I have tried for years to figure it out. I think it’s safe to say, that by actually taking the time to write this essay, or short story—whatever this is, I am still trying to get a handle on it. It seems to be a stain that rises to the surface of my childhood memories, that I cannot scrub away, like a lingering fear, or a gate that isn’t quite latched.
No amount of subconscious dream downloads dumped by the id into the dustbin of sleep, or the adult rationalization and justification of events that might have occurred, have allowed it to fade into the past. I guess I should clarify something here before I go any further, just to make sure you don’t think that I’m crazy—if nothing else. I don't dwell on it on a daily basis, and I am not obsessed with the mystery. I do find a way to function without worrying about it, as if someday it could come back to find me, whatever it was. You see I found out at an early age that life has many ways of distracting you from the fears of childhood, some of them much worse than you could have imagined. I only think about it—from time to time—maybe lately: a little more than usual. Nevertheless, (which is a word I normally wouldn’t use, but my word program hates it when I start a sentence with but) let me finish telling you the story. I have a way of getting off track.
There was something there—I know there was. Just because I was a child doesn't mean I couldn’t see, and feel with cognitive power and discernment. To this day I think of it, what I saw, what it may have been. I try to figure out what it was about the small building in the corner of the yard next-door that first drew my attention.
As a child, you become aware of your surroundings incrementally, the ordinary objects in your environment hold little value or interest. Simply stated, you live in a world of immediate satisfaction. Only the things that relate to your specific needs seem to be of any importance. The furniture in your house or the objects lying in the yard, are nothing more than props on a stage. Each setting filled with actors and surroundings that can either, supply your immediate needs, or take them away. If you were to look too closely, you would not be capable of maintaining the level of innocence that allows you to play with the abandon and destructive force of the very young.
While maintaining the belief that the world around you is essentially a safe place, you are able to ignore many of the issues—that as an adult—will drive you away from the world of play.
Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I was aware of the shed in the corner of the yard next door. I could see it there, just outside the edge of my vision, as if it were waiting behind the ethereal curtains of initial awareness. As I said, I knew it was there, but I never really looked at it—until the day I heard it calling me. Of course, there were no specific words spoken; only the mental, tidal pull of an object you can no longer ignore. I believe that there are certain objects as well as people in our lives that create their own sense of gravity; they pull you into their presence. There is the strange and bizarre, the beautiful and the grotesque. The objects that call to you, much like the curve of a woman’s hip, the flash of gold in your lover’s eye, an exquisite work of art, or a train wreck.
It might have been a child's playhouse once. If I looked at it with my head tilted the right way, and listened very closely, I could almost hear them, a little girl in a dress, and an older boy with overalls, a slingshot hanging from his back pocket. I don’t know how I knew this, or why, but it seemed to me that I could see them there. I just had the feeling that they too had once stood and looked at it, fascinated by its compelling draw. I never saw any signs of children next-door. There were no bicycles in the tall grass or a rusting swing set. I think I only saw the old woman who lived there once, a fading glance behind a window. I think there was an ancient toothless hound that would pull himself up out of the dirt and make an effort to bark at me when I was much younger, but it is a vague memory and I may be mistaken.
Alternatively, maybe it was just a shed that someone had taken the time to trim with moldings, and a delicate gingerbread cornice, intending for it to be a pleasant addition to the landscape. Why not, if you're going to take the time to build something…why not make it nice. However, time and neglect had taken its toll on the little structure. The sagging roof now covered with moss and lichens, no longer saw the light of day. The trees that grew around it covered it in shadow. Wisteria vines hung down brushing the roof in the wind leaving scrapes and scratches in the wet moss. The leaning walls and the sinking foundation added to the appearance that it was somehow melting back into the earth. Its two windows, blackened as though a fire had covered them with soot, allowed no light to enter through the glass. And although I was afraid of it, the little shed with its lifeless dull eyes of glass and the snaggle-toothed grin of the broken door hanging crookedly on its hinges, I could not stop myself from gazing at it from a distance. There was something about it that pulled my eyes toward it, its draw completely magnetic, as if an unspoken demand for attention was being shouted across the yards.
“Over here little boy, look at me.”
If I went in the backyard for any reason, to play or explore, or to chase the dog, I would turn to see it there, as though it were watching me. Each time I did so my skin grew cold, and goose bumps rose up on my arms forcing me to close my eyes and turn away, run back out of the yard and break the strange connection.
Was it a portal to another world, no, of course not. Was it a trap set by a crafty demon to lure small children within its grasp? Silly to think of such things isn’t it, ridiculous in fact, right? The dreary little building with its white paint, cracked and peeling, the gray wood beneath it bleached by the weather, was just a shed. It was nothing more than the sum of its parts, wood and nails—but it will forever be a part of what I've become, what I know, and how I look at the world, the things I see—behind the things I see.
