Years ago a jack-in-the-box was buried in the jumble of toys on top of the crowded bookcase in the corner of my bedroom. I don’t remember whether it was my brother’s toy or mine, or where it came from, or what became of it.
The jack-in-the-box was dented metal, about six inches on each side and seven inches high, with colorful pictures of clowns on the panels, framed in yellow curlicues, like circus posters. When you rotated the metal crank, a loud, tinny version of “Pop Goes the Weasel” played. Not the words, though I always thought of the words. “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought it was all in fun. Pop! goes the weasel.” If you turned the crank faster and faster the tempo of the music increased until it was almost unrecognizable. Jarring, jagged, cacophonous.
At the end of the song the metal lid sprang open, releasing a clown head and upper body comprised of a cloth costume with a large coiled spring inside of it. The grinning plastic face of the clown, abruptly shooting up and bobbing on top of the spring, was dead white, with black staring eyes, his smile a manic rictus. You knew he was going to pop up, but something inside you jumped every time anyway.
The lyrics of the song suggested that something fun could turn ugly and scary fast. Like when an adult tickled you and at first you were giggling and squirming and then you were laughing so hard that you were gasping for breath and then you really couldn’t breathe and it wasn’t funny any more but they thought it was and you were trapped and they wouldn’t let you go.
Once when I was in my twenties I was at a party and there weren’t enough seats and everyone was smoking dope and I sat in this guy Larry’s lap, not a boyfriend, and he had his arm hooked around my waist from behind and started tickling me and then grabbing at my crotch, his hand like a weasel’s head, fingers together and pointed as he jabbed at me, and it wasn’t funny. I was struggling to get up, angry at first and then breathless and scared, even though there were lots of people around.
Drinking was fun until it snuck up on me from behind and I was hooked and would rather stay home and drink wine and read a book than talk to anyone, including my boyfriend. “You know you have a problem, don’t you,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion, and I didn’t believe it. Like the unwelcome messenger popping up out of nowhere to tell you something you don’t want to hear. And meanwhile the music gets faster and faster and crazier and crazier and you’re whirling in circles and not really listening.
I remember my father chasing me in a circle around the second floor of our house when I was little. I was shrieking, and if you didn’t know better, it might have looked like we were playing a game of monkey chase the weasel as I ran down one corridor, and then another, through the master bedroom, into the connecting study, and hurtled into another corridor that connected with the first one. But he was chasing me with a hairbrush because he wanted to spank me. Did spank me, and my brother, for jumping on their bed and saying we’d taken a bath when we hadn’t.
“This is going to end in tears,” a friend’s mother used to say whenever we became too boisterous and began to leap about the house. “Take this outside. Now.”
My brother and I spent a lot of time outdoors, away from our parents’ rules and their constant bickering. During the long days of summer, we roamed the sun-dappled, northern New Jersey woods, climbing trees, and crouching by streams to collect tadpoles and salamanders, build dams out of mud and stones. We caught sunnies in the lake and cooked them over campfires ringed with rocks.
There were mulberry trees in front of the Mountain Lakes train station and we filled small plastic beach pails with the sweet berries, eating as many as we gathered, our faces smeared with purple juice. The trees were on a slope, and we closed our eyes as we leapt to the ground from the upper branches, then rolled over and over down the slope, faster and faster, staining our clothes with crushed berries. We were dizzy with laughter when we sat up.
When I was very young, I was afraid not only of the hidden jack-in-the-box on the bookshelf, but of tigers under the bed at night. If I had to go to the bathroom, I would stand on the bed and jump as far as I could, running for the door before they could catch me. After the movie “Ben-Hur,” I was also afraid of lepers in the closet, who stretched out palsied hands in the dark to grab me, staring with disfigured faces.
In my twenties and thirties I was intrepid, traveling alone for months at a time, expatriating myself for four years in Ireland and Germany from family and language and country. When I got sober in my late thirties, I was flooded by fears I’d never known I had. Just driving to the supermarket and negotiating the parking lot left me sick and trembling.
Carson Sloan, the boy next door, worked as a bagger at the Acme supermarket, unless I’m confusing him with some other clean-cut, athletic boy. His younger brother Timmy, who was heavyset and afflicted with acne, often babysat for us. He was obsessed with the Nazis. Instead of reading us a bedtime story, he would tell us stories of Nazi torture he claimed to have read somewhere. We sat on my brother’s bed, Timmy at the foot, my brother and I huddled together at the top, pressed against the headboard, while Timmy told us stories of naked Jewish girls shrieking and writhing as they were scourged with leather whips embedded with chips of glass. We never told our parents.
Later I learned that Third Reich fetishism is not so unusual among teenage boys. I don’t know if Timmy grew out of it.
The Sloans’ house was a white clapboard ranch, unusual in New Jersey in the 1950s. Ours was a ramshackle, three-story, unpainted stucco house built in 1914. A towering oak tree in the front yard rained acorns on the street and grass every fall. Sometimes I sat at the base of the trunk, back against the rough bark, hands in the velvety green moss that surrounded the tree. The damp moss smelled of wet earth. I used to pry off the acorn caps and peel away the silky smooth brown covering to look at the cream-colored flesh inside.
I liked to collect odd bits of things that I kept in the bookcase in my bedroom: acorns, chestnuts, feathers, shiny pebbles, the fragile shells of broken robins’ eggs, pale aquamarine. Once I found a shed snakeskin, papery like parchment, which I laid out carefully on my dresser.
I still collect feathers and shiny stones. I don’t like snakes and spiders. I don’t like driving alone in unfamiliar cities. I don’t like making love in the pitch dark. There are no tigers under my bed any more, but the night sounds of raccoons in our attic frighten me. I am still clean and sober. Sometimes when I’m very happy, I think, “This is going to end in tears.”
Birchwood Lake, where my brother and I used to swim, was golden brown, murky where leaning trees cast their shadows over the water. If you stood in the shallows near the banks, silt swirled around your ankles and you could see small fish darting to and fro. Farther out, black water snakes swam by, sleek and ominous. Underwater you could find entire fallen trees buried in the soft mud. The water was colder and darker the deeper you went.
They said there was a town underwater in the municipal reservoir off Highway 46, evacuated to make way for the man-made water supply. Sometimes I imagined swimming like a mermaid through rooms of waterlogged sofas and mildewed chairs, wending through kitchens with cabinets full of unmatched dishes and chipped teacups, slithering up stairways to explore bedrooms littered with abandoned clothing and children’s toys.
A doll with glassy blue eyes missing an arm. A stuffed horse, soggy and bursting at the seams. A music box repeating the same song over and over, faint and almost inaudible. A rusted jack-in-the-box, ready to spring open.
Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her work has recently been published in South Dakota Review, Front Porch Journal, Thin Air, and Ninth Letter online (winner of their meta-essay contest). She has creative nonfiction forthcoming in Sweet, New Plains Review, and South Loop Review, among others. “Jack-in-the-Box” was originally published in Otoliths.