Happy Birthday, Ricky...

On May 18, 1964, my little brother Richard Sydney Shortt II was born. I don't remember that particular day very well, but I do recall at some point my father drove Tam and I to Sutter Memorial Hospital on 52nd and F streets, and we parked near the fourth floor maternity ward. We got out of the car and looked up as my mother held Ricky up to the hospital window, and Tam and I waved to him. I'm sure Mom was saying things like "See? There's your big sisters down there! Say hi to your sisters; they're going to help take care of you!" As usual for me then and now, I was confused about how I was supposed to be feeling. I got the impression that I was supposed to be happy, but I had learned to be reserved about events that adults seemed to think would make me happy, like birthday parties or Easter egg hunts. All too often, I felt something more akin to discomfort or shyness. But I do remember feeling relieved that I didn't have another sister to deal with. Tam was more than enough for me.

It didn't long for me to realize that for me, having a baby brother equaled happiness. Even as a baby, Ricky was a lot of fun. He was chubby, cuter than cute, a wiggly bundle of constant entertainment. Tam and I weren't allowed to hold him without Mom hovering nearby, but we could do things like give him his pacifier or toys to play with. He would spit the pacifier out at us, and throw the toys at our heads. It was amazing how accurate he was. This delighted and amused us, and our favorite game was to give him something to play with, then duck down under his crib as the object became a projectile. He would squeal and laugh just as much as we did.

That's how family life was with my baby brother Ricky--play time and laughter.

As he grew older, I discovered that he could not only play rough the way I loved to, he would often initiate the wrestling and tag games. He didn't cry like my sister did if I tagged him with just little bit more than a soft tap. Like his sun sign, Taurus the bull, he put his head down and came after me with twice as much speed and energy. We knocked over a lot of lamps and broke more than a few dishes that way. Mom was constantly yelling, "Damn heathens! What do you think this is, some kind of juke joint?"

Back then, we had no idea what a juke joint was, but we would take our play time outdoors before she went supernova. A juke joint, for those who don't know, is a place in the deep South where folks go to drink, smoke, dance, and more often than not, get into fights. From what I saw during our yearly visits to our Southern relatives, it was usually a raggedy little shack with a hand painted sign on the front with deceptive names like the "Kit Cat Club", or "Joe's Dance Hall". As we drove through the various little towns in Mississippi, Georgia Alabama and Florida, Tam, Ricky and I would stare at the down home version of the big city night life from the back seat of the family station wagon. We thought the juke joints, like the ancient, tobacco-spitting, sh*t-talking, corn-liquor drinking men sitting on dining room chairs in front the establishments, were hilarious. Our parents seemed both confused and embarrassed by our laughter.

In fact, laughter was the most constant element in our family life after Ricky was born. There was something magical about his ability to see humor in practically anything; it was an elusive characteristic that brought out the comedy in all of us. This was an invaluable gift. Before Ricky, Tam and I were well-dressed, obedient little dolls, completely silent until one of our parents gave us an order. Ricky upset the order of our home life, and it was like taking a long, deep breath of mountain air after being cooped up in a hot, stuffy car for hours. We needed that tension release.

Even a bad situation was turned into sketch comedy with Ricky. When I was a teenager, it was my job to make sure that all of the chores were done by the time our parents got home from work. Well, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about washing dishes, vacuuming the floors, taking out the trash and getting dinner started anymore than Tam and Ricky. Usually, we come home from school, turn the stereo on loud enough to make the walls shake, eat hot link or tuna fish sandwiches with potato chips, and dance around the house. Then I would keep checking the clock in the kitchen, and when it was five pm, I would make a big show out of getting my siblings to start cleaning up. Usually, they would ignore me or tell me to shut up until 5:30, when we all started scrambling to get the place straightened up and ready for inspection.

One afternoon, I had a premonition of Mom walking coming home from work early, and I started washing the dishes. Ricky was playing Funkadelic's album, "Let's Take It to the Stage" with the bass turned all the way up. Mom had forbidden us from playing the album in her presence because she overheard the lyrics of "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" one day, and threatened to break the record into pieces if we ever played it again.

"Ricky," I called out over the thumping bass line from the kitchen. I was putting the dishes in the dishwasher, desperately preparing for our mother's stormy entrance. "Mom's gonna be here any minute; you better turn it down!"

"Man, (he referred to everyone as "man" regardless of gender)just shut up! She won't be here for at least an hour." He continued playing air guitar with a broom and singing way off key.

That's when we heard the boom. Mom had slammed the front door and was stomping down the hall toward the kitchen.

"What do you heathens mean, playing that...didn't I tell you...oh hell no, this has GOT to stop!" My heart sank as she marched over to the stereo, ripped the LP off the turntable and proceeded to break our beloved Funkadelic into vinyl shards.

"Mom, no! Mom, stop, no!" Ricky tried to prevent her from funk-inflamed robo-rage, but she wasn't having it. She broke the shards into tiny pieces as Ricky fell melodramatically to his knees.

"Mom, Mommy please, not Funkadelic! Anything but Funkadelic, Mommy! Give us another chance; we'll clean up the whole house for you!"

"Damn heathens! I told you!" She threw the pieces on the carpet and headed for her bedroom. "And this house BETTER be spotless when I come back out!"

We waited until we heard her slam her bedroom door, then we collapsed on the ground laughing helplessly.

"No you DIDN'T get on your knees and beg her to stop!" I was having trouble breathing because I was laughing so hard.

Mom banged on her bedroom wall furiously. "You kids make my behind hurt; I ain't no damn joke!"

We were crying and choking from laughing. Mom never did understand that her editorial comments from her bedroom just made us crack up even more.

"Man," Ricky said as we picked up pieces of the album, still chuckling over the incident. "You think we can glue it back together?"

I slapped him upside the back of his head. "It's your fault we don't have the album anymore!" He responded with a leg sweep, and I went down, hard, which made him crack up all over again. He started another round of comedy by dodging my attempts to hit him back.

"Oh, no, too slow!" Ricky loved to taunt someone he was bothering, especially when that someone was his oldest sister.

"Y'all better stop," Tam said between giggles. "I hear Mom..."

Too late. She had already run down the hall, through the kitchen and picked up the broom as she entered the den. All three of us ran past her as she whacked us on our butts. It was the usual--she hit us with the straw end of the broom; we ran outside, screaming with laughter, to safety. The neighbors, long accustomed to the Shortt family antics, merely smiled and shook their heads as they looked out their windows.

This, and many other events, is what I want to remember about my life with my baby brother. He would have been 44 years old last Sunday, if he hadn't been drinking enough alcohol to make the fog-blanketed, winding Highway 160 a place where he would drive off a steep bank and land his car approximately 20 feet away from the road. The farmer who owned the land found his comatose and broken body 60 feet away from his car, where he had been ejected through the windshield. Even though it happened 19 years ago, I still feel that sharp, jagged ache in my chest whenever I think about seeing his mangled and bloody body hooked up to a respirator in the emergency room, barely clinging to this realm of life.

Today, however, I would rather remember the jokes, the pranks and the laughter. I miss you, Ricky. I really, really miss you.
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