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Wisdom At Any Age

July 1, 2009

By Iris Whyte

“It’s not enough to hate it. Ya gotta do something about it!” I spit a mouthful of sunflower seed husks onto the grass and get to my feet. “C’mon. Let’s go find him.”

“Not me. Not a chance.”

“You don’t do it now, you never will.” I give Michael my best big-brother look of encouragement but he stays sprawled on the lawn under the public library’s only tree. I stuff the package of seeds inside my backpack. “Look, this is your problem, not mine, but I thought you wanted my help.”

Michael picks at the edge of his t-shirt and sighs. “I did at first. But I don’t really want to get my head bashed in. If A.J.’s friends are around, that’s most likely what’ll happen — maybe not today but some other day when you’re not there. On top of that, I’ll get razzed for letting my big brother fight my battles. Either way I’m doomed.”

“I’m not planning to fight anyone, kiddo. I’m going to show you how to outsmart him.”

“Yeah, and make him mad in the process. It’s not worth it, Gerry. Let him keep my bike. I’ll tell Mom it was stolen and then buy a new one. I’ve been wanting a mountain bike anyway.”

“And what’ll you do if A.J. decides he wants that one, too?”

“I wouldn’t take it to school.”

“You see! He’d still be controlling you. I’m telling you, Mike, nothing will change until you deal with him.” I swing my backpack onto a shoulder and get ready to leave. “So, you coming, or not?”

“Uh-uh. I’m going home. I’ve got soccer practice tonight so I have to get my homework done before supper.” He stands and brushes grass clippings off his jeans. “Oh, and what I told you… don’t say anything to Mom about it, okay?”

*

Six o’clock comes and goes but Michael doesn’t turn up. During dinner I keep my head down and eat my macaroni and cheese while sneaking glances across the table at Mom. She stabs her fork into a wedge of tomato.

“He never listens! I told him before he left for school that we had to eat promptly at six tonight.”

“He’s thirteen. All thirteen-year-olds are deaf and dorky.”

“Don’t call your brother names. He’s late and he’s disobedient, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to bad mouth him.”

“Sorry.” I scrape up the last bit of macaroni and push aside my plate. “You want me to go look for him?” I hope the question sounds innocent. Mike said he was heading home more than two hours ago, so where is he?

“If you’re finished eating,” she agrees. “He may be at the ballpark. When you find him you tell him I’m not waiting. If he’s not here by the time I leave for my meeting he’ll have to ride his bike to soccer practice.”

Mom’s A.A. meetings are sacred. She hasn’t missed a single one in the two years since Dad died. Before that… well, let’s just say our lives were a lot different. Mike and I do our best not to trip the switch that could change things back.

“Don’t worry, I’ll find him and make sure he gets there okay.” It’s easy to say but maybe not so easy to do. Soccer practice starts in forty-five minutes.

*

There’s no game in the ball diamond, just a couple girls in baggy gym pants jogging around the backfield. I keep walking. If Mike wanted to disappear for a while there’s one place he might go. It’s actually my special hideout but he followed me there once. Although I threatened to tell Mom if he ever went back, I’d be surprised if he listened. Even though I’m two years older than he is, he doesn’t like it when I tell him what to do.

Three blocks past the ballpark is the gully where McIntyre Creek runs. It’s always quiet and cool there. In the heat of summer it’s not much of a creek but you can always find salamanders in the mud.  About now there’s likely enough water for tadpoles and skeeters.

Getting down the slope isn’t easy unless you know exactly where to look for the path.  It’s almost hidden by an overhang of branches and brambles. You have to squat on your heels and slide down the steep incline. If you aren’t careful you can pitch forward on your face or end up with a muddy backside. I’ve learned to grab hold of an evergreen branch on the way down.

At the bottom a narrow trail winds through a tangle of underbrush beside the creek. I push my way through to the water’s edge. Sure enough, Mike’s out in the middle of the creek sitting cross-legged on my favorite rock. He isn’t happy to see me.

“What’re you doing here? Bug off.” He tosses a handful of gravel into the water making the skeeters scatter in every direction.

“I was looking for you. Mom’s mad you didn’t come home for supper.”

“Yeah, well I’m not hungry.”

Mike not hungry? He’s always hungry. He eats more than I do. I work my way across the rocks to sit near him. “Okay, but what about the homework you were going to do?”

“I decided it could wait.”

“You’re going to be late for soccer practice.” I try to lock eyes with him but he keeps his head down and reaches for another pebble to pitch into the water.

“I don’t care.”

This isn’t good. Mike loves soccer. I try a different approach.

“Do you remember that time you followed me here? I was about the same age as you are now and I didn’t much like it that you had found me. I’ve always pretended this is my private place. It’s still where I come whenever things are tough or I need to think.” I have his attention now and I can see why he hasn’t wanted to show me his face. It’s smudged with dirt and there is a bruise above his right eye. “Is that why you came today?”

“Not exactly. I was too scared to go home.” Michael’s voice is quiet. “You know what Mom says about fighting.” He swipes one hand across his blonde head, emphasizing his next words. “But he took my cap, Gerry – my best ever Yankees ball cap!”

