Watch them, they say— the parents, the aunts and uncles, the grands and guardians. They hand us off to the Olders— our cousins and siblings, play and real— as they pack purses, shine shoes, brush off hats and put on their Sunday best, although it is only Wednesday. Tonight they have Bible Study, usher’s meetings, choir practice, Masons and Eastern Stars, things they refuse to miss on our account.
They assign the Olders to keep an eye on us—the big brothers and sisters, the cousins, both play and real. The Olders draw lots and sacrifice two of their own, tribute to the gods that are we. A play cousin to watch us outside, a real cousin to watch us upstairs. At our age we wield power; we exude danger. We are unpredictable. There is no telling what we might do if left to our own devices. We might turn on the stovetop and watch the flames dance up to the ceiling. We might run the water too hot for our baths and scald ourselves to death. We might ignore the Mr. Yuk warnings and rummage through the kitchen cabinets looking for a poisonous drink. We might pick up the receiver, make long-distance calls, and run the bill sky high. We might take candy from a stranger.
They ply us with Mike ‘N Ikes and Lemon Heads, Jolly Ranchers and Boston Baked Beans, Now ‘N Laters and Chic-o-Stix. They plug in the Ataris, pull out the Teddy Ruxpin and Cabbage Patch dolls, the Voltrons and Transformers, the He-Man and She-Ra action figures, the Jems and GI Joes. They hand out jump ropes, marbles, skelly caps, clumps of colored chalk. Anything to distract us from what they are doing. They don’t want us to follow when they creep down to the basement and pull out their records, don’t want us to see when they usher in friends.
The girlfriend of an older brother— someone who didn’t know the music would carry up from the basement and cry out the porch windows on the first landing and flow out onto the sidewalks where we skipped rope, played skelly, and leaped hopscotch, who had no idea that the music would float up the stairs to the second floor where we huddled on the corner of the bed closest to the TV, joysticks in hand and pressed down on the red firing button to shoot the asteroids and alien centipedes that poured from the top of the screen—puts on the first record and forgets to close the basement door.
The music calls and we come. We bring our young bodies down to the basement door, to the mouth of the forbidden party.
This is no place for little kids, they warn, but we don’t budge. Couldn’t we cut them a break and just go back upstairs or go outside? Wasn’t it enough that they couldn’t escape us all day long inside the house, that they were forced to take us with them wherever they went, that we followed and shadowed and mirrored everything they did, that we copied them and the grownups thought it was all so cute? Couldn’t they just have a little time alone with kids their own age without us tagging along, dogging their every step?
“We’ll tell.” We say the magic words, no qualms about playing dirty.
“You guys are a real pain, you know,” they say, in voices filled with all the angst of teenager-ness.
We know. We are the younger ones, born to be the brats. We expect to have everything our way. We have never been disappointed.
They guide us down into the darkened basement, which has been changed over into a teenage night club. We forget that we are unwanted as soon as we see the spread. The washer’s lid is covered in a towel fresh from the line, a makeshift tablecloth to hold the opened packages of Rollo’s and Krackel bars, our Halloween candy gone missing. Six packs of root beer and cream soda, bowls of popcorn, pretzels, and potato chips top the dryer. Nothing impressive; nevertheless, we are impressed.
Someone changes the record. The new song tells us to dance, to shout, to shake our bodies down to the ground. We obey. We know a different version of the singer— the Jheri-curled, white-suited, open-shirted, posing with a baby tiger version. Not the one from before, the one who sang and performed with his brothers. This song is from before everything we know; before the singer’s hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial; before the white spangled glove and the military outfits, before he started keeping company with Brooke Shields, a chimpanzee, and that midget kid from Webster. This is a before we want to live in, to cling to, to clutch and to capture. This is before the inevitable end of the evening when the cars pull up and the lights turn on and we scramble up the stairs as others scramble out the basement door; before the inevitable end of our youth, when the ones watching us grow up grow apart from us; before they move away and leave us behind, returning only for holidays; before the house grows empty cold without them—the cousins and siblings, play and real, who watched us when we weren’t looking; before the parents, aunts and uncles, grands and guardians string latchkeys onto lanyards and drape them around our necks, the way Leia did to Luke and Han in the ceremony at the end of Star Wars that somehow made destroying the Death Star akin to winning the Olympics. Before they say to us, “You’re old enough now to stay at home on your own,” and pretend we’ve won a prize, caparisoning us in adolescence. Before we bow our heads like Han and Luke, waiting to receive the latchkey, knowing we’ve won nothing.
Amina Gautier, PhD., is the author of three award-winning short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy and the The Loss of All Lost Things. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the International Latino Book Award, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Book Award, a National Silver Medal IPPY Award and was a Finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction and the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award. Gautier’s stories have appeared in Agni, Callaloo,Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and StoryQuarterlyamong other places. Gautier has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Callaloo, Dora Maar, Hawthornden, Hurston/ Wright Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross and the Vermont Studio Center.