Black Angel

Kenny like to’ve scared us to death.

Jack, my little brother, and I were walking home from the double feature at the King Theater. Actually, we had been to two double features. Early in the afternoon, we hiked up the hill from East End to the Mayfair, where Johnny Mack Brown had a showdown with the robbers of the payroll stage, Gene Autrey came to the aid of a poor rancher about to have his land ripped off by the railroad, and — the real reason for going to the Mayfair, aside from popcorn — Batman, who last week had fallen through a trapdoor into a vat of crocodiles, and this week not only escaped from the crocodiles, but also thwarted a vile attempt by the Joker to collapse the Brooklyn Bridge while the President’s limousine was crossing over.

It was still light when we finished seeing the Daffy Duck cartoon twice, and stepped blinking out into the slanting sunlight. There was quite a flashy sunset out over Pea Ridge, but we couldn’t hang around. Harry Hotdog’s spicy hamburgers lured us to the counter of his narrow diner next to the theater. Harry was a Greek whose burgers have never been improved upon. I got one to go, Jack got a hotdog with mustard and relish, and we high tailed it down the side streets toward the King Theatre.

We knew it would have been a waste of time to pass along Main Street to check the marquee of the Oak Hill Theater. It was always some Broadway musical, or some melodrama with Ray Milland or Bette Davis or maybe one of the Irish actors who could play crooked mayors in one film and a good cop in the next one.

But we were well rewarded by the bill at the King. Wolfman and Frankenstein! We barely had time to get a box of M&M’s before the lights went down and the previews started. We found a couple of seats too far back and settled down to share out the candy. Jack took all the black ones and left me with pale yellow and puke green, but he was only a kid and might started whining if he didn’t get things his way.

By the time Lon Chaney watched his own transformation in the mirror, Jack hunched braced on the edge of his seat with his hands clamped between his knees. A couple of hours later, after Dr. Frankenstein’s castle was burned by the angry folks from town, my hair was standing on end, too. Still tingling with delicious fright, we left the movie house together. It was dark. We knew it was late because the balls were cracking in the pool hall next door, the sour smell of cigarettes and yeasty beer coming from the open door like the breath of evil.

Kenny was in the tenth grade, and already he was a star basketball player for the Red Devils. Grown-ups thought he was a little simple-minded, but we thought he was brilliant. He told us stories just as good as the movies, and scarier, because he would transform himself into the monsters before our very eyes, scattering us like chickens all over the yard. He also helped us hang grape vines in the highest trees for swinging like Tarzan. He knew Dewey Pittman, the projectionist at the King theater, and could get us into the booth to watch the changing of reels and the adjustments to the carbon lamps. Sometimes he would coach us in basketball on the dirt lot behind the elementary school.

But like I said at the beginning, Kenny nearly scared us to death.

We headed for the road through the bottom since we were already late for supper. We passed under the black walnut, wound our way through the grey boulders protruding from the earth like the bones of dinosaurs, and finally came into sight of our house at the far side of the meadow, the front porch light on. We skirted the Oddfellow’s cemetery just before dipping down to the dank bottomland.

Jack and I held onto each other as we stepped from the asphalt at the foot of Tully’s Hill onto the rocky road descending alongside the graveyard. This was before they had made the equestrian club, and the bottom was nothing but cow paths among the laurel bushes. It was pitch black, so we were cautious. The bull frogs choked out their fatalistic chorus, and iridescent toads lurched into the underbrush. There was a sliver of a moon in the sky to light the path up past the white, barren tree killed last year by lightning. Sometimes we would find old man Rhodes sleeping it off at its foot, but this night there was only the exposed roots shining like bones on the bed of moss. The smells here were always swampy, there being poor drainage, and Mr Legg’s rotting cabbage plants broadcast a fetid odor across the field.

Except for the frogs and the insistent whine of the mosquito population, there was dead silence. The gargling of the creek led us, while our feet confirmed the path almost by instinct. An animal of considerable bulk snorted off to the right, where we knew there was a bobwire fence to hold it back, whatever it was – probably a bull. Finally we reached the log over the creek, and the applause of water encouraged us to cross. I heard Jack drop onto the hard clay path on the other side, and I started across. Then he let out a tremulous high-pitched scream, and my arms flew over my head as I toppled sideways into the stream. The bottom was muck from the coal mine, converting my ankles into plungers gripping the earth. I knew it was black muck, because not fifty feet upstream we often dammed the creek with sacks from the cinder block factory, filled with earth.

Every footstep was a suction cup. Eventually I hoisted myself by means of roots exposed by erosion, my breathing hoarse with effort. Jack lay on the path, his hands over his ears. Over him snuffled something vaguely bipedal, limbs swinging menacingly above him. I whimpered and threw myself at the apparition, fright worse than fight. The beast squared himself to meet me, and then he ripped his head off and threw it in my face.

Kenny thought it was falling down funny, but I was disgusted. Disgusted on the one side for my credulity and on the other for Kenny’s sick sense of humor. It was one thing to scare the crap out of us on his back porch. It was quite another to ambush us in territory where rules did not apply.

I dropped out on Kenny’s horror stories for a while, though I sometimes heard the sinister tones of his voice as I padded by barefoot in the night. A couple of doors down from Kenny’s lived Betty Sue Blake. She was thirteen, a couple months older than me, and her bedroom was right off the front porch. If you happened by at just the right time, you could catch her silhouette on the window shade as she undressed. Only a couple of summers ago, we had played nurse and doctor under her house. Now her shape had changed.

The Blakes also had an indoor toilet and a tub. Sometimes if the Bodner’s dog was tied up on the other side of the neighbors’ house, I would try to sneak a look, but the window was too high, and by the time I was tall enough, I no longer had the nerve.

