by Timothy Reilly
But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
More than sixty years later, the flagstone bench is still there, wedged between two giant Italian cypress trees, like a storybook throne in a Maxfield Parrish illustration.
Once, in 1954, I sat next to my mother on this very bench, watching a parade of horse riders, men in fezzes, girls in short skirts, and a high school marching band. I pretended that the parade was for me (I may have actually believed as much). My father was the cop directing traffic at the intersection of what was then a small town. The day was pleasant and cool. A few clouds rolled overhead, lagging in tempo to the parade. I think it was autumn. I was four years old.
The flagstone bench is not uncomfortable to my old body, but its design seems more ceremonial than functional. It’s just the right size for a young prince and his mother. It would not do for a wider occupancy – which is probably why the transients have left it unclaimed.
We had no transients when I was a child; we had hobos – and not many of them. You saw them only at railroad crossings, riding on top of—or inside—boxcars. I was told they lived in jungles. Hobo Jungles. I was also told to stay away from them because they ate small children.
The flagstone bench still offers clear views of two of the city’s prominent landmarks. To the east, the mission-style police station and clock tower, built by the WPA in 1940. Directly south is the city baseball field with its antiquated wooden bleachers.
As a child, I compared the police station clock tower to our church tower – which had a cross at its peak. The cross was a symbol honoring the invisible presence of the Divine. A crucifix hung over my bed as a reminder. The clock tower seemed to be honoring another invisible entity: TIME. I had no clock in my bedroom, but there was a Felix clock in our kitchen, a mantle clock in the living room, and a glow-in-the-dark Sunbeam electric clock in my parents’ bedroom.
In church, when the priest said, ‘Dominus vobiscum,’ the congregation responded, ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’ On TV, when Cowboy Bob said, ‘Hey, kids, what time is it?’ the Peanut Gallery responded, ‘It’s Howdy-Doody Time!’
‘What is time?’ I once asked my grandfather. I really wanted to know.
He repeated the question and narrowed his eyes to the distance, as if the mystery itself was approaching. He then looked down at his watch and again repeated the question –adding a pause between each word. At last he told me to look at the red second hand on his watch: how it moved this way and not the other way. He said we were in the past, we are now in the present, and we’re heading into the future. ‘Timing is everything,’ he said with a wink.
He didn’t know the answer.
I grew up in Southern California but was born in Chicago. I remembered nothing of Chicago—I was too young when we traveled west—but my grandfather continued to speak Chicagoan. He’d say ‘tree’ when he meant to say ‘three.’ Babe Ruth was Babe Root. I understood his native tongue—I knew this was how people spoke in Chicago—but I didn’t speak Chicagoan.
Gramps loved baseball. He’d take me to the city ball park to watch the Little Leaguers play. They were the big kids. They wore real uniforms. Gramps explained to me the basics of the game: the goal of crossing home plate. I didn’t understand much of what he said, but I enjoyed the sound of his deep voice, and the sound of the wooden bat making full contact with the ball.
My grandparents lived about a mile from my parents’ house. My parents and I lived near the small municipal airport, and my grandparents lived just beyond the city housing tracts, in one of the remaining rural areas of the county. They had no backyard fence. They had a small orange grove and chicken coups. Beyond the orange grove were open fields and railroad tracks.
Once upon a time (a few days prior to the city parade) my mother left me with Gramps so she could go shopping with her mother (my grandmother). As always, I followed Gramps around like a little puppy. He plopped his huge cap on top of my head, crimping the back with a clothespin so it wouldn’t fall over my eyes. I helped him feed the chickens and gather eggs. But then he told me he had a task to do that was very dangerous. He said that I should stay in the backyard or near the house while he rotated the tires on his automobile. He said he didn’t want me to get squashed like a bug if the car fell off the jacks. ‘Don’t wander off the property,’ he said. ‘And don’t open the trapdoor on the screened porch. Remember what I told you about Jimmy.’
Jimmy was the boy who lived under the house. The trapdoor was the entrance to his dark kingdom. ‘Jimmy doesn’t like visitors,’ Gramps had told me. ‘If you open his trapdoor, he’ll grab you, and you’ll never again see the light of day.’
