Walkin’ After Midnight
By Kedrick Rue
When I was about ten years old my mother and I went to visit my aunt in New Galilee, Pennsylvania, under mysterious circumstances. My mother was a no-nonsense, often blunt sort of person. She did not suffer fools. She would say whatever came into her mind, usually in the most devastating manner possible. However, on this trip she was uncharacteristically tight-lipped. All I knew was that she hadn’t spoken to her sister in years, possibly decades.
Flying into Pennsylvania was like entering another world. I had rarely been outside of Los Angeles, and even though we lived in the hills, there was an expanse of city on either side of the wooded cleft in which we lived. The wilderness in Los Angeles is a pause in the city; in rural Pennsylvania–at least at the time–the city, and the airport, were merely a pause in the wilderness.
Adding to my sense of dislocation was the behavior of my twelve-year-old cousin Marty who, when he wasn’t pretending I didn’t exist, was dreaming up new ways to torture me and his sister, Maybeth. He soon learned that the discomfort I felt when he simply ignored me faded after a day or two, so he became increasingly aggressive in imagining ways to harass me, from throwing my underwear outside onto the front lawn to tearing pages out of the many books I’d brought along to keep me company.
My mother didn’t have it any easier. It was clear from their first words together that she and my aunt, a round and softly pretty woman who dressed in denim but who also wore a jarringly dissonant purple turban, were trying to find something from their childhood with which to salvage their relationship. My mother walked on eggshells. It was as if someone had replaced her with a facsimile, one which was forced to swallow every acerbic remark and quash every spleenful impulse she’d ever had. She even laughed in a high, foreign voice when my uncle made an off-color comment that I didn’t understand about her salmon-colored capri pants.
To top it all off, my aunt and uncle adored Patsy Cline. My mother, a dyed-in-the-wool urbanite, was inherently allergic to anything country. This, too, went unremarked as every night the records came out and Crazy was played at full volume when the kids were supposed to be asleep.
But we weren’t asleep. Marty wouldn’t let me sleep. Instead he terrified me with stories of Charlie No-Face, the wandering, hideously disfigured demon who traveled along Highway 351 after dark, murdering children. His descriptions were full of details which it seemed to me he couldn’t have come upon if he’d only invented the story, and imagining Charlie No-Face’s melted visage and lurching walk kept me up until late after midnight.
Two weeks is a long time to be away from home, and towards the beginning of the second week I began to feel that our home had never even existed, and that I was being claimed by this strange new place and its unfamiliar trees and empty landscapes. There was nothing here to indicate that my life back home even existed. Even my mother had been replaced by a simulacrum.
One night after falling into a fitful sleep after days of exhaustion I awoke, screaming, and couldn’t stop until the entire household was standing at the door to the room that Marty and I shared. I had been dreaming about Charlie No-Face. When I said the name my aunt glared at my cousin, as if she were sharing the direst of secrets with him.
When they had calmed me down with a cup of warm milk flavored with something I knew, even at ten years old, was alcohol, they went into the living room. They thought I had fallen back to sleep, but I could hear them talking through the thin wall. My aunt explained to my mother that Charlie No-Face was an unfortunate man who lived in the country and had been electrocuted as a child. His face had melted. He was so badly disfigured he didn’t want to go out during the day, and since he had been blinded as well in the accident, he had no qualms about going out for his walks late in the evening.
If my aunt’s elucidation was meant to make Charlie No-Face sound less terrifying, it didn’t work.
“Have you seen him?” I heard my mother ask.
“Once,” my aunt said. “He’s gruesome.”
“I don’t know,” my uncle said. “He’s kinda sad.”
I remember glancing over at Marty. His eyes were as wide open as mine.
Gradually the warm milk or the alcohol took me. I remember dreaming about a road, flanked by unfamiliar trees. In the dream I was anxious because somewhere on that road was Charlie No-Face, and some other place on that road was home, and the me that existed there.
We left not long after that. As we were driving through the country towards Pittsburgh, the song Walkin’ After Midnight came on the radio. I remember explaining to my mother that Charlie No-Face was also called the Green Man, because his skin had turned green from an infection which went untreated for too long. I thought I was just making conversation, but my mother pulled the car over to the side of the road and got out.
She went towards the back of the car. I could feel the subtle shift in the car’s carriage as she sat down on the rear bumper and smoked a cigarette. When she came back her eyes were red and puffy. She had been crying.
But the odd thing was, she was back. As suddenly as that. She was once more the mother that I knew, and I, by default, I was myself as well.
Not long after that my aunt died. Again, no words as to why until years later, when both my mother and I were different people.