The point was to hide your fear.
Feel afraid but don’t flinch. That’s what the game was called. Flinch. And something about it—maybe because Huey Justice, who led it, was from West Virginia and the players stood around shirtless and softly cursing—lent the game a hillbilly quality, though there were no hills around and the only Billy we knew was so enamored of his own wiener every girl had to beware. Mumblety-peg, the game is sometimes called, but that version involves penknives and ours featured a bone-handled hunting knife with a five-inch blade. It may have started as some kind of scouting game, but in our neighborhood—where boys left school and quit jobs and realized too late the empty husk of their own rebellion—the game became flinch. The world might not see you, but there was always a knife and some kids gathered round to show you were a man.
They used the lawn of 78 Grand Avenue because the grass grew thick as a pelt there and, beneath it, the soil was hard-packed and kept the blade upright. This was our front yard—or rather, it was the yard of the half-house our family rented, but because we weren’t the sort to lay claim to anything and because, for better and worse, life is more communal in poor places, the yard belonged to anyone who stepped onto it.
Opponents stood an arm’s length apart and faced each other, legs spread as wide as they could go. Success depended on leg span and the ability to withstand tension. Tall players held a natural advantage, as did the inebriated and the perpetually numb. The game began when Player 1 lobbed the knife into the stretch of grass between his opponent’s feet. Player 2 moved a foot to the place where the blade landed before pulling it from the ground and throwing it into the swath of lawn between Player 1’s feet. Over and over, players flung the knife. Over and over, feet followed the path of its landing, the distance between blade and shoe narrowing until knife and foot occupied the same cramped space.
It ended with someone swearing and jumping out of the knife’s path. Insinuations of cheating were bandied about as the loser stretched his limp into a saunter and headed toward the porch. Sometimes a player preemptively bailed. “I’m out, man,” he’d laugh. “That shit’s too close.” But whether he high-fived the winner or shook his head and spat at the ground, the loser’s smile was pinched along the edges and he may as well have flinched outright.
Like horseshoes and craps, flinch was not for women or girls. Instead, we hung frozen on the sidelines, praying under our breath. Good training for lifetimes of watching from the sidelines as those we loved best attempted to dodge the sharp edges that seemed pointed their way from the start. Even my tomboy sister—who pinned boys to that same patch of lawn until they begged to be set free—could only watch the blade land closer and closer to our brothers and neighbors while trying to keep the fear from her face.
Flinch. Boys and young men sorted themselves into haphazard order and puffed out their chests while waiting for their chance with the knife. Flinch. The blade sometimes hooked the faded canvas of a sneaker or grazed flesh and drew blood—but because the battle was limited to a patch of grass on a hidden city street, a sense of defeat clung to the game before it ever began. Flinch. No matter how it turned out, that pack of Grand Avenue boys was never going to win.
Sonja Livingston is the author of four books of nonfiction, including Ghostbread, a memoir of childhood poverty, and the memoir prompt book Fifty-Two Snapshots. Honors include an AWP book prize, a NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, an Arts & Letters Prize and a VanderMey Nonfiction Prize. Sonja teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Learn more at sonjalivingston.com.
This essay first appeared in Hippocampus Magazine (September 2023).
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