I retain in the spacious shame department of my long-term memory the image of my sister Roni’s rear end growing steadily smaller as she slides and stumbles headfirst down the basement stairs. Roni’s dive was no accident: I pushed her. I should mention that I was probably five at this time, and Roni nine.
It all started with the Pepsi bottles.
My mother, who had virtually despotic control of the household finances, kept everyone in the family, my father included, on a tight, nonnegotiable budget. One line item was Pepsi Cola. My two older sisters and I loved Pepsi, and my mother would accommodate our craving by purchasing one six-pack for the three of us. The rule was that she would not replace the six-pack until six empty bottles had been returned to the cardboard carrier, which was kept on the first step of the stairs leading to the basement.
The mathematically correct ration was of course two bottles each; our young morality made this apportionment as inviolable as the water distribution system on a lifeboat. The minute the sixth bottle hit the carton, and not a second before, we could petition my mother for another six-pack.
It was well established that I liked Pepsi most among the three Murphy children and, developmentally, had the least self-control. My sisters knew this. At the time of the stairway incident, they were also old enough to have considerably more freedom than I. They could, for example, leave the house unaccompanied to walk to and from school. This meant that they could, at least theoretically, obtain a soft drink from a local soda fountain. There was just such an establishment on the corner of 18th Street and Avenue Z, which is to say one block from our house and less than that from the schoolyard. Therefore, were they so inclined and so flush with cash as to put a nickel together (or even half a nickel, if they were willing to share with another girl), they could procure a perfectly satisfactory carbonated beverage without having to invade their home ration.
For this reason or some other, it was frequently the case that there remained in the cardboard bottle carrier one untouched bottle after I had polished off my two Pepsis. I suspected Justine of engineering this situation intentionally because it resembled a tactic she often used when we all had ice cream cones. She would slowly, slowly lick her scoop of ice cream while Roni and I applied a vigorous tongue to ours or even, in my case, bit off fairly large chunks. The result was that Justine was still working on her cone long after we had finished ours. With great kindness, she would moan and sigh with pleasure as she ran her tongue over her cone, somehow managing to scrape it so fine as to diminish the total surface depth one micron at a time.
So, as I say, if there was to be a Pepsi laggard in the house, nine times out of ten it would be Justine. This time it was Roni.
She held steady at one Pepsi for the better part of a week. I would check every morning and a few times during the day, and I would invariably find five down and one to go. Finally, I resorted to a tactic that was not in the code of the Pepsi bottles: I asked her if she was ever going to finish her last bottle and, if not, could I maybe have it.
Instead of saying either yes or no, she surprised me. “Oh, do I still have a bottle left? Let’s go count them.” We went to the top of the basement stairs, and she knelt and bent over—way over—to achieve a physical, hands-on count of the bottles: “One, two, three, four, five empties, and one full one still to go. I had no idea,” she said. “I’ll just have to enjoy that last one in a couple of days. Sorry, Eddie.”
I was old enough to process irony. I snapped. Without conscious intent, my knee moved forward squarely to meet her bottom and then simply continued moving. So did Roni. She went down those stairs soundlessly, as far as I can recall, and reached the bottom with great speed. That’s when she started crying.
I ran straight out the front door. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even pause to run downstairs and check her condition; I suppose I could claim that her crying reassured me that she had suffered nothing fatal and made it unnecessary to examine her further, but that would be a lie. I didn’t think of that or anything that had Roni at its center; I thought only of me.
I had never done anything of this magnitude before. I knew I would be in trouble, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t run away; I merely nailed myself to a cross and hung around on the sidewalk in front of the house.
After some time my sister Justine came out and delivered the preliminary verdict: “Mom says you should just stay out here and wait until Dad comes home.” She wouldn’t even answer me when I asked if Roni was all right. All she did was give me a look such as his jury probably later gave Ted Bundy after convicting him of multiple murders in 1980. “Just stay here,” was all she would give me.
When my unwitting father finally arrived, I greeted him shyly and with evident guilt, but I wasn’t clever enough to put my side of the story on the record first. In truth, there was no my side of the story. I let him go into the house without saying why I was outside. Several minutes later he came out and told me in an eerily flat voice, “You’re in serious trouble. Roni will get better, but I had to call the police.” Just then a siren sounded a couple of blocks away.
