Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.6]

The night before Mom started at the roller rink, Mindy got to spend the night with me. Dad and I were going to pick her up, so I put on my fanciest dress—the navy blue cotton one with tiny white flowers on it and layers of white ruffles underneath—and grabbed my plastic high heels along with two macramé purses, one for Mindy and one for me. I stuffed them equally full of plastic jewelry, barrettes, and Avon lipstick samples, which could be used for lipstick and blusher. I carefully cut a new sheet of glitter butterfly stickers in two, tossed one into each purse, and off we went.

“Daddy, can we stop and get Mindy some high heels?”

“Good idea.” Dad stopped at Hook’s Drug Store on the way out of town so we could run into the toy section and get Mindy her very own pair of electric pink, rhinestone-studded, plastic high heels to match my blue ones.

When we got to Mindy’s house, Uncle Ed had his left foot propped up on an ottoman and Aunt Ellen was on the floor rubbing his other foot. Uncle Ed was still recovering from a motorcycle wreck. Grandma Shultz said he was lucky to be alive and that she hoped this would finally be a “wake-up call” for him to stop drinking and “gallivanting around.” Uncle Ed scared me. He was tall and had a dark beard. He was usually grouchy and barked in a gruff voice at Mindy’s brothers when they stood in front of the TV. And, because he worked the night shift, everyone had to tiptoe around the house during the day. Sometimes when I came over and we made a loud noise, Aunt Ellen would panic and frantically “shush” us all outside. We often played outdoors even if we didn’t want to so Uncle Ed could get some sleep. I hated the feeling of being banished, but Mindy didn’t seem to mind it as much.

Mindy had one shy, blonde-haired baby sister, Marie, a freckled four-year-old brother, Luke, and a lanky older brother, Toby. Tonight, Luke and Toby were watching WWF wrestling and racing their Hot Wheels off the side of the bar and into a nicked up wall. As usual, they were misbehaving. Uncle Ed and Aunt Ellen warned them to stop. They did for a minute, then they slowly started up again, until they were threatened more severely. This routine escalated until the boys got a “time-out” and then were finally sentenced to “the paddle.” They were then given “one last chance—til the count of 10”—to behave before the paddle. Most of the time, the boys would keep going like this until they got whacked. When I asked Dad why they would keep misbehaving even if they knew they would get punished, Dad said that some kids need attention so badly, they would rather get negative attention than no attention at all.

As soon as we walked in, I flew past the adults and other kids, grabbed Mindy’s arm, and led her swiftly up to her room. I told her she should put on her fanciest dress because I had a surprise for her in the car. I didn’t want to give her the shoes in front of Luke and Toby. Toby might try to steal them and put them somewhere up high where Mindy couldn’t reach them. Luke might try to destroy them. All the toys in their house were damaged. Their balls were all cracked or deflated, their games were missing crucial pieces, and Mindy’s dolls were dirty with hair chopped in uneven chunks or gum stuck in it. Toby’s Stretch Armstrong doll had one long thin arm, one regular one, and a severed leg, which would ooze magenta goo if you squeezed it hard enough. Once I heard Toby tell Luke to flush Mindy’s plastic horse down the toilet when she didn’t want to let him watch what he wanted on TV. Mindy gave up her program, yet Luke still threw “Horsy” in the toilet for Mindy to scoop out. Angry, I had run upstairs to tell Mindy’s mom about what Luke had done, and she just said we’d all better get along or we’d have to play outside.

“At least he didn’t flush it,” Mindy had said.

Mindy got dressed quickly in a pink dress that had tiny red and blue flowers on it, and I handed her a mini-lipstick sample. We began painting our faces in the mirror. I showed Mindy how to rub hers in like Grandma showed me. Giggling with delight, Mindy grabbed the plastic bag her mom had packed for her and I grabbed her pillow. We skipped down the stairs and stood next to my dad, who was still in his jacket by the door talking to Uncle Ed. Toby said it wasn’t fair that Mindy got to spend the night with someone because he never did. Luke was eyeing our purses and I thought we’d better get going before he began chasing us with a monster truck or something.

