Peter Fogg was fifty-seven when he disappeared from the streets of Chicago on March 15, 2002. He was a lawyer in a firm that dealt with wrongful death cases and represented accident victims. One Friday morning he left his house and didn't show up to work, didn't return home, made no subsequent phone calls or internet queries. Two years after his disappearance, Peter was presumed dead. The contents of a safe deposit box in his name were delivered to his wife and fifteen-year-old son, Daniel. Among items in the box were a fifty-page memoir, handwritten in blue ink on yellow legal paper bound with clip and a pair of handcuffs. Having read it several times over the years since, it's a humanizing portrait of Daniel's father, if fantastic.
Is it real? Did it happen? I've researched the names of people and places mentioned inside, and found similarities to what is portrayed here, if not outright matches. Okego Falls was a real town in Nebraska until twenty-five years ago, when it was absorbed into the greater Omaha suburbs. I've found no mention of any Wheelbarrow Man during the span of time over which the events in the account take place. Despite the lack of direct evidence in the journalistic record, I have no reason to discount what Mr. Fogg wrote happened to him. What follows, excepting some revision for clarity and the filling in of a few gaps, is Peter Fogg's story. -adam
When the old man and his wheelbarrow began their first slow trips down the streets of my childhood town, people began to talk. It was autumn, newly so, and the residents of Okego Falls Nebraska had little else to occupy them as 1956 marched toward its end.
Narrowed eyes watched him through shuttered windows and from behind closed blinds. Pedestrians kept their distance, and spoke in hushed voices after he'd passed them by. Rumors spread like whispering wildfire: the Wheelbarrow Man was a hitchhiker from Jackson, where the prison was, or he’d come from the mental institution up in Hyatt. Uneasy proclamations about a man too old and broke to be anything but homeless. Some of them tried talking to him, in questions, but the answers he gave didn't satisfy. The questions stayed questions, and maybe that bothered the Falls folk so much they had to stop talking. A watchful unease replaced the rumors. It was like that for two weeks until, like an unspoken agreement, the people of my town tried their best to ignore him.
I was twelve, smallest of the boys in my sixth-grade class, unnoticed by my peers and the adults in town. I lived in a blue single ranch house with a rusty screen door and a lawn with grass old paper yellow. Instead of sports, I spent my time in the worlds of books and daydreams. I had no friends who wanted to visit after school. my mom worries about that the most. Worrying about me seemed her first and only priority. She was afraid I'd turn out wrong—if she relaxed for even a minute, she thought I'd end up like my dad.
Every Sunday, she made sure I went to church and what she called Catechism, what Catholics kids call Sunday school, so I could get my religion and a dose of interaction with the outside world. It was the best she could do.
Still, if any one thing was different, if my mother enrolled me in music lessons, encouraged me to join after-school clubs, maybe things would have turned out better. She chose church, and that was what did it.
Mass was as bad as it sounds; a pile of sweaty, coughing bodies kneeling together in rows of farts and bad breath. A man in robes spoke urgently about sin and redemption. The services left me feeling drained and hopeless. I couldn't imagine anyone getting into heaven or attaining eternal life with so many rules. Could a camel get through the eye of a needle? I didn't think so. I couldn't help but picture a camel getting a needle in the eye. Grotesque, but more likely.
Mass was two hours long, Sunday school starting halfway through. The kids were ushered out of their seats and back into a room of candles while the adults stayed for the homily, communion, and singing. During the transfer, I'd get at the end of the line and wait till we passed the doors. I'd open one a crack and slip out. No one noticed until one Sunday, the third one following the introduction of the Wheelbarrow Man to the Falls.
The day I met him.
Like usual, I sat on the curb and watched what was going on up the street. The week before I had watched the Millers paint their house, so the scope of my expectations wasn’t large. Cars drove by, people from out of town drove in to use the gas pumps at the corner, no one I knew. After a while I closed my eyes and let the morning sun heat my freckled arms, and started dozing off.
A voice, raspy and weak, like the sound leather made when it was sanded, woke me.
