Tools of the Trade

By Ruby Peru

A partially silhouetted figure riding a horse at sunset

When, at ages twelve and thirteen, Maureen and I were deposited for safekeeping on an Arizona horse ranch for the duration of the summer of 1980, it was very much as if we had both dropped from outer space, but from completely different spaceships. The ultimate tomboy, my big sister would sometimes deign to play with me when she was bored and alone and I wasn’t busy trying on party dresses, but as soon as she suspected the presence of an informant, her eye-rolling, impatient sighs, and tacit denial of any shared bloodline would assure said foreign agent she had no voluntary affiliation with the Barbie doll in question. The disgusted/disgustee dynamic that existed between Maureen and me was such an ingrained aspect of our sisterhood that, in Arizona, I participated in helping hide it from our caregivers, the Stacys, as if I was somehow “in on it.”

Maureen and I could work together in adult-guided activities, but being seen alone with me was, for her, a thing to be avoided, especially during the initial, delicate stage of establishing her standing in “the new world,” as it were. Should anyone here suspect we were in any way affiliated, this could, one supposed, smear her as-yet-unmade reputation like a shit streak on a prison wall. Sharing a room with bunk beds, as Maureen and I did that summer, was only possible because of a tacit agreement that that’s where I’d be receiving my insults, in private.

That summer, we had to confront the truly upending reality that there was only one other kid to play with for miles: Sean Stacy, a boy a year younger than I was. By kid rules, age closeness trumps all other factors in the assignment of friends to siblings who will not share friends. This should have given me a social advantage over Maureen for the first time, ever. Children, after all, live in something like dog years, where an age difference of, say, six weeks equals the adult equivalent of forty-one light-years. However, in this case, the massive, twenty-eight-month gulf between Maureen and Sean was nullified by the fact that, being a boy living on an isolated horse ranch, he possessed no factors remotely similar to either of us, at any age, so he might as well have been a creature of indeterminate age from a distant galaxy. Before long, this fact dawned on Maureen; thus began our competition for Sean’s friendship. I was screwed before leaving the blocks.

For a short time, while waiting for the die to be cast, our trio was like that riddle where you have a fox and a chicken and a bag of grain, and you have to cross a river in a canoe but can only fit one thing in it, and you can’t leave the fox alone with the chicken, but you can’t leave the chicken alone with the bag of grain. Maneuvers took place. Experimentation. Out-of-box thinking.

Historically, when forced to compete with Maureen for anything, my strategy had always been to accept my inevitable loss as quickly as possible and act like whatever scraps I got were exactly what I wanted all along. In this case, though, I keenly sensed the injustice of her taking a friend who was rightfully mine, by law. This was, after all, the only possible scenario where I had a definitive claim on such a prize. Her win burned like hell. After all, there was no true humiliation in losing the shotgun seat of the Buick or the comfortable TV-watching chair to Maureen’s superior confidence, sheer physical size, and the white-hot flames of rage leaping from her threatening eyes. But to still lose a competition when my sister’s age, size, and comparative worldly sophistication should all have been disadvantages—that was a shade of darkness as yet unvisited. Knowing Maureen, I should have seen the whole thing coming, but my legendary lack of street smarts clouded my vision until it was too late.

To cement her win, Maureen—pointedly in front of Sean—taunted me for not being able to tell time. I denied this, although it was true. Despite being a straight-A student, I had never grasped the inscrutable relationship between the clock’s long hand and short hand, but I didn’t know she knew. Now, I realized my sister had been saving this dark, silky item for just the right occasion. Foolishly, though, Maureen released her damning zinger during a rare indoor play session. Adults overheard.

Witnessing the drama, Sean’s mom, Linda, pulled me aside.

We sat on the edge of her bed, and she asked, “Is it true?”

I admitted it was.

“I can teach you how to tell time,” she said with a shrug. “Problem solved!”

Her compassion defied my expectations completely. In fact, it filled me with a certain glowing awe, as asking an adult for help on such a truly troubling issue hadn’t occurred to me. I had never questioned my own problem-solving method, which was to hold the kernel of my time-telling failure deep in my heart in a flaming brimstone lake of shame meant to be visited by no man.

At the same time, I pitied Linda. It was adorable, really, that she thought this failure of my education had anything to do with the real problem between us girls, which was a simple matter of one sibling’s twenty-four-karat hatred of the other. The misunderstanding revealed her lack of parental sophistication due to only having one child. In truth, I could have remade myself into an all-American, time-telling phenomenon, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. Now, with my secret in the open, my certainty of being on my own henceforth was cemented by the fact that a well-meaning adult had attempted to interfere in kid politics. This left me tainted like a fallen baby bird someone has returned to its nest only to be rejected by its family due to its distinctive stink of human.

