Knuckling Down

You might never thought it would happen but finally here it is! A story centered around the joy and excitement that comes from playing the game of marbles.

Larry was nervous as he stood waiting. The guy next to him lagged first. His marble rolled nearly twenty feet and stopped within a foot of the lag line. Now it was Larry’s turn. He took a deep breath, let it out like his brother had coached him, and rolled his marble. It stopped a few inches from the line. He heart leaped. He was going to be the first shooter. He looked around through the crowd of spectators. He didn’t see Tim. Where the hell was his brother? He stuffed his disappointment and tried to focus on the upcoming match. The regional finals for the National Marble Tournament were underway and it looked like he was on his own.

Tim’s friends gave him high five’s as he rolled up on his BMX bike. Matt, Kim and Micah were lounging on a bench in Idlewood Park, half a mile south from where Larry was sweating out the beginning of his final match of the tournament.

“I thought you were goin’ to be with Little Bro’?” Matt asked, flipping a broken twig in Tim’s direction.

“In a sec. I just need a hit to get me through it. I’m all out.” He ducked, the twig narrowly missing his face. His friend, if you could call him that, was a real jerk sometimes.

Matt grinned and looked at Kim and Micah. “It’ll cost ya’, man.”

“Come on,” Tim, pleaded, “Just a quick one, and then I’m outta’ here.” He pointed back from where he came. “I need to hurry up and get back over there and be with Larry.”

“Aww. Is Little Bro’ going to miss his Big Bro’?” Now Kim started in. Tim rolled his eyes. Sometimes he wondered why he hung out with these guys.

Micah came to his defense, “Cool it you guys.” He turned to Larry, “Here, let me fix you up.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his pipe. I’ve still got a little left here.

“Great.” A little was all Tim needed. He was as nervous as his brother about the tournament. Micah passed the pipe to him. Tim pulled out his lighter, lit the weed and took a quick hit, sucking the smoke in and holding it. After a minute he exhaled, feeling better. “Thanks man,” he said, giving Micah his pipe back. “I owe ya’.”

Back at the tournament Larry tried to settle himself. Where the hell was Tim? Larry’s big brother was also his coach, if you could call it that. Tim, at fifteen, was now too old to play in tournaments but, at thirteen, Larry was just under the cut off line. He eyed the guy he’d be playing against. He was a big kid, someone Larry had never seen before. He looked older, almost like he could be shaving. Stop it, he told himself, you’re psyching yourself out. He looked around again. The crowd was growing and starting to fill the bleachers surrounding the ring where the championship would be played . Earlier in the week the staff had set up the bleachers along with twelve hard, resin playing surfaces at popular James Beach. It was located on the south end of Lake Calhoun, a favorite city lake in a string of lakes in Minneapolis, all connected by biking and walking paths. The tournament had been going on since Friday. Over five hundred kids had signed up and Larry had played nearly twenty games, winning each one and progressing to the finals today, noon on Sunday. The girls final had just ended with Katie Peterson, a friend of his, winning. She’d be going to Atlantic City and the national finals in four weeks. With any luck he’d be joining her. The guy he was playing against seemed poised and confident, joking with a bunch of his friends, all of them giving Larry smug looks. He looked around again. Really, he thought to himself, what’s happened to Tim?

Idlewood park was a large grassy area one block square in size and a beautiful place for people in the city to gather. It was fairly level, with well groomed paths meandering through it encouraging walking. There was a wading pool, a baseball diamond, basket ball courts, a tennis court, swing sets and a community center. The park had it all. Mature oak and maple trees grew throughout providing welcome summertime shade, and benches were scattered all around encouraging people to sit and relax. The bench Tim and his friends hung out at they considered theirs, and they actively discouraged people from loitering. Only they were allowed to do that.

“Yeah… I feel good.” Tim looked at Mica. “Thanks man.” He looked around. It was a perfect summer day, blue sky, big white puffy clouds and a light breeze. People were out and about, some of them playing on the ball diamond and others shooting baskets. A few little kids were even splashing around in the wading pool. Tim watched them casually, remembering when he and Larry used to come down and play in it, cooling off on hot summer days. They only lived about five blocks away so it was easy to walk to it when they were young. When was that, he thought to himself, five years ago, ten? He lost track of his math and shook his head. Anyway, they also used to come down and swing on the swing sets. Especially when their parents were fighting, which they used to do a lot. They’d swing and swing and pass the time, hoping that when they got home the fight would be over. It usually wasn’t. Now, their parents were divorced and it was only Tim and Larry and their mom, who worked a lot and let the two boys do pretty much whatever they wanted. And that’s what they did. Especially this particular summer.

He stretched, wanting to appear casual. “I should get back to the match.”

