It’s wild, the things that come to you at night. Like memories almost forgotten and of no significance that bubble steadily, hidden in some forgotten pot. Only until you’re older do you realize the pot was a witches’ brew and you’re a frog at the bottom of the heating black cauldron.
It’s these memories that arise during the hot and clammy moments in between fever dreams, and even though I’m dealing with a flu that my wife gave me, unintentionally, on my birthday, I can’t help but become a little sentimental. I’m an accountant now, for a decent firm. It’s boring work but it pays the bills and provides good insurance. I have a king-sized bed and the acne that once plagued my face has long since been defeated.
As I stare in the darkened reflection of the turned off television in front of my bed, sweating the sickness out, shivering at the same time, answering birthday calls and texts, I can’t help but think, with a sudden clarity of the interlocking gears, how things really came to pass, or if it was a fever dream of a memory at all.
I don’t know if the story of Mr. Guthrie’s Familiar is true, but if you look on any message board and crackpot website, they will tell you it is. I don’t know what I believe. But I know some kids went missing and some grew up to be adults like me.
At sixteen, my dad told me to get a summer job, and while I wanted to play my Atari all day, he took the liberty to apply on my behalf to all the “help wanted” stores in our town. The only place to call me back was for a delivery boy at Comet Pizza, right at the end of Blueberry Street the town over. All I needed was a bike, which I had, and knowledge of the streets, which I also had.
On my first day, I rolled my bike up and was introduced to Bart, Clyde, and Lionel. Bart was the head delivery boy, which I didn’t know was a thing until that day. It’s really fascinating…I don’t think I had recalled any of their names until just now. Yes. That’s right. There were four of us. Each of us more pimple-faced and greasy-haired than the last.
Well, five. Sort of.
Her name was Maria, and at the time I thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Assuming she had not been stricken by some divine intervention, I imagine she has grown to become very beautiful now. She was the bosses’ daughter, and, like me, had been given a summer job. She was the counter girl, responsible for being the face of Comet Pizza, the empire she would no doubt inherent. She also took the calls, and I looked forward to hearing customers call in for a delivery so I could hear her voice.
I spent a large part of that first day sitting around and eating pizza, which was considered a tremendous perk at the time. The orientation was minimal; turns out, the training to be a delivery boy meant being able to pedal fast. The three boys were on rotation, switching out every call. They told me stories. Bart once delivered pizza to a house and a naked woman answered the door. Lionel once delivered to the science-teacher who flunked him last year and, with a whisper, said that he made a point of licking each slice before handing it off. After about four hours of sitting in the back, reading magazines and failing to talk to Maria, I got the impression that I wasn’t going to be making any deliveries at all.
“Not yet,” said Bart, “there is a perfect house for you.”
“You mean, it’s close?” I asked, “I go to school a town over. I know this town well enough. And I’ve been studying a map for the past four hours.”
Clyde shook his head, “Just wait, padawan.”
I remember this clearly, too. I hadn’t seen The Phantom Menace yet, but I was going to next week with my cousin. I remember being slightly offended after the fact.
Finally, a call came in and Maria’s wonderful voice occupied the room. “One cheese pie for 451 Alberle Road.”
Then the boys lit up, and I knew it was my time to shine.
“That’s a good house,” said Lionel, his face buried in a magazine.
“You know where that is?” asked Bart.
“You been there before?” Bart furthered.
I shook my head.
“Why don’t one of us come with you?” Clyde said, suddenly standing. “Just in case you get lost.”
“It’s the perfect first house,” Lionel said, “it was my first house. I was fine.”
“And Greg chose that as my first house when I started too,” Bart said. Greg was the previous head delivery boy, who went off to college.
“I can do it,” I said, wanting to impress these guys.
They weren’t my friends, but I was used to not having many friends. I did, however, see a lot of commonalities between them and me. We were all physically misshapen in our own ways. Lionel was a little plump. Bart walked bowlegged. Clyde was tall and lanky. The way that the three of them interacted with Maria told me they don’t talk to girls “in the real world” very much, and the number of books and magazines and comic books littered about the backroom told me they spent a lot of their time in between pages.
“He’s fine,” said Bart. Then he turned to me, “You got this. Your first house. Then tomorrow you’ll come into the rotation with us and start making tips.”
“Sure,” I said, and received the pie from Maria, inhaled the fresh-baked aura, and put them in the warming container. My heart got a little fluttered.