So, allow me to set the stage for you, to roll in a little more of the backdrop—so to speak. In Lynchburg, this particular part of Lynchburg anyway, all of the houses were built on the tops of huge hills, which meant that your driveway usually went down to the backyard. The houses, being built on the top of the hill, (for obvious reasons, flooding and that type of thing) and the rest of your yard rolling onward and downward. Nothing was flat. You were either going uphill or coming downhill. I don't think you can say coming uphill, I think you can only say going uphill. Of course, that has nothing to do with the story; it's just a thought, a personal observation.
So, let's say that a little boy who is lonely, playing by himself in a yard on a hill, has a ball. Make it a blue and red ball. After being yelled at repeatedly for bouncing it off the walls of his Aunt's house, and her next-door neighbor’s house, he discovers that by rolling it down the driveway he can play a strange kind of kickball by himself. Roll the ball down the driveway. Race the ball to the bottom of the hill. Kick the ball back up the driveway, and repeat. Throw in a brown Dachshund (Fritz was his name, but I called him Bud. Fritz never felt right to me,) scrabbling along beside him, his short little legs struggling to maintain the pace, stubby tail wagging, pink tongue flapping in the wind, and the picture begins to take shape.
It was early spring, the air still cool, and the Plum trees that grew along the border of my Aunts property covered with white flowers, the leaves just starting to unfold and present themselves to the world. The sun appeared and disappeared behind an endless alternating string of clouds and blue sky, lighting the day with brilliant displays of yellow light and diffused gray gloom, as though it were trying to decide which one would be appropriate, testing each vigorously for atmosphere and ambience. From time to time birds would land on the plum tree limbs and fly away again causing the white flowers to break apart and fly through the air, carried by the gentle breeze like confetti in a hero’s parade.
A horse ran in circles on the little farm across the road and I stopped to watch it, kicking its hind legs in the air, throwing its head around and pawing at the dirt as though it were embroiled in a battle with an invisible foe.
The fumes from the DuPont paint factory tucked into the bottom of the mountain filled the air, coating the inside of your nose and mouth with the taste of boiled linseed oil and pulverized silica, leaving a sticky sweet film in the back of your throat. When the wind was right, the smell of oil-based house paint was overwhelming, creating a strange juxtaposition between bucolic life, and an impending industrial disaster.
The little dog barked, eager to continue the game of roll the ball down the hill, jerking me out of my reverie and I set the ball on the ground lining up for the next kick. The sun ducked behind another string of clouds, washing the side of the house in gray shadow like the dimming of lights in a theatre. The birds grew quiet in anticipation of the next roll. White flower petals fell gently to the ground. A bee buzzed by my ear like a secret whisper, encouraging me to continue, and I kicked the ball.
At that moment, it felt as if the gears of time were slipping, pulling the seconds out of shape as if the rotation of the Earth itself was being held in abeyance to wait for the ball. I watched it roll and bounce, hanging in the air like a balloon before falling slowly, squashing on the ground and stretching out oblong into the air again reaching for the sky. The little dog running alongside it, turned to look back at me with a look of sparkling wonder in his brown eyes, its bark stretching out like a tape recording played too slowly, its short legs reaching for the ground beneath it. At the bottom of the hill, the ball took an odd and erratic bounce to the right and disappeared behind the next-door neighbor’s house. Time clicked back into place rushing forward at its normal pace, and my feet moved forward pulling me ahead without my even being aware that it was happening.
Suddenly I was running down the hill, the rush of speed and the fact that I was going downhill pulling me forward at a break neck pace, my feet slapping the dirt beneath me. I leaned back at the bottom of the yard forcing my legs to slow down before I hit the row of hedges at the bottom of the hill and pulled myself to a stop.
Fritz sat at the bottom of the hill, his tail brushing the grass. He looked at me with a look of uncertainty, or maybe it was fear in his eyes, waiting for me to see where the ball had stopped.
"What's a matter Bud, where's the ball?" I said, trying to catch my breath.
His small brown head turned toward the neighbor’s backyard, watching me from the corner of his eye, his head and shoulders in an attitude of distress. In a crushing recognition of where I was and which direction the ball had bounced, I remembered the shed. I heard myself groan.
The ball lay within the darkening shadow of the shed. The grass and weeds around the shed were the dead yellow of sunburned hay. The thick gray tendrils of wisteria reaching from the trees and hedgerow surrounding it made it look as though the little building was being pulled back into the forest by an evil curse.