“See how Little Bro’ is doin’?” Matt asked, kind of taunting.

“The big marble king,” Kim added and snickered.

“Or queen,” Matt laughed at his own stupid joke, Kim joining in.

Tim just shook his head. His friends didn’t get it at all. In fact, he was surprised that they even put up with him. Like now. Lately Tim could feel himself drifting apart from them, especially Matt and Kim. They all had been hanging around together since grade school, having met back in Mr. Jensen’s fifth grade class. At the time, Tim had become a very good marble player and regularly participated in tournaments in the area, occasionally even winning. He was a bit well known in sort of a weird way and maybe that added to it. Let’s face it, most of the kids in his school thought anyone playing marbles was pretty much someone you should avoid. Someone too different to even consider being friends with. But that was alright with Tim. By then he was used to being looked at as something of an outsider. He was fine with it. Then one day Matt had approached him, trailing Kim and Micah behind.

“Hey, you that marble guy?” he had asked, standing so close Tim could smell the potato chips on his breath.

“Yeah…” he’d answered, expecting to be shoved or pushed around or something. Something he was used to. “What of it?”

Matt turned to the other two and gave each of them a high five. “See, I told ya’,” he exclaimed. Grinning, he turned to Tim and quickly gave him a one armed hug. “That’s pretty friggin’ cool if you ask me.”

And that was it. From that day Tim had been included into their group. Matt and his gang also considered themselves outsiders and different for everyone else, so Tim fit right in. And even though he didn’t agree with everything the guys did, he had to admit, it was nice to have some friends and guys to hang around with.

Tim’s dad had collected marbles. Had ever since he’d been a kid.”I just like how they look,” he told Tim once. Back then there were hundreds of marbles stored in jars all over the house. Tim became attracted to them on the day his mom had made his dad move them out and store them in the garage.

“Get those things out of here,” she’d finally yelled. “I’m sick of looking at them.”

And this came from someone who thought nothing of collecting china flowers and displaying them all over the place. To each their own, Tim finally decided. But he helped his dad move the jars and Larry had too. It had been fun, and even now, six years later, he still remembered that day with fondness.

“What do you do with them?” Tim had asked as they carefully placed the jars on a self his dad had cleared off. He had to admit they were kind of pretty. Glass marbles of every color under the sun. The ones he liked the best had bands swirling through them comprised sometimes four or five different colors.

“Those are actually called ‘flames’,” his dad said. “Look, see how the tips end in a point?”

“Cool,” Larry said. Tim hadn’t been aware that his brother had been looking over his shoulder. Larry put the marble in his hand and turned it over and over examining it. Then he held it up toward the light. The colors seemed to explode. Even Tim thought it looked pretty neat. Their dad watched as both of his son’s interest grew. Excitedly he picked a jar off the shelf and poured the marbles out onto a old white towel. “Look at these,” he said, lovingly spreading the marbles out. He showed them purple popeyes and peerless patches. He showed them chalkies and clearies and clambroths. He showed them handmade marbles and marbles that glowed in the dark. There were bloodies and flames and slags and swirls. Cub scouts and girl scouts and spidermen and supermen. He showed them watermelons and rainbows and wasps and tigers. Even one called a root beer float. And those all came out of just one jar.

The boys eyes went wide as he rattled off their names. The marbles were pretty and colorful and the exotic names added to the mystery and enjoyment.

“Here, let me show you something else,” he said, picking up more on his boy’s interest.

He grabbed a ball of twine and peeled off a twenty foot length. He put it on the floor of the garage in the shape of a circle. It was about six feet across. “You take your marbles and put them in the center of the circle.” He put a handful down, maybe a dozen. “Then you take this bigger marble…” He grabbed a different jar and shook out a marble about twice as large as the others. “It’s called a ‘shooter'”. He knelt down and cupped the shooter in his right hand with his fingers curled around it, cradling the marble. With his thumb positioned behind it he suddenly flicked the marble so it rolled across the floor smacking into the collection of marbles in the center, knocking a few of them out of the ring. He looked up at his boys. “You just fire the shooter at the marbles and try to knock out as many as you can.” He stood up and dusted his knees. Tim looked at his dad. He’d never seen this side of him before.  At the time, being nine years old, he could have coped an attitude of indifference, pretending that he didn’t care, but he didn’t. His dad actually looked happy. Almost like he was a kid again. And, for some reason, that made Tim happy

“That’s pretty cool, dad,” he said, meaning it.

Larry took it a step further. “Show me how to play.” His intense expression was unlike anything Tim had ever seen before. It was the beginning of the growth of a new side of his brother that was still going on even until now.

