[LF: This short story was inspired by the stories of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, two of my favorite fiction authors in my younger days. Both spun horror tales that were based on the fears and hopes of childhood, with a sense of nostalgia and the laws of nature spun into dark fantasy. I always wanted to write something like they did, and this is my "thank you" to Ray Bradbury and Stephen King for their stories of twisted childhood.
CAUTION: There are some adult themes in this story as well as adult language; there is no "slasher" type violence though. And this is a total work of fiction and has nothing to do with any actual person, living or dead.]
I saw my Mom the other day, when I took a long walk, thinking about the directions my life had taken. Or not taken, really. I have no idea how I ended up on that street. Yes, I do, but I don’t want to think about it.
Mom is looking pretty old. It kinda freaked me out. I hadn’t seen her in probably eight years, the last time I walked down that street by mistake. Still pretty and lady-like in a delicate sort of way under her large straw hat, wearing cloth garden gloves, planting bulbs near the foundation of that house. She was such a pretty woman, and now she seems so much smaller, birdlike.
I usually avoid that block. Have for the last twenty years. No, Jesus, more like thirty years. That whole goddamn street, even though it is maybe five blocks from my childhood home. Yeah, I still live there. And I know what you are thinking, but what the fuck do you know. Where does the time go? I don’t know why I never moved from this shitty town. I should have, but something won’t let me. Something dark that sleeps in my heart, that stirs just long enough once in a while to take a sleepy bite out of it.
My younger brother left years ago. I’m happy for him. I like to visit him, and his happy wife, and his happy kids, in their happy house out in happy California, when I can get the money together. I’m glad that he was able to move on. Just like that day when I got plucked from my bike and he rode down the street to safety. I’m glad one of us is safe from this bullshit. But I’m like a dog that has to keep rolling in his own shit, and can’t leave it.
Anyways, I found myself walking down that street. I was lost in thought, and really didn’t notice where I was, until I saw the freshly painted picket fence from the corner of my eye. I flinched but then looked at the old lady’s back, bent over her bulbs, planting them in the warming soil. Those goddamn plastic deer were still there, the buck with head erect, staring, and the doe sitting, with her pink mouth open. Then Mom stopped and slowly turned around, and smiled at me.
“Hi Jeff. It’s been a while.”
I nodded. Didn’t really know what to say, but I kept it cordial.
“Hi Mom.” The word was hard to say. “Planting bulbs huh?”
“Yes, tulips and daffodils. We want the place to look pretty for Easter.”
I kept my eyes leveled on her face. I didn’t want to see the house.
She smiled warmly at me. “I miss you Jeff. You should come around sometime. I’ll make peanut butter cookies and lemonade!”
When she said that I almost felt twelve again. I remembered how good those cookies were, straight from the oven. I used to be able to eat over a dozen of them when they were hot. Now I can’t eat one damn peanut butter cookie, and the smell of them when I walk by the cookie place in the mall makes me wanna puke.
“Sure Mom. That would be nice.” Neither of us said anything, but we smiled blandly at each other. I really wanted to ask a lot of things, but I also really didn’t want to know the answers. It gave me a queasy feeling, like the smell of peanut butter cookies.
So she started chatting about how the place was looking nice, how her back hurt her sometimes, about the new hummingbird feeder she bought and filled with sugar water. “And, my, there are so many of those cute little things that fly though our yard. I don’t know why they don’t use the feeders I buy, but this new one has a little perch on it, and the spouts look just like flowers. I’m sure it will do the trick.”
And then, as she glanced back at that house, Mom’s face kind of froze in the middle of her sentence. She kind of stood there, transfixed like a deer caught by headlights on the bend of a dark country road. I couldn’t help but see the movement of the drapes in the picture window, as someone moved back from them.
Then Mom smiled again and looked at me. But her smile was brittle and her eyes shaded. “Well son, I’d better go in now. The sun’s getting hot, and I need to fix us lunch.” And then she smiled. “And of course there’s nap time. I do so love our naps.”
I watched as she turned. She dropped her gloves to the ground. The bulbs just sat there in the hot sun, withering in her little garden cart. The trowel was stuck in the ground, near a half-finished hole. And then I heard the slap of the screen door, as Mom went into that house.
