Killing the Worm
by Ryan Hubble
Paps, my great-grandpa, gave me the survival knife he’d carried as a pilot when I was five. He was ninety-one. I suppose he knew a little bit more than I did about what was to come.
Dad was an honest and good man. Grandpa was anything but honest or good. Mom said Grandpa was a drunk and a fiend. Dad said he didn’t know any better. Paps—who, too, was honest and good—said he was disappointed.
So there was a bad generation between two good ones. I wondered if it was a pattern, if there was some kind of universal moral balance being kept in check by my family. If so, I was fated to be like Grandpa. But as a kid, I never thought to care.
Dad taught me to ride a bike by running backward in front of me. I was too focused on pedaling and kept crashing into mailboxes.
“Concentrate on me,” he said. “Head up, eyes forward. Don’t think about pedaling. Just try and catch me.”
Every time I fell, he made me walk the bike back to our driveway and start over.
Grandma always told me how much I resembled Grandpa. “You’re an exact copy of how I remember him,” she said. They’d known one another since the fifth grade. “I might as well have the younger him right in front of me all over again.”
“Don’t you dare listen to her,” Mom said as she made me strip to my underwear just inside the door from our garage. “You look nothing like that man. If anything, you look like my dad.”
We had just returned from visiting my grandparents. They were chain-smokers and never bothered to open a window. Mom threw all of my smoke-drenched clothes into the washer and ordered me to go shower.
“Trick is to turn the reel sideways when you cast and keep your thumb just lightly on the spool. Let it feed out smooth. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a bird’s nest.”
Grandpa turned the reel in my hand and placed my thumb on top of the line.
“Like that. Just like that. Now, throw ‘er out there.”
I tripped the bail and casted as hard as I could. The little topwater plug pulled the line out fast and smooth. But then it snagged. The line whipped back, and the plug landed a few yards away with a heavy plop. Tangled loops arced out of the spool like solar flares.
“It’s all right.” He laughed. “We’ll just strip this one clean and re-spool it.”
Grandpa handed me a fresh reel and went to work untangling the other one.
I looked at him.
“Well, go ahead. Give ‘er another try.”
He smiled through the cigarette smoke.
Dad had this long scar on his back. It started on the edge of his left shoulder blade and struck down all the way to his right hip. I first noticed it when he took me swimming at the river one Saturday. He saw me staring at it.
“Don’t ever cry in front of your grandpa,” he said.
The two of us went fishing almost every day for three straight summers. Grandpa would show up early, his little green jon boat hooked up behind his rusting-out white Ford. I always knew when he turned down the street because his muffler had a hole in it and you could hear its loud puttering half a mile away. We’d go out to the lake and fish until noon. And then I’d spend the afternoon flipping through channels on the old wooden box television in my grandparents’ living room while Grandpa was passed out in the recliner, a half-empty can of beer in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other.
Mom didn’t like me hanging out with him so much. Neither did Dad. But they wouldn’t let me stay home by myself, and it was cheaper than hiring a baby-sitter. I didn’t mind. After a while, Grandpa was letting me drive the truck down the gravel road back to the highway while he drank his first beer of the day.
I carried the survival knife everywhere I could. Mom wouldn’t let me take it to church or school. But if I was at home or fishing with Grandpa, I had it looped on my belt. The sheath was shiny but scratched brown leather. A small pouch sewn on the outside held a sharpening stone. Above that was the insignia for the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the words “Triple Nickel” stamped below it. The knife had a six-inch blade with a serrated top edge that would cut bone like hot butter, a leather-wrapped handle, and a screw-on pommel. Inside the handle were a bag of waterproof matches, a chunk of flint, and a single .45 caliber round. Paps had been in his fifties during Vietnam, a full-bird colonel about to retire. When I asked about the bullet, he said it was a last resort and left it at that.
Dad picked me up from Grandpa’s one night, and on our way home a car swerved off of a side-street and cut in front of us.
“Fucking asshole,” I said. I was ten.
Dad took me home and stuck a whole bar of my soap in my mouth. Said if he ever heard Grandpa’s voice come out of my mouth again he’d sew my lips shut.
Grandpa gave me my first beer, when I was eleven. It was the day after my yellow Lab, Boomer, who I’d had my entire life, died. He hadn’t been able to walk or control his bowels or eat and shook like he was scared all of the time. I’d laid next to him on his bed all day petting him and telling him it was going to be all right, until Dad scooped him up and carried him to his truck.
