I grew up believing revenge was normal. It was never explained as a family value, but it was demonstrated. The “get back” always hit harder than the offense. It was quick and ruthless: a hard slap for an annoying touch, a punch in the face for a slap on the hand. Sometimes it wasn’t physical. It was psychological: humiliation to the point of making someone cry because they were an irritant to you. Other times, rare, it was a cold conspiracy that combined the psychological and the physical, like the plan to get back at Uncle Gary.
Uncle Gary was our Dad’s half-brother; they shared the same mother. Gary was thirteen, a year older than my brother Matt. I was two years younger than Matt. Gary spent a lot of time at our house. At one point, Grandma Gulseth, Dad’s and Gary’s mother asked Mom and Dad if he could live with us. My brothers and I got really excited about this. Gary did funny voices and said funny things. He was imaginative and always came up with fun ideas and games to play. Unfortunately, many of his ideas and games were not approved by our Mom, and if she caught us or found out about our nefarious behavior, we would get grounded or a spanking, maybe both, and Gary would get sent home and banned from our house for at least a couple of weeks until our Mom cooled.
Gary got us in trouble for playing with matches. More extensively for spraying our plastic army men with lighter fluid and setting them on fire. We did it in the sandbox behind the house. It was neat to watch them melt into an unrecognizable burning blob. We wouldn’t have been caught, but my brother Tim burned himself on the hot gooey plastic. He saw Gary, Matt, and I pick up the plastic army men, still warm and soft, and stretch them into abstract shapes. You had to be careful and not pick them up too soon. Tim grabbed a smoldering rifleman, and the hot plastic stuck to his finger, searing his skin. He immediately screamed bloody murder. He cried like this as a defense mechanism. This was his alarm to our Mom to come and save him, usually from Matt or me, and rightfully so. We could be brutal, but he could be an annoying shit. Tim had experienced the get back many times. After the melting of the army men, which wasn’t the first time we melted or burned toys, but one of the few times we got caught, my Mom sent Gary home. She sent him home after the time we found a bat in our backyard that got injured from the storm the night before. Gary and Matt nailed its wings to a board and threw darts at it. They performed this execution in the backyard for all to see. Gary hit the bat first. It squeaked softly and must have died because the next two hits didn’t bring a sound. My Mom saw what was going on through the kitchen window. She went apoplectic. “What the hell are you boys doing with that filthy bat!?” I could tell she was repulsed by the violence, but her maternal instinct caused her to be more concerned about our welfare than the bat’s. “You’re going to get rabies! Don’t touch that awful thing!”
Gary was sent home, and Matt got grounded. Nothing happened to Tim or me: we were innocent bystanders.
Gary got sent home for dropping Tim on his head. Gary, Tim, and I were playing in the basement. Gary was spinning Tim around by his arms, then set him down on the floor. “Get up,” Gary ordered, and Tim would stagger to his feet and stumble around like a giddy drunk until the dizzying effect wore off. Gary and I laughed when Tim ran into something or fell. The more he fell or the harder he ran into something, the funnier it was. Then the game evolved to Gary swinging Tim by the ankles. Gary leaned back, his shoulder-length dirty blond hair thrown back by the momentum. Gary was small and wiry but strong. It helped that Tim was little for his age like Matt and I (our parents were small.) Tim’s Beatle cut white blond hair flew back and his face stretched from the centrifugal force. Watching him spin around I was surprised at how long his hair looked. Matt and I both had Beatle cuts too. Tim’s expression went from laughing glee to panic and a catch in his throat on the verge of crying, because Gary kept threatening, “I’m gonna let go! I can’t hold on any longer!”
“NO!” Tim’s elation turned to tears. He was enjoying the ride, but the fear of being launched head first into a concrete wall was terrifying. Gary had become a very scary carnival ride. “Don’t let go!” Tim cried then laughed. As he spun, he was face up to the ceiling. I could tell Gary was getting visibly tired, and I hoped he wouldn’t let go. Gary set Tim down gently on his back.
“Lift me up. Hold me upside down,” Tim pleaded. He didn’t want the fun to end.
Gary changed his grip on Tim’s ankles and lifted him off the floor. Tim laughed, blood rushed to his head, and his face got red.
“I’m gonna drop to you.” Gary bobbed Tim up and down from few a few inches to about a foot off the concrete.