I turned slowly away, and began to walk. That reminded me. I needed to mow the lawn. When I got home I needed to mow the lawn. And as I began to walk home I thought about how I really hated yardwork, how I preferred long cool grass waving softly, to hard dry manicured lawns. I thought about how mowing used to be my chore when I was growing up, about Dad, about Mom, about Dave, and about how Mom came to live in that house.
I was twelve. I remember it well because that was the summer that I got a Budweiser T-Shirt for my birthday. I felt grownup and wore it all summer. When I wore it to junior high that fall, all proud, I was sent home to change, and I folded it up and put it in a bottom drawer and never wore it again.
Dave, my brother, was ten. We rode our bikes around the neighborhood, played ball with the other kids, went to the huge wooded area filled with industrial scrap to shoot our BB guns, and did other stuff guys our age did.
One thing we liked to do was find spooky places, and psyche ourselves into a good scare. The woods were next to an old graveyard, and the graves were sunken and neglected. That was one good place. There was also a huge mine shaft or tunnel of some kind up in the hills on the other side of town, that we packed our lunches and rode our bikes to. It made a neat all-day expedition. We liked to go in with flashlights, but not too far in. As soon as the daylight disappeared behind us, and we saw other dark passages leading off into the dark earth, we got real jumpy and were liable to sprint all the way back outside, imagining something very nasty was about to get us.
There were a lot of spooky places, but the one which captured our attention most was not far from our house, only five blocks away, and didn’t look scary at all. It looked like an ordinary split-level house, built in the 1950s, with sea-foam siding, white trim, a garage, and some of those goofy plastic deer in the front yard. It was well kept, the lawn mowed weekly by the landlord, and flowers planted around the foundations and by the mailbox. People did live in it sometimes, but it seemed most of the time we rode by on our bikes there was a “For Rent” sign on the lawn. And sometimes we heard arguing inside.
We had never thought about it much, it looked like any other house on the street, until we overheard a story about it one day from a kid that we played ball with, earlier that summer. We were in the street, in front of that house, practicing dribbling with Eddie who lived three houses over from it.
“So, you guys, do you know that green house?” He jabbed his chin at the house as he dribbled. “I just heard the weirdest story about it.” This was Eddie Tull, the tough kid that was usually pretty nice, but when he felt pissed off, which could be any time, it was best to get lost. Without waiting for us to answer, he went on, occasionally dribbling the basketball on the street.
“Anyhow, no one can stay there very long. People move in and they move out pretty soon.” He studied the ball as he dribbled it back and forth between his legs. “In fact, last week, I riding my bike by here when they moved out, some young guy and his wife I guess. It was weird, because they were so quiet. I didn’t hear them say anything to each other, like they were mad or something, not even looking at each other. They just threw some boxes and other crap in the back of their car and drove off.”
He stopped dribbling and sat down on the ball, really getting into his story. “So I asked my Aunt Brenda what was the deal with that house, because she is friends with the landlord’s daughter. She said that he can’t keep any renters because there is something wrong with that house, and he can’t sell it either. Something about taxes.”
He leaned closer, his eyes narrowed. “Most people just seem to feel real creepy there, like someone’s watching them. And then, if they are married, they start fighting and having trouble with each other. But I guess at least one woman told the landlord she saw something. Some big fat guy in a crewcut standing in her closet, in one of those coaches outfits, you know, the polyester shorts, white shortsleeved shirt with a whistle around his neck. He was smelling her dresses, kind of pressing his chubby face into them. She said he just stood there staring at her and then he kind of sank back into the clothes hanging there. She left that day. She was kind of always drunk though. Creepy as hell, but it’s probably all bullshit anyway.”
He stopped for a second, and leaned closer. “Hey. Whaddaya think.. I think we should sneak in and see if we can see anything! Maybe Sunday morning. It’s empty now, and I checked the back basement window. The lock is broke. Sunday morning nobody is up until ten or so. C’mon, whaddaya think?”
Dave and I looked at each other. We knew it was wrong, but we were always up for a good psyche out. I looked over at the house, and looked at the plastic deer, one lying down with a fawn and the buck standing and turning his head. Then I noticed a slight movement at the drapes, like a little breeze caught it. It freaked me out for a second, but then I noticed that one of the panels by the picture window was open. And it was breezy. But I was like that then, I liked getting scared.
