When my brother was twelve and I was seven we lived through an unusually hot summer for San Francisco. It was the same summer we realized our parents were breaking up. Windows were left open at night, allowing rivers of muddy arguments between them to flow through the neighborhood.
It seemed like every day bath water masked crying jags. Doors slammed. Cars started up in the dead of night in the garage below our bedrooms.
My father called Chicken Delight a lot (“Don’t cook tonight – call Chicken Delight!”) for super-crunchy fried chicken delivered inside two geasy yellow paper plates stapled together. (He wrote the number in pencil on the wall causing another fight.) We were happy to get flying saucer chicken spaceships for dinner.
That summer other mothers on the block took special care of us inviting us for dinners, bandaging our scrapes, including us in their kid’s plans. We were allowed our roaming and comforted instead of scolded when we went too far.
Because my parents parked us at the movies all day most weekends we had recently seen a couple of gangster movies about Prohibition Chicago and greatly admired the crime planning scenes. We liked the way they called robbery plans “jobs” so we started planning our own jobs.
Like giving the dog our vegetables. That job went off without a hitch. Then came the ringing doorbells and running jobs. Those were night capers — fewer witnesses. A nearly daily job involved turning off apartment building elevators. An inside job since my brother — the newspaper delivery boy — had keys to every building in our neighborhood.
Come to think of it, that summer was full of our odd kiddy crimes. There was the teensy-weenie fire my brother and I accidentally started in the basement storage room where our neighbor stored boxes of sugar packets. I was a kid with a ‘what if’ mind. I wanted to know if sugar would burn. Would it smell sweet?
It wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t (talk about a coincidence) recently removed and lost the handle of the garage hose. My dad had to pinch the little do-hickey and turn with all his might to get a dribble from the hose.
I was a great crime organizer. I had a gang that threw snails and dirt clods at our neighbor’s fresh laundry hanging on the line. That spree went on for weeks driving the poor woman to tears. (As I recall, she was a Holocaust survivor.) When we tired of ruining her laundry we took to smashing her egg and milk deliveries. My dad had to pay for that.
We stole pocket money, lied, and stayed out late, “forgot” to tell our parents when we slept over at friends.
Maybe our folks were glad to get us out of the house.
Before that summer when we were good kids we had been allowed to leave the connecting door between our two bedrooms open each night just long enough to talk quietly for a few minutes. Like inmates before lights out and the clang of the locks being thrown. I’d ask my brother to sing the song from Rawhide or I’d ask questions about why salt melts snails. Eventually my mother would come back in and close the door with a solid click signifying the true end of the day.
We were surprised when our door was left wide open all night and nobody bothered to shut it anymore. We would whisper in the dark at our end of the flat while our parents volleyed insults between themselves in the living room.
“What if dad took you and mom took me? I’d ask.
“Will we still go to Russian River this summer?”
“Where would our dog go?”
My brother would cut short my worries by offering up something we could sing together — a jingle from a TV show like the Flintstones or the Huckleberry Hound song.
Honey Comb, won’t you be my baby?
Between delivering the morning newspaper and working for the B&B Pharmacy on weekends, my brother was always running. When he dashed off, it was his way of shunning my company. He could be driven mad by my little sister peskiness and often tied me up with his bathrobe belt leaving me in his dirty clothes hamper. I would lie quietly like Moses in the rushes until my mother lifted the lid, scaring the bejeezus out of her.
To my surprise, my brother began allowing me to tag along on his trips around the neighborhood. He quit holding me by the wrist like a baby and only held the back of my neck while crossing the street.
Looking back, I know now that we were sticking together just trying to make sense of everything. Our parents, who never had secrets before, were now very secretive. Naturally, secret things and places soon held the most fascination for us. We began haunting neighborhood basements and creepy boiler rooms imagining hidden rooms existed for us to find.
We spent hours exploring paths and shortcuts in Golden Gate Park. We began to go through our parent’s drawers and closets whenever they were out. We dog-eared our adoption papers, their marriage certificate and family vaccination records praying our parents wouldn’t notice.
We spent that summer haunting our own neighborhood. My brother would wake me up in the dead of night and we would shimmy down the drain pipe outside my bedroom window, land on a low wood fence and jump into the neighbors grass. We walked through pitch black alleyways and up and down creaking back staircases, searching, searching, always looking for I don’t know what.
