Dougie Reuben was practicing his left hook. It was twelve o’clock and sweltering. They had eight hours before the fight. He’d have an egg white omelette for dinner and a protein shake. There was a damp spot spreading hopelessly underneath Bruce Reuben’s right armpit. He hated when Dougie had to work the day shift. Dougie worked security on the parking lot of a 24-hour grocery store downtown. He had to ensure that people weren’t parking for free if they weren’t buying groceries seeing as there was a multiplex down the street that didn’t have its own lot. Dougie loved when he had to work on Friday nights. He felt like the only sheriff in town. Dougie usually made Bruce yell with him in stereo for effect: Hey! If you ain’t buying groceries, get the hell outta my lot!
Bruce, on the other hand, burned with embarrassment whenever they had to run after someone who was sneaking down the alley. Bruce and Dougie could run pretty fast for conjoined twins — they had the rhythm down. They planted the shared middle leg and worked their outside legs in tandem; their arms draped around one another’s shoulders as they gave chase. It was a bit stilted but terrifyingly fast. Dougie had an extremely high success rate at getting freeloaders off Everest Grocery’s property. Their physicality lent the impression that they were pals, always chumming around. Their arms always hanging around the other’s neck as though they were children at an eternal Sunday picnic, eating potato salad and racing down to the creek to catch tadpoles. Most of Dougie’s co-workers were completely unaware that Bruce was, in fact, deeply mortified to be working out on the lot.
Bruce had lately become obsessed with an old sailor named M. He dog-eared the page where he left off his reading and tilted his face up to the blueness above. M. had sailed around the world alone — around once and almost around again without stopping. He had all of the responsibilities of staying afloat, staying on course, staying alive, with no one else to lean on. Bruce tried to breathe in the heft of that much open space. It was a sickly kind of seduction that pulled him. He was queasy with attraction to the ocean’s writhing and unceasing end. Bruce struggled to see something deeper in that familiar piece of the sky he peered into, to witness some revelation, some winking recognition of his own valour, but his stomach just dropped again. The blue was a flatness that shut him out. Bruce read M as a man who forged a life of his own design, following no compass but his own inner knowing. Bruce could feel himself striving for something just beyond; reaching out, only to twist up inside himself, a kite’s tail entangling itself in the wind.
Today Dougie was counting the number of minivans in the lot: five. He tried to guess which car belonged to each customer leaving the store; his success rate at guessing the cyclists was one hundred percent. Bruce rolled a crick out of his right shoulder and went back to his book. He wore an orange rubber thimble on his thumb so that he could hold his book open and turn the page without his brother’s help.
Hey, Bruce. It’s pretty dead out here, we should do some extra squats.
I don’t think so, Bruce thumbed another page over.
Yeah, you’re right, we shouldn’t wear ourselves out too much. I’m feeling good about tonight.
Dougie tilted his head back and looked for shapes of familiar things shifting in the clouds.
He pointed up at a specific cloud that looked just like one of the old cashiers with the big hair, but it was transformed into a regular blob before he could say anything to his brother. Dougie was anxious in the hours leading up to a fight, keen to distract himself with conversation or errands or action right until the moment their trainer wrapped their hands — all four — and slipped the gloves onto the two strong outer fists. And with the winding of the fabric everything else finally began to recede. But for Bruce it was the opposite: he savoured the long quiet hours of the morning, and then the afternoon before a fight. But as the late afternoon closed into evening his anxiety ratcheted to a distemper that peaked when the announcer called out their names. And once they climbed through the ropes Bruce resigned himself, every time, with the silent prayer: this too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall…we’re not going to die, I’ve done this before. Fuck me. Shit. Bruce was certain he could live in contentment without amateur boxing, whereas he knew his brother absolutely could not.
The ref pried all the boxers apart for holding too long. Joseph Patrice had his sinewy arms spanned across the width of Bruce and Dougie’s shoulders, rasping through his mouth guard: You fucking freaks.
The bell sent them back to their respective corners. Their trainer, Dom, was there with two towels and water.
Dougie couldn’t see anything but the glowing white square of the ring. The ropes. Patrice’s shiny red shorts. It had been two rounds. Patrice was fast, circling around the twins quickly, hitting hard, spitting venom.
Remember your training. He’s gonna dance all around you. Stay focused. Body shots.
Patrice glared at them until the bell sprung all the boxers free.
Bruce couldn’t believe that as a grown man, he had to sacrifice a day’s pay in order to deal with body shots.
They let Patrice close the space between them; Bruce blocked a jab to his face and Dougie lunged for Patrice’s liver. Patrice recovered and answered with a hard hit to Bruce’s side. Patrice punched Dougie in the face, then jabbed Bruce’s side again, hard. Dougie’s head had blown back with the punch, but Bruce kept him on his feet. Despite all the nagging during training, Bruce was still always a second too slow at protecting his side. The twins absorbed all of the blows that were landing, but barreled forward and wide, trying to overtake all of the available floor space, cutting the ring down to the size of a place mat, and managed to dance Patrice into the ropes. Dougie and Bruce alternated swings left, right, left, right, until Patrice slid clear through the ropes; a marlin wriggling off a stretched line back into the sea. The bell clattered like spoons in a bowl.
