portion of the artwork for Thomas Cooper's story

Storm Drain Bob
Thomas Cooper

Before dusk he takes the long and winding way across the neighborhood, the secret way, past the rocky creek and the duck pond and the briar field where he and his mother used to pick blackberries. This is the best part of the boy’s day, the only part he looks forward to, when he ventures far beyond the point that his father forbids so he can visit Storm Drain Bob.

After dinner the boy’s father is usually so out of it that he doesn’t notice the boy wrapping meatloaf or tuna casserole or beef stroganoff in wax paper and stuffing it in his backpack. He’s sunk in the living room recliner, boozy-eyed and clutching a Schlitz in front of the nightly news. The boy says he’s going out and his father tells him to stay on the block and to be home before dark. There’s still a neighborhood curfew after somebody strangled that old lady behind the bowling alley a few months ago.

Just after the start of his third grade year, the boy was jabbing an ant pile with a stick when a voice rose out of the storm drain.

“Hey, kid,” a man said. “Knock knock.” The voice was gruff and grunty, like that baby gangster with the cigar in the cartoons.

The boy felt his heart pounding against his ribs. He looked around. A man several houses down sheared away at rose bushes. A woman a few doors farther swayed soundlessly on a porch swing, a newspaper or book spread open on her lap.

At first the boy thought someone was playing a trick. Maybe his father, or one of the kids from the neighborhood.

“Who’s there?” the boy asked.


“Bob who?”

“Storm Drain Bob.”

The boy sprinted away, crazy-legged, sneakers pounding on asphalt. But Storm Drain Bob was there when the boy came back the next day.

“I hear you up there. I know it’s you. Don’t be scared.”

“Go away,” the boy said.

“Go away? You’re the one who came to me. I don’t go in your room and tell you to go away, do I?”

The boy knelt in the dirt, palms in the thick-leaved St. Augustine grass. He smelled something cobwebby, like damp moss. Far down below, water plinked into a puddle, a silvery and echoey sound, as if deep within a cave.

Storm Drain Bob told him he could visit anytime he liked, as long as he didn’t tell anyone. If he told anyone, there would be trouble. Never mind what kind, because the boy wasn’t going to say anything, right? They were a secret club, right? The words didn’t sound angry or threatening. They sounded lilting, soft, concerned, a sagely old uncle offering advice.

Now the boy brings Storm Drain Bob food every other night.

“Your ma make this meatloaf?” he asks. “It’s fucking delicious.”

The word fucking makes the boy laugh. But then he tells Storm Drain Bob that his mother’s dead.

Storm Drain Bob says he’s sorry to hear that. Awful sorry.

The man sounds like he might be his father’s age, but he’s different from his father because he talks to him like a real person. The boy’s father says less and less these days, and whenever he does say something, it’s like he’s lobbing the same words at him over and over again. How was your day, how was school, will you try out for the soccer team this year. “That’s good,” his father says before he’s even finished answering. This man, Storm Drain Bob, is honest and funny and always waits for him to finish his answers, like what he says is important.

“Are you a ghost?” asks the boy.

“How the hell did you know?” Storm Drain Bob says.

“Are you stuck down there forever?”

“I’m not sure, kid. It’s not forever yet.”

“You ever talk to other ghosts?”

“There’s hardly enough room down here, there’s so many. We’re always bumping into each other.”

“Ever meet a lady named Sherry?”

“Holy shit, you ask a lot of questions, kid. Yeah, I know Sherry. Just saw her the other day. Why? You know her? Want me to say hello?”

Sometimes Storm Drain Bob will ask him to bring more than food. A flashlight, some detective novels, a portable radio. The boy sneaks these out of the house and drops them down into the hole with a rope tied to a plastic beach bucket. He even brings a bottle of Beefeater gin that’s been under the kitchen sink with other shiny jewel-colored bottles since ever since his mother died.

One day Storm Drain Bob asks, “Hey, kid, ever seen a pussy?”

“No,” he says, a hot tingling in his face like thousands of the tiniest pinpricks. A kid at school once told him a pussy was like one of those fuzzy gloves you wash a car with, except black, with wax candy lips.

“Lower the bucket,” Storm Drain Bob says.

