There was a yellow split-level house just on the next street over where Sandy Parker lived. She had a boy my age named Paul Parker. Paul Parker’s large round head was perpetually buzzed and I never saw him in anything other than one of his dad’s t-shirts that dragged on the ground behind his feet as he walked.
Paul was mean, or so I decided one day after I found out he had told the other kids in the neighborhood I had lice. It wasn’t a lie, actually, but it wasn’t his truth to tell. My younger sister and I had gotten it from the new family who had moved in across the street. We found out they had been dealing with lice at their house for a while just a day after the kids had come to play. The next morning my parents placed my sister and me in the kitchen sink so they could scrub our scalps with “magic shampoo!” My mother’s tone of clearly faked enthusiasm was enough to trick me, six, and my sister, four.
I don’t know how Paul Parker found out about the lice. I certainly would have never told him. We weren’t friends.
It didn’t matter how he found out. What mattered was that he told. At age six there isn’t much opportunity to build your brand so something like one short-lived bodily infestation really could be enough to do you in.
“You’re going to start going to Sandy Parker’s house during the day,” my mom told me one morning, using the same high-pitched tone she had summoned for the lice shampoo. “Wouldn’t you like that? Wouldn’t you like going to Sandy Parker’s house? You and Paul can play all you want.”
Mom was desperate for a new babysitter in the summer of 1990 after Merriam Daniels dropped us from her services for reasons unknown. I was relieved when she did it because it meant I would no longer be locked in a living room with nine crying toddlers every afternoon while the same VHS tape blaring Winnie the Pooh ran its course in the corner.
Mom had just started a new job at an engineering firm owned by our neighbor. She wasn’t an engineer herself. She had gone to school to be a second grade teacher—had done her student teaching, even. But when she was offered the office job nearby, for whatever reason she decided this would be a better fit for her than public education. So, with both of my parents working out of the home, my sister and I needed to be somewhere, and that somewhere could no longer be Merriam Daniels’s house.
“I bet Paul Parker is going to be so excited to have you!” mom continued to assure me.
I of course had no choice in the matter. Sandy Parker ran the only competing off-the-books daycare in the neighborhood. She had recently gotten into the babysitting business after she heard Merriam was dropping kids from her services—firing them, really.
My sister and I were given a tour and orientation on the very first day at Sandy Parker’s house. “Never flush this toilet,” Sandy Parker told us as we stood in the upstairs bathroom. She repeated that command four more times and then made us say it to her to ensure we had heard it. “Never flush this toilet,” we parroted back to her without making direct eye contact. “But can we use it?” my sister whispered to me as we followed Sandy down the hallway toward a set of stairs. “Yeah,” I confirmed for her. “We just can’t flush it for some reason.”
Sandy Parker’s house smelled like macaroni & cheese, a curious thing considering that we never actually saw that food in the home. Sandy Parker was married to Dale Parker. Like all dads in 1990, Dale Parker was terrifying. He worked as a plumber and we’d usually catch him leaving with a tool belt hanging over his shoulders just as we got dropped off every morning.
“Did you tell them about that toilet?” I heard Dale bark after he noticed us for the first time. “Yeah, I told them,” Sandy yelled over her taped soaps from the day before. Two of Sandy’s shows happened at the same time, noon, on competing networks so she’d dash to the basement to the spare TV around 11:55 to hit the record button on the VCR so it could catch whatever she was missing while watching her main jam upstairs.
“Don’t touch that TV in the basement!” she’d snap at us. “You can watch it if you want, but don’t you dare change the channel or mess with the VCR until 1:00.”
Dale looked at us as we stood behind Sandy’s chair. “You understand about that toilet upstairs? Never flush it.”
I assumed Sandy was paid by my parents, but if she was being fair, she should have given a cut to our real babysitter: The 1988 sexually-charged cinematic masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which by my memory was played every afternoon on the basement television for the better part of four months.
Paul Parker would cheer like an ogre every time Jessica Rabbit’s cleavage was on display. The Jensen twins, age four, were there most days and they seemed to be largely uninterested in the film, or, really, in us.
I had been to the Jensens’ house once with my dad. He had been assigned with another man in our church congregation to visit them every month. They called this “home teaching.” Its objective was to keep track of all the Mormons in a particular area by pairing up men who otherwise had no interest in spending time with one another, having them sit awkwardly in the living rooms of a handful of families every few weeks, make uncomfortable small talk for 27 minutes, and then read a quote from a church leader.
