My Uncle Tru’s hands were completely covered with blood, from fingertips to a few inches below his wrists when he finished butchering Buttercup and entered the kitchen through the back door to go to the kitchen sink to wash up. I guess he must’ve resembled a surgeon or something, straight out of a horror movie, after a particularly gruesome splenectomy or brain transplant scene. My mother was standing there, near the sink, with a cup of coffee in her hand and still dressed in her slip and a short, somewhat sheer, kimono type house coat.
Apparently my Uncle true reached down with his right hand and pinched the seam of her slip. “Did you just get up or what?” he said.
My mother was not feeling well, apparently... a female thing, the ultimate female thing. “Don’t put your bloody hand on me!” she said and jumped back a bit.
So my uncle, as I would hear the story told years later, reached out with his bloody hand and deliberately pressed it against my mother’s off-white slip, at her pelvis, leaving a handprint, like the cavemen had in Chauvet, France thirty-one thousand years ago, or Borneo twelve thousand years ago or the Gargas cave some twenty-seven thousand years ago... as a sign to all other men that they had been there... supposedly.
My father walked into the kitchen at that exact moment.
He had just returned from his job interview with Todd Snodgrass, a man he had known in high school. It was a rival high school actually in a small town about thirty miles from the one he’d attended. They’d met at football games and knew each other from a drive-in where the waitresses still came out on roller skates to deliver root beer in frosted mugs and French fries and burgers in oblong plastic baskets.
My father had sat in a hard backed chair at the edge of the large shiny executive’s desk and watched across it as Todd, sitting in his cushioned chair on the other side, studied the application for work that my father had filled in, the night before, with a blue ballpoint pen, sitting at the kitchen table where the various members of our extended family ate all of our meals. He had been known as a straight shooter in high school, Todd had, and grown into a well-known man in the community and respected. My father, on the other hand, had garnered a reputation as something of a hellion in his glory days; and his current ones, was having trouble holding down a job.
And in that particular moment, that my father sat watching his high school acquaintance scrutinize his employment history, he would recall an unpleasant incident that had occurred between the two of them, him and Todd, at a bowling alley. And he would wonder if Todd remembered that evening and the verbal skirmish that seemed like it might result in fisticuffs over a pair of rented shoes that turned out to be too tight on my father’s feet anyway.
What does the “R” stand for?”
“R?” my father would ask.
“Your middle initial.”“Robert.”
“I never knew that.”“No real reason for you to.”
“So you could’ve been JR instead of JT.”
“I suppose. Look...” my father would ask. “How about it? Have you got something for me or not?”
“Do you still bowl?” Todd Snoddgrass would ask, not glancing up from the piece of paper in his hands that was actually a bit worse for wear because my father had folded it and carried it in his pocket briefly.
“Oh! I see how it is!” my father had said.
“See how what is?” Todd had said. “If memory serves me you were a pretty good bowler. Honestly, that’s about all I remember about you. I know we were sort of acquainted back in the day but other than you being the king of the lanes, I don’t really recall much else.”
“I was pretty decent.” my father said, not sure what to make of what Todd Snoddgrass had just said.
“Do you still bowl? I don’t... rarely, if ever.”
My father looked first at the bloody handprint on my mother’s white slip just below her abdomen and then at Tru’s blood covered hands.
“What the fuck is going on here!?” he said.
“Nothing is going here.” My mother said.
“What the fuck do you think is going on?” Tru said.
“I need to talk to you.” My mother would say as she pushed my father toward the door that led to the hallway that led to the stairs.
“You look like you just crawled out of bed!” my father would say.
“I am not feeling good...” my mother would say. “Please...”She continued to push my father toward the door, gently but firmly.
“Yeah me too.” My uncle would say. “I need to talk to you too.”
“About what?!” my father would snap back.
My mother had turned herself so that her back was to my uncle and she was facing my father. “I missed my period...” is what she whispered to him that day, under her breath, if I’ve got the story right...
“Did you get the job?” my mother would ask once she found herself behind closed doors with my father, in their bedroom.
“I don’t know...” my father would answer dragging his hand across his head and looking at the wall as if some magical solution to the complex situation the family was in might be written there in the old wallpaper. “Todd said they don’t have anything right now, here... but maybe soon in Odessa.”
“They’ve got a bunch of offices in West Texas... one in Pecos and Monahans and Cisco, I think. But I’d be digging ditches for Christ sake.”
“Well we’re gonna have to do something...” my mother would say, “because I’m pretty sure our welcome here is wearing thin.”
“I know... I know...”
“And the school called....”
“They want us to come in and meet with them about Little John.”
“What did he do?” my father asked.
“He told them he saw a ghost.”“He’s eight years old!” my father said. “Kids his age say shit like that. What’s the big deal?”
“He said it was in the bathtub with him.”
“In the bathtub?” my father said looking at my mother and wrinkling his brow. “Is that supposed to mean something... special? That he saw a ghost in the bathtub with him?”
I was asleep. It was after midnight. I wasn’t sure what woke me. I thought it was Hector growling but it wasn’t. He lay beside me, very still. I couldn’t even hear him breathing actually.
It was a whispering sound sort of, that was kind of like the buzzing of an insect. I thought maybe at first it was a mosquito flying near my face but then realized it sounded more like words... tiny words and female... behind me in the bed. I thought I could even feel her breath on the back of my neck raising the hairs and flipped over quickly.
But she wasn’t there. The bed was empty.
She was standing at the foot of it instead- making that buzzing sound.
“What do you want?”
“Mzzz mzzz mzzz...” the young Woman in White buzzed. The dark red stain in the center of her slip glistened as it spread outward like an octopus in all directions.
“What do you want?” I said again and she turned.
“Mzzz mzzz mzzz...” she said as she left the room.
Hector, awake now and watching the young Woman in White, jumped down off the bed and ran after her. “Bawrrr rawrrr rawrrr!”
“Hector!” I said.
“Bawrrr rawrrr rawrrr!” I heard in concert with the sound of my dog’s tiny toenails clicking on the wooden stairs as he descended.
“Shut that dog up!” I heard my uncle bawl from the floor below.
The backdoor was open somehow and Hector dashed out into the yard and then the woods beyond. “Bawrrr rawrrr rawrrr!”
I ran out after him.
It was only seconds before I heard him yelp suddenly- a cry that I could not distinguish between fear and pain. And then... there was only silence.
“Hector!” I said desperately. “Hector!” I shouted and started for the woods but my mother had come down and out by that point and took hold of me by the shoulder.
Since Vice Principal Morgan had been the faculty member to originally question me about my black eye and the cut above my eyebrow, Principal Stanley apparently decided to defer the entire matter to him, which was fine with me and all parties concerned, I think. Doctor Stanley was known more for his work with “the Whistler” and less for the sensitivity required in counseling. There was however, another teacher who was asked to “sit in” the day my mother and father came to answer questions about my injuries and claims that they had been caused by an encounter with a ghost- Apolonia Frost.
She was relatively new to the school and the area in general. Only three years earlier she had completed a Master’s degree in school counseling with an emphasis in grade school children, and actually performed the “hands on” or two hundred and forty or so hours of direct student contact at our little country elementary school. She was so well liked by the board and faculty and students that she had been offered a fifth grade teaching position and the opportunity to ply her trade as a counselor.
She was a fair skinned woman with large dark eyes and prominent eyebrows and jet black hair that she kept dyed auburn and would occasionally travel thirty three miles to a nearby, larger town, to have either re-dyed or touched up out of concern that her natural color might cause people to notice her in a way that she did not want to be noticed. And it was for that same reason that she went by Frost instead of Frozard, her real surname, a Creole name that might bring into question her ethnicity. It was Texas after all, considered by many to be a Southern State, and the early sixties, and even though Apolonia didn’t really look African American- not how blacks were referred to at the time- she was however- at least one eighth- what folks still called an octoroon in that era.
But in reality, Apolonia most likely had more Chitimacha blood, the only Native American Tribe in Louisiana that still occupied a portion of their original homeland near Charenton in St. Mary Parish. She’d actually been to the “rez” once as a little kid, to visit her great grandmother who was supposedly some kind of “medicine woman” or something. That visit was the single event that most inspired Apolonia, sometimes known as Paulina or Paula, to pursue a career in counseling as well as a lifelong curiosity toward Native American folklore and superstitions and magic. Her great grandmother was a wise old lady whom all the adults and especially the children flocked around for advice... and she was magical.
