Mrs. Collins was unimpressed when I pushed a red haired girl called Charity down to the ground and laughed. I didn’t laugh because I hurt her but because of the way she slid across the floor on her knees. Charity was the younger sister of Faith and Hope, reason enough to push her across the room. Our third grade teacher didn’t think so, though, and her disappointment shut me right up.
Mrs. Collins was in her fifties, slim, with an airy, gray bouffant that gained her five inches. I would write her love notes and she would write back. Here is an except from my diary the day I brought Charity to her knees:
March 8, 1978
Dear Diary today I was bad in class I wrote mrs. collins a letter she wrote back and when school was out I said thank you to her and she said tank you to me my brother bugged me agin today.
I had watched teachers nostalgically greet classmates as they called roll on the first day of school, “Are you Oscar’s younger brother?” I didn’t share a last name with my siblings, plus, my next youngest brother was six years older and already a drop out. I didn’t expect to garner any special esteem based on family ties. But, somehow, Mrs. Collins and I put together that she’d been Ken’s teacher and, to my delight, she was delighted.
For two years Ken and I had been under separate roofs. I lived with our dad, my mother’s second husband and nobody’s biological father, while Ken lived with our grandma. I spent weekends with them. I’d been feeling the clouds descend around my brother for a few years. That baleful air was confusing and never made clearer by my grown ups. When I brought the curious spray paint laden tube sock and paper sack into my grandma’s house from the backyard, I never expected her to yell, “That goddamn boy!” and burst into tears.
Another diary entry:
Dear Diary tonight my Brother got picked up by the please cause he had merawana on him and my dad has to pick him up. my other brother went to a class he will see a film with people throwing up and he bugged me agin.
On another confounding morning Ken and my grandma stood in the hallway near the refrigerator where she screamed at him to drink more beer since he liked it so much. They were both crying and he was saying he never wanted to drink it again and he was sorry. I sat on the living room floor trying to escape into my coloring at the coffee table. Our mother was over and I remember looking at her with a vague sense of, “Shouldn’t You have some part in this?”
One afternoon Mrs. Collins quietly knelt down and told me that I was needed in the office. Her sweet but forced smile told me I wasn’t in trouble but should be worried. When the administrators in the office saw me, one picked up the phone and another opened the low swinging gate allowing me passage beyond the tall counter. On the phone my dad told me that Ken had stolen my grandma’s car. I was not to go with him if he came to pick me up after school. I went back to class where Mrs. Collins gave me a knowing look and I felt the burden of worrying about my brother was not mine alone.
On the twenty minute walk home I was all perked. But the cars whizzed by and, when I turned onto my block, the driveway was empty. I wondered why he hadn’t come for me. I flashed on the night before. My dad had come to pick me up at Grandma’s house. I picked up my bag and said goodbye to Ken but he stepped over and hugged me, a long hug, and he whispered, “bye.”
Several days passed with no word. One night, on our way home from Long John Silver’s, I suggested to my dad that we drive by Grandma’s house. We knew it was bingo night and she had arranged a ride but there, in her driveway, was the long, blue LeBaron. By the light of a street lamp we could see a blanket in the backseat. The carport was only steps from the front door. We knocked and waited but, even though he had a key, my dad didn’t go inside. Instead, we went to the neighbors house where Pop borrowed the phone. A few minutes later, one police car pulled up and then another. The blue and red lights flashed around while we all stood back from the house as if it might explode. It was quiet except for the staticky jabber from the police radios. I shuffled around a bit with the others but mostly stood leaning back against my dad wondering what the big deal was – why was everyone being so cautious and mysterious? There was a light on inside the house. It shined one bright stripe between the drawn drapes. That window looked through the dining room, into the living room; Ken was either in there or he wasn’t. I pictured him sitting in Grandma’s chair watching TV, oblivious to the small crowd gathered outside.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. I walked across the yard and climbed up on the tall brick planter box in front of the window. It never had flowers in it but Ken and I liked it because, standing up there, we could write messages to each other in pencil under the eaves of the house. I peered through the crack in the curtains and saw across to the empty living room. Then I heard a cop yell, “Get down from there!” Another cop came from the other direction, grabbed me, and ran to the sidewalk. It scared the shit out of me. That’s when it occurred to me that they were not imagining my brother inside, oblivious, watching television. They were imagining him in there, scared, with a gun.
My grandma’s bingo ride dropped her off and an officer slowly escorted her to the door and into the house. I’d already told them, through shaken tears, that he wasn’t home but they still acted all coppy.
The following day we learned that Ken had parked the car in the driveway and headed, on foot, to the police station to turn himself in. He’d been all the way to Dallas and back, hoping to join forces with our outlaw sister.
A couple weeks later, on a Sunday morning, Ken and I were lying around on his bed. He entertained me with a Hotwheels car which he used to perform a routine that I call “One Time When I Had Grandma’s Car…”. He would open each bit with “One time when I had Grandma’s car” and go on to describe and demonstrate increasingly absurd adventures in driving. “One time when I had Grandma’s car, I had to swerve to miss hitting this dog but I clipped a curb and went up on this ramp and the car flipped in the air and landed in a spin.” The images of that tank of a car behaving so sprightly had me in stitches.
He was surprised when I told him about being called to the office at school. “Really? They thought I’d come get you? I wish I’d thought of that.” I told him about Mrs. Collins’ concern and he quieted down. We shared a distaste for disappointing her.
We never would have let Grandma hear us carrying on about her gravity defying landboat. And our tones were hushed when he talked about his disgust with himself for hurting her. This would prove to be a pattern; Ken takes advantage of Grandma’s generosity and lack of spine, Grandma’s crushed, Ken hates himself for abusing her trust and kindness. The salt in those wounds was that he’d learned by example. Grandma spent some serious time in the wringer courtesy of “that goddamn boy” and our outlaw sister. At least she wasn’t alone:
Dear Diary my sister still isn’t home I know any one eles wood be wreryd to cus if they had a sister that has been in troble so much even jail. I’m scerd that she went off with some gey she don’t even know and he mite hurt her I don’t know about her she may get hurt very bad.
my mom is gone.
my brother shot me tew hi and hurt my but.
Grandma had a comrade in me, even if I couldn’t articulate that. Mrs. Collins was a kind lady but teachers had too many boundaries for my taste. And, their stint in our lives is short. My grandma and I were stuck with those kids, year after year, shenanigan after shenanigan. No doubt we appreciated days like:
Dear Diary nuthing exiteing happend today so I allmost forgot to right. and my brother bugd me agine.