Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Closet Monster, Part Three: Suffocation and Staircases

Our dog found nothing suspicious about my bedroom closet. I couldn’t blame her in truth, in truth. She was not operating on kid logic. She was operating on dog logic. And dog logic is simple: “This is my person, and I love my person, and my person loves me, and I get food and water and walks and lots and lots of attention from my person. And --- oooooh, squirrel!”

I wasn't going to get any sympathy - or alarm - from sweet little Termite.

Now, had human reason or common sense played a role in my thought process, I would have recognized a number of legitimate explanations for the open door:

  • Our curious cat, the one and only Princess Tuptim of Siam, adept at nosing and pawing her way into just about any space, might have sought a warm pile of linens for a long night's snuggle.
  • The house, still settling on its foundation, could have nudged the door open on its loose and silent rollers.
  • Or, God forbid, in an egregious violation of the Monster Rules, I might have left the damn door open myself, inviting in the unseen hell-beast as surely as a vampire might stroll across your threshold at the utterance of a foolish welcome.
But reason was in short supply at times like this, and countermeasures had to be taken!

From that day forward, my nightly ritual was to reach one hand inside the bedroom door from the relative safety of the hallway, flick on the overhead light, and then head across the room to turn on the reading lamp by the bed. With my heart racing, I would I hold my breath - no dead people dust for this girl - and check (and double-check) the closet door. Only then could I turn off the overhead light and race for the bed.

Now, here's where things get a bit too close to "certifiably insane."

All sheets had to be tucked in completely around me - and I'm not talking just on the sides and the foot of the bed. I was convinced that, if I didn't have the sheets covering my head, tucked down behind my shoulders, IT could get me.

I know it's ridiculous. I spent years nearly suffocating myself at night to assure that some vicious creature couldn't attack me. It's amazing I didn't kill myself.

Still, there were many nights when I was absolutely convinced I heard the closet door roll back and heavy, dragging footsteps came to my bedside, stopping just inches from my hidden (and sweaty) face. I could swear I felt hot, moist breath pressing against my cheek and the sound of ragged gasps. What I probably felt and heard was my own hot breath as I hyperventilated in my near oxygen-free 200-thread count prison.

I will not deny that I was not always the brightest bulb on the tree.

But you have to understand that my personal mythos of the Closet Monster was backed up by the existence of a Basement Monster in our house. The Basement Monster snatched at your ankles as you tried to run up the stairs from our damp, spiderwebby cellar. My late brother E. used to live in an awful room down there, cloaked in cigarette smoke and backed up with a soundtrack of Moog-synthesized Bach. His dungeon was stacked high with science fiction paperbacks and decorated with cheesy paintings of dragons and busty redheaded fantasy novel vixens. It was a total pit, but now that he's gone, I miss it a little bit.

E. had a macabre streak that ran straight through the center of his soul. He took pride in scaring the crap out of his sisters, and his attempts to freak the bejeezus out of me were well-honed from years of practice on the other siblings. E. introduced me to Stephen King with a dog-eared copy of Salem's Lot which I read late at night with the light that filtered through my protective bed sheet cocoon. One night - in an epic effort - E. wove together a giant hand from willow branches off the tree in our back yard. As I breathlessly read about vampires in New England (since I could do it no other way, as I cut off my own air supply in a wall of cotton), E. maneuvered the willow hand up to my bedroom window from the patio below . With no warning, he started smacking the hand against my window while bellowing "BWAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!" and (in a classic move) illuminated his face into a demonic red grin with a flashlight tucked under his chin.

Much later, I would have to admit to being impressed by the effort E. put into weaving willow fronds together just to momentarily scare the living shit out of me. However, my parents - veterans of decades of kid pranks - were less impressed and didn't appreciate my screaming from my room, which shared a wall with the master bedroom. Thinking back, though, that was one of the few nights the Closet Monster wasn't foremost in my mind.

The Basement Monster, though? It didn't have to wait for nighttime to come after you...

Yep. To be continued...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Closet Monster, Part Two: Rules of Engagement

So, how does a harmless, albeit creepy, pillow open a gateway to some demonic force?

Well, you have to understand kid logic, as opposed to adult reality to truly fathom how these things occur.

That awful pillow rode home in the back of our Plymouth station wagon, stowed directly next to the old metal Coleman ice chest (that I vowed I'd never eat from again, now that it had direct contact with a corpse pillow). Every time I turned around in the car, hour after hour through Minnesota, Iowa, and all the way home to Illinois, that white satin taunted me.

