When I was young, I had a great-uncle Kyle who happened to be missing two fingers on his left hand. He liked to scare kids by telling them he bit them off while eating a hamburger. Then he'd reenact the scene, pretending to take a big, hungry bite of imaginary burger. He also had a trick he was particularly fond of, where he would show me one of his good fingers, and place the knuckle against the edge of a table. Then he would bear down on it with all his weight, huffing and puffing, produce a popping sound, and finally hold up his hand triumphantly, neatly sans finger. This sleight of hand (if you will) may not sound all that convincing to you, but to someone who believed Mr. Rogers was actually speaking to her through the t.v., and who had only recently stopped falling for the "got your nose" gag, it was all too gruesomely real. And, while the twenty-seven year-old me can look back on all of this with a bemused sense of humor, I must admit that the five year-old me was, quite frankly, terrified.
One afternoon the family was gathered at my grandparents' house when Uncle Kyle arrived with my Aunt Gertie. I cringed inside when I saw him. I knew what was coming. Spotting me, he brightened. "Hey!" he said. "Come here, I want to show you something!" Reluctantly I slunk over, hoping against hope that he would have some new material this time. A quarter from my ear, some vigorous cheek-pinching, heck, even a good Indian rope-burn would be better. Please, just not the finger thing again. No such luck. But this time, before he had a chance to reach the "punchline," something inside me snapped. I screamed in his face and ran shrieking hysterically from the room, then locked myself in a spare bedroom and refused to come out.
Safe in my aunt's old childhood bedroom, her Gone With the Wind and Don Quixote posters still taped to the orange walls, my terror quickly dissolved into confusion and embarassment. Why had I done that? Now everyone was going to think I was a baby. Plus I had a sinking feeling that I had done something bad. I may have only been five, but I knew that you were always supposed to be very polite to old people, and what I had done was very, very rude. Would I get a spanking for this? I wondered. Yes, I decided, I might get a spanking for this. Oh what had I done? I checked the door again to make sure it was locked. And not a minute too soon, because just then someone started jiggling the doorknob on the other side, and there was a voice saying "Let me in!"
"No! No! No!" I said.
But...it was strange. The voice hadn't sounded angry, like I thought it would.
"It's ok," the voice said, "I'm not angry. Open the door."
"Is he there?" I asked.
"No, Uncle Kyle isn't here. It's just me. Let me in now, please."
And I did. "That really scared you, didn't it?" my dad asked, stroking my hair. "You know it's not real, right?"
"Yes," I sniffled.
"It's ok, he's not going to do it anymore."
"Not ever? Promise?"
"Not ever. I promise. Now let's go back out with everyone else."
I shuffled back out with my head down in embarassment, and everyone was kind enough to pretend that nothing had happened. In retrospect I wonder if maybe everyone else was just as embarassed as I was.
And I wonder if just maybe, in the car on the way home, my Aunt Gertie thought, "Well someone had to say it. And thank goodness, because if he asked me to pull his finger one more time, I was going to scream."