Writers of fiction always do. We take something from life and then tidy it up, tying loose ends together, changing the results of actions, arranging situations to suit our whims, playing God. We do this because it's fun--and to make our stories appear to mean something, which events rarely do in real life.
But--unlikely as it may seem--I have told only one lie about my family in this book. Except for that, everything I've described really did happen, and that's the truth, whether the reader chooses to believe it or not. The single story in which I made one slight alteration of the facts is ``The Hypnotist.''
Don't get me wrong. Jack did hypnotize Tycho. Tycho really drank water out of the toilet, and appeared to be under the influence of a post-hypnotic suggestion to throw the nearest object to the floor whenever he heard the word ``window.'' The only part I invented was the tidy little suggestion at the end that Jack's hypnotic powers influenced Danny to stop picking on Tycho.
When Danny was around eleven or twelve he did stop abusing Tycho, but it had nothing to do with hypnosis. The ostensible reason for this change was that Tycho suddenly grew larger than Danny. Now that Tycho had superior mass and volume, it was apparent to Danny, who had always had an innate understanding of kinetics, that the physical laws of the universe no longer allowed him to push Tycho around with his fists.
But there was more to Danny's change than the mechanics of the situation, since he knew that easygoing Tycho would never strike back. And for awhile he did go on flinging insults at him.
``You can't come to the movies with us, Tycho,'' Danny said one Saturday afternoon, as he and a friend were putting on their jackets.
Tycho, who was practicing the cello in the front hall, barely shrugged, not lifting his eyes from the music.
``Come on, Danny, let's get out of here,'' Danny's friend said, putting his hands over his ears. ``That horrible noise is driving me crazy.''
Danny turned on his friend indignantly. ``That's not noise! Tycho plays really good.''
``Gee, thanks, Danny,'' Tycho murmured, producing a long, rich tone on the C string.
``Tycho was messing things up in my room,'' Danny complained to Mom a few days later. ``He did something with my Phillips screwdriver, and now I can't find it.''
``I've told you a million times to leave Danny's things alone, Tycho,'' Mom snapped at him. ``Don't you ever listen?''
Tycho placidly turned a page of his book. ``Danny left the Phillips screwdriver down in the basement yesterday,'' he said.
``Oh,'' Danny said, thinking. ``That's right, I did. You shouldn't get mad at Tycho for something he didn't do, Mom. It's not fair,'' Danny accused her, and marched out of the room.
Many of Tycho's friends at this time were younger than he was, and looked up to him. Danny disdained attending Tycho's tenth birthday party. But at one point during the festivities Danny did step briefly into the room, glanced around, then walked over to Tycho and said loudly, ``Couldn't you get anybody your own age to come?''
``So what?'' Tycho said, concentrating on the present he was unwrapping.
Danny sighed and took another look at the guests. ``Hey, why isn't Michael here?'' he asked Tycho.
``Michael?'' Tycho said vaguely. ``I guess I forgot to invite him.''
``You jerk, Tycho! You know how much he likes you,'' Danny said. ``Call him up right now.''
Danny always excelled in math and science, but had problems in english class, and with any writing that had to be done for other subjects too. Until he was in seventh grade Mom often wrote papers for him, as she did for all of us, which he then copied over in his lopsided spidery handwriting. In seventh grade his writing assignments became more demanding. One Friday at the beginning of the year he came home very worried about a social studies report he had to do that weekend on the country of Uruguay.
``We'll just do research in the encyclopedia,'' Mom said. ``I bet I can write it in half an hour.''
Danny shook his head sadly. ``No. That's cheating. I have to write it myself.''
``Danny, what's gotten into you?'' Mom said, astonished. Danny struggled with the paper on his own, and got a C. Tycho continued to let Mom help him throughout junior high, unaffected by Danny's vociferous disapproval.
Despite their differences, it was apparent now that Danny and Tycho had many interests in common. Together they built a Van de Graf generator in the basement. It was a large silver ball atop a four-foot high cylinder. When you put your finger near the ball a bright bolt of lightning would leap from the ball to the finger, spectacular in appearance but harmless, and not the least bit painful. When Vicky and I had parties we loved demonstrating it to our friends. We would all hold hands in the dark basement, and when one person put his hand near the ball, the fizzling arc of electricity looked just like something out of ``Bride of Frankenstein.'' Everyone in the line could feel the startling but not unpleasant electric jolt flowing through our bodies. Our friends thought Tycho and Danny were geniuses.
Danny was something of a loner in high school. Tycho had a lot of friends, whom he often treated in a cool, distant, off-hand way, which naturally only increased his popularity. He was six foot three, and his first girl-friend, Shelly, was was barely five feet tall. When they danced together Tycho picked her up and held her by her rump, so that her head would reach his shoulder. Danny didn't have a girlfriend in high school.
A few years ago I was Christmas shopping in Boston. Carrying two large shopping bags, I stopped at a fancy gourmet food store, the kind of place that caters to yuppies, to buy a goose for Christmas dinner--the supermarket didn't have geese. The man at the butcher counter handed me the goose, and, thinking about other things, I absent-mindedly slipped the very expensive twenty-five pound bird into one of the shopping bags and wandered out of the store. It was not until I was five blocks away that I realized I had forgotten to pay for the goose, and no one had noticed. I was amused and pleased by this, since the store was grossly overpriced, and I knew their business would not suffer because of my inadvertent theft.
A few days later I was talking to Danny on the phone and described this incident to him, thinking he would find it funny. ``You mean you didn't go back and pay for it?'' he asked me.
``Are you kidding?''
``I would have,'' Danny said.
He would have.
Tycho, like me, might have unknowingly stolen the goose and would not have gone back to pay for it either. Vicky was perfectly capable of stealing a goose on purpose, and if caught she would have talked her way out of it with easy aplomb.
Danny is a computer scientist, Tycho a physicist. They both began their scientific careers at prestigious Bell Laboratories. Danny caused a sensation his first year there. The lab had an abundant supply of liquid nitrogen, a super-cold substance that boils at room temperature. Clever Danny poured some liquid nitrogen into an empty plastic bottle, screwed the lid on tight, and left the bottle out in the corridor, chuckling. In a few minutes the nitrogen boiled, and the expanding gas blew up the bottle. The tremendous explosion echoed up and down the long cement corridor, startling everybody on the floor.
All four siblings are close friends now. Our personalities and styles of living have evolved differently, but in one respect the four of us are very much the same: we don't care what most people think about us. Danny expresses his opinions bluntly, even when he knows other people may violently disagree with him--and they often do. Tycho has never owned a television; he would rather play the cello, or go on four-day hikes in the mountains with his wife Marina and her dachshunds, frequently joined by Danny. Vicky, a nurse, has not hesitated to tell doctors that they may have made a mistake about a patient; her husband Dave did a lot of the child rearing while she was at work. I have never had a full-time job in my life, and currenly live in Bangkok, Thailand, because I happen to like it here. We are still generally regarded as oddballs, and sometimes shunned by more conventional types.
We have grown up to be the kind of people Mom and Dad like.