Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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My maternal grandfather, Daddy Tom, lived within walking distance of my childhood home. Until he died, when I was six, I spent time with him — and my grandmother, Mama Georgia — just about every day. Mama Georgia was always sewing and making clothes and quilts. She even made a small quilt for Daddy Tom to put behind his back in his leather chair, which is where I would find him when he wasn’t in the garden or his wood shop. Seated comfortably, he would pick up his pipe from the big green ashtray on the side table, pack it with cherry-flavored tobacco, and light up. Fragrant smoke would curl from his mouth each time he took a puff. Daddy Tom would never let me try his pipe, though I begged him, but he did give me a small corncob pipe so I could pretend.
One day Daddy Tom put his lit pipe in the ashtray to go answer the door, and I sneaked a puff. I immediately began coughing so hard that I dropped the burning pipe onto the quilt Mama Georgia had made. By the time Daddy Tom returned, a big hole was burned in the fabric, and I was crying at the realization of what I had done.
When Mama Georgia came in to see what all the commotion was about, Daddy Tom apologized for ruining the quilt. “My clumsy hands aren’t what they used to be,” he said, and he hugged her tight. She smiled and told him not to worry about it.
My last memory of Daddy Tom is of standing on my tiptoes at his funeral to get my nose close enough to the coffin to smell the sweet tobacco scent of his suit. Folded beside his body was the quilt with the hole burned in it.
Years later, while snapping fresh beans from the garden with Mama Georgia, I brought up that quilt and began to confess what had happened. She stopped me and said she knew Daddy Tom had been covering for me that day. “And whenever I tried to take that quilt and fix it or replace it, he wouldn’t have it,” she told me. He didn’t want to give it up, even for a little while. So she’d buried him with it.
I grew up in a decaying mill town in the seventies. Once, when I was thirteen, I threw stones at a couple of older teenagers, a guy and a girl — just close enough to scare them. The next thing I knew, the guy was bolting toward me, yelling that I’d hit his girlfriend in the head. I started to run, but he grabbed my collar and spun me around. Instead of punching me, he asked my name, where I went to school, and what grade I was in. I told him, and he smiled and let me go, saying this was far from over. I figured he was bluffing and nothing would come of it.
A few weeks later I entered high school as a freshman. Back then the school sanctioned an official hazing event — the freshman auction — to help fund the yearbook. Seniors would bid on freshmen, and each “purchased” student would have to do whatever the senior wanted for one day.
The couple I had thrown rocks at were both seniors at my school, and they “bought” me. I feared what they might have planned. It was not unusual to see freshmen come to school on their hands and knees at the end of a leash or with Vaseline in their hair.
When the day arrived, the guy made me show up at his house at 5 AM to fix him and his girlfriend breakfast. Then they set to work dressing me for school in a skirt, a blouse, and pumps. My hair was pulled back in ribbons, and I wore clip-on earrings and makeup. They did their best to humiliate me, but for the first time in my life I felt truly beautiful.
In my senior year of high school I was a foreign-exchange student in Denmark. For six months I lived in the sleepy potato-farming village of Tarm in West Jutland. My poor grasp of the language made it tough to attend classes in Danish. Thank God for Hans, the friendly, mischievous handball player who spoke perfect English and showed me around.
One day in biology class our teacher had a special lesson planned: she was going to thaw some frozen bull semen so we could all observe live sperm under the microscope. Unfortunately, in the process of thawing, all of the sperm had died, and our disappointed teacher had no other lesson prepared. She encouraged us to spend the rest of the period studying or doing homework.
Hans looked at me with a waggish grin, then hopped up from his desk and left the room. Three minutes later he came back cupping something carefully in his hand. He walked over to the lab, deposited the substance onto a slide, and slipped it under the microscope. Curious students huddled around.
When our teacher asked what all the commotion was about, someone said, “Hans put his sperm under the microscope so we could look at it!”