Grandpa picked me up to go fishing the next morning. I didn’t want to go, but he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to his truck. We didn’t catch a damn thing. When we got to his house, he took me out onto the back porch.
“See that bush out there,” he said. “The one with the big blue flowers on it. That’s where my childhood dog is buried.”
He shoved a beer into my hand.
“Time for you to grow up.”
The beer was warm and sour. My hand was gripping the handle of the knife so hard it was going numb. I wanted to cry but didn’t. Grandpa looked at me with a thumb tucked behind his belt, as if he were getting ready to take it off.
After ninety-seven years, Paps’s heart failed him. He died in the office Dad had converted into a bedroom for him. He’d been living with us, then. Grandpa had kicked him out of his own house. At least, that’s how Dad put it. All Paps said was that he couldn’t stand his own son and didn’t care about the house anymore.
Grandpa wasn’t at the funeral. Grandma came to the visitation and said Grandpa was too broken-up and couldn’t handle his own father’s death.
Dad told her to get the fuck out. I didn’t see Grandpa for over a year.
Dad and I started fishing and hunting together more. I enjoyed it because he didn’t make me drink warm beer and I didn’t have to endure the constant, acrid stream of smoke filling up the cab of the truck. Life began to feel clean. A layer of filth I had never noticed before was scrubbed away. Like the cigarette stench in my hair as a kid I would only ever smell after Mom made me shower.
The next time I saw Grandpa he was sitting on his front porch in handcuffs. A cop was standing over him, asking questions and writing in a notebook. Besides Paps’s funeral, that’s the only other time I can remember Dad losing his temper. He walked up to Grandpa and leaned in close.
“Touch her again, and I’ll kill you.”
Grandpa laughed in his face.
many times have we had this conversation? You won’t do a damn thing, boy.”
Dad broke his nose.
After we got Dad calmed down and Mom talked the cop out of arresting him too, we went inside. Grandma was at the kitchen table. Another cop was standing across from her. He was asking her questions, but she wasn’t saying anything. She just sat there staring at something far away, the smoke from her cigarette curling up in front of her. There was a swollen red mark on her left cheek that was fading to a deep blue.
We found out later the neighbors had been the ones to call the cops after they heard the screaming. Grandma refused to press charges. The cops let Grandpa go.
Grandpa pulled up next to me on my walk home from school, a few days later. Said he wanted to talk. I didn’t have my knife on me and refused to get into the truck.
“Look, I’m trying,” he said. “It was a mistake. You can forgive an old man, can’t you? Let’s go fishing this weekend.”
I looked him square in the face and told him to go to hell.
He braked hard and got out of the truck.
But Dad and I ended up going fishing with Grandpa once that summer. He picked us up in the morning and we spent the whole day out on the lake. Grandpa taught me how to drive the boat, how to tie both the Palomar and Trilene knots, and what types and colors of lures to use depending on water clarity and the time of day.
When we got home, I told Dad that I thought maybe Grandpa was changing. But he just laughed and said not to expect much.
Grandpa did get better, though. Even took Grandma on a few Alaskan cruises. On my fifteenth birthday, they came to the house and looked the happiest I had ever seen them. Grandpa shook my hand and said he was proud of the man I was becoming. He gave me an antique Abu Garcia reel he had spent months rebuilding. I was still hopeful. Grandma took a picture of the two us together, me holding the reel, and said again how much we looked alike.
I saw Mom shake her head and go inside.
Paps had taken a single shot of whiskey every day. Said it killed the worm. I didn’t understand that. But he lived a long life, so I guess it’s worth something. I never really saw Dad drink. A beer or two after work, maybe. Grandpa, though, was always drinking. From the time we left the lake in the morning until I can only assume right before he fell asleep in his chair at night, he had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Ever since Paps’s funeral, Grandpa and I had grown apart. The first night I ever got drunk, though, I thought about him. We got drunk in a friend’s basement on rotgut whiskey. We went outside and someone handed me a cigarette. A glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Had it not been for Grandpa, I might not have cared. But those were the motifs of a man whose life was suppose to be the antithesis of my own.
I hated how much I enjoyed both.
