The following is a written account of actual events. And just because I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I survived. There are many ways to die, many things to crush us, empty our innards, and turn us into the hollow walking dead.
It all came together as I searched for the source of a mysterious sound in the basement of my condemned house. I stopped calling it my home many months before my wife moved out to put some distance between her and a condemned marriage. Since she left, my house has been full of ghosts. They don’t scare me, but the ones that bother me most are the happy ones. Since she left, I hate happy things. I hate the ghosts that echo the cheerful events from the past, and much prefer the ones that peddle fear and melancholy.
I’m lying on my couch watching an English television show about a guy who travels back to 1973. It occurs to me he's a lucky bastard and if I were him, I wouldn't come back. And that's when I see her again –the happy ghost– walking down the stairs and into the living room. She’s semi-transparent, the way all ghosts are supposed to appear, and the sounds of her laughter, the shifts in her movements, the rustle of her taffeta skirt, and the clip of her stilettos echo as if coming from a large airplane hangar. As she crosses the room, she stops, and for a second, it looks like she might see me. If she is a figment of my imagination, I should be able to make her turn and look, but she doesn’t. I have no control. She’s laughing at something else. As she pauses, she stoops to adjust her shoe, making the heel fit her foot more comfortably. I bow my head and close my eyes. I think of the moments we had that would make her this happy. Her apparition is gone before I open my eyes again.
I breathe heavily through my nose, and try to concentrate on the television show. I love the seventies, but I stop feeling jealous of the character when I remind myself that creativity allows me to go back to 1973 too. My thought is interrupted by a strange noise that seems to come from the basement. I content myself thinking that a draft of wind might have knocked something over. Unexplained sounds like this in my condemned house are not unusual; it's gone midnight, and at that desolate hour, I usually start to hear noises.
The typical routine is followed: I turn down the sound on the television to eliminate the possibility that it was the source. That's normally the case. I listen. Nothing. When I begin to convince myself that the T.V. is the source of the strange sound, it happens again. Clearer this time. Like a hammer on a piece of metal. The worst outcome has manifested; there is a noise coming from the basement, and it frightens me. Since I became the sole inhabitant of this ghost-infested house, my Brooklyn Crusher is always within reach when the sun goes down. It's a self-defense weapon in the guise of a baseball bat. I grab the handle.
Now here's the thing. When you watch horror movies, and you see the victim go searching for the source of the spook, you're always wondering why the hell they just don't run like blue fuck away from any possible danger. But from my experience, you do act like they do in the movies. That's exactly what you do. You want to know what it is, or should I say, what it isn't. You want to rationalize it. Turn the suspected horror into a cat or drafty window.
I hear another clang. As I move towards the basement I start turning all the lights in the house on. I behave like I'm in a movie, treading slowly down the stairs that lead below. The basement is extremely cold and dark when I open the door and take my first step inside. My heart is thumping and my t-shirt feels as if it struggling to keep it from leaping out and dashing back upstairs. Brooklyn Crusher gets another squeeze from my right hand to assure her that I love her and need her. I have to walk about ten feet before I reach the light switch, and when I turn it on, the light flickers.
Looking for possible culprits for the noise, I scan the room. I find nothing. The light suddenly stops flashing and stays on. There's no cat. No drafty windows. This is utterly dissatisfying. I check the door and secure windows and do anything possible to defuse my anxiety, for how can I return upstairs with an unsolved mystery below.
Suddenly a crashing sound, I jump back,"Fuck!"
I add several more profanities, directed at my skittishness, when I realize it's only a garden rake that has fallen over. I blow wind through an O-shaped mouth and convince myself that the rake is the villain. The source of the earlier noises. And as ludicrous of a deduction that is, it will do for me. Don't ask me for specifics.
I stare at the rake. The handle is long. It provokes a thought, and then begins to unravel a memory. The memory is over 40 years old. It's frayed. When it begins to come into focus an almost mythical character emerges: The Lollipop Man. He stands translucent in front of the basement door shadows covering the features of his face. I close my eyes. How do I want to remember him?