“You, kid. You think they’d let me in there if I wanted to?”
I blinked twice to clear my eyes and looked around. The Wheelbarrow Man was standing off to my left on the road, looking at me. My mother, who had plenty to say about everything, hadn’t left the man in front of me out of her warnings:
“If you find yourself near that wheelbarrow man without an adult nearby, run the other way. I hear a lot about him, and not one thing good. There are bad people in the world, remeber that.”
But that morning, standing there gripping the handles of his wheelbarrow, the stranger didn’t look like any homeless or drunk I’d ever seen. His cheeks were bare, and his skin didn’t wrinkle or fold over anywhere. His eyes were silver-blue. His hair was long, and hung in straight parts against his face. He wore slacks and a brown coat.
I looked at him for half a minute, a long time even for having been woken up. My mouth wouldn't unglue itself. But he kept looking at me, waiting for an answer, hands tight on the wheelbarrow. It was covered with a tarp, secured with two bungee cords hooked together just under the front lip. No hope of seeing inside.
"I suppose...” I said, the words scratching my vocal chords "I suppose you could.”
“Would they let me take it in?” The wheelbarrow.
“Probably make you leave it outside,” I said.
“I’d better be on my way, then. What’s your name, boy?”
“Peter.” I’d said it before I had a chance to think if telling him my name was a smart thing. Suppose he was a kidnapper?
The man burst out laughing.
“A coincidence for sure. Pleased to meet, Peter. That's my name too.” He took a hand from the wheelbarrow’s grip and sent it toward me. I shook it, surprised to see my hand drowning in his. Then he left, again pushing his tarp-covered wheelbarrow up the street. He looked over his shoulder at me and hollered.
“Let me know if they do Mass outdoors!”
I don’t remember what I said back. Probably nothing.
Only a short while after the Wheelbarrow Man left me that day, Mass let out and I’d forgotten to get into position by the door of the classroom. My mother came out and there I was, sitting on the curb like an imbecile. She pulled me to my feet by the ear and walked me home. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell her I’d talked to the Wheelbarrow Man. Skipping Sunday school was bad enough.
Over the next two weeks I forgot about the Wheelbarrow Man; my mother said nothing about him and I didn't see him. One Tuesday after school, I had my hair cut in Hap’s barber shop, downtown, on Linden. It’s not there now. Not much is.
Hap was cutting my hair. Usually he didn’t bother with kids--kids were for apprentices, practice for the still learning. But no one else was working that afternoon, so he started on me, asking the questions he asked every kid he saw now and then. My head tipped back into the rinse-bucket, the questions stopped.
“Ah, Christ,” Hap muttered. He was looking out the shop window. I had to see. I lifted my head. On the other side of the street was the Wheelbarrow Man. Something about him was different.
No--the wheelbarrow was different.
Objects were attached to it. Pieces of metal, old chairs and wooden artifacts, cloth and tarps; all rising up from the sides like makeshift teeth. I couldn’t stop smiling.
“Head back down, boy. Gettin' my floor all wet.”
I let my head drop.
“Don’t know why you’re smiling. Man’s trouble. Won’t be long and someone’ll be dead and I’ll be dealing out the ‘told you so’s.’” That took the smile off my face.
“Well, I ain’t sayin’ anything…just got a feelin’ that don’t feel so right. You saw what he’s building…up on that thing, didn’t you? Man’s crazy, and crazy folk sometimes get violent.”
The wheelbarrow man hadn’t seemed crazy when he talked to me, but maybe that was the way with crazy people. “Did you talk to him, Mr. Hap?”
“Sure didn’t. But I got people tellin’ me stories, and I told Mark Hubbard and he’s got a special eye on that man now…all the better. Sooner or later he’s going to do somethin’ a little screwy and that’ll be it for him. And won’t everyone thank me that he’s gone.”
Mark Hubbard was the Sheriff’s deputy. I didn’t know much about him until later--he was a good cop, good at his job, and became Sheriff when Sheriff Hooper was shot on a domestic violence house call five years later.
