The view of Jake’s house from the street hadn’t changed. Same rust bucket up on blocks. The chain that belonged to Toby, Jake’s beloved rottweiler that had been dead for years, was now a permanent part of the front lawn, which looked like it hadn’t been seeded or watered since Toby had given up the ghost. The screen door was hanging from the house like an injured limb on a drunken beggar. There were two less screws holding it in place, but somehow it managed to stay attached.
Jake wasn’t lazy. He just didn’t care. He could eat a hamburger with a pile of dog shit sitting right in front of him. Dirt and Jake got along just fine. Tommy hated visiting his brother. The stench from the mountains of garbage – some of it in bags that never managed to get tied closed – most of it in heaps around the living room, was awful. The double sinks in the kitchen were always piled high with bowls, plates, glasses and silverware. If you could find a place on the counter to set something down, it was only because Jake had moved a pot or pan to the floor. There was no room on the table for anything, let alone eating.
Tommy sighed and turned off the ignition. Had it really been four years? It seemed like only a few months since he’d last stepped foot in his brother’s house. The memory was as fresh as the cigarettes he’d picked up at the store only ten minutes earlier, it was right after Gene’s funeral. Tommy, Jake and Naomi had come back to Jake’s for a beer and to mourn their little brother. The three of them talked and laughed and drank and talked some more. Gene was the youngest, the smartest and, the siblings agreed, the best of the whole bunch.
That Gene was the first to go out of the four was heartbreaking. At 25, Gene was just beginning to build a life for himself. He’d married his high school sweetheart, Tara. They were talking about starting a family. His security business was doing well. All the planets were lining up just right for Gene. And then just like that, he was gone, killed over a dime-bag of weed at a rock concert. The punk that stabbed him wasn’t even old enough to shave (or responsible for his actions, according to the judge who sent the lucky cocksucker to a group home for two years).
The beer and the tears flowed the night of Gene’s funeral. The stories flowed too. Jake told the same story he always told when he talked about Gene. The time Gene came running into his room when he was a teenager and asked if he could borrow a prophylactic. Jake laughed at his brother’s naivety and eagerness to get laid. “Prophylactic?” Jake snorted. “You make it sound like a tool for surgery or a science project.”
Gene smiled that crooked smile he’d gotten from their late mother. “Well, King stud of the universe, what should I call it?”
“A pecker protecter.”
“Okay. Do you have a spare pecker protector?”
“No. I have a few used ones in the garbage can over there, though.” Jake laughed
“Come on. Don’t be such a prick.”
“What do you need it for, little brother?” Jake prodded.
“What do you think?”
“It’s not the ribbed kind, so turning it inside out to pleasure yourself won’t work, Genie.”
“Fuck you, asshole. It’s for a girl.”
Jake lit a cigarette. A habit that seemed to take hold after their mother’s funeral the year before. “A girl, huh.”
“In my top drawer, at the back, next to my dirty magazines.”
“They don’t come in extra tiny, Genie, so make sure you bring an elastic to hold it on your little wiener.”
“Ha. Ha. You’re a real comedian.”
There were many stories like that. Tommy, Jake and Naomi laughed and cried late into the evening. Like it always did with Jake and Tommy when booze was involved, things got heated. How exactly the argument started was lost in a haze of cigarette smoke, alcohol and time. Naomi, ever the peacemaker, tried to calm her brothers down and steer the conversation back to civilized territory. Jake wasn’t biting.
Maybe it was the anger he felt toward the world and toward God for not taking him instead of Gene. Maybe it was the booze. Whatever it was, things got bad real fast when Tommy’s right hand knocked Jake out of his chair and onto the floor. Jake came up and drove Tommy in the chin and sent him flying backwards into the counter. Tommy came back at Jake with another right hook just as Naomi stepped between the two. His fist connected with his sister’s face and sent her crumpling to the floor.
That was the end of it. The end of everything. Tommy walked out of Jake’s house, the house that once belong to their father, the house where they’d grown up, and never looked back. That was the last time he’d spoken to Jake.
Tommy and Naomi patched things up a couple of weeks later. Genie might have been the best of the lot, but Naomi had the biggest heart. She took so much shit from both Tommy and Jake over the years, but she always forgave them.
Tommy loved his sister for her easygoing nature, although it was one of the traits that made her a doormat for men, especially her ex-husband, Dean. If there was anyone in the world Tommy would have liked his fist to connect with, it was Dean. But like nearly everyone in Naomi’s life, Dean was dead. Tommy hated drugs with a passion, but he was thankfully for the eight-ball that ended Dean’s miserable life.
