08 Oct Pick-a-Pocket
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"Pick-a-Pocket"Written by Jeff Miller
Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
My younger brother disappeared on Halloween night when he was seven years old. It hollowed out my mother, who was raising the two of us all by herself, and that was already hard enough in 1971.
Mom finished drinking herself to death in ‘74, and I went to live with my aunt and uncle in Raleigh. It was the not knowing, I guess, that did it. The police were never able to determine if Davey had crept out that open window himself or if someone had climbed up that tree to take him from our room. Either way, he was never seen again.
But I knew. I never said a word. I played dumb, and they all bought it.
I’ll say what happened now. The cancer has wormed its way through my lymph nodes into just about every other organ I have, so I don’t have long, and I need to own up to my part in it before I go meet whatever awaits me on the other side.
I hope my children find this post one day. Maybe then they’ll understand why I raised them the way I did. But if my children don’t believe it, that’s fine, too. They can blame it on the tumors in my brain if it gives them comfort.
I’ll tell you what, though. The cancer may hurt all over, but my brain’s working just fine.
Davey and I were close. We were just over a year apart and did everything together. In the summer, we’d spend our days and sometimes our nights fishing on the river. At school, we wouldn’t play kickball unless we were both chosen for the same team. We looked out for each other.
So, just like always, that last Friday in October, we explored the elementary school fall carnival together. In our small town, it was a big deal. They’d rent an inflatable moonwalk you could jump around in, the principal would sit in a dunk tank, and parent volunteers would run games like apple bobbing, a cake walk and musical chairs. Mr. Jones, who lived on the same street we did, would always assemble this enormous super slide that had to be 30 feet tall. I can’t imagine it was safe, but no one ever got hurt.
We had just bought tickets at one of the playground booths to use at the spook house. We knew it was only Mrs. Gardener’s classroom with the lights off and scary sound effects playing, but it was still fun.
Halfway there, Davey pulled on my arm.
“Hey, Jeff! Let’s go to the pick-a-pocket clown!”
There were always a couple of parents or teachers wandering around as a pick-a-pocket clown. I can’t imagine any school system would allow it today, but back then, I guess adults were more naïve or less paranoid. Anyway, the clown’s outfit was always decked out with tons of pockets, full of cheap candy and plastic toys. For a ticket, kids could pick a pocket and draw something out.
Underneath the bald cap and makeup, this particular clown looked to me like Jimmy Barton’s dad. He was a deacon at our church and was always really kind to the children, but in a good way, not a creepy way. His costume was amazing. It shimmered in bright green, orange, red and blue, with giant silver polka dots all around. It was covered in pockets loaded down with stuff.
He saw that we were staring at him and bent over until his gaunt, shock-white face was on our level. Smiling widely, he crooked his finger, gesturing for us to come over.
“Pick a pocket, kids! Just one ticket! Treasure galore for the taking!”
Davey and I looked at each other, and he elbowed me to go first. I don’t know why were nervous – we both knew Mr. Barton well – but we were. I tore a ticket off my roll and gave it to the clown.
“Decisive. Brave. I like that in a boy! Go ahead! Pick a pocket!”
There were so many to choose from that I felt lost looking at the costume. The silver dots swirled and seemed to move around inside the shimmering multi-colored fabric. After a few seconds, I got the feeling that I wasn’t choosing the pocket, but that the pocket was choosing me. Before I knew it, my hand was inside a pocket near his chest. I pulled out a pair of plastic glasses with shiny cellophane lenses.
Great. The summer before, I’d spent $3 for a pair of these so-called X-ray specs from the back of Boy’s Life magazine, and it was a total scam.
“Ah! X-ray glasses!” He put his hands up in mock protest. “But don’t put them on now! You wouldn’t want to see me in my bloomers!”
Then, darkly serious, with his face just inches from mine, he whispered, “Best wait until you get home, Jeffrey. You can put them on then.” His breath stank of rotten, mushy leaves.
He stood back up and turned to Davey.
“So, Davey. Are you brave enough to pick a pocket?”
Davey gave me a sidelong glance, and I shrugged. He nodded and stared at the pockets, finally choosing a small one on the clown’s left arm. He stuck his hand in and yelped, pulling it back like he’d touched a hot coal.
On his hand stood a pulsing, brilliant blue spider, about the size of a silver dollar. Davey was frozen, unable to speak as the spider’s hairy legs throbbed.
