By Kay Whitlock
Editor’s Note: Fear—one of humankind’s primal emotions. Nothing rouses fear like perceived darkness and the unknown. From the shadowy recesses of the imagination to the deep of the woods, fear can distort our thinking and our reality, beguiling us to see phantasms and monsters that aren’t there. It can send us running in the direction of safety or entice us with the call to danger and adventure. But once you engage your fears head-on, without aggression or arrogance, you learn more about yourself than you could ever expect and begin to experience perceived darkness on new terms.
Writer and activist Kay Whitlock has spent much of her life inquiring into and writing about the roots of fear and the systems/structures of oppression, violence, and injustice that stem from it. In the second part of her four-part series, she roams more deeply into the shadows of her hometown streets.
Part 1 is here.
Magic was afoot and on the move in the darkness when I was young; that much is certain. The night air, clear and deliciously cooler, even in the dog days of summer, flowed in long, almost riparian, currents of pleasure, carrying the scents of mown grass, starlight, and anticipation. In those liminal hours, everything slowed down: the passage of time, sound, movement, and perception. It is possible that time ceased to exist at all. Except for an occasional cop and the usual weekend complement of barflies, the streets remained virtually empty of traffic until 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. In that hour, a handful of people roused themselves from their beds and drove slowly though traffic lights blinking red to jobs as bakers, milkmen, janitors, and other odd-hour laborers.
Sounds were revelatory. When a wind came up, the sudden, rippling flap! of unseen bed sheets left outside on a clothesline suggested the presence of a giant raptor. The faint shhhhhhsh of a sprinkler mistakenly left on overnight gave rise to other kinds of waking dreams: a desperate little whirligig on the lam, maybe, or a cluster of tiny librarians moving relentlessly through the grass. Even hoary auditory clichés—crickets chirping, owls hooting, and dogs barking in the distance—became fraught when they suddenly ceased. Sometimes it was possible to creep up to an open window, and crouch silently below it. There we harvested shards and splinters of information from the low voices, angry words, tubercular coughs, and fits of weeping that tumbled out.
Hearing the measured scuff of leather shoes on the sidewalk or whenever the crunch of automobile tires or headlight beams turned in our direction, we darted into recessed doorways or alleys, swallowed by shadows which themselves, owing to slight shifts of light, seemed not only alive, but aware. Underneath and in the spaces between these small sounds, the darkness became tangible. It shifted and whispered, but though I strained to listen, there were never any words. There was only the slight shivery sense of something else. In those days, at least in my hometown, my pals and I weren’t worried about small armies of security guards on edge, armed and eager to shoot. We were afraid of being busted by the police—and once nearly were. But we were white, female, and from “intact” homes, so it never occurred to us to regard cops as life-threatening. Had we been caught, they only have delivered a blistering lecture and taken us home.
Apart from an inventive prank or two—we were capable of efforts far more imaginative than flinging rolls of toilet paper into trees—prowling was almost always improvised. Avoiding yards where we knew dogs were left out at night, we wound our way through residential streets and alleys, through faintly lit parks and schoolyards, past an old red brick mill that exuded a fragrant blend of dreams mixed with straw and stock and animal feed. Breathing it in, I sensed a possible future, populated with horses, in which I never had to wear anything but jeans, checkered shirts, and cowboy boots.
How exhilarating to cross a broad intersection empty of cars and pedestrians at a still-dark hour of morning, suffused with the intoxicating illusion that we were free to wander at will forever. Occasionally we stood at one end of the Union Avenue Bridge, one site where, according to local lore, vigilantes hanged people. A “hanging tree,” a towering old cottonwood that once also stood somewhere in this area, had long since been cut down. Gruesome to imagine, it nonetheless appealed to that exuberant but nonspecific bloodlust harbored by many children—an old-time story about the deliciously horrific deaths inflicted on nameless, disposable people with no discernible resonance in our own lives. Death to the Bad Guys! Lynch mobs were not, so far as we knew then, part of our communal histories. So we gave no thought to who those luckless people were (beyond knowing they were considered “wretches,” “thieves,” and “desperadoes”). Who cared about about why they were murdered, or who was in the mob that strung them up—much less why the authorities let them do it?
Once, feeling especially daring, we crossed the bridge partway to peer down at the levee and river flowing on the far side of the railroad yard. Mysterious things might be drifting downstream on the nighttime current of the Arkansas River: perhaps surly escapees from the Canon City prison or bodies or even a ghostly, out-of-century showboat.
