Monday, April 5, 2010
It could very well be the same year, the same class and the same Mrs. Hitler, but in later years he wouldn’t be entirely certain about that.
He’s managed to get a hold of the bathroom pass/key. He’s thankful for that; any chance to get out of the classroom. He lives for the bells that signal the nightmare is over for the day. In the meantime, a long visit to the bathroom provides a small measure of relief.
But today, he’s not interested in any sort of relief. He’s been thinking, all day. He hasn’t been drawing or gazing out the window. He’s been looking intently at the teacher as she speaks, looking for all the world as if he’s paying attention.
He hasn’t been, though. He’s been thinking of something else, something he plans to do once he gets the bathroom pass/key.
And now he has it, and he’s in the bathroom and no one else is around. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out the little safety pin he found on his mother’s dresser that morning. He looks at it, examining the tarnished point, testing the spring that locks it in. He touches the point gently with his finger and relishes the tiny drop of blood that appears.
There is an electrical socket near the bathroom door. He approaches it, thinking remember you must die, and there are things eating you alive and in the end, in the end.
He laughs very quietly, and sticks the pin in the socket.
Something explodes in his brain, white and red lights flash as the synapses once again overload and electrical impulses rage out of control and all through his body. He smells something burning, he tastes something like copper pennies on his tongue.
He’s vaguely aware of keeling over backward, his body stiff as a board, and then everything goes black.
When he opens his eyes again, the world is still pitch-black, and he only knows he’s awake by the feel of cold tile against his back. He doesn’t know how long he’s been out. In a daze, he sits up on the bathroom floor, feeling… okay. His arms and legs are numb and a little tingly, but otherwise he feels fine.
He stands up and gropes his way through the dark until he finds the door. He leaves the bathroom and emerges into the light of the hall.
But the hall is darker than it’s supposed to be, the only light coming through the wide windows at the far end of the hall. He wonders for a moment if he’s damaged his eyes—further, that is—everything seems so dim, until he passes an open classroom on the right and sees the entire class looking dumbly at the ceiling. The teacher, too, is looking up, and the boy realizes that all the lights have gone out.
He’s shorted the entire school. Or at least this wing of it.
Oh no, he thinks, dread seeping into his heart. Oh no, I’m in trouble.
He finds his way back to his classroom, where the teacher is only just beginning to get a handle of the brief eruption of chaos caused by the blackout. She doesn’t even notice him slinking in, sliding behind his desk.
Sometime later, the lights come back on.
And sometime after that, the PA system crackles, and the principal’s stern voice demands that he come to the office immediately.
Across the desk from the principal, the boy sits vacant-eyed and terrified. The principal asks him directly if he caused the electrical short. The boy shakes his head.
“Does this look familiar?” the principal says. Between his fingers, he’s holding the safety pin. The point is burnt black and crispy. The boy shakes his head again. The principal demands to see the boy’s fingers.
The boy shows him. The thumb and forefinger of his left hand are both black.
The boy begins crying.
It’s after that the other kids begin referring to him as the Head Case.
Two or three times a week, he is called out of class to go to a private office and meet with someone called Miss Harmony. She always asks him questions about how he’s feeling, what he did over the weekend, if he feels bad or sad a lot. She has little games she makes him play sometimes, like here’s a word, what other word does that make you think of or what does this picture look like. None of the games are particularly fun.
When the boy is called away to see Miss Harmony, a couple of the other kids say, “Time for the Head Case’s therapy session,” but the boy doesn’t know exactly what ‘therapy session’ means. From the context, though, he knows it can’t be anything good.
He sits on a lumpy sofa with Miss Harmony, hands in his lap, and she smiles at him and says, “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about this, but I was curious about your father.”
The boy shrugs.
“He’s not around, is he?” Miss Harmony says.
The boy shrugs again.
Looking very sincere and gentle, Miss Harmony says, “What do you know about him? Anything?”
