Once upon a time, I was a little boy who lived with his grandparents in Charleston, West Virginia. It was long ago. I used to imagine, fearfully, that the dinosaurs were still around, and at night they would come slithering over to our house at the end of the hilly street. They would reach my upstairs bedroom window with their long necks and poke their rough lizard tongues in and probe around for me. I would feel their beady eyes as I cringed under the covers.
But it was only my fear of the night. They weren’t there at all, except in my brain. Well, as I said, I was little: green, fragile, and inclined to leap away at any twitch in the leaves. A grasshopper disguised as a boy. Also an insomniac, twitching and flopping about. Sleep waited behind a door that remained closed to my agitated mind. But, as I say, nothing was really there.
Mine was a decent enough childhood, as childhoods go, and if I have any bitter memories, they do not concern my family members. Those people all live now in a far away location, the kind of place that exists only between photo album covers or up mental hills and down mental valleys all leading to mental towns. You might even say that they wear death-masks now, but go about their business cheerfully enough. I’ll know for sure one day.
One of the best things was when my grandmother would tell me stories before my ‘sleep assignment’. I talk about sleep in this, I suppose, tongue-in-cheek way because sleep was a village that I could never reach. What would happen was that the batteries in my brain would just finally run down, my engine switch off, and the lights go out. I would wake up somewhere by the side of the road in the early morning and scramble my way home before even the milkman saw me. But of course those roads also existed only in my mind. Or was it some ragged backroad we had ridden down in the car the previous day, full of weeds and roadkill, come back as if to lure me away into the woods of the hobos?
The stories were about Monkey Up and Monkey Down, but there was one she told me over several nights about a murder in a village and how the village giant was suspected, but the real killer, a dwarf, managed to get away with it by walking inside the giant’s big footprints. Why the giant was also at the crime scene, and why it was never noticed that the dwarf still would have left footprints of his own was never addressed. Anyway, it was a great story and I was too young to care about such matters as ‘suspension of disbelief’.
She would leave then and come back to check later. “Go to sleep!” she would cry, but how could she tell I was still awake? Maybe she kept shouting at me after I really was asleep too, but how would I have known? Mostly it was fear of the dark that kept me awake, and from that terror I learned a lesson that I carry with me still. It is this: no matter what age you are -- or in what form or shape your life is unfolding -- if you are terrified, broken-hearted, or worried -- it is real. Doesn’t matter if you are 7 years old or 70.
The 7-year-old looks at the wizened codger the way I used to marvel at rusted out old cars standing dead in the junkyard my great grandpa used to take me to once in a while. I doubt he understood the connection I felt to those bleached out, rather pitiful heaps of junk (and neither did I). But I would always ask to go there. I would think: Maybe they used to drive around and be alive? In their old rubber and rims and metal cemeteries, they sometimes seemed to be listening to me -- sullen old chauffeurs waiting to be told where they should go. I would flick a switch in my mind and hear the ignition start. Telepathy.
And if that is true, it is also likely that the 70-old looks at the child and, understanding the great spaces that exist within the attention span of early youth, dismisses it all as Tom-and-Jerry nonsense. Today tiny Tyler is sobbing because little Pegotty Smuffin, the winsome six year old who lives next door, told him he was a waste of space, but by tomorrow it will all be forgotten.
I disagree. I believe that Tiny Tyler has already begun to amass the callouses and scar tissue of which later life is constituted. And I imagine that Old Scarecrow stares at the kid, grimaces, and thinks, “I wonder what will become of that little snot?”
Well, I guess they both would qualify for ‘Sensitivity Training.’
But I was speaking of my grandmother’s stories. That was on Carson Street. It was up on Hillsdale Drive, the last house at the end of a dead end street way up high above Charleston, West Virginia. I have very mixed emotions about that place.
It was the site of much happiness, especially at Christmas-time when my mother would visit and I would parade up and down the hall from the kitchen like a kid with a drum going “Rum a tum tum” to the big room where the massively adorned and sparkling pine tree stood like an ancient knight above the multitude of presents in their bright wrappers and ribbons.
