Dr. Bundy tells me to hold up the four fingers on my right hand to show that I am four years old. Mother and I have taken a taxi ride from our house in McKeesport to the Children’s Medical Center in Pittsburgh, and it seems as if we are far, far from home. I obey, folding my thumb in toward my palm, spreading my fingers wide, and extending my arm toward the nurse who stands at the doctor’s side.
The nurse comments that I am unusually quiet for a child my age and asks my mother if I talk at all. In the examination room, I am seated high on the metal exam table, while Mother sits on a chair near the door. She snaps her chewing gum occasionally and pulls at the hem of her short black skirt. Mother is forty-four years old, petite and pretty. I am her only child. The room is painted bright peach and decorated with decals of balloons in primary colors. Harsh light from the adjustable lamp over my head reflects from all of the doctor’s metal instruments, which are lined neatly in rows on the countertop, making the room dazzlingly reflective. Mother addresses the doctor, telling him that I am a quiet child, but that I can be a chatterbox sometimes.
The nurse directs me to lie back on the exam table so that the doctor can check me over. She smiles reassuringly at me and tells me that I will receive a treat if I am a good girl. The doctor asks me if I ever get to finger paint at my preschool. I look up, not at him but at the nurse, and nod, staring into her round, green eyes and admiring the thick lashes that frame them like starbursts.
Dr. Bundy presses on my tummy, pushing over and over in a rolling motion the way I have seen my mother knead bread dough at home. Mother answers the doctor’s questions about my sleep habits and how well I have been eating. He says that it sounds like I am a healthy little girl. He then lifts the cotton gown I am wearing and reaches under it to examine the parts of me that my mother has told me I should never touch because they are my “dirty parts,” emphasizing their dirtiness by pinching her nose between her thumb and forefinger as she speaks.
When the doctor touches me down there, I start talking. I am no longer the quiet little girl I was seconds ago. I talk about the Fog Man who comes when I am in bed at night. Words rush out of me so quickly that I have trouble catching my breath. But I can’t slow down. The Fog Man stands over me in the dark, watching me. He is a black fog blocking the street light that shines through the blinds at my bedroom window. He speaks words that I do not understand in a whisper that sounds almost like the air whining through the radiators in our house.
The nurse stares down at me and tells me to slow down, asks me if I know the Fog Man’s name. I say no, but sometimes I feel his breath on my face, and it smells like candy or sometimes like sour milk. The nurse asks if the Fog Man is from a cartoon on TV or a bedtime story. Have I seen him in a picture book? I say he comes to my room at night when it is dark. I feel the Fog Man pull at my nightie, I hold very still as he tugs on my underpants, but I never see his hands. Only a black fog, shaped like a man.
Mother has stopped snapping her gum. She tells the doctor that I make up stories. She tells him that I have a pretend friend, an invisible child who I talk to when I am playing. And that for a while I even insisted that I had a twin sister. I am, after all, an only child, and only children often have make-believe friends, don’t they?
The nurse strokes my head lightly and asks me if the Fog Man hurts me. I look up into her big eyes. The doctor has finished examining my dirty parts. His cold fingers have pushed a little here and there and spread me open a bit, but he has not hurt me. The Fog Man’s fingers are never cold. I try not to move when the Fog Man touches me because I know he wants me to be still.
The doctor motions for the nurse to stop asking me questions. He tells my mother that he would like to talk to her in his office. Before he leaves, he turns to the glistening metal sink and washes his hands with sudsy soap, scrubbing and scrubbing. He tells me I have been a good girl and reminds the nurse that I have earned a treat.
The nurse dresses me, and as she helps me into my little blouse and jumper, she says softly, “It’s gonna be all right, honey. It’s gonna be all right.”
* * *
When I was four years old, I believed that my mother was a witch. Capable of casting spells. Able to read minds and root around in people’s hearts to cull up their hidden impulses. Mother could predict the future and even influence the course of events. Of this I was convinced.
Mother could say, “If you don’t put on this sweater, you are going to catch a cold.” And soon I was sneezing, and my throat was sore.
She’d say, “Stop leaping around like a jumping bean. Soon you’ll be drenched with perspiration.” And sure enough, soon my clothes were damp with my own sweat.
She’d say, “If you run across the yard one more time, you are going to fall.” And I fell, skinning my knee. And when I begged for a Band-Aid, she said, “See? What did I tell you?”
And whenever she was combing my hair or giving me a bath, she’d recite a warning to me in the same words over and over like a chant, like a spell. A promise that she was my only refuge from a world that would otherwise wound and torture me. She was the only one I could trust. Mother stood between me and the kidnapper, the child abuser, the rapist—some sadistic person out there who would take delight in the terror of a little girl like me. Mother lived every moment of her life for me. This was part of her chant. She lived every moment for me, to tend to my needs, to see to my safety.
In the treacherous world that Mother created with her words, the Fog man seemed to inhabit the indeterminable space outside of her watchful reach. Traceless, faceless, he was like a phantom. He seemed to be the power that lay beyond Mother’s gaze.
* * *
Soon after my trip to Dr. Bundy’s office, I am in a room full of toys, crayons, and paints with a woman named Mrs. Phillips. Mother is there, and I can tell that she does not like Mrs. Phillips. Mother’s mouth is a straight line, and her face looks flat as if it had been pressed out with a rolling pin.
Mrs. Phillips asks me to draw a picture of my house. She hands me a box of crayons and sits me down at a low table like the kind they have at the Sunday school Mother takes me to once in a while. She tells me I can draw whatever I want at my house—my mommy and daddy, my bedroom, anyone else at my house that I might want to put in the picture.
“It’s a dream,” Mother keeps repeating. “She’s having a dream. There is no way that anyone is getting into our house at night.”
Mother and Mrs. Phillips talk for a long time while I draw. I choose a green crayon and cover almost the entire page in long strokes of green, green, green—the color of our yard at home. I do not want to draw a house and clouds and a sun peeking in from the upper corner of the picture the way I have seen my classmates do at Sunday school. I want to cover the page in green.
Mrs. Phillips speaks softly to me, asking, “Do you know the Fog Man’s name? Do you know who he is?”
I just stare at her and then back at my picture, a field of green.
The Fog Man smells like the insides of cars and the telephone booth my mother and I once stood in to call my father when we were downtown. And sometimes he smells as my mother did when she returned from a night at a dinner theater where she went to see Pearl Bailey perform, a mix of stale cigarettes and beer and strangers.
“Is the Fog Man your daddy, honey?”
* * *
Sometimes in the evenings after he returned home from work, my father let me sit on his lap. He smelled like citrus and spices, sometimes with a metallic hint of sweat. His big hands pressed hard against my thigh as he tightened his arms around me. I loved to rub his chin and feel the scratch of his white and black whiskers on my fingers. I laid my head against his chest and listened to his heartbeat, the swish-thup, swish-thup that sounded somehow fragile yet insistent. Hearing his heartbeat always made me feel sleepy. Sometimes in bed at night when I turned on my side, I could hear that same sound, the beating of my own heart, in my ear. That’s how I knew I was Daddy’s girl.
When he arrived home from work each day, Daddy looked sophisticated in his gray silk suits and highly polished black shoes, his hair always barbered and slicked-back with a glossy gel. But when he had time for me, he transformed, became boyish. He was fun. Sometimes as I snuggled against him, we looked at the illustrations in P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, a book that Mother insisted was about a baby bird, lost, searching and searching until it found its mother. Her voice always became whiny when she read the part to me in which the baby bird asks the bulldozer, “Are you my mother?”, as if the situation were just too sad. She always used the story as a warning to me not to wander off and get lost when we went to the grocery store. “Hold on to the hem of my dress,” she’d say, “so I’ll know you’re there.” But when Daddy told the story of the little bird in the pictures, he said, “See, this little bird wants to learn to drive a bulldozer. Yeah, he likes big machines, see. When his mother catches up with him, he’s going to be in big trouble. Pow! Right in the kisser!” Daddy could imitate Jackie Gleason to a tee.
* * *
While I move the green crayon rhythmically over the piece of paper, Mrs. Phillips asks Mother many questions about where we live, about our house, and about her and my father’s friends. Do they have people over often? Is there a male relative who visits regularly? Is there a neighbor who acts suspiciously?
“She’s making this up,” Mother says with more force than I had ever heard in her voice. “Children make up stories.”
Mother is dressed in her blue Sunday suit, the one she wears to church when we go there, and her hair is pulled back into a French twist that winds inward like a nautilus shell. She looks at Mrs. Phillips the way she looked at the man who was rude to us on the train once. The man said we were in his seat and that we would have to move. He had gone to the club car for a drink, and we had taken his seat. His jacket was lying across the back of the seat, and he said we had made a mess of it. As we moved down the aisle to another seat a few rows back, Mother told him to send her the bill for pressing his jacket. During the rest of the train ride, she looked over at the back of his head and made a nasty face. She makes that same mean face at Mrs. Phillips as she says over and over, “The child lies. She makes things up. The Fog Man is made up. Ridiculous.” Every time she says ridiculous, she pronounces the dic so sharply that it seems almost as if she is spitting at Mrs. Phillips.
I know the Fog Man is there in my room before I see him because he makes the air move. He is like the breeze that comes in from the window when mother leaves it open in the summer. The air has to move out of the Fog Man’s way so that he can stand over me as I lie in bed. I cannot move, but I am not afraid because he tells me not to be afraid.
Sometimes the Fog Man comes so close to my face that I fear he will move inside of me, that I might accidently breathe him in. He is like the steam rising from my mother’s pot when she boils water for tea in the morning. The pot whistles when the water is ready. When the Fog Man leans close to my face, the air is warm and moist. I breathe it in in a gasp.
It’s a lie, it’s a dream, it’s a made-up story. Mrs. Phillips writes things down on a pad and nods her head occasionally. She looks at the drawing I have made, a field of green composed of long back-and-forth strokes of green, the color deepening into a vortex at the middle of the page. Finally, she lets us leave. I am never asked about the Fog Man again.
We go home and later my father comes, and we eat the dinner that Mother has cooked. I am sent to bed early because, Mother says, I have had a long day with no nap. I fall asleep after lying awhile watching the wavering gray-blue light of the television that shines into my room from the living room where my parents sit, speaking softly in even tones.
* * *
The Fog Man hovered over the nights of my early childhood the way smog hovered over downtown Pittsburgh. I could feel his presence in my room before I saw his silhouette against the trickles of light from the streetlights through my window blinds. Even when he was not visible, his presence inhabited my nights.
In memory, the Fog Man infiltrates me like a microscopic mist. He flows into me and becomes part of what I am. I am a small child possessed by a phantom. I am fearful and fearless, terrified but somehow comforted by his black presence.
Today, decades later, I do not know the Fog Man’s identity. Was he a child molester afforded access to my room by–whom? My mother? Would a mother betray a child in such a way? Would a mother allow such a thing to happen? Or was it Mother herself, come to my room at night to fully surveille me? To possess me in the deepest way one human being can possess another; to control even the breaths I took throughout the night?
I do not think the Fog Man was my father. I do not think it possible.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT/Flickr Creative Commons, Veronica Olivotto
Georgia, this is such a powerful piece. The voice broke my heart. I was grabbed by the first sentence and held fast to the end.
This piece seized my heart and my gut and gave me chills. It’s lack of resolution makes for a perfect ending. Fantastic (btw, Disqus is insisting that I post under my old name, Rachael Rosner, which I’ve changed to Rachael Marks. I’m in the August issue, too).