The year that I was in the fifth grade at Christ King School, my mother volunteered at the American Red Cross every Tuesday. She assisted families who had sons fighting in Viet Nam—making phone calls for them, sending packages—whatever was needed. Every Tuesday morning, all of the Maloneys would wake up, eat breakfast, and head off to our respective schools and jobs. My mother left for the Red Cross shortly after school started for me, so I would leave the house with everyone else. Unlike everyone else, however, I would not actually arrive at Christ King School. I would dawdle, hide and then—when enough time had passed–circle around back to home and my bed and my book.
I loved Tuesdays. I would arrive back at my now-empty house, head down to the basement refrigerator for a bottle of soda, stop in the kitchen to grab some cookies or a peanut butter sandwich, and bring it all up to my bedroom, where I would climb back into bed with my bounty and my book. I still have fond memories of reading the entire Story of the Trapp Family Singers over the course of three successive Tuesdays. I would read for hours, uninterrupted by the sound of my siblings fighting or my sister Susan deciding we were going to clean our room or my mother pushing me outside for some fresh air. I knew my mother would be home at precisely 3:30, and so at around 3:00, I would remake my bed and pretend to be busy with homework when my mother walked in the door.
I had no fear of getting caught; in those days, Christ King School figured that if a student didn’t show up, her parents must have had some good reason. I was supposed to bring a note from home after being absent, and the note was supposed to be signed by a parent. I always told Miss Weinfurt that I had forgotten my note. I was notorious for losing things and forgetting whatever things I hadn’t already lost, so my excuse always worked.
I was no doubt aided in my deceitful ways by Miss Weinfurt herself. She was the sort of teacher who often seemed to be thinking about things other than her students. She wore the same high heeled pumps to class every day, but every day they were dyed to match whatever outfit she was wearing. It is possible that Miss Weinfurt wasn’t actually re-dying her shoes every single night—perhaps she simply owned nine pairs of the same shoe in different colors. We were never quite sure, but in either event, we thought it was certainly interesting. Not only was Miss Weinfurt extremely dedicated to color-coordinated footwear; she also wore a series of wigs. There were at least three wigs, none of them the same color or style, and she donned them in no particular pattern that we could discern. She was also known to “go rogue” and show up in her own hair, which was grey. Her wigs were also grey, except for one brown wig. The brown wig was her wild card; it made her look so different that on the first day she wore it, several of my fifth grade classmates walked into the classroom, saw Miss Weinfurt, failed to recognize her, and walked out to check the classroom number. Of course, none of this was ever spoken of in class. By the fifth grade, most of us had given up on understanding much of what grownups did. It was too great a mystery. In any event, Miss Weinfurt was never hot on my trail when Tuesdays rolled around.
On one particular Tuesday morning of my fifth grade year, however, my usually flawless plan went badly awry. I had followed the usual procedure: eat breakfast, get dressed, head out the front door to walk to school, dawdle and circle back. I had, as ever, stopped in the kitchen, made my peanut butter sandwich and had just headed down to the basement for my bottle of Sparkle Up! when I heard an ominous sound coming from the garage directly over my head. Immediately, I recognized the unmistakable rattle of my father’s green Volkswagon as it pulled into our garage.
Egads! What on earth, I though, was my father doing home? He was supposed to be at work! Why wasn’t he at work? Not once in my career as a Serial Hooky Player did I imagine anyone else flouting the rule of law. I just assumed that I was a “free rider,” ethics-wise. To quiet my burgeoning panic, I assured myself that he must have forgotten something, and would be gone once he picked whatever-it-was up. But—I thought–what if he had forgotten something in the basement, where I stood at that very moment clutching a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of Sparkle Up?
Thinking fast, I looked around for a hiding place; already I heard the back door opening, so I knew I didn’t have much time. The basement refrigerator was on the wall next to the closet that held the furnace. As quickly and quietly as I could, I scurried into the furnace closet and hunkered down on my knees. All would be well, I thought; surely my father would pick up whatever it was that he had forgotten, and be on his way Crouched in the small floor space next to our large (and warm) furnace, I waited for the sound of my father leaving—again—for work.
No such luck. Clearly, he was still in the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open, and then the unmistakable sound of milk being poured into a glass. Noooo, I thought. Don’t sit down. Don’t even think of sitting down. You are supposed to be at work! How dare you skulk back into the house while your wife comforts war families! You cad! Now I could hear the pages of the Chicago Tribune being turned, followed by the rustling of what was clearly the packaging inside our box of saltine crackers.
My father loved saltine crackers covered in mayonnaise chased down by milk. He never had to worry about his snack being eaten by someone else. Not one of us was ever tempted to fix ourselves a plate of white crackers covered in white goo accompanied by glasses of white liquid. Especially when there were Oreos to be had. The realization that the saltines were now in play nearly caused me to break silence with a moan of pure despair; clearly, he was settling in.
