The sprawling branches of my mother’s side of the family are gathered around the traditional after-Thanksgiving bonfire in my Aunt Val’s backyard. AJ, my older brother by five years, and his nineteen-year-old son, Jason, are here as they are every year. My sister has a blood clot in her lung so she wasn’t able to make it, but her fifteen and sixteen-year-old sons Johnny and Steven are here. Johnny is at the age where he wants to be called John. Steven has one kidney so he’s banned from the Turkey Bowl, a fact he makes up for with a combination of martial arts and hunting. He’s also something of a Guitar Hero prodigy. By virtue of driving them up with us from Syracuse, my wife and I are in charge of them. They’re normally self-sufficient, but get them around the bonfire and suddenly it’s a challenge to keep them from jumping over.
AJ stops them with a story. He and fourteen other guys were camping and drinking and decided it would be a good idea to jump the campfire. That got boring after a while, so they upped the ante. "Let’s jump over it after it’s freshly stoked." "Let’s jump over it after we throw on a fresh pallet." Or two pallets. Or three.
“This guy goes up to jump it,” AJ says, acting it out in slow motion. “He slips and lands just likes this” - his arms are twin L’s and either side of his head - “face-first on a fire.” That camping trip ended with a drunken trip to hospital and a friend with third-degree burns on his face.
“Are you going to fall in?” he asks. “Probably not. Probably not ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But is it worth that hundredth time?”
The story stops Steven and Johnny from jumping.
It’s sad that my sister Cass can’t be here because my cousins are up from Florida for the first time in almost twenty years. Aunt Val is Mohawk Indian and Uncle Tim is Irish, but the Irish won when it came to naming their three boys: Shawn, Shane, and Shannon. The six of us were inseparable as children, but in truth being the youngest made me more of a hanger on. AJ and Shawn are eight months apart, Shawn having just turned forty and AJ waiting until March. I haven’t seen Shawn since I was thirteen, the year I grew taller than him to become the tallest in the family. He’s outgoing and personable and has become a great storyteller, like his father. The middle cousin, Shane, is the same age as my sister Cass. He’s the ladies’ man. Shannon, the youngest, is two or three years old than me. There’s hardly any difference between 34 and 36, but subtract a few decades and it’s a world. One eight-year-old versus five kids aged ten to thirteen. A ten-year-old versus a pack of twelve, thirteen, and fifteen-year-olds. You can do the math but you can’t measure the gap unless you’ve lived it.
More than our ages growing up, it’s a temperament, a feeling that I’m a sensitive soul born into a family of real men (truthfully, Shannon shares this same sensibility; he just blends better). It’s clear by the different stories we have.
Shannon asks AJ to tell the story about the time my brother-in-law took on four guys on Marshall Street. Marshall Street is on the hill at Syracuse University, a row of bars and pizza joints that caters to college students. Cass’s husband Eddie, Johnny and Stephen’s father, is a six-foot-one, two hundred and twenty pound ex-Marine. He sleeps naked with a machete under his mattress for home protection, but that’s another story.
We gather around eagerly.
“Yeah,” AJ says. “Four guys started some shit and Eddie beat ‘em up really quick.”
We’re all standing around the bonfire, waiting for more, but AJ’s already gone to get another beer.
“AJ, man,” Shannon says, “you need to work on your storytelling. You got all these guys waiting around for something and that’s the best you can do?”
We all laugh.
“Well, that’s the story,” AJ says. “Four guys jumped us on Marshall Street and Eddie beat them up real quick.” His words run together, making it almost one long word.
“Okay, I’ll tell the story.” Everyone looks at me. I’ve never heard this story and have no idea what happened. By their eyes, they can’t tell whether I’m joking. “So AJ and Eddie are out drinking at 44's. It’s filled with all these jock douchebag frat boys, right? So these four guys start fucking with them, like ‘what are these broke dick old motherfuckers doing in our bar, blah-blah-blah-”
“Actually, they were throwing peanuts at us,” AJ says.
