I don’t remember exactly how old I was. The outer boundaries are maybe five years old, as that’s probably the youngest age at which I could form such a complete memory, and age seven, because of the house where this event occurred.
The house in question was located in a working class neighborhood on the east side of Denver, Colorado. Even with the garage converted into my parents’ bedroom the place only measured around 800 square feet. My sisters shared another bedroom, and I occupied the third alone–everybody paired up but me, unless you count the devil who lived at the foot of my race car bed. Technically, the dark lord lived not at the foot but rather beneath the front bumper of my race car bed, but you get the picture.
In the center of the house stood our living room, where a green velvet couch hunched in front of a big picture window that faced the street. My father had a night job delivering booze so he’d bring my mother uniquely-shaped liquor bottles, at least I think that’s where they came from. She would fill them with colored water and place them in the big picture window behind the green velvet couch, over which dangled a red lamp on a gold chain. The seventies were a very colorful decade.
I was an easily frightened boy. Night time meant separating from my family, my protectors, and facing the devil who lived at the foot, or front bumper, of my bed. I slept with my door open and the bathroom light shining. One evening after a particularly terrifying nightmare, I crawled onto the green velvet couch and stared at the red light, praying for the sun to rise and scare away the darkness. Its rays would burst through the bottles of colored water like holy light penetrating stained glass, consecrating the living room. Daylight promised even more safety than surrounding myself with an unbroken circle of stuffed animals, but not as much as not being alone.
The light was on a timer, but the timer was not synchronized with the sunrise. Eventually it shut off with an audible click, and I was plunged into the black abyss: no green velvet, no red light, no sun streaming through bottles of colored water. I lay there in the darkness waiting to die, but the devil never came for me. Perhaps he didn’t hear me get out of bed. He was probably still in my bedroom, waiting to grab me by the foot and drag me to hell.
I don’t know what possessed my parents later that Sunday afternoon, whether it was some sort of a test or a matter of some urgency, but they sat me down in the middle of the green velvet couch and told me that they were leaving me alone. “We won’t be gone very long,” my mother said, “just a few minutes. Just keep the door locked and don’t answer the phone.”
“And stay out of our room,” my father ordered.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To the store,” my mother said.
“Can I come?”
“Don’t be a pansy. Nothing’s going to happen,” my father said. They left and locked the front door behind them. The house was violently quiet. I wanted to turn on the television, but that wasn’t safe. What if something scary was on, like Circle of Fear or the war? Besides, I would have to leave the green velvet couch to turn on the TV, and its soft cushions provided the only sanctuary in the known universe. If Satan could grab me from the foot of my bed, he could hook a gnarled claw into me from beneath the couch. I was stranded on a moss green island with matching throw pillows.
I hummed. It seemed like the thing to do. I watched the light from the bottles dance upon the floor. I tried not to panic.
My father’s Rocky Mountain News hung over the couch’s arm like a slain deer. I thumbed through the sheets of paper until I found the funnies: Beetle Bailey, Tumbleweeds, Andy Capp, Dennis the Menace, Alley Oop, Gasoline Alley, Blondie, Peanuts. If I could get to the Silly Putty in my toy box I could stretch their cartoon faces into even funnier shapes, but that was impossible. My toy box was a thousand miles away.
I sat and read the comics. I even read Dick Tracy, Mary Worth, and Prince Valiant. I was no pansy: I was a man alone on a Sunday afternoon, reading his newspaper in peace. Just another boring day with the paper, feet tucked up like retractable landing gear so that the Prince of Darkness could not grab them.
When I finished the comics, I returned to their front page and read them again. And again. And again. Had my parents abandoned me? Is this how it happens? Was I an orphan now? Maybe the bad guys killed them. I better hum some more. That’s what people without worries do, right? They hum; well, they whistle, but I don’t know how to whistle.
I don’t know how long my parents were gone. It seemed like hours, but it may have only been a few minutes. They may have never really left. I’ve often wondered if they stepped outside and watched me through the picture window, wondering how I would handle myself. I doubt it, but I’ll never know. If my mother was still around to ask about that day I doubt she’d even remember it. The most terrifying moment of my early childhood wasn’t worthy of a long term memory for anyone but me.
What’s funny about childhood is how intensely we experience such things, yet as we age they lose their mojo. Eventually the devil left my bedroom, perhaps to find another child to torment, and then he was gone altogether–a fiction, no more real than Bill Sykes or the Wicked Witch of the West. My fear of being alone faded, too, as did my fear of the dark, both as outdated as a green velvet couch. All that remains is a stray memory of reading the funnies on a Sunday afternoon, alone and terrified and trying to be a man.