The Hanging Boy

 

It was as if the whole thing hadn’t happened at all, but really it had, and it would haunt me years later.

I was seven-years-old when I found the hanging boy. It was an early summer morning. School had just led out, and the entire world smelled of freedom and the greenness of plants that hadn’t yet budded. I spent the early morning hours in the back yard, amusing myself in ways that would be inexplicable to my parents: spending endless minutes staring up into the sky, which was bright blue and clear but for a couple small puffy white clouds that could have been painted by a cartoonist, searching the yard for the first dragonfly of the season, wondering at the spider webs that had formed overnight, their fine lines glistening when you looked at them from a certain angle, among the branches of our lilac tree. I never paused to check whether my mother spied me through the kitchen window, but if she had, she, no doubt, would have wondered exactly what I was doing or whether my actions were normal or something to worry about.

At the back of our yard, then, there was an old one-car garage that was all but collapsing. Its ancient paint was peel, littering the ground around it was gray chips, and the bare wood that show was beginning to rot. Here and there, on its roof, missing shingles spoke of bad storms long past. Next to the garage there was the vegetable garden, the yearly pride of my father, already lined with young tomato and bell pepper plants. The back part of our yard would always remind me of my father, with its falling-down garage, which he would never touch, and its always hopefully garden. Whenever my mother harped at him to spend a little more effort to restore the garage, my father would say he only had so much effort to go around. He was funny, really, the way he defined life in negative terms. While other kids had fathers who said hopeful things, my father’s favorite saying seemed to be, “I only have so much to work with, you know.”

Beyond our back fence and the alley there was a small park, and on summer evenings I would stand at our back gate to gaze over at a baseball game that was taking place there. The kids dressed in bright white uniforms, their parents filling the bleachers to the sides of the foul lines, eagerly waiting for their kids to make a great play, and looking down shame-faced if they didn’t. I longed to play there, too, really, and was often afraid that we would move away before I had the chance. My father was always threatening to move then, although I never discovered exactly why or where he intended to move. Sometimes I would stand at the gate and look past the alley at the field when it was empty and looked forlorn, and could smell the dusty scent of the playing field. I thought that, probably, nowhere in the world smelled quit like it, that summer, when I was seven-years-old.

That morning, as I was amusing myself, I had the sudden urge to run to the back gate to check whether the field was all right. I had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right, that some evil– I couldn’t have said exactly what– had been done to the field. But there it was, in fine form, a flock of pigeons milling about the infield and pecking at grass seed that had recently been laid down. Still I felt a tug of anxiety that made me go through the gate to have a closer look.

I glanced up and down the alley, which was potholed and hadn’t been resurfaced by the city in years. Everything seemed well enough, though, and I turned to go back into the yard. That was when my eyes fell on the baseball cards. They were strewn across the ground at the base of the telephone pole next to our garage. It was a strange and wonderful find, and I ran over, squatted down to gather them up, never wondering who had left them there. When I stood, arranging the cards into a neat pile, something told me to look up.

That was when I saw him.

He was hanging near the top of the pole, from one of the rusted stakes that repairmen used to climb up to work on the wires. He couldn’t have been much older than me– maybe ten or eleven– and around his neck there was a black cord and his head lay unnaturally to one side. I could see his blue-gray face clearly; his tongue hung out to the side, and his eyes were rolled back and showing only white.

He didn’t seem frightening, then; he was more of a thing, like any other thing– a tree, a trash can, a garden fence. I walked back into the house, flipping through the baseball cards, and not giving the hanging boy much thought.

 

That was when all the excitement commenced. First my father– not quite believing me, of course– went to the kitchen window and peered outside. He must have spotted the boy hanging up there, just beyond the sway-back roof of the rickety garage. He screamed for my mother, who hustled in from some living room, and they both stood there gawking through the window. It was as though all they could do for a moment was stand there, probably too shocked at the sight they were seeing to do anything else. Finally my mother finally broke free and rushed for the phone and called the police. Afterward she ordered me back to my bedroom, as though I’d done something wrong, and she and my father waited outside for the police to arrive.

I lay in bed for a long time, then, idly flipping through the baseball cards, studying the serious faces of the players and wondering what they had been thinking as the camera captured their images. I heard the sirens approaching, growing louder and more strident and then sudden falling silent outside our house. It hadn’t been the first time, either. There were other times that had nothing to do with the hanging boy, times I was locked away in my room and all I could hear was distance voices and sometimes a cry or the sound of something fragile breaking and then scary silences through which I’d wonder what was happening downstairs. I would always recall more clearly the time the sirens sounded after I’d found the hanging boy, though, because I had discovered him. Maybe because, unlike those other times, I felt responsible for all the commotion that occurred.

The next morning I ventured into the alley to see that the hanging boy was gone. Not even the black cord from which he’d hung remained. The police must have stayed good long time the day before, because, bored in my room, I had eventually fallen asleep. I woke briefly that evening, and went downstairs. Everything in the house seemed normal. My father sat slouched in his old lounge chair, watching the baseball game and, between innings, cursing his job and his supervisors there and swearing up and down he’d quit and that would fix the company good because it was guys like him, underpaid and unappreciated, that kept everything working. My mother sat at the end of the sofa, on the other side of the room, crocheting an afghan that seemed to reaching gigantic proportions. She seemed to be trying her best to ignore the baseball game and my father. The scene seemed so normal that I thought for sure that the incident with the hanging boy had been some mistake– either the boy had not been dead or it had not been a real boy at all but a dummy somebody had hanging on the post as a joke.

At first, whenever I asked about the hanging boy, my parents would be vague. My mother would say, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “Oh, that…” and would say no more, as though the issue didn’t warrant further discussion. My father would grunt, and mutter, “Never mind.” That was all the reaction I could get out of them, and soon after I couldn’t even get that, because later, whenever I questioned them, they simply pretended they didn’t know what I was talking about. It came to the point that I began to wonder whether any of it had actually happened. The baseball cards promised that the event had indeed occurred, but then, one day, the cards, like the hanging boy, disappeared, leaving me with no proof of the event and only a memory that no one seemed willing to confirm.

Soon I forgot about the hanging boy, the way children forget a million details of their youth.

Now, whenever I’m asked about my childhood, there is always a hitch, an unaccountable pause, slight but noticeable, before I answer that nothing bad ever happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “The Hanging Boy”

  1. […] curiosity led me to a search of the title, which led me to an article of fiction here on WordPress: The Hanging Boy by Tom Upton which I found to be eerily fitting to Nick Bantock’s collage. This revelation […]

  2. Very engaging! Something similar happened to my daughter a few years ago. The lasting effects of a moment like that suck!

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