I waited for the teacher to get angry, but she just smiled and told everyone to thank Hans for his generous donation to science.
When I was eleven, my family lived in Texas. All the kids my age in the neighborhood were boys, which suited me fine, since I was a tomboy.
Then a new family moved in down the street with a daughter named Sophia, one year older than I. Rumor had it they practiced a strange religion called Nazarene. I didn’t talk to Sophia at first, but we eventually became friends. She was tall, willowy, and quiet; I was short, stocky, and talkative. But we both liked to draw, and once we even put together a show of our work in my parents’ storage shed.
When I visited Sophia’s home, I was fascinated by the fact that Nazarene women weren’t allowed to wear makeup. If Sophia and I watched TV, we had to turn down the volume every time a makeup ad came on. It seemed pointless, since we could still see the images, but who was I to question their religion?
One Saturday afternoon Sophia called and told me to come to her house right away. When I got there, I discovered that her parents and siblings were all out, and she was home alone. The same thing happened to me occasionally — no big deal — but this was her first time being all by herself. I wondered if her parents had given her permission to have a guest.
I’d brought my sketch pad and asked if she wanted to draw. She said no — she wanted to dance! Apparently this, too, was forbidden by her religion. There were no records in her house, so we turned on the TV to search for music. We eventually found some — maybe Lawrence Welk. I don’t recall, because Sophia’s next suggestion was that we take off our clothes and dance naked.
It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Sophia moved as though she’d danced many times before. She produced scarves, which we twirled in the air around us as we circled and leapt and experimented with dramatic poses. When I had to go home for dinner, we got dressed and hugged and said goodbye.
Sophia stopped coming to school soon after that. Her family was on some sort of mysterious long-term religious trip. A few months later my father got transferred, and we moved to Arizona. I never saw Sophia again.
Three friends and I went on an eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1981. Sharing a hotel room a thousand miles from home, we were unsure what to do with this small taste of freedom.
As the rest of us looked out the window, Wayne explored the room. “Hey,” he said, gesturing to the phone. “This says, ‘Ring front desk for massage.’ ”
We immediately began debating what, exactly, a “massage” might consist of in the big city, whether we could afford it, and if we should make the call.
After some token resistance Wayne picked up the phone and dialed the front desk while we huddled around.
“Yes, I’d like to inquire about getting a massage in my room,” he began in his most mature voice. Long pause. “Well, it says right here, ‘Ring front desk for massage.’ ” There was a longer pause, during which he leaned in close to examine the telephone. In a softer voice, more like his own, he apologized and hung up.
“Soooo,” he said without turning to look at us, “we don’t have any messages.”
In high school, whenever I would spend the night at my best friend’s house, we would sneak out and perform minor acts of vandalism: We threw toilet paper into his neighbor’s oak tree. We took a package of Oreo cookies, separated the halves, and stuck them all over another neighbor’s car. We poured sugar into the gas tank of a vehicle parked a few blocks away. With each prank we became bolder.
One night, while my friend’s next-door neighbor was on vacation, we used a screwdriver to open the neighbor’s patio door and went inside. We ate food from the fridge, looked in the bedroom closets, and moved items around in the living room for no good reason. A week later we went back. Standing in the kitchen eating this stranger’s food, I felt a pang of guilt. “It’s like we’re breaking and entering,” I said — which is exactly what we were doing. That was the last time we snuck out of my friend’s house.
Later in life I owned a home in a suburban neighborhood. One day I saw an elderly neighbor standing in her front yard, looking at toilet paper dangling from the branches of her ash tree. She didn’t know how she was going to get the paper down. Why would someone do this? she wondered.
Vandals had struck her home a few weeks earlier, and she had spent hours cleaning broken eggs off the brick siding. Another time someone had poured liquid gelatin on her front porch, creating a sticky, ant-infested mess.
