This short story won the University of Illinois
Graduate Student Fiction Competition in 1987
THE GREATER GIFT
Dennis Earl Fehr
Waylon Brown was in Bible School the Sunday morning he decided to kill
his brother Butchie. I'm like you, I say Bible School is a hellacious place
to decide a thing like that, but if anyone had a reason to at least think
about killing Butchie, it was Waylon. Butchie did a lot of mean, and I mean mean, stuff to Waylon. But the thing that finally made him decide to kill Butchie was the time with the headphones.
See, Waylon loved war stuff, anything to do with war. It was his hobby, I guess you could say. I always liked his sword collection (though I wouldn't have wanted it for myself). He also had some medals, and a real Nazi helmet that their dad, Jimmy Earl, took off a dead German soldier.
I do remember a coat of arms he had that he sent for once. An ad came in the mail saying the Browns was famous back in history and had a coat of arms, and if you sent them some money, they would send you the coat of arms. No one in their family paid any attention to it except for Waylon. He got all excited over it, more than he tried to let on. We could tell though from the way he kept making people read the ad to him. He sent away for it (although really the ad was sent to Jimmy Earl), and sure enough, this stupid, fake-looking coat of arms came. Only Waylon couldn't tell it was fake-looking, being blind. But like I said, he was all excited about the coat of arms and put it in with the rest of his war stuff.
Anyway, back to the headphones. Waylon had a tape about World War I, and on Side Two there was these sounds of battles—planes zooming by, machine guns going off, bombs exploding, guys going "AAAAAAHHH!" and everything. Crazy Waylon would rig up his stereo headphones like a World War I flying ace helmet, the kind Snoopy wears. In fact, sometimes Waylon would even pretend he was after the Red Baron. He wore a pair of swimming goggles for effect, even though (like I said), he was blind.
He loved that game. I remember him sitting on the old green sofa bed in their living room with his arms out like they was grabbing an airplane steering wheel, or whatever you steer airplanes with. He'd sit there and rock and jerk this way and that, wearing the helmet and those goggles. He'd have quite a time.
He had to know he looked stupid, but the thing about Waylon was that he didn't care. We tried teasing him a couple of times, but it wasn't fun because he couldn't care less. He kept on fighting the Red Baron whether we was there or not. I ended up thinking Waylon was weird, but he was the first person I ever knew who didn't care what other people thought about him. It was an odd feeling. Not that I thought about it much. At that time I was thinking quite a bit more about what I'd like to do with Amy Aberly from Bible School and Jane Loggins from regular school.
The thing about the headphone helmet was that Waylon used a small padlock to hook on the chinstrap. I was always surprised at what that Waylon could do. One time he built a model ship over a foot long. It was an old-fashioned ship, the kind with all the sails and details, and he put it together practically perfect. Including the decals. I can't imagine how you get the decals in the right places on a model ship when you're blind.
He was smart in the regular way too. He got the highest, and I mean the very highest, grades in seventh grade. He was weird, but he was one smart kid. (The weirdness was partly from being blind, I guess, but I think even more it was from how his parents babied him. But I'll get to that later.)
The World War I helmet looked pretty real. The reason that the loop connecting the chin strap to the top part of the helmet was hooked together with a padlock was because that was all Waylon could find when he made the helmet. You couldn't close the padlock because no one knew where the key was. Waylon's family was like that. They used things and never put them back. Keys, clothes, even dirty dishes. Their trailer had a smell to it.
So the helmet fit down over the headphones, and once you got the chin strap hooked, it was tight, too tight to move. In fact, Waylon usually quit playing fighter ace because the helmet got to hurting, it was so tight. And that was with the strap let out as far as it could go.
Remember I was saying about how mean Butchie could be? He tortured animals. Once he put a Silver Salute in a sick rooster's mouth and blew its head off. Actually, it took two Silver Salutes because the first one didn't quite kill it. Another time he tried to make a frog breathe fire. He squeezed the frog's mouth open, poured gasoline down it and dropped a match in. That made me so mad I wanted to kill Butchie. And the frog never even did breathe fire.
A lot of brothers beat each other up and say they hate each other, but if someone else messes with one, the other one goes wild. Not so with Waylon and Butchie. There was a calmness about the way Butchie tormented Waylon. He planned things ahead of time, which isn't how brothers usually go.
