The nightmare is always the same.
The boy is standing in a narrow hallway, a door opened in the distance to a dimly lit room. The shadows make it difficult to see. The boy touches the damp, cold wall. The surface undulates, revealing the bodies of small children trying to break free. He jerks his hand away and sees a man framed in the doorway. Fear presses into his nostrils and mouth, choking him. He turns and runs, but it feels as if he is running underwater. He fights against the restraining force to get to the door, to the safety outside. The man is coming closer, his footsteps pounding. The boy can hear the man’s labored breathing and smell his rank breath. He is fighting with all his strength to get out, but the force keeps pulling him back. If he can get to the door, he’ll be safe. The shadow man grabs him from behind and he wakes up.
I was eleven years old and standing astride my metallic, purple Schwinn bike in an open dirt field. I was with Kim, my friend, seated on his bike. Kim was blonde and slight, with a lopsided smile and a sarcastic sense of humor. Summer light lingered in San Jose, reflected in a hazy golden glow on the blowing weeds. Even now, I still feel the warmth of the sun on the back of my neck.
“Come on, man, ask your dad for the money,” Kim said.
“He’s never going to give me money to go to the movies.”
“It’s a triple feature at the Jose, all Vincent Price…Dr. Phibes, The Conqueror Worm, some other one. I would think he would give you the money not to see your face for a few hours.”
“My dad is never going to give me money to see Vincent Price. He already believes that movies are of the Devil. Besides, he’s so tight with money, he squeaks when he farts.” We both laughed.
The dirt field used to be a cherry orchard until the trees were cut down to make way for a housing development. The stumps of cherry trees stood like gravestones, surrounded by weeds drifting back and forth in the wind. The sun was beginning to set, so we made our lazy way home.
We were riding on the sidewalk, when a voice called out to us.
We turned and saw a man standing alone in his garage.
“So, boys, I have a question: Do you do yard work? I would pay you.”
I did yard work weekly at home—it was part of my contribution to the household. It never involved financial rewards or an allowance. So the thought of making money doing yard work was exciting. We rolled our bikes to the edge of his driveway and observed him.
Stick-thin with a white shirt and black stove-pipe pants, he stared at us with a rictal grin. He had thin, combed-over black hair that looked like the shell of an oiled clam. He was partly hidden in the shadows of the garage, his hands hanging awkwardly at his sides. He was motionless and still as a spider in a web. The garage seemed haphazardly thrown together, tools and boxes on either side with no sense of organization, like they had only recently been placed, unopened. I couldn’t say why, but it gave me a feeling of disquiet in my body, that lack of neatness and order, so different from my home.
“How much?” asked Kim.
“Twenty dollars for the front and backyard, with weeding and raking up, once a week,” he said. Twenty bucks a week was serious money for two kids in 1968—you could go to a lot of movies and buy up most of what the five-and-ten cent store had in stock. I thought about packs of firecrackers and cherry bombs I could buy. We agreed, but Kim didn’t have a lawn mower, so I asked my dad for his, and he agreed to let me use it if I paid him to replace the gas. Typical.
The first couple of weeks nothing special happened, just some yard work for our neighbor Bob. His wife, a pale, frightened-looking woman with bleached blonde hair, always seemed to be hovering around whenever Bob came to talk to us. Once, after we had finished, Kim and I were in the garage with him when suddenly he grabbed both of us in a bear hug and said, “Oh, I love you boys!” Just then, Bob’s brother, a short, balding man with a fixed scowl, and Bob’s wife came out to the garage, and the brother said, “Bob” in a kind of warning voice. When Kim and I left, he said that he thought there was something weird about the guy, but I reminded him that the money was good, so we kept mowing the lawn every week.
It was late on a Saturday afternoon when we had finished mowing and some light weeding. The grass was patchy and brown in spots; the garden had only a few neglected juniper bushes. I pushed the lawnmower towards the back gate, and Kim grabbed the rake and was walking to put it in the garage. Bob stood in the frame of his back door, appearing out of nowhere. Kim jerked involuntarily when he saw him.
“Sorry, boys, my wife left with the checkbook, and I don’t have any cash on hand, but she’ll be back tonight. Why don’t you come around eight and I’ll pay you?”
Kim’s face turned rigid, and he looked at me sideways, his body tensed. He said he couldn’t come back that late. Since I lived a block away, I told them I could drop by and get the cash.
After dinner, I left my house and walked down the street and around the corner to Bob’s house. The night was moonless. The only sound was the occasional passing of a car on the empty street. Bob’s house looked dark from the sidewalk, but I could see a faint light coming through the paneled glass on the front door. I felt an unease that I couldn’t name. I wanted that money but had a knot in my stomach. I knocked and Bob answered, looking nervous and hyper. The only light came from one lamp next to his recliner chair. I could barely make out his tensed grin and expression of jittery anticipation, as he stood in the door frame, his face hidden in shadow.
“My wife hasn’t come back yet, but she should be here any minute,” he said.
I sensed that he was lying. The room had a musty smell, and the furniture looked worn and old. I sat on the edge of the sofa while Bob leaned forward in his recliner. We made forced small talk and he told me about his war service in Korea, that he had his face ripped off with a gun shell, then surgically stitched back on. He moved closer to me and showed the scars that ran down the left side of his hairline and past his ear. I backed away, feeling something predatory in the simple gesture. I feigned interest and mumbled a few words; I was unsure how he would react if I expressed disbelief. The only sound I could hear was the pounding of my heart.
Bob looked at me. His head was lowered and all I could see were the whites of his eyeballs, his eyelids two crescent moon slits. “Tell me Mike, have you ever had a blow job?”
