In the spring of 1987, when I was six-almost-seven and my brother Eric was four-almost-five, our parents bought a split-level house just outside of Greensburg, Indiana. Said house was originally built in 1961, was both the architect's and the head contractor's first attempt at building an inhabitable dwelling, and had been decorated by people who had spent that particularly groovy decade, well, grooving. It was advertised as a "Handyman's Dream." Although my father was infamous for doing things like cutting through the cords of not one not two but THREE electric hedge trimmers, it was in a nice area, it came with an acre of property, and it was cheap, so my folks bought it with the idea that they would remodel and fix it up over the years and it would be just the way they wanted it when they retired. (Of course, now they are divorced and Mom's STILL fixing the things Dad screwed up on it, but best-laid plans and all.)
The very first item that needed attention was the upstairs bathroom. Not only was there a leaky plastic shower/tub wraparound with mold growing on the walls behind it, the floor was covered in this vinyl...technicolor...stuff...that concealed dangerously rotten floorboards in front of the toilet. Contractors were interviewed and asked for estimates, workmen came and went, in an incident I'm still not entirely sure how happened someone accidentally set himself on fire, burning a big black patch in our front yard when I was at school one day(moral: don't take a smoke break if your clothes are soaked in tile glue solvents), delays, delays, delays, more workmen...and over a year later, THE BATHROOM WAS DONE, completely re-floored in ceramic tile in this hideous, eye-boggling brown-and-cream houndstooth pattern that Mom for some unknown reason thought was snappy.
By this time, I was eight years old and in the third grade; Eric was six and in kindergarten. I was, therefore, old enough to know better, but sometimes, sometimes...things are just a little TOO pristine. My whole life, I see something beautiful and perfect, I'm struck with an overpowering urge to deface it. There's probably a psychological name for this, but it doesn't matter. What DOES matter is that the very first time I used the toilet in our brand-new bathroom, I noticed that the workmen had left a pencil sitting on the edge of the sink.
Now, I didn't particularly WANT to get my brother in trouble. I just didn't want to get in trouble myself, and he was the only frameable person in our house. So I took the pencil and wrote, very heavily and hamfistedly in the manner of a kindergartener, "ERiC," across the bathroom floor. I made sure to dot the "i" extra-hard just the way Eric did. Then I put the pencil back on the sink, covered the graffiti with the bathroom rug, flushed, washed my hands, and promptly forgot about it until later that night, when I heard Mom screaming and Eric sobbing.
"I DIDN'T MEAN TO DO IT! IT WAS AN ACCIDENT! I WAS SITTING ON THE TOILET AND THE PENCIL FELL OFF THE SINK AND FELL BETWEEN MY TOES AND WHEN I WAS TRYING TO SHAKE IT FREE IT WROTE MY NAME!"
Never before had I been seized with such horrible, horrible guilt. My little brother, who I'd not only framed but who I routinely tricked into going into the basement (which he was terrified of) then turned out the lights and locked the door on, was covering for ME. Oh, on the surface he was doing a horrible job of it, but Eric was cute back then. Kid could get away with MURDER by playing the innocent, sort-of stupid little boy card. Mom was so charmed by the creative audacity of this lie (and by the fact that his name was easily erased off the new tile) that he got off scot-free...and I was never even questioned.
Mom was so charmed, in fact, by this story that she told people far and wide for years about the time her son "wrote his name on the bathroom floor while trying to shake a pencil out from between his toes." Her sisters, her co-workers, our friends in Germany and Sweden...EVERYBODY heard this story and had a good laugh while Eric sat there nodding and blushing. Not once in almost two decades did Eric stop taking either the blame or the ribbing.
And then, one day when we were both in our twenties (and I figured the danger of getting spanked for this was probably long past), I 'fessed up. Mom was telling the story once again to some dinner guest, Eric was rolling his eyes at being the butt of this joke yet again, and I said, "Uh, Mom...actually, I wrote 'ERiC' on the bathroom floor. I wasn't trying to get him into trouble; I just saw the pencil and wanted to write on the new floor and didn't want to get spanked for it, so I wrote Eric's name just like he would have. I didn't expect him to cover for me; I just expected him to deny doing it."
Mom was angry, not that I'd written on the floor or framed my brother, but that she'd been telling this "kids do the darndest things" story for years about the wrong child, perenially embarrassing her long-suffering, noble, and good offspring. I'd not only made a fool of my only sibling all these years, I'd made a fool of her.
Across the table, Eric's jaw dropped open.
"That was YOU?!?!?!?"
Eric and I with Grandma Nolting, 1987. I can guarantee you that those footie pajamas have the feets cut off so that we won't outgrow them so quickly. And that is in fact a velvet painting of pandas frolicking and the most glorious wallpaper of all time.
Eric and I last September in Tijuana, Mexico.