As cousin Jasper guided us along a treacherously narrow and slippery shale path in the Niagara Gorge, I considered stepping on his inseam. My sister Jane and Jasper's wife Betsey, her friend since forever, had been treading carefully behind me, their eyes on the path, and would never have noticed. Or, if they had, they'd think it was an accident, just another gomer in the gorge taking a spill off the hill.
Yep, I could picture it, Jasper splayed on the hard limestone boulders along the perimeter of the lower rapids. If it didn't kill him outright, it would fuck him up bad, which might be better.
Then let him bitch about Obamacare from the confines of a hospital bed, jabbed with tubes and strapped by tape and clipped by those sensor things on his fingertips. He might even grow a soul as he pondered a long life with dead legs and a shrunk, useless, cauterized cock.
Yeah, that Jasper could get to me all right. He didn't give a crap if the con-man criminal, treasonous Trump tried to kick millions off their health insurance, causing untold pain and suffering. "It's government coercion," he said.
Coercion my ass. He cared not a fuck, even though he knew what happened to Mom when Dad lost his job and health insurance. Knew it and said it was a shame. A shame. But it affected him not at all, him sponging off his wife and cradled like a baby in the soft safety of her employer's medical insurance. Half-wit hypocrite.
But I didn't, you see. That's the point. Didn't accidentally-on-purpose give him the double dose of got-it-coming karma he so richly deserved, deserved like a mother-fucker. Didn't dash to the rocks his bullshit-brimming, fake-news-infested, FOX-addled skull.
No, I showed mercy that day. Took the high road. In the end, did nothing worse than tell the tale of how he'd wiped his ass with poison ivy in the gorge. A small revenge. It was to be a classic Jasper story told just outside his hearing at every family reunion worth the name. And, I thought there might even be some truth to it.
* * *
Anyway, I decided to test the story out at the May reunion at my brother Lukes's place. A good reunion with all the essentials: cousins, nephews, in-laws, uncles, brothers, sisters, kiddies, grand-kiddies, and a couple of my brother's greedy, slobbery but basically good-natured yellow labs. I think there was even a skittish cat skulking in the foliage. Just about everybody except Mom and Dad.
In the backyard, Luke's wife put out fancy crackers, artichoke dip, and soft cheeses on folding card tables gussied up with plastic tablecloths decorated with little orange footballs. Luke himself dragged out a couple of giant Igloo coolers packed with beer, including lots of Genesee Cream for yours truly.
Like all good reunions, it started with awkward hugs followed by syrupy, sticky nostalgia and then, as the brews kicked in, the half-true stories leavened with petty resentments and moldy, unsettled scores. Not long after everyone got their buzz on, Jane told that vintage story about how, when they were in high school, Luke ran over her poodle puppy as he was backing his Camaro out of the driveway while getting groped by his prom date Lucy Wishuta, who became hitherto known as Lucille Balls in our family lore. It's been over 20 years, but just the mention of Lucy still causes guffaws when we're all together.
My sister Jane once told that story in front of Luke's second wife, Teresa, who bore it silently. But later, when Jane wasn't around, timid-seeming Teresa, framed in those wispy blond locks, told a bunch of us how Aunt Jane lost their little boy Willy at the Buffalo Zoo and how she, Teresa, got the call from the zoo people -- Willy knew his home phone number by heart, of course -- before Aunt Jane, distracted by the sight of a nursing gorilla, even knew wee Willy was missing.
"Take that you bitch, Jane," I imagine Teresa thinking. "Good you never had kids of your own. Keep your dirty, damned puppy stories to yourself!"
So, it was at that reunion where this thing happened. I was telling my second cousin Ven about how Jasper, who fancies himself an outdoorsman, stomped into the brush, did his business, and came back all self-satisfied looking, like he'd just killed a rhino with his bare hands rather than wiped his own ass with unknown gorge leaves. And how on the day after, the Great White Hunter was walking around as bow-legged as a rickets-riddled bulldog.
