27 Mar Under the Bed
“Under the Bed”Written by Eli Pope Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 20 minutes
My mom told me about Dad’s quirky habit of sleeping under the bed when he was young. My dad was a tough cookie, so hearing such a thing about him made it hard to believe. I guess his father had been in the Navy. Mom said sometimes his father came home and tried to use him as a punching bag. I guess that saying of the nut not falling too far from the tree is sometimes a fact. My dad seemed to grow right into the mold his dad made for him. He liked to drink vodka like Grandpa and when he did—he’d sometimes get nasty with his attitude. Short-fused and vocal. Sometimes physical. Mom said he wasn’t that way before he went to Vietnam. She said that hellhole ruined a lot of good husbands—if they were lucky enough to even make it back home. Anyway, I guess my dad’s safety zone from his father when he was a kid—was under the bed. Most kids, like me, were scared as hell of what kind of monsters lived under our beds once the lights went out. My dad took refuge there. I felt a weird kind of smile stretch through my lips with the thought.
Life can have a way of turning one’s feelings about a parent from outright wonder and fear to a downright sorrow-filled compassion. I thought I’d never forgive my dad for some of the whoopings I got from him, but now that he’s old and fragile, I see things differently. He looks at me now and I’m not really sure he’s even still in there. His eyes seem to tell me there is a faint memory of who I am. Or was.
I remember on occasional nights my mom would come in and warn my brother and I not to argue with Dad. She’d have that look of concern in her eye as she quietly walked over to the bunkbeds we slept, mine was the top, cause Johnny was older. He wasn’t as scared of the dark side underneath, as I was. Anyway, Mom would stand beside the bed and whisper to us, “If your father comes in, keep your eyes closed and pretend you’re already asleep. He’s spoiling for trouble tonight—don’t give it to him.”
“You gonna be alright, Mom?” Johnny asked in a hushed whisper. “Cause, I’ll stay up and protect you.”
“I’ll be okay, Johnny. Just go to sleep and ignore anything you hear. I’ll wake you up in the morning. It’ll all be okay, I promise.”
Johnny and I went to bed many nights to those words of concerned warning from our mom. Too many nights we heard arguments and sounds of struggle downstairs in the living room and kitchen beneath us, underneath our beds. My brother would try and make me feel better when he’d hear my sniffles from under my blankets. Sniffles brought on by tears that were caused by our dad’s demons left over from the war mixing with his glass of clear liquid he called, ‘not water.’
One time I asked how come he changed so much when he was drinking water, “It don’t do that to me and Johnny.” I’d asked.
My dad looked up at me with a blank stare that scared the hell out of us. I think back now and what I saw behind his eyes were the leftover fears from the North Viet Cong. I see movies now and I wonder how in the hell he lived through that. But after his eyes followed down his arm to the glass he was holding—he looked back at me and said only three words, “It’s not water.” And from that day on, that’s what Johnny and I called the poison he poured down his throat, for what seemed as fast as he could. The nights when he didn’t drink ‘not water’ became fewer and fewer. Fun Saturdays at the zoo or lazy Sundays in the park throwing a ball faded into nothingness.
There were plenty of nights that didn’t turn bad. I don’t want to paint the picture that my dad was some broken evil devil looking to hurt us. What I saw then was different, but today what I think I looked at was a scared boy who was made to be a man too quick. I really don’t think he held a mean bone in his body when he wasn’t fighting his past with the bottle. I love my dad. I feared him at times— mostly he was just with his punishments. Mostly. I believe Johnny would have said the same thing, if he were still alive.
Unfortunately, my brother did not live long enough in this world, and I miss talking to him. I didn’t do nearly enough with him when he was here. Johnny died just before the Christmas I turned twenty-three. He was only twenty-seven. I hated Christmas for many years after the melanoma cancer stole him away from me and my family. I believe that helped feed my dad’s demons too. I know it fed mine.
Sometimes in this life, even at my age now, I still want to jump up high in the air to the mattress when I go to bed. It just feels like it’s safer to give those damned goblins under the bed a harder target to grab. You know, if they are under there. I swear I still see two eyes in the dark—barely shining through the black, observing my every move.
