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Twin Game

I opened the window to bang against my bedroom's wall and looked out at the moody weather. The sky was busy with thick white scurrying clouds. The sea rough and frothy, the winds swift, erratic. Still, an early afternoon sun high in the sky made the hazy atmosphere luminous. A challenge that I accepted right away.

I had to try capturing that radiance. So I took my easel, palette, and necessary accoutrements to this out-of-the-way park a half a mile from the cottage. A favorite spot, it is a serene place at this sunset end of the island. It boasted the oddity of a dark green, well-kept lawn that extended almost to the high-tide mark. My quaint notion of it - a grassy beach!

For me, bashful about my art, this secluded place was perfect. Able to watch without feeling watched, I relaxed here. In painterly terms, the scene comprised of an edge of cream-pebbled shoreline, a splash of wave-white, then a blue-grey sea that merged into grey-blue sky. A simple picture it made and always inspired me to mix and blend and spread and stroke with oil paints, until somehow I caught and fixed the peacefulness I fancied in the setting.

To date, though, I have yet to complete a satisfactory painting. I have maybe two dozen unfinished canvases. There are several ruined fan-brushes which I neglected to clean properly. I am even undecided about the title, 'Transition', I have chosen for the piece.

But then, painting is only a hobby. Taking Life easy is my style. Well, too, do I know the why of my failure. Weak on Concentration! Excessive at Nonchalance! For even as I am checking out the essential geometries and color subtleties and textures of my scene, its very naturalness - from woodsy park to restless sea - would beguile my mind to ramble. So, instead of absorption in transposing the park's ambiguities to my canvas, I would usually end up daydreaming. With a sudden gasp, I'd catch myself there behind the easel, sitting brush in hand, the paint congealing, my eyes staring blankly at the landscape.

My failing, as I said, was iffy application.

Today I was about my business in determined fashion when the smaller husband, his half of the twins, and their two sons arrived. My resolve so in charge, I had forgotten about them and their fortnightly visits. As on previous occasions, they entered the park in formation. Like well-disciplined crew, the boys walked properly ahead of the parents. The cockeyed one, whom I had estimated to be eleven or so, carried the soccer ball under his arm. His swagger shed waves of privilege over his younger brother, who floundered alongside in the deep dejection only eight-year-olds can manage. It figured that back home he must've messed up in splatters. Each previous time he had carried the ball and the jaunty bearing.

The husband's uniform was as before: black naval jacket over a T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and black sneakers. His hands shoved at the bottoms of the jacket's pockets, he pounced along on the balls of his feet, leaning slightly forward as if trying to keep up with himself. He walked two paces in front the wife, stiff-necked, face set, searching ahead. He called to mind a small wolf on the spoil, alert for the consequence of his every action.

He was barking at her now. I was beyond earshot to details, but his manner and tone and her attitude said he was fussing. A few feet aft, she followed docilely on the cowing rope of words he slung behind him with an impatience that bordered contempt.

As she went by I could see her eyes. Enlarged and anxious, they were constantly shifting forward from his rock-tight back to the children ahead. But no worry there. They, also, were keeping to their places.

Her outfit this time, as if to defy her awkward situation, was daring and exuberant. It featured a high-collared, rose pink sweater above a wide, ankle-length skirt with a print of giant flower petals of rose and lemon green that bloomed from a burnt-brown underbrush border. A white embroidered edge hiding her shoes might've been petticoats.

She looked, by herself, like an exotic flower.

Trudging along behind him, though, she more reminded of a specimen. One possessed and bottled up.

Not going directly to the ball-playing area, today they chose to wait on a bench just inside the gate. There the husband continued to be stern. He sat half-turned on the front edge of his seat and, with threatening finger and bunch-browed glare, lectured the wife. Off and on, he'd jerk his head away, disgusted and irritated by the timid downcast woman.

He seemed to be laying down a new Law. Henceforth, it would be so! So! And so! Every past faulty practice was forever banned. Each point he made was punctuated and sealed with his stabbing forefinger into his open left palm.

The wife listened meekly, absolutely quiet but for her costume. Off and on she even nodded in penitent agreement.

Then, a few feet right of the bench where they had edged away, the younger boy placed a deft kick on his brother's ankle. The hurting boy dropped the ball and retaliated a sound cuff to his imp's head, whose yelp interrupted the husband's scolding. Right away, the mother was up and off to quell the squall. Yet, quick as she was, the husband leapt up and raced past her to the kids. He screamed at the bigger boy, "Didn't I tell ya to hold the @*%# ball?"

