“Joel the Great” by John M. Carlson

“Joel the Great isn’t great!” I snarled to myself, as I pulled into my parents’ driveway that afternoon. Although I knew that my parents, actually most of the town, had a different opinion.


Joel the Great was my brother. He was simply named Joel when he was born. At some point, kids in school started calling him Joel the Great, and the name stuck. Of course, he was still usually called Joel for the sake of convenience. But even at those times, you could still hear the Great, even if it was unspoken.


Most people in town probably thought Joel the Great was a perfect name. He was certainly my parents’ favorite child. And almost everyone in our small town thought he was the greatest thing ever. In high school, he’d been the star athlete—a big thing in a small blip of a town. Even years later, he was still idolized because of his time playing school sports. Sooner or later, I figured, his birthday would be a legal holiday in town.


Over the years, however, I came to realize that there was something wrong with Joel. He always had a violent temper. He also had always been a bully. He’d always been selfish and self-centered. He’d…well, the list goes on.


Of course, his fans denied that there was anything wrong. At least until that week. It was pretty hard to deny that Joel’s girlfriend had turned up dead. It was also hard to deny the evidence that showed that it was likely she’d been killed by Joel. Even the sheriff, who apparently had misty-eyed memories of Joel’s last big basketball game, when our team won by one point, had to admit that “things look mighty bad” as he arrested Joel.


“I’m so glad you came home to visit. It’s been so hard,” Mom said, after I entered the back door.


There was no hello. No hug. Just straight to the point. I looked at her. She looked older and more worn than she had the last time I’d seen her. “Are you OK?” I asked.


“Oh, I think so. I will be.” Mom sighed. “I’m just tired. So tired. I can’t get any comfort. I just saw the pastor…and, well, he didn’t help me. Not at all. Of course, he’s right. If Joel…did this, he sinned. And he probably will be cast into the fires of hell!” Mom wiped a tear off her cheek. “By the way, the pastor was worried about you. He looked up the church you go to, and, well, he says you’ve strayed. Have you thought about coming back to your church?”


“The church I go to now is my church,” I said, sounding a bit childish. I paused, and took a deep breath. “But that’s not what’s important. Right now, what I’m worried about is how you’re doing—”


“Joel is the one who was arrested!”


“But it has hurt you. And that’s what I’m concerned about right now.”


“You don’t even care about Joel, I suppose.”


“I wouldn’t say that.”


Mom shrugged. “Oh, I guess you two never really got along.”


Dinner that night was terrible. Mom’s cooking wasn’t as good as usual. Past that, I could sense a dark cloud hovering over my parents that night. Dad was dead quiet, and his eyes were focused no further than his plate. He didn’t even finish his dinner—something I had never seen before. Mom kept fluttering around, trying to force more potatoes, more rolls, more everything on us. At times, I thought she was about to start buttering my roll for me.


After dinner, Dad disappeared out the back door while I helped Mom clean up.


“He’s probably goin’ to the bar,” Mom said. “He’s gone there a lot the last couple of days. He comes home drunk. I’m so worried he might get hurt coming home. I swear, I’ve never set foot in that den of vice. But I’m tempted to go over there and drag him out!”


After we’d cleaned up the kitchen, I headed over to the bar to make sure Dad was OK.


Growing up, the bar was a sort of forbidden promised land. As I stepped into the bar that night, I once again wondered why I ever thought it was so great. It’s never been anything but a dive. One that makes many other dives look classy. I tolerate this place because the best way of having a talk with Dad is over a beer. Still, I believe in miracles, and I fervently hope that a miracle occurs here, and the bar gets cleaned up. This miracle hadn’t come to pass yet, judging from what little I could see that night.


Donna was tending bar. She’d been a classmate, and I’d had a big crush on her when I was seventeen.


“Please don’t say you’re here in town to get Joel the Great sprung.” Her voice was hard, and it sounded downright cutting when she said Great.


I remembered she didn’t like Joel. They’d dated a while in high school. I couldn’t have her, but Joel could have any girl he wanted. He got her. And then lost her, because of his temper.


“No,” I said. “I’m just here to see Mom and Dad.”


“OK.” She relaxed a bit. “I guess I shouldn’t have questioned that. It’s just, well, I’m so sick of this. The world is ending, because Joel is in jail! That’s all I hear about all day long here!” She sighed. “Anyway, your dad is around here someplace. He’s been here a lot the last couple of days—he’s now doing shots.”


“Wonderful,” I groaned.


“Before you find him, can you tell me something? Is it true? About Joel?”


“I don’t know. The only facts I really know are what I read on the Internet yesterday.”


“No. I mean, what they’re saying now. They decided to let Joel go.”


“I haven’t heard that!”


“I guess it doesn’t matter. I can’t really even care at times about them catching whoever did it. Nothing will bring Stephanie back.” Donna smiled sadly. “We were good friends—well, until recently. I tried to stop her from dating Joel. I dated him a few times.”


“I remember that.”


“No, I mean I dated him recently. He said he’d changed, he wanted to go out with me. But his temper was bad as ever. Frankly, it scared the crap out of me.”


Dad suddenly appeared by me. He stood looking at me as if he didn’t know me. Apparently, he’d had one shot too many.


“He’s been like this since Joel got arrested!” Mom moaned, as I helped Dad into the house. “Oh, I do hope he won’t become a drunk!”


We had Dad lie down on the couch.


“I’d better brew up some coffee. We need to get Dad sober!”


“That won’t help,” I said. “Only time—”


The telephone rang. Mom pounced. She talked a moment, and hung up. She looked happier.


“Good news! They’re letting Joel go!”


“I heard a rumor at the bar.”


“Yes. Apparently, they’ve learned that there is no way he could have done the murder. Which I knew all along, of course. My Joel is a good boy.”


Good boy? He might be cleared of this murder—but there was no doubt in my mind that he had plenty of failings. He certainly was capable of murder. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that he had committed this murder, but was cleared because of a technicality.


“Yes,” Dad slurred. “Joel…is Joel the Great.”


John M. Carlson lives in the Gig Harbor area. His stories have appeared in a number of online publications. You can visit his site at writerjmc.blogspot.com.