The Wednesday night Bible Study had been going on since long before I was born. Sometimes my parents hosted, and they corralled us all upstairs where we flung ourselves over the sofa and floor and watched TV. We kept wrestling and weeping to a minimum, lest our mother heave herself up the stairs and give us a hushed, finger-wagging chewing-out. We made fun of the Bible Study members, mocking their singing voices with elevated brows and hands splayed on hearts when muffled hymns rose from downstairs, but we would never want them to hear our mother scolding us. We were hesitant to be seen by the assembled group. Only the most desperate desire for my mother’s chocolate-oatmeal cookies would drive us to nominate someone—usually me—to creep down the stairs, then rush through the living room to the kitchen with eyes averted from all those loving smiles.
This was only once in a while, though, that my parents hosted. The rest of those Wednesday nights they spent away. I dreaded these nights because I knew once the crunch of tire against gravel faded down the driveway, it would begin: a party and a circus and a horror show where I would be hugged and pinched and tickled until I laughed and cried at once. One constant of my childhood, as the youngest of seven, was this: I was forever laughing and crying at once. “Vessy, are you laughing or crying?” my siblings would ask in a rare moment of concern. “I don’t know,” I’d blubber.
Sometimes their torments were well planned and had an artful touch. For example, one winter Wednesday evening, when it was dark outside and we were all watching a movie on TV, everyone—my siblings and whatever friends they had over—gasped and looked at the same window at exactly the same time. I was immediately thrown into frenzy. “What did you hear? Who’s out there?” I screamed. “Oh, nothing, nothing,” they said, uneasily returning to the movie. I was inconsolable, even when they told me the coordinated gasp was a trick. I refused to go to sleep until my parents were home and I was safe. To this day, I don’t know what signal they had all agreed on. Another Wednesday night I was in the bath, playing with my spongy toys, when Roy strolled casually through the open door, holding an empty glass from the kitchen. “What!” I demanded. Roy responded only with a smirk as he turned on the tap at the sink and waited, testing it with his finger until it was sufficiently cold. Then he filled the glass and slowly approached. “Roy, don’t!” I cried, shrinking into the corner of the tub. He doused me with water that can’t have been as searingly cold as I remember.
Pat invented a game he called “Tickle or Torture” where he pinned me down and gave me the game’s eponymous choice. I preferred Torture which consisted only of a hard, persistent thumping of my breast bone with his middle finger, but Pat knew this, so if I asked for it, he’d give me Tickle, and if I asked for Tickle he would know that I really wanted Torture and was attempting to trick him, and he’d give me Tickle again. Sometimes, through multiple layers of reverse-logic, I’d succeed in eliciting Torture, but that technique only worked once before becoming obsolete.
What varieties of tickling I endured! The light stroking under the arm, horrible in its gentleness because I knew I was being primed; the painful digging of knuckles into ribs; the wandering of bored fingers in search of any new raw crevice (under the chin, behind the knee), where a little stimulation would open a new spring of laughter and tears.
Usually, however, they teased me free-style: charley horses, titty-twisters, noogies, wedgies. Two of my brothers pinned me down, while the third dangled spit over my screaming mouth, or squatted over me and farted, or, most memorably, took our fat little dog Muffin and slowly lowered her yellowish rear until it sat, squirming, on my face.
Bruised and rug-burned, I’d claw my way out of this orgy. If it was summer and still light out, I’d hide for a while in the fort in the back field. But winters in Idaho, night fell early, and I was far too afraid of whatever everyone had seen through the window that night to run out into the dark. Instead I’d go to the office (my father was a pediatrician who ran a private practice connected to our house), where my mother kept the phone list. I’d lift the heavy receiver of that putty-colored phone, dial each number, wait for the dial’s rattling return, and ask whichever nice Christian lady answered to call my mother away from Bible Study. I’d weep and wail and tattle until Mom interrupted with a patient sigh. “Get me Beeb.”
I’d press the intercom into the house. “Bee-eeb, Mom wants to talk to you!”
After Beeb hung up she’d turn to the others and say, “You guys, Mom says to leave him alone.” She was a reluctant emissary at best, having five minutes before been part of the feeding frenzy.
Sensing safety, I’d venture back in. They’d all turn away, and my heart would sink.
All I wanted was to be left alone! But how I hated to be left alone! Once ignored, I’d find a way to wriggle back into some sibling’s sweet embrace or painful grip, and, minutes after that, repeat my motto which went “Leave . . . me . . . a . . . lone . . . LEAVEMEALONE!” And, given Mom’s recent intervention, they might actually release me. But then the echo of my mantra would fade, the allure of my pudgy flesh would prove too strong, and they’d have to poke it, or twist it, or kiss it.
So went Wednesday nights.