“That ain’t showin’ respect. That’s just showin’ you don’t give a good God damn.” Greg turned and spat an impressively large wad of chewing tobacco all the way off the front porch onto the ill-kempt and scraggly lawn beyond. It was a kind of tic that Greg had, as though something of Sunday School had rubbed off on him after all; some teeny niggle of guilt dribbled through his nervous system when he said a curse word with the word “God” in it. If he happened to be chewing tobacco, which was most of his awake hours, it caused him to spew his chew. He frowned. He hated losing such a fresh wad of Stoker. Papa’s old hound dog heard the splat and ran over to investigate. One good whiff and the Bassett (named Ole’ Bassie) sneezed and turned away. Sometimes Papa remembered to feed him and that was good. But he wasn’t above eating garbage and anything he could catch. This however was too foul even for a semi-starving dog.
Greg’s older brother Ron and he couldn’t seem to agree on much of anything these days except how much they hated God damned snowflakes, as they called them. The two of them revisited this particular argument about whether it was okay to let their dad drive into town every few weeks. Understand, it wasn’t as though they scheduled the argument. No, it wasn’t that. Neither brother paid much attention to clocks or calendars. But as though scheduled by a mindless office software package, every two weeks, Papa would end up demonstrating some new level of dementia that re-ignited the argument. It was as regular (and as useful) as the biweekly committee meeting.
Ron pursed his lips in a perfect, though unconscious, imitation of the most small-hearted and sanctimonious church choir member in the Farmington Baptist Church. Ron shook his head disapprovingly as Greg pulled out his pouch of chaw and bit off another piece. Ron looked skyward as though repeating a small, silent prayer. “You know what happens to people that chew they’s tobacco like that there? Mouth cancer. Lips. Gums. Tongue. Whatever. You’re going to die like a dog, man. Keep it up and you might go before Papa even.”
“Better’n dyin’ of the H, I and V like you might do. I got me a wife and that’s it. I’m tellin’ you, Ron, sneaking off with every skirt…”
Ron began to wag his head back and forth as vigorously as Ole’ Bassie did whenever he emerged from “Lake Woe.” “Lake Woe” is how Aunt Emily had dubbed the swamp that lay like a forgotten promise between the family house and US 250. The name was meant as a dig. For a few years, the entire family had listened to “Lake Wobegon” on the radio every week. According to Garrison Keillor, all the children in Lake Wobegon were above average. “Well,” Aunt Emily had said with a nod, “there ain’t none of you kids that’s above average. All you been is woe. We’ll call it Lake Woe. You git it? Named after you two.”
Whenever his older brother Ron wagged his head like that, Greg thought of two things. First, he was every time amazed that he could move his head that fast. Greg was afraid he’d smash his brains against his skull if he tried that crap. After all, he though, don’t they get concussions and crap from fights and soccer and football? Must be the same with his head shaking.
The second thing that snapped into Greg’s mind was this. He recalled Aunt Emily’s naming ceremony at Thanksgiving Dinner. Greg had initially thought it was wonderful to have something as fun as the swamp named after him and his brother. Ron though, being older, and more knowledgeable about how things worked in the world, knew right away that it was a put-down, an insult. She was having “fun” at their expense. Ron explained all this to Greg right after dinner. But Greg had stubbornly refused to believe his older brother. Greg had just figured Ron was trying to be a “smarty pants” and spoil the moment for him.
Ron said, “I’ll tell you what, you cud-chewin’ cow. I’ll outlive you, I’ll betcha’ right now!”
Greg was one of those folks who is easily triggered by every little one of those everyday annoyances that civilization gifts upon us. Of course, some folks were pretty adept at avoiding Greg’s “hot buttons” but there were so many, that even the cautionary ones would screw up on occasion and say something that Greg took as demeaning or terrifying.
There was that Christmas dinner when Aunt Millie had not partaken of the canned New England Clam Chowder.
She led with: “The health benefits of being vegetarian” — button pushed. In fact, he was half way there just from hearing the phrase: “The health benefits.” The other thing about the way Greg’s brain worked was that once he heard a triggering word or phrase, he stopped listening. What Greg had never heard was the rest of Aunt Millie’s comment: “The health benefits of being vegetarian are nothing compared with the taste of a good fresh steak or fried chicken or best of all, roast turkey. I’ll have some of those. Butcha’ know, I’m allergic to shellfish. Even a tiny bit & I break out in hives….”
But never mind. We’ll stop that narrative right there because the contents don’t matter. What matters is that Greg never heard any of it. If you’d ask him, he’d tell you that Aunt Millie is a friggin’ vegetarian.
While there were those folks who tried to tip-toe around Greg’s hot buttons, Ron was not one of those people. No. He delighted in upsetting his brother. To Ron, it was just a game. Ron hardly even faked being upset most of the time. On rare occasions, he would feign hurt or rage or fear or love or whatever it took to get Greg’s goat. And, the thing about Greg’s hot buttons, which Ron knew full well, was that pushing the button always caused the same reaction. He could turn his brother into his … puppet. That made Ron feel as though he had some power in this world after all. He had some standing. He was somebody. Maybe he couldn’t control everything but he certainly could control his brother.
Greg’s brain also had an interesting kind of “three strikes and you’re out!” rule. Perhaps he had picked it up from baseball or a questionable theory about criminality. In any case, if Greg got upset three times in one day, each reaction was a little more extreme. He didn’t back off. Oh, no. To Greg, it meant, three strikes and the monster comes out. Understand, Greg didn’t realize he had such a rule. Ron understood it, but it just made it more fun. He could not only make his puppet brother dance; he could make him dance at different intensities as well.
Greg ground his teeth. “So how we know who wins the bet, smarty pants?! Hah?! Didn’t think of that, did you?”
Ron smiled placidly. “Sure. No problem. Give me the money now. If you die first, I’ll keep it. If I die first … well, you’re my only heir. Well, almost. I did give a little to Audrey.” Ron tried — and failed — to keep a straight face as Greg began his final meltdown.
“Audrey! Audrey! Are you kidding me? Whaddya’ think my wife’s gonna say about that! Why did Ron leave money to your old girlfriend? What’s going on? Are you still seeing her? I’ll friggin’ kill you!”
“That’s what would happen, you God-Damned” — well, that’s what did it right there. Ron miscounted. Greg was already beyond the boiling point when he spat out a perfectly virgin wad of chaw. It was his favorite brand too: Stokers.
Of course, we can only speculate what might have happened, had guns not been readily available and already loaded. As it was, the police pretty quickly chalked up the murder suicide to a family feud. It happens. They shrugged it off as just another one. Tragic. But — within normal bounds. The worst thing about the crime was how everyone seemed to have forgotten about Papa. Perhaps they unconsciously thought he was gone anyway. No-one looked for him. No-one seems to have noticed he was gone for weeks.
Since these two boys were Papa’s only offspring, in a way, the police were right. It really was a murder/suicide.
The boys had agreed on one thing about Papa while they had still been living. They had put almost all their assents into a three-way checking account.
Papa didn’t live much longer.
But Fiji is beautiful. And, you can be sure Papa made the most of it. He really had a blast.