Dad’s assigned partner had been screening dad’s calls and so when the last day of the month approached he dragged me to the Jensens’ house as his substitute companion. “Let’s get this over with so I can report the number to them,” dad told me, referring to his superiors who were tasked with collecting data every month on whether each congregation’s men were fulfilling their Christian duties. If he didn’t get his visits done, it’d be an awkward enough of a phone call that it really was best to just jump through the hoops whenever possible.
We drove to the Jensens’ house and a minute after Mrs. Jensen answered the door we found ourselves sitting on two armchairs in their living room directly across from the Jensen parents sandwiching the twins on a flower-patterned sofa.
“Sorry the place is such a mess,” Mrs. Jensen, who didn’t seem to blink, apologized on behalf of her immaculately clean house in which plastic had been laid down to cover the stairs and the most trafficked areas of the home. Lines from a vacuum cleaner that had clearly overworked the carpet seconds before we arrived could be seen across the center of the floor. I tried to imagine what the Jensens would think of our own house with its toys strewn about and a perpetually full sink of dishes if they ever came to visit as dad waved them off and snuck a glance at his watch in the process.
The Jensen twins sat up straight, stoically, in their matching sailor-themed outfits throughout the visit, never making a sound, acting more like prop dolls than human children.
“Weird kids,” dad muttered as we climbed into the car to drive home. “Don’t repeat that.”
“Weird kids,” I thought, as I watched the Jensen twins sit face-to-face in the corner of the room, staring into one another’s eyes, still not saying a word, as Paul Parker rewound a scene of Jessica Rabbit singing “Why Don’t You Do Right” in a backless pink cocktail dress that had a slit running fully up the side of her ass.
I still maintain to this very day that the incident that got us fired by Sandy Parker was not part of some master plan. I’m not sure it ever occurred to me there was anything I could do to cause the grownups to make alternate arrangements for our care. When you’re six, it rarely seems possible that you could possibly have any control of your own life.
I guess we had been going to Sandy Parker’s house for about four months when it happened, and considering how curious I had been, it was honestly amazing it took this long. It was a very hot day and Sandy Parker had sent us to the backyard, overgrown with weeds, to play on a rusted swing set. She had tossed a two-gallon pitcher of highly diluted purple Kool-Aid onto a picnic table. “Drink this if you get thirsty. We’ll have lunch after my soaps,” she barked at us before slamming a glass sliding door shut.
Paul Parker was preoccupied with the Jensen twins. He had cornered the two boys at the back of the yard where he was growling at them and then laughing each time they flinched. My sister and I took the two swings, gently rocking back and forth like the pendulum on a large grandfather clock slowly ticking away the time.
“I wonder what would happen if we flushed the toilet.” I’m pretty sure it was I who suggested it.
A minute later my sister and I quietly slid the glass door open and tip-toed through the kitchen. In the next room over we could hear someone on the TV screaming at a woman named Angela for making up a cancer diagnosis in order to stop a wedding. A very distinct clicking sound suggested that Sandy Parker was clipping her toenails and flicking them off into the living room shag carpet, something we had seen her do on many occasions.
I stepped into the bathroom while my sister stayed in the hallway to keep watch. “We’ll flush it once. Just to see.” I suggested.
The toilet gurgled and a spraying sound erupted just beneath the floor a few seconds after I pushed down on the lever. A minute later we heard the rage of a woman scorned and stripped of a peaceful soap opera viewing experience sprinting up a set of stairs. Suddenly Sandy Parker stood over me and a toilet that was leaking water onto the floor at its base.
“Was my instruction confusing? Were you confused when I told you to never flush that toilet?” Sandy shouted at me while dragging me out of the bathroom by my right arm. “You stupid kid.”
Dale Parker arrived at the house twenty minutes later where he retreated to some part of the basement with his tool belt and yelled profanities for the remainder of the afternoon.
“Sandy Parker dropped us today,” I heard my mother inform my father that evening.
“Something about a flushed toilet.”
I don’t remember what my parents did next, but I don’t recall ever being dropped off at a neighbor’s house again. I think we started going to the homes of responsible nearby relatives. Or maybe we were left to fend for ourselves from then on. I do know that I spent the next year hiding from Sandy and Dale Parker every time I caught a peek of them at church.