She said, “Mr. Guthrie is kind of a weirdo. Just so you know. But if you can handle this one, the others will be easier. Trust me.” And she winked at me. I remember that very clearly. That wink.
Outside I got my bike out of its lock, fastened the container cradle onto the back of my bike, and latched the container so it fit snug. Clyde appeared next to me, curly hair pushed against the wind. The day had turned into swathes of tangerine and plum; twilight, but darkness by the time I’d get back.
“Hey,” he said, “I just want you to know that Mr. Guthrie is sort of strange.”
“That’s what Maria said,” I said, happy to bring up her name.
He shuffled on his feet, “Yeah, but I don’t think you understand. His house is kind of a rite-of-passage. When I started, they made me deliver to him too. And Greg made Bart do it too. He’s in community college now. Not that it matters.”
“What, is he, like, a pedophile or something?”
“You haven’t heard about Mr. Guthrie’s Familiar?”
I took my bike and started to round down the path, past the beaten-up cars of the pizza makers, the dumpsters, the pizza trailing savory vespers behind me. “C’mon man.”
“I’m not trying to scare you,” he said. “It’s just that if you get really weirded out, leave the pizzas on the porch. Knock if you feel like you have too. And then tail it out of there.”
I slanted my eyes. “Is this a trick? Tricking the new guy? Someone will have to pay for the pizza.”
“No,” Clyde said, twisting his face, “I’ll pay for it when you come back.”
I took my bike to the road, waited for a car to pass by. The street was lined with thick elms. They looked like talons pointing towards the sky. Clyde followed me.
“What’s the deal?” I snapped.
“Look,” he said, picking up his hat and rustling his greasy hair before popping it back on. “It’s just an urban myth. But I don’t think it is.”
Another car drove past. This was typically a busy street. If I had been alone, I would have weaved my bike past the cars and taken off-beaten paths. I sometimes rode my bike in this town after school, so I knew the avenues well enough. I could feel Mr. Guthrie’s address like a beacon at the far end of the forest, nestled in the cul-de-sac that I could see in my mind’s eye. But I didn’t want my new coworkers to think I was reckless.
“What is it then? The myth?” I said. “What’s the deal with his Familiar?”
Clyde chuckled, but it was a nervous chuckle. I would not realize until thirty years later how difficult this was for him. “The story goes that Mr. Guthrie used to be a really nice guy. He was a teacher, or a social worker, or something. A wife. Couple of kids. Then one day he must have accidentally purchased an antique or read something backwards or something because something entered his house and never came out. Something horrible. Like a mega-demon or something.”
“A mega-demon?” I said. “You’re making me late, you know.”
Clyde shivered. Another car zoomed past. He continued: “It was around that time that Mr. Guthrie lost his job. Started talking about a voice in his noggin. Said that voices need to feed and in exchange it would give him eternal life. Then his wife and kids disappeared.”
“No wonder. He went bonkers. She probably took the kids.” I looked down the road and found myself at the end of the collection of traffic. I kicked off my bike but Clyde grabbed me by the shoulders, which I remember even then being peeved about, even though he was, by some delivery boy hierarchy, my superior.
“They say that whatever may or may not have happened, Mr. Guthrie entered into a sort of relationship with this force. But it wasn’t an even trade off. And now the mega-demon is practically keeping the man hostage, says that if it doesn’t feed, it’ll feed on him.”
“C’mon,” I said, but Clyde pulled tighter.
“He calls the shop every couple of weeks. Orders the same thing. A small cheese pie, with instructions to deliver personally. You know why he does that? Because delivery boys have a high turnover rate. And no one would miss us. Like Randall Fleck, that missing kid from the 80’s? Yeah, he worked here for three days. Or what about Bobby Finch, you know, the same last name that’s above the hardware store? That’s his older brother. I’m telling you, Harold, just leave it on the porch.”
“Okay,” I said, realizing now that Clyde actually believed this. “How do you know all this?”
“You’ll find that most towns have a myth or two.”
“And you’ve done it, and Bart and Lionel,” I said, “I’ll be fine. I can outrun an old man.”
“I did,” Clyde said, and his eyes began to blossom, which, to this day, makes me uncomfortable whenever anyone does that. “And I saw…I saw something in the window…and…and I just stayed too long. Look. I can’t stop you, because I think I’m crazy too, but if you go, just leave it on the porch. If you come back and tell everyone you did it, I’ll back you up. I’ll tell them I tried to talk you out of it, but you were adamant.”
