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Family Games

A story of competition

By Matt SpazianiPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 13 min read

“No fucking way!”

You turn your head towards the yell. The tone could have been either excited or angry, but a quick look at the smiles around the horseshoe pit is enough to prove it was the former. Uncle Michael is holding court with several of the relatives, all of whom seem to be hanging on his every word. You don’t spend as much time with him as you would like, but it’s a scene you’ve witnessed at most family gatherings. He just has the ability to entertain.

The yell seems to have come from the brother of the groom—Jared, you think his name is. The two of them stand on opposite sides of one of the posts, and even though Uncle Michael is the father of the bride, they look like blood relatives who have known each other for a long time. Both have a beer in one hand and a horseshoe in the other, and while Michael’s hair is freckled with gray, the brown that remains is only a few shades lighter than Jared’s. However, the illusion is dispelled by Uncle Michael’s size. Jared is not a small man, but Michael still dwarfs him. You remember the jokes he used to tell when you were a kid, always changing the story of how he got so big. Once, he spent a solid ten minutes describing how he fought and ate an entire grizzly bear. You were only six, and it’s been well over a decade since then, but you can’t help but smile at the memory.

“You don’t believe me?” Uncle Michael replies in his brash voice, and you begin wandering towards them. You don’t want to miss one of his tales.

“No way,” Jared reiterates. “He did not say that!”

“Oh, he sure as shit did!” Uncle Michael says, taking a sip of his beer. “He insisted that we drive out and buy new paddles.”

This elicits laughter from the small crowd, and Uncle Michael looks to his right, where you now notice your father. He smiles along with the rest of them, but his laughter is much more reserved. You see that he’s glaring at his brother playfully, tilting his head upward to look at Uncle Michael’s face.

“That’s not exactly how I remember it,” he says. His voice isn’t quite as loud as his brother’s, but the relation is clearly there. “The new paddles were your idea.”

“Uh-huh. Whatever you need to tell yourself,” Uncle Michael jokes, and your father rolls his eyes before taking a sip of his own beer. Your uncle continues: “You just couldn’t deal with the fact that I beat you at ping pong.”

“Yeah, of course not,” your father retorts. “I kicked your ass ever since we got that table. There’s no way you got that good during one summer at camp.”

“Oh, you underestimate how much the campers wanted to play ping pong,” Uncle Michael says to a few chuckles. “I got a lot of practice that summer.”

“Yeah, yeah,” your father says dismissively. “Just shut up and throw your shoe.”

“Actually, I think it’s Jared’s go. Jared?” Uncle Michael says, looking at his opponent.

“Oh yeah, it’s me,” Jared confirms. “Hang on.”

By now, you’ve reached the edge of the group. One or two of your relatives tilt their glass in your direction, but you mostly go unnoticed. You’re a teenager at a wedding; if no one sees you causing trouble, you probably won’t be approached, and that’s just fine by you.

Jared takes another drink of his beer, swings the horseshoe by his side, and then releases. The throw looks good at first, but it falls early, landing flat about two feet in front of the post. Jared swears under his breath.

“Oh, come on, that’s not so bad!” Uncle Michael says. “You just needed a bit more distance.”

“Mike, don’t patronize the man,” your father says.

“Yeah, like you could do any better?” Jared adds. He gestures tipsily towards the post. “Twenty bucks says you can’t throw it closer.”

“Why not? I’ll take that action,” Uncle Michael says. He squats down slightly, takes a few practice swings, and then makes his own throw. The shoe flies in a shallow arc, farther than Jared’s, but from this angle it’s hard to see which is closer. There’s a pause for a moment as the two competitors and their small audience try to figure it out. Then Jared speaks:

“Did you do it?”

“I think so,” Uncle Michael says, “but I don’t know. Hey, Junior!”

You look towards the target pit, where Uncle Michael is shouting. There is a small group of people about twenty feet away from it, mostly the cousins on your side of the family. It looks like they’re edging towards the barn where the main reception will happen, and that makes sense; you heard one of them complaining about how they couldn’t wait for the bride’s and groom’s photos to be over so they could eat. Now Uncle Michael’s son peels off from the rest of them. He’s a year or two younger than you, but his relation to Michael is obvious in the way he towers over the rest of the cousins.

“Do me a favor!” Uncle Michael continues to yell. “Check to see if the blue shoe is closer than the red one.”

“What?” Junior replies, then the question registers. “Oh. Yeah, sure.”

You smirk a little as your cousin jogs over to the post. Michael Junior has definitely inherited Michael Senior’s stature, but his charisma and awareness seem to have skipped a generation. You don’t remember a time when Junior was asked a question to which he didn’t say, “What?” before answering.

Now, however, Junior gets to the pitch and leans over it, examining the two shoes. “Blue one is closer,” he shouts.

“Goddammit,” Jared swears, reaching into his pocket for his wallet.

“Ah, save it for now,” Uncle Michael reassures, waving him away. “We’ll do something else later.” He turns his attention back to the other pit. “Junior! Back up!”

“What?” Junior shouts back. Then: “Oh. Yeah, okay.”

