It’s simple, how I learned about the power of words, and certain words choke me up. All it takes is an older brother and a mother who believes she has to do exactly what she says even though she’s not too sure anybody ever really did it before, it’s what everybody says they always threaten to do. And this gagging experience before I graduated to the more-expected Words of Four Letters. Three was enough to get me in trouble.
My brother Gary, always taunting me. Bigger, older, taller, stronger and peculiarly peevish, as if someone told him he was supposed to have been an only child, always have everything his way, get all the prizes and treats undivied up. Four years head start, and thinking I’d never catch up. Certainly never wise up. But, how long could he get away with it? Taunting me always—just asking for it.
Summer. Time when the most interesting thing in the world is to follow my brother around to see what he’s doing. He won’t let me play, he says I wreck everything. Just because I pushed his tow truck into the elevator in the gas station and yanked on the handle (it’s supposed to go up, I saw Gary do it). Just because the tow truck is still there and Dad can’t get it out “without using the tin snips”. Come on, I didn’t lose it or leave it in the sandbox, we all know where it is—
We’re in the sandbox now. And Gary says he wants to build something without me. “Without you! You know what that means? It means, get lost.”
“Can’t I just watch?”
But, I stand on the edge of the sandbox anyway, kind of a long log that holds the sand inside. Round long log, I admit I’m tottering, it’s easy to slip off.
“You’re gonna fall off and smash everything.”
“I’ll make you go away.” He pushes me off. I fall on the grass. He grabs my shoes and throws them as far as he can, towards the other end of the backyard.
“You ass!” I say to him. I didn’t even yell. I’m not very positive I have the word right, it’s a new one.
“What did you call me?”
I got it right, Gary’s eyes are popping and he’s red in the face. “You ass,” I repeat it, but I’m just answering his question.
“Say it again!”
“You ass,” I say it again. I’m just cooperating, see?
“I’m telling mother!” And he takes off running towards the back door.
My mother’s in the basement, ironing. Gary goes in and I hear his feet clump-clump down the basement steps. But I’m so pleased with myself (I got the word right), I stay where I am. I think I know but I wonder if I know for sure what it means. And I marvel how easy—that I never said anything before that turned my brother’s face red. I stand where I am and absently kick his half-built house to smithereens. Thinking about what Gary’s down in the basement doing right now and what he did with my shoes, one at a time, throwing them like a baseball pitcher, a few minutes ago, and how I might as well retaliate early because I might not get another chance—
Oops! Gary’s clumping up the stairs now, and I can hear the creak-creak-creak of my mother following behind. Gary bursts out the back door and races back to me. He doesn’t even glance at his house. “You’re gonna get it! You’re gonna get it!” he sings.
And here’s my mother coming right behind with a basket of clothes to hang on the line. It seems for a moment like what she does always, it doesn’t seem urgent, she isn’t red in the face. She sets the basket down and turns towards me. “What did you call your brother?” she asks. Still pleasant—but she isn’t smiling.
“Ass,” I mumble. She stares at me. I stare back. It’s one of those rare times when I have to give in first and shrug.
Now she comes over to me. “What?” she asks, suddenly all arrows pointing.
Suddenly I realize it’s a very bad word, I’m in trouble, Gary snitched on me, and it proves the point. (Don’t try to follow this logic unless you get caught, too.) I turn to my brother who is standing beside my mother and gloating—gloating—like he’s so smart and I’m so dumb, and furiously I bellow at him, “You ass!”
That does it. Led away by the hand and told why and how and how she “hates to do it, but you have to learn a lesson”—Mom takes me upstairs to the bathroom, takes a toothbrush out of the holder, turns on the water, picks up the bar of soap, and—
Not very much, but do you know what soap tastes like?