When I was little, the mid-’60s, I slept with my bedroom door open. A means of quick escape should the monsters in the airducts decide to make a midnight snack of me. Or just out of spite. Plain monster meanness. My parents likewise slept with their bedroom door open. Not because of monsters, though. Why would they care, being so unappetizing, mostly whiskers and gristle?
Every night, my dad would fall asleep watching his little black-and-white bedside TV, and the sound from the TV would snake into my room. Most of the time, this wasn’t a problem.
Only when something evil was on.
This one night—I must have been 6—my dad was watching Nightmare Theatre. The show opened with this guy in the top half of a Dracula costume who would sit up in a coffin and announce the night’s movie.
“Goood eeevening,” he said, as he rose and faced the camera.
This night’s show was about an evil scientist, Dr. Cyclops, who was looking for victims for his shrinking ray. It seemed he had summoned two eminent biologists, Dr. Mary Robinson and Dr. Rupert Bullfinch, to his remote lab in the Peruvian jungle. They brought with them mineralogist Bill Stockton, a last-minute substitute for another scientist, and Steve Baker, who wanted to make sure his hired mules were well tended and secretly suspected Dr. Cyclops had discovered a diamond mine.
Each one a dupe. A pawn in Cyclops’ evil scheme. To them, Cyclops was harmless enough. Eccentric, sure, and unwise in commonplace interpersonal niceties—but no more than a garden-variety Poindexter.
I could tell, though. Just listen to his voice, how it insinuates itself into your confidence, slitheringly. Oozingly. All the while, it’s coiling itself about your throat. Plus, the soundtrack gave away his evil intentions. The quavering orchestral strings. The bombastic tubas marching down a minor scale. Their doom hovered above their heads, and they were as stupid as goons.
Dr. Cyclops reveals he is shrinking living creatures—marvel at his schnauzer-sized palomino!—using radiation piped from a radium deposit down a deep shaft. He coaxes them and his assistant, the hapless Pedro, to examine his apparatus—don’t do it!—and then locks them inside his radiation chamber. When his victims awaken, they each find they are no taller than a doll.
Dr. Cyclops: “Are you not curious? Have you no questions to ask?”
Dr. Bullfinch: “Just one! Why does providence permit the existence of such a monstrosity?”
It petrified me, the idea of someone shrinking someone down. Who can help you then? Your parents? They’re more likely to step on you by accident.
I . . . heard . . . every . . . word.
Dr. Cyclops: “You should be proud! I have been able to alter the size of many organisms, and you are the first specimens to survive the ordeal for more than a few hours!”
Certainly, eventually, I thought, my dad would have to pee. He’d get up, shuffle to the toilet, and then switch off the TV upon his return. Wouldn’t he?
If so, when?
I tried to sleep with my fingers in my ears. Didn’t work. Try it some night. First off, how do you maintain the will to keep your fingers in your ears while losing your grasp on conscious existence? The second you’d begin to unravel into dreamland, your fingers would slip from your ears. Besides, it didn’t really do the trick.
I could still . . . hear . . . every word.
Dr. Bullfinch: “What are you going to do?”
Dr. Cyclops: “As you and your fellows develop to normal size, you will again interfere with my work, and that is something I cannot permit.”
What I came up with was repeating a string of words again and again. Happy, smile, laughter, joy. Happy, smile, laughter, joy. Happy, smile, laughter, joy.
God, have mercy on me! Orchestrate a power outage! Pull some strings! Don’t just sit there!
Eventually, I had to enter my parents’ room and shut off the evil TV myself. I expected someone would create a film strip of this to show in Sunday School. Lives of the Saints. When John defeated Satan.
I crossed the threshold to their room and was engulfed in a sea of terror. Closing my eyes was no help. The images would insinuate themselves into my brain like a succubus winding its way through a Boy Scout jamboree, passing from tent to tent and whispering discombobulating promises to every camper. The guardian angel hovering over each boy would decry, “I cast thee out, thou hateful wraith!” yet too late, as each boy would go boing!
“I told you not to be a scaredy cat!”
The thing about childhood fears is that the children know they shouldn’t be afraid—but they still are. They can’t help it. Like how when your dad would take everyone to a double feature at the drive-in. You insisted to yourself: This time, I’ll stay awake! Without fail, though, your parents would have to carry your snoring form back into the house. When you’d awake the next morning, you’d slap your forehead in frustration: I did it again!
Even at 6, I knew this movie was just . . . a movie. People reading lines from a script. Once the director yelled, “Cut!” the actors would go home to their utterly normal lives.