Grandpa’s brother drank himself to death. After he left the cemetery, Grandpa ran a red light and almost killed some young girl on her way home from work. She was in the hospital for months. He blew three times the legal limit. But the police screwed up the breathalyzer test, the city prosecutor failed to file the correct paperwork, and Grandpa’s lawyer used all of that as leverage to get him off on probation. Dad and I brought him home from jail and asked if he was all right, if he needed anything from us. Grandpa grabbed a beer from the fridge and told us to go to hell.
One night, Dad took Mom out on a special date. He had planned out this whole picnic near a lake we often fished. It wasn’t their anniversary. He just said Mom deserved it and that he loved her. They took a tent and said they wouldn’t be back until the next day. He was always doing things like that for her. He adored Mom.
I invited a few friends over. We got high in the garage and sat out on the back deck drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. That was the night I met Emily.
Grandpa had a problem with women. Dad always told me they’d moved so often when he’d been a kid because Grandpa kept getting better offers from different dealerships. He was a car salesman and was good at convincing people what was in front of them wasn’t a piece of shit. Guess that’s the one thing he and Dad had in common because I believed it was true until Mom told me a darker version.
Emily came over to the house for Dad’s birthday dinner. We had been dating almost a year. She walked out onto the back deck right past Grandpa.
He slapped her on the ass and said, “Well, you’re a good looking piece of tail, aren’t you?”
I slugged him. But he didn’t go down. He just laughed and then hit me so hard the next thing I remember was sitting down, Emily holding an ice pack on my eye.
Mom told me later that night Grandpa had been fired from all of those jobs for sexual harassment. He would take secretaries out to his car on lunch breaks, or corner them in his office as they were leaving. And that my grandparents had been swingers in the seventies. She said after Dad came home from Virginia Beach one weekend on leave from the navy and found an orgy going on in his childhood home, Grandpa bending the next door neighbor over the banister, he’d demanded a paternity test. Guess he couldn’t believe he’d come from something as vile as that.
We used to get drunk before our school’s basketball games. My friend’s parents didn’t care if we drank in their basement. But every time we’d go over there, his mom would ask me about Grandpa and Grandma. They’d been her neighbors when she was a kid. It was a weekly reminder of two people I was trying to forget. So I would end up getting more drunk than I had planned, or drinking even when I didn’t want to. I thought drinking might dilute the similarities in our blood. I’d later figure out all it did was make us more chemically comparable.
The Friday after Dad’s birthday dinner, I hated Grandpa more than I ever had before and drank enough to prove it. I don’t remember getting to the game. Only short clips of what happened, as if I were in a dark room and the lights were turned on and off at sporadic intervals. I swung at a guy I saw talking to Emily. A few friends were able to haul me out before the cops could get to me. We spent the rest of the night driving backroads getting high, doubling back often just in case the cops had tried to follow us from the game. We laughed at our own paranoia. But I still swear there was someone behind us the entire night.
I cheated on Emily with my best friend’s girlfriend, on graduation night. We were all drunk at this big bonfire my friend held on his grandpa’s farm. I wandered out into the woods to take a piss. She came up behind me and stopped my hand before I could secure my belt. Then she dropped to her knees and asked if Emily gave good head. The truth was Emily and I didn’t have sex that often. But there was something real and honest about it. And when we did it was like being hurled out into the cosmos and for a brief moment understanding what it all meant.
But I couldn’t concentrate on anything in that moment other than trying not to bust so fast.
Afterwards, she wiped her chin and laughed and skipped away like a little nymph back to the fire. I leaned against a tree and chain-smoked until my head was so light it was numb and there was nothing more to think about. When Emily found me, I told her I had thrown up and was just getting my bearings. She took me in her arms and put my head on her chest, rocking me back and forth and telling me it was all right. I told her I loved her. She kissed my cheek and said she loved me too.
I spent the next two months trying to make up for what I had done without ever confessing to it. I was more in love with Emily than I had ever been before. And I always looked for subtle clues from my friend that he had found out. But there was nothing. I’d see him and Emily talking and laughing when we all got together, and in those moments I’d grip the spot on my belt where I’d kept Paps’s knife.
Grandpa and Grandma had their forty-fifth wedding anniversary at the union lodge, right before I left for college. I refused to go. I still hated Grandpa for all he’d done when I wasn’t alive because it was somehow affecting me in ways I couldn’t control. Mom said that was something Grandpa would do: blame other people for your own problems. So I went, just to prove her wrong. I stole a fifth of bourbon from the bar and got drunk behind the lodge with one of my cousins.