Americans call him a Crossing Guard, but in the land that created Spiderman, The Silver Surfer and Captain America, they are missing much. For even the name, The Lollipop Man, immediately pulls a smile on the sourest of faces, and encourages the belief in fantasy only possible in the reading of good fiction. But this is a deeply honest memory: The sort of honesty that is crafted from remorse. My recollections are positive though; nostalgia has a way of doing that.
He stands about 5’5” tall, or sometimes 5’2”; it depends on which leg is holding his weight, for the right leg is three inches smaller than the left. Although a specially crafted orthopedic boot evens out this discrepancy, he still limps. Precise math and exact shoemaking procedures cannot account for that. It’s likely his mind over his body. His mind has known since childhood that he should limp, therefore he still does.
That’s not all: His right foot is always at a right angle to his left foot. So, when he looks down, and I am sure he often does, the position of his feet read three o’clock. To compensate for the weight of the built-up shoe, he swings it as far forward as he can when walking. It makes for an interesting gait: A clumsy gallop of clunkiness. There’s a noise I associate with the limp: ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf. If a soccer ball was to get in the way of that almighty foot swing, it might produce the most perfect shot on goal.
His black pants are too short and show off the lacings of his specially made boots. A plastic white coat that is two sizes too big for him, his Lollipop Man uniform, is buttoned to the neck. He doesn’t really have only one tooth, but one of his incisors is so disproportionally larger than the rest of his teeth, it looks as if he does. There’s always a smile wrapped around that disproportionally large tooth, even when he’s shouting at me.
As an adult, two or three large strides would be enough to cross the road in front of my primary school's entrance, but to a child, it’s a vast wasteland of potential harm. And that's where The Lollipop Man stands. The usher of safety. The one who makes sure the school children are not put in harm's way. His head is completely bald, and on the right side of it, on top, about three inches above the right ear, is a golf-ball sized lump. The Lollipop Man's name is Paddy. Most kids call him Paddy Bump.
We stand, little fucking angels, as if butter wouldn't melt in our mouths, waiting for Paddy to let cars pass by. And then he pushes his heavy shoe forward, ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf, and marches out to the middle of the road with all the bearing of a hopeless drunk. It's only when he plants the bottom of his lollipop stick firmly on the pavement, and waves his left arm, that we are allowed to cross. The lollipop stick is constructed of a round top, exclaiming STOP CHILDREN, and it's attached to a long broomstick-like handle.
We cross, and when we get to the school side of the road, we turn to utter our collective taunting. We giggle and shout, “Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump.” And run off to the security of the busy school yard. He hobbles after us, ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf, only a faster ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf than before, and spits threats around his disproportionally large tooth, “I knows whos yous are. I knows your Mas and Das.” We run, sniggering, pushing and tripping each other. When we needed him, we were all cherub-like, but after he had helped us, we ridiculed him. And it was always like this. And he never threatened us before helping us across, as if he was thinking, “This time, this time they won’t.”
I open my eyes. The ghost of the Lollipop Man is still there by the basement door. He’s smiling. I imagine him saying, “I know your Da,” and I turn. As I make my way back to the living room, I murmur “Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy fuck-in Bu-ump.”
The guy on the television is wearing what I used to call a yahoo-collared shirt. The points of the collar are exposed over his brown leather jacket and almost touch his armpits. He’s an undercover detective dressed in brown everything, and he’s still coming to terms with 1973. A guy leans into his car window to ask for directions. The bright sunlight makes him a silhouette.
A loud laugh reverberates in my head and I’m transported to a place near Boston Common in the middle of the summer of 2008. It’s overwhelmingly hot, and I feel lethargic as I walk towards the signal where I can cross to the park. My excess weight makes days like this feel like I'm swimming in pea soup. Déjà vu: I remember this. I know what happens next. Always this memory.
A Toyota Camry —it’s seen most of the country in the last 15 years— is stopped at the traffic light. It emits the sort of burning oil odor that used to make me carsick in the back of all those used cars my father bought. The stink makes me wretch a bit. All the windows are rolled down and there are three young men in the car. They look naïve, all perhaps about 19 years old. The one sitting in the front passenger seat raises his eyebrows to me as if to get my attention.