Mindy hugged her mom and kissed her dad and we hopped into Tina. Mindy sat in the middle and I told her to close her eyes. I pulled out her high heels and she squealed in delight. Mindy didn’t laugh very much at home, so I always made it my duty to show Mindy the time of her life when she was with us. I told Dad to let her start the car. We joyfully sang “The Ants Go Marching” and “The Wheels on the Bus,” both songs Mindy knew. And then I told Dad to do “Tickle Monster,” which was where Dad’s hand hovered millimeters above your knee and “slept” until you moved or talked or giggled—especially giggled—and then he woke up and squeezed your leg once real good.

We took the long way home and showed Mindy the werewolf eyes in the old Catholic cemetery. But I wasn’t scared that night, maybe because I’d seen them during the day, or maybe because I saw the fear in Mindy’s eyes and felt like I needed to talk her down. I didn’t tell her about the missing girl, but we did jump the hill, which made her scream bloody murder.

When we got home, Mom was watching TV and French braiding her hair. I asked if we could make a Chef Boyardee pizza, something Mindy never got to do at her house. Dad let us stir the dough and put on the toppings. We listened to my record player while it was baking. I had a new Shaun Cassidy record, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” that we danced and danced to. Railroad Dan and Dorothy were the judges. When the pizza was about to come out of the oven, we went to the table where Dad placed two bottles of Coke in front of us. Mindy’s eyes about popped out of her head. She never got to have a whole Coke to herself. She guzzled about half of it before even taking a bite. We ate all the pepperonis off our pieces first, saying “Cheerio” before popping each one into our mouths.

When it was time for bed, Dad came to tuck us in. I asked him to read my favorite Dr. Seuss, The Glunk That Got Thunk. The little girl in the story loved to use her thinker-upper until one night she thought up a rather powerful and overbearing Glunk creature who stubbornly wouldn’t go away. Mindy cuddled next to me under the covers and listened with her eyes wide. At the first sign that the Glunk really wasn’t going, Mindy started to suck her thumb. In the end, the little girl’s brother joins forces with her to unthink him. When the story was over, Mindy asked my Dad three times whether the Glunk was really unthunk. Then she asked whether she could think up a Glunk that wouldn’t go away. Dad said no and that anything can be unthunk.

Trying to lighten the mood for Mindy, I told him to tell us a Ned and Ted Story. Mindy loved those.

Dad cleared his throat, “Uhum. Okay. One day, Ned and Ted got out of bed and decided to make blueberry pancakes. Only they didn’t have any blueberries, so they looked in the refrigerator and found some leftover peas from last night’s dinner.”

“Peas? Eww!” we squealed.

“Yes, peas. And they decided that they could use them to make blueberries if only they had some blue food coloring. But they didn’t. So they looked around for some blue markers. They had those, so they decided they could just paint those peas blue.”

“BLUE Peas?!” we threw our heads back on the pillow in disgust.

“Have you ever tried blue peas, young ladies?” Dad asked.

“No!”

“Well, then how do you know they don’t taste good? Now then, Ned and Ted spent the rest of the morning coloring all the leftover peas blue. The next step was for them to mix the pancake powder and milk. However, much to their disappointment, they opened the fridge and saw that they were out of milk. By now they were starving, BUT…thankfully their Mom came home just then with Happy Meals from McDonald’s. The End. Okay you two, time for sleep.”

“No! Wait! Couldn’t Ned and Ted make some milk too?” we offered, to make the story last longer.

“Make milk? How ever could they do that?”

“Umm, umm, couldn’t they put white food coloring in water?”

“Oh brother, you knuckleheads, everyone knows you can’t make milk. You’re getting tickled for that!”

“Tell us one more! Tell us the one where Ned and Ted put Vaseline on their mean cousin Red’s toilet seat. Or the one where Ned, Ted, and Red puked up all their junk food after riding roller coasters at King’s Island.”

“It’s getting late. I’ll tell you those tomorrow, though, I promise. Good night, girls.”

“Good night.”

Dad turned out the lights, leaving Mindy and me in the dark. With our mouths, we manufactured louder and louder fart noises, trying to stifle our giggles, which only made us giggle louder. Dad came in and told us to get quiet “for real” this time, so we did. That left us alone with the Glunk, but I didn’t dare bring him up. It did feel better to have Mindy with me in case I needed extra power to unthink him.

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