I told him no, I hadn’t in a strained whisper. I didn’t know what a blow job was, but I knew I didn’t want to find out from Bob. I began to talk fast, telling him I could come back tomorrow to get paid, it was no big deal, words tumbling out of my mouth as I began to walk backwards toward the door.
“My wife will be back in just a minute. Why don’t you stay?” he said. He was speaking in a pressured, breathy voice as he started to get up from his brown, faded recliner, but he was off balance and fell back, grunting as he pushed himself up, standing and tripping slightly.
I repeated that I had to leave—my parents expected me back, my brother was home and we had something to do. I moved towards the door, stepping backwards, my face turned to him. I babbled, breathless, telling him I would see him tomorrow. My mouth filled with fear I could taste like gun metal. I kept walking backwards; it took an eternity to get to the door, and as I rushed out Bob called out to me, “Hey Mike, don’t mention to anyone that I asked you about the blow job, ok?”
I ran home so fast I flew, bursting through the front door of our small house. My mother was sitting in her chair in a housecoat while my dad and brother watched Hogan’s Heroes. My father, short and heavy set, was barefoot and eating grapes from a cereal bowl, leaning back in his recliner. Tufts of dark chest hair protruded from his faded tank top. My brother, Sal, nineteen years old and gainfully unemployed, was stretched out on the sofa. He had been living with us since being discharged from the army for having flat feet.
Neither my brother nor father looked up from the television, but my mother took me in with her eyes and asked in her Southern drawl, “What’s the matter, sugar?”
I stared at my mother’s open face, and suddenly fear turned in my stomach, like a washing machine churning. I became aware that true monsters were among us, not the Saturday matinee horror kind, but ones more real and frightening. I felt the immediacy of almost being violated. “The guy we’re doing yard work for asked me if I had ever had a blow job,” I blurted.
Well, that got everyone’s attention. “What the hell did you say?” Sal growled. My brother tended to act first and think later and could become violent when he got angry.
I told the story of what happened, and my brother thought that going over to Bob’s house and beating him to death would be a good idea. My brother, tall and wiry, could become violently erratic. One of the reasons he went into the army was that he had been arrested twice for assault.
I looked at my father, who seemed hesitant and uncertain. He looked at his bowl of grapes.
“Sam, what are you going to do? This man needs a talking to,” my mother said
My father finally made a decision that all three of us would go over to Bob’s the next day, get my money and tell him that Kim and I wouldn’t be mowing lawns for him anymore.
My brother exploded in anger, “Why wait? This guy needs a beating now!” He paced back and forth in the living room like a caged animal. I looked at my father and saw uncertainty and something I had never expected. Shame or embarrassment, I couldn’t decide which. I felt ashamed, as though I had been degraded and had brought disgrace to my family. There was a feeling that somehow, I had done something wrong, which I didn’t understand.
The matter was settled. I turned and looked at my family.
“What’s a blow job?”
They stared silently at the television screen.
The next day we went over to Bob’s house. His wife looked shaken, her eyes downcast. My father was uncomfortable, almost withdrawn, while Sal glowered with homicidal rage. “The boys aren’t going to mow your lawn anymore,” my father mumbled quietly. I looked at him, confused. Is that it? Is that all you are going to say? I thought. My father, who could be terrifying when he was whipping his children, was cowed in the presence of this man. Bob paid my father and said how sorry he was that I couldn’t mow his lawn anymore; I was such a hard worker. He waved at us from his driveway as we left.
“Have a good day,” he said.
We walked home in silence and that day was never spoken of again.
Shortly after that Bob and his wife were gone.
I never saw them again, but the shadow man never completely went away. The nightmares began in my mid-twenties and are my nocturnal companions to this day. Years later, I would hold back in fear of meeting the shadow man again, refusing invitations from a friend of a friend to get in a car to go someplace cool, sensing when something evil was unspoken in a friendly invitation.
Fifty years have passed. I think back to my innocence. That ended that night. I was lucky I’d gotten out that door. Would it have turned out differently if I had almost been violated by someone I trusted instead of a stick man with a skeleton grin?
Years later, at Sal’s funeral, I told my sister about this incident, and she told me that as a small child Sal had been sexually abused by a deacon in the church. He had abused other boys as well. The abuser was quietly fired, the incidents were hushed up, and no criminal charges were brought against him. My father had done nothing, and it was never spoken of in our family of secrets. I never knew about his abuse, and I wondered how Sal felt when he saw it almost happen to me, and how our father responded again.
I felt Sal had been abused, not only by the pedophile hiding in the church closet, but by my father and everyone who knew what happened and didn’t defend him. Sal was left to heal his wound alone. Did the same nightmares come to him in sleep? Nobody sat us down, told us we weren’t at fault, that we didn’t bring it on ourselves. We were left to work out our own salvation and healing.
Sal and my father are gone, and I am left alone with this memory. Men are fragile in unexpected ways. Sal’s life was not an easy one; addicted to opioids, he found out too late that his body was riddled with cancer. I will never know how many of his difficulties stemmed from the sexual abuse he suffered, or from my father’s reluctance to protect us, or both.
Now, I feel more deeply wounded by my father than by Bob, and I am unsure which of them is the shadow man.
Michael Cannistraci began his creative journey as an actor; he worked for thirty years acting in theatre and television. In mid-life he answered a new calling and completed a Master’s degree at Hunter College School of Social Work. He currently works as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. His essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Ravensperch, Literary Medical Messenger, The Evening Street Review, Bright Flash Literary Review, the Bangalore Review, The Dillydoun Review, East by Northeast,Stonecropmagazine, Glacial Hills Review, Iris Literary Review and the 34th Parallel. He was finalist in the Pen2Paper Literary Contest and The Good Life Review Literary Contest (he/his/him)