I thought about the wheelbarrow man all night, and my mother came home late from work so I pretended to sleep. I knew if I started talking to her she’d get out of me what I was thinking and would tell me to quit.
I packed my lunch in the morning, and went to school. The lessons were lost on me--the only thing I remember about it was being grateful the teacher never called on me, because I couldn’t concentrate. At lunch break I went outside with all the other kids to eat my lunch, but when they went back in I took a walk. I walked down High Street seven blocks, looking up and down cross streets as I went, and finally found him.
He was pushing the wheelbarrow past the corner store, then the ice cream shop and drug store. I walked up, unsure of what to say. When he saw me he nodded and I nodded back, and we walked together like that for a block or two. From so close, the structure on the wheelbarrow was intricate and detailed, and I didn’t see what held it together. No nails, or glue - everything just seemed to balance there.
He was the first of us to speak.
“Skipping school, Peter?”
“No, uh.” I coughed, and spit out the lie. “It was a half day.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Of course.”
I watched my feet a few moments, then blurted, “They say you’re going to kill someone.”
“They say that.”
“You’re not, though, right?”
He didn’t say anything. He stared straightaway, right into his wheelbarrow, and kept pushing. Then he looked at me.
“You don’t think so.”
“No.” I motioned at the wheelbarrow. “It’s beautiful. No crazy person could put together something like that.”
He stopped pushing, then stepped back and put his hands on his hips. For a moment something like pride flickered across his face.
“So. You can see it.” He meant the wheelbarrow.
“Sure, mister. Everyone can see it, they talk about it all the time.” I left out that they talked more about him.
He started pushing again, not looking at me.
“That’s not what I meant, Peter.”
“Oh.” A moment passed in silence.
“People see what they want to. Around here, it seems like they want someone to be afraid of. Around most places, but here especially. Some people can’t help but see what’s actually there. You and me, we’re two of those. I hope you don’t turn into one of the others.”
“Me either.” I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You better get along, now. Your mother is going to know you talked to me one way or another, but it’ll be better for you and me if it was only for a short time.”
I took a few more steps, and then stopped. “I’ll see you again.”
He didn’t look back.
The spanking I got that night was worse than any I’d ever had, and even though I was twelve and shouldn’t have, I cried. The only thing that made it better was thinking about the wheelbarrow, only I thought it wasn’t a wheelbarrow at all. It was a machine: a dream machine.
Being that our town was small, the next day at school everyone knew where I’d gone and what I’d done after lunch. The clerk at the counter of the corner store and the soda jerk had each called my mother and told her what they’d seen, then spread the news along to everyone who came in.
I was an instant celebrity. Everyone wanted to know about the Wheelbarrow Man, wanted to know if what they’d heard was true.
Principal Davis called me into his office before lunch and told me faculty was watching.
"We can’t do anything while you're not at school, but if you try to leave at lunch again, someone will stop you and your mother will be called."
He was trying to put fear into me, and I saw it, but it didn't matter: I wasn't stupid enough to do the same thing twice. I told him what he wanted to hear and promised I’d be good.
Besides, I said, it was pizza day.
I waited a week before trying to see the Wheelbarrow Man again. It wasn’t easy for me, because while everyone seemed fairly convinced that I’d learned my lesson and that my behavior wouldn’t be repeated, the suspicion surrounding the vagrant’s continued presence in town (or lack thereof) was strengthening.
From what I heard (not from my mother - she knew better than to spark my interest by bringing him up) it became clear that Peter had stopped doing two of the only things the people of Okego Falls had grown used to.
First, he’d stopped pushing the wheelbarrow. Instead, it was now parked in the middle of an empty lot at the end of one of the old streets, across from where the old mermaid fountain was. The land had belonged to a family of migrant workers a few years before, but their house had burned down and they’d moved on.
It was a dead part of town, and though people were just as fervent in their convictions to ignore the Wheelbarrow Man, now I started to hear a bit of curiosity in their voices. Because, the other thing the Wheelbarrow Man had stopped doing was he quit showing up. He simply didn’t seem to be around anymore.
