By Kurtis Scaletta
My childhood was a three-way war with ever shifting alliances and revised histories, like the political background of 1984. In this case the war involved me and my two brothers.
Ken was the oldest. He liked horror movies and drawing Holly Hobbie being eaten alive by gigantic snakes. When I was in first grade and he was in third, he made me cry by ridiculing The Velveteen Rabbit. But he was mostly harmless by himself, because he was too lazy to be a bully.
Kelly was the middle child. He was obsessed with sports and, later, strident power pop bands like Styx and Journey. He frequently made me smell his socks, which, based on the smell, he’d worn while walking shoeless across beds of festering corpses
I woke every day wondering which brother I hated more, and entered into a begrudging alliance with the third to make that one miserable. There were, of course, times when I found that I was the one against which the other two were (m)aligned, but those usually ended with me screeching my special, high-pitched, threatened-squirrel shriek that is the gift of every youngest child. It would bring our volatile father, and that would put an end to everything. I was that kind of kid. I would tip a checkerboard, and I would tip the game of war if I found out I was losing.
Oh, sometimes there were truces: I have happy memories toboganning down a flight of stairs with my brothers, or playing our favorite game, which involved trying to get a Nerf ball dislodged from the giant pine tree by hurling the corkscrew yard spike we used to chain our dog (the winner got to re-lodge the ball), and of pawing through our dad’s Playboys which her hidden under the bed in the guest room. But these accords were brief, uneasy, and oftener than not deteriorated into wrath and tears.
One day the oldest and I had driven the middle one into his room, where he’d slammed the door, braced it with a chair, and was now blaring Foreigner and probably paging through back issues of Sports Illustrated. I found a length of rope in my father’s “workshop” (I have no memory of him actually doing work in there, but I had performed various unsupervised chemistry and biology experiments and the place was a mess of sulfuric goo, pinewood derby car shavings, and bread molds that had evolved into sentient beings with language and plots of world domination). I eyed the knob of the door, and the nearby railing, and had an idea.
I knew that the scariest thing about practical jokes is that sometimes they worked: I’d seen a thumbtack deeply embedded in a teacher’s backside, my father soaking wet and fuming and rubbing the spot on his forehead where he’d just taken the brim of a metal bucket. There is no time to revel in success, at such moments. There is just the sheer terror that comes with success.
I eyed the doorknob and the railing and comforted myself with the idea that it probably wouldn’t work, even though the door opened to the inside and the railing was almost straight across the hall and was anchored to the wall and I had a freshly earned merit badge in knots. Then I roped that dope in there and by God if it wasn’t Alcatraz.
I knocked (loudly, to be heard over the music) and taunted him, and heard him bounding across the room to let me have it. I remember, thirty years later, his startled and confused “huh” when he found the door uncooperative. He yanked harder. The door still wouldn’t open. He pounded on the door and ordered me to let him out. Obviously, I did not let him out, and that was when he freaked.
I don’t mean he freaked like Hammy hopped up on Red Bull at the end of Over the Hedge. I don’t even mean he freaked like that kid on YouTube whose mom cancelled his WoW account. No, this was a culmination of over a decade of simmering middle child hostility blanched in bile with a bottle of Tabasco sauce fed to the Incredible Hulk on steroids after a fender bender at a Tea Party rally during tax season. He freaked. He went from “huh?” to an utter Krakatoa of rage in about a second. He bellowed. He bashed. He hollered. He walloped. He shouted. He kicked. And then, mere moments after learning of his predicament, he started charging the door like a boy-sized nuclear-fueled bull, visibly straining the joints and bulging the door.
Now I was in a predicament, because my options were (a) wait for him to actually tear down the door, which would then have to be explain to my anger unmanaged father, (b) let him out so he could beat the living shit out of me and shove his socks in my mouth and possibly kill me.
I chose the latter, and I don’t quite remember what happened after that. It must have been some deux et machina: my parents coming home mere seconds later, or some girl calling that my brother wanted to talk to without sounding like a madman, or maybe I just told oldest brother to give me a count to a hundred to escape, then untie him. Or maybe—it seems like a long shot—maybe he realized the moment that he was out that he’d been trapped for all of ten minutes.
It’s a rare thing for grown brothers to come to a common agreement on what happened: who made whom eat what kind of insect, what wedgie preceded which noogie, who set the fire and who put it out with his own pee. But I found middle brother and I had the same recollection this time. Here is an excerpt of the conversation:
Me: Remember the time when I used a piece of rope to tie your bedroom door closed and you went bananas and tried to bring the door down? How long were you in there?
Brother: I don’t know, about 10 minutes.
Me: I’ve been asked to write about something dumb I did as a kid. I’m going with that one.
Brother: My dumbest thing was when I forced you to smell my socks.
The common memory ends there. He thinks he only did that once?
Kurtis Scaletta is the author of four novels for young readers: Mudville (2009), Mamba Point (2010), The Tanglewood Terror (2011), and The Winter of the Robots (2013). All are published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. He is also the author of the Topps League series published by Abrams Amulet and illustrated by Eric Wight. Find more about Kurtis here.