Our Fiction Week continues today with a story about fear.
by Paul Negri
My father Joe was not afraid of anything, as he took every opportunity to mention. The reason for the frequency of this declaration had a lot to do with me, Buddy, his only son. You see, I was afraid of everything.
At eight years old I was precocious in my ability to see danger everywhere I looked. In a banana peel on the sidewalk, I saw a head-splitting fall and a coma-inducing concussion. A whistling teakettle was the harbinger of third-degree burns. And the coat closet, which my father cursed while he vainly searched for the missing mate to his wool glove, held for me the chilling secret of all such missing objects, grabbed by some dark thing and taken away never to be seen again.
My mother told Pop to leave me alone, that I would grow out of it. And besides, she told him, a little healthy fear was a good thing for a child, kept him out of harm’s way.
Pop would grumble and Mom, who was formidable when crossed, would give him the look and you could see that there was at least one thing he was afraid of. Despite his seeming acquiescence to her, Pop continued to regard what he called my fear of everything as a kind of infection, something that could be cured with the right dose of medicine, and the right medicine was something he was determined to find.
Now though my world was full of scary places, there was one in particular that scared me more than any other. It was in my grandfather’s bar, where Pop worked as a bartender. The bar itself was one of my favorite safe places, always full of family and the regular customers who felt like family too. I’d hang out there after school sometimes and play table shuffleboard in the backroom and listen to the reassuring sounds of men talking too loudly because they’d had too much to drink.
But under that safe haven was a place that to me was the scariest of scaries—the cellar. It wasn’t just that it was dark and damp, chilly even in summer, the low ceiling crowded with cold sweating pipes and tangles of ancient electrical wires covered with cob webs, or that it had an evil smell, or what I imagined evil smelled like. The worst thing about it was something my Uncle Tony told me: it was haunted.
Uncle Tony was not really my uncle, but at that time kids were taught to address every adult they knew as uncle or aunt. Tony was just an ancient drunk who had been patronizing the bar since the time my father was a kid.
It was Uncle Tony who told me about the ghost in the cellar. The whole thing had started a long time ago, when my father was a boy. There was a man named Sandro from Naples who came in search of the promised land and found Brooklyn instead. He’d left his wife and children in Italy with the promise of sending for them as soon as he was established and making a living. Well, Sandro, it turned out, was in no hurry to establish himself and found that making a living was a lot easier without a wife and six children. He worked odd jobs but spent his days mostly in the bar drinking jug wine and whiskey and the days passed to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months to infinity. Sandro sent his wife letters and told her to be patient. Over time his letters became less frequent and finally, he just stopped sending them at all.
Uncle Tony did not like Sandro, as he said a man who abandoned his family is not worthy of respect. Despite that, when Sandro one day clutched his chest and fell off his stool and banged his head on the floor, it was Tony, a fireman, who began wildly thumping his chest while my grandfather called an ambulance. But by the time the ambulance arrived, Sandro had emigrated to someplace far from Brooklyn, never to return. Or at least that’s what everyone thought.
Now Tony would sometimes help my grandfather by going down in the cellar to tap a keg of beer. It was during one of these beer-tapping visits to the nether regions that Tony encountered Sandro again. Putting his red-knuckled hand over his heart, he swore that Sandro appeared to him at the far end of the cellar. When Tony asked him what the fudge he was doing there (except he didn’t say fudge), Sandro told him he was where he had to be, shook a fist that floated around in the air, and disappeared. Tony explained to my father and years later to me, that it was because Sandro had abandoned his family that he was doomed never to go home again, but to forever haunt the place where he wasted his earthly life. Tony told me this tale more than once before old age and poor health forced him to move to Pittsburgh to live with his daughter, a punishment, he said, for his sins.
Pop scoffed at Tony’s story. He said he had been in the cellar to tap a thousand kegs of beer and had never seen or heard anything but an occasional rat, which, when he saw my eyes widen, clumsily amended to mouse, and quickly added cute mouse. But I, of course, gave full spine-tingling credence to Tony’s tale. The bar’s cellar quickly rose to the top of my long list of fearful things and Pop knew it. And it occurred to him that here was the dose of medicine, a kind of shock treatment, to help me conquer my ever-enveloping fears.
It was Columbus Day and school was closed and Pop asked me if I would like to go to the bar with him at seven in the morning and help him clean up. That was a rare treat for me. I liked being with him in that quiet time and stacking the stools, wiping down the dark wood bar, doing what he did, and listening to him sing the old Italian songs as we worked together.
After we’d been cleaning for a while, Pop asked me to sit at the bar. He poured me a glass of soda, which was another rare treat, as Mom didn’t let me drink anything but milk. “Buddy,” he asked, “what’s the scariest thing you know?”