Of course he hadn’t called the police, but I was convinced he had. It turned out that Roni was shaken up but perfectly fine (well, maybe a slight scrape or two) and my Brooklyn-savvy dad had played the odds about the siren, winning by coincidence. When the siren died down without spilling a team of armed officers onto 19th Street, I began to catch on. My father forced a stern look onto his face and told me to go inside, apologize to Roni, and put myself to bed.
I was relieved, having spent the time outside the house in a fantasy land of punishment, prohibitions, and lost futures. Dread of pain occupied a significant portion of my mind, but the worst of my torments was embarrassment. I thought about all the people on the block who didn’t consider me a ruffian. I pictured the people at mass who admired my hymn singing. I thought about how I would enter school in just a few months with a bad reputation, never have friends, grow up lonely. I begged God for another chance. I think I even offered to give up Pepsi for the rest of my life if only, if only.
Years later, when I became a father, I recalled this incident and the way my parents handled it. The flagellation I self-administered while stewing on the sidewalk, greeting passersby and trying to look normal while convinced that a lurid GUILTY sign hovered over my head like a tarnished halo, was far harsher than any punishment my parents could have doled out. It seems impossible, but no one can nail you to a cross better than you can.
And it worked. I never kicked anyone down a staircase again.
If you are the youngest of three children and you are a boy, it is arguable whether having two older sisters or two older brothers is the more advantageous position (we will ignore the case of having a mixed pair). The common wisdom is that having older brothers is better, at least in Darwinian terms, because it makes you tougher, more competitive, more fit. The thinking is that you will be improving yourself as you strive to keep up with your brothers in sports and physical games and have to defend yourself when the games drift toward physical or psychic abuse. With older sisters, there is usually no sense of endangerment, and hence no forced muscular or psychic development; instead, the suspicion is that you will be coddled, treated perhaps as a little dress-up doll—sissified.
On the whole, I think it was good that I had older sisters. I don’t remember being coddled, and I am certain there weren’t any dress-up situations. It may have been a developmental disadvantage that my sisters were stereotypically feminine when it came to physical activities, because I am and always have been completely hopeless at sports, but both of them were clever and appreciated intelligence, offering a fertile environment for my style of humor and my verbal predilections. Another advantage of older sisters is that I never had to wear hand-me-downs. I also got my own room.
My sisters pretty much went their way and I went mine. They were close to each other, sharing a room at home, while I had my own small room adjacent to theirs and directly above the kitchen. My room was near enough that I could hear them talking as I drifted off to sleep, and their companionship in the dark hours seemed sometimes enviable, but I was mostly happy to have my own little enclave where I could think my thoughts and hum my hums without interruption.
My sisters were just fine as siblings go, although I always—always—felt different from them in ways other than the obvious. For one thing, they didn’t seem to like leaving the house, preferring to remain indoors on weekends in their pajamas and bathrobes well into the afternoon, while I couldn’t wait to jump into my dungarees, as we called them then, and slam the door behind me.
For another thing, they never hung out with the neighborhood kids, while I was an enthusiastic member of a group of boys and girls from the block who spent summers on the street running, playing red-light-green-light, roller skating, flirting through a game called “Truth, Dare, Consequence, Promise, or Repeat,” and engaging in long bouts of a New York game called Ringolevio—which was a bit like tag, but subtler and more complex. (Ringolevio is to tag as chess is to checkers.) To this day my personality and even my appearance remain quite distinct from my sisters’ (who in both respects resemble my father), and I have long harbored a secret suspicion that there might have been a milkman in my mother’s life.
My sisters were four and six years older than I, and thus a bit out of range for playing and companionship purposes, which may have helped to nurture my more solitary side when I was at home. As soon as my Uncle Marty and his family moved out of our basement in 1952, I moved in. My parents made the basement a kind of large storage area for all sorts of things, including my toys, comic books, and baseball cards. When I wasn’t outside playing with my friends, I was in the basement reading, imagining, shooting, making marble runs, counting my play money, and daydreaming.
[To be continued]