My parents said a lot of things, and most of the time I had no idea what they meant. I was never sure if my inability to follow them was a reflection of my own ignorance, or if it was possible that what they were saying made no sense.
“You can’t win for losing,” my mother would often complain. “You can’t win” – I understood that part, but those last two words turned my mind inside-out, neutralizing any shred of comprehension I may have latched onto.
“Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” That was one of my father’s favorites, and he used it at least twice a week. When I now consider the frequency with which he referred to this edict, I have to conclude that he was trying to sound like a legal expert, and that it usually had nothing to do with whatever was going on. But even if it was used correctly, I didn’t get it. I still don’t. How was having a thing in your hands the same as owning it? That seemed to suggest that snatching someone’s hat and playing keep-away with it was the same as buying your own hat. It implied that if you borrowed your friend’s bicycle to go home and get the slingshot he lent you last week, that not only did the slingshot belong to you, but so did the bike. Unless I was mistaken, it provided a solid justification for stealing. Also, what happened to the other tenth of the law? And how do you divide a law into pieces, anyway?
One of the initial problems with my father’s pronouncement was that I was in kindergarten, and had no concept of fractions. So for at least the first forty or fifty times, what I heard him say was, “Possession is nine tents of the law.” This, of course, produced instant confusion on the level of my mental picture of the stock market as a place where people rang bells and traded millions of chairs. My undeveloped brain had to somehow reconcile the missing logic, and it did the best it could.
Friends taught me the corollary to the nine-tenths rule: “Finders keepers. Losers weepers.” This statute was delivered in sing-song fashion, or in a matter-of-fact tone accompanied by a slight shoulder shrug, similar to how you might say to someone you didn’t really care about, “Hey, I told you not to put your hand inside the toaster.” My young mind was dazzled by the rhyme scheme, much the way a moth is hypnotized by a bright light. It seemed like an ironclad piece of childhood legislation, although I always seemed to land on the losing-weeping end of things. I don’t recall ever being the finder-keeper. And I never received an adequate explanation for why people could cause you to lose something simply by taking it when you weren’t looking.
“Life isn’t fair,” they’d offer, a philosophy that was as useless then as it is today.
Protesting accomplished little. Saying, “Give me back my baseball bat” to an older boy was a complete waste of energy, especially because he was older, and because he was now holding a baseball bat. Complaining to my mother also did no good. In fact, anything I said more than once produced one of several predictable reactions.
“You sound like a broken record,” she’d tell me, ignoring my original gripe. But that was enough to distract me, because I couldn’t figure out what a broken record would sound like. We had a few records that were scratched, which caused the needle to get stuck. Sinatra would be crooning along, and suddenly he’d be saying “…a very good year, a very good year, a very good year…” until somebody went over to the phonograph, lifted the arm, and placed it down in a different spot. But a broken record, I imagined, wouldn’t play at all.
And yet, even stranger expressions came out of my mother’s mouth. “We’re not getting a color television,” she’d say. “You can keep asking, from now until the cows come home.” Apparently, our family owned some livestock, which had gone off somewhere while I was sleeping or watching Captain Kangaroo or just not paying attention. I didn’t know how many cows she was talking about or where they might have gone, but I assumed they weren’t returning anytime soon. I could tell that by the tone in my mother’s voice. Occasionally, she’d switch tracks and deflect my pleadings by reassuring me that we’d get a color television “when our ship comes in.” This would give me a vague feeling of hope, because I reasoned that maybe the cows were on the ship, and that they might be arriving at the same time. We’d already lost a couple of cats that had wandered off and disappeared. The chances of these wayward cows finding their way back home, unaided, seemed remote.
My older brothers were no help. “Like it or lump it,” they’d say. My knowledge of grammar was roughly equal to my grasp of fractions, but I still had a strong sense that lump wasn’t a verb. I would try to form an image of lumping something, but I couldn’t do it – especially an abstract thing, like my complaint that even though I was seven years old, I was always the one who had to walk three blocks to the store to buy our father a pack of cigarettes. Or that when I helped wash the car, I was relegated to hubcaps and headlights, and never, ever got to use the hose to spray off the soapy water. Or that I had to go to bed at eight o’clock on Sunday nights, while they got to stay up late and experience whatever it was that went on during those magical hours following Bonanza.
“Like it or lump it” was the best they could do.
“But just tell me. What do you do after I go to sleep?”
“That’s for us to know, and for you to find out,” they’d reply, arousing in me the same desire to punch someone I felt whenever I spent a day with my obnoxious older cousins. This may very well have been the least helpful answer I ever got from anybody. It made my brain spin inside my skull, as though it were chasing its own tail.
When I’d whine to my mother about it, she’d say, “You can’t win for losing,” and leave it at that. And I knew exactly what she meant, even though, as usual, I had no idea what she meant. But I also had no time to figure it out, because I was busy concocting a plan of my own. More of a fantasy, really, than an actual plan, but that was close enough. I’d sneak around the house and collect what I wanted: the television, the garden hose, hats, slingshots, and bikes. I’d stash everything in my room, then prepare for the inevitable wave of anger. I was little, but I had an unassailable response.
“Finders keepers. Losers weepers.”
And if that failed to convince them, I’d camp out in the backyard until things cooled down, secure in the knowledge that I had the legal system on my side. Possession, after all, was nine tents of the law.