On a beautiful May Saturday afternoon when I was 11, I was in trouble. Saying I was “in trouble” was like describing me as being “in shirt and pants” or “in America.” Given my ways and, especially, my mouth, my trouble could have arrived for a number of reasons—talking back to parents or teachers, not doing homework, doing homework in such a half-assed way that it was more disrespectful than not doing it at all, trying to learn about girls by eavesdropping on the party line we shared with the family up the street.
Here, the author realizes most of his audience has no idea what he’s talking about. In the 1960s and 70s, when I was a boy, telephones plugged into walls and stayed there, instead of being left in coffee shops. In order to save a dollar a month, one could have a “party line,” which meant you shared a phone line with someone else—calls to you only rang in your house, but if you picked up your phone very, very carefully when the other party was having a conversation, you could listen in. The Boy family up the street had three daughters within my age range, and I regularly surveilled their calls, hoping to discover the secret of how to get girls to like me. Strangely, none of the Boy girls ever said anything like, “You know, I’d really like Keith if only he’d wear lime-green socks” or “Keith would be really cute if he bought his lunch in the cafeteria instead of bringing a bag lunch” or “I’d be kissing Keith all the time if he spoke French.” It didn’t work, and when I got caught I would be “in trouble.”
Anyway, I was wearing the glow of trouble at 11, and I wanted to find some way to extinguish that light. It would not have occurred to me to stop doing the things I knew my parents thought wrong—instead, I hoped to perform a selfless and noble deed to make them forget what I was really like. This act would need to benefit my parents, be fairly easy to accomplish and be kind of fun. I recognize this sounds more like a lark than contrition, but that’s the kind of theologian I was.
We lived on a short dead-end street, what would be called a cul-de-sac if I’d learned French so girls would kiss me all the time, maybe even in that tongue. Each side of Beard’s Landing had five houses, with a turn-around circle at the end. Five Beard’s Landing, our house, was on a slight hill, so our two-car garage was level outside the door with a 50-foot slope going down to the street. We’d lived there four years, and I felt at one with it. I knew the basement crawl space by the washer and dryer, the two rooms over the garage we rented to college students, my parents’ bedroom window, out which I could climb onto the family-room roof when no one was home, and the garage, with its chest freezer and a collection ski equipment kept in its rafters. At 11, I was the expert on all things Five Beard’s Landing.
My parents and my little sister had walked up to the end of our street to watch a soccer game going on at the high-school field. A friend’s child may have been playing, spring fever may have bitten them or they may simply have wanted to get away from the cloud of trouble that was me. For whatever reason, they were gone and wouldn’t be back for at least half an hour. It was time for my lazy better angels to get to work.
I thought first of cleaning the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher, filling it with the lunch dishes, and wiping down the stove. These would have been good acts, except for one thing: these were my assigned chores, which I routinely needed to be reminded/hounded to do, and for which I was paid 50 cents per week, enough in those ancient days to buy a comic book and a couple candy bars. Since Saturday was allowance day, and my mother would make me do this work to get my money, I couldn’t see how this would move me out of trouble. I needed something bigger, and for which I was not already expected to do. I walked out to the yard, where the lawn needed mowing, another part of the Dickensian work scheme my parents had devised, although for this I got an additional twenty-five cents if I raked up the trimmings well. My parents and I had long philosophical/philological/linguistic discussions about the meaning of “well-raked,” so I couldn’t score points by, again, doing what I was supposed to do. From the yard, I saw my father’s Oldsmobile parked in the garage. Although I’d washed it before, it had escaped any chore list. Giving my dad a clean car wouldn’t take long, would be relatively fun on this 70-degree day and would help lift my shroud of trouble. The only problem was the car’s placement. It is impossible to wash a large car in a single bay in a garage.
Thanks to my ill-spent youth and a natural gift for sneakiness, I knew where my parents kept the car keys, and had started up each of the cars over the winter, so they’d be warm when my parents got in. Neither of those facts required sneakiness, of course, which came from my experiences, while my dad was at work and my mom was napping, in putting her car in gear and backing it out of the garage so I could practice putting it back. In and out her Chevy would go, while she slept blissfully 50 feet away. So far I hadn’t been caught, and I didn’t want to demonstrate my delinquent skills while performing an act of charity, so I got the keys, started my dad’s car and didn’t put it in reverse, didn’t back up 10 yards onto the flat section of the driveway and didn’t turn off the car. I came up with a different scheme; stupider and more potentially disastrous, but definitely different.
