Sunday, May 18, 2008


A piece of wall extended into my childhood bedroom, creating a notch that concealed a chimney and the closet in the next room. It was right in front of you as you came into the room, maybe three feet from the door. A kid lying on her back with her shoulders to the wall and her feet braced against the door could stand off just about any kid or kids trying to get in.

I made use of this architectural oddity one summer day when my sister was hard on my heels with violence in her heart, probably for good and sufficient reason. I would have been about thirteen at the time. Paula was a couple of years younger, tall for her age, strong, athletic, and fearless; tangling with her could be dangerous. The day she and I and the two little girls next door picked a snowball fight with my father, three of us scattered at the first return of snowballs. Paula waded into the fray, flinging snowballs for all she was worth and taking hits from head to toe, in her face and down her neck, while we cowered around the corner of the barn. I did my share of foolhardy things, usually through ignorance or inattention (see Bandsaw 1, Kid 0), but I never had anything like Paula's physical courage.

In her differences with me, she wasn't above availing herself of any weapon that came to hand. Children living in two-story houses learn to descend a staircase in not-quite-freefall, dropping off the edge of each stair with just enough contact to keep from falling. I learned this technique with Paula hard behind me, brandishing a Girl Scout shoe with intent to chuck it at my head -- again, probably for cause.

I had barricaded myself in my bedroom often enough that Paula knew better than to keep flinging herself at the door once I got into position. She retreated to her room at the other end of the hall, keenly alert for any sound that would indicate that I had released my stranglehold on the door. Soon bored and uncomfortable, I could probably have quietly found a book or something -- but who wants to lie on their back on the floor all day?

I inched away from the door and wrote a large note: "Out the window I must go" -- suggesting, but not quite saying, that I had made my escape through the window. Implying without quite committing myself to a lie that I could be called on was one of my childhood specialties.

I opened the window very carefully. Then, leaving the note on the bed, I banged open the door and ducked into the closet an instant before Paula roared into the room like an avenging fury. From inside the closet, I heard her stop at the bed, then advance to the window; I pictured her leaning on the sill, looking out and down.

My room was the only one in the house with just one window,and one of the few on the second floor where the window didn't give onto the roof of a porch. We kids came and went through the windows about as readily as through the doors. But from my windowsill, the options were a fourteen-foot drop to the ground, or a sideways maneuver to the roof of a small porch a few feet away. Heavy and not agile, I had long known that an attempt at either would likely get me killed.

If Paula had thought about that, or looked into the closet, I'd have had to fight my way out. But she, like our mother, takes things at face value; and she hadn't given as much consideration as I had to alternative exits from that room. She receded, probably clattering downstairs to track me down. I exited the closet and went about my business, careful to stay out of Paula's way until she'd had time to forget the whole thing.