The sense of free fall passes. Sealed eyes crack open one after another as a world of blackness makes itself apparent. The sense of tumbling, headlong, down the shaft of a forgotten well lingers as I recall the moment before my fall.
There was no crash upon striking bottom. No scream. No life flashing before my eyes.
And save for the splintering of innocence there are no breaks, no fractures.
I find myself crouched, huddled; hands squeeze a head sporting two tender goose bumps.
More a husk than a seed I cower like primitive man in a cave, giving myself up to the whims of darkness.
Silently I collect myself as a world forms around me. I squat in two feet of brackish water. Like a wick, the water sucks heat from my bones. Rising from my crouched position I stand straight causing the clingy black water to drain away, splashing, as it hits a surface just above my knees. Exhaling, I watch as a dragon’s plume of vapor rushes away, lost within inches of my face as it succumbs to surrounding darkness.
I look up to inventory this place. As far as the eye can see a telescoping blackness rushes to where the sky should be. And as eyes adjust, I waive a hand before my face causing a tiny speck of light to leap from a well-worn wedding band.
Standing in the slowly swirling water, I shiver. “Cold.”
From all about a chorus of echoes softly returns my whisper. “Cold.”
As the chorus fades to black I remain still, listening for a sound other than dripping water.
“Alone,” I whisper.
My echo, however, does not respond.
The silence whispers in my ear, “You should be scared.”
And I am. I take my time to extend arms wide. My body forms the shape of a cross as outstretched hands are quickly swallowed by a velvety blackness. And somewhere in that blackness, at the far ends of those vanishing hands, the tips of fingers find cool, wet, stone.
Alarmed at the proximity of the looming stone, my arms recoil.
My chest thumps dully as ears prick in search of additional clues.
I listen as quick breaths burst forth to pack a passing moment. A second moment arrives and it too is packed full. Then another. And another. And as I work to control my breathing scattered drops of water plop here and there, piercing the otherwise calm liquid lollygagging around my thighs.
Listening to the periodic plops I gather enough courage to once more extend arms. Like a slow starting propeller I rotate counter clockwise a full 360 degrees. As I move about in a tightly wound circle traipsing fingers do not leave stone.
Below my line of sight water sloshes softly as moisture creeps up my jeans.
Having completed my rotation, and now further chilled by the stone wall, my arms withdraw from their probe to form an X across my chest. Grabbing the tops of bare shoulders I shiver and rub away sprouting goose bumps.
I wait and, as pupils dilate, the weight of the current situation patiently piles atop of me. The weight accumulates and, as it does, a cool mist begins to swirl, licking at my chest, my arms, my back and my face. I convulse as the mist envelops me, tightening its grip.
Ribs bend as the musty smell of decay creeps forward. The scent of an autumn’s genocide of leaves, piled on top of each other in a shallow grave, fills my nostrils; fills my mouth. A sense of decay, of blossoming sadness, swallows me.
Suddenly nauseous, I lurch forward as my stomach expels this morning’s coffee.
The water below greedily swallows my gently used coffee with an appreciative plop.
And though my coffee and I have parted ways the sense of nausea remains.
My neck begins to burn. Then, as if those flicking tongues of mist have decided it’s time for a final squeeze, my chest buckles. I stagger, tumbling against the wall. The side of my face connects with stone while the sound of a pumpkin striking pavement fills my ears. White lights dance as I struggle to right myself. Head throbbing, I shove off the wall and stand tall. An exploration of the side of my head rewards me with the discovery of a tender goose egg.
Joining the sound of breaths echoing off rising stone, the din of dripping water lancing a puckering surface jerks me to attention. Rain drops, I imagine. Each engaging the water with a crisp splash; each individual drop startling me.
Considering the potential source of the falling water I arch my neck. Now and then drops the size of ball bearings strike my face and shoulders. And as I continue to stare into the blackness above, a speck of white comes into focus. The faraway speck leaks a beam of light, stretching to find me here, at the bottom of a deep black well.
Cautiously I call to the light. “Hello?”
Then with a sense of urgency I yell louder. “Hell-o. Hell-o!”
My words rush like spiders up the curved wall before losing strength. Exhausted, they fall back to their place of origin.
My arms rise to block the falling words.
“Hell-o?” calls my echo.
Again I yell to the shimmering speck in the sky. “Help me! Please.”
