We all know a life is worth six bucks, but as a child I found out the first betrayal is worth five dollars. There are some betrayals that are so base and so entirely intimate that one is seared forever in the sacred memory and by the sanctity of the moment.
I must have been three or four years old. I know I was young. I was not yet in school. I was the only child of a single mother and I was free to roam my Midwestern neighborhood unattended up and down the block — but never beyond the corners. Up the hill on the corner lived a family in what can only be described as a tarpaper shack. They were absolutely poor in every sense of the word. They were beyond dirt poor.
They were mud poor.
The children only wore underwear in the summer. Their lawn was muddy patches of dog feces and cat urine. Their play area was a set of industrial steel pipes sticking out of the mud in angles to make areas for clambering and swinging. Our neighborhood was in the process of turning. The old, poor, prairie was being replaced with new housing in middle class subdivision developments.
There were still pockets of housing holdouts where the property owner wanted a better price for the land that the tarpaper shacks occupied. There weren’t many young children in that desolate neighborhood, so the youngest child in the shack at the top of the hill and I were good friends. We played together every day. He often ate lunch and snacks at my house. I don’t remember ever stepping foot in his house.
One day — as my friend and I were playing in one of the mud piles surrounding his shack — my friend told me his mother was hungry. I remember pausing and looking at him and then saying, “I’ll be right back.” I ran down the hill to my house and found my mother napping. I went into her purse as quietly as I could, and with my heartbeat pounding in my tongue, I slipped a crisp and shimmering five dollar bill from her pocketbook and crumpled it in my tiny fist and ran out the back door back up the hill as the screen door slapped behind me in the wind. I pressed the money into my friend’s palm.
“This is for your mother.” He shook his head and handed back the money. “No, this is your money. Not mine.” “It’s for your mother. Buy her something to eat.”
I pushed the money back at him and he let the crisp bill flutter down into the mud as if it were on fire. “I don’t want it,” he said. “Keep it for your mother,” I shouted over my shoulder as I turned and ran back down the hill to my house.
Ten minutes later the back doorbell rang. I froze as I heard my mother wake up from her nap to answer the back door. I strained to hear the conversation but the only words I heard came from the voice of my friend’s mother, “Davey gave five dollars…” and with that, I was in a cold panic. I began to run in circles in the living room.
I could feel the heat from my mother’s, embarrassed, red, face searing me as she thanked the other mother for returning the five dollars. I ran to my room and hid in the closet. The screen door slapped shut with a final thud. I heard the heels coming after me. When my mother is angry she pounds her heels on the floor as she walks. She was barefoot and the pounding of her heels across the kitchen linoleum shook the house. I was trembling in the darkness. The closet door slowly slid open. I was grabbed by my upper arms and thrown on my bed. My head was spinning.
I couldn’t focus.
I was being made to look at the overhead light and then into my mother’s face as she shook me and dug her fingernails into my arms until I bled. She screamed at me: “Thief! Dishonest!” I was bawling and gasping for air and I was made to stand on my bed as my entire body was pressed back-and-forth in what felt like slow motion.
The beating seemed to go on forever. As I was being shaken, and while I was wailing, I became part of the wall. I watched from beyond as that sad scene was being played out. I remember thinking then, as I know now, how bitter the bile of the recognition of the first betrayal tasted — and how feeling its unfamiliar sting for the first time began to grow and find resonance in the hollow of my body — and how it unwillingly became recognized and familiar in the guise of a friendship.
My mother hadn’t betrayed me. I had grown to expect that kind of terrorizing from her. I was inconsolable how my friend had sold me out to her to take that beating. I was confused how a good deed had gone so wrong. I was astonished at how all feeling and sense could so easily be filed away and dismissed in the torrent of tears washing from my eyes and in the snot pouring out of my mouth.
I was forbidden from playing with my friend again. At the end of the summer, the family moved away and their shack was torn down and a beautiful, sprawling ranch house filled their corner lot. I never saw my friend again. I don’t remember my friend’s name or even his face; but his betrayal still stings within me every day.