You hear those jokes about rearranging the furniture on a blind person. Well, Butchie really tried it. And he was so calm about it. The first time, he re-arranged the sofa bed, coffee table, and TV. Waylon took a wicked fall and cut his head. When Jimmy Earl got home from work and found out what happened, he punched Butchie in the eye so hard that it swelled shut for three days. So after that Butchie would move just one thing where Waylon was bound to trip over it, and he always had an excuse ready. James Earl always knew he was lying though, and his punishments was awful, like spending the night in a closet or James Earl's leather belt across his bare back over and over. Believe it or not, Butchie didn't stop. He kept doing it. It's like hurting Waylon was the only goal in Butchie's life.
Looking at it from Butchie's side, it's true that their folks favored Waylon by a mile. He never had to do a thing. James Earl and his mom, Sally, felt guilty that he was blind, and it was like they was trying to make it up to him. It made me sick sometimes. Waylon was less helpless than just about anyone I know, but he was treated like a little baby. Like I said, he never had to do a single chore. Butchie did them all—taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs. Worst of all though was shoveling the corn cobs out of the chicken coop. In the summer the manure dust was so bad that you had to wear a handkerchief over your nose and mouth, and keep blinking so that your eyes wouldn't burn up.
And Waylon got better Christmas and birthday presents too, like the sword collection. Those swords was real. Butchie might get a subscription to Boy's Life or a clock radio. I mean, come on.
So there was something to Butchie's side of it. But still, what he did with the headphones was sickening, even beyond sickening. One day their folks was at work and Waylon was playing fighter ace on the sofa bed, minding his own business, when Butchie came into the room, closed all the windows, walked over to Waylon and locked the padlock. Then he turned up the stereo full blast, pulled the knobs off, and ran outside. Waylon started screaming and people all down the street could hear it. That's how loud it was. I know I sure heard it.
Waylon couldn't get the headphones off, and he couldn't unplug the stereo, because the plug was behind the sofa bed, which was too heavy for him (one thing about Waylon, since he never had to do anything, he was about the weakest kid you ever saw). Besides, he probably couldn't think straight, because the noise was driving him crazy.
See what I mean about Butchie? It was like he put some thought into the planning of it. A bunch of us heard the screams (you wouldn't believe how loud they was), and Butchie tried to say Waylon was showing off, but we could tell. We ran into the trailer and saw Waylon smashing into some shelves with his whole body, pulling on that chin strap, and by now he was only moaning, and his face and eyes was as red as a beet and covered with wet from crying, and then he fell down. He was out like a light.
It only took us about a second to pull out the sofa bed and unplug the stereo. Someone called the Red Rock ambulance, and all the while we was thinking, Butchie done this." Trucker Waller got out his knife and cut the leather strap, and when we pulled the headphones off, there was blood underneath, coming out of both Waylon's ears. Butchie had blown Waylon's eardrums right out.
Two ambulance guys came in and taped pads over Waylon's ears and took him of to the hospital. After they left, we stood around, all sick and shocked, and I said, "Let's see what he was listening to." So we plugged the stereo back in, and the headphones hurt our ears from two feet away. You can't imagine what it was like—all the explosions and airplanes and so on. We felt so unbelievably sorry for that poor Waylon. Trucker said he wanted to up and kill Butchie, and every single one of us nodded our heads. To tell the truth, if we had heard just then that Butchie had been eaten alive by a saber-tooth tiger ten times over, we wouldn't have cared one speck.
In addition to already being blind, it turned out that Waylon was permanently and completely deaf as a turnip. He wouldn't hear an atom bomb going off a thousandth of an inch from his ear (of course it wouldn't matter, since he'd be blown to smithereens, but you get what I mean).
Butchie always claimed he didn't mean it, and maybe he didn't mean to blast out Waylon's eardrums for life, but that is what happened, So Butchie got into the biggest trouble of his life. Jimmy Earl and Sally was actually going to have him arrested and taken to court and put in jail, but Reverend Ashcraft talked them out of it. Too bad, is all I can say. Butchie ended up living on his uncle's chicken farm in Piatt County instead. Jimmy Earl even said that if he ever saw Butchie again, he’d kill him.
