Back then we were mean kids, both of us. We knew it and celebrated it. We salted slugs in the street and watched them melt. We caught brook trout and plucked out their eyes with a corkscrew, leaving their wriggling bodies for the bears. We slathered each other’s sandwiches with gear grease when the other wasn’t looking. When we got hurt or punished, we took it as a sign that we were doing something right, we were being mean enough. But Charley was especially cruel. Even his mother was afraid of him, which meant he mostly did as he pleased.
Charley was an angry kid, not overly large, but ferocious. He had no interest in kids our age or their television and video games. When he bothered to go to school at all the other kids shied away from him because he smelled like diesel fuel or gunpowder or carcass. He sneered at teachers. He inspired awe even from the most seasoned kids because he would disappear for days at a time, trudging through the unkempt cemetery that bordered our backyard and into the dense woods, and just when rumors started to circulate that he was gone for good, he emerged with crusted blood on his arms and face and never bothered to tell anyone where he’d been or how he killed whatever he killed.
This was Cut Bank, northern Montana, grizzly country, where goofy tourists wore bells on their belts and carried bear spray that claimed to be napalm in a can and was sold at every corner gas station. It was a fine product if you encountered a black bear, but they were basically pets, anyway. Trailhead signs even advised hikers to punch them right in the nose, and they would run away, which they did. Grizzlies, though, were part dinosaur, remnants of an earth where animals the size of Volkswagens stomped around and ate goddamned whatever they wanted. Your only hope with a grizzly, the saying went, was to punch its stomach walls enough that it might digest you faster. Even the traps poachers left in the hills looked like medieval torture devices, enough rusted, toothy steel to keep a Gulf Stream tethered to the ground. Every couple years, it seemed some determined suburbanite wandered into the wild looking to prove something to his kids or wife or mistress. Within a few days, Charley and I would see the vultures circling high above his heading, swooping around in their cockeyed figure-eight formation, and then a couple days later, we’d read in the newspaper what we already knew.
Cut Bank was a raw world, a place that progress had ignored, and we were fine with it. Everyone was a bit crude, like we had first wandered out of the wilderness only weeks earlier—the men always unshaven and frowning, the women with tangled, knotty hair. A place like Missoula might have been New York City to us. Only our proximity to the national park forty miles west was proof to the tourists that we could behave like civilized folk.
Charley wandered the hills and the streets of Cut Bank with what had been his father’s Winchester .444 and had no fear of grizzlies or tourists or anyone except my father. Even when he stayed with us in civilization, he liked to invent violent games with strict parameters that tested your manliness. “New game,” he would always say, and then we would practice it, always fine-tuning the rules to eliminate the nudge—the pussy, the chicken liver, the weakling—which was the worst thing a human could be.
Years earlier, my mother and Charley’s father died in a car accident that left many questions unanswered. (His trousers had been at his knees and she hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt.) We became a sort of leftover family. Charley and his mother moved into our squat concrete house, which had only two bedrooms. My father never claimed it was something other than the obvious. They shared a room and a bed, and Charley and I did the same, and I suppose this was some kind of misguided justice. Starla, Charley’s mother, was a thin, doe-eyed woman who smoked more than she ate and found a way to over-boil a hot dog. When she did speak, it was so quiet that you learned to just nod at things you couldn’t quite hear.
Charley ignored her so casually it seemed Starla could have been his pestering younger sister. She asked little of him—to go to school at least twice a week, not to leave his loaded rifle on the counter, not to talk about her dead husband at dinner—but Charley couldn’t do it. He chose not to. But when he disobeyed long enough or called her something too ugly, my father would step in, telling Charley to apologize or get thumped, and Charley always sneered his sorries and wandered off somewhere. My father took Charley on as an accessory to having Starla move in. Charley dealt with my father because he couldn’t sleep outside during a Cut Bank winter.
“The first one to complain about your mother’s cooking,” my father said early on, “becomes the new chef.” He pointed to Starla when he said “mother,” but spoke to us both. “I don’t enjoy thumping you boys, but you know I will,” he added. Starla looked at the ground as if embarrassed that someone would take so much time to defend her. So we never complained.
“New game,” Charley said when we avoided the house. Then we stole bikes from outside the convenience store, tucked push-brooms under our arms, and jousted each other down the middle of the street. First one to get knocked off had to eat a pinecone. First one to complain about soreness in the ribs lost use of his chariot for the next round and had to run down the spray-painted joust lane. First one to bleed was a nudge.