My dad is eighty-seven years old now. He never seemed to have goblins under his bed. All his scary nasties were out here in the world of daylight. The time when everyone else feels safer. His mind is falling into the grips of dementia. He appears frailer each time I make it to see him. The man couldn’t hurt a soul now even if it were the Vietcong war demons coming over the wire.
He remembers me, though. I wish I could be more regular seeing him. Somehow the guilt eats at me for not being a better son. I, of course, try justifying myself with thoughts like, where the hell was he when I needed help…. It still hurts to watch someone grow old. Especially someone you’re supposed to love but never felt like you ever knew them but surface deep. I hear now that I was his favorite between Johnny and me.
Damn my mom for telling me such a thing after Johnny’s gone. How could I ever live up to something like that?
I’ll be damned if I didn’t try though, more than once, even though he deserted me way back when I was five. That’s a story for another day.
My parents divorced for reasons I later understood but try to explain it to a five-year old. He may have scared the shit out of me as a child, but he was still my dad. And then one day, he was not. He pretended to play the part for the three or four weekends he would visit and two weeks in the summer when Johnny and I would stay in Kansas City with him. He tried not to drink the “not water” then. I think Momma musta’ warned him not to fuck up. So, I guess he loved us enough not to drink when we were with him after he moved out.
I didn’t really want this story to turn the way of a me-me-me story, Doc.
“Well, Steve—how does this make you feel?” Doctor Charles Stangheart asked.
“You’re kidding me right? Do you ‘educated’ fuckers really believe asking a lame ass question like ‘how does this make me feel’ do a goddamned thing to someone with serious or even mild issues, feel any better. Or is this just an academic question that is supposed to cure us all by showing us our ‘feelings and how to just deal with them?’ Or maybe only used as a backup option when you’re caught not knowing what the fuck you’re talking about?”
I knew my vein had to be bulging from my left side temple. It always swelled first and then came the splotchy red and white skin. “You pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to be ‘schooled’ in all the most technically advanced therapies and all your types rebound to ‘how does this make you feel’? Well, isn’t that freakin’ phenomenal!”
Damn. I guess this proves the nuts don’t fall too far from the tree even if they don’t share the experience of a devastating war between them. “I’m sorry, Doc. It’s just that I got job pressures, my dad is dying right in front of me when I make myself go see him. His wife is a manipulative bulldog who lies to me constantly. I love my dad, but she’s stolen him from me for years now and…I…I can’t deal with it.” I suddenly felt totally overwhelmed and fatigued. “And THAT is how it makes me feel, there ya go, I answered the goddamned question. Now cure me!”
“Steve—I have to say, those outbursts are not a necessarily a bad thing—under controlled circumstances. Surroundings like here with me in the office, letting off some steam off without scaring the hell out of any civilians out there…” Doc Charles pointed his finger to the window where I could see people walking down the sidewalk of downtown Union City. “…you don’t want to scare the masses, especially in this age of times.” Doc smiled. “I think we’re making progress though. And I hate to ask this, but…” He winked at me. “…how does that statement make you feel?”
“You got me, Doc. But seriously, I feel better. Feels like a few less monsters under the bed today. I won’t have to jump as high tonight—when I hit the bed.” I laughed.
I have to admit, the highball glass filled with a double shot of George Dickel, fine Kentucky bourbon, helped nurse me back into a more satisfactory state of mind. Yes, I’d made strides towards feeling better about life and myself tonight, but I wasn’t instantly cured. There were still rough edges to be honed down and bourbon did that for me at times. I didn’t abuse it. It wasn’t like my father and his “not water.”
I relaxed and sipped as I let my head softly fall to the back of my recliner. My eyes quickly felt heavy.
The atmosphere was thick and foggy. The moon shined almost full through the window. I reached out to touch his face. He was hollow and frail. His silver and white hair now matched the color of his mother’s. Or at least the way I remember her. She lived to be a hundred. This felt terrible but as I looked over at my father, I didn’t wish the same lifespan for him. Not in the shape he was in, mentally.
