Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.2]

When we got home, Mom was watching TV and painting her nails ruby red.

I went to my room to play and heard the phone ring. A few minutes later Dad came in and said he’d been called to go to work. Dad had worked on the Norfolk and Western railroad since he graduated high school, just like his brother and father. I darted back into my room to make him a good-bye card, then hurried into the bathroom to watch him shave. Dad let me feel and smell his velvety smooth cheeks after he applied his Old Spice aftershave. When he finished shaving, I followed him like a puppy into his bedroom to watch him pack.

“Where are you going this time?” I asked hesitantly.


My heart sank—the longest trip he could make. Some trips were short, less than 24 hours even. He was sometimes home by the time I woke up. But Decatur meant he’d be away two or three days.

I sat next to him on the basement steps while he put on his brown leather boots. It was my job to put my finger in the knot of the heavy, cord-like strings so Dad could tie a tight bow. This time I didn’t get my finger out of the way in time and we had to do it over. I also held the knot while he tied his books together with a thinner, softer cord. I gave him the good-bye card, which he read and said, “This will make the perfect bookmark.”

“What book is this?” I asked, pointing to the one on top with the white soft cover.

“Oh, that isn’t a book. It’s a journal about the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. It has one of Skinner’s most recent articles in it, and I want to read it before the conference next weekend.”

Dad was going to attend an academic conference in Chicago. He’d seen it advertised in the journal and was excited to discover that he didn’t actually have to be affiliated with a university to attend. He said that B.F. himself—in the flesh!—was going to be there along with others doing work like him. Mom was going with him, and I was going to spend the night with Grandma Trailer. Of course, that wasn’t Grandma’s real name. It’s just that she was my great-grandmother, and since I had another grandma with the same last name, Dad said I needed a way to discriminate them. She was the only grandma I had who lived in a trailer, so it made perfect sense to me.

Dad and I went back upstairs so he could pack some food and put tea in a thermos. I kissed him good-bye and said I had to go to the bathroom. Then, while he was still in the kitchen, I snuck out the front door and into Tina’s backseat. Crouching into a ball on the floor, I waited for Dad to come. When he sat down in the front seat, I tried not to breathe until I heard him start the car.

Then, in my highest puppet-voice, I said, “Hello, Mark. It’s me, Tina.”

Without flinching, he steadily backed the car out of the driveway and said, “Hello, Tina. How are you tonight?”

“Great. My engine is good. Thank you for driving me.”

“You’re quite welcome. You know I love you, Tina.”

“I am glad I am your car.”

“Me, too. I wouldn’t want any other car.”

“Will you be really careful on the train?”

“Oh yes. I always am.”

“Will you be lonely on the train?”

“No, Tina. I won’t. My daughter gave me a wonderful good-bye card. So I can look at that when I start to feel sad.”

“Will you call her when you get to Decatur?”

“I most certainly will.” Dad finished his short trip around the block and pulled back into the driveway.

Feeling the car stop, I said, “Okay. I know Michelle will listen for your train to pass. She loves you.” Then I snuck out the back and ran into the house.

Mom looked at me and rolled her eyes. She said she was going to bed because she had a headache. She told me I’d better go to bed soon since tomorrow was a school day, and to only wake her up in the morning if I needed help getting ready.

“And don’t forget to turn out the lights,” she said, shutting her bedroom door.

I quietly put my pajamas on and brushed my teeth. I laid out all the clothes I would wear to school the next day, then I opened my bedroom window so I could listen better for Dad’s train. The draft of warm air that floated into my room smelled like lilacs from the bushes out back. I really needed Dorothy and Dan tonight, but they were in the basement, and I hated going into the basement by myself after dark because of the huge centipede that came to life under the stairs. I crawled into bed and turned out the light, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Dorothy and Dan alone in the basement with the centipede. What if they were scared and counting on me to come and get them? They needed me and would be so happy if I rescued them. I had to do something.

I turned all the lights back on and tiptoed to the top of the basement stairs. Dan and Dorothy weren’t in their obvious places. I thought for a minute and remembered seeing them lying together on the couch by my swing, on the far side of the basement. Ugh. Thinking through the problem, I decided that if I recited the Bunny Foo Foo song two times before going down and two times after coming back up, the centipede couldn’t get me. And, if I counted to four over and over the entire trip, he would stay sleeping. I took a deep breath, cheerfully sang the song twice, then slowly and calmly counted my way down the stairs and over to Dan and Dorothy.

As soon as I had them in my hands, panic seized me and I felt pins and needles up and down my entire body. I squealed and ran as fast as I could back up the steps, certain that the centipede was awake and “on to me.” Without looking back, I flicked off all the lights and ran full speed back to my bedroom, diving onto my bed with Dan and Dorothy. I lay there shivering and staring into the darkness, panting softly, listening for the centipede’s approach. Thankfully, there was no sound of him and my door stayed shut. I decided he probably couldn’t leave the basement. There was a distinct threshold there, after all. Plus, he probably didn’t like the turtle monster either. As the adrenaline wore off, I whispered a story to Dan and Dorothy. Then we fell asleep.

The next morning, my alarm woke me up and I dressed myself. I’d chosen my brown flannel dress with the red apple stitched on the front, my brown socks, and my red Mary Janes. I brushed what I could reach of my hair and went to the kitchen where Mom had laid a Tupperware bowl of cereal on the counter for me along with a small cup of milk on a shelf in the fridge. I made my breakfast and took it into the living room to watch Bozo the Clown. I knew it was time to leave the house right before the Grand Prize Game came on.

Around that time, I peeked out the front window to see if Bridget and Eve were headed this way yet. Bridget was in my kindergarten class and had to pass by my house on her way to and from school each day. Eve, a sophomore in high school, was her babysitter. I often timed it so that I left the house and “naturally” ran into them. Today, I got to the sidewalk a little too fast, so I pretended to be checking out something in a crack until they caught up.

“Helloooo!” I said.

“Hi!” they both said.

“I like your hair!” I told Bridget when she got closer. Her hair was dark brown but looked much shorter and she had straight-across bangs—it looked very familiar!

“Oh, thanks.” Bridget said. “My mom told them to cut it like Dorothy Hamill.”

I didn’t know you could do that, but the thought that I could also have that haircut thrilled me.

Then Eve said, “We were just singing ‘The Ants Go Marching.’ Do you know that one?”

Did I know that one?! I nodded and sang it with gusto all the way to school. Since school was only two blocks away, we only got to “six by six.”

In school that day, we decorated flower pots and learned about all the other objects that began with the letter “F,” including feathers and fungus.

When I got home from school, Mom was on the telephone with her friend Deb. She was laughing and talking in her “phone voice,” which was happier and more sing-songy than her regular one. I loved listening to her on the phone; not only did she sound happy, she shared special information with her friends. I eavesdropped from the front room as she talked about running into someone in the grocery store who looked “better than ever.” She talked about her recent bowling score, which was over 200, and about signing up for an oil painting class. I smiled, thinking my mom would be really good at that.

Her voice changed when she mentioned Dad’s name. “Same. He’s always got his head in a book or up her ass. They’re inseparable. And he’s got to see his mom every damn day. He won’t take me out anywhere I want to go, but we’re driving up to Chicago so he can see some old writer talk about a book he wrote.” Mom peeked around the corner and wrapped up her call when she saw me, promising to phone Deb next week.

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