“It bit me,” he said, quietly, afraid that if he spoke any louder, the thing might bite him again. But the clown just laughed and picked it up with his thumb and index finger.
“Bit you? How would it bite you? IT’S RUBBER!” he roared, wiggling the spider. It wobbled back and forth.
I was confused. I’d thought I’d seen it moving. But it was clearly a fake spider.
“You want it?”
Davey shook his head vigorously, no.
“Suit yourself,” the clown said, and he placed it back in a pocket. “See you boys later! Enjoy the carnival!”
But instead of strolling around to greet other children, the clown walked straight across the playground and through the gate in the fence. We watched him walk down the street until he turned a corner, out of sight.
“I’ve never seen Mrs. Ballard act so weird. And that really hurt! Look, my hand is red! Something stuck me!”
“Mrs. Ballard? What are you talking about? That was Mr. Barton. And nothing stuck you. You’ve been scratching it.”
“Because it stings! And that was Mrs. Ballard. She’s the class mom. She brings brownies for every birthday. Annie’s her kid.”
I looked at his hand and couldn’t see any place he’d been stuck.
“Whatever,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go to the spook house.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening at the carnival, eating cotton candy and caramel apples for dinner, which left us a little sick to our stomachs walking home. Mom was still at the hospital and wouldn’t finish her shift until late, so Davey and I watched TV until we got tired enough to go to bed.
The two of us shared a room upstairs, twin beds separated by a small nightstand. As Davey put on his pajamas, I saw him wince as he put his right arm through the sleeve.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I told you, something stuck me when I reached in that pocket.”
“Let me see.”
Davey held out his hand for me to see, and it did look a little red, but I still couldn’t see any sign of a puncture wound.
“Use the glasses.”
“What?” I said.
“The X-ray glasses! The ones you got from Mrs. Ballard.”
“It was Mr. Barton, cheese weasel. And those glasses are totally fake. The ones I ordered from Boy’s Life just made everything look gray and blurry.”
“Try it anyway.”
I rolled my eyes and went downstairs to fish them out of the trash. When I got back to our room, he held out his hand to me. “Look,” he said.
When I put the glasses on, at first, I thought they were worse than the ones I’d paid money for. The world wasn’t even blurry. All I could see were patches of light and dark. But after a few seconds, it didn’t matter, because my senses of smell and touch were heightened to such a crazy degree that I had a physical sense of my surroundings. It wasn’t based on light, though. It was based on of scent, movement and vibration, if that makes any sense?
I could feel the walls of the room when even the faintest noises echoed off them. I could smell a roach scuttling up inside the drywall and knew exactly where it was. If I’d have been able to punch through the wall, I could have snatched it right up. My brother was so noisy and ripe, he was like a bright shining sun in the darkness: shampoo and soap, armpit stink and toe jam, apple peel and mint toothpaste. His hand was vibrating all over, and it smelled of an infected ear.
It was all too much. I tore the glasses off my face. It hurt a little.
“What did you see? Is my hand infected? Could you see through it?”
“I… I didn’t see anything. These X-ray glasses aren’t even a good fake. Go to sleep.”
The next morning, Mom was still asleep from her late nursing shift, so after Davey and I each ate a bowl of Sugar Smacks, I grabbed our fishing poles. It was Saturday, and we always went fishing if it wasn’t raining. That morning, though, Davey wanted to wait for Mom to wake up so she could look at his hand. It did look a little swollen, but unless you looked hard, you couldn’t really tell.
I gave him the rod, and he tried to cast. He did just fine even though he said it smarted a bit. We decided we’d just fish for the morning, and by the time we came back for lunch, Mom would be awake.
A half-hour later, we propped up our bikes against a white oak and walked up a game trail along the Chattahoochee River to our usual fishing hole. We rummaged through our tackle box, which I had brought in my bike’s front basket, and baited our lines with lures for rainbow trout.
“Hey! You have those x-ray specs? Maybe you can see the fish under the water?”
I did have the specs. I still don’t know why, but at the last minute, I’d run upstairs to get them from our nightstand and shoved them in my jacket pocket.
“Davey, I dunno. I told you they were fakes.”
“You saw something. C’mon, you know I could tell. Tell me what you saw!”
“Davey, don’t push it.”
“I know there’s something wrong with my hand. At least tell me that.”