“It was quite a story that Little John told...” Vice Principal Morgan said, “About his black eye and the cut... a ghost in the bathtub with him!?”
“He’s got a busy imagination...” my mother said.
“Does he talk about seeing ghosts very often?” Paulina Frost asked.
“Not ghosts specifically.” my mother said. “He’s got a sleeping disorder. I think he gets his dreams mixed up with reality sometimes.”
“Yeah...” Paulina said matter of fact. “Kids his age often invent fantastic stories to make themselves seem more important... especially if they feel disadvantaged.”
“Why would he feel disadvantaged?” my father asked.
“Perhaps the sleep disorder...” Paulina said, still matter of fact.
“And I understand that you are looking for work.” the Vice Principal added.
“What does that have to do with anything?” my father quickly fired back, becoming slightly defensive.
“I’m sure the other children probably talk about their fathers’ jobs and their mothers’...” Vice Principal Morgan said.
“And you’re staying in the home of relatives.” Paulina added.
“I take care of my family!” my father said, teetering at the edge of hostility.
“Nobody is implying that you don’t, Mr. Thomas.” Paulina interjected. “We are just exploring things in Little John’s life that might make him feel compelled to... fabricate events and possible explanations.”
“Sometimes... children invent stories because something happened at home that their parents warned them not to say anything about.” Vice Principal Morgan said. “Did something happen that you told Little John not to talk about?”
“Oh great!” my father snapped. “So now, I beat him!?”
“Nobody said that.” The Vice Principal responded.
“But that is what you’re hinting at. Not only am I unable to keep a roof over his head because I don’t have a job but I smack him!”
“There are some reports...” Paulina interjected.
At that point, my father rose from his chair. Actually, I am told it was more like he shot up out of it. “That’s it!” he said. “This conversation is over!”
“No, Mr. Thomas...” Apolonia Frozard, AKA Paulina Frost said, “This conversation is not over. We need to make an evaluation. Either your son, simply has an overactive imagination, as Mrs. Thomas suggested, or something more serious is going on.”
“I’m beating him!” my father said with contempt.
“There is a mental disorder or... psychiatric syndrome at least...” Paulina said. “Disorder may be too harsh a term.... Pseudologia Fantastica...”
“My son is not a pathological liar, Miss Frost.” My mother said. “I went to college. I took a class in psychology and I have a friend who is a child psychologist.”
“There are more characteristics of Pseudologia Fantastica than just pathological lying.” Paulina said. “It is also known as Mythomania. Individuals who suffer from the syndrome create fantastical stories that they tell so frequently and earnestly that they come to believe them wholeheartedly to be true and actually lose ability to distinguish them from reality.”
“And isn’t it also considered to be hereditary?”
“Genetic... possibly... and there is a distinction.”
“You say tomahto... I say potahto.”
“Is she calling our entire family habitual liars?” My father said as he began to comprehend the full gist of what my mother and Paulina Frost were saying.
“You had an imaginary playmate didn’t you, JT?” Vice Principal Morgan said looking over the top of his glasses at my father. “Henry was his name if I remember correctly.”
William Morgan had a long history with JT’s family, not all of which JT actually remembered. He had been a friend of JT’s mother, Edith, an admirer actually and for a period of time, a suitor. That had not gone so well... for reasons beyond his control.
He had served in the Airforce during the war and after his final tour was stationed at the military base where Edie worked in the commissary. And although the base was primarily an Army Base, Edie showed a personal preference for the “flyboys”. She would ultimately be married to two after his and her brief and somewhat passionate entanglement.
She was a young, single widow when they met. JT’s father had been killed in a freak explosion in a factory that manufactured paint, all of which was made from oil and flammable solvents back then. And she was a good looking woman. But she was too much, a bit on the “wild side” for William- even though he himself had acquired the nickname “Wild Bill” for the audacity he’d displayed on occasion in aerial battles. And in addition, Edie seemed a bit too eager, for William’s liking, to find a husband and father for her boy, even though it was understandable. But it was not however, Edie’s over eagerness to be wed but her drug use ultimately, that would cinch Wild Bill’s decision to get out of the relationship. Morphine addiction was common in this days, it had been since the Civil War. It was actually even referred to as the “army disease”. And Edie had definitely contracted it.