I imagined the hell it would be like not ever knowing exactly what was going on around me. Not fully recognizing the people in my life or being bullied by a woman who surely thought she was doing the right thing—but obviously was mistaken. I blamed her for my father’s memory loss in some ways. She never let him finish a sentence. Ever. I’d ask a question and before he could answer it, she would be hollering the “corrected” answer from the other room. Always.
The only time my father could speak uninterrupted by her—was when he prayed. For dinner, or men’s bible study, or church. She didn’t interrupt him then, but the minute he was finished, she was back on bulldog patrol. She was a difficult person to care for.
There were many times I felt the pull of my hands to her throat. I had always enjoyed the few times my dad told her to, “Let me finish my damned thought!” It was jubilance I felt every damned time it happened, even if seldom and far between.
I hold a bit of self-pride when I look back in my life and think how few grudges with people I still hold. There is one I’m currently guilty for and that’s for my dad’s second wife. I call her She-Who. She whose name I will never speak. That grudge will never go away. I don’t feel the guilt very long when it questions me. She-Who always fills in the blanks with her coy behind your back comments, usually right after the caramel-sugarcoated compliments she drizzles over you like an endless bottle of sickening sweet syrup. God help her if my father passes first.
My dad’s eyes begin to haunt me again. He reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen of Howard Hughes in the days he was living locked up in his high-rise apartment during his crazy hermit days. Hair wild and uncombed, beard growing out in every direction with no attempts of calming it. You’d think his damned loving wife would help him, but she is probably too busy shoving banana cream custard pies down her diabetic throat.
I knew my thoughts resonated with ugly overtones. I was making progress, but I’m not perfected yet. She just may be the one stumbling block I may never overcome. My blood boils at the thought of her taking up space residing in my head.
I stirred a moment and felt myself turn from one side to the other of my empty bed. I swore I heard something. It was like a faint eerie cry. I listened again, more closely. Was I still asleep and this was part of the dream? Or had I actually been awoken to a monster’s cry?
I lay in silence, straining my ears to block out the city noise of cars and sirens to focus on something closer. It almost felt like a faint muffled whimpering very near.
I heard it again. Was it coming from under the bed? Dare I lean over the edge and peak? At damn near sixty years old, I felt foolish to be nervous at the thought of looking under my own damned bed! The only monster I would find was a stinky old pair of Converse tennis shoes that have been missing since 2014, or God forbid an old pair of underwear that went MIA.
I began to twist over on my stomach—laying sideways on the lonely king-sized bed, nervously beginning to crane my head over the edge. The old lacey frilly thing my wife put on our bed so long ago was still hanging over the mattress edge. She left me years ago because of my ‘issues.’ I’d finally gone to the psychologist like she asked, Doctor Charles, but she left me anyway. She forgot to take the damn doyly quilt with her though. It was yellowed and as stained as our marriage ended up being, but I couldn’t seem to rid myself of the memories it now held. I began to pull it upwards so I wouldn’t have to lean down as much.
I’m sure every family throughout the world has some form of dysfunction that lives within the unit somewhere. Either close inside like at the core or some brother-in-law or distant uncle—somewhere in the family fabric. I know in the interior of our family, some of my stepsiblings, even though I’ve never personally felt like a step or thought of them as one, that their feelings may differ. It’s all about perspective. One’s prize is another’s goose egg. One’s happiness or contentment may be the other’s hell.
But I’ve always tried to find the positive note, the silver lining wrapped up in the dark storm cloud. No life is perfect. The one I remember as a young child with my birthfather, or the man after—that entered my mom’s life. It was a new situation we all found each other in. Parents new romance and marriage. Seven of us thrust into an instant family. Five children became confused collateral damage from our parents love. The new man brought himself and three new young kids, my new brothers, when I was very happy and settled with just one and my mother. I always felt they were the lucky ones to gain older brothers and the best damned mother in the world. I accepted. I shared. My older brother Johnny resented and rebelled.
I saw very covertly to myself at many times throughout our entire sharing of a home, that we, my mom and brother were the ones who made any sacrifice if one was actually to be tallied as made. I later found out while I basically settled into what I saw as a happy family, some of my siblings did not see things the same as time passed.
“Shit, Doc, no one will ever see your notes you’re taking will they? This would be a fucking shocker to my family if they ever found out what was in my head all these years.”
