In April of 1971, my parents sat me down at the dining room table and delivered the horrifying news: I would no longer be the only child in the family.
I said nothing. Rain pounded our windows, and our lights blinked off and on. When lightning zapped a nearby tree, I jumped a good inch off my chair. It was the first serious thunderstorm of the year.
Mom did all the talking. According to her, she was already four months along. Dad, who normally did all the talking, pulled a napkin free of its holder and dabbed at the sheen of sweat across his upper lip. He looked from one corner of the ceiling to the other, as if anticipating a leak to start any second. He was a roofer; a leak was something he could fix.
“So?” my mother asked. “What do you think, Timmy?”
“Huh!” I said, nodding. I was eight years old. The only things I cared about were monsters. Movie monsters, to be precise. I wouldn’t talk to anyone unless they had something to say about monsters. If the word monster didn’t come up within the first few seconds of a conversation, I quit listening. Monsters was the only acceptable topic—the only topic, in fact, worthy of my undivided attention. When my father brought home a schnauzer from the pound, I named him Dr. Jekyll. When he brought home a parrot in a cage, I named him Quasimodo. Whenever Mrs. V., our neighbor, knocked on our door, I’d open it slowly and, in a thick Eastern European accent, say, “I bid you welcome.” Weekends, when my father took me to the dusty Twin Drive-In flea market, I spent hours flipping through boxes of musty monster magazines with titles like Castle of Frankenstein, Mad Monsters, and Fantastic Monsters of the Films. I searched for the magazines that cost a nickel, since those were the only ones I could afford.
My mother wasn’t talking about monsters, so I felt no obligation to listen to what she was saying.
“I have to admit,” she said, “you’re taking the news awfully well.”
I nodded. I smiled. I imagined biting her neck, turning into a bat, and flying out our kitchen window.
* * * *
We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. Most nights I fell asleep on the couch with the TV still on. Freight trains chugged behind our building all day long, and the Stevenson Expressway hovered above our third-floor window. My parents complained about the noise, but I didn’t notice. It was like living in a valley except that there were no valleys in Chicago. There were only overpasses and underpasses. We lived under an overpass. I could climb up to the expressway and motion for the semi drivers to honk their horns, or I could stand by the railroad tracks that ran below and yell for the conductor to throw chalk. Why train conductors carried chalk with them I didn’t know, but occasionally a huge chunk would come sailing toward me, and I would then spend my afternoon drawing peace signs on every Dumpster in my neighborhood. What more could I ask for?
The highlight of my week, however, was Saturday night at ten-thirty when “Creature Features” aired on Channel Nine. “Creature Features” was like any other station’s late-night movie, except that it starred a monster. Since our tiny black-and-white TV had pretty bad reception, I would start fiddling with the antennas a full half-hour beforehand, twisting them back and forth, then toward me and away. In desperation, I sometimes wrapped a sheet of aluminum foil around them. Eventually the snowy images cleared and recognizable objects came into focus. With my parents sound asleep, I turned out the lights, settled into the couch, and, keeping the volume low, waited for “Creature Features” to begin.
In truth, “Creature Features” wasn’t much of a show. There was no host; there weren’t any contests. Except for the opening sequence—a series of short clips featuring all of my favorite monsters, including Dracula, whose hand slithered out of a coffin, and the Wolf Man, who loped angrily through a layer of waist-high fog—there wasn’t anything more to “Creature Features” than the monster movie itself. But a movie with a monster in it was enough for me.
The monsters reminded me of certain groups of kids at school. There would always be the popular ones—the Frankensteins, the Wolf Men, the Draculas of the playground—and then, off in the corner, the less popular ones—your Creatures from the Black Lagoon, your Mummies, your Invisible Men. I loved all the monsters, but my hope was always to spend time with the popular ones, and so my heart sank, if only momentarily, whenever the Mummy came on, much as it sank each time Raymond Gertz, with his sagging pants and bad breath, joined me on the blacktop to see why I hadn’t come over to his house lately. I liked Raymond—he was okay—but he was no Dracula.
I usually fell asleep right around the time the monster started running amuck. By morning, the TV would be turned off, my father’d be smoking a cigarette at the dining room table, and my mom would be in the kitchen making pancakes and bacon. The apartment was laid out in such a way that I could see from one room to the next without having to budge. There was Mom, there was Dad, and here I was on the couch: the complete family unit.
