Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Story of Earl

I'll admit: I've been lax in the blogging of late. But today, thanks to a question in an interview I'm working on, I found myself thinking back on the tall tales my Papa used to tell. It turns out one I thought I'd written about here was actually included in an interview I did with Chuck Wendig way back in February of last year. The story seemed appropriate to the season with Halloween fast approaching, so I decided it to rescue it from archived obscurity. Chuck opened the interview by asking me to tell him a story, as true or false as I saw fit. I decided to tell him one that was true and false in equal measure...

My Papa Burns was a consummate storyteller with a wicked sense of humor, and there was nothing he loved more than winding up his grandkids, much to my grandmother’s consternation. Their house was on Earl Avenue in Mattydale, New York, and one of Papa’s favorite topics for grandkid-winding was Earl. Earl — according to Papa, and all my aunts and uncles who gleefully corroborated his story — was a gaunt loner of a man who once lived in an apartment above my grandparents’ garage. Earl was apparently quite the amateur photographer, but a horrible accident with his developing chemicals left his face irreparably scarred. Papa always intimated Earl was guilty of perpetrating great and terrible crimes against the children of the neighborhood, though of course he never told us what, precisely, those crimes were. Or, for that matter, how being a gaunt, disfigured loner who does unspeakable things to children leads to having a street named after you. But plot holes matter not to children. Not when presented with so juicy a story as Earl’s.

For you see, as the story goes, no one knows what became of Earl. Some say he died. Some say he was run out of town by the parents of his young victims. But not Papa. Papa was convinced that Earl was still up there, living like an animal in the ruins of his old apartment.

Did it occur to us to ask why Papa, a cop with a loaded sidearm and a litter of grandchildren forever underfoot, would let some creepy feral child killer/molester/photographer/whatever live in the attic of his garage? No, it did not. But it did occur to us to try to find out for ourselves whether Earl was still up there.

There were no stairs up to the garage’s second floor. There was no ladder. Just an empty square of darkness, framed by rotten four-by-fours and cut into the ceiling. The plan was simple: Me and my cousin Joey were going to lace our fingers together and hoist up our cousin Steph — the oldest of us at maybe ten, and therefore the tallest — so she could stick her head through the trap door and take a peek. Steph’s younger sister Sarah was in charge of steadying her so Steph didn’t tip over. And we’d find out once and for all whether Earl was still up there.

We found out, all right. We found out good.

When Steph’s head cleared the trap-door’s frame, she let out a shriek the likes of which I’d never heard. The three of us at ground level panicked, and we dropped her. She didn’t give us so much as a moment to worry if she was okay before sprinting, ghost-white, out of the garage. Instinct kicked in, and we three followed. When we finally regrouped, Steph breathlessly related what she’d seen: the scarred, pitted, anger-twisted face of a madman, just inches from her own. As if he’d known we were coming. As if he’d been waiting for us.

Once our initial fright had passed, me and Joey mocked her something fierce. In the protective light of day, far removed from the gloom of the garage, we were sure she was full of shit. Sarah, the youngest of us, seemed less sure.

But you know what? We never ventured into that garage again. And looking back, even knowing Papa’s stories were so much bunk, I’m half-convinced she saw Earl all the same.