“Steve, your secrets are safe with me—unless I surmise you’re planning someone’s demise.”
“I’m a lover, Doc, not a killer. I couldn’t even shoot a deer when my stepdad took me hunting. I’m safe. Remember? I took that mental test, you know, the one that you told me I was so normal that you couldn’t believe it!”
I was actually feeling like Doc Charley might be helping me. I’m finding out that I am normal! I am the sane one. I just hope I don’t follow the way of my dad. I don’t want to be lost inside my own mind, unable to claw my way out. My dad’s recent line which he seems stuck on is, “Lately, I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.” He says it over and over and smiles with a chuckle. I guess in some strange way, he derives pleasure from letting it roll off his tongue. He’s not the man I barely knew before the dementia took over. This is who he is now. I suppose I don’t really know this man any better than I did the other.
And somehow, I love him. I won’t ever really know him, but I do love him. It’s not just the shared blood thing either. That’s never been of importance to me. Family is love and backing one another. Helping each other through struggles. Crazy thought since I really don’t remember a single time when my father was actually ever there to do just that. My stepdad was. Multiple times. Even though we mixed like oil and water throughout and to this day still. There were many times when I felt like my stepdad suffered from the “he’s not from my blood syndrome,” he was still always there for me. I love him too. I love my entire family. I get mad as hell at each of them, but I love them.
“You’re cured!” Doc smiled with the biggest grin I’d ever seen him wear in the three years I’d been visiting him after my wife left.
I, of course, knew he was being facetious, but it felt good hearing the words. It was like a lead brick being lifted from each shoulder. Instant relief, and I drove home with a new attitude. The world was suddenly mine again.
I drove home with a new attitude. I hoped this time the feeling would stick.
The phone was ringing before I got the door open. I raced to it, picking it up to a dial tone. The caller ID told me it was my dad’s neighbor. I dreaded calling back. Frank never brought good news. I felt my new attitude begin it’s faulter . I hit redial.
“Frank…” I began to shake my head. “…is he okay? Does he realize what happened to her?”
It seems the bulldog was gone. Not like she’d cleared out her belongings and left. Her body was still there, on the floor, the odor that filled the room reminded me of the venom she’d been capable of delivering. It hung over me as a bad memory.
My dad had apparently tripped over her and fell at some point. He’d been lying on the floor beside her for hours. He’d hollered my name—and hers until becoming too hoarse to speak.
“I’ll be right there, Frank, thanks for being the good neighbor you’ve been.”
I realized instantly in this time of aging that life truly is very short. One should enjoy the happy moments they are allowed to the very fullest. Those are the moments that seem to fill one’s entire world when young and unaware of what time is doing to you in the background. Wearing you down slowly, pilfering bits and pieces, minute seconds of time in the blur of all the magnificence happening in the foreground. Now, watching someone else who already enjoyed their time on this world, reaping the nanoseconds of richness and memory making, begin the process of regressing back to the child we all come from. Knowing nothing but what we see in front of us. No benefit of realizing the consequence of what the seasons of life led to. Watching life fade away, but not knowing what to do even if we realized the revolution we were made to endure.
We all become ghosts of our past born to haunt us with memories of the best of times. Dangling them in front of us to taunt what we once held and took for granted. Those reflections of our past joy, become the poisons that cause our pain as we see the fading of our loved ones. Our stories coming to a close. Leisurely at first and then like a speeding train, rushing head on with its bright light shining with the fury of an attacking mountain lion with no fear. No relent.
My mind wouldn’t let these thoughts escape as I made my way over to the house that had been lost to them both recently. Taxes. Insurance. Utilities. Nothing had been paid. His wife just decided one day she needn’t take care of those things anymore. My dad unaware of the life nearly stolen from him by negligence. The bulldog never told him. Never told me. I had to hear it from the neighbor. The neighbor she called her enemy now. Now that she’d been exposed. The loving neighbor that told me just in the nick of time so I could find a way to pay the three years of back taxes before the house was taken with all its contents, them thrown to the street.
