Thou shalt not tell, part 2

The story so far: Thou shalt not tell, part 1

…At one point, I did make a sincere effort not to tell on my brother. Admittedly, this strategy was born not out of any effort to live a nobler life, but because I had been tattling too much. My protestations were being met with, if not skepticism, then weariness, and I knew I had to cut back to maintain my edge. So I decided I would tell only when he’d done something specifically to me, not just when he was generally being bad.

My new strategy was sorely tested on the night my brother brought home the hedgehog.

hedgehog

A friend of my brother’s was being forced by his parents to give up his pet hedgehog – which was not technically a domesticated “pet” at all, but a wild animal captured from the brushy bushes behind our house. When Dave asked our parents if he could take the hedgehog, their answer was as swift and sure as a decapitation. “No,” they said. As the inevitable “But, dad!” escaped my brother’s mouth, they said it again, more firmly. “No. No. No.”

So my brother did what he had to do: He snuck the hedgehog into the house in a shoebox, and stuffed it into the bottom drawer of his dresser. I saw him do this, and noted the gigantic, engorged ticks dotting the hedgehog’s spine-pocked skin – but I resolved not to say anything, even if it killed me. Considering the effort this required, I believed it might.

I felt a jumble of emotions, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced in my nine years on earth. I felt guilty for not telling on my brother. And yet, I felt a strange and thrilling new kinship for being in on a secret with him. I feared the secret would be found out, and that my part in concealing it would get me in trouble (a theme that would recur later in my life). And I feared the hedgehog itself, with its beady little eyes, spiny exterior and no-doubt razor-sharp teeth. This night, I knew, I wouldn’t sleep at all.

As it turned out, none of us would. Inevitably, the hedgehog escaped. At bedtime, my brother peeked into the drawer to find the box empty except for the t-shirt that had served as the animal’s linens. Instantly assessing the complicated calculus of the situation, my brother realized he had to tell my parents, lest the hedgehog wander into their bedroom or waddle underfoot as someone shuffled to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

He told my parents. Hands were wrung, teeth were gnashed. If I had feared the hedgehog before, I was now terrified of it, after seeing the effect its presumed presence in the house had on my mother. But even the specter of a wild hedgehog on the loose didn’t spur Mom to action as much as the idea of those giant, possibly pregnant ticks. For the next hour, she obsessively examined my brother’s and my heads, pulling our hair to and fro like a deranged beautician.

tick

My father launched a search, and soon the hedgehog was found cowering under the sofa. He released it to its native bushes, and order was restored. But I learned a valuable lesson that night: It was sometimes important to tell. The question was figuring out when, and under what circumstances.

Then came Jersey Day.

Jersey Day was the day when the Pee Wee football players all wore their jerseys to school. It was a spirited show of team solidarity, a nod to male bonding, a community ritual reminiscent of ancient tribal customs. Unfortunately, my father understood none of these nuances. He forbade my brother from wearing his jersey, on the grounds that it was “inappropriate” clothing for school.

This was a bizarre pronouncement, as we were not a well-dressed family. I grew up wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs – faded Adidas t-shirts, shiny warm-up jackets, Toughskins jeans with rectangular knee patches. My father wore his military uniform to work every day, after which he would don one of the myriad identical nylon collared shirts he’d been wearing since college. As for my mother, I have never, to this day, seen her use an iron or fold clothes. I grew up thinking that the only people who folded clothes were the maids of very rich families.

In hindsight, I believe that if we had been better-dressed as a rule, my father wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction against Jersey Day. Perhaps it seemed to him that his children were already on the brink of irreversible slobdom, and that this might tip us over the edge. Or perhaps he feared we would be ridiculed at school – Dave in his “inappropriate” football jersey, and I in the frayed Ziggy t-shirt he’d worn all the previous year.

ziggy

Most of the time, I felt pleased, even giddy, when my parents denied my brother something he wanted. But this time, I felt sorry for him. All the boys would be wearing their jerseys, and my brother – already on the outer fringe of football coolness, thanks to his 80-pound frame and pronounced lack of athletic ability – would be the oddball.

