Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Growing Up with Halloween

AT LAST IT CAME. The gang had been waiting since the first of September, as the air turned chill for the first time, and mothers had joked that it would snow any day now, and the trees’ summer whispers had become autumn whistles, and the leaves were not quite green any more, and the sun had begun to come in through the school windows that faced south.

At last it came. They had been ready long before the grocery store had set out the pumpkins; and before the ten-cent store had stocked the masks, noisemakers, and little peanut-butter taffy twists wrapped in black and orange paper; and before the teachers had put up the bulletin board with black cats and jointed paper skeletons. At last it came.

Halloween.

Tommy sat at the supper table impatiently. The sun had not yet gone down; but it didn’t look as bright outside as it had a moment ago. The trees cast darker shadows. He squirmed a bit in his chair and kept his eyes on the window.
Mr. Gregson smiled as he seated himself across from Tommy. He said, “Don’t worry, Tommy. We’ll be through eating before it gets dark.”

“But, Dad,” Tommy exclaimed fervently, “I’ve got to get ready. And Mitchell and John Eric will be over in only fifteen minutes!”

“You’ll have plenty of time,” his father reassured him, “you’ll see.”

It was nothing short of torture to sit still through supper. More than once Tommy suspected his mother or father of spooning out more macaroni onto his plate when his head was turned looking fretfully out the window. But he survived the meal somehow, blurted “Excuse me, please,” and dashed for his room.

He threw himself onto the floor, stretched under his bed, and pulled out the much-wrinkled grocery sack that held his Gypsy costume. He dumped its contents unceremoniously onto the floor and rummaged through them. Eyepatch, torn pants, bright purple-dyed shirt, overvest, shoes from his dad half-packed with newspapers, rubber knife, a false moustache: It was all here.

Tommy put it all on, except for the eyepatch. He headed back down the hall to the living room and through it to the kitchen where his parents were cleaning up the dishes.

“Which eye should I cover up, Mom?”

“Just a second, dear,” Mrs. Gregson replied. “Oh -- Glenn, could you help Tommy?”

Mr. Gregson turned from putting up the plates, closed the cupboard door, and squatted down, wiping his hands on his towel. “Wow, you look good!” he said.
Then, “Let’s figure it out. Where’s your knife, Tom?”

“Here,” replied Tommy, pulling it from his belt. He offered it to his father.

“No, you hold on to it,” responded Mr. Gregson. He placed his hands on Tommy’s shoulders and gave his son a half-turn so that the boy faced the table at the other end of the kitchen. Dad pointed to one chair, still pushed back from the table. “Now, see that chair?” Tommy nodded. “Now just imagine,” Dad continued, “that that chair is a man who says you’re not the best violin-playin’ Gypsy that ever lived. So, you pull out your rubber knife and get ready to throw. Aim, aim carefully,” Dad half-whispered with his eyes on Tommy’s face, “and throw!”

Tommy threw, from the shoulder. The knife passed between two slats in the chair back, its rubber hilt striking the wall with a clear thwack! sound, and fell to the floor.

“Got him in the ribs,” Mr. Gregson commented.

“Glenn!” exclaimed Mom, properly disapproving.

“It’s all right, Suzanne. He missed the window by at least six inches.” Dad turned to make sure she knew he was joshing her. They exchanged a smile. He bent back down to Tommy and said, “Go get it and come on back.” The boy did. “Now do it again, but just aim, don’t throw it.” Tommy complied. “There,” said his father, “what are you doing right now?”

“Well, my hand’s in the air, I’m squinting my -- no, I’ve got -- my left eye’s closed!”

“Then,” summed up Dad, “that’s the eye you can cover up. You aim with your right eye, so you need it more, yes?”

“Yeah! Thanks, Dad!” Tommy turned to his mother. “Now, Mom, you said I could use some of your old pancake stuff --”

“Yes,” said Mom. “How dark a Gypsy do you want to be?”

“So no one can guess who I am!”

+ + + + + +

It was six o’clock. The dusk was growing deeper. Tommy sat on the couch, impatiently drumming his hands on the cushions, watching alternately the clock on the living-room wall and the window, through which he saw grey trees shaking their arms in the wind. His parents were sitting together in the big double rocker. His dad was reading the doubled-over newspaper and trying not to stick it into Mom’s face, while she looked through the TV Guide.

“And now, until the late news, have a good evening -- and a safe and Happy Halloween.”

The doorbell rang.

Tommy sprang up and ran to the door, yanking it open.

On the porch stood two figures, one taller and the other about the same size as Tommy. The taller was Count Dracula, replete with painted widow’s peak, pale skin, black cape, and sharp teeth. The other was in a Frankenstein’s Monster costume from Kresge’s.

The duo chorused, “Trick or treat!”