“Sure Eddie! Let’s do it!” We grinned and could barely contain ourselves. Breaking in AND getting spooked out. It was going to be a blast!
Well, Sunday morning, Dave and I got up real early, about 6:30. Mom and Dad were still asleep and would probably stay asleep until almost 10. The sun was out, and the grass was wet with dew. I saw the robins running over the grass, with cocked heads, running like spastics, looking for worms. Dave and I hopped on our banana-seat bikes, and rode over to Eddie’s. He was already outside, waiting for us.
It was pretty easy to sneak in. A basement window was open, and we slipped into the air that smelled like an old dark refrigerator. It wasn’t dark or anything, what with all the basement windows. It just smelled nasty, like that car we found in the woods. It was empty down there, and we could hear the echoes of our whispers as we psyched each other out, and made spooky ghost noises. But not too loud, because we had a feeling like someone was listening. A pressure, like an ear pressed against the door of your heart.
In the far corner of the basement we hit the jackpot. A box of old men’s magazines, mainly Playboy, but others that we couldn’t recognize. They made us quiet as we looked through them, not quite understanding everything we saw (remember this was back in the early 1970s and cable wasn’t the thing yet). But we knew enough to know some of it was not your average naked lady magazine, and some of it, well, really creeped us out. But we couldn’t stop looking at it. The air was moldy and blue and it was real quiet. All you could hear was our ragged breathing and the sound of pages being turned. And then we heard the shifting of floorboards above.
And we stopped turning the pages, stopping like rabbits, and then launching ourselves scrambling through the window again, to the reality of the green lawn outside. You know we had hopped on our bikes, and had begun the standing pump that got the bikes going maximum. And then I was plucked by my shirt, yanked off the bike, yelling for the others, who rapidly disappeared down the street like they were in a reverse zoom lens. Even my goddamned brother.
I turned to look at my captor, a skinny old man with a mouth that looked like a tobacco sack, stained around the edges. He worked his mouth at me but I couldn’t really hear much beyond “cops” and “little sonuvabitch.” I was pretty passive even back then and I just looked up at him, smelling the sweat and tobacco and unwashed pits, and totally hating this old bastard but pinned like a goddamned rabbit while my brother had rode off without me.
All I could do was take this abuse, getting shaken and pinched. You know that kind of stuff doesn’t happen these days, so little kids are holy terrors now, talking back to adults, and back then we still did bad stuff, but we expected to get caught and get shaken by mean old men or even shot at. Actually that made it real. And on some level, better.
So after a while he calmed down and stood back and looked at me. And then he offered me a trade. “You wanna job? You know how to mow lawns? This lawn looks like hell. I’ll tell you what, you mow this lawn every Saturday all summer, and I’ll forget about it. I can’t rent this goddamned place looking like this. You mow, and I’ll give you a couple of bucks a week on top of it.” And he grinned an insinuative grin. “And you can look at those girlie books all you want after you finish up. How’s about it? Or should I call your folks and the cops?”
Well I felt mad for getting caught, and afraid of this old man, and of the cops and my parents. And the idea of some money and a quiet place to look at naked lady magazines, well, I didn’t have much choice. So I agreed, and we shook on it.
I remember once I asked him who first live in that house, and he said something about his brother and the GI Bill and World War II, and how his brother was a high school coach but he lost his job because of some broad and the fact he couldn’t keep it in his pants. And when I asked where he went, all the old man said was, never you mind. But he said it looking quickly at the house, and I saw a twitch and his eyes close.
And I went home and told my folks that I had a new job. And they were real happy for me. Mom even said when we went to the store that day, I should go with her, and she would buy me some work gloves. They were happy for me but they also laughed because they were always bugging me about how lazy I was. How the thing they heard me say most often was “Just a minute, Mom.” Lazy and passive, a real fucking rabbit all right.
I hated going to the store with Mom. She was real young and pretty then, and liked to wear cutoffs in the summer. And I often saw men looking at her. It made me feel bad. It bothered me. She didn’t seem to notice, but they often stopped, just to watch her walk away. I wanted to punch them. Somehow the way they looked at her made me afraid. The thing that was bad was they even did that when dad was with her, like it didn’t matter if he was there or not. It made me feel sick and I wanted to punch them, and to yell at dad to make them stop. But I didn’t. Like I said, I was real passive back then. Back then I was. Don’t laugh. I don’t like it.