If you want someone to tell a story, start telling it wrong.
“It was this bar where they give you peanuts, and these guys were throwing them at us. We saw who it was in the mirror” - here AJ looks at Steven - “and your father went over and said something to them.”
“My father said something to them?”
Everyone knows Eddie is tough. By his tone, Steven is still surprised that his father is say-something-to-four-rowdy-dudes-in-a-bar tough.
“Yeah. So it ends up with the four of them and us in the alley. This one guy who’s holding the door open is like, ‘You’re boy just fucked up. These guys are off-duty sheriffs. He’s going to get his ass kicked.’ I’m like, “Yeah, you’re probably right.’
“It wasn’t even one at a time, they all just rushed him. The first guy, Eddie boxes him, takes him out with one punch.” AJ acts it out, holding up his fists in a classic stance, crossing a right punch over his body to pantomime how Eddie knocked a man out. “The second guy Eddie turns around and takes him out with a kick to the head.”
AJ doesn’t actually kick, he swings his body from the imaginary punch and lifts his knee to show us how it happened, one smooth, balletic movement.
“The third guy, Eddie just totally connected, laid him flat out. One punch.”
AJ lowers his body from the kick, bringing his whole weight back up into what looks like a vicious upper-cut. He finishes in the boxer’s stance.
“Eddie looks over at the fourth guy, and the fourth guy is like-” Here, AJ hold his hands palms out in the classic gesture of surrender. It’s amazing to hear, like something from a movie, made more amazing by the fact that it’s someone we know.
Eddie’s had four back surgeries. His damaged vertebrae put pressure on his spinal cord, sending constant pain down his leg and turning his foot into little more than a useless club. Three months ago, he got a handicapped tag for his car. He’s on full disability now. He’s afraid of the one fight he has left in him, what could push him to those circumstances, how easily his need to end it quickly could turn lethal.
This starts the fight stories. Shane and Shannon, drunk out of their minds, fighting two gym-muscle guys on the street because they bumped into Shane and made him drop his pizza slice. Shawn throwing a guy through a plate-glass window for calling him a faggot. Uncle Tim punched by a rowdy drunk he rousted from his bar, the subsequent beating Tim dealt which ended with Shannon cracking the drunk across the face and screaming, “Don’t ever hit my dad!” And so on, until the stories of violence are exhausted and there is silence, some of us watching the fire, some of us marveling at the stars overhead.
“Gee, I wish I had a story,” I say wistfully, and they laugh. I haven’t been in a fight since grade school, and that was me sitting on the school bus while a bully half my size punched me in the face several times. I had the inclination to punch back, or at least defend myself, but I didn’t have the will.
Their laughter makes me bold.
“This one time, a guy came into Books & Books and he didn’t have exact change . . .”
I let it trail off on a wave of their laughter. They talk about me grabbing the guy by his tie, beating him, turning into the Book Nazi and banning the guy for a year. No book for you, no book for you, they yell.
Humor is the bridge I can build, the willingness to poke fun at our differences. Shannon is the funniest in our family, but I treasure the moments I make them laugh.
My brother can build an entire house from a hole in the ground. My nephew Steven can bow hunt and gut a deer. My cousin Shannon can lay a man twice his size flat in one punch. These are men who drink life in great droughts, who smoke life to ashes all the way down to the filter and look for more. They revel in each other’s company and in the company of men like them. They enjoy drinking and playing football and one-upping each-other verbally and physically.
I live my life behind a lap-top, alone in my room, listening to music and pushing the cursor across the page. They don’t understand how I can take or leave the Turkey Bowl, skipping this year like I skipped three years ago. A beer or two is enough for me while they rage toward oblivion. But we’re family, so we accept and love each other. We laugh together, play kick the can, look at the stars, and talk a lot of smack.
Their smacks are just more literal.