The world wasn't right unless the Knockwoods were winning

Updated: March 2, 2011, 9:48 AM ET
By Wells Tower | ESPN The Magazine

Alex Tehrani/Gallery Stock

This short story appears in the March 7, 2011 Fiction Issue of ESPN The Magazine.

BY THE TIME MY FAMILY MOVED TO upper New Hampshire, the Knockwoods had been alone on the land next door to our new property for several generations.

They showed their resentment of our arrival indirectly, over the year that followed, by humiliating us in a series of undeclared competitions. They beat us in firewood contests, felling trees along the property line, splitting the logs and stacking them to season in tidy, antler-colored pyramids that could have been on the cover of a magazine about rustic art. They beat us in contests of food abundance, filling the autumn air with the sound of shrieking hogs, a loud, panicked wail you'd not have thought possible from an animal with its throat cut. Every time I heard it, I knew a terrible and brutal thing was happening at the Knockwood place, but I also knew that to be rich in slab bacon was a kind of wealth more pure and immediate than plain money, and I felt bested.

James Knockwood, the father, took special pleasure in beating us in knowledge competitions about the hardness of the world. He had a large, American build and lots of illegible tattoos, and he used to come around to tell us about assorted rough deeds he'd committed as the captain of a local motorcycle gang called the Broke Spoke Club. We also learned that during the war in Vietnam, he'd been forced to shoot a young woman who was running at him with an explosive strapped to her chest. My mother said she'd rather get blown up than have something like that on her conscience. James Knockwood said, "I hate to tell you, Lydia, but you're na´ve."

Most of my losses, though, were at the hands of the son, Jimmy Knockwood Jr. Two years older than me, Jimmy wore a hint of Iroquois aristocracy in his cheekbones, and some part of his body was usually sheathed in a dirty plaster cast. He beat me at every sport we had equipment for. At 13, he had arms like a man and could throw a baseball with such force that after playing catch with him you couldn't turn a doorknob. Once, when we were wrestling, he put me in a choke hold that made my vision go white. I cursed Jimmy's mother, and he rubbed a toad into my teeth. Seeing me in tears afterward, my father asked why I put myself through the disgrace of playing with Jimmy. He had forgotten the infatuation a boy has no choice but to feel for a peer who is good at everything.

Our last contest was on my twelfth Christmas. That morning I woke to a sound like a hornet swarm tearing through the Knockwood property. Twenty minutes later, before I'd opened my stocking, Jimmy came razzing over on a brand-new Kawasaki off-road motorbike. Sleek with chrome shocks and lustrous green fairings, it was a thing of lethal, insectile beauty -- a cross between a dragonfly and a chain saw.

"Race you," Jimmy said. "Come on, get your bike."

I said I couldn't see the sense in going up against that Kawasaki on my bicycle, a single-speed antique made of skillet metal, and a child's model to boot.

"Aw, don't cry, turtle pecker," Jimmy said. "Pick your head start, long as you want. Plus, I won't kick it out of first gear. Give you 10 dollars, win or lose."

This was Jimmy's standard ploy: to lure you into unwinnable competitions by offering fraudulent, self-sacrificial conditions that not even the most pathetic wuss could refuse. That morning, as always, I took the bait, and went to fetch my bike from the leaky shed where it had been rusting since summertime.

The Knockwoods' long and rutted driveway was the racecourse, their mailbox the finish line. Jimmy's parents came out to watch the pointless spectacle, also his three sisters and a cheering horde of raw-boned cousins, uncles and aunts. Winning was not a possibility, I knew; I was just desperate to get away from that hostile crowd. We lined up, and I gathered the nerve to ask for a 10-second lead. In lieu of a starter's pistol, Jimmy's mother put her fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle, and I ducked my head and went tearing down the driveway.

The group counted down my time while Jimmy revved and grinned. At Mrs. Knockwood's second whistle blast, Jimmy kicked the Kawasaki into gear and wrung the throttle. The bike took off faster than he'd meant it to, shooting past me, past the edge of the driveway, jouncing over a tussocky side yard and rocketing deep into a house-high tangle of blackberry and honeysuckle vines, where the engine finally died. I kept cranking until I'd reached the mailbox, where I raised a tentative hand in victory.

No one was looking at me, though. James Knockwood had charged into the vine-work tunnel the bike had bored to pull out his fallen son, who was moaning, his right hand hanging at a weird angle from his wrist. Then James Sr. retrieved the bike. The fork was bent, the front wheel folded into a taco shape. The paint job looked like someone had gone over it with a cat-o'-nine-tails. Also, the gas cap was missing -- the least of the Kawasaki's troubles, yet the detail that enraged Mr. Knockwood most. "Where's the gas cap at? Where's the damn gas cap, Jimmy?" Mr. Knockwood yelled, as though this were a question his son was capable of answering. With an open hand, he belted Jimmy twice behind the ear, using plenty of follow-through.

I went home feeling no joy whatsoever at having beaten Jimmy after a year of bruising losses. Rather, I felt queasy and wrong about having breached the good and natural order of life there on our hill, a presentiment, I guess, of Jimmy and his family's future. Things never quite turned around for the Knockwoods after Jimmy crashed the Kawasaki. The cancer must have already been well into Mr. Knockwood's brain that Christmas Day, because by Easter he was a 110-pound skeleton and by summer he was dead. His widow scalped the land of its timber before selling the property to my parents, who, 20 years later, gave it to me.

Last spring, I was clearing some brush on the Knockwood side to make room for a new shed. It took me awhile to recognize the asterisk of black plastic at my feet, the Kawasaki's gas cap bedded in the dirt. I pried it out of the ground and went to show the thing to my wife. When I told her the story of the Christmas bike race, she laughed the raucous, horsey laugh that makes people frown at her in restaurants. A friend once told me not to marry a woman with such an ugly laugh. It's true, she does have an ugly laugh, but it's a sound you get to depend on when you hear it enough around the house.

Wells Tower is the author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of short fiction.