If you want to really know someone, follow him home.
That was the reasoning behind Stephanie’s Halloween assignment for the correspondents of American Eye, the Chicago-based TV magazine where I worked right out of college.
“The greats,” said our producer. “We’re going to take our viewers home, to the very places where the greats created the greatest horror stories, The Minister’s Black Veil, The Shining … all the classics. It’s got everything. It’s literate. It’s sexy …”
Akeem got Stephen King’s house. I mean, I guess that was the grand prize – that sprawling, completely in-character set piece of a mansion in Bangor, Maine, with the black bat silhouettes filigreed into the gigantic wrought-iron gates and gables. The reason that Akeem got Stephen King, of course, was because Stephanie got Akeem, in the Biblical sense (Is it possible to “get” someone in the Biblical sense, or is that only “know” someone in the Biblical sense, and does anybody who didn’t grow up in my parent’s house even know what knowing someone in the Biblical sense means anymore?).
In any case, her honey “got” the choicest house.
Not that he would remain her honey for very long.
Among the roving correspondents on American Eye, Akeem had the rovingest eye of all, and that eye was on Selena in sales although that wouldn’t last either because Akeem had to marry a Muslim virgin. Is that for real, I asked him once, or just a go-to ruse to give short-term honeys the heave-ho? Absolutely on the level, Akeem told me, adding, “I love my mother.” Love, shmove, I pushed him, nobody can make you marry some terrified little girl you never set eyes on before. And he said, “You haven’t met my mother.”
Anyhow, you “get” the picture. You “know” what I mean. When the genius idea for a different little haunted-house feature every night of Halloween Week occurred to Stephanie, she immediately was all funded up by the powers and started passing out cookies.
Who’s going to Bram Stoker’s house, I asked impertinently? (For he lived in London, as did the author of Dracula, where he was a PA for the famed actor Sir Henry Irving …) Nobody was going to London, alas. This was American-American Eye, after all. We stood there, while Ray-and-Cara (“We’ve been married for ten years and we’ve never spent a night apart…”) were assigned the hulking Vermont monstrosity that supposedly inspired Shirley Jackson to write The Haunting of Hill House, and Deronda snagged 203 North Amity Street in Baltimore where Edgar Allen Poe was born. Eliza Craig, who was the first producer of American Eye and is now a sometime-guest reporter who only ever admitted to seventy- three although she was eighty by then, asked, “What are we supposed to do when we get there?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just hang around,” Stephanie said. “Practice investigative journalism at its finest. See what kind of people show up. Are they gawking or trick or treating? Do they know who lived there? Does the place have a reputation?”
And just absorb the vibe, Stephanie added. Think about the veil between fantasy and reality, between this world and the next. Who knows what you might see?
Eliza agreed to visit old Cape Cod where once lived old Edward Gorey, who designed the enthralling sets for the Broadway production of Dracula and for PBS Mystery, and wrote dozens of nasty little books about children dying in awful ways (“O is for Olive, run through with an awl”). He had an old creepy house in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, apparently now a thriving museum stuffed with his stuff, including a human skull no one really wanted to talk about. Peter Van Vleck headed off to film only about the five-hundredth feature about the Colorado resort that supposedly was the model for the Overlook in The Shining (not that anyone objected to Stephen King getting a two-fer, I mean he is Stephen King…). For me, I demurely suggested The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, spiritual home of the demon-haunted Hawthorne. I suggested it again, this time loud enough for Beethoven to hear but apparently not Stephanie. Despite her grim dispassion, however, she had not forgotten. When Stephanie finally got to the bottom of the list, she looked up. I smacked on a smile and said, “And little me? Where am I going?”
Stephanie said, “Winnetka.”
I said, “Winnetka.”
She said, “Winnetka.”
Winnetka, Illinois, was about ten miles from where we were then standing, in the American Eye offices on Dearborn Street in Chicago.
“For your information,” Stephanie said, “Winnetka was the birthplace of Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, author of Fahrenheit 451, author of …”
“I know who Ray Bradbury is. I majored in American literature.”
“You’ve come far,” said Akeem.
“And I’m going far, apparently. To Winnetka.”