"Poison ivy," I leaned in and whispered, miming wiping my ass. "Now that's learning botany the hard way, poor bastard." Ven laughed till his face turned orange.
Not long after, I found Jasper and Dennis in the kitchen drinking, Jasper with one of those awful St. Pauli Girls and Dennis, who used to be my best buddy before hitting the wagon, with one of those dishwatery O'Douls. We three were shooting the shit about nothing in particular when, out of the blue, Jasper says he might start looking for work now that the country was "on the right track."
Dennis jumped in fast, knowing that would set me off , and asked about what kind of job Jasper wanted.
"Not sure," he said. "Something managerial. That's my background, you know."
Oh, sure, we knew all right. Knew how Jasper once moved up from pest exterminator to pest exterminator supervisor for a couple of years way back in George W's first term. Yeah, real executive material, bossing high school dropouts so short on job skills that they're happy to buzz around yards like giant mosquitoes, doling out death all day with rubbery nozzles attached to cylinders of grade-A poison.
That was back before Jasper got what the family called a nervous disorder and he became a stay-at-home dad, leaving his wife Betsey to feed the family on her nurse's wages. The scuttlebutt was that the marital road had gotten especially rocky since they had to start paying college tuition for their brainy eldest.
It pissed me off. Now that the maniac Trump was sailing the ship of state onto the rocks, Jasper was suddenly going to get cocky enough to go all bread-winner on us?
"No offense, but you best act fast before the Obama recovery comes to a screeching halt," I said, tapping him soft on his shoulder like his dog just died.
Jasper, of course, took offense. His blue eyes bulged, his thin lips pursed, and his forehead rose up against his thinning scalp like a tiny riled bear.
"Like hell," he said in his flutey voice, "you see what's happening with the Dow Jones? Setting new records everyday! That's all Trump's doing."
"Sure," I said, "just like back in 2008."
I could see Dennis rolling his eyes at me but I didn't really give a shit. If you couldn't tussle over politics at a family reunion, when could you?
Jasper was about to respond in kind when Ven stumbled in.
"What's up cuz-in-law?" he said, reaching toward Dennis, who after a quick hesitation, grabbed the proffered mitt of the towering, shaggy Ven. Dennis, always scrubbed and groomed as a prize poodle these days, usually shied away from hard-drinking Ven at the reunions.
At some point in the conversation, Ven looked to Jasper, saying, "Saw Jane and your little lady cheek to jowl and heart to heart sitting down by the brook out back. Awful cute together."
"They've been friends a long time, Ven," Dennis said a little too loudly, as if he was trying to force his way through the dense fog of Ven's high.
"Yep, that's what I hear," said Ven, grinning his broad, bleached smile.
His words just hung there a while till Jasper finally said, "Fuck you, Ven."
"You're not my type, Jasper," Ven said, gently elbowing him in the ribs. "Course, you might not be Betsey's type, neither, right? Nah, just joshing. Just kidding around, brother!"
Ven raised his green Molsen's bottle to us as he backed away. "And you, gentlemen, be careful what you wipe your ass with down in the gorge," he said, winking right at me.
After he left, Dennis and Jasper gave me the hairy eyeball.
"What?" I asked.
* * *
A six-pack or so later, I went out to the back patio to sit with Luke, Teresa, and Dennis, who were yapping about having seen Jim Kelly playing a round at a celebrity tournament up at the club.
"Jesus!" I said.
Luke glanced up at me but just kept yammering away. Dennis didn't even look my way. He was avoiding me. Me, his old wingman back in the day.
But drunk though I was, I was not to be ignored. Pulling up one of those plastic Adirondack chairs Luke had hauled out of that moldy junkyard of a garage of his, I was saying, "Can't believe we're still talking about ole Mr. Hurry-Up-and-Lose-Four-Count'em- Four-Fucking-Superbowls-in-a-Row."
Just as I leaned back, the phony Adirondack started cracking. Teresa screamed. Luke reached over and, digging his stumpy mechanic's fingers into my armpit, grabbed me by the bicep so I didn't go ass over teakettle onto the cold brick.
