close brushes with the macabre by caleb hildenbrandt

“I used to be friends with this kid whose dad used to blow up abortion clinics.”

“Wow.”

“Your turn.” I fold my receipt twice and tuck it in my pocket.

“No, really, like, you knew him personally? You met his dad?”

“Yeah.”

“When was this?” She looked as if she were going to dig up the newspaper archives to cross-check my story.

“When I was eleven or so. The kid was about eight, but the bombings happened before he was born. Late eighties.”

Jimmy Simmons sold toy wooden guns and knives at the flea market downtown. He made the toys himself, carving them from real knives he deftly spun and tossed for the people who stopped by his booth. Sometimes he’d pick up odd jobs around town. One Saturday in summer I saw him mowing the grass on the front lawn of the church, riding a red lawnmower whose shine was blinding. He stared straight ahead, his eyes, under the brim of his ballcap and under the sweat and grime on his forehead, fixated on some distant point behind and above me. It was only years later that I figured out that the odds jobs came from people who didn’t do background checks or simply didn’t care that he was what the newspapers had chosen to call the “Christmas Bomber.”

“I’m going to have a hard time topping that.” She blew hair out of her eyes. “My dad used to work as a prosthetics artist for this really small movie studio.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, he used to come home wearing monster masks, like, all the time. He’d slip it on in the car, and when me or my sister answered the doorbell, he’d jump at us, screaming. It’d scare the fucking shit out of me, and I’d cry, and pee my pants, and my mom’d come, and console us, and gripe at my dad, which eventually just turned into giving him the evil eye, which eventually turned into just sighing from the kitchen.”

“Wait, so, how often did this happen?”

“Like I said, pretty much all the time. It’s kind of embarrassing, really, that I didn’t just come to expect it.”

“He sounds like a jerk.”

“I think he just never really grew up past the age of ten. He wasn’t mean, he just wanted a reaction. When we were teenagers, we’d just stare at him and he’d keep going ‘Aargh! AaaaAAargh! Scary, huh? Did I scare you?’ and we’d roll our eyes and Mom would yell that dinner was almost ready.”

“When you were teenagers? How many masks did he have?”

“Oh, god, you have no idea. They probably turned out a new movie or sequel every few months, and they never re-used a prop unless it was for a sequel. Which resulted in our basement looking like a scene from one of their movies, full of exposed ribcages and severed heads.”

“Sounds traumatic.”

She laughed as the guy behind the counter called our orders. We picked up our trays and walked to a table.

“So you’re a Poe fan.” She said. “When were you hooked?”

“Eleven years old. A paperback in a Florida barbershop. It was that or Readers’ Digest while I waited for five octogenarians to get their few remaining hairs clipped by one equally-ancient barber.”

“Hardly an appropriate venue.” She dragged a french fry through a mound of ketchup she’d squirted out onto her sandwich wrapper.

“It works better than you think,” I said. “Old age and encroaching death, people wrapped in white sheets like shrouds, the snickering of swinging, groping blades in the dark.”

“In the dark?”

“The barber had really bad cataracts. Where were you?”

Her eyes rolled up in her head and she stuck out her chin as she talked.

“My parents bought this set of abridged classics when I was six, and they took out the Poe volume and hid it in their bedroom when they put the rest in the living room. So naturally I snuck in when they weren’t looking and read it cover-to-cover–and then that night a hurricane hit.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah. We were living overseas, so we were in this old embassy house with these window shutters, giant live oaks outside, and I’m up all night with lightning and thunder and branches scraping against my window, and the windows flying open, which, when occurring through the whole house, makes all the doors in the hallways start creaking open and slamming shut. And next morning we went out to find an oak in our courtyard had fallen on a bum on the sidewalk, and street dogs were eating his legs.”

I stared at her for a moment.

“Well,” I said, “you’ve won this round.”

                                                                               #

We were in Baltimore for the one-hundred-and-seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of Edgar Allen Poe. There was going to be a graveside address later that afternoon. I’d gone by the grave earlier, seen the stone with its black inset medallion engraved with the face of the man, staring out at me from his granite column. Some academic-looking types were milling around, along with some middle-aged cat ladies and a few goth kids whose pants clanked as they shuffled around the monument, which they all seemed to enjoy calling a “cenotaph.” Virginia was one of the goth kids.

If I belonged to any of the three groups I saw at the graveside, I suppose it was the academics, but Virginia and I began to talk, and now we were eating a late lunch as we waited for the memorial address to begin. As we had walked the three blocks to the McDonald’s where we ended up stopping, we had started comparing notes on, as Virginia put it, “close brushes with the macabre.”