From faraway my echo calls back, this time with a sense of empathy. “Help me! Please.”
As the echo expires, my breathing quickens into a series of desperate gasps. Within a moment the gasps overwhelm the sound of falling rain.
“Trapped,” I whisper.
“Trapped,” my echo confirms.
An ancient drumbeat of despair pounds my heart as I stand on tip toes. Savagely I claw at the wall. I try leaping to gain a grip but fail as the brackish water tugs at my pant legs. New sounds, the sounds of nails scraping and breaking against stone, fill the well. The clawing continues, for how long I cannot say, before finger tips tipped in blood give up.
Drained, I struggle to control my breathing. Stepping forward I find the wall with the palms of both hands. And as palms rest upon mossy stone I lean back as far as I can before heaving my head forward, slamming my forehead against the wall. The bottom of the well explodes with a crack and a flash as I reel, staggered by the blow. Losing my balance I fall back, coming to rest against the portion of the wall to my rear.
A church bell sounds inside my head. Soon I discover a second goose egg.
In time the throbbing dulls. I push off the wall and, closing my eyes, try to compose myself before looking upward once more. The dot of light swells and pulses. Consuming a greater portion of the blackness above it expands and shimmers like a new moon. I howl at what appears to be a reaching beam of a light. “Help me, please!”
My echo does not respond.
And knowing not even my echo can reach me I scream. The cry of a fallen animal leaps skyward to fill the cylinder above me. Dodging falling drops and mixing with coiling mist the sound ricochets upward; reaching for that source of light. Like my previous cries, however, my plea stalls. It falters just below the circle of light.
The sound falls silently, eventually plopping into the liquid drifting about my legs.
Head bowed, I give up as tender fingertips find solace below the surface of cool liquid.
Again I peer upward, squinting through the wafting mist, at that thickening beam of light.
My heart leaps.
Movement. Within the light!
Something comes to life within the beam of light!
As if alerting an unseen companion I point to the sky. A reflection drifts within the blooming disk of white. With great concentration I watch as, ever so slowly, an image comes into view.
My brow creases. “A man?” Cupping my eyes to protect them from falling water the flickering outline of a man comes to life.
Then, like a projected movie, the black and white shape jerks into motion. Details become clear as legs step forward and bare arms swing slowly at his side. As if descending a reaching moon beam a memory glides down the stream of light, gaining speed as it pours over me, filling the bottom of a deep black well.
And recognizing familiar sloped shoulders, small eyes and prominent nose I whisper into silence. “No. Not him.”
From just out of reach I hear the words return to me, “No. Not him.”
My mouth falls open, only to fill with the taste of decay and, fighting the urge to vomit, I watch as my father comes into focus.
The scene crystalizes within a floating white disk as I watch my father exit the second floor bathroom of our former New Jersey home. Clear as day I watch as he turns right and comes to stand in front of the door leading to the bedroom of my teenage years.
Barefoot, he stares at the door leading to my room in the attic.
Despite my distant vantage point I see it all; his gym shorts, his still dark hair, glistening after a morning shower, a sleeveless tee shirt stretched over the body of an athlete, a sun spotted face, his creased brow. Above his right eye runs a newly stitched wound. And I remember that wound, the result of an errant ball thrown during warmups before a St. Catherine’s softball game. In fact, with the still tender wound as my marker, I remember this day.
Time mingles with wafting light as I remember the moment into which he about to step.
I know what happens next.
And recognizing my father’s immediate future I again grow nauseous. Bile percolates to fill my mouth. Lurching forward I dry heave, a line of spittle connecting me to the brackish water below.
Righting myself I try to scream a warning but fail; my voice blocked with still rising bile. Feet stomp in swelling horror, the effect muted by the water sloshing about my knees. Tears join the thickening volley of rain drops as I pull at my hair, in the process bending and twisting my ears so as to leave a streak of broken nail marks on the back of each ear.
Finding my voice, I plead, “Please, not this.”
The well gobbles up my words and at the end of that shimmering light, my father misses my distant plea.
He squints, as if perturbed, and rubs his ear. Seeking some piece of comfort he squeezes well-worn shag with bare toes. Grey morning light spreads like butter around his feet, dulling the sense of day break.
He holds his breath as the muted sounds of morning fill his second floor hallway. From above, rain drums a pitched roof, newly shingled and eager for a first date with winter. The steady drumbeat begins to crescendo as he remains still, refusing to exhale; refusing to accept the implications of the coming moment.
