These stories usually start with a somewhat hazy declaration of age: "I was five or six," or "it was sometime during junior high." But on this one I can plainly say: it is winter and I am eleven. My brother and I have discussed it, and we both definitely remember me being eleven. Now, Chris and I often disagree on the finer points of my childhood stories (the "made up parts," Chris calls them), so when we do agree on something like this, you can take it as fact.
It is winter, and I am eleven. Chris is nine.
Before we go any further, there are a few things you should know about winter in North Dakota in my family's house in the 1980s:
- It is cold outside. Really cold. It is not uncommon, in the deep winter, for the "wind chill" (the "feels like" temperature -- a combination of the actual temperature and the velocity of the maddening wind which is whipping across the vast prairies of North Dakota from 5 - 40 mph at all times) to reach -40 degrees Fahrenheit and stay there for days. And, in the middle of winter, there are occasionally days when the actual temperature reaches -40, mostly in the dead of night -- at those times, the wind chill can be -80 or below. The year after this story takes place, when I was twelve, the wind chill was between -80 and -99 for three straight days in January. My family was, fortunately, at Disneyland, one of only two family trips on which we went farther away from home than South Dakota (the other was a crazy road-trip to even more frozen Edmonton, Alberta).
- Almost all of the windows in my parents' house, from November through March, are covered, on the inside, with a thin plastic film, much like Saran Wrap, double-sided-taped to the window frame and shrunk to a tight fit with a hair-dryer. This is done to keep the icy, maddening wind (described above) from swirling around the inside of the house. The only windows not so covered are the tiny windows which peek outside at the very tops of the walls in the basement (Dad just doesn't always get to these), and the window in the upstairs bathroom. I'm not sure about the "why" of that last one.
- The bathroom window, sans plastic and due to the accumulation of moisture condensed against that freezing cold pane of glass, is often covered in a thin frost. We are absolutely not allowed to write on this frost with our warm fingers. It, um, hurts the glass in some way. I'm not certain in what way such a thing might hurt the glass, but Mom and Dad are adamant about it.
Okay, now the story, which begins with Chris and me sitting in the living room watching television -- Chris is on the couch, and I am laying on the floor. Sara and Jaime do not figure prominently in this story and I have no idea where they are. Let us assume that Jaime is lying underneath her bed, crying softly with no idea where she is, and Sara is in the back yard eating twigs. Mom is in the middle of cooking dinner, and has taken a quick break to go to the bathroom. She returns from the bathroom, her face dark. She stops where the hallway enters the living room.
"David," says Mom, her lips pursed, "why did you write on the window?"
I look up at her slowly. "What?" I ask.
"Don't 'what' me. Why did you write on the bathroom window?"
My head is very full of Wheel of Fortune (this is back when all winners were rewarded with shopping sprees, which required intense concentration lest the player for which you were rooting slip up and buy the $2000 ceramic dog), and I shake it slightly. "What?" I ask again. "I didn't write anything."
Mom crosses the room in two quick strides, grabs my arm, and scoops me up from the floor. My mom is very tall and very strong, and I am a skinny, emaciated-looking kid; tall for my age, but without any significant body mass. When I am on my feet, she begins dragging me back toward the bathroom. Chris watches from the couch with one eye, while the other keeps tabs on Pat and Vanna.
Mom pushes me before her into the bathroom. One hand on my shoulder, she points at the window. "Wanna try again?" she asks. Her voice is not yet angry, but it is the end of another long day of taking care of four kids (an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old), and she is certainly not in the mood for games.
I follow her long finger toward the window. There, in the middle of the glass, dug into the frost like five delicate snow angels, are the careful letters D-A-V-I-D. There's no mistaking it -- that is my name. It's also my grandfather's middle name, but I'm fairly certain he didn't drive two hours from Bottineau in the middle of winter to write it. Still, I don't remember writing it.
Unfortunately, for me this is not much of an excuse. Unbeknownst to me, I suffer from an undiagnosed mild form of epilepsy, which manifests itself in the one-two punch of random repetative actions (such as writing or scribbling on tables or walls or, in one case, a telephone) coupled with short time-loss blackouts. In short, I would damage stuff, often while people were watching, and moments later deny I'd done it, because I simply did not recall doing it. In medical terms, this is referred to as a "Complex Partial Seizure" -- the damage I do is a by-product of the combination of automatisms and the fact that I am almost always drawing. I'll grow out of my very mild epilepsy by the time puberty is over and, years later, while studying, I'll stumble across the explanation for my mysterious childhood time-loss episodes. At this moment, though, medical diagnosis is the farthest thing from my mind.
"I didn't do it," I say, with only a little hesitation. And then, more emphatically, "I didn't do it."
Mom is in no mood for malfeasance. "Go to your room."
