Copyright 2013 Dennis Anthony
Published by Dennis Anthony at Shakespir
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Before he killed the nuthatch, before God peeked in on him and before Mr. Gray with his duster and beige Stetson visited his room, five-year-old Parker French had to deal with the desperate loneliness of his first day in kindergarten.
“He’s a clinger,” his Aunt Bess told Momma that summer. “School will toughen him. It’s the best thing right now.” So Alinda French sent him off to kindergarten – her heart breaking at the smallness of him – hoping he might make other attachments, but also fearing that their special bond might erode in the process.
He stood before the door to Foxfire Elementary School – new stiff jeans, yellow collared shirt – shivered, and was unable to go any further. A sympathetic teacher helped him find his classroom and watched as he dropped into a tiny desk that seemed to engulf the frightened child in cold, wooden arms.
That empty spot in him normally filled by Momma was something he’d have to deal with now, now that he was on his own. Eventually Parker stopped shivering, sat quietly, looked around and waited for things to happen.
“Things are always happening to you,” Parker’s mother whispered to him, bending over to wipe the blood off his forehead after Gringo, their big calico cat, leapt on his head for no apparent reason. Momma kissed him and Parker smiled. He knew what she said was true. Things happened.
When he was six years old, God peeked in his window while he was laying in bed. When he told Momma about it, she calmed him down, smiled, and explained that this was a special gift. After that, Parker began to realize that he saw things other people couldn’t see. Mostly it was people who seemed lonely, like him. Usually they were older. Sometimes very old. He felt bad when he saw them because they often looked sad like they wanted to go home, just like he did on that first day in kindergarten.
And then one day he saw Mr. Gray for the first time. Mr. Gray. He might as well have been Mr. Nothing. Mr. Empty. He wasn’t like the other shapes he saw.
Parker never saw God again, but Mr. Gray started showing up regularly. He stood at the entrance to his bedroom one afternoon as Parker wrestled with a pocket video game he’d received on Christmas. The man was wearing a long gray duster and a light-colored cowboy hat he later learned was a Stetson. The hat was pulled low so that his visage was hidden by a kind of gray shadow.
Parker never saw a face. He never saw eyes. Sometimes he would see a cloud of dust follow Mr. Gray as he moved, except that the cloud looked and moved more like a fog than a shifting haze of particulates. He never heard the sound of leather creaking, as it sometimes does. He never heard the swishing of the duster as it brushed along the ground. He could hear the boots as Mr. Gray walked across the uneven pine floor. Sometimes he heard the slight ting of what he guessed were spurs. He never saw Mr. Gray’s footwear. He never felt his touch.
Parker decided not to tell Momma about Mr. Gray. It was one thing to see God as long as he stayed outside. But even Momma might become worried if she knew this dark character was in the house, in Parker’s very own bedroom. He wouldn’t do that to her. Parker was seven now and he understood that this truth omission meant the loss of a unique intimacy he shared with his mother. He didn’t like it, but there it was.
Sometimes Mr. Gray sat on the edge of Parker’s bed, and the bed would creak gently as he settled, as though he didn’t want to disturb the young boy. He looked at Parker lying against his pillow (or Parker at least thought he was looking at him), and then he would be gone. Before too long Parker could anticipate when Mr. Gray would be arriving. He often felt a certain lightness that signaled his imminent departure.
In between the comings and goings, Parker spoke to him. Mr. Gray never answered and Parker soon stopped asking questions. Instead he began pronouncing observations on everything impacting his young life: other people, frustrations with games, fears he felt about the crashing storms, which so often pummeled the small homes around the community of Three Egg, Tennessee. When he took refuge under the covers, coming out after the storms finally passed, Mr. Gray would still be there.
Even though Parker could sense when it was getting near the time for Mr. Gray to go, he never said good-bye. Instead, Parker gave a simple wave, and sometimes a half salute. Mr. Gray didn’t gesture at all, but sometimes he would lift his head ever so slightly and then slowly dissolve, taking his Stetson, his boots, his duster and his gray cloud with him.
