The harassment began as soon as church let out. No sooner had the preacher summed up his sermon on “Love Thy Neighbor, Or Else” than Thomas J smote Herbertís arm like it was Gamorra itself. At ten years old, Herbert’s body was as yet unaccustomed to pain. The slightest twinge made his muscles freeze in place, and a punch from Thomas J felt like Christ’s own ordeal. As he went down on one knee, wailing, he looked skyward and wondered why God hath forsaken him in his time of suffering.
It being Sunday, Herbert was forced to leave a message with St. Peter.
“How díya like that, faggot?” Thomas J crowed.
“Watch your mouth, Thomas J,” Momma said, and Daddy followed her warning with a vengeful stare. Never mind that Herbert was in mortal agony, or that he hadn’t done anything to warrant the attack.
“Now get in the car, both of you,” Daddy said, “and I donít wanna hear a peep until we get home.”
This was the sound of a chicken wiggle, a particularly disgusting form of torture Thomas J often administered when he had run out of ideas. Making his kid brother’s life hell was an important concern for him, and chicken wiggles kept Herbert firmly in distress until Thomas J could pull a new form of suffering from the DeSadian manifesto he called a brain. A chicken wiggle involved wetting his finger with saliva (slorp), stinging Herbert’s tender ears with a series of thumps (thump), and then shoving his slimy finger into Herbert’s ear canal and wiggling it back and forth. It was a heinous crime, and would be tantamount to the death penalty should anyone ever die as a result.
“How díya like that, faggot?”
Herbert had been contentedly munching on a blueberry muffin when the assault occurred and continued to do so. A younger brother had two choices when being picked on by a sibling. He could either scream bloody murder in hopes of annoying his parents so much they would punish both his older brother and him for horsing around, or he could stoically continue his life as though suffering were part of existence. He chose the Buddhist approach. Daddy was driving, and Momma was checking her makeup in the passenger side mirror. Either could see what was going on, and if they wanted to punish Thomas J they had ample visual evidence.
“You must be a girl if you like havin’ things shoved into ya! Haw!”
Herbert began to hum a Negro spiritual.
As the car pulled into the driveway, Thomas J slapped the half-eaten muffin from Herbert’s hand. It was the snake-quickest thing Herbert had ever seen. One moment he was enjoying wholesome blueberry goodness, and the next Thomas J was whipping it from his grasp and sending it careening off the seat and into the floorboard. Herbert blinked once before Thomas J shot back to his side of the backseat, where he began pointing and laughing.
“Haw! You stupid idiot!” he roared. “You can’t hold on to nothin’!”
Herbert was still shocked and stared at where the muffin lay in the floorboard when Daddy turned his head around like a wrathful owl. “What the hell is goin’ on back there?”
“The stupid faggot dropped his muffin.”
Momma: “Thomas J!”
“He slapped it out of my hand,” Herbert protested.
“Well get the damned thing off the floor before ants get to it,” Daddy roared. “That’s what you get for eating in front of your brother. He ain’t got nothing for himself.”
Doesn’t have anything, Herbert wanted to say, but all correcting Daddy’s grammar would do was get him in more trouble. He obeyed and picked up every crumb. Thomas J grinned crookedly at his handiwork.
Momma and Daddy were in the house having Sunday Sex as they often did after church. Out of respect Herbert sat on the front porch and watched the birds. Thomas J was there out of a lack of having anything better to do. He was watching Momma and Daddy as best he could between the blinds.
“He’s playin’ with her tits, Herbie,” he whispered. “Git it, Daddy, git it.”
“Why don’t you come away from the window, Thomas J? That’s disgusting.”
“‘Cause when it comes time for me ta screw a girl I wanna know what I’m doin’. I don’t wanna be like you. You ain’t gonna never know what to do with your pecker except pee.”
Daddy began to grunt like an animal, and the bedpost knocked against the windowpane. Thomas J started whispering “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” as though he were participating. Herbert watched a killdeer bathe itself in the concrete birdbath beneath their old pine tree and tried to tune out Sunday Sex, but to no avail. Abruptly the knocking stopped. Dad groaned, Momma sighed, and Thomas J made a noise that reminded Herbert of someone being choked.