“Don’t! Please!” Tim was back to laughing then crying, laughing then crying.
Then Gary held Tim about two inches above the floor, once again threatening to drop him, and Tim pleading for him not to. I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t think he would, but I wasn’t surprised when he did. The sound of Tim’s head hitting the concrete, KLOCK!was louder than I thought it would be.By the look on Gary’s face, I think it startled him too. There was about a one second delay, then Tim burst into tears with a bellow, as he curled into a fetal position with his hands clutching his head.
“Is it bleeding?” I ran over to see.
“Sssh, don’t cry. It’s not bleeding, it’s not bleeding.” Gary tried to calm him. He didn’t want my Mom to hear upstairs.
“I’m tellin’ my Mom.” Tim unwound from a ball, jumped to his feet, and bolted for the stairs. He knew Gary would try to stop him, and that I would collude with Gary.
“It was an accident.” Gary grabbed him and stopped him from going upstairs.
“No, it wasn’t. You did it on purpose.” Tim was right. Gary let go on purpose. I saw it. What Gary didn’t intend, was to hurt Tim bad enough to make him bawl so loud. He just wanted to hurt him a little. A little was funny. A little wasn’t enough to get in trouble.
“Tim, don’t tell,” I urged. “We’ll play anything you want. What do you want to do?” Often this worked, letting Tim decide what we did, rather than be a tag along at the mercy of us, meaning Gary, Matt, myself, and most of the neighborhood kids. I had no idea why he did follow us around, given the abuse we incurred on him. He would surely turn out to be a monster worse than we were.
Before there was even a chance to see if the bribe worked, my Mom came storming down the stairs. “What’s going on down here? What’s wrong with your head?” She moved Tim’s hands away to examine his scalp. “How did you get that bump?”
“Gary dropped me on my head,” Tim whimpered.
Tim’s blubbering sounded fake. I’m not saying it didn’t hurt, but I knew when Tim was playing our Mom for every bit of sympathy he could get.
“It was an accident,” Gary defended.
She looked at me. “I didn’t do anything.” Defending Gary would only bring her wrath, so I only defended myself. She had already made up her mind. To her, Gary was the devil’s spawn.
“Gary, you need to go home,” she said coldly like she wanted to beat him. If it was I who had dropped Tim, she would be dragging me upstairs to crack me with the wooden spoon as rapidly as a drummer could do a one stick solo. She wouldn’t have been finished with me until I had danced twenty orbits around her, and my butt and thighs were as red fresh meat.
A couple of weeks after Gary dropped Tim on his head, Gary was back hanging out at our house, and this is when he committed the offense that caused my Dad to devise a plan with Matt to get back at him.
The CBS Friday Night Movie was The Last Challenge, a western. Before the movie started my Mom and Dad decided to take us to MacDonald’s for supper. My brothers and I always got one hamburger and one small fry. Matt and I could easily have eaten two burgers, but Dad always seems to like to keep us a little bit hungry. Whenever Gary came with us to MacDonald’s, he had to get a Filet-O-Fish. He said he didn’t like the hamburgers. My brothers and I would ask for a Filet-O-Fish too, but Dad would say, “No.” Filet-O-Fish cost more. I don’t know if this was why Dad told Gary he couldn’t go with us this time, but maybe.
He told him to go home, walk home.
“Can’t I get a ride?” Gary asked. He was already pissed off because he couldn’t go with us to, and now he was on the verge of tears. “It’s cold out and it’s getting dark.” The temperature was in the forties, and the sun would set in about an hour. Gary was only dressed in a flannel shirt.“Can I call my Mom?”
“Sure,” Mom dialed the number and handed him the phone. She was doing whatever she could to get rid of him.
“She’s not answering.” Gary slammed the phone into the cradle on the kitchen wall and slammed the door on the way out.
“Why won’t you give him a ride, Dad?” Tim asked. Matt and I knew better than to ask that question.
“It’s not on the way.”
The kitchen began to buzz with explosive tension. Mom, Matt, and I felt it, understood it. If the situation wasn’t diffused soon, Dad would ignite and someone was going to get hurt.
“Your father wants to get home in time to watch the movie.” Mom had become adept at self -preservation and protecting us.
