One of the main roles of a parent is to instill things in their children. It doesn’t seem to matter what things, specifically — just that the parent spends some time each day, instilling.
My parents, to their credit, instilled lots of things in me. A sense of fair play, for instance. Pride in my accomplishments. A love of broccoli.
And fear. Numbing, panicky, irrational fear.
Not fear of my parents, of course. That would constitute child abuse — or the euphemistic equivalent from that period, ‘parental discipline’. Clearly, there wasn’t any of that nonsense going on.
“Name a monster, and I hid under my Star Wars covers as a boy and imagined it was under the bed, ready to pounce. Frankenstein. Dracula. The Wolfman. That oddly effeminate old bald guy with the cat who kept trying to snatch the Smurfs on Saturday mornings.”
Rather, I learned fear from my parents. I was a quick and regrettably eager study, and oh, the lessons they handed down! Between my mother and father, they were — and, so far as I can tell, still are — afraid of flying, mice, snakes, doctors, needles, spiders, snowstorms, strangers, hypothermia, speeding, pickpockets, sharks, influenza, and paying more than three dollars and fifty cents for a hamburger that’s probably not even going to be as good as the ones we have at home, and whose idea was this trip anyway, and we just stopped to pee fifteen minutes ago and you didn’t have to go then so you can hold it till the next rest stop and holy god would you stick a cork in it because, NO, WE’RE NOT THERE YET!
Also, they don’t like Steve Martin much. I don’t know whether it qualifies as ‘fear’, per se, but it’s at least an ‘aversion’. And I bet if he showed up at their house with a ball python, a tarantula, and a fistful of hypodermics, by god then they’d fear the son of a bitch. I know I would.
And that’s exactly my point. Somewhere in the fearful fog of my youth, I developed my own set of phobias. They sprang forth from the fertile peat of my subconscious mind, and I tended them with the hoe of ignorance and watered them with the sweet nectar of childhood anxieties, until they blossomed into delicate, debilitating flowers of trepidation and dread.
With rosy petals of pounding heartbeats and hair standing on end. And stems of screaming heebie-jeebies.
(I may have a few fears, yes. But never let it be said that I’m afraid to run a perfectly good analogy into the ground.)
As a child, I was both prolific and persistent in my phobia-forming. I was afraid of the dark. And of heights. Of cats, of bees, and of sand crabs. Of public speaking, girl cooties, and Nana’s big hairy mole on her chin.
And scary movie characters? You bet your yellow belly, bub. Name a monster, and I hid under my Star Wars covers as a boy and imagined it was under the bed, ready to pounce. Frankenstein. Dracula. The Wolfman. That oddly effeminate old bald guy with the cat who kept trying to snatch the Smurfs on Saturday mornings.
(To be fair, that last one simply reminded me of my Uncle Roy. And if you knew my Uncle Roy, you’d be scared, too.
I never said all my fears were irrational.)
Of all the horrific, chilling, shivery willy-inducing fears, though, one stood head and shoulders above the rest:
Hearing the creak of the rickety door. The hollow *snick* of the light switch. The dull thud of my trepidatious tootsies on the cold concrete steps leading down into the murky unknown…
Mind you, nothing bad ever happened in our basement. Dad kept paint cans there. There was a ping-pong table. The dog hung out there sometimes in the summer. It was a perfectly innocent, harmless place.
That didn’t stop me from concocting all sorts of diabolical and dastardly scenarios, each more unnerving than the last and all involving the empty room beneath the house. Burglars, ghosts, monsters, and more skulked around the place, just waiting for a tender, fragile young body like mine to venture down to fetch the laundry or practice my backhand.
Of course, I eventually outgrew those fears. I matured and developed a stronger mind, able to repel silly notions of ghouls and robbers and wild slavering animals loitering about in places where they have no business. And the fears I couldn’t brush aside, I conquered, one by one. I went skydiving — afraid of heights no more. Public speaking? Try doing standup comedy in dingy bars for a couple of years. Work presentations and speeches don’t even rate a batted eyelash now.
Also, I was finally stung by a bee, though I can’t claim I was provoking it to beat my fear of bees. It just buzzed over and stuck its ass in my arm, for no good reason. I hadn’t done a thing to the little bastard. All I can figure out is maybe it was nearsighted, and I looked like a big blooming buttercup.
(Don’t say it. Don’t even say it.
Just move along now. Nothing to see here, buttercup.)
Yes, through a little hard work and an awful lot of gut-wrenching anxiety, I finally beat back every single one of those irrational fears I developed in childhood.
You see, I tell you that to tell you this: My wife and I live in a house. I often do the laundry in this house, which is fine because we own our very own washer and dryer. Once a week, I take the clothes to the washer and start up a load.
In the basement.
This past weekend, I got a bit of a late start. It was already dark outside — and cold, too, with a fierce New England wind whipping around the house — when I gathered the laundry for washing.
In the BASEMENT.
My wife had gone in to work, and wasn’t home yet. It was just me and the dog, who was sleeping peacefully in the upstairs hallway. Far, far away from the washer and dryer, where I was headed with an armful of dirty socks and shirts.
IN THE BASEMENT.
I reached the cellar door, and twisted the knob. I felt in the dark for the light switch, and finally found it. *snick* I creaked my way down the stairs toward my final, mysterious destination.
IN THE BASEMENT.
About three steps in, I caught a whiff of something. It was musky. Pungent. Almost like medicine. A few steps further down — and further from the door — recognition finally clicked into place. It was the scent of aftershave. Creepy old man aftershave. And while I may qualify on all counts of that last description, I do not — and I’m rather certain of this, which is crucial here — I do not wear aftershave. Which could only, in my feverish panicky brain, mean. One. Thing. There was another creepy old man.
IN THE BASEMENT!!!
With heart pounding and dirty towels flying, I scrambled back up the steps to the relative safety of the downstairs hallway. I slammed the door behind me, leaned desperately against it, and called in a high, squeaky voice for the dog to run immediately to my side.
Three minutes later, she wandered down, blinked at me, and curled up on the living room carpet. If she’s a fricking ‘guard dog’, then I’m a Hungarian wildebeest wrangler. Useless.
I was just considering leaving my post by the basement door to fetch a carving knife or some other pointy, hurty weapon of self-defense when my wife returned and let herself in the front door. You may well imagine how I reacted to the unexpected sound of a door opening close by at that point.
I scraped my lungs off the floor, made a note to change underwear at the next convenient moment, and set about explaining the dire and potentially life-threatening situation to my wife. In hushed tones, of course, so as to hide our plans from the surly intruder down below. About three sentences in, just as I was describing the unmistakable tangy musk that tipped me off to our ‘guest’, she said:
‘Oh, that’s just the candle I put on the shelf by the basement door. I thought it’d make the area smell better. Do you like it? I think it’s kind of spicy!‘
Spicy. She actually said that. ‘Spicy‘.
The smell of fear and danger and some grungy deranged old sailor waiting in our basement to murder us in our sleep, and she calls it ‘spicy‘.
Come to think of it, it was kind of spicy. More pine cones and citrus than aftershave, really. Kind of makes the stairs there smell pretty good. When you’re not imagining a bum with an eyepatch and a rusty shiv waiting at the bottom of the stairs to cut your heart out, anyway.
At least, that’s what my wife tells me. Personally, I don’t know. Because I’m never going into the basement again. If she wants me to do the laundry, then we’re either going to a laundromat or we’re moving out to another house. A house without candles. In the fricking basement.
Man. Just when I thought I had these fears licked, too. I guess old instills die hard.Permalink | 3 Comments