When we tired of bike jousting, we took up cat hunting.
“We can’t steal BB guns,” I told him. “They’re locked behind glass. And the .444 is too loud for town.”
He looked around the dark garage. “Here,” he said, picking up a pry bar and a hatchet. Whoever brought home the most cat tails won. No time limit. If you tried to pass off road kill and got caught, you had to eat it. If you came home empty handed, you were a nudge.
The first time we played, I killed three—all mangy, hopeless looking things—and came home at dark. Charley stayed out all night. He shook me awake before sunrise with eleven cat tails dangling from his belt loops, looking like a Blackfoot Indian returned from the hunt.
When my father found the cat tails under our bed, he thumped us. At first, Charley stood with him, tried to make an honest showing of it, but my father was a large man, a real bruiser, and Charley ended up with a fat, red face. “Wherever the bodies are, boys,” my father said when he’d finished, “go find them. You kill it, you eat it.” So, we trudged back out, both on the same team, to find our cats. We skinned and gutted them, then tossed their bones and guts into a shallow pit in the cemetery. We roasted the rest over a backyard bonfire until they tasted like charcoal, both to burn the rot out of them and because neither of us wanted to know what cat tasted like. Charley cursed my father under his breath, but he also ate his share.
We hid our cat tails better after that.
At night, when we couldn’t compete, we closed our bedroom door and pretended, smoked Winstons and set up hypothetical scenarios to root out the nudge. We stayed up for hours debating which was the better option and how that proved we were tough, men. That we had to disagree for the game to work was understood.
You’re in a cage with another man. Do you want a .22 with only one round or dull Roman gladius?
You’re interrogating a terrorist, do you want a scalpel or a masonry jar full of lava?
The neighbor’s dog keeps barking all night, do you kill the dog or the neighbor?
What wild animal would Starla be? On this alone, we agreed: pigeon.
Then my father brought home a set of boxing gloves and taught us to throw the leather. He could only afford one set, so one hand threw the leather and the other hand threw the flesh, which hurt a lot more. At first we just attacked each other like wild dogs, but we soon learned that you couldn’t keep up that sort of pace for more than a minute or so. Those fights ended early, before there was a clear winner and a clear nudge, and so we had to learn a more measured approach.
It was humiliating at first. Nothing natural about throwing a punch. Range of motion is too loose, too many options that beg to be combined and leave you wide open. You have to commit to one, be precise. Speed and precision over power, always.
The second week Charley caught me high on the neck, right on my Adam’s Apple. “Christ, Jack,” he said when I sat on the ground sucking air in between rounds, “your neck’s the size of a watermelon.”
I hadn’t felt anything before that. There’s no pain during a fight. That usually surfaces in the morning. Charley ran inside and took Starla’s makeup mirror and showed me. It was already red and bulging, and when I opened my mouth to talk, the Adam’s Apple bobbed around as if loose from its hinges.
When I told my father I couldn’t eat dinner that night, he thought I was getting smart with him. “We had the talk about your mother’s food,” he said. “Sit.”
But then he saw my neck, laughed and told me to sit still, someone had plucked my apple and that it wasn’t all that uncommon for fighters. He looked over at Charley, smirked.
He felt around the swelling, and I gripped the table ledge until the blood drained from my hands, and then all of a sudden he jostled it in a quick movement, and I felt a click, like a kneecap sliding back into place. “There,” my father said and turned back to his chicken.
In a couple days, when the swelling dropped all together and we went back to tossing punches as hard as we could and gassing before we bloodied each other, my father stood watching us, shaking his head. The injury had piqued his interest. We knew he’d boxed in the Marines, and that earned him some respect. “Keep your chin down and elbows tight,” he said and demonstrated. “Pivot at the hips. Bend your lead knee. Twist into him to dodge. Don’t lean back or you’re wide open, and if the other guy knows what’s what, he’ll pancake you.”
Our hands turned rough, leathery, and our exposed knuckles bulged like old tree roots and dislocated often enough that it stopped hurting. We snapped jabs and didn’t pull punches, not ever. Charley’s nose pudged flat from my straight right, but he didn’t mind once my father told him he looked like Primo Carnera. After this, he led more with his face, daring me to pancake him, which I did.
