My father died when I was very young so my mother and I lived in a small town-home off in the suburbs of Warren, Michigan alone. We had a two story above ground townhouse with the TV in the basement so it was quite often that I’d spend my night down there. This was all the more cliché seeing as my mother worked two jobs; so yes, I spent much of my childhood being raised by TV. The basement itself wasn’t terrifying, a simple 70’s basement; shag carpeting, wood panelling for walls and a big brown couch, a couch I remember fondly. After school Mom would be home for all of 20 minutes before heading out to her second job so I learned to adapt to being alone very quickly.
However there’s a big gap between adapting and accepting, at least in the sense of “being okay” with it.
At an early age the idea of being alone was just as terrifying as it is now (though for different reasons obviously) so as a way for my young mind to NOT feel abandoned I created an imaginary friend; Otto.
Otto was…well only part imaginary, he was actually based on a picture my mom had painted that hung in the corner of the basement… have I lost you?
Okay – let me explain: In the corner of the basement we had this picture of a clown that my mom had painted, not a terribly frightening clown just a bit Picasso-esque as my mom would later claim. A normal painting in the light but in the dark, because of the way the corner was cast in shadow it basically just appeared as a silhouette. Obviously as a young boy this was terrifying so I decided to get him on MY side by naming him. So this was Otto: the silhouette of a clown in the dark, happy fun buddy I could talk to in the light. Make a little more sense? Hopefully?
Mom would typically get back very late so every night I would enter the worst part of my childhood – going up stairs. See, the light for the basement was at the bottom of the stairs so when bedtime came I had to nervously stand at the bottom of the stairs looking up towards the light of the kitchen and then as quickly as possible smack the switch and run like hell to the safety of the light. Otherwise who know what could get me? The boogeyman? Some unknown creature in the dark?
Regular childhood fears, right?
Well I’m 32 and I still do this.
I know, I know, it’s terrible.
That’s not even the worst part, the worst part is that I’m a parent now myself. When I was scared my mother would be the one to make me feel safe, I can’t count the number of times I begged her to check the closet or under the bed before I could finally fall asleep. For the past few years I think I’ve been pretty great at keeping my terrible secret hidden from Sam, I mean I’m not stupid about it –I don’t go into his room before bed saying “Oh goodnight Sam! Oh and can YOU turn off your bedroom light, I don’t want the thing under your bed to get me! Thanks!”
I guess the bit of irony there is that I’m afraid of what he would think. That’s a bit pathetic, eh? Caring what your 10 year old son would think of you? God.
There are other things too that freak me out; spiders, bugs, chemicals, cheeses, commitment…..I kid – well no that last one is probably truer that I would like to admit. My son’s mother wasn’t much of a fixture in his life let alone in our relationship so I guess you could say it left me a bit jaded, but I’m getting off topic, sorry.
As I mentioned, in my house growing up the switch was at the bottom of the stairs so going up late at night meant you had to run out from the darkness into the light of the kitchen but the REAL threat was heading DOWN into the dark on those nights I wanted to watch TV after homework. Creeping down those stairs into the abyssal black of the basement was like sliding down into a black prison, lifeless and still, a cage for naughty boys. Who knew what lurked in the dark, what stood at the edge of the light, what grinning creature waited to chew my bones…
Ya, no, I wasn’t doing that.
Instead I would sit on the top of the steps and hit the switch with a small red rubber ball which I took from school one day. It would usually take me a few tried but as the switch was flat it was a bigger target and eventually I got pretty good. I’d say 8/10 times I’d hit it on the first try.
For the most part that house was filled with good memories… for the most part, but none of those memories existed in the dark of that basement.
I’m sorry; I’m getting off topic again.
As Sam grew I became more and more aware of the amount I allowed fear to rule my life. It DID get to the point where I wouldn’t tuck him in at night because of the darkness in his room and waking with every creak in the floorboards of the house meant many sleepless nights. It finally all culminated in a rather embarrassing story which I’d rather not retell; suffice to say it involved me, a baseball bat and some very late night door to door bible salesmen.
I could see how someone could find it funny in retrospect, but not for me. Seeing the look on Sam’s face as his father panicked through wet eyes about a knock at the door just destroyed me. I think I passed the “ha it’s just natural fear” phase and went right into…”I think I may have serious issues here.”
I decided that I needed a change, a really meaningful step towards being a more courageous person, if not for me then for Sam. So after doing a fair amount of research I opted for the “facing your fears” cliché.