Carson Street was where in winter I could frolic in the snow with Klu, my boisterous dog and ride my sled in a patch of sloping woods toward the top of the street. I can remember trudging home to the big twinkling house, my wrapped-up body sodden with snow, my fingers numb in frozen mittens, and dazzled by the shimmering white blanket that glittered under the streetlights. I vaguely remember burning to pee on the way home and having to wait because fumbling at my zipper with dead fingers was not an option.
There was eternal safety amid those snows, and years later I would often dream of being on a sledge pulled by dogs across endless tundra under the luminous azzurro of alpine night. Safe and sound and bundled warmly at the helm, I would rejoice as the never-tiring dogs just went on and on, yelping great echoes. Ironically, there was no destination that I had in mind; I don’t recall that we were heading anywhere. It was enough just to glide across the ever broadening visage of the borealis. Bright nights of solitude except for the wondrous slaverings and snarls of that ghostly pack of good dogs mushing ever onwards. I never felt the urge to pee.
The downside of those years was that, for the first but hardly last time, I was confronted by clear sightings of my own social and physical mediocrity. During the years of elementary school I ran the late afternoon fields with my friends. There were always judgements, of course. Somebody was always finding something wrong with me to poke fingers of fun at. I used to hate it. I could never understand why people who were wearing masks themselves were always so determined to unmask me. But, as I say, I felt OK, and in the daylight hours I understood that I was in a harmless place.
Still, naturally, there was a pecking order among the boys; we all knew who could kick whose ass. There were a handful of really pretty older girls in the neighborhood that were strictly off limits to a skinny pimple rack like me. But, although my heart was ‘tenderly afire’ with teen-like yearnings, my penis was still in kindergarten. In fact, there seemed to be gardens all around, though they would soon turn into asphalt, like ghetto afternoons when the sun is grinding down and all directions look the same.
I recall my last summer of Little League baseball. There had been a tremendous flood the winter before that had wrecked the landscape and washed all the grass away. So we had to play the ‘season’ on a great, wide, turd-colored expanse of dirt. It was only then I realized the magic of grass -- when it wasn’t there. For years I had a nervous tic that would incline me to convulse my head from side to side. “Jerking’, we called it. During the games, which my grandparents attended, I would be standing at my position in the outfield, and from the little grandstand near the batting cage, I could always hear Grandma yelling at me: “Eric, STOP JERKING !!”
I do it even now, except I use a different head. Haha. Regardless, I can still hear my grandmother exhorting me to stop jerking. And I see that, whether we would or not, it’s memories like this that we carry into old life.
And when I arrived at age 13 at Lincoln Junior High School, I recognized, the very first day, the ‘rough wooing’ that awaited me. It began in my Home Room where a couple of rowdy boys were going around trying to ‘borrow’ money from the other kids. Well, no, actually it began before that -- it was when I arrived to find a totally packed and raucous basketball gymnasium where everyone congregated before the loudspeaker dispersed them and sent them upstairs. The place was crammed with kids from all over that part of the city, and not many of them were polite. I was terribly uncomfortable amid the ambitious jostling and jockeying for position.
And to my dismay, I soon saw that the entire social landscape had changed radically somewhere at the end of summer shadows, as if a witch had cast a spell, and my little Elementary school arbour had been obliterated. The fierce War for Popularity had begun, cliques were forming, suddenly super cool ‘jocks’ -- confidently wailing Frankie Valli’s latest hits in falsetto voices “(Big Girls Don’t Cry-yi-yi”) -- were already snagging the newly elected cheerleaders and majorettes, and I had no more defense than a small turtle trying to cross a wide, burning highway much travelled by pressing traffic. Those who had been my friends in Little League Baseball and up among the winding streets of Hillsdale Drive and beyond were suddenly-- Presto !-- almost hostile. It was as if they had convened a secret board meeting and voted me out.
I remember that one morning before school I woke up with my pecker and my nuts all covered with goo. I couldn’t understand what had happened; I thought I’d sprung some kind of leak. Sheepishly, fearfully, I cleaned myself up and while my grandfather was driving me to school on his way to work, I mustered the pluck to tell him about it and ask what it was. He started laughing so goddamned hard that he had to pull over out of the traffic. That’s when I learned what wet dreams were and what cum was.