The boy says, “My dad is Dirty Harry.”
Miss Harmony frowns. “He’s… dirty and hairy?”
“No. He’s Dirty Harry.”
“You mean… you mean, like, Dirty Harry, the movie?”
The boy nods.
“You mean your dad is the actor? Clint Eastwood?”
“Yes,” the boy says. “Once he’s done with his next movie, he’s coming to get me and take me with him to Hollywood. And I’m going to be in his next movie. I’m going to be his partner.”
“I see,” Miss Harmony says, unable to suppress a bemused smile. “And what will be the name of this movie?”
The boy doesn’t know where the answer comes from—it just pops into his head. He says, “The Lost Man. It’ll be called The Lost Man.”
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
The boy hates school. He hates the other students, he hates the teacher, and he hates the useless bits of miscellania they make him learn by rote. He wishes the whole place would burn to the ground, and the ashes would be scattered to the ends of the earth.
He sits somewhere near the middle of the classroom, trying very hard not to draw attention to himself. The sun streams in through the windows that cover one whole wall, and motes of dust cling to the beams but continue to drift ever downward, like millions or billions of tiny people slowly sinking in the ocean. He wonders where they come from, these never-ending particles.
The teacher is a short, stout woman with a blaze of red hair. She has a mustache. Some of the kids call her Mrs. Hitler, because of the mustache and because they know the name Hitler means something bad. At the chalkboard, she is drawing lines that look something like words, and her voice is droning on about something, the boy isn’t sure what.
He doodles. Along the margins of his notebook, framing his notes on geological strata and the earth’s crust, he has drawn images of fire-breathing dragons with googly eyes, and near the bottom of the sheet a barbarian with outrageously huge muscles brandishes a sword taller than he is and waits for the dragons at the top of the page to notice him so that he can commence slaying them.
He has just learned how to draw muscle men; he learned from comic books. But the fine art of shading still eludes him, so that his muscle men look more like automatons put together with bundles of tires.
Mrs. Hitler is droning. He draws.
Here’s a spaceship, rockets flaring, coming to help out the barbarian. A little alien with a laser gun pops out of the top of the spaceship. He was going to shoot one of the dragons, but the boy can’t make it work in the confines of the margins, so instead the alien turns traitor and shoots at the barbarian instead.
Mrs. Hitler is still talking, but her voice seems a bit louder.
In an imperfectly formed word balloon, the barbarian shouts, “Ahh! Betrayed!!”
And the boy becomes suddenly aware of the silence all around him. He becomes aware of the attention of other people, focused on him.
He looks up from his art, his face already flushing.
Mrs. Hitler is glaring down at him. He puts his pencil down and looks up at her.
“Perhaps you’d like to tell me, hmm?” she says.
He looks around. The other kids are all looking at him. Some of them are smiling and giggling. Others look scared and nervous. He turns his attention back to Mrs. Hitler and says, in a small voice, “Tell you… tell you what?”
“The answer to the question I just asked the class.”
But of course he didn’t hear the question, and she knows he didn’t. His mouth moves up and down a few times. Finally, the teacher sighs loudly and snatches the sheet of paper from off his desk.
She looks at it disdainfully, her mouth twisted into a sneer, and the little mustache juts out. She studies it for a long moment, and then crumbles it in her fist and throws it angrily across the room.
Her rage shocks him and sends him reeling back in his seat. She screams, “This is not art class! This is not the time to draw your idiotic little robots and aliens and worms, do you understand me?”
He says, “It’s not a robot.”
“What? What did you say?”
“It’s… it’s not a robot. It’s a barbarian hero.”
The class explodes in laughter, and Mrs. Hitler looks as if her head is about to explode. With the same hand that crumbled and tossed his sheet, she slaps him, hard, across his left ear and the noise of it resounds through the classroom, and the motes of dust stir in their death throes, changing course, and the laughter of his fellow students is sucked into a vacuum of stunned silence.
