I’m tempted to write this one like a horror story, but that would miss the point.
The boogeyman lived inside an old, disconnected furnace inside my great-grandmother’s house, just across the gravel road from my grandparents’ house. It wasn’t until just this morning that I realized her house was a mother-in-law house: probably because I have no memories of her, even though she died after I was born. I don’t even have any family stories about her. Only the house.
And even the original contents of the house, my grandmother had overwritten. Whatever history had filled that house at one point, it had been erased by her innumerable cardboard boxes full of stuff.
My grandmother saved everything she could get away with. When we cleaned out their retirement house in Rapid City, she’d saved leftovers in the cupboards; boxes were stacked to the ceiling in places; certain aisles were narrow enough that Grandpa couldn’t get through them. When we cleaned out her room at the VA after she died, she’d saved used napkins in all her sweater pockets; she’d saved candy wrappers in her drawers. The aides joked that they’d just cleaned out her room a couple of months ago, so we wouldn’t have too much to do. They’d had to bring in a trash dumpster and leave it out in the hallway. She would take things out of donation bins and hide them in her room. We used to blame it on living through the Great Depression (she was born in 1930), but no, there was a broken spot in her head. The hoarding was just part of it.
“Grandma’s House,” as great-grandma’s house was known, smelled of old books, dust, rotting cardboard, and thickly decaying paint. If you found a book you liked in one of the boxes, you could borrow it or even take it. Most of the books were Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions–at least, most of the books that I looked at–and I read a couple of Dick Francis books that way. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was reading not just a condensed book with the boring parts taken out, but a bowdlerized version, all unacceptable sex and violence and philosophizing taken out. And it wasn’t until still later that I realized that my mother had stood in between her mother, Arlene, and me: I grew up being able to read whatever I want. I read Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series as a kid, and she didn’t say boo, even though God died off and had to be replaced, in part, with a half-breed drug-addicted woman. Grandma would have burned most of my bookshelf, I’m sure, although she wouldn’t have stood over it and cackled. Or she would have packed it up in a box and just…moved the box to someplace I’d never be able to find it.
To loll around in my great-grandmother’s house on a sunny afternoon and open a box full of mysteries was pure bliss, not lessened by the presence of the boogeyman so much as increased by it: the boogeyman was locked up in the old furnace, and could not get out unless you picked your way past broken furniture and bicycles and silverware to the corner where the brown enameled prison squatted, and then opened the outer door, which had a glass front and gold-painted borders, as befitted a respectable cage, and then turned the heavy handle of the inner door, which felt as solid as a bank vault door and was also glassed in, with a tiny window.
Then, and only then, could the boogeyman, which was an extinguished pilot light no longer connected to a gas line, get out.
Whoever wasn’t opening the door would pretend to panic and beg for the door not to be opened. But the door would always be opened, and then the boogeyman would get out.
Sometimes we would run out of the house screaming, or into the shelterbelt of trees, or the row of old dead farm equipment, or into the tall, sharp-edged grass next to the house, or behind some of the sheds, or into the main house to make cookies with Grandma or to listen to the constant chuff of the clock while wrapping ourselves up in knitted afghans and playing with Radar, the squat white dog that probably part bulldog and probably part bacon fat, or into the kitchen to spin the lazy suzan on the table around and around while looking at the built-in glassed shelves full of Grandma’s cut glassware and hoping that maybe, just maybe, she would give us some sugar cereal before supper. And sometimes she would, but mostly she’d give us cookies instead. Their farm was a good place.
But always I remember going back into that little house and having the close the doors.
You could let the boogeyman out.
But you always had to put him back.