But the job was great. With the roar and hum and flying blades of grass, the smell of lawn wrapped around me sweet and green, the careful patterns etched out in tracks and plaids on the lawn, fantasizing about making a baseball diamond. I spent my Saturday afternoons making two dollars for three hours of work. It was so deluxe, because I used his lawnmower which had a bag attached, and I felt like a professional lawn man, because it even had a grass catcher. No raking for me. Only a slinking down the stairs into the cool empty basement, for guilty pleasures of looking at my future.
How ironic because while I thought I was looking at my future, in reality I was really experiencing it. That was as far as I ever got you know. With women. All that practicing, all those articles telling me what to do, and it never really helped me at all. I was so involved in what I thought, in what I imagined, because I really didn’t know yet what to do with those emotions and sensations uncoiling inside me, that I rarely paid attention to the furtive sounds of the house relaxing all around me.
The weeks did roll by that summer, with the rhythms of thunder and morning and mowing and bike rides waving me through the life that stretched so far before me. I am sitting here this summer evening and I have just heard the casual childhood banter and giggling pass by in the street to the rattle of bikes in the long shadows. I pinch my arm hard to make something hurt besides my heart.
That pain propels me to remember that afternoon, when I returned home, eating ice cream I had bought on a detour after being paid, licking the droplets that rolled down my arms and soaked the napkin around the cone. Happy and flushed and home in the heat of the afternoon. The house smelled like cookies, peanut butter cookies.
Then dad said, and I’ll always remember this, he said, “Where’s your mom?”
And I kept licking my ice cream and shrugged.
“She went over to find you, to see if you wanted to go to the store with her.” He smiled. “She even brought you a couple of peanut butter cookies right out of the oven.”
“Well I didn’t see her Dad. Sorry.”
And so we thought nothing of it. Until it began to get dark. And dad was looking at the clock more and more often. And at last he stood up. “I’m going to take the truck and see if she’s still at the store. I’ll take Dave with me.” Of course she wouldn’t be at the store, I mean that was like three hours ago. “You ride your bike over to the house and see if she’s there.”
I got a very odd feeling that I really didn’t want to. Because it was getting dark and the shadows were long, and people were home eating supper, which is what we were supposed to be doing. Mom was going to make hamburgers for supper, with peanut butter cookies for dessert.
But Dad was worried and that house was near, remember five blocks, and it wouldn’t take long. I figured, hey, she was probably at the store talking with some friend from church and lost track of the time, right? So as Dad drove off down the street, I took off, very slowly, to the house with the plastic deer.
I didn’t like what I saw. Her car was there, parked in front of the empty house, with the long blue shadows streaking the lawn I had just mowed three hours ago, the smell of cut grass still hanging in the air. I went around the back and didn’t see anybody. And then I noticed the back door. It was open. It was never open. And I went in. I wished I hadn’t. I really wish, of all the things I ever wished for, that I hadn’t gone in.
I went into that empty living room, empty with a black and white speckled rug, like cigarette ashes or spilled salt and pepper, or the negative of a night sky. I was relieved somehow. Mom wasn’t there. And then I heard something from the back. From the bedrooms. A slight noise, maybe a cat, with a high small cry. And I went back there. And now I am really pinching my arm, making at blue with the blood beneath, because I really wish I hadn’t.
And when I opened that door, it took me only a minute for my eyes to adjust, with the yellow shades drawn all was a golden yellow in that bedroom with no bed. With cutoffs on the floor. And I saw my mom there, rolling in the air like a sleek raincloud, making those little noises, her eyes tight and her mouth open like that plastic deer. There was a fat man on her, with her, in her, rolling with her, attached to her, grasping her, his chubby crew-cut face nuzzling her. And they rolled like clouds in the air, in that bedroom with no bed. They undulated like the gauze curtains in my grandma’s window. And as her voice sounded piteous, like a gull caught up in that cloud, that man looked straight at me, not smiling, his eyes shining like mirrors. Like a deer caught in headlights, no emotion there, no joy, no hate.