“We’re watching a movie?” Even though Gary, Matt, and I had been talking about it all day, it was lost on Tim.
“Yeah stupid,” Matt said. He couldn’t help himself.
“Matt?” Mom said, quietly gritting under her breath. The unasked question was: “Do you want to incite your father and get hit?”
Matt’s answer was, “No,” because he didn’t say another word.
Two blocks from home, heading to MacDonald’s, we passed Gary. He was walking quickly with his hands stuffed in the front pockets of his jeans.
We ate our MacDonald’s, and my brothers and I still had some time to play outside before the movie started. When it was time, Mom called us in. The smell of hot popcorn filled the kitchen, as Mom shook her large pot over the flame of the gas stove as the kernels popped.
As we sat down to watch the movie, my brothers and I splayed on the floor in front of our first color TV, Matt decided to go get his new bb gun that he got for his birthday earlier this month.
“Why do you need that?” Mom snapped.
“I want to clean it while I watch the movie,” Matt stopped in his tracks, waiting for permission to proceed.
“Make sure it’s not loaded.”
“It’s not.” He raced off to get it before the movie started. Moments later Matt yelled from our bedroom. “Mom! Where’s my bb gun?”
“I didn’t touch it.”
I munched on handfuls of popcorn, as I sipped my ration of Pepsi; didn’t want to run out of Pepsi before I was finished eating popcorn. I was hoping the background noise between Mom and Matt would be over soon, so we could watch the movie in peace.
Matt walked into the living room. “My bb gun is gone. It was in my bedroom underneath my bed. It’s not there.”
“You must have put it somewhere else,” Mom said impatiently. “Look in the basement. Weren’t you shooting targets down there with Gary?”
Tim and were down there too, but Matt never let us take a shot. After a while, I went outside to play. Tim stayed. He was like that: he could be ignored, even abused, and he would always come back.
Matt ran to the basement. I got involved in the movie, so I almost forgot he was down there until he came storming back up in a panic. “It’s not there! It’s gone!”
“Well, where the hell is it?” Dad growled. “The god-damned thing didn’t walk away.”
Dad was now involved. I felt the familiar tension followed by anxiety. I didn’t take the bb gun, nor did I even touch it, but even being a possible suspect could merit a smack in the head.
“Did one of you guys take it?” It was more of an accusation than a question.
“No!” Tim and I sang out in harmonious cacophony of denial we prayed he would believe.
The repercussions were dire even without my Dad. Matt would pound the shit out of me if I even touched his precious new bb gun.
Dad got up from the couch and ordered everyone to search for the bb gun. After about a half hour it was determined that it was gone. Mom panicked and began to take inventory.
My parents never locked the house when we left, if we intended to come back within the hour, maybe even a couple of hours. In our neighborhood, nobody worried about intruders, especially in the middle of the day.
“It was Gary,” Dad said.
“You need to call Doris.” Doris was Grandma Gulseth. Mom dialed the number and handed him the phone. The conversation didn’t last long. Dad asked to talk to Gary, but Gary refused to come to the phone.
“What’s he afraid of? Dad’s tone of voice was serious but controlled. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. I think he was already planning on getting Gary back. He didn’t want to give anything away. “I won’t yell at him.” Dad wanted to hear Gary’s denial for himself. He never got it. He knew he never would, and he knew Grandma Gulseth would defend Gary to the end. She always did.
“What did she say?” Mom stood with her hands on her hips. It was how she expressed seriousness to make a stand.
“Does he have my gun? It’s okay if he took it. I just want it back. Did you tell him that?” Matt knew Gary as well as anyone. He had been partners in crime with him. They had done things, stole things that I only knew about. No matter how shitty Matt treated me, I couldn’t tell on him. There was a brother’s code, and not only that, I was an accomplice on some of those things.
“He said he didn’t take it, but I know he did.” My Dad hung up the phone and walked out of the kitchen.
“I don’t want him over here anymore.” Mom had said many times, but Gary always wormed his way back. He would just show up at our door, and Mom always reluctantly let him in.
Matt waited to cry until Dad was out of the kitchen. Mom didn’t console him with a hug. She stopped hugging us when we were four or five. Instead, she poured him a tall glass of Pepsi.
I went back to the living room and laid down in front of the TV to watch the movie.