From that day on the two boys, with coaching from their father, started to learn the game of marbles. It soon became evident that, while Tim was good, his younger brother Larry had a special aptitude. A gift, if you will, that was interesting for his older brother to see as it developed. And it was especially fun for their father to see. You have to remember that the boys were learning how to play marbles in a day and age where most kids were plugged into an iPod or Wii or some fancy electronic game played a big screen television. It wasn’t that the boys weren’t interested in those things, they were, especially Tim, but they just didn’t like them as much as the thrill they got from playing marbles.

Like Larry said once, “I just like to fire that shooter and watch it smash into those other marbles.” There was a twinkle in his eye when he said it. One thing was certain for the boys, playing marbles was definitely a more tactile experience than playing video games.

It made Tim feel good when his little brother talked like that. Larry had always been a quiet, shy and introverted kid. He was near sighted so he had to wear thick framed glasses. He was skinny, almost frail and hadn’t hit a growth spurt yet. He loved to read the ‘Hardy Boys’ mysteries and color in his coloring books. Tim was convinced his brother could go for days without talking to anyone if he had to. If his mom didn’t make him go to school he’d probably be perfectly happy just living in his bedroom with his books and his colored pencils. Except for playing marbles. Playing marbles got Larry out of the house and got him around other kids, and, who knew, maybe that was something worthwhile in that. Larry sure liked it. It turned out that he liked the competition. Liked the pressure, too, which was odd because it was one of the things that eventually drove Tim away from tournament play. But not Larry. He seemed to thrive on it. He didn’t always win, of course, but he was always a gracious loser. Tim got the feeling that his brother in some strange way needed to be playing marbles. He couldn’t quite put it into words, but it had to do with giving him a sort of confidence. A confidence he certainly wouldn’t have obtained by living life up his room.

Their dad left home about six months after he’d shown the boys how to play marbles. Their mother had kicked him out of the house about the same time the company he worked for transferred him to Sacramento. Tim would never forget the day their dad left. After a few minutes of embarrassed goodbyes, their dad finally wrapped both the boys in a big bear hug. All three of them had gotten close in the months since they’d discovered the game of marbles. And it was about the game that was the final thing their dad had talked about before leaving. “Keep your eye on the marble, boys,” he’d said, making a little inside joke like he’d done before, but also actually meaning it. “Don’t look at the shooter in your hand, just zero in on that marble you’re shooting at. Relax. Let your breath out. And fire. Let your instinct take over.”

Tim and Larry knew exactly what their dad was getting at. He’d told them time and time again that you ‘sort of become one with the marble’.

“Like that golfing movie?” Tim had asked.

Their dad had smiled and nodded but then also turned serious saying it was sort of like that, except playing marbles was a lot harder than playing golf.

Tim didn’t know about that, but he did know that he loved the game and so did Larry. Within a year after their mom had them move the marbles to the garage and six months after their dad had left, the boys had entered their first tournament. And they hadn’t done too badly. The Midwest Marble Association sponsored tournaments which were held in a variety of locations in the five state area. Their mom would drive them if she could get the time off work. The first one they attended was in Iowa, outdoors at the Merle Hay Shopping Center in Des Moines. Tim finished in fourth place and Larry in third in their respective age groups, and the seed had been planted. They were able to attend on the average four or five tournaments a year, usually in the summer. The more they played the better they became. And for those first few years, it had been a lot of fun. It had brought the brothers closer together than ever and even their mom had fun.

But, of course, things change over time. As Tim got older he started to lose his desire to compete. He didn’t like all the fuss that went with it and his enthusiasm waned. But Larry was different. He excelled at the game. He liked the challenge and he like the competition, which was a surprise to his older brother.

“I don’t get it,” Tim said to him, more than once. “Why do you put yourself through this stress all the time?”

Larry answered with a gleam in his eye, “I just like to know that I’m good at something, and playing in those tournaments let’s me do that.”

Tim didn’t know much, but he did know that his little brother was telling the truth. He really was good at playing marbles.

Tim was ten and Larry was eight when their dad left home. After he moved out they didn’t see him very much. As their mom put it, “Your dad loves you but he’s just moved on with his life. ” She paused and looked both the boys straight in the eye, adding, “You should too.” Her words were a bit harsh but they were also true, and the boys tried to do just that. Tim often wondered if his brother’s obsession with marbles had to do with him holding on to some childish memory. Like the good times they’d had with their dad and that day in the garage when he’d first taught his boys the game of marbles. Weirder things could happen.

Now, at thirteen, Larry was at the top of his game. He was confident, but not arrogant. He had skill and he had focus. Tim had been coaching him for the last few years, ever since he’d lost interest in competing. He still loved the game, but he had moved on and was interested in other things now.

“Hey, man, where are you?” Micah was waving a hand in front of Tim’s face. “Are you still with us?” The other guys laughed and Tim blinked his eyes, coming back to reality.

