Have you heard of the little man?
He’s a little, mischievous old man who likes to cause innocent mayhem. He likes to find lonely people, especially children, and become their friend. Forever. When I was young, Gran-Gran used to tell me it’s so they never have to be alone.
Growing up in the mountains of Pennsylvania in a primarily rural town, Gran-Gran and I would watch Seinfeld reruns while Dad worked the farmstead. Grandpa watched Dad to make sure he was doing it right. Everyday was shrouded in the comfortable bliss of my youth.
Gran-Gran and I played lots of games in those days. My favorite was “Invisible”. Grandpa would watch as Dad would drink Giggle Water, then try to find me so he could play “Pretend Villain”. When Dad would giggle, Gran-Gran would shove me into a closet, or under the bed, but she would usually be too late and Dad would find me. Sometimes, he would get a little carried away and things would go black after a few neck hugs and fist massages. Dad loved giving fist massages the most. He gave me an eye massage for looking at him funny once.
After that, Gran-Gran said whenever Dad wants to play “Pretend Villain” or “Daddy, Daddy,” I should play “Simon Invisible”, instead of regular “Invisible”. She called it “Simon Invisible” because I was going invisible by pretending to be someone else. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone else, so I pretended to be my favorite person, Gran-Gran.
I would play “Simon Invisible” and Dad would find playtime Gran-Gran hiding where I was hiding. He would fist massage her chin, the back of her head or her throat if she talked back through my mouth.
“Must be you ain’t learned yet, boy,” Dad would yell before things went dark. “That’ll relieve the demons for a day or so,” his voice would echo.
Grandpa just hovered behind Dad, while the real Gran-Gran would just disappear. When I turned 7, I realized that Grandpa was silent because of the thick rope around his neck. He always made silly faces and choking noises. His smile was always upside down too. I guess that’s where I got it from, because I smile upside down too, especially when I play “Pretend Villain” with strangers.
I met the little man the night before Dad became like Grandpa. I was 10. The real Gran-Gran fell asleep in the bathtub, with Dad’s help, but I think she slept a little too hard, because she sleeps under the house now. Anyway, when Gran-Gran burrowed under the house, playtime Gran-Gran left my mind and became real. She was young and beautiful like Gran-Gran’s house photos, except her eyes were missing. That’s when my best friend, the little man, first appeared next to her. He was as tall as our kitchen table and looked like a gray raisin with little black button eyes and old, funny clothes.
“When your dad comes in to play again, why don’t you play a different game?” the little man asked me. “Right, Gran-Gran? Right, right?” He asked Gran-Gran. She smiled upside down as the little man handed me something dull, sharp and rough to the touch. He smiled right-side up, revealing his perfect, sharp teeth. “It’s a toy knife,” he declared, joyful and excited. “This is a magic knife made from…” he began, then imitated a drumroll, “Da-da-da, Gran-Gran!” he proclaimed. “When Pappy comes to make play, make the knife poof! Make it poof! Make it poof!” The little man exclaimed. He danced around, clapping his hands and snickering. Then he imitated a jabbing motion. “One poof, two poof, three poof, more!” he wailed. “More poof! More poof! More! More! More!”
Gran-Gran and I laughed with him, until the front door slammed open. Our teary-eyed laughs caught Dad’s attention as he yelled,”Boy, what the fuck did I tell you about not greetin’ me! Bring yourself har’ this instance! I’m ‘onna teach you some gat-damned manners or somethin’, gat-dammit!”
Gran-Gran patted my shoulder and said, “It’s ‘Simon Invisible’ time. I’ll go play with your dad.” This time, she walked out in front of me. I wasn’t watching or pretending to be her. She sat on my bed as Dad yelled from downstairs, “You ain’t comin’ to me? Fine. I’m comin’ to you!”
He stomped up the stairs and forced himself into my room. He looked ready to play “Daddy, Daddy,” instead of “Pretend Villains.” I didn’t like that game too much, even though now I play it whenever I make a new friend. His eyes were on fire when he saw Gran-Gran was sitting on my bed like a rock. Dad made a fist and massaged Gran-Gran’s face. He must have gotten all the blood flowing because he left a giant purple mark. That’s how you know the massage worked he used to say.
In a swift motion, Gran-Gran put the pretend knife in Dad’s eye. Then, she took the knife out and tried to make it poof into his chest. I giggled at how silly it all was.
“Knives don’t fit in people so easy, silly Gran-Gran. Silly, silly Gran-Gran! You need force!” The little man shrieked, guiding playtime Gran-Gran’s hand.
Even now, I still try to get the magic trick to work, but it stops being funny when people stop moving.
The little man yelled “Again! Again!” as he clapped, hollered and giggled without a care in the world. Gran-Gran smiled and passed me the knife.
“Again?” I asked.
The little man winked with his little beady eyes and nodded his little head. “Quick, quick.”
Dad was getting ready to play hide and seek. He started crawling out of my room, but I was too fast. I tagged him with the knife.
“You’re it! You’re it!” the little man wailed, he ran circles around Dad and danced. For a split second, I was sure Dad saw him because his eyes lost the fire and became very, very big. He wasn’t a pretend villain, he was me. He was Gran-Gran. “One tag, two tag, three tag, four! Five tags, six tags, eight tags more! Nine tags, ten tags! Through his head, through his back, directly touch the floor!” The little man hollered. “More, more!” He continued as the knife went through Dad’s shoulder and tapped the hard wood.
When I was done, Dad was making funny faces, until he danced out of his body suit and became like Grandpa.
Playtime Gran-Gran and the little man helped me wash up. “Wanna know a little secret from a little man?” he asked. Gran-Gran’s upside down smile was backwards and comforting.
I nodded as they helped me get dressed.
“I’m going to be your friend. Forever. So, you know what’s next?” The little man asked.
I smiled and nodded.
“You learn my name! Yep, yep! Caleb. Caleb. Caleb!” The little man chanted and clapped as he spun in circles. “Make friends, make friends, make friends! Call my name three times and we play, play, play! But, we must play the Caleb way.”
I smiled, slightly confused. Caleb, the little man, tilted his head, then took my hand. He held it up. “Remember, three times. Three times. Three! Caleb, Caleb, Caleb, to call me!” He yelled, then paused. “If you don’t, then you will not be my friend forever,” he said as the room turned black and dozens of eyes appeared in the darkness. “You don’t want to be friendless, so come, come, must not wait, must not wait!”
I clapped and danced like Caleb as I followed him out the door, but the world was different. The trees were smiling upside down and the sky was red. There were a lot of people screaming and playing pretend villains. I felt right at home. Realizing how I felt, Caleb looked at me and said, “No, no, no, you don’t have to pretend any more, my friend, my friend, Edward Theodore! Become dead or become Ted! I say, your name is Ted! Your name is Ted, I said!”