This story is in the Growing Up New Jersey collection, a series of vignettes slouching their way into becoming a book. See more vignettes in this collection at the Short Stories &c. link above. There are rumors circulating that the world is about to end, so this seemed like a timely posting.
I don’t have a clue what it’s like today, but in 1954 Sussex County, New Jersey, was a very dark place at night, indeed. Especially to a four-and-a-half-year-old boy.
In the summer, my father would stay in what we, with some exaggeration, called “the city” for the work week, coming up to our summer home at Lake Stockholm on the weekends. Leaving me and the womenfolk – my mother, my grandmother, and my sister – at our cabin for the rest of the week.
Well, it was during one of these sojourns, for reasons that I’ve never really considered before, that those same womenfolk decided it would be worthwhile to go see a movie in the nearest town of any note, which was Franklin. Not just any movie, mind you. But a sci-fi/horror flick with the ominous name of The Day the World Ended.
So we all piled in the family car and drove out the access road from Lake Stockholm to Route 23, and then turned north toward Franklin. Now I have no idea what would have inspired everyone to want to see this particular film, except it might have been the only thing playing in the area at the time.
The premise of the film definitely fit in with the zeitgeist of the time. The dreaded nuclear war had occurred, and civilization, such as we knew it, was obliterated. A few steadfast individuals remained alive, along with a donkey that belonged to one of them, donkeys being big in the mid-1950s, enough to score a leading role in a movie of this sort. And along with these people and the donkey, there also was a creature, a very fearsome one, that the atomic bomb had spawned.
Now I don’t consider myself much of a wienie, certainly not today, and not much in 1954, either. But this monster was scary. Really scary. And it didn’t take long and I was finding excuses to get out of watching this movie. I went to the bathroom, and dallied in the theater’s loge, along with the free dish offers, a hallmark of movie theater attendance in the mid-1950s, to avoid going back to my seat. But my curiosity was too great, and I would peer around the partition at the back of the theater to see the latest developments in the film. One by one this monster was picking off the remaining humans, aided by the general dissent between them. Especially atrocious was when the monster also did in the donkey, stepping on it or eating it or some such thing. Poor donkey.
Nothing worked to kill the monster. Not electricity. Not fire. Not shooting it. Nothing. It looked like no one was going to make it out alive when, toward the end of the movie, the weather intervened, and it actually rained. It turned out this monster couldn’t handle water, of all things, and the rain did it in. The monster wound up turning into what looked to me like a big pile of steaming dog shit. And then there was the requisite hopeful ending, as the remaining humans realized they might have a future after all. Some future.
Look up this movie and see it if you can find it. You’ll get an idea of what atomic war/sci-fi/horror films prevailed back then.
Anyway, we drove back to our cabin on the country roads of Northwest New Jersey in the pitch dark, and I imagine I was pretty quiet in the back of the car. What no one, including me, realized was how profoundly this movie would affect me, that night, the following nights, and for something like a half-dozen years of nights to come.
Once back at our cabin, I remember going into the bathroom to pee, and looking behind the toilet to see if the monster from the movie was hiding there. And then fearing it was in the bedroom with the bunk beds that I shared with my sister. But that wasn’t all. As stupid as it sounds even to me, this frigging monster became a part of my consciousness, a part of my life, for years to come.
Even back in the seeming relative safety of our house in Kearny, I was convinced that this monster was living under my bed. It was there, under the bed with the dust bunnies and whatever else dwelled under my bed, and particularly on one side, where it resided. Now don’t ask me why a monster such as this would only live under one side of the bed. None of this is logical, and so logic didn’t enter into it.
All I know is that for probably a half-dozen or more years there was one side of my bed I wouldn’t sleep on. Because of that damned monster that had turned into a pile of steaming dog shit in The Day the World Ended.
I guess I don’t have to say how this became pretty tiresome. I mean, to give up half your bed for years and years because of some imaginary monster living under it really isn’t fun. In retrospect, it’s kind of nuts. But there you have it.
Needless to say, the monster never ate me or came out from its hiding place. It never stepped on me or my pets. It never made its presence known, except in my own mind. It was just there. I never told anyone about it, and no one knew about it except me. It was my particular secret, my own personal monster, and my terror. Really, I was terrified of it. And for all those years I accommodated it, like one might accommodate some specific threat or group or political idea that one fears and doesn’t particularly like, but can’t do anything about.
I don’t remember exactly what finally caused me to rid the space under my bed of this monster. I think I finally just got really tired of it, and decided it was time for it to go. My father would say things like, if you’re afraid there is someone there in the dark who wants to harm you, turn on the light and look and assure yourself there is no one there. And he was right. Now today that kind of thing might get you killed, since there might in fact be someone there, but back then it was the right advice. In fact, I think it’s still the right advice in most circumstances. Whatever. I think that is what finally did it for me, and I turned on that light and looked under the bloody bed. And sure enough, there was no damned monster there.
From that point on, I was not afraid to sleep on either side of my bed. It was one of the great liberating moments of my life. And since then, I haven’t feared any monsters living under my bed, or anywhere else for that matter. Just like the rain in the movie, I had turned that monster into a big pile of steaming dog shit in my mind. And never more could it threaten me.
So that was the night the world ended for me, and how I restarted it years later.