You see Uncle Michael shake his head a little bit. Then he turns back to your father. “So anyway, ping pong.”

“Ah, come on, we weren’t done with that?” your father asks.

“Oh, no way! We’re getting to the best part,” Uncle Michael says, taking another sip. He turns back to the rest of his audience. “So we get the new paddles and bring them back to the house. And Jack here—” He points to your father. “—wants a rematch. So we play again, and it’s a much closer game, but, uh…” He turns to your father. “Do you remember who won that one, Jack?”

Your father rolls his eyes again before mumbling, “You did.”

“Yeah, that’s right! I did!” Uncle Michael says with false recollection, again provoking laughter from the group. He turns back to them. “So it’s not the paddles, and again, it can’t be that I just got good at summer camp, so this one spends a couple of hours examining the balls to make sure I hadn’t tampered with them.”

The laughter is a dull roar this time. Jared has to pause mid-throw to crouch down and collect himself. You can see tears running down his face, even from a distance.

“So after that—”

“Wait, pause,” Jared says, standing and regaining his composure. “How do you check ping pong balls for that?”

“That’s a great question!” Michael exclaims, turning to his brother. “Yes, Jack. How exactly does one check ping pong balls to see if they’ve been tampered with?”

Laughter again. You notice your father seems to be enjoying this less and less, but he appears resigned to his position. He sighs heavily before answering. “You grab an X-Acto knife and carefully cut them open.”

The exasperated monotone in which he says that only adds to the hilarity, and the group is cracking up again. Jared almost drops his horseshoe as his body heaves from laughing so hard. “So you sat…” he begins, but he has to pause and catch his breath. Then he tries again. “So you sat there, just cutting open ping pong balls, looking for…what?”

“I don’t know,” your father says. You can tell he’s getting a little tired of the subject. “Something he had done. I wasn’t sure.”

“And it took you two hours to verify that?” Uncle Michael says. The group laughs again, and someone incredulously repeats: Two hours?

“There’s no way it was that long,” your father protests. “And we had a lot riding on that game! The winner got to ask out Claire Stevens.”

“Oh yes, I recall,” Uncle Michael confirms. He turns to the crowd to explain while Jared winds up his next throw. “She was a girl in our class who—Hey! Junior! I said back up!

You turn to look at the other end of the pitch. Junior apparently lost interest in what his cousins were saying and now watches the game, but he drifted too close to the target. At his father’s cry he jumps.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry.”

“He’s gotta be careful, Mike,” Jared says. “I almost let that one go.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Uncle Michael replies. “Sometimes he loses track of things and doesn’t pay attention. I got it.” He swills the rest of his beer and turns back to his son, holding the bottle up. “Junior! Beer me!”

Junior looks lost for a second, then he sees the bottle, nods, and runs off in the direction of the barn. He’s underage, but it’s cocktail hour at a wedding and he’s tall. The bartender might give him something.

Uncle Michael watches him go and then, once his son is far enough away, turns to Jared and nods. Jared begins his throw again while Michael continues the story:

“Anyway, Claire was a girl in our class. We both had a crush on her, so Jack suggested we play ping pong and the winner gets to ask her out.”

He pauses then as Jared launches his next shoe. It looks close, and it is; the curve of the shoe bounces off of the stake with a loud clang, landing mere inches away.

“Oh, come on!” Jared says. “I thought that’d be a ringer for sure!”

“Hey, that’s within range.” Uncle Michael gestures with his empty beer bottle. “That’s your point if I can’t get it closer.” He grins slyly and turns towards Jared. “Double or nothing?”

“Nah, no way,” Jared replies. “Let’s make things more interesting. Fifty if you can make it closer while throwing with your other hand.”

A few members in the group murmur oooooh, but Uncle Michael seems unperturbed. He shrugs good-naturedly. “Sure! Let’s go for it.”

He puts his bottle on the ground and transfers the shoe to his left hand. The group noticeably goes quiet as he winds up. He does a few practice swings, aims carefully, and releases.

The shoe arcs through the air, spinning slightly as it moves. You hear the sound of metal-on-metal before you realize that the shoe has curled around the stake.

“Shit!” Jared yells. “How’d you pull that off?”

“He cheats,” your father says.

“I do not,” Uncle Michael immediately responds. “You know I’ve been playing horseshoes since we were kids.”

“Yeah, yeah,” your father says, unconvinced. “So how much is that?”

“If we’re talking points, that’ll be three for me, assuming his second shoe was closer than my first one,” Uncle Michael answers. Then he turns to Jared with that same grin. “But if we’re talking dollars, I’m pretty sure that’s seventy.”

“Yeah, I can count.” Jared sounds annoyed, but his smile gives him away. “Man, Denise is gonna kill me.”

“Here, I’ll knock five off if you go get the shoes so I don’t have to move.”

Jared shakes his head, but he chuckles along with a few of the onlookers. “All right, fine,” he says, and jogs to the opposite pit.

While he gathers the horseshoes, you watch your father make eye contact with Uncle Michael.

“You just can’t help but show off, can you?” your father asks, the mirth once in his eyes now gone. “Even at your daughter’s wedding?”

