A red wagon appeared under the Christmas Tree in 1976, a classic Radio Flyer. Nearly a year and a half later, my brothers sat the Pekingnese-mix puppies in it and pulled them around the block during the broiling summer. They yelped incessantly, which annoyed my oldest brother. During wild turns along the sidewalk the furry creatures spilled out. When the puppies scampered off toward the house, Tiffany, their mother, soothed their fear, herding them back into the cardboard box, their birth place. They squirmed from their mother’s womb mere weeks before becoming crash dummies. The box sat under shade in the garage. The wily creatures grew fast, and strong enough. Otherwise, my brothers’ manhandling put them at risk of a wagon wheel inches away from crushing their tiny, fragile bodies. My oldest brother brushed past me when I stopped the wagon to reload the six whining mutts.
He grabbed the bent rusted handle to keep the crazy train going, picking up speed with each step. Restless from being indoors most of winter, he wanted to create a new level of excitement – the proverbial thrill ride. Each time the puppies fell out, he blamed me instead of realizing the four-legged beasts would go their own way whether I willed it or not. Finally, he ordered me to get in the wagon myself. Take me for a ride? Where would we go? I got in, relenting to his pestering demands, barely fitting, my legs folded Indian style.
“Hold on tight,” he said. “Don’t fall out.”
In other words, he meant that if I got hurt, skinned my knee or elbow on the cement sidewalk in front of our house, he’d deny all responsibility. Surprisingly, mom believed him. She waved her hand at him, then swatted my rear. I could have predicted the inevitable accident coming.
“Be careful,” she scolded. “Do what your older brother tells you to do. He knows better.”
When I didn’t listen to my older brother, that misstep became worse than following his orders to be pulled dangerously in a little red wagon without a seatbelt, roll bar or helmet. The current safety laws overlooked reckless kids inconsiderate of mom’s advice.
My other brother, the second eldest, escaped victimhood by keeping his distance. He carried the box of puppies with Tiffany in tow to the backyard where our older brother couldn’t see him. Otherwise, he would have been recruited as the little engine that could. My oldest brother’s arms grew tired. He alternated his sweaty grip when the handle slipped, thus his steering improved. Pulling the wagon over the thick grass of the front lawn caused him to let loose a litany of four-lettered words.
“Shit,” he said, mumbling the rest of that bit of choice vocabulary he picked up in junior high. “Get out of the wagon. Can’t you see we’re stuck? Dummy!”
My mouth agape, possibly a birth defect, I searched for a response that would allow him time to ponder his foul language, but it came out as something he already knew.
“I’m telling mom. You said a bad word,” I said.
“Who’s she gonna believe, dummy?” he fired back. “You or me? Get out of the wagon. It’s my turn.”
Crawling out of the wagon, he stood beside me, waiting not so impatiently while I turned my legs to put my feet on the sidewalk, taking my time in case he wanted to slug me. Fine, if the knuckles dug into my arm, but keep that balled-up fist away from my soft pudgy belly. That made me feel like throwing up.
Sweat rolled down his forehead and dampened his stunted sideburns, which extended from a crewcut; his coif representative of villains standing by in a stack of comic books next to my bed. They battled my favorite heroes, Captain America. Flash Gordon. The Incredible Hulk. Swamp Thing. And me. His adolescent body odor filled the air as something else to endure. I stood up on the opposite side of the wagon, thinking the barrier kept me safe. He waited until I let my guard down. The red, white and blue shield belonged to a super hero, not a little kid. Then came his fist, a roundhouse right to my upper arm.
“Do you want more?” he said, threatening to include another rap to my stinging arm, and stoke my emotions, already on fire.
He waited for my answer, and any hint that I planned to defy him. Somehow, he knew, as if he could read my mind, a call for mom sat on my tongue. My lips closed together, making whirring noises like a tornado siren. He curled his fist and cocked his arm. My voice cut off like an electrical short. He moved his fist closer to my face like a rattlesnake checking its prey. Satisfied with his authority over the situation, he proceeded to make himself comfortable in the wagon, waiting.
“Pull me!” he said. “You had your turn. Now it’s mine. Let’s go!”