On this particular Saturday night, while my father prepared himself for bed (preparations that included, among other things, plucking long hairs that had appeared suddenly from the cave of a nostril) my mother plopped down next to me on the couch. She ruffled my hair and pulled me close to her. I had been trying to read a monster magazine in preparation for “Creature Features,” but I couldn’t concentrate with all of Mom’s squeezing and touching.
“When the baby arrives,” she said, “you two are going to have to share a room. You realize that, don’t you?”
“What baby?” I asked.
Mom sighed. “You know what baby,” she said. “We talked about it the other day. Remember?”
I shrugged. I folded open my magazine, creased it down the middle, and held it out for my mother to look at. “Iron-on monsters!” I said, pointing to the advertisement.
My mother wouldn’t even glance down. “You don’t need iron-on monsters,” she said.
I read the description aloud, as if I hadn’t heard her. “Any two monsters, one dollar.”
“You don’t need iron-on monsters,” she repeated.
I shut the magazine. I got up and put a leash on Dr. Jekyll. “Come on, boy,” I said. “Let’s go for a walk.”
* * * *
Dr. Jekyll sniffed the same spot outside but wouldn’t do anything. “Do something,” I begged. “Please.” I was the only one who ever defended Dr. Jekyll. Whenever he messed in the house, I blamed it on his alter-ego: Mr. Hyde.
The last time Dr. Jekyll made a mess, Mom and I stood outside the sad circle of pee on the rug and stared down at it. “That wasn’t Dr. Jekyll,” I said. “Mr. Hyde did that.”
Mom shook her head. “Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde. It doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m going to wring his little neck the next time he messes inside.”
I gave the leash a gentle tug now and said, “Why won’t you do anything?”
Mrs. V., who was retired and lived across the hall from us, wobbled over with her cane. She was blind, but she always knew where I was. According to her, I talked too much. “I can hear you through my walls,” she’d told me once. “You never stop talking.”
Today, Mrs. V. said, “How’s that dog of yours?”
“He’s okay,” I said. “He won’t pee, though.”
“How’s your mom?” she asked.
“Mom?” I said. “She pees all the time.”
Mrs. V. pursed her lips. She didn’t like me, but I didn’t like her, either, so it didn’t really bother me that she didn’t like me. She said, “I hear you’re going to have a baby brother or a baby sister soon.”
“Really?” I said. “I haven’t heard that.”
Mrs. V. stared in my general direction for a good fifteen seconds before turning and caning her way back toward the apartment building. I finally gave up on Dr. Jekyll and led him back upstairs. I didn’t want to miss the opening to “Creature Features.” Mom and Dad were already asleep; their light was out, and the door was shut. I gave Dr. Jekyll a corn chip.
Tonight’s movie was one of my favorites, The Wolf Man. It was the story of Larry Talbot who, after years away from home, returns to Europe and falls in love with a girl, only to be bitten by a werewolf and then, once he turns into a werewolf himself, is beaten to death by his father.
One thing I loved about monster movies was how different everything in them was from my life. I lived in an apartment building with my mom and dad; Larry Talbot lived in a castle with his father. When the lights went out, my parents lit a few squatty candles; the Talbots owned fancy candelabras. When my neighbors were angry, they swore at each other and made threats before slamming their doors shut; in monster movies, when people were angry, everyone gathered in the town square, and then they hunted down whatever they were mad at, using guns, dogs, and torches. The Wolf Man had all of this and more—spooked horses in the fog; fortune-telling gypsies; walking canes with silver wolf-head handles.
If you watched enough monster movies, you started noticing how one movie interlocked with another. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s father was Lon Chaney, who played Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lon Chaney, Jr. played Larry Talbot, who turns into the Wolf Man. Claude Rains, who played Lon Chaney, Jr.’s father in The Wolf Man, also played the Invisible Man. Bela Lugosi, who played Bela the Gypsy in The Wolf Man, was the original Dracula. From where I stood, the monster community looked like one big happy family.
When Larry Talbot’s father started talking about the legend of the werewolf being nothing more than a myth about the nature of good and evil in every man’s soul, I pulled the blanket up to my chin. Dr. Jekyll hopped onto the couch with me, curling up and pressing himself against my belly, and together we watched mere men turn into wolves. “Look,” I said, nudging Dr. Jekyll when Larry Talbot changed into the Wolf Man. “That’s one of your relatives,” I said. “What do you think about that?”
