The Payback Present

“Payback may not be nice. It may not be pretty. But it certainly goes a long way toward evening the score. If I let Bubba get away with what he did, my life would be a misery from then on out.”

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My brother is the lowest scum on the earth, no wait, lower than low. He’s a knuckle-dragging, thumb-sucking, nail-biting slimeball so subterranean worms don’t even dare to wiggle their way so far down!

I hate the little creep.

“Mom!” I paused, waiting for her to respond to my anguished cry. Nothing. Whatever happened to maternal instincts?

Mom-m-m-m!” There, that ought to rouse her from whatever TV show was sucking her brains out.

The rapid click, click, click of heels approached. The backlit shape of my mother stood in the doorway. Both arms clutched the frame. Her legs ended in high heels and spread in a wide stance, as though bracing herself for the horrific sight in my room. Her silky dress still swirled and shifted from her race to the “Room of Doom,” as she called it.

Perhaps I should explain my mother first. Mom dresses, and I mean really dresses, fancy all the time. She read somewhere that how we present ourselves to the world not only reflects how we feel about ourselves but also somehow miraculously transforms how we are. We become what we want to be because our “ids” are idiots, and easily fooled.

I only understand my mom about half the time.

Plus, Mom’s always trying to lose 20 pounds and follows every dumb diet that rolls down the road. “Dress for success” was the latest in her bag of tricks for transforming her waistline.

“Jeffy, stop yelling. I’m not deaf, though that would have certain advantages in this household.” She slowly stepped forward, cautious. Mom has taken to staying out of my room, but occasionally snaps an annoyed “Clean up that pigsty” from the hallway.

“Look at what Bubba did!” I gestured toward the underwear drawer and raised outraged eyes to my, I assumed, horrified audience. This was my best impersonation of a television lawyer presenting evidence of an abominable crime to the shocked jury.

She cautiously approached the chest of drawers, her upper body leaning away from its gruesome contents. My outstretched finger pointed accusingly at the evidence.

My underwear drawer had become a bloody battlefield, but instead of red blood and spilled guts, chocolate pudding was splattered all over the place! The tighty-whities still aligned where they were supposed to be, on the left side of the drawer. The dark blues still lay folded where they should be, on the right side. The stupid prints, you know, bears and trucks and cute creatures and such, that underwear I stuffed in the back, piled under T-shirts too dingy and small to ever see the underside of my school clothes. I didn’t care about those. My tighty-whities and my big boy blues … that was different.

Maybe my room was a “disaster zone of epic proportions” (according to the folks), but I had put thought into the underwear drawer’s layout. And my brother had violated it with chocolate pudding!

“Oh, my …” Mom’s fingers flew to her mouth and hovered over her lips. Probably trying to keep in the harsh words my brother’s evil crime warranted.

“Bubba … Bubba … Michael Christopher! You march in here immediately, little boy!

Mom’s voice could carry farther than the other side of the solar system, if she really wanted to get our attention.

My little brother, Bubba, finally dragged himself to my room. I knew he was there, cowering behind the doorway, because I could hear his nasal breathing, sno-o-o-rt, sno-o-o-rt. First his left eye peeked around the doorframe, then his snotty nose with grubby finger stuffed up a nostril. Maybe digging for a quick last meal before we threw him into the dungeon for the rest of his life.

“Bubba …” Mom reached over and gently removed the finger from his nose.” Don’t do that, dear.” She pulled him into the room and placed him in front of the evidence of his foul deed. His eyes shifted to the left, to the right, then glared at me. One corner of his lips slipped up into a smile.

A grin … the little toad actually dared to smirk at me!

Visions of Bubba standing tied up before a crumbling brick wall popped into my head. Across the way, a firing squad of men lined up abreast, dressed in military blue, with bandoliers draped across their chests. Slowly, very slowly, the men raised their rifles and aimed at Bubba. The captain (who looked a lot like me) stood off to the side. His eyes squinted cruel and merciless (but just and fair). The captain raised his arm and gave the command, ready, aim

“Would you care to explain yourself, Michael Christopher?” Mom’s toes were tapping. High heels can really punctuate a sentence.

Bubba studied the floor, rearranged his smirking face, and raised tragic and sorrowful eyes to our mother.

“I’m thorry.”

My brother always lisps when he wants to get out of trouble. Probably hoping it raises some protective parental impulse in our folks, so they don’t throw him out with the trash or feed him to the wolves. Which he deserves.

