Sally and the Sackman
By Jeff Shaw
I have a secret memory that I have never shared with anyone before. It's about what happened to a girl I knew in elementary school - Sally. I guess you could say she was my first love, though I certainly didn't think of her as such at the time. All I knew then was that I liked being around her and got confused and angry if anyone commented on it.
Sally was an inch or so taller than me. Her hair, as I remember it was the color of sunlight shining through honey, and she moved with the easy grace of a natural athlete. Sally was the fastest kid in our grade and the best student. But it is her eyes I remember best; they were the shade the ocean is on postcards of Hawaii, perfect conduits for the vital force that set Sally apart from everyone else I knew. It seemed I could feel her gaze whenever she looked at me, even when I didn't see her.
I thought Sally was perfect except for the way she always challenged me to
games and races and always beat me. My desire to be with Sally, however, was stronger than my chagrin at constantly losing to a girl. Eventually, through my willingness to play any game or accept any dare, I became Sally's favorite companion.
"Sally and Jeffy sitting in a tree,
First comes love, then comes marriage,
Then comes Jeffy pushing a baby carriage."
I hated being called "Jeffy" worse than anything. It was my mother's "mushy baby" name for me. It never failed to anger and embarrass me when my classmates would taunt me with it. But for Sally's companionship even this public humiliation at the hands of my peers would I endure. I felt my stoicism ennobled our relationship. Unfortunately, Sally never understood the cross I bore for her sake. Whenever I balked at one of Sally's ideas, like challenging a bunch of sixth graders to a game of "kill the man with the ball", she would use my hated nickname to goad me into doing, or at least attempting to do anything she wanted me to. "Come on Jeffy, I dare you." I could no more refuse Sally's dare, than Lancelot could refuse to champion Guinevere.
When I look back on the time I shared with Sally, it seems the world we inhabited was drawn from medieval romances. My mind then was filled with the mythology of childhood that imbues things with significance adults either miss or dismiss. Each day brought encounters, or at least enticingly near encounters, with the fabulous, the mysterious, and even the fearsome. There were everyday wonders like magnifying glasses, movies, and fire trucks. The sight of a fire truck polished to iridescence with firemen clinging to it, like heroes in the rigging of a crimson and gold longboat, left me intoxicated with excitement for hours.
There were also everyday perils that I was careful to avoid. The roar and whir of the street sweeper would send me as far from the curb as I could scurry, ever since a Sunday school classmate had told me of the boy whose coat had been caught in its steel bristles, drawing him in and leaving behind nothing but a highly polished skeleton and a scarlet smear blocks long. (I knew it must be true as he told me this tale in a room full of bibles.)
I always crossed to the opposite side of the street from the junkyard so as not to tempt the wrath of the black hound that prowled the ruined and twisted wrecks. It was said he had acquired a taste for human flesh from licking the blood and scraps left on the dashboards of cars destroyed in head-on collisions. Nor could anything induce me to wade within 50 feet of the Deep Place where the youngest Canfield boy had drown because the water had turned cold suddenly, paralyzing him with cramps.
But of all the wonders and terrors that comprised my world as a child, one dark figure overshadowed them all - the Sackman. In my elementary school pantheon, the Sackman was the embodiment of darkness and all my vague notions of death. He was a faceless, nocturnal figure composed of cast-off clothes, burlap bags, thorny sticks, and some nameless shadowy substance. Like a scarecrow animated by pure malevolence, the Sackman shambled about from sunset to sunrise. It was generally accepted in my school that during the day he hid in the train yard around the derelict boxcars or under the trestles by the river. The train yard was a place forbidden to me and every other child I knew as being "too dangerous". Thus it was both mysterious and sinister, the perfect lair for the Sackman.
My grandmother was the first person kind enough to inform me of the Sackman's existence. I was seven years old and staying with my grandparent's for most of July. It was my first extended separation from my parents who were traveling abroad. My grandparents explained to me this strange entity's place in the scheme of things.
The Sackman, my Grandmother said, was here to punish careless and disobedient children who stayed out too late or strayed farther from home than they should after supper. When I asked my Grandmother what the Sackman did with the children he caught, she was evasive. My Grandfather, a retired grocer, spoke right up. He said I was old enough to know the truth, a ploy that never failed to get my attention until sometime after I had graduated from college.
