We were hard sleeping on the floor of the sunken living room, the torture session having gone long into the night.
The subject of that session, of course, was my brother Ryan. That's what older brothers and their best friends do -- they torment younger siblings over summer vacation. There are tons of reasons, but in this case it was just plain fun to do. No one could scream like Ryan, and no one could go to complete hysteria from pure frustration faster. His wails of anger and helpless fury only egged us on, and we loved it.
"We," of course, was the tandem of me and my best friend Bill. Bill is a year, a month and a day older than I am. That meant he was 11 and I was 10, or thereabouts. Every summer, we'd spend as many weeks together as we could get permission for. Most of the time, it was two weeks, but as he got older, that changed.
I lived in a suburb about an hour away from Bill. It was a journey that seemed even longer when we were going down to my grandmother's house, in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, Land of Perpetual Fog. Bill lived directly across the street from my grandmother, so every time I went there, we got together and had a ball. And, once a year when school was out, Bill would come and visit us for a couple of weeks and we'd have even more fun.
This particular year, my brother was an especially difficult pest to control. He wasn't as malleable as he'd been when he was younger. He was five then, and already well on his way to becoming the manipulative, lying jack-ass he is today. He already had a weight problem, and was probably psychologically scarred by my mother's constant alcoholic-fueled abuse mixed with overly protective tendencies and over-indulgence. He'd been hit by a truck when he was two and was riding a Big Wheel. Mom felt she should've stopped him from going to a friend's house so young. She compensated, when she wasn't drunk, by being overly mothering to Ryan. Hell, she even stopped my father from disciplining him ... not that stopping my father from doing something was any great challenge.
Those years were the height of my mother's alcoholism. We were beaten on a fairly regular basis, and when we weren't being beaten, we were being told how we'd never amount to anything, or maybe being pulled aside so our mother could tell us she was going to commit suicide later that day, or maybe we were just asked to hit our father over the head with a heavy object so he'd get off of her after she physically attacked him and he had to sit on her and pin her arms down. These were pretty regular occurrences in our house.
They were far, far reduced, and far less severe, when Bill came to visit. The appearances had to be kept up as much as possible. That was part of the reason we loved having him so much. He was my friend, I know, and I would have loved him like a brother even if he WEREN'T our only rescue. But the fact that he was made him all the more dear to us. Bill was the only one that wasn't afraid to say "no" to my mother, or to argue with her in our defense. And, when he had to, he stood in solidarity with us and took his lumps just like we did. To this day, he's a hero to me.
Bill is athletic and well-muscled, and always has been. He was a strong kid, and he always treated us like siblings. I looked up to him then, and over time, he functioned as more of a father figure than my own father. He was strong, masculine and secure in himself -- something we didn't see much from our own father. Even at 11, Bill was a football player and played soccer too. Later, in high school, he was a track and field standout along with everything else he did. The only thing he wasn't good at was academics. He'd lead you to believe he was a dummy, but that's not the case at all. He just didn't do well in school. He's now a shrewd, if not retired business man, with a house in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and set for life with investments and real estate. There's nothing dumb about Bill, and there never was.
He loved my parents and thought the world of them. They, in turn, felt the same about him. So, it was great for all of us to have him around. They never objected to him being there, and they never realized that our motives were as much selfish as caring for the company of a friend. So he visited most every summer, and this particular summer, Ryan was a terror.
Ryan, for his part, had learned that certain possessions were prized by older kids. For us, it was small, grocery-store toys. Often, my mother took us to the grocery store where we'd find an aisle of toys. We were particularly drawn to the rubber animals and insects and things of that nature. On one trip, Bill picked out a rubber skeleton wearing zombie rags and dangling from a gold elastic band. I probably picked out the same thing -- monkey-see type of thing. I wanted to be as cool as Bill, after all. My brother Ryan, being younger, would have followed suit. But his toy would have been destroyed or lost or both a couple of days later. So to avenge our torment of him, Ryan would target our stuff. The cunning warrior attacks neither the body nor the mind, but the heart.
We were at least a few days into Bill's visit by then. It wouldn't have taken long for Ryan to get on our nerves. We lived in a relatively new neighborhood, in a new house with a sunken living room and three bedrooms, a galley kitchen and a formal dining room. The house had a long central hallway that had the living areas at one end and the bedrooms and bathrooms at the other. The main bath was right at the end of that hallway, and the formal living room where we were sleeping was near the opposite end. Ryan and I shared a room, for reasons that I don't to this day understand, and there was a guest room. Bill never slept in the guest room though. He always slept in the living room in a sleeping bag so we could be away from Ryan and do "guy stuff." It was the coolest thing ever.
We slept the sound sleep of children. In those days, the mid-seventies, it was okay for you to leave kids alone in the house. You taught them not to burn it down, and how to contact police, and you did your best not to do it often or for very long. But for jaunts to the store and such, it was no problem. Somewhere in the dimness of the morning that Saturday, my parents had gone out and left Bill and me to watch over Ryan. Without letting us know.
Ryan was an early riser. He got up well before we did; we'd stayed up late playing and talking and trying not to wake my parents. At some point during the night, we'd get something to eat. It was a tradition, a ritual we went through every visit. The goal was to do it without alerting anyone. We were exhausted and near comatose come morning, though. So Ryan had that time, awake and alone, to plot his vengeance.
