One day this past summer, a camper of mine, bored, threw herself onto an armchair and demanded that I tell her a story.
A story? I said. What kind of a story?
Y’know, she replied, one of those stories you always tell.
Recognition dawned instantly. You mean one of my bitter childhood memories?
Her eyes lit up. Yeah, one of those.
And all this talk about Christmas, I must say, is putting me in the mood for a bitter childhood memory.
This one began when I was ten years old and decided that I wanted a pet bird. Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this one began some years before that, when I decided that I wanted a pet dog, a request that was summarily denied on the grounds that everyone in my family, especially me, was allergic to pet hair.
Somehow this was no longer a consideration some years later when my brother, unopposed, brought home Tulip the Guinea Pig, who shed half her weight in fur every day – but that’s beside the point. The point is that when I was ten years old, I decided that I wanted a pet bird.
My mother agreed provisionally: I could have a pet bird. But the pet bird would be myresponsibility, not hers. Okay, Mom. Which meant that I had to convince her that I knew enough about pet birds to take care of one properly. Of course, Mom. And that I would take care of it.
Sure, Mom. And that I had to pay for it and its cage and its toys and its food and its vet bills myself. You bet, Mom. And that if I convinced her that I could take care of a pet bird, then we’d go buy one at the end of the summer, after we’d returned from my grandparents’ cottage house. Cool, thanks Mom!
I hurried to the library to borrow a handful of books about pet birds and devoured them immediately. Within a few weeks’ time, I became a walking encyclopedia on the subject: name any species of parrot, and I could tell you its diet, longevity, nesting habits, and Latin name. My mother became convinced that I knew enough about pet birds to take care of one responsibly.
That left money. I had never been much of a spender as a child, and during my eleventh year more than any other, I hoarded every penny I got, including an entire year’s worth of allowance: one dollar per week. And this was the eighties, not the fifties, when you could buy a quarter with a nickel.
In the eighties you could buy approximately one and a half chocolate bars with a dollar – more than you could buy today, sure, but still not much. I’d need a year’s worth of allowances, plus a year’s worth of birthday and holiday presents, to buy my bird and supplies.
My savings account grew that year, and in the summer I accompanied my family to the cottage with the assurance that we could go pick out a budgie when we returned.
We spent a week at the cottage. Late one morning my brother, age six, was sitting in front of the television in his pyjamas, watching a video of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever it was that he watched in the late eighties.
My father didn’t want my brother, age six, to sit in front of the television in his pyjamas watching a video of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thereby setting the scene for the rising conflict part of this story. I sat in an armchair opposite my brother, watching the argument unfold.
Get dressed. It’s a quarter to twelve. You’re not going to sit around all day watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
I’ll get dressed after this one finishes.
You said you were going to get dressed after the last one finished. Get dressed now.
I SAID I’D GET DRESSED AFTER THIS ONE FINISHES!
You’re not going to get dressed soon, are you? You’re just going to sit around in your pyjamas all day.
I SAID I WOULD! LEAVE ME ALONE.
No you’re not.
I PROMISE I WILL!
No you won’t. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that you won’t be dressed by noon.
We all have our price. My brother’s price for getting dressed, as it happens, was a hundred dollars. Actually, I would wager that his price was considerably less than a hundred dollars, because when you’re six years old it’s not like you’re just going to up and go work for the other father who offers you a better price for getting your lazy ass off of the sofa and putting some clothes on.
I have a feeling that my father could have gotten the desired effect if he’d instead offered my brother a fiver, which is still an awful lot of money when your main source of income is that cheapass the Tooth Fairy, who only offers a stinking quarter for each tooth, and you only have twenty teeth to lose, so you do the math. Or don’t. Anyway, this is called knowing your market, something that I’m sure that my father learned when he was EARNING HIS MASTER’S DEGREE IN ECONOMICS.
Anyway. At five minutes before noon, my brother emerged from his room with a t-shirt sitting awkwardly on his shoulders and his shoes untied. He stood triumphantly before our father, whose expression indicated clearly that my father was a man of his word. His stupid, stupid word.
A week later we went to the pet store, where I selected a blue budgie, cage, and accessories. My father paid for it, on the understanding that I’d make a visit to the bank and pay him back later.
I forget if we made one or two visits to the bank later that summer, my father and brother and I. This was in the days before ATM’s, and my brother stood in line fanning and collapsing his hand of twenties like a cocky poker player. He peered over the teller’s counter, presenting the deposit form he’d filled out in his six-year-old’s handwriting. “I have a hundred dollars!” he declared. “I won it in a bet with my dad.”
The teller raised an eyebrow and gave a half-smile at my father. “Is that so,” she said without a question mark.
My visit to the bank was to withdraw a lump sum, almost my entire savings from a year of hoarding allowance and birthday money: One hundred and three dollars and twenty-six cents.
I like this story. I tell it often. I tell it often to my parents, and my father always sighs, and asks if I’m ever going to get over this, for crying out loud, it was more than fifteen years ago, am I still bitter about that?
To the contrary, I assure him. I remind him that my brother withdrew his hundred dollars a few weeks after he deposited it, and blew it all on comics and candy, the latter of which he ate and the former of which he quickly grew tired.
I, on the other hand, was left with a story that will last me for the rest of my life.