“Ray, tell me a story.”
I sit up suddenly, a sweat forming on my forehead immediately and cooling almost as quickly. “What? What did you just say?”
He tries to look calm and collected, but you can tell he’s wary: nobody likes a freak. “Calm down,” he says. “I said to tell me what you think the problem is.”
“Oh.” I try to relax, lean back in my chair. I have no idea what that was all about, but it rattled me a bit, and it rattled him, too. “Sorry. Déjà vu.”
“Nothing to apologize for.” That’s what the man says. I look at him for a second, and then wish that I hadn’t. It’s all a farce, you can tell, even if you don’t want to.
His thinning hair is slick and shiny with some sort of gel; he really wants to be able to do something magnificent with his hair, but he has failed miserably. It just looks combed over, and with a lot of gooey shit in it, to boot. The suit looks like an expensive name-brand, but it’s not—if he was the kind of man who could afford to wear expensive name-brand suits, there’s no way that I would be sitting where I’m sitting. He looks very professional, though, even if he is nothing more than a generic knock-off. He messed up with the cologne, though. It smells like it has soured, gone bad, rotted. I don’t know if it’s just because it doesn’t mix with his natural body chemistry or if it’s because cheap cologne always just smells like cheap cologne, no matter how much you wish it was the real thing. Whatever the reason, the cologne was a really bad decision, and I doubt anyone has ever told him.
The room has a sick golden cast to it, the color that only comes at sundown, when you’re stuck in a place with no escape. That color that fills a room as the sun sets for the evening, and you know that tomorrow will not be a better day.
I’m not locked here. I could get up and walk away, and nobody would care, except for maybe the shrink, who would be thirty bucks an hour further away from a real suit.
“We were talking about your dreams in the last session,” he says. “Let’s continue with that.”
I don’t want to continue with that. I say, “No, man, I’m not going to tell you about my dreams. I’m going to tell you a story, instead.”
“That’s fine,” he says. He looks a little uncomfortable, like maybe he wishes he wouldn’t have sent his secretary home early while he’s in this room with an unpredictable patient who won’t play by the rules. Or maybe I’m just making that all up. Maybe I want him to be uncomfortable, so I just project that image on him. Who knows? If I had the answers, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.
I settle back into the chair. It’s not a couch, exactly, because having a couch is so cliché, but it’s definitely the chair equivalent of a couch.
“I had this babysitter once, when I was really little. She told me the crust munster would come get me if I didn’t eat the crust of my sandwich.”
He looks puzzled, and I don’t blame him a bit. But I don’t stop telling my story, either. As soon as that first sentence is out, it’s like I’m right back there, twenty-something years ago, I’m right back:
It’s a trailer house, back before the designers ever knew that you could actually make trailer houses seem nice to live in. The entire thing is mustard yellow on the outside, avocado green on the inside. It smells of old cigarettes and cat shit—the skirting around the trailer has been torn and rumpled, and there are all kinds of places for animals to get through if they want to live under the house.
I don’t have any idea what the babysitter’s name is, she’s always just referred to as “The Sitter.” She’s a temporary fix because our regular babysitter, Mrs. Harrison, is having some surgery or another, and she’s going to be unavailable for the next two weeks. It’s called internal bleeding that got a little out of control, but I didn’t know that at the time. It’s called marrying an abusive alcoholic who works the body a little too much, but I don’t know that at the time, either.
What I know at the time is that I don’t really care for our new babysitter. She’s a teenager, barely old enough to be left alone unsupervised, herself, and she spends most of the day on the telephone with her friends, talking about how she “let him do it to me last night.” At the time, I have no idea what that means, either. At the time, I don’t know that it means she’s only preparing herself for one of those surgeries just like Mrs. Harrison’s.
She’s pretty, in a terrible kind of way. She wears tight shirts that emphasize her budding breasts, and her erect nipples always look like they are trying to escape. She only wears cut-offs that are too tight and too short. If she sits a certain way, you can see stray strands of pubic hair poking out. Skank-sexy, but I don’t know that kind of thing at the time. I only know that she seems pretty, but in a terrible kind of way.
The Sitter ignores us for the most part, she’s always on the phone, or sneaking cigarettes out of her mother’s stash. “If you ever tell anyone about this, I’ll make sure that you get spanked every day from now on,” she warns us.
The “Us,” it’s me and my cousin. My cousin’s name is Naomi, and she’s staying with us for the summer because her mother is “working some things out.” We don’t know what that means, either, because we’re just kids. We don’t know about methamphetamines yet, we don’t know about how you can fall in love with drugs and then how you can care about them more than you care about your daughter.