We called these nocturnal meanderings our jobs. We always left our mark. We rearranged potted plants, moved garbage cans from alleyways to just outside some widow lady’s back door. We switched every tenant’s doormat along a long apartment building corridor. We would stand on apartment building roofs and throw tar gravel on passing Muni buses and then run whooping like Indians, pounding down the stairs, melting into the labyrinth of backyards we knew so well.
On the few occasions we were caught dead to rights by other adults, my father was in charge of punishing us in my brother’s room.
After pushing my mother back through the door and clicking the button on the doorknob to lock the door, my father would pull his thick belt out of the loops. The one with the great big buckle. It landed on the mattress with a tremendous smack as we hid our faces in the corner and cried out in a syncopated beat. My mother stood on the other side of the door, admonishing my dad, saying maybe that’s enough not realizing that he was only showing us how strong his whipping arms was — should he ever choose to punish us corporally.
The faux spanking drama would slow us down for a contrite day or two. It was too hard on our dad.
Yet, our jobs continued.
With a new school year on the horizon we planned our final summer caper, a 3:00 a.m. walkthrough of our neighbors flat. They were our parent’s best friends and we were allowed to call them by their first names. Their kids were our best friends. We spent as much time in their home as we did in our own. They had the identical floor plan; only flipped. Heck, most flats on our street shared one layout.
My brother woke me up and helped me put on my lace-less, stinky, blue Keds. We tip-toed down the hall to our little half bathroom, locking the door behind us. Steve climbed out our window into the light well and standing on a horizontal pipe one story up, pulled me out easily.
It was a windless night, an Indian summer night when people sprinkled water on their bed sheets out of fitful desperation.
We planned to climb from the top of the first story to the second story. My brother told me not to look down.
As I looked way up at the window on the other side of the airshaft a breeze on my sunburned arms gave me goose pimples.
I was the cat’s paw, the little criminal that got into small spaces then reached around and let the rest of the gang in. I’d go through the tiny two-foot by one-foot window without knocking anything over on the inside then tip-toe down a flight of stairs to let my brother in through the front door.
We climbed up the big pipes running up and across the wall of the buildings. My brother moved loosely, confidently, like a tree jumping monkey. I moved more like a starfish inching its way across rocks in a crashing surf, stopping several times to gather the courage to keep going. I pressed my face against the cold pig iron pipes for reassurance. Before long he opened the window then pushed me through it.
Inside I traversed the bathroom, slipped down the hall and went down a long, steep set of carpeted stairs hoping they wouldn’t creak too loudly. I had to wait for my brother to go back in our house and come around. Together in the hallway we stood in the dark for a long time, our hearts pounding, waiting for our breathing to become softer, quieter. The job was to walk through every room in the house, even the bedrooms where the family slept and then leave through the front door.
Leaving the front door wide open was our mark.
We walked down the hall towards the back of the flat side by side, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, blind eyes wide open and arms stretched out to graze the walls. Sounds of the sleeping family skittered past us like bats, catching in our hair, penetrating our grinning ears.
We stood at the foot of our parents best friend’s green satin quilted king-sized bed like children up too early on Christmas morning. Their bedside clock radio illuminated them just enough to see that they slept closely, entwined, snug; breathing in unison like cartoon mice. Taking in the scene made us too demoralized to go on. My brother finally put his hand on the back of my neck and turned me toward the doorway to go.
With our final job of the summer completed, we stood out on the sidewalk in front of our house under a flickering streetlight while everyone else in the whole world was asleep, except us. Tired from crime nerves I still insisted we dare to walk back in our own front door, agonizing over the amplified clomp of our door handle.
We held our breath as we walked past my dad asleep on the couch. The real risk was walking past our mother’s locked bedroom door as she was known to throw it open and beg for quiet at the slightest shift in the air.
Miraculously, we achieved the home base of our own small beds, climbing into them in our play clothes, not caring if we were found out in the morning.
I remember smiling as I fell to sleep snug in my dirty white sweatshirt. On the eve of everything changing for our family, at least I knew that I was brave.
When did you first realize you were brave?
Rayne Wolfe’s dream is to write her first book Confessions of an Undutiful Daughter by the end of 2011. She completed her dream journey May of 2011 on 8WD after a year living her dream. You can find her at Toxic Mom Toolkit on Facebook.