I helped her remove the low-hanging toilet paper from the tree and sprayed the rest with a hose until most of it fell. My neighbor hugged me and told me I was a good man. I didn’t tell her I’d once been a teenage vandal.
The winter of 1969 was bitter cold in Chicago. The snow reached the top of the garage, and the two-mile walk to school was daunting. But I didn’t mind. For the first time in my young life I was free. After thirteen years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of my stepfather, I’d been unceremoniously shipped off to live with a distant aunt and uncle and their three kids in the South Chicago suburb of Blue Island, Illinois.
My aunt and uncle were devout Baptists. I’d never been to church before, and now I was going three or four times a week and singing in the choir. Though their adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible seemed naive, they were good people who accepted me into their clan and made me feel loved. The years of oppression and abuse were beginning to fade into the past.
One Saturday morning my cousin and I were roaming the main street of Blue Island and wandered into the corner savings and loan in search of amusement. A cute bank teller caught my eye, and I whispered to my cousin, “Watch this.” As I approached her window, I tried to think of a clever opening line, something that would make her laugh. I stepped up, leaned in with a wry smile, and said, “Give me all your money.”
Her reaction wasn’t the chuckle or eye roll I’d expected. Her eyes opened wide, and the color drained from her face.
What had I done? I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say, Just kidding. Instead I hurried out the door, signaling for my cousin to follow.
Two blocks away the bank guard chased me down in the alley behind the police station.
That night my aunt and what seemed like the entire congregation of the Southside Baptist Church were praying over me. I tried to tell them it had been a joke, but they were intent on saving the soul of this wayward boy. After much repenting, I convinced them I had seen the light and the devil had been cast out.
For the remainder of my time with my aunt and uncle I avoided trouble. Soon my dad remarried, and I went to live with him and his new wife, who took an instant dislike to me.
Twenty-five years later, as a charge of the California Department of Corrections, I reunited with my aunt via the U.S. Mail. The topic of the “attempted bank robbery” came up, and my aunt wrote that I should have known where that kind of life would lead. She still wouldn’t believe it had been a joke.
Vandalism was how my adolescent friends and I took revenge on society for our boring, sheltered, upper-middle-class existence. One night, after drinking beer in my parents’ basement, three of us grabbed some buckets of paint from my father’s shed and headed to a construction site, where we coated the inside of a tractor with eggshell white.
I was so drunk, I had to sit on a nearby park bench to try to still my spinning head. Meanwhile one of my companions, screwdriver in hand, walked toward a line of matching white vans. He disappeared behind them, and the vans began sinking, one corner at a time, with a hiss.
By the time he’d popped the last tire, red and blue lights illuminated us, and we sprinted away, casting long shadows in the squad car’s spotlight. We split up and all made it back to my house.
Later in the week we checked the local newspaper’s police blotter to see if our transgressions had made it into print. The others suppressed laughter as I read aloud a blurb about the vandalized municipal vans. Then I came to the part about how the vehicles had been unable to serve their purpose that week: picking up and dropping off special-needs students for school. We were no longer laughing.
San Francisco, California
In seventh grade I downed an entire bottle of glucose tablets — sugar pills — during science class with the new girl, Candi. We spent the next period acting like a couple of idiots. Within days we were inseparable.
One weekend my mother and stepfather were going out of town and agreed to let me stay at Candi’s house. They didn’t realize her parents wouldn’t be home. Candi and her brother were often left to fend for themselves. Shortly after I was dropped off, she suggested we walk to the grocery store.
At the Safeway Candi went straight to the pharmacy aisle for a bottle of glucose tablets. Then she stopped in the baking section for sprinkles and red-dot candies. As she rounded the corner into the next aisle, the items she’d been holding seemed to disappear. I naively looked on the shelves to see where she had put them.
I followed Candi out of the store and around to the side of the building, where she pulled the sugar pills from under her sweat shirt, opened the bottle, and dumped some into my cupped hands. She emptied the remainder into her mouth, then tossed the empty bottle into the bushes. “Come on,” she said, heading back inside the store. It was my turn.