We’re about the same age, and we get along pretty well, and it’s been a pretty good summer, really. Right up until that last day at The Sitter’s.
And that’s where I’m at, even while I’m sitting on the chair that is definitely not a couch, I’m really back in that mustard yellow trailer house, sitting on the floor with my cousin, the smell of cigarettes and cat shit filling my nostrils, a plate full of sandwich crusts on the plate in front of me.
“Eat your lunch,” The Sitter says. She’s been on the phone for the last hour, with her boyfriend. I don’t know his name, either—she always refers to him as “my boyfriend.” She’s been talking to him, but not in the same way as usual, she doesn’t seem glad to be hearing the things he has to say.
Naomi and I, we’re sitting on the ratty, stained carpet, in front of the TV, wishing we were still un-noticed.
“I ate it,” I tell her. She’s been making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day that we’ve been here, and the sandwiches always taste a little strange, like maybe the ingredients have been sitting around in the pantry a little too long.
“Eat the crusts.”
“He doesn’t eat the crust,” Naomi tells her. “He never does.”
The Sitter scowls at us, you can see her getting pissed off, even if you don’t know why. “You do what I say! You want spanked?”
Naomi and I shake our heads—spankings are the worst. But I don’t ever eat the crust. I just don’t. I’m not trying to be bad, I just can’t do it. I gag, my throat seals up, it feels like I’m suffocating. I don’t eat the crust, everybody knows that.
“I’ll throw up,” I tell her.
She’s about to reply, but that’s when the truck pulls up outside. A horn honks. She forgets all about us, and runs out the front door.
“We should hide,” Naomi says. “We’ll hide until your mom comes to pick us up, and you won’t have to eat the crust.”
“Let’s hide the crust, too. We’ll hide the crust, then we’ll hide, too.” Naomi has eaten the crust of her sandwich, but she doesn’t like it. I can’t ask her to eat the crust for me, that would be shameful. At the time, I don’t know words like shameful, but I know how I would feel if I asked her to eat my crust, and I don’t want to feel like that.
We hide the crust under the kitchen sink. The kitchen feels like a safe place to hide anything—it seems like nobody ever really goes in there. There are dirty dishes piled in the sink, dried spaghetti sauce covering most of the plates, a pan half-full of bean soup, some sort of greenish nastiness covering a bowl. We hide the crusts, and then we hide, too.
The Sitter never goes into her mom’s room. It’s off limits, we all know that. That’s where Naomi and I go to hide. We wouldn’t usually dare do this, but we’ll never have to be back here again—tomorrow Mrs. Harrison will be well enough for us to go to her house. We crawl into the closet first, but it’s too dark and too scary, and we can’t stay there for long. Instead, we crawl under the bed.
It seems like a game, sort of, at first. We’re hiding under the bed, trying to be quiet. Then Naomi starts to giggle, I don’t know why. It’s contagious, though, and I start giggling, too. We’re both trying t be quiet, laughing, shushing each other, laughing louder. Kids are weird, man, I don’t know.
The laughing stops, though, when the front door opens and slams shut. “Where’re the little shits at?” The Boyfriend asks.
“I don’t know, probably outside. Who cares?”
We don’t feel like giggling anymore, and I’m already thinking about how when The Sitter takes her boyfriend back to her bedroom, we should probably sneak out of the house and play out in the woods until my mom comes to pick us up.
“Let’s do it in here.”
“No! That’s my mom’s room! If she finds out I’ve been in there…”
“She won’t find out. Come on.” The door opens, and the Sitter and her boyfriend enter the room. He’s sort of dragging her, I can tell, even though I can’t see anything above their knees. He leads her to the bed, and I hear him unzip his pants.
I look over at Naomi, and it’s like looking into a mirror, the fear I feel is staring right back at me, and the questions. What do we do now? How are we going to get out of here? I hear clothes dropping onto the floor, it’s like a bowel movement of the soul, but I’m too young to be thinking words like that. I just know that the clothing dropping is a disgusting sound, something that I want no part of, something that I should not be a part of. I see him walk to the bed, his bare feet are about three inches away from my face, and they stink.
He says, “In your mouth.” She starts to argue, but then her feet are right there, too, and then her knees are right there, too. I see her exposed crotch, that part that is usually covered by the cutoffs. I want to look away, but I can’t. Bad sounds coming from the bed above me, his feet jerk back a little, and almost hit me in the eye. I’m too scared to move.