When the boy pulls up the bucket there it is, a glossy magazine with a stunned-looking blonde woman on the cover. She’s bent over a dune buggy with her butt stuck up in the air and her open-mouthed face turned over her shoulder. A platinum tassel of hair hangs between her legs and the boy thinks of a lucky rabbit’s foot.

He stuffs the magazine down his cargo shorts and pulls his t-shirt over the part sticking out. Then he sprints, body jackknifed as if he’s been socked in the gut. He spends the night under his bedcovers with a flashlight, flipping through the pages like scripture. A pussy does not look like a fuzzy car glove with wax candy lips, not at all. He scissors out a picture from between the centerfold’s legs and tucks it into a Ranger Rick magazine.

The next day at school, like a poker player with a trump card, he slaps the picture down on the cafeteria table. Other boys shoulder in for a good look. There’s snickering, snorting, elbow jabbing. Then someone grabs the boy’s arm, fat fingers digging in deeply. Mr. Green the guidance counselor glares down, nostrils twitching fiercely. The boy is known as a troublemaker with a hyperactive imagination and things like this have happened before.

He’s sent home with an envelope, the principal’s seal stamped against the flap.

The father opens the envelope at the dinner table, peering over his half-moon reading glasses, lips stuck out like he’s blowing into a trumpet. He looks at the picture, then at the boy, then at the picture again.

“Where’d you get this?” he asks.

“Storm Drain Bob,” says the boy. He can see the lines on his father’s face, the ones that are new since his mother died.

“What’s this boy’s number?” His voice is getting harder.

“It’s a man,” says the boy.

“Jesus Christ,” his father says, terror-stricken. His hands fist on top of the table. “What man? Who? I’ll kill him.”

“He lives underground,” says the boy.

The father’s shoulders notch slowly down and his fists unfurl. He rubs his forehead, keeps rubbing it. “This is not good. Jesus Christ, this is bad.” His eyes are soft and trembling when they rest on the boy. “It’s my fault. We should go outside after dinner. Throw a ball around. Want to go outside and throw a ball around? After dinner?”

Actually, the boy prefers spending time with Storm Drain Bob. Storm Drain Bob tells jokes and shares wisdom gathered during his years both alive and dead. Things about courage, risk, trust, revenge, God, women, and just about everything else important about being a man. A lot of it the boy doesn’t understand but he shares at school anyway. “Experience is the comb we receive after losing our hair,” he tells the other kids. And, “If sex doesn’t scare the cat, you’re not doing it right.”

One day Storm Drain Bob says, “There’s this lady down here. She says she wants to see you.”

“You lie,” says the boy.

“Fine, don’t believe me.”

“Get her to talk.”

“It’s like a different language. We’re dead.”

“Can she write a note?” the boy asks.

Storm Drain Bob tells him to come back tomorrow. He’ll see what he can arrange.

The next day Storm Drain Bob tells him to drop the bucket. When he pulls it back up there’s a note, written in red bubbly cursive on lined notebook paper. “Please help me! Love, Mom.”

It might be his mother’s handwriting. He isn’t sure, and this also frightens him, that he’s forgotten so much about his mother so soon, as if he’s somehow failing her. It feels like he’s letting her slip away bit by bit, atom by atom, and that every day there’s less of her than before.

“Come closer,” Storm Drain Bob says. “There you go. I can hear you up there. Put your ear down to the ground. You hear your mother? She’s trying to tell you something. Her name’s Sherry, right? You’re a brave kid, that’s what she’s always saying about you. You’re brave, right? Come down for a minute and say hello.”

The boy hesitates. The evening sun glints off the house windows down the street, but the lawns are already turning dark in the peaked rooftop shadows. He ties the rope around the trunk of an oak tree and tests the knot, yanking hard. Then he crouches down in front of the storm drain’s mouth, flattens belly-down to the ground like a snake and shimmies inside. The rope is rough and damp and thick between his clutched fingers. He drops deeper and deeper down into darkness.

“Storm Drain Bob” is based on a crank call I made twenty years ago, when I was fifteen years old. I’d long forgotten about this call until a year ago, when I discovered a cache of old audiotapes in my attic. Listening to the calls was like hearing some young, long-gone version of myself proffering one idea after another, on a strange wavelength beamed from afar.

As lame as that sounds.

I wrote this story the next day.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 29 | Summer 2010