“Come on in, you guys, I’m just about ready.” Tommy held the door open for them, ushered them into the living room, and left them there as he headed for the bathroom.

“Hello, boys.” Mr Gregson smiled at them from the double rocker. “Let’s see. You’re John Eric,” he said, pointing to tall Dracula, and you’re Mitchell,” he said to short Frankenstein.

The monster giggled. “Nope, we fooled you,” said Dracula. “I’m Mitchell. He’s John Eric.”

“Really?” Tommy’s father scratched his head in puzzlement. “You hear that, Suzanne? I would’ve sworn ­--” and then he winked at Tommy’s mother.

At this point the bathroom door slammed open and Tommy emerged. “Ready to go?” he asked the pair.

“Yeah. G’night, Mr. and Mrs. Gregson.”

“Goodnight, boys.”

“See you later.”

Dad walked with them to the front door. “See you later, son. Don’t be out too late, and be careful.”

“Yeah, Dad.”

And they were gone. Mr. Gregson let the screen door close and flipped on the porch light.

Dracula, Vordak the Gypsy, and Frankenstein’s Monster turned right and began working their way down the hill in the early night darkness. There was just enough of a breeze to catch their empty Trick-or-Treat bags and billow them open behind them like parachutes. They ran to the first house down from the Gregsons’, the Rices’. Tommy-Vordak pressed the lighted doorbell twice.

The door opened, and before Mrs. Rice had appeared from behind it, the three called out, “Trick or Treat!”

“Hello! Hello! Just a minute!” Mrs. Rice turned and picked up a wicker basket from somewhere out of Tommy’s sight. She opened the screen door, held it open with her left hip, and dropped one white popcorn ball into each eagerly outstretched sack.

“Thanks! G’night!” the three boys called over their shoulders, already following the trail of more candy treasures, already hurrying down the driveway and down the slope to the Abrahamson’s house.

Just as they were leaving the Abrahamson’s porch a minute later, haloed by the porchlight over their shoulders, they met two more souls. One was in a plastic step-in astronaut’s costume; the other was a fairy princess; both were in Tommy’s class at school.

“Hi, Stevie,” said Mitchell-Dracula.

“Hi, Mitchell,” replied the astronaut.

“Hi, Tommy,” ventured the fairy princess.

“Oh -- hi, Jennifer,” responded Tommy-Vordak. Sheesh, why did she single him out to say hi to? Even if Stevie was her brother, she was a girl.

“Where ya been?” asked Stevie.

“Oh, we just started up at Tommy’s house,” answered Mitchell-Dracula.

“I got a popcorn ball,” asserted John-Eric Frankenstein proudly, holding open his sack. C’mon kid, grow up! Tommy thought, then felt pride that he and Mitchell were adult enough to put up with the little kid.

“That’s nice, John-Eric,” Stevie answered with similar indulgence. See you guys later!” He and Jennifer headed up the Abrahamson’s porch. Gee, Stevie was always a good sport about being stuck doing things with his twin sister. But, sheesh, now she’s --

“Bye, Tommy,” called Jennifer, singling him out for her attention.

“Bye, see ya later, g’night!”

The trio continued down the hill. They had just left the Dornmans’ house at the foot of the hill and were beginning to cross the street back uphill the other side when they were confronted with the bane of any nine-year-old’s existence: the big kids.

Dan Berry was a pirate with a black beard and big black boots. Gary Andrews was a clown with a red rubber nose and a greasepaint frown. Freddie Spencer was a Martian with green skin and wire antennae. Jimmy Trent was a bent-over hunchback with a pillow hump and mascara scars. They were all 12, except Dan was 13, and sometimes wore their ages like a license to kill.

“Arr, avast there, maties!” Dan spread his arms and his three companions stopped with him.

“Ahoy, maties! Who be ye?” he called to Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Vordak the Gypsy.

“Hello, Dan,” said Mitchell. “Gee, you guys look neat.” This was a safe thing to say.

“Sure’n don’t we now? We’ve planned many a long week for this night, right me lads?”

Somehow, on this night of nights it did not seem at all out of place to see a clown, a Martian, and a hunchback raise their arms in salute and cry together, “Aye, Captain!”

“Well,” growled the placated captain, “ye’d best be behavin’ yerselfs tonight, or else ye’ll hear from Cap’n Kidd -- and ye’ll walk the plank! D’ you hear me, lads?” he snarled, leaning over towards the three younger friends.

Tommy wasn’t sure how much Dan was joking, or if he was. Ever since September, when he’d gone to junior high, Dan had been acting all grown up and only noticed the others with disdain.

Tommy looked at Mitchell, who was also unsure of what to do next. They nodded and said, more or less together, “Aye, aye, sir!”

“Good lads!” responded Cap’n Kidd. “Well, mates, let’s shove off!” The quartet headed on past them, and vanished into the shadows under the trees.

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