People who have known you all your life are often surprised when they read your fiction. People who have held you in their arms, buttoned your pajamas, put band-aids on your booboos, whose children you grew up with. People who are family, and who like to remind you about that once or twice a year over a Rubio’s fish taco at the mall.
My uncle is one of those people. He and my aunt have known me all my life. There are, or used to be, pictures of a bunch of kids in the bath on the wall of my grandparents’ apartment in Forest Hills. One of those kids was me. We’ve all come a long way since then. All the way to California and Sydney with pretty much every inch of the world traversed between. So there we were sitting outside a Starbucks on Santana Row, San Jose, and he asks me.
Jen, he says. Where does all this come from? This stuff you write. This… dark stuff.
Well, I thought. Well.
I was always one of those kids, I began.
And he nodded like he knew, and maybe he did.
Later he sent me this article from the Times by Sarah Jio who writes how her dark suspense fiction had been triggered by a childhood trauma. Her mother had a fender bender with a man who, unbeknownst to her, had killed two people, and who now knew where Jio’s family lived. The family had to go into police protection until the man finally killed himself. What Jio remembers is the fear, the terror of hiding from a madman whose very existence was a threat to her own. The look of helplessness on her father’s face, the dark shadow the event cast over their lives.
I’ve had a couple of those moments. Moments where the threat was more real than imagined, where loss loomed so large all you could do was kick and punch your way through. But even before that, way before those events cast their darkness, I was one of those kids. The one who saw shadows in the mirror and who felt fingers at her throat.
My friend Margaret MacKenzie lived behind the college in the town where I grew up. She had a bunch of siblings—four? six? I don’t remember. The family was eccentric even for that time and place; a liberal arts college town in upstate New York in the 70s. They had a dog called Shanti. The parents didn’t drink and avoided the cocktail/dinner party circuit. The father was a Professor of Religion, and the mother stayed home. She baked bread, sewed her kids clothes and cooked whole foods. They not only said, but sang Grace every night, holding hands, and there was no TV. They took turns reading aloud to one another instead. Moby Dick and Jack London. Margaret was about the only interesting girl my age in that place. We were classmates, even playmates, but we weren’t all that close.
Most of my close friends were older. I wasn’t into the typical fifth grade things like boys and clothes; I liked books and adventures and wore stripey jeans and was adopted by some older girls, girls already in junior high, who did, too. We’d take off on our bikes and ride as far away from the village as we could without our parents calling the cops. We held seances and slept under the stars and could empty a refrigerator in thirty minutes flat. There were three of us, a perfect number, but there was a part of me that recognized a kindred spirit in Margaret and toyed with the idea of asking her to join us. She stood out in that town and I felt a little sorry for her, but also admired her family for being so eccentric, so self-reliant. There was a kid brother, too, devoted both to Margaret and Batman in that order. Isolated to the point of savagery, this pale, pinched little kid lived in his Batman suit and trailed Margaret like a smelly shadow to perch on a branch or crouch behind a bush from which he’d leap out at her enemies with a high strangled cry. A total dweeb. She seemed unembarrassed by him, or by anything else, and like me, unimpressed by boys or bikes with pink tassels, but there was about her something so other that I figured she probably wouldn’t want to hang out with us even if I asked. And I didn’t ask.
Still, she seemed to like me. And our misfit mothers liked each other. And one more thing so utterly awesome that it totally made up for Margaret’s major dweeb factor: She’d changed her middle name.
I hated my middle name with a burning shame. It was the name that never spoke its name. Furious, I imagined taking my parents down like The Boy called Sue. Would they have the same excuse as The Boy’s father had, that he’d given Sue a girlie name to make sure he grew up tough? When I asked them what the hell they were thinking when they gave me my middle name, their answer muttered absently from behind a newspaper or a cookbook was simply that they hadn’t been thinking much at all. My rage knew no bounds. In my mind I changed my name to Sue. To Mary, Elizabeth, Nadine, Miss America (no, I totally did)—anything. I became fascinated with cursed names—Rectanus, Badcock, Gaylord, Longbottom, Lipshitz—how to outlive a name like Lipshitz?
There is really nothing wrong with my middle name, and I even thought of duplicating two of its letters so that it matched the pen name of a favorite author. Ah, a pen name, I thought. One day. Meanwhile it hung around my neck like one of those silver plated necklaces with a bluebird charm, something girlie and gross that I wouldn’t be seen dead in.
