Free-for-All

I was nearing my eleventh birthday when I moved back into my mom’s house. She was hugely pregnant with our little brother Jon, who would arrive in a month and a half while I snored on a beanbag chair outside the special birthing room at the hospital. I arrived near the end of fifth grade, switching schools for the second time in less than a year. The small house in downtown Anchorage was home to the man my brother would later dub “The Sperminator” due to his propensity for impregnating pretty women on an impressive scale, biologically speaking. Abby and I shared one of the two small bedrooms at the back of the house while the living room was in front with the kitchen and bathroom in between.

My sister dragged me into The Sperminator’s room one day when we were home alone after school. She went to the wooden gun racks hanging above a utilitarian bed. Instead of guns and ammo, though, they stowed compound bows with quivers of arrows and arm shields hanging from pegs along both sides. Drawers where shells would normally be kept opened to reveal dozens of thick white envelopes stacked neatly inside. There was an inherently illicit feel to the discovery since there aren’t too many innocent explanations for dozens of sealed white envelopes hidden in a gun rack, the thickest over half an inch wide while the thinnest measured maybe half that.

Without much hesitation, I grabbed an envelope and tucked it into my waistband. Making sure the room looked undisturbed was a skill I perfected under previous regimes with stiffer penalties for detection. The house would be empty for another two or three hours, so accuracy was much more important than speed in this situation. All looked exactly as we had found it according to my mental snapshot, so we skedaddled. We went to the backyard garage as our first post pilfer stop to inspect the booty we scored.

The entrance sported an empty doorframe only Dr. Seuss would find usable and the roof was worn through in leprous blotches, halos of light lay scattered throughout depending on the weather outside. It was home to a lawnmower and snow shovels and gardening tools and tiny animals. It also held stacks of gnarled firewood that made for perfect hiding spots of various stuff we wanted to keep from mom. I tried and failed to break the envelope’s seal without ripping the paper, exposing a stack of crisp hundred dollar bills to our surprised and delighted amazement. Peeling two bills off the stack, I shoved the money into the woodpile deep in the shadows near the broken front doors of the garage. We had two hours to kill until mom got home and the money was burning a hole in our pockets.

We grabbed our bikes near the front door and headed to the Space Station Arcade a couple miles from the house. I’m not sure how we explained the twin Benjamins we carried, but they were quickly transformed into twenty rolls of quarters we devoured with our friends at a rapid clip. We played Asteroids, Defender, Donkey Kong, Robotron and Super Pacman. We spent time going head-to-head at pinball machines and air hockey and foosball tables. We were supercharged on video game adrenaline with ridiculous, over-the-top generosity toward our friends lending a karmic benefit of sorts that continued over the coming weeks of larceny and commerce. It was a fitting start to a summer of over-the-top fun I bet everyone involved with still remembers fondly.

Through the end of the school year, we would buy this or that object of fancy, knowing it likely wouldn’t be noticed and thus wouldn’t need to be explained. At worst, we could pass it off as a gift or something borrowed. Our mom was a busy law professional who worked 50-plus hours per week and had little time left to spend worrying about kids who seemed largely on autopilot from day to day. We kept our noses clean at all times when under key. Helpful, but not too helpful. Willful but not sullen. Do your chores, but don’t volunteer. We walked a fine line of situational awareness that allowed a level of freedom I doubt most kids would recognize in today’s world of social connectivity and electronic leashes.

My first instinctive move was learning how to break down the hundreds we were now snatching two or three at a time across multiple envelopes that were resealed with varying levels of skill. Mom says this was how the $15,000 theft stayed unnoticed for so long. The Sperminator simply tucked bills away for a rainy day as fees came into his possession. He counted the hoard every six months or so before moving the funds to another location and starting the process from scratch. The first envelope we took was the only one that ever went missing. The rest deflated like helium balloons heading toward the inevitable moment when the party is over.

Pawn shops didn’t really care where your money came from or how old you were as long as you were buying something they could sell you legally. Buying stuff used also made new toys easier to pass off as borrowed from a friend if mom noticed us playing with something she hadn’t bought. My favorite purchases to break a large bill were sharp objects under ten dollars, chiefly pearl-handled switchblades and Chinese throwing stars but a Bowie knife or two caught my eye as well. I gifted most to friends or acquaintances who showed appreciation, but a few treasured items ended up in the garage woodpile (or inside the speaker in my room depending on size) safe from mom’s radar for dangerous toys and prohibited goods.

It was also the first time I used a foreign substance other than caffeine, nicotine or sugar to achieve an altered state of mind over an extended period of time. Most shops sold a product called Rush in small, dark brown glass bottles wrapped in hard, colorful plastic. A couple of sniffs of whatever elixir was inside was enough to slow time down to a semi-hallucinogenic state, near passing out, that resolved back into the real world after twenty or thirty seconds that felt much longer. The stuff was off-limits to anyone under 18, but then again so were cigarettes and they were easy enough to get in 1981. Rush was my drug of choice until I discovered the joys of huffing gas and rubber cement a year later in sixth grade. Now that was a real rush.

The jig was up not long after my brother was born. I had pockets full of quarters and was deep into a game of something I had gotten really good at playing. I happened to glance up as my mom stormed into the arcade and disappeared behind the machines near the door. I left my game and pivoted for the hallway leading to the bathrooms. I made it to safety long enough to flush my entire stash of forty or fifty dollars in quarters down the toilet, an amazing feat of plumbing technology looking back on it. I took a piss and flushed a final time before strolling back to the arcade floor to let my mom “find” me playing a game.

Mom was mortified to discover her two young children had wasted thousands of dollars on toys, movies, Sizzler and video games. The Sperminator dragged us to the houses of friends who could be implicated but never convicted because no booty was found once the investigation went out via the kid-powered grapevine. It must have sounded crazy just getting the parents to agree to interviews, which I chalk up to the keen legal minds involved in the effort. The inquiry into our crimes was brief and the inquisition even briefer. Both proved ultimately fruitless as far as asset recovery was concerned because we spent it as fast as we took it.

There was no way mom would let The Sperminator discipline us physically with the Doctor Demented ordeal so fresh in our memories. I even managed to keep the used bike I bought for a hundred bucks and told my mom was a trade with a friend for a Schwinn Scrambler that I gave to a kid without a bike. Though my “new” bike did get stolen outside a drugstore a month later when I let a kid I didn’t know to keep an eye on it. My first experience with instant karma for my overly trusting nature. It wouldn’t be the last.

The rest of the summer was spent getting dropped off in the morning and picked up at night from a downtown facility for troubled kids on summer vacation, one chock full of self-esteem exercises that never worked and group therapy with delinquents of various ages that simply exposed me to more advanced practitioners of the art of disobedience. I suppose the counselors and mentors had our best interests at heart, but very few of us were in the frame of mind necessary for personal growth to take place.

We were just kids, after all, with no skill at the nuances involved in making adult connections with disparate facts. As part of the curriculum at the Center for Stupid & Troubled Delinquents, we both took the Meyers-Briggs battery and a standard IQ test. We scored pretty high on the latter while the former was a mixed bag of contradictory results. Using the fact that I killed the IQ test as a means to encourage new behaviors shows how little they knew about working with children and sticking me in a class for smart kids was the surest way to send me hurtling in the opposite direction.

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