And we kept going into the night, replete with signs and wonders. Though we didn’t get there often, the train yard offered a dramatic payoff. The harsh clamor and clank of engines and boxcars being switched out sounded like a city constructing itself when nobody is watching.
In its heyday, built of red sandstone in Romanesque Revival style, the imposing Union Depot served by five railroads, each bearing an enchanted name sure to ignite wanderlust: Denver & Rio Grande; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; Missouri Pacific; Colorado & Southern; and best of all, the fabled Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. By the time I was growing up, those vibrant days were well on the wane. While a few passenger trains still rumbled through, more and more engines hauled only freight. But that hardly mattered.
A train was still a portal between Hell on Earth (Here) and Anywhere Else (There). Like so many restless kids in smaller towns over so many generations, I longed to be transported out of my awkward past and misfit present into a future filled with some authentic sense of belonging. Maybe even into the idyllic realm of Judy Garland movies, like the park, filled with happy families, in which she strolls at the end of In the Good Old Summertime. The world in those movies was more real than the one in which I was growing up—or so I wanted to believe.
Sometimes we headed over to Main Street, which in those long-ago years anchored a thriving downtown. After dark, all those buildings that consumed so much of our daylight lives—stores, banks, public buildings—transmuted into ghost structures, silently watching and waiting until the authority of daylight permitted them to resume feeding. Once, the mysterious aura of the Catholic diocesan cathedral on Grand Avenue drew us in. Were its doors always so generously open during the night? Or only when someone forgot to lock them? Does anyone remember? In the end, the only thing that matters is that once they opened in the predawn darkness to admit errant kids as well as a small scattering of lonelyhearts and derelicts. In my memory, the cathedral is forever a place of opaque stained glass windows, shadowy niches, forlorn statues with blank eyes and uplifted or outstretched hands, and tiers of flickering votive candles. All enveloped in a dim haze of sorrow and loss.
Our daring wasn’t boundless. The scandalous 85 Club featuring Hot-Cha Hinton with Her Pussycat Revue, was, sadly, too far away. The steel mill, with its roaring blast furnaces that in those years still defined the cityscape was more than we could manage. We stayed away from the sprawling grounds of the state insane asylum and the less kempt Pioneer Cemetery where, in the 1920s, according to my mother and grandmother, the Ku Klux Klan presided over member burials. We visited these places often in the daylight, and even at twilight, on our bikes with a gang of pals, during raucous games of “ditch ’em.” But never in the deep darkness. When it was just two of us.
As for real danger, I want to think that we never encountered it. It’s impossible to know for sure. We were never harmed or obviously threatened in any way. Yet memory is selective, and so many things happen in the darkness that may be sensed but go largely unseen. And there was that one night . . . A friend and I were heading home, walking single file along a residential sidewalk. I was in front. Thick privet hedges lined the front yards of two or three homes. Suddenly she hissed something like, “Run! Don’t turn around! Just run!”
And oh, we ran, we ran, we ran, skinny stick legs flying, and did not stop until, blocks later, we reached my yard, bent over, gasping for air, chests heaving, hands on thighs. I have no recollection of what it was we fled, or if it was anything at all. Maybe my friend was just having a little joke at my expense. I didn’t think so at the time; still don’t. We lost touch for many years, and when we finally reconnected, she couldn’t dredge up a clear memory, either. So it’s all consigned to the great psychic landfill of Things Not Remembered from Childhood. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s assume she did see or hear something that filled her voice with such chilling urgency. What on earth was it? A flasher? Our school principal up to no good? The spectral emanation of Bobby Greenlease?
My pre-dawn rambles did not continue long after that night. New hairline fractures in my burgeoning courage constellated old jitters. And we were entering our teens, a time when the lives of newly-menstruating girls were more closely monitored by just about every possible authority figure. More than fifty years later I still wonder what I would have seen had I turned around. Maybe something really was watching us, following us, not only that night but also on other nights, and we just remained unaware of it.
More to the point: What did my own fear distribute and conceal among all those hedges and houses, among all those structures and graveled alleyways, along all those empty streets on all those nights?
Stay tuned for Part 3 where Kay’s fears usher her into the realm of the horror story. Catch up with Part 1.
To be sure you don’t miss an installment of ‘The Haunting: On Fear and Seeing Differently in the Dark’ series, you can follow Kay (@KayJWhitlock) or Beacon Press (@BeaconPressBks) on Twitter or follow/like Beacon Press on Facebook. You can also subscribe to the Beacon Broadside blog email.
About the Author
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.