It seems to go on forever, the wet slobbering sounds, the grunting, the silence. And then the springs squeak, his feet vanish up onto the bed, and so does the Sitter. I look over at Naomi, she’s crying silently, and I hold her hand. I don’t fully comprehend what’s so bad about this situation, I don’t understand what's happening on the bed above me or why I feel like throwing up, I just know that I do.
The bed squeaks above us for a few minutes that last a few months, and then it stops. His feet again, his hands grabbing the discarded clothing.
“You want to watch some TV?” The Sitter asks.
“Nah, I gotta get back. I’ll see you later, though.” And then he’s gone. I hear the front door open and slam shut, and I think about how we always get yelled at if we let the door shut that hard. And then there are only the sounds of The Sitter. She’s sobbing.
When forever ends, she stands up, grabs her clothes, and pulls them on. She walks to the bathroom, shuts the door, and then I hear the sink running.
Naomi and I hurry from under the bed, down the hall, out the front door: careful not to make a sound.
She looks at me, questioning, asking me what we’re supposed to do. I wish that she wouldn’t look at me like that, I wish she didn’t want me to know. Because I don’t, and I don’t want to let her down. I walk to the edge of the woods—that’s where we had been playing before lunch—and I sit down and start messing with the toy cars that were still on the ground. Naomi sits down on the dirt beside me, and she starts fooling with one of the cars. Neither of us speak.
It’s like that for a long time, so that we think maybe my mom will come get us in a minute, and all of this horrible afternoon will be over. And then the door slams open, and The Sitter is standing there with a handful of crusts. From under the sink.
What was she doing under the sink?
No answers, only fear. Because she’s mad. She’s more than mad, and all three of us know it, and it has nothing to do with crusts. It has to do with whatever was happening on the bed above us, it has to do with the sobbing.
“You get up here and eat these crusts!” She screams. “You eat these crusts, or the crust munster will come and rip you up!” Not “monster,” but “munster.”
Naomi and I run, we don’t even think about it. There is just too much rage up there on the rain-worn porch, even if I COULD just walk up and eat the crusts, that wouldn’t be enough. We run into the woods, where we’re never supposed to go.
There are snakes in the woods, and there are other animals: worse than snakes. There are holes and drop-offs, it’s wilderness that no one ever explores, miles of it.
We run in panic, and I barely hear The Sitter’s screams, but I hear them perfect, “The crust munster will eat you! You get back here right now, or I’ll let him get you!”
I’m holding Naomi’s hand as we run, branches and leaves are hitting me in the face, stinging, and my legs are torn by thorns. And then I’m not holding her hand anymore. I’m alone, running through the woods. It’s so dark—the trees are so close together that the sun doesn’t even seem to exist here. Only shadows. Shadows and dark, and The Sitter keeps screaming, and I keep running.
And then there’s another noise, it reminds me of the noises The Sitter was making, the slobbering, grunting noises, and I know that it’s the crust munster. I fall to the ground, crawl under a rotted log, and I hide, weeping silently.
I don’t remember much after that: The constant screams of The Sitter, asking us where we are, we better come out before the crust munster finds us; another scream, not of rage but of pain and fear, and belonging to my cousin Naomi; slobbering, grunting noises, so close, too close, heavy footsteps, hungry footsteps.
And then I woke up in a hospital. Dehydration. Exposure. Two days in the woods. That’s how long it took them to find me, that’s how good I hid. That’s why the crust munster couldn’t ever find me.
Naomi didn’t hide so good. They never found her. But the crust munster did.
They told me all kinds of things about quarries, and mining, about how they used to dig holes all over the place around here, and Naomi fell into one of the secret holes that made the woods so dangerous. But they didn’t know.
Only me and The Sitter knew.
The Sitter killed herself the next year. My mom told me about it when I was older. She said The Sitter committed suicide because she couldn’t live with her mistake. But that’s not it.
The thing is, once you unleash the crust munster, you can’t call it back. And if it can’t find the rotten little kid that won’t eat his crusts, it will find whoever else is around. I knew that, and so did The Sitter.
The alarm on his desk rings just as I finish the story, it couldn’t have been more dramatic if it was planned. I sit up from the chair that is definitely not a couch, and I look at my generic psychiatrist.
He writes a few more things down on his pad, then looks up at me. “You blame yourself for the death of your cousin?”
I stand up and stare at him for as long as he’ll take it. When he looks away, I see his eyes dart to the lunch tray and back. Tuna on rye, fries, an iced coffee. The only things left are the plastic cup the coffee came in, the paper tray the fries came in, and the crusts of his sandwich.
“No. I blame you,” I tell him. And then I leave.
I won’t be back, and neither will he.