I'll Give You Ten, Game to Eleven
by Jono Marcus
The score is ten-nothing. I am up but the game hasn't started yet. Brian gives me a ten-point handicap for a game to eleven. I start with the ball and try to dribble toward the basket but falter. Brian picks it up and shoots for a score. Ten-one. I start again, dribble with my back to my brother, try to get in close and can't, so I turn around and shoot for the basket, hitting the backboard instead.
Brian picks up the ball, drives toward the basket for another quick point. Ten-two.
Unlike me and my video-gaming dweeb friends, my brother is a star athlete and high-school-hallway popular. He's got three years of girlfriends, pubic hair and rock music on me while my first and only record by the time I enter the ninth grade is Neil Diamond's "Desiree." He never rubs it in, but by the second week as a high school freshman even the girls my age know me as Brian's nameless younger brother. Every time I begin with the ball, Brian finishes with it and shoots for another point. I start, I miss, he rebounds, he shoots, he scores. I can't believe he's not bored. Ten-four.
During my freshman year, my brother and his friends, flat-nosed defensive linemen and pin-chinned varsity outfielders, playfully pick on me. They have been doing it for years. Meanwhile, Donald Winston, the first euphonium in the high school band, has been waiting an eternity of fall semesters for a kid like me, the wimpy second euphonium. After playing a slew of wrong notes, he pulls a knife on me and suggests I practice more.
I describe the event to my family, but Brian doesn't seem to hear and no one makes a big deal out of it. But the next day, after I make another mistake, Donald says, "That's okay, don't worry about it," and then apologizes for "that whole knife thing."
A week later at dinner Brian asks, "So did that kid bother you again?"
"Who?" I respond.
"That kid in band, the one with the knife."
"No, he's nice now, even offered to give me free lessons."
"Good," he says.
But on the court there is no mercy. I have had the ball five times and not scored once, but all I need is one basket. I convince myself that I will win and the last game that we play will be the one that he remembers. So I turn my back to him and try to nudge my way toward the net. I can't budge so I try to go around him but he's too fast. If I can't go through him or around him, the only other way is to go over him, so I turn and shoot one step forward and two steps back from where I started. I miss. He grabs. He runs.
He pump fakes. I jump and when I come down he shoots for real and it goes in. Ten-six.
I am a senior in high school and no one knows my brother except for the gym coaches who never tire of reminding me. During his college vacation, Brian and I wrestle on our kitchen floor. This is the first time, the only time that I am beating him at anything, and he is getting angry. My grandfather walks in and grabs me and pulls me off of Brian as if I started the whole thing. He says more to us that morning than he has the whole entire year.
"When I was a kid in the Bronx there were these brothers, the Nelson kids, who fight with fists and teeth and nails and hurt each other, really hurt each other." My grandfather squeezes my arm in the way a trainer might guide a wild unbroken horse. "They leave the streets bloody. One time one gets a broken nose, another time one gets a black eye. It's disgusting. I don't want to see you like that, eh? Never!"
"But Grandpa," I begin. "We are only playing."
"I don't care. Enough," He snaps.
We stop, but I can still feel Brian's hot temper.
My ball. Again. Brian looks at my straight knees, my feet close together, and pauses like he is about to say something but doesn't. Whatever he may have thought he keeps to himself. He watches as I try to dribble the ball and get off balance. But I straighten and drive right through him, almost knocking him over, and lay it up for a miss. He rebounds above me three feet in the air and comes down on top of me, brings the ball back to the free-throw line and starts to dribble, his back turned to me. I push him forward.
He likes that I'm pushing, he likes that I'm mad, he likes that I reach desperately around him to get the ball, giving him the opportunity to turn the other way and glide into a jump lay-up and a basket. Ten-eight.
Brian comes to see me in college my senior year. He's in law school and I'm about to leave the country. He just wants to talk. To talk about what, though? I feel awkward. What is there to talk about? We're brothers, not friends.
And I'm not giving up on this game. It's always the same damn thing. "I'll give you ten points, game to eleven, I'll give you ten points, game to eleven." But it's ten-eight and I decide to take my time. I dribble, understanding that if I stop, I will have to shoot and Brian will undoubtedly block whatever shot I try to get off. So I move in, back turned to him, looking left, looking right, deliberately roaming back and forth, keeping the ball far away from him without making any sudden moves. This goes on for a few minutes until he believes that I'm not going to take a shot at all. He backs off.
"I bet you can't make the shot from there," He taunts. "With you blocking, it ain't easy," I spit.
"Go ahead, take it, I bet you can't make it." He backs up further.
I shoot. I miss. His ball. He shoots from the free throw line again without even trying to get around me.
After returning from Africa, I meet Brian on a summer day in New York City. When we meet, I still feel the days when I surfed in his wake. I look up to him due to a familiar yet faded obligation.
"I envy you so much," he says, like it's obvious. "You go to all of these cool places."
"Yeah, but I'm lonely and poor. You'd hate my life."
"No I wouldn't. I want to travel. I want to go to Zimbabwe. I want to go to Turkey," He says with slight desperation.
"You have money, you can do whatever you want."
"Except leave the country and travel like you."
"Why don't you?"
"Oh, I don't know what I'm doing. I figure if I'm going to be lost, I may as well be making a lot of money."
I look at him. "I don't know what I'm doing either, but at least I am as far from home as possible."
There is a zone athletes get into when they play hard, and though I completely lack the skill, my passion is raging. I have been roughed up, I have been humiliated, I am now officially in the zone. I am the one with the ball and if I can get close enough, this game is over. With this incentive I stand a few inches taller, I dribble with a little more confidence, composure even.
Brian sees the change, adjusts to the new guy on the court, lunges for the ball, knocks it away, saves it, steals it, and shoots from outside the perimeter of our court. Nothing but net and fraternal scorn. The score is tied at ten-ten.
Years pass. Brian gains a lot of weight but still plays basketball well. I don't play basketball, ever.
Last month we went to Baja, but not together, and for different reasons. He flew down for a weekend golf game in Cabo with some of his lawyer buddies while I drove down alone. He invited me along, even offered to pay for it, but I chose to camp and fish instead. Besides, he's a much better golfer than I.
I wonder who's winning the game, which one of us made the right choice, which one will be better off down the line, but it's still ten-ten, tie score and anybody's game.
Jono Marcus imports clothing from Indonesia, writes for travel publications, and volunteers as a grantwriter for Peaceful Streets. He has a math degree from Wesleyan University and a master's degree in English literature from San Francisco State University. Jono lives in Northern California and on the front range of Colorado.