I was better, but Charley was tougher. I was a full head taller and still growing. But Charley was short and skinny and hadn’t grown an inch since he was fourteen and never would. Still, even his measured attacks were ferocious. His eyes yellowed as if infected with some jungle disease. The primal nature of it all seemed to satisfy something in him—a stripped down exercise that determined who would survive.
We spent weeks at the edge of our backyard, down in the bowled out depression, where we used the wrought-iron fence of the cemetery as one rope and landscaping timbers as the others. It was our training camp. What we were training for wasn’t clear, but we would be ready, prepared for any kind of attack from bears or Arabs or imposing fathers. When we went to school, we wore the bruises and cuts like badges, and when the other kids asked us what had happened we shrugged them off and smirked like they were stupid shits, nudges, all of them. Our muscles went taut as we sweated out the pudding cups and grape sodas, and Charley began to resemble one of our skinned cats—all rib cage and pale flesh and sinewy muscle clinging to an undersized skeleton. Our arms lengthened from the constant torque, our joints loosening up. I twisted my hips like my father told me, bobbed my head, weaved around Charley’s haymakers and dropped a stiff jab or full overhand right often enough that it was clear I was in charge, that Charley was the nudge.
“New game,” Charley said when he had tired of straight boxing that he clearly wasn’t winning. He dropped a 2×8 onto the ground and walked it like a plank. “Get on.”
We threw leather on the 2×8. If you accidentally stepped off, the other guy got a free shot to the body. If you got knocked off, it meant a free shot to the face. If you stepped off on your own, which almost never happened, you got punched in the dick.
Charley rarely backed up. He liked to swim in deep, taking shots to the nose, hoping to land a bare knuckle on my ribs. But I pawed at him with my longer arms, keeping him at a distance, waited for him to commit so that I could belt him with an overhand right.
We threw leather in the dark, that being most of the time in Cut Bank. Either we had short winter days or the mountains blocked the sun. The light on the back porch was far away from our ring, and by the time it filtered down it was pale. But through it, we could see each other’s eyes, Charley’s always flickering like a predator.
When winter landed early, we pulled on our Carhartt chore coats, steam funneling from our heads, and we threw more leather. The padding in the gloves went hard with the cold, and felt like cinder block slamming on our temples. Our free hands struck harder, too, like frozen t-bones, though to punch with the bare hand in the cold hurt more than the damage it delivered. We slipped from frost on the board often, and the free shots piled up. Still, neither of us stepped off the board on purpose, knowing that a free shot to our frozen, shriveled dicks in that kind of cold might just jam the whole package up into our small intestines and truly turn us into nudges.
In March of the year we turned sixteen, when we’d been throwing the leather for more than a year, Charley got himself kicked out of school.
I arrived halfway through, never saw how it started. All the versions had him standing in the locker bay between classes, his arm hanging from Carla Depusio, a thoroughly unattractive girl who wore tight shirts and lived down the street. This was around the time I’d nailed Charley with a bare-hand left cross that sliced through his eye. The eyeball bulged out and the cracked cut refused to close in the cold, just seeped a tea-colored liquid, and so he resembled some menacing mugger, always eyeball fucking you.
From there, things went cloudy. Everyone claimed to have seen it first hand, that it was the craziest shit they’d ever seen. The guys tended to claim Charley was a bad dude, a fucking hero. That dude could skin a bear with a spoon, they said. The girls shook their heads and said it didn’t matter, he was an animal who belonged in the wild.
Max Woods, a nice enough kid who lived in a two-story with vinyl siding and wore braces and started as a forward on the basketball team, told Charley to leave Carla alone. Some versions had him asking like a nice boy, being chivalrous, saving the young girl from the wolf. Other versions, though, had him demanding, looming over Charley to his full six foot plus However it started, at one point, Max raised his hands, and Charley went berserk. He hit Max six times before anyone knew what was happening. I got there just in time to see him timber Max and then pounce on him, dropping fists and elbows, mauling him until he was punching a bloody stump for a face, and through the shouts and moans what rose was the sound of Charley thumping on Max, like the dull thud of a rubber mallet pounding on a decomposing log. He kept punching. Teeth clinked onto the floor and his braces broke loose and jammed through his lips, hung there like dental floss. Carla tried to pull him off, and he backfisted her in the temple, and she dropped. When Charley finally stood up, his knees a dark, purple-red, Max Woods had swallowed two teeth the doctors had to wait for him to shit out.