Another time I woke up in the morning with a tick fastened to my lip. I didn’t know what that was either until I pulled it off and saw its little legs thrashing around. It must have come from Klu the Boisterous Dog or maybe just from my playing in the bulrushes beside our house that descended into deep forest where the dinosaurs slept. From that day on I was terrified of ticks.
Down there in the forest where the ticks and dinosaurs and zombies and copperheads lived, there was a half open chest, old and rotting but full of something that I could not guess. For years, that cavernous chest, sprawling in a bed of weeds, half open just enough to tantalize (like a woman’s bra), commanded my attention. I imagined it being packed with all sorts of things, from rubies to murdered bones. But I was too scared to go hunting in the heavy bearded weeds and bushes to find out. The ticks, you see. And the copperheads. So that chest just sat, for years, among the thickets staring up at me, as if daring me to come. A nest of snakes for sure !! And yet, like so many of the devils I have succumbed to in life, I wanted to know it. The terror was strangely delicious.
I had nightmares, you see, where zombies were closing in on me along the streets of a great, grey deserted city. I would keep eluding them, until, lost in the butt-end of the city among derelict warehouses, they would trap me. I would wake up then but not before the moment of obliteration. I would give up trying to escape and just run headlong into the grinning arms of the killers. I wonder if death is really like that? Do you give up and go running into its grinning arms?
As I grew older, some of those nightmares faded. Well, you would expect them to, wouldn’t you? But a few remained -- they just took different forms. And some came disguised as angels, like the evening in my 17th year when a couple of my friends introduced me to alcohol. I had started dating a ‘colored’ girl at school, and all the white people had begun hating me with a vengeance because this was 1967 in West Virginia. So one night Jackie Jackson and Steve Edder, and I went up into Coonskin Park (funny name, considering my friends were black and I was trying to be, don’t you think?) -- and we got hold of some Popov vodka and Nehi orange soda. We just drank it down, and it was my handshake into the world of inebriation. But I remember that when the vodka started to take effect, it was like a miracle from God. The Holiest of Waters.
Suddenly I was who I wanted to be. Let’s DANCE, Baby !!! Let’s GIT IT ONNN!!! Dr. Jekyll had become Mr. Hyde. Just like that, it was so easy.
But returning to my Junior High years -- on Friday evenings they had something called ‘The Student Mix.’ Guys and gals from the school would come and socialize. The girls would dance together. None of the guys could ‘fast dance’ (not like the black guys, as I later discovered), but they would wait until the ‘slow dances’ and then embrace their girls and shuffle around with them. Of course there was a rule regarding close contact: no crotch and genitalia grinding or anything of the sort. If the couples started getting too close, one of the teachers keeping us under surveillance would come over and pry the guy and girl apart like pulling a bandaid off a scab.
Afterwards, before going home (I waited for my grandmother to come and pick me up) some of the guys who had girlfriends (the ‘popular’ kids) would prance off into a nearby alley to ‘make out’. In fact there were quite a few make out parties. I think I eventually attended one of them, with a girl wearing braces named Mary Kay Summers..
At a certain point I developed a huge zit on my chin. I fingered and squeezed it but it hadn’t quite ‘come to a head’, and try as I might I couldn’t finish it off. It just got bigger and redder like a cherry sitting there waiting to be baked into a pie. Anyway, one Friday evening there were ‘make-out’ parties going on everywhere near Lincoln Junior High but I hadn’t been invited. Well, I didn’t have a girlfriend, so I guess I would have looked foolish sitting in the corner by myself, licking my own stupid fucking face.
But I had the answer. I got a wrench from my Grandpa’s tool kit and decided to do some serious work on that zit. So I went upstairs to the toilet room and fitted the wrench to my jaw, tightening it slowly around the zit. Then I adjusted the dial again and it got tighter and I started twisting it around.
