Book Idea: Chapter 1

I’m thinking I should start our story with Dad’s discernment interview.

Somewhere along the line he decided that he wanted to be a priest. But by this time, the time of his interview, he was already married to Mom—may her soul rest in peace. And I was seven years old. So, because he was married, the Catholic Church was out. That left the Episcopal Church.

“Not that those are the only two options for everyone, mind you,” Dad says; “but they were the only two for me. I wanted something ancient and mainstream. And in America, that doesn’t leave many options.”

Not that I really understood any of that then, when I was seven. And I’m not even sure I get all of it now that I’m seventeen. I think I do. But more importantly, I’ve learned a lot in the past decade—about a lot more than I’d like to admit. And I realize now that it doesn’t really matter all that much. Whether a person is ancient, mainstream, conservative, progressive, evangelical, catholic—with or without a capital C—it doesn’t make much of a difference. For that matter, I’m not sure Christian, atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist matters much either.

Oh, there is something, alright. There’s more to it all than what we can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. That’s certain! I don’t care what Madonna says, we’re not living in a material world; or, rather, we are living in much more than a material world. The past decade with Dad proves that beyond the shadow of any doubt.

But, after traveling the world in pursuit of ghosts and zombies, one thing I’m certain of is that, yes, like it or not, there’s not just one way to access the metaphysical world. You don’t have to hold a certain faith, keep certain convictions, say specific incantations, or even go through explicit routines to get there. It’s just—

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The way Dad tells it is that he’d always wanted to be ordained, “or since boyhood anyway, when I experienced something that was, well, profound.”

“What was that, Dad?” I’d always ask. See, I liked to hear this tale. Not only was it good, but each time he’d tell it I’d pick up on some new detail, some subtle nuance that would add to the meaning and to my respect for the man.

“You remember, don’t you?” he’d say. Inevitably, however, if I stayed silent for a moment or two anyway, he’d elaborate:

“We’d just moved into an old house that had this wrought-iron spiral staircase leading down into the basement. The whole thing was painted black with some worn, wine-colored carpet loosely wrapped around each step. Each time you took a step the whole staircase would creak and groan, straining under your weight, tempting you to test it—even if you weighed only thirty-five pounds, like me—to jump up and down on it, as if daring you. And it led down into the darkness. And if that wasn’t already frightening enough, it spiraled in such a way as to form a cave underneath, a yawning mouth stretching back from the bottom step into yet darker darkness to a wall hidden some indiscernible distance away, dark wine on black on black. It’s how I’ve always imagined Polyphemus’s cave.”

Anyway, as the story goes, Dad and his older brother Artie were always a little skeptical about this stairway. Some unusual things had happened around it. Once Dad swears Artie pushed him from the top. It was just the two of them on the landing. And he says he was distinctly pushed, no question about it. So Dad somersaulted all the way down to the bottom, picking up not a few cuts, scrapes, and bruises along the way.

Fortunately he was okay otherwise. But to this day Uncle Artie swears up and down he didn’t do it. “It was more like he jumped,” Artie says. “And ever since I’ve always been like, ‘Whoa, that was weird.’”

Grandpa used to keep a small wine cellar under the stairs too, in that Polyphemus-like cave. On several occasions they found broken bottles; and one time they found an unbroken bottle that had been emptied and put back in place. “No one ever admitted to drinking it,” Dad says, “but your grandpa held me culpable till his dying day. Sheesh!”

Then one night, when Dad was seven or eight, he and Artie invited a neighbor kid over to spend the night. This kid, Danny, was tough. Both Dad and Uncle Artie looked up to him. A lot. So you can imagine how overjoyed they were when he said yes.

But there was a problem.

Long about dark, the three boys decided to play hide-and-seek in the basement. As they descended the staircase, step by creaky step, Danny seemed to quail. This tough neighbor had never seemed to fear anything in the past; but now he was pale in the glare of a flashlight, and sweaty.

“What’s the deal?” Dad asked.

Danny gulped and tried to shake it off, then said, apparently as casually as he could, “Oh, nothing” (pause and gulp); “it’s just that I want to be ‘it.’ How about you guys go hide and I’ll count?”

Dad and Artie said sure and ran off to hide, but not before the scared look returned to Danny’s face.

“What’s the matter with him?” Uncle Artie whispered to Dad a minute or so later, after the brothers had settled into adjoining hiding spots.

“I don’t know,” Dad said, “but at least he gets to hold the flashlight this way.”

At least that’s what Dad intended to say, the way he tells it. But he only got to the beginning of the word flashlight before his own hair was standing on end. For right at that point Danny pierced the darkness with a bloodcurdling scream.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

At the same time the flashlight jerked and moved suddenly wildly; it briefly shone in Dad’s face, blinding him. From the sounds that followed—tired creaks and groans, the thudding of flesh, more screams, but painful sounding this time, and a bump-roll-bump-roll-bump-roll pattern—Dad guessed that Danny had sprinted upward, stubbed his toe on the landing, and dropped the flashlight.

“Artie and I looked at each other,” Dad relates. “We were both very frightened—what I could tell in the dim light anyway. And I’m sure we were both thinking the same thing. Like mirror images, we slowly turned our focus from each other to the yawning maw under the staircase. ‘Do you see anything, something moving or whatever?’ I asked, still whispering. Artie said nothing. So I glanced his way and saw him just shaking his head, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

“And I know it was probably less than a minute, but we just stayed where we were, unmoving, for what felt like forever, until together we got the courage to grab the flashlight and run upstairs.

“‘One, two, three, go!’ I said. And off we went, right up the scary, spiral, creaky stairs, right up and over Polyphemus.

“And of course nothing happened.”

The brothers found Danny in their bedroom, face buried in the pillow on the trundle bed, crying. Yeah! This so-tough kid!

After some coaxing, he stopped sobbing long enough to say three words: “Seven—foot—man!”

“What?” Dad asked. But it was too late. Danny had slipped into uncontrollable sobs again.

Several minutes later he caught his breath enough to say, “I want my dad,” which my grandpa overheard. And so it was over. The neighbor kid packed up his overnight bag and went home, never to spend the night at Dad’s house again.

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