Fright-powered and even faster than both parents, the cockeyed youth snatched up the ball and nipped just out of reach of the man's swinging fist. There he remained poised, holding the ball tight to his belly, ready as a runner at set, staring anxiety two ways at the volatile man.

The mother, who had been gripping the younger one to her bosom as she watched the stand-off, now released the child and nudged him over to stand beside his brother. Then, as he reluctantly complied, once again he forced a change in the scene's action. Spying the other family arriving, he did a little dance, shouted gleefully, "They're here! They're here! So now you've got to give up the ball!"

Then, remembering to control himself, he covered his mouth with a hand, took a glance at the father's scolding eye and rushed back to mother's side. He pulled her shoulder down, teetered up on tiptoes seeking her ear like for a nipple and whispered close. She fed him nods, and smoothed his hair, and sent him back to blockade for his brother.

A sneer on his face, the husband watched them: the boy with the ball gazing cross-focused apprehension. The furtive mother-son pair and their supportive whispers. Then he groaned and held his head in his hands. He rubbed his face hard with his palms, stomped abruptly, then turned and strode away in the direction of the arriving family.

As he passed, the boy gingerly proffered the ball to him. He snatched it like prey clawed, tucked it under his arm akimbo, padded on. More slowly in his wake, their anticipation contained as carried balloons, the mother and sons followed.

Her twin was not that patient. She burst forward from her husband and son to meet her sister. They had dressed alike, as seemed their custom. So it was a stunning picture they made as they rushed into each other's embrace. Identical smiles of happiness reflected face to face. Comfort offered haven to haven from hearts-opened arms. Their cries might've been different - one pealing more of joy, one more of comfort - as the twin wives flowed together, meeting like the images at a mirror's surface. They hugged long and tightly, dancing around in an unbalance of ecstasy. Around and around they swung unsteadily, twinning again, two women into one, bonded in a rapport known only to themselves, until there was no discernable difference between them.

Eventually, they released to loosely held swinging of hands and oblivious to everything else, set off for a bench under a tree some distance away from the grassy play area.

They had shared this far seat other times, too, talking, it seemed to me, with more earnest urgency than wives at idle gossip. For they never leaned back relaxed on the cozy, shaded bench. Instead, they perched on its frontal slats, hunched over bow-backed, with elbows set on knees and heads close, looking like the blurred, repeated image of a nudged snapshot.

Watching them so, I felt again a voyeur's yearning to know their private words that'd fill out the intimate picture I spied on. Then came my queasy feeling of guilt at intruding and I looked away.

The other husband had grabbed his boy by a handful of shoulder and was hurrying him towards the play area. This child was also around ten or eleven, and, by his bright grin, seemed quite cheerful about being shoved along like a two-footed cart. The husband he preceded was taller and stout, with a good-times paunch. His beard was thick, hiding his features, although his manner was that of a ladies' man. Maybe it was how, like a pirate, he sported a small flash of silver in his left earlobe.

He, too, carried a soccer ball, and with his untied sneakers, tight-belted flabby khaki slacks, and sleeveless shirt unbuttoned down a hairy front, his obvious heading was the smaller husband standing near the play area.

He tossed his ball ahead at the field and gave the boy a push, releasing him after it. The happy-go-lucky kid skipped off after the ball, enthusiastic as a retriever. Before he came to it, though, he was met by his racing sibs, who veered him off into a noisy trio, chasing themselves away to fun time.

The husbands greeted each other with a reluctant waggle of their fingers. Then, a full man's-length from each other, they began speaking. Unable to hear, I got an impression of polite neighbors chit-chatting over a common fence. But soon, just as it had gone before, the small husband dropped his ball and kicked it toward the stout one. True to form, he was impatient for their game.

They were only kicking warm-ups at first; tentative, inside-of-the-foot taps that nudged the ball sluggishly over the sea-damp grass. After a few such halfhearted passes between them, the children returned and watched for a bit before joining in the straight pass practice.

As the play warmed, the fathers got into showboating, insisting at trying football tricks they hardly managed.

"Watch this! Watch this one!" they'd shout, elaborating simple shots and passes into reckless difficulties, explaining things to the boys with demonstrations that never worked. Eventually, the children managed to drift away taking one ball to launch their own game.

Now without audience, the husbands' game perished of its own cuteness and they stood around taking a breather, sizing up each other. Then, after this while, they assumed opposite ends of an oblong patch of flat grass, and began their special game.