Once Parker thought he saw Mr. Gray in the hallway outside his room, but that was the exception. Usually he was in the bedroom, near the door, at the foot of the bed or sometimes – very infrequently – sitting on the bed.
As the years went by, he appeared less and less often, but his arrival was always accompanied by a comforting gentleness, and he never startled Parker in either his coming or his going. Parker gave up talking to him or even trying to figure out why he was there.
He became just one of those secrets boys keep, like the time Parker killed a nuthatch with his BB gun. He thought about that day a lot. The bird was fat and jumpy, lingering on a branch, turning this way and that. Hopping. Stopping. There was really no chance of hitting it. Parker took careful aim anyway, and pulled the trigger. There was the familiar springy phoot sound of the rifle firing and then he watched as the bird dropped to the ground, its black eye stripe distinct against the scaly brown pine as it fell.
What Parker wondered about that incident – on that day and just about every day since – was if some other, unseen bird – a mother nuthatch, maybe, or a child – suffered because of this thing he had done. Parker didn’t know if birds could feel empty like people did, but he feared they might.
He was about ten years old when his sad-faced classmate Deacon Liles, a solitary child, much like Parker himself, unexpectedly invited him to spend a Friday night at his house. Many years earlier – he may have been only five or six, but before God or Mr. Gray appeared – Parker spent a night at another friend’s house. By eight o’clock that evening, he was on the phone to Momma, homesick and crying, eager to go home.
It wasn’t Deacon’s extensive collection of video games that attracted Parker to spend the night. He didn’t dislike Deacon – although lots of his classmates did – but he didn’t really have any positive feelings for him either. He simply wanted to prove to himself and to Momma that he could handle being out of the nest for a night at least. And so he accepted the invitation, and so he went.
Parker took along a small sleeping bag and his toothbrush and knocked at the Liles’s door. The old brown-trimmed, gray house had a simple walk up step to a three-quarter length front porch and inside, an upstairs with two bedrooms. That’s where Deacon stayed.
For dinner, the family ate spaghetti in a tomato sauce that Mrs. Liles made from her own garden tomatoes. It was good and Parker said so. A beaming Mrs. Liles said she would put a jar aside for him to take home tomorrow, adding “You tell your Momma I gave this to you,” and Parker nodded and mumbled a thank you, but wondered where else would Momma think he had gotten a jar of tomato sauce?
After dinner Parker and Deacon climbed the creaky stairs (there were old, torn photos of family members framed and hanging on the wall) and before long, they were on the computer, exploring caves for gnomes, dragons and gold, then refighting World War II, then sailing the Spanish Main searching for more gold. Deacon seemed to like games where he could find gold.
Then the television set blinked, went to static, made a quick sound like the noise of an old radio tuning across the dial, then recovered. Deacon didn’t seem disturbed by this at all. Parker himself would have attributed it to one of the frequent, short power outages in the area – called hiccup outages by the locals – except that the lights never dimmed. And Parker started to feel . . . the only word that came to his mind, was troubled. He wondered if Mrs. Liles’s tomato sauce may have been sloshing around a little too heartily in his belly. He was uneasy and anxious, and suddenly cold.
It happened again, a little longer this time. “Is something wrong with your television?” asked Parker.
Deacon, a small boy with, it seemed, a perpetually runny nose, had tiny eyes now focused on swinging his pirate brigantine around to take on a Spanish treasure ship. He didn’t answer Parker. Then there was another loss of signal, an electronic smear of voices, then snow. By the time the game wavered back into recognition, the Spaniard had gotten away. Parker’s stomach was feeling really sore.
“It happens a lot,” Deacon said, sighing. “But not so much in one night. He usually lets me play the game.”
“He?” And Parker was cold again. He thought he saw a puff of breath as he said the word.
“It’s getting chilly in here,” Deacon said, ignoring him and getting up to close the window. It was late spring, just a few weeks before the end of school. There was still a remnant of winter’s chill, but Parker wanted to sleep with the window open. He even harbored a hope that they might spend the night in a tent under the trees behind the house. Apparently that wasn’t going to happen.