"Why?" I demanded through the rapidly forming tears. "I didn't do anything."
Mom walks out of the bathroom. "I don't have time for lies. Go."
I shuffle sullenly from the bathroom, tears on my face. When I get to the stairs which lead down to the room Chris and I share in the basement, I stop and turn back to the kitchen, where Mom is browning burger in the electric skillet. "I didn't do it," I say again.
Mom doesn't stop stirring the meat, but her grip on the spatula tightens. "I don't want to hear it. Go to your room. I'm making hotdish. If you decide you want some, you can tell the truth."
She turns to me, spatula in hand. I'm not afraid she'll swat me with it -- Mom doesn't play that way. "Liars don't get dinner. Go."
I flee down the stairs, and to my room. I slam the door as best I can, but it's a light hollow door and the wind resistance stops it from making any kind of satisfying noise. I throw myself down on my Star Wars bedspread and weep dramatically. I repeat, "It's not fair!" between sobs, with varying volume for about fifteen minutes. Then I just lie there, staring at the ceiling. After another fifteen minutes or so, Mom opens the door.
"Are you ready to tell the truth?" she asks.
"I didn't do it," I reply, not looking at her.
"I don't care about the window," she says. She is truly angry now, "I just cannot stand your lying to me. You will not eat until you tell the truth." And then the capper, "Your father will be home soon."
"So what?" I ask, defiantly.
"I am so sick of your crap," she replies, not even beginning to suspect the exponential rate at which my crap will increase over the next seven years until I move out of the house. She shakes her head at me in scorn, and heads back upstairs.
I remain there on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I try to remember if I've ever been denied dinner before and I come to the conclusion that the only time I've ever not had dinner was when Chris and I chose to forgo Dad's horse-meat surprise. Though I do not know it at the time, it will also be the last time I am ever denied dinner, at least until I am in college and too broke to afford it.
Ten minutes later, I hear dad's car pull into the garage. Now, my father is not a frightening guy. Like my mom, the tiny spiderwebs of lines around his eyes are almost entirely laugh lines. Though I lived in constant fear of a spanking from him, and even remember watching Chris and Jaime each get swatted once or twice, I don't believe I was ever a recipient of such a thing. Even when I was particularly obstinate, or when I would occasionally wet the bed until I was eight or nine, by the age of eleven my parents had never punished me with anything harsher than a deep sigh, a look of profound disappointment, or the extremely occasional angry shout. At least as I recall. Still, as far as I am concerned the sound of the red Mercury Bobcat pulling into our driveway is the sound of doom.
I listen as Dad comes in the front door. While I cannot hear her voice, I can tell that Mom is filling him in by the intermittent rumbling sound of Dad responding in his deep bass (which I will be lucky enough to inherit in a few years). After a few minutes, his soft footsteps start down our carpeted stairs, and then across the basement to the bedroom.
"Dave," he says, as he appears in the doorway, "what's going on?"
"I didn't do it. I don't care what she told you," I reply, my eyes wetting once again with tears.
Dad sighs deeply and looks at his feet. "Your mother's had a long day," he rumbles, "and I have, too. It's your name on the window."
I shrug, but don't say anything further.
"Fine," Dad says, after a few silent moments pass. "I don't want to see you out of this room until you are ready to admit it and apologize to your mother."
"Do I have to go to school tomorrow?" I ask, unwisely.
A little fire flashes in Dad's eyes, just for a moment, and his mouth tightens under his moustache. "Yes. And no drawing. And if I hear that TV, there'll be hell to pay." Then he leaves, heading back upstairs.
I lie on the bed, listening to the sound of my family having dinner, then watching TV. I sneak a pad of paper and a pencil out of my drawer very quietly and amuse myself with my artistic genius until Chris eventually comes downstairs and we got into our pajamas to go to sleep. After the lights are out, Chris tells me dinner was great. He laughs a little. I think I hear Mom crying softly upstairs and I wonder if my stubbornness was worth it. But my wondering lasts only for a brief moment as I drift off to sleep.
Almost eight years later, with the whole family gathered for Christmas Eve, including Grandma and Grandpa Nett, Chris comes clean. He wrote my name on the window, he says, because he liked writing on the window, but he didn't want to get caught. When Mom and then Dad became so angry, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor and let me take the fall. We all laugh long and hard, because it's an incident we all remember very clearly, and because it is hilarious. Chris was always the more savvy and streetwise of my parents' sons, and it's a great example of how his mischievous nature played against my emotional volatility throughout our childhood. To this day, when my family tells stories about our childhood, this one is always a feature, and we always laugh.
And, one day, when Chris sits smug and secure in his beautiful home with his lovely wife, innocent to how black twisted my soul has become in the long decades since the mysterious incident of the writing on the window, I will have my sweet revenge.