And now as I wrestle with all of this, knowing my father is helpless in the realization his world is very different suddenly. Not even knowing why his wife is lying motionless on the floor. Not understanding why he’d been made to lie beside her for God knows how many hours, wondering what he was supposed to do. All I could think and filter out of this mess of bullshit rushing around my mind was—the domineering, all self-knowing bitch—was gone. I couldn’t find any sorrow or even satisfaction in the fact. Life was now changed. Not only for my dad, but for me. Where would he go? What would I do? I’d never taken care of anyone in the shape he was in. I didn’t know what channels to go through all the bureaucracy to get assistance for someone left penniless in this world. The taxes I paid had emptied a good portion of my retirement, the economical collapse having taken most of it to begin with. I suddenly saw the foreshadow of my future. His mirrored mine in some ways. The thought scared me back to the current situation.
The house couldn’t be sold while the bitch was alive because my father’s name was on the title, and he wasn’t mentally capable of signing if it sold. My name was taken off by the bulldog years before because she got mad at me. I was fucked, right along-side my dad. My future every bit as devasted. I’d never be able to retire and now, all I could think of as I pulled into the drive, flashing lights of police and medical care—was he would need to come home with me. At least until I could sort things out.
Life exploded in what now felt like a nanosecond. The truth being that this train wreck had been set on its course of destructive mayhem months, if not years earlier. It was either kept from me or I chose to ignore it. The blame held no value now. Life would be very different. My ghosts from the past now surrounded me. A man I had feared, a man whom I felt deserted me and our family only to disappear into several other people’s lives throughout his life, was now sitting in my passenger seat with a blank empty stare and the silence of a planet millions of light years away. He would be dependent on me for everything in his life now. As scared as this thought was to me, I couldn’t imagine what it was to him. I glanced over trying to smile with an assuring and pleasant loving façade across my face. In reality, the draw to push the pedal to the floor and then steer into a telephone pole making both of our lives end without suffering through the rest—took all the self-control I could muster.
The whimper grew louder as I lay in bed, the sheets now lay twisted in a ball beside me. My eyes wearily trying to focus on the darkness under the bed. Everything in my recent past was being relived most every night in the form of dreams and nightmares. I never knew when I woke up, if life was real in the moment, or in the terror of dreamworld. What did I do so terrible in life—back in my youth-filled magic times, to deserve the outcome I was now living? Was God angry and punishing me? Why at my ripe old age now, were the monsters under the bed coming back to terrify me? I was supposed to be on my way to retirement and looking forward to my golden years.
But here I was. Working my ass off during the day. A small apartment I now shared with a man I barely knew, who had been under the thumb of his fourth wife for the last thirty-years. She’d robbed him of his mental capacity and didn’t even have the decency, even though she was several years younger, to stay and finish her goddamned job of taking care of the man she stole from me all those years ago. She should be here, not me. I’m Laying in a bed alone because my ex-wife was smart enough to read the writing on the wall. I’m hearing noises and feeling—fuck, I don’t know what I’m feeling. Self-pity? Guilt? Anger? No, it’s fear right now. I don’t know where my life is going. My doctor told me I was cured—bullshit! What the hell did he know? How does that make you feel? “I know how the hell I feel, doc. I feel betrayed by life! My good moments haven’t stacked up against the shit dealt to me!” I wonder if God was even listening. Was this entertainment for him? Like when I turn the channel over to reruns of ‘Cheers” to help knock the edge off my day?
I suddenly just felt anger beyond belief run through me. “What the fuck? If it’s a monster under this damned—I hope it rips my head off the moment I see it! You hear me, monster? This is my home! This is my bed—my fucking rules! Show me your face and rip mine off!” With that, I plunged my head down quickly below the yellowed lace which still remained attached to the blanket I’d never been able to remove. Every time I tried I’d stopped. Most all of the pleasant memories I still retained were made either on top of it, or underneath it with the woman who now shared another man’s bed. I had nothing to care enough to live for anymore. A monster wasn’t going to scare me. Hell, I relished the thought of it taking me from this eternity of dilemma.