The boy raises a trembling hand to his ear, and tears are forming in his eyes. Do not cry, he tells himself, do not cry in front of the others, no matter what you do, but it’s too late. The tears have started, and nothing can stop them. He sits at his desk and begins sobbing and for a second he thinks he can see remorse in Mrs. Hitler’s face. But only for a second.
She scurries to her desk, yanks open the top drawer, and pulls out the bathroom key, which is attached to a heavy plank of wood.
She returns to his desk and throws the key and plank of wood at him. It hits him in the chin and falls into his lap.
“Go to the bathroom and pull yourself together,” she says. “For Christ’s sake, get out of here before I strangle you.”
It could have been anything, really, that set her off that day. She was a human being, after all, and therefore imperfect. Maybe her husband was mean to her. Maybe she was under a great deal of stress, which was something he’d heard adults talk about before. Or maybe she was having her period, an event that the boy still didn’t fully understand, although he suspected it had something to do with a punishment for using bad grammar.
He would only think of these things later, though. At the moment, shuffling down the hall to the bathroom, he was too overcome with rage and grief to think anything but die, you horrible bitch, I hope you die and I hope you take everyone else with you.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
She only ever loved monsters. It made the boy wonder about himself; if she was capable of loving only evil men, what did that make him? Was he evil, deep in his heart? He didn’t feel evil. But then, he didn’t feel virtuous either. Not a good boy, not a bad boy. Not a real boy at all.
But maybe that was the point. Maybe the men his mother loved weren’t real either. Maybe they were illusions, just like him, and it was their very intangibility that drew his mother to them.
“Your sister’s father,” she said to him as he lay in bed, sick with the flu, eight years old, “was a wicked man. From the day we were married, he beat me. He broke my nose twice, and my collarbone. He could hit, he could hit hard. Knocked the sense right outta me. And he hated you, because you were a reminder that I’d been with other men before him. He kept all this hatred hidden, you understand, until after we were married.”
His mother’s face is blurry above him. His head is throbbing, and he feels as if he’s lying under a sheet of fire.
“When I got pregnant with your sister, I finally realized I had to get away from him.” And the boy wonders, vaguely and in the grips of his fever, why did you wait? Wasn’t my safety, his hatred of me, enough to make you leave?
Mom says, “One day, before I got pregnant with your sister, I came home from work and you were gone. His sister was supposed to be looking after you. She told me he’d come and taken you. Taken you away. Oh, you can imagine, I was in hysterics, until he called two days later and told me that if I wanted you back to come to this old abandoned house. So I went, naturally.”
Where were the police, the boy wants to ask, but he’s too weak with the flu. Why did you go by yourself? Couldn’t you see what was going to happen?
“I went,” Mom says. “And when I got there he had you all tied up. He beat me up and then left us both there. I’ll never forget it. He was laughing.
“To this day, I don’t know what he put you through, but for months afterward I know you’d scream bloody murder every time you saw a toilet, and the sight of someone’s teeth, grinning, just made you cry your head off.”
“So after that, I took you and your little sister away. We were in Chattanooga at the time, you know. I took the two of you and just started walking. And then you’ll never guess what happened… a man pulled over and that man drove us all the way to Michigan. He was like an angel from heaven, that man. He wouldn’t accept any sort of money or thanks. He just drove us plumb to Michigan.”
The boy is confused. He says, “But my sister…” He is interrupted by a coughing fit. When he recovers, he manages to croak, “She was born up here, right? In Michigan?”
“That’s right,” his mother says. “When I say I took you and your sister, I mean to say that I took you in my arms and her in my belly.” She laughs. “We made it to Michigan, somehow, even though your sister kept trying climb under the man’s feet while he was driving. We made it, and moved in with your aunt.”
