Thinking Outside the Box

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We thought the best way to celebrate Mom’s birthday would be to terrify her, and perhaps even to kill her. We learned this, as we learn all useful things, from television, which teaches us that people enjoy being lied to, manipulated and deceived. Or maybe it is just that people enjoy WATCHING people being lied to, manipulated and deceived. Whatever it is, point of the story, lying to Mom was hysterical.

The idea for Mom’s birthday surprise was that she would believe I was unable to make it home to California to celebrate due to having a full-time job in Utah, and also — paradoxically, given the aforementioned job — being unable to afford a plane ticket. In fact, however, Dad had purchased me a plane ticket, and I was blowing off my burdensome job. But my dad and my siblings and I were keeping this a secret from Mom.

Thus began a week of elaborate lies, and I can’t help thinking all of us were at least subconsciously inspired by television, the reality programming in particular. The reality shows have always had a tenuous grasp on reality, of course, but I was intrigued at how “Joe Millionaire” had a huge lie as its central point. The trashy, gold-digging women all believed Evan Marriott was an extraordinarily stupid millionaire, when in fact he was just an extraordinarily stupid construction worker. With “Joe Millionaire,” reality TV went beyond reality and into the realm of fiction. I predict the next step in reality TV will be shows that have pre-written dialogue and plots, in what we’ll call “scripts,” enacted not by regular people, but by professional “actors.” Perhaps some of these will even be taped in front of a live studio audience.

Anyway, with enormous falsehoods being perpetrated regularly on TV and in newspapers — lemon juice will get out blood stains? I don’t think so, Heloise — it was inevitable that regular people such as the Sniders would begin making them part of their lives, too. And so the lie went this way:

My big fat Greek brother Jeff was buying my dad’s car from him and thus only needed transportation one-way to California. So he borrowed my car and drove it down last Thursday, leaving it at the airport so it would be there when I arrived by plane the next evening.

What we told my mom was that Jeff was driving down with some friends. After dropping off my car at the airport, he called Dad and reported his friends’ car having broken down. Dad went to fetch Jeff, even going so far as to bring a toolbox with him to ensure that Mom wouldn’t want to come along for the ride. (No one likes watching guys fix stuff except other guys.) Dad returned with Jeff and with fanciful stories about the imaginary bunch of friends Jeff had ridden down with whom Dad had met while pretending to fix their imaginary car.

Friday, Dad obtained a large box, which was empty but which he told Mom contained her birthday present. He even had someone help him unload the box from the truck, putting on a show of it looking heavy. It sat in the garage all day, and Mom’s anticipation mounted.

Friday night, while Mom and Dad were out, I arrived via Southwest Airlines, which means my flight was extremely late and smelled like old people. I found my car and drove to my parents’ house. When we received word from Dad that they were on their way home, we put me in the box and taped it up. I was instructed to sit quietly until Mom opened me.

When Mom and Dad got home, Dad told her to open her gift, which of course I wanted to happen immediately. First, though, she wanted to finish watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which I didn’t even realize was still on. To my great relief she was talked out of this. I would like to think she would have been talked out of it just on a matter of principle, even if her son hadn’t been smothering in a box, but I can’t be sure of that.

She began to remove the tape from the box by stabbing through it with a large knife. You will recall that I was inside the box at the time. So there I was, inside a box, trying not to be stabbed to death by my mother, though a tiny part of me thought it would be an even better surprise if she opened the box and found not just her eldest son, but her eldest son dead of multiple stab wounds. But allusions to David Fincher’s “Seven” (1995) aside, I was not eager to be the victim of ironic birthday manslaughter.

At last, she opened the box. I leapt up and uttered two familiar adages: “Happy birthday!” and “Don’t stab me!” The look on Mom’s face was priceless. It was a combination of surprise, confusion — she later reported wondering, briefly, if in fact I’d been in the box all afternoon — and terror. She jumped backward and screamed. Then she hugged me and began to giggle. Then she continued giggling. Then she fell on the floor from all the giggling, and then she had to go to the bathroom.

As you can see, this is not very different from what happened on “Joe Millionaire,” or from what happens regularly on the numerous prank-based television shows in which unsuspecting passersby are assaulted and humiliated by Tom Green or Johnny Knoxville. The only difference, really, is that in our case, we did it mostly out of love. The part where she almost wet her pants was just icing on the cake.

I wish you could have seen the look on Mom's face when I popped out of that box. She told us it was one of about two times in her entire life that she was completely, 100 percent surprised. We'd done such a great job of lying all week that she had no clue I was going to be there. Of course, it probably made her second-guess everything else we'd told her all our lives, too, but that's none of our concern.

"I was instructed to sit quietly until Mom opened me." I'm pretty sure I'm the first person ever to say that.

In case you never saw "Seven," it has a scene where someone opens a box and finds the severed head of a loved one inside it. It's a great movie, though I admit one's tolerance for scenes where people find severed heads in boxes may determine one's tolerance for the movie as a whole.

"Ironic birthday manslaughter" is one of my favorite phrases. I had an editor who told me almost every time I use the word "ironic" that I had misused it, and she was probably correct in this instance. But it's a little late for should'ves.

The word "adage" was used in this column specifically because one of my idiot friends bet me I couldn't work it into the column somehow. Fool!

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