"Winner Takes All"


When my mother finally told me that she'd decided to marry Jimbo, I wasn't nearly so mad about it as you might of thought I'd be.  Disgusted, yeah.  Irritated, sure.  But mad?  Nah – I'd got way past mad by then.

She claimed she'd decided to marry the guy because he could provide the two of us with a home and security.  That was a lie.  Me and her was doing just fine on our own.  We just wasn't doing as fine as she wanted, that's all.  What she wanted wasn't a "home" so much as a house – and that was something we didn't happen to have at that point.  In other words, what she wanted was things.  Me, I never cared much for shit like that.  And I sure as hell never cared much for Jimbo neither, nor my mother for that matter, once I'd seen what she'd been willing to settle for in order to get all those things.

Jimbo was about fifty.  He was also fat and hairy and greasy looking – an Italian kind of greasy, or maybe Greek, I never did know which.  He was a used-car salesman.  Successful enough, so far as that goes – he owned the business himself, then had a car wash built next door to it and that did pretty good too.  Later on he bought a laundromat, also a couple of houses that he turned into apartments and rented out.  So he had money enough, if that's what you was looking for.  Behind that business man facade though, he was kind of a chickenshit.  Look under the hood of that big, fat-lipped grin he wore and it was like you could almost smell the nervous sweat.  He was afraid of being found out, I always figured.  I don't know if guys like him become used-car salesmen because they are what they are or if they turn into what they are from being used-car salesmen, but either way the result's the same.  Only one thing I couldn't ever understand was, if everybody already knows what you are, why get into a sweat about it?

Anyhow, the only reason I could tolerate my mom marrying Jimbo is because he had a son just two years older than me, so in a way it was like I was getting a big brother thrown in with the deal.  And Brad wasn't nothing like Jimbo.  He was confident, tough even, full of swagger like his old man, only his pride wasn't just a show, he came by it naturally.  He knew he was worth something without having to be told, that's what you felt about him.  At least, that's how I saw it at the time.  Hell, I was only eight then – what did I know?  But since I was the one who'd had to leave his home and the school he'd been going to and all his old friends, I was looking forward to having someone who'd kind of be in my corner – know what I mean?  And sure, Brad was at first.  He showed me round the neighborhood, introduced me to all the kids who lived there, told everyone we met that I was his "new little bro."  That I liked.  It gave me status in the strange new world I was having to cope with.  In retrospect I think maybe he just liked showing off the way I looked up to him and admired how he was so popular with everyone.  And yeah, there was a little hero worship going on.  Like I said, what did I know?  I'd learn better soon enough.

He never did stop calling me "little bro," but his patience with way I kept wanting to hang around him all the time ran out pretty quick.  Wasn't long before he started chasing me off whenever he saw me trying to tag after him.  He had this whole group of guys he hung out with, all of them older than me of course, and they didn't much like having me around.  They wasn't afraid to show it neither – they'd call me names and make fun of me when they saw my feelings was hurt, tell me they didn't want no baby trying to hang out with them.  I could tell Brad didn't quite know what to do at first – stick up for me or stay in good with his buddies.  Then one day when I'm following after them he turns round real sudden like and hollers, "Get out of here!  Beat it!  Go play with yourself, why doncha?"  And one of the guys that was with him snickers and says, "Yeah, why don't you go play with yourself."  After that it was their standard line:  "Go play with yourself, kid.  Go play with yourself."  Big joke.  Then they'd walk off together, not even bothering to look back.  If I still tried to follow after them Brad would shove me away, hard.  And if he happened to shove me hard enough to make me fall on my ass, his friends would just laugh.  And so would Brad.

That's the sort of thing he did in public.  In private he started beating me up.  He beat me up the first time, in private, because I wouldn't stop trying to follow after him and his friends.  Well, I learned that lesson soon enough – I stopped.  But then he kept on beating me up, for no reason at all that I could ever figure out.  It was like he did it just for fun.  He'd trip me, pull me down, wrench my arm behind my back, sit on me, rub his knuckles against my scalp until it burned, pound his fists against my head.  Not too hard of course – just hard enough.  When I was still a little kid, I'd cry sometimes.  That'd usually scare him bad enough to make him stop.  Once I figured that out, I started crying on purpose.  He'd shake his head at me and say, "Jeez, I hardly touched ya!  What are ya, a girl?  You act just like a little girl!"  He'd say, "I gotta toughen you up, little bro."  So then that became his excuse.  From that point on it was like he felt could beat up on me even more.

But one day, he starts to reach for me and I shove my elbow back hard as I can into his gut.  I was a little older by then and I guess I just figured I'd taken it from him long enough.  He wasn't expecting it.  He grabs at his belly and bends over double, gasping for air.  After he'd caught his breath again he flops down on the couch and gives me this look like he can't believe what I just done.  "Jeez!" he says.  "Jeez-us!"  Then he flashes me this huge grin.

I hated him for grinning at me like that.  I think I hated him for grinning at me like that more than for anything else he'd ever done.

The next time he reaches for me I was like a wild man.  I kicked, I hit, I slapped, I used my elbows and my knees and my feet and my fists and I would've used my teeth too if he'd let me get close enough.  Finally he pushes me away from him and says, "Whoa!  Whoa, little bro!"  It was the first time I'd ever made him really back down.  I still remember the pumped up feeling that gave me.  I looked at him from under my brows, letting him know I was ready for more.  But before I could do anything he jumps forward and clubs me up side of the head, one two three, hard enough to make my ears ring.  I gulped – but I didn't cry.  "I said enough," he tells me.  Then he turns round and stomps out of the room.  Like I'd made him mad or something.

But after that I noticed he didn't try to beat me up no more.  And I ain't never once cried since.