Monday, April 23, 2012

Bumps That Go Thing in the Night

In fifth grade, I lived with my grandmother in her big house a few blocks from the corner of Main Street and Cowen, the place I had last seen my friend Peter before he was kidnapped and never seen alive again.

My dad had just opened a factory on the outskirts of town in a new industrial park and was hiring.  The plant was built and starting to run when they found Peter's body in a sewer pipe about a mile away.  The mayor, the commerce club president and local notaries were all wining and dining my dad and mom and they were caught up in the social circuit, going to parties, plant openings, dedications about six nights out of seven. 

While Peter's kidnapping and killing hadn't really bothered me-he was happy and trusting and laughed a lot so it was only a matter of time before somebody told him a funny joke and asked him to get in a van-because I saw it coming, it un-nerved my mom who realized I would be next unless I got some serious 24 hour surveillance.  She had to make a decision;  stay on the party circuit or go back to being a mom which is the role she told my dad was what her life had always been leading to.  That was the line that got him serious about impregnating her and there I was.  She sent me off to my grandmother for the year until the bustle of opening the plant and establishing herself in the correct social circles could be completed.

My grandmother, or Oma as I called her since she was a German immigrant who spoke English but pronounced "v" as a "w" and "th" as "z", lived in a two and a half story mansard roofed home that was about seventy years old at the time.  She lived there alone as her husband, my grandfather, had dropped dead of a heart attack two months after paying cash for the place and sometime before he figured out what to do with the rest of all the money he had but nobody was really sure where he had got it from.  The war, which he had sat out in Germany, had allegedly cleaned everybody out and all of the west was starting over with forty marks and a shot at installing Volkswagen windshields.  But there he was buying the house outright until he fell off the Woolworth lunch counter stool, dead before his hand dropped the coffee he had just taken a sip of.

Oma was quiet, regular and uninteresting most of the time.  Every morning when I came downstairs from my second floor bedroom at the end of the hallway that got dark about a half hour before the sun set, she would be in the kitchen cutting beef for dinner or unwrapping a chicken from its kraft paper and cutting celery for stuffing.  The hot bowl of oatmeal was always on the table next to a glass of milk.  When I came home after school there was always a cup of peppermint tea and on the frequent days that Arthur McWhinnie beat me up she would tell me to go wash the dirt from my face and hair, put my shirt into he sewing room to be mended and come back down.  She would then make me white bread with butter and some brown sugar sprinkled on it to make me feel better.

This was not to say that home was a constant and consistent warm, forgiving bosom for me.  There were expectations and I was expected to adhere to them unfailingly.  I was expected home directly after school, out of my schoolclothes and into playclothes, before I was allowed out again.  And out had to be announced as to where, with whom, for how long and what was the planned activity to be.  I was also expected to be polite, respectful of my elders, and calm.  On days when a pickup game of ball formed at the lot across the street from school and I played nine innings, running bases in my best leather buckle shoes, or nights when "Lassie" was on and I mentioned during a commercial that my dumb parents wouldn't allow me to get a goldfish, much less a dog, Oma would turn icy and either put dinner directly into the freezer and make me a bowl of soup or turn the television off before the last jingle of Jif peanut butter.  Either way I was also sent directly to my room upstairs and of course the hallway was black as pitch each time. 

Dark hallways are ideal to give away nightlights that peek 20 watt lightbulb flickers under the cracks of closed doors.  If the light wasn't out within a few minutes of my expulsion from the ground floor, Oma always threatened to come up and deal with me thoroughly.  She never did.  If she had taught my mom even a tenth of her repetoire, she was going to be as big a terror as her daughter had already proved herself to be.  The light went out as soon as I hit the mattress.

It wasn't the abbreviated dinner, the prospect of polishing all my shoes in the morning, the harsh words or the grabbed and twisted ear that bothered me on nights like these.  It was the monster under the bed.

Of course there was a monster under the bed.  This was an old house.  The bed was an old stamped steel frame with a single mattress with no boxspring that stood thirteen inches off the floor.  Had it been a modern frame, or a futon, or even a waterbed, there wouldn't have been enough room underneath it to hide even a modest monster and I would have felt better.  Forget that I had no idea what a futon or waterbed was.  A bed was a bed.

The first time the monster crawled out from one of the sides and began to claw at the blankets, pulling itself up, it was as awful and horrible a monster as that much room could support.

It stank of decayed flesh, one eye was perpetually hanging from an ocular nerve, it bled continuously and breathed through lungs that were half engorged in fluid that had turned brackish over the last several decades.  I did the first thing I thought of and the only thing I could think of;  I pulled the cover up to my neck, laid on my back, closed my eyes and said:

"Ok.  Do what you have to."


"Do what you have to."

"Tear you apart while you're still alive?  Eat your hand while you're watching me, unable to scream because this is so horrible you don't have the instinct to react anymore?  Pull your legs off in an explosion of blood and sinew and throw them into the far corner of the room and finally pull your tongue out of your head as it makes a tearing sound that reverberates through your skull?"

It paused.

"I guess."  I said.  "If that's what you do."

"Well that's no fun.  You give up too easy kid."

"What can I do?"

"Scream!  Cringe!  Scramble to the far corner of the headboard and beg for mercy.  That's what most of them do."

I remained immobile with eyes shut.

"Go ahead.  Do what you have to do."

"What's your name?"


"Open your eyes, Harrison.  You're no fun."

The monster's name was Colonel Hull.  He was the ghost of an American B-17 pilot who's plane had been shot down on a bombing raid over Dusseldorf.  Miraculously, flak had chewed the front part of the plane away and he parachuted out from the cockpit bulkhead that no longer existed and thought he would survive until he went through the greenhouse roof before landing and bleeding to death on a flat of Azaleas. 

He had no idea why he wound up as a monster and I didn't either although I thought the spirit of my grandfather might have been somehow involved since, in life, he had been bombed out of his home and spent the last year of the war in a burned basement.

We got to be friendly that year, on Colonel Hull's off nights when he wasn't under another bed across town pulling a ten year old's intestines out of his anus.

He was erudite and knew almost every card game there was.  I missed most of "Lassie" that year.  My homework was always done and was always right.  I developed a nasty curveball that even Arthur McWhinnie couldn't hit and he screamed that when my birthday came around, he'd teach me a thing or two.

Arthur liked birthdays.  If it was a girl's, he'd be sure to note the occasion with a stolen kiss or a knife slashed front bicycle tire.  If it was a boy's, somebody's head would soak in toilet water in the old gym locker rooms or somebody would be tied naked to the flagpole.  I told Colonel Hull the stories and mentioned that I had particularly infuriated Arthur over the summer with the curveball the Colonel had taught me and now, as late November was coming and three days before Thanksgiving I would turn nine, Arthur had had more than two months to plan the celebration.

The Colonel listened quietly.

On the morning of my birthday, I feigned a stomach ache.  My Oma told me that I then shouldn't eat the cupcake with the candle in it but should have my normal oatmeal and milk and hurry on.  I would bring candy for my class since it was my birthday. 

It was a four block walk to my gallows.  But Arthur wasn't in school that day so I handed everyone a candy and saved the special one for Natalie who smiled shyly while I promised myself quietly I'd marry one day, if only to never be away from her rich, brown, always sad eyes.

Colonel Hull wasn't in until late that night.  I had hoped for a welcome early, but, with the lights off, he raised the shade enough to let the full moon light in. 

On the nightstand were two molars and a finger bone that the Colonel promised me were Arthur's.

I never doubted him.


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