“But, Dad, the whole TEAM is gonna wear their jerseys!” my brother wailed. My mother, like all mothers, was genetically programmed to reject the “everybody else is doing it” argument – but in this case, incredibly, she took my brother’s side. “He’ll feel left out,” she told my father. “It’s just for a day.”

My father, however, was swayed by neither reason nor tears. And so, when Jersey Day came, my brother dressed in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and quietly left the house. I left a few minutes later, afraid to get too close and puncture the bubble of gloom I knew was surrounding him. I shouldn’t have worried; he was walking so fast, glancing occasionally back over his shoulder at me, that I couldn’t have caught him anyway.

At school, all the boys were wearing their football jerseys – voluminous mesh shirts hanging down to their knees, with fat yellow numbers sewn on the back. They looked ridiculous, but every scrawny 12-year-old wearing one was strutting around like a rooster on amphetamines: Those cheap pieces of colored nylon …
jerseys

… had unleashed something primal in the school halls.

As I walked to my homeroom among these pre-teen warriors, I happened to glance down the hallway leading to the seventh-grade classrooms. It was then that I saw him. He was in a half-crouch, ready to flee, a look of panic flashing in his eyes as they met mine. It was my brother, and he was wearing… his jersey.

Everything happened in slow motion. My mouth fell open in horror. My brother looked left, then right, then back at me, his shoulders tensing with the terrible realization that it was too late to escape. As I stared dumbly at his jersey, he began shaking his head – first slowly, then in panic.

“No,” he said. “Lis, no!” And then, the inevitable desperate plea: “Don’t tell! Please! Don’t tell!”

It was as if my whole life had been building up to this moment. There were so many layers of meaning, so many shades of nuance, that I felt dizzy. I had caught my brother – my tormentor – red-handed. And he was not only disobeying our mother (which was bad but understandable, as she tended to let things slide), he was disobeying a direct order from our father. This was a transgression of monumental proportions, and I was a witness to it.

Yet, I had felt bad when my father forbade my brother the pleasures of Jersey Day. I knew my father was being unreasonable, and for once in my life my brother had the moral high ground. Why shouldn’t my brother have stuffed his jersey in his backpack, then rushed off to school early to change? He was striking a blow for justice – and besides, my father would never know the difference.

That is, unless I told.

don't tell

More than 25 years have passed since Jersey Day, but I remember it like it happened last week. Jersey Day was the day I was confronted with the greatest moral dilemma I’d ever faced. To tell? Or not to tell?

Dear reader, what would you have done? There’s only one answer, of course: You would have kept quiet, allowing your brother to wear his jersey and be one of the guys, and in the meantime forging a new, stronger, sibling bond.

And what did I do?

Let’s just say, I now know better than to reveal everything.

7 responses to “Thou shalt not tell, part 2”

  1. that last photo is as amazing as the first two were in the last post. did you create this entire serial around them? or did you find them later to illustrate something you were already writing?

  2. Lisa Parrish says:

    Actually, I wrote a modified version of this post about two years ago, without looking at any photos. When I decided to post it for greatwhatsit last week, I started looking through the vast cache of old family photos my father had scanned iinto digital form. It was kind of amazing to find such perfect photos for the story… and in fact, there were a few others that would have been equally as good, but I didn’t want to overdo it…

  3. PB says:

    So I am in a huge training meeting yesterday, that I am facilitating, and all of a sudden the image of “gigantic, engorged ticks dotting the hedgehog’s spine-pocked skin” flashed through my mind. That’s the mark of great story, a day and a half later (although I think these ticks might have staying power) the brain is still turning it all over.
    (I wouldn’t have told, by the way, imagine the blackmail potential)

  4. Adriana says:

    Lisa, you look every bit as impish as your brother in that picture! I loved this story — and I especially loved that you told it in two parts.

  5. Lisa Parrish says:

    Ah, the blackmail potential! This would not have occurred to me at age 8, as it was too sophisticated and devious a concept. Also, I think I secretly hoped I could change my brother for the better by getting him to see the error of his ways.

    He is now, by the way, a psychologist. With perfect children.

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  7. Paul Frankfurt says:

    Hilarious story about the hedgehog. I am so curious about them after watching the cutest video http://www.psstit.com/share/pet-hedgehog.html