Deacon turned to look at Parker, then put his hands on his hips as though he were getting ready to scold him. He looked to Parker like an adult who never quite grew up. “Can I tell you a secret?” he said.
Parker nodded. His stomach roiled.
“I think there’s someone,” and Deacon paused and gestured toward the window, as though he didn’t want to look in that direction. “Out there. Out in the woods.”
“Why do you think that?” Parker asked, pleased that there was more to this pudding-faced boy than video games.
“Because I hear him sometimes.”
“What does he say?”
“He doesn’t say anything, “Deacon said, wiping his nose with the flat of his palm. “I hear noises sometimes. Shouts. Guns going off.”
“You hear guns outside your window in the woods?” Parker said. He looked at Deacon with a puzzled expression, then walked to the window.
“Don’t open it,” Deacon said, gesturing weakly with his free hand.
Parker threw it open. He was apprehensive, but annoyed at this silliness. The night air was pleasantly cool and stars winked brightly above the trees. He heard a whistling sound, then looked to the edge of the woods where it bumped into the Liles’s family lawn, to a large blackjack oak.
Deacon called more insistently to shut the window, but Parker ignored him. He didn’t feel ill now – only curious – as though he were on the brink of something. A gust of breeze fluttered his hair like spray from the wave. And then he saw.
Mr. Gray was down there. He looked oddly out of place on the dark lawn. Parker had never seen him anywhere else but in his own bedroom. He was . . . struggling with someone, his heavy duster billowing as his arms seemed to swing or fight off something.
Parker now saw the shape of a second man and he was tied to the old oak tree. His pants were torn and he was wearing a light-colored shirt that looked ripped and stained. He struggled against the ropes that were binding him. The whistle that Parker heard earlier was emanating from this bound man. It seemed like he wanted to scream, but all that came out was a wheezy, almost asthmatic screech that blended into high-pitched frog croaks from some faraway pond. Parker shivered now, but not from the cool night air.
The figures of Mr. Gray and the restrained man seemed quite distinct, but it was only when Parker squinted hard that the outline of a third figure slowly evolved, the way cloud shapes bunch into a recognizable form on a windy summer sky. He was holding out a revolver and firing it into the man tied to the tree. He fired it over and over. Parker could see the recoil each time the weapon discharged.
Was this Mr. Liles? Who was he shooting? Or was he the man being shot? Parker felt as though he was standing on a precipice, wavering, starting to drop…
“Parker, ple-eeease,” Deacon was pleading now, falling to the floor.
Parker looked again outside. He could see that the man firing the gun was shirtless and that he was calmly, but deliberately, reloading the revolver. Parker assumed he would start firing into the hapless man tied to the tree once he finished.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead the man looked up into the window. At Parker. The boy could see the man’s face as clearly as if he were standing on the lawn in broad daylight. He was heavily tanned with long, dirty black hair and an unkempt beard. The tone of his muscles suggested someone who worked with his hands – and worked hard. And right now he was challenging young Parker French with a cold look of hatred and anger. Parker’s bowels turned watery. He wanted to shut the window, but his hands refused to cooperate. Instead he just stood there, dumbly afraid.
And then the shooter was in the room. Parker could smell the odor of sweat and the woods about him, and he could see the blue metal of the big revolver. He rounded and pointed it at the video screen saying something about decay and the coming reckoning with a booming voice that was twisted and came out muddled through the television speaker. It was very cold in the room. Parker could see his own breath again.
There was an angry growl from the man, and Parker could now see he was shoeless and had dirty, twisted feet. He fired the big gun and there was a loud report and smoke and the screen went to snow and the whistling outside died away.
Then Mr. Gray was there. As usual, Parker could see nothing of his face, but he pulled the bigger man back toward him, grabbing the revolver and apparently whispering something into the dirty man’s ear. He growled again, then whimpered, then shrunk into a dark shape that Parker recognized as the nuthatch he shot down with his BB gun long ago. And then they were all gone. Parker dropped to the floor.
The video game returned to the screen. A forlorn castaway, head in hands, was sitting on an empty beach. The words on the screen explained that “You have failed as a pirate and have been marooned on a desert island.”