It seemed most like a soccer version of Ping-Pong. The effort was to retrieve the passed ball, allowing it only one bounce within one's half of an approximately twenty-foot-by-ten-foot area, and return it. One made all plays from within his own half. Only air passes were legal. Each failure was a point lost. The game was twenty-one points.

They made a few trial passes at each other. Then, after stopping to choose who went first, they got serious and began keeping score.

The stout man had rolled up his pants cuffs to brave spindle legs, but at play he was nimble as though with six of them. Belying his upper bulk, he hopped around making quick, precise passes, his moves technically perfect, his placements predictable, unimaginative as a locust's. He used the flat inside of his foot and patted the ball. He balanced his body well, and was properly set when passing. There were remnants of some long-ago coach's rituals in his moves. And by keeping the little man defending this game, he quickly won early control.

The small husband's game had the energy of a whirlwind. He was everywhere the ball bounced. Time and again, he'd make a great acrobatic retrieval, ending up unbalanced, out of ready position, and gasping to regain breath. But then, when Hairy had hopped to and prodded a nifty one just out of his reach, Breezy'd whirl off in a whoosh, and chances were better than even that he'd wind up with yet another miracle return.

Still, when they changed sides at first to reach ten, the score was ten to seven in favor of calm precision.

Meantime, the children had stopped their own game and returned to watch their fathers' contest. They gathered partisan about the playing plot—the cockeyed boy and his impish sibling posted on the edges of the small chap's area, the cheery kid aside the stout fellow's—and they were noisily emotional with their support. When their man won a point, they screamed him encouragement and cheers and hoarsely jeered the rival. At their champion's missed or bad plays, they suffered in silent humiliation under the raucous abuse volleyed back at them.

Once, when the score was fifteen to twelve against Small & Fleeting, a fair pass dropped near the sidelines, directed to exactly where the cockeyed boy stood. His father was totally out of position, absolutely unable to retrieve the ball, and it was clear he would lose the point. So, what does the kid do? He anchored himself firmly, and allowed the ball to bounce off his leg.

His man didn't miss the chance. "Obstruction!" he cackled, "He blocked me off. I coulda got that ball. Play over the point! Y'know I coulda gotten that ball."

"What!!?" Hairy's scream quavered between indignation and hysteria.

He rushed toward his opponent and tried to confront him. But the smaller man, determinedly avoiding him, picked up the ball and walked off the play area. Over his shoulder, he shouted repeatedly, "Fair is only fair! I coulda got it!"

Hairy gave up trailing him and began a straight-legged jumping, hands clasped to his head as if to contain the frustration within it. Abruptly, he turned and charged at the cockeyed boy. "You cheating crook! You little thieving son of a. . ."

With a great push, he shoved the smirking boy to the ground.

At this, the cyclone flew into the stout one's port, lashing and butting on the bigger man. "Not another time! Not another! Ya hear me? Ya don't touch him again. Ya hear me. Ya beer-belly slob? Ya hear?" he shouted.

The force of the assault sent Stoutness stumbling. The little one, flailing like a thin rope in a hurricane, kept on flinging swings, charging with more bluster than effect. He supported his attack with a torrent of threats and curses. Although, off and on, he interrupted with a compromise, "Play it over, then. We gotta play that point over!"

By and by, it worked his way. As finally Stoutness conceded, "Okay, okay! We'll play it over. God sees all! You still won't win!"

He took his place ready on his side of the field, glared at the cockeyed boy, and yelled at him, "You. You'd better get your li'l ass out the way. Okay? Out the WAY! Damn you!"

Briefly, it occurred to me that the wives always preferred to miss this treat. Although their own business did seem to engross them quite adequately, still this passion from their men was such great spectacle.

But now the husbands had returned to their game.

The antics went on. By the time they got to nineteen to seventeen, favor to Stout & Hairy, their play had outstripped excellence. They now were equally in the throes of continuous, competitive inspiration. Their muscles were loose and they had sweated dark, slick streams into their clothes. Incredible retrievals to wonderful passes had become as routine as the hoarse grunts accompanying every effort. Concentration, like the competition, was intense.

The sons now celebrated each creation with brief, excited screams squeezed from their breathless, umpiring watch. Failures were so spectacular, and so far and few between, that they found quick tolerance as disguised promises of miracle comebacks.

And before anyone had realized it, the husbands had strangled the score at twenty to twenty.

Came the small guy's turn to serve, when as he did, the stout one turned his back on the ball and cried out, "Hold it! Hold it!"

The pass bounced gently off his back and laid to rest under his butt.

The little one was around to his face like a ready wasp, "What? What? What?" he dashed out, his arms outspread, posturing him as a long-suffering cross of inquiry.