The boy, wracked with fever as he is, can only turn his face away from his mother, look at the bare wall, and feel hot tears scalding his cheeks. He is horribly confused and frustrated. He is angry with himself because he can’t make any sense out of what his mother is saying. If only he wasn’t sick, maybe it would all make more sense.
She leans over the bed and kisses his forehead with cool lips. “Get better, my angel. I love you so, so much.”
He doesn’t have any memory of any of the things his mother mentioned, about his two days as a captive of a cruel man. But because he now knows the story, images of his own making are forever planted firmly in his head.
He can see a dirty toilet, and he can feel a strong hand gripping him by the back of the neck and pushing his face into the water. He can feel the cold porcelain pressed hard against his cheek and can taste the rank water, and he can feel the panicked sensation of drowning.
He can also see teeth, grown unnaturally large in his imagination. They grin and chatter like one of those wind-up monkeys with the cymbals. They come at him out of the night in his dreams and gnaw at his face and neck and chest.
Is it true? Did it really happen the way she said? Well, why would she lie?
But then again, regardless of the truth of it, why… why would she tell him these things?
He would realize, years later, that his mother didn’t mean to hurt him. She was lost in the maelstrom of her own pain and fear, and the boy, the boy that she loved, was her only anchor. He had to share in her fear. He had to be the one to inherit her misery, otherwise she would be all alone. As alone as everyone else in the world.
Because in all her years, the one thing his mother never learned, the lesson that almost no one ever learns: There is nothing we say or do, there is nothing we long for or fear, there is nothing we love or hate, that is real.
Because we are alone, no matter how much of our misery we spread around. We are not free.
Monday, February 8, 2010
His mother’s life is a complicated tangle of inconsistencies, and her bonds with the boy are sailor’s knots that he doesn’t have the skills to untie. She tells him stories of her life that are sometimes contradictory and confusing, and always leave him uneasy and scared.
“Calhoun, Tennessee is where I grew up,” she says one day in her lilting Southern accent, as he and his younger half-sister sit at the kitchen table, eating biscuits and gravy. “We didn’t have any money. My daddy worked at the saw mill there, and Jesus Christ, he could be a mean sonofabitch.”
The boy and sister laugh at Mom’s rough language. It always makes them laugh. Mom is so pretty, still, even after all the horrible events of her life. It would be nice to say that the awful events were behind her now, but her life would be plagued, always and forever, with awful events. Her story of misery never ends, and eventually, yes, it takes its toll on her looks as it must for everybody. But that day, she is pretty, beautiful even, with her slender elfin face and clear green eyes and loads and loads of full blonde hair piled on her head.
“My mamma, your Mama Rock (they call their grandmother Mama Rock, for a reason the boy never really knew) had the most amazing singing voice. She sang on the radio, you know, down in Dickson. She could yodel just the old-timey singers. And she was beautiful. Too beautiful. My daddy was awful jealous of her, and it turns out with goddamn good reason.”
Mom then tells them how Mama Rock cheated on her husband with every man in town, and eventually left the family with some man called Daniels. The boy knows this is true, because sometimes Mama Rock is visited by a son in her upstairs apartment, and the son’s last name isn’t the same as the rest of the family’s—it’s Daniels.
Mom tells how Mama Rock left the family and no one saw her for years and Mom was left to take care of her father and her two younger brothers. She tells how her father lost his arm in an accident at the sawmill, or sometimes he loses his leg instead—or maybe the boy remembers it incorrectly.
“I had to drop out of school, but I didn’t mind, really, I hated school, I always got picked on by the other girls,” she says, and the boy is mortified, wondering how, in a just world, anyone could pick on his mother. “I had to get up every morning at four-thirty to make breakfast for everyone, and if I didn’t have it ready in time, well look out, ‘cuz Daddy would beat me within an inch of my life, and I’d just cry and cry and cry—“
And the boy doesn’t stop to wonder why his mother is telling him all this, why she’s sharing the nightmare of her life with her children, who are only seven and five at the time, why she is bequeathing all her misery to the next generation.