Deacon picked up the controller and reset the game. “I’ve gotten farther before,” he said. “But I never ended up with this much gold.”
The mad thumping in Parker’s heart relaxed. He looked over at Deacon, once again playing his game as though nothing unusual had happened this night.
“Did you . . .” and Parker was surprised to discover that his voice choked for a moment. “Did you see that? Did you see what just happened?”
Deacon made an exaggerated motion of pausing his game and turned to Parker. “I told you to keep the window closed.”
“The goddamn window had nothing to do with it!” Parker was shouting, and was surprised that he had taken the name of the Lord in vain. Good thing Momma wasn’t here. But his anger at Deacon spurred him on nonetheless. “Did you see the man with the gun? Didn’t you see the man with the gun?”
“I heard something outside,” Deacon said, resetting the pirate game once again. “But there was nothing out there.”
Parker snorted a laugh at that one. “Then why did you want me to close the window?”
“I wanted it to stay out there,” Deacon said as he twisted his controller in an effort to fend off the blade of a rival pirate. “Come on. I need some help here.”
In the following days, Parker thought some more about the men at the oak tree. In the evening as the glow of reflected sunlight danced on the tips of waving leaves outside his window, he dug at the matter until sleep finally overcame him.
One day when he knew Deacon wasn’t home, he walked past the Liles home and studied the blackjack oak tree close up. His stomach wanted to expel the meatloaf and carrots lunch he’d eaten at school, but Parker fought it down. The tree on the edge of the sweeping lawn was covered with heavy oak scales, but there was no indication of trauma either on or around the tree. Even the leaves were randomly tossed on the forest floor and on the lawn. No footprints. No ropes. No bullet holes.
He spun around quickly, tasting the meatloaf one more time, before he realized it was Mrs. Liles. “Hi,” he said. “When I slept over, I thought I heard something out here.”
Mrs. Liles was a pretty woman, and Parker liked the way she treated him as an adult and not like a child. She touched a finger to her lips in thought. “I’ve seen bobcats out here, but they usually travel by themselves and don’t make a lot of noise. There’s supposed to be a few coyotes, but I haven’t seen them.” She dropped her hand and smiled. “There’s a pack of dogs that comes around from time to time. That’s probably what you heard.”
That night, just after dusk, Parker dropped down from his bedroom window. The less Momma knew about all this, the better, he thought. He trotted down the blacktop road in front of his house to the dirt road that led to the Liles home.
Summer darkness fell abruptly in the Appalachian foothills. He passed only one disinterested automobile as he ran the few miles between the two homes While his easy pace on level roads hardly raised a sweat, Parker could sense his heart beginning to pound again. He knew it would only stop when he ended this matter. He wanted badly to discuss it all with someone who could understand.
He thought of Momma and the way she could smile through her eyes and how she was amused at every little thing he did. Even when Parker gulped down his after-dinner scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, Momma would glow.
But Momma couldn’t be part of this journey. There were too many hard questions, he decided, and there were no easy answers. Parker couldn’t bear the thought of his mother’s gaze turning worried or confused or, worst of all, hard. He simply had to do this by himself.
A lamp glowed in the Liles’s living room, but there was no one on the porch. Good. Even though the sun had dropped behind faraway hills, there was enough light to see. He swallowed hard and looked for the big blackjack oak.
The cacophonous clatter from a thousand katydids, cicadas and southern toads suddenly went silent as Parker drew close to the edge of the woods. He looked around. Far off sounds reverberated through the trees, but he seemed enveloped now in an island of quiet and of encroaching darkness.
“I’m here,” he whispered, not sure what else to say. “Where are you?”
Then he ran his hand along the hard wooden scale of the oak tree and felt an immediate buzz that vibrated up to his elbow. He could feel the anger. At first he thought it was the tree itself that was somehow enraged at his touch. Parker backed off. His hands turned clammy, and he wanted to run.
“I’m not afraid of you,” he said a little louder, and he wanted to mean it. Then he touched the tree again. The darkness was quickly becoming absolute, but his eyes were now accustomed to the murky light. He felt the coarse rope first, then the wet, heavy arm of the man being restrained. The poor, torn clothing covering him materialized next. And Mr. Gray was here too. He seemed to be looking on from further back in the woods.
