It’s important to teach children responsibility, which is why when I was six years old I was put in charge of keeping our dog alive. There were other chores, and I wasn’t perpetually given this task; we rotated every few months who had to do what. But at that age, I had to feed the dog. Scarlett the Doberman Pinscher, sweet as could be, provided for by the six-year-old. The six-year-old who had just been made to watch Tim Burton’s horrible Mars Attacks!, a needlessly gruesome alien-invasion film.
Now, the dog food was kept in the garage. Despite the sunny Texan sun outside its windows and the electric lightbulb inside, the garage was always pitch black. It was a dark, musty corner of our house wherein we kept the dog food. Which I was ordered to retrieve every day for the dog. Regarding Mars Attacks! : My dad rented it and we (my older brother and sister and I, and Dad) watched it. It wasn’t a movie I had somehow seen secretly while spending the night at a friend’s house. No, my parent put it in front of me. As for the film itself, it’s a “comedy” about aliens attempting to conquer Earth; the aliens, however, have giant bulging green heads, eyes practically popping out of their sockets, and skeletal faces and teeth. They were hideous. Their language was made up of one word, “Ack!” So I, little and imaginative and invited to come watch a movie with my Dad and siblings, did so. I watched these disgusting monsters vaporize the people of Earth with their ray-guns, turning them into skeletons by the hundreds, or stabbing them with knives and claws, all the while screaming, “Ack! Ack! Ack ack ack!” Dad thought it was hilarious. I became dead inside.
So, the next afternoon, I went about my routine. I had tinkered with arithmetic, read some basic books, and done whatever else my school was for the day. I had played with my toys, I had run around the cul-de-sac with a plastic sword. But it could not be delayed. Scarlett was out there in the backyard, hungry, waiting for a child to remember to bring her nourishment.
I did remember, and I began the chore. I walked down the hallway to the garage. I opened the door and peered inside. The family’s suburban was parked in that gloomy place, like usual, and I stepped inside, not thinking much about it. But then, as I’m still apt to even nowadays, I did a double-take. I had walked toward the barrel of dog food, only a few feet from the door, but I was forced to look back at the car. That human instinct, the hollow itching awareness of the uncanny poised somewhere near you, beholding you, lingering in a phantasmic veil, and your ears perk and your eyes dart and your heart shrinks. And I saw them.
There were the aliens, the Martians straight out of Tim Burton’s precious daydreams, sitting in the suburban. Sitting in the driver and passenger seats. Looking down at me, those Martians. Big, bulgy-headed.
The dog food was hardly another foot away. All there was to do was step forward, open the barrel, shovel a meal into the cup inside, go feed your dog. No. Horror; no.
I gave my strongest squeak and fled.
Of course, I knew they weren’t aliens. I knew as I had stared back at them in the shadows of the garage. They weren’t Martians with skull-faces, whispering their Acks at me. They were the headrests for the seats in the car. But I quailed, and I ran.
And who do you petition when you’re six years old and afraid? Not Father, for he will only reset you to the task. And, as I recall, he was at work anyway. No, you go to your Mother. Your Mommy. You go to her, interrupting whatever she’s doing on the altar of being her scared little child; nothing could be more important than her baby’s happiness, nothing dearer.
“Mommy, I don’t want to get Scarlett’s food ’cause the car-seats look like aliens!” Tears in my eyes, my pathetic voice.
But even after six years of hanging out with her, I still didn’t know my mom very well. There was no sympathy, there was no comfort. There certainly was no relieving me of my position.
“I’ll feed the dogs for you, Forrest, don’t worry,” I was sure she would say. But, as I discovered, she wasn’t who I thought she was. Certainly, she gave me something better than what I wanted.
“You can get the food,” she said. “I want you to go to your room, grab one of your swords, and go back into the garage. Raise your sword at the car seats and say, ‘I’m not afraid of you!’—and you’ll be fine.”
“No,” I said, thinking she didn’t fully understand my position.
“Yes,” she said, understanding it better than I. “Go.”
Well, aliens aren’t real, but disobedience is. And it was never tolerated in our house. Mom wasn’t being unkind either, and I knew that, and I knew I didn’t want to reenter the garage. But she was right. I had a sword. So I went to my room, trembling, and drew my weapon from the pickle bucket where we kept all manner of arms (wooden sticks mostly).
I marched back to the garage, plastic sword in hand, throwing open the door, throwing up in my heart. But I pointed the flat rugged edge of my Excalibur right at those villainous headrests and said, “I’m not afraid of you.” And they were silent. And they were bowed low. Not an Ack to be heard. I didn’t do it for Scarlett, no, I’m afraid I wasn’t noble as all that. When said and done, I didn’t do it out of obedience or duty. I think I did because I had a sword and the aliens didn’t. Mom simply reminded me of that. It wasn’t a toy, after all. Well, it was. But it was what I needed it to be, really. So, with the dog fed and the Martians dismissed, my trial was over.
I’ll never understand why Dad made a six-year-old watch Mars Attacks! But there are many mysteries in this world of ours, like why Tim Burton has a career in Hollywood.