In an era when most families were configured like the Cleavers – at least from the outside looking in – my brother and I were the envy of the neighborhood kids in the 60’s because both of our folks worked. Dad was a teacher and Mom was a nurse; consequently, my little brother Joey and I had the run of the house and the neighborhood, pretty much unsupervised, while the other neighborhood moms cruised their homes like sharks looking for hapless little fish, or kids getting up to no good.
Such liberty came at a price though; with no custodial adult on premise, we each had strictly assigned housekeeping chores to perform after school. This was supposed to keep the detritus in the family domicile to a minimum, so our hard-working folks didn’t have to come home to a filthy hovel. By and large, with a little policing up of my flighty brother, our system worked fairly well, and our little ménage bumped along well enough through our days.
One afternoon I got off the school bus alone, thinking Joey had stayed after school for Scouts. I went into the kitchen to grab a handful of Fig Newtons and feed our cat Lucy, then I turned on Dark Shadows. I wanted to see what the undead were up to, in the person of Barnabas Collins, he whose jagged bangs so cunningly matched his vampire fangs. He was his usual creepy self, failing, as always, to advance the relentlessly boring story line one iota. I was vexed daily by the vampires’ stultifying lives of ennui; why go to the considerable trouble of blood-sucking if they weren’t planning something fun after fueling up? I flipped the channel to the Mike Douglas Show and went to do the dishes.
I had started working on the milk-and-Cap’n Crunch scum in the cereal bowls, when Joey burst through the back door, breathless and sweaty. He shot past me like an arrow, not wearing his Scout’s uniform, I saw, instantly annoyed. If he hadn’t stayed after for Scouts, he was supposed to be picking up last night’s newspapers, emptying ashtrays, and vacuuming, while I cleaned up the kitchen and bathroom. But as usual, he proved reliably unreliable.
“Where were you?” I demanded as he flew by, getting no answer. My little brother was smaller than average for his eight years, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in speed. He was the fastest kid in the neighborhood. “Like greased lightning,” old man Roth, the Little League coach once said, shaking his head in amazement. “Useless at bat, and couldn’t field a pop fly if it hung up there ‘til next Sunday, but a goddamned blur around the bases.”
I dried my hands and went to go yell at him; my natural bossiness was born out of my superior ranking in the birth order. I was eleven. I was passing through the living room just as our dad came in through the front door with his brief case. A redheaded Irishman, Dad’s face was usually ruddy with good humor but it was a couple shades deeper on this day. Creeping toward magenta, I thought, just having just discovered that color on the light spectrum in science class. It matched the ominous-looking V between his eyebrows, I noticed uneasily. Yikes. Something was brewing.
“Where’s your brother?” Dad asked shortly. Without waiting for an answer, he dropped his briefcase and strode past me down the hallway toward the bedrooms. I hesitated, then decided to trail along behind, to see what kind of storm was blowing up; unaware of any particular transgressions as of late, I was curious. He halted in the door of Joey’s room, and just stood there, silent. From behind him, I peeked around and saw Joey sitting on his bed, rummaging through his Green Hornet bookbag. Long before the advent of expensive backpacks that could accommodate a three-day hike in the Adirondacks, his was a beat-up vinyl bag in a poisonous green color, like the Hornet himself. Joey’s back was to us; he hadn’t heard us approach, and he continued to scrabble in his bag.
“Where were you?” Dad asked quietly from the doorway, and Joey jumped.
“Hey Pop…just looking for my Ringo card,” he said, and began rummaging again. Joey had chanced upon a highly coveted Ringo bubblegum card a few weeks earlier, in his candy haul from the dime store. Long after chewing the sugary pink mass into a flavorless blob, he continued to refuse trade offers, a couple of which had included pretty good bonuses, like a Harmon Killebrew and a Tony Oliva thrown in to sweeten the deal. I had no idea why everybody wanted that Ringo – he looked like a dope, singing with his mouth wide open, his hair all floofed-out, and in the picture most everything but his prodigious honker was blocked by the butt end of Paul’s bass guitar – but it was prized.
Dad repeated, “Where were you?” Hearing the quiet menace in the question for the first time, Joey turned to look at him.
“Me? When? Now? Right here, looking for my Ringo,” Joey replied, in an elaborately casual tone that I instantly recognized as evasive. Had I been inclined, I could have given him an assist with a united-front-sibling-defensive-parry, but didn’t because I wanted to know where he’d been too.
“Where are your tennis shoes?” Dad asked curtly. Joey’s freckles began to stand out, then grew distinct, signaling that he was turning pale beneath them.
