Saturday, April 22, 2017
Strange Tales from the Dark Side of Suburbia
Growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina you had to expect loud and violent thunderstorms during the spring and summer months. For me it was easy to image that the normal combination of high temperatures and soul crushing humidity that stirred up the atmosphere to produced these storms was akin to some ill-humored witch or warlock. The angry dark clouds that made up these storms could drift in like an enemy armada anywhere from the afternoon hours to late at night producing high winds, torrential rain, some hail, but it was the displays of lightning that most people would remember.
In fact, back before such things as cable/satellite television, smart phones, and the internet claimed the majority of our attention span, the lightning from these storms could have been called a form of entertainment. One afternoon in the late 1980's while home on leave from the army, I attended a soccer game and saw the people sitting in the stands paying more attention to the several small clouds shooting off occasional bolts of lighting. Given that their collective reaction was the same as if they were watching a Fourth of July fireworks show, for a couple of minutes I worried about the kids still running around on the field kicking the ball. At least the referees understood what the lightning meant and pulled all of them off the field.
Despite the damage these storms could do they could provide a much needed respite from the very conditions that produced them. Adding to that effect, the sounds of the rain and thunder were quite relaxing and could cause the most tense and anxiety-ridden person to fall asleep. That being said, there was one incident from my childhood that still causes me wonder about the nature of dreams and the behavior or people who otherwise seem normal.
I was about twelve years old when I went to live with my grandparents. The reasons are complicated and beyond the scope of such an informal and the admittedly clumsy story I am writing here. All I will say it involves my parents' divorce that so bad it made Chernobyl look like someone had spilled a mildly dirty mop bucket on a clean floor.
It was in the middle of summer when the event happened. The days were brutally hot and humid leaving the streets of my neighborhood almost empty of the flocks of children who could be seen riding their bikes when the weather wasn't so abusive. Since my grandparents' house was built in the years just after World War Two instead of the air conditioning system which is ubiquitous in homes now, it had an attic fan. This huge fan, which was mounted in the hallway ceiling, sucked in outside air and pushed it up into the attic and back outside. While it didn't actually cool the air, it did provide a constant flow which made the inside of the house comfortable. As you can probably surmise, the attic fan only worked if you had almost all the windows open to allow the air to be drawn inside. Throw in the afternoon/evening thunderstorms and there were times during the summer my grandparents' house almost felt chilly.
The night of the incident we went to bed normally, with all the windows open and me in my PJ's but without any cover. I'm not sure when the thunderstorm begun but it was so late that sometime earlier I had pulled a thin blanket over me to ward off what now felt like chilly air. At first it was the usual booms of thunder and flashes of lightning with the sound of the heavy rain easing me back to sleep.
It could have been a couple of hours later or just a few minutes but what brought me back to consciousness was a noise that sounding like someone was banging on the front door. It was an urgent, almost panicked knocking of someone in danger. Now the first thought that might have occurred to you was that I still half asleep and the knocking I was hearing was just thunder. The trouble with that idea is that I distinctly remember the sound of thunder booming at the same time, so much that it overwhelmed the knocking at the door.
Being twelve, and having survived some uncomfortable events concerning the breakup of my parents I had no intention of rushing to the front door to find out who was there. I did get out of bed and slowly make my way down the hallway towards the living room. Standing on the border between the hallway and the living room I peered around the corner at the front door listening to the banging.
The door didn't shake from the impacts nor did I hear any voice on the other side pleading for help. But the knocking continued to the point I began wondering why my grandparents hadn't also been awaken. Had I been braver, I might have thought about raising the blind to the window positioned just to the left of the front door to see who was there. Instead I rushed back down the hallway to my grandparents' room to inform them of the situation.
“Granddad,” I said shaking his arm, “someone's knocking at the front door.”
My Grandfather, who hadn't yet retired had just spent a week working the 3:00pm to 11:00pm shift at the local papermill and wasn't in the mood to be disturbed.
“It's just the storm,” he said with a tone of voice that was a combination of concern and weariness all parents have to suffer through. “You're dreaming, just go back to bed and it will be all over in the morning.”