“Yeah, geez, sorry.” Tim rubbed his eyes, the images in his memories fading. “What’s goin’ on?”

Matt punched him in the arm. “Get with it, man. You asleep or what?”

Tim finally got his mind working again. He suddenly realized something. His brother. “Man, I got to get goin’.” He said frantically, standing on the pedal of his bike. “Larry’s game’s probably started.”

Matt and Kim laughed and gave him cat-calls as he tore through the park and out on to the street that lead down to the lake. He felt bad and he pushed the speed of his bike. He knew how much Larry depended on him. He had to step on it. This would be his brother’s last chance to win the tournament and get to go to Atlantic City for the nationals. Next year he’d be too old. He pedaled faster, heart pounding, silently berating himself for letting his brother down.

Back at the tournament Larry was kneeling down on the outside edge of the circle ready to begin the game. One of the rules of marbles is to have at least one knuckle touching the ground when shooting. So he knuckled down and lined up his first shot. The game is played on a square, hard resin surface outlined by low boards. Inside is a ten foot diameter circle. Inside the circle thirteen marbles are placed in the center in a cross pattern with the marbles six inches apart. A template is used to lay them down emphasizing that accuracy counts for a lot in marble competition in more ways than one. Larry knelt so he could line up his first shot, the first shot he always took in any game, which was aimed at the center marble in the cross. He mentally tried to calm himself. The crowd of spectators became a quiet, watching and waiting. He checked his breathing, took a deep breath and slowly let the air out of his lungs. His eyes locked in on the center marble. He relaxed his grip on his shooter just an instant before he made his mind up to shoot. (A trick his father had taught him). And then he fired. The marble shot out of his hand like a missile and flew past the center marble, just nicking it ever so slightly. His shooter flew across the ring and slammed into the boards on the far side. He had missed everything. It was the worst shot he’d taken in he couldn’t remember how long. He felt like a jerk. He glanced over at the other guy who was in the process of doing all he could to keep from laughing. This was not the beginning he’d hoped for.

Tim was pedaling as fast as he could to get to the beach. He swung into the parking lot, skidding a little and barely maintaining control. He headed for the huge crowd of spectators. The lake was dotted with sailboats and windsurfers. People were playing in the water, laughing and tossing Frisbees. He hardly noticed any of that. Instead he heard a groan arise from the crowd. He pedaled even faster. Something bad had happened and he hoped it didn’t have anything to do with his brother.

Well, things like that just happened, what how Larry was looking at it. One of the lessons he’d learned from his years of competition was to take the good and the bad. The guy he was playing against, whose name was Nate, knuckled down and took his shot. He knocked one marble from the ring but his shooter went out as well which meant he had to forfeit his next shot. The shooter has to stay in the circle for the player to continue. It was Larry’s turn. A movement to his right caught his eye. Tim had jumped off his bike and was shouldering his way to the front of the crowd. It’s about time, he thought to himself. Tim gave him a look and pointed to his eye and then to Larry, eyeball to eyeball. It was something they’d come up with in the last year. It was like ‘double focus. You and the shooter. That’s all there is. Make it happen.’ It probably sounded weird, which is why the two brothers didn’t talk about it much, but there really was an element of more than luck or chance or even skill when it came to playing marbles. You had to get into the zone. That place where there was only you and your connection to the marble you were shooting at. It was almost a mystical thing. And that’s where Larry tried to get to now.

Tim and Larry played regional tournaments together for about five years. Tim quit when he was fourteen, the last year he was eligible to play. By then Larry had proven himself as a committed player. Tim still liked the game and, even if he didn’t admit it to anyone else, he liked his brother. Tim was the more outgoing of the two. He was the one with friends. Larry was quiet and introverted when he was young and he was growing into his teenage years as still being quiet and introverted. He was friends with Katie Peterson because they both enjoyed playing marbles, but he had no other kids his age he hung out with. He was a good student. Teachers liked him and he was never any trouble. While other kids pleaded with their parents for cell phones, Larry didn’t. He was happy reading and building model airplanes. He was learning chess. The closest he came to technology was playing with Legos. This summer he had started dressing in baggy knee length cargo pants, various tee-shirts from different punk bands, red converse high-top tennis shoes and an old Minnesota Twins baseball cap of their dad’s he’d found stuffed in a box in the basement. So although Larry was different and a bit unique, he was still his brother and they got along pretty well. Like his mom had said once, “With your father gone, it’s just you two boys. You’d better make the most of it.” Which, when Tim thought about it, they did.