For a while, Maureen and I danced our never-acknowledged, mutual-avoidance ballet by simply taking turns playing with Sean. He never seemed to notice. As long as someone was willing to grab a stick and sword fight with him, he was good. When it wasn’t my turn, I stayed indoors reading The Dragonriders of Pern. At first, the play time was about equal, but as time went by, the two of them disappeared together more and more. Eventually, Sean stopped playing with me altogether.

Sometimes, bored, I’d wander around the ranch looking for them, but they were nowhere to be found. Then, in the evenings, the pair would suddenly appear for dinner, acting like nothing was out of the ordinary. I bottled up my frustration.

Maureen and I had the job of feeding the Stacys’ six Airedales every evening—a simple matter of scooping kibble into some loaf pans. This was the only time we were forced to be alone together outside of our bedroom. One day, we argued as we put out the dog food, and I got so angry, I threw one of the loaf pans at her. It injured her somehow, and she got lots of attention for it, which she milked. Well played.

Afterward, Linda sat us down at the kitchen table.

“I don’t know anything about girls,” she said. “I barely remember being one. Also, I only have one kid, and I’ve never had to deal with kids fighting with each other. I’m completely out of my league here, so please don’t fight, because I don’t know what to do.”

This was a somewhat more clueless version of my mother’s “You girls work it out amongst yourselves,” which never worked in my favor, either.

Linda made it clear she was only our keeper for the summer, not our mother, and wasn’t licensed (or inclined) to discipline us, so we had better not do anything that required it. She saw her job as feeding and watering us, like she did with the horses. Linda herself had a reputation for throwing tantrums when electronics or horses wouldn’t behave. We had seen it. So, when she claimed to lack innate problem-solving skills, we believed her. I felt guilty, as if I were the one who had tricked her. After all, our mother had promised Linda two delightful little girls to play with her son for the summer, but now Linda knew… her old pal Judy had sold her a couple of lemons.

After that talk, I returned to reading books indoors for days on end and stewing, while Maureen and Sean ran off. My short-lived stint as an active, fun kid with an actual friend was over as suddenly as it had begun. Eventually, Maureen and Sean’s private project became so advanced that they needed adult help and asked Sean’s dad, Harry, for technical advice regarding boards and nails and hammers. As it turned out, they had been building a tree house all that time.

At an impromptu all-family meeting in the woodshop, Linda and Harry asked the two of them about their plans for this secret tree house. Maureen and Sean admitted they had no intention of including me in their club and didn’t see why they should have to. Sean was a guileless little puppet without a mean bone in his body. This treachery clearly wasn’t his idea.

I didn’t complain, just stood there bearing witness. This, my crossed arms attempted to indicate, is what happens when we “work it out for ourselves.”

“That’s not right,” Linda said, surprising us all by taking a stand in favor of fairness over toughness. She demanded they include me in the project.

Maureen didn’t dare stomp her feet and roll her eyes, but in that moment, her hatred for me doubled. After all, exactly once, back home, Mom had forced her to include me in a sleepover with her best friend. Over the ensuing weeks, months, and, in fact, decades, Maureen would occasionally remind me of this horrifying ordeal, using it as an example of profound exploitation the likes of which world history would struggle to equal.

I was no more a fan of adult-ordered togetherness than she, but there was no way out of it, now. I followed along as Sean and Maureen took me to their stronghold: a splintery plywood platform just a few feet off the ground in a seven-foot-tall mesquite tree. Now contrite about having excluded me, Sean introduced me to their secret world, with its sword storage facility, gourd-grenade depository, and well-concealed lookout post. He leapt about on the scrap of wood that was the tree house, describing how if enemies came from the east, we were protected by mesquite and cactus, but from the north, we’d have to plunder our stash of grenades and knock the enemy into a set of thornbushes. He pointed out the garrison’s impressive stockpile of swords and lances and suggested we find more, for backup.

For Sean, within minutes, the issue of my temporary exclusion was over. But when I looked over my shoulder, Maureen was gone. True to her principles, she never returned to the tree house.

For the rest of the summer, Sean endeavored to teach me the art of war, thinking, in his innocent, boyish way, that yucca swords and gourd grenades were actually the tools of the trade.

Category: Featured, Fiction