“Here we go,” I think, “he needs directions. Shite, I’m always shite giving directions.” I try to focus on my surroundings and hope he asks me directions to somewhere I know.
“Excuse me, sir,” He says, with his arm dangling out of the window, “Can you help us?”
I slightly bow my head —an instinctive and pointless move somewhat like the unnecessary dip you might do if a jet flies overhead and you hope those reduced inches might save you from jet-engine decapitation.
“What is it?” I say.
“We were just wondering,” he says, and then pauses, “...are you Boston’s first pregnant man?”
And I am immediately turned to stone. I clench my teeth and try not to show emotion. I'm aware of perspiration on my face, one large drop on my nose; a swinging blob of embarrassment hanging on for dear life.
I have no words for the questioner, but his words have serrated edges that tear at my chest leaving ragged wounds, and they probe deeper still, slashing at my heart, ripping it into slivers, blood clotting and falling to the ground like bits of despised liver. And all the while I have no words, but the unbearable thought that, unlike a real stabbing, I will fucking survive this. I will survive this fucking mauling, and have my nose constantly rubbed in the pain by ghosts.
There’s a swell of hilarity as each of the car occupants feed their laughter to the joke. The traffic light takes pity on me and turns green. They move off, and it seems the further away they are, the louder the guffaws are, until the sounds morph into a familiar nursery rhyme: “Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump.”
When I was about 25, I worked for a radio celebrity called Bobbie. He’s a key conspirator in my addiction to storytelling, and I got many of my fixes through his weekly show where he interviewed personalities from Northern Ireland. On many occasions I joined him, and worked the recording equipment. His idea of personality was very broad, and most of the time, he just enjoyed interesting characters. Bobbie had an uncanny knack of knowing who would be entertaining, like the man who claimed he was Shirley Temple’s nephew and that he’d invented the heart transplant by first trying it out on chickens.
“Why don’t we interview Paddy, the Lollipop Man?” Bobbie said.
I snapped my fingers. “That would be brilliant,” I said.
When the day came, Paddy arrived at Bobbie’s studio wearing the large white coat. He looked exactly the same as I remembered him. He didn’t recognize me though; there was a whole new generation of weasels out there to worry him. He passed me and moved towards the chair, ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf, and sat down.
Bobbie went though simple questions unearthing the genius of banality.
“So Paddy, in all those 35 years as a Lollipop Man, how many lollipop sticks have you had?”
“Ah, just the one, Bobbie,” said Paddy.
“That’s amazing. Just the one lollipop stick in 35 years?”
“And you have never had any accidents or damage to it?”
“Oh,” said Paddy, “I’ve had a few; I’ve had two replacement handles, and three replacement tops.”
Bobbie smiled, "But it's still the same one?"
"Aye," said Paddy, “It’s the very same one.”
And in that moment, Paddy became legend to me. That memory would become champion, and I would use it to try to drown the ones where I made a mockery of him. If I were to use this memory of Paddy more than the others it would prize me with atonement. It’s the same lollipop stick, but it has completely changed. Just like ourselves.
It's seems as if the memories and ghosts I have aroused have some relevance, or are trying to convince me they have relevance. Young teens in a jalopy calling me names is my karma for my own name calling. But I don't believe in karma. Like the word "sin", it's part of a wider lexicon created by people just to make other people feel guilty. The ghosts are showing me what people do, not how I got what I deserved.
Paddy Bump probably went to his grave haunted by the taunts of children. He's likely long dead, because he was ancient when I first met him many years ago. I wish he could have known how affectionately I respect his ghost. That he could know that with his simple approach to life and that incidental philosophy, he encouraged me to write this. I can only take solace that those three youths might go on to do creative things, and maybe one day produce a piece of work about a pregnant man.
And then, I see her again –the happy ghost– walking into the living room towards the stairs. She’s semi-transparent, the way all ghosts are supposed to appear, and she’s laughing. She starts to climb the stairs, stops for a second and looks at me. She looks directly at me and pouts her bottom lip. She begins to fade. And as she does, I close my eyes. She starts to recite a familiar mantra:
Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump.