When I was five, my older brother Chad developed a scheme.
It involved me, an imaginary cussword, and a verbal slavery contract.
Before I go into detail, I need you to know that my brother grew up to be a normally functioning human (a LOUDLY functioning human, but functioning nonetheless) and even frowns upon modern-day slavery, unlike his 9-year-old self. He has four kids and a wife and a job that doesn’t involve brutality. What I’m saying is, if you met him at a party you’d think he’d been a normal kid who picked on his little sister, sure, because what older brother doesn’t? But you’d think that’d been the extent of it. You wouldn’t think it had gone this far…
It started one evening when Chad needed some money. I’d just had a birthday so had in my possession a twenty-dollar bill from my grandfather. Chad was saving for a skateboard and casually approached me about the cash. When I refused to give him the birthday money, Chad replied, “I heard you say a cussword. It was at Mee-Maw’s house last week. I heard it while we were playing hide-and-seek, and if you don’t give me the money, I’m going to tell.”
I recalled no such cussword. But I did recall cussing a few weeks prior while playing under the house in the crawlspace. I’d recently learned the phrase “What the hell?” from The Goonies, and was testing it out on anything I found under the house, since being under the house made me think of being underground like the Goonies had been.
What’s this? A pipe? “What the hell?” I asked, throwing my hands in the air.
What’s this slab of wood doing down here? “What the hell?”
A nail? “What the HELL?”
I’d look up at the bottom of the house under which I was crawling, straining to hear imaginary noises above so that I could inquire what the hell I was hearing.
I assumed Chad had the details of my sailor mouth confused since during my Goonies reenactment he’d been puttering around under the house with me, and so either way, I was stuck. Chad got the twenty bucks.
And it went to his head.
His twisted, plotting, 9-year-old head.
“From now on,” he announced, “if I say ‘dunt da da dunt dunt’ it means you have to do what I say, or I’m telling that you said the cussword.”
And that’s how my three years of slavery began.
The next time Chad needed a favor – a glass of sweet tea, a change of the TV channel, his room cleaned, he’d sing his little tune. I poured the tea, I changed the channel, I cleaned his closet.
It wasn’t always favors though.
One afternoon we were on the seesaw my dad built me in the backyard. Chad had daydreamed about levering me to the top, only to jump off himself and send me flailing downward to a heap in the dirt. With our new slavery contract, he could get away with anything.
By the time I was eight, Chad had a plenty more infractions about which he could tell on me at his disposal from over the years. The time I took a puff off a Marlboro Red. The time I beat up my friend Kylie with a baton we’d been fighting over (sorry Kylie). The multiple times I pooped in our backyard, disinterested in indoor plumbing and the fact that a chain link fence surrounded our lawn, leaving me exposed to any neighbors who happened to be out watering their gardens.
Yet Chad kept the same rules. Do as I say, or I’m telling the cuss word.
By the time I was old enough that I didn’t really care if he told on me, it’d been three years.
And that’s when Chad admitted that he’d never even heard me say a cussword. It’d been a gamble on his part, and it worked.
I’m going to pause now for y’all to let that sink in.
I spent this past Christmas with Chad and his family. On my last night there, Chad, his 11-year-old son Ari and I stayed up until two in the morning talking about politics and lasagna and bird watching (Chad watches birds these days, and yes that is a true statement) and religion and cats. Along the way, we told Ari the whole story – the cussword, the tune, the room cleaning, the sweet tea. That night, with only the glow from the Christmas tree and TV lighting the living room, we all three laughed so hard we couldn’t speak.
And it was all worth it. (Except for the seesaw bit.)