When we got home I picked up the offending object using a car blanket wrapped around my hands so I didn't have to touch it. I raced it into my doll-sized bedroom with the speed usually reserved for hauling coolers for organ transplants. Breathless, I flung open the closet door, and with one hand, I felt around for something to contain the darkness. My fingers met the splintery stays of a cheap green basket left over from Easter a few months before. I pulled it down and stuffed the awful souvenir deep into a bed of pink, plastic grass. With the fervor of an Olympic hammer-thrower, I hauled back and launched the basket back onto the shelf, where it rolled into the pitch black space at the back of the closet. I barricaded it in with a wall of sheets and towels, and slammed the door shut.

And here's where kid logic comes in: whatever's hiding in the dark, if you can't see it, it can't see you. And if you only open the door in the daylight to retrieve clothes or shoes, you're okay. And, of course, you must always hold your breath when you open that door, or you might accidentally suck in some dead people dust and become a zombie or just die yourself.

Funny, huh? Not at the time. This was all deadly serious.

I'm betting most kids have their own set of Monster Rules. Those were mine. Initially, at least. I spent three years sleeping in that tiny bedroom, one eye on the closet door every night, hoping the knob did not turn on its own. In what was surely some low-level case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I would rattle the knob fairly aggressively, making sure the seal between me and that hideous pillow was firm. Only then could I confidently climb into bed and let my uneasy sleep settle in.

But then, my sister B. moved out of the house, and I inherited the big bedroom next door. The big bedroom was vast for a 12-year-old. Lots of space for bookshelves, a queen-sized bed, room for my drawing table (a table I still have and use today), and an enormous closet. Unlike my smaller quarters, this closet had two doors. On rollers.

This was a complication I had not pondered as I emptied the contents of my old room into the new one. I was so excited about the new digs that, by the time I'd gotten to clearing out the top shelf of the old closet, I'd nearly forgotten that hateful thing tucked away in the darkness. When my fingers brushed a satin edge, and I heard sawdust crunch within that white wrapper, I flinched as if a snake had bitten me.

Now, you might ask, why didn't I just throw the damn thing away? And certainly, that's a very good question. Honestly, I just couldn't do it. At first, I think I was afraid it might get discovered in the trash and get me in trouble with my parents, especially my bellicose father, still grieving. Later, that damn thing had just grown to epic proportions in my mind and developed a sinister life of its own. I figured if I ditched it, I might just find it back at the foot of my bed the next morning, waiting for me. Waiting for the moment to make its move.

Because limbless, mindless pillows make terrible, horrible moves in the world of kid logic.

And so, foolishly, stupidly, I grabbed that damn basket, bolted next door, and tossed that sucker as far back in the new closet as possible. For the second time, I'd buried it, and I hoped whatever powers it possessed would stay cloaked in a wall of flannel sheets. I rolled the door shut, and, and once I calmed my heart to a normal beat, all was good with the world. That first night in my new digs, I slept soundly, our dog Termite planted at my feet.

But in the morning, I saw the terrible evidence of otherworldly activity: the closet door - that door I had so carefully shut the night before - was open. Open. Oh god, oh god, oh merciful god, it was open. Not much, surely. But enough. Enough for me to know that whatever portal swirled at the back of that shelf in a cheap green Easter back was open, and something very, very wrong had slithered out, and likely spent the night hovering over my bed, pondering how to eat me or tear me limb from limb. As I gawped at the space between door and frame, Termite just watched, wagging her stubby tail, and smiling that eager canine smile.

"Great guard dog," I growled at her. "Just great."

To be continued...

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Closet Monster, Part One: Pillow Talk

I had a monster in my bedroom closet until I was 18 years old.

It's completely true, you know.

I can pinpoint the moment the Closet Monster moved in. It was September 1975, the month my sweet Grandma J. died. J. was my father's mother, a tough, but twinkle-eyed woman who weathered a lifetime of Minnesota seasons, the early death of her first husband - my grandfather - in a harsh Twin Cities winter just a handful of years before the Great Depression pressed hard on the nation, and then decades with her second husband, the Pole. The Pole was a cruel, vile man who terrified me as a young child. He spit tobacco into a rusty coffee can he kept near his chair in their small Minneapolis home and spoke to everyone aggressively in a heavy, abrasive Eastern European accent. My only experience with accents like his were late night creature feature movies.

I thought he was a vampire.

