Read Knuckleheads Online

Authors: Jeff Kass

Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (single author)


BOOK: Knuckleheads
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
by Jeff Kass

Dzanc Books

1334 Woodbourne Street

Westland, MI 48186


Copyright © 2011, Text by Jeff Kass


All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.


Some of these stories have appeared in various forms in
Current, Bull Men’s Fiction, Unsquared: Ann Arbor Writers Unleash Their Edgiest and Stories,

Published 2011 by Dzanc Books

06 07 08 09 10 11 5 4 3 2 1

First edition March 2011

Print ISBN-13: 978-0982797518

eBook ISBN-13: 978-1936873227

Printed in the United States of America


The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.



Don't Mess

Parent-Teacher Conference

On the Case


Under Danny Rotten

Captain America

Mylar Man

Drowning Superman


The Naked Guy is Dead



For Karen, patient host of long-time knucklehead-in-residence.



Certainly, nobody had imagined cute cheerleaders for a wrestling team, girls with hair styled neatly, side-wept, sweet-smelling. Girls who floated through the stench and chill of the gym like an alien fog, mystics in saddle-shoes. Confused, my teammates and I watched them, and smelled them, and were stunned by them. Nobody understood how to act because, yeah, we knew about girls—sort of—but girls who would surrender an entire Saturday, from 8am to 11pm, to clap their hands and stomp their feet at a
wrestling tournament?

Nobody had ever heard of something like that.

None of our coaches had heard of mouth-guards either, though now it seems obvious. They should have known where to get a kid some molded plastic to protect his lips and gums from the braces girding his teeth. Seems like they could have suggested a sporting goods store, or ordered something from a catalogue, but they never did.

They did know about top seeds, how to pluck spindly anonymous boys from the high school hallways and sculpt them into thick-muscled names Magic-Markered onto the first line of tournament brackets. Three hours of daily grueling practice. The moment we slouched, their whistles screeched in our ears, shrill and continuous, like the high-pitched cries of colicky babies. From whistle to whistle we feinted and spun and pushed and grabbed, our coaches sure we learned the holds that hurt. They worked their knotted forearms into the backs of our necks so we’d understand the pain we were capable of instilling. They knew how to fight for those top seeds too. How to speak up in pre-tourney meetings, grim and certain—“My guy’s gonna roll through this weight-class,” they’d say. “Trust me, he’s tough.”


So I was. Tough. Able to snap back the head of a kid who stole from my locker the forty dollars I’d saved to buy a birthday present for a girl I wanted to like, and to bounce his skull off an aluminum doorframe. Tough enough to stare down a different kid in a parking-garage with a tire-iron gripped in his palm, saying only, “That’s not a good choice for you now,
is it?

Tough enough too to be named top seed at 138 lbs. in the Peru Tournament in Plattsburgh, a cold farmtown with a locker room so cold we could see our breath when we stripped to our boxers and weighed in on an enormous cattle scale. We were a handful of miles from the Canadian border and we were freezing. We wanted to hurt people and get back on the bus and get the fuck home.

I took that responsibility seriously. With two quick pins engraved on the bracket chart, I did my job with efficiency, easily reaching the semifinals against the fourth seed. He looked tough too. Shoulders thick like turkeys. More unshaven stubble on his face than I’d be able to grow for another decade. One of the cute cheerleaders, maybe the cutest cheerleader, stroked that stubble as she tongue-kissed him minutes before our match; her fingers crawling across his cheeks, her legs somehow tan in the middle of winter, her dark hair thick and curly, like a soft cloud on her back.


That was some bullshit.

You don’t make out with your girlfriend, no matter how cute, when you’re seeded fourth and you’re about to face the top-ranked wrestler in your weight-class. Not when he can see you making out and he’s warming up in that arctic drafty gym, bouncing from one foot to the other, shaking his arms loose, seething. Because what he’s thinking is that you don’t respect him. He’s the top seed and you’re treating him like he’s some guppy you’re going to flop onto his back. What he’s thinking is he’d like nothing better than not only to beat you, but to humiliate you in front of your hot cheerleader girlfriend. He wants you on your back, his breath thick on your neck, you squirming, hoping you’re still going to get some—maybe—after your girl sees you weak, pathetic, beaten.

It’s difficult to measure rage.

There’s no scale that plots your x and y coordinates at 7.7 pissed off when your dad grounds you for wearing your basketball sneakers in the snowstorm and you miss the party where Cara—the saucy girl who sold them to you at the Footlocker—said she’d meet you; 8.2 pissed off when you fail your first driving test after parallel-parking your rear bumper into a fire hydrant; 9.5 the Monday after the party when you see Cara in the hallway holding hands with your teammate.


When that whistle blew, I flew at the fourth seed like a rabid raccoon. Sucked his leg to my chest as if I were prepared to eat it for dinner, tripped his other leg and plummeted him onto his back. Maybe I bashed my face into his knee. I don’t know what I felt. My mouth stung and there was ripped skin and blood and I swallowed some but I kept surging. Straight through him. The whole thing could have been over in thirty seconds, but that would have been too easy. He could have told his girlfriend it was just one move, I got lucky. Fuck luck. Luck was not part of this equation. I punished the kid on his back, let him squirm and breathe my hot stink, then let him scramble to his knees so he could think maybe he had a chance.

There’s no way I could have distinguished any specific voices in the roar of that moment, but I like to imagine I did hear one—the cheerleader with the dark curls yelling, “C’mon Sweetheart! You can do it!” All the while I’m thinking, No, Sweetheart, you can’t, and I’m grinding my forearm into the back of his head, trying to crush his face into the floor so he’s inhaling sweat and shoe-bottom dirt, and there are easier ways to turn some arrogant fish with turkey shoulders onto his back, quicker ways, but this situation called only for the most painful way—the double arm-bar.