“Daddy used to say to me, you’re a little slut, just like your mama, and he wouldn’t let me go out on dates. I got a job outside the house when I was sixteen, I was a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, I’d roll up to cars on my roller skates and take orders. But when I’d come home late from work Daddy’d be waiting up for me and he’d accuse me of sleeping around with any man I came across and he’d grab me with one hand and beat the high holy hell outta me with the other.”
And how he managed to do that, missing an arm or a leg, the boy never thought to ask.
He didn’t think his mother was lying. He didn’t think it was that simple. For reasons he didn’t fully understand himself, he knew that memory was a tricky thing and the truth of someone’s experiences was completely subjective.
No, his mother was not lying.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but he was a good man. He was just hurt, is all. Your Mama Rock broke his heart, and he could never trust anyone ever again, especially a woman. I was nineteen or so when he died, and my baby brothers were put up for adoption. I was growed-up, though, so no adoption for me. I had to work. I got a job as a go-go dancer.”
When the boy and his half-sister ask what a go-go dancer is, Mom grins and says, “I danced in a cage. You know, like on Hulapalooza? I had the white go-go boots and I danced to, oh, such great songs. I was really good at it.”
She met a man there, a man named Melton, and was married in no time. She had two sons by Melton, two brothers to the boy that he didn’t really know, would never really know, aside from a handful of visits many years later.
“He was a bastard,” Mom says. “He used to beat the shit outta me, far worse than my daddy ever did. After Ernie was born (Ernie was her second son, Tony the first), I decided I couldn’t go on like that and I left him. He managed to… he managed to convince the court that I was an unfit mother. He…” And here Mom would start crying, and the boy and his half-sister would stop eating and stare at her in horror. “He got my babies taken from me, he got custody of them. I hated it, but… well, I realized that I couldn’t take care of them myself. I didn’t have any money, cuz he wouldn’t pay alimony.”
“What’s alimony?” the boy asks.
“It’s what the man is supposed to pay the woman, after they get divorced. He wouldn’t give me none, and so he got the babies and I had nothing. It was Christmas when I realized I had to let him have them. I was so broke, I had to feed them macaroni and cheese for their Christmas dinner.”
It another version of the story, told many years later, the characters of Tony and Ernie were replaced with the boy and his sister.
Melton was the first of a succession of evil men who seemed bent on nothing less than destroying her. She’d been divorced from him less than two years and was working in a diner in Huntsville, Alabama when she met a new man, the man who would be the boy’s father. “Oh my sweet God, he was the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my life, to this day…”
And the boy’s half-sister would say, “What about my daddy? Wasn’t he hand-some?”
“Yes, he was, but he was nothing compared to your brother’s daddy. He looked just like Clint Eastwood. He looked so much like him that, when he came into the diner I was working at, he had everyone believing that’s who he was. Clint Eastwood, right there in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for no good reason. I knew he wasn’t, of course, but I didn’t care. He was so handsome and such a smooth-talker…”
In another version of the story, it wasn’t Clint Eastwood his father looked like, but Chuck Conners, the guy who played “The Rifleman” on TV.
“We got married in the fall of 1965, and before long I got pregnant with you.” She tousles the boy’s white-blond hair. “And then the sonofabitch left. Soon as he found out I was pregnant. He just lit out, and I never saw him again, except in the courtroom when the marriage was annulled.”
The boy was born in January of 1966, and he tries to do the math of the length of a typical pregnancy from gestation to birth, but it doesn’t seem to jibe with them being married in the fall of the previous year. He decides that it really doesn’t matter.
After that, his mother met McAmis, his half-sister’s father, and the already dark story of his mother’s strange life got darker still, and became a horror story that involved the boy as well.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
I could never write an autobiography because if I did, 90% of it would be complete bullshit. It's memory, man. As in, I have a lousy one. I don't understand how anyone could possibly remember events from a week ago, let alone from childhood. It doesn't help, in my case, that I spent a great part of my later teen years and early twenties completely whacked out of my mind on various illicit substances-- not the sort of thing that lends itself to perfect recall. I shudder to think of all the brain cells I snuffed out.