Something about the whole night upset the hell out of me. Especially when I saw Grandpa and Grandma on the dance floor rocking back and forth to Dean Martin’s “Sway.” I remembered everything I had learned about my Grandpa. But Grandma was happy, and he seemed to be too. They were obviously still in love. But that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to end up like them, blind to the past. Not giving a damn. As if none of it mattered.
I called Emily and had her come pick me up from the party. She drove us to this park on the top of the bluffs. It was a beautiful sunset, the purple swelling up in the clouds as the golds and pinks swirled and peaked, the light flooding the river bottoms in soft waves. I kissed Emily and then told her everything. That I still wanted to be with her. That I would make up for it. That I was sorry.
She cried. Told me to get out. I tried to reason with her, to rationalize my behavior. But I stopped talking when I felt myself almost tell her about Grandpa and how none of it was my fault. She told me again to get the fuck out of her car. I reached for the door.
“Wait,” she said.
As I turned around, her hand landed flat and sharp on my cheek.
I got out. She drove away. Never saw or heard from her again. I walked the seven miles home, knowing I was on my own in this fight.
In a psychology class my freshman year of college, we talked about the influence one’s surroundings can have on their development. In biology, we talked about how traits, both active and dormant, can be passed down from one generation to the next. It all seemed like a giant crap shoot to me. I was the only male grandchild on Dad’s side of the family. It came down to me to carry on the family name. But after realizing the potential for tragedy that lay in our genes, it just seemed easier not to have kids. To do the world a favor and quit rolling the dice while it wasn’t that far behind.
I started drinking more in college. But it wasn’t going-out-to-frat-parties-and-getting-drunk drinking. Often, I was alone in my apartment with a fifth of whiskey. Told myself I was killing the worm. I had picked a school far from home.
On the quiet nights, I could hear the puttering of that rusting-out Ford as it turned down our street. I missed Emily like hell and cried like a fucking baby.
Things got better, though. I met Lydia. She told me that if I didn’t quit my self-effacing bullshit I would never see her again. So I stopped drinking altogether, threw away the pack of cigarettes I kept in my desk, and tried to forget everything. The decent memories of Grandpa were so entangled with the bad ones that I decided none of it was worth saving. I pulled the survival knife from a box of old stuff I had from home and started wearing it around my apartment. Lydia said I looked ridiculous. I told her she had no idea what I was up against.
Grandpa died my senior year of college. It’d been over three years since I’d spoken to him. But I went to his funeral, if for nothing more than to make sure the old man was really gone. He had ignored all of the doctor’s warnings and drank and smoked himself to death. By then, he was just a thin, fragile body who looked nothing like the robust, barrel-chested, cigarette-smoking, beer-swigging cowboy of a man who’d let me drive his truck down the gravel road from the lake. But he’d gone out his way. Done things the way he wanted in life and never bent to anyone. I think in a fucked-up way that’s the only thing I ever admired about him.
Lydia was the only one I ever told about Grandpa. What he’d been like. What he’d done. What I thought that meant for me. She thought it was the biggest crock of shit she’d ever heard. And I adored her for that.
For two years, I was happy. The knife went back in the box. I didn’t need it anymore.
Lydia and I spent the summer after graduation moving our things up to Chicago where we’d both secured jobs. Our first night in the city, she told me she was pregnant. We found out a few months later it was a boy. Someone to carry on the family name. To keep the scales balanced.
That winter, some drunk old guy ran a red light and t-boned Dad’s truck. The old man survived, but Dad died instantly. I gave his eulogy. Told the story about how he’d taught me to ride a bike by running backward in front of me. It felt as if I were still trying to catch him.
I had this literature professor one semester who suggested that time wasn’t linear. That it was circular, like a wheel traveling down a road. That we often return to moments past, just in different spaces. But there is always momentum forward.
We buried Dad next to Paps. After the funeral, I went back to Chicago. Picked up a fifth and a pack of Marlboros for the first time in over three years. I got to our apartment and threw it all in the dumpster. Then I pulled out the survival knife and looped it on my belt. I guess if you run from something long enough you’re bound to catch up to it again.
Ryan Hubble graduated from Missouri State University with a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Rhetoric and Composition. He was recently retired from the United States Army and is now back home Illinois, awaiting the results of his MFA applications for the fall of 2019. The only thing of which he is certain is that being a writer is the most miserable and the most rewarding endeavor a person can undertake.