The Demons Of Gilford Street.
As I’m starting to sober up, I’m starting to come to grips with the horrible memories that I’ve been trying to drown with the sangria, scotch and taquila. This rant is about one of those things that I’m wrestling with today, a horrible memory from childhood that I've never been able to shake. While I’m standing in the kitchen this past Sunday afternoon, I was suddenly burdened and overwhelmed with a true nightmare that’s been lurking in the back of my mind that caused me to cringe and reach for a bottle until the recent past.
After 1976, my family moved from 49 Westgate in West Brattleboro to one of four houses on Gilford Street. There were three other families that took the other ranch houses, so it was like what we were leaving behind was coming with us. For better or worse.
These four houses were right up against a vast forest that was as close to infinity that my 8 year old mind could grasp. When Carl Sagan said “Billions and Billions” on his breakthrough show "Cosmos" he was talking about the trees in our woods that I thought went out to the end of the earth. The trees aren’t what scared me, it was what could have been living among them. What was also infinite was the number of dangerous creatures and natural pitfalls that would be waiting for me should I chose to explore them. I could venture out into those woods so long as I remained close enough to see the house.
As I’m now 40, I can tell you that the horrors that my imagination cooked up when I was a child still find their way into dreams to this day. I’ll dream of being suddenly transported into those woods, lost and alone with either the snow or rain pouring down. The fog in these woods would be so intense sometimes that nobody could see more then 12 feet away. In my dreams, I’m in the woods of my childhood hearing voices of the present calling me back, and hearing the sounds of the creatures I thought lived there as they stalked me.
When I was a child I used to lay in my bed and shiver. Not just from the cold of the Vermont winters but from fear of what might come to the window. If the wind blew just right I would believe that there was something huge and horrendous pacing along the property where the open lawn would meet the tree line. Or worse, I feared something was right up against the window looking in to watch my brother and I sleep, gauging whether or not we were fat enough to eat.
It’s not until I was older that I realized there were real monsters. They didn’t live out in the woods, rather they lived among us, disguised as us. They are close then we think.
Brenda and Richard lived in the white house two down from us. They weren’t exceptionally bad people. The were members of our extended inner circle. Their kids mingled with my moms kids and we pretty much knew them as if they were members of our family. We spent a lot of time with them after school and they were part of our routine while those years of my youth slipped away.
Their home was a disheveled mess. It was if there was something sad and tragic deep inside them that didn’t allow them to have too many nice things and they worked hard to neglect their house. It was never clean enough, the kitchen was a biohazard. The whole house had the over whelming smell of waste covered with Pine-Sol as if just pouring the cleaner everywhere and let that dry in a sticky mess was a substitute for moping and wiping things down. If anything, that seemed to take more effort then actually using the leaner as instructed.
Yet at the same time there was something generous about them. Often times they were often to generous to the point of embarrassment and pain on my part. It was as if they were over compensating for something. Besides all of their faults and issues, Everything was fine.
Until Richard Drank.
There were those nights when Richard would hit the hard stuff besides just beer. I have no idea what the hard-stuff was, other then the fact that it had the same chemical composition of the formula Dr. Jekyll drank. Just as I’m sure of the seat I’m sitting on now, I’m also sure that Robert Louis Stevenson knew what was in the bottles Richard drank from.
It’s hard to imagine the horror we all felt when he would chaise Brenda around the neighborhood. You could hear her screams as if she was being murdered at that very moment, the sounds of fear, pain and anguish as the life was being drained from her body. He would yell that he was going to kill her in such a way that we were all convinced that this was going to be that night.
Every time we thought: “This is going to be the night.”
On evenings like that, I thought about the woods and trying to escape. Maybe if I ran into the woods, those creatures would adopt me. Or they would let me hide with them. Or, they would kill me and eat me quick to satisfy their hunger and to end my suffering. Death would be better then this.
There were evenings that were even more horrible, when Brenda would run to our door and bang on it with every once of strength. She would shreek and shrill, demanded to be let in. I wanted to yell: “No! You might also let in Richard.” He had become this terrifying monster, capable of doing horrible, unimaginable things to us if he would just be allowed to cross over through our threshold.
My brother and I were so terrified one night, we took our blankets and pillows and hid under our bed. We were startled when my sister joined us, hiding with us that one night.
Then there was the night when Brenda and Richard were running around hour house. She was trying to get far enough ahead of him so she can make it to the door, and it would shut before he caught up to her. I looked and saw he had a weapon - an ax or a shot gun. I knew that this was the night I was going to be a witness or an unwilling participant of a murder. I was a victim either way, already.