I don’t know what Margaret’s given middle name was, or if that was the problem, but the main thing was that like many of us, Margaret had a fixation with Native American stories and characters, however ersatz, and hers was with Minnehaha. So she changed her middle name to Minnehaha. Dragged her mother off to the Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Auburn and changed it by deed poll. Done and done, or so she claimed. Why didn’t I think of that? Why hadn’t I changed my name to Pocahontas or Sacajawea or Sitting Bull? I don’t know if Margaret read Longfellow (she probably did), or was just obsessed with Iroquois campfire stories (we all were) or had even explored the finer points of a disputed Sioux history (even pre-Google, I wouldn’t have put it past her) or if it was just because the name Minnehaha spoke to undying love and a fighting spirit. Whatever it was, Margaret Minnehaha MacKenzie, who didn’t seem to give a flying tomahawk what anyone thought, instantly rose in my estimation. Maybe she wasn’t so much of a dweeb after all.
One day I went over to play at her house. I hadn’t been there for a while and the hand-holding and singing had taken on a fuzzy glow in my memory. The MacKenzies lived in a big old white house behind the campus at the edge of a wood. Margaret’s room, along with her siblings’ was up on the third floor somewhere. I liked it up there, with its mess and the dark corners. I liked the fact that her house wasn’t fancy like some of my friends’ houses were, all columns and shady porches, but just a big old ordinary family home. I could hear the rustle of her little brother’s black tights and smell his dirty little boy funk.
Hey, she said, making me turn around.
I blanched at what I saw. On her hand was this weird-ass puppet. Looked like the devil.
There was a handsome older brother I rarely saw who lived up on the third floor, too. Maybe the devil puppet was his, something to wile away the hours when he wasn’t singing Grace. I seem to remember something secretive, exultant about the way she stuck it under my nose. Because there it was. The devil in a red dress. I didn’t have a problem with that. The dress I mean. Or its color. It was the thing itself, the whole freaky package. The Devil, it was, with my name on it. I felt its flat wooden eyes boring into me. It saw me and would follow me wherever I went. And I guess that wasn’t what Margaret Minnehaha was expecting. The look of naked fear on my face. Did I start to drool? Did my pupils dilate? I guess so. I remember feeling my stomach drop, my skin burn. I remember the look on Margaret’s face when she met my eyes, a look that spoke to needs that went beyond friendship.
Because when I started running, so did she, waggling her devil-arm at me, her pale hungry face contorted in a devil’s grin. Bruce Wayne’s mad chuckles growing thin as I made like Michael Jackson and beat it. I ran through every inch of that damn house, sobbing shamelessly, peeing myself, my heart pounding and where was the Joker when you needed him? The house was a maze of hallways, empty rooms and the preternatural silence of a Saturday afternoon playdate broken only by the thunder of her Keds. I found myself in a parlor, a pantry, a bat cave, a sewing room, a library and a furnace room, and eventually through a door in the kitchen, stumbled into the cellar. There I stayed, trapped by the Devil Upstairs, who had become an extension of my strange little host, her mutterings and self-talk arrested on the other side of the cellar door. I didn’t know why she didn’t come after me but I didn’t trust her, or it. It had all the time in the world, could wait me out forever if it wanted to or appear without any warning at all, a concentration of hurt and harm. I huddled in the darkness that smelled of wet cement and mouse shit. Further on, a strange floating thread of light materialized that I knew was the hurricane door outside of which I heard, or imagined I heard the swish of a cape, the munch of a celery stick. I was trapped, not going anywhere. I’d stay down here until I starved to death, I told myself, and then, then I’d haunt the whole damn house, give that old horned fiend a run for its money. It was a good story, and it calmed me down as I waited, alone and terrified. I heard unexplained noises—scrabbling and the sigh of ages. I smelled soup or something and heard other voices come and go. Her mother—I didn’t dare cry out in case she was in on it, too—other kids, footsteps and some damn singing and somewhere the rumble of a washer. I waited and waited until I heard nothing. And then more nothing. I came up from the cellar later that afternoon around 4 o’clock. The crack of light between the hurricane doors had dimmed. The house was empty, Batboy no doubt crouched behind a spidery woodpile from which he’d emerge one day a masked man. Margaret off somewhere dickering with her demons. No puppet from hell. Just a normal faculty home, the late afternoon sun slanting in on the piled Times and New Yorkers, glinting off a pair of reading glasses, pooling on the kitchen floor. I freaking bailed. And I’ve been running ever since.
Is this where the dark stuff comes from? From a life on the run from demons? Or does it all just come from that room of words where devils fear to tread and in which the terror seems to subside, if only for an hour or an afternoon or until the light fades and the hurricane doors rattle in the wind and we have found ourselves, or enough of ourselves to dare to come upstairs, to return to a world made more manageable by the words that lie beneath.
I’ve often wondered about that afternoon, whether it really happened or whether, like so much of my childhood, some or all of it took place in my overheated imagination. But then I saw it. Last month, in a curio shop in Granville Island, Vancouver BC of all places. It looked a little worse for wear, its dress faded, and a horn missing. A little heavier on the rouge than I remembered but hey, it’s a look. I wondered if it was the same one, the same devil, and I guess we all know the answer to that.