NA’s Computer Science teacher and Tech Office guru, Andrew Alford, was recently awarded a New Writer Award Honorable Mention by Glimmer Train Magazine for his short story, “Erasure.” He calls the piece below a “mock, mock trial story,” (with apologies to Mr. Hawk, Ms. Gordon and company). But did it really happen? Cast your verdict in the comment section below: Guilty or Not Guilty?
HAMMERHEAD GOES TO THE GALLOWS
I was going on eleven when Dad laid the old saw on me, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” He was big on Joseph Campbell, my dad. Find your bliss, he said, and the money will follow.
He encouraged me to try different things, and when I took an interest in his occasional carpentry, I paid enough attention that I was able to bang together a gallows for my action figures. It was all Star Wars and Spaghetti Westerns then, and my playset felt incomplete without a traditional hanging contraption. It looked just a primitive thing, with basically the crossbeam set across the uprights; but the trapdoor represented quite a feat of mechanical engineering. All on my own, I fixed it to the base with a hinge that sprung loose when you flipped a lever. I used a couple rubber bands–the tiny ones my mother used with her braces–to bind the trapdoor to the back of the base, so that when you moved the lever, the trapdoor didn’t just drop open, it snapped up against the base with a startling and decisive clap.
When Mom and Dad announced that we were going to Disney World in the summer, Dad encouraged me–and my kid sister, Leigh–to put a little of our allowance by each week so we’d have money to spend. Leigh, four years my junior, was rather good at saving. Her needs were smaller–a pack of gum, the occasional Casper comic book (which my father usually picked up for her anyway, whenever she took sick and was kept home from school)–and the opportunities to spend fewer and farther between: she was not allowed to ride her bike beyond the end of our block. I, on the other hand, had developed an addiction to the video arcades that had begun to crop up around the neighborhood. My common currency was the quarter; and if you’ve got one in your pocket right now dated 1980-1982, there’s a good chance it passed through my hands and into the guts of the Stargate video game I was hellbent on mastering.
By the time summer rolled around, we were mere weeks away from Disney, and the score was:
Little Sister: $70.00
Big Brother: $17.04
The closet in my sister’s room was a deep cavern dripping with the stalactites of out-of-season clothing and cellophaned suits. The back was stacked with Christmas boxes that I rearranged into a multilevel city–a hive of alleys and passages, where life was cheap and action figures lived fleeting violent lives.
Leigh sometimes came to watch. I had them dialoging with each other and enacting the bloodiest scenes from Star Wars and Hang’Em High, with multiple endings, most of them tragic. Mom said I couldn’t kick my kid sister out because it was her room, after all, and so I was obliged to endure her company. Originally, Leigh would crash my scene because she found my puppet theater fascinating; but after Mom’s declaration, Leigh stayed mainly to demonstrate her power over her room. There was one activity that she preferred above babying her dolls, which was to offer unwelcome running commentary on my action figure dramas–and one day she stated that she hated the Hammerhead action figure, one of the creatures from Star Wars’ Mos Eisley Cantina. Hammerhead was, in fact, the least human-looking alien in my collection. But he had arms and legs–so I stood him on the gallows and offered Leigh the chance to save him. “If you pay the courts half his value,” I said, “they’ll call off his execution. Otherwise, he’s got to hang.”
My sister said that she wasn’t going to give me anything, and I told her, “That’s all right. Hammerhead didn’t think you would. He knows you think he’s ugly. He’s just a puke-face, and nobody loves him anyway. Look, he doesn’t even have a mouth to say good-bye. I guess we don’t even have to ask him if he has any last words, do we, Puke-face?” I moved Hammerhead to establish eye-contact with my sister and, though he couldn’t articulate words, I saw no reason why he couldn’t whimper like a beaten dog.
My sister (who had chosen our constantly shedding three-legged family cat over all the perfect kittens at the shelter, and liked to wheel him around in her baby carriage with a bonnet on his head) teared up at Hammerhead’s plight. She said that she would pay, but I replied, “Well, it’s too late now. The governor already disconnected the phone, so the execution has to go forward.” I pushed the lever, the trapdoor snapped open, and Hammerhead dangled, dead.
Turns out Princess Leia was Hammerhead’s mom. She wailed at the grisly spectacle, and confessed to Leigh how she had never loved her son because she had found him ugly, but that now she wished he was alive again.
“But that can never be,” I said.
I still had the backing card with Hammerhead’s picture on it; I stood it up against one of the boxes near the gallows, and Princess Leia asked my sister to fetch a couple dandelions from our yard and to place them on either side of Hammerhead’s picture. Hammerhead himself lay in a tiny box.
Leigh protested that it was just a game.
“Is death a game?” Princess Leia demanded, and I added: “Death is forever. We can never bring him back. We have to cremate the body, so it doesn’t cause diseases and stuff.”