You know the instantly ecstatic feeling you get when a jar of whatever that won’t open finally gives and you jerk the lid off? One of life’s little triumphs. That’s how I felt when I could feel the zit wavering, giving way, giving way, until it yielded with One Great Crunching Pop and sent a shower of pus splashing all over the mirror. It was better than the finest wet dream you could imagine. It remains the most sensuous moment I ever had in Junior High school.
George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright, is reputed to have said that when he was still a ‘virgin’ he used to have such fabulous fantasies while masturbating that when he finally happened upon the real thing -- actual sex with a woman -- it was a shocking disappointment.
I also remember a strange song that was sung by a singer named Peggy Lee which was called “Is That All There Is?” At the time I first heard it, I thought it was goofy, pointless, and, in a strange way, offensive. The voice reflects on childhood and various experiences such as seeing her house burn down as a child and wondering, “Is that all there is to a fire?” Going to the circus and wondering afterwards “Is that all there is to a circus?” The refrain said, “If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”
Sounds trivial I know, but if you see the video, there is something about Peggy Lee’s delivery that makes me remember the 1950s. Women were different then. Back then they said stuff like “Let’s have a ball.” As an adult I have concluded that it is one of the most haunting songs I ever heard. It concludes by asking about death, “Is that all there is?”
I lose track of the order in which things happened, but I remember much of it. It visits me when it wants to. So one day much later, I ended up in those woods where the treasure chest was. I don’t remember the reason but I was just there, a little apprehensive maybe but without the childhood terrors. And so for the first time ever I saw what was in the chest.
And it was nothing. Just a bunch of rotten old rags and chunks of wood or pieces of broken tile. Absolutely nothing at all. And this was the treasure chest of dreams and nightmares that had absorbed my attention and compelled my fantasies for such a long time? Was that all there was to a treasure chest?
Fast forward to now. Our neighbor’s dog died a couple of days ago. He could have been saved if the owners had taken him straight to the vet when the rash started and his fur started falling out. He was a big German Shepherd called Hatchek and I used to carry him part of the breakfast I would prepare for my own dogs. Hatchek was always delighted to see me and we became great buddies. He was kept on a leash in his owner’s driveway, but he would be there every time, his head at the gate watching.
Now he is gone but that doesn’t stop me talking to him. In fact, sometimes I just wander over and pet the air. I know where his head is. Maybe it sounds strange, but I think he’s still there, and so I just pet him as he stands there, invisible, yes, but it’s no impediment.
Sometimes I see my mother, father, grandparents, and great-grandparents like that too. I am in a field where the wind is blowing and they are standing at the edge of a deep forest. They are beckoning me. My old dogs are there too, among the trees. I can hear them barking. And there are even faces from the kids back in Junior High. Many of them also live in the forest.
I realize now that there was never anything to be afraid of. I just thought there was. I hope the forest will not be disappointing, and I don’t think it will be, as so much else has -- although I must say that life has been full of nuggets and chestnuts and real cherries too. Amid all other disenchantment, even gloom, beautiful dancers have glided my way and smiled at me. A few even winked. And I heard the late night women singing chorus to popular songs on the FM radio. It was always those background voices, not that of the lead singer -- which beguiled. They were the more elusive, you see. Sorry to say I never met any of them. They were all gone by morning.
I am a professed (though hardly fanatical) atheist. I waver. I remember the dead. I read books that were written by those who are dead. I listen to the music of those now dead. I argue with them. I remember days and nights with them. All the lanes. In bed. They are everywhere. A grand population just waiting. The vast legions of the dead. Sometimes I have to shower just to wash them away for a while. But they cling. And in me, they know they have come home. I wear them around my shape like a county property line or a hound whose face is sprouting with thirsty ticks.
Hatchek the Dog did his best to live. So did everyone else -- those who make up the hordes and tribes of memory. All those battlefields, I mean, just think: everyone who ever died, died in a flame of life. All those...beings...and I guess they were all doing their best and, anyway -- like I said, my childhood was OK. Nobody owed me the time of day, but many brought presents, even if the packages, once open, were as nothing in a few days.
Those women with their smiles. Men with handshakes.
I just hope that death does not turn out to be a disappointment.
===By Eric Le Roy===