When you’re a kid, everything’s out to get you.
One of my biggest fears was that The Escalator at Frederick & Nelson would suck me in as it flowed back under the floor, scraping the meat from my bones. The only thing left would be a sack of skin shimmering with useful juices.
“Now, when you step on the escalator, John,” my mother said, holding my hand, “make sure your shoelaces are tied. Otherwise, one of the laces could get sucked into The Escalator.”
That mustn’t happen! It wouldn’t happen!
I made theatrical steps on and off The Escalator, as if I was a street mime avoiding a mime landmine. The mime would wipe his brow theatrically after completing the maneuver, whipping out his hand to flick the imaginary sweat from his fingertips.
And I never went in the ocean! You go ahead if you want. Your funeral. That’s how The Undertow grabbed you. It lurked offshore, a disembodied canker of malice that could work the current of the earth’s oceans to its own ends. Sending children to China. Or Australia. No, China. It just waited for some stupid doofus to climb over its backyard fence and wander on its property. Damn kids.
You’d call for your mother on the beach (never your father) in vain.
“Did you just say something?” she’d ask your dad, his vast midriff glistening with sun lotion.
When she received no answer, she went back to her magazine. But the thought niggled her.
Finally, she’d ask, “Where’s John?”
“Probably up to no good,” he’d say.
When it came to terror, though, The Escalator and The Undertow paled in comparison to The Space Between the Train Cars.
My mom would regularly take us kids down to Centralia to see her parents. We’d take the train sometimes, which I looked forward to—except for The Space Between the Train Cars. When we’d go to the dining car, we’d have to process from car to car across an expanse of shuddering black plates. Through cracks, you could see the tracks whooshing by underneath. Laura would skip across, unafraid. Just to shove it in my face. There! My mom would take my hand and urge me forward.
“Don’t be a scaredy cat!” my sister would say. “I did it!”
“You’ll be fine, honey,” my mom would say.
I’d hold one foot out, and it seemed the clattering and chugging noise would grow louder. Why does providence permit the existence of such a monstrosity?
“C’mon, honey,” my mom would say gently yet impatiently.
Finally, I ran across, eyes shut, heart pounding. When I got there, I put one hand on the wall and one to my racing heart.
“See?” Laura said smugly, her tone implying that my passage across the shuddering maw hadn’t counted because I did it like a sissy girl.
“I told you not to be a scaredy cat!” she said.
Don’t turn your back on the jittering Idiot Box!
Back in my parents’ bedroom, with Nightmare Theatre floating in the air, I screwed up my courage and averted my face from the direction of the TV. I held out one hand to feel my way ahead.
Happy, smile, laughter, joy. Happy, smile, laughter, joy.
I began to cry. Who was I, sniveling bedwetter, to confront the forces of evil? I couldn’t even ride a bike.
As I advanced toward the TV, the going slowed, as the emanations of evil pushed against me like a rugby scrum. I was past the point of escape. The die was cast, whatever that meant. I certainly wasn’t going to turn my back on the jittering Idiot Box.
That’s just asking for it.
Steve: “Now’s our chance!”
Mary: “Hurry, Bill, before he gets back!”
Steve: “What’s the matter with you?”
Bill: “Dr. Bullfinch and Pedro stopped running, didn’t they? Well, here’s where I stop!”
Steve: “What are you going to do?”
Bill: “I don’t know yet, but I’m staying here. I’m going to kill him somehow. Anyhow, I’m through running! Take care of her, Steve!”
Mary: You can do that yourself, Bill! I’m staying with you!”
Somehow I reached the off switch, and the room fell silent. The universe ceased its gyrations. I could hear it creaking on its hinges.
Now I was engulfed in darkness, and new dangers emerged. I could hear unknown monsters purring with malice, and I was sure their hungry eyes were boiling through slits.
Damn my delicious kid-meat!
My dad farted in his sleep, unconstrained by wakeful decency. Easy for him to be so cavalier, all whiskers and gristle. I’d strut around like the cock of the walk, too, if I tasted like burned toast. As it was, I was fair game. The longer I waited, the more likely my doom. I had to bolt for it! I was delicious—yet determined! I wouldn’t go down without a fight.
I ran like a sissy girl.
“PleaseGodsavemeletmeliveandIpromiseI’llbecomeamissionary,” I said, as I sprinted for my room and into my bed, leaping the last few feet.
Thank you, God!
I lay there and listened to the ticking of the house as it expanded inexorably into the nighttime universe.
Oh, great. Now I have to pee!
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