Sweet was fastest at the game of knuckles, almost undefeatable, with an uncanny sense of how to feint, how long to wait between strikes, and when to drive his knuckles into the flesh of an opponent’s fist, rapid-fire, whap, whap, whap, whap. He’d roll back the sleeve of his jacket to show the shiny circular scar he’d burned into himself with the hot rim of his pot pipe sometime the previous year—a way to mark himself apart, piss off his mom, ask for attention, demonstrate the lasting seriousness of his dedication to being a fuckup, or maybe to prove once and for all that everything was a joke and there was no reason for anything. My Satanic vaccination, he called it sometimes. I don’t even fuckin remember, I was so high, he’d say at others. He’d make a fist and stick it into the circle of friends, waiting for any one of them to accept the challenge. Fist to fist. Feint, fake out, and hit until you whiffed, fist driving through air, then take your turn being hit until you dodged a blow. A game so pure in its primitiveness it never failed to draw them around in a ring. Twin fists hovering, beating, and pressed together like sharks’ heads, or like flesh ball-peen hammers raining down blows, one boy or the other howling with pain and laughter at each direct hit because it stung a little but never that much, not until later, hands barely able to hold a pen, an ache spreading through the fingers and forearm, the skin along the backs of their hands mounded with blue-yellow bruises. “Yee! Fuckin-A YEE!” Sweet would yell, until someone in the group yelled it back like a rallying cry, “Fucking motherfucker YEEEEEEE!” they’d yell back and forth, the rush of sensation tweaking through Sweet from his thighs to his throat like a compressed spring releasing, making him dizzy, buzzing all the bones in his head in concert with the same impulses by which he knew, almost without looking, how to anticipate every move in the little theater of pain made by his fist and another boy’s, the rest of them standing around watching—Come on, come on, bunch of pansies—striking, striking, being struck.
Gregory Spatz’s most recent publications are the story collection Half as Happy (Engine Books, 2013), the novel Inukshuk (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012), and the forthcoming collection of linked stories and novellas What Could Be Saved (Tupelo Press, 2019). His stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Santa Monica Review, Zyzzyva, Glimmer Train, Epoch, and other journals including, once upon a time, the New Yorker. He teaches in and directs the program for creative writing at Eastern Washington University and is a frequent contributor to New England Review.