* * * *
I opened my eyes. I sat up and looked around. “What was that?” I asked, blinking. A loud thud, in the vicinity of my head, had woken me.
“I got these at a garage sale yesterday,” Dad said. “Left them in my trunk overnight. Almost forgot about them.” He pointed with his cigarette to a stack of four medical encyclopedias that smelled like they’d been fished out of Lake Michigan. Mold dotted their spines. “Fifty cents,” he said. “Not bad.”
I blinked some more, trying to focus. “Thanks,” I said. I was afraid to ask—I didn’t want to hurt his feelings—but I decided to ask anyway. “What are they for?”
“In case you wanted to, you know, read about what your mother’s going through. It’s all there under ‘p.’ Or maybe it’s under ‘b.’ I’m not sure. I didn’t look.”
“‘P,’” I said.
“Or ‘b,’” he added. “You know. For birth.”
“Where’s Mom?” I asked. “What’s for breakfast?”
“I took your mother out this morning. A treat.” When he saw that my feelings were hurt, he added, “We didn’t want to wake you.” He turned away from the intensity of my glaring. He said, “I dropped her off at Mary Rudolph’s.”
The Rudolphs lived around the corner. I was in love with Eileen Rudolph, who was two years older than me and epileptic. She liked monsters, too.
After Dad left, I searched the apartment for a pair of gloves so I could open one of the books without actually having to touch it, but all I found were big, puffy winter gloves. I put them on, anyway. Turning pages with such huge gloves proved nearly impossible. Instead of finding the entry for pregnancy, I ended up at psoriasis. “A common immune-mediated chronic skin disease,” it said, “that comes in different forms and varying levels of severity.” On a glossy page next to the definition was a color photo of a woman’s face with red patchy spots all over it.
“Ugh!” I said and shut the book.
Later, bored, I picked up one of my monster magazines and examined, at great length, the face of Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. One eye was white and kind of bulged out. His cheeks were abnormally puffy. Dirty, crooked teeth erupted from his down-turned mouth. Quasimodo, I concluded, probably had psoriasis, but by the look of things, psoriasis was the least of his problems.
I held the photo up to the bird cage and said to the parrot inside, “Look. This is who you’re named after. What do you think?”
When my mother came home from the grocery store, she wrinkled her nose at the encyclopedias and said, “P. U.! What garbage can did you find those in?”
“Dad bought them for fifty cents,” I said. “Not bad,” I added
Mom rested her twined fingers over her belly. “Is there anything about pregnancy in there?” she asked, smiling.
I shrugged. I opened the book to the photo of the woman with psoriasis. “You don’t have this, do you?”
She shook her head.
I shut the book and pulled a monster magazine from my back pocket. I showed her some of the other things I could order from the back pages, but it didn’t matter what I showed her – “Monster Notebook Binders,” “Punch-out Monster Masks,” or the “Frankenstein Target Game”—she always came to the same conclusion: I didn’t need it.
“Okie doke,” I said. I put the leash on Dr. Jekyll. “Come on, boy. Let’s go outside.”
* * * *
Eileen Randolph was the only girl I knew who faithfully watched “Creature Features.” When I biked over to her house Sunday night to ask her what she thought about The Wolf Man, she raised her hands up like paws, bared her teeth, and growled at me.
“So you liked it?” I asked.
She growled again, exposing her wolf-man-like underbite, and nodded.
“Me, too,” I said.
When she finally transformed back into herself, she looked like she was going to cry. “It was so sad at the end, though,” she said.
“I guess,” I said. “But he was a monster, you know. You can’t let monsters run loose.”
“Maybe not,” Eileen said. And then she did the very thing I’d hoped she wouldn’t do: she stared intensely into my eyes. Whenever she did this, I had to look away. I didn’t want to tell her that I was in love with her, but I was. She wore her hair really long, like Susan Dey in The Partridge Family, and she wore necklaces strung with candy. Sometimes when I was talking to her, she’d lift the string of candy up to her mouth and take a bite. It killed me every time.
“When’s your Mom due?” she asked.
“Due?” I said. “Due how?”
“When’s she having her baby?”
“What baby?” I asked.
Eileen punched my arm. She was strong for a girl, and whenever she punched me, I ended up with a dark bruise the next day. “You know what baby,” she said.
“If I knew,” I said, “I’d tell you, but I don’t, so I can’t.”
