Sometimes, you can sense bad things coming. On other occasions, they just appear.
I’ve mentioned here that I recently read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. It’s now one of my favorite books. Harper Lee is a great, natural storyteller. She creates a vivid sense of time and place and character.
If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know that down the street from the Finch children, there’s a scary house that kids avoid, the Radley home. Rumor has it that there’s a man who lives there, a son of the owner, who is a recluse. The kids call him Boo. They’ve never seen him, and yet they fear him with a thrill of fascination. Their curiosity about him is intense.
I grew up with my own version of the scary house down the street. Most of the homes were small - 600 to 900 square feet, and sitting on narrow lots that were deeper than they were wide. The tiny ranch-style houses sat close to the road, and typically had back yards adjoining woods or fields. Across the street from me, and three or four houses down, was the Barbee home. The man and woman living there had a son we rarely saw, because they had “sent him away,” as we were told. My mother explained that he couldn’t hear or speak, and that he had some sort of mental troubles. So, most of the time, he lived in an institution of some sort. But now and then, it was also explained by our parents, he would be kicked out of the place, because of extremely violent outbursts, and he would end up back home for weeks or even months at a time. Our mothers warned us to stay away from that house, because they didn’t know when Butch might be there. And no one knew what would happen when he was.
Unlike Boo Radley, we had occasionally seen Butch on his furloughs home. He was about twenty-five years old and was built like a college football lineman, only bigger. I had once actually witnessed him pick up his father’s car to express his displeasure at something. He lifted the front bumper with a mighty roar, and I saw the front tire come up off the ground. I was on my bike riding by and couldn't help but notice. And he was rumored to be even stronger than such a display might indicate. He was maybe five feet, ten inches tall, with a hugely muscled body, and a square scarred face, topped, appropriately, by a short butch haircut that was dirty blond. My mother had said many times that his parents couldn’t control him and often had to call the police to come and help. At this point, they knew to send multiple officers. He had once actually knocked his mother across a room, and his father had no option but to go after him with a baseball bat, to stop his rampage. “Did you hear?” We’d say to friends when we had a new story of this sort jangling our nerves. “Did you hear about what Butch did?”
When my friends and I, at age eight or so, rode our bikes down the street, and Butch was at home, he’d now and then be out front in the driveway working on a car. He apparently had mechanical skills. If he looked up, we’d sometimes be brave and wave and even smile, and he would now and then wave back and grunt, or even make some sort of howling sound that unnerved us more than a little. Like the kids in Harper Lee’s story, we were both afraid of and attracted by the specter of this strange creature. We wanted to understand him more.
I had actually walked up close to him in his yard a couple of times when he was bent over the hood of the old car, out front. Both times, he had heard me, and when I got close, he slowly turned and straightened up to look at me. Once he smiled. Another time, he just glared. And that was an almost unearthly experience. I held up my hand in greeting and slowly backed away. But he disappeared again shortly after that, and we didn’t see him for a while. The neighborhood grew calm. He almost dropped out of mind.
There was an old abandoned house down the street that was boarded up, and had been for years. It sat back farther away from the street than most houses, and behind it was a short hillside that fell away from its high cement block foundation. It seemed almost balanced on the top edge of the little hill. One day my friends and I decided to explore it, and found an unlocked door. It was late afternoon. I was with three other boys, all between the ages of seven and ten. And I was the oldest. The house was scary inside, just because it was empty and a little decrepit. And of course, when we entered and the creaky door closed behind us, somebody had to whisper that it was maybe haunted.
As we crept across the floor, we were listening hard for ghosts and spirits, somehow assuming that paranormal inhabitants would surely make a noise. I can’t imagine how we got the courage to open any of the closed doors inside the house. But we did, room by room. There was a door in the back that had once opened onto a high porch, but now no porch remained. My friend Steve turned the knob and pulled it open. And we all gasped or said “Whoa!” when we saw that there was nothing but air beyond it, and ground far below, falling away as the hill immediately behind it dropped at a steep grade. We then closed the door, mostly, when someone discovered a bathroom and called to the rest of us in a loud whisper. There was an open toilet in it that was badly stained and filled with dirty water. We were all standing in the doorway of the room, grossed out by the sight, when we heard the front door that was now behind us and around a corner creak again. Then there were slow footsteps. We all froze. Suddenly, a figure filled up the hallway behind us in shadow. It was Butch. And he was not smiling.
Somebody got out the words, “Hey, Butch,” and held up a hand in a hesitant attempt at greeting. Our visitor was silent and showed no reaction. He walked toward us, and pushed a couple of us aside to see what we were looking at. He went into the bathroom and saw the old toilet full of dirty water and then turned back to us. He was smiling. He pointed at my friend Steve who was close to where he stood, and then at the toilet and made a motion with his hand as if to drink a glass of water. Steve looked confused and said, “What?” And Butch repeated the motion. This time, he jerked his pointing hand toward Steve, and then at the toilet, and he did the drinking motion again. He was not smiling now.