“Hey, I was as surprised as you were that they got a venue with horseshoes.” Uncle Michael smirks. “I hear they’ve got cornhole upstairs in the barn, too. I’ll have to go beat a few people at that later.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Jared returns to them and hands the two blue shoes to Uncle Michael. “So how was the date, anyway?”


“With Claire, or whoever. After the ping pong—”

“Oh! Yeah,” Uncle Michael says, and laughs softly to himself. “Yeah, uh, she said no.”

Some people laugh and others make an aww sound. Uncle Michael just shrugs. “Yeah, I don’t know. Something about not wanting to go on a date with Sasquatch.”

“She would have said yes if I had won,” your father interjects.

“Oh, come on, you can’t still be bitter about that!”

“Yeah I can!” your father says. “She was great! I always regretted not asking her out.”

Uncle Michael is shaking his head. “Jack, it’s been twenty years since then. Who knows where you’d be right now if you asked her? You’ve got a great life, great kid, great…”

He trails off, but you notice anyway. He was about to say “wife.”

Despite your parents’ best efforts, they couldn’t keep their ongoing divorce proceedings quiet. The extended family has always prided itself in being very tight-knit, very supportive, but no one tells you what a problem that is when your small part of it is imploding. You don’t know the details—they did a pretty good job of keeping that from you—but you know they were planning on waiting until after the wedding to tell anyone. Then something happened, and now there is a very specific reason your father is here and your mother is not. You’ve spent most of the wedding just hoping no one would bring it up.

But Uncle Michael just did. And judging by the rage in his face, your father definitely noticed.

Uncle Michael quickly tries to backtrack. “Great…job, right? You like your new firm! So come on, it’s okay to let it go.” He chuckles and turns back to Jared. “It’s my throw, right?”

“Yup!” Jared says happily. He clearly didn’t notice the tension. “Wanna make this one more interesting, too?”

Uncle Michael smiles again. “What do you have in mind?”

“Double or nothing on all of it, and you throw a ringer with your eyes closed.”

The ooooooh from the group is much more audible now, and Uncle Michael bites his lip in consideration. “Now that’s a tough bet,” he says, but it’s obvious that he’s tempted. “I don’t know, sixty-five seems small for that.”

“All right, a hundred,” Jared offers. “Even better—a hundred if you win, I owe you nothing if you lose.”

Uncle Michael inhales through his teeth. “That’s closer,” he says, “but I’m still on the fence. It’s a hard shot to take. Maybe—”

“Five hundred.”

The voice was not Jared’s. In stunned silence, Uncle Michael turns to look at your father, who stares back at him coldly. A hush falls over the onlookers as they lean in to hear the conversation.

Uncle Michael seems less impressed. For the first time today, he looks sad.

“You sure you want to do this now, Jack?”

“Yeah. I am.” Your father shifts closer to his brother, straightening his back and getting in his face. “Come on, Mike. You said you wanted a big bet. Put your money where your mouth is.”

The two stare at each other in silence for what feels like an eternity, during which you find yourself wishing you were almost anywhere else. The tension is nearly tangible, wavering in the air like heat.

Finally, Uncle Michael exhales deeply. “All right, Jack. Let’s get this over with.”

He drops one of the horseshoes on the ground and takes the other in his good hand. Then he points, lining up his shot, and closes his eyes while his arm is still extended. Every other eye is locked onto him, and you know they are all wondering if he’s actually able to do it. You’re wondering a little yourself, but even if he can, it’s not worth the fighting. Based on what you’ve seen in your parents for the last few years, it is never worth the fighting.

Uncle Michael swings his arm forward once, twice, three times. He pauses, and you can see him gathering his energy for the throw. He swings his arm back once more—

—and your gaze is drawn to Jared’s eyes, which just widened in fear.

WAIT!!!” he screams.

It’s too late. Uncle Michael opens his eyes as the horseshoe leaves his hand.

You follow the shoe as it arches through the air. It’s too far to the right, and while Junior didn’t step directly between the two pits, he had wandered close in his haste to deliver his father’s drink.

The thud as the horseshoe collides with his head seems to echo throughout the field, followed by what feels like hundreds of screams. Uncle Michael yells something that might be words as he barrels by you. His bulk quickly obscures Junior from your view, but you’ll never forget the sight of his crumpled body, the blood-splattered horseshoe, or the new bottle of Corona spilling beer onto the grass.

You turn back to your relatives, but they have scattered. Several have run to the barn, hopefully to get help. Two or three ran over to join Uncle Michael and his son. The rest are on their phones calling 911. Only your father remains where he was, staring at the scene with a blank, almost studious expression. You approach him and notice with horror that he makes no indication of your presence.

“Dad…” You trail off because you truly have no idea what to say next.

The word seems to raise your father from his stupor. He breathes in deeply, shakes his head a little, and speaks:

“Well, would you look at that.” He turns to look at you, and all you can see in his eyes is shock. “I won. Excuse me.”

Without another word, he walks in the direction of the barn.

Short Story

About the Creator

Matt Spaziani

Robotics engineer by day and writer, musician, and gamer by night.

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