“Uh, okay,” Thomas J said. “Well, uh, yeah. Uh, uh-huh. That — that was pretty informative. Uh, yeah.”
The killdeer finished bathing and was hopping along the ground. Herbert watched it venture into the neighbor’s yard, wishing he could go there, too. To stay.
After Momma and Daddy had finished Sunday Sex and had cleaned up, Daddy got a beer and went to watch the game while Momma fixed a late lunch. Herbert sat at the kitchen table with his pen and paper, jotting down ideas categorized not on worth but on financial feasibility. It was his opinion that an idea was only good if one had the money to put it to use. Thus he had put his theoretical specs for a faster-than-light propulsion drive at the bottom of the stack and a recipe for homemade napalm on top.
Two parts laundry detergent to one part gasoline. After thorough testing I’ve discovered that certain properties within the gasoline interact with the detergent to form a sort of gelatinous substance much like the napalm used on our enemies during the Vietnam Conflict. If ignited it would work in a way quite similar to the genuine article. Using a special chemical I developed with the chemistry set I got last Christmas, it is no longer necessary to let the mixture sit for several days before it is ready for use.
The paper jerked under his hand, and the pen went sliding across the page, leaving an ugly black streak. Herbert glared at the culprit. Thomas J guffawed and sprayed bits of half-eaten banana everywhere.
“Haw [smeck]! How díya like that, faggot?”
“Don’t you have anything better to do than sitting around here bugging me?” Herbert asked.
Thomas J stuck a finger up his nose and liberated the ghastliest booger in Creation. He wiped it on Herbert’s sleeve.
Without another word Herbert went upstairs to change.
Upon entering his room Herbert found his poster of Albert Einstein had been given a penis and testicles courtesy of Marks- a-Lot and Thomas J. There were marbles ill-concealed beneath the blankets of his bed. His slippers were filled with shaving cream. Herbert sighed, wondering where Thomas J found the time, and what would happen if his brother ever turned his energy toward more constructive pursuits. Like snipe hunting, for instance.
After changing into his Yoda t-shirt Herbert was met at the kitchen doorway with vilest chicken wiggle in recorded history.
Herbert wasn’t sure, but there was at least a fifty-fifty chance the very finger that was shoved into his ear was the same one that had wiped a booger on his sleeve. The thought of it made him jerk away, and though he was ten and scrawny and Thomas J was thirteen and built like a moose, Herbert shoved his brother with all his might.
“Imbecile!” he shouted, but his hands bounced harmlessly off Thomas J’s burgeoning muscles.
Satan’s own grin spread across Thomas J’s face. “Yer dead, faggot,” he growled, and dropped Herbert with a punch to the gut. A shockwave ripped through the boy, the world turned inside out, and the next thing Herbert knew he lay face down on the floor. He felt himself being flipped over, and Thomas J perched on Herbert’s chest like a brawny vulture.
“Well, now,” Thomas J hissed. “You think you’re tough, Herbie? You can just consider your ass kicked from here on. You think I’m playin’? Just watch this.”
Herbert watched wide-eyed and impotent as the frozen turkeys Thomas J called hands moved within inches of his face. What would he do? What would Thomas J do that meant touching his face, he thought? Herbert cursed his ten year-old body. Why couldn’t he fight back right? And where were Momma and Daddy? Why couldn’t they hear, couldn’t see, what was going on? Thomas J’s thumbs brushed Herbert’s eyelids…
“Boys! Lunch!” Momma shouted. Thomas J hesitated. There came the belated, metallic screech and thump as Daddy moved his La-Z-Boy upright and stood. Thomas J slipped off Herbert and smacked him in the head once to let him know this wasn’t over. Herbert knew it wasn’t.
“Herbie, what the hell are you doing on the floor?” Daddy didn’t wait for a reply. “I said get off the floor!”
Herbert said nothing, but instead pulled himself up and looked for Thomas J. His brother was already at the table eating the cold cuts sandwiches Momma had prepared. His face was carefully averted from Daddy and Herbert in the hall, but Herbert could see the smirk plastered around the big bites of sandwich. It was further reminder that this was not over, not by a long shot.