Despite his assurances, I wasn't convinced that the panicked knocking I was hearing with just the sound of thunder invading my dreams. Still though, I wasn't about to head back down to the living room and throw open the door just to prove a point. Then there was the fact that even though I was just twelve it did occur to me that if someone was at the door needing help, there were houses on either side of the one my grandparents lived. Common sense suggested that if the got no answer at one door they would rush over to the next house. Another dash of logic suggested that someone truly in danger might try knocking on the windows to get attention. And if they did, these hypothetical people in need would see that they were open and then scream for help. Since nothing of the sort happened I went back to bed and before long was back asleep in spite of what I now presumed was just my runaway imagination.
Like all thunderstorms, that one faded away leaving just wet grass and a faint breeze. The next morning I remember waking up to the sun streaming into my eastward facing bedroom window. My dream of the panicked knocking at the door was still fresh on my mind but by that time my concerns had evaporated away. My grandparents were still asleep so I quietly got out of bed and made my way to the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal. It an hour or so late when my Granddad woke up with him asking me to walk outside to the mail box to get the newspaper.
Stepping out onto the front porch all my assumptions and logic was quickly swept away when I saw a single female shoe on one of the steps. Don't ask me what type of shoe it was, all I could say even now was that it was most definitely female. What I can tell you is that given my grandmother's age, the shoe I found that morning was made for a much younger adult woman. I briefly looked around for its partner but didn't see it nor any other item that might suggest someone had in fact knocked on the front door during that storm.
As the years have passed, the shock and confusion I felt upon that unexpected discovery has long since faded. What remains is more a wore out memory of a memory much like an office form that has been photocopied to the point the wording has blurred past the point of usability. Still though, I do remember standing and on the front porch looking down at the mysterious shoe filled with the dread and certainty only children can know that something weird in fact had occurred the previous night.
I decided against telling my grandfather about the shoe on the front porch. He would probably just dismiss it as something one of the neighbors' dogs just left behind during its wanderings. While the people who inhabit subdivisions these days come close to declaring martial law if the dogs of one of the residents gets loose, back then there were several canines that had the run of my grandparents' neighborhood. One of these dogs, a huge, friendly black lab, fittingly named Bear, made a point of greeting every person he came across during his daily journeys.
You might be wondering if there were any strange reports from the other neighbors? No, the people that lived on that street were quite close and communicated on a regular basis. If someone had been running through the neighborhood during a severe thunderstorm knocking on doors looking for help it's a certainty that it would have been mentioned in conversation. The one small detail I am left with is where did that damn shoe come from? While dogs did wander the neighborhood looking for both attention and the occasional snack, they never before that night or after leave items on anyone's front porch.
Besides dwelling on idiotic childhood memories what keep bring me back to this event was that years later a few other bizarre events did take place that sort of make mine seem possible. The first being the time two teenagers decided to play chicken with their cars down the street in front of my grandparents' house. I was away that night but when I returned home the wreckage was cleaned up and no one wanted to talk about the event, not even my grandfather after he told me the story. The second time was a several years later when word got out that one of the teenage girls living several houses down surprised everyone, including her parents, by “suddenly” giving birth to a baby inside her closet. After returning home from the army in 1990 I remember seeing this same girl obviously living with her parents but no small child. While I had once known that family, they weren't the friendliest bunch by that time so I ultimately had to assume the child was given up for adoption.
The final strange event though is the one that takes the proverbial cake. Technically these weren't neighbors since they lived a couple of streets down from my grandparents but word got around that two couples who were best friends had a falling out while having dinner at one of their homes. Turns out one of the couples was either into swinging or wanted to try it and felt the other couple were the perfect partners. Well, after revealing this information the husband of the more straitlaced couple he threw the other out of the living room window. That time people talked so much about the event that both couples found reason to quickly move out of the neighborhood.
Being older and wiser, I'm certain that the knocking at the front door was just a dream, but honestly given the things that happened later there are times I wonder.