Imagine you’re lying face-down in the street and some roid-ripped police officer’s got his knee jammed between your shoulder-blades. Then he takes his nightstick and hooks it beneath one of your arms so it’s nestled inside the crook of your elbow, then he pulls backward so it feels like your rotator cuff is being yanked through your skin. While you’re dealing with that blast of pain, he proceeds to thread the other end of the nightstick under your other arm, so he can wrench both your shoulders from their sockets.

Imagine he twists the nightstick.

Imagine he walks out to the side of your body so his entire weight leverages your torso, spinning your neck and head, until you’re driven onto your back, both your arms knotted beneath you, your shoulders digging into concrete.

That’s the double arm-bar, and the kid deserved it.

His half-swallowed yelps only made me lock his arms up more tightly, only made me spike my chin into his upper back and extend myself so the maximum amount of pressure could be applied to his shoulders and neck. Then, too fast—putting someone away with an arm-bar was not only painful, but slow—I heard the slap of palm on mat. Except, it wasn’t the referee’s palm, it was
palm—the stubble-faced kid—signaling he wanted the match stopped because he was injured.

More bullshit.

I’d hurt him, sure, he deserved to be hurt, but no bones had snapped. No ligaments had popped. He wasn’t injured. He was faking, pretending he was damaged so he could spare himself the indignity of being pinned; so he could confess to his girlfriend that his shoulder had been hurt before the match. He went in hobbled and tried valiantly to soldier through. That’s why he lost.

I tried to stay loose, sloshing the spit and blood around in my mouth, tasting it, bouncing from foot to foot, shaking my arms as the referee waited the requisite two minutes to see if the so-called injured wrestler could continue. I felt a hot orange wave, then a black one, scraping like a cheese-grater across my forehead, tightening the muscles in my thighs. I pushed down hard with my feet, tried to shove them through the floor. People were shouting at wrestlers in other matches, urging them to break free from a hold or to lift somebody in the air and slam him. I couldn’t do anything. I ran in place.

That turkey-shouldered kid knew the code. Had to know it. He was fourth seed, out of sixteen. You don’t get there without rolling a bunch of kids on their necks. He knew where the line of truly injuring someone was, and he also knew we hadn’t crossed it. I shook my arms, licked the bands on my teeth, waited.


The thing about strength is that it’s gritty.

I first understood I was strong in third grade. On a steel-grey day when Daniel Meyers cut in front of Susie London in the four-square line. That was against the code too, cutting the four-square line, sneaking in when a horde of other kids had been waiting patiently for the chance to star on the asphalt stage, to batter the ball from one chalked box to another until someone missed. There was a rhythm to that anticipation—the running from the lunchroom to claim a spot toward the front of the line, the waiting as the ball bounced from square to square searching out which kid to send hangdog to the rear.

It was wrong to mess with that rhythm, wrong to cut into the line as if your hands battering the ball were more important than anyone else’s.

I don’t remember moving, but I remember what happened when my hand gripped the hood of Daniel’s sweatshirt and pulled. He careened backward and smashed into the school’s brick wall. The four-square line, quiet, watched Daniel stumble to his feet and rub the back of his head, then lick the blood from his fingers where he’d scraped his knuckles. I wasn’t surprised I’d tossed him like that, that he’d flown into the wall, only that it had been the slight against Susie London that had provoked my wrath. What was it about this shy girl that had sparked this quick stretch of hand to sweatshirt hood, this ferocious grip and pull?

Susie seemed thrilled too, excited that a boy would send someone sprawling on her behalf, and became less shy around me, even agreed to wear my velour sweat-jacket during lunch hours, to let it swallow her when she was cold.


By junior high, Susie London had grown less shy around a lot of people and, to stay warm, wrapped herself in the St. Bernard’s football jacket of a brutish kid named Christian Morris. At thirteen, he had a hedge of hair above his top lip and a square and sizable head, like a small microwave oven. On the day report cards came out, with my piss-poor behavioral grade in Mechanical Drawing sure to provoke a month-long grounding, I funneled all my bitterness into an arrow of sound—
You’d better stay away from Susie London
—and challenged Christian to a fight.

He sort of half-sung, the words pushing out rounder than I’d expected from his square head,
come on then
, and we trooped out of the cafeteria and down the stairs to the blacktop, a river of raucous classmates cheering behind. They hooted around Christian and me as we circled each other, wondering who would charge first. In the midst of one shuffle-step, I caught Susie’s eye. She didn’t look thrilled, or even scared, more like she was annoyed she’d been interrupted from finishing the half-eaten brownie wrapped in cellophane she held between her hands like a prayer-book.

You don’t want me to do this?
I stage-whispered, like a moron, as if anyone would. She nodded her head, which I took to mean she was answering, yes, I agree, I don’t want you to do this, I just want to finish my brownie. Briefly, I considered taking the advice of the After-School Special preachers and walking away, but then Christian made the decision to rush me, to initiate a clumsy tackle by winding his arms around my legs. I shoved him away easily, my hands sliding aside the flat top of his head as if closing the drawer of a file cabinet.

Somehow, I was still thinking all this didn’t have to happen. Maybe I could pick Christian up, shake his hand, tell him,
sorry, you don’t actually have to stay away from Susie London. I was kidding. I have a bad grade in Mechanical Drawing. My parents are going to ground me. She’s all yours.

BOOK: Knuckleheads
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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