“Ok,” I said. “I didn’t really see anything. I could smell it. It’s weird. Your hand smelled infected.”
“I knew there was something up with it. Dammit.”
“Hey, don’t swear! Mom doesn’t like it.”
“Are you going to see if there are fish or what?”
I sighed and put the glasses on. Immediately, the world changed. I could feel the wings beating from every insect in the forest. I could smell every spider lurking under the leaves and in the trees. Under the water, I could feel the ripples from fish swimming.
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “There’s a lot of fish.”
“Good,” he said, and he cast his line into the river. The skin of his right hand was vibrating even more than before, and it smelled rotten, no longer the sickly-sweet scent of infection, but more like decaying meat. I took off the glasses again. This time, it took a little skin with it from my temples. I cried out a bit, but Davey didn’t notice. His rod was already bent over.
“Hey! I got one! Look, Jeff! I got one!”
We fished the rest of the morning and brought home four small trout, which would make a pretty good dinner for the three of us. Mom always appreciated the fish we brought home. Meat was expensive, and her nursing job didn’t pay all that well.
On the way home, my arms and legs itched something awful, and I was afraid I’d stepped in poison ivy. Back then, it seemed I only needed to see the stuff to break out in hives, so after I’d hugged Mom and put the fish in the cooler to scale later, I went to the bathroom to inspect myself.
It wasn’t a rash. There were little black hairs starting to grow out of my skin. I still have them, you know, all these decades later. I always wear long-sleeved shirts and never wear shorts. Shit, I used to shave my entire body twice a day when I was younger. They’re stiff with little barbs. If I let them grow out, they’re a quarter of an inch long and draw blood if someone runs their hand over them. I always told my girlfriends it was a genetic condition. Until I met my wife, rest her soul, I never had a relationship that lasted very long. Thankfully, with the cancer, they don’t seem to grow out very much, so I guess there’s at least one upside to this disease.
Anyway, back then, I was plenty freaked out, but I didn’t want Mom to worry, so I just put my sweatshirt back on and said nothing when I walked back into the kitchen.
“Jeff, did Mrs. Ballard stick your brother’s hand with something?”
“I don’t know why Davey says it was Mrs. Ballard. It was Mr. Barton. He was the pick-a-pocket clown and, yeah, Davey flinched like something had stuck him. Does it look infected to you?”
“It might be. It feels hot, but I don’t see a puncture wound. If it’s still swollen Monday, I think we’ll have to take you to see Dr. James, Davey. But I don’t think it’s bad enough to take you to the emergency room.”
Davey nodded. I knew we couldn’t afford a trip to the ER, anyway. The year before, I’d tripped over a tree root and busted my head bad on a rock. I managed to walk home, and Mom put in the stitches, herself, so we didn’t have to pay a hospital bill.
“These fish are beautiful. Why don’t you clean them, Jeff, and put them in the fridge. I’ll fry them up with some potatoes for dinner. Sound good? You boys can go trick-or-treating early, and the fish will be ready when you get home, so don’t ruin your appetites with candy.”
It did sound good. Once I was done cleaning the fish, Mom shooed us out of the house to play for the rest of the afternoon.
By the river, Davey and I planned our costumes for that night. We didn’t have money to buy one of those stupid costumes in the stores back then: a foul-smelling monster mask and a plastic poncho with a picture of the monster you were supposed to be. We had to make our own. Davey decided to be a sheet ghost, and I’d be a hobo. I had plenty of worn-out clothes for that.
We fished a little bit, but the fish weren’t biting anymore, so we came home early to make our costumes.
“Honey, are you sure it was Mrs. Ballard?” Mom said, as we walked in. “I called her, and she says she was selling tickets, not doing the pick-a-pocket clown.”
“That’s because it was Mr. Barton,” I said.
“I called him, too, Jeff. He was in Dahlonega all day yesterday.”
Davey just shrugged. Mom shook her head and went back to cooking.
Trick-or-treating started out fun. The Bakers gave out full-sized Snicker bars, and Mr. Jones had big boxes of Cracker Jacks, but after hitting just eight houses, Davey said he felt really bad and wanted to go home. I knew he had to be really sick to miss trick-or-treating.
“Is it your hand that hurts?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, wincing. “I hurt all over.” After that, he didn’t want to talk, so I just put my arm around his shoulders and took him back to the house.