My grandfather was a great leg-puller. I was never certain whether he was joking. But Jimmy or no Jimmy, the lure to find out for myself was too powerful to resist. And now I had an opportunity.
I borrowed a flashlight from the pantry and went to the utility porch and pulled open Jimmy’s trapdoor, like the cover of a great book. I got on my hands and knees and peered down over the edge, aiming the flashlight into the darkness. A musty odor met my senses. There was neither ladder nor stairs—and no sign of Jimmy—but the bottom seemed a distance my short legs could easily reach. I sat upright, dangling my legs over the edge, and slowly lowered myself into the unknown. Observing good manners, I closed the door behind me.
For a while I crouched in a duck-walk, but soon decided it was easier to crawl on my hands and knees. This mode of travel made it difficult to use the flashlight, but there were a few screened vents letting in rations of diffused light. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw long pipes running parallel to the floor above and other pipes going down into the earth. There were scraps of wood and broken bricks and some things I didn’t know. One corner had heavy beams framing what looked to me like the entrance to Ali Baba’s cave. This, I thought, must be Jimmy’s hideout. I shone the flashlight at the entrance but the batteries had dimmed to a fuzzy glow. As I inched a little closer, I bumped by head on a long pipe, causing a bass note to vibrate along its length. I reached up to silence the pipe and felt a pinch on my finger. When I drew back my hand, I noticed a black spider rapped around the tip of my finger, and I frantically rubbed it off in the dirt. I took the flashlight and squashed the spider: splaying it on the lens of the flashlight and revealing a red area on its backside – which I thought was blood.
My one concern now was to get out from under the house and put Bactine and a band-aid on my wound. (I knew nothing of the venom that had just entered my bloodstream.) The flashlight had been rendered useless and I couldn’t find the location of the trapdoor. The pain in my finger started to spread to my hand and arm, and my heart was fluttering like a fly in a web. I was having difficulty breathing but I didn’t want to call out for help; I didn’t want to get in trouble for my disobedience. I looked around and noticed that one screened vent was larger than the others, and I made my way to it, squirming on two knees and one elbow. When I reached the vent, I realized it was an alternate entrance and I pushed it open and crawled out into the green world and fresh air. When I stood up, however, I felt dizzy and my head ached something awful. I set out to find my grandfather.
A knotting pain grew in my stomach and I felt hot and cold and sweaty. I didn’t know where I was going. My legs kept moving, but my mind went blank, and I somehow found myself in the middle of an orange grove, staring at a rabbit standing on its haunches. Part of me was in awe at the sight but the rest of me was too weak and disoriented to care. I moved on, following the straight row between the trees, and was soon in an open field. I didn’t see my grandfather, and a panic started to sap what little strength was left in me. In the distance I saw a clump of trees and a small railroad trestle. I thought I saw my grandfather’s car near the trestle, so I headed in that direction.
As I approached the trestle, I saw that the car was the rusted corpse of a former automobile – nothing like my grandfather’s Hudson. Nearby, sitting on the skeletal remains of an automobile bench seat, was the shadowy figure of a man prodding a smoky campfire with a branch. As I drew nearer I made a noise and the man turned with a start and screeched, ‘Who the hell are you?’ His face was horrible: blotchy and hairy and missing front teeth. He had bald spots and matted patches of reddish hair on his head. His eyes did not look human.
‘I don’t feel good,’ I moaned.
‘You’re in my jungle! You got no business here. Where are your folks?’
‘I don’t feel good,’ I repeated.
The man looked around. ‘I don’t see nobody,’ he said. ‘Well. You know the rules. Finders−keepers. Come here, dopey. You’re my property, now.’
The word ‘jungle’ suddenly registered in my head and I realized that this guy was one of the hobo cannibals I’d been warned about. Up until now, I’d seen only TV hobos, but this hobo was no Clem Kaddiddlehopper; there was nothing at all funny about him. I tried to run but my legs were too sluggish, and the hobo cannibal grabbed my arm and threw me to the ground.