“I’d have thought he was gone, that he left that thing there for good,” the Sunday school teacher said to us that weekend, “but it seems every morning I look down that road and some new contraption or doodad has been added to it.” She sounded afraid, and I knew why. It was hard to ignore something you could see, and easy to be afraid of a man no one saw yet continued his work in front of them.
“I swear,” she said, but then quickly put a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I mean to say, it’s getting so big now you can’t even see that wheelbarrow anymore.” Then, seeing the looks on our faces, and especially mine, she hooked a big fingernail at each of us in turn. “But if I find out you’re so much as thinking about going to see it without your parents approval, Heaven help you.” It wasn’t much of a threat, coming from her, but it seemed enough to deter everyone else.
That Tuesday night I waited an hour past my mother’s usual bedtime before tiptoeing down from my room. I’d prepared myself well, I thought, dressing in all darks and completing the look with a black pair of my mother’s pantyhose drawn snug over my face. If people saw me tonight, they might know I was a kid, but none of them would be able to prove it was me.
The click the front door made when I unlocked it and the creak that followed had me convinced I'd awoken my mother. She'd be out in just a minute to let me know how she felt about what I had done to her pantyhose. I waited, but she never came. I stepped through the front door and closed it, hearing the same loud click and hoping this one didn’t wake her either.
I sprinted down the street.
Even in the dark it was magnificent, a tower of items that no longer mattered outside of their current context. It was so tall, its base so wide, that the wheelbarrow that had served as the foundation was indeed no longer visible.
Instead, it met the ground via a lawnmower and a mailbox and a birdbath, as well as several desks and a ladder. It dawns on me now that I should have had a harder time seeing it, as the streetlights on that road were much further down.
It was giving off a kind of light of its own, or the moon was. I can’t remember. I do remember calling for the Wheelbarrow Man, my breathless cries of “Peter?” echoing gently into the tower and out again. The echoes led me to the hole in the side of the thing.
There, at the place where the tower met the earth, between a truck tire and the remains of an old brick fireplace, was a round opening, big enough for a man of his size to go through. Of course, I thought, he lives in there. Like a hermit crab.
I stuck my head down into the hole and yelled, “Peter? Mister...Peter, sir?” There was no answer.
I crawled in.
It wasn’t as dark as I’d thought. Maybe some of that glow I thought I’d seen on the outside of it was coming from in here, too. Things stuck out at me, pulled at my clothes as I skittered past, but I didn’t bother to try and see what they were.
Once I got all the way in, once I made myself call for Peter once again, it got cold. Like a walk-in freezer. It scared me. I closed my eyes and crawled faster, half expecting to run my face into a desk or a car door. But I didn't, and the cold didn’t last. I opened my eyes again. A box of light lay in front of me. Bright, like the sun. I crawled toward it, and then out of it.
I know what it sounds like now, but I don’t care. I crawled into a pile of junk in Okego Falls in the middle of the night, and crawled out of a pile of junk...somewhere else, in daylight.
The grass under my knees was spongy and warm, and I could hear a nearby stream, as well as the singing of many birds; some of which swooped and tumbled through the air in front of me, from a tree bearing golden fruit to a bright purple bush to a perch high up on something familiar, but different. Another junk tower.
As I pulled the pantyhose from my face I started to see them all over the place. Tower after tower, more spread out and distant, but I began to understand that this place was much bigger than the lot I'd come from, or from the town.
I stood up and felt the heat of the sun on me, on my black clothes. I began to walk gingerly on the spongy grass, looking. I remember being saturated with color. Like my eyes were never meant to be so stimulated, it almost hurt to keep them open. But I didn't want to miss anything.
Flowers of every size and hue, growing from the grass and from trunks of trees, growing out of other flowers. Like this for miles, hilly miles that housed several streams, a waterfall, and a forest of similar trees bearing different fruit. Nothing that looked like anything I’d ever eaten.