I had done a pretty good job avoiding them until the next summer when I was hauled by my father to a Boy Scout Court of Honor. I was seven now. “You’ll start cub scouts next year so this should be interesting to you,” my dad assured me.
Paul Parker’s 17-year-old brother had earned his Eagle and this particular ceremony was for him. The point of the event was to put some scouting propaganda on display and then induct a new teenager into the Eagles’ Nest. The Parkers had flattened the weeds in their backyard and moved the swing set to make space for 80 folding chairs stolen from the local Mormon church building to accommodate the guests, made up mostly of extended family members and neighbors who knew it’d be awkward the next day at church if they didn’t make an appearance.
Dad had a practice of arriving to and leaving events very early “to beat the traffic.” He and I once missed a double-overtime in a Utah Jazz playoff game because of this. “Look how clear the roads are!” he bragged as the announcer shouted from the car’s radio that the fans who stayed in the arena were watching “history in the making.”
We sat down on two chairs at the back of the Parkers’ yard. “We’re right next to the gate so we can get out of here faster,” dad explained.
The rest of the seats were quickly filled and the ceremony began with a man, covered in bird poop and holding a live eagle tied to his wrist, giving a speech about the precision of the creature’s eyes.
Within seconds I was bouncing my legs and whining that I wanted to go home and play. “You can sit here and behave yourself for one hour,” dad hissed at me. By this point I was kicking the chair in front of me, one occupied by a woman in a dark blue muumuu and an oversized sunhat.
Dad pulled a red jawbreaker out of his pocket. “If you’re good, I’ll give you this.” The bribe was so disproportionate to what was being asked of me that it was almost offensive. I seethed in tempered rage as I folded my arms and bided my time, hoping to get my hands on the candy before making my next move.
As the ceremony began to wrap, dad decided to prematurely hand over the prize for my obedience, slipping the jawbreaker into my tiny hand.
If I close my eyes I can still perfectly picture this scene. I can feel the candy in my palm, my fingers pulling it into a tight grip. There was a nearly straight shot between me and the front of the congregated scouting enthusiasts where Dale Parker stood next to his son, both of them with their right arms raised, their fingers outstretched into the scouting salute. “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country,” they chanted.
It was as they were wrapping up their publicly-proclaimed vow that I launched the jawbreaker upward and forward.
I was aiming for the boy scout, truth be told. He was the reason I had to be there so I figured he of anyone deserved to be harmed. Of course there was little chance I would actually strike my intended target. I wasn’t particularly known for my hand-eye coordination, and I was only seven.
Even still, it may have seemed intentional, and I’m sure some suggested that it was, that the jawbreaker would strike the back of a woman’s head on the very front row. A woman who let out a shriek, grabbed the spot already forming a bump, and then turned around to face her assailant.
“You will be writing an apology letter to Sandy Parker this afternoon,” my mother screamed at me twenty minutes later while pouring dish soap into my forced-open mouth. The mouth washing punishment was usually reserved for times when my older sisters falsely told her I swore so this decision was an aberration in her criminal justice system.
The letter-writing was typical, however. I’d written dozens of these to adults in the neighborhood or in my extended family over the last year. One for spraying an aunt with a hose as she came to our house to drive with my parents to a funeral. One for kicking a Sunday school teacher in the genitals. Another for telling my kindergarten class during show-and-tell that my parents had died and the government decided I could start driving since I didn’t have anyone to take me to school anymore.
“I want to see the letter before you take it to Sandy Parker’s house,” my mother yelled before shutting me in my bedroom alone with a pencil and one loose sheet of paper.
Sincerely sorry for all of the trouble I had caused, I thought for a moment about how to best express my sympathies, and then began writing.
A few minutes later I handed the draft letter to mom, who read it aloud back to me.
“Dear Sandy Perker. Im so sory that i threwd the candy at you i was trying to threw it at your son. please dont be mad at me i was just realy bord becase i hate scouts. and im sory about when i flashd the toylat but im not sory we dont have to come ovar to your howse any more becase it smeld like mak end cheez but you nevar gave us any!”
Mom finished the letter and stood in silence for a moment, obviously attempting with all her might to push back against the tension in her throat and to resist a smile.
“Your apology letter . . . it’s so perfect that maybe we should just keep it for ourselves.”
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