I actually didn’t know what the word adamant meant at the time, but that didn’t stop me from pulling onto the road while Clyde kept yelling at me to just put it on the porch! I did my best to ignore his warnings, because I was too old to believe in that kind of stuff. It was this arrogance that armored me to Bart and Lionel’s challenge, this silly delivery boy rite-of-passage. But I so wanted them to like me, even though they hardly paid any attention to me. And I wanted Maria to know that I had done it. I could not imagine what would happen after the fact, but I wanted her to know.
Yet Clyde’s fear was so genuine. I turned corners and made sharp turns down bike lanes, but I could not help to feel as if I were slipping slowly into a quick sand of dread, especially knowing that Randall Fleck and Bobby Finch had possibly ridden these very paths, with the same kind of pie, made perhaps by the same pizza Mr. Comet Pizza himself. Because I knew those names. Everyone knew those names. I don’t recall Bobby Finch much, but his name sounded familiar because when Randall Fleck disappeared, they compared his absence to Bobby’s. I was too young then, as I was at this moment of delivery, to really appreciate the pattern of how close I was to this cycle, this myth. My parents had taken me to the school at night and all the kids played in the surreal version of the playground that we played at just this morning while the cops delivered their notes. That was before we grew up. That was before I developed my pimples and my long nose and my greasy hair.
I turned onto Aberle Road, and I recall very clearly being relieved to find the neighborhood exactly as boring as all neighborhoods should be, so unlike Clyde’s tale. No ghosts, no hockey-masked men. Not even those pedophile vans. I took my bike down the street, looking up at the ocean of stars above, a view that doesn’t really exist anymore. Then I came to 451 and for a second I thought the guys were playing a joke on me.
The stupid run down house looked as if it had been set aflame and reduced to a charcoaled version of itself. The grass had turned into crisp, nettle-esque blades. The car had not been moved in ages, surrounded by the reclaimed nature. The house sulked, the eaves of the single rancher like heavy, weary eye brows on windows so dusty as to be one-way, even in darkness. I actually rationalized that there was no way a married couple with two kids could fit comfortably in a house like that, so point against Clyde’s validity. Still, there was something foreboding about the house, as it stood like an animated corpse, washed up and chewed on like a sperm whale that had lost a fight with a giant squid. Something had happened here. One time my uncle’s house had gone into foreclosure and when we came back it looked like Mr. Guthrie’s. So maybe that was it.
Or perhaps it would have been, except for the faint flicker of a lightbulb that swung at the far end of the house, a pendulum akin to an uvula.
I parked my bike at the edge of the property. It felt rude to drive it across the lawn, not that I had any opportunities to do so. I put my hands in the container, felt the warmth from the pizza box. I looked around at the other houses. They seemed perfectly fine. Sleeping.
I remembered the operations. Knock on the door, wait a little bit, knock again, receive the cash, count it, make change, wait for the tip. The entire exchange should take no longer than it would take to reach the house.
To reach the house.
Maria said if I could do this, I could do anything.
With the pizza balanced on my forklift spread out hands, I advanced through the thicket of overgrowth, over the uneven cobblestones, the tangle of weeds, the smell of rotting vegetables. I was certain that I could see the bent spokes of an abandoned bike, but it was an old model, so it must have been there for a long time. It was hard to think that kids once played on this lawn.
The porch was no more than a dais, unwalled, no handrail. It was like walking into the maw of a beast, or onto an altar. My footsteps echoed in the empty street. There was a spot that reminded me of Clyde’s advice. A perfect square that I could drop the pie on and run. I could be back on my bike now. But I would know that if I left, then I would have returned to Comet Pizza a liar. I did not want to have a secret with Clyde, one that would eventually reveal that I had failed the rite.
Balancing the pizza on my hip, I repositioned and rapped on the screen door. There was no doorbell. I waited, leaned to see if I could see inside. I knocked again. A silhouette passed in front of the bulb. The sound of unlatching several bolts, each metal unlocking sending a shiver down the frame of the rickety door. The door opened and Mr. Guthrie appeared.
I remember him not looking particularly abrasive. Not fowl like, as Clyde had made him seem. He had not a lost eye nor a crooked nose nor an ugly scar. He looked more like a frail scarecrow, a farmer from that famous painting. Lips receded with age, hollows of his eyes from gravity’s curse. Liver spots that could be countries on a map. Mr. Guthrie was just a lonely old man. Simple as that.