When Waylon got home from the hospital, he didn't go back to school. Sometimes when the bus went by the trailer park, we'd see him being led onto a small yellow bus that had only two or three other kids on it. It was a bus for a special school. We heard that Waylon was learning to hear by touching your mouth and throat, and by tapping fingers into the palm of your hand.
Mrs. Flick, our English teacher, had us read about Helen Keller to help us understand, and one day she asked for volunteers to wear a blindfold and earplugs the next day, and try to go all day that way. Everyone raised their hands, but only four smart kids got picked. (Later we was glad because they had to write papers on it.)
The next day, those four got all set up during first period and tried to go all day. Alma Jean Moriarty took hers off between third and fourth periods because she said the blindfold was giving her a rash. I loved Alma Jean with a passion until I heard that, and then I quit and switched to Jane Loggins because it was such a stupid lie. The other three was still going at lunchtime (although I saw Joseph Ricketts take his off for a couple of seconds in the restroom. He swore and said he hated the project, and I think he meant it). Sixth period, Mr. Long made the kids take them off for PE so they could play floor hockey, and they all left them off after that.
The project added a little excitement to school, which I liked, but it made everyone think about poor old Waylon and the rotten thing Butchie did.
By the end of summer we started seeing Waylon sitting on their front stoop each afternoon, reading those Braille books, and sometimes just sitting, looking at whatever was inside that head of his. We all wanted to go up to him and say, "Hey, how's it going?" but how did you do that to Waylon? We would watch him from across the street and feel so sorry for him it wasn't funny, and we'd all say how much we hated Butchie, but we never did go right up to him. We could have gone over and put a hand on his shoulder, and just stood there like that for a while, but nobody did. And it wasn't just us. Seemed like nobody in Red Rock knew what to do.
Then one day we heard that Waylon was planning to be in church that next Sunday. It was his first trip out into the community. Waylon had always kind of liked church, especially Bible School (for some reason I'll never understand, since I hate it more than just about anything), so it looked like he was about to take a shot at re-entering society.
And sure enough, in the family walked (minus Butchie) that Sunday, and they sat in the back pew. Waylon had a Braille Bible, I noticed, but that's about all I or anyone else noticed, because none of the grown-ups dared turn around and look during services (although you knew every one of them would've liked to) and if any of us kids turned and stared, we got jerked back around. Even Reverend Ashcraft didn't look up much when he gave the sermon. I mean, nobody knew how to act around poor Waylon.
After the sermon came Bible School. Waylon walked down to the basement by himself and sat in the back, and everyone gave him all the room in the world. Waylon sat there and didn't see a thing didn't hear a thing, and it must have been terrible for him. Going to church was an experiment that didn't work.
The funny thing is, just being blind had never got the best of Waylon. He could have been the first blind president the way he was going (if his health held up). but being blind and deaf—that was different. It whipped him. That's not saying a word against him either, because if just one of those things happened to me, I'll bet it would whip me then and there. I might even think about killing the person who did it to me on purpose. I don't feel good thinking like that, but who knows?
I know for a fact that it was there in Blble School that day that Waylon crossed the line. I know because later we got to be friends. He taught me how to make letters and even whole words with my fingers on the palm of his hand. He told me things I guarantee he never told anyone else until now, but I'll get to that later. We got pretty close, Waylon and me. Right now though, I'm talking about that Sunday.
None of us knew the feelings going through Waylon during that Bible School lesson. We was half listening, half not, to the teacher, like always. Only during the half not parts, instead of looking at Amy Abberly and thinking things about her, I (and everyone else) was thinking about Waylon. I remember being glad the lesson wasn't the one about the blind leading the blind, or especially the one about the truth falling on deaf ears. Not that it would've mattered to Waylon.
In Bible School it was easier to look at him than it was upstairs in regular church, so every once in a while I would turn and look (and so would everyone else), and there he was on the back bench, alone like an island. That's what he reminded me of, an island. And all this time he was deciding to kill Butchie. When Bible School was over, we got up and walked out, and Waylon felt the commotion. After we was out, he got up and walked out, and Sally and Jimmy Earl was right there, both of them bawling. Which if you know them wouldn't surprise you at all.