Butch then made a sound, like a low guttural roar. He pointed at Steve once more, and held the gesture. The poor kid shuffled his feet across the warped linoleum floor, and, to my amazement and horror, he bent down at the toilet, got on his knees, and lowered his head into it, where he made drinking sounds, splashing the filthy, brackish water.
The rest of us couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt cold inside, and started to tremble. It was almost like a low-grade electric shock passed through me. Butch then tapped Steve on the back and gestured for him to get up. His face was dripping wet. And he looked more scared than anyone I’d ever seen. He wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve repeatedly as he rose to his feet, and stumbled over and squeezed himself into a corner of the small room, apparently afraid to even try to leave.
Our tormentor didn’t point and motion with the next kid, but just grabbed his shoulder and pushed him toward the toilet. The poor guy resisted a little, and broke the now oppressive near silence by saying in a low voice, “No Butch! No! Please! No! Don’t do this!” He then held both hands out in a gesture that clearly asked the man to stop. And for his efforts, he had his head shoved down hard toward the open cesspool and into the foul liquid. We could hear him crying right away, as his face jerked back up from it, again splashing whatever was in the bowl. His hands were all over his face, wiping and slapping it off, as if he had bees after him. He jumped up and ran out of the room, sobbing, tearing through the house and out the front door. We could hear him slam it open as he escaped to run home. Butch didn’t seem surprised, or angered. He didn’t move to chase him. He had no reaction at all. It didn’t even enter our minds that the boy would run home and tell his mother, and that she would get help to intervene, and that it would be too late when she did.
My third friend got the same treatment as the second. No signs of instruction, just force. He whimpered and cowered and suffered the same dark baptism into the depths of what was now becoming for us a nightmare beyond anything we had ever imagined. He was then jerked up by his shirt and forcefully shoved into the corner with skinny Steve, who stood perfectly still, apparently too shocked and afraid to move or speak.
Then Butch stared at me, with no expression on his face at all. I just looked into his eyes, and I can’t remember that I showed any emotion, either, except perhaps for the disbelief and disgust I felt at what was being done, along with the natural fear the situation evoked. For some reason, because I had met his eyes and held the gaze, he continued to glare at me, and didn’t grab me right away. Seconds passed. He slowly pointed at the toilet. I shook my head no. I didn’t say anything. I just shook my head. He pointed at me again, and pointed at the toilet. I shook my head no again. He looked at me, stone-faced. And he slowly shook his head in a yes movement, as if he understood and accepted what I had attempted to convey.
And then he moved toward me and grabbed my left arm and surprised me. He pushed me out of the bathroom, and down the hallway. I didn’t speak. And he made no sounds or further gestures. He was shoving me to that back door that opened out to empty air and a big drop to the ground. It was like he knew about it. I suddenly realized what might be coming. When he had me right up to the door, just to the side, he pulled it open, all the way. He then pointed at me again, and made a movement of his pointing hand and arm that said to me “Jump.”
It was pretty far down to the ground, and a scary thing to contemplate, for someone of my age. I shook my head no again. He made the movement once more, with additional emphasis, and now with a fierce and determined look on his face. I shook my head slowly again to indicate a determined refusal to comply. I’m glad, in retrospect, that I showed no emotion. He seemed to respect my stoic refusal to comply with his suggestion. And the next thing I knew, I was off the floor and then in flight. He had picked me up and thrown me hard from the doorway and out into the crisp fall air where I had a moment or two to register my plight as I plummeted briefly out and then down to the ground, which at first seemed even farther away than it had looked.
I hit hard, and it hurt intensely, but because of the steep downward incline, I rolled and, from a deep survival instinct, I shot out of the roll and into a run sideways across the hill toward home, as fast as I could go. I wasn’t about to stay around and see what might be next.
I was afraid to tell my parents what had happened. I kept silent. I didn’t want them to get involved with a grown man who acted like a monster. I was afraid of what might happen to them. It never even occurred to me that when I made my exit, there were still two kids in the house with Butch.
It took the rest of the afternoon and evening for me to calm down and get over what had taken place. I knew that it could have been much worse – much, much worse. And that was part of what was so unnerving. But, of course, good can come from bad. And we all subsequently experienced at least some version of that on our block.
We never saw Butch again. And, strangely, we didn’t hear him mentioned again by any of our parents. We never learned what had happened to him. I think his parents moved away shortly afterwards. And we could then ride our bikes up and down the street without any worries about what might lurk inside the shuttered windows of the one house that had always given us pause. And yet, the newfound peace of the neighborhood could not undo the effects of our unexpected time with Butch. I never felt comfortable with heights again. And my good friend Steve, years later, put a gun in his mouth, and ended his earthly memory of the day.