The best toys our parents ever gave Vicky and me were Danny and Tycho, our little brothers.
I was nine and Vicky was seven and a half when Danny was born. We had been looking forward impatiently to his arrival, especially Vicky, who loved playing with dolls. She had always particularly enjoyed making the dolls fight violently with each other; when the dolls began to wear out, she then took great pleasure in ripping off their arms and legs. Now she is a nurse.
We were a little more careful with Danny at first. But it didn't take us long to discover that he was not really all that fragile. It was a great moment (and, for Danny, a life-changing one) when it dawned on us that a helpless human baby was infinitely more fun to play with than a stupid doll. Not only did babies respond in a very satisfying way; they also healed. This realization struck us when Danny was about six months old, and the family was on a long trip in the car.
Before Danny was born, Vicky and I had devised our own games to play on car trips. Not for us the pedestrian boredom of looking for specific license plates or makes of cars, or the banality of spotting objects that matched the letters of the alphabet. Our favorite car game revolved around the subject of human fecal matter, which we called BM, for bowel movement.
Of course all kids are fascinated by this topic, but Vicky and I took it to new heights. We didn't just talk about BMs, or make jokes about them. We pretended we were BMs. We'd wrap ourselves up in an old brown blanket in the back of the station wagon and tell each other our life stories as excrement. Vicky, who had a sweet tooth, usually began her existence as an oreo cookie or a Hostess cupcake, depending on her mood. Invariably her metamorphosis into a BM would take place in the intestinal tract of Queen Elizabeth, from which she would be born into a golden palace toilet. She would then be swept away to thrilling adventures in the London sewers and finally the Atlantic Ocean.
Once we made the mistake of playing this game with our friend Albert when his mother was within earshot in the front seat. Albert began a spectacular tale about his very special transformation from a Matzoh ball inside the bowels of Superman. We never heard the end of the story, and it was years before Albert rode in the car with us again.
But once Danny was born, and Vicky and I were often required to change him, the subject of BMs lost a lot of its charm. We needed a new way to amuse ourselves in the car. And there was Danny. The game we came up with we called ``Babaloo Bum.''
We were in the back of the station wagon with Danny, amid boxes and suitcases, traveling on a bumpy road. Baby Danny loved to be bounced and rocked, which got tiring after awhile. It occured to us to let the car do this for us. We sat Danny on top of a suitcase. Danny's shifting weight, combined with the bouncing of the car, made the suitcase rock back and forth. But we didn't try to steady it. Danny was enjoying himself; he had no idea that anything might go wrong. It was a total surprise to him when the suitcase tipped over and slammed him onto the floor. He howled.
Chuckling, we set the suitcase on end, to make it a little more unstable, balanced a smaller suitcase on top of it, and perched Danny on top of that. Danny immediately stopped crying and began to smile sweetly, comforted by being rocked again. Vicky and I were now rolling on the floor. The suitcases swayed dangerously. Danny was too young to walk, too young to steady himself. The suitcases toppled; Danny hit the floor and wailed, completely startled once again. We shrieked with laughter.
The next time we set him up there we chanted ``Babaloo Bum! Babaloo Bum!'' He clapped his hands and chortled with glee atop the teetering pile, still oblivious to his danger. Soon our stomachs were sore from laughing. Amazingly, Danny didn't catch on for awhile, and this game entertained us for most of the trip. In fact, it's the only thing I remember about it.
Danny was a beautiful baby, with round cheeks and a rosebud mouth. Vicky, who would have liked a little sister, sometimes dressed him up in girl's clothes--fluffy slippers, a flowered dress made out of one of her blouses with a sash tied around it, a little furry hat. We called him Ginger Bennet when he was costumed this way, and our mother would take pictures of him. Mom had no fears that this dress-up game would have any deep psychological effect on Danny, and maybe it didn't.
When Danny was about 15 months old Mom got pregnant again. We tried to explain to Danny what was going to happen. We would show him a picture of a baby in a magazine and say, ``See this cute, adorable baby, Danny? Aren't we lucky, because soon we're going to have a cute adorable baby in our family too.'' We knew he understood when he tore the picture out of the magazine, flung it to the floor, and screamed ``No baby!''
The new baby was not as cute as Danny. His head was too big, he looked bald because his hair was so blonde, he had a disproportionately large mouth and ears that stuck out. Whenever Aunt Ronnie saw him she would remark, with a self-satisfied smile, ``He looks just like Uncle Arthur.'' Uncle Arthur was a mental incompetent who had spent most of his life in an institution.
