Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany, and grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and teaches at his local community college. His work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, MiCrow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Used Furniture Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Literary Bohemian, Boston Literary Magazine and various other magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing, please visit: matthewzanonimuller.com.
Our friend’s dad moved houses. He brought us along once and we watched as he split a house in half and then lifted it up onto a large flatbed truck. He let us ride along as we moved through the streets, cars pulling to the side of the road as the house rolled by like a big moving ship. The truck struggled up a large hill and the roof of the house broke branches from the trees. The men began shouting and pointing at a mailbox that was set too far in the road and our friend’s dad jumped to the ground, put his arms around the mailbox and began wrestling it until the post snapped and he fell backwards with the mailbox, laughing. He jumped back on to the truck and we asked him to flex his muscles but he only grinned and shook his head and then showed us the scar where a nail had gone through his hand. We were in awe.
That night my brother asked him to arm-wrestle and my friend’s father let him come just centimeters to the tabletop before throwing his skinny little arm back in the other direction hard against the table and we all laughed. Every time we saw him as the years passed my brother would ask him to arm wrestle and it was always the same. Then we moved away and didn’t see him for years.
We planned a trip back and called our friend to let him know we were coming. My brother had also begun to work on houses and his arms had grown muscle and they were dark from the sun and the hairs on them shone golden. We walked back into my friend’s kitchen and his father offered us beer. He was grinning as ever but now his hair had started turning grey and we sat out on the porch with him and looked at the yard as the years began to unravel through the memories we shot back and forth at each other. My brother began kidding him about their arm wrestling matches and he said he would be ready the next day. My friend’s father laughed and that night, walking us to the door, he told my brother he would also be ready. My brother turned and said, “You better train hard old man.”
The next night we came in and he gave us beers, grinning again. Then he led us into the dining room and with great ceremony handed me Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He had marked a passage and then sat down at the table with my brother, smiling battle through his eyes. “Start Reading.”
I read the passage about the old man arm wrestling and holding it for hours and hours, a triumph of endurance. Once I had consecrated the match they smiled at each other and lifted their arms, both with swagger. They joined hands and I dropped a pencil on the table and the match was on. My friend’s father was smiling but when my brother began to push his smile faded and he started to look at my brother almost angrily. They pushed and strained against each other and my brother’s face turned red but he held on. The dining room table was slick and shiny and outside the sky began to fade into darker purples as the sun set.
My friend’s mother came in and began smirking half-approvingly at her husband while he strained, his temples pulsing and his grey hair thin and matted. He began to bend my brother’s arm down against the table as he always had, and the grin of confidence slowly returned; the years of moving houses, of banging walls down, of moving through the world with his strong shoulders, bending it to his will, his body out ahead of him, breaking down the barriers he set his mind against. But my brother was straining and young, his body straight as an arrow, his dark arms pulsing and his face flushed. He no longer believed in defeat, he saw his life spanning out ahead of him as a series of obstacles to be conquered, his eyes turning mountains to fields, leveling them with the strength of his youth.
My brother did not give, did not falter, his shaking hand inches from the table. He slowly bent my friend’s father’s arm back to its upright position and I saw the color draining from the old man’s face, turning it ashen. He was looking at my brother like someone who is about to be robbed, and my brother stared back mercilessly before he threw his arm to the table, a smack of knuckles, shutting off his youth in the finely wrought line of the old man’s arm on the table, sending him like a ship into old age.
My brother grinned, he didn’t feel bad at all. “Not this time,” he said, “sorry old man.” We all laughed.
“Watch it with that,” he said, grinning. “I thought I had you there but I guess I didn’t see it coming.”
“Getting older,” we all joked.
“Yeah yeah, not that old yet.” He was taking it in stride, his face still grinning and trying to joke it away, but there was a shock registering behind his façade. I looked down at my brother, still sitting at the table, his face flushed and his big brown arms resting on the shiny oak, and I knew it would come to him too, some time in the future, our arms thinning out and our rooms sapping of strength.