But in place of actual memories, I've managed to create my own private mythology, based loosely on reality. I've sort of filled in the blank spots with speculation that may or may not be true. My eye, for instance; when I was about three, I had a bad accident that damaged my right eye. I have no memory at all of the event, but I've created a story about it based on what I've heard from my Mom and various other sources and my re-imagining of it has become so clear in my head that it's almost exactly like a memory.
So that makes me sort of wonder about the significance of actual memory. If something "untrue" can be as vivid in your mind as something "true", then what good is "true"? Like most writers, I live mostly inside my head anyway, yeah? Another example: dreams. Ever have a dream so vivid that you remember it years later? You remember it just as well, if not better, than something that actually happened?
If memory is only a chemical reaction in your brain, a response to some sort of stimuli, then who's to say that there's any real difference between the "actual" and the "dream"?
So yeah. My autobiography would be equal parts real and unreal, and both parts would be equally valid. Because your life in your head is just as significant as the one outside. Maybe even more so.
There’s something strange today.
He can’t pinpoint it, but something doesn’t feel right. Something bad is nudging its way into the boy’s world.
It’s the porch. No, it doesn’t look different; it’s still long and narrow, paint flaking off its wood and nails popping up like little metal moles all over. It still stretches the length of the old house, across the front, along the side and into the unexplored regions in the back. Its shadows still shift and flutter in corners every time the cold sun disappears behind the clouds. It’s the same porch the boy has known for the three years he’s lived there.
But something isn’t right. Something’s changed.
He feels it as a sort of electricity, like bundled wires humming from underground, and his eye—his one good eye—is drawn to the rear of the house, where the porch winds away into darkness. He’s never ventured to the back of the house. Why? Because the sight of the porch melting away into that unknown territory always fills him with a vague, stomach-knotting dread. He’s always felt that there was… something. Something back there, not meant for him to see.
But today, this morning, that something is insinuating its way toward him, stretching out invisible tendrils along the porch, snagging the boy’s mind. That something has grown tired of waiting.
That something wants him.
He stands in the light, staring at a point in the shadows at the far end of the porch, stands there holding his battered Batman action figure in one slender hand. He is almost six years old. He is not a good boy or a bad boy. He is only a collection of protons and neutrons, chemicals interacting with each other, electrical charges firing off in his brain unceasingly. His body is alive with millions of bacteria that feed off him, and will one day die within hours of him.
Even at almost six years old, the boy knows all of these things about himself. No one ever told him, but he knows. He’s not even a real boy.
The thing that calls to him from the unexplored back of the porch also knows these things. It’s already whispering in the boy’s brain, saying things like remember, remember, you will die and cold fear is all there is, in the end and there are things eating you alive.
It urges him to move, to place one bare foot in front of the other and come. The boy doesn’t resist. He drops Batman to the porch steps and begins to walk, slowly, into the shadows.
That is the boy’s earliest memory. There is more after that, of course, but even as an adult he cannot say definitively what is true and what isn’t. When he thinks of the afternoon when he was almost six and he ventured into the uncharted jungles of the back porch, he thinks of it as a non-linear patchwork of impressions—sometimes contradicting each other.
He learns at an early age to have no faith in memory, and therefore no faith in reality. If a false memory can feel as real as a “true” one, what good is reality?
There were significant events before his encounter with the shadows, of course, and he was there for them; yet he only knows them second-hand. How he lost his right eye, for instance. He doesn’t remember it. He was too young.
His mother is the bard of uneasy stories and misery. She will tell him many tales over the years. This is how she described the accident that took away most of the vision in his right eye:
“You were three years old,” she says. “I had to work two jobs, you know, so the girl from down the street was babysitting you. I could hardly afford even that, but what was I going to do, leave my baby all alone? I would never do that, my babies are my whole life.
