What follows is a most horrifying Halloween tale. I am sure some of you will find the story amusing and resort to giggles, but that would only be the ones among you that are evil and beyond all hope. The rest of you, those who are innately good, will understand and feel the horror that left an unfortunate five-year-old boy, me, scarred for life.
I awoke that fateful Halloween morning in a state of ignorant bliss. There was no sense of foreboding, no Hitchcockian background music playing that warned me of my impending doom. I guess, looking back, I should have known. My mother had been busy for weeks at the sewing machine constructing something bright red with white polka dots. She had been calling me in from the yard to measure various parts of my anatomy, which I thought strange but no stranger than any of her previous behavior. She was a parent, and, thus by definition, strange. I had learned, like most kids, to accept this and not to question it. A parent’s strangeness was to be tolerated…asking too many questions never led to enlightenment but could result in being sent to your room without dessert. But perhaps I should have taken more notice of my mother’s cheerful disposition that morning. Well, not really her cheerful disposition; she was always a morning person, flitting around in a caffeine high with a joviality that wasn’t quite fitting normal human behavior. It was more the way she stopped, mid flit, and looked down at me with her head cocked at a slight angle and smiled…and then giggled. I looked down. My fly was zipped. I had no idea what the silly woman was giggling about, so I made the mistake of ignoring her. She was obviously crazy, and I had better things to do. For one thing, I had to get my Halloween costume ready.
My plan was to be a vampire. I took a torn t-shirt and went to work bloodying it up with a tube of Acrylic #637 blood-red paint. I had surreptitiously acquired some of my father’s Brylcreem and some eyeliner from my mom’s dresser. I would finish the costume with blue jeans, white socks, penny loafers, and a set of Dracula choppers I had bought at the 5&10. I would be James Dean with fangs. All the other kids would be in awe of my coolness…the girls would swoon and be powerless under my penetrating gaze. I would be the hit of the Halloween party.
Just before noon, my brother came into my room to show off his costume. He was a cowboy. He had this silly hat on that came with a drawstring. It was decidedly uncool. Clint Eastwood wouldn’t be caught dead in such a hat. Nor would Clint Eastwood be caught in that shirt, which sported little bronco-riding, lasso-twirling cowboys. The rest of the ensemble was equally goofy. It consisted of a silver-studded black leather vest with matching chaps, a baby-blue bandana tied around his neck, a two-gun holster strapped to his waist, and the silliest looking pair of red pointy-toed boots. He looked like Roy Rogers only gayer. Imagine Liberace at a rodeo. I looked him up and down and shook my head. How, I wondered, was I related to this dork?
I told him to wait downstairs and I would be down shortly to show him what Halloween was all about. In response, he drew his six-shooters and filled me with holes, and then awkwardly attempted to twirl them back into the holster. After bending down to pick them up, he made a less than gallant exit. This was going to be no contest. I hadn’t planned on dressing up so early but the Twinkle-Toed Kid needed to be shown who’s boss. I donned my outfit, primped a bit until I was happy with the finished look, and struck a few poses. I was devastating. I emanated cool. Cool dripped from me in Acrylic #637 drops. All I needed was a cigarette to dangle from the corner of my mouth, and a few minutes of craftsmanship later, I had one. I was ready. I would make the campy cowboy quake, not just in fear but also in defeat.
When I got downstairs, my brother was eating a grilled cheese sandwich in the dining room. Not exactly cowboy grub, I thought. I snuck up behind him and hovered. My mother spotted me hovering from the kitchen and shrieked, which startled my brother into looking around to see what my mother was shrieking about. His already wide eyes landed on my fangs and it was as if he’d been shot out of a cannon. He headed for the kitchen, and, since the dining room table was between him and the kitchen, it went, too. Success. I was so happy with myself, and I was enjoying a grand chuckle about it when I heard my mom say, “Unh-uh, no you don’t! You go wash that crap off. Your mother made you a Halloween costume and you’re gonna wear it.”
I stopped laughing, which evidently was my brother’s cue to start laughing. “You’re going to be a clown,” he said, very smugly. And one look at my mother confirmed he was right. I tried to protest but mother would not be swayed. “I’ve been working on that clown suit for weeks,” she said, “and you’re going to look so cute in it.”
Oh god…Cute! The c-word. I wanted to die.
Four hours of pulling, adjusting, squishing, and poofing later, I was a little red polka-dotted clown. This included a tall, conical-shaped red hat topped by a white cotton ball and red slippers that elongated from the toe and curled to a point about a foot up in the air. As if that were not enough, there were little bells hanging from the slippers’ pointy tips. My face was painted white with red circles on my cheeks and on my nose was attached a large red ball. When mother was finally satisfied with how ridiculous I looked, I waddled to the mirror. The suit was made to look like it was inflated, which resulted in me looking like a giant ball with a head and two curly feet sticking out. My hands protruded at 45-degree angles and rested on my round little body. It was humiliating. My brother stuck his head through the door and shot me three times. Then he blew the smoke from the tip of the barrel, winked, and disappeared again. I hated him. But when I looked back at the mirror, I found myself wishing his toy gun had indeed been lethal and capable of putting me out of this misery. Jeez. I looked like a giant testicle with chickenpox.