He continues to hold his breath as time slows, swirling about his knees and growing heavy. Outside, the thumping rain overflows wooden gutters to pour onto a garbage can below. He raises and drops sloped shoulders. Around his feet, the carpet seems to moisten as time collects and thickens before disappearing into an angry whirlpool.
His chin falls to a now burning chest and he wonders – if just for a moment – if he’s imagining the whirlpool of brackish water at his feet. He blinks before shutting eyes tight. Around his feet time drains away, sucking color from the here and now.
He steps back, as if scared of tumbling into a hole.
Finally, he exhales a dragon’s plume of morning breath. The plume quickly disappears, mingling with leaking time to slip over the edge of that terrifying hole in the form of elongated rain drops. They fall for years, stretching and tumbling toward his eldest son as he stands alone at the bottom of a deep black well.
During decent those elongated rain drops pierce the reaching beam of light to launch a kaleidoscope of shimmering sparkles. And soon the well is filled with flickering light as it ricochets from stone to stone, dancing and leaping, before finding bottom. Disoriented by the light, I stagger before coming to rest against the wall. And there, as I lean against cool stone, scores of crisscrossing fingernail marks come into focus under a downpour of shimmering sparkles.
For some portion of time my heart simply stops.
These nail marks are weathered. They are old.
And they are not mine.
I place my hands over decades old nail marks and it dawns on me; I am not the first to inhabit this deep black well.
My face burns; as does my neck. Again I try to scream and again I fail, my throat filled with the rising residue of time. As the waterfall of sparkles fades I stare up the well and watch as my father stands still in front of the door leading to my teenage bedroom.
He steps toward the edge of a black eyed well and, willing himself forward, he rests a hand upon a glass doorknob, its multi-faceted face reflecting any number of potential outcomes.
Steeling himself he listens one last time as the sounds of early morning innocence fill his home. He hears mom’s delicate snore, singing softly from their bedroom, the cat’s hurried patter across the kitchen floor below, leafless branches swiping at the bathroom window, the clanging expansion of circa World War II pipes as they protest the waking efforts of an ancient boiler and the rush of time, sounding much like rain overflowing from wooden gutters to fall and drum a solitary garbage.
From my vantage point so very far away I too hear the delicate orchestra of his early morning home and I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he confident in his suspicions? Does he know what he’ll find? Does he recall the circumstances of my vacant room; my plans to sleep at Marcus’s house following the prior evening’s concert at the Garden?
Does he remember our argument the night before?
Does he remember what he said? His rising anger?
I do; I remember.
And now, from far away, I consider the night before.
Before leaving on the 4:30 PM commuter train to Hoboken to catch the Path to the city I had shared my evening plans with Dad as he washed dishes in the kitchen. Hands in pockets the teenage me scuffed at the kitchen’s linoleum floor. “Um, Dad, I’m taking the train to the city to see a concert. Rush; not that you know them or anything but, uh, after the concert I’m gonna stay at Marcus’s house. OK?”
Drying his hands on a towel tucked into the waist band of sweatpants he turned and took a measure of the teenage me. “Staying with Marcus, huh?”
“And if I call his parents will they be home and know you’re supposed to be sleeping there?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I mean, yeah, they’ll know.”
He’d stood still, weighing the possibilities of my trip to the city. Teeth clenched and chin lowered he stared at his oldest son. His eyes narrowed. “Just keep your goddamned head up. And keep that mouth of yours shut, hear me?”
I nodded a disinterested nod.
He stepped forward and wagged a finger at me. “And keep away from that shit they’re selling around the Garden, understand?”
I had scoffed; then frowned. “What shit? I mean, come on, Dad. It’s cool. Like, I know what I’m doing in the city.”
As I shook my head back and forth a blotchy redness crept up from his chest to take hold of his lower neck. Then, before I could pull hands from front pockets, he lurched forward to stab his left index finger into my right cheek, pushing my face backward until I was pinned against the kitchen wall.
“I am not some goddamned idiot, Beasley. And you better not be an idiot either. You don’t get a second chance in the city. Understand me?” He shoved his finger into my face, creating a modest indentation, before withdrawing his hand.
“What the hell, Dad? What’s your frigg’n problem?”