“So you were three, and you were playing in the front yard. You were by the fence, which if I was home I never would’ve let you get that close to the road. Stupid kids are always roaring up and down that road, drinking and being punks. They get away with it because it’s a dirt road and the police don’t patrol it the way they should. So you were by the fence, and you found a broken Co-Cola bottle that one of those punks had thrown right into our yard.
“You picked it up and you were playing with it, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why you thought a broken glass bottle was something worth playing with. Your babysitter was sitting on the porch, I dunno, studying her geography homework or something, and she saw you. She yelled for you to put it down but either you couldn’t hear her or were just ignoring her. So she got up and ran over to you and went to hit the bottle out of your hand. So she says.
“Well, she says you jerked your hand away at the last second and her palm hit the bottle right on the edge and instead of hitting it away from you she hit it right into your face.”
His mother would inevitably tear up a little at about this point of the story. His mother cried a great deal, over the years.
“She hit it right into your face,” his mother said. “And the broken edge got you right in the eye. It cut the muscle that helps hold your eye in place, which is why your eye drifts to the right now. And it cut the iris too, so that your pupil sorta bleeds out into it.”
The boy listens to the story and marvels that he can’t recall one single thing his mother is saying. How could something so traumatic happen to a person and still be completely absent in the person’s head?
His mother’s story continues. Somehow, after the babysitter (who must have been wracked with the most monstrous guilt imaginable, the boy thinks, and he can’t help feel horribly sorry for her) accidently causes his disfigurement, his mother somehow appears on the scene and the boy is taken to the hospital, where, due to his mother’s lack of insurance, the boy is made to wait for an hour or two hours or even three depending on when the story is being told. He’s in shock, and almost bleeds to death before the doctors finally get to him.
The boy does remember, very vaguely, a day shortly after that, wearing an eye patch, like a pirate. He remembers stumbling up the hall in their decrepit, drafty old house, marveling at the fact that he had forgotten how to walk. His balance was shot. He doesn’t recall being troubled by it. He stumbled up the hall and fell into the wall, and, sitting on the floor, he started laughing. He looked up to see his mother looking down at him, and was stunned when she broke into sudden tears and ran away.
And so the porch, almost three years later.
He doesn’t resist the lure of whatever is calling to him, even though every cell and micro-organism in his body is rebelling, trying to pull him in the other direction.
The house juts up against a hill in the back, overgrown with weeds as tall as the boy, peppered with rusty old bits of detritus, like an old washing machine, part of a car (the kind the boy had seen before in old black and white movies), and a monstrously huge television set with the glass face of it busted out like the smashed face of a defeated robot-monster. The boy can see all of these things quite easily from the side of the porch. And it’s all that trash that makes his mother say Stay in the front, don’t go in back, Old Sam hasn’t cleaned anything up back there in years, it’s dangerous back there, you hear me?
And now he’s doing something he’s never done before. He is deliberately doing what his mother told him not to. It’s dangerous back there, you hear me? Yes, he knows that, he knows it’s dangerous. He knows that even better than his mother does.
He passes Old Sam’s door. Old Sam owns the house. Once upon a time, the place was a mansion, a palace. But one day a long time ago someone came and put walls up inside the house, and instead of one big house it was now five small ones. At one end of the house the boy lives with his mother and his half-sister, and Old Sam lives in a smaller apartment directly behind them. At the other end of the house, another woman lives with her teenage son and daughter (is the daughter the one who babysat him three years earlier? The boy doesn’t know) and above that apartment are two much smaller ones. The boy’s grandmother lives in one of the small upstairs apartments.
Old Sam’s door is the farthest the boy has ever ventured before. On two or three occasions he would accompany his mother to Old Sam’s to pay rent, which the man would sternly accept without inviting them in or offering any kind words. He would immediately close the door in their faces after mother handed over the cash. The boy was more than a little afraid of Old Sam.