My Grandfather set his paper down, leaned forward in his chair so he could look directly into my eyes, and in a low voice told me how the Sackman went about his horrible work. The Sackman, as you might guess, carried a big sack of coarse cloth like a potato sack. When the Sackman, who was much stronger than any boy or girl, caught a child, he popped them into his sack. Then the Sackman would swing the doomed child around over his faceless head and slam them against trees, buildings, cars, lampposts, the ground, and anything else that was handy until they were dead. Then he would dump the battered little body out where people would think it was an accident. *** Sackman takes trophies**Sometimes, my Grandfather continued relentlessly,** road-kill example** when there were no bad children to be found the Sackman would kill an animal and dump it by the side of the road just for practice.
My Grandfather amended my Grandmother's statement that the Sackman only came out at night. He told me that it was true that the Sackman only went prowling after dark, but that he was also around during the day. The Sackman never slept but lurked in places children weren't supposed to go alone. Abandoned houses, alleys, the train yard, and even the cellar were part of the Sackman's hunting grounds. The only way a child could be completely safe, my Grandfather asserted, was to play only where they were suppose to and to go to bed early.
The Sackman haunted my thoughts for weeks. I never left my Grandparents' yard without their express permission for my entire visit, and I was always inside at the first sign of dusk. The lengthening shadows at sunset filled me with dread and sent me scampering back to the safety of my grandparents' house no matter how intensely involved I was in the game of the moment.
One night I was awoken by a noise from the alley below my bedroom window. Terrified, but even more curious, I crept to the window and peeked out over the sill. There beneath the baleful eye of the moon, I saw a skeletal figure dressed in rags with a sack over his shoulder rummaging among the trashcans. I fled back to bed and hid under the covers. The next day, I carefully counted my playmates to make sure they had all survived the night.
My belief in the existence of the Sackman was undiminished by my entrance into the fourth grade. It was not, however, a subject I discussed openly; Sally did not believe in the Sackman. She said that the Sackman, like Santa Claus, was something grown-ups had cooked up to keep kids in line. When I tried to set her straight about the Sackman, she teased me unmercifully: "Jeffy is afraid of the da-ark! Jeffy is afraid of the da-ark! " As I mentioned earlier, sometimes Sally's fearlessness made me feel embarrassed by my own lack of courage. Sally seemed sophisticated beyond her years, almost like the high school kids. This was one of the reasons I sought out her friendship.
Sally was the unquestioned leader of our circle. I followed her far beyond the boundaries of the territory my parents and I considered our neighborhood. Like Odysseus, Sally got me and the other boys to follow her by the example she set and by the sheer force of her personality. I strayed farther from home and stayed out later than I ever would have dared to otherwise, all in the hope of a word of praise from Sally. No praise was ever forthcoming. It never is from her kind. Sally was one of those people driven by an insatiable desire to cross all frontiers and claim the uncharted for their own realm of experience. As Sally had been born fearless she could never appreciate my efforts or anyone else’s to overcome fear and self-doubt; she could only offer us the opportunity to follow her initiative.
Sally loved movies, especially adventure and monster movies. I think she liked them best because they validated her view that there were no obstacles a truly courageous person couldn't overcome. She dragged me to see " King Solomon's Mines" four times in one weekend. For the next two weeks Sally lead us on safari through the darkest heart of the municipal park, over the jungle gym and monkey bars, skirting quicksand boxes and a hostile tribe of groundskeepers who could spear a candy wrapper with the speed of a striking cobra.
Sally's favorite movie theater was The Eldorado. Every Saturday, all summer long, The Eldorado showed monster movie double features continuously from noon to midnight. Most of the kids preferred to go in the afternoon. I certainly did. Sally preferred to go to the showing that began during the dinner hour when the theater was emptiest. So, after much pleading with my mother, I spent most Saturday evenings of my last summer with Sally cowering behind a large tub of popcorn while she sat transfixed by grade B chronicles of the perpetual struggle between good and evil.
Sally had an annoying habit of saying it was "ok to look now 'Jeffy'" just before some fiend pounced on its hapless victim. One evening after I had been tricked into watching a reanimated corpse drag a screaming teenager into an open grave, I yelled at her, " Sally it isn't funny. How could you tell me it was okay to look?" I was so mad I stood up in the middle of the theater, not that it mattered much as there was no one behind us.
Sally replied calmly, " Because it is always okay to look, Jeff." I knew there was no answer to that because from Sally's perspective she had spoken the absolute truth. I sat down defeated.
The Eldorado was in a run-down section of town. A converted burlesque house, the theater was located a block from the train yard in a neighborhood comprised of dingy shops, cheap hotels, warehouses, and a network of dark alleys. Getting to the Eldorado was easy. Sally and I boarded the bus almost in front of my house and got off at the corner newsstand a half block up from the theater. But to catch the bus home we had to go over and down a block and a half and wait in front of the all night diner across from the train yard. For me this made the trip home an ordeal that only my desire to be with Sally could have induced me to endure. Waiting for the bus as the sun set beyond the boxcars and old trestles that spanned the river, I would strain my sight searching for movement in the train yard. Sally used this time to critique the "neat parts", e.g. the murders, mutilations, monsters, etc. of the evening's features. Even though I no longer spoke of it, I had not forgotten my grandfather's account of the Sackman.
The last summer evening I shared with Sally was spent at the Eldorado. I had a plan for that night that filled me with even greater anxiety than the thought of the horror movie double-feature we were going to see. I had bought Sally a gift, a small 14k gold, heart-shaped locket. My Grandmother had taken great pleasure in helping me pick it out and assured me it was a gift even a girl who preferred “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” to “National Velvet” would like. I had no name for the impulse that possessed me and lead me to buy Sally a gift. I was more than a little terrified that she might reject it and worse still ridicule me. I was however determined to give it to her before the movies began.
I waited until the last possible moment, after we had loaded ourselves up with 2 large bags of popcorn, root beers, and Milk Duds. “Wait Sally! There’s something else.” Sally pulled up short of the big swinging doors.
“What? We’ve got enough for the first movie. You can come back at intermission. I don’t want to miss the beginning. Somebody always gets it good at the beginning.”
I was fumbling, trying to extract the little velvet-lined box from the jeweler out of my pocket without spilling my popcorn or dousing myself with ice -cold root beer. “Just give me a minute.” Finally, I put my eats down on the floor. “I bought you a present. Here.” I thrust it at Sally, who stood looking at me as though I had suddenly sprouted a rhinoceros horn from my forehead. For a panic-stricken moment I thought my worst fears were being realized and Sally was rejecting my gift, then it dawned on me that her hands were as full as mine had been. I took her popcorn and she set her candy and soda on the red-and-gold carpeted floor.
“It’s beautiful Jeff.” She said in a tone of voice I had never heard from her before.
“It opens, if you undo that little clasp on the side. It’s got a kind of secret compartment. You could put a picture of Stewart Granger or Boris Karloff or somebody else you think is cool in it.” She looked at me with a funny smile. “I think I can find somebody better than those guys.”
“Okay. I’m glad you like it. Hey, I hear music. The pictures starting.” Sally was putting the locket on and walking towards the ticket taker, kind of zombie-like. “Sally, you’re forgetting your popcorn and stuff.” Sally retrieved her eats without a word and we went in to the nearly empty theatre.
Sally was uncharacteristically quiet during most of the first feature, offering little of her usual color commentary. She kept fingering the locket, even with her eyes glued to the gruesome proceedings on the screen. It made me inexpressibly happy to see my locket around her neck, glinting gold in the silver-white light reflected from the screen.
It was almost dark when the double feature finally ended. Summer was nearly over and Sally was full of enthusiasm for the coming school year. The second movie, which had ended with a man being ripped to shreds by an ancient demon in a train yard, had scared me so badly that my hands ached from squeezing the armrests continuously for nearly two hours. I took solace in the fact that I had made it through the whole torturous spectacle without making a sound so my companion had no clue as to how utterly terrified I had been.
"Boy those were good movies! I really liked it in the second one when the monster would pop up out of nowhere and tear people apart." Sometimes I doubted Sally's sanity.
"I thought it was stupid. Nobody could be scared by that stuff. It's all too fake looking. It was better before you saw what was getting everybody." For once I actually believed what I was saying. I felt proud of myself, even somewhat manly.
"Oh yeah? Was that why you were white-knuckling it the whole time, Jeffy?"
"I wasn't any more scared than you were." I knew I was going to regret having said this, as soon as I had said it. I braced myself for some crushing retort.
"Maybe, maybe not. But I know a way you can show me how really brave you are." It struck me as particularly unfair that Sally should be gently rolling the locket between her fingers while she contemplated my doom.
"How?" I was dead and knew it. I knew the kinds of things Sally viewed as courageous.
"You could cut through the alley by Saxon's Storage, all by yourself. I'll meet you over on the next block and we'll catch the bus. That is unless you're still afraid of the dark, Jeffy."
"That - that isn't fair Sally. You know my mom told me to stay on the sidewalks and away from the alleys and warehouses. She said I could get hit by a truck or a falling crate or something."
"Not now, they're closed. Nobody is there now. Nobody at all."
"I could get in trouble." My ears were starting to burn with embarrassment. I felt sure they were redder than the setting sun.
"I dare you, Jeffy. I double dare you, Jeffy, to cut through the alley and meet me at the bus stop across from the train yard or you will be known for ever and ever as a chicken, as soon as we go back to school and I tell everybody." Sally delivered her challenge dispassionately like a magistrate instructing a prisoner in the docket of his rights.
Alone at the alley's entrance I paused a moment to summon my strength and courage. Sally had run on ahead, down the block to the bus stop. Watching her fly down the pavement, I envied her speed as never before. The alley was darker than the street. The only illumination was the red afterglow of sunset. Dimly I could see the dark outlines of the trash cans down the alley, like skulking men, crouched and waiting. Against the twilight sky, the zigzag pattern of laundry lines hung from the fire escapes like a tattered web choked with dead leaves and the dried husks of insects. High up a shirt flapped and writhed like an entangled moth. It isn't fair, I told myself again, Sally knows my mother said to stay on the sidewalk. I'm not allowed to go down alleys. She heard Mom say it the first night we asked if we could go to these stupid movies.
I couldn't delay any longer. It was getting darker by the minute and we would miss our bus if I didn't hurry. I checked my sneakers and made sure they were tied in double - knots. I knew if I tripped whatever it was that pursued frightened children would get me. I refused to name the "whatever it was ". Instead I summoned up the names of heroes that had died honorably performing their duties and plunged into the alley. As soon as I crossed the dark threshold I felt I was being watched from somewhere up ahead and above. Someone's gaze pressed on me with palpable force. I made the mistake of looking up from the ground to see if I could spot anyone looking down from the apartments and careened off a trashcan.
"Errol Flynn - Dawn Patrol!"
I was getting winded, slowing down, and only halfway through. A cat hissed and raced past me back up the way I had come as though it too fled something.
"Ronald Coleman - Two Cities! " I gasped, unable to say the complete title. With an adrenalin born surge of strength I hurdled an overturned trashcan. I was almost through to the other side. I could see the lights of the street and the edge of the train yard. Then I heard a noise on the fire escape over my head, cloth whipping in the wind, and a short high-pitched scream that ended when I was struck crushingly from above. The force buckled my legs and drove me to the dirty pavement.
Later, hours I guess, a patrolman found us and brought me home. I slept until late the next afternoon. I have been told that I cried out and thrashed around like a person in the throes of a febrile nightmare, even after the doctor gave me a sedative. A few days later a detective in a baggy brown suit came and asked me questions about "the chain of events" leading up to the "tragic accident". The "tragic accident" was the only way any adult would refer to Sally's death in my hearing, as though not naming a thing robbed it of its reality.
I told them of the double feature, the conditions of Sally's dare, how fast Sally could run, and my flight down the alley. Everything I told them fit their conception of the "tragic accident". As the detective figured it Sally had run on ahead, banking on my fear to delay me long enough that she could get into position on the fire escape. She had found and donned the old burlap gunnysack with the intention of jumping out and scaring me, or as the detective put it " playing the boogey man".
Unfortunately, Sally had lost her footing on the worn metal stairs, tumbled down half the flight, then rolled under the railing, and fallen, striking me a glancing blow on her way to dashing her brains out on the pavement. For some reason, neither the medical examiner nor the mortician were able to close Sally's eyes. Her parents chose to have a closed casket service. I wanted to go, but my mother felt it would be bad for my nerves.
As I have said, everything I told the detective fit his ideas about what happened to Sally; I did not tell him everything. Even if I had, it would not have changed his views on Sally's death. I was, after all, only a child. But as I lay there in the alley, the last light of day and consciousness fading, my sight blurred by the loss of my glasses and pain, I saw a figure. Not a man but a figure of twisted sticks and cast-off clothes and tied-off sacks, flitting like a detached shadow over the tracks towards the trestles by the river, with the glint of a gold locket swinging from its clawed hand.