There is a moment of absolute mental clarity. The Greeks called it an epiphany, and they probably still call it that, only nobody bothers to study them anymore. In an epiphany a person’s mind is so clear that the answers to some, most, or all of their problems become remarkably clear. It is a time when all the neurons and myriad chemical reactions come together in a sort of biological alignment. An eclipse, if you will, of the muddle-headed cloud under which most of us live our lives. In that space, which rarely lasts more than a second, man achieves his ultimate potential for thought. He would know the secret of life if he had presence of mind to ponder it, though few seldom have such ability and can only ponder those problems close at hand.
For Herbert everything that was his family life became clear. His parents, though they might love him, did not like him. They did not understand him or how he could choose to read science books when he could be outside playing football. But they did love and understand Thomas J. He was their kind of people. He talked about people instead of ideas. He played sports, read books only when trapped like a rat in a trap, and was aggressive toward anything beyond his understanding. Like any good person should be, or so his parents said. He had a strong fear of God, too. The worst beating Herbert had ever received came when he admitted to his parents that he wasn’t sure there was a God.
Yes, Thomas J was their favorite by a country mile. In their eyes he could do no real wrong. That was why he could get away with picking on Herbert. Their rationale seemed to be that since Herbert was not like the rest of the family he brought such things on himself. Thomas J could cuss like a sailor or steal money like Herbert had seen him do more than once, and all they would do is scold him. Were Herbert to do the same thing, he would be beaten and ostracized, and not even in that order. Thomas J, on the other hand, could get away with anything. Murder.
The thought hit Herbert like another gut punch from Thomas J. Cold water ran down his spine and turned his bowels to ice. Thomas J could get away with murder. Oh sure, the cops might not like it too much, but Momma and Daddy wouldn’t touch a hair on his head. In fact, Thomas J had been about to do something very bad to Herbert in the hall, something to do with his head.
Had he planned to kill me then, Herbert thought? The thought would have been as unlikely as frogs doing Shakespeare to another kid his age, but Herbert had seen the smile on Thomas J’s face. He was only ten and lacked experience to know those eyes were devoid of humanity, but he knew enough to realize there was something terribly, terribly wrong with his brother.
Thomas J was planning to kill him. Herbert knew that now. He’d probably been planning it since Herbert was in the cradle, but he’d never had an excuse until now. Herbert had always been passive, his only actions against Thomas J being the occasional protest when his brother would hurt him. That shove had been his first real act of defiance, and it had set off the black in Thomas J. He couldn’t allow this to happen. Preservation instincts kicked in, and Herbert, still standing in the hallway, began to mentally scramble for a solution. He had to get his
brother before his brother got him.
That’s when his thoughts fell on the sheaf of notes lying on the table, the ones Thomas J had caused him to ruin. Herbert gave a small smile, perhaps the first real smile in his life. He had his answer.
He ate lunch with his same small vigor. His bites were passive, slow, methodical. Thomas J smacked his lips and chewed with his mouth open. He talked around half-chewed hunks of bread, and sprayed crumbs when he spoke. Just as always. It was a typical Sunday lunch, down to everyone completely ignoring Herbert and discussing topics that tended to make them red ’round the neck. Mostly, though, Momma and Daddy commented on Thomas J’s antics. “Have another muffin, son,” Daddy said. “Look at that boy eat, June. Look! Heís gonna be big.” His eyes lit up. “A football player.”
Daddy’s comment and the Sermon on the Mount vied for importance. It being Texas there was no greater profession than that of football player. It was like the ideal of the priesthood merged with the socially stratified positions of doctor, lawyer, and movie star all rolled into one, though much more exciting than any of the four on a Friday night. Thomas J’s position in the family as well became clear, bright, and shining. He was his parents’ sole hope for greatness. He was their chance for immortality. Thomas J’s future heroics would deify them in the community.
“Here, Thomas J,” Momma said, “let me get you another sandwich.” I’d like another sandwich, Herbert thought.
“Growing boy’s gotta eat,” Daddy supplied.
Herbert supposed he would just wither and shrink. He finished his meal and began to plan.
