I was at the counter of my local corner store paying for two Whatchamacallits, my favorite, a Snickers bar, an Almond Joy and a Twix. They were forty cents each in those days, and I paid with a ten – two weeks allowance – so I had some change coming. I stood there, excited, sucking on a Twix, savoring the chocolaty coating, as the cashier placed the change in my hand, counting it out to me. Then from the corner of my eye came the shadow of a hand that knocked the bag of candy and change out of my hand and to the ground. “Spundalé!” my older brother, Ugo, said as he proceeded to pick everything up from the floor.
I stood there, stunned, almost in tears, as my brother slapped the remaining Twix bar out of my other hand. He smiled like a proud thief after a smoothly executed morning heist. “Spundalé!” he repeated.
The cashier had not yet handed me the coins, so I waited until my brother went outside to sift though his spoils. The cashier informed me that my brother had gotten someone else yesterday the same way. I’d heard about that. It was his nemesis, Boo. He’d taken a bag of Jolly Ranchers from him, which he shared with me that night.
“What does spundalé mean?” the cashier asked.
I really didn’t know what it meant, and to tell him the rules wouldn’t have gotten me my stuff back. “I don’t know,” I said and skulked out of the door.
I met my brother outside. I schemed and plotted a way to get some of my stuff back the whole way home and, later that night, I got back a Whatchamacallit. Everything else was lost, though. The Snickers and Almond Joy were spundaléd from him by someone else, and he burned through the rest.
I can’t say who created spundalé, or what committee implemented the rules, but the rules were specific. Anything that you had in your hand was up for grabs. You couldn’t hurt a player when knocking an item out of their hands with a stinging slap. You couldn’t hit above the wrist. If you were going for food then it had to either be packaged, or it had to be something that didn’t pick up dirt. Every item had to hit the ground. If it was caught mid fall then it wasn’t lost. No matter what it was, the item had to be given up. Most importantly, a player couldn’t tell any adults, especially parents.
At its height there were thirteen of us who played: my brother and me, our next door neighbors, Ken and his brother Roderick, Boo, short for Buford, and his cousin Paul who lived with him, my brother’s best friends Roosevelt and James, my best friend, and the only white kid in the neighborhood, Edmond, my cousins E.J. and Ursula, and my crush, Nicky and her cousin, Tisha.
We were inner city kids all living in an apartment complex on the outskirts of downtown Houston. It was the summer of ’83, and a number of us were involved in an intense game of marbles. Ken had come outside with his velvet Crown Royal bag full of new marbles. He’d just added a handful of boulders and wildly colored marbles that looked as if they’d been extracted from the eye sockets of the most exotic animals to his arsenal, and was excited to play when, out of nowhere – as he leaned in to take his place on the patch of dirt we’d worn into the grass and restructured into the best marble shooting course in the apartments – Boo slapped the bag out of his hand, knocking his bag to the dirt. “Spundalé!” Boo reveled.
Ken was mortified, but as his marbles spilled everywhere, he didn’t go for them. No one did but Boo. They belonged to him now.
That was my first experience with the game. When I found out that my brother played spundalé, I pleaded with him, “I wanna play, I wanna play,” but he feared including me after his past experiences with my questionable sportsmanship. As far as he was concerned, I was a liability, a tattler. It was only because of his unrestrained selfishness that I was let into the game.
Our mom had bought each of us gold necklaces – don’t ask me why we got such an extravagant gift at that age, we just did. My brother, who was four years older, thirteen, managed to get his snatched on his way home from football practice one night. I wasn’t a huge fan of gold, and never wore mine. Naturally, my brother wanted it; and naturally because he wanted it, I wasn’t going to give it to him that easily.
Then, one day while I was going through the crap on our dresser, he stood over me, and motioned to something. “What’s up with that?” I couldn’t tell what he was talking about and picked up a number of things before I gullibly picked up the gold chain. “Spundalé!” he yelled, knocking the necklace to the ground.
He didn’t pick it up right away because, technically, I wasn’t playing. So I used the necklace for leverage, and he met me halfway, letting me play on one condition. “Do not tell Mom and Dad.” I swore to him that I wouldn’t. For good measure he made me swear on our dog, Dickens.
