Dad sets up the ring for us boys. Four pine four-by-fours driven into the ground behind the garage, each three body-lengths from the next. Three thick ropes strung from post to post, the highest five feet off the ground, the lowest fifteen inches. Brown dirt floor.
“I want you boys to kick the shit out of each other,” Dad says. “Save me the trouble.”
Terry mimes some karate kicks to the air. Kiai! His shoulder muscles ripple, a motion carried down to his waist by his lats.
Terry’s my cousin and I hate his guts. His folks and little sister died in a highway accident 18 months ago, so he’s been living with us. Not adopted, so not my brother in any sense. Adoption would cost him some college scholarships down the line; his father (my father’s brother) was a cop. and the state provides for the kids of dead cops.
At first, I felt kinda sorry for him, but after a couple of weeks, he was just a scowling zombie I had to share a room with. Nothing at all like having the big brother I’d always dreamed of, which is sort of what my folks had promised me.
The trouble began when we would run into each other in the hall or in doorways—Terry wouldn’t budge, would even intentionally block my way, or bump up against me when we passed.
Then he started taking jabs at me, playful, sort of, except he wouldn’t smile. In time, the punches got punchier, and I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t trying to be funny or cute.
He’s popular at school—junior varsity football, track, debate—but at home he just stares at stuff, lost in his thoughts, lifts weights, and writes in a black spiral notebook he locks away in an old combination briefcase.
Polite to Mom and Dad, but acts like a jerk around me.
Without Terry, I’d be an only child again. Worse for me, I can see in my parents’ eyes that Terry is the kind of son they wish I was—square-jawed, curly-haired, athletic, polite, to a point—but never what you’d call friendly. Always something sad and brooding behind his eyes.
Me, I’m the overachiever who’s good at algebra and reads joke books and plays World of Warcraft. Kids pick on me at school, challenge me to fights behind the gym (I dodge them and run for home)—you’d think that Terry, being older, stronger, and related, would stick up for me. Instead, at home he punches me—punches hard—on my shoulder.
Ten days ago, I punched back, and he kinda livened up, bouncing around me on the balls of his feet, and started to jab … at my face! Finally, I just dove into him, but he grabbed me by the neck and flipped me on my back, sat on my chest, knees jammed into my armpits, held my wrists and made me slap myself with my own hands. Humiliating.
In the ruckus we busted a closet door and knocked down a framed photo of Gram, when she was young and rosy-cheeked, shattering it.
That’s the day Dad drove some stakes in the ground to build us a place to “have at it”: his words. Bought us each a pair of cheap boxing gloves—yellow for Terry, blue for me. Terry kinda perked up over the prospect. Made me feel kinda sick inside my gut.
Terry’s in plaid shorts and tennis shoes, no shirt. I’m wearing black swim trunks, sneakers, and a light-blue T-shirt with a rollerskating bunny on it. Both of us the same weight, 155 pounds, him all lean muscle and freckled tan, me big-boned and lumpy.
Even though I hate him, I admire the way his abdomen narrows at his waist, curving inward to an invisible point somewhere under his belt loops.
“Just don’t kill each other,” Dad says, wiping his hands on his pants legs, walking back to the house for a cigarette. “Mom wouldn’t like it.”
He doesn’t even hang around to teach us some moves, except to say we should probably shake hands first.
Terry flips over the top rope and lands on his feet, strutting around the ring, his arms upraised, making nasal imaginary-crowd noises.
“Get in,” he hollers, unusually good-natured. “This’ll be fun. C’mon.”
I crawl through the ropes and nervously bump my gloves against each other. Terry feints two or three jabs in my direction. The gloves whoosh in the air.
“Don’t act so scared, BJ. I won’t hurt you … not much.”
We touch gloves in the center of the ring like guys do on HBO. In less than a second he punches me square in the nose. My nose throbs and I smell blood, but there’s no wetness. Already this is rougher than I’m comfortable with.
Terry backs off and sort of dances with his back against the ropes.
I charge after him but he makes me chase him. Then he pulls up to me and we take some wild swings at each other, basically just skimming off each other’s body.
Terry’s got the build for boxing, but neither one of us knows what we’re doing. Good thing nobody can see us, what with the garage on one side and a high fence on the other.
He taps both sides of my head at once. Doesn’t actually hurt, but it does piss me off.
I punch him in the chest a couple of times. Once in the shoulder. He punches my shoulder in return. Then socks me in the gut.
Again we let fly some scrambled roundhouses and pokes and wind up entangled in each other’s arms, hitting the back of each other’s head and reaching round for the occasional light kidney punch to the small of the back. I smell the salty must of Terry’s sweat, the mustard on his breath from lunch.
We slow-dance in circles, chest to chest, until he shoves me back into one of the posts.
Then at half an arm’s length he slugs me in the jaw. Backs up a little. Comes back at me with another right to the jaw. Same place.
I feel stinging pain. My head feels heavy and unwieldy like a cast-iron fry pan.