I’m telling the truth when I say I can’t remember what happened next. I do know Mom never went home again. I saw her maybe twice during the divorce, her face distant. She rented that house, and bought it with her alimony. Irreconcilable differences she said. And Dad went on the road and we never saw him again, though he sent money to Grandma. I never told anybody what I saw. Grandma tried to explain how sometimes people fell out of love sometimes. When I got out of the foster home sometimes I visited Dave and Grandma. They told me Dad died somewhere in Germany, and left me the house.
I tried to sell this house a dozen times. Either the deal fell through due to financing problems, or the market was bad, at first. Then I couldn’t sell it because it looked bad, with the paint peeling and the lawn looking patchy, rank, and weedy.
I worked at a couple of jobs, the video store, the Quick Stop (where I made it to junior manager before I was fired), packing cartons, night time stocking at Super Save. Sometimes several jobs at once. Some have lasted me a year or two. And then I would go home, and sleep. Maybe eat some spaghetti or soup, or chili, or macaroni and cheese. Good one-course no hassle suppers. I never ate hamburgers or peanut butter cookies. And I rarely cut or watered the lawn, until the neighbors complain and I get a citation from the city. I do like to watch videos though, like Willie Wonka, or Clash of the Titans, two of my favorites.
I think it would be the absolute best if I could just go be an Oompa Loompa and never come back. I laugh when I look in the mirror and see how much I look like a 48-year-old Augustus Gloop, the fat German boy who tried to drink up Wonka’s chocolate river. Only I still see how much my eyes bulge and water, like the rabbit that I am. And how gray my hair is, how it is nearly the color of the fat man’s hair. I shave my head a lot. But never in a crew cut. I even tried that spray-on hair color once. I thought it made me look younger. After I saw the looks people gave me, I took the can and put it in my bottom drawer.
I slap the arms of my easy chair, as if I am going to stand up. I have sat in this chair ever since I got home from my walk, about five hours ago, watching television. I thought about things all day. About the direction my life took. Or failed to take. I guess it doesn’t really matter when you finally make up your mind about things. Right, like a fucking passive rabbit ever decides to do anything. Except run and then it’s too late and the hawk gets him.
The late LATE show just went over and it was pretty good. It was one of those fantasy movies from the 70s, Clash of the Titans, with those claymation monsters, cyclops, and sea monsters, and harpies. Man I loved that shit when I was a kid. I’m pretty smart, and I used to think about making those kinds of movies. Now all I do is rent videos and how smart is it to use your life doing not much but a string of shitty jobs and renting videos, and thinking how much better you could make videos if you only had the chance? I used to think I was a genius.
The movie I really like, even more than Willie Wonka or Clash of the Titans is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That movie kills me every time I see it. But I really laugh when that rabbit kills everyone. The knight goes, It’s just a bleedin’ bunny! And the wizard goes, But it’s got long bitey teeth! I can’t stop myself from laughing, even though I kind of get scared of how hard I laugh.
I remember I checked out a book on animation when I was a kid. Thought I might go to California and get into making movies and cartoons. Of course I couldn’t afford a camera to do the simple animations the book suggested, so I eventually took the book back and had to pay the overdue fines. I guess for me sometimes dreaming about something is just about as good as actually doing it. I mean it really is, if you think about it.
So now that the late show is over, the late LATE show, I should go out to the garage. I did intend to mow the lawn this afternoon, after my walk, but the mower had no gas. So instead I decided to mow tomorrow.. wait, tomorrow is today. Luckily, I filled the five-gallon gas can this afternoon. The grass is getting pretty high, and the neighbors are starting to give me dirty looks. Hell if I want to pay another fine.
I hate yardwork, but I think I’ll do it this time. I just gotta get moving, get off this couch. It’s pretty late for yardwork, but I think I’ve waited long enough. I’ll take that gas can and a book of matches and I’ll take the walk down that street to that house. I’ll burn that fucker to the ground, and pitch those deer in too. Thinking about life, alone in your childhood home, has a way of working on you after thirty years. Sometimes dreaming about something just doesn’t cut it. But this chair is so comfortable, and I’m sleepy. Maybe I’ll just channel surf for a few minutes, you know, to see if anything good is on, like maybe Monty Python, and then I’ll get up and do some yardwork. Just a minute, Mom.