The most important exchange I will ever have with my sister was about drugs.
Neither of us were on any at the time (I was twelve years old; she nine). But I must admit that there have been moments since when I’ve been tempted to claim otherwise. You see, a chemical influence would go a long way in accounting for our bizarre behavior that day. It would also explain why neither of us can remember exactly how the whole mess started.
It might have been physical. Slaps to the head or a few cheap, irresistible pinches—we certainly weren’t above fighting dirty. It could have been fallout from one of us ignoring the other’s claim on some coveted leftover or the remote control. The truth is, I honestly don’t know what offense landed Leslie and me in the clink of our respective bedrooms that second Sunday of January, 1994. But I am positive it was our father who put us there.
As in most family bureaucracies, my mother wore the Social Services badge. Whatever bone Leslie and I were scrapping over, Mom would have talked us through negotiations or diverted our attention before hard time had to be handed down. But on this particular afternoon, the social worker was out, and all cases were proceeding directly before the judge. The honorable Jeffrey A. Powelson, presiding. Ours being a decidedly middle-class republic, the judge also served as chief groundskeeper. And so my sister and I found ourselves at the mercy of a man with brush to burn, gutters to clean, and nary a damn to give about the origins of our dispute. There were no questions asked, nor statements given. Only an exasperated, “Go to your rooms.”
In hindsight, that’s probably just as well. Like my father before me, I could now care less what two caterwauling miscreants may or may not have done to be sent to their quarters. But culpability for what would happen once we got there is an entirely different matter—one that still breeds fierce debate.
I blame the Chinese.
— WHY THE CAGED BIRD YODELS —
To gain any insight into the strange behavior my sister and I were about to exhibit, you must first consider the narrative that had taken root in our collective subconscious over the preceding weeks. In addition to being the year that sibling violence peaked in our home, 1994 also boasted one of the worst cold & flu seasons in recent history, all thanks to a particularly vile strain called A-H3N2, or “The Beijing Flu.” Don’t ask me about the name. Maybe this bug quashed autoimmune revolt with particular zeal. Or maybe it just multiplied more efficiently than other flus. I couldn’t tell you because no one in our house was sick, nor was there any evidence to suggest we’d been exposed to the virus. What we had been exposed to was the barrage of television commercials for products claiming to fight it.
Suppressants, expectorants, decongestants, analgesics: You name it, it was on TV, being used as directed. As the pandemic gained momentum, the frequency of ads grew so intense that they began to blur together and assume a collective voice. By Christmas there were no more thirty-second spots, just two-minute commercial breaks speaking to you in pharmacological tongues like an over-the-counter Hunter Thompson. Cable became a fever dream where every eight minutes the tambourine man returned to paint Kleenex-littered rainbows of transcendent possibility. Relief was a given, you simply had to decide which way you wanted it. Up? Down? Internal? Topical? There were pills to open a person’s northern passages, liquids to clench the southern ones, and potions that promised to keep you just this side of comatose for the duration of your illness. The OTC industry and its media buyers had done their jobs well. Perhaps too well. The ironic side-effect of a single category dominating the airwaves was that nothing stood out. Well, almost nothing.
Alpine horns. Switzerland. Coughdrops.
You just heard it, didn’t you? Deep in the recesses of your brain, some sequence of neurons lit up and coaxed a long-neglected mountaineer to the edge of your frontal lobe where he cupped his mouth and released that spectacular, three-note warble into the hills. And four words were all it took. This is the beauty of lowbrow advertising. It’s like a kid before he understands cool and decides it’s something a person should be. There’s no vanity. No pretense. No apology. Cheesy ads simply do what they’re supposed to. They stick.
I don’t remember which of us yelled it first. But I now realize that it couldn’t have happened had the gutters not been my father’s first priority that morning. You see Leslie’s bedroom was on the opposite side of the hall from mine, and both offered the most convenient access to our home’s two rooflines. Thus, twice a year our windows were relieved of their screens allowing my father to purge six months of leaf sludge from the overhanging troughs. As domestic duties go, this is an unpleasant one, the home-improvement equivalent of removing a dip of snuff from someone else’s lower lip. Consequently, the man had worked himself into a genuinely special mood even before sentencing us for the initial offense. And that’s probably what made it so irresistible.
“REEE-COLA!” I would scream out over the front yard. The echo would linger for a few beats, then, right on cue, her response would circle around from the back.
Oscar Wilde observed that, “Opportunity may only knock once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.” Had he have driven down Cedar Lane that afternoon he could have completed the axiom, adding that “idiocy hangs out its second-story windows and yodels about Swiss throat drops.”
You know that thing where you repeat a perfectly normal word so many times that it loses all meaning? Right, well, it turns out there is no inverse phenomenon. After twenty minutes of yodeling, my sister and I still couldn’t tell you what Riccola meant or why it had become the funniest damned thing we’d ever heard. Nor could we anticipate the quantity of hell that would soon be paid for our lack of explanation.
Good questions all, but they paled in comparison to what had become the larger mystery of this fiasco: How had Leslie and I ended up on the same side of anything?
— A HISTORY OF INDIFFERENCE —
Some things just don’t make sense. Yes, incarceration breeds unlikely accord. Its canyons of boredom and isolation will lead a prisoner to build bridges with whatever he can. But I’m not sure that explains why my sister and I passed a Swiss epithet, at the top of our lungs, for nearly half-an-hour.
That commercial was nothing new. We’d seen it together literally hundreds of times and never commented, never shared so much as a smirk. Yet here we were, nearly incontinent with laughter, yelling ourselves ironically hoarse and unknowingly compounding the terms of our punishment with each volley. It just happened. Random and organic and intuitive in a way that our relationship had never been. For herein lies the unflattering-yet-undeniable truth about Leslie and me, a truth that should have been confessed from the outset: We were terrible at being brother and sister.
It wasn’t so much a question of love. We had good parents. Neither of us were particularly stupid as children. So we caught on fairly quick to the idea that we were supposed to love each other, and, of course, on a purely fundamental level, we did. But as any decent counselor, or former Eagle drummer, will tell you, ‘sometimes love just ain’t enough.’
The truth is that my sister and I had just never really connected. Some relatives blame this on our age gap. Others suggest the gender difference or point to two polar personalities. Individually, these explanations have always seemed insufficient to me. However I can see how various combinations of the three could, hypothetically, produce a pattern of alienation. For example:
- Age & Gender
Adolescent males have new muscle mass. They have new surges of aggression. What they do not have are new, or even adequate, reserves of coordination and common sense. Thus, for an eight-year old girl, the prospect of driveway games of one-on-one with your 12-year-old brother is not only completely uninteresting, it’s also potentially dangerous.
Similarly, a 17-year-old boy sees no upside to his sister’s 13-year-old friends’ constant presence around the house. They’re not old enough to matter socially, but they have the opportunity to witness his most unflattering habits and any number of potentially mortifying occurrences. Translation: he can’t fool around with them, and they’re apt ruin his chances of doing so with all other mutually acquainted females.
- Gender & Personality
When a little girl finds her talking Cricket doll dangling from the ceiling fan by a crudely fashioned noose, crying, “It wasn’t me” in a familiar falsetto, she does not stop to applaud the executioner’s burgeoning dramatic sensibilities. And should a young man return to his alma mater for a graduation ceremony, he will not fail to notice the stink-eyes and double takes from former teachers as they process his unseemly relation to the young woman giving the Salutatorian speech.
- Personality & Age
A free-spirited child is unlikely to value the discipline and sacrifice on display at any of the bazillion piano recitals he is forced to attend in support of his younger sister. Likewise, when an ambitious high school senior stays at her brother’s college apartment the evening before an audition with the university’s music department, she will fail to appreciate both her hosts’ indomitable joie de vivre and its 3 AM implications. Having to brush her teeth where they drain the bong water will not help.
So much for hypotheticals. And I’m not sure a demographic matrix explains it either. Plenty of siblings fall into the same profiles and still manage to make perfectly meaningful connections. So what if it’s nothing more than luck? By that I’m not suggesting that Leslie and I weren’t lucky enough to be close. Quite the opposite, actually. Perhaps we were so blessed as individuals, cementing a strong sibling bond never became necessary.
Don’t ask me how or why, but the cards my sister and I drew in the existential lottery placed us in a genuinely warm, nurturing home that somehow still prepared us for the world outside its doors. In this sense, childhood gave us everything but a common threat. There was no angry drunk of a father to hide from, no philandering mother to resent or chronic illness to rally against. We were untouched by grief. Ungodly fortunate. Simply in each other’s way.
— THE RECKONING —
And then the judge became the warden.
If you’ve spent any time at all watching prison documentaries, you’re familiar with the “communication on the inside” segment. Invariably, sometime after the show’s narrator has introduced one to three sympathetically nicknamed inmates, but before he ponders the efficiency of a tobacco-and-oral-sex based economy, special care is taken to point out the novel ways prisoners share information. Whether it’s lowering notes with twine braided from one’s own pubic hair, or relaying instructions through subversive bursts of slang, no one conspires more resourcefully than the residents of our nation’s correctional facilities. If reality television has anything to teach us, it’s that, in the joint, a seemingly nonsensical hoot or holler can incite disastrous revolt.
This is exactly what my father feared and sought to stomp out as he took stairs two at a time en route to our rooms. From my window I’d seen him leave his post near one of the brushfires, but I underestimated both his speed and the suspicion that accounted for it. Consequently, half of me was still hanging outside when my door burst open and the smell of kerosene and Levi-Garett proclaimed his arrival.
“What the hell is this Ricola crap?” he demanded, appropriately, of my hindquarters.
I wrangled myself back inside and turned as slowly as possible, hoping my face would straighten itself in time. This was a moot point once I took sight of him. Six feet and forty-one years standing atop the meanest pair of shit-kickers I’ve seen to this day. The down vest he wore overtop a flannel shirt leant extra heft to his shoulders, and its high collar scraped audibly against a beard flecked with sweat and sawdust. Red-faced and seething, he squinted behind a pair of thick, dark-tinted glasses and demanded answers.
“What does it mean!?”
It was like some twisted, backwoods version of Pinocchio, where instead of a puppet conferring the gift of fatherhood, the cover of a Hank Williams Jr. album had come to life for the sole purpose of whooping my ass. As I bit down on the inside of my cheek, reaching for some hidden reserve of composure, Bocephus summoned his other youngin’.
“One of you is going to tell me what in God’s name this is about, and the other’s going to wish they’d spilled it first.”
What were we supposed to tell him? “You see Dad, there are these Alpinists, real hearty, Scandinavian types who know a thing or two about braving the elements and, well, calling in sick just isn’t an option at twelve-thousand feet…”
Lacking a succinct explanation, Leslie and I should have had the good sense to at least appear repentant. But the absurdity of this man asking these questions was too much. Unlike the rest of the family, my father does not average six hours of television viewing per day. Any more oblivious to popular culture and he’d sport half the beard and a calendar full of barn raisings. Shits and giggles are not in the wheelhouse. His sense of humor, keen as it is, grips the literal with both hands. And so the idea of repeating something simply because you’d heard it before and it echoed nicely and your windows happened not to have screens that day—these were dots we had no chance of connecting for him.
So we laughed. Hard.
— THE END AND THE BEGINNING —
Defining moments are hard to spot in real time. The first day Elvis left Sun Studio, all he had was a birthday present for his mama. Orville and Wilbur were up for less than sixty seconds. And when she realized she hadn’t made it to the dry cleaners at the end of a long February day, Monica Lewinsky probably just sighed and added another “to-do” to tomorrow’s list. Likewise, it’s not as if everything changed that day between my sister and I. Five years later you’d still have to squint to see the sprouts of an actual relationship breaking the surface of our day-today interactions. But step back far enough and it’s clear that seeds were planted amidst that afternoon’s shenanigans. Know it or not, we’d found our cause.
Granted, it’s no leukemia. It won’t trump a handsy uncle and probably doesn’t even register next to your average divorce or bankruptcy. But as rallying points go, the lampooning of one’s elders will more than suffice. Enough time passes and you accept that there’s nothing sensational or remotely tragic about it. You embrace that it’s common. There’s nothing wrong with common. Common ground is common. And wasn’t that all you were looking for in the first place?
The older Leslie and I get, the more our relationship looks the way it did that day inside our bedrooms. We’ve learned to be a little more proactive, that our garden of sarcasm and parental mockery can use tending from time to time. Still, there’s no need to force things. We take the victories as they come: A recent New Year’s resolution to “finally get serious about the jug band”. The platter of home-smoked (read: entirely inedible) meat on a particularly ambitious Thanksgiving. Any number of long-distance tutorials in online shopping.
Even today my sister and I don’t talk all that regularly. Most pertinent information is still relayed through our parents. But, at the very least, twice a year when another of our birthdays rolls around, I can look forward to placing or receiving a call that forgoes all conventional greetings and begins instead with an abrupt dispatch of recent, home-front oddities.
— Dad’s installing a gun safe in the powder room.
— McGee residence…
— Mom taught the dogs to use the ice dispenser.
— This is Michael—
— Dad says he can’t hear the TV over the crunching and he’s tired of stepping in cold puddles.
— No, this isn’t good.
— What do you mean?
— Turn right out of the kitchen, where are you?
— The powder roo—oh Jesus.
The calls are treasure to me. They make it almost worth turning a year older. But they’re changing. And with each one it’s a little harder to ignore the tinge of caution that’s creeping into the exchange. It’s a silent hitch, right there in the few beats of dead air after we stop laughing and before we work towards “take care” or “see you soon.” Not sadness exactly, but something jagged and wistful. I know we both hear it. I know we ask ourselves what will happen when the father with the brush fires isn’t around to taunt. I know we dread the day that the mother who returned home and laughed with us seventeen years ago can’t be dragged in again to share the blame. I know we worry, and not just for the obvious reasons.
Yes, being parents, they are the only people who will ever love us that much, in that way. But they’re also our bridge, the filament that connects our current and makes the light come on. So we worry about what will become of us, as brother and sister, when that filament burns out. Will we recognize each other in the dark?
I like to think so, and there’s reason to be optimistic. New bridges are currently under construction. Last April, Leslie and her husband introduced me to a niece who laughs every bit as easy as her grandmother and flashes the same devil in her toddler’s grin. And in a few months I’ll stand up and swap promises with a beautifully disarming woman who’ll then have to continue sleeping with me, regardless of anything Leslie and friends tell her. All parties seem to enjoy each other’s company, perhaps simply because we want to, and I’m just about convinced it will stay that way. We’ll make the calls. Make the drives. Make the jokes. We’ll laugh, even if it hurts. It will almost be enough.
In the mean time, we’ll keep in touch the old-fashioned, lazy way. Just this morning, Mom tells me Leslie has come down with an especially brutal sinus infection, the kind that dumps broken glass down your throat when you charge your vocal chords with even the slightest whisper.
“Hmm, that sucks.” I say. I’ve always been the empathetic one.
But it does suck. Being sick isn’t the same for working moms. Getting time off will be difficult. She’ll worry about the baby catching it. The figurative headaches will rival the literal ones.
After considering all this, I waffle on whether or not to send the care package. “If she wanted them, she’d buy them herself,” I think. “This might not be the best time for an old joke.”
“Ah, what the hell,” I say, hearing the oversized envelope drum against the bottom of the mailbox. Tomorrow it will be alright. She’ll open the package, see the smaller one inside, hear the warble. And she’ll laugh. Even if it hurts.