Tommy Stared long and hard at the house. He climbed out of his truck and walked up the driveway and stood in front of Jake’s beat-to-shit F-150. Jake was always putting the damn thing up on blocks and tinkering with it. He’d put so much money into that truck over the years, he could have bought himself a new one. But that wasn’t Jake’s M.O. He liked to fuck with things to see how they worked, and make them better. Tommy shook his head. One thing he could always say about his brother – he was handy. And to his credit, the truck, while constantly being worked on and tinkered with, never let Jake down. It was a piece of shit, but it was a reliable piece of shit.
Inside, the house was spotless. Naomi. There’s no way his sister would leave the house looking like the garbage bins out behind the Golden Dragon (home of authentic Chinese dishes) on main street. Baby sister probably started cleaning the place right after the police and coroner left the scene. If the local media came snooping around, looking in the windows for a story on a nobody who pretty much kept to himself, all they’d find is a dumpy house that was spotless.
Maybe the guy who lived there wasn’t as crazy as some folks said he was. Tommy coaxed a cigarette loose from the pack of Marlboros he was carrying. He lit it and sucked the smoulder deep into his lungs. It burned. He hadn’t touched a cancer stick in three years, but the bitter taste and tightness in his chest felt very familiar, and it felt good. Another nail in his own coffin. He held that first drag in until he almost coughed it back out. The familiar flavor of the tobacco crept over his moustache and he inhaled a bit of it through his nose. “Welcome back old friend,” he whispered.
“You talking to me.”
Tommy swung around to see Naomi standing in the doorway. “I didn’t hear you drive up.”
“I walked over.”
Silence. Neither one of them knew what to say. They’d spoken briefly on the phone two days earlier, but Tommy couldn’t remember much after, “Jake’s dead, you better come home.”
“You look good,” Naomi said.
“You cleaned the house up after…” Tommy stopped and took another long pull off his cigarette.
“The police said a team would come and clean the basement up, but I didn’t want anyone coming in here and touching Jake’s things.”
“Or seeing the way he lived.”
“I’m not ashamed of our bother, Tommy. I just didn’t want anyone touching his stuff.”
“You think I was ashamed of him?”
“Fuck no. That’s bullshit. I didn’t think it was healthy for him to sit in here day after day, watching TV and smoking, not doing anything but working on his truck and drinking coffee. Living on that paltry disability pension. I hated the fact that he was a pig, and wouldn’t clean up after himself, but I wasn’t ashamed of him. I loved him just as much as you did.”
Naomi tried to hold back the tears, but they came. And once the dam burst, there were a lot of them. Tommy walked over and pulled her close. “It’s okay.”
Naomi pulled away and wiped her eyes. “It’s not okay, Tommy. Momma. Daddy. Gene. And now Jake. We’re the only ones left.”
“We’re all going to die. It’s a part of life.” Tommy didn’t mean to sound flip, but he did.
“I know we’re all going to die, Tommy. Don’t talk to me like I’m some simple-minded little girl who doesn’t know anything about life. I know people die, but why this way? Why does everyone in our family meet a bad end?”
Tommy thought about momma. Her final days were filled with agony and despair. The cancer not only ate her from the inside out, made her look like a dried up apple core before it finally took her last breath, it destroyed her mind and made her an empty shell that didn’t know anybody around her. Tommy never told anyone, but he was happy when she died. He loved her more than anything, but he couldn’t stand to see her suffer, or what it was doing to the family. The cancer crept along so slow, her last two years felt like a dozen. Gene and Naomi were in Junior high; Tommy was in his final year of high school. Jake was a year out of school, working at a garage. He was okay then. Before the darkness took him.
When momma died, a part of daddy died with her. Franklin Keith was a hard worker. He loved his family, even if he never came right out and said it. He was a man of few words. After momma died, he had even less to say. His decline was slow and less obvious than momma’s, but everyone around him knew his light went out the day they put Marie in the ground.
After the funeral, Frank went back to work. He came home at night to his bottle of brandy and drank until he passed out on the couch. He’d get up in the morning and do it all again. He did this for five years, until Gene was finished high school. Naomi was already married. Tommy was working odd jobs. Jake was still puttin’ in time over at Landon’s Auto Repair (we can fix anything).
It was Jake who found daddy in the basement. He was hanging from the rafters. There was no note. Everyone knew why he did it. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’d had kids to support and see through school, he likely would have ended himself the day they buried Marie. The love of his children, and the fact that he always said none of his kids would go through life without at least a high school diploma, kept him going. Once Gene graduated, daddy must have felt his obligations were over. He’d done his part. Held on through the misery as long as he could; kept food on the table and the lights on. His job was over, and so, too, was his reason for living.
“You hungry?” Tommy asked.
Tommy pulled Naomi close and kissed her on the top of the head. “Come on, let me buy you dinner. We can come back tomorrow and decide what to do with Jake’s stuff.”