So there I was, in front of 11 South St. James Street, boyhood home of the Midwestern Proust. Ray Bradbury was apparently a sweet-natured fellow and an almost-Tourettes-y prolific writer in the tradition of Joyce Carol Oates – and now that you mention it, Stephen King, and now that you mention it, Proust – who liked to imagine small children stalked through the playgrounds and sunny meadows by noonday demons and coal-eyed carnies. Bradbury, descendant of a witch (from Salem, where else) re-baptized Waukegan Green Town in his stories. But it was anything but green right now, not just because it was late October in pitiless Illinois – and why don’t I live in North Carolina, I thought, not for the seventieth time that year, pulling my thin knitted coat around my frail shoulders like Anna Karenina – but because it is now a rust-rimmed relic of industrial failure, home to not one but three Superfund cleanup sites, where even the lawns resembled the top of the grill your dad never quite got around to spiffing up with that jazzy scraper you gave him.
A blue-clapboard story-and-a-half, it would have been unprepossessing even if the actual Proust had lived there, although if the actual Proust had lived there, it would probably already be home to a museum (which Bradbury fans apparently have been undaunted in their zeal to achieve) and a nice tea shop with madeleines, instead of the leathery scone and lukewarm latte I snagged at the Starbies sometime during the hellish two-hour ascent from the loop to the North Shore.
It was early afternoon on October 31, and I hoped, not very energetically, but a little, to interview tourists (tourists?), pilgrims, and others about the significance of the house on St. James Street. Maybe I would even pester its current inhabitants for a minute – although the draperies were drawn tight and not a whit did they twitch. Probably nobody was home. Derek the videographer was asleep in the American Eye van and I longed to join him, not in the Biblical sense, but in the hungover sense. Instead, I opened the combination cane-and-camp-stool combo I’d purchased the summer before, when it became apparent to me that I was going to get varicose veins from all the standing (around) I did, waiting for something to happen so I could pretend I showed up when it did happen.
There I sat.
I read the news on my phone, the latest outrage from the latest commander-in-thief.
The afternoon crept on. The winds blew colder. Until this day, I had never seen a street no one walked or drove down for three solid hours.
Finally, I decided to explore the neighborhood. I yelled for Derek to come and see if we could get some area roll, and he grunted that he was on his way. I don’t think he even opened his eyes. So I got back into my own car, resisting Derek’s example and the urge to disappear into my hoodie for a nice nap, and drove around. The Carnegie Library on Sheridan Road where Ray Bradbury devoured all the books (and I guess you shouldn’t say that with reference to a Ray Bradbury story because he probably wrote a story about a book-eating dinosaur …) was an office by then. But Bradbury Park was unchanged.
And, friends, it was eerie.
Now, what can be eerie about a child’s play park on Halloween, with the crisp leaves clattering along the packed ground, the night beginning to pull closed a ring of darkness that would ultimately drown the high blue light above, and the children’s unoccupied swings fretting to and fro in the wind? Just about everything, I would say: It looked like, well, a park in a Ray Bradbury story, a place where little dead kids came to flit between heaven and earth.
But, it was nothing to The Ravine.
The Ravine is just that, a curiously quiet gash in the earth just down an incline, with a desultory stream in the middle and some tortuously gnarled trees. If I remembered correctly, this was one of the places that The Lonely One from Dandelion Wine, the great-grand-daddy of all the fictional serial killers to come, did his dark work. I stepped around a dismal little copse of shivering trees, and there he was … no, of course, it was just a guy. But what was a guy doing sitting alone on a tree stump in a ravine and … his face cradled in his hands, crying his heart out? Normal human impulse would dictate that I ask him if I could help, but I’d left normal human impulse back by the swing set. I spun around and high-tailed it for my car and I didn’t stop until I was back on St. James Street.
At last, someone was there.
I roused Derek, and, with the kind of faux friendliness you might employ approaching a stray dog, we walked up to the tall, slender older man who was standing on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, rocking up on his toes and humming a little as he regarded the façade of the blue house.
“Big fan?” I said brightly.
Without even asking me what I meant, he turned and smiled. He was one of those lovely older fellows, with clear bright blue eyes and a tender smile. “I certainly am,” he said. “The biggest.”
“Well, we’re from the TV magazine American Eye, and today, there are reporters all over the country visiting the homes of some of the greatest writers of fantasy and horror stories.”
“How interesting,” said the man. He was older than I had first reckoned, from the straight set of his shoulders, perhaps well into his seventies. “Good idea.”