I sat there, at the edge of my bed, looking out the window like I did so many nights wondering if I could catch a glimpse of one of those creatures I had imagined. Suddenly, the window pane was filled with the demonic face of Richard, with his eyes bulging and spittle spewing from his mouth! “Let me in, you little bastard!” this demon yelled at me! “Let me in, I want to have at her! Let me in so I can kill her!”
I screamed! The loud, piercing sound of my own voice startled me even more as I thought I saw him lift his weapon in an effort to break open the window. I was yelling at the horror that finally found it’s way to my window: “Get away from this house! Get away from this house!” It was my voice, and yet it wasn’t. It was me yelling, but I was detached from it. It was me, by pure unfiltered and unedited self. It was my instinctive core taking over. I have no idea why Richard didn’t break through and climb into my window. I have no idea what might have scared him off. I don’t know if it was me.
As abruptly as this all began, it ended. Days after the last time Richard chased his wife around our houses, he was gone. I don’t know if there was intervention from the police, some of the men from the neighborhood, or his own embarrassment that caused him to disappear. Maybe it was his alcoholism that turned him into one of the creatures of the forest, becoming his domain for ever.
A short while later, some of us were at the public library. The whole town knew about what had happened. It’s hard to imagine that something that occurred in our own little microcosm was the sudden talk of the town. And one of the girls who lived further down the road was chiding me, accusing me of sleeping through the whole thing. She accused me of not doing more. I was a bad person, I was hardly even a man and I should have done more.
There’s a common belief that if someone accuses you of something and you don’t say anything - then obviously you’re guilty. I thought that was a fact for the longest time, until right now when I started writing this article.
The fact is, I didn’t say anything to my defense because I was incredulous. How could this girl my age know this thing? How could she have known that I didn’t do anything? How come she knew so much, but didn’t know about Richard banging at my window trying to get in to kill Brenda?
And what would she have done if she was in my place? How do you know what you would do unless you’re frightened in a life or death situation?
I didn’t say anything in my defense because I was incredulous. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, nor the accusations I was facing. I was shocked and embarrassed for this girl, and obviously myself
In the years that came afterwards, the woods behind our houses became my refuge. When ever things became difficult in my life, this forest was my sanctuary where I knew nothing bad could follow me. I set up a small desk out there with an old chair that had been abandoned by someone else elsewhere. I had the clipboard my sister gave me, and wads of white copy paper that I wrote upon. That same clipboard is still in my possession, just out of arms reach . The woods that used to frighten me before was where I went through out my adolescence.
In the quiet of those woods I first thought about the idea of inner demons and the things that torment us internally and cause us to torment others outwardly. Horrible things happen to people, and they bottle it up inside. And when those horrors accumulate we try to keep them quiet with drugs, alcohol, sex or other obsessive behavior. It’s a beast, a demon that we try to feed to appease, then the demon rises to the surface and takes control. The horror that you’ve kept hidden inside is unleashed. There are those of us who become the horror with too much chemicals that lower and diminish our inhibitions. Then the horrors are passed down, inherited by our children.
Or even someone else’s children.
Richard was not the last Demon to take over Gilford Street. He was not the last demon to be the talk of the town. He’s not even unique to this situation in any way at all, since his demonic behavior had been passed down to his son and others have surpassed his wickedness in the decades that passed. He’s by no means special since there is an abundant surplus of demons of his kind. The Demon that later took over for Richard on Gilford Street was exercised a few years later. They rapidly come, and they rapidly go - leaving only scars and nightmarish memories behind.
Richard is only considered to be “special” because he was the first indication that monsters are real and they exist. We create them, and we become them. And the only way we can exercise them from our own souls is to first dry them out, starve them. Finally, you confront them the way I am now with this piece. It’s my turn to starve and dehydrate my own monsters, make amends along the way. It’s time that I make sure that I’m the hero of my story, and not the villain of someone else’s.
The consequences of not doing monster inside me is watching my sons become the frightening things they see in me, the same things I saw in Richard and the other demons of Gilford Street. My greatest fear is that demon will show up again here, and the demon will have a too familiar face.
The fact is, when we see horrible things as children too many times, it "normalizes" itself. When kids see acts of violence on the TV or experience it at home, the message is that "this is normal." Too soon into their teens that this starts to manifest openly. I remember other children of alcoholics...