We ourselves still had a wooden toilet at the back end of our property. You walked twenty five yards to a classic wooden outhouse with a moon cut into the door. Inside were two seats, a tall one for the adults, and a shorter seat for the kids. It was not a quiet place to sit and you tried to get out as quick as possible. The buzz of flies under you was disconcerting, to say the least, but you learned to ignore it. Since the kid’s seat was rather closer to the heap building up, I had long ago taken to straddling the adult’s seat and squatting. Thus I could keep an eye out for spiders, hornets, and leave a way out for flies surprised by the sudden yellow rain.

One of our neighbors had been bitten by a black widow on his thing and nearly died — unless that story was another one of Mother’s insinuating off-color jokes. She tried to inform me about sex from early adolescence by telling dirty stories.

By the time my Sue was six or seven, I think she must have stepped up to the adult’s stool, too, because the little toilet seat was covered by Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck catalogs from then on. I used to leaf through the ladies’ underwear section and imagine Betty stepping out of hers, snapping off her bra. These pages were always the last to go, so I suspect that other members of my family also preferred to use other pages first. The first pages to be used up were the indexes, since the paper there was not glossy. Glossy paper tended to crinkle and form points that raked your skin.

Needless to say, Mom was always complaining about the state of our jockey shorts. Don’t you wipe? She was still boiling water on the gas stove in the kitchen to do the laundry in our Maytag with the wringer, sitting at a slant on our back porch,. I carried the water in galvanized buckets from the stand pipe in the Rhodes’ front yard. For our Saturday night bath, it was the same process. Buckets poured into the iron tub balanced on the four points of the enamel cookstove. When steam poured up into the room, we lifted the tub onto the linoleum floor, and one by one we stood or sat there, depending on our size and washed: Sue first, then Jack, then me. Mom got fresh water, and sometimes Dad as well. That’s a lot of buckets, a lot of gas.

Christmas Eve that year I had been to a special service at the East End Baptist Church, and took the dirt road past Kenny’s and the Blakes. All the shades were down to the sill at Betty Sue’s but at Kenny’s you could see right into the living room. There was a big tree in the corner, and standing in front of the fireplace in her ankle length night gown was Kenny’s little sister. She was a late child, and Kenny worshiped her. I stared through the window, wondering why the warm glow of other people’s houses always looked cozier than my own. Sally girl, now five years old, wore blonde hair pulled back and held by a clip at her neck. She looked like the angel usually found at the tip of the tree, briefly warming herself by the open fire before going back to her duty — to decorate the life of her family.

A movement caught my eye and I saw Kenny sneaking up on his sister from the stairwell in the hall. He wore a Santa Claus suit, but he pulled a rubber mask over his head: fangs, hairy cheeks, long ears. My skin tingled with sympathetic fear for the girl about to get that shot of adrenaline we all got from Kenny’s horror stories.

She must have caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, for her hands, till now clasped behind her, released one another and her head turned. Her mouth opened in a silent scream as she caught sight of him, and she braced herself with a backward step to run for it. Suddenly the fire leaped onto her gown, the tongue of a hungry beast unexpectedly in reach of its prey. She flew forward into the blinking lights of the spruce tree which in a flash turned from green to flaming red. Kenny threw himself onto the frail creature now swirling around the room, wrestling her to the floor in an attempt to smother the flames. Still convinced she was in the clutches of a monster she clawed and kicked.

My hands were fists at my mouth. Unable to cry out, frozen to the ground like a snowman with wide open eyes, I felt my heart shed all innocence and only then was I freed to run through the back field toward home, driven by dread and the terror of death, until now only known from the celluloid of cinema.

Somehow the fire got put out, no thanks to me. Sally died of third degree burns. Kenny suffered burns on his hands and face, plus an angry patch that flared up his chest you could only see when he played basketball. He wasn’t as quick on the court as before, and looked at the floor a lot when he switched ends after somebody scored. It was like he couldn’t bear to see all those little red devils cavorting on the sidelines — the cheerleaders and the team mascot. The day he turned seventeen he dropped out of high school and joined the army. It was 1944, and mostly all the boys old enough took the Greyhound off to boot camp. A lot of then never came back — some lost in action, some unable to face small town living after liberating Rome or Paris, others just sort of wandered into other lives with other people.

I myself saw Kenny only once more before my own family left the mountains for the Florida building boom: my father was a contractor’s foreman, one uncle an electrician, another a plumber, and so on.

The Mayfair Theater, Saturday afternoon. Blaring martial music announcing Movietone News. Tanks, men running, planes flying low, goose-stepping troops. A voice-over quickly summarizing the slow reconquest of islands in the Pacific, then in darker shades, the advance into German territory. A long panning shot of exhausted troops chowing down their K-rations.

Then there he was, a closeup of Kenny using his helmet for a soup bowl. He looked square into the camera when he saw it coming. Not much more than a year had passed since he had left, but he looked much, much older than eighteen, as though he wore the mask of someone who has looked into the mouth of hell. His eyes were ancient, worn out by horror and atrocity, but it was Kenny all right.

I ran all the way to East End to tell his folks. They dressed up and we walked together up to town, but the night show did not include the news reel. They didn’t stay for Bataan! They had enough of war.

None of us ever saw Kenny again. According to Bill Reis, who was in the same outfit, Kenny died a hero. He cleaned out a machine gun nest with a flame-thrower, flushing the German kids who manned the gun. According to Bill, they flew from the cave like birds afire. The canister of napalm on Kenny’s back exploded and he careened to meet his adversaries, like fiery angels embracing on their flight back to heaven, or furies descending into hell.

I found various versions of this under different titles, including a variation in As Chance Would Have It and another, earlier PDF titled simply Kenny. I chose to share the one dated in 2013. A few paragraphs are shared with his East End story.