Memoir

The Last Halloween

The parental division of labor in a typical ‘70s American household followed roughly the same pattern no matter the holiday. My mother helped us cook and color Easter eggs while my father watched television. On Easter Sunday she cooked while my father watched television. Thanksgiving, Christmas—the kitchen/television dynamic remained the same.

Independence Day was an exception, as my father loved to blow shit up; yes, and so was Halloween. My mother still did most of the heavy lifting—the decorating and the majority of the costume creation, passing out candy and oohing and ahhing over the cowboys, ghosts, and princesses—but the nature of the holiday demanded my father’s involvement. Somebody had to chaperone the kids around the darkened neighborhood and stand guard at the doors of razor-apple weirdos. Halloween was the one holiday that guaranteed a little dad time.

I remember very few of my Halloween costumes. There was a Ben Cooper skeleton with its hard plastic, low-visibility half mask and pinching elastic strap. I went with the classic Bela Lugosi vampire one year, fangs and fake blood included. For reasons I still don’t understand as a third grader I requested (and my mother made) a beaver costume.

So I don’t remember many of the costumes, but I remember the crisp air, the background walla of giddy children, and my father running my siblings and me from house to house in order to fill our bags with as much loot as we could carry before the porch lights went out. The last house was always our own, where my mother would act surprised when she answered the door, doling out the last of the candy as if we were just another group of neighborhood kids.

Those are neighborhood memories: city blocks populated by families we knew and creepy old people we didn’t. Those blocks were small, square, their streets marking the borders of the known world. Filling a brown paper grocery sack with free candy probably took less than an hour, but an hour spent with an interested and engaged father was worth more than even the biggest Pixy Stick.

Maybe it had nothing to do with me, or maybe the humiliation inherent to walking around with a son dressed like vaginal slang was too much for him; regardless, not long after the beaver costume incident my father split. My mother had to get her first job outside of the home, and she never stopped working after that. I don’t remember Easter that year, but we celebrated Independence Day with a lame church fireworks display rather than blowing shit up in the driveway. Halloween that year remains a blank.

My folks reunited in time for Christmas. Dad seemed energized by his time away—if not energized, at least more focused. He actually picked out presents for each of his children that year, a fact that became readily apparent when he wasn’t as surprised as we were when said gifts were opened. Our parents even hosted a New Year’s Eve party, one of only two parties they held during my childhood.

But by Easter the household had returned to its traditional division of holiday labor, with Mom tending the food and children and the old man keeping the couch warm. If anything, he seemed surlier than before the split, which turned out to be the result of job dissatisfaction. Maybe they made him wear a beaver costume at the plant, I don’t know.

By the end of summer he was free of that miserable job and our family was on our way to South Carolina. After a month or so of living in a motel we settled into a Brady Bunch house located in a sprawling neighborhood carved out of red dirt, kudzu, and loblolly pines. This was unlike any neighborhood I’d known in my ten short years. Rather than orderly city blocks, a ribbon of asphalt meandered for several miles like a lazy river with mid-century houses dotting its shorelines. Each of 1977’s solid gold architectural hits was represented: the ranch; the split-level ranch; the A-frame; the barn house; the Polaroid One Step house with its dramatic roof angles, all with sprawling yards the size of miniature golf courses.

In my previous neighborhoods all I had to do is step outside and something would happen–a baseball or football game would spontaneously erupt, a fight, a game of tag—but everything was so spread out here that casually running into another kid couldn’t happen. Eventually I’d learn what houses held kids, but even then a backyard game of football meant a 1-2 mile hike along the twisting asphalt river. For now I had to satisfy myself with school friends, 30 fifth graders under the tutelage of a 200 year-old beehive hairdo named Mrs. Brannon. Each day we gathered in a glass brick and asbestos building that not a decade earlier was the region’s black high school. Now it was the school district’s fifth and sixth grade campus.

These are strange years for kids—too old to believe in Santa Claus, too young not to; old enough to know that there’s something in those Judy Blume books the girls are tittering about, too young to understand what. Too young to openly like girls, too old not to notice that their bodies are changing–none more so than Sandy’s. She sat two desks directly to my left, which meant my attention was usually 90 degrees from the blackboard, the only geometry lesson I remember. Sandy’s and my preadolescent flirting drove Mrs. Brannon to fits of apoplexy she hadn’t experienced since Sherman’s March.

October came, and with it the question that plagues all groups of tweens: Are you going to trick or treat this year? At least publicly, the consensus among Mrs. Brannon’s class was that Halloween was kid stuff. Why would sophisticated readers of Superfudge throw on princess costumes and beg for candy? Why would us boys who finally understood the appeal of Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company infantilize ourselves with Ben Cooper Fonzie masks? How could I expect Sandy ever to take me seriously as boyfriend material if I were still into silly kid stuff?

Behind the double doors of our Brady Bunch house, though, it was a different story. Not only was the lure of free candy strong, but I had my parents to consider, too. I was their youngest child, after all. This might be their last hoorah—my mother’s last chance to sew a fancy costume, my dad’s final trip around a neighborhood as Halloween chaperone. Be a man for Sandy, be a boy for my folks. The pressure felt immense.

