“You need to clean your room, honey,” my grandmother says in her soft but commanding voice, and I know that doesn’t mean just shoving everything scattered on the floor into the closet. Why put everything away only to be bothered with pulling it all out tomorrow when I’m ready to play with it again? My mom’s mother lives with us, maintaining the household and making it possible for both of my parents to work. She knows how to hug and spank with equal skill.

I’d rather be walking out the back door, across the brick patio to the exterior two-bay garage to find my red bicycle waiting for me like a faithful companion. That bike takes me to the convenience store five blocks away to buy bubble gum. It takes me to my cousin’s house less than a mile away to play outside or curl up inside reading comic books. My bike has had many reincarnations: firetruck, racecar, motorcycle, roller coaster, spaceship.

I ride down the street, past houses of people my parents know casually but whom I only recognize as neighbors in cars and front yards. I would be shocked to learn, years later, that some of them drink alcohol, a substance of sin never permitted to cross the threshold of our baptized home. I cannot fathom that the housewife I never see next door beats her husband, and his shouts we hear from time to time are most likely cries of anguish, pain, despair.

My bike and I are unaware of nearby marriages crumbling, family financial crises, chronic illness, depression, or the fear of impending death. It’s inconceivable that some people on our street never go to church. Perhaps there are even parents who don’t pay attention to their children’s cluttered rooms. We are saved from the unimagined horrors that are carefully concealed behind neatly trimmed shrubs and front doors always closed.

The Little Girl in the White Dress

Isn’t it odd what scares us?  Oh, this is not to be a discourse about death, doctors, dentists, or dogs (some folks seem to be horrified of them).  I am fascinated and quite intrigued by the unusual things that scare us, especially harmless ones that, under just the right circumstances, can be bone chilling.  You know what I mean.  A perfect example?  Clowns.  What could be more cheerful and fun than a clown?  Unless, of course, the clown has daggers for teeth and lives in a neighborhood sewer.  Even the most innocent clown can be frightening, particularly to small children at birthday parties.  Must be all that makeup.  There are plenty of full-grown adults who shiver at the sight of a clown.

Then there is the terror that is invoked by certain elements of situations, environments, or settings.  An illustration is the best way I can describe what I mean here.  A colleague and I were riding home one night through the dark countryside.  It must have been overcast, because the only thing we could see was the portion of the road illuminated by his headlights.  For some reason it occurred to me that seeing something on the side of road in the headlights for a brief moment could be terrifying, like a little girl in a white dress, all alone, just standing there watching us as we pass by her.

Why should a little girl like the one pictured here in this 1935 oil painting by Rose Trellis Caracciolo be so frightening, standing on the side of the road on a pitch-black night, perhaps with even a faint smile on her face?  I asked my colleague, the driver, that very question.  I will never forget his answer, and it is as good an explanation as I have ever heard for the situation.  “Because you know she ain’t supposed to be there.”