I was not surprised at the question. I knew there was some reason I was getting to drink soda early in the morning. “I don’t know,” I told him. “There are lots of them.”
“Isn’t it downstairs? The cellar?”
I nodded. “Sandro,” I said.
“Buddy, Sandro’s not down there. Nothing bad is down there. Just good things. Kegs of beer. And someday you’ll get to know what a good thing beer is.” I nodded but stopped drinking the soda. I knew where this was going.
“Here’s what I want you to do for me. I put a stool down in the cellar. Right under the light bulb. I want you to go down there and sit on that stool for just five minutes.”
“By myself?” I asked.
“Yeah, of course. And you know what? When you come back up, you’re not going to be afraid of it anymore. Because you’ll see that there’s nothing to be afraid of there. Or anywhere else.”
Now Pop had not come up with this idea himself. Later I learned that he had gotten it from a customer who was an ex-marine sergeant and called the tactic facing your worst nightmare, something he believed all men should do.
“I don’t want to,” I said.
“Do it for me, Buddy.” And then Pop pulled his trump card. “Do it for Mom.”
My heart was thumping. “Five minutes?”
“That’s it. Not a minute more.”
Pop walked me into the hall and down the creaking cellar stairs. There was indeed a barstool sitting on the dusty concrete floor right in the middle of that room full of shadows. He gave me his watch and a flashlight.
“Five minutes?” I asked again. I struggled to keep the tears from overflowing my eyes.
“That’s all. I’m going to shut the door. I’ll be right at the top of the stairs out in the hallway. But you won’t need me.” Pop kissed me on top of my head. “I’m really proud of you, Buddy.”
And he left.
The single bulb over my head was dim and yellow and just seemed to add to the darkness. I perched on the stool and held the watch in my hand and shone the flashlight down on it focusing on the second hand as it made its quick ticking circuit. I counted the seconds. I wouldn’t take my eyes off the watch.
One minute passed. Then two. Then two and a half. I was beginning to feel that maybe Pop was right. And maybe I felt a little cocky, too. I took my eyes off the watch and that’s when I saw him.
He was there, but not there. Arms and legs, chest and shoulders, head and face, but not in any particular order. He seemed to be scrambled, all his parts in motion, but somehow held together by a kind of luminous mist, and the whole glowing translucent mess floating toward me. I looked back down at the watch. The second hand had stopped. And I stopped too. Nothing worked. Not my voice, not my ability to move a muscle, not my breathing. I felt my very heart stop beating.
Sandro floated closer and closer until his face almost touched mine. A hand appeared and touched my cheek, took it between his thumb and finger and gave it the kind of affectionate pinch old Italian men give to children. He began to dissolve, first his chest, then shoulders, then the drifting arms and legs, and his head, until there was nothing but his eyes and his lips left. The eyes were sad and sweet. They blinked and vanished. The lips alone were left and hung in the glowing space before me. They smiled. And then they were gone.
I cast the beam of the flashlight around the cellar, illuminating the cement walls, the concrete floor, and the tap room where kegs of beer waited silently to be tapped. A mouse ran out of the tap room and paused for a moment to look at me. It was not the sharp-fanged red-eyed monster I would have seen just minutes before, but just a little darting shadow. I ran the light over the spider webs that clung to the pipes on the low ceiling and was disappointed that I could see no spiders. I turned off the flashlight and felt for the first time how soft and soothing that blanket of dark could be and I knew something had changed in me. Sandro’s touch had taken something away and given me something else in its place.
The watch began ticking. My breath returned to my body. I heard the door open and was oddly disappointed when it was just Pop who came down the stairs. “Well, Buddy?” he said. “You okay, pal?”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“You see?” he said and hugged me.
“I see,” I said, and looked over his shoulder for something I knew I would never see again.
That night Mom hit the ceiling. “Joe, what happened to Buddy?” She had me in the bathroom scrubbing my cheek with a washcloth.
“What?” Pop said. “Nothing happened to him.”
“Look at this,” said Mom, twisting my head to show Pop what looked like a faint bruise on my cheek. “Where’d he get this?”
“How should I know?” said Pop. “Buddy, did you bump yourself?”
I shook my head no.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” asked Mom.
I was just eight and there were years and years ahead of things safe and threatening, glad and miserable, clear and confusing, and some scary beyond my childhood dreams. But through the years that faint thumbprint on my cheek was always there to carry me back to the cellar, the gentle touch, and the smile that lingered after all else had faded away.
“I’m all right,” I told Mom and Pop. “And I’m not afraid of anything.”