In the makeup section I began to stick lipsticks under my coat. My hands were shaking, and I couldn’t stop snickering.
Back outside, Candi and I laid everything on top of a garbage can. I opened the lipstick and put some on, then felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a security guard from the store. I saw Candi being detained by another man. They separated us and took me to an office with no windows. When I asked where Candi was, the security guard told me she’d been taken to the hospital because she had passed out, though they thought she was faking it.
The guard asked for my parents’ phone number. My mother had gone to Lake Tahoe, so I gave him my dad’s number in Sacramento. Dad came to get me, and the guard told me never to enter the store again.
On the drive to my dad’s house, he explained that he had just paid more than three hundred dollars for the items I’d stolen.
“Where’s the stuff?” I asked.
He looked at me in disbelief and said I was lucky I hadn’t been sent to jail.
“So you mean I don’t get to keep the stuff you paid for?”
He laughed and said, “Unbelievable.”
I asked if he was going to tell Mom.
“No,” he replied. “You are.”
For the first time that day I shed a tear.
That night I lay in bed with pink lips and a stomach full of sugar. I imagined Candi being taken away by ambulance, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Brittany and I met playing soccer on a neighborhood team when I was five. I was a shy child with a fierce temperament. She was an exceptionally social girl one year ahead of me in school. I learned a lot about the world from her.
Once, we were playing with Barbie dolls at Brittany’s house when she told me that sex was when a boy put his “thing” into a girl’s “thing.” I had seen my dad’s penis and my mom’s vagina. It seemed possible, but I wanted to be certain. When I got home, I asked my older sister if this was where babies really came from, and she confirmed it — or, at least, she was pretty sure.
Shortly after that, my friend and I were playing with Barbies again, and we placed the Ken doll on top of the Barbie and called it “having sex.” Then Brittany showed me how to bunch up a pillow, place it between my legs, and rock my pelvis from side to side. As she demonstrated, she began to moan. I worried something was wrong with her, but she told me it felt good, like eating the whipped cream off an ice-cream sundae. “Come on, you should try,” Brittany said. I hesitated, but I wanted to experience that good feeling, too.
In case anyone walked in, we lay on the floor with our legs and hips underneath Brittany’s bed. I was nervous. She had said it was like sex; could I make a baby? I positioned the pillow and began to rub against it while Brittany coached me: “Press down harder. Try circles up and down.” My heart began to beat as if it might burst. I could feel my vagina pulsing. Then Brittany’s older sister, Bethany, came into the room. “What are you two doing under the bed?” she asked.
“We’re cold,” Brittany answered quickly. “It’s warm under here.”
Bethany rolled her eyes and left, but I told Brittany I was afraid to play this game anymore.
“Just don’t get caught,” Brittany said. “And don’t ever tell your mom.”
This was the beginning of my relationship to sexuality: as something to keep hidden and feel guilty about.
My friend Doug and I turned fourteen in 1964 and decided we were grown-up enough to stay out all night. We made a plan: I would tell my mom and dad I was staying at Doug’s house, and he would tell his parents that he was staying at mine. Then we would go to a late-show double feature. When the movie let out, we would . . . well, we didn’t have a plan after that.
Come midnight we were wandering through the back alleys of Silver Spring, Maryland, looking through dumpsters and stashing the “treasures” we found in an abandoned shopping cart. By 2 AM we were tired and cold (we hadn’t thought about keeping warm) when a police car pulled up beside us.
“What are you boys doing out here?” the officer asked.
We explained that we were just walking home from the movies.
“Right,” he said. “Go ahead and empty your pockets onto the hood.”
Doug pulled out a ten-dollar bill, a driver’s license (clearly not his), two small firecrackers, a book of matches, a condom, a pack of Marlboros, and a penknife. The cop confiscated everything except the money.