“When are we going to kiss?” she asked. Kissing was Eileen’s new favorite subject. Before that, it had been God. Before that, frogs. She’d been putting a lot of pressure on me lately to kiss her, but so far I had managed to wiggle out of it. She whispered into my ear, “I’m epileptic. I could die any minute, so we should kiss.”
Whenever Eileen started mixing kissing and dying together, I clammed up. Some days I would start picking at a scab on my knee or elbow, or I’d simply change the subject and talk about monsters she might not have heard of, like Nosferatu or Mothra, but today I decided to take action. I straddled my bike and started pedaling as fast as I could.
“Where are you going?” Eileen yelled after me.
“Away from you!” I yelled back without turning around.
* * * *
Weeks went by before I finally broke down and opened the encyclopedia to the part about pregnancy. The first section began with three see-through pages. What you saw, with all three pages together, was an illustration of a pregnant woman wearing a blue maternity blouse and white pants. She looked like a grown-up and pregnant Jane from the Dick and Jane books at school, but when I peeled back the first see-through page, Jane was totally naked.
“Wow!” I said. Her belly was gigantic, and her belly button was poking way out. I wanted to keep looking but didn’t want to get caught staring at a naked pregnant woman, even one in an encyclopedia, so I quickly turned to the final see-through page, which showed the inside of her belly, where a sleepy, drunk-looking baby floated around.
My heart continued to thump hard. I wiped the sweat from my palms onto my thighs. A few pages later I found a black-and-white photo that looked like a scene from the scariest monster movie ever: a small but slimy melon was popping out of the top of someone’s bushy, split-open head. I brought the book close to my eyes, then held it away, hoping everything would come into focus. When I still couldn’t make any sense out of it, I read the caption: “A newborn baby passing through the mother’s vaginal canal.” I screamed and threw the book.
Mom rushed into the living room. “What happened? Did Dr. Jekyll bite you?” At the mention of his name, Dr. Jekyll’s tail started thumping.
“No! I’m fine.” I tried catching my breath.
“If you’re fine, why did you scream?”
“I didn’t scream,” I said.
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re an odd one. Do you know that?” Then she looked beyond me, out the window behind my head. “Look at the moon, Timmy,” she said, pointing. “It’s so huge.”
The moon, like an old movie, was always in black-and-white. I cleared my throat. “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This was what everyone had told Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man before he turned into a wolf himself.
Mom stared at me for so long, I worried that a pentagram—the mark of the werewolf—had appeared on my forehead, but then she leaned toward me and kissed my cheek. “Nighty night,” she said.
“Night,” I replied.
* * * *
The following Saturday, my father took me to the drive-in’s flea market. The sellers, who parked their vehicles next to cast-iron poles that held the heavy speakers, displayed goods on either fold-out card tables or blankets spread over the gravel. My father liked to get there early to haggle before the noon crowd showed up. Noon crowds, according to my father, were the worst. “They’re not shoppers,” he said. “They’re browsers. All they do is get in your way.”
Week after week, I was stunned by the junk that people had the nerve to put out to sell: dolls missing heads, tools fuzzy with rust, an Etch-a-Sketch without knobs.
“If you see that Dr. Spock book,” my father said today, “let me know. Your mother loved that book when she was pregnant with you, but I don’t know what happened to it. I might have thrown it out.”
I’d had no idea that Mom was a Star Trek fan. I was the only one who ever turned it on to watch. “Mr. Spock,” I said for clarification.
“Mr. Spock. Dr. Spock. Whatever. Just don’t spend more than a nickel on it.”
Later, while digging through a deep box, I found a sci-fi magazine with Leonard Nimoy on the cover. I held it up and showed it to my dad.
“Look!” I said. “Mr. Spock!”
Dad nodded; he wasn’t impressed.
“You don’t want it?” I asked.
“Why would I want it?”
“For Mom,” I said.
Dad shook his head, and I tossed it back into the box.
When we got home and I saw Mom, I raised my hand and gave her the Star Trek greeting. “Live long and prosper,” I said.
Mom smiled. “What a sweet thing to say,” she said. “I hope you live long and prosper, too, honey.”
* * * *
The bigger my mother grew, the less desire I had to crack open the medical encyclopedia and find out what was going to happen next. The less I knew, the better. The photo of the kid with the slimy head popping out of his mother had made me want to believe that nothing like that was going to happen to anyone—ever. But there were worse thoughts. I tried pushing them out of my brain, but the scariest of them—that I had once been that slimy-headed kid—kept returning. And once I started thinking about myself as the slimy-headed kid in the photo, a thousand more questions followed: How was it possible that I had once been inside my mother? How had I managed to breathe while squeezing myself out? Why couldn’t I remember any of it?