“In the garage,” he said.
“Get them,” Dad said quietly.
I couldn’t imagine where this scene was headed, and stood back as Joey slowly got up and brushed by Dad, heading for the garage. Then understanding dawned.
The previous week, Joey had been late for dinner on one of the rare evenings when we were all home at the same time. Mom generally worked nights at Bethesda Hospital, leaving Dad — and us, his hapless victims — to his own culinary devices, which ran to such gastronomic delights as boiled ring baloney and liverwurst sandwiches. That night Mom made a meatloaf – a welcome respite from Dad’s less than haute cuisine – and Joey’s favorite. As the minutes ticked passed our customary six o’ clock dinnertime, Mom grew increasingly nervous when Joey didn’t appear. Dusk began to fall, and Dad went out into the back yard, and began to repeatedly whistle his piercing curfew call that had served as our where-the-hell-are-you-get-home-this-instant summons our whole lives. By the time Joey came trotting into the yard almost a half hour later, it was full dark and Mom was nearly hysterical. In truth, I wasn’t far behind her. A teenaged babysitter had been kidnapped and murdered a few months earlier in a nearby town and the collective fear of the grownups remained, a low, constant hum of terror, like a struck tuning fork. Naturally our folks’ fear exploded into fury about five seconds after they knew he was safe. This was exacerbated when Joey blurted out that he and Tom and Randy had been building a fort down at the swamp.
“You are not to go near that goddamned pond!” Dad thundered. “How many times do I have to tell you? Stay out of those damned woods and away from that damned slew!” The “damned slew” in question was a large green pond about ten blocks away, beyond an overgrown cul-de-sac in the north reaches of our neighborhood. Off limits since we were old enough to leave the yard, the slew was a stagnant, murky waterbody, shrouded by weeping willows and mysterious vines. Clogged with deadfalls and jagged tree stumps, the swamp and the woods around it were a favorite – and forbidden – place to play. It was perfect for acting out Tarzan, Creature of the Black Lagoon and any one of a hundred different Western quicksand movies. Nobody knew how deep it was, but we were pretty sure that on sunny days we could make out a submerged pickup truck in the green water, not far from shore. We were convinced there must be a dead body in it, but when we told the grownups, they told us to never mind, and to stay the hell away from that damn swamp. Still, the slimy siren song prevailed; surreptitious swamp visits continued on the sly, with all the neighborhood kids remaining faithful to our mutual pledge of silence.
That night Joey had the good grace to look sincerely chastened, even a little scared as he slunk past our fulminating father, into the house. Dinner was a dismal, chilly affair that night, much like the abandoned meatloaf, and we understood that corporal punishment had been narrowly avoided.
In actual fact, although we were threatened intermittently with the ping-pong paddle, which was kept close at hand atop the icebox, it had never actually been deployed by either parent. Neither one of us had ever been spanked. We’d come close the night that Joey and I, fighting over the aerosol can of Reddi-wip, had managed to depress the plastic nozzle and spray whipped cream all over the dining room drapes. That was the night our exasperated dad had bellowed, “I swear to Christ the older you two get, the dumber you get!” We couldn’t argue with that; it was accurate, at least vis à vis the sharing of pressurized dairy products.
Now, Joey came padding back down the hallway, holding his Keds pinched between two fingers. They were a mess I saw, with a sinking heart. Caked in mud, with remnants of canary grass and bits of moss in the laces, they gave off a rank, reptilian reek. Those sneakers shrieked SWAMP like an olfactory klaxon in the silent bedroom.
“Did I not distinctly prohibit you from going anywhere near that marshy morass ever again?” Dad asked, enunciating precisely, clipping the words off crisply, like each little pearl on my Pop-a-Pearl necklace. Marshy morass? Yikes. When Dad let his English teacher flag fly that high, somebody was going to get it.
“I just wanted to see if they had finished the fort…” Joey began weakly, trailing off when he saw the fire in Dad’s eye.
“Drop them,” barked Dad. Then he whirled and stalked off down the hallway, leaving Joey and me staring at each other. Joey dropped the shoes with a thump.
“Pretty sure he meant your pants, dumb-ass,” I said. “Are you nuts going back there? Shhhhhh, he’s coming back.” Indeed, Dad was approaching back down the hallway, and appeared in the doorway with the ping-pong paddle, slapping it on the palm of his hand. A warm-up, I thought, with a thrill of alarm.