Two and a half weeks had gone by and Gary hadn’t shown his face, so Dad called him up and invited him over to give him boxing lessons. Dad had been working with Matt in the basement every night for a little over a week. Tim wanted to be part of it, but Dad told him to stay out of the way. Dad asked me if I wanted to take a lesson, but I learned my lesson long ago. I knew I would have been Matt’s punching bag, so I said, “No thanks,” and went outside to play at my friend John’s house.
It had been about three weeks since Matt’s new bb gun ended up missing, and Gary was back at our house to take “boxing lessons” from Dad. I sat on the bottom of the basement stairs, just far enough away to be excluded but close enough to see. I was more comfortable being a spectator than a participant when Dad played with us. Participants usually ended up getting hurt and crying. You were either inflicting damage or the victim of it.
Dad gave one pair of gloves to Gary to put on, and he put on the other pair. They were red twenty-ounce Rocky Graziano signature gloves my brothers I got for Christmas. We never asked for them, but Dad was a boxing fame so he turned us into boxing fans whether we wanted to or not.
As Dad instructed Gary, showing him the very basic jab-jab-left-right, Matt stood to the side with his arms folded tightly. He had that pissed off look on his face. The look he acquired from Dad. The look meant, “Stay out of range, because at any moment a blow hard enough hard to make you see stars was imminent.”
“Why don’t you and Matt spare?” Dad took off his gloves and handed them to Matt. Matt eagerly slid the gloves on, and Dad tied them with the intensity of a trainer before a title bout.Matt pounded the gloves together like he was waiting for the bell to ring. Gary stood awkwardly with his arms limply at his side, the big gloves inertly dangling.
“Hands up. Box!” Dad waved his hand like a referee.
Matt launched himself at Gary, throwing punches from all angles. Gary barely had a chance to get his hands up. Gary immediately retreated across the basement, as Matt pummeled his body and head. Gary attempted to make a stand and threw a flurry of punches. He had fast hands, and a couple of punches landed on Matt. This only incited Matt. As Dad had shown, he started throwing punches with his whole body behind them, punches with bad intent.
Gary covered up, his back against the concrete block wall. There was nowhere to go. Even the punches that landed on his arms made him wince. The blows to his head were glancing and mostly just mussed up his long hair until Matt landed a hard body shot causing Gary to drop his hands. Then Matt threw a right hook followed by a left hook, the right landed on Gary’s temple and the left landed on his jaw. His head bounced off the block wall.
“Okay! Okay!” Gary covered up and slid down the wall to his butt to avoid any more punishment.
“That’s enough.” Dad walked over to Gary and looked at him. He didn’t ask him if he was okay. It was like he wanted to be sure that the beating Matt gave him was sufficient. Then he went upstairs. Tim followed him. “Dad, when ya gonna show me how to box?”
Matt used his teeth to untie the gloves, pulled them off between his knees and went upstairs, all the while ignoring Gary. “Matt, wait,” Gary said as he struggled to get the gloves off. I untied them for him. He had tears in his eyes and his face was pink and blotchy. His long hair was sweaty, and his hands were shaking.
When Gary and I got upstairs, Matt was laying on the living room floor reading the paper. Dad was on the couch doing the same. Tim was in the kitchen bothering Mom, as she made supper. The smell of greasily fried pork chops filled the house. She always made homemade gravy from the leavings, boiled potatoes, and canned corn. With almost every supper we had an iceberg lettuce salad. I poured Catalina over mine.
“Hey Matt, wanna do somethin’?” Gary stood where Matt could see him.
Matt continued looking at the paper. He didn’t answer, and he didn’t even look up.
Gary knelt beside Matt. “What are you reading?”
Matt turned the page of the paper when Gary leaned forward to see.
From the kitchen, Mom called us for supper, and Matt got up and walked past Gary like he wasn’t there.
Everyone was seated at the kitchen table ready to say grace then eat. There wasn’t a seat for Gary. He stood there waiting for an invitation.
“Gary has to go home now. It’s time for us to eat supper.” Mom didn’t even look at him when she said it. Gary knew exactly what had happened to him, and he was out the door before Mom said, “supper.”
The “get back” was complete. As cruel as it was, I admired the beauty of it.
It would be about a month before we would see Gary again. The bb gun never showed up, but many years later Gary admitted to taking it. He said he threw it in the river.