Once upon a time there were two sisters. They didn’t seem to have much in common, but when you think about, do siblings really have anything in common besides shared parents? Observation and perspective create at the very least unreliable narrators and at best wonderful storytellers. So for this exercise let’s name the sisters Unreliable Narrator and Kick-Ass Storyteller.
Would it be a surprise to discover that the elder sister is Unreliable Narrator and the younger is Kick-Ass Storyteller? If birth order stereotypes are to be believed, second born children are more social and apt to be savvy manipulators. They are used to navigating the world as they find it, to fit in, to charm it into making a place for them. Telling stories gets them a second look, an opportunity to become the class clown or spark of a party. The imperious first-born feels both entitlement and responsibility, takes herself way too seriously and is more inclined to confront the world as it is. The spectrum of first-born temperament runs from shining, golden leader to poisonous narcissist. The problem with the first-born is that she’s a shape-shifter, good at hiding her true nature ~ which is a superlative quality in an unreliable narrator.
Flash back to a sandy suburban playground in the days before the extinction of jungle gyms and a time before bicycle helmets. A time when kids roam the neighborhood in snotty packs, free from summer’s morning until its dusky twilight. Stay-at-home moms keep a watchful eye from windows or in air-conditioned station wagons gliding through their subdivision’s treeless streets in completion of the tennis lesson/grocery store triangle. It’s not quite noon and there’s a cluster of boys and girls in the muddy eddy of a water fountain between the tennis courts and the playground proper. The low-grade hum of the boxy air conditioner in the rec office insulates the pimply teens in AM radio airwaves. For now, they have no interest in what their little neighbors are doing out in the mud.
There are five kids in the group. One boy has a stick and he’s stirring it in the mud like a jaded prospector, half expecting nothing of value to be unearthed, but strangely compelled to continue his search. A boastful girl of seven, barefoot and scabby of knee, taunts the boy – “Yeah, like you even have a quarter. Show it to me now.”
“I got it at home, and I’ll go back and get it or get one from my brother in the office. You said you’d do it. ” His voice is whiny and impatient with the urgency of an inexperienced gambler who feels only a small window of favorable odds.
“Look, we can do this on another day when you have it,” the girl said with the supreme confidence of an accomplished grifter. “I don’t do it unless I get the money right then.”
Sweat begins to bead on the boy’s smudgy forehead as his digging grows more intense. The two other boys kneel closer to the ground and search for signs of wiggling. The two girls cross their arms and rock back and forth, heel to toe. The boastful girl’s companion sucks on the end of her ponytail.
“I see one,” exclaims one of the kneeling boys, “and it’s fat and juicy!” The digging boy squats close to his buddy and pinches the worm between his thumb and forefinger. His stick absently plops into the muddy water.
“Eat it,” he says, shaking the worm at his arm’s length before the girl. The other girl sucks harder on her hair as the tension builds.
Calm as a Buddha, the barefoot girl ignores the poor worm and looks the boy in the eye.
“I told you I only do it when the money is front of me, too,” she says in her calm, patient voice.
“I’ll give you the money after you eat it,” the boy says. His voice is excited and he can’t stand still.
“Look, I’ll wait for you to get the money. I’ll even hold the worm – but remember, for a quarter I’ll only eat half. It’s a dollar to eat the whole thing.” Her companion inhales with a phlegmy snort and wrinkles her nose in agreement.
“No, Eric will hold it while I get the money from my brother. You’ll drop it on purpose and say you ate it. No cheating.” Eric steels himself to help out his friend although he really doesn’t want to hold the live worm. He doesn’t like dirt on his hands, and doesn’t think the girl would cheat. He’s seen her eat a bug before, and thinks she’s crazy, but she’s not a cheater.
“OK, but I’m ready to go home for lunch so if you don’t come right back with the money I’m leaving, and won’t be hungry again until later. “ The girl calls this out loudly after the boy as he’s running up the sidewalk to the rec office where his brother is twirling the keys on his lanyard. The kids can see the motion of the twirling through the window, and hear the boy’s sneakers urgent thuds on the concrete as he runs away from them.
A bubble of quiet surrounds the kids. There are the receding sounds of the few mothers with sweaty, swinging babies packing up to go home for lunch and naps. A couple of teen girls are on the tennis court trying to continue their volley. Their ball’s thwacks and bounces are almost hypnotic.
The rec office door flings open. The boy shoots out shouting, “Fine. Forget it and don’t ever ask me for nothin,’ you jerk-off.” He calls out to the kids waiting at the water fountain, “I’m going to run home and get my money. Wait another minute.”
Eric is tired of holding the worm and drops it. With the mention of lunch he’s lost interest in this wager and is thinking instead of having tomato soup and saltines in his air-conditioned kitchen. And then maybe he’ll go hide from his mother in the basement and sniff his brother’s model airplane glue.
The other boy, Danny, is playing with the water fountain, making the stream arc alternately narrow and wide. His goal is to make the water splash as far out onto the concrete as possible. The two girls sigh. The bolder one shrugs and turns to retrieve her sneakers from the playground proper. She hates wearing any shoes, but knows she better have them on when she walks into her house for lunch. Eat the worm or not, she didn’t much care. Although it sure beats school, it was the boredom of summer, and she’d do anything for a thrill.