November 01, 2005

The Ghouls All Came from their Humble Abodes

We woke to the stale chocolate and peanut smell of opened candy wrappers coming from big brown shopping bags on the kitchen floor. “I got a Starburst Chewies and a Tootsie Roll!” “Let’s sort the lollipops first and the chocolate later.” The morning after Halloween: dreaded by teachers everywhere, their classrooms filled with kids dosed on sugar after staying up late the night before, homework half-unfinished from the rush to go trick or treating.

Our neighborhood is somehow dark and obscure although centrally located, so we walk a quarter-mile to the more well-endowed precincts of the historic district – Jekyll and Hyde Park, I’ll call it -- which is Trick or Treat Central in this town. Cars come from all over the city, parking up the side streets, for this is where you find big old houses strung with orange and red lights – gravestones with funny epitaphs sprouting on the lawns --- skulls adorning windowsills – corpses dangling from branches – sprayed-on cobwebs draping the bushes – kid-sized funhouses issuing smoke for trick or treaters to walk through -- stereo speakers moved onto porches to play “The Monster Mash” – skeletons sitting in beach chairs, their red eyes blinking. There are patio parties for the grownups, and some of the parents stroll their rounds with a glass of wine or can of beer in one hand and a child in the other.

A three-year-old boy, escorted by a tall dad in a Bozo the Clown costume, runs up to a light-strung home and says, “It’s Christmastime!”

A mother calls into the crowd of candy-seekers, “Nick!”

“Which Nick are you referring to?” I reply, since there's likely to be three of them in any sizable crowd of contemporary kids.

I stop to look admiringly at a house I’ve always liked: it’s tasteful and modest and pretty and it’s lit up inside to reveal bookshelves and a nice dinner table… My ten-year-old, Agent 95, returns from it with a cry of disgust: “I knew I’d find him around here somewhere. That’s __________’s house, from camp. Every day he’d tell us how perfect he was, and every day his parents would have to stay for a half hour with the counselors to talk about his behavior problems. He’s in there watching TV.”

“Well that’s the perfect thing for a kid to do on Halloween, I guess.”

We stay out a long time – two hours -- because the pickings are so good and the decor so alluring. Soon the unprecedented happens: the kids are saying they’ve had enough and want to go home, while I want to keep trick or treating to see more houses.

“I’m thirsty,” Agent 97 says. “Let’s go to a restaurant.”

“We’re two blocks from home,” I say, exaggerating slightly. “It’s possible to remain alive for several minutes with a dry throat.”

Agent 95 says, “The city ought to put in water fountains every four or five blocks.”

“You can order that when you achieve world domination,” I tell him.

Agent 95 keeps taking off his big, furry werewolf mask, which has elicited many compliments and one toddler’s frightened howl, because it’s too stuffy.

“Come on, haven’t you ever heard of suffering for your art?” I ask him.

Eventually he gives the mask to me to hold while he treat or treats as himself. It’s really a fine, scary mask, and I put it on and nonchalantly stand around, no one noticing the werewolf in jeans and sweater loitering on the curb with his eye on the children. When was the last time I wore a mask? Decades ago -- how many is a subject better left unexamined. It’s interesting in here. You get to observe unseen. What’s seen of you is a disguise, an artifice, a red herring. No wonder people invent personae for themselves – ancient Greek actors’ masks were called personae – and keep them on for so long they ultimately can’t take them off. It never occurred to me before.

But this mask really is stuffy. There’s a strap that’s supposed to go around the back of your head, but it’s hanging down in front of my eyes. The eyeholes are in the wrong places so I either see double or see a fraction of what’s in front of me, and the hard plastic of the werewolf nose is pressing uncomfortably on my flesh and blood nose. Forget this – after a couple of minutes I take it off.

Never criticize someone until you’ve walked a block in his mask.