What he heard next were the words echoing off the trees, indistinct and coming from the leaves, the ground, the sky – everywhere at once: “. . .deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way . . . makes no objection against God’s . . . power . . . to destroy them. Justice calls . . .for an infinite punishment of their sins. . . the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, cut it down. Why cumbereth it the ground?”
Then the third man – the dark man with the wild black hair (Momma would say ‘did you comb your hair with an eggbeater?’) – closed on him and started to bring down his angry blue pistol like a cane. Parker was able to fight off his fear even as he saw Mr. Gray moving in their direction, accompanied by a slight whooshing sound, while the poor man roped to the tree screeched in awful anticipation of what would happen next.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Parker said again, and thought he meant it this time. What was next? He tried to remember the plan.
The man with the pistol was still, and in that way, even more ominous than before.
“All wicked men’s pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell,” the black-haired man said to no one in particular, his hard eyes seeming to drill into Parker’s very soul. “ . . .while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. . .”
Then Parker remembered.
“You don’t belong here,” he said quietly, then more forcefully added. “You need to move on. You need to let go.”
The man brought the revolver down, aimed it steadily at him. “You need to move on,” Parker said one more time. He could smell the man’s sweat and his sour breath. Parker’s fear was beginning to evaporate. “Leave,” he said. “Now. You don’t belong to this time. To this place.”
“. . . . defender of the wicked . . .” There was spittle at the corner of the dark man’s mouth as he spoke. Parker wondered if this was the ghost of something that is – or something that never was?
“I know you’re hurting some,” Parker said. “And I know you have done some bad things.” He felt compassion for the man welling up in him, coming from some new place. “But it’s time for you to go away. And to stay away.”
“Who are you?” the dark man dropped his revolver to his side. He suddenly looked as tired as anyone Parker had ever seen.
“I’m someone who wants to help you,” Parker said, now feeling detached from it all, hovering above the scene and watching the play.
The ropes around the blackjack oak fell from the man being restrained there, then dissolved as they floated to the ground. Now free, the man with the threadbare clothing and the dull, empty expression backed off, then ran into the woods. Mr. Gray turned and watched him, then returned his gaze to Parker and the dark man.
The angry dark man fell to the ground, his big blue revolver now gone. He looked so tired and so . . . alone.
“I’m sorry,” Parker said. “But I think things will be better now.”
The dark man looked up at him again, and for a moment there was that flash of anger, but it passed, and he acted as if he were seeing Parker for the first time. He stared down at the grass, then back to Parker, like he just remembered something.
“You shouldn’t ‘a shot that bird,” the man said.
“I know,” Parker said. The dark man shrunk and became a puddle. He dissolved into the lawn and only Mr. Gray was there, leaning against a pine tree, his long duster and his hat hiding whatever it was he was inside. The only thing that really surprised Parker that entire mad evening was the way Mr. Gray now lifted his hand in the same half-salute, half-wave Parker always used when he said good-bye to him.
Mr. Gray was gone. For good, this time. And Parker never again visited that dark, lonely place in new school year classrooms or anywhere else, and Momma never again filled the hole it left.
“Katy-did . . . katy-did . . . katy-did. . .” now arose from the woods as the forest critter symphony casually resurrected. The frogs were slower to join in, then even a few tardy geese honked by overhead. Later, when black-as-pitch summer storms scowled angry lightning eyes at him, and growled and growled, the thunder rolling off every hill and home, off every blackjack oak and pine tree, he forced himself to think of birds as fragile as the nuthatch, dry and warm in some safe, comfortable place.
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Young Parker French is terrified on his first day in kindergarten. But in later years when God peeks in on him, and then he meets Mr. Gray, a ghost in a duster and handsome Stetson hat, he’s okay with it. Strange goings on at the edge of the forest, however, reveal a more sinister presence at work. Mr. Gray won’t be able to save him. And Momma . . . well, Momma can’t know. Parker learns that sometimes innocence is no protection against the dark.