He gathered what he needed and took it upstairs to his room. Momma would be indisposed for the rest of the day with housework while Daddy would most likely fall asleep in front of the TV. That left the house to Herbert and Thomas J, and the place just wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
He rummaged in the garage until he found the device he was looking for, the pressure pump and tin reservoir Herbert had assembled for Momma to spray pesticides when she worked in her garden. It was supposed to have been a gift, but for some reason he’d never given it to her. Now he knew that something greater than himself had stopped him from delivering it, and that the pump’s true purpose was waiting for just this moment to reveal itself. He attached a piece of hose to it, and it became a weapon. With duct tape and a flat, plastic toy he fashioned a brace at the hose’s opening where taped down his father’s favorite Zippo, the one with the Rebel Flag. He filled the tin’s reservoir with his own mixture of homemade napalm complete with his own special quickening agent, mixed until ready and closed the lid. The rest of the materials he needed he found in his toy box.
Like clockwork, or better yet God-blessed Providence, Thomas J threw open the bedroom door and sauntered in. Gone was the ugly black glare from before, and in its place was the vacant grin he wore when he was about to get to some serious meanness.
“Hey, faggot, what’re you building? Looks like some new semen pump. You gonna stick that hose up your butt and get your fill of gayness every day now instead of just on Wednesdays?”
Herbert ignored him.
“Good,” he said, “I’m glad I didn’t have to go and find you.”
Thomas J looked puzzled. “Whatcha mean, faggot?”
“Thomas J, do you know what a prodigy is?”
“That’s one of them stupid computers, ain’t it? Only geeks and faggots play with computers.”
Herbert had heard Daddy say the same thing more than once. “No Thomas J, a prodigy is someone who’s very good at things. Better, say, than he should be at his age.”
“What’re you talkin’ about, Herbie? You’re talkin’ all funny. What, you think you’re better than me?” Thomas J came back with the black stare and inched closer with his hands in fists.
“Oh, I’m better than you, all right,” Herbert replied, testing the tension of a spring one last time. “I’m a prodigy, you know. I’m smarter than everyone in this family put together. I can read words you can’t even spell, and understand them. I know Shakespeare, and I can build things scientists can. I can do anything I want to if I put my mind to it. That’s why I’m building this, because I can and because I hate you, Thomas J.”
His brother rocked back on his heels. “What’chu sayin’?”
“I hate you.” There, he said it again. Now, pause to let it sink in. “I’ve always stood by and let you pick on me, do whatever. You’ve humiliated me more times than I can count. All I wanted in this family was to be me to be left alone to do what I chose, but you couldn’t let me. You are the one Daddy and Momma love, and you could do whatever you wanted to me so long as they didn’t have to hear about it. And you did, didn’t you, Thomas J? I’ve never known peace here. And now you’ve threatened my life as well.” He put tape over the label on the control switch and wrote over it with a Marks-A-Lot.
“What’re you talkin’ about? I never threatened you. I don’t threaten. I do! I do things, I mean, and if I wanted to kill you I would. I ought to, you beiní a faggot and all.”
“I’m not a faggot. Do you even know what that is?”
The pause that followed was too long. “Shut up, you little punk,” Thomas J threatened with his bunched up fists. “You’re the stupid one. You’ve always been stupid.”
“Think whatever you need to get by,” Herbert replied and pumped thirty pounds of pressure into the reservoir.
“What are you gonna do with that?”
“Kill you with it.”
“Bullshit,” Thomas J sneered. “You ain’t got the guts, you little sissy. You cry to Momma every time you stub your toe. You ain’t killin’ shit.”
“Whatever you say, Thomas J, just stand right there.” He sighted his brother in on the crosshairs taken from one of his toy guns. “Just hold that pose, and weíll see.” He flicked the Zippo, and it lit on the first try. Now that’s craftsmanship.
“You know,” Thomas J went on hatefully, “you really are stupid. You think this scares me? You think you can scare me with stuff that scares you? You’re just a little rat, and when this thing doesn’t work I’m gonna beat the shit out of you.”
The crosshairs were sighted, the hose was pointed right at him. The Zippo was burning, and there was plenty of pressure in the tank. Herbert picked up his firing mechanism and checked his watch.
“Almost time,” Herbert said. “I think you’ll like this. Oh, and if it doesn’t work you better kill me because if you don’t I’ll keep trying until I find a way to kill you.” He waited until the clock struck 3 p.m., and then, in his best action movie super cop voice, he said, “How do you like this…faggot?”
He pushed the button clearly marked “Fire.”
L. Joseph Shosty lives in Texas
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