“You and your jerk off friends are gonna kill yourself if you keep this shit up. And don’t think I’m not onto what you and those numb-nuts buddies of yours are up to.”
I had stared him down, daring him to raise the ante with a swing at me.
Through clenched teeth he continued, “And I’ll tell you right now, shit-for-brains, when you do fuck up – and mark my words you will – it’s not gonna be me who suffers. It’s gonna be your mother. Not me; your mom. So use your head and stay away from those frigg’n drugs and all those dealers and creeps circling the Garden. Understand?”
Grunting, I nodded the slightest of nods.
Disgusted, he shook his head before offering a final suggestion. “And Jesus H. Christ, keep your goddamned hands out of your pockets. You’ll be on the 8th Avenue sidewalk before you know what the hell hit you.”
He wheeled and, exiting the kitchen, slammed the door.
And now, as he stands frozen in front of his son’s bedroom door at the crack of dawn, he assumes – no hopes – I am sleeping off a Blarney Stone induced hang-over across town at Marcus’s house.
Resigned to the task at hand, he shakes his head.
The familiar smell of morning heat rises through the house as he turns the glass doorknob.
In a graceful motion he takes a single step backward, allowing the door to swing into the hallway. He suggests to himself that he walk away; that he skip looking for what he’s so very afraid of finding.
“Just walk away,” he whispers to himself.
He sighs as the need to know fights the patient comfort of ignorance.
With the bedroom door now open he stares at checkered blue carpet. Well worn, it hugs the wide staircase leading to my attic bedroom. His eyes drift upward and come to rest on a good sized landing marking the halfway point up the stairs.
Four feet by three feet, the landing acts as the pivot point for the stairs as they turn at a right angle to complete their rise to my attic bedroom. A way station, the landing is also the place I have slept a dozen or so evenings, too drunk to complete the journey up the remaining stairs.
The landing, though, is more than the home of the stair’s sharp pivot to the left and more than a landing spot for the too-drunk-to-walk. The landing is home to the cubby hole.
There, on the far end of the landing, facing the inside portion of my bedroom door, is a three foot by two foot plywood door, painted blue to match the carpet, and adorned with a simple wooden doorknob. The blue door leads to a cubby hole packed with the stuff of childhood. The blue door leads to a cubby hole now housing the supplies of a wayward teenager.
Years ago, the attic was converted from the musty storage place of forgotten lamps, discarded clothing and broken chairs into a bedroom for me and my brother, KJ. No longer would we be squeezed into bunk beds in a room across from Mom and Dad’s bedroom.
Outlets and overhead lights were installed. The attic was insulated, paneled and carpeted. And upon completion of the effort we migrated upstairs to our brand new bedroom.
The day of the migration was cause for smiles and optimism.
Upon completion of the attic’s conversion into a bedroom and the drying of paint on the little blue door, Mom pointed out the cubby as we made our way upstairs. She swung open the freshly painted door. “Look boys! Look at all the room for your games! I mean, you can fit every single game you own right here! All of them! And you’ll always know where they are!”
“Totally cool, Mom!”
“Awesome! Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad!”
Hugs were delivered up and down the stairs.
“I love you, Mom and Dad!”
As Dad silently plucked at his lower lip Mom responded, “We love you too, honey.”
Yanking open the little closet door my brother and I took turns hiding in the still vacant cubby, imagining ourselves as Apollo astronauts before wondering how may games it would take us to fill the cubby. Lots, we imagined; lots and lots of games.
And over time, we filled it with games; lots and lots of games. Over time, the cubby hole became home to all our games; old and new.
But of course, time stretched; reaching toward an unknown future. Pieces went missing from games. Accessories broke and batteries died as games degenerated into the forgotten relics of childhood.
Years passed as the carpet in front of the cubby was rubbed away by clomping feet, crawling knees, climbing fingers and, every now and then, the weight of a teenager too drunk to make his way to the top of the stairs.
As my brother and I each approached a height of six feet and wild hair reached past shoulders the cubby began to collect the stuff of teenage boys; Mad magazines, stolen street signs, a handful of well-hidden Playboys, Penthouse, a growing collection of empty Old No. 7 bottles, a dozen unreturned school books and, far in the back, hidden inside the Green Ghost game box, a wooden cigar box wrapped in web of crisscrossing rubber bands.