“Excuse us,” Dad said to me formally, and gently pushing me out of the room, began to close the door. As I went, I heard Dad intone the time immemorial words, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, son.” That was ridiculous, of course, every kid knew that it always hurt the spankee way more than the spanker, but nobody— least of all Joey— was prepared to dispute it at that point.
I wandered into the living room and turned up the volume on the Mike Douglas show, unwilling to bear witness to my brother’s pain and humiliation. Physical punishment in our house being uncharted territory, I felt high anxiety, partly from wondering uneasily how Dad did know Joey had been screwing around down at the swamp again. Could there be a breach in the neighborhood code-of-silence? Treachery? Had some tattle-baby betrayed the secret-swamp-pact? This apparent leak in the longtime airtight seal on our collective secret seemed ominous.
In any case, despite the spectacular stupidity of my brother’s outright defiance of Dad’s edict— made worse by his limp lie about being home all along— the sibling bond was strong; I trembled for what felt like hours, imagining the punishment being meted out down the hall while Mike Douglas crooned his way through, “The Windmills of my Mind” on the TV.
A thousand years later, they finally emerged from the bedroom. It was hard to say for sure, but I thought both might have had traces of tears on their faces. Dad had his hand on Joey’s shoulder, though, bespeaking paternal benevolence, and he pushed him down on the couch next to me. Then he spoke.
“Both of you listen to me.” We straightened up and assumed an attitude of rapt attention which was mostly sincere, but also meant to derail any thoughts of further paddling. We might have been dumb-asses, but we weren’t completely stupid, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
“You won’t understand this until you grow up and have kids of your own, but I’m going to try to explain it. Your mom and I love you. More than anything in the world.” He paused then and — unbelievably—backhanded moisture from his eyes. Tears? Geez, this was serious.
“We will always be here for you, no matter the trouble you get into, and even when you engage in idiocy…the occurrence of which regrettably seems to be increasing in frequency,” he added, shooting a dark look at Joey. He continued then.
“What you need to understand is, I cannot help you if you lie to me.” He looked searchingly from one of us to the other, trying to see if we were taking it in. We were. “If you lie to me, you are lost to me. I will not be able to help you. I won’t know how.”
Joey and I exchanged glances, genuinely sobered. The words were so serious, it was as though Dad was talking to us like grownups. I guess he was. Years later, my brother and I would remember that afternoon as the first time that our dad paid us the compliment of talking to us like we were equals; it was surely the first step on our convoluted, herky-jerky path to maturity.
We nodded assent, and then moving out of the line of fire, meekly resumed our chores. Dad followed me into the kitchen and opened the icebox. He pulled out a can of Miller High Life, popped the pointy end of a can-opener through the top, and wandered off, muttering about turning on the Twins game. He looked spent. Maybe it really had been harder on him than it was on Joey.
Very late that night, I was still wakeful in my bed when Mom got home from her shift. I heard them talking in their bedroom on the other side of the wall, as my dad filled her in on the afternoon’s melodrama.
“How in the world did you know he’d been anywhere at all, if he was in his room when you got home?” Mom asked, sounding mystified. I heard the low rumble of my dad’s laugh.
“When I was driving up the block, I saw him running through the back yards, he even vaulted over a fence…he kept pace with me, and I had to be driving 20 miles an hour…Jesus, that kid runs like the wind!”
My mom laughed then, a happy, chiming sound that made me feel better after the fraught fuss and commotion of the day.
“Well, you showed him one thing…he can run, but he cannot hide,” she said with another laugh. Dad replied with something unintelligible, then another rumbling laugh, which was followed by the double click of their lamps turning off.
As I waited for sleep that night, I pondered my first glimpse of the world as a dangerous place, seen through a grownup’s eyes. There must be a lot for them to worry about, like paying bills, and wars starting up, and the dangerous shenanigans their dimwitted kids might get up to. The world suddenly looked big, and slippery and unmanageable, I thought, vaguely troubled. But as I finally grew sleepy, I decided, with the peculiar equanimity of children who have to take the world as it comes, that there would be time enough to figure all of that out later. I was only eleven. Preparing to sleep the sleep of the just —and the smugly un-spanked— I drifted off at last, to dreams of my little brother leaping backyard fences like a gazelle, running and running, free as the wind.
Tara Flaherty Guy is a contributing writer at the St. Paul Publishing Company, in Minnesota. Her work has been published in Talking Stick Journal (Humor Prize), Adelaide Literary Magazine, Yellow Arrow Journal, Miracle Monocle, and The MacGuffin. Her newest work is forthcoming in the St. Paul Almanac. Guy has a BA in Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where she lives with her husband and three patronizing cats.