Hanging upside down now from the edge of my bed, I slowly opened my eyes when I’d realized the monster hadn’t removed my head as I’d challenged. There in the furthest corner of the darkest darkness I’d ever seen—I saw them. At first, I held no idea who they belonged to. They had to be the devil’s. But then I realized they didn’t hold any violence or cruel hatred within them. The eyes that stared back into mine didn’t blink or so much as flicker with movement. No, these eyes held something very different. Other-worldly. The two barely visible white circles surrounding a strange pair of reddish-brown iris’ encircling their black pupils, were filled with nothing but question and mystery. With doubt. But all the sudden they became warm in appearance. Heated with a feeling of overwhelm as if something magical just cut through the darkness. That’s when I knew who owned those hard to read optical orbs. The pressure valve inside my brain gave a little relief inside as my eyes connected with those begging to see the same relief in mine.
They belonged to my father. This was his safe zone I remembered. He’d carried the look of fear. A fear so deep I’d never seen. He’d worn the look of a young man who witnessed killing of men who looked scary to American soldiers such as he, who were dropped into their jungles. Taken like others from school and girlfriends, best friends and family. Dropped into the middle of a quagmire not caused by the young men sent to settle by force.
I think something hit him when he looked back into the same eyes filled with emotion. Something clicked, because that scared and petrified gaze from the darkness—became beams of hope that he would be saved. My heart warmed and I didn’t know why. Tears gushed from eyes as I dropped down onto the floor with a thud and began to belly crawl towards him. His legs and arms tucked in the fetal position, I moved slowly, “Dad, it’s me, Steve. You remember me don’t you? I’m your son.”
I watched the familiar smile grow across the man’s face I never really knew other than the fact he was my father. The familiar gap in his front two teeth showed from the widened smile and became the evidence for me to know who he was. In this instant, my dad was now a man who needed me for the first time in his life.
I held a choice. I could be the man who turned his back like the many times I felt that way about what he’d done. Or I could be his savior. I could crawl deeper under the bed and hold him in comfort. The comfort I knew he longed for.
I’ve been a believer of Faith my entire life. My dad was at one time, early in his life, a Methodist preacher. He left the ministry for the larger portion of his life. He left me for most of his life too. At least that’s the way it felt. But he came back into ministry after he retired from secular work, to become a local pastor in three churches not far from where I and my wife and family lived. He became a little closer to me and we shared some quality times together. Sailing on his yacht on the lake or a sharing a men’s bible study together. Sometimes just short, mostly pointless conversations. But this time shared together didn’t last very long. A mere drop in the bucket of our lives. Times we were removed from each other crept in at several points. Maybe because I’m more like him than I want to think. Maybe the bulldog was at fault. It didn’t matter now.
I can’t answer those questions. But I know one thing. In the moment we shared within the darkness under the bed, was the closest I’d ever felt to him. I was his assurance everything would be alright. He wasn’t alone in this new trial. He was now like the son who needed his dad to make things feel right. We laid under the bed arm in arm for several hours before I could convince him to crawl out and into the light once again. To face the challenges set before us. We’d tackle them together.
I’m seventy-eight now. I’ve had some difficult times, but I’ve enjoyed great ones too. My father has been gone now for almost seventeen years. At times it’s felt fast, yet at other times it feels like quicksand holding me at a deathly slow pace. Doc Charley once again helped me out after I lost my dad. I guess he ended up knowing more than that one stupid question every shrink always pops off, “How does that make you feel?”
Well, now that my time is more than likely my latter days—I find myself crawling under the bed at night when I’m feeling lost and lonely. It’s now become my source of comfort like it was my father’s. I now realize that in most circumstances, the monsters rarely live under the bed, it’s just the noises from memories past that rattle in the dark and haunt us from circumstance or choices we sometimes land in. Embrace them and meet them head on.
That’s when instead of scary creatures or devils—you’ll find comfort in the dark shadows under the bed.
I know I do.
Five years to the day, Steve’s son Jake found his father passed away in the apartment he’d lived since his divorce. Jake and his mother entered the apartment with the police to do a well-check after failing to get phone calls returned or answers from knocking on the door. They were about to give up and mark him as a silver alert, before Jake peeked underneath the lacy bed spread and into the darkness below. He was curled up in the fetal position but held a smile frozen across his cold blue lips.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A