Thursday, October 30, 2008

Throw back the darkness

The front door came unstuck with a loud crack that shattered the night. Peering through the storm door, I looked not for what was there but for what was new, my eyes registering the shadows of the trees cast by the streetlight, the pale rutted swath of the gravel road, the symmetrical slats of the patio railing and the deck planks with their loose nails and fallen leaves glinting like doubloons, and an odd foreign object just this side of the flowering shrub. Something round and white. Something not there the previous morning nor any morning before.

I didn’t open the door but studied the object for a few seconds. It lay midpoint between a storm-splintered elm and a shrub whose identity remains unknown but whose ghostly white blossoms in early summer limn the darkness like miniature galaxies. Its shadow was long and black.

In my right hand I held a small metal tactical flashlight, my thumb resting on the tailcap switch. After the nightmares that had jarred me awake and the sudden mysterious object I wanted something more substantial, something like the Glock. Or the riot shotgun.

The object resolved into a plastic ice cream bucket tipped on its side.

No breeze stirred the leaves nor had there been any during the night; something, therefore, moved the bucket from the side of the house. Some animal that may or may not be out there in the darkness.

Familiarity trains our senses to exclude the normal in favor of the abnormal. Add a healthy dose of paranoia and we become only one step removed from our paleolithic ancestors who were much further down the food chain than us. Experience both conditions and creates an almost preternatural awareness of surroundings; in some careers or situations, it’s what enables you to make it through the day, or night, in one piece. A long homemade pry bar leaning against a door jamb in a midnight alley in the lower section of Denver, an office ceiling tile slightly misaligned, a wet spot on the floor beneath a roof vent on a rainy night, the scruff of a footstep in an empty warehouse—certain irregularities trigger defense mechanisms that any caveman would instantly recognize. 

But those things were from another life, pre-Kansan. The night, however, has not lost its menace, nor its terrible beauty.

Since a three a.m. semi-comical run-in with an agitated skunk, I’ve been slow to waltz out unannounced into the early morning on my way to work. The margin of error was so close that time that I suspect a second dispensation of charity will not be forthcoming. There have been other nocturnal surprises as well, the chuff of a doe by the back staircase, the hiss of a possum at my feet (menacingly emphasized with rows of bared teeth), the swift streak of a fox glimpsed on the periphery of my vision, all of them, unfortunately, catching me unawares as if those decades of training had been for nothing. 

And now something fresh to enliven the wee hours of the morning. 

It’s one thing to step into darkness and wonder what’s sauntering through in the yard or skulking on the side porch by the trash cans, or hidden from view behind the car—a mammal, a mass murderer or, as in the dream, an evil clown with supernatural powers. 

It’s quite another thing to step into the night and wonder what’s below you.

When the lights go out anything seems possible, even probable. Imaginations riot at the slightest noise or movement or, as sometimes is the case, upon evidence of an activity that is puzzling as well as troubling. Such as the trench being dug under our front deck.

We discovered it several days ago upon returning from a shopping excursion: a yard-long scrape against the foundation, dirt piled on one side and behind, perhaps six inches deep. Lori stopped and stared at the pit and said she’d thought she heard something scraping at the wall but hadn’t thought much about it. What is it, she asked. I had no idea. Something big.

The next morning I popped the door and found myself hesitating to take that first step onto the deck. It was impossible to see through the floorboards and my flashlight was almost useless in penetrating the narrow spaces between, and I wondered if a skunk’s fetid spray would suffer the same consequences were it to cut loose at an upward pitch. Strange as it seemed to step out onto the deck and move across it unapprised of what might lurk beneath, it was doubly uncomfortable to expose my legs on the stairs. The streetlight only accentuated the gloom under the deck, and on reflection I decided the last thing I wanted to do was to blast it with the flashlight. Instead, I stiffly marched off, my spine tingling as if anticipating an attack.

I sometimes wonder if this sense of danger has its origins in my former life or if it evolves from my nightmares. Perhaps both, a malignant stew simmering on pent-up anxieties, half-forgotten escapades and the twisted scenarios of that other dimension we enter in our sleep. Whatever its genesis, the raw violence of my dreams keeps me forever on edge, and in that no-man’s-land an inescapable bridge to the dark alleys of my past.

But we cannot hide from what awaits us. I opened the storm door and stepped out, my footsteps ringing on the planks. To my left a white shape moved in the shadows and I snapped the flashlight on it, bathing a possum in white fire. It blinked stupidly at me and waddled off past the house. I remembered the look of scorn on the clown’s face when I pulled the trigger, how his head jerked and pink mist painted the air, and suddenly queasy looked down at my feet and listening for movement heard only the mad beating of my heart.

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