“And people would say that Ray Bradbury was one of the greatest. Kids are still reading his stories in school. That’s why we’re here. Do you think we could we film you, do you think, just for a minute or two?”
“I don’t see why not,” said the man.
“And can you give me your name?”
“It’s Tim,” he said. I motioned to Derek to start rolling.
“And have you visited this area before?”
“Every year. We get together with family. We’re going to a big party, in fact, but right now, I’m just waiting for my mother.” His mother? If he was seventy-five, what was she, a hundred and ten? This I had to see.
We chatted for a moment about Ray Bradbury’s stories. The man’s favorite was The Homecoming, a sweet and sad little story about a family of vampires who have a little boy with a birth defect: He is human, and doesn’t drink blood, and will grow old and die one day. He went on to explain that one of the reasons that Ray set so many of his stories in October was because he loved Halloween so much: His Aunt Neva made it an occasion more festive than Christmas, and his memories of fetching paper-mache toadstools and spiders, hanging of black crepe, and filling numerous bowls with red punch were among the joys he wanted to celebrate. “All those characters were real. Ceci and Uncle Einar. They were named for members of Ray’s family.”
“You knew him?” I said, and the man shyly nodded. “I wish that I had. Coming here today … I remembered some of those stories. How sweet they were, and how sad, at the same time.”
“Like life,” the man said. “It wouldn’t be so sweet if it wasn’t so sad.”
He glanced up then, and just behind me.
“Mom!” he said. A woman was approaching, a real beauty in full Halloween array, a slithery long black dress with wispy handkerchief sleeves, a lustrous long black wig and the requisite pallor. Come on! What was their game? If this woman was even forty years old, I’d be shocked. “Mom, these people are from the TV show American Eye,” he told her.
She gave him a withering look.
“I told you not to talk to strangers.” The woman turned to me. “I’m sorry for my rudeness.” She wore silver contact lenses, a stunning effect. What luck! Stephanie would be over the moon. These people were absolutely aces, as if they’d been sent by central casting to decorate my little feature story. When I asked if she would speak with me, too, she shook her head and then agreed. “I don’t think it will do your story any good.”
“She looks pretty terrific for her age,” Timothy said. “Doesn’t she?”
“I think you guys are both pretty terrific,” I finally said. “But you have to stop teasing me! That’s your mom?”
“You’d better move on now,” the woman told us. “This can be an odd place at night, if you’re not used to it.”
“I only have one last question,” I said. It was the question that Stephanie coyly insisted that all the reporters pose: Do storytellers leave their mark on the places they came from, or the places where they wrote their stories, and not just with plaques and historical markers?
“I think they do,” said Tim. “They remain because of the characters they create. In a sense, those characters have achieved the thing that everyone longs for.”
“Immortality,” said the woman. “And yet, remember what Uncle Einar said in that story. Life’s best to those who see the least of it.” She waited for a moment, and then added, “Stories last forever too. Stories are as real as rocks and trees and people. They’re alive.”
We said our goodbyes.
As we walked back to our vehicles, I gave Derek a high five. “Well, that sure worked out!” He grinned and said he would shoot me a file of edited footage later that night.
What the tape was like … you can imagine.
Derek gave it his very best. But something had gone very wrong. The machine was functioning normally. Yet, there I was, all alone, talking to myself, amiably asking question after question, laughing at answers no one else could hear.
But I can still hear them. I know they were there.
My story never appeared. I asked Stephanie not to tell people about what happened with the tape, but, inevitably, she did, and when I got on her case about that, she gave me an extra week of vacation, tacked on to a location story about great rural Bed and Breakfast Inns of the Midwest. She told me to rest more. She told me that I would never be a media superstar if I drove myself crazy. It was the kindest I ever saw Stephanie treat anyone; and I later surmised that she really did believe that something funny happened to me, although not something funny hah-hah. Derek quit American Eye a few weeks after we went to Winnetka, and, when I try to call him, he never picks up. I know he saw them, too.
How many times have I gone back to the park, and The Ravine, and stood on the sidewalk in front of the blue house, waiting for them, hoping there will be another ripple in our passage through time so that theirs and mine intersect again? Five, six, ten times? For they were real. I didn’t make them up. Ray Bradbury did. He made them up, his dark sweet immortal children, the kind who always come home.
The Homecoming by Ray Bradbury.