Now, with the smell of heat in his nostrils and the fear of the unknown at his back my father stares at a cubby hole packed with forgotten games and the stuff of teenage boys.
Slowly, as if not wishing to disturb remaining strands of innocence he climbs the stairs, sits on the landing and opens the blue door. Without touching anything he scans the cubby hole, memorizing the appearance and order of the games, signs, books and magazines. His intent is to search, pray he finds nothing, and return the contents to their original positions.
He pulls out Operation, Battleship, Life, Monopoly, Don’t Break the Ice, Mouse Trap, Stratego, Witch Hunt and Lite-Brite. He stacks them in a pile. He places the empty bottles and magazines along the wall. Soon a second pile of games forms as he continues his search, methodically withdrawing Trouble, Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, Ker-Plunk, Tic Tac Dough, Superfection, Simon, Spirograph, Aggravation, Connect Four and Green Ghost.
Once removed, he stares at the piles of worn and faded boxes.
He stares at the innocence of childhood.
He says a prayer. “Please,” he whispers to his God, “please don’t let me find anything.”
He empties the entire cubby, finding nothing more then my collection of empty Jack Daniels bottles, a half empty bottle of Southern Comfort and a score of girlie magazines. He falls back on his hunches, relieved.
Then, looking at the two piles of games he frowns. Lips purse as he considers the content of each box. And one by one he opens the boxes, shifting the contents with a probing finger before returning each game to its place of origin.
As he finishes searching his first pile, his spine grows stiff. His heart begins to pound and his neck burns red, tingling with pinpricks. He grows inexplicitly nauseous.
From the bottom of a deep black well I watch as he withdraws the Green Ghost game box from the top of the second pile. Placing it before his knees he leans back and shakes off the cover. Hands resting on thighs, his head tilts to the left, curious.
And though only witnessed through a flickering memory carried on a beam of light, my spine also grows stiff. My heart begins to pound and my neck burns red, tingling with pinpricks. I too grow inexplicitly nauseous.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. But, from 35 years away, he does not hear me.
He freezes as he removes the game board and uncovers a wooden cigar box. As if staggered by a blow to the head, he slumps backward. He looks to the ceiling before squeezing eyes shut.
And far away, at the end of a beam of light, I begin to cry.
I reach for him but, like my echo, fall short.
He draws a deep breath as he picks up the cigar box. He studies it. The box is thin, light brown and dirty. On the cover appears an image of a once proud Indian, his head adorned with feathers. Dad shakes the box before beginning the process of removing crisscrossing rubber bands.
And with the last of the rubber bands removed he places the little box on soft blue carpet.
Silently, he opens the box and leans over, staring.
From far away I watch as my father wrenches forward. His head hangs limp as black dots bloom on the inside of the cigar box’s cover, the dried wood greedily collecting his silent response.
Then, covering his mouth, a part of him broken forever, he tumbles over and falls headlong into a deep black well.
From far above I hear him as he falls, striking the telescoping walls and pin-wheeling out of control. The periodic sound of flesh striking stone grows louder as his decent brings him to the bottom of a deep black well. Knowing he’s about to crash upon me I crouch down, terrified, and cover my head.
The moment passes without collision.
Eyes squeezed tight I grow dizzy.
The sense of free fall passes. Sealed eyes crack open one after another as a world of blackness makes itself apparent. The sense of tumbling, headlong, down the shaft of a forgotten well lingers as I recall the moment leading to my fall; as I come to grips with where I am.
There was no crash upon striking bottom. No scream. No life flashing before my eyes.
Here, in my Massachusetts home, I find myself crouched, huddled; hands squeeze a head sporting two tender goose bumps.
More a husk than a seed I cower like primitive man in a cave, giving myself up to the whims of darkness.
Outside I hear the torrents of downpour.
I hold my breath as time slows, swirling about me and growing heavy. From above, thumping rain overflows wooden gutters to pour onto a garbage can in an unending drum roll. I raise and drop shoulders. Around my feet, the floor moistens as time drains away, sucking color from the here and now.
I look up as a tiny speck of light leaps from my wedding band before blinking out of existence.
Having concluded a search of my own I silently open the modern day version of a cigar box and lean over, staring.
From all around I hear the horrible sound of nails scraping and breaking against stone.
I wrench forward. My head hangs limp as black dots bloom.
Then, covering my mouth, a part of me broken forever, I tumble over and fall headlong into a deep black well.