My Skinner Box


When you leave the house for a journey or an errand, don’t turn back if you forgot something. If you do have to turn back, sit down before you start again.

Walking on the sidewalk in downtown Fall City, I avoided cracks in the cement. The roots of the maples tilted the stones. Some roots cracked the cement. Thick grass grew through the gap. “Step on a crack, break your momma’s back,” my brother said.

I stepped on the crack.

“I’m going to tell her,” he said. I wanted not to believe these things. Like Heaven, they seemed to me a scam.

At school, they talked about a figure named Jesus and God. “Where do they live?” I asked. “Have you ever seen them.”

“They live in Heaven.”

My father said that heaven was a scam. It was a way of making you do stuff that other people wanted you to do on Earth. We had pets that had died, and they were gone. We buried our cat Shorty George who ran into the rim of the Nova’s rear tire when he was trying to run across the street behind the car. He lay on the side of the road, not in Heaven, but on Earth dead, and whatever had been inside of them was gone, like a toy with a battery that had run out of power, like the toaster when it was unplugged, like the fridge when the power lines went down. Dead and without light or burning filaments or the smell of toast crumbs getting burnt even more.

“Don’t walk under ladders,” my father said. So I walked under ladders.

If we got out of bed on the wrong side, then our day would be filled with bad luck. We weren’t supposed to believe in Heaven, but we were supposed to believe in luck.

I tripped on a deadfall in the forest following my dad down to the pasture. “Go back and walk over that again.”

“I’m already on this side,” I said.

He looked at me. “It’s bad luck,” he said. “Fix it.”

Our world was filled with signs of doom and confirmation of our general bad luck, our damnation, our isolation from grace. My striped t-shirt had a perpetual spaghetti stain brown like the remnants of a bullet hole that had shot through me. I would never be clean and radiant and walking lightly through the world.

Even when I found a penny on the asphalt outside of the dinner called The Other Place, luck could be good or bad. We had two diners in town. One was named Martinelli’s like the golden bottles of sparkling apple juice in glass bottles shaped like apples. The other was not that place. A penny was a dreadful event on the asphalt, dry, but inches from the mud puddle with unfurling cigarette butts and the ribbons of fleshy night crawlers who had wriggled out of the cracks.

If it was heads up, bad luck. Worse luck. I didn’t believe in luck. If I didn’t get Heaven, but only had Hell, then I didn’t want luck good or bad. I would step on cracks, walk under ladders, shatter mirrors, always wake upon the wrong side of bed. It didn’t matter did it.

But the penny was heads up. Good luck. I could see the reflection of the cumulus clouds in the mud puddle. The day was going to go my way.

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