My cousin Erik moved to Tuebingen in Germany in 1994. He visits about once a year or so. We always have him stay over when he’s around. In fact, we prefer it. He’s great company. He and I can talk about the old country, as I still keep very close friends from my time in Germany thirty years ago. I have been back to see them many times. I have taken my family more than once. When we get a chance, we stop in to see Erik.
He’s great, font of great stories from his life as a bartender in a little joint in the basement of a building off a busy Tuebingen street. He keeps close friends here, and we are lucky when they come to pick him up for a night out. All his friends are interesting, just like he is.
I can’t remember how old Erik is now. 45? 46? I’ll have to ask. For a long time, I perceived our relationship as one of an older brother to a younger one. But now that we are both over 40, he has become more of an old friend.
He’s a regular reader of this blog. He especially likes stories about my family and our shared history. Each story, I think, acquaints him with a new facet of things he never knew about our family. He likes to get my impressions growing up in such a chaotic household.
When he was young, very young, his mom, Aunt Patty, used to drop him off at our house. My mom, who had her hands full with housework and chasing around four kids, all of whom were under eleven or so. I don’t remember how often he came to our house, but it happened often enough that I remember several things about him from that time. A visit from Erik gave my mom a break. She didn’t have to entertain all those kids. With a new playmate, they would take care of themselves.
We were an unruly bunch away from the stern eye and arbitrary hand of my mother. We had fun with Erik. He was a cute kid. He had red hair like my brother and sister. We played all kinds of kid games with him. We always looked forward to him coming to our house.
Allegedly, my mom was supposed to “babysit” Erik. In reality, she let him loose with the rest of us, which wasn’t the best way to watch another person’s child. We were mean kids. I have a theory about power relations: Those who are abused and made to feel powerless turn to exert power on others who may be weaker. Poor Erik was the bottom of the heap. The rest of us four kids had enough of a time abusing each other. With him in the house, we had a new victim.
One time, Aunt Patty dropped Erik off at our house. As usual, my mother is not in the same memory with Erik. In fact, this particular time, she was out of the house, likely taking her time shopping and getting away from us. Erik must have been just four or five, which would have made me eleven or twelve.
We had a full day. We ran outside, played hide-and-seek, and climbed on the jungle gym. We somehow found ourselves in the living room of our ranch-style three-bedroom. After the play, we were all doing things on our own. There was nothing on television. I was bored and sitting on the hide-a-bed. Erik splayed out over the loud orange shag carpet. It had begun to rain.
Most of the time, I felt powerless in life. Life and work so frustrated my parents that they took out their issues on their kids. So, I was a mean bastard of an older brother to my siblings. I played relentless mischief on them. Jokes took on monumental proportions. I lured them to our scary downstairs and locked the door behind them, leaving them for hours in the dank, musty confines of that dark cellar. I made messes and convinced them that mom was going to come down on them with a belt if they didn’t clean them up. I terrorized them as they slept.
One time, when my brother and I were serving 6:30 morning mass, I woke him up (his bedtime was before mine) and told him it was time to get ready for church. Dutifully, he climbed sleepy-eyed down from the top bunk and started to put on his clothes. As he was pulling on his pants, I said goodnight and turned off the light.
I was sitting on the hide-a-bed and wondering what to do next when the bug bit me. I decided to teach Erik to cuss. “Erik,” I said. “Go to hell.” This was a pearl, I thought. It was the worst of what I knew at the time. The kid looked puzzled a minute and went back to playing with legos. “Erik, pay attention to me. Go to hell.”
I’ll never forget the helpless, questioning look on his face. Coming from parents who never beat their kids and who let kids be kids, he didn’t have any idea what was happening. “Go to hell, Erik, goddammit. Go to hell.” He rolled over on his side, legos in his hands. “What?” he said. “What do’ya want me to do?”
“Go to hell.”
I kept at him for a long time, my voice becoming angrier and louder. He laid there. He dropped the legos and sat up. He pulled at the shag. The more agitated he became the more innocent he looked. This energized me.
“Go to hell,” I said. “Go to hell.” I was having a grand time, laughing between shouting my new command to Erik. He started to cry, which meant I was getting somewhere. “Go to hell. Go to hell. Go to hell. Go . . . to . . . hell!”
My brother and sisters sat silent, not knowing what to do. I had control of the room.
Finally, Erik squeezed the tears from his eyes. He put his hands over his ears. We kept it up until he screamed as loud as he could, “You go to hell!”
I was surprised. I meant to teach him the phrase but regretted doing it as soon as my wiles worked. I made out that I was just kidding. He had closed his eyes. “No, Erik, it’s all right. Let’s forget it.”
“You go to hell,” he said weakly. I sat back down on the hide-a-bed. He lay back down on his stomach and buried his face in his arm. I felt like a heel.
I don’t remember the rest of the day, and I thought this matter was closed. I would never hear about it again.
Less than three days later, my mom called us all in the livingroom. Her face said we had really screwed up. The belt hung on the knob to the kitchen door. We didn’t know what we had done. We never did. And it didn’t matter what we had or had not done. This situation was running against us.
Aunt Patty came through the front door. I suddenly knew exactly what was happening. She stormed into the living room. “Dorothy,” she said, greeting my mom. “Now one of you tell me who taught Erik to say ‘go to hell.’”
“What?” my mother said. But I could see that she and Aunt Patty had already talked this out.
“Yeah, there I was in the grocery store,” Aunt Patty said. She had always been kind to me. Her anger made her seem strange, almost another person. The grimace on her face scared me. She looked directly at me. “Erik was restless and I told him to settle down . . . and then . . . and then, he says this vile trash. He had to get it from somewhere.”
My insides turned to ice. I knew I couldn’t rely on my brother and sisters to lie for me. That’s the problem with being at the head of the pack and a mean son of a bitch. No one was going to stand up for me.
I lied. I said I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Erik told me you taught him how to say this,” Patty said, her finger pointed directly at my nose.
“I didn’t,” I said desperately, looking away. “I did not.”
Mom took me by the arm and grabbed the belt from the doorknob. “I’ll teach you to teach people to say such things.” The beating commenced. “An you lied about it,” she said between strokes. My brother and sisters sat on the couch. They looked concerned but relieved I was the one getting it. She flailed at me with abandon. When it finally ended, her face had grown red and she was out of breath. My ass and the back of my legs stung. I was crying.
Patty left. The room grew silent. I heard her car start out front. My mom raised her arm and pointed her finger. I went to my room. “Wait until your father hears about this,” my mom said. I knew I was in for more.
I didn’t stop being a bastard to my siblings. We had many more long years of abuse to live through, and as much as my parents gave it to me, I gave it back to my siblings. But I never, ever abused another kid.
When Erik comes to stay with us, that day enters my mind. Did I contribute to whatever difficulties he’s had in his life? I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it. When he gets home tomorrow from a visit to his friends in Lawrence, I will bring it up. It’s about time I apologized.