William Morgan wanted a family and had decided upon a career as an educator and even though he would never marry (a coincidence actually) and keep an eye on Edith and JT from a safe distance, he would opt out of any further emotional intimacy with them.
“You would make your mother set a place for him at the table.” Vice Principal Morgan said. “And you missed school for days when his family moved out of town and took Henry with them.”
“So what?!” was my father’s response. “A lot of kids have imaginary playmates.”
“Absolutely!” Paulina Frost said. “And most of them become well balanced, productive members of society. All we are trying to figure out is if your son has some kind of genetic predisposition to a psychological syndrome to make up fantastic stories or if there is something going on at home that is causing him to insist on things that aren’t real.”
“Unless ghosts are real.” my mother said.
A hush descended upon the room at that moment, or so the story was told to me.
“We would like to come see the home you are sharing with your relatives.” Paulina Frost finally said breaking the sudden quiet. “And determine for ourselves if we think the environment itself is contributing.”
“I am afraid that is not possible.” My mother said without hesitation.
“Your choices are Principle Morgan and me...” Paulina Frost said, “Or Social Services. And we really need to meet the other adults and any other children living in the home.”
Of course I was not allowed to venture out into the woods and look for Hector or his body. I was inconsolable. I sweat that night as I slept and I woke frequently and looked in the lump of covers next to me or on the floor for my dog. It was rare that Hector didn’t sleep in the bed, snuggled up against me, but sometimes he would get down and not be able to get back up, especially on very dark nights.
At one point, after tossing one way or the other for a few hours and lifting my head several times to see if perhaps it had all been a bad dream and maybe Hector had returned- there he was in fact- standing in the doorway between my bedroom and the hallway. He looked perfectly fine, I could see what looked like was a small amount of dirt on him- his back- but other than that, he was okay.
“Hector...” I said. “Come here! Come here boy!”
But he didn’t. Instead he turned and hurried out the door and down the hallway.
I could hear his toenails clacking softly on the floor as he hurried away. I don’t even remember tossing the covers back and going after him. Nor do I recall where I found my father’s flashlight or going out the back door. The next thing I remember, I was standing a few yards away from the edge of the woods. Hector had stopped and I had caught him in the bright beam of the flashlight: he looked like a tiny, tiny deer standing there as I carefully approached him. There was something different. It was my little Chihuahua dog alright but... it wasn’t... somehow... and then he turned and disappeared into the brush.
“Hector! Hector!” I called out as I ran after him.
The woods seemed eerie to me like I didn’t know them although I should have. The ends of the tree and brush branches kind of pinched at me arms and my face as I passed through like crawdad pincers. The sky above was clear and the moon was a sharp, glowing sickle tilted like the crooked grin of Democrat politician, as my father once said, so there was light enough without the flashlight, but still everything felt distorted and colored wrong or too dark or something inscrutable to description.
It seemed like an eternity creeping but was probably only seconds before I broke into a clearing and found Hector with his face and nose down, digging in a small spot of earth that looked as it had already been recently turned. He had never been much of digger like some dogs, but he was intent on it at that moment- something in the earth there was of tremendous concern to him.
“What is it boy?” I said as I walked toward him. “What is it?”
He growled a bit... I guess it was a growl... from his throat... didn’t sound like a dog so much, especially a small dog- more like a bassoon with a cracked reed or a broken oboe or something... even though I didn’t know what those things were at the time, it’s the way I remember it. And he raised his face. The hair and skin were peeled back off one cheek to the bone and his teeth were exposed and gleaming like tiny metal nails. And one of his eyes was huge and popped out of his head and canted sort of, off to one side. He didn’t even look like a dog anymore- more like a snub nosed monkey with his face opened up like a star nosed mole. And then he plunged his mouth into the dirt and jerked out... himself... what he looked like after he’d been mutilated. His bowels were hanging out and his throat was ripped open.
I screamed at the sight and turned to run but... my mother was there.
“Johnny...” she said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Whaaa...ttt?” I said, “Whuuuu...” waking up to realize that I had been dreaming. I was dressed only in my jockey shorts... standing in a clearing in the brush. I had dragged the quilt with me, from my bed, out into the woods. It had been my first dream... or nightmare anyway about Hector. It had somehow led to me where my father had buried him.