"Dude," he said, "guess that chair's gone rotten. Hang on a minute."
As much shit as I give my brother Luke, he's a standup guy. Asshole though I can be, he still played the good host and went to fetch me a solid wooden chair from the kitchen. I was so touched that I hugged his fireplug, gas-stinking self right to my chest, telling him how good a guy he was even if he was the runt of the family.
"Jesus bro," he said, pushing me away, "you better slow down. You're already a good two and half sheets to the wind."
"Here's to the next half a sheet," I said, lifting my Genny Cream up in a salute.
Dennis shook his head but I felt too good to care. Fuck him if couldn't take a joke.
So, we got to talking again about the latest Jim Kelly sighting and how they say his cancer is gone and what a good guy he actually is and how life is so damned short it makes you want to weep. I know we were all thinking about how Mom and then Dad left us.
Dennis took off, maybe thinking I was chasing him around the party. Said he had an early tee-time in the morning. That hurt. I missed the old days when me and Dennis hammered down the Gennys all night long, telling each other the tippy top tallest of tales. Back when we made fun of the lame game of golf.
* * *
Just past dusk, I was chilling under the Western New York starry sky. It was starting to get pretty cold and me without a jacket, but my girl Genny was enough to keep me warm. I noticed Luke and Teresa huddled together talking low, and I wondered if it was about me. But no, they were looking in through the dining room window at Jasper waving his arms, arguing with Betsey about something. Maybe money, or our oh-so-sad-and-lonely sister Jane.
Whatever it was about, though, Betsey walked away as if she couldn't take anymore of her idiot husband. Which I totally understood, the MAGA moron. Except I also felt a little sorry for him, left there standing all sad sack like a thinning snowman in the spring.
Luke got up, saying he was going to get another beer, but I knew he was going to find Jane to see how she was doing. Despite being a wild girl back in the day, Jane had always been Mom's favorite. She hadn't fared too good since Mom died of the big C and Dad not long after croaked from carbon monoxide poisoning in that big, antique Buick he loved. Fucking Dad.
Meanwhile, Teresa walked off into the dark to find their goofy lab Bruce, who'd gotten out of the gate that some drunk probably left unlatched.
Which meant I was there alone when Jasper came outside, slamming the screen door behind him. When he saw it was just me sitting there in the low light like a lush at closing time, he almost turned around. But he didn't. I don't think he knew where else to go with what looked like a freshly cracked Pauli Girl in hand.
He didn't want to pull up one of the chairs right next to me, so instead he headed for the plastic Adirondack. Lord, I was torn. I oh-so-wanted the Trump-humping cretin to fall straight through the shitty, cracked plastic and bonk his lame brain on the hard red brick. But then there was something else, too. Pity, maybe, or a generosity of spirit borrowed from Luke. Or maybe just the strong, sharp desire to show him I knew better.
"Don't sit there," I said as he was about to drop his dad-jeaned ass down.
He hesitated a split second before saying, "Fuck you." I guess he thought I didn't want him sitting near me, that I was claiming the lamp-lit, lonely patio and cold, bright stars for my very own.
Whatever he thought, the whole back of the chair split and splintered as he sat, giving way and sending him in a somersault, his spindly legs flipping backward like they were part of a sprung trap.
Instead of trying to save his beer like any normal person, he kind of tossed it up in the air. And despite the fact I was fully into my third sheet, I instinctively snatched it right out of the air, with my left hand no less. Sure, it was all foamy and spilling over the sides, but I nonetheless felt a surge of immense pride cracking through my desolate heart.
Luke was just coming out of the house, carrying a warm Buffalo Bills jacket no doubt for his drunken derelict of a brother, and shouted a warning. Too late. Jasper was already down and stuck, waving his legs around like a dying roach.
"Jesus, you could give the guy a hand," Luke said, running over to see if Jasper was okay and to help him to his feet.
"Hey," I said, laughing. "I saved his Pauli Girl. A guy can't do everything."
Jesus, that was a good line. A good time. I knew right then what a great story it was going to make at the next reunion.