“Mom, I think I’m going to go trick or treating this year,” I finally announced two days prior to Halloween. I sat back and waited for her to compose herself. It’s hard to talk when you’re choking back tears of joy, after all.

“What? Why did you wait until the last minute to tell me this?” She heaved a huge sigh. “I work, I don’t have time for this. I guess I can take you to K-Mart and you can pick out a store costume. Just once I wish you kids would think about somebody other than yourselves.”

Thirteen loudly silent miles in the AMC Pacer later, I was staring at the remnants of K-Mart’s Halloween aisle. All of the good costumes were gone. Man From Atlantis and Donnie and Marie remained well represented, but a man has to maintain some standards. I grabbed a gigantic plastic cigar and a huge rubber nose attached to a pair of horned rim glasses. “How can you be Groucho without a tuxedo?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a hobo.” The Hobo (noun): The last desperate costume option for dullard children and their apathetic parents; the lowest common denominator of Halloween costumes.

Halloween night. I borrowed my sister’s CPO jacket, one of those heavy, plaid wool coats that were popular during the ‘70s, and grabbed a brown paper grocery sack from my mother’s hoard beneath the kitchen sink. I put on my Groucho glasses, chomped my plastic cigar, and walked into the living room. My father looked away from his episode of Six Million Dollar Man and considered me for a moment. “What are you supposed to be?”

“A hobo.”

“Shouldn’t you have some dirt on your cheeks?”

“I have some brown eye shadow,” my mother said, and my father returned to his program. I remained where I stood.

“What?” my father finally said.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“You’re a big boy, you’ll be fine. Get me a Snickers.”

And so began the Bataan Hobo March, a 100 mile hike along the serpentine road dotted with suburban tract homes. Neighbors greeted me with varying degrees of disinterest, annoyance, and Southern hospitality. I crossed paths with a trio of teenage boys knocking on doors in hopes of bumming beer and cigarettes. I happened upon my buddy Ricky Brent dressed in a Peanuts bed sheet with a couple of eye holes cut into it. I smelled the odd aroma drifting through Bob the Hippy’s open door.

I walked in total darkness through the wide, dead spaces separating the houses, all for a couple of cruddy butterscotch or a pack of Smarties. This was drudgery rather than holiday fun, but if I just stayed focused and kept walking I was bound to impress my parents with my enormous candy haul. They could have that, at least. I walked so far I began to worry that I wouldn’t make my way home.

In the near distance I spotted a well-lit Colonial house, its towering white columns at least 20 feet tall. It looked like the White House or Tara or Graceland, one of those fancy-pants places that Brady house kids like me never visited, and more importantly the kind of place that might hand out full-sized candy bars. I decided to make the White House my last stop.

The closer I got the bigger the house appeared. The porch light swung from a chain like a chandelier; the brass knockers on the huge double doors like something out of an old horror movie. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to use the knockers or the doorbell. After way too much deliberation I opted for the doorbell, and then I waited. With a house that big one doesn’t necessarily hear the result of pressing the doorbell button, nor can one hear whether the occupants are making their way to the door. I waited patiently, afraid that if I pressed the button a second time I’d anger the reclusive Hughes-ian homeowner and miss my chance at a full-sized candy bar.

I waited and waited, and just as I was about to press the doorbell a second time I heard the deadbolt move and one of the gigantic double doors creaked open.

And there stood Sandy with a bowl of candy.

Please don’t let her recognize me, I prayed to a God in whom I’d chosen to believe at that very moment. Surely she couldn’t crack my elaborate disguise—the rubber nose, the Max Factor doubling for train soot—but a little divine intervention couldn’t hurt.

“Hey, Jim,” Sandy said.

“Hey,” I replied, and any prior belief in a benevolent deity vanished.

“What are you supposed to be?”

“Hobo.”

“Oh.”

“Did you go out?”

“No, I stayed home and passed out candy,” Sandy said. She reached into her bowl and produced two packs of Smarties. “Happy Halloween.”

“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” I said, but if there was any justice I’d vanish into some Upstate South Carolina version of the Bermuda Triangle before morning.

When I returned home I didn’t bother knocking on the door. Pretending I was just another trick-or-treater seemed childish and stupid. Instead I walked in, draped my sister’s coat over a chair, and dumped my candy onto the kitchen table like I’d just gotten back from a robbery. “How’d it go?” my mother asked.

“Okay.”

“Did you see any other kids?”

“I saw Ricky Brent, that’s all.”

My father rose from the couch and joined us. “Not a very big haul,” he said. “These people around here are cheapskates. I remember when you used to come home with a full bag, remember that? You better hold on while I check out your candy.” He grabbed a fun-sized Snickers and made his way back to the couch.

“We barely had any trick-or-treaters,” my mother sighed. “I guess things just aren’t the same anymore.” She unwrapped a butterscotch and popped it into her mouth. “Put your coat back on. I want to get a picture of you. Who knows how many more chances I’ll get to see you all dressed up?” But I think she knew that his is how childhood ends, not all at once but in little moments like this, each one colored with awkwardness, nostalgia, and melancholy.

Categories: Memoir

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