“Who did?”

“A.J.! I saw him outside the video store on my way home. I figured it was as good a time as any to try out your theory.”

“What theory? ”

“You said he wouldn’t stop tormenting me until I faced up to him. So I did.” Michael is almost yelling now. “But he just laughed at me and grabbed my cap. I tried to grab it back and…. Ah, shit! Mom’s gonna go off the deep end.”

“I never meant that you should fight him. For cryin’ out loud, Mike, how did you figure that was going to solve anything?”

“I didn’t fight him. When I reached for my cap he sidestepped and I lost my balance. I fell and whacked my head on the curb. A.J. just laughed and walked back into the video store with my cap.” Michael gingerly touches the lump on his forehead. “All I’ve done is make everything worse.”

I’m thinking. Mike apparently hasn’t made A.J. angry. That’s a plus for us. My original idea might still work.

Now that we’re both teenagers Mike and I don’t hang out together much but still, he’s my brother. When Dad was alive he often played ball with us. He wasn’t a big guy but he had lots of muscle. He played hard, but somehow we kids always beat him.  One time I questioned him about it and his reply stuck with me. He said Mike and I were smart kids and we knew how to work as a team. Brains and good teamwork would always beat out muscles.

“One thing ya gotta remember here,” I’m telling Mike, “is when guys like A.J. get in your face it’s not because of anything you’ve done. I might call you dumb names and bug the heck out of you but you know I’m just messing with you cuz I’m your brother, right? Now A.J.? He’s a bully. I’ve run into guys like him myself. Mean as a mutt on the street but I’ll bet he’s not as bold as he seems. He just tries to look brave by picking on others.”

“I wish he’d pick on someone besides me.”

“There’s a way to change things but you aren’t going to find it here. It’s time we made a move.” Mike doesn’t need convincing this time. He gets up and follows me across the rocks back to the bank. We make it to the top of the path and walk a block before either of us speaks.

“Home is the other way, so where are we going?” Mike asks.

“To find A.J.” A few more steps and I have to turn around because Mike has stopped walking. “Come on. I have a plan but you’ve gotta be there to make it work.”

“Nope. I’m not moving until you tell me about this so-called plan.” Mike’s face is set in a stubborn frown and he’s standing there with arms folded across his chest just like he used to when we were younger and I tried to trick him out of his allowance.

“I already told you – I’m gonna outsmart him.”

“Yeah, but how?”

That’s the question I don’t want to hear because I haven’t quite figured out all the details. “I’m betting A.J. isn’t as smart as we are. I’ll make him so nervous about having your stuff around that he’ll want to give it back.”

“Oh, sure; he’s just going to hand things over to me. You’re crazy.”

But Mike is walking again. We continue side by side in silence until we’re opposite Halliday’s Video Store. It’s a popular hangout. You can play the video games that line the back wall, rent dollar DVD’s to take home, or lose quarters in the snack machines. It’s a place where we’re welcome to loiter, unlike the bowling alley where the manager kicks you out if you don’t ante up and actually play a game.

“Okay, kiddo. Let’s go see if he’s still in there, and no matter what I say, don’t look surprised.”

*

The early evening crowd is grouped around the machines where some play and others watch. A.J. is a player. You don’t disturb anyone who is racking up high scores, so I just mosey over and stand by his machine. I nod to a few familiar faces and get engrossed in the mounting score. When “game over” flashes I speak up.

“Hey, nice score, man.”

A.J. barely acknowledges me until I lean into his view. Then he frowns his disapproval and waves me off. That’s my cue. I move closer and speak in an apologetic undertone.

“I don’t want to interrupt your winning streak, but when you’re done here I’ve got something really, really important to tell you. You’re going to want to hear it before the cops get here.” Then I back away and gesture for him to carry on with the video game.

A.J. throws a confused look at me but I just nod encouragingly and indicate I’ll be waiting beside the bin of sale priced DVD’s where Mike is standing. Then I turn my back on him.

“Are we supposed to be doing something?” Mike asks me.

“Just keep that worried look on your face. It’s perfect.”

“That’s good, because A.J.’s coming this way.” Mike’s worry is genuine. I’m not worried, although I admit I’m a little apprehensive. Like Mike, A.J. is thirteen, but he’s big for his age.

“Who’s your blabber-mouth friend, snot head?” A.J. plants himself in front of us, his thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his torn jeans.

“He’s, uh, Gerry, my brother,” Mike stammers and I take that as my introduction.

“Sorry if I interrupted your game, but Mike here is real worried. He did everything he could to keep the cops from being involved, but as soon as Mom heard his bike was missing she insisted on calling them. She’s probably giving the locator device to them right now.” I hurry on before A.J. can interrupt.

“Dad invented it years ago to track all the stuff Mike and I were constantly losing. He based it on those transponder things that the traffic authorities use to record license plates at border crossings and on toll bridges. But he combined it with a version of the I.D. microchips that vets implant under a dog’s skin. It’s so tiny it’s invisible under paint or fabric, but it acts like a homing device – the locator will track right to it.” Now I have A.J.’s full attention.