I looked up the hill to the kitchen window of my aunt's house hoping that I would see her there, her face just on the other side of the glass, smiling, watching, waving a hand that held a butter knife smeared with vanilla frosting, cupcakes on the table behind her. The cherry tree behind her house cast skeletal black shadows across the gleaming white wall giving it the appearance of a stone castle sitting on the hill. The Lady of the Castle was nowhere to be seen. I turned to look at the shed as the wind blew, rattling the wisteria vines against the roof of the dilapidated hut. The crooked door creaked lustily and banged shut, and the air grew cold.
Fritz stood with his tail between his legs and whined looking at the ball across the dead grass. He turned to looked up at me, and back at the ball, questioning the usefulness of a ball that would bounce in such a direction. What good was a ball that wouldn’t bounce in a straight line? Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that he was just as uncomfortable in the presence of the little shed as I was. I looked at him, searching the deep brown eyes that seemed to convey the feeling that we would be better off without the ball; we could always get another one. I could almost hear him say that he knew where another ball was, a better ball, a bouncier ball, a ball that would bounce on forever to a place where a boy and his dog could play in the sun, where we would never know the fear of the dark places that called to us.
I have to admit I thought of leaving it there myself. We could always play a different game.
I looked at my feet and let my eyes wander across the grass. This was stupid, I thought. There was nothing to the little shed buried in the corner of the overgrown yard. It was just a building with rakes and shovels and old stuff adults didn’t want anymore but refused to throw away. A rusting lawnmower, boxes full of mold covered clothing, and a tennis racket with half the strings missing. I would just run over there, grab the ball, and run back, and then Fritz and I could go watch the horse run in the field across the road and play ball in the front yard.
A black beetle the size of a quarter crawled across my foot, its legs scratching the canvas of my sneakers, and I kicked my foot in the air repulsed by the trundling insect. Fritz jumped up and barked at the beetle as it flew off my foot, propelled by the blue and white Keds I wore, landing inches from the ball and scurrying into the weeds beneath it.
That was the last straw, I said to myself. I wasn't going to stand here and be bullied by a rotten old shed. I was going over there and getting my ball and that would be the end of it. I took a step into the dry grass, feeling it crackle beneath my feet. I took another and then another and I found myself moving toward the ball. I looked back to find Fritz still sitting in the same place, apparently having decided that only one of us was required to retrieve the ball. His tail lifted and thumped down again as though it was ashamed of the cowardice to which it was attached. I heard the horse snuffling across the road, its hooves thumping the ground and I took another step, encouraged by the sound of its strength. I looked down to see that somehow I was already at the ball, the distance that looked so formidable, reduced to mere steps. All I had to do was to bend over, pick it up, and run back across the yard. Everything would be just fine. The sun would shine, the flowers petals would fly through the air welcoming my return, the victor returning from the land of darkness. And I would never, and I mean never go in the yard with the shed—ever—again.
I bent to pick up the ball and lift from the yellow grass, the smell of house paint from the DuPont factory so thick in the air I could taste it on the back of my tongue. As I lifted the ball from the ground, I saw the beetle sitting beneath it. It clicked its jaws at me as though it too could taste the paint in the air. I stood straight and pushed at it with the toe of my shoe and it trundled on into the grass looking back once, its head raised, and an air of dignity in its rambling walk. Now I know that all I had to do was go back across the yard, and keep moving forward until I was safely in my Aunt's yard. Just walk across the yard. But I could feel it there, waiting for me to come closer. I could feel it pulling my eyes toward it, willing me to look at. I lifted my head and gazed at the dirty window, its panes nearly falling from the wooden sash, the old putty that held the glass in place peeling away like flaking skin. I took a step forward, bending a little now, trying to get just a little closer without moving my feet as the face of a little gray man with wet black eyes swam into the pane of glass like the rhomboid floating out of the viscous black fluid in a novelty eight ball. I stood, frozen rigid. I could feel my heart clacking in my chest like monkey cymbals, a moist panic rising up my back and loins, my bowels beginning to loosen. The world around me spun like a merry-go-round slipping its axis, the whirring sound of fear roaring in my ears. The gray face with skin like dirty wax blinked one huge black eye that sent me over the edge of terror. I opened my mouth to scream only to find that the back of my throat could no longer supply the air necessary for sound to exist. I stumbled backwards, the sound of the dog now beginning to cut through the hideous whistling fear that poured through my ears, piercing my every thought.