But this time he wasn’t thinking of Old Sam. He was moving on, past the landlord’s door, one bare foot in front of the other, moving into the shadows.
Cold fear is all there is, in the end, the thing said from the darkness. And yes, yes, the boy thought, that is true, there is only cold fear.
Years later, his memory of what he saw would change in his mind. The details would shift like fault lines, threatening to collapse out from under him. The way the man moved, sometimes as sinuously as a snake, other times stiff, like a corpse, and the things he said would always be indistinct, as if he had spoken only in the boy’s head.
But the over-riding image of it always remained the same. The boy rounded the corner, heart pounding in his frail chest, and there was the man in the spider webs.
He wore a long black coat and a Victorian top hat, and he was thin and lanky and covered with dust. Spider webs hung like tattered lace curtains over the entire length of the porch, and the man was a part of them—his arms and legs were attached by them, like the limbs of a marionette.
The boy stopped, staring. The man raised his head—or rather, the webs lifted his head up—and a blank, featureless face gazed emptily back at the boy. It was a mask. White and smooth as an eggshell, with only two small holes for eyes. The boy could see that the eyes were blue.
The spider web man cocked his head, and the webs raised up one of his hands in something like a wave.
“Hello, boy,” the man said, his voice muffled by the mask.
The boy wanted to run, but found he couldn’t move.
“I said hello, boy,” the man said, and the boy was unable to respond.
The man’s head jiggled in an up and down movement that was something like a nod. “You are afraid, and cannot speak,” he said. “You are wise to be afraid.”
The webs shifted, and the man took a step toward the boy. The boy’s mouth opened to scream, but there was no sound. It was as if the man had reached down his throat and stolen his voice.
Closer, the boy could smell the musk of age and rot that permeated the air around the man in black. “You are wise,” the man said again. “But it is not of me that you should be afraid. It is of what I have to give you.”
He reached out one long, spindly hand, and the boy could see the spiders running up and down the man’s wrists, over his fingers and in and out of his sleeve.
The fingers touched the boy on the forehead, and a bolt of ice shot through the boy’s brain, freezing, and all those electrical impulses stopped all at once and the boy saw into the man’s mind, he saw an infinite blackness, he heard rust and dank dripping water and the sad lonely creaking of old steel, like an abandoned factory at midnight. It was cold, the cold of space.
“I am the Lost Man,” the black-clothed marionette said. “And my emptiness is boundless and without hope. Do you feel it?”
The boy did, he did feel it, an awful, unforgiving expanse of nothing so total that his heart ached from it. He still couldn’t move, but tears were rolling down his pale face, and he whispered, “Please… I don’t want to know. Please.”
“You can’t go back,” the Lost Man said. “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t go back, boy.”
“There is only cold fear, in the end,” the Lost Man said. “There are things eating you alive.”
“I don’t want to be the Lost Man,” the boy said. “I want to be free.”
“You are alone,” the Lost Man said, and his muffled voice sounded almost kindly just then. “You are alone, and you cannot be free.”
The Lost Man tells him other things as well, things that tear the boy’s heart to pieces.
But none of the words the Lost Man whispers to him will have any meaning, not until years later.
What his mother told him:
“I don’t know what got into you. You just came screaming and wailing into the house, hysterical. You ran into your room and threw yourself into bed and wouldn’t stop crying and carrying on all afternoon. I couldn’t get you to stop sobbing long enough to tell me what was wrong. ‘Bout scared the shit outta me. I almost called the doctor but after awhile you fell asleep and slept all afternoon and through the night. When you woke up the next morning, you seemed fine, as if nothing had happened.”
And that was fairly accurate. It really was as if nothing had happened, because the next day he couldn’t remember the Lost Man. He wouldn’t remember the Lost Man for many, many years.