Charley never bothered to tell me his full version. He merely claimed that the bitch had it coming, though I never knew who exactly he meant. “Besides,” he said, “School is for nudges.” It was fine, he needed train. He was going for the gold gloves now. He’d tasted combat blood, and he needed more. Maybe he’d go box in the Marines, too. But his ego outgrew his muscles. Charley was a tough kid, but he was no pugilist.
My father thumped Charley when he found out. He wasn’t an educated kind of man, but his kids didn’t need to be getting booted out of school. Just because we were near-on the border didn’t mean we had to act like some bear-poaching Canadians who belonged up in Sweet Grass.
Charley told him piss off, go bully his own son. I wanted to step in between them, act logical for once, but there way no way for my father to get his justice and Charley to avoid being a nudge. We all knew the rules to these games.
My father thumped him more then, got really rough. He tossed Charley up against the cemetery fence, kicked-in his ribs. He picked up one of our jousting brooms and caned his back while Charley writhed on the frozen ground. “Should I still piss off?” my father said.
Charley coughed. “Shit yes, you should.”
The thumping continued with steel-toes to the gut and hard, loud slaps to the face, slaps that left red, hand-shaped splotches. Charley pulled himself up by the fence, wobbled there, waiting for my father to keep hitting him. Eventually, my father quit. He threw his hands in the air, grunted, and stomped off to the house, as if defeated because Charley outlasted him.
So Charley stayed home and ate bologna sandwiches with extra mustard while I went to school and earned my bad grades and dirty looks from the teachers who saw me as some sort of accomplice. But then Charley told me that if he was going to train proper, he needed someone to spar with. I resisted at first, having a bit more fear of authority than he did, but I agreed to stay home a couple days a week and train with him.
We stole Starla’s couch cushions and taped them around an aspen for a heavy-bag. When our bare hands broke open from scraping too much, we doused them in snow and switched places. When we’d punched all the stuffing from the cushions, I stole new ones from the school library and tied them up as replacements.
Starla peeked her head out the back door one morning and watched us on the 2×8 for a minute. She looked over to her cushions wrapped around the tree. “You boys should probably get to school,” she said.
Charley looked up at her without moving. “Piss off,” he said. “We are at school.” Then he turned back to me, and we threw the leather.
She stayed inside after that, watching her soap operas and smoking her menthols.
With no school to punctuate our leather throwing or our new games, Charley started to run wild. He disappeared into the forest for longer stretches and returned with scratches on his face and painful looking limps. He talked back to Starla more when my father wasn’t around. And at night, when we used to sit in our room and debate our scenarios, he shadow boxed in the foggy backyard light, the tombstones of the cemetery rising up behind him like giant obelisks with long shadows that pointed toward the forest.
One morning, I woke and looked out the window to see him hopping tombstones. He jumped from one to the other without touching the ground like some sinister slack-liner who’d lost his rope.
“New game,” he told me. “Something I can play while you’re at school or sleeping away your life like a nudge.”
“Charley,” I said and stayed on our side of the fence.
“Don’t go puss on me now, Jack,” he said. “Go get the gloves, we’ll throw the leather like this. None of your dodging nonsense this way.”
He grinned. I told him I didn’t think so.
“What’s with you?” he said. “You’re going soft on me.”
I told him to piss off, and I walked back to the house to get ready for school.
That night at dinner, I could tell he was still angry with me. I’d broken our pact, drawn a line in the sand that said I’d gone far enough and he was on his own. He clanked dishes together, slopped his cream chicken down so it splattered, and slammed his glass down every time he drank. My father was still gone, working late that night, and Charley knew he was the only man around.
“Would you please settle down?” Starla asked and exhaled her cigarette. “You’ll break my dishes that way.”
“Piss off,” Charley said and glared at his plate.
We sat quietly for a while again, an angry, awkward silence.
Then Starla said, “I saw you out in that cemetery this morning. You need to stay out of there.”
“Or what?” Charley said very quickly, too quickly.
“Your father’s buried out there. It’s not some place for you to practice acting like a jumping frog.”
“I should’ve left a fat boot print on his grave,” Charley said. “I’ll make sure to do that tomorrow.”
Then Starla stood up and smacked Charley in face. It cracked loudly, but it couldn’t have hurt much. It was more of a gesture than a punishment and felt like a piece of theater, something Starla had planned and wanted to do for so long that when she finally did, it seemed forced.
