Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Happy Birthday Mandy

It’s my sister’s birthday. Her name is Amanda.

Like that? I thought that you may need some clarification. In honor of my sister’s birthday, which is today, I’ve decided to share with you a story about the time that she almost killed me and most of my friends.

The first time.

Okay, she only really tried to kill me once. If you don’t count the times that she would mouth off to bigger kids, knowing that I would come to her rescue. How wrong she was about that. Why should I? After all, she had already tried to kill me once, right? She could barely talk, but she was lethal.

I was born in Wheeling, West (by God) Virginia. So was Mandy. We lived there until I was 5 and she was 3 and my parents divorced. I think this story took place around that time. I’m not really sure. It’s difficult to remember details when you’re fighting for your life.

Anyway, as was usually the case in East Wheeling, I had every neighborhood kid that existed over at my house. We lived in a huge three story house (4 stories in the back. Wheeling is…hilly). It was a cool old Victorian row house on the corner. The top floor was basically going through a “phase.” That means that it was an unfinished wreck. But what do you expect from a house built in the 1800s? It’s bound to need a little work.

But an unfinished third floor is a playground for a 5-year-old and his rotund friends. We used to hang out up there all the time. It was excruciatingly hot, but it was fun. Summers in Wheeling are a little like playing house in a steam room. They don’t make for great comfort, but you can cook tender asparagus in seconds.

I never cooked asparagus when I was five. I’m guessing. The point is that it was hot. Real hot. It may sound cliché, but it wasn’t the heat that killed, it was the humidity.

Anyway, my friends and I decided to liven up a boring hot day by playing “jail.” Kids like to play jail. My Wheeling friends used to love that game. They don’t love it so much now. But ironically, some of them still spend a lot of time playing it.

So we were playing jail. None of us boys wanted to be “the man.” We wanted to be hardened criminals. Huh… Anyway, we decided to make Mandy “the man.” She was too young to protest, and besides, she was a girl. She might never be “the man” again. Hopefully.

The game commenced. We were the hardened criminals. We needed to be behind bars. The funny thing about playing jail is that there is never a crime committed. Why were we being thrown in prison? That’s kids for you. They spend their entire youth saddled with fascism. We were victims of a despotic regime!

So my Gestapo sister, being the man and all, rounded us all up and threw us in jail. The streets were safe again. At least the third floor was.

“Jail” was a closet at the back of the house. A fairly big closet. A dark closet, but big. My friends and I sat in jail. Jail was hot. And crowded. There were about six of us in there. Three (I think) of which were the Cunninghams.

The Cunninghams were a family that lived up the street. They were poor. Dirt poor. But you’d never know it to look at their physiques. They each had the build of a 15th century monarch. All of them. Jerry, Jay, Jody, Jenny and Jerry. The only one of them who was thin was their dad Jim. That’s because he spent his day jogging around the neighborhood. He was on some kind of disability. He couldn’t work. But the dude could run I tell you. Their mother Jenny was as big as all of them put together. At least that’s how I remember her. I only ever saw her once. I must have gone to their hose a million times and every time I did, she was asleep upstairs. We always had to be quiet. I found out later that she worked the graveyard shift at a truckstop. But as a kid, it was baffling. Almost as baffling as why a family who couldn’t afford to fix their toilet and had to empty it with a bucket always had a bakery’s worth of Hostess cupcakes.

Seems to me that if they would have just gotten rid of the cupcakes they could have fixed their toilet, or at the very least, made the job of emptying it with the bucket a lot less work.

But the Cunninghams were great. They were my best friends. None of them are criminals now. They’re good people.

So there we were, rotting in jail. Me, the Cunningham kids and my friend Jason. Like I said, it was a big closet, but the Cunninghams even things out a bit. It was cramped. But it was time for parole. We were rehabilitated.

That’s when we realized our first mistake. As it turns out, a 3-year-old isn’t the best jailer in the world. They get easily distracted. Evidently a closet full of boys isn’t entertaining enough. But in my sister’s defense, there was probably a Barbie somewhere with a severe bang problem.

But the second mistake was by far the most troubling. In our haste to pay our debts to society we failed to discover that our “jail” closet was missing a little something. An inside door knob.

Then came the third mistake. We just had to pick the closet the furthest away from anything else in the house.

We were trapped. My parents were downstairs. two stories downstairs. I’m guessing that’s where the warden was also. But I’m not going to blame Mandy. After all, we had all thought that there was a door knob on the inside of the closet. Why wouldn’t there be? It made no sense. But that’s the way it was. And no matter how much we yelled or pounded on the door – no one was coming – and it was getting really hot in there.

Salvation seemed to come in the form of a solitary wire hangar. We could pick the lock! We unfolded the hangar and stuck it in the keyhole. Nothing. Movies had let us all down again.

So there we were. Sweating. Standing. The majority of the closet was being taken up by the Cunninghams. I was the smallest kid there (I hadn’t gotten fat yet) and I was being crushed into the closet door. We kept yelling, we kept trying to pick the lock, but mostly, we sweated.

It was bad enough that it was probably about 99 degrees outside and we were on the very high third floor of a house with no air-conditioning, but the Cunninghams were kicking out some serious BTUs too and I was beginning to become delirious.

The rest of the story is a blur. All I know is that we spent at least three hours in there. We finally gave up hope. We would be there forever. We would need to start eating each other to stay alive. Luckily, Jerry Cunningham was good for it.

The way I hear it, the house got really quiet eventually. A quiet house when I was a kid meant that something was horribly wrong. My mom asked Mandy where we were. She said that she didn’t know. So my mom went looking for us.

She found us. I can’t imagine the heat and stench that came from that closet. Jerry was practically down to a size two.

But we were alive. And we never played jail with Mandy ever again.

So, Happy Birthday Amanda, I forgive you for trying to kill me. I’m still working on trying to forgive you for losing my Doors painters cap in the Spokane River, though.

Fun Fact: The new TAM Cartoon is up, I got the complete Peanuts Holiday Collection on DVD and Tanya is the best girlfriend ever.

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