The new baby fussed so much on the way back from the hospital that Mom nursed him right there in the front seat of the car. ``Can I hold him?'' Vicky begged her, as soon as he had finished eating. Mom passed the little bundle to Vicky in the back seat. But before Vicky had even settled him in her lap, the baby made a funny noise and the milk burst from his mouth in a powerful stream that splashed all the way to the front windshield.
Mom laughed. ``I guess he'll need a little more,'' she said. Vicky was not reluctant to pass the baby back to her. Mom fed him again, then nestled him against her shoulder and patted him on the back. We barely had time to duck when another jet of vomit shot past our heads and hit the back window.
``Maybe it's the motion of the car,'' Mom said mildly. But the same thing happened at home. It became a routine part of his feeding pattern for Mom to hold him away from her at arm's length as soon as he had finished eating, to protect her clothes from the inevitable eruption. Vicky and I didn't want to get near him. Mom claimed she wasn't worried about him, even though he kept down about a teaspoon of milk a day and wasn't gaining weight. ``Babies always throw up,'' she would say, off-handedly.
We weren't surprised by her attitude. Mom was a pediatrician, and never paid much attention to any of our illnesses. When Vicky was six we went ice skating for the first time. Vicky immediately fell down and began to cry. Mom kept laughing and telling her to forget about it, it would stop hurting soon. Vicky lay in bed and cried all night long. Finally, the next morning, Mom took her to the hospital to get an x-ray. Vicky had a compound fracture. It made her first grade year. She couldn't walk upstairs with her cast, and so the handsome young principal would carry her up to the classroom in the morning. The other kids vied for the privilege of staying in the room with her during lunch.
Meanwhile, the new baby continued to vomit. Though Mom said she wasn't worried about him, other people were. Mom's friend, Albert's mother, happened to mention the baby's condition to her black cleaning lady. The cleaning lady said, ``It sounds to me like that kid has pyloric stenosis.'' When Mom heard this, she thought it made sense. She took the baby in for an x-ray, which proved that the cleaning lady was right. Pyloric stenosis is a blockage of the passage from the stomach into the intestine; most of what he ate couldn't get through. It required only a very simple operation to open up the blockage, and after that he stopped throwing up and began to gain weight.
But the new baby had other problems. One of them was Danny, who played with him sometimes, but also picked on him a lot; from Danny's point of view, the baby was a usurper who had taken a great deal of attention away from him. The baby, who had a sweet and gentle nature, adored his older brother. Danny accepted this affection on good days, helping him build things with blocks and other toys. On bad days he slapped him around.
Then there was the problem of the new baby's name. Our parents weren't going to have any more kids, this was their last opportunity to name a human being, and they wanted to make a truly creative statement. They came up with lots of interesting names--so many that they couldn't decide which one they preferred. There were also several relatives they felt it would be nice to commemorate by naming this kid after them, but how could they name him after one and not the others?
So they didn't name him anything. Our father referred to him as ``that other kid.'' Vicky and I called him ``the new baby,'' which soon evolved into ``Newby.'' And for the first years of his life, while our parents continued to put off the decision, Newby was his name.
When Newby was about two, the authorities got fed up. Mom and Dad received an official notice that they had ten days to fill out ``Baby Sleator's'' birth certificate. After that deadline, the authorities would fill it out themselves, giving him some random name, and Mom and Dad would have no choice in the matter at all.
But they still couldn't decide. The only solution was to name him everything. And so in the end, the name they put on his birth certificate was: Tycho Barney George Clement Newby Sleator.
Now that his official, legal first name was Tycho, Mom and Dad decreed that we should all start calling him by that name. And so Newby became Tycho. It wasn't easy to remember at first, but we liked the novelty of this game, and persisted until it became natural to us. The only person in the family who did not enjoy the situation was, of course, Newby, who refused to answer to Tycho for months, pouting and looking the other way whenever we said it. This response only increased our amusement.
His early vomiting, an often abusive older brother, and the fact that everybody in the family started calling him by a completely different name when he was two, were probably the seeds that resulted in Tycho's first great act of independence: he refused to be toilet trained. It was a brilliantly simple and effective method of asserting his control; despite being the youngest, he was able to put us all at his mercy. His third birthday came and went, and then his fourth. He was still wearing diapers.
Our parents hadn't worried about his throwing up. They didn't worry when he didn't walk and talk at the expected ages. And they didn't worry about this.
But Vicky and I had to change him a lot. ``Tycho, will you please have BMs on the toilet,'' we would beg him as cleaned him in the bathtub.
``When I'm five,'' he would obstinately insist.