As the game evolved, and more people started to play, the losses mounted fast. What started out with marbles grew to include candy, all kinds of balls, toys, games, a couple of skateboards, a bike wheel, and clothes. Money! Once, Boo swiped a shoe from my brother’s friend James. The battle between Boo and James for the other shoe went on for days, on both sides, until Boo eventually got the other one.
To keep from slipping into complete thuggery, amendments were added to the game to keep things civil. A major change included no playing after sundown, which benefited players that lived under the same roof. Players could only go for items that fit into the palm of your hand, and you couldn’t spundalé property that belonged to anyone other than the player. And there was also no going after breakables such as electronics, bottled drinks and action figure vehicles.
The game was as much defense as it was offense for some people. The kids that were my brother’s age – Ken, Boo, James, Roosevelt and Paul – were the fiercest players of all. They were straight up offense, greedy bastards that staked you out until it was the right time to strike. Seldom, as the game progressed, were they ever trying to get things back. Accumulation was their primary objective.
The kids my age, on the other hand, which was everyone else, were mostly defensive by default. I, personally, was stuck in a vicious cycle of losing something and then spending the rest of my time obsessively trying to get it back. I grew paranoid, constantly looking over my shoulder and sometimes even kicking things of value across the floor if I didn’t have pockets or a backpack to keep them in. If I knew that I was going to find myself in the company of spundalé players, I’d make sure to not have anything of value on me. I feared wearing clothes that I liked. I didn’t want to go swimming and have a favorite shirt spundaléd while getting changed.
At home, I was always watching my back, waiting for Ugo to strike. He watched my every move like a predator and, if the score was big, he picked at the remains like a vulture. “Can’t you go outside and mess with somebody else?” I’d shout, but he’d only taunt me with his diabolical Eddie Murphy laugh.
“Work on that grip,” he’d say.
And I worked on my grip. For a while I was even on the offensive, taking everything that I could from him – some things noteworthy, other things, utterly useless. I got socks, utensils, the remote control, and even scored his wallet! As I perused through my most significant score to date, my brother jumped from behind the couch like a ninja and knocked the wallet to the floor. “Spundalé!” he yelled, and he took his wallet back.
I wanted to believe that he was constantly taking from me to compensate for how much Boo took from him. As hungry as my brother was, he just wasn’t as hungry as Boo, who lived off government help with his aunt. On a walk home from Roosevelt’s, Boo somehow managed to score my brother’s entire backpack, which had the Atari cartridge games Dig Dug and Stargate in it. Ugo was livid. His Karate cartridge was safely in his back pocket when he completely lost it and threw the cartridge at Boo, which missed and broke into pieces against the amber colored bricks of our apartment building.
Boo especially specialized in terrorizing us younger kids. He hid around corners and behind trees like a criminal. Sometimes, he’d approach us, tricking us into thinking that he was just another friendly face coming up to see what we were up to, and then bam: “Spundalé!”
“You’re a cheater,” I said to him, mad as hell, after he’d stood over my shoulder, pretending to support me, as I aced Defender at the local arcade; and when I died with the opportunity to put in another coin and continue where I’d left off, he spundaléd my last coin from me just as I went to put it in the slot. “You don’t even know how to spell spundalé!” I ridiculed.
“Neither do you,” he said, callously continuing my game for me.
Tactics like those were too much for the girls, who were the first to drop out. Their psyche at that age wasn’t build for that type of social torment. They were always crying about being singled out and wronged and constantly demanded their things back. When they started threatening to tell on us, everyone decided that we were better off without them and their soft toys.
Edmond was the only boy to drop out of the game. He’d lost too much and gained nothing. He didn’t even have the initiative to get his things back. It was finally his mother that pulled him out of the game after he returned home without his Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi Han Solo action figures. That was the downside of having such a young mother who was a huge Star Wars fan.
The inner city circumstances under which we played completely desensitized us for a time. The absurdity of knocking food to the ground, and eating it afterwards, didn’t even register in our minds. Before we implemented the rule prohibiting the spundaléing of food that could pick up dirt, it wasn’t uncommon to knock down a slice of pizza, a hamburger, fries, or ice cream, then pick it up as quickly as possible, dust it off and make the best of it.