‘You got any money, dopey?’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘Let’s make sure.’ He lifted me upside-down by the ankles and started shaking me like a piggybank. My grandfather’s cap fell off and the hobo dropped me. He placed the cap on his head. ‘Nice hat.’
‘That’s my grandfather’s hat,’ I whimpered from the ground.
‘I’m your grand pappy, you little jerk. Don’t you recognize me?’
I could neither think nor speak.
‘Cat got your tongue, dopey? It don’t matter. I’ll just put my mark on you so’s you remember who you belong to.’
The hobo got some cord and tied my hands behind my back and then my ankles. His breath smelled like rotten eggs. Lying on my stomach, I saw him shove a metal rod into his campfire. He sang a weird little song as he tore back my shirt. ‘This’ll learn you what’s what,’ he said. The metal rod burned into my shoulder and I blacked out from the pain.
When I came to, the hobo was kicking me in the side, but he stopped at the sound of a man shouting words I wasn’t allowed to say. My vision was blurred but my hearing was acute: It was my grandfather’s voice – sonorous and powerful. The joyful report of a wooden baseball bat came next – followed closely by the dull thud of a heavy object hitting the dirt.
Gramps tossed down his bat, untied me, and lifted me to his chest and began to run. My arms fell limp over his shoulders and my ear pressed against his cheek. I could feel and hear his breathing and smell his Old Spice. He kept talking to me—even when he was out of breath—assuring me I was going to be just fine.
The rest of that day—and all of its night—remains a patchwork memory addled by fever, hallucination, dream, and a general suspension of time. Without resistance I was sponge-bathed, bandaged, and stuck with needles. I swallowed whatever liquid was pressed to my lips. I recall the doctor’s black bag at the foot of my bed, the doctor asking all sorts of questions—
‘Where did the spider bite you?’
‘Under the house.’
‘I mean: where on your body did it bite you?’
I held up my finger.
‘And what color was the spider?’
An unseen choir groaned.
I slept and woke without a boundary. At one point, the room was filled with fireflies, and a dancing puppet was silhouetted in the window. A large peacock jumped on the foot of my bed, unfurled its tail, and made a sound like a train whistle. I screamed when a spider the size of a baseball mitt climbed up the wall. My father rushed in and the spider dissolved in air. Mom entered the room soon after, and sat on the edge of my bed singing ‘Silent Night.’ It wasn’t Christmas but the song lulled me to sleep. When I opened my eyes, the room was dark and my mother was gone. I heard voices coming from the living room and I thought I had died. I rose from my bed and floated down the hallway and peered into the living room. Gramps was sitting on the couch crying. Dad and another cop were trying to comfort him.
‘It’s okay, Pop,’ my father said. ‘You did the right thing. You saved his life.’
The other cop said, ‘You did what you had to do. You had no choice. No one could blame you for that.’
In the morning, I was no longer dead. My fever had broken and Mom fed me a bowl of Cream of Wheat. By early afternoon, I was allowed to lie on the couch in the living room and listen to my favorite recording: Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two or three days later, I was well enough to go downtown and sit on the flagstone bench to watch the parade. Mom sat next to me. The grandparents were off to my right, sitting in foldup chairs. Gramps walked over and crowned me with his new cap. (Come to think of it, Gramps was the one who’d put the idea in my head that the parade was in my honor.) Mom waved to Dad but Dad couldn’t wave back: he was directing traffic. I looked up at the clock tower. It would be a couple of years before I could decipher its face.
St. Augustine wrote that if present time didn’t fade into the past, it wouldn’t be time; it would be Eternity. I am now about ten years older than my grandfather was in 1954. Five of my teeth are capped, my hair is completely gray, and I no longer have a gallbladder. But time remains as mysterious as ever – as does the inverse sensation of timelessness: the awareness of which appears to be strongest near the bookends of a mortal lifespan.
Timothy Reilly had been a professional tubaist (including a stint with the Teatro Regio of Torino, Italy). He has published widely, most recently in The MacGuffin and Superstition Review. He has received a Pushcart nomination. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti, a published poet and scholar.