“Pizza delivery,” I said, trying to sound cheery. In hindsight I realize how stupidly ingenuine I must have sounded. I repeated the order: “One small cheese pie.”
Mr. Guthrie nodded. He grunted and pushed open the screen door with a skeletal hand and then it was just the two of us, himself in the threshold, a black infinity behind him, me with the jungle of his unkempt lawn behind me.
“One small cheese pie for Mr. Guthrie?” I said, repositioning myself so that I held the box before me, like a token.
Mr. Guthrie licked his lips to wet them before speaking. His voice sounded unused, out of tune, as if the internal wiring was rusty. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a money clip. Yellow, cracked thumbnails sifted through the bills. A light flickered behind him, right over his shoulder, at the edge of the darkness. With shaking hands, he offered what I had hoped was the correct amount on the first try, and it was at this precise moment, yes, I remember, that I felt that our interaction had become a group, that it was not just the two of us, that someone had joined. I felt like I was being watched, and a thought flashed within the undercurrent of my psyche that this was still one big joke by the delivery boys. Hazing and all that. That they would pop out of the brush with monster masks.
Mr. Guthrie handed me the bills. The cash was warm and damp. There were two twenties in there, which was more than enough for the pie. This money made my heart drop. I didn’t have the balance to hold both the pizza and make change, and I didn’t want to be there any longer than I had to. A second light had gone on behind him, two tiny lights as if at the end of a tunnel. A breeze swept by, moving the bent wheel of a broken bike that had become entombed by Mr. Guthrie’s unkempt lawn. Above the rancid odor of rotting vegetables, the smell of something copper carried with it. I got the sudden feeling of being on the precipice of some great void that had swept me, and my legs had a difficult time remaining steady. It felt as if the shoddy cement cube of a porch was miles above the lawn, that I was, like, standing at the edge of a cliff or something.
Mr. Guthrie stared at me, unblinking, as I tried to make change.
“Keep it,” he said, “the change.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I felt something stir behind him, responding to my voice.
When I looked behind his bony shoulder I could make a faint outline of something. Something. That was it. It was human but it wasn’t. It was more like a painting, like something that was turned into human form, like a marble sculpture. The faraway lights turned into tiny jewels. I got the impression of it raising its eyebrows, for some reason. I tried handing Mr. Guthrie the pizza but he did not budge.
“Would you like me to leave it on the porch?” I said, gesturing to a spot, thinking about Clyde.
No! something croaked, but it was underneath the passing tide of a car.
Mr. Guthrie said, “No. Please.”
“Okay,” I said, and pushed it a little further into his trembling hands. The hands receded. In the corner of my eye something black zipped around the corner. Like a black stray or something. “It’s yours.”
“I’m an old man,” said Mr. Guthrie, his voice craggy. There was a certain surreal quality about him, as if space warped within the aura of his presence, or that whatever lay behind his back knew that it was only a flesh wall between itself and the outside. He continued, his jaw dropping slightly out of sync with his words. “I’m an old man. Can you help an old man? Please.”
I didn’t say anything. Clyde said to just put it on the porch, and I already had the cash.
“Could you help an old man and come inside and put it on my kitchen table?” Said Mr. Guthrie, his wiry frame twisting slightly, the creases of his splotchy, greasy shirt forming an obscure Rorschach simulacrum.
“Please, I’m an old man. I can hardly lift the box,” he said, the rustle in the wind sounded like come inside and then he said, his voice deeper, more coming from within his frail frame than from just his mouth. “Please.”
A windchime somewhere startled me. I felt something move in accordance with my sudden movement, and jumped to action. Another whistle said come inside again. I think.
“Others have done it,” Mr. Guthrie said, “other young boys.”
I don’t remember exactly when I dropped the pizza box in the corner of the porch, but I do remember, in hindsight, being unsettled. That the world had suddenly become very unsafe, not for greasy losers like me. There was a figure behind Mr. Guthrie, something vague and shapeless, too far for me to see, too enveloped in the blackness of the house. The pungent smell of garlic breath seeped from the cracks in the sheeting, from the black void behind Mr. Guthrie. When I put the boxes in the corner and stood, I saw, maybe, I don’t know. I saw Mr. Guthrie floating several inches off the lip of his front door, his dirty loafers dipping slightly to give the impression of a ballerina on their toes.