I went over to sit on the end of my mother’s bed to contemplate my situation. My mother shrieked again. She hadn’t decided if sitting was permissible in this costume and she mulled it over. I had to wonder why she was so proud of herself. She had constructed a costume that was not only next to impossible to walk in, it was evidently also impossible to sit down in. Finally, she let me sit but told me to be very careful. I promised her I would, and then secretly wished it would rip. Unfortunately, it didn’t. What it did do, however, was prove, as if it wasn’t abundantly clear already, that my mother had not thought the mechanics of this costume through. As I eased down on the bed, the suit squished upwards and consumed my head so that all that remained was a fat body with a pointy hat sticking out. The squishing effect also raised my arms from the 45-degree angle out to 90-degrees. Though I couldn’t see anything from this new vantage point, I sensed that I had far surpassed looking ridiculous. I must have looked like a huge zit, the little white cotton ball on the tip of my hat being the whitehead. There was, however, one good aspect to this, I thought. While sitting down, no one would ever be able to recognize me short of taking my fingerprints, my stubby little fingers being the only visible evidence that this red ball of polka dots contained a person.
My mother took all this in and started to laugh. Oh, she thought it was so hilarious. She thought it was so funny she called my brother in so he could laugh at me, too. He was most obliging. Then she decided it was so adorable that she had to have a picture. I heard a click here and a click there in between her and my brother’s laughs and an occasional mention of the c-word. My humiliation was complete. I hated them both. I consoled myself with thoughts of fratricide and matricide. Okay, I probably wouldn’t kill my mother—she was useful when it came to putting food on the table—but I decided then and there that any Oedipal complex was out of the question.
And, I suddenly remembered, my humiliation wasn’t near complete. We would next go out in public to trick-or-treat and then to a Halloween party. This meant there would be witnesses. People and, worse, friends would see me portray a pox-ridden testicle, and I wouldn’t have any choice but to allow them to live to tell about it. First, we went to the neighbors’ houses by foot. My brother danced around me, shooting everything in sight, as I waddled slowly along. The little bells on the tips of my curly slippers went kaching-ching kaching-ching, alerting everyone to turn around and stare, but the giant red ball wobbling its way along the sidewalk was so hard not to notice that most people were staring already. I could sense that every car coming down the street slowed so that they, too, could stare, and I was convinced the cars contained each and every friend I had from school. At each house, I would stand and accept the smiles, laughs, and the inevitable barrage of words like “cute” and “adorable” with concealed disdain. My mother, holding my candy bag because it was impossible for me to do so and walk at the same time, beamed with pride. The worst houses we visited were the ones with steps up to the front door, which, in our neighborhood, seemed to be every house. There was no way for me to negotiate the steps with six-inch legs, so I had to submit to the extra humiliation of having my mother lift me by my armpits and carry me up and down each set of steps. Meanwhile, my brother, ever the cowboy, took to herding me. I had to listen to “git along little doggie” and “Yeehaw!” as we progressed from house to house. I kept wishing he would “giddy up” between me and the street…surely no one would suspect foul play if I had stumbled and gave him a slight nudge into oncoming traffic, would they? But before I got my chance, we were finished with our trick-or-treating and back at our house. By this time, dad was home and we immediately loaded into the car to go to the party. I say immediately but it took them five whole minutes to get me into the car. I sat there with my head disappeared into the heart of the beast and felt happy that nobody would be able to identify me as the big bulbous zit in the back seat. Of course, that security lasted only a bit and after another five minutes of easing me out of the car, we were at the party.
The party was hell. Not only was I subjected to endless repetitions of the c-word and “Oh, how adorable,” I was also made to endure cheek pinches from every adult female at the party. My mother couldn’t have been happier. Go ahead, woman, I thought, enjoy yourself…but just how long do you think it will take me to make your sewing machine disappear? I turned to escape from my mom and her friends and the first thing I saw was Cindy Harris, the prettiest and most popular girl at school, coming in the door with her parents. She was dressed, most appropriately, as a princess, and she was walking in my direction. I panicked. Remembering the effect that sitting had on the suit, I grabbed a handful of fabric on both sides and lifted. From Cindy’s vantage point, the red ball’s legs elongated by six inches and its head disappeared, leaving nothing but the conical hat extruding above. I was like a turtle disappearing into my shell. If I had just stood still everything would have been fine, but I didn’t stand still. I suddenly realized that, while I had succeeded in concealing my identity, I had also morphed my clown suit into what appeared to be a huge zit. I had to escape. I turned in what I approximated to be 180 degrees and started to run, or the closest I could come to running with what was now 12-inch legs. I didn’t get far. What I hadn’t realized was that 180 degrees pointed me directly at a wall, which brought my progress to an abrupt halt. I bounced back in the direction I had come and ended up flat on my back. I lay there looking up at the ceiling and wondered how lucky one would have to be for no one to have noticed what just happened. Then I saw Cindy Harris appear, upside down in my vision, standing over me. She looked down and I will never forget what she said…she said, “Oh, it’s you.” And then she turned and calmly walked away. I reached down and pulled on the fabric until my head slipped back into its hiding place. Now I could say it…it was official…my humiliation was complete.
[I dedicate this Halloween story to Susan Orlean. I am dedicating it to her because, being the cheap person I am, it doubles as a birthday present. Yes, Halloween is Susan’s birthday. (It sure answers a lot of questions, doesn’t it?) I think the whole world is following Susan on Twitter, but in case you are new to this world, you can find her at http://twitter.com/susanorlean . She is a very special lady. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and the author of many books. She also has the distinction of being played by Meryl Streep in a Hollywood movie. How many people can say that? Not even Joe Wallace can say that, even though he has offered to shave his beard to make it possible.]