The reality was just this: the Pole was an abusive man who thought Grandma J. had lots of money squirreled away somewhere because she knew a handful of wealthy folks in the area, including members of the Pillsbury family. It wasn't true. The Doughboy hadn't greased Grandma's pockets; she had nothing except her two little boys. After my grandfather died, Grandma J. played piano in a silent movie theater while my father and his little brother, my Uncle J., danced and sang for the audience, who pitched pennies to the fatherless - and nearly destitute - children. My father learned how to rock train cars as they rumbled along the tracks, causing open-topped freight cars to shimmy just enough to spill potatoes or coal to bring home. It was not a glamorous life.

But the dark Pole was certain Grandma was hiding riches somewhere. He married the young widow, and she did give him wealth in the form of a legacy: she bore him two sons, whom the Pole held dear over her first two children. But when he realized there truly was no money in his wife's coffers, flashes of the Pole's rage would appear. Even in their declining years, the light of his miserable soul could be ignited like a match, burning bright for a moment and then vanishing into the impotent weakness of his arthritic bones. While staying with the elderly couple for a few weeks in the last year of Grandma J.'s life, one of my sisters saw the Pole fling a cast iron skillet at the tiny woman's silver-hared head. There'd been many stories of his violence, but this was the first time one of us had witnessed it. As I recall the story, my sister snapped and poured out her venom and anger at him, suggesting that, perhaps, he'd like her to throw a skillet at him. It was an empty threat, but one backed up by the genuine horror of seeing firsthand what all our family - who lived so far away - had feared might be happening.

The Pole was a wretched old bastard.

And, in a cruel twist of fate - and one that defied the usual course of nature - Grandma J. died before he did. I remember my father taking the call that his mother was gone. He had his back to me as he spoke with one of his half-brothers who lived a comfortable life in a comfortable suburb of Minneapolis. I don't think I ever saw my father cry. That was not his way - at least around me. But this time, I recall seeing his shoulders sag and then shake. I'm sure he wept, but he did not invite anyone into his grief.

I was nine years old in 1975, and I'd never been to a funeral before. We drove from Moline to Minneapolis - Mom, Dad, my teenager sisters, and I - and I can only remember bits and pieces of the whole event. I recall the funeral home - it seemed so big to me, like an enormous auditorium - but I know that is just a trick of the child's mind. In college, I rode past the funeral home all the time on the bus to downtown St. Paul - just a modest building in a modest neighborhood. Yet, it will always be overwhelming in my head.

Grandma J. looked serene in her casket, her snow white hair styled and swept away from her pale, paper-thin skin. I think she was dressed in blue, but I can't really be sure anymore. This I do remember: her head rested on a small, white, satin pillow covered in a sash that read "From the Grandchildren" in elaborate script. When my mother took me up to say goodbye, I was trembling. I understood dead. I understood she was gone. And yet, I kept waiting for her to take a breath, for her chest to rise and fall, for her eyes to flutter open, for her to reach out and take my hand.

I was terrified.

"You can touch her hand or kiss her cheek, if you'd like," a voice whispered into my ear. God bless this poor man - the funeral director (who was probably no older than I am now) - trying to comfort a saucer-eyed child paralyzed with fear. I had no intention of touching the body, of course, lest she come back. I had siblings who specialized in scaring the bejeezus out of the younger kids. My late brother Ed was a consummate professional when it came to giving me nightmares. And, already at nine, I had a decent amount of respect for things that go bump in the night.

So, I simply stood stock still, one hand on the cold casket, unwilling to engage any further. I remember one of my sisters leading me off, back to a row of seats in the half-lit room. At the end of the visitation, I saw the funeral director slip something out of the casket before the lid came down on Grandma's peaceful form. As we got up to leave, he came up to me. "I understand you are the youngest grandchild," he said to me quietly, kindly. "I think you should have this to remember her by." And, dear god, he was holding The Pillow. The small, white, satin pillow that had rested under Grandma's J.'s head. The casket pillow. The corpse pillow. The pillow that had cradled a dead head. The deceptively cheap pillow filled with crunchy sawdust, since corpses don't really require comfort. Oh god, oh god, oh god. He was presenting it to me, like a flag at a soldier's burial. I was nine, and everyone was watching. What should I do???

I took it from him.

And with that simple action, I invited the closet monster into my life.
To be continued...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Anyone up for a new story?

I think I might be ready to put some words to paper. Well, to screen. Ether. Whatever.

Yeah, I think I'm ready.