I was five but remember it like yesterday. How my big sister and I were in our driveway, riding her new Kick-N-Go, and the cool kid who lived up the street came racing toward us on his bike. He had never come to play with us before; I thought maybe he was planning to ask for a ride on the exciting new Kick-N-Go, the first in our neighborhood. Good lord, that thing was cool. Self-propelled, with a handbrake. Just look at these beauties:
The only reason they’re not around now is that they’re a terrible product that are impossible to ride well, but we didn’t know that then. We just figured we were kids who hadn’t figured it out yet.
That’s the thing about being a kid. You’ve got a lot of figuring out to do.
So in rode Joel, the cool kid from up the street. It was a thrill: he was a year older than me and had sideburns and a stepbrother in high school who lived in a room over their garage. Big stuff for me at that time, who was mostly stuck with my sister and her friends. I worshiped my sister, and her friends were mostly nice to me, but it wasn’t the same. Joel could beat kids up, except he was too cool to ever need to. He reminded me of a Hardy Boy:
No, he was cooler than that and rode alone. More like this guy:
Supercool Joel barely noticed the Kick-N-Go. He zoomed right past us and into our garage, his younger sister Tina trailing behind. As soon as my sister and I recovered our senses and joined him, he went to the step that led to the back door of our house and pressed the garage door button. The automatic door chugged down. The four of us were now alone in near darkness in our garage.
I had no idea what was going on.
He murmured something to my sister. The two of them appeared to reach some kind of understanding. Suddenly they bolted out the back door of our garage, and then the four of us were sprinting across our backyard and behind our neighbor’s house.
Now we were trespassing. I still had no idea what was going on. My heart was pounding so hard my ribs hurt.
At the corner of the house, Joel stuck his arm up the downspout and fished something out. It was a plastic Dynamints box, with a white lid and a faded label, and it didn’t have any mints, just a single sheet of notebook paper, folded and crammed inside. He surrendered it to my sister, who removed the paper and unfolded it as we gathered around and peered over her shoulder.
The handwriting was printed with a red pen, childlike but decisive:
A bucket of water we will throw on her head.
Tina and I looked at each other and gasped. My sister’s mouth was set tight.
It was 1977, and we were at war.
A bucket of water we will throw on her head.
Who was the target of this nefarious plot? My sister, Ellen.
And the perpetrator? I could guess right away. It was our across-the-street neighbor. My sister’s oldest friend.
Ginny and Ellen had a history. They had been born weeks apart and had grown up together, thrown together by neighborhood proximity in spite of not having anything in common. Fights were frequent, but nothing had ever broken the bond they shared. They were like sisters.
But even for them, this was unusual. A sinister plot, written down and hidden in a rainspout? Escalating violence? Conspiracies?
And Ginny had enlisted other people in this battle?
I hadn’t known that any of this was happening. Now it felt like I was in way over my head.
Ellen explained that Ginny had declared that she “hated” Ellen. Ellen hadn’t retaliated, but Ginny was hell-bent on battle.
I believed Ellen because I had seen the dynamic in action, many times. Ellen was popular at school, and got good grades, and was a favorite of her teachers; Ginny struggled with all these things. Ginny took it hard whenever Ellen had a success: a spelling bee victory, a choice part in the Christmas pageant, an election to student council.
It was not as if Ginny was always the runner-up. Ellen was the best, but Ginny was not second-best, or third-best, or anything close. She wasn’t even part of the conversation.
At my church there was a picture of the Last Supper. Jesus was speaking, looking at the heavens, as eleven of the disciples gaze at him with wonder. Only Judas looks away, stares directly at the viewer, wearing a venomous expression. I always pictured Ginny as taking that posture in the classroom: lurking in the back of the room, hunched over, snarling as Ellen stood up front, a halo behind her head, winning prize after prize after prize.
It was not good to be Ginny.
I had not realized it, but I had been there when the war had begun.
We were playing at our house, as we usually did because Ginny’s father Frank worked the night shift at the GM plant. My memory of him is coming to the door, angry that a doorbell had rung but softening when he saw it was Ellen, because he thought she had a positive influence on his daughter.
Frank suffered from a disease that impaired his ability to walk—another thing I didn’t fully understand. All I knew was that I didn’t like going over there, with the constant reminders to keep our voices down, either because “Frank’s trying to sleep” or “Frank’s legs are bothering him.”
Thinking of him now, I can only feel pity for how hard his life must have been, but back then I didn’t understand. Why did he sleep during the day? And why did he have so much trouble walking? Why was he so big, and so angry? He made me feel like I did when I saw on television a creature that transformed into a monster at night, a vampire or a wolfman, something not quite human.
So there we were, Ellen, Ginny, and me, spending a rainy day playing school in our basement. My parents had installed two blackboards that our town’s school had discarded, and Ellen and Ginny were standing across the room from each other, each of them teaching their own imaginary class.
I was in Ellen’s class, sitting cross-legged on the rug, learning addition and subtraction as Ginny taught spelling to a row of stuffed animals.
“Class,” Ginny said, “This is how we spell please.”
Ellen looked at Ginny’s blackboard and frowned. “Ginny,” she said gently. “You might want to take another look at that.”
Scowling, Ginny looked at the blackboard. I looked too. She had not written please. She had written pasel.
“Class,” Ginny said more loudly. “I’m sorry we were interrupted. Please write the word please fifty times. You can copy it from the blackboard, where it is written correctly.”
Looking back, I wonder if Ginny may have been dyslexic. It was not something Ellen or I were equipped to understand at that age. Ellen was just trying to be helpful. She had to be helpful, just like she had to be good. She knew no other way. It was why I and everyone else admired her so much. Everyone, that is, except Ginny.
Ellen was quiet for a while. She knew she shouldn’t say anything. But she just couldn’t help herself. Ginny needed to know the right way to spell please. It was important.
“Do you want to borrow Jacke for a minute, Ginny?” Ellen said sweetly. “He could visit your class.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Ginny asked. “He’s your student.”
“Because…” Ellen said, flustered. “Because Jacke knows how to spell please.”
“Class,” Ginny screamed. “I need to close the door!” She stomped to the edge of the rug and slammed an imaginary door. “Too many annoying interruptions! I will speak to the principal about this tomorrow! Some other teachers may need to be fired.”
Ellen sighed and went back to the numbers on her blackboard. Please would be pasel, at least for today. Ginny would need to learn the hard way, as always.
I tried to pay attention but was too afraid. Ginny would often pinch my arm or poke me in the ribs when Ellen wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to turn my back on her.
But Ginny had other plans.
“Class,” she announced. “Spelling is over! It’s time for the Christmas pageant. Time for me to assign parts.”
Ellen stopped writing.
“Danny,” Ginny continued, “you can be Joseph. Little Ginny, because you are the best student in the class, you will be Mary.”
She paused for effect.
“And Little Ellen, you will be the king who tried to kill the baby Jesus.”
Ellen, who had lived with this from Ginny for her entire eight years, was nevertheless shocked. She set the chalk down and folded her arms across her chest. She shook her head sadly—sadder for Ginny, I thought, than she was for herself. It was typical of Ellen: insults didn’t bother her so much as knowing that the person delivering the insult was expressing their own pain. She was a wise kid.
And maybe this pity was what put Ginny over the edge. She stared at Ellen, her face turning redder and redder, until finally she took off, running up the steps and across the street to her house. My mother shrugged and closed the front door, which Ginny had left wide open, her usual way of departing.
Later that day, Ellen and I were riding our bikes down the block to get to the ice cream truck before it turned the corner onto a busier street. We passed Joel and Tina’s house. Ginny was there, whispering to the two siblings. As we passed by, they stopped and stared at Ellen. Ginny was smiling falsely, and all three of them had a strange look in their eyes. It looked to me like hatred or evil.
The war had begun.
Back in the garage, Ellen thanked Joel for letting her know about the note. Joel smiled and hopped on his bike and took off for the Spring, a very cool destination on the outskirts of town, past the trailer park, that was farther than I was allowed to go without my parents. I walked to the end of the driveway and watched my hero leave.
Ellen went inside. She took the note with her, evidence that might someday help her explain to my parents what kind of war was being waged against her. I was left behind with a brand new playmate, Tina, and the empty Dynamints box.
It pleased me to be suddenly in possession of a cool new thing. Grownups would toss this in the trash without a second thought, but what did they know? We had all kinds of toys made out of stuff like this. Coffee cans or Pringles cans (with masking tape around the sharp edges) were a good way to store stuff. Egg cartons. Pipe cleaners. Toothbrush handles. Scraps of wood. Binder twine. Stuff like this was valuable because it could be used to make other stuff.
Tina and I sat down on the oily cardboard that garages in the ’70s had because cars leaked like crazy. I unsnapped the plastic lid and sniffed inside. Wintergreen and ink, a not unpleasant combination. The fumes opened my nostrils and clarified my thinking. A kindergarten high. (What can I say? It was the ’70s.)
Tina took a turn and passed it back. We smiled at each other. What we had just shared was as exciting to my five-year-old brain as if we had just kissed on the mouth.
Tina had other thoughts.
“We need to get her,” she said. “We need to get Ginny.”
I was confused but captivated. Tina was six months younger than me—more like one of my peers than my sister’s friends. (Two and a half years older, which made them from a completely different generation. They may as well have been my aunts.) And she was so, so, so cute. I didn’t know how to deal with any of this.
The garage was dark. Without Joel and Ellen there, I was free to fall under Tina’s spell.
“Yes,” I heard myself say. “We need to do that.”
I have no idea why I said this. Maybe it was because Ellen and Ginny were only in second grade, but already it was clear that Ellen had a lot more to lose than Ginny. Ginny was already viewed as a bad kid. She could act as malevolent as she wanted and no one would be surprised or disappointed.
That didn’t seem fair to Ellen, who couldn’t fight back. And now, here was Tina, who had actually been on the other side. She knew the extent of the evil that lurked over there, across the street. She knew what justice required.
Like Joel, she seemed to know exactly where everything was in our garage. (The fact that all the houses on our street looked the same may have had something to do with that, but I hadn’t figured that out yet.) She rose from the step and went straight to a box where my dad stored an old clothesline he was keeping around as a spare.
She held up the coil.
“With this,” she said, her eyes gleaming.
I didn’t know what she was going to do. But I could not bring myself to resist.
A minute later we were in position: Tina was kneeling between two shrubs at the side of their front porch; I was installed behind a tree on the other side of their driveway. Each of us held one end of the clothesline.
A trip line! This was serious stuff. I had to believe that Ginny had planned to pull this very trick on Ellen. It seemed far too devious for cute, young Tina to come up with something this demonic on her own.
A bucket of water we will throw on her head.
A clothesline we will trip her with.
We practiced holding the line two inches off the ground, perfect for tripping Ginny or wiping her out if she happened to arrive on her bike. As I settled in to wait, Tina suddenly jerked her arm, pulling up her end of the line.
Her half of the line was now neck high. I looked at Tina helplessly, too scared to speak. She read it in my eyes: The neck? Really?
She smiled and nodded. My heart was pounding.
I lifted my arm too. The neck. We were going for the neck.
It was all there for me, the future all laid out. We would wipe out Ginny, then skedaddle home like the Dukes of Hazzard. We’d lock ourselves in the garage—just me and Tina, together in the dark!—and huff the Dynamints box and giggle at how we had thwarted my sister’s sworn enemy. It would be delicious.
We jerked the line up and down a few times for practice. Tina laughed. It sounded like a cackle. I laughed too.
And then I looked at the street. What I saw almost made me pee my pants.
Someone had turned up the driveway. They were coming straight toward us, close and getting closer. But it was not Ginny.
It was her father Frank.
He was walking heavily, as usual. The doctor had put him on this regimen, prescribing one trip around the block each night before he headed off to the second shift. Frank did his best to comply, though it was obviously painful. Stooped over, shuffling, slow, head down, breathing heavily.
I dropped my end of the line. Tina looked at me with alarm.
Pick it up, she mouthed, pointing at the cord. Do it.
This was our plan? To trip Frank? A grownup? I looked at Frank, who had not seen us. I looked at Tina. Frank again, walking like a wounded bear. Tina, my five-year-old femme fatale.
I picked up my end.
Frank grunted. He hadn’t noticed us or the clothesline, two inches off the ground.
Across the driveway, Tina stood up and raised her arm as high as it would go. Her eyes implored me to do the same.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She was going for his neck.
Frank was only steps away. Head still down. Shuffling closer. I could smell him now: newspapers and engine oil and cardboard and grease. A walking garage.
Suddenly I lost my nerve. I threw down my side of the cord and took off. Tina did the same.
Frank paused as we ran past him, pounded our way across the street, and retreated to my garage. Breathing hard, standing next to Tina, I was relieved that the worst was over. The clothesline lay feebly on the driveway.
We would have to come up with some excuse for what it was doing there. Playing house and planning to hang up clothes? It was all I could think of. Maybe I needed to soak something with the hose that I could claim I was planning to dry.
But it was over, oh thank god it was over. Tina smiled at me: we had come close to doing it! She didn’t hate me! I couldn’t believe how good it felt to earn her approval, even though I had chickened out. We had almost done it and hadn’t gotten into trouble!
As we laughed, exhilarated, Frank bent down to pick up the cord. His foot somehow got twisted. He tried to unwrap the line but went the wrong way around, tangling himself further. Then the rope got hooked on his wrist somehow, and his knee, and suddenly he was doing a slow, awkward pirouette, like a dumb animal in a net, unable to figure out what was happening or how to escape.
I opened my mouth. No sound emerged.
He turned again and staggered. He was completely bound now, tied up like something about to be slaughtered, flailing around but only making things worse. Finally, with cords wrapped all around his arms and legs and shoulders and belly, he leaned, stumbled back, spun halfway around, and pitched forward face first, hitting the cement with a horrible slapping sound we could hear all the way across the street.
He lay there and groaned. He didn’t sound like a monster. He sounded like an old man about to die.
Illness is a terrible thing. A kid doesn’t understand it any better than anyone else. I only knew that I had caused something awful to happen to someone who was sick, which meant I was bound to get in a lot of trouble. I burst into tears. Tina jumped on her bike and pedaled home, leaving me alone.
Ellen came running out. “What’s going on?” she said. “What did you do?”
I shook my head, bawling.
She glanced across the street. “Mom!” she shouted. “Frank needs help!”
My mom emerged from the door and the two of them ran across the street to untie Frank. My mom touched his forehead, several times. He held one of his shoulders and swung his arm gingerly, as if it were broken. Finally Ginny’s mom came out and helped him into the house.
My mom picked up the clothesline. She looked confused. She did not seem to have any idea what had happened.
Ellen, of course, figured it out right away. She shook her head as the two of them walked toward me. I cried harder.
Watching them approach, I cried because I had figured something out.
While Ellen had been in the house, helping my mother, doing the right thing, I had been in the garage, seduced by the smell of the Dynamints and the thrill of doing whatever a dangerously cute little girl wanted me to do.
I cried because I was not good like my sister. I was not Ellen and I never would be.
I was Ginny.
Ugh, this one dug a little deep. But there you go, readers. Anything for you. You can read about another grown man falling down in Object #1, which tells the story of a disastrous football team and a coach at the end of his rope, or the end of his bolt cutter, or something. Oh yes, we have plenty of posts on failure here at the Jacke Blog, including this one about the great Penelope Fitzgerald. And of course, if you’re truly looking to get in touch with your “intrigue and deadpan comedy” side, with lots and lots of failure thrown in for good measure, The Promotion and The Race are there waiting for you for less than five bucks (and the e-reader/smartphone versions even less than that). I also have free review copies for all my friends—shoot me an email and I’ll shoot you a copy!)
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season