His stern visage held firm. Brown beady eyes bore into me like an auger into the pine wood derby cars we raced as Cub Scouts, and other sour moments in which I had to withstand his wrath, of him being an asshole just because. I grabbed ahold of the rusty handle, but try as I might, the wagon wouldn’t budge. He weighed too much for me. My arms strained against the sun.
Finally, he said, “you’re useless. Get away!”
He got out of the wagon and kicked it over, leaving me to guess about my fate. Some Christmas gift, the wrong idea if you asked me. My parents didn’t think this through – sharing a little red wagon, a hunk of metal with wheels, rapidly becoming another piece of junk in our driveway and garage, like the bicycles we took apart and left in pieces. Instead of bringing us joy, the gifts stirred up angst and frustration. My brother blamed me for a lack of cooperation. He could have been nice about it but then he wouldn’t be himself. He didn’t have a care in the world if he hurt the puppies. Picking on me brought him more satisfaction. Unlike the fur babies, I could defy him, fight back… so he could legitimize his abuse. I the victim, made that choice. If I appeared before our mother the magistrate with a bruised arm or even better, a black eye, he’d claim I “wasn’t playing right.”
Mother, without a cross examination, said, “it’s time for you to come in. It’s too hot out there right now anyway.” I walked toward the garage to the shade. “No, not in there, I said the house.”
“Well, why does he get to stay out?” I asked. My older brother leaned up against the station wagon, pretending to be Joe Cool.
“Who?” she asked. “I don’t know where he is. I was talking to you. Now get your little butt inside. I’m not going to say it again.”
He cackled like a hyena, and she still didn’t notice him dodging her X-ray eyes.
My other brother continued to play with the puppies outside the backdoor of the garage. Sitting in the shade, he watched them crawl across a dirt pile, which dad intended to be our fancy patio whenever he got around to laying cement. Instead, we made it a huge dirt city with roads and houses. We pretended to drive our Mustangs, Corvettes, firetrucks, road graders and tractors around the neighborhood, calling the big dirt clods boulders, the puddles, lakes, and the grooves, canyons. With each thunderstorm that swept through, some of them got lost in the deluges and buried in mud slides.
While the puppies, with their eyes still closed, struggled to make it back to their mother, he dug up some of the cars, carving out a complex of new roads and highways. Tiffany helped her progeny, carrying them in her mouth by the scruff of the neck, dropping them in the box, while my brother pulled them back out and put them back at the starting line. All the time he laughed because she didn’t know any different. If anything, his actions confused her. Mama worried about the hawks flying overhead; she moved with a purpose. If one of these helpless creatures went astray…
Inside the house, I stood close to the fan. Mom opened the kitchen window to alert my brother about the heat. His mud-stained face and clothes prompted a minor chiding, “make sure you dust yourself off before you come in, and get those damn dogs back in the basement. They aren’t toys.” Yet, they brought more joy than the red wagon. He complied, lifting their cardboard box in his arms like a tray, his small dark-skinned mitts barely hooking the bottom edge. Tiffany roamed through his legs, whining in a way that told him to be careful with his precious cargo.
“I’ve got popsicles,” she announced. “Go tell your other brother.”
She meant the rebel still waiting, taking in the sunbursts and people-watching. Cars began to collect in the gravel parking lot at the Legion baseball game half a block down the street. I sat down with the box of frozen treats, pulling out my favorite flavor, grape. Mom waited until my brother got in the door before retreating to the living room with a romance novel she’d already read twice. She’d sit back in the broken brown recliner with the fan aimed at an up angle to cool her pudgy jowl. My bully brother came in through the garage, letting the screen door slam, bounding up the steps into the kitchen.
“Popsicles? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” he asked, thumping me on the side of the head while reaching across the table to the box of treats already starting to melt, all in full view of mom.
“Don’t let that door slam when you go back out,” she reminded him.
“Who took all the grape?” he asked, giving me the stink eye. “Butthole.”
Instead, he settled for lime. He took the wrapping and threw it at me, then went back outside. The door slammed.
“What did I tell you,” mom yelled. “You boys never listen!”