So with eye contact made, Larry felt himself shifting inside. Felt himself starting to get into the zone. He knelt down and positioned himself. He had put his first missed shot behind him. It was like the match had just started. He had another chance to make his shot. He calmed himself and fired. A hit. He felt his pulse go up. He’d knocked two marbles out and his shooter stayed in the circle. He was up two to one and could shoot again. There were ten marbles left. He calmed himself and knelt down. He rubbed his shooter on his pant leg and rolled it in the palm of his hand, all the while eyeing his next shot. When he was ready he knuckled down and fired. Another hit. He was on a roll, a term he and Tim often used in a case like this, when he started knocking marbles out right and left. ‘No pun intended’ they’d always add, envisioning all those marbles rolling all over the place. Thinking about it made him smile even as he concentrated on his next shot.

This summer Larry was between seventh and eighth grade. Unlike other guys his age he wasn’t into girls or smoking dope (like he knew his brother sometimes did) or hanging out with goofy friends (like his brother always did) or anything like that. He liked things quiet. He liked his books and reading. He was into the history of the civil war right now. He had traded his coloring books in for drawing tablets that he filled with detailed pen and ink sketches of birds and flowers that he brush-washed with watercolors. He liked to listen to music of all kinds and recently surprised even his brother by becoming a fan of the California punk rock band Social Distortion. He listened to them late at night through the headphones on his computer while idly sketching his drawings. He was even thinking about getting a job at the hobby store in the strip mall a few miles from home, close enough so he could ride his bike. He had grown closer to his mother ever since his dad had left. He felt a little bad that she had to work and couldn’t be at the tournament today, but it didn’t concern him too much. And he liked his older brother a lot. After their dad had left home the family had not drifted apart like other families might have. No, they had grown closer together. The boy’s mom seemed more at ease with their dad gone, and she gave each of her sons as much love as she could. The fact that she had to work so much only made Tim and Larry become more responsible and that was a good thing. Like their mom had said, “I’m going to have to count on your more and more now that your dad is gone. Don’t let me down.” It must have been the way she said it, and the trust she put in her sons, that made them respect her wishes and do what she wanted them to do. Which is what they did.

Well, almost. After all, boys will be boys and in Tim’s case, that was certainly true. Hanging around with Matt and his crew probably wasn’t the best thing way for him to be spending his time. At least in Larry’s eyes, but as far as he knew Tim hadn’t gotten into any really bad trouble yet. But that’s why Larry had been so worried when he hadn’t seen his brother at the beginning of the match. Who knew what could have happened? Matt certainly was a loose cannon. But Tim was here now and that’s all that counted.

One of the keys in marble competition beyond concentration and focus and skill was the ability to not get rattled. Larry was a master at maintaining his composure but even he had a scary moment a few shots later when his shot failed to knock a marble out but his shooter stayed in the circle. This meant that Nate could use his next shot to try to knock the shooter out. If he was successful Larry would have to give up all of his marbles to him, making his chances of winning extremely difficult. Fortunately Nate missed everything completely so Larry regained his turn with no damage done. As he settled himself to shoot he glanced at his brother who was now looking over his shoulder and getting agitated and perturbed. What now? Larry followed his brother’s line of vision and his heart jumped. It was Matt and Kim and Micah pushing through the crowd. He looked back at Tim. He could see that his brother was not only distracted but angry and that didn’t help his concentration at all. He went ahead and shot anyway, knocking out another marble. He had put spin on his shooter. It stopped close to a group of three marbles. He was so close to winning  he could all most taste it. If he knocked them all out he’d be the winner. He moved to where his shooter was and crouched down, lining up his shot. Just then a shouting match broke out. He looked up. Matt and Tim were pushing at each other and it looked like Matt was trying to start a fight. A couple of big, beefy security guys were struggling to make their way through the crowd. This couldn’t be good.

