This is not my oldest memory. That honor belongs to an extremely young Todd in front of the small stream cutting across our front yard and needing to pee very badly. I knew I wasn’t supposed to pee in my diapers anymore, but the toilet was so far away and I had to go so badly I cupped my groin in my hand as I bounced from foot to foot. I remember being torn by indecision, of wanting to be a good boy and not soak my diaper but also knowing I would never make it to the bathroom in time. So I did what any good country boy would do. I pulled down the front of my diaper, whipped it out, and relieved myself in the stream. But that is neither here nor there; for what I’ve actually set out to tell you about is my second oldest memory.
Every summer for as long as I can remember, the carnival came to town. I remember watching the trucks drive along 119 with disassembled equipment and shuttered concession stands in tow, knowing that overnight the parking lot of the nearby high school would be transformed into a wonderland of sights and smells. Caramel apples, corn dogs hot and golden and still sizzling from the fryers, the sweet allure of cotton candy, and barbecue wafting from the converted kitchen the Band Boosters had set up in the band room. Buffeted by winds from passing rides that clacked and whooshed while a myriad of bells and whistles rang out from booths along the midway: it was a young boy’s Shangri-La wrapped up in flashing, colored lights and the bustle of people.
But this memory stems from a time before I’d developed a true appreciation of the spectacle. With kindergarten an unthought of inevitability, I was young enough to still hold my mother’s hand. Young enough that everything seemed to tower above me and every stray dog rooting for dropped popcorn had to be friendly. It also means I was young enough not to remember anything before or after, only the event itself.
In those days, you didn’t ride through the haunted house. You walked. I remember clutching my mom’s hand in complete and utter darkness. They let you through in small groups and I could hear the people around us, giggling and cracking jokes. Sometimes they’d bump up against me, but even that close they remained cloaked by the dark.
I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow I slipped away from my mother’s hand. I slipped away from the reassuring sounds of other people and stood, alone in the dark. I was scared, but determined, positive that I could catch up and find my mom. With my hands feeling the way before me, I pressed on.
At some point I entered a room bathed in electric blue. Directly across from me sat a bevy of equipment. Sprouting from the top of one box was something that looked like the rabbit ears we used for our television and a spark traveled between the rods. Starting at the bottom, it raced upwards in a jittery arc, just like in cartoons. It was accompanied by a sound like my neighbor’s bug zapper and a long table was set beside it. Draped by a white sheet, I could see the contours of a bulky man hidden below. Seeming more angular than rounded, this shape called forth images of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, heavily lidded and plodding forward with outstretched hands.
As I watched, the figure beneath the sheet started to slowly raise, bending at the waist as the legs swung around. The sheet never shifted or slipped, never revealed even the smallest detail of what was hidden under it. And I didn't stick around to find out.
I ran through the darkness with no regard for personal safety, bumping off obscured walls and tripping over my own clumsy feet. Literally and figuratively running blind, dreading the cold touch I expected to grip the back of my neck at any moment.
I ended up in another room, this one pulsing in an orange glow as if from fire. Thick fog crept over the ground and a gnarled tree stood like a leafless skeleton behind a large, black cauldron. The cauldron seemed to glow from within and wisps of steam curled from its top amid the sounds of crackling wood and bubbling goo. A witch hunched over the pot, churning its contents with an inverted broom. Draped in black, her hook-like nose was as bumpy as a pickle and wild tufts of white hair spilled out from beneath her conical hat. She cackled as she stirred, her menacing laugh seeming to slightly echo as one crooked finger pointed at me.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I just gave up. Vaguely aware of a warm stain spreading across my pants, I stood frozen to the spot and cried. There was no shame. There was nothing but the fear and it reigned supreme. Snot bubbled from my nose and my lips quivered as I sobbed; I remember my cheeks feeling warm and wet and the taste of saline dropping into my mouth with bursts of saltiness. The smell of my own urine, hot and acrid. I…just…cried.
The witch ran across the room with her arms reaching toward me and I pressed my hands over my face as I screamed and wailed and yet was still unable to run. Her fingers tried to pry my hands away but I fought with savage shakes of the head, still crying and blubbering and knowing I was going to end up in the bottom of that pot.
At some point the witch somehow managed to calm me down enough to see that the white hair was attached to the hat. I remember her tossing it to the side as she squatted by me and how lustrous, brown hair seemed to appear as if from nowhere. Her black, talon-like fingernails were pulled off one by one. I remember her constantly talking, her monologue generously peppered with repetitions of oh, honey; but I can’t remember exactly what she said. Just the general idea that it was all a costume, make believe and pretend. To drive the point home, she allowed me to rip off her twisted nose.
Once I was calmer the witch stood and took my little hand in hers. She led me through tight corridors of plywood and two-by-fours, dimly lit by strands of bare hanging bulbs. We came to a metal wall and she opened a door and helped me down a series of iron steps. We came out behind the haunted hose, with cables, hoses, and extension cords fanning out like the tentacles of some great beast.
She walked me around to the front and stood with me, holding my hand, as we watched for my mom to step through the exit. When I finally saw her I ran through the lines of departing people, pinging off the aluminum queue barriers like a pinball. I ran into her embrace was never so happy to be held in my mother’s arms as I was that day.