Fritz ran forward barking at the gray face fading and reappearing, blinking the dark black eyes as though it was straining to see through the ancient glass. I turned to run, gripping the ball against my stomach as if it was the only thing keeping my internal organs from falling out. I ran as fast as I could, stumbling up the hill until I reached the front porch where I jumped up the stairs and ran across the heart pine tongue and groove boards nailed down by my Uncle Wit in 1936, slamming through the screen door like a man on fire, diving into a pond. I could still hear Fritz in the backyard barking furiously as I ran to the bathroom and fell against the door barricading myself in, my knees shaking, my hands gripping the ball so tightly my fingernails were cutting into the rubber and bending backwards. The disembodied head with its huge wet eyes shining behind the filthy glass hovered in my vision when I closed my eyes and I popped them back open hoping the vision would vanish.
I can still remember the sound the ball made as I dropped it wocking to the tiles, falling forward towards the toilet and struggling with the buttons on my pants. I could hear my Aunt Inez standing outside of the bathroom door, her signature, "I Swanee," echoing against the tiles. Her deeply held belief in her Christian faith would not allow her to use harsh language, which included the use of the word swear in an adverse statement. I swanee was as close as she got.
“Tony, I Swanee! What is the matter with you? Are you trying to break the screen door off the hinges?”
“N-Nothing,” I said. “I just had to p-pee really bad.” To this day, I don't know why I lied.
“Well what is wrong with the dog? She said. “I declare I have never heard such a ruckus.”
“I don’t know maybe he saw a rat, I said, the lie growing larger by the moment.
“A rat, she exclaimed, the leather soles of her shoes popping on the hardwood as she turned to get the dog.
I heard her pound down the hallway, mumbling to herself about the dog as I slowly opened the door to the bathroom, pulling up my zipper with shaking hands.
Along with the mystery of the gray man in the shed, I carry the knowledge that I could not make myself go out to help rescue Fritz. I had no idea what was happening to him as I walked in circles in the kitchen but I couldn’t make myself go back outside. I don’t know why I never told my Aunt Inez the truth about what I saw, but I think it was because I thought if I talked about it, it might make it real. I often wonder if my ability to ignore the need for honesty and faith in the people around me began that day. There is a certain undeniable comfort in a lie. It may be short lived, but it does exist nonetheless. Just knowing that every time I closed my eyes—it would be there waiting for me—was bad enough. It was as if that face with the huge wet eyes was burned into the back of my eyelids. Facing its possible reality was more than I could bear.
I ran to the kitchen window and watched as she pulled Fritz away from the shed, still barking hysterically, his hair standing straight up on his back, his teeth displayed in a furious snarl. I tried to look at the shed from the window in the kitchen but the shadows of the trees and hedgerow covered in snarled wisteria enveloped the front of the shed in an eerie darkness, making it almost impossible to see the black windows and crooked door from that angle. It was as if the shed was disappearing or hiding.
My Aunt bundled Fritz up in her arms and walked up the stairs on the back of the house and came in through the kitchen door where she found me waiting at the little table in the middle of the room, holding a glass of water and trying to wash the taste of adrenalin and house paint out of my throat. She put Fritz on the floor and he walked toward the table, his claws clicking against the linoleum, his ears lying loosely on his face. He looked up at me as if to say, that he held his ground and covered my retreat, but the next time I was on my own. She put her hand on the back of my neck and gently lifted my chin to look at my face.
"You look a little pale sweetie. Are you feeling alright?"
I told her I was okay and she told me to take it easy for the rest of the day. Fritz curled up in a ball under the table by my feet and stayed there until I got up and went to watch television. He followed me into the living room where he curled up into a little ball on the rug by the fireplace, the muscles in his back shaking as though he couldn't get warm. I tried to get him to play with me after dinner that night, a simple game of rolling the ball down the hallway—but all I could get out of him was a half-hearted thump of his tail.
Because of events that pull us into other worlds without our consent or knowledge of why. I never had a chance to see the old shed again. I left the next day, and by the time I returned to Lynchburg (many years later,) the shed next-door was gone.
The people living in the house next-door were new to the area and knew nothing of the previous owners, or the shed. My Aunt Inez, at the age of seventy–nine, said she had no memory of a shed in the corner of the yard next-door. I thought then of telling her the story of the face I saw but chose to leave it in the past. I always believed that she suspected something that day, the way she looked at me studying my face.
Fritz would play from time to time after that. He would reluctantly chase a tennis ball, but he tired easily and would wander off as though he'd forgotten the game. I think it’s possible that I too have forgotten the game. I wander off into other days and other worldly fantasies. I dream of characters who save the day and the villains they fight. I struggle to understand the world around me and I try to remember the parts of my life that seem to want to fade into the distance like a bird disappearing over the trees. But I will always remember the shed, Fritz, and the blue and red ball.