Charlie’s mom would come over to our house and spend the day with my mom, talking behind closed doors as we–Charlie and I–played in the yard. More than once I heard retching noises from the other room and stepped into the hall to see a pair of feet protruding from the bathroom and to hear the sound of the toilet flushing. My dad would come home and Mrs. Simmons would leave soon after, scuttling herself and Charlie into their van.

“Crap.” Virginia had ripped open a ketchup packet with too much force, and red paste had squirted across her lap, staining the front of her skirt.

“My dad–” She says, “I forgot to mention. There weren’t just masks. There were, ha,” she laughs as she dabs at the stain with a napkin, “there were these little jets, little orifices in the masks and prosthetics that would ooze or shoot fluids, fake blood and pus and stuff that he could eject with a squeeze bulb hidden inside his sleeve. Hell on the carpet.”

We would be watching a movie, and my mother would lean over to me and say quietly,

“Hey–who does that guy remind you of?”

It was always the same answer, the range of people who corresponded to this archetype truly astounding. From an aging senator to the brutish foil for a soap opera’s main male, nearly any face with over-earnest eyes and heavy features, anyone with a squarish head and black, wavy hair would remind her of Charlie.

“Um,” I would say, pretending to give it some thought. “Charlie.”

“Yeah! You see it too?”

It could happen while we were watching a movie or while we were walking down the street. We could be behind someone in line to check out at the grocery store and, as soon as they were past earshot, she would lean over and ask if I saw it too.

It’s possible that Charlie just had “one of those faces,” the unremarkable set of features that form the basis for thousands of phenotypes, God’s basic pattern on which he later elaborated for the sake of variety, but still occasionally dusted off and injected into the gene pool in the hopes that we wouldn’t notice.

But I don’t know why my mother seemed to find him everywhere. Years later, after we had moved and lost all contact with the family, my mother told me that the Simmons had often been hungry–that at the women’s Bible study Mrs. Simmons had been complimented on her figure, and only later, puking into my mother’s toilet, did she say that the thinness was not the result of effort but of her husband’s inability to get and keep a job. She privately claimed that she did not diet, that the vomit in the toilet was the result of an uninsured illness.

                                                                               #

“Wow, I hadn’t expected this big a crowd!” Virginia is exclaiming as we come in sight of the graveyard. We increase our pace and push our way through the people, all leaning forward, all stretching their necks to see. There are cameras flashing in the late afternoon gloam and a police car has pulled up on the street outside.

A mound of dirt lies beside the grave. The monument is listing, as if it has been pushed aside, and there, in front of us, is a hole. I peer in, and Virginia grips my arm for balance as she leans in too.

At the bottom of the pit is an open coffin, empty.

                                                                               #

Charlie’s dad sold his toys in the center of town, in a flea market that had been planted on a scraped-bare portion of earth near the town’s main intersection, where the mud and brush had been sucked off and ejected to some yet more abandoned place. The wooden guns that he carved himself shot rubber bands that you looped from the front of the barrel to the hammer in the rear. You pulled the trigger and the hammer went down, sending the rubber band shooting out, around and around and end over end. Charlie told me he would ride his bike and shoot at the mailboxes along his street.

                                                                               #

Virginia and I are in my car, waiting for the crowds to go away, and I have my phone out, trying to find out what has happened. Our pocket editions of Poe feel more and more out of place, growing conspicuously heavier in the front pockets of our jackets as we realize it will never be the same again.

“It’s a pretty obvious stunt, if you think about it.” Virginia says.

“I don’t think it is,” I say.

My mother obsessed about the Simmons after we moved out of the sun-probed south and entered the colder regions of the north. Her tendency to see Charlie wherever she went was all too like the reported sensation of insurmountable regret felt by post-abortive women when they see an infant in the arms of another. She felt, I believe, not so much regret (at what? At abandoning Mrs. Simmons? At abandoning Charlie?) but at the sensation of having had a close call with the person of Jimmy Simmons—with the possibility of having been him, or of having married him, or of having given birth with him.

I can see again the listing cenotaph and its engraved portrait, and I realize that I have seen the face before, that its black hair and bagged eyes are an image that has been with me for years.

“I’m leaving,” I say.

By the time Virginia steps out of the car my key is already turning in the ignition. By sunset the grave is far behind me, and the paperback of Poe sits at the bottom of a gas station dumpster.
 
 
Caleb Hildenbrandt takes copious notes. His collection of short stories, This Is Not the End, is now available.