After that, no one saw hide nor hair of Waylon. It was like he vanished. What he really was doing was planning how to kill Butchie. Remember I said how Butchie was so calm and foresightful about tormenting Waylon? Too bad for Butchie, but Waylon had learned that lesson from him. He would sit on that green sofa bed while Jimmy Earl was at work (Sally quit her job to stay home all day with him) and just think. Nothing but think. Imagine sitting there for three or four hours, taking a lunch break for grilled cheese, say, and then going back to thinking for three or four more hours, taking a supper break for fried chicken, okra, maybe a slice of pie. And then what about after supper? Get what I mean?
So finally Waylon came up with a plan for killing his very own brother, and he put the plan in motion. That's Part Two.
Waylon took almost a year (ten months to be exact) getting ready to kill Butchie. He went through a bunch of plans, some that made Butchie suffer, some that made it quick, some where Waylon probably would get caught, and some where he probably wouldn't, some where Butchie had a good chance of getting away, and some where he had hardly any chance. He finally came up with a plan, and a slick plan at that.
It wasn't complicated. That's how smart he was. He told me later that the main thing he kept in mind was to keep the plan simple. He said he wanted to "minimize the variables." You have to be smart to say, "minimize the variables." And not just that, but Waylon was only in eighth and ninth grade when all this was going on. I'll tell you straight out, I wouldn't want him trying to kill me, even if I knew ahead of time that he was, and even with him being deaf and blind.
Anyway, Butchie was staying on his Uncle Cleaver's chicken farm, like I said, and a quarter mile or so in back of Cleaver's house was a gully he used for a dump. It smelled, but there was so much junk back there that it was a great place to play, and after a while you got used to the smell.
In sixth grade I got to spend a weekend out there with Waylon and Butchie, so I knew the place. In the dump was a couple of freezers. One had the door still on. Once I saw on TV about removing doors from refrigerators and freezers when you throw them away, so that little kids can't suffocate in them, but this freezer sat at an angle, and you could see a hole maybe six inches wide in the bottom, so no one could suffocate in it. You could climb into it and peek out the hole, but you couldn't see much.
The three of us played on that junk pile, and in the freezer, pretending we was fighting the Nazis. That's how Waylon knew about the freezer, and about letting off firecrackers in there. We would prop the door open and pretend the Nazis was in there, and our Silver Salutes was grenades. We'd light them, count to eight as fast as we could, and give them a toss. Sometimes the blast would jerk the door (one Silver Salute will take off a finger, maybe two) and the door would drop with a hard thud.
Sometimes when I watched it drop, I'd think of what I saw on TV about someone dying in there, but then I'd think about the hole in the bottom and how no one could die in there. Ha ha to that is what I say now, and not the kind of ha ha when you're happy, like opening presents, but the kind of ha ha when you get sent into the hall for shooting spitballs at Amy Aberly, and Mr. McConnell could come along any second with his paddle, but instead Chester Pritchett does, and you tell him what happened, and he says if Old Man McConnell comes along, just tell him to shut his stupid face or you'll break off his pecker and give it a good throw. Then Chester walks off with a mean grin on his face. It's the kind of ha ha you say back. Only worse.
The months went by. Butchie stayed on Cleaver's chicken farm and I doubt that he once stepped foot off it.
Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, Waylon says he wants to go visit Butchie. It's time to forgive and forget.
That shocked us all to death. But by now you know Jimmy Earl and Sally. Next thing you know, they're calling Cleaver, and then off they go.
So they met in Cleaver's living room. All I know is what Waylon told me, plus what I can figure out for myself, but Waylon was as nice as pie. He hugged Butchie, and he forgave Butchie, and he loved Butchie, and Butchie this and Butchie that, and Butchie never stopped crying the whole entire visit.
Waylon also said that maybe some day the townspeople would stop hating Butchie, and he could come home, but it would take time, and Waylon hoped it would be soon. Then Waylon said he wanted to put his fingers on Butchie's face and throat and hear Butchie say he loved Waylon, and Butchie said it, and Waylon cried and said he was happy now. And all of it was the biggest, rottenest lie you ever heard on this earth. I don't see how he carried it off, but then I don't understand how either one of them done the things they did. There's a lot about all this that I don't understand. I'm just writing it down.
