But there was something coming. I could hear it, down the hall. Something ter-rible was coming. Coming for me through the darkness. I could hear it, creaking and creaking and creaking.
I couldn’t move. Maybe I didn’t even want to move. I don’t remember about that. I just lay and watched the tree fingers move on the wall and ceiling, and waited for the Creaking Thing to get down to my room and throw open the door.
After a long time-it might have been an hour, or it might only have been sec-onds-I realized the Creaking
Thing wasn’t after me at all. Or at least, not yet. It was after Mom and Dad down the hall. The Creaking Thing was in Mom and Dad’s room.
I lay there, watching the tree fingers, and listened. Now the whole thing seems so dreamy and far away, like a city must look from a mountaintop where the air is rare, but very real just the same. I can remember the wind shuffling back and forth against the glass of my bedroom window. I can remember wetting myself–it was warm and somehow comforting. And I can remember the Creaking Thing.
After a long, long, long time, I can remember my mother’s voice, out of breath and irritable, and a little afraid: “Stop now, Carl.” Again the creaking, furtive. “Stop it! ”
A mutter from my father.
From my mother: “I don’t care! I don’t care if you didn’t! Stop it and let me sleep! ”
So I knew. I went to sleep, but I knew. The Creaking Thing was my father.
Nobody said anything. Some of them hadn’t got the point, if there was one; I wasn’t sure. They were still looking at me expectantly, as if awaiting the punch line of a rather good joke.
Others were studying their hands, obviously embarrassed. But Susan Brooks looked altogether radiant and vindicated. It was a very nice thing to see. I felt like a farmer, spreading shit and growing corn.
Still nobody said anything. The clock buzzed away with a vague kind of deter-mination. I looked down at Mrs. Underwood. Her eyes were half-open, glazed, gummy. She looked no more important than a woodchuck I had once blown away with my father’s four-ten. A fly was unctuously washing its paws on her forearm. Feeling a little disgusted, I waved it away.
Outside, four more police cars had arrived. Other cars were parked along the shoulder of the highway for as far as I could see beyond the roadblock. Quite a crowd was gathering. I sat back, dry-scrubbed the side of my face with my hand, and looked at Ted. He held up his fists to shoulder height, smiled, and popped up the middle fingers on each one.
He didn’t speak, but his lips moved, and I read it easily: Shit.
Nobody knew it had been passed but him and me. He looked ready to speak aloud, but I wanted to just keep it between us for a little while. I said:
My dad has hated me for as long as I can remember.
That’s a pretty sweeping statement, and I know how phony it sounds. It sounds petulant and really fantastic-the kind of weapon kids always use when the old man won’t come across with the car for your heavy date at the drive-in with Peggy Sue or when he tells you that if you flunk world history the second time through he’s going to beat the living hell out of you. In this bright day and age when every-body thinks psychology is God’s gift to the poor old anally fixated human race and even the president of the United States pops a trank before dinner, it’s really a good way to get rid of those Old Testament guilts that keep creeping up our throats like the aftertaste of a bad meal we overate. If you say your father hated you as a kid, you can go out and flash the neighborhood, commit rape, or burn down the Knights of Pythias bingo parlor and still cop a plea.
But it also means that no one will believe you if it’s true. You’re the little boy that cried wolf. And for me it is true. Oh, nothing really stunning until after the Carlson thing. I don’t think Dad himself really knew it until then. Even if you could dig to the very bottom of his motives, he’d probably say-at the most-that he was hating me for my own good.
Metaphor time in the old corral: To Dad, life was like a precious antique car. Because it is both precious and irreplaceable, you keep it immaculate and in per-fect running order. Once a year you take it to the local Old Car Show. No grease is ever allowed to foul the gasoline, no sludge to find its way into the carb, no bolt to loosen on the driveshaft. It must be tuned, oiled, and greased every thousand miles, and you have to wax it every Sunday, just before the pro game on TV. My dad’s motto: Keep It Tight and Keep It Right. And if a bird shits on your wind-shield, you wipe it off before it can dry there.
That was Dad’s life, and I was the birdshit on his windshield.
He was a big, quiet man with sandy hair, a complexion that burned easily, and a face that had a vague-but not unpleasant-touch of the simian. In the summer-time he always looked angry, with his face sunburned red and his eyes peering belligerently out at you like pale glints of water. Later, after I was ten, he was transferred to Boston and we saw him only on weekends, but before that he was stationed in Portland, and as far as I was concerned, he was like any other nine-to-five father, except that his shirt was khaki instead of white, and his tie was al-ways black.
It says in the Bible that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, and that may be true. But I could also add that the sins of other fathers’ sons were visited on me. Being a recruiting chief was very tough on Dad, and I often thought he would have been much happier stationed out to sea-not to mention how much happier I would have been. For him it was like having to go around and see other people’s priceless antique cars driven to rack and ruin, mud-splattered, rust-eaten. He in- ducted high-school Romeos leaving their pregnant Juliets behind them. He in- ducted men who didn’t know what they were getting into and men who only cared about what they were getting out of. He got the sullen young men who had been made to choose between a bang in the Navy and a bang in South Portland Training and Correction. He got scared bookkeepers who had turned up 1-A and would have done anything to keep away from the gooks in Nam, who were just then beginning their long-running special on Pickled Penis of American Grunt. And he got the slack jawed dropouts who had to be coached before they could sign their own names and had IQs to match their hat sizes.
And there was me, right there at home, with some budding characteristics at-tributable to all of the above. Quite a challenge there. And you have to know that he didn’t hate me just because I was there; he
hated me because he was unequal to the challenge. He might have been if I hadn’t been more my mother’s child than his, and if my mother and I hadn’t both known that. He called me a mamma’s boy.
Maybe I was.
One day in the fall of 1962 I took it into my head to throw rocks at the storm windows Dad was getting ready to put on. It was early October, a Saturday, and Dad was going at it the way he went at everything, with a step-by-step precision that precluded all error and waste.
First he got all the windows out of the garage (newly painted the spring before, green to match the house trim) and lined them up carefully against the house, one beside each window. I can see him, tall and sunburned and angry-looking, even under the cool October sun, in the vintage October air, which was as cool as kisses. October is such a fine month.
I was sitting on the bottom step of the front porch, playing Quiet and watching him. Every now and then a car would blip by going up Route 9 toward Winsor or down 9 toward Harlow or Freeport. Mom was inside, playing the piano. Some-thing minor-Bach, I think. But then, whatever Mother played usually sounded like Bach. The wind tugged and pushed it, now bringing it to me, now carrying it away.
Whenever I hear that piece now, I think about that day. Bach Fugue for Storm Windows in A Minor.