The towers had been planned, obviously, or at least built, and some of them looked ancient. Made up of the kind of things the Wheelbarrow Man had been making the tower in then Falls with, but none of it really looked familiar. Junk, yes, but foreign junk. Different junk.
I could look at the tower back home and tell you what it was made of, and what each thing it was made of was used for, and where he’d probably gotten that thing to begin with. These others...I didn’t know. I don’t feel like there’s any way I could describe them anyway. I don’t feel like I’ve been able to describe any of it, of the garden Peter called Aden. Not now, even with my memory so full. What it feels like now is flailing with words, and maybe they touch what I mean sometimes, and maybe sometimes they stick, but mostly they just slide off. The junk came from different worlds.
He found me stumbling around, clad only in underpants after I'd stripped the hot black clothes from my body, and wide eyed. Like I was looking at everything all at once, and each separate thing for a hundred years. And if he hadn’t found me I wonder if I wouldn’t still be there, a forty-three-year-old man with the mind of a twelve-year-old boy, wandering that garden and eating fruit whenever the hunger touched me.
It was his hand on my shoulder, then his voice.
“Peter?” I’d all but forgotten why I’d come in the first place, that I’d been looking for him.
I looked up into the face of the Wheelbarrow Man. He looked older here, wrinklier, weaker. A sad concern marked his eyes. “Peter, what are you doing here?” Was he angry?
“I...I wanted to see...”
“Did anyone see you come? Did anyone see you pass through?” I stared, dazed. My skin was roasting under the sun, and his hand on my shoulder was cool. “Peter, did anyone see you?” Finally, I shook my head.
“No, it was dark. I was...no one saw.”
He took his hand from me. “I thought I was the only one.”
He looked away. I thought of something, then. “Mister...Peter, is this your home?”
“This?” The Wheelbarrow Man laughed. “No, no. It’s not. Home.” His voice cracked when he said the word. I didn’t say anything, because after a moment he started up again. “It’s the in-between. The origin, the place you have to go through to get anywhere else. It’s not home, no, because all I ever do is try to go home. I can’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I never thought I’d have to explain it to anyone. When I met you I thought you were different, but not like this. Not like me, because there is no one like me.”
I stared at him. He bit his lower lip, considering “Let’s go sit.” We walked to a stream and sat on a large flat rock. I put my feet in the water.
“The first time I came here it was an accident. Like it was for you, only when I got here I was alone. It was just the garden and I. It was accident because I didn’t know what I was doing when I built the first door. I was fooling around in my backyard, after my wife left me, putting things together some random way. Things I didn’t care about anymore. A sculpture, I thought. A monument to my failed life. It was how I struck back at everything, at my wife for leaving and at the world for making me into the failure I thought I was.
"Maybe it was just me, but I think something else was helping me build. Something that wanted me to break the rules. I worked all day, all night, and all the next day. I didn’t eat, or sleep. I finished sometime in the late evening, and my body ached and all I wanted to do was lay down and give my body up to dreams, or no dreams, whatever was in the cards.
“I didn’t feel like going back in the house, so I crawled into my junk sculpture. I thought I was dreaming, but I knew I wasn’t. The same part of me that wanted to break the rules was also dead sure this place was real. Real or not, I did end up sleeping.
“When I woke up again, and the sun was in the same spot in the sky, and the garden was still here and my house and my neighborhood was gone, I got scared. I knew it was real, so I started to think that I’d worked myself to death and this was whatever came after. Only after a while that felt wrong. I don’t know how long it was before I started building another one to get me back-- time is all weird here.”
I watched a turquoise bird with red-tipped feathers peck at the stream, pulling from it a wriggling minnow before taking flight again.
“Where is here?”
“I used to think it was the fabled Garden of Aden.” That was how he said it, not Eden, and it wasn’t his accent. The man spoke like an American just like everyone I grew up listening to.
“God’s starting point. And when Adan and Eve were made to leave, he just, I don’t know, made everything else. All the other worlds. And they had to start over.”