And then there was the loss of money. The potential behind the cash – the big plans that you might have had – lost to the lightning fast slap of a hand, never to be spent the way that one would have imagined. With enough determination, there was always the possibility of getting an item back, but cash was going to get spent before you could even shed a tear for it. All one could do was just let it go, and try to walk off with your pride intact, pretending like there was more where that came from.
Towards the end of the summer I’d made it a point to move around empty handed. I’d managed to make it look like I had nothing worth taking, when I’d merely aligned myself with those who had already dropped out. Whenever I knew of players lurking around the apartments, I gave my things to Edmond, or to one of the girls to hold. This gradually downgraded my playing status to “nothing of worth,” a strategic move that positioned me at the bottom of the sharks’ food chain.
But after a couple of weeks of me not losing anything and, feeling overly comfortable, I started to get careless. I started losing music tapes to my brother – Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Big Country, and Synchronicity, to name a few. Those hurt, but it was Pyromania that finally broke me, which he had the audacity to spundalé from me when he already had the record! Such greed couldn’t go unregulated. Something had to be done.
It was said that whoever mentioned the game to adults was either ostracized or singled out for free licks – beat downs, really – at random. One was supposedly treated like the child equivalent of a mob rat and dealt with accordingly. Only thing was that there was no example of players who’d been banished for doing such a thing to refer to – only quitters – so I’d be the first.
I struggled with myself for days over what to do, and even consulted with my counsel, Edmond. “Is anyone going to try to beat you up?” he asked me.
I grew defensive, wishing he hadn’t given me something else to worry about. “Is that all you’re worried about?” I snapped. “Everybody isn’t afraid of getting beat up like you are!”
I quickly apologized, realizing that I’d lost my head. Edmond’s question was valid, and I shouldn’t have taken offense. Ever since his admission of crush for Ursula got him his first fistful from Paul, Ursula’s unrequited suitor, a few months back, getting beat up was all Edmond worried about.
I tried to sleep on it, but woke up with the song “Photograph” in my head after watching the video on Friday Night Videos the night before. I attempted to play my brother’s record on our highly mono Fisher Price record player, but he wouldn’t let me. “Keep your hands off my property,” he warned.
“Can I borrow my tape?”
“My tape,” he corrected. “Two dollars.”
That was it.
Who knew when he’d even listen to Pyromania? He hadn’t yet, not with Run DMC being the only thing that he found significant at the time. If I got more money, he would probably spundalé it from me before I could get another tape. If I got another tape, he would spundalé it from me just for sport. If I got my tape back from him, then I’d have to live the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, worried that he’d take it from me again.
Stewing, I browsed our room for things that once belonged to me, things that would’ve been a full-time job to get back because he never touched them. There was my Pitfall! and Donkey Kong cartridges, my bike lock, my Houston Astros cap, my red clip-on bow tie that I told Mom I lost at church, a crucial piece to my model Corvette and some Gobots – one which was unopened and still in the box. I was forced to admit to myself that I wasn’t any good at spundalé. My stubborn need to be involved had seduced me into playing, and the hole that I wound up in had me working overtime to get my stuff back. I was in a losing situation, and I was running out of things for Ugo to take. Plus, he didn’t really want my stuff anyway. He just wanted to see me suffer. Now, he would have to suffer.
“Mommy,” I screamed as my brother stood shocked, wearing an expression on his face that begged to know how I could betray him after I’d played so committed, so fairly, and so nobly.
Mom rushed into the room from who knows where, out of breath, worried that one of us had been hurt. “Gini mega?” she wheezed, asking what happened, in her native Igbo. When I explained what happened, her solution was simple. “Ugochukwu, give your brother his tape back.” When I pointed out a number of my other things on the dresser, and she saw that my grievance went beyond the tapes, she demanded to know what was going on.
I didn’t care. I’d had enough. I told her about spundalé, who played, when we started, and all that I had lost. My brother tried to object when I told her how much he had lost, but she smacked him over the head, shutting him up. “Don’t make me handle you properly,” she threatened. Ugo fumed as I gave away insider secrets. Mom listened, teeth clinched, infuriated, when I told her about the terror that Boo had reaped throughout the apartments.
“Did Edmond play?” she asked, as if he represented the final stage of the game’s corruptibility. When I told her that he had indeed played, but dropped out because he’d lost so much, she was livid. “Put on your sneakers,” she demanded; then, when we took too long to move, she barked, “Do you think I am playing a game with you fools?”
