by Jeff Apton
Our annual Thanksgiving dinner is the time new people get introduced into our family fold. When my sister Robin welcomes that latest victim she always finds a way to share one story from our childhood. We agree on events as I share them with you below. But then Robin adds her own shocking" climax. Who do you believe?
The summer of 1960 was a scorcher. The sidewalks of Brooklyn shimmered. I had nothing to do. My friends were away at camp, or kidnapped for family vacations to crappy theme hotels with names like Santa Claus Village. I was too bored to read, watch television, or even think. But that morning, my eyes were bright. I was walking upright again. Finally, I had something to do. Psycho had finally arrived at our neighborhood grindhouse.
In June of 1960 Hitchcock's masterpiece opened to packed movie houses. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of that film on a nation preparing for a hot, sweaty summer. No American would close a shower curtain again without a visceral twinge of fear and a quick scan of the bathroom.
The poster outside the Beverley Theater promised "altogether different screen excitement!!!" Mr Alfred Hitchcock warned, "No one, but no one would be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance." If that was not enough, the black and white still of the sexpot actress Janet Leigh, breasts jutting forward in a conical 1950s bra, red lips shrieking in a paroxysm of terror, sealed the deal for me. My budding pubescent mind and body screamed in unison, "You must serve the gods of sex and violence. And do not be late!"
My mother destroyed the plan. "Jeffrey, I want you to babysit for your sister today." Whenever she used my full name, I knew resistance would be futile.
"Maaaa," I whined. "I'm going to the movies."
" So take Robin with you. I'll pay for it." What an offer! There were no coalmines in the neighborhood. Where else would a 12-year-old be able to get money, if not from his parents?
She continued. "What are you going to see? You better not take your sister to anything scary."
Plying my stock in trade, the quick and vague lie, I lowered my eyes and shrugged, "I don't know, I'll have to check the paper."
"Go see Oklahoma. It's at the Avalon." Mom began singing, ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning.' Dad and I loved it." I blinked in dismay. Could there be a better reason to hate her suggestion?
"That's a great idea, mom. " She beamed, satisfied with her wisdom.
So braving the August heat, I left the house with my 6 year old sister in tow. We trekked up Church Avenue to make the 1PM showing of Psycho. At every corner, I reached out for Robin's little hand as we crossed. Each time she pulled away. "Stopppp. I'm not a baby."
I knew better than to incite her by disputing her baby status. Robin needed to be onboard with my movie plan or I was going to be in big trouble that night. I could hear my mother, "What kind of idiot takes a 6 year old to see a murder movie? " And my dad would sit there like King Solomon, silently contemplating the appropriate punishment for my most egregious crime.
Robin, of course, was not too concerned about what we were going to see. At her young age, being with her big brother was a reward in itself.
Though likely overkill, I needed her complicity when we went home later, so I offered, "Rob, do you want get some ice cream?"
"Yaay, ice cream."
I put on my sternest face, furrowing my brow for emphasis. "You can have any flavor you want, but remember if mom and dad ask you about the movie at dinner later, don't answer… just look at me. OK?"
She happily nodded. Nothing is better than a compliant partner in crime who does not realize they have been taken along for the ride.
We arrived at the Beverley. I walked up to the ticket window. My voice cracked both from looming adolescence and the fear we would be turned away. "Two children's tickets for Psycho, please."
The woman in the booth looked at me and scowled her disapproval that such a young boy would go see that movie. Then, her head swiveled in a double-take, seeing a little girl who did not reach the height of the ticket counter. Movies were not rated in those days. We were in.
Our afternoon was spent in the cool, dark theater. The ominous, strings-only Bernard Hermann score signaled the terror to come. And it came. A sole violin screeched as Anthony Perkins, dressed as his dead mom (58 year-old spoiler alert here), pushed open the shower curtain and repeatedly plunged a sharp butcher knife into the shrieking Janet Leigh. Interviewed years later, Leigh admitted to being so affected by this scene that she never again took a shower unless it was absolutely necessary.
I was riveted on the screen, hoping against hope that even in death, filled with wounds, I might get a flash of Janet's naked body as she collapsed in the tub. There were many firsts in that movie, including the first scene to ever show a flushing toilet. But no nudity. This was 1960.
Robin's eyes may have been closed during the gorier moments. I was too engrossed in the action to check. I do recall easily removing the dripping, half-melted ice cream from her hand.
When we walked out to the sunny, hot street, the late afternoon sun hit my eyes. I had an instant headache. My stomach was queasy from stale popcorn and rancid butter. And I became queasier when I thought about the scene that might unfold when we sat down for dinner. On the walk home Robin searched for my hand, and held it tightly.
Thursdays were liver night in our home. How that tradition came to be, I will never know. Watching mom open the blood soaked butcher paper and remove glistening slabs of slimy meat did not do much for my already uncertain appetite.
Before she could ask, I enthusiastically shared how much we enjoyed Oklahoma. I sang a little to "prove" we were there; "I know we belong to the land…."
Dinner was served. Dad, always read his newspaper while we ate, saying little except in response to Mom's usual repetition of my daily crimes. Surprisingly, she was silent that evening. Little Robin kept her mouth shut as instructed. I was proud of her.
For me the story ends here, but Robin remembers more.
In her, telling she pauses here and looks around the holiday table. Her eyes settle on the new person, who has yet to learn our family legends and continues:
"As soon as dinner was over, Mom said, "OK Robby, time for bed. Go upstairs and take a shower. "
My sister's comic timing is superb. I'll give her that. Like her pecan pie, years of repetition have honed her efforts to perfection.
She continues, "I was so traumatized, but kept my mouth shut. What else could I do? I promised my big brother."
Her audience responds predictably. They break into laughter, and look at me with mock disdain.
And every time she recounts that story, at precisely the same point, I jump in. "Great story, my dear sister. But it's just not true. Six year-olds in those days only took baths. Our mother would have worried that you would slip on the soapy porcelain and crack your tiny head open. "
And then, my closing argument, "We lived in a 1927 house and most homes of that period had no showers."
All eyes move back to Robin. She wanly protests. "I remember a shower."
The atavistic time machine opens up. Our ancient selves pop out.
"Robin, you're such a liar."
"You, you're a big, fat idiot, my brother."
My final salvo, "You're a baaaaby."
For that moment, nobody else is in the room. We look at each other and laugh hysterically.
The dinner audience is getting bored with us. Dessert comes out of the kitchen and the conversation moves on. But the story, our holiday tradition, will be retold when next year's dinner brings us a new, unsuspecting victim.
Jeff Apton has been writing since discovering his stories got more attention than his hook shot. He has written extensively for trade and travel journals, newspapers and his own enjoyment. As principal and copywriter of a healthcare advertising agency, his work included print and video for Viagra and Zoloft, among other products. His creative work has been featured in numerous media, including CNN, BBC, Newsweek magazine and several trade journals. Currently living in Seattle and spending more time in SMA, he shares work regularly with a number of writer's groups.