Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Brawling Bickleys

I came across anothe "short story" style piece that's been sitting around -- think I was going for a Winesburg, Ohio style pastiche of stories with this one. That was one book in college that really hit me the right way. I think a lot of us are haunted by the concept of that book because it presents such a romantic view of small-town life, and we know it isn't like that (but want it to be). Maybe it was at that time, in the earlier part of the last century, but so much homogenization has occurred since then, so much becoming depressingly similar. Still, one of the sections was about a pair of brothers who fought constantly, based on a few key people I've known in my life, but not about any one person directly. Nasty kid stuff: enjoy.


Ted and Frank Bickley co-owned the Black Hills Creamery, a small drive-in ice-cream shop that the near-by Dairy Queen just couldn’t kill off. Their father had been the town milkman, driving from house-to-house in his van, wearing a white uniform with matching cap, dropping off bottles of milk in small wire holders and picking up the empties left by his customers. As time went on and chain supermarkets moved into the area, he realized that there was no way he could compete. As he was near retirement age and both his sons were in their 20s and at loose ends, he encouraged them to take over his small dairy farm and turn it into an ice cream shop. He passed on five years later, but in that time, he had managed to build the roadside shop, with the farm out back, so that customers could sit out front eating their ice cream at wooden picnic tables, and then wander out back for their kids to feed hay to the cows in the field. Ted and Frank had been unwilling participants in all this, but when their father died, some sense of obligation kicked in, and both rose to the occasion, going so far as to buy the next open lot to their farm and turning it into a miniature golf course. While they didn’t get rich doing this, they lived comfortably and worked hard to ensure that the locals had a better time at their creamery than at the Dairy Queen.

They lived in adjacent houses down the road from the creamery. Both were married, Frank with a small daughter, and to all the world, they appeared to be the perfect picture of loving brothers. They were, but the kids in Black Hill who grew up with Ted and Frank, now adults themselves, knew that this happy ending had seemed highly improbable for years. It was the nature of so many brothers in town that the older one, usually bigger, loved to beat the shit out of the younger one. And they could be vicious with each other. Verbally abusing each other at the drop of a hat. Searching for any weakness to exploit. A boy’s life – inflict scabs to have something to pick on.

Frank was four years younger than Ted, and they were known as the Brawling Bickleys. Their fights came about during the games the kids played. Ted was a great athlete, the kind of kid who could try any sport and immediately be the best at it. What Frank lacked in skill, he made up for in size. Although most of the kids were older than Frank, he was bigger than they were. Frank was one of those strange kids who didn’t follow the unspoken rule that older kids somehow had to be dominant. No one dominated Frank, except Ted, who was smaller than Frank but much more agile. Every time the kids played whatever sport was in season, Frank and Ted had to be on different sides. Ted was always the team captain, and one of the older boys was the other team captain, which was already an unspoken sign of resentment to Frank. It was understood that Ted would never choose Frank for his team. The point was moot, though -- invariably, because of his size and brute force, Frank would be the first kid picked on the other team.
The games were harsh enough to begin with. Kids doing splits, having their noses broken, being gouged in the eyes. Once, a kid named Troy Boychick broke his neck playing football. The general rule was no blood, no foul, and if there was blood, have a debate on whether or not to penalize. Anything went.

A few minutes into each game, Ted and Frank would start going at each other. If it was baseball, Ted would throw fastballs inside on Frank, and Frank would return the favor by blocking the plate when Ted came around to score from third, even if the play wasn’t close. Football was the worst because they could physically attack each other and get away with it. Ted went on to become the high-school’s starting quarterback, while Frank quit the team in his sophomore year because he considered high-school football too civilized. In the neighborhood games, every kid feared being hit by Frank. The unsuspecting victim would feel a hard wind blow against his back, and then Frank would drive his body into the ground. The last thing the kid would see was the ball rolling away on the green grass. He’d lay there shaking and whimpering like a dreaming dog. All he would remember was being too hurt to cry, wondering if he’d ever walk again. He’d taste grass and dirt in my mouth but not have the power to spit it out. After a few moments, his teeth would start tingling, and then he’d feel a pain in his sides as if he had laughed too hard. Everyone would stand around staring at him. Frank would ask him if he was all right, and he would nod. But the rest of that game, maybe even the rest of that season, the kid would be a non-entity on the field, unless he was on Frank’s side.

Ted and Frank antagonized each other with looks at first, and then words. Trash talking was unusual in Black Hill -- you only did it if you were going to fight someone. Frank would start calling Ted stuff like “hot-dogging faggot.” But Ted got the best of Frank by insinuating that Ted jerked off in the bathroom with their mother’s Ladies Home Journal. The way he said it, not even as a taunt, more as a fact, insinuated that there must have been some truth in it. Frank was also famous for sticking his hand into the butt of his pants then smelling his fingers. It was strange stuff, but most boys did the same thing, only not in public. This gave Ted plenty of ammunition when the taunting started.