Larry knuckled down and took aim, calming his breathing. In the background he could hear the ruckus start to escalate. But instead of picturing what was happening between Tim and Matt, in his mind he saw something different. In his mind he saw all the hours of practice he’d put in with his brother guiding him, helping him to be the best player he could be. He saw the countless miles driven on the road with his mom and brother, and the sacrifices his mom had made taking time off work to drive he and his brother to tournaments all over the five state area. He even saw an image of his dad, gone from his life for the last five years, giving him his first lesson on how to shoot a marble. He saw it all in an instant. He saw the beauty of the game and how much he loved playing it. He pictured he and Tim in Atlantic City vying for a national title. He steeled his resolve and let his breath out, cradling his shooter lightly, knuckles on the ground. Then he let it fly and watched as it hit one, two and then three marbles knocking them all out. His shooter spun to a stop well inside the circle. A roar went up from the crowd. He’d won. Larry didn’t hesitate a moment. In an instant he jumped up and ran across the ring and into the crowd where Tim and Matt were starting to throw punches. He jumped on Matt and his momentum pushed the larger boy to the ground. Then Kim jumped in and then Tim piled on, fists swinging. The whole thing lasted about fifteen seconds. Just long enough for Larry to land a blow on Matt’s nose causing blood to spray all over the place. The two security guys had finally made it over and were able to pull the boys apart. Someone called the cops and within a minute a squad car showed up. Five minutes later Matt and Kim were ushered into it and driven away while Tim and Larry were held by security until another one arrived. Then a weird thing happened. There was a ceremony. Larry’s victory had not been forgotten. He was brought over to the marble ring where his match had been played.  After a short and slightly humorous speech by an official from the National Marble Association in which he mentioned not only Larry’s skill with a shooter, but also his skill with his fist, he was awarded the winner’s trophy along with a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars. There was a nice round of applause from the large audience. Over the years Larry had developed quite a following. People really liked him. In just over three weeks he’d be heading to Atlantic City for the National Marble Tournament finals. Before then, though, the first thing that was going to happen was that he and his brother were going to be taking a ride to the Fifth Precinct station in south Minneapolis. There was talk about them being booked for disturbing the peace and causing a public disturbance. But there was a general conscientious that Matt and Kim were the instigators and that Tim and Larry shouldn’t be charged with anything. Still, what happened had happened and now there might be consequences. It was not the ending to the day that either Larry or Tim had envisioned.

In the end it really didn’t turn out all that bad. One of the tournament officials had followed the squad to the precinct and vouched for the brothers.

“I don’t know anything about those other two guys,” he told the desk sergeant. “All I can say is that both of these boys are good kids and have never caused me any problems before.” Tim and Larry were standing between the two officers from the squad car. They stared at the floor with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. The big question for them was what was their mom going to think? One of the cops had gotten her number at work and had already called her. “In fact, this one here…” he indicated Larry, “Just won a big tournament and is going to represent the entire region next month in Atlantic City.” This seemed to impress the guy behind the desk.

“Really? What’d he win?” he asked, interested.

“The Midwest Marble Tournament,” the official said proudly. “He’s a great little shooter.” Which didn’t come across as well as he’d expected it would, but when all was said and done might at least have counted for something.

There was a conference between the officers and the desk sergeant and they all decided the best thing was to let the brothers off with a warning. This was also accompanied by a stern talking to by one of the officers and a promise from the boys to behave. The general consensus at the station was that punishment by their mother would be bad enough and it was. By the time she had picked them up at the Precinct and brought them home, chewing them out the whole time, they were more sorry for causing her distress than being dressed down by the cops. As she said as she pulled into the driveway, “I need to count on you boys to do the right thing. I thought I’d raised you better than this.” Guilt can be a great motivator sometimes when being a parent and this was one of those times.

“I’m so sorry, mom,” was what they each in their own way said over and over again all the rest of the day, into the night and even into Monday. “It’ll never happen again.”

Which may or may not be true, and even their mom knew that, but she accepted their sentiment at least. As well as grounding them for a week.

“Stay here in the yard. Don’t go anywhere. Call me every hour when I’m at work.” And that’s what they did.

And that might have been the end of the story except that nothing in life is really truly over. Sometimes, instead, it’s just a doorway to a new beginning.

A few days later on Wednesday the brothers were out in the garage practicing when they had a surprise visitor. Larry was working on putting spin on his shooter and Tim was sweeping the floor in preparation for a game when a voice said, “Hey there guys.” They both looked up. It was Katie, the winner of the girls division. “What are you all up to?”

Larry got up to greet her. Katie was a skinny redhead who wore her hair in pigtails. She was a head shorter than Larry and she liked to wear flower patterned shirts, cut off jeans and hard soled moccasins. She had about a dozen different kinds of bracelets on her left wrist. She was shy but friendly. Larry and she had been friends for a couple of years, sharing not only a love of playing marbles but also of books and reading. They were in the same grade. “Just practicing,” Larry said, reddening just ever so slightly. “Want to join us?”

Tim gave Katie a wave and finished his sweeping. Four years ago the boys had set up a mock marble ring in the garage. It was exactly the same size as what was used in competition, the only difference being that the surface of theirs was cement. It worked well for them, though, and they spent countless hours out on it working on their game. Even now, with him coaching Larry these past few years, Tim still played.  “What’s up, Katie?” Tim asked, leaning his broom against the wall. He was noticing something going on between the two. His mind immediately went to ‘boyfriend-girlfriend’ but as he thought about it he just couldn’t see it. Not with his brother and Katie, who, even though she was nice, was still as geeky and awkward as his brother. She even wore thick glasses, just like he did. No, he just couldn’t see it at all. Then some laughter caught his attention. It seemed that Larry had made a joke that Katie laughed at while reaching out and touching his arm. It was suddenly apparent that Larry and Katie seemed very comfortable with each other. Maybe there was something going on between them that he wasn’t aware of.

