by Terry Hargrove
Not long ago, a reader (not my therapist) asked me why I am the way I am.
“What do you mean?“ I asked back. “Because like everyone, there are two of me: the good me and the evil me. Which one are you interested in?”
“The evil you first,” he replied.
“That’s easy,“ I said. “The evil me is the way I am because I have an older brother.”
Glenn is 14 months my elder, the perfect age gap. For him. 14 stupid months. That doesn’t seem like much now, but when I was 10, that extra 1.2 years gave him a decided advantage in every enterprise.
“Daddy!” I screamed, in 1965. “ Look at this bluegill I caught. It’s as big as my hand!”
“Daddy!” screamed Glenn. “Look at this catfish I caught. It’s a long as my arm!”
“Boys!” replied The Dad. “Look at this watch on my wrist. It’s time to go.”
The Dad didn’t like to fish. But it wasn’t just fishing, it was everything! Glenn could throw a football farther, could shoot a basketball better, he could even beat me at horseshoes! Now, I’ll give him the football and basketball, since he had an extra year of practice on me. But horseshoes? Who practices tossing horseshoes? Glenn could drill me in tennis, won all my marbles, and had a poker face that left him with my entire allowance week after week. I even tried to learn croquet just so there would be something I could beat him at. I practiced at night so nobody would see me with my little mallet and my yellow striped ball. For two months I did this, but when I suggested it as a new game to play at the Park, he won easily. Then he held me up to public ridicule for suggesting we play a French girl’s game. Then he hit me with his mallet.
“It’s not really a French girl’s game,” said my reader who isn’t my therapist. “Croquet can be quite challenging.” But I wasn’t listening to him. I was back in childhood.
And the girls, dear lord, the girls. They flocked to Glenn. All he had to do was shake his nasty black mane, and they appeared like a magician‘s doves. To this day, whenever I travel home and meet some girl from high school, the first thing she asks is “Have you seen Glenn lately? Do you have his phone number?“ I lie and tell them nobody has seen Glenn since he ran off with a carnival in 2001, and they coo and ahh about how romantic that life must be.
By 1969, I didn’t need anyone to tell me I was a loser. I already knew it, since I lost to Glenn all the time. Any self-assurance I had about anything was sucked out of me by the time I was 14. I was worse than empty. I was a vacuum rimmed by loss. Losing was all I knew.
“Fascinating,” said the reader who isn’t my therapist. “But that’s enough about the evil you. Sibling rivalries can be intense. But what about the good you? Where did he come from?”
“The good me came from ping pong,” I said. “It’s a long story.”
“Well, you are paying me by the hour,” he replied.
I discovered ping pong in 1971, and I was a natural. OK, that part’s not true. I was actually no better than average, but Glenn was the worst ping pong player I had ever seen. He was terrible. He couldn’t slam, he couldn’t block, he couldn’t go from forehand to backhand without dropping his paddle, and he couldn’t move three feet sideways. So it naturally followed that he refused to play me.
But one day in 1973 when he was home on leave from the Army, Glenn and I were at a party hosted by one of the hundred girls who had a crush on him. She had a ping pong table in her basement. I picked up a paddle and began to bounce the ball casually. Glenn and his latest squeeze came in and I suggested a game. Just for fun. Glenn chuckled.
“What my little brother doesn’t know,” he mumbled, “is that I’ve spent the last two years practicing. I won second place in the 1972 Fort Sill Table Tennis Invitational. Shall we play for money? I got $20 that says I can beat you.”
“There’s no need to play for money,“ I laughed. “Let’s just play for the joy of competition. All our friends are here to watch. Just a friendly game to 21. OK?”
It was great. Either Fort Sill was home to the worst ping pong players in the country, or his confidence was undone by our audience. I won 21 to 6. He demanded a rematch, but I pointed to my watch.
“Sorry, but I have to go,” I said and left. Oh, I gave him the rematch he desperately wanted… 15 years later, in 1988.
By then, all the pretty girls of our youth had married. We had too, so when I went to visit him to celebrate the birth of my daughter Katie, he surprised me with an offer to play a game on his new ping pong table. We batted the ball back and forth for a few minutes, then he suggested we have our long awaited rematch. One game to 21. I agreed. There was no crowd this time, just the two of us. Glenn had gotten better, but when his last serve went into the net, I won 21 to 15.
“I don’t suppose,” he whispered, “I could interest you in a rematch?”
“Sorry, but I have to go,” I said. I left him there, shaking and sweating. “You don’t look well. You should probably see a doctor about that twitch.” We didn’t play again until 1999.
The funny thing about all this is that I didn’t play any ping pong between our matches. I didn’t practice at all, though it was obvious Glenn did. He had the finest table, an expensive paddle, top of the line ping pong balls. He even paid for lessons from a guy named Dr. Kwon, who stood behind Glenn with his arms crossed like a James Bond villain, during our match. But when the match was on the line, Glenn was lost, and when he stood there after I won, he muttered and cursed and looked kind of crazy. Dr. Kwon screamed something in Mandarin, slapped Glenn’s head and stormed off. That last match in 1999 broke something inside him. He was close, so close, but in the end I won 21 to 19.
“I guess… you wouldn’t… be interested in a rematch?“ he hissed. His voice careened on the glassy edge of insane. I almost felt sorry for him.
“Sorry, but I have to go,” I said. And that’s the last time we played.
“So,” said my reader who is not my therapist. “When’s the rematch?”
“What makes you think there’s going to be a rematch?” I asked. “There’s no rematch. Barring a Don King pay-per-view spectacular or the return of Wide World of Sports, there‘s never going to be a rematch. I’m old and fat now. I haven’t picked up a ping pong paddle in eight years. If there was a rematch, I could lose. When you compete, the only game that matters is the last one and the next one. There’s not going to be a next one, so I will bask in the glory of my last win forever. I intend to take my last victory to the grave and beyond to eternity.”
“I think I’d like to talk to your brother about this,” said my reader who is not my therapist. “Could you give me his phone number?”
“I would if I could,” I replied. “But the last time I heard from him, he’d joined a carnival on 2001.”