Mom was surprised to see us. She took his temperature, and he had a fever of 100.2. She checked his hand to see if an infection was the cause, but his hand was no longer swollen or red, and she saw no sign of a wound gone septic, so she figured it was just a virus. She made him eat a little bit of dinner and then sent him to bed. I went with him, because I didn’t want him to be alone.
He woke me up a little before midnight.
“Jeff, something’s happening. Something’s happening! I don’t like it!”
I turned on the light, and he was quivering on top of his sheets.
“Davey? What’s wrong?”
“Something inside me. Use the glasses. Use the glasses!”
I didn’t even think. I just the glasses off the nightstand and put them on.
I could smell them. They were skittering under his skin, all of them, little ones, everywhere. I started to scream, but then I guess I didn’t.
I remember the rest of the night in fragments. I felt the little ones emerge from under his skin, like ten thousand little pimples bursting. They were just a bit bigger than a pinhead, but there were so many. He couldn’t make a sound, and I couldn’t move, not until they had finished cocooning him. When they were done, they all burrowed inside the cocoon to feed.
I didn’t choose, I just did it. I threw him over my shoulder, crawled out the window and scuttled down the exterior wall on all fours. By starlight, I moved through the woods on a trail that I’d never seen before. I somehow knew to stop when I reached the center of an ancient stand of enormous oaks.
In the center stood the clown. With the glasses, I could now sense the extra limbs twitching in the pants legs and sleeves where they were stuffed. I could see its mask for what it really was – a cheap Bozo the Clown mask you could pick up for a few bucks at any Kmart. I could smell the thick, blue, pasty liquid that was its blood as it coursed through all eight eyes, its cephalothorax, abdomen and palps. It didn’t bother making me think it was anyone else. I was far beyond needing to think it was someone I trusted.
I handed it what was left of my brother, and it turned to go deeper into those woods that I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. After a few paces, it paused and turned to me.
“Not coming? It may not look like it, but there’s still plenty left here for you. And don’t you want to see what my children will become? You can start a family of your own.”
I wanted to feed, but my love for my brother held me firm. It could make me passive, it could make me watch, it could even make me bring him here, but it could not make me eat my brother.
“No?” It stared at me for a long while. “Well, the glasses are yours forever, now. You’ll follow when you’re ready. You’ll know the way.” And it disappeared into the dark.
Once I could no longer see the spider, I regained control of my body. I ran back on the trail, increasing my speed as it started to fade. Finally, I broke out of the woods and climbed up the tree and got back into my bed where I cried and cried and cried.
The glasses were gone. But I knew they weren’t really gone. I could hardly see anything anymore, but I smelled and felt and sensed far better than ever.
I missed Davey like a lost limb. I still do. Sometimes, I think I can see his shadow near me, but I’m pretty sure it has just been wishful thinking. I can never smell him. I hope he has forgiven me, wherever he is.
My life was not easy. I used my mom’s razors, and later my uncle’s, to shave my body every chance I got. Sometimes, I’d filch raw hamburger or chicken from the fridge when no one was looking and would catch roaches and mice with traps. It helped with the cravings. Reading was almost impossible, but I managed to get by somehow. I graduated and got a job doing construction.
I know my children think I am cold and without affection. But Liam and Beth, it’s because I loved you so fiercely that I never hugged you or even touched your bare skin, even after your Mom died in the car accident. It would have been too much to smell your flesh with my fingers. That’s why your Mom and I adopted. I could never be intimate with her or anyone else, not ever. She understood, somehow. Maybe she was one of those people who have no interest in sex.
Either way, she loved me for who I was. And I loved you all too much to devour you. To devour anyone. Every day has been a struggle, but here I am, 47 years later, and still a human being, mostly. I’m proud of that fact. I’ve never taken a person, and I think that’s why I never became like that clown, why it was never able to completely remake me into a monster.
I’m about out of strength, and the nurse has told me my family will be here soon, so I’ll wrap this up and will try to make it at least through one last visit.
I hope I’ll see Davey again soon, maybe even in a few hours. And if I don’t? If there’s nothing at all after death? I’m OK with that. Because even after all that’s happened and all that’s been lost, it’s been a good life. I’ve had love, and that’s enough.
If nothing else, remaining human to the end is a very satisfying “fuck you” to that goddamned clown.
Credit: Jeff Miller