Katie turned to Tim. “My dad was wondering if you could help me get ready for the tournament. He’s going to be out of town a lot and won’t have much time.” Her dad was an airline pilot and was often gone for three or four days at a time. Tim knew her dad and thought of him as Ok, just a little pre-occupied, but he liked Katie and readily agreed. “Sure. I’ll be happy to.”

“Thanks, Tim.” She said and then looked back at Larry, who smiled at her and gave her a ‘thumbs up’ sign. “Where do we begin.”

Getting ready for the tournament meant playing a lot of practice games so Larry and Katie could get used to taking shots from a variety of positions and distances. Tim also played, as a third person, and they alternated who played who. It was fun. The more time Katie spent with Larry, the more Tim saw that there was definitely something between the two and it made him happy for his little brother.

They practiced four hours a day. Katie took care of her three younger siblings during the morning until her mom got home from work, and then she’d come over for pretty much the entire afternoon. Tim brought down an old boom box and they played their favorite music while they practiced. Larry contributed his Social Distortion CD’s and Tim played his favorite local punk band, Banner Pilot. Katie got into the spirit of it all and brought over Courtney Barnett. The kids were serious about their game, but also having a good time. One day Larry came into the practice session wearing and old tee-shirt on which he had used tempera paints to print the words “Knuckling Down Is Good For Your Soul” on the back. Both Tim and Katie thought it was pretty cool and soon they came up with some more slogans: “Playing Marbles…It’s not just a game but a way of life”, “Once a shooter always a shooter” and “The sun always shines when you play marbles”. Then Tim had an idea.

“Why don’t we make up our own tee-shirts with those sayings on the back? Maybe we could sell them and make some money.”

Katie and Larry readily agreed. “I’ve got an idea for the front,” Larry said. “A big circle, like the marble ring, with the marbles as dots forming a cross in the middle. The tee-shirt could be one color, say black, and the circle could be a different color, say red and the marbles a different color, say white. You could vary the color combinations and the sayings on the back.” He sat back and smiled. “And, no, I haven’t thought about this much at all,” he joked as Tim and Katie laughed.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Katie said. “Let me talk to my mom.”

It turned out that Katie’s mom was familiar with the local arts and crafts scene. She knew some people who knew some people and so on. A few days later, Katie reported back, “My mom knows someone who would like to talk to you about your idea,” she said looking at Larry.

“Only if you and Tim are with me,” he said, blushing. Tim knew what his brother was getting at. In many ways his brother was still painfully shy.

Tim and Katie looked at each and nodded. “Deal,” they said simultaneously, making everyone, Larry included, laugh.

The week before the National Finals they had another surprise visitor. Micah showed up. He had a black eye, but he was smiling nevertheless. “Hey, dudes,” he said, before he saw Katie, and then added, “Dudette.” Embarrassed.

Tim’s hackles went up. “What do you want?”

Micah spread his hands wide, “Nothing, friend, I come in peace,” making kind of a joke.

Tim chuckled. Micah really wasn’t that bad a guy. He remembered that during the fight Micah had stayed out of it. Whether it was loyalty to Tim or fear of getting punched was unclear. Tim decided to cut him some slack. “What happened to your eye?”

“Well, let me tell ya’…” And Micah told them his story. Seems that Matt was so hot and bothered over getting punched by Larry that he and Kim wanted to get him for it. “Man, you should have heard those two. Matt even talked about using a hammer to break the fingers on that shooter hand of his,” Micah said, mimicking a smashing motion, causing Larry and Katie to flinch. Tim could feel his blood start to boil, his fists involuntarily starting to clench. Micah laughed and looked at Tim, putting up his hand. “Hold on there, buddy. He’s not going to do anything.” Tim gave him a questioning look. “I kind of convinced him not to.”

“What’d ya’ mean?” Tim asked, confused. Matt was a lot bigger than Micah, who was more or less just average in size compared to Matt’s bigger bulk.

“We got in a fight and I won,” Micah said, proudly.

“Don’t take this wrong, man, but you’ve got to be kidding me.” Tim knew that Matt was a pretty good fighter. Plus he was a large, burly kid who wasn’t afraid of anyone.

“Nope. I had a secret weapon.”

“What’s that?” Both Tim and Larry, who had been following the conversation closely, asked at the same time.

“I’ve been taking karate.” Micah said, grinning. “I’ve gotten pretty good, too.” He mimicked a judo chop. Tim and Larry and now even Katie were listening, stunned, never expecting something like this out of Micah. “I nailed him under the jaw with my elbow.” He paused for effect, then laughed again, “He won’t be talking for a long time.”

“You broke his jaw?” Tim asked, stunned.

“Yeah, I did.” Micah answered proudly. “Well, messed it up anyway. Just after he punched me in the eye.” Tim was impressed. So were Larry and Katie. The reason Micah had come over was to tell them his story and to tell them they wouldn’t have to worry about either Matt or Kim for a long time. If ever. “I think he’s kind of scared of me, now. Kim, too,” Micah added, with a smile.

Tim could understand. “Well, cool.” Was all he could think of saying. He meant it. He’d always liked Micah the best of the three of them. He appreciated that this was Micah’s way of apologizing for what had happened. “Want to hang around here for a while?”

“Sure.” Micah put his bike up against the side of the garage. “Nice tunes, you got going,” He said, going over to the boom box to check out the CD’s. “Is that Social Distortion?”

“Yeah, it is,” Larry said, as he gave what Tim could have sworn was a wink at Katie. “I’m hoping maybe they’ll bring us good luck.”

Micah laughed, “From what I hear, you and Katie are going to do just fine. Those guys out in Atlantic City aren’t going to know what hit ’em.”

Not knowing he was inadvertently making a joke with his pun on marbles hitting each other, the other three laughed. Micah laughed, too, with them, just thinking it felt kind of nice to be included.

When their mom drove up later that afternoon she had good news for the boys. Katie’s mom had called her. She’d found a local company that was interesting in printing up the tee-shirts. They still needed to work some design details out with the boys and Katie, but apparently the idea for the marble slogan tee-shirts was going to be a big hit. They might even be ready to sell at the tournament next week. However, before she told them, she just sat in her car for a few minutes watching the kids shoot marbles. She saw someone new there, Tim’s friend Micah. Well, that was good. It was nice to see her boys with their friends. They were all good kids. Each in their own way. A mother couldn’t really ask for anything else, really. Next week they’d be heading for Atlantic City. Katie would be joining them. That was another thing her mother had wanted to talk to her about. Apparently something had come up and neither she nor her husband could make it to the tournament. And that was fine, Katie was more than welcome to come with them. All she wanted was for her sons to grow up to be decent people. So far there had been a few bumps in the road, but, really everything was going along pretty well. If playing marbles helped make life a little easier who was she to stop them? Maybe that could be another slogan for them “Playing Marbles Makes For A Better Life”. Naw, she shook her head. Sounded kind of stupid, even if maybe it really was true.

She got out of the car and waved.”I’m home.” She smiled and the boys and their friends smiled back and waved. They went back to their game. Larry was playing against Katie, and he was knuckling down and setting up a shot, Tim and Micah watching. The National tournament was just a week away. Hundreds of kids would be participating in front of thousands of spectators. For now it was just a warm summertime day and a game of marbles being played on a garage floor. Katie was wearing a tee-shirt with one of the boy’s slogans on it: “Playing Marbles…It’s not just a game, but a way of life, and that’s a GOOD thing.” She smiled to herself as she walked over to watch them play, thinking that maybe when all was said and done, they were right.


Published by Jim Bates

Here are Jim's publications: Resilience, a collection of twenty-seven short stories, was published through Bridge House Publishing in February of 2021. Periodic Stories, a collection of thirty-one stories, was published in March of 2021 by Impspired. Periodic Stories Volume Two, a collection of twenty-six stories, was published in July 2021 by Impspired. Short Stuff, a collection of thirty-two flash fiction and drabbles, was published July 2021, through Chapeltown Books. Something Better, a dystopian adventure novella, was published in July 2021, by Dark Myth Publications. Dreamers, a collection of thirty-six short stories was published in March 2022, by Clarendon House Publishing. Periodic Stories Volume Three - A Novel was published in May 2022, by Impspired. All of his publications are available on Amazon or through the respective publisher.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Big Confusing Words

Poetry and fiction not intended for the masses — Sam M. Phillips

Shortness of Breadth

Kerri Writes

Writer, pursuing what she loves to do

Julie C. Eger

Wisconsin Author - Books Available Now

Academy of the Heart And Mind

Welcome to a world of emerging writers.

Gary Bonn

Writer, Editor, Illustrator, Artist

Words Spill Out - Poetry

Ann Christine Tabaka - Poet


Written by Ella Etienne-Richards

From The Funeral Birds To As The Crow Flies

The ongoing journal of a Gothic storyteller and nature lover.

Thoughts Become Words

Miscellaneous Collection by Gretchen

Orca, A Literary Journal

A literary journal with a speculative accent. We feature writing from around the world, with an emphasis on imagination and superb language.

A Million Ways


The Cabinet of Heed

literary journal

Maria Donovan

facts and fiction

The Garden Visitor

Lovely gardens to visit - with Kathy Sharp

the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

%d bloggers like this: