My dad got the bunk bed in some kind of deal with one of my uncles, who was a manager at Larry’s Discount Furniture and Appliances. Uncle James, who always talked as if in a commercial, got a twenty percent reduction off the “already low, low price” of everything in the store because of his position. After purchasing the set with my Dad’s money, Uncle James made us come one Saturday and “help” him load it into one of the delivery trucks he was borrowing for the weekend. That help consisted of my Dad lifting one end of the big box of unassembled bunk bed and Pete and I on the other end as Uncle James charmed the shipping clerk who was skeptical about the use of the company vehicle. Her giggles at his gestures of flirtation could be heard above our grunts of agony and my Dad’s hollering that we quit being babies and pick up the end of the box, so I guess Uncle James didn’t know how much trouble we were having.
When the box was in the room, my Dad opened one end with a mighty rip and seemed to pour the contents onto the floor of the room, which was looking less cramped than usual due to the fact that our regular beds had been disassembled and put in storage “just in case another little brat were to come along,” Dad said. Pete and I were quiet as we watched our father glance at the directions for assembly then toss them aside with an all-knowing gesture. Our job was to shut the hell up and stay put (which means out of anyone’s hair) until he needed something at which point he would thrust his arm at something and say “urg” (hammer) or “ugh” (screwdriver). One of us would retrieve the tool, receive his warm thanks (“ran koo”), then retreat to the spot where we were busy shutting up.
Pete and I were able to abide by these rules for about twenty minutes, a sort of record, when my Dad managed to put something in the wrong place and had difficulty getting it out. He emitted a string of very impressive cuss words. His sentence must have been at least thirty words long, seventy percent profanity. I think he may have used the F word as an adverb. Dad always was thrilling to watch in moments like this.
Pete, however, was stupid. “We aren’t supposed to talk like that.”
Dad looked up and said “ugh?” I knew immediately that he was not asking for the screwdriver. For one thing, he had that in his hand; also, the inflection of the syllable showed an obvious question, which any linguist will tell you changes the meaning from “Hand me the screwdriver” to “What the hell are you talking about?”
Pete, the idiot, said, “It’s in your hand.”
My father cocked his head to one side, giving the impression of an archer nocking an arrow. He regarded his younger son with a most peculiar expression.
I once tried to convince Pete that I had a different little brother before him. Inhabitants of Venus, the planet of weenies, had come in a ship, taken my real brother, and left him in place of the real Pete. The story only made Pete cry, but would now and then I’d catch him gazing up through the backyard night, whispering “why”.
I say this only because the expression on my father’s face at that moment was as if he had overheard the story and was just coming to believe its truth. Should he destroy the invader or keep his distance, just in case of hostile intent. His knitted eyebrows and his inhalations — like a reverse sigh — told me Dad was weighing the matter. Finally he sat down where he was and resumed working.
After a moment, Dad said, “You can get killed doing that.”
Pete, his puppy eyes suddenly moist, asked, “Doing what?”
Dad did not look up. “Being stupid.”
I could have told my brother this. I had been killed many times. Pete probably did not see the mercy that was being meted out at that moment, but he was quiet. Of course, he might have been safe. Because he’s sick, an epileptic, Mom made Dad ease up on him some.
After he’d finished assembling the bed, and staring at it proudly (during which we told him how cool he was), Dad gave us the rules. These included things like no roughhousing on either bunk. The person on the top bunk is not to drop things onto the person on the bottom; the bottom bunk person is not to poke, jar, or push up on the bed above him. The most important rule, as far as our parents were concerned was the “absolutely for no reason other than a fire or the rapture of God (who should have called in advance to let us know he was coming) not even a hint of jumping” rule. The penalty for this offense was no less than two weeks confinement to the room. The sentence would be commuted if we could produce evidence of a natural disaster or the coming of Christ, but if the documents were forged, more days as well as a sound beating from the closest parent to the child of darkness would be added to the sentence.
For the Christmas following the purchase of our bed, our parents gave themselves a new couch. In a moment of rare solidarity, my brother and I asked for the old one. Mom and Dad, perhaps touched by our mutual devotion to the cause, perhaps because they were looped, gave in. “But no jumping on it.”
Pete and I agreed to put the couch under the bookshelf in the place of the two bean bags we had in that spot. The idea was that we could read on the couch and the bookshelf above it would be easy access. One bean bag chair, which had been coming apart, was given to the Goodwill truck that had originally been called to pick up the couch. The other was usually found either under the bottom bunk (if we needed room), near the stereo for whoever wanted to listen on the headphones, or in front of the door when Pete and I were acting out scenes from our favorite Jackie Chan movies.
This arrangement worked pretty satisfactorily for sometime. Whenever one of us had a friend overnight, the friend got to sleep on the top bunk, while the brother whose guest was over slept on the couch. Even when it was apparent that the couch was less comfortable than the bed, we took a long time in admitting it because sleeping anywhere other than the bed is cool when you’re a kid. Of course my father, who had slept on this couch many times and who often found himself on the new one in the living room, did not share this feeling. But Dad was never cool like that. Besides, he once explained, his circumstances were different.
So one May afternoon, Pete and I were in the room, the glow of having a couch in the bedroom having long worn off. Pete was lying on the top bunk reading a comic book. I was sitting on the couch reading a mystery novel my mom had left out after she finished. I wasn’t supposed to read her books, but this one had a detective who was always finding himself in rooms with naked women, so it was hard to avoid borrowing it. Every time I heard someone coming down the hall, I would stuff the book under the cushion of the couch and pretend to work a word search puzzle I had in my lap.
Pete, who seemed as a rule to come up with stupid things to say and do, closed his comic, sat up, and yawned. “Does it have to rain all day?” he asked.
I ignored him for a minute. Then I said, “No. After a while, it is supposed to snow.”
“Really? Cool!” he exclaimed. I told you he was stupid.
I told him that he was a moron and he called me a name in return, not as good, and then we were quiet.
After a few minutes, I got this feeling that Pete was staring at me. I looked up and he had one of those glazed eye expressions that give me the creeps. He does it to irritate me, because I sometime can’t tell whether or not he’s having a real seizure. I try to pretend I have a screwed up brother, which I do, by waving him off. But he keeps it up.
Pete is as stubborn as my Dad’s backhand was fast. Another few minutes went by and I got tired of reading the same sentence over and over, though it was about unhooking a bra. Finally, I said, “What is it, Super Freak? You know that gives me the creeps.”
He shook his head like there was something in front of it. Then his eyes shifted as if he was now really looking at me. Then he said, “Bet I could jump from here to the couch.”
I should have killed him myself, right there. Maybe I could have done it and kept it quiet, or if he made noise, maybe only Mom would have heard and told me to be nice to the little freak. But no. I let him live. And boy was I sorry.
“No you can’t. That is one of the top ten most stupid things you have ever said.”
“I could. Move and I’ll show you.”
I stretched my legs out so that my body took up most of the space.
“Come on, man.” When I just looked up at him like he was some sort of mosquito I was proud of squashing, he nodded toward the small open spot and said, “Okay, I’ll just jump there.”
“I could give you the whole couch and even if you managed to make it, you would bust your nut.”
“No way. It’s a couch. How bad could I get hurt?”
“Bad enough. Don’t do it.”
“If I land on you, I’ll be safe. Unless I fall on your head. But I’ll take my chances.” And he crouched as if he was going to jump on me.
“Alright, I’ll move. But you better not do it, Pete. I’m serious.”
He waved his hand as if I had given him the glass-eyes look. I moved over and stood between the beds and the couch. His crouch got decisive, and he stared for a long time at his target.
I figured he was about to chicken out, so I said, “See, it is a dumb idea.” Then he jumped.
You would think that in that small instant between his bed and the landing his expression would be one of triumph. If it had been me, I’d have said, “Told you” as I fell. But his face translated the brief joy of flight. And it was the quietest moment I ever lived through.
When he crashed, the bookshelf came down on top of him. He had been looking at me as he passed and the back of his head hit the shelf causing it to tumble.
I kept expecting one of our parents to come running down the hall because the noise was so loud, but I guess they were preoccupied. After a few beers, Dad couldn’t hear anything. I opened the door just enough to make sure no one was coming, then closed it slowly, as if perhaps only little sounds aroused them.
The shelf was behind him on the couch, and he sat in front of it dazed. With the coast seemingly clear, I let out a relieved laugh. “You idiot,” I said.
“Not funny,” he replied.
“Yeah, it is. Told you you’d bust your nut.”
He didn’t answer right away. I think he was about to say, “I did it,” when he felt the back of his head. Then he showed me the blood on his hand.
“Ugh,” I said. “You’ll live.” Then laughed again.
It seemed that he suddenly realized he was bleeding, as if he had to show me first for confirmation before losing the last of his marbles. He started screaming.
“Quiet dummy!” I said, but he kept it up, getting louder and louder.
“You’re okay,” I told him. “Look, I’ll go get something to wash it with. Just wait right there.”
But just as I reached the period of that sentence, he rushed past me calling for Mom with a shrill wail.
It seemed so ludicrous that he was one minute just staring into space and the next minute crying like a baby over a little blood that I couldn’t help but laugh. Even when the noise of his crying had long died in my mind, I was doubled over. I closed my eyes and saw his face; I opened them and saw the shelf knocked over and the books on the couch. Everything for those seconds seemed momentously funny.
Then came my father. He asked no questions, requested no information. All laughter ceased. There were only punches, and probably kicks before the storm had passed.
I woke up a few minutes later and could feel the purple of my head. In a distance that made me feel as if I was eavesdropping on conversation on another planet, my parents were arguing. I don’t know what was said. Could Mom have been taking my side? Could she be chastising him for not finishing me off? Could they have been on to something entirely new, leaving the casualties behind? Who could know, now that I have forgotten why I care?
My eyes seemed to have been fixed on a spot in front of me, though there was nothing to look at or remember. It was like no longer looking at the lost world you have to walk in, but having that world look in on you. The more intently I peered ahead, the more I sensed being watched. Then, as suddenly as Dad’s entrance, Pete was sitting on the floor in front of me.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I could kill him.” His eyes seemed to have been asking permission.
I looked at him with what he said later was an angry expression, but he was certain I wasn’t angry at him, only that he should not do anything outside that room for a little while. Then I was conscious of him taking my hand, and leading me to my bunk, and him saying, “Take it easy,” as I began to sleep the sleep of the dead.
first published in The G.W. Review
available in Die Laughing