In her stylish spaghetti strapped summer dress and buckle open-toed pumps, Mom led us outside and, starting with Ken and Roderick’s apartment, prepared to march us from door to door. It was Saturday so Ken and Roderick were with the rest of the Seventh Day Adventists at church, which gave Ugo cause to celebrate within. “They ain’t home,” he said with a smirk.
There was nothing that our mom hated more than that smirk than his refusal to speak proper English. She put her hands on her hips and looked him up and down. “They are not home,” she chillingly tried to enunciate, but as it always had and always would, her thick accent still refused her pronunciation of the “r.” She bopped Ugo upside the head again, then yanked him to the front of her like a hostage, and with me following behind, marched us through the courtyard onto our next destination.
Ugo protested indignantly, insisting that spundalé was only a game and that he would get his stuff back at the end. Then he turned on her, objecting to her interference, claiming, defiantly, that he didn’t want “that stupid stuff” back. Provoked by his tone, Mom raised her hand, ready to do damage, but refrained. “Until you start making money, you have no stuff,” she yelled, getting the attention of neighbors who’d rushed to their windows to catch the crazy little African lady going at it with her boys again. “Now, knock on the door!”
It was Boo’s door that he was forced to knock on. His humiliation was so great that the look that he laid on me was spine tingling. He would have killed me, buried me, and told our parents that I’d run away, if no one were there to witness; I was sure of it.
Boo – the smell of cooking grease permeating throughout his damp apartment – brought down a dingy pillowcase full of things he’d taken from my brother and me. Mom immediately forced Ugo to go through the bag to make sure everything was there. “When am I going to get my stuff back?” Boo quipped.
Mom bristled and replied. “When your aunt comes by my home to get it, Buford.” Boo balked at the idea, and defiantly gazed at his feet to get his feelings across.
For the next several days, Boo terrorized my brother with his menacing glare – a glare that would one day end him up behind bars for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon – but Ugo never ratted me out. And, when equally punished kids, accompanied by their parents, knocked on our door to return and collect spundaléd goods, he still didn’t rat me out. His inbred hardwiring still made me his responsibility and no one else’s.
Boo never forgave my brother for bringing down the game, and publicly vilified Ugo, calling him a tattletale and a dirty African. He even went as far as to call him a big baby, something that Ugo had never been called in his life. Boo hoped to defame my brother’s character enough to have him excluded from other apartment activities: stick ball, football, basketball, daredevil trashcan and tire bike jumps, truth or dare, frog hunts after a rainy day, and foolish creations like spundalé. Ugo caught a break, though, and was able to turn the tables on Boo after he witnessed Boo swipe at his hair and a roach fall to the ground. He pointed to the roach as it scurried away, and mockingly pleaded for the kids not to kill it, calling the roach Boo’s pet, and his apartment a roach motel. It didn’t matter that we all had roaches and what happened to Boo could have happened to any of us.
The character assassination on both sides soon led to a string of skirmishes between my brother and Boo that resulted in Boo attacking Ugo from behind and hitting him in the back of the head with a 2×4 the following Thanksgiving holiday. Ugo would need eight stitches, and be scarred for life – but Boo would later need twelve over Christmas break. Parents and guardians on both sides ultimately got involved, and the two were forced to be cordial, or steer clear of one another, which lasted until our family, fearing the neighborhoods growing crack problem, moved to the suburbs the following summer.
At home, Ugo was too disappointed in me to sustain any level of intimidating fear. He escorted me on his bike to and from school, and watched me when our parents were out, but that was about it for a while. He had nothing to say to me, and he didn’t feel the need to make me laugh, the one thing that he had always prided himself on doing. That hurt the most.
Then, one day after my mom demanded that Ugo take me with him to watch The Outsiders, he emphatically told her that he’d rather stay on punishment and ran into our room and slammed the door. When he saw me crying, alone on the top bunk and away from Mom’s coddling, he finally broke his silent treatment.
“You need to buck up,” he scolded. “There’s an honorable code of conduct that we have to live by. You can’t just punk out because shit ain’t going your way. You ain’t a baby, so stop acting like one. Hear me? Now get ready so we can hurry up and get there.”