Slowly, and I mean DEAD slowly, I worked myself up from sleeping through the night, to walking around the house in the dark. It wasn’t easy, believe me, but I did begin to build confidence. They say developing a mantra is important and when I felt my knees weakening I would just repeat, “I am NOT afraid.” Surprisingly it worked really well and besides sounding like a loon I felt a million times more confident (highly recommend Mantra’s BTW seriously good stuff).
The final test of my courage building exercise culminated in conquering the spot my strongest fears were birthed in and so after a long week of deliberation I decided I would drop Sam off at my moms and began the 1.5 hour drive to my childhood home in Warren.
When I dropped Sam off I didn’t tell Mom where I was going, I don’t really know why I guess I felt embarrassed or afraid of what she would think. Or maybe it was that I was worried it would mean a lot to her going back to the old house and I couldn’t bring her with me. Whatever the reason when I dropped Sam off I knew she could tell something was wrong, but she didn’t ask. I think she knows me well enough to know I was doing something to better myself.
The house isn’t exactly abandoned but it’s definitely vacant, anyone from Michigan would get where I’m coming from, (foreclosure’s a bitch) so getting in was easy. I could make up a fairy tale sight when I approached the house, light shining through holes in the roof, a subtle trickling of water but it wasn’t like that at all. I will say that while it was still light outside, the house was surprisingly dark inside. I also want to say it felt the same but different… ever heard that saying? Ya, me too. Ever actually experienced that? Ya, me neither. It did NOT feel the same but different hahaha it just felt different. Like someone who didn’t live my childhood painted it from memory – if that makes sense.
I didn’t dick around, I knew when I was therefore and sure enough as I approached the top of the stairs leading down the basement the basement darkness made my spine tingle just a bit. Half of me started looking for the red ball and the other half just wanted to leave but truthfully I thought of Sam and knew that there was no going back; I had come so far. I deserved this – Sam deserved this.
I didn’t take the stairs slowly, I didn’t slowly grasp the banister like some horror movie victim, instead I walked a brisk pace down to the basement and hit the lights. With a soft clicking the farther of the two lights clicked on and hummed for a bit, the soft light filling the basement. Garbage scattered the basement floor, some of which I could make out as old toys and dirt. The red shag carpeting was now a faded brown finally matching the dilapidated couch we left behind and in some places the wood panelled walls were falling off exposing the faded pink insulation.
For a minute I just stood there, my eyes still adjusting to the dim light, slowly memories of me watching TV waiting for mom to come home from work came back and after a second a smiled. I didn’t feel afraid standing in the basement, for the first time I felt at home as if mom was there with me.
Until I saw the figure standing in the corner.
Every inch of me ran cold with fear, my spine felt like pins and needles and the crown of my head felt red hot as I tried not to breathe. Thoughts and ideas screamed through my brain as I just stood there unable to move. Every conceivable though flashed behind my eyes in a second; my nights in the basement, how petty my fear had been, how much I loved Sam, how many nights I sat in this basement, the red ball, the rocking horse, the brown couch and talking to…
My very old “friend” cast a very crisp shadow on the far wall as my heart settled back down. Otto, how the hell could I forget the one friend I had in this place? As I stood at the bottom of the stairs looking around the now dimly lit basement, my eyes adjusting to the dark I now saw the faint outline of the clown painting. With a soft sigh I felt the blood return to my now unclenched fists. For a moment I stood looking at Otto, he was different just as the house had seemed different but so much the same and in the same spot he always hung.
As my mouth began producing saliva again I turned and left the basement.
The drive back home was peaceful, that’s the best way I can put it. It felt like I was whole again.
I picked up Sam from my mom’s a little bit ago, but not before stepping inside and talking to her. I admitted to her that I went back to visit the old house to conquer my fears. She just laughed and said that she never took any of those fears of mine all that seriously. I laughed as well and she smiled knowingly. A part of me thinks maybe it runs in the family, who knows maybe mom knew I was going to do something like this. It felt really, really good. So why am I writing this?
Well mom stopped us at the door before leaving. She wanted to give Sam a gift, something that he loved when he saw it, something that hung in the hallway of her condo, and something she took from the old house when she moved 10 years ago… As I’m writing this the picture of Otto, mom’s gift to Sam, now sits next to me at the computer – exactly as I remember it. I’ve never been more scared in my life… but that’s not the real reason I’m writing this.
I’m writing this because I KNOW that what I saw in the basement of my old house looked exactly like this painting in every single way. This was what was standing in the corner of the basement.