As I may have mentioned earlier in previous installments of this Peoria series, there were places in the Peoria of my youth where barriers to other times and eras and perhaps other dimensions seemed to wear thin. Stephen King has written books and stories with this phenomena in mind, and thinking back to that long ago West Peoria of my youth, King might have felt very much at home in the neighborhood I grew up in, or perhaps, in the very house I grew up in...
Our house was an older one, early 20th century at the very least, and perhaps it was built close enough to the 19th century to be on intimate terms with it.
Our basement looked a lot like the basement of the farmhouse where Helen Cooper from “Night of the Living Dead” met her untimely end at the hands of her cement trowel wielding zombie daughter “Karen” (“No baby...please baby...no...IIIEEEEEE!! Gllaaag....urrrk.”) A dark place illuminated with bare, low watt incandescent light bulbs here and there hanging from the ceiling from power chords with peeling insulation on them, an electrocution just waiting to happen.
Tucked into the corner of our basement was the subject of many a nightmare I had as a kid, a squat batrachian (batrachian...hell of a cool word isn't it? H.P. Lovecraft was fond of using that word in some of his horror fiction) ancient horror that was our furnace.
That furnace was older than God, (and God knows I heard my old man bitch about it enough during the wintertime) and crusted over with old, flaky asbestos insulation like reptilian skin. It looked like something that was not quite of this world and something that looked quite possibly alive, something that might share a tomb with Cthulhu in R'lyeh beneath the sea ("In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.")
It had duct work radiating out of the top of it like huge tentacles that snaked through the floors and the private, intimate regions of our house. It looked like it might feel right at home reaching up through a grate in the floor some dark night to drag my pale, gray nine year old ass off to some nether dimensional hell as of yet to be imagined by the mind of mortal man.
There were times when I wonder what it may have been like had my old man needed to call in a repairman for that ancient horror that was our furnace, and whether or not after ten minutes or so that repairman might not have come running up our basement stairs screaming at the top of his lungs, his hair gone white and about 10 years or so subtracted from his lifespan out of extreme terror...and with an asbestos clad tentacle hot on his heels. In many ways our basement was a cool place to play, full of dark and magical delights, but I kept clear of that furnace, let me tell you right now....I didn't like it...and I knew it didn't like me...
But enough of our old basement, a place with enough dark and unearthly magic in it to keep a precocious nine year old boy entranced for hours at a stretch. Let’s creep up those old and splintery basement stairs to the saner world of the kitchen and the living room and up, up the main staircase to the bedroom area of my childhood home and into my younger sister's bedroom (she's not there right now, she's off slandering her crazy older brother somewhere with her little friends and playing with her Barbies or something so it's OK to enter.)
Let us now creep to the end of her room where we will find a doorway, a three quarter sized doorway that looks like it might reasonably belong to another house in a parallel universe. This doorway that opens up into a place where all the really cool magic (both light and dark) could be found—our old fashioned walk in closet / attic.
It was about four feet wide and maybe ten or twelve feet deep, that attic of ours, and it's shelves were crammed with the detritus of my Father's life. Some of that stuff was a lot of fun to play with (like this small coffee table sized roulette wheel that would keep me busy for hours at times) or this perfectly made replica of an old wooden speedboat with this wonderful perfect scale model electric outboard motor that really worked. There were fixtures underneath the real wooden seats for two C size batteries to power the electric outboard motor and we'd take it out on a local pond from time to time, put it on a tether and let it rip every once in a while. I'm guessing if that boat were still around today that boat might be worth some serious bucks to a collector.
But there were other things in that attic that looked like they might bite as well.
Like my Dad's ventriloquist's dummy.
How or why my Dad acquired that dummy is beyond me. He had no discernible talent, inclination or desire towards the performing arts to the best of my knowledge. I'd never seen him go near it or try to make it talk for that matter—perhaps he'd take it down from it's shelf when entertaining guests while my sibs and I were asleep in our beds and make an ass of himself over cocktails in front of neighbors or visiting relatives, I just don't know. But one thing I learned fairly quickly, Dad didn't want me fooling with it.
It sat up there on the left hand shelf, second one down from the top and towards the back of the attic. The light from my sister's bedroom that filtered into the attic reflected back at me from the dummy's eyes in such a way as to give the dummy the appearance of a speculative look, as if it were sizing me up...perhaps wondering in it's wooden head how my fingers might taste if I had the audacity to try to touch it.
It looked like a hellish version of Charlie McCarthy, with just enough of a touch of Howdy Doody thrown in to make the dummy unique. Thinking back over the years about that dummy brings to mind just about every evil doll episode of The Twilight Zone or the Night Gallery I've ever seen.
I remember the time I actually worked up the nerve to touch it. As I reached out my hands to it, it's eyes seemed to be speaking to me: “Careful boy, are you sure you know what you're getting yourself into? Well, okay then...let's see what you're made of. Let's....just...see...”
And just as my hands were within inches of the dummy...
“AND JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING BOY?” came my father's booming voice from just behind me, and I jumped high enough to actually hit my head on the rough wooden planking of the attic roof.
Dad was stooped over and halfway through the odd little three quarter sized doorway to the attic and he was looking right at me, and boy howdy was he pissed.
“But I...” I remonstrated but before I could finish my Dad roared: “Enough! I don't want you TOUCHING THAT!”
Dad cuffed me one right upside the head. And that was the last time I ever tried to touch that dummy. It sat on that shelf for all the rest of the years we lived there with that same speculative look reflecting from it's glass eyes. And when my folks and I moved to Minnesota, I never saw that dummy again...as if it never really existed at all, save in my memory.
That attic was a special place, as was our basement...neither of these two locations in our house seemed at times to have any completely solid footing in a sane universe. They were special places for me, places of both light and dark magic. In our old house...in a time now forever parked in memory lane...in Peoria.