So everyone started to think things was getting patched up. Every Saturday Waylon and his parents went out to see Butchie, and Butchie even learned to talk with Waylon by touch. One day Waylon said he wanted to go for a walk, just with Butchie. And then every Saturday the two of them went for a walk. Always down to the dump and back, and you know who suggested that.
Yes, Butchie said, the freezer is still there, still sitting cockeyed how it always was, and yes, he remembered the fun they had playing World War II fighting aces. Yes, he still had more than ten of the original twelve cases of Silver Salutes they had got on vacation. Waylon asked if Uncle Cleaver minded having them in the house, and Butchie said yes, he had to hide them because they was a fire hazard, and Waylon suggested that they be moved to the freezer, because it would be too bad if Uncle Cleaver's house burned down. They would be safe from the rain in the freezer with the lid shut. Butchie didn't need any more trouble, so he moved them to the freezer that very day.
Waylon and his folks kept going out there on Saturdays, and Waylon and Butchie always walked to the dump and back because Waylon Kept saying it meant a lot to him. Things was getting set up just how Waylon wanted.
The Saturday when Waylon was finally ready, he told Butchie he wanted to let off some of the firecrackers. Butchie led him across the junk to the freezer, even though he could get in trouble for it. But he was even more scared not to give Waylon his way. So they sat down by the freezer with a case of Silver Salutes, and Waylon would hold one, and Butchie would light it with the lighter that said "Washington, D.C." on it that he stole from Cleaver, and he would quick bump Waylon and Waylon would throw it. Waylon pretended he was having a ball, although, of course, he couldn't hear or see a thing.
Waylon says they let off six firecrackers. Then he said, "Get into the freezer." Just like that. He told Butchie to get into that Kelvinator coffin (that's what he named the freezer later—see what I mean about smart? To think of "Kelvinator coffin"?), and Butchie did it. Waylon deliberately didn't trick him into getting into the freezer. He had thought about it, but it was more fun just telling Butchie straight out, and having him do it. Butchie wouldn't know why Waylon wanted him in the freezer, but he wasn't about to argue.
Waylon felt the freezer rock, then he stood up, held out his hand out, and said, "Give me the lighter." Waylon says Butchie's hand was shaking when he handed it over.
He put his hand on Butchie's shoulder. "Lay down." He pressed his hand down and felt Butchie kneel.
"Not kneel. All the way down!" Butchie went all the way down.
"We're going to play a game called Dead Person," Waylon said. "You'll see in a sec. Fold your hands." Waylon's pretty sure Butchie folded his hands. Then Waylon nudged the lid. It look three, maybe four seconds to slam shut. Butchie could've jumped up, or at least laid his arm out to block it. But he didn't. His biggest plan in life was not to aggravate his brother ever again, so even though he was scared, he just laid there and watched that blue sky disappear.
Waylon had thought about making an execution speech of some sort. He had even made some up. But in the end he dropped the idea in favor of getting on with the killing straight out. He had learned how to fit seven Silver Salutes into his left hand so that the fuse ends was close. He flicked the lighter and held it to the right spot. He figures he lit at least six. As soon as he felt the heat from the burning fuses, he counted out loud to eight as fast as he could and tossed the handful through the hole in the freezer.
He rolled the hell away from the freezer, across all that junk, and there probably was some pops close together, and then Butchie got blown up with (according to Waylon's calculations) 1700 Silver Salutes. The blast not only blew out the bottom of the freezer, it blew the door off, ripping it from its hinges and sending it into the air. It landed a few yards away, wedged standing up between some junk. There it stood like a monument to the execution of Butchie Brown. What was left of the freezer was a godawful mess.
Waylon got caught, if you want to call it that. He just sat there while Jimmy Earl, Sally, and Cleaver came running, and he shrugged and shook his head when they asked what happened. The plan had worked exactly like he wanted. He still just shrugs and shakes his head whenever anyone asks anything. I think his heart was more in the killing than the getting away. What would there be for Waylon to get away from? As far as prisons are concerned, he's in three already—his eyes, his ears, and his heart. He doesn't seem to worry one speck about any other kind.