"Nothing. Nothing," said the Stoutness. "All I'm saying is that whoever it is, I'm saying he gotta win by two."

"Why? Why? Why? Why the big change this time?"

"Makes more sense. Seems to me it's a clearer win."

Belligerence and Contradiction seemed to hover over the little man for a cloudy moment before impatient Confidence shooed them away. He nodded and, rotating his hand to get on with it, agreed in impromptu singsong, "Okay, let's do it. We win by two. Okay, okay, let's go. We win by two."

Still chanting, he put the ball in play.

Yet it was Fatigue that decided the husbands' game. The small one lost the final points to simple passes beyond him by that slightest limit of worn-down effort. Miracle-making had drained the acrobatic winds from his sails.

All he could manage was a last splutter of bitter dispute concerning some earlier conceded points. Patting his belly, Hairy confidently remembered these the other way. "Look at you," he scoffed. "Lose fair and square, and you can't take it. You're just a fart in a gale, an empty stinker. Next thing, you'll be begging off on injury. Why don't you just pay up? Huh?"

The small man reluctantly took some money from his pocket and dashed it at the winner's feet as if wishing it'd explode. Hairy, all hoots and extravagant giggles, stooped and scooped the loot into his pocket.

At this, the cockeyed boy commenced a strident bawling, to which his man attended with a sound clout. The kid quit, but proceeded to swift over and kick the winner's boy on the shin.

This set off a flailing punch and wrestle match, which made both husbands hazard in to pull their sons apart. Once in charge, very angrily, Stoutness admonished the cockeyed boy, "Is this what you get taught from them? Loser's spite. This is what it's coming to? No belly in the blood? No family pride but mine? Huh?"

That released whatever catch restrained the little husband. Still clutching the boy close to his chest, he legged them over scorpion-like to confront the stout one. "What ya getting at? Huh? Ya tell me just what ya getting at, ya lowlife has-been. Ya puke eater!"

Hairy wasn't yielding. "What you think I mean? How come you can't figure? How come?"

The little man raised an uncompromising forefinger and barreled his point up at Hairy's face, "Listen me. Don't ya talk family to me, ya hear. And I won't talk family with ya, okay? Don't ya bring it up at all."

The flat, deliberate tone that had come to his voice suddenly made him seem really as dangerous as the vicious typhoon he had earlier mimicked.

They stood their ground, squaring off glares at each other, husbanding their sons to their bellies. One was breathing fire, the other was spitting brimstone, and there was nothing but the brink in between.

Then the youngest kid screamed his anxiety. "I'm goin' a'get Mama! I'm goin' a'get Mama!"

Which aroused the bigger ones to yank themselves away from the fathers, and with fingers whipping in excitement, race toward the twin wives.

"Mama, Mama," they cried, "come quick! They're at it again."

Instantly the identical mothers were on their way to the trouble.

Meanwhile, the men hadn't yielded their menacing stances. They seemed to be attempting to vanquish each other by force of frowning will alone. They were at it when one twin stepped between them and unhesitatingly took firm hold of the small husband's arm.

Still in the grip of his rage, and without looking at her, he tried to shrug her off. She resisted firmly and with a rough tug, dragged him away from the confrontation. At this insistence, he cast a startled look at her, craned his neck to look towards the other twin, then dropped his head abruptly, complying to the authority at his arm with the air of a chastened pup.

The stout husband followed the action with a thoughtful stare, absentmindedly scratching at his beard. He, too, wore a vaguely baffled manner. He hardly seemed to notice the remaining wife move and post behind him, hands clasped under her belly, a picture of quiet patience.

The three sons, grouped aside, kept looking from one couple to the other. On their faces was that certain blankness of spectators at an interesting tennis match.

As the families began to leave in opposite directions, the older boys lingered a moment to make up. They touched palms lightly as the cockeyed one said his apology. In the moment of ill-at-ease, despite the one's odd eye, their faces plainly showed a bloodline's sameness.

"Come on, child, let's go now," the wife with the small husband called to the cockeyed son, "and don't forget the ball. There's a next time. Remember." Her voice was the gentle side of command.

Her twin, from her place behind the stout fellow, had also turned to mind after the cheerful son. In that moment, the wives shared a brief final glance. On its searing beam, crossing from one to the other, was a clear message of courage and daring. A charge of intrigue and support.

As an inkling of their bold game stole into my mind, with the frisson which overcame me was an ambition that one day, maybe, I might be adept enough to portrait that exquisite exchange.