There was a loud noise, a honking of a car or some strong gust of wind, and I left Mr. Guthrie on the porch, walking backwards at first, tripping over the step and into the thicket, grabbing onto the overgrown bike and cutting my hands as I ran across his lawn and hopped onto my own bike. Before kicking off I looked over my shoulder and saw that lone bulb, moving like a pendulum with such force as to be resistant to all logic of gravity. It was swinging like a kid that tries to circulate a swing set with the force of their momentum. On the downswing of the light Mr. Guthrie’s lanky figure appeared underneath it, shoulders hunched, arms as if guarding from something.
“I’m sorry!” Mr. Guthrie yelled, but I was already speedily away so I couldn’t be sure if it was for me or not.
I had no idea how out of sorts I was until I returned to the Comet Pizza. Grass stains over my knees, my new Comet Pizza shirt had been chewed by the reclaimed bike on his lawn. I must have scratched my cheek to, for a small curtain of blood now lined down my chin. I parked my bike, walked into the warm glow of the Comet Pizza.
The others looked up from their magazines. Clyde seemed visibly relaxed. Maria noticed my cut and she offered me a rag, and I hoped that interaction meant more to both of us.
“How was it?” Said Lionel, counting his tips, not really looking at me.
“You looked like you got chewed on and spit out,” Bart said.
“Yeah,” I said, and sat down. Someone brought me a slice of pizza.
Clyde leaned over and whispered, “Did you leave it on the porch?”
I nodded, my mouth chewing the pepperoni and mushroom. “He left a nice tip.”
“He always does,” Bart said, shaking his head.
“He’ll call again in a couple of weeks?” I asked, wiping my mouth.
Lionel nodded. “Yeah. Listen, I know Clyde tried talking you out of it. Glad that you went through. In the future though, just leave it on the porch and don’t stay for chit-chat.”
“Guy’s got nothing to say anyway,” said Bart.
On the way out the four of us said goodbye to Maria and went back to our bikes. I noticed a strange, almost black tar smudged on my seat, and Lionel pointed out that a similar smear was on my lower back too.
“Take a shower, new guy, and see you tomorrow,” he said.
Before leaving, Clyde approached me again. “Hey,” he said, “did you really leave it on the porch like I asked?”
I nodded. “But not originally though.”
This seemed to shake Clyde, who fell silent. “So, you met him. Did you…see it?”
“Mr. Guthrie’s Familiar. What did it look like?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t trying to be coy but it was true. I could quite place what I had seen on Mr. Guthrie’s porch, could not prove exactly if I had seen anything at all. I shook my head and said, “Next time I’m really just going to leave it on the porch. Anyway thanks, Clyde, for the advice.”
“Yeah, sure,” he smiled, seemingly pleased to be validated. It was a feeling that I yearned for too. I felt his eyes trail me as I kicked my bike into gear to follow the others down the road, and then soon it was the four of us riding home, each together, before going our separate ways until tomorrow.
I don’t really remember Mr. Guthrie calling Comet Pizza much that summer, or at all. I hardly remember the rest of that summer, much in the way that all summers blend when you’re young. I didn’t lose my virginity, hardly had a summer fling. I don’t really remember hanging out with Bart, Lionel, or Clyde much outside of the shop, and Maria and I’s only real interaction was when she handed me a pizza for delivery. It was only a dumb summer job, one that consisted of a bunch of teenagers who hardly knew themselves, buried themselves in magazines and yo-yos and the occasional cigarette to look cool. Mr. Guthrie himself was discovered half a year later in his house, his body reportedly looking like a dropped napkin in the middle of the floor, discovered after the neighbors complained of the rotting smell that had begun to invade the cul-de-sac.
It’s funny how memories like this pop up in the middle of fever dreams, blossoming like stubborn flowers in the snow. Those two kids, Bobby Finch and Randall Fleck, were the only ones that had disappeared from town, so hardly any excuse to fuel the urban legend. But there were no calls. I guess I was the last. I don’t know if Mr. Guthrie’s familiar was real, but the memory feels on the precipice of reality, like how when you’re young you climb because you don’t realize how high you are, or the consequences of falling, and when you think back all you can remember is not how high you were, but how close to the edge you were. Mr. Guthrie was like that, for me, so inconsequential as to be buried in my mind, yet so significant for reasons that I can not as of yet determine.
Glenn Dungan is currently based in Brooklyn, NYC. He exists within a Venn-diagram of urban design, sociology, and good stories. When not obsessing about one of those three, he can be found at a park drinking black coffee and listening to podcasts about murder.
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