I pulled out a quarter and my Cracker Jack prize from the movies — an orange goose on wheels.
“That’s all you’ve got?” the cop said. He shook his head and laughed.
After that, I carried a knife and a condom with me everywhere, just in case I ever got stopped by a cop again.
Santa Cruz, California
I fell in love for the first time when I was twelve at a sleep-away summer camp called Hidden Villa. He was a boy of sixteen with dark hair, dark eyes, and long, graceful limbs.
I was dismayed when this boy left with the older campers on a two-week backpacking trip. (We younger kids weren’t eligible to go.) But then he returned to camp early to convalesce from a vicious case of poison oak. His condition obliged him to spend his nights in the camp’s infirmary and his days lying in the sun, dressed only in silky green shorts, with calamine lotion slathered on his face, arms, shoulders, and torso. He didn’t seem to notice me lurking on the periphery in the throes of a lovesick fever that felt as real to me as the flu or the chickenpox.
One hot afternoon a few friends and I were returning from the swimming pool to the cabins when I happened upon a poison-oak bush growing by the dusty lane. I snatched up the oily green leaves and rubbed them theatrically all over my sweaty arms, neck, and face while the other girls screamed.
I must have imagined that if my beloved and I ended up in the infirmary together, he would have no choice but to surrender to my charms. Beneath that thought (if it can be called one), in the mysterious depths of my adolescent psyche, was a stranger equation: if I suffered physically as the boy did, perhaps he would suffer the heartache of budding desire, like me.
And at first my plan worked, inasmuch as I did get a wicked case of poison oak and ended up in the infirmary, where I received a stern lecture from the camp nurse. The boy, meanwhile, having recovered sufficiently, left that same day to rejoin the backpacking expedition.
I’ve come down with lovesickness on many occasions since then, but that was the first and most unblemished of my infatuations. As I gave up my skin to those botanical toxins, I did not envision myself as a pudgy, awkward twelve-year-old girl soon to be covered with a suppurating rash, but as a martyr to true love.
When I was seven years old, I was punished for peeing against a forsythia bush in our yard.
I was reprimanded for picking phlox in the ditch beside our neighbor’s farm.
I was spanked for removing my starchy dress at the picnic and splashing into the pond in my underpants.
I was smacked on the bottom for taking a piece of German chocolate cake from the dessert table while everyone else at the church supper was still working on the main course.
But I wasn’t punished when, on a dare, I knocked a nest of baby swallows from the rafters of the barn. I’d just been up to “mischief,” my uncle said.
As it turned out, the baby birds were too young to fly and too large for the mother to rescue. They died in the manure on the barn floor.
Much of the trouble I got into at seven was harmless, but the death of those swallows still pains me.
In my Depression-Era neighborhood it was difficult to get away with any sort of mischief due to an invisible network of busybodies who would get word back to your parents. If you threw stones at streetlights on the way home from school, your mother knew about it by the time you arrived. If you hitched a short ride on the back of a passing trolley car, somehow your mother was there at the front door to beat you and offer gruesome tales of legs amputated by trolley wheels.
One chilly autumn afternoon a group of us boys, all around thirteen, were on our way home from school when, for some reason I can no longer remember, Fat Frankie and I began to argue. Though we were the same age, Frankie was more than twice my size and shaped like a bowling ball with limbs. Our argument escalated from words to shoving as the rest of the boys egged us on. Finally we started swinging.
Frankie’s first punch missed me, and I managed to land one in his stomach and another on his nose. Seeing a trickle of blood from his nostril, I was horrified. Then I heard a shriek: “FRANKIEEEE!”
We all turned to see Frankie’s mother, tall and thin as a pole, charging up the street toward us, brandishing an umbrella. She shoved a few boys aside, saw Frankie wiping his blood on a coat sleeve, and brought the umbrella down on his shoulder with all her might, breaking it off at the handle with a loud snap.
“Hi, Mom,” Frankie said, starting to cry, whether from my punches or his mother’s wallop, I couldn’t tell.
Frankie’s mother grabbed his ear and dragged him home while the rest of us watched in silence. Once they were out of sight, the boys clapped me on the back and complimented me on my one-two combination.
How had Frankie’s mom learned about the fight so fast? Personally I was glad she had shown up. One lucky punch from Frankie, and more than my nose would have been bleeding.
Nobody could get me into trouble like Megan. I met her in eighth-grade biology class and liked her immediately because she wrote poetry, like me. Her mother had died the year before, just as Megan had turned thirteen. With a grieving father unsure how to raise a teenage girl alone, Megan was largely on her own. She had already given herself an ankle tattoo using a needle and ink from a pen.
The first time I smoked a cigarette was with Megan. We were fourteen and waiting for our parents to pick us up from having pizza with a group of friends. We sat by a splashing fountain lit with colored lights, and I inhaled my first drag. My head spun, and my stomach lurched. I vowed never to try it again.
The only time I cheated on a test was with Megan. I was fifteen and perpetually worried about keeping my straight-A average. Somehow Megan had procured a copy of the final exam for a class we shared. She talked me into coming over, and we studied the test together until we knew all the answers. The next day at school, the questions were completely different. I got 100 anyway, but Megan ended up with an F.
At the age of sixteen Megan took me to my first college party. I remember smoking from a giant bong and playing drinking games, eager to show everyone I could keep up. By the end of the night I could barely walk straight. Megan and I left in her little red Honda hatchback. At a traffic light she turned too sharply, and the car bumped over the concrete median with a loud crunch of metal. I thought my life was over: The police were going to arrest me for underage drinking. My parents were going to kill me. But Megan got me home safely. No police knocked on my door. My parents slept through my arrival.
Once, Megan asked me to come with her to visit her mother’s grave. The daylight was just starting to fade, and the cemetery was quiet. We walked to the columbarium, where the urns that held people’s ashes were kept, and we stepped inside and read the names on the wall. I watched Megan reach up and trace her mother’s name. She began to cry softly. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. I was scared to be in the cemetery at dusk. I was scared of the shadows and the silence. I was scared of the pain on my friend’s face. But I stayed and held Megan’s hand.
My mother was a hot-tempered woman who did everything in her power to smother my independent streak. Sometimes I got into mischief just to set her off.
One day in early June 1959, when I was eight years old, I was sitting on the swing set in the backyard near the clothesline, where my mother’s “unmentionables” blew in the warm summer breeze. My friend Annette’s peach-colored poodle (aptly named Apricot) wandered over from next door, eager for attention. Apricot never came to visit when my mother was outside. Every dog in the neighborhood was afraid of her.
Patting Apricot and rubbing his silky ears, I wondered if my mother’s bra would fit him.
Apricot was not a toy poodle; he was a big dog. I pulled my mother’s size-46DD bra from the clothesline and clasped the hooks under Apricot’s belly, with the cups on his back. Apricot wagged his tail. He enjoyed wearing my mother’s underwear so much, it seemed a shame not to show him off to the neighborhood. First I grabbed two pairs of socks from the line and stuffed them into the cups. Then I paraded up and down the street with Apricot — who carried himself with dignity, I might add.
I wouldn’t have gotten caught had our neighbor not phoned my mother. She came marching down the street and dragged me home by my shirt, hissing, “I’ve had enough of you, Miss Flipadingdido.” (The origin of this name remains a mystery, but it meant I was in deep trouble.) Apricot bolted, bra still firmly attached. I was sent to my room to wait until my father got home.
I could hear my mother on the phone speaking with Annette’s mother, apologizing and wondering what could be done to knock some sense into me before I ended up a delinquent.