``Big boys don't do this, Tycho, only disgusting little babies,'' I told him, squirting him off with a rubber hose.
``No one will want to play with you if you have smelly BMs in your pants,'' Vicky added, dumping bubble bath into the tub. ``The other kids will hate you and make fun of you.''
``Four-year-olds who go in their pants get a horrible disease and die, Tycho; it says so in Mom's medical books.''
``Please just do it on the toilet and we'll give you all the candy you can eat for the rest of your life.''
He remained steadfast, unyielding, true to his principles. ``When I'm five,'' was his constant refrain.
As Tycho's fifth birthday approached our anticipation was tinged with uncertainty. It would be wonderful if he kept his promise, but what if he didn't? Would he be able to go to school? Would he ever have a girlfriend? Could he possibly hold down a job? Would we spend the rest of our lives changing him?
On his fifth birthday Tycho very calmly and skillfully went on the toilet, as though he'd always done it that way. He's been using the toilet ever since.
Without Tycho's messes to clean up, babysitting became a lot easier. As adolescents, Vicky and I enjoyed having the run of the house without parental supervision. But Danny and Tycho would sometimes get upset when Mom and Dad went out. We got so tired of answering their repeated questions about where Mommy and Daddy were, and when they were coming home, that we were inspired to invent one of our favorite games.
``Would you like to hear a little song?'' we would ask them. They nodded innocently. We'd go to the piano and I'd play a mournful and heartrending tune, with lots of melodramatic tremolo. ``Once there were two little boys,'' Vicky would sing. ``And one night their Mommy and Daddy went out. They kissed the little boys goodbye and drove away in the car.''
The music grew more passionately cornball. Danny and Tycho began to sniffle. ``And their Mommy and Daddy never came home again,'' Vicky sang. ``The little boys cried and cried, but nobody ever came. Nobody came to say goodnight or give them their bottles. They never saw their Mommy and Daddy again.''
By this time Danny and Tycho would be sobbing uncontrollably, tears rolling down their cheeks. Even after they knew the song by heart, it still invariably made them weep. And when it was over, they'd always wipe their eyes and beg us, ``Play it again. Please play it again!''
Babysitting was also our chance to teach them every obscene word we knew. Our parents were not upset when Danny and Tycho repeated these words to them. But Danny and Tycho also taught these words to their friends in the neighborhood, and their parents were not charmed when they heard their toddlers cursing them. Still, Vicky and I persisted. We spent a lot of time coaching Danny to memorize all the verses of a song called ``Canal Street,'' which was full of the nastiest words and the lewdest situations.
Then our grandmother came to visit. Grandma and I were playing Scrabble, pondering silently over the board, when Danny strolled into the room. In his sweet, childish soprano voice he began to sing. ``Walkin' down Canal Street, knockin' on every door--''
``Wait, Danny!'' I said, horrified. ``Don't bother us now. We're concentrating.''
``But I'd love to hear his little song,'' Grandma said. ``Go on, Danny.''
And so he sang ``Canal Street,'' one verse after another, not forgetting a single gross syllable. Danny didn't know what the song meant, but Grandma didn't realize that. It was hideously embarrassing. Grandma and I sat there, our eyes on the Scrabble board, until finally Danny wandered away.
Something had to be done. But we couldn't just tell Danny and Tycho never to say those words; that would only guarantee that they'd use them at every possible opportunity. So we took the opposite tack. We invented the word ``drang.''
``All those other words we taught you, it doesn't matter if you say them,'' we told Danny and Tycho. ``Just go around and say them to everybody. But there is one word you must never, never say, no matter what. That word is 'drang.' It's the worst word in the world.''
Danny's eyes lit up. ``Drang?'' he said experimentally, testing the sound on his tongue.
Vicky and I shuddered and closed our eyes. ``Yes, that's it, 'drang.' If anybody ever hears you say it, they will never forgive you, and they'll hate us because they'll know we taught it to you.''
For about one day, Danny and Tycho ran around saying ``Drang'' to Mom and Dad and Grandma. They taught it to their friends, who repeated it to their parents. It was sweet to see the two of them getting along so well.
But saying ``drang'' produced no satisfying response; nobody was shocked and horrified. Soon they knew we had tried to trick them. It was their first scientific experiment. Our credibility was destroyed. They went right back to saying all the other words, and there was nothing we could do about it.
And so we began to learn that these wanton games with our little brothers could backfire against us. Now Danny, especially, knew that it could work both ways, that we were not the only ones with power. We had gone too far to change him into a docile, obedient creature who would not use what power he had. And the worst was yet to come--at a Florida hotel.