On Little Kids, Spelling, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts

Posted: September 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

When I was a little kid I loved two things: wrestling and staying up late enough to watch wrestling. Ten o’clock is late when you’re seven, and eleven o’clock, like on Saturdays? Shut up! That’s a made up time like “Tickle-thirty” or “before you were born.” I was seven and I loved wrestling, I don’t remember being introduced to it, I just always liked it. I chewed on hard rubber Hulk Hogans in the crib, I teethed on wrestling rings. When my dad bought me tickets to a WWF event, I lost my freaking mind. He didn’t just buy us tickets, he bought Me tickets, I could bring a friend. I brought Erik Shaffer, he spelled his name like a viking, plus he liked wrestling as much as I did, Plus, he was a boy. Not a sister. I had a lot of sisters, and sisters are no good for watching wrestling.

This was a House Show, a small city gig, the Champions wouldn’t be there, no titles were on the line, it wasn’t on TV, but we didn’t care. Jake “The Snake” Roberts would be there and he was my favorite, (next to the Hulkster, peace be upon him.) Jake the Snake had a python he carried to the ring. It was like his manager, but a snake. It was there for business advice, and so Jake could drape it over guys when he beat them. Erik Liked Koko B. Ware, a black guy with a parrot. I think kids in the 80s just really liked exotic pets. The WWF is responsible for all the men with ponytails who own lizards today.

In the days leading up to the event Erik decided we should make signs. God Damn It he was a good pick! Erik was a genius. Not one of my no good sisters would have thought of that. Erik knew what he was going to put on his immediately: a wrestler had recently gotten beat and had his head shaved by another wrestler, who was also a barber (if you didnt have a cool pet, it was best to have a day job.) Erik was making a sign that said “Baldy.” I didn’t think it was as funny as he did, but he’d come up with the idea for signs, so I wasn’t going to question it. I didn’t know what to put on mine. I was excited, to the point of being overwhelmed. Seven year old anxiety is formative, I had to take a self-imposed “time-out” and breath into a tiny bag. This sign was important. It took focus and reflection I did not, or do not, have. It crushed me like old age, or debt. I ran away to stare at it from safe distances. I thought about it in the bathtub, and the toilet, and outside in the backyard, where years later I’d learn to smoke cigarettes; anywhere where a boy could get some god damn silence.

It came to me in a first grade class via bookmark. My sign didn’t have to be square or rectangular or the shape of a notebook. It could be a long banner, or it could be shaped like a title belt, or, Oh My God! It could be a snake. It could be “The Snake” from Jake The Snake! It could be the greatest thing in the world!

I took a stack of computer paper from the shelf near our teacher’s desk. The old kind that printed back and forth, with holes on the side and perforated edges, the kind that kids today wouldn’t recognize, and would assume was used for fax machines or some device designed to fight the Russians. I explained to my teacher that I needed this paper, that it was important, and it served a greater purpose. I think she let me have it because she was surprised I didn’t steal it. I tucked it into my book bag between two folders. I clutched it protectively on the bus ride and long walk home. When I got to my house it was empty, or as empty as a house with six kids can be. There was a parent or a grown up sibling making spaghetti or doing laundry or whatever grown up siblings do. I claimed the kitchen table, and the communal box of markers and colored pencils that was gradually becoming more and more my box of markers and colored pencils. Big sisters might be shit for talking wrestling, but they’re great for amassing colored pencils. I laid the paper out, and measured how long was reasonable for me, my dad, and Erik Shaffer to hold. I spaced the letters, and made room for a head and tail. I drew a ferocious python, like Damian, the pet/partner of JAKE THE SNAKE, whose name I’d print along the body of the beast. I labored all afternoon. I ignored cartoons, and Happy’s Place, a regional after school show that was, impartially, amazing. I colored it with pencils of yellow and green and shaded it with love. I drew a ferocious striking snake head that looked a little like a dragon and a lot like crescent wrench. I outlined everything with marker. Dust and sweat and ink stained by body.

My sister came home after some kind of practice, tennis or cheerleading or maybe fighting vampires. She looked over my creation and smiled with warmth and surprise. I’d done more work than anyone could have imagined from a chubby kid too lazy for T-ball. She sat down and placed her things near her feet. She exhaled meaningfully and held her pleasant smile. Love beamed out of her eyes in pure white. I was understandably suspicious.

The white light of love flashed crimson for a second, perverted by the prism of a big sister’s grin. I saw the flash and panicked. “What?” I asked. It blinked.

“Nothing” she smiled, with sweetness like rotten fruit.

Sirens blared. This was a trap.

“Who’s Jack The Snack?” She said languidly, with a smile still stitched to her face. My eyes dilated and everything went silent, or i went deaf. I looked at the words, misspelled and set in marker. They were the vilest of curses. I looked at my sister. The smile was still there, the scarecrow grimace threaded in our mother’s politeness. A strong thread, terrifying and functional, it held her head together now as it tried to explode. Solid parenting it would seem, as the blast would have killed us both. She would have died in the explosion, her head bashing against the walls hysterically, I’d have died later from the fallout and the shame.

I didn’t cry. I even think I knew it was funny. Too much to be mad at my sister. Her head finally burst, but the seams held. She deflated across the living room and laughed into the background. The world smelled like sulfur, my life was broken dreams and bad spelling. I didn’t have time to make a new one, and no one could know my shame, until now, twenty nine years later. I went to the show, and had a very good time. Erik and I snuck away from my dad. We got right up next to the ring. All the best things happen where you might get kidnapped. The evening was fantastic. It went past eleven and we stayed up like heroes, but I’d missed my chance to make something amazing.

Later on this month I’m going to tell jokes in front of Jake The Snake Roberts, and I might make a sign. I’m going to tell this story. He probably won’t care, but I will. I’ve been writing it most of my life.

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