When my father arrived home from work, he came into my room and closed the door — then covered his mouth with both hands so my mother wouldn’t hear him laughing. It’s no wonder I was an incorrigible child — with a father who condoned my behavior and a mother who condemned it.
If only my mother had known at the time what kind of mischief I would get into in the sixties, she would’ve put me up for adoption. But she didn’t. She suffered through my antics for the rest of her life and never stopped loving me.
North Ferrisburg, Vermont
Once a month I went to visit my old high-school buddy Dennis, who lived on one of the most beautiful and expensive pieces of real estate in San Francisco: San Quentin. My friend was part of a group of inmates called “trustees” who, due to good behavior, were allowed to live in a trailer park outside the fence, with just the icy water of the bay to discourage escape.
There was a picnic area at the trustee residences, and when I visited, I would bring a couple of steaks, a strawberry pie, a 7UP bottle filled with illicit champagne, some charcoal, and two potatoes wrapped in foil. One day, as I packed all this into a bag, my six-year-old stepson, Bryce, looked up from his cartoons and asked where I was going.
To visit my friend Dennis in prison, I told him.
“What’s a prison?”
“It’s like a very big hotel near the bay. Want to go with me?”
On the drive to San Quentin I remembered it was Dennis’s birthday, so I stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy him some lottery tickets. The contraband scratch-offs would make Dennis a celebrity for the day among the other inmates. But how would I smuggle them in?
I had an idea.
The processing room for male visitors at San Quentin was staffed by three unsmiling guards in beige-and-green uniforms, each carrying a sidearm. I went through the metal detector first. Then it was Bryce’s turn. As soon as he passed between the electronic panels, alarm bells went off, and red lights blinked above the doors.
I understand that being a correctional officer is a stressful job, but did they have to draw their guns? Bryce froze, and his eyes appealed to me for help as a puddle of urine began to grow between his feet.
“It’s OK!” I yelled. “There’re just scratch-off tickets tucked in his underwear!”
The guns went back into their holsters, the alarm was shut off, and one of the officers threw a towel at me and told me to take Bryce to the bathroom and clean him up: “And by the way, dumb shit, scratch-off tickets are coated in metal paint.” I wasn’t arrested, but I had to dry the lottery tickets off and leave them for the guards, who said they deserved something after all that.
Over our picnic lunch I told Dennis the story of our failed smuggling attempt. He stood and walked from table to table, spreading the word of Bryce’s heroism to the other trustees: how my stepson had pissed on authority and, most importantly, never cried. One by one, over the next hour, each convict left his table to come by and shake Bryce’s hand. I began to worry my stepson might enjoy this attention a little too much, but I’m happy to say his brief career as a smuggler is over.
San Anselmo, California
I had just graduated from high school and was working at an ice-cream shop to save money for college when I fell in love with a co-worker. He was a year younger than I was and a great deal taller, and he had dimples. He also had a girlfriend.
He and I would tease each other so much at work that people told us to get a room. To make our co-workers talk even more, we would go into the storage room together, shut the door, turn off the light, and exchange shirts. Then we would come out acting sheepish, as if we had been up to something. At Christmas my crush and I decorated the shop. I can’t remember which of us bought the mistletoe, but all season we steadfastly avoided being caught under it together.
By the following summer he had broken up with his girlfriend, and we began to hang out after work and talk, tiptoeing around our feelings. His mother hated me and thought I was a bad influence. One hot night he and I drove to the local beach and went skinny-dipping. Twenty years later I still remember our naked bodies in the water, our faces so close in the dark. But he never even kissed me.
Warren, Rhode Island
Growing up in the early sixties, my sister and I slept in the same room. On cold nights we let our dog, Tuxie, onto our bed, which was not allowed. If we laughed too loud, our father, an uptight engineer and former Navy officer, would say, “I hope I don’t have to come up there.” When he did, he would take his slipper to our butts. But his discipline failed to discourage us. We went on being disrespectful: painting our nails in the back seat of his big Buick, rifling through his drawers, eating the maraschino cherries he reserved for his Manhattans.