My sister didn’t know what cremation was, so I took her out into the alleyway, and with a lighter and Lysol can, I blowtorched the Hammerhead figure into a dripping candle shape.
“Forever,” I said.
Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder was Hammerhead’s hearse: I glided him out to the backyard, where I buried the cremated remains.
Princess Leia asked me where the headstone was, I said, “He doesn’t get one, Mother. This is the potter’s field. Do you have money for a monument?”
“But I’ll never remember where he’s buried!” said the princess.
“Then you can stand at the edge of the patio and pray to the whole yard. This isn’t the Arlington National Cemetery. Your son was a criminal.”
My sister paid $5 for the monument–an empty matchbook I painted with whiteout and inscribed RIP with a black felt-tip pen.
Little Sister: $65.00
Big Brother: $22.04
Greedo’s bail was set to five dollars. Walrusman and Snaggletooth were flight risks, and their bail was bumped to twice their original MSRP. When we adjourned for lunch, it was:
Little Sister: $46.00
Big Brother: $41.04
You can imagine Leigh’s shock when she learned that bail only kept her “sons” out of trouble before the trial. “If they jump bail, that won’t go well for the remaining prisoner. The courts will just hang him without any trial. If the judge doesn’t see them, it’s going to be Chewbaca’s last night alive.” My sister protested that I was going to hang the figures whatever she did, but Princess Leia told her there was a way to get them free: a good lawyer. “Obi Wan,” said Leia, “he’s our only hope.”
Obi Wan was a generous soul, and refused to accept any money until after he had won his cases. But the prosecutor was a formidable adversary, capable of silencing the old man simply by raising his fist, which normally was used to grip his tiny plastic light saber.
There was only one thing for it: the defense was going to have to bring Yoda on board. He understood the financial pressure my sister was facing, and offered his services pro bono.
They lost, and sentence of death was passed, but there were still grounds for appeal. “We can work for nothing,” said Obi Wan, “but we are going to need to hire a private investigator to track down the real criminals…”
Which was where Leigh’s free ride ended. “Look, Your Highness,” said Han Solo to my sister, “I’ve got a ship full of Bantha feed to transport from here to Tattooine. If you don’t have the money to fuel the Falcon for your little investigative detours, then I can’t help your crack legal team. Get the picture, Princess?”
I thought I had softened my sister enough for another donation, but she met Han Solo’s demands with considerable outrage.
“Rrrrmm, stingy she is,” said Yoda–to Obi Wan, not to Leigh, “and little she thinks of the lives of others. Hang will they all.”
Princess Leia sent up a grieving shriek that prompted her alien sons all to embrace her and to bid her their brave good-bye’s, until my sister relented.
“I knew there was more to you than money!” Princess Leia cried, and pressed herself against my sister’s knee.
Little Sister: $36.00
Big Brother: $51.04
The Great Action Figure Crash of 1981 preceded the appellate court trials, after Mom found Leigh weeping in bed. “Why are you sleeping with your brother’s Star Wars figures?”
I was not yet eleven, and worth more than twenty dollars an hour. More than my own father was making. For a day anyway, it was clear to me that Dad really knew what he was talking about.
I laughed out loud and smiled more than a few times whilst reading this piece.
Made me smile remembering my childhood. Not exactly spot on (there was never a pressure-cooker Disney land money grabbing venture), but there were some joint Star Wars, Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, GIJOE adventures that never ended well for my Barbies (and whatever StarWars figures I got in our “picks”). I distinctly remember my brothers sending my favorites all packed in my Barbie camper down a flight of stairs…I may have cried…hard to say…I’d like to think I was a strong nine-year-old and took their devastation nonchalantly, but I think I probably screamed. The perils and passion of the “pick” and choosing characters I loved always caught up with me; my twin brothers, age seven at that time, knew my weak spots well.
Did your story really happen?
The image of a plastic, decorated in perfect 70s style camper complete with my prized possessions R2D2 and Han Solo tumbling down a braided-rug covered stairway is forever etched in my memory…
You don’t need to convince me otherwise. Regardless of the votes, I know this story is true.
“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.” ~ Virginia Woolf.
My vote: Real? Maybe. True? Yes!
I had always wondered what had really happened during The Great Action Figure Crash of 1981. Thank you for providing the background story!
Masterful. Both your writing and your business acumen. (Also, I feel so foolish for thinking this was a story about a shark)
Love this. Your sister was a much softer touch than my little brother. Heck, he probably would have been the one tormenting his Star Wars figurines into oblivion as I stood by and watched in horror.
(And a side note to anyone with quarters dated 1977-1980 – they probably passed through my hands before getting spent at the Janesville Mall.)
Thank you so much for reading my piece! And for sharing some of your own experiences & personal reactions over the virtual campfire. That’s what it’s all about…
(I can’t really remember the words I used back then, but I *was* fairly fluent in the language of emotional blackmail…)