing in the basement, in Dad’s workroom.

“What happened?” he wanted to know.  Then something must have slipped past the cobwebs.  “Jeez, Danny, did you drug me?”

Did mashing a handful of Mom’s sleeping pills into his dinnertime iced tea constitute drugging?  “I had to set up the game,” I explained curtly, my jaw still sore from eating Jake’s cheap shot two days earlier.

“Hunh?  What game?”  Jake spotted his hand pressed to the middle of the plywood, topped by my own reversed right.  His left arm was roped tightly behind him, the nylon cord running through his belt loops.

To respond to his key question, I simply revved the circular saw I held in my left hand.  The naked bulb dangling above us dimmed as the Black & Decker sucked power.

The buzz of the 24-tooth titanium blade seemed to confuse Jake further.  Groggily, he warned, “Dad’s gonna be pissed, he hears you messing around with his saw.”

“Forget about Dad.  And Mom.”  Like I told him, my game had required some setting up.  For instance, I’d had a helluva time removing that front piece that was supposed to guide the saw on a level plane while guarding its razored maw.

“Here’s the deal,” I  said.  “We hold our hands out on the board here.  I run the saw through the plywood toward them.  The first one to jerk away loses.”

Jake stared at our tiered hands, the game’s basic premise sinking into his brain.  But he didn’t sound like he was in a playful mood.  “Screw this,” he announced.  The chair banged to the floor behind him as he stood and started to pull away.

Desperate, I pressed down even more firmly on his captured hand.  Facing him from my side of the board, I poked the question at him: “What’s the matter, scared?”

That tweaked an appropriate nerve.  His expression hardened.  “Of a wuss like you?”  He spread his legs and tipped his shoulders forward.  “Alright.  Let’s go.  You’ll flinch, just like you always do.  And when we’re done with your little game, I promise you that I’m going to kick your ass.”

I struggled to control my expression as he articulated his threat.  “Ok, enough chit-chat,” I said.

I pressed the saw to the edge of the plywood.  Squeezing the handle, I powered it up and set it in motion.

Our wagers lay about two feet in on the center of the board.  I relaxed my pressure on Jake’s right hand, confident that my brother was locked in now.  The faintly swaying bulb overhead swung shadow across his face, alternately eclipsing the other cheek.  Undistracted, Jake peered at the slow, steady progression of the saw.  Since I controlled the tool, I had less need to be preoccupied with the relative position of the blade and could study my brother.  I watched him biting down on his bottom lip, and grew privately ecstatic at how he’d embraced my game.

Other brothers had Monopoly, or Battleship; this is what we had.  For different reasons, we both had the same zeal for the flinching game.  Jake because he never lost, me because I’d yet to win.

The Black & Decker rolled forward, dissecting the plywood inch by fateful inch.  The saw’s roar seemed to drown out all other sound in the world.

Halfway home.  A slick membrane of sweat formed between my right palm and the back of Jake’s hand.  My whole arm now quaked with excitement, while Jake’s kept remarkably still.  He looked determined to wait me out until the final millisecond, if need be.

Ten inches away.  Then eight.  Jake flicked a glance up at me, his eyes testing, daring.

You’ll flinch, just like you always do.

Undaunted, I put my shoulder behind the advancing saw.  The very tool our father had employed in years past to build my bookcases, Jake’s trophy cases.

Six inches.  The whirling blade pushed an icy draft ahead of it, as if to numb its prey.

Five inches.


Jake suddenly considered me the object worthier of scrutiny.  He pierced and probed with his gaze.  For the first time, his face showed genuine concern.  I could imagine what weighed on his thoughts: the possibility that I was hellbent on maiming both of us.  That I planned to keep our hands pressed in the path of the blade until the bitter end.

I resented such questioning of my sanity.  Then, as now.  As if I could ever be so sick, so suicidal, to try to pull off something like that.

Three inches.  Jake shuffled his feet.  Tension seemed to pulsate right to the tip of his splayed fingers.


I didn’t dare wait any longer.  I yanked my hand back from the gameboard, holding it up high in surrender.

I studied him closely in that crucial instant.  He exhaled, flashed a satisfied, told-you-so grin.

Stone-faced, I stood holding my retracted hand before his eyes.  Allowed him to take it in for a beat before wiggling my fingers at him.

Jake’s smirk vanished as he realized the blade still chewed insatiably toward his hand.  The saw squealed in delight when it finally found flesh.  It sheered his pinkie off clean, oblivious to the slender bone.  Skewed by the severing, the finger caught the edge of the blade once more, and darted across the buckling board.  Divorced from Jake’s will, though, the projectile soon lost its thrust and skidded to a halt well short of me.

Even then the Black & Decker wasn’t done.  It was no longer merely a circular saw, but an infernal calculator, effortlessly subtracting digits.

I had to be impressed with how Jake’s had remained in place at the moment of truth.  Didn’t slide an inch on the plywood.  Honestly, I’d had my doubts that the crazy-glue on his palm would hold him.

Blood drained from his face, seemingly redirected to his mangled mitt.  I ignored the gruesome squirt, focusing on the look in his eyes before they rolled up into his head.  I found what I needed: beneath the shock, Jake knew he’d finally been bested.

Ahhh.  The taste of victory mixed with the smell of sawdust and hot copper.

Of course, you might argue that I hadn’t played fair, that I’d rigged the ostensible game.  And technically, you could say that I was the one who flinched, just like always.  But so what if I did.

For once in my life, I wasn’t worried about taking the two punches.

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