There was no finesse in his ketchup dispensement. A single furious squeeze sent splatters splashing over his fries and far beyond the rim of his plate. The table became a condiment crime scene, and though this mighty squeeze of paste through a crusted spout-cap was accompanied by a flatulent squelch, there were no chuckles.
“Seriously? At least look at me when I’m talking.”
My little brother did not look at me. He instead slammed the emptied Heinz bottle onto the table, his other hand white-knuckle clenched to his chair. He swallowed the final bite of his reheated Big Mac and gnawed his lower lip. “Dude. I said sick. You’re deaf.” His voice mounted.
“No you didn’t, dude.” I sprinkled on some cheeky inflection for good measure, then clanged my fork to my plate. Austin Powers droned on the TV, the scene with the Scotsman. Our favorite character. Our favorite scene. Neither of us were watching it anymore. “I can hear you when you say things under your breath.”
“I didn’t say it!” His voice went up ten ticks. The chairlegs scraped back across our linoleum. A lengthy black scuff was left in the wake. Another mark to join the memory of our previous skirmish. He slam-dunked the Heinz bottle on the tile, and I was grateful it wasn’t my phone this time. “I didn’t say it. I said sick. Like how I’m sick of you.”
I suddenly found myself standing and had no recollection of doing so. Adrenaline spilled through the plunges of my gut. Our quotidian skirmish, proceeding as usual.
“Just admit it. Have some balls and cop to it.” I sidestepped the table and pinned my finger into his chest, to a spot just beneath the Misfits text on his shirt. I’d asked him to change it this morning. Of course he didn’t, and the stains glared back at me. Taunting me. Reminding me, we were down to the last of our Tide, and I’d need figure detergent into next week’s budget. “C’mon. Just be a man and admit it.”
He countered my fingerpin with a palm to my sternum. “Dude, get out of my face.” He said it a second time and glanced down at the bottle, but his gaze shot right back to me. A look of heated spikes. “You’re pissing me off, dude.”
“What are you, twelve?” I laughed, mostly to fire him up, but didn’t know why. Wasn’t I supposed to be the arbiter here? And, was an angst-whispered insult really worth the tsunami?
Perhaps not. But he needed a lesson in respect. Principle Alford made that very clear to me after his last suspension. “You’re almost an adult. You need to act like one.”
I saw him curl his hands into fists. His cheeks flushed pink. I set my feet.
Yet, at some point in this tenuous moment, a glint from the shelf by the kitchen window caught my eye. I felt a jab at the back of my skull.
Either way it forced me to pause. To think. To remember the way he might have handled things. I bit my tongue and took a step back.
My brother’s cheeks were crimson now. “What? Fuck you, dude.” He stepped forward.
“Yes. Apples. Applesauce. Apple cobbler.” I rattled the words off quickly. Time was short. I sucked a second breath and kept my volley going. “Apples-to-apples, apple pie with apple butter on the side.”
“You’re being an asshole!”
I started singing. My voice took on a Sinatra-esque intonation. “Apples, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.” I followed it up with a tippy-toe twirl, and looked like an absolute fool, but it didn’t matter.
It was working. On I rambled.
“Johnny Appleseed picking apples off of apple trees with an apple sneeze!”
My brother swiped his hand across his upper lip as if to wipe away snot. A line of prideful hairs there. It was easy to tell he was trying to hide a smile, and failing. “Dude. You freak. Just stop.” His voice quavered. The tough-guy act was fettering away.
At that, I fell silent. I made my face very serious and my body quite limber, dipped into dancer’s plié, and pranced past him. My leap carried me over the scuffs and into the kitchen, where I rapped my knuckles on the Tupperware stack by the sink, each still speckled with Top Ramen fragments, but I ignored this fact and kept rapping, tappity-tapping my way to the stove, then the microwave, and on to the fruit bowl where I plucked up a green granny smith.
The photo glistered again from its place on the shelf. Me. My brother. Dad in his hospital gown and all of us smiling. When I turned back to look at my brother, his flush had gone and his thumbs were hooked through his belt loops.
“Now I’ll commence my apple-finale.” I smirked and hunched and, witchlike, raised the apple aloft to cackle my last apple rhyme: “An apple a day keeps the anger at bay, I say. Nay?”
My brother cracked into pieces. “Okay! Jeez!” The roll of his eyes was audible. “Okay. You win. Apple.” He unhooked his thumbs and bent to retrieve the Heinz bottle. He inspected it. Stared. Motionless. Tumblers turned. I feared we might relapse.
But apples prevailed.
He turned to face me. His brow was furrowed. He brandished the bottle and pushed out his belly and in a poor Scottish accent, said: “Y’know. The bottle. It did sound a little bit wet, right at the end, didn’t it?”
Together we laughed.