“Mike knew you weren’t actually stealing his bike and ball cap, just teasing him. I mean, he’s used to me taking him down a peg or two once in a while, too. We’ve gotta keep these young kids in their place, right?” A.J. is nodding slowly, not sure what I’m getting at.

“He knew you would be giving them back later, so he didn’t want to get you in trouble by telling Mom that you had them. He figured if he just told her they were missing she’d leave it to him to eventually find them. Unfortunately he couldn’t make his soccer practice tonight because he didn’t have his bike to get there, and that made her angry enough to want it found sooner rather than later.”

“The cops are probably driving around now, homing in on all the things with Mike’s I.D. imbedded. He wanted to warn you because if they find you with any of them they’ll think you stole them. And he knows you really didn’t, don’t you, Mike?” I finally include him in the tale. After all, that’s the whole point of my plan – not only to get his things back from A.J., but to do it in a way that will have A.J. thanking us.

“Sure, I know that,” Mike nods his head vigorously.

“But the cops don’t,” I repeat. “And he’d hate to see you end up in juvie court over a misunderstanding.”

A.J. shifts his feet restlessly. “But you could explain to them, right?” he asks.

“He could,” I jump in before Mike screws things up. “But who’s going to believe a kid when an angry grownup is the one who phoned in the report? And there might be witnesses, too. You know, guys who saw you take the stuff and didn’t realize you weren’t serious about keeping it.” I shake my head sadly. “No, I think if they find you with any of it you’re in deep shit and nobody is gonna be able to help you talk your way out of it. I wish there was something we could do, but….” I let my words dangle.

In one of those I-couldn’t-have-arranged-it-better-myself moments a cop car just happens to cruise past the window. A.J.’s eyes dart from the window to us and back to the window.

“What if you take the bike right now. They can’t do nothin’ to me if I don’t have it. Here,” he says as he yanks Mike’s cap from his back pocket. “Take this, too. The bike’s leaning against the shed in the back corner of the parking lot next door.” He thrusts his hand in the general direction.

“I guess we could.” I say the words slowly. “I don’t know how Mike will explain its reappearance to Mom but I’m sure he’ll think of something. Right, Mike?”

“No problem.” Mike pulls his cap firmly into place.

“If that’s what you want, we’ll do it,” I say. “We’re glad to help, but we better hurry. No telling when that cruiser will be back.” We head for the door.

“Yeah, I’m outta here, too. Thanks for the heads up on this. And Mike, you’re all right. If you wanna drop in here sometime I’ll take you in a game of “Raceway”. Nobody’s beaten me on it yet.”

*

We make it home before Mom. While Mike is washing up he starts moaning about what he’s going to tell her. “I sure hope she’s in a good mood. What with this lump, and my dirty shirt, and me missing soccer… it could really piss her off.”

“Don’t worry so much. She doesn’t have to know the real story.”

“Lie to her? You’re kidding. We’d never get away with it.”

“I never lie.” I grin at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

“Oh, right. All that stuff you told A.J. was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Not exactly the truth, but not a lie either. The old GMC in the garage does have a transponder, even if it doesn’t work. The McNalley’s dog next door is microchipped. That’s true technology. I just created what my English teacher would call a fable around it. Fables aren’t real lies. They’re truth mixed up with make believe. You fell and bumped your head. You missed your soccer practice. Those are facts. So, if she asks, we tell Mom you fell off your bike and bumped your head and have such a headache you decided to forget practice. She doesn’t need to know about A.J. and your bike.”

“But that’s not what happened.” Mike pats his forehead carefully with the towel.

“Does your head hurt?” I ask him and he nods. “Then it’s close enough. And if a little fable keeps Mom from freaking out, and keeps the vodka bottle in the back of the cupboard where she’s thinks it’s hidden, then it’s better than the truth.”

“How come you’re so smart, Gerry?”

“It’s my age, kiddo. When you get to be fifteen you’ll be smart, too.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2009 9:35 AM

    I don’t know about that creative lying to a parent part, but it’s nice to see brothers who like each other and stick together in tough times.

  2. June 9, 2010 7:13 AM

    That was really good! I never clicked on the link before so I had no idea you had any of your writing posted. Clever & entertaining – nice flow, lots of info tucked in without interrupting the story. Listen to me – Like I have a clue. Well, as a reader I know what works. Get your book(s) done & get it/them out there for the world to see. Don’t hide on that rock in the middle of the creek.

    My boys, 4 years apart (now grown of course) were & are thick as thieves. One would lie & the other would swear to it. I’ve never (proud to say this) seen 2 kids so loyal to one another.

    BTW – Why Iris Whyte???

  3. Kim Green permalink
    April 13, 2011 4:06 AM

    Excellent writing!

  4. November 24, 2011 8:38 PM

    I just read this because I followed a mention you made on .. was it Laura Best’s blog? I think so.
    Fabulous story, by the way. I’m again doing the NaNoWriMo challenge and have a lot of dialogue going on. I was wondering if it would be a put off but it certainly works for you. Love it.

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