Patrice had a group of his guys huddled around his corner, mouthing off opinions and strategies after each round. Through the whole fight Bruce and Dougie had only Dom. Bruce’s chest was heaving, Dougie wiped his neck with a towel, standing on ceremony for the official decision from the judges. Now he could take in the larger scene beyond the ring. They were in a gym they’d never fought in before, the ring taking up most of the space with only a few rows of chairs on three sides. A small crowd from the audience was gathering below them, holding phones up to take the twins’ picture. He could hear the steady murmuring, see the black folding chairs; a woman seated alone in by the door, wearing sunglasses and a fur coat.
A new excitement started to build in the crowd below, and they all migrated, squawking and snapping shots over in Patrice’s corner. He had climbed back into the ring with both arms raised high in the air, showboating in his shiny red shorts. Dougie couldn’t believe what a chump Joseph Patrice was. Poor guy had been humiliated and didn’t even realize it, the audience a witness to his utter defeat to the Reuben Beast. At the centre of the ring the ref grabbed hold of Patrice and Dougie. The announcer made the call, read the score from each judge, and the ref threw up Patrice’s hand. Patrice had won by decision.
Dom was deeply, deeply hurt by this: Fucking ass-backward shit-eating fucking cowards.
The crowd immediately dispersed, like air let out of a balloon, as Dom’s tirade continued unabated, and largely ignored: Fucking goddamned SHIT for brains, none of you ever been INSIDE these goddamned ropes, fucking hell? Dougie, Bruce, FUCK
— that was a MASSIVELY shit call
— you boys DON’T DESERVE that, that fight was YOURS, it’s so obvious — both of you, you knew it in there — you were BOTH on point, you TOO Bruce, even YOU were RIGHT THERE. FUCK wits.
Dom seemed on the verge of tears, panting to a near-empty room, with Patrice and his entourage clamouring loudly to the change room. Dom let out a helpless yelp, but the judges merely jostled themselves from behind their table, wedged in tight under a row of windows. Bruce surprised himself by feeling robbed. They hadn’t been knocked off their feet, he wasn’t bleeding all over himself. The feeling spreading through his tightened muscles was the molasses of disappointment. Dougie smacked his fist hard against his helmet two times, then ordered a mousy teenager down below to take his picture. The boy unpocketed his cellphone and climbed up into the ring at Dougie’s insistence. He got a shot with neither twin smiling.
Save that picture. You just got a picture of the real winners, here. Honest champs.
Oh. Ok. Cool, cool. I’m just waiting for my dad. He works here at the club.
The boy tucked his hair behind his ears and hopped down out of the ring. Easing his headphones on, he loped out of sight like a fawn on a dew-drenched morning.
The twins showered without saying a word. Water streamed over Dougie’s left shoulder, while Bruce was turned out in the mist. There would be no recourse, no understanding or justice from the people who had made their choice clear. That win had been denied them for no discernible reason. They changed into their street clothes — one of many outfits cobbled together by their mother, pairs of shirts and pants cut then fused — and by this time the gym was empty, even Dom had disappeared without waiting for them. The chairs around the ring were in mild disarray, the room now dense with humid silence. Dougie thought the woman in the fur coat must’ve been a mirage. They decided to walk back to their apartment, their punched up, aching bodies the only register that anything had just occurred in that tiny room. Not just anything, but rather that something rotten had just taken place. With a room full of witnesses and only Dom screaming, and being ignored. Dougie chose to focus his thoughts only on the stranger sitting stone-still with her sunglasses on: past middle-aged maybe, that fur coat in the dead of summer. The colour of amber.
Bruce was feeling prickly. Mad that he had to be dragged into a fight just to be robbed and rejected. Mad because he hated boxing, and mad because he was proud that he was actually getting better at it: Why does everything feel like we’re running uphill? Even when we show ourselves to be better fighters, it’s like we don’t count. Dougie, why do you bother to box, at all?
They continued their syncopated march. Dougie was exhausted and for once he didn’t have an answer for his brother. They still had another twenty minutes until they’d be home. They had to continually pause for families with strollers and frozen yogurts and iced coffees and shopping bags, and sidestep around trees planted in the sidewalk, and get sniffed out by a million dogs, until finally they both wordlessly agreed to cut up a quiet residential street where they could take up all the room they needed. The sun blazed on, casting a shadow of the Rueben Beast underfoot.
Nadia Ragbar’s work has appeared in Dragnet Magazine, Echolocation, and THIS Magazine. Her work was longlisted for the 2017 Reflex Flash Fiction Contest, and has appeared in the Unpublished City anthology, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Toronto Book Award. She is a graduate of University of Toronto’s M.A. in Creative Writing. She lives in Toronto.