My knees buckle. I hold myself up on the ropes. The cheap Wal-Mart gloves have unlaced themselves.
“Rat bastard,” I hiss through my teeth.
He gnaws at the end of his yellow glove, manages to pull it free of his right hand, and then pulls the other glove off.
I try to slip through the ropes to run back to the house. Terry grabs my trunks and pounds my belly with his fist. Too winded to call out, I try to kick him and fall on my ass instead.
The glove falls off my left hand, and I throw the other one off, too. Terry wraps his arms around my upper back, hands clenched under my sternum, his chin digging into my spine, and pulls me clear of the pine post. Hoists me up off my feet and drops me on my back on the ground. Covers my upper body with his torso for a pin, which he counts down by slapping the dirt.
I play possum.
He gets up and stands right over my head. I look up at him towering over me, his dark hair flashing in sunlight. Closer, the muscles in his hairy legs tense and relax. He reaches down and pulls my T-shirt over my head, whacks the side of my head with his forearm.
“Get up, girly.” He snarls. “Fight me. Or I will fuck you up.”
He strips the shirt off my head and tosses it aside. Backs off so I can get up on my feet, which I do, slowly.
He draws closer, circling me, his fists up.
I raise my fists, and he smirks.
We trade second-rate blows. His much more convincing than mine, though. His chest is taut and glistening with the first sheen of sweat.
Neither of us fights worth shit, but it occurs to me that we’re teaching each other as we go.
What the hell—I throw myself at him, and we swing fast and wild, missing and landing blows, pink contact-marks spotting our upper bodies. He drives his knuckles into my nose and upper lip. Desperate, I start to kick at his shins, which really pisses him off.
Thrusting his chest out and sucking his stomach in, Terry rushes me, making an ineffectual swoop with his left arm, followed with a tight, spring-like shot to my left eye with his right.
I hear humming and the next thing I know I’m on my back on the ground. Terry delivers a payback kick to my thigh and pulls back.
I get back on my feet. Terry’s eyes are blazing—like he’d like nothing more right now than to rip me apart, literally.
I feel punished already, hurt that my cousin should bear such an irrational grudge against me, but Terry makes good on it with a couple of punishing body blows.
Then he wraps his left arm around my head and throws me over his hip to the ground. Hops up and down on me a few times. Straddles my chest, grabs a handful of my hair in his left fist, and pounds his right fist to my face a good 5 or 6 times.
I must have passed out or something. I come to on the ground, feeling cold. The earth feels wobbly, and the scattered clouds overhead seem to tilt and whirl slowly.
Terry’s in the corner, arms propped on the top ropes.
“Let’s see who’s boss,” he says.
“You are,” I say, vaguely. Force myself to stand. Wobbly.
“No. We fight to the finish, till one of us cries uncle. It’s how it’s done.”
“Don’t want to,” I say, and turn to walk away.
He pounces on my back and pulls me back to him and we crash together to the ground. He’s like the Tasmanian Devil or something, tearing into me every which way he can. His flesh is hot against me. I’m confused and hurt—my eyes well up with tears, but I manage blindly to strike out at him with my fists.
He grabs me by the wrists and we test our strength. I surprise myself in holding out as long as I do, but eventually he drives my knuckles down to the dirt on either side of head.
He wraps his legs around mine and splays me out. His chest and stomach heaving atop mine. Again I smell lunch on his hot breath.
Then I feel his cock prodding my appendectomy scar.
I’m aroused too. We freeze in place. He stares into my eyes—with a dead expression on his face. All at once, we are breathing in time with each other.
I struggle, half-heartedly, but he holds on tight.
“I’m the boss,” he whispers hoarsely. “You are the slave.”
At the word “slave” his erection swells as it lurches up to twelve o’clock, between our lower abdomens and against my own hard rod.
With the cotton curtain of our shorts between them, the two cocks knead each other roughly. His hips dip deep into mine. He squeezes my wrists and moves them closer to my ears.
The point of his erect nipple scrapes mine.
Terry’s body undulates in a slow, swimming motion over me. He buries his face against my neck, and I smell the sour odor of his hair.
“You’re the boss, Terry,” I whisper.
I resist, try to shake my arms loose from his grip, try to writhe free of his legs. He tenses and bears down on me even harder.
He breathes heavily into my ear.
“Uncle,” I say.
“I said, ‘Shut up.’”
He drives himself more heavily into me, sometimes adding an aggressive thrust to his rhythmic churning, to legitimize the idea that we’re still fighting. Then his body shivers and he rests atop me, a dead weight.
We lie there breathing. I grind against his weight. Lukewarm sweat drips out of his armpit onto my shoulder. I crunch up into him, absorb his heat, feel my own cock quiver and then the loosening waves glide up over my body.
He puts his lips close to my ear and murmurs, with no particular inflection, almost like a memorized prayer:
“I ought to beat you up for that. I ought to kick your ass.”