“Goddammit Greg, what have you done to my children!?!”
I’m paraphrasing, but in essence, these were the words that greeted me when I received the call from my dear sister Leslie. Evidently, there had been some nightmare screaming in terror, and subsequent adult soothing, for my nephews…apparently as the result of the werewolf stories I’d been pumping them with.
Now I’m not in the habit of running around scaring the bejeezus out of small children, however, in this particular case I will defend my somewhat unorthodox methods on the grounds of education. Yes, education. There’s magic out there, but it’s gotta’ come from you, you have to want to see it or it’ll pass by like smoke. And at this moment, at the precise second Josh asked me what the trap door in the closet was for, I knew it was time to lift the milky cataract of reality for my beloved nephews and reveal the nutty, life giving (and vaguely unnerving) force of raw imagination.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I have three wonderful nephews (in order of appearance), Ellory, Josh and Luke. Alas, my sister Susan felt compelled to live in the hinterlands of America, which when mixed with my frequent poverty made it terribly hard for me to mangle Ellory’s brain (though I’m still trying), but hope springs eternal.
Evidently the transformative “human-to-demon” motif is pretty popular in our childhood subconscious. That notion that nothing is as it seems, and even the most trusted family member or friend might just bust out and become the disemboweling creature you’ve so assiduously kept vigil on your dark closet to avoid. My friend Maria related a story of her balancing trust and terror during her formative years. Her Pop was a big Universal Horror fan (for the culturally illiterate, Universal Studios produced classic horror films during the thirties including Frankenstien, Dracula, The Mummy and, of course, The Wolf Man) so she got a pretty good jolt of the spooky early on. In fact, the werewolf embedded itself like a tick in her internal monster alarm, the early alert system that allows you to avoid having your legs ripped off and eaten by quickly ducking under your covers. Maria would get so jacked up about the coming monster, that she’d bust a move to the parent’s bed, looking for that magic “no monster” space that only Mom and Dad can provide. The trouble, as you might suspect, was that it was just people like her parents (nice adults) who become werewolves. So, even while she was seeking solace in their Posturepedic cocoon, she’d keep a small hand on both of ’em…just in case they “changed”.
Anyway, I was talkin’ ’bout my nephews. Talkin’ ’bout education. I didn’t set out to “terrify” these guys, spook maybe, but just to loosen up those creative juices. I had experience with inadvertently freaking out my nephew Josh when he was about two and a half, and that had been burned into my catholic guilt conscience so deeply that I didn’t take the introduction to the werewolves lightly. In fact, that act of terror has forever marked my interaction with children, causing me to quickly revert to their relative mental age (not particularly difficult) and analyze the approximate impact before I do anything “funny”. It was all very innocent, just a random trip to the basement for something, my adoring nephew trailing behind me. I’d just made a trip back from the black hole of Indiana to meet Luke for the first time, and the family was all gathered around the pool, just having a good time. We hit the basement, I’m doing some business to get Josh to chuckling and then I spot it, the witch mask. A most excellent, full head, scraggly hair, big wart ladened nose latex mask just sittin’ there. So, with big drama, I turn my back to Josh, slip on the mask and whip around and await the hilarity to ensue. Josh made that funny little jerk kids do, when all function shuts down to enable complete focus, sort of like stepping backward without using your feet. I watched, helplessly as the scream worked its way from the tips of his toes, up through his shoes, up the legs, gain some steam as it got through his gut to his lungs, then release with extreme prejudice from his small mouth. I’d long since yanked the mask off, but once the scream got goin’ it wasn’t gonna’ be denied. Uncle Greg wasn’t wearin’ a mask…Uncle Greg was gone, replaced by some hell demon ready for a snack. For long months afterward, Josh couldn’t enter the house without visual confirmation that the mask was safely tucked into its trunk, far from his uncle’s head. If you’d seen the abject horror in that boys eyes, his huge, skull-engulfing terrified eyes, and have even a modicum of compassion, you’d understand that I’d never scare those boys again. Without good reason.
Being a parent is difficult, you’ve gotta’ educate your kids in all kinds of real life folderol to keep ’em from killing themselves, “don’t put that fork in the plug”, “fire hurts”, “cars crush”, “trash bags aren’t helmets”, “Windex isn’t a sipppy”,…jesus, it’s endless. So education in magic really isn’t high on the parento-meter, and if it is, you probably suck as a parent. It’s really up to Uncles, and I was up to the task.
So, Josh, Luke and me are knocking around my apartment (given how small it was, that was a feat in itself) and Josh spots the plumbing access hatch cut into the hardwood floor, a little trap door with all kinds of scratches and gouges surrounding it from previous tenets trying to pry it up.
“Hey, Uncle Greg, what’s that?”
“Oh, that’s where I throw the meat to the werewolf.”
“Well, if the werewolf gets enough raw meat, he pretty much stays in the basement and doesn’t go out killin’ everything he sees, and the way I look at it that’s worth a couple of extra bucks a week at the grocery store.”
“There’s no werewolfs!”
“Hey, you asked me what it was, I told ya’. I’m not askin’ ya’ to believe.”
Now this is the key to workin’ a kid’s head, don’t act like you care if they care, drives ’em crazy. And I knew if I laid off, they’d keep askin’ questions. To which they’d have some “I know what’s real” comeback, to which I’d indifferently say something like “hey, believe what you want”. Brilliant. This apartment “complex” had a laundry room, which you had to walk out your back door, into the parking lot, down some old moss covered stone steps to enter through a blood red door with scuffed up Plexiglas (replacing long shattered glass) held between two iron mesh “windows”. The effect was that if someone was doin’ some laundry, all you could see was a shadowy form moving to and fro, defined only as mass blocking light. This became the “home” of my werewolf. We’d walk by it on the way to whatever broken down, rusting hulk I was using as an automobile and if there was movement I’d always say something like “he looks pretty agitated, better move fast”.
Those boys ate it up, and it kept spinning, if anything even vaguely weird happened, it was the werewolf. I was careful to remind them that I was the “keeper of the wolf”, and that as long as they stuck with Unk, nothing bad could befall them (in retrospect, I should’ve included their parents as magical protectors as well, but I was running a lot of gags and it just sort of slipped my mind). These boys were pretty savvy, and continued to refute my assertion that a murderous lycanthrope was living in my laundry room. But that didn’t stop ’em from waking up in terror did it? They dreamed my monster, which meant they had spent some time cogitating on the notion that maybe we don’t “know” everything. Maybe there is magic, dark or otherwise, waiting to be discovered.
Such lessons are for the long term, meant to be called up when my boys are asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” If I’ve been successful, no matter what they choose, artist, lawyer, teacher, astronaut, policy wonk, whatever, they’ll hesitate for a moment recognizing the complexity of the question, knowing that employment isn’t a definition of one’s “being”, just a color in the palette of their lives. That no matter how masterful their command of reality, they’ll know there’s more, and that they’ve seen it. That an act of kindness can transform both participants, that the right kiss can widen horizons, and that if they believe hard enough and apply themselves they may not be able to change reality…but they can bend it. And that’s a hell of a feeling.
Maybe I should’ve used magic ducks, or unicorns, perhaps the Easter Bunny or some-such non-threatening, cuddly “wuvable” beast. But hey, I’m a guy, and I like my magic big…like my Slurpees. And the way I look at it, given some of the lunatics I’ve known, being on the lookout for werewolves isn’t a bad skill to possess. Are there werewolves?
Hey, I’m just tellin’ ya’ there are…I’m not askin’ ya’ to believe.