The sun finally began to sink on the western horizon. Long shadows stretched across the backyard. The lazy summer day added thunderheads which threatened the baseball game. Mom got up from her chair to look out the window, letting the mechanical footrest thump back into place. Her romance novel tumbled off the armrest onto a dingy gold-colored carpet.
Rain drops struck the window intermittently, tapping out a drum beat only nature could play. She noticed the wagon sitting on the driveway behind the wood-paneled white station wagon with its bald tires.
“One of you go get that little red wagon,” she said, keeping her focus on the coming storm.
My brother, the tame one, the one I’ll call pigpen, and I looked at each other as though posing a challenge. Normally, age might decide who went on this fool’s errand, but I, the bigger kid by some fluke of nature, stood my ground. Not admitting defeat but taking the high road, he dismounted from his kitchen perch, a raggedy vinyl thing on its last legs, but in better shape than half the chairs on the verge of popping out screws.
“I’ll get it mom,” he volunteered. She kept reading.
He stood at the open garage door, waiting to see if a cloud burst might douse him. God forbid it washed the mud off him. Instead, my eldest brother came to the rescue. Surprising. Running back from the baseball stands, he grabbed the rusted handle in a smooth motion without breaking stride, pulling it in the direction of the house. Lightning crackled, and the low rumble of thunder threatened to delay the game.
We could hear the announcer say, “now would be a good time to pull out those umbrellas,” to the groans of fans sitting in dilapidated wooden stands, green paint chipping off them.
A short burst wet our sidewalks and streets, while marble-sized hail bounced off the cars and lawns. The temperature fell enough to bring sweet relief, even though we dressed in tank tops and shorts, the kind that if we weren’t careful, let our small boy bits slip out. In an hour, mom made dinner – hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on the charcoal grill which stood on the dirt patio, and homemade potato salad she kept in gallon containers. We washed it down with Kool Aid made in a big brown pitcher, which we poured into equally gaudy brown tumblers.
“Let nothing be made of glass in this house,” mom said. “Not with six boys.” Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the street, like they just don’t care…
Dad pulled up from a day at work, still dressed in grey and black coveralls, worn with holes from the sparks made by his welding torch. Walking through the garage, he tripped over the wagon, almost falling. Holding his lunch pail, he kicked it to the wall, knocking a hole in it. ‘Your own damn fault’ as mom would say, ‘can’t blame this one on the boys,’ at least not directly. Temper. Temper. My oldest brother learned from his example all too well.
“Why is that wagon out here?” he asked, peeling off his overalls, letting them droop from a hook near the door.
“You bought it for Christmas,” she answered. “They got bored and brought it out.”
“That was two years ago,” he said. “I didn’t know they still had it. They break everything. I thought it’d be in the dumpster like those damn bikes.”
After dinner, my oldest brother and I took the wagon back out amid the wet patches of asphalt and gravel. The street lights flickered on. Sitting in the wagon’s flatbed, holding on for dear life, white knuckles aching, the Radio Flyer sent us on a journey into the stars, singing along to Three Dog Night’s ‘Old Fashioned Love Song” on an old black mini-transistor radio we tucked between my legs inside the wagon. The ballgame was over, car headlights came our way and the rusted handle snapped. My joyous brother, delighted at the ease at which he pulled the wagon, watched me and the wagon rush past him in a red blur and into the street. In slow motion, I watched his jaw drop, then he raised the handle as though to study it, for a better understanding of why it failed him. All traffic came to an abrupt halt.
The wagon tumbled over and my face ended up in a cool puddle of rain. Dazed, I slowly rose to my feet, watching people getting out of their cars. Instead of rushing to help me, they cast blame. Among murmurings: “What’s with those Mexican kids, can’t they find a playground?” Dad, unamused by the spectacle, trotting over in his black work boots, jeans and a grimy T-shirt, came out of nowhere, passed the maze of cars and swooped me up along with the busted wagon. Like Captain America, he spoke boldly to the white onlookers, “nothing to see here.” Some of his workmates in the crowd cast sympathetic gazes. “That’s the last time,” he told me and my brother who marched beside him. That night, we said goodbye to our Radio Flyer, watching dad toss it in the dumpster.
And the moral to that story? Well… sometimes we all gotta take that ride.