Adan instead of Adam. Strange, but it made sense. Peter wasn’t from my world. He’d just never gotten back to his own. “Anyway, that was what I used to think, back when I loved it here. Before it became Hell.” He shook his head, eyes closed tight, lips drawn into tight lines. I let the silence grow, and then he chopped it down again.
“See, it might not have been so bad, if she’d left me for good. But she was coming back. Penelope was pregnant. I was going to be a father. Every minute I pass in this place, or another place that’s not my home, she and my daughter grow older, believing I'm dead. We have a story where I come from, told by a man named Omar, about a great warrior king named Odd who travels across the sea to do battle with a rival country. Only when he is done there, he angers the sea gods with his pride and the return journey takes him seven years. Already I have tripled that amount. Have you heard the tale, Peter? Of Odd and Sea?”
I nodded. I had, sort of.
He gestured out at the garden. No, he was pointing at the towers of junk. “Every time I build one, I pray to God it's the road home. That hope breaks a little more each time. I don't even have to look anymore. I can tell by how the people see me that I'm different. Foreign. Every time I’m wrong, I have to build another one to take me back here.”
I regarded him, this sad man, and realized all of a sudden what he meant. I panicked.
“Peter, I--am I stuck here too? Like you? What about my mother, my-”
He quieted me with a wave of his hand. “No, no, you’re not stuck here. I’ve built doors that go both to and from your world. The last tower I built dropped me in the middle of the empty lot where I put the wheelbarrow. I wanted to be able to come and go, you see, using that one gate.”
I was relieved. Still, the doubt was there like a brick in my gut. Part of me was sure I’d be trapped in the Garden of Aden.
“Why are you still using it? The gate?”
He looked at me like I'd asked him why he was still breathing.
“To get more. More to build with. I haven’t given up, not yet. I’ll build until I go home or I die. I don’t imagine they’re much different. I could build with what I have here, and the sticks and grasses I built my second tower from, but it’s easier using junk from a fresh site. Something in my head, or my heart that lets me build them. The gates.”
My head too? My heart? He seemed to know what I was thinking.
“Stay away from here, Peter. Coming here felt like breaking the rules because it was. We’re not meant to be here. This is God’s place.”
“Now, you ought to be going back. Too much time here will start to warp you. Maybe it already has.”
I didn’t want to leave, but I thought he was right. I felt different. Older. I might have been in shock.
The Wheelbarrow Man (only I thought of him more and more as Peter, just Peter) led me to one of the foreign-looking towers. Not the one I’d crawled out of. I bent down and stuck my head into the hole. I looked back.
“When you leave, when you’re done with your next tower, can you--can you say goodbye?”
I crawled in. The same cold thing happened, but worse, because I didn’t have any clothes on. As I tumbled out of the tower in the empty lot in Okego Falls in just my underwear, I was met with the sound of screaming and the bright beams of a dozen flashlights. I thought I recognized the screaming. My mother. I must have woken her up after all.
“OH MY GOD MY BOY’S BEEN...HE’S BEEN--”
I pulled my head through the dirt to see her, to see...all of them, standing there bathing in the glow of the tower. It looked like the whole town was there. My mother rushed toward me, tears streaming down her face. Behind her I saw Hap and the church priest, the Sunday school teacher and the soda jerk, Mark Hubbard the sheriff’s deputy, Principal Davis, and a bunch of other people gathered around, staring at me.
My mother grabbed my arms and dragged me away from the tower, shaking me hard. “What the hell were you doing, mister?”
“I was just in there,” I said, pointing. My mother burst into tears again.
“I saw you go in there. I followed you. But you weren’t in there. There’s nothing in there! I called the police, I called everyone I knew. Where did he take you? What did he do to you? Did he...did he touch you, Peter?”
“Pete didn’t...” I said, but my mother didn’t understand. “You’re in shock,” she said. “Don’t worry, we’ll get the scumbag.” I opened my mouth again but she didn’t wait. “Deputy Hubbard. He must be in there, you better get him out.”