“Now, sweetie, being sorry isn’t enough. You have to really mean it. Apologize to your brother, please.”

Bubba turned back to me, the smirk gone, wiped out by the understanding that he was in big, big trouble. “I’m thorry, Jeffy.”

“Okay, sweetie, now go get me a bag and soap and some towels. You’re going to help Mommy clean up this mess.”

That’s it? The little moron says he’s sorry, helps clean up the repulsive mess, and then he’s off the hook?

“But, Mom …” I said, stepping forward, ready to plead my case before a jury that had obviously been tampered with, paid and purchased by the opposing side.

“Jeffy, your brother is sorry, and what’s done is done. Let’s all be forgiving, shall we? It’s almost Christmas. No grudges at Christmas. Remember the story …”

Here my mother’s voice faded into the same worn-out tale she retold every Christmas about forgiveness and redemption. I wanted to redeem my little brother, all right, to the Chinese, on the opposite side of the planet. I’ve heard their legal system is more brutal than ours, anyway.

I needed to plead my cause to a higher court, to someone who would recognize the unjustness.

* * *

“Your mother is right, son”

Dad banged a nail into his latest woodworking project, another bookcase. We had bookcases coming out of our ears. Mom kept hauling books home, hoping to turn us into irresistible scholarship bait for Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. Dad’s is more pragmatic and says the state university is a fine school, and almost affordable, if the whole family goes into hock until the next millennium.

“But, Dad, this isn’t fair! It’s just … wrong.”

“Son, I defer to your mother, in this instance. When you grow up, you’ll understand. We men get to make the big decisions, like whether to launch a manned mission to Mars, or reinvent the wheel. Your mother gets to make the smaller decisions, like where we live and what we do. It’s better that way.”

Dad reached behind a rusty saw blade and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He struck a match on the grinder, lit a disgusting cancer stick, inhaled deeply, and blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling. His eyes narrowed as he searched the wooden beams overhead, concerned Mom could see him stealing a smoke through the sub-flooring.

“Don’t tell your mother.”

My father quit smoking a year ago. Supposedly. He still sneaks an occasional cigarette, and thinks my mom doesn’t know. He explains it away with, “You have to understand the stress, Jeffy. Quarterly reports are coming; the stockholders will be rattling their sabers.” I’ve been leaving pamphlets around the house, booklets extolling the virtues of a smoke-free lifestyle and the hazards of secondhand smoke on developing lungs.

So, it came to this. My creep of a little brother desecrated my underwear drawer and his crime called for payback. Payback may not be nice. It may not be pretty. But it certainly goes a long way toward evening the score. If I let Bubba get away with what he did, my life would be a misery from then on out. He would never give up. Never. Everything I owned, every toy I treasured, my little brother would consider it his own personal right to pick through and pillage.

This was war.

* * *

“Gee, Jeffy, that really stinks.” Spank bounced the basketball and threw it at the hoop. The ball hit the rim and blasted toward the kitchen window, but fortunately missed by one lucky inch.

Oops.” Spank looked sheepish, then scrambled for the runaway ball and tossed it to Isaac.

Isaac bounced the ball to a point below the hoop, jumped, dunked the ball, and shot a fist upward. “Yes! I’m king of the world! Whoop, whoop, whoop!” Both of his skinny arms flailed about, pumping the air and punching invisible rivals.

“You can’t stand for this. You gotta do something,” Spank said.

“No kidding,” I said. “Do you have any bright ideas? Every plan I come up with is illegal or will get me grounded until I’m 40.”

Spank grabbed the ball from Isaac and bounced it, concentrating, his brow creased with the effort. “What are you giving the little creep for Christmas?”

“All Bubba can talk about is Gag, the Armored Transformer, which is supposed to change into 10 weapons of mass destruction and eight cars and trucks so powerful they’re guaranteed to eat up the world’s remaining gas reserves. Pop says the thing sounds like our minivan. I spent a whole month’s allowance to buy it for the annoying toad.”

“I got an idea,” said Spank. “Go get Gag.”

Spank’s plan was brilliant, genius, and diabolically devious. His twisted mind is at times useful for something besides avoiding homework.

I placed Gag, the Armored Transformer on an old faded lawn chair. We took turns spitting on Gag from varying distances. Isaac and his turbo-charged tongue won with a whopping flyer from 12 feet. Spank, not realizing the lack of substance a gas possesses, actually burped into Gag’s face. I held up my hand when he started to unzip his pants.