The taunting went on until a play came along that gave them chance to go at each other, usually a potential quarterback sack on Ted. Sometimes it was so obvious that Ted would throw the ball directly at Frank as a way of getting the first shot in. Frank would tackle Ted, and they’d start a vicious fight the likes of which no one else in the neighborhood had ever been in. Full swinging, face biting, scratching -- they were worse than women. Both of them would start crying as they fought, sobbing openly as they grunted and cursed. The other kids were so used to these outbreaks that they would gather around and mentally take notes on what to do if they ever got into a real fight. That feeling of a fight -- pure tension and fear -- was never there when Ted and Frank went at it. It seemed natural, like it wouldn’t be a complete game unless Ted and Frank had it out at least once.

After a few minutes, they’d be wrapped around each other throwing painless rabbit punches. At this point, one or the other would start laughing, and the other would join in. Soon, they’d be rolling on the grass or macadam, arm in arm, laughing at each other. They’d get up with their bruises and bloody noses, slapping each other on the back and wiping their tears.

This strange ritual went on for years, until one fateful Saturday in the winter when Ted and Frank went to confession at St. Joseph’s, Black Hill’s Catholic church. The brothers were in the habit of going the first Saturday of every month, just enough time to compile enough sins to make it all worthwhile for the priest. They never knew who was on the other side of the screen. The priests in the surrounding parishes had a way of trading off with each other so that a certain priest wouldn't hear the sins from his own parish.

Most of the parishioners knew enough to whisper their sins. The church was deathly quiet on those Saturday afternoons, with only a few people in the pews whispering their penances, and the rest waiting in line by the confessional booths.

That Saturday, Ted had copped to stealing a bunch of nickels and dimes he had found buried between the sofa pillows after his father had taken a nap there. And, of course, using the Lord's name in vain, which seemed to be every kid's ace in the hole.

As Ted whispered his penance with the other parishioners, he heard Frank reciting the act of contrition in the booth. It was winter, and the church was unusually quiet, with a blanketing snow falling outside. There was Ted, a few other kids and a dozen old ladies in the church.
"Bless me father, for I have sinned ..." Frank started. In the portions where the priest would speak, Ted heard only indecipherable whispers and thought for sure that Frank would be reprimanded for talking too loud. But he went through his contrition and started listing his sins, all of which Ted heard as if Frank were sitting next to him. Ted glanced around, and he could tell that everyone else was hearing this, too, as they tried to hide their faces in their praying hands.
"I stole $20.00 from my father's wallet. I knew stealing $1.00 would have made him suspect me, and I wanted him to blame my mother instead. Which he did, and they had a big fight. I called my brother a bad word. I punched one of my friends in school on the jaw and hurt him. And forgive me, father, but I touched myself every night this week."

There were a few more whispers.

"In the bathroom before I went to bed."

More whispers.

"My older brother's Playboy magazine and two tissues."

Those gentle whispers.

"Forgive me, father. It won't happen again."

Ted was in tears, as were the other kids praying or waiting in line. The old ladies had pretended not to hear and fixed their eyes on the floor, realizing that they would have been out of line to raise their voices over a confession no one but the priest was supposed to hear. Frank came out of the booth, blushing over his sins, not realizing everyone else knew them.

When they got out in the parking lot, Ted cut into him.

“Asshole, that’s Dad’s Playboy you were jerking off to! I stole it from him. I found it hidden under one of the milk crates in the back of the truck. I guess he was too embarrassed to ask around about it.”

“What are you talking about?” Frank asked.

The other kids were gathering around, certain that another Bickley brawl was about to happen.

“Don’t you know everybody heard you in the confession booth? What, did you think I was Jesus or somehow reading your mind? And how dare you take a $20 from dad’s wallet. Forget about God … wait until Dad hears about this!”

Frank’s face turned beet red. He looked around at the other kids, all of whom were too embarrassed, and afraid, to return his gaze. Ted had his chin up. It was as though he were a lawyer who knew all the answers and only asked questions that proved this.

Instead of attacking Ted, Frank started to cry. Not a sobbing cry, but more his eyes watering too hard to stop. He just kept staring at Ted, whom it dawned on that this was no longer funny. The truth was, Ted already knew Frank’s sin of masturbation. Most nights, he would have a dream that he was surrounded by white doves, which after a certain peaceful time, would start flapping their wings and flying away. Ted would wake up, realizing that the sound of wings flapping was really Frank jerking off. He never let on to Frank that he was awake. It just seemed too embarrassing, and he did the same thing, although not nearly as much as Frank did and never with him in the same room.

The other kids started walking away, leaving only the brothers in the snowy parking lot. Eventually, they walked home together, not looking at or speaking to each other.

Ted never did tell his father about the $20, and no one ever gave Frank a hard time about his confession, lest he beat them to death. Besides, it would be hard to hold Frank accountable for something they were all doing like monkeys in a zoo. But after that day at Confession, Frank and Ted never fought. On the other hand, they didn’t seem as close, moving in different social circles. This went on for years, until their father died, at which time, something broke, and they became friends again. Whatever compelled them to beat the shit out of each other as kids no longer mattered, or even existed. It became a distant memory for those kids who grew up with Ted and Frank as they licked ice-cream cones in the cool of the evening while their kids fed hay to the cows.

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