The Deputy nodded curtly. “Yes, ma’am.” Then he strode up to the hole where I’d emerged. “Sir, this is the Police. I’m going to ask you to remove yourself from this structure or I’ll have to remove you by force. Is that understood. Sir?”
He pulled his head back out. “Nobody in there, ma’am.”
“Well don’t just stand there, you big idiot, go in there and remove him by force like you said you would.”
Deputy Hubbard rolled his eyes. “Yes ma’am.”
Then he hunched his shoulders and prepared to throw his bulk into the hole.
“No need for that, officer. I’m coming out.” Peter's voice, from the opening. Deputy Hubbard started, then stood there bewildered as the man with silver hair emerged, legs first, from the hole and stood before us all. He was held my clothes in his hands. He’d come through to give them back to me.
The crowd, silently staring until now, began to rustle. I could hear them saying things amongst themselves, bad things. A boy in his underpants and an old man with the boy’s clothes. It didn’t look good.
Peter fixed me with a sympathetic look, and pointed at the priest. “Finally got them to do mass outside, eh, Pete?”
I looked down as my mother screeched at him. “Don’t speak to my son!” Then to Deputy Hubbard, “Why aren’t you arresting him?”
The Deputy stepped forward, pulling handcuffs from his belt. “You're under arrest for creating a public disturbance, and loitering, and...whatever else it turns out you've been up to."
Peter said nothing. The handcuffs closed around his wrists.
Tell them the truth. I yelled at him in my mind. When he looked at me he gave me a wan smile. They see what they want to see.
“He didn’t do anything!” I tried to yell, but my mother hushed me.
The rest of it happened all too fast. The crowd had become a mob, shouting “Dirty molester.” and “Burn in Hell, shithead.”
I saw a glass bottle with a lit piece of fabric flying toward the tower. It struck and shattered, and the place where it struck became engulfed in flames. “BURN IT!” people in the crowd yelled, “BURN THAT TRASH!” I saw more bottles fly, and soon most of the tower was ablaze.
In the confusion, Deputy Hubbard left Peter’s side and tried to stop the bottle-throwing. So when the Wheelbarrow Man walked into the fire, no one stopped him.
He winked at me and bent down, and crawled back into the hole--now glowing red like an incinerator. The chants dissipated. Once he was all the way in, the people gathered around just watched. No one moved to pull him out.
I watched my friend and his tower burn and die, and there wasn’t a thing I could do.
The fire smoldered until six in the morning, and the volunteer firefighters started to pick apart the remains of the immolated structure.
My mother took me home, put me in the bath, and called a therapist. My “cycle of healing” was about to begin, no matter how many times I tried to tell my mother what had really happened. I had proof, too, because kids don’t get sunburned in the middle of the night, but it didn’t matter.
In her eyes I was a damaged child, victim of some crazy man’s sexual deviance. I remember wishing I had kept my clothes on when I was in the other world. If I had only done that...but I hadn’t. It was too much guilt for a twelve-year-old, and so I took the therapy and used it to mourn a friend instead of trying to convince another adult of the truth.
In the years that followed, Wheelbarrow Man was a phrase seldom spoken, and then only in the softest of tones by the closest of companions. The people of Okego Falls moved on, but to say they soon forgot what happened would be a lie. They didn’t. They regarded me as the victim of a tragedy, and I was, but not the one they imagined. I was the recipient of a great blessing, a vision of something truly beautiful, and knowledge of other worlds.
I visited the Garden of Aden often since then, in my dreams. I dream of the Wheelbarrow Man, only in my dreams he is just another Peter, trying to get home. Sometimes I dream he makes it through the flames to be sheltered in the cold between worlds. That he builds one more tower, and comes through the last gate in time to fill the waiting arms of his wife, and kiss the daughter he’d never met. Who knows, maybe it really did happen that way.
They only ever found the handcuffs, you see. Each side unlocked and hanging open, cool to the touch and looking like they’d ridden out the blaze somewhere green, somewhere with plenty of flowers and songbirds. That has always been good enough for me.
Peter Fogg, February 21st, 2002