Listen. I am eight years old and we are in a rural Iowa town. It is 1990. We have a pretty cool stereo; it has a double tape deck so you can dub tapes, an AM/FM radio, and a turntable that we use to listen to Yellow Submarine. Resting on the floor, attached to the record player, is a set of old speakers. They are covered in about an inch of dust. Written in the dust on the top of the left speaker are the letters F. U. C. K.
I can’t remember now what the investigation process was like, just that from an adjacent room, my mom was very angry. There was a storm a-brewin. But I wasn’t worried. My logic then was pretty sound. No, I have no idea who did that. I know nothing about that. Dirt off my shoulder. Go on with my life. However, my sister Kelly was a little more tenacious in her police work. She knew it wasn’t her, and clearly it wasn’t my parents. Also, it was my handwriting.
One afternoon, my friend Mike from school was over, and we were playing. I don’t remember if I checked with him first. In fact, I specifically remember not checking with him first. I think I had it in my head that he would agree to take the fall for writing the dirty word in the dust on top of the speaker, as if it went without saying that Mike would do that for me if I needed him to. Which I did, because suddenly Kelly was there and she seemed like she wanted to ask me about it. I started to leave the room, when she cornered me on the stairs.
“Did…. you… write… that?” Emphasizing each part of the sentence.
“It was Mike!” I said. “Mike, didn’t you do that? You did that, right?”
Mike is standing behind Kelly and he’s smiling, as if to say, “You are so fucked.”
Then he shakes his head and says, “Nope!” I did. I did write the word “fuck” on the speaker.
“Do you know what that word means?”
The answer is sure; I’d heard the word plenty of times. I’d heard it in the R-rated movies we would watch as a family, I’d heard it from my Dad talking about the goddamn Republicans, I’d heard it that time our cousin BJ and I were climbing on the top of the van. BJ went, “See? It’s a fuckin’ cinch!” I went, “What’s a cinch?”
But do I know what the word means? I could tell from context clues that it was just a word for emphasis when you wanted to express a meaningful, usually pejorative concept. But do I know what the word means?
On the tinny, warbly VHS copy of the 1989 film Pet Sematary that we watch on the regular, a dead baby buried in the Micmac Indian burial ground comes back to life to slaughter the neighbors. Before this, an aging Fred Gwynne asks young Ellie Creed, “Do you know what a graveyard…really is?”
The child actress Blaze Berdahl replies. Blaze Berdahl, who went on to star in the TV video series Ghostwriter. Blaze Berdahl, in her memorably shrill little voice, the voice I will never forget says, “Well… I guess not!”
Do you know what that word means? And my response, so aware I was quoting Pet Sematarythat I laughed out loud while saying it was, “Well… I guess not!” Even though I kinda did. Right? Like you kinda know it means fucking. But even as I was learning about the world, I still wanted to participate in the constructed innocence of childhood. Even though I knew what fucking was, I pretended I didn’t, because I wanted to maintain this illusion.
Also, it seemed like I would get in trouble if I knew what fucking was, if I knew what it was to fuck. This makes no sense if you think about it. I had these adults in my life exposing me to adult stuff- not in a gross way, just in a way that other parents today would be scandalized and remark, “That is not for young ears!” But mine were not effectively shielding me from this stuff. Like I remember hearing my dad say, “Son of a bitch!” and my young mind made the connection that bitch rhymed with ditch. Immediately after I said it aloud: “Son of a ditch! Son of a bitch!” My sister Katie, two years older, was like, “… I can’t believe you just said that.”
The message I learned was that I would be in trouble if my sponge brain regurgitated any of the stuff I was hearing. The child would be punished for applying the knowledge given to him by the adults, but the adults would not be punished for giving him that knowledge. It was just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Snakes totally got off the hook, while humans are doomed for all eternity to watch poor Stephen King adaptations and comment on each other’s parenting skills.
I think parents now tend to be a lot more restrictive than our parents. This might not be true for everyone. But now that my sister Katie has kids, I get in trouble again with my nieces and nephews. For example, I’m like, “Amelia! Let’s watch Adventure Time!” Adventure Time is a cartoon. There’s a one-second joke in the episode we happen to be watching, where Finn the Human shoves Jake the Dog in the closet with a rainbow unicorn and says, “It’s time for 7 minutes in heaven!”
They aren’t fucking, you guys. It’s a cartoon. They are eating donuts and it’s random and adorable. But my brother-in-law hears this from the other room and he’s like, “Ha ha ha what are you watching?”
“It’s fine,” I say, “it’s just Adventure Time, it’s safe for kids.”
He replies, “Ha ha ha it doesn’t sound safe ha ha ha!”
Goddammit, I think, well I guess I broke your baby.
When I’m alone, I put on Les Miserables, the unforgettable Academy Award-nominated masterpiece of cinema, and then the three-year-old walks in and it’s the prostitute scene. I have to turn it off because the three-year-old is in the room, and because I turned it off, the three-year-old leaves, and if I turn it on again she’ll just come back. It’s a vicious cycle.
But you guys, that shit goes over their heads. Look at me. I turned out fine. That kid is going be fine. She’s not going to write “FUCK” in the dust on a speaker. She’s going to be a well-rounded adult who sometimes lies to get out of trouble, just like the rest of us. It’s what we all do, whether or not you watched an R-rated movie. Sometimes it’s safer to lie than tell the truth. The truth can be risky. Whether you’re a woman staring down a cat-caller, the press agent of an insane pop star, or a child skirting responsibility, lying protects us from the reality of ourselves, and maintains a kind of status quo. When Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath, he stayed in office and maintained a 60% approval rating. As if the American public said, “No, yeah, that seems legit, you got caught, it makes sense that you would deny it.”
I don’t even know why I did it. I can’t remember my motivation now, but I think I was just repeating the word I’d heard a million times, or trying on an adult identity. I don’t know. Either way, I didn’t turn out awful. I go to work. I pay rent on time. I respect other humans’ right to exist. I don’t anonymously troll the comments sections of news articles. I wrote the word “FUCK” in the dust on the speaker and lied to get out of it, and I turned out pretty okay. I didn’t really even get in trouble for it. I just learned that the consequence would be someone confronting me, which was scary enough that I didn’t do it again – or at least learned how to lie better if I was going to do naughty stuff. Actually, if I have one piece of advice, it would simply be to learn to lie better.
Originally performed at CHIRP Radio’s The First Time. Listen to Robert’s story here.
Robert Daniel Evers is a Chicago writer originally from Iowa. His work has appeared in Graze Magazine, Two With Water, The Logan Square Literary Review, Pop Matters, and The Other Otter. He is a DJ for CHIRP Radio and a producer for their storytelling series, The First Time. He has performed for The Paper Machete, Collector’s Edition, Curbside Splendor, and The New Colony’s Show & Tell. He is currently working on a novel, to be released on his website.