It was all too disturbing to think about, and every time a new question popped into my head, I’d start walking for blocks and blocks, zombie-like, wondering how everything had gone so wrong so fast. I had always been a good boy, the sort of boy that women in grocery stores commented upon, and at a very young age, three or four, I knew how to feign shyness, how to duck my head at compliments, how to look at my shoes, how to twist my feet ever so slightly inward and tap the tips together, a kind of Morse Code that women—mothers, especially—intuited as gestures of a modest boy. “Oh, look at him,” they would say, and I would clutch the bottom hem of my mother’s blouse and, wide-eyed, give it an almost imperceptible tug, further cementing public opinion that I was such a cute little boy.
But those days were gone.
When Jerry Stroka showed me the final card of his Partridge Family trading card collection—the much-coveted “Road to Albuquerque”—I ripped it in half and gave it back to him. I expected Jerry to punch me, but he didn’t. He broke into tears, his face as raw and open as a sliced tomato, and he took off running.
When Joey Rizzo showed me his can of Silly String, I took it from him, shook the can for a good half-minute, the way my father shook cans of spray paint, and then I sprayed Joey’s face. When I was done, Joey looked like someone had thrown a huge plate of foam spaghetti at his head.
“I’m blind!” he yelled, clawing at his face. “I can’t see!”
What I did, I did without emotion. I felt no malice toward these boys; I felt no jealousy or rage. The sad truth was, I felt nothing—nothing at all. Something inside me was happening. I was becoming a different boy, and there was nothing I could do about it.
* * * *
“Timothy O’Reilly,” Mom said before I could shut the door. “Guess who just called me.”
I looked down at my mother’s belly and then back up at her. I shrugged. Mrs. V. was smoking a cigarette at our dining room table. She said, “I better skedaddle,” but she couldn’t resist smiling, thrilled at the prospect of my getting punished. For Mrs. V., who was blind, each day must have been like a monster movie turned inside-out in that everyone was the Invisible Man. She smashed out her cigarette and then walked toward the door, hitting me with her cane. If Eileen wasn’t busy giving me bruises, Mrs. V. picked up the slack. Tomorrow I would have a new one, purple and puffy, on my shin.
With Mrs. V. gone, Mom said, “Do you have any idea why Joey Rizzo’s mother might call me?”
I walked the rest of the way inside and shut the door. I took off my coat. I hung it on our wobbly coat rack. I understood now how Dad felt when he came home from a long day at work only to find himself interrogated about one thing or another the second he opened the door. In all fairness to Mom, she didn’t interrogate Dad very often, and she always had a good reason when she did. Even so, my heart went out to my father.
“What’s gotten into you lately?” Mom asked. “You used to be such a good little boy. I’m not even sure I recognize you anymore. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” She waited for an answer. “Nothing?” she asked.
I growled, just enough to let her know that I was in no mood, before heading for my bedroom and shutting the door between us.
* * * *
When summer came to an end, so did my trips to the flea market.
“It’s the same old stuff, week after week,” Dad said.
“What about garage sales?”
“Wrong time of year.”
“Are there any good flea markets in Michigan?” I asked.
My father gave me one of his are-you-out-of-your-gourd looks. “You got a wad of bills burning a hole in your pocket or what?”
Instead of driving me around to look for old monster magazines, my father went out by himself, returning later with things for my mother, like Italian beef sandwiches, which she craved all the time now, or boxes of cookies he bought at the factory outlet store, where he was putting on a new roof. The cookies were cheaper because they were damaged, but Mom claimed that she preferred crumbs, anyway. I kept wanting to ask Dad, What about me? What about the things I want? but I knew I’d sound like a big baby.
“Since when do you like crumbs?” I asked Mom after Dad left the room.
“Shhhh,” Mom said. “You’ll hurt his feelings.”
* * * *
One night during “Creature Features,” our telephone rang. I was watching The Creature Walks Among Us, in which a team of doctors decide that the Creature from the Black Lagoon (a.k.a. Gill Man) would be happier if he could walk around like the rest of us, so they try fixing up his looks by cutting, sewing, burning, and scraping him. I sat on the edge of the couch, leaning toward the TV. I was appalled at all the different kinds of torture the doctors were putting the Creature through, but I was kind of enjoying it, too. When the phone rang, I nearly wet my pants.