As we got older, we would ride around the neighborhood on the handlebars of boys’ bikes. Sometimes, if the boys begged us enough, we would pull down our pants and let them take a peek. We might also make out with them for a bit before running home, laughing. At McDonald’s we would flirt with the guys behind the counter and get them to bring us burgers in the parking lot after they got off work. Then we’d grab the bag and dash away. We were looking for attention and testing the limits of our female power.
In our late teens we figured out how to call our boyfriends long-distance and charge it to who knows who. We suckered strange guys into paying for our drinks at bars. We began hanging around rock groups and fetching the drugs they wanted. By then our misbehavior was more than just mischief.
I was raised in the small West Texas town of Alpine, in the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert. My mom was a single parent, and in the summer I would often stay home alone while she worked.
Across the creek was a large stone home with expansive gardens and many fruit trees. The two rough boys next door referred to it as the Devil House. There were star-shaped planters in the front yard with circles of irises growing around them. “See,” the boys would say, “those are satanic pentagrams.” Through the home’s cloudy windows I could see only dusty curtains and, between the cracks, stacks of books extending far into the rooms.
The boys dared me to ring the doorbell while they hid in the bushes. I did, and when I heard feet shuffling toward the door, I ran. Looking over my shoulder, I saw an old man with a cane and a long white beard standing on the front step in his pajamas. He appeared angry.
One afternoon, alone and bored, I rang his bell by myself. This time I didn’t run. The man opened his door suspiciously, and I introduced myself and asked if I could play in his gardens. He seemed pleasantly surprised and told me I was welcome anytime. I went wandering under his fruit trees and climbing his rock walls.
On a particularly hot day I knocked on the man’s door to ask for a glass of water, and he invited me into his kitchen. The appliances were all old, and in the adjoining den I saw a small cot and a side table with a lamp. The rest of the room was piled high with books. He offered me Ovaltine, and we sat at opposite ends of his kitchen table and talked about the weather and the space program. His white beard was yellowed around his mouth, and his claw-like fingernails were yellow, too. He said that, aside from his gardener, Thomas, who came twice a week, I was the only visitor he’d had in years. He seemed to genuinely enjoy hearing about the world from a ten-year-old’s perspective.
The man’s name was Dr. George Bechtel, and he was retired from the U.S. Department of Defense. He laughed when I told him the neighbor kids called his home the Devil House. I confessed to ringing his bell and running off, and he told me it was OK.
I would visit George regularly, and we’d sit across his table — me with my Ovaltine and him with his cigarettes — and tell each other about our lives. I learned that after his wife had died in the 1970s, he had stopped leaving the house and taken to reading all the time. He ordered books through the mail by the hundreds and liked to read until 4 or 5 AM. His routine was interrupted only by my visits and his monthly trip to the grocery store with Thomas.
One day George shuffled to another room and came back with a small cardboard box for me. Inside was a doll dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. A pamphlet identified her as a Reddi-Wip Doll of the World. George told me she was mine to keep. Throughout the winter and following spring, he gave me the rest of the dolls from the collection, one by one.
My mom and I eventually moved to the other side of town, and I saw George only two more times after that, to deliver a Christmas present or birthday card. When he died a decade later, I read that his will created a fund to provide textbooks for students at Alpine’s small university. He had also donated all his books to the local public library, including some rare first editions worth thousands of dollars. His faithful gardener received the rest of his estate, worth just over $1 million.
I still have my dolls in their original cardboard boxes. I take them out occasionally and think about how a friendship between an eighty-year-old hermit and a ten-year-old girl all started with a bit of mischief.
Reading The Sun, I have cried, smirked, pouted, and been inspired. But when I read the Readers Write on “Mischief” [October 2017], I did something I rarely do: I laughed out loud and almost choked on my coffee.