It was that advertisement that started it. It was listed on the back page of a comic book between the always present X-ray specs and the ads for Grow Your Own Sea Monkeys. There, in large bright red letters, was the call to action for lonely kids. Amaze Your Friends!
Normally I didn’t fall for such cheap theatrics but for some reason I was having a weak moment. Maybe I did need to add some amazing new abilities to my personality, I thought to myself. That way, when I finally got some friends, I could amaze them.
The advertisement was a black and white illustration depicting tendrils of smoke curling up from white gloved fingertips and another panel showed a cigarette that had been pushed, unharmed and in tact, through a quarter. “Learn Magic!” the ad persisted, “Everything you need to know to become a magician. Only two dollars!"
I was still a kid and hadn’t been burned by ordering products from magazines yet. I was just learning how to translate such an advertisement. First of all, “Only two dollars” meant two dollars was the first part of the financial equation. After you added the seventy five cents for tax and an additional two dollars and fifty cents for shipping and handling the end price was more than double. Five dollars and twenty five cents. Roughly the amount of money I made delivering newspapers for two weeks.
The money wasn’t a problem. There wasn’t much to spend it on way out in our broken suburb. The problem was getting the money to them. Check or Money Order only. I didn’t have a checking account and had no idea what a money order could be. I could try to get my parents to write a check on my behalf but I knew from trying to buy the Magical Sea Monkey Castle that it wasn’t going to work.
“It’s just a waste of your money,” My mother would say if I asked her.
“But it’s my money to waste,” I would remind her loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to get a smack in the face. It never worked. After the first such argument, when I didn’t get to buy what I wanted to with my own money, I started to hide my money from her. I wasn’t worried she would take it from me but that she would try to censor what I would use it for.
The solution was to go over mom’s head altogether. Grandma. Not only did Grandma outrank mom and was happy to write a check for me but she even gave me the stamp and the envelope. For free!
Four to six weeks later I found out another mistranslation from the ad. “Everything you need to know to do magic,” did not mean, “everything you need to do magic.” The instruction kit was little more than twelve pages of poorly mimeographed pages describing the easiest tricks followed by a good thirty or forty pages of catalog that would conveniently sell you the rest of the items needed to amaze your friends.
Two months later the only magic trick I had learned was the quarter from the ear trick and how to make five dollars and twenty five cents disappear. The fact that I became really good at the trick did nothing to cover the fact that it was just a lame trick. Needless to say friends weren’t amazed by a trick their grandfathers and uncles had been pulling on them since they were three years old. Worse yet, I didn’t let them keep the quarters like their relatives did.
Since magic obviously wasn’t going to work to find me friends I turned to my old stand by, pranks. At that age pranks were mostly harmless and played on people too weak or too smart to fight back. The social impact of playing a prank on someone was to establish a type of twisted mental dominance on the prankee. This social behavior only makes perfect sense while you’re still in grade school.
I had plenty of practical experience with pranks at home. In a family where adulthood is reached four to five years after your first child is born, teasing, bullying and dirty tricks are a huge part of the culture. My mother would leave the individually wrapped cheese slices still individually wrapped in plastic on my stepdad’s sandwiches after an argument. My Stepfather would retaliate by tying knots in my mothers panty hose. The pranks would then escalate to cookies made with salt instead of sugar, hidden car keys and holes cut into underpants with pinking shears.
My brother Bubba and I tended to stick to more basic tactics that usually involved scaring the shit out of someone. A favorite scare would be one of us hiding behind our sister, Becky’s, rather large stuffed animal collection. It wasn’t a large number of animals but the animals themselves were large enough to conceal a twelve year old boy. We would alternate jumping from behind them and screaming or making them fly at her and screaming the minute she turned on her bedroom light.
If we were brave enough to face total darkness one of us would wait under the steps leading to the basement. When an unsuspecting sibling would come down the stairs, to do laundry usually, we would grab the back of their ankles through the stairs. The screaming dance that resulted was hysterical as long as you put aside the possibility of someone plummeting to the smooth concrete floor below. The only possible cushioning being soiled underwear and jeans from Sears.
Parents weren’t immune from being pranked by us either. My first opportunity to get my mother came one evening at a grocery store. I don’t remember how old I was but I was young enough to run around the filthy grocery store alone and barefoot while she shopped. The floor wax rubs off and gets on you when you’re barefoot. If you get enough wax and dried fruit on the bottom of your feet you can pretend to ice skate down the aisles.
During one really long Olympic quality slide I noticed a toy mouse on the floor made from real fur. It must have fallen out of the pet toy display. This was perfect. The hierarchy of mom scaring was snake, mouse then human blood on one of her children. I had a mouse now. Second place. Not bad.
I grabbed it up and skated up and down the aisles until I found mom pondering a can of pork and beans.
I tip-toed up behind her as quietly as possible. The only noise I made was the light tapping of a pistachio shell stuck to left foot and the slight squish of a rotted grape from between my right toes. Behind my back in my right hand was my mouse. At about two feet away I had already discarded the idea of a mouse toss and decided on a simple placement maneuver. I would put it in the shopping cart where she would see it. I was almost shaking at how great of a prank this was going to be.
She would yell in public and I would laugh and laugh before I finally stepped in to saved her. Hell, she might even jump up on a chair or something if she can find one. Like in a cartoon.
I got closer. My body was tense and I was trying not to laugh.
Then it moved.
The mouse was alive. I would like to say I stay composed but the truth is I screamed like a girl in a drive-in slasher movie and threw my little accomplice down. My mother, still contemplating beans and thinking she was alone in the grocery except for her dirty kid jumped and did some of her own screaming. The can of beans hit the floor just missing taking off one of her toes.
“What the hell is wrong with you!” she yelled at me. Too scared to worry about the volume of her voice.
“I... I... I saw a mouse and I thought it was a toy and... and... and I was going to scare you... then it moved in my hand!” I was starting to sob now. Scared and embarrassed.
In a rush of motherly affection my mother started laughing. Not just simple laughter but the heavy duty laughter that caused one to double over and experience actual pain.
This is the vivid memory of my first prank. My mother and I both debilitated by tears, her from laughing and me from the shame, in the canned bean aisle of a dirty grocery store.
Somewhere in the shadows a mouse lay dying.