Given what I’m about to tell you, you’re going to find this next statement hard to believealthough I long ago gave up my membership, I once belonged to Mensa, the so-called organization for geniuses. I love words, but my brain’s true gift is for math and science. Really. And yet . . . I shifted the car into neutral, got out and went to the front of the Oldsmobile and started pushing, figuring once I got it out of the garage, I’d use my weight to stop it from rolling, then get back in and put the car in park. It doesn’t take a genius—certified or not—to realize the energy required to start movement of a couple tons of Oldsmobile on wheels cannot be stopped by a scrawny 11-year-old. Let me describe my experiment:
I tried a nonchalant push, the kind I might use to shove my sister to the ground, but the Olds would not budge, so I faced the engine compartment and tried pushing with all 85 pounds of me. Still nothing. Finally, I braced my sneakers against the rear wall of the garage and used all my might. Success! For now. The Olds started rolling very slowly, and I continued pushing, not wanting the initial energy to dissipate before it got out the door. Once I’d accomplished that, and the car was on the flattened top of the drive, the part before it angled down onto Beards Landing, I casually moved my fingers onto the grill, assuming its lack of speed would make stopping it a breeze. The breeze became a hurricane, since my fingertips had no effect on the car’s inertia. Inexorably it rolled. I tried grabbing the bumper. It rolled. I ran to the driver’s door, hoping to jump in and slam on the brakes, but I arrived just as the rear wheels had reached the downward portion. The damned ghost car went from two miles per hour to eight per hour, which is plenty fast for a car rolling into, then across, Beard’s Landing and coming to a loud and sudden stop at the wooden light pole across the street, the trunk a horizontal V filled by pole. As a coup de grace, the force of the car hitting the pole caused the street light to fall off its moorings and completely smash the Oldsmobile’s front window.
As I stood, useless hands by my scrawny side, at the top of our driveway and beheld the damage I’d wrought, my first thought was to make myself a victim of a pitiless circumstantial chain. How could I illustrate my lack of agency, my complete lack of culpability given these facts: I’d used car keys I shouldn’t have, I’d moved a car I shouldn’t have, and the car was now totaled and blocking the nonexistent traffic on Beard’s Landing? Even using my most manipulative and irresponsible Mensan powers, I couldn’t come up with an explanation that didn’t lead back to me and didn’t push me further into trouble. Unless I crawled into the wreckage and ruptured my own spleen, waiting for my still body to be found, my parents would be suspicious.
I briefly considered running away, but only a fool would become a fugitive on allowance day, and I assumed my parents would be suspicious if I walked up to the soccer game with a clothesfilled rucksack over my back and asked to be paid my weekly wages, especially if I pocketed the money and walked toward the highway and a life as a hobo. It wouldn’t work. Lacking all hope, I wept. I wept because of my predicament. I wept in sorrow at my own tears, overcome with sympathy for the poor innocent boy I was. Then I laughed, realizing my solution. I wept again, not wanting to lose the flow of tears as I ran up the street, snot bubbles popping as my shirt got soaked. By the time I found my family in the game crowd, strangers were either giving me wide berth or offering to guide me, such a complete mess was I.
“Mommy!” I cried. “Daddy! Something’s wrong with the car and it rolled across the street! I tried to wash it, but it wouldn’t stop! I was just trying to help! I wanted you to be proud of me! Not ashamed of me!”
Like fishing, the secret to catching parents using guilt as bait is not to pull on the line until you’re sure they’re hooked. I fought off my urge to smile, as they processed the bushel of information I’d just tossed them. Then, like a preserver thrown to a drowning boy, I heard the words I needed to hear, heard my mother mutter the phrase that signaled I wouldn’t be punished hard.
“Well,” she said, throwing her arms around her weeping young son, “at least you weren’t hurt.”