My father bolted from the bedroom, yelling, “What’s that noise?”
I pointed to the phone.
Dad stared at it, as if it were a smoking meteroite, before looking at the clock on the wall and then picking up. “Yeah? . . . Yeah? . . . What? . . . We’ll be right over.” Dad hung up. “That was Bill Rudolph. Eileen’s having seizures. They’re taking her to the hospital, and he wants us to watch the kids.” I stood to get ready, but Dad motioned for me to stay put. “Just watch your movie,” he said.
“But it’s Eileen,” I said.
“We’ll call you if there’s a problem,” Dad said. “Otherwise, we’ll see you in the morning.”
It took my parents no time to get ready. Mom slipped back on the clothes she had worn earlier that day, while Dad put on a thick coat, winter gloves, and a knit cap. When he left the apartment, though, he was still wearing his pajama bottoms.
I got up and fiddled with the TV antennas. Despite all the advancements in modern medicine, Gill Man was still having a difficult time adapting to life among humans. At the sight of all the injustices Gill Man suffered, my upper lip started to tremble, and my vision got blurry. Poor guy, I thought. Poor fella. I knew exactly how he felt. I was Gill Man.
* * * *
When my parents returned to our apartment early the next morning, I figured Eileen must have been okay. Mom walked over to the couch, but I kept my eyes shut and forced my teeth to chatter.
“Look how cold he is,” Mom said.
“He’s fine,” Dad said.
Mom rested her palm on my forehead. “He’s warm. Maybe he’s got the flu.”
“Just throw a bunch of blankets over him,” Dad said. “I’m going to bed.”
Mom piled several blankets over my trembling body. “There there,” she said and kissed my head.
* * * *
By the time school started up in the fall, word had spread about what I’d done to Jerry Stroka and Joey Rizzo, and my old friends kept a safe distance from me, fearful that I might grab hold of someone’s exposed underwear and rip the elastic band free, or that I might remove my left-handed scissors from a pocket and quickly cut a patch of hair from an innocent kid’s head. Overnight, I had become a boy capable of anything.
Meanwhile, my mother’s stomach grew to ungainly proportions. When she walked, she tilted from side to side. She sometimes stopped whatever she was doing to let out a long sigh. “Whew,” she’d say and then take a deep breath before carrying on. She spoke more often to the kid inside her than to me. “You must be sleeping on my kidney, kiddo,” she’d say. Or, “Your brother didn’t even kick this much.”
One afternoon, while my mother napped on the couch, I tiptoed up to her and had a few words with her belly.
“The bedroom’s all mine,” I said. “Find your own damned place to live.” I stared at my mother’s stomach, hoping my words were penetrating. I leaned closer and said, “I like monsters. If you don’t like monsters, don’t even talk to me, okay?” I waited a few seconds before adding, “Are we clear on things?”
Mom opened her eyes. It reminded me of a scene from Dracula: You think Dracula’s asleep in his coffin, but then he opens his eyes and your heart clenches like a fist. “Who are you talking to?” she asked.
“Quasimodo,” I said. I reached over and stuck my finger inside the bird cage, but he bit me, thinking my finger was a cracker.
“Oh,” Mom said. “Do you think you could whisper then?”
Okay, I mouthed. I zipped my mouth shut. I put the leash on Dr. Jekyll. “Shhh,” I whispered. “Don’t bark.”
* * * *
The baby was due on September 8, 1971. I wasn’t sure how they knew the exact date, but they did.
One day in late August, while Mom sat at the dining room table writing down possible names for the baby, I suggested naming it Boris after Boris Karloff, who played the Frankenstein monster, if it was a boy; or Elsa after Elsa Lanchester, who played the monster’s disappointed bride, if it was a girl.
“I’m not naming the baby after a monster, for Pete’s sake,” Mom said. The pencil slipped from her hand and fell to the floor. When she leaned sideways to pick it up, she looked like she was going to fall over. Her stomach was that big. I reached down, picked up the pencil, and handed it back to her.
“Those aren’t monsters,” I clarified. “They’re the names of actors who played monsters.”
“Boris,” Mom said and snorted. “What kind of name is that, anyway?”
The due date—September the eighth—came and went. So did September the ninth. On Saturday the eleventh, I biked over to Eileen’s to ask her if she was going to watch Frankenstein on “Creature Features” later that night. Neither of us had ever seen the original Frankenstein. We’d seen Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and our favorite, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. How was it possible we’d seen all of these but not the most famous monster movie of all time?
