Crime and Punishment. Or, The Sound of a Doorbell Still Makes Me Jump

I don’t scream; I’ve never been that kind of girly girl. But there was definitely a muted, guttural gasp heard loudly and clearly when the doorbell rang. It may have been Jane’s* voice, mine, or both of us in unison; I still don’t know to this day. Once the echo of the doorbell faded, time stopped. There was no real audible sound now other than the blood sprinting through our scared, pounding hearts. That “time stands still” kind of silence was abruptly interrupted by pounding on the front door. All I could taste was fear and stomach acid – or are they the same?

My best bud Jane was staying with us while her mom and step-dad were out of town. We’d gotten in the habit of going to her family’s empty house after school so that we could just chill and watch soap operas. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but at some point we realized that we could do this all day if we wanted. So the next morning we got up, put on our school clothes, ate some breakfast and got our book bags together. Jane, a year younger than I, walked toward the middle school while I walked toward the high school. Our plan: make it look like we were each going to school but instead, we’d meet at her house and hang out for the day.

By mid-morning we were settled into cozy spots in front of the TV with cokes and potato chips at our sides. Then everything went wrong, terribly wrong. It was my mom who had rung the doorbell and was now pounding at the front stoop. Jane and I were staring at each other with our jaws dropped so far you could have poured the entire bag of chips right down our throats. We made a run for the stairs to hide. We huddled there just looking at each other as if to say “Did she see us? What the hell are we going to do? Do we answer the door? Do we keep hiding?”

I don’t know if I actually heard my mom yell “I know you’re in there!” or if I just knew it inside. So after much shaking and sweating, we opened the door. She told Jane to get herself together and walk her little behind to the middle school – she’d deal with her after talking with her parents. I on the other hand was escorted to the high school by my silently fuming mother. The four block walk might as well have been from death row to the gallows. At least my last supper was chips and coke.

The next words I remember were from my mother’s pursed lips. She was telling the school secretary “we need to see the vice principal”. I remember the look on the secretary’s face. She knew that when someone was asking to see the VICE principal, NOT the principal, that there was some sort of lashing on the way.

We entered the VP’s office and he asked my mom what he could do for her. She said “you can set an appropriate punishment for my daughter here who had the bright idea to skip school today”. My mom provided the details of the bust, including how she’d been down at the middle school and happened to see Jane’s name on the absent list. I was too scared to realize this until later but even with my chin on my chest I could see them smile at each other, a “wink, wink” of sorts, as if they both knew he would make the reprimand sound stern and harsh for this first time offender.

My sentence was rendered with no jury necessary; I was guilty as charged. I would pick up trash around the grounds after school each day for a week and would also deliver a form to every teacher who would sign it to prove that I had attended class.

The trash pick-up duty wasn’t so bad because hardly anyone saw me doing it. But presenting that form to each of my teachers was so embarrassing and shaming. I’d never been in trouble at school before and was an average, attentive student. I think they were all confused about why they were signing this for me when it was usually reserved for the obvious offenders – the burn-outs, the class clowns and the fight-picking bullies. I don’t even remember any of them asking me why they were signing it. They all just shrugged and signed.

At home it was another story. The silent treatment continued as did the punishment. I can still smell the wood lath lying in a pile on the driveway. It had been pulled from the dining room walls during a home renovation project and was headed to the dump. But before it would be hauled off, I was exiled to it. Even though it was warm weather, it might as well have been Siberia. I spent the weekend pulling each rusty, 1869 Italianate-era nail out of those boards. One by one, splinter by splinter. Strangely, to this day, I love the smell of wood. Too bad Pablo Neruda beat me to it.

*Accomplice’s name changed to protect the guilty.

NOTE: I am doing a mini writer’s retreat this weekend.  This was an exercise in writing about a childhood memory invoked first by sound and then how the other senses played a part in it.


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