I sat down as best I could without rubbing up against the toasty furnace in that tiny space. I tried to be stoic, telling myself that my father would soon finish his post-breakfast snack, drain his glass of milk, refold the Tribune and be on his way like all responsible fathers who go to work. After another hour, though, I heard no sign of my father going anywhere. By that time, I was very hot, my legs ached from being tightly crossed in my small space, and I had a full-blown tension headache. I hadn’t brought my book with me; it was in my bedroom where I was supposed to be, enjoying my Tuesday. I had absolutely nothing to distract me as I sat there in the furnace closet, feeling increasingly guilty about my own bad choices. I had to face the truth: I wasn’t the only Maloney who played hooky. As mad as I was at my dad for sneaking back home, I knew that I had been doing the very same thing.
When I heard my father’s chair scrape backwards across the kitchen floor, I perked up. He was surely on his way out now! It had to be at least one o’clock by that point. To my considerable distress, however, my father wasn’t leaving. He was fixing himself some lunch. Lunch! After all that mayonnaise! And there I was, with just my now-sweaty-and-gray peanut butter sandwich and still unopened bottle of Sparkle Up! I felt pretty certain that if I didn’t get out of that closet soon, I was going to either (1) lose the full use of my legs for the rest of my life, or (2) suffer from claustrophobia so serious I would singlehandedly buy a therapist a summer home. Action had to be taken. I summoned every bit of panache I possessed (note: not very much), and bounded noisily out of the closet and up the basement stairs.
Quaking with anxiety, I ran into the kitchen in a breezy, “Wow; I am such a normal girl having a normal day” manner. As afraid as I was, however, I could see that my father was worse off. At least I knew the mayonnaise-and-cracker scofflaw in the kitchen was my dad; before he saw my head bob up the steps, my father had absolutely no idea who was coming up and out of the basement. He looked terrified, which made sense under the circumstances. When he saw that it was his daughter and not a serial killer advancing toward him, he merely looked confused.
Before he could say a word, I launched into some Very Fast Talking: “Hi Daddy! I just got home a few minutes ago and ran downstairs to get a Pop!” I brandished my bottle of Sparkle Up!, using it as both a prop and a tool of distraction. My father, still processing the fact that he would not have to use his mayonnaise knife to defend himself against a Random Basement Attacker, merely looked bewildered. Brow furrowed, he stuttered, “But…..but….when did you come into the hosue?” He knew—as did I—that he had been sitting in the kitchen for many hours, and of course had seen no one come through the door. “Oh, I got in just a few minutes ago,” I said–trembling like a leaf in a stiff wind. I left the kitchen and started to walk upstairs to my bedroom, saying as I left, “Bye!”
My father must have been so confused. He knew that if I had, in fact, played hooky from school, he couldn’t “out” me without admitting his own crime. We were bound by our mutual guilt. Not long after I went upstairs to my bedroom, I heard him put his coat back on, climb into the green Volkswagon, and drive away. With only a bit of time left before my mother came home on this Most Unfun of All Fun Tuesdays, I sat down at the same kitchen table my dad had just left and started to pretend to do my homework until my mother came home.
That night at dinner, I ate ravenously. My mother asked me if I had skipped lunch. “Sort of,” I replied, and glanced over at my father, who was pushing food around his plate; unlike me, he wasn’t very hungry. My dad didn’t make eye contact with me, nor did I try to catch his eye. We did not speak of our unplanned day of mutual hooky.
One night a few weeks after that Notorious Tuesday, my dad told us kids a story as we sat together around the dinner table. Apparently when he was a young boy—third grade or so—he decided to play hooky from school. He was walking down Exchange Street in his neighborhood of South Shore, Chicago. There was a candy store down the street, and he was on his way there to celebrate his self-chosen day off with some sweets. The streetcars ran down the middle of Exchange Street back then, and on that very day, a man crossed the tracks against the light and was hit by the streetcar and beheaded. My dad told us how he stood there, a boy of about eight, and watched as a human head rolled toward him.
My dad was, he told us, deeply traumatized by this gruesome experience. The worst part, he said, was that he couldn’t receive comfort from his mother after such a nightmarish scene, because he knew he wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. Doing the wrong thing had made him feel utterly alone, and he had unwittingly placed himself outside the reach of the people who loved him the most. Was my dad telling us all this story as a way to say something to me, his silent-partner-in-crime? I suspect so.
I don’t know whether my father ever played hooky again on my mother’s Red Cross Tuesdays. I certainly did not. As fun as those illicit Tuesdays had been, they weren’t worth the risk of ever spending an entire day in the furnace closet with nothing but my thoughts, my guilt, and my very cramped legs. I spent the rest of my fifth grade Tuesdays with Mrs. Weinfurt, her wigs, and her dyed-to-match footwear, aware that being an outlaw was perhaps not all it was cracked up to be.