We were sitting on a pile of logs behind the tool shed in her back yard. Her mother had made us a pitcher of Tang, and we each had a tall glass.
“I hear he drowns a cute little girl,” Eileen said.
“Who?” I said. “Frankenstein’s monster?”
“I can’t wait,” I said.
Eileen set her glass of Tang on the ground. She took my glass and set it next to hers. And then Eileen did the one thing I kept hoping she would never do: she leaned in and kissed me. Her lips actually touched my lips. I expected it to be worse than it was. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too bad. She was chewing a wad of Bazooka Joe, and since I chewed Bazooka Joe all the time, her mouth tasted a lot like my own mouth, only better—better because it wasn’t my mouth.
“Do you know how to French kiss?” she asked.
“Do what?” I said.
Instead of answering, she showed me. It was shortly after this that I might have blacked out. I didn’t actually black out, but I lost all track of time, the way Larry Talbot, after he turns into the Wolf Man and kills innocent villagers, wakes up the next morning, confused, only to discover paw prints on the carpet and then dirt on his feet, leaving him with one logical conclusion: He is the Wolf Man!
When Eileen slipped her hand up under my T-shirt, touching my bare skin, I told her I needed to go.
“Why? Don’t you like this?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “But I don’t want to miss Frankenstein.”
“You’d rather watch Frankenstein than kiss me?” she asked.
It was a crazy question; I almost didn’t answer. I gave her one of my father’s are-you-out-of-your-gourd looks. A whine crept into my voice when I said, “But it’s Frank-en-stein.”
“I see,” Eileen said. She stood up and brushed herself off. I could tell by the bounce in her step as she walked toward her house that she was mad.
“Now, don’t be like that,” I said. My words were eerily familiar, but it was only after Eileen had stopped abruptly, the way my mother would have stopped, that I realized the words I spoke belonged to my father. It was something he said at least once a week.
“Like what?” Eileen said. When she turned around, I saw that she was crying. “Like this? I could die tomorrow. I could,” she insisted, “and what do you care?” She waited for me to answer, but I didn’t know what to say. I felt weak, like I’d been punched. It was starting to drizzle. I wanted to go home. But then Eileen delivered the final blow. “I don’t even like monsters,” she said.
“You what?” I said. Eileen was already opening her screen door to go inside. “You lied!” I yelled once the door shut. For good measure, I added, “How could you not like monsters? What’s wrong with you?” The porch light flipped off, leaving me in the dark. “Eileen?” I called out, but no one answered. I looked closely for her shadow against the shut curtains, but when I didn’t see anything that looked like her, I got on my bike and headed for home.
* * * *
The rain came down in heavy sheets, and the roads were especially slick. I was so wet by the time I reached the apartment, my pants and shirt clung to my skin. Every time I peeled my shirt away from me, it slowly suctioned itself back to my flesh. My shirt was like a living thing, the way the Blob was a living thing: it wasn’t human and it wasn’t animal, but it was going to eat me alive if I wasn’t careful. Even after I changed my clothes, rain continued to roll from my hair and down my face.
A note was taped over the TV screen. I was afraid it was there to let me know the TV was broken, but it was a note about Mom.
WENT TO HOSPITAL.
NEW BABY ON THE WAY.
COULDN’T WAIT FOR YOU.
I looked down at Dr. Jekyll. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He cocked his head, then wagged his tail. For Dr. Jekyll, every question was the same: Do you want a treat? I gave him a Cheez-It.
Rain hammered our windows, and I could hear a steady plop somewhere inside the apartment. I marched from room to room until I found the problem: rain was dripping from the kitchen ceiling. I set a sauce pan down to catch the drip.
Quasimodo squawked, and I said, “Easy, boy, it’s only water,” but then I saw that rain was dripping into his cage. When I picked up the cage to move it, Quasimodo squawked again. “You’re welcome,” I said.
By the time I turned on the TV and settled onto the couch, “Creature Features” was already starting. I covered my entire self with blankets, except for my eyes and the top of my head. At last, I was going to see the greatest monster movie of all time—Frankenstein! What a lot of people didn’t realize was that Frankenstein wasn’t the name of the monster. Frankenstein was the last name of the scientist who created him. It had crossed my mind that if I ever created a monster, people might start calling it O’Reilly. The very name O’Reilly would cause women to scream and men to gather their weapons.