For a moment Charley was too stunned to do anything. He took short, shallow breaths and touched his face. And then he leapt across the table, scattered the dishes onto the floor and toppled the chairs, and started whaling on his mother. He went off, thumped on her until she was a bloody, moaning pile of human, her cigarette still somehow clamped in her jaw, still smoking. When I finally managed to pull him off, she made no movements, just moaned as the smoke rose from her as if she were starting to cremate.
Charley stared down at her and then looked up at me. His breathing quickened as if he just realized what he’d done and what that meant when my father got home. “Shit!” he said. He shuffled off, grabbed his Winchester and his pack and disappeared through the cemetery and into the woods.
I carried Starla over to the couch, laid her down, covered her with an old afghan so she’d stay warm while she squinted at her soap operas. I found myself tending to her, even lighting her cigarettes, somehow proud of her for what she’d done because she must have known how Charley would react.
“That’s it,” my father said when he got home that night, and he didn’t speak about it anymore. I was scared for Charley, and I kept my eyes peeled for vultures, wondering if perhaps that was the better way to go.
When Charley emerged from the forest six days later, gaunt and pale, he looked like some extinct species, re-discovered. He picked his way through the cemetery and hopped the low fence. My father and I had been in the backyard, pulling icicles from the moldy soffit, and Charley must have seen us, waited until we were outside. He carried his father’s Winchester on one shoulder, the chamber levered open, and on the other I saw the rusty linkages of chain.
My father slowly unlatched his thick leather belt and stripped it out of his Carhartts. It was a menacing image, a Cut Bank knight drawing his sword, and I knew Charley was in for it. But he strode right past us as if indifferent to our existence, and I saw the dangling jaws of a grizzly trap hanging over his shoulder. I looked over at my father, who simply stared.
Charley disappeared into the garage and emerged with his cat hatchet. He breezed past us again and hacked with the grain of our 2×8 to get a thick sliver that he used it to pry the jaw of the trap back and set the trigger. He stepped away, looped the chain links around the cemetery fence and latched the steel carabineer. Then he dropped our 2×8 in front of the trap, like a plank descending into the leviathan’s throat. He stepped on, right in front of the trap, waited.
My father and I stared, neither of us moved.
Charley raised his little fists. “New game,” he said.
Still we didn’t move.
He shuffled back, his heel bumping the trap. “Get on, Jack,” he said.
My father looked to me, motioned toward the 2×8 with the hand that held his dangling belt, folded over onto itself. I hesitated, not knowing if I was doing my father’s bidding or Charley’s.
“Don’t be a nudge,” Charley said.
I stepped on. Charley glared at me like I was the enemy, like I was prey. His bloodshot eyes bulged. We had no leather, just our cracked, frozen fists. We all knew how it would end, knew that Charley couldn’t out-box me.
Charley attacked, came at me and I bent my lead knee and snapped a jab. I pawed at him, didn’t let him inside. He slipped off the frozen board and I cracked him in the ribs. He came at me again, and I caught him with a straight right, flattened his nose, and it started to pour blood into his mouth. I waited on him to attack.
“Come on!” he said. “Come at me. Don’t be a nudge!” He had to breathe through his mouth and spit the blood onto the snow.
I pushed forward, swaying as I dropped lefts to the face and rights to the body, and Charley fell back. His heel pushed onto the trap again, nudged it back. He stood there, covered up his bloody face, and I sliced through his arms with an uppercut to his open jaw.
When he fell back, his right leg stomped into the bear trap as if on purpose, and the teeth sliced into him without a sound. No crack or thud, just the soft whisper of a fillet knife being thrown into wet sand. Charley fell immediately. It sliced and he fell like a switch had been tripped. He wailed, yelled out the kind of pitiful shriek normally reserved for the far reaches of the wilderness.
My father and I didn’t move. We knew his leg was broken, that he’d limp for a long time, maybe forever. Charley howled and clutched the cemetery fence. But I remember thinking, too, that what I saw couldn’t have been what my father saw. I’m sure he just saw justice stolen from him again. A pathetic kid cuffed to a bear clamp, crying for his mother. But I saw a mean kid who had sacked a trap from a bear’s clutches, and for a long time I stood in between them and didn’t move to help while he moaned and fought his way up the fence like a wild animal thrashing against his shackles.