“Stop, no farts,” I said.

A pout creased Spank’s chubby cheeks. “Might lend a certain odor to the occasion?”

I crossed my arms. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Yeah, Spank,” said Isaac, “let’s keep it classy.”

We all started to giggle, bending double and poking each other, laughing over our magnificent plan. But then, the masterstroke. Spank ran home and brought back a special ingredient, itching powder from his brother’s magic kit. We wrapped Bubba’s excellent gift, and put it under the Christmas tree, hidden behind the almost certain shirts and sweaters my aunts always got us.

This was going to be a Christmas to remember.

* * *

Two days later, all the presents were wrapped and scattered under the tree, most of them draped with the same boring red-and-green wrapping we’d used for Bubba’s gift. Only one more day to payback!

Christmas Eve finally arrived. My folks overindulged in holiday cheer, us kids overindulged in candy, and then all escaped to bed to wait out the countdown.

You better believe I’m up early Christmas Day, shaking presents while the others slept. One, addressed to me, had the heft and size of the hockey skates I had been pleading for. Another present hid in the back, its covering ripped and crunched by careless and inept fingers. My name was scrawled on a handmade card. “To Jeffy, the best brother ever!”

Hoo boy.

I carefully undid the wrapping. Inside lay a story box, what my teacher called a diorama. It appeared to be some sort of battlefield. A little figure raised a sword over its plastic head, with the notation, “Jeffy, saving me!” Another figure held an even larger sword, with the note, “Me, saving my big brother!” The center of the diorama had two figures battling dragons and monsters and something that might have been Scooby Doo, with the notation, “Jeffy and Bubba, save the whole world!”

Gulp.

I had made a horrible mistake! Now I felt like scum, the lowest of the low. A single-celled organism so vile it would be kicked out of the petri dish by all the other single-celled organisms; a dirty dog so mangy even the fleas would pack their little flea duffle bags and jump ship; so slimy and contemptible that cockroaches would get up and scurry away if I sat down at their itty-bitty bug table.

I felt truly awful. But what to do?

The sound of morning rumbles and rustlings flowed from the bedrooms. Yawns and sighs fractured the night’s silence.

Desperate, I dug through the presents. Boxes flew left and right, tree ornaments rocked precariously on the bouncing branches. Ah-h-h, ha! Gotcha.

I grabbed Bubba’s supercharged present, dashed to the bathroom, and locked the door. After undoing the gift, I washed Gag, the Armored Transformer with soap and water, then buffed it with the disinfectant wipes Mom is always nagging us to use on the john, saying our aim is worse than a drunken Davy Crockett trying to sight in a warped blunderbuss. I tossed the old wrapping, jerry-rigged new wrapping, gave my hands a token wash, and raced to the tree, two steps ahead of my brother and parents! The present had barely flipped from my fingers to land under the tree, when giggling and good mornings erupted behind me.

It was the usual Christmas Day routine. Toys and discarded wrappings lay about, giving the living room a post-apocalyptic ambience. Mom flipped through the diet book I had gotten her, Melting the Fat Away with Mangos, Broccoli, and Bok Choy. Dad fooled with his new drill, chewing and smacking on the nicotine gum Mom had given him. My pamphlets with pictures of cancer-ravaged cadaver lungs lay on the table beside him. I tottered around the room in new hockey skates and Bubba made vroo-oo-mm, vroo-oo-mm noises while dive-bombing the cat with Gag.

“Say, Jeffy,” said Dad, “what did you wrap your brother’s present with? Looked like toilet paper and dental floss.”

I stopped, unsteady, but still upright. “Huh? Naw, just some old stuff I found in the attic.” I avoided Dad’s eyes.

My fingers stole up to my face and started to scratch. The subtle itch grew as the fingers probed. Soon, my hands were all over my face and crawling up both forearms as the heat spread and a vengeful itch ate at my skin.

Mom stood and stepped toward me, bending to examine my face. “Why, Jeffy, I do believe you have an allergic reaction to something. Your face is covered with hives.”

And so I spent that memorable Christmas soaking in a warm vinegar bath, being slathered with calamine lotion, and thinking about the day’s weird collision of events. There must be some lesson to be learned, or meaning to be mined.

But I sure don’t know what it is.

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