Quasimodo squawked some more—an angry squawk this time. The rain had followed him, still dripping into his cage. “I’m going to miss the movie,” I whined. I threw off my blankets and quickly moved the bird cage again.
As Dr. Frankenstein and his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, started digging up the freshly buried corpse, rain poured in from new places in our ceiling. During the first commercial break, I found more pans and cups to place strategically around the apartment. If Dad was here, he would have known what to do.
“Dr. Jekyll,” I said. “Do you know how to swim?”
His tail wagged. Yes, he was saying. I’d love a treat.
Eileen’s lips still felt like they were touching my lips. It was like being kissed by the Invisible Man. Even the smell of Bazooka Joe lingered. What if she was telling the truth? What if she was going to die any day now? I was almost too upset to concentrate on the movie, but I watched it anyway, lying across the couch with Dr. Jekyll curled up next to me. I decided that I would memorize everything in the movie so that I could tell Eileen about it tomorrow: the way Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory was in a watchtower, the way Fritz climbed down a long rope from the top of the tower, the way the monster was strapped to a table, still dead. And then there was the laboratory itself with all its flywheels, chains, and glass bubbles. I would buy Eileen a box of chocolate. I would give her some of my favorite monster magazines. I knew she was lying, of course; her knowledge of monsters was too great for her not to like them.
It was storming in Frankenstein, a storm as bad as the one outside. At the height of the storm, Dr. Frankenstein cranked a flywheel, and the table upon which the monster lay rose to the very top of the watchtower. My hands were sweating. Rain hit the top of my head, one thick plunk after another. Electricity struck the bolts sticking out of the monster’s neck and then Dr. Frankenstein lowered the monster back to ground level.
The telephone rang, and I clutched my chest. This was the most famous part of the most famous monster movie of all time, and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything. The phone rang two more times before it stopped.
I had to squint through the rain to see the lightning on TV. Dr. Jekyll whined and looked up at me, and Quasimodo squawked. There was a knock at our door. “Go away!” I yelled, but then came another knock. I groaned and stood. I looked out the peephole. It was Mrs. V.
“What?” I yelled through the door.
“Your father is trying to call you!” she yelled back.
“Your mother had a baby girl!”
“That’s great!” I said. “Is that all?”
“What are you doing in there? Why won’t you open the door?”
“None of your business,” I said.
“You’re an evil little boy,” she said. “Did you know that?”
“I’m not a boy,” I said. “I’m a monster.”
At this, Mrs. V. backed slowly away from the door. She looked like a movie being run in reverse. My heart was pounding. My mother had a baby, I thought. I’ve got a sister now.
I pulled my eye from the peephole. “Wow,” I said. “A sister.” When I reached the couch, I watched the monster raise his hand all by himself.
“Look,” Dr. Frankenstein said. “It’s moving. It’s alive.”
“Look!” I said to Dr. Jekyll. “It’s moving.”
“It’s alive!” Dr. Frankenstein bellowed. “It’s alive! It’s moving!”
Dr. Frankenstein looked so happy. I imagined my mother and the new slimy baby. I imagined my father towering over them, smiling like Dr. Frankenstein. I walked to the window and opened it wide. I was already soaking wet, and Dr. Jekyll was crawling under the couch for shelter. I poked my head out the window and yelled, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Sheets of rain smacked my face. Dr. Frankenstein continued to yell: “It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” “It’s alive!” I yelled again. I was shivering, but I didn’t mind. I was happy. I was happy for Mom; I was happy for Dad; I was happy that I had a plan to win back Eileen. I was even happy for the slimy baby I hadn’t yet met.
Mrs. Willis, who lived below us, opened her window and looked out to see who was making all the noise. Mr. Sleezak, who lived next door, opened his window, too, and poked his head outside. A family running through the rain to their car paused to peer up at me. Behind me the TV sizzled and popped a few times, and then something inside it exploded. A glass tube, I suspected. From under the couch, Dr. Jekyll barked.
“In the name of God!” I shouted.
Tomorrow, I would knock on Eileen’s door and when she answered I would take her in my arms. I would whisper into her ear that she wasn’t going to die. Not anytime soon, at least. And not before we’d kissed some more.
“What’s wrong with that kid?” Mr. Sleezak asked Mrs. Willis.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Willis said, “but I always suspected he wasn’t right in the head.”
I held my hands out into the rain, as if to catch a falling baby, and yelled, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”