The sound of a toilet flushing won't wake you up when you're a kid. The sound of a child screaming will.
"HEEEELLLLP! YOU GUYS, HELP MEEEEE!!!"
I told you, Bill was athletic. He was up and out of his sleeping bag in a single feline motion, and bolting toward the end of the hall before I could wriggle out of my sleeping bag. By the time I reached the hallway, Bill was darting through the bathroom door.
He hit the door with his shoulder as he turned the knob and it flew open. Bill took a single step into the bathroom in his stocking feet, and both his legs shot from beneath him. His legs shot over his head and he splashed down in what looked like an inch of water standing over the vinyl flooring. Ryan was laughing maniacally and standing on the edge of the tub directly across from the toilet, safely out of that water.
Toilet water. Not fresh.
I got to the bathroom just as Bill was putting together what happened in his head. His eyes bulged in horrified helplessness at me, his mouth contorted into a twisted grimace of disgust.
"AAHHH, JEEEEZZZ-UZZZ!!" he bellowed. Water continued to flow out of the toilet across the floor, threatening the hallway carpet and having already swallowed the knitted wool area rug my mother had in the bathroom. Bill's long hair was floating in the cesspool under him and he couldn't stand without getting even more drenched with the septic fluid. He stretched his hand toward me, eyes pleading, and I took it. I pulled with all the strength in my puny body, desperately trying not to step into the puddle of waste water, and he slowly rose up out of the quagmire. Bits of toilet paper and assorted flotsam were floating all around us.
He tip-toed with his arms extended to his sides and legs akimbo to the other side of the sopping area rug and grabbed the end. "Grab it!" he called. "Throw it in the tub!"
Impossibly the water kept coming. How long did a stupid toilet run anyway? Over the lip of the bowl it slid, relentlessly pouring onto the impervious surface and scatter ever-closer to the hallway carpet.
"How do we turn it off??" I wailed, fear and panic erupting in peals of hysterical laughter.
"I don't know!" Bill yelled. "Just grab the rug and get it in the tub!"
I had no choice ... I plunged in, my socks immediately soaked through as I went. I grabbed the rug and it nearly gave me a hernia as we hefted with all our might. The woven fabric soaked in what felt like gallons of water and seemed to weigh hundreds of pounds. We grunted with exertion and the heavy rug flopped sodden into the bathtub. Water quickly rushed in to replace it, and as we watched, we realized what we'd done.
The rug was the only thing soaking water up.
"Towels!!" Bill shouted, trying to take charge and handle the situation. "Get towels! Where are your parents??" he whined.
I danced the please-God-don't-let-me-slip dance to the linen closet just outside the bathroom door, and pulled out what my mother called the "old" towels. They were ragged, faded and worn, but they mercifully soaked up the cesspool as I threw them over the floor, reticent to re-enter the lagoon.
Bill's back was to me when I looked at him again, and I saw his entire height from head to heel was plastered with the hideous liquid of death. His mouth was turned into a disgusted frown, just as anyone working in a sewer against his will would wear, when he turned back to me.
"How do we stop the water??" he asked, trying to understand why the toilet didn't shut off by itself. That tiny Niagara continued pouring out of the bowl at a steady, alarming pace.
"Where are Mom and Dad??" I demanded of Ryan, who was now in the hallway barefoot.
"They went to the store!" he whined. "They said they'd be right back!"
More water spilled forward, the hissing of the running water in the tank working against our nerves like ... well, like Chinese water torture.
"What do we do??" Bill said, not sure of himself against the plumbing.
"Open the toilet thing," I said, "maybe we can find out how to turn it off!"
Bill hefted the tank lid off and stared into the tank. "Oh my God," he whispered. "I can't believe this!"
"What?" I said. "What is it??"
He reached inside and pulled out a wrist band. The terry cloth-covered elastic bands used to wipe sweat from the brow during physical exertion. It was, at the time, fashionable to wear them around. This one, however, was especially stylish because it had a red stripe, a white stripe and a blue stripe. It was patriotic and stuff. It was EXTRA cool.
Oh, and it was Bill's.
It had wedged between the stopper inside the tank and the opening so that the water was continually running. The flood stopped once he pulled it free and the rubber plug inside the tank fell back into place. A few seconds later the bowl spill slowed, then stopped.
"That little bastard," he muttered in stunned disbelief. It always struck me as very "bad" -- which meant "cool" -- when Bill swore ... and he swore a lot. "He threw my sweatband in here. You little bastard!" he roared, turning to Ryan. Who was already gone.
"Bill, my parents ... we have to clean this up somehow ..." I whined.
"Crap! Help me!" he said, and he started gathering wet, heavy, slogging towels from the floor, still cursing Ryan as he worked.
He started to rush down the hall, back toward the garage where the laundry machines were. As he turned the corner from the hall and started toward the service door, it opened, and there stood my parents. Ryan was clinging to my mother's leg.
It took some time, but the adults cleaned the mess up. While the sweatband explained the constantly running toilet, why the water didn't go harmlessly into the city sewer system was a mystery. That is, until my father took the toilet out of the bathroom to clear the S-trap.
Deep in those mysterious caverns of porcelain, he found a rubber skeleton, dressed in zombie rags, trailing a gold elastic band from its head. It was covered in feces and used toilet paper, smelled like an outhouse, and it had to be thrown away once it was recovered from its watery grave.
Oh, and it was Bill's.