When we were little, my parents maintained order by allowing my older brother Rick to come up with punishments for any wrongdoing in the house. It sounds crazy, and yeah, because it was crazy, but it was effective. Because Rick was ruthless. One time my younger brother Scott put up too much of a fuss about doing the dishes after dinner. He kept whining about not wanting to clean, and then he stood around at the sink for while doing a really half-assed job of working the sponge.
So my mom sent Scott to Rick for sentencing. “Come on!” Scott screamed. “That’s not fair! For dishes?” And, fair or not, that’s just the way the system worked in our house.
“Two weeks, no winter coat,” Rick decreed. It was February. We all stood around and looked toward our parents, to see if they might intervene due to the shocking and cruel nature of Rick’s penalty.
“Mom? Dad? Really? It’s freezing out!” Scott pleaded. But it was futile. If my parents gave an inch, Rick’s power over us, and thus my parents’ order over the house, would have been questioned. As it was, order was maintained through Rick’s almost sadistic love of heavy-handed punishment.
And so things weren’t fair, not really, but they were crystal clear, and we all tiptoed around the house. Scott didn’t have his winter coat in the middle of the winter, and yeah, some of the teachers called the house, wondering why he was getting dropped off at school shivering, wearing nothing but a sweater. “Huh,” my parents would say. “We’ll have to look into that.” Nobody ever looked into anything. We all just tried our best to keep our heads down.
Trying to reason with Rick was out of the question. If you even thought about questioning his authority, he’d probably rat you out right away for something that you didn’t even do. And since he never, ever got in trouble, my parents believed anything he said.
None of us have any idea how he stayed out of the spotlight for so long. Because every kid gets in trouble once in a while. But it’s like he was perfect, probably because he loved doling out punishments so much. But also probably because he knew that if ever messed up, he was done. That’s because the flip side of the house rules was that, if Rick ever got caught, it would be up to the rest of us to decide his fate.
Looking back, it really was genius on mom and dad’s part. They didn’t have to worry about discipline, they just set up this twisted system and stepped back, free from having to wonder how they’d keep their kids in line, no good cop, bad cop. It was indifferent cop, indifferent cop, and then Rick.
And maybe Rick enjoyed it, I don’t know. Because we all hated Rick. Growing up, even now none of us talk to him, but back then, we wanted nothing more than to catch him with his hands dirty, just once. When we were absolutely sure he wasn’t around, we’d all huddle together in a circle, whispering aloud our fantasies about how we’d frame him, all of the ways in which we’d subsequently make his life hell.
Peggy wanted to ban him from watching any TV for a year. That all stemmed from one time when Peggy and Katie were fighting about who got to watch what. While they went back and forth, Rick snuck out of the living room and grabbed my mom. He ratted them out, and then decided that they’d only be allowed to watch reruns of Golden Girls for a month. And yeah, my parents were totally cool with it.
But years went by and Rick always kept to himself, always out of trouble. Until the summer right before he was set to go away to college, when one night Scott saw Rick load up the washing machine. Who knows why he even bothered to look, it was something so small. Rick had set the machine for hot water, and my parents were really strict about only using the cold setting. “The clothes get just as clean on cold!” my dad would yell throughout the house. “Do you know how expensive the gas bill is?”
Scott immediately called out, “Mooooom!” and everyone came running. Rick had finally been caught. He tried to abort the rinse cycle, but it was too late, once set and locked, it was impossible to turn the machine off.
“Well gang?” my mom looked at us. “Here’s your big chance.” She looked at Rick. “What’s it going to be?”
And I don’t even know where it came from, but I blurted out, “Rick can’t go to college.”
And everybody just stood there, mouths hanging open, but only for a second, because everyone started to smile. And then we started to laugh. And a minute later we were all in a frenzy, a joyous, passionate frenzy, laughing, crying, hugging each other.
“Haha,” Rick said. “Very funny guys.”
But that only made us laugh and cry even harder. Peggy started screaming, like she couldn’t even control the raw emotion coursing through her body.
“Mom?” Rick said.
And yeah, even I thought that my mom had her limits. Like why would she do that to Rick? But she did.
And that was it. Rick wasn’t eighteen yet, and he wouldn’t be until next October. So they cancelled his registration. He got really pissed off and moved out of the house, swearing to enroll in the spring. But he must not have been used to living on his own, because he went from one minimum wage job to the next, barely able to keep his head above water. And then a couple of years after that, he started drinking really heavily, and then there was talk about drugs. And then he moved to Arizona, and none of us have heard from him in years.
And you know what? None of us really feel bad. We don’t see each other all that often anymore, seeing as how nuts-o our home life had been, we’d all moved out as soon as we could and never looked back. But on those rare holidays or family get-togethers, someone will mention Rick. And we’ll all just nod our heads from side to side, like you might think some of us feel remorse, maybe just a little bad. But I can tell, I look at all my brothers and sisters, and I know they feel exactly like I do. Like fuck Rick, that asshole, he totally had it coming.