Once Upon a Time in October

 

            Actually, it was October 31, 1959. And the story begins at 531 Wisteria Way, Terra Linda, San Rafael, California.

 

That was a very important Halloween for me, in many ways. I’m still surprised by how clearly I remember it. 

 

I was seven years old that year, and in third grade, having ‘skipped’ second. In language arts, that was a perfectly fine thing for me to do. I was on top of it. Mathematically, it put a crack in my foundation that persisted up through high school. The ‘basic facts’ were never at the tip of my tongue. But that’s a digression.

 

That Hallowe’en, I dressed up a witch that year. I remember sitting at the dining room table, doing my homework before we went out for the evening, because the next day was a school days. My mother was in the kitchen, probably preparing dinner. My sister Mary was also busy with her homework. George and Moonyeen were busy around the house.  Several times I quipped, “All witches need to be well educated these days,” something I thought was terribly clever, but which my family successfully ignored. 

 

When my homework was finished, I did something I’d never done before. I took another sheet of ‘pencil paper’ and began to write. I remember my opening sentences very clearly. “Once there was a cat. He was black. His name was Dick.”   I chose the name Dick because it was my brother’s name, I knew how to spell it, and it was short. No sense wasting all those hand cramps on writing a longer name!

 

The story was very short. The cat went out on Halloween, was scared by his owners in costume, and they made up for it by giving him some of their Halloween candy and milk. Great plot, right? But that day I wrote my first short story, for no other reason than to write something. I read it aloud, several times and rather loudly, to my family. I don’t recall that I got much of a response, but I don’t recall that it mattered to me. The writing was the thing of it for me, not any response I could stir.

 

At dusk, I headed out, alone, to go trick or treating. My older sibs had gone off to a costume competition. That may have been the year my sister Moonyeen went as Martha Washington and won a prize. No, wait, that year I went as a cannibal, with several broken dollies in my step pot. So. Probably 1960 for that story.

 

Anyway, off I went, seven and alone, into the mild California night. It was just getting dark, and there was a soft wind. Dry leaves skittered down the street. There were a few clouds, but the weather was perfect for trick or treating. The streetlamps made my shadow long in-between them, and short underneath them. If I stopped at the perfect spot between lamps, I had two shadows, one in front of me and one behind.

 

 A veteran of trick or treating with the big kids, I carried a white pillowcase for treats. I knew it wouldn’t tear, and it would hold a lot of loot. I started out on my own street. The house next door was the home of a mild crackpot. The neighborhood disdained him a bit for planting weeping willows in his front yard. (“The roots will go everywhere!”) We were also puzzled by him as he seemed intent on annihilating every clover plant and dandelion in his lawn. (My mother had even caught him crawling around on our lawn, pulling up dandelions lest they spread seeds to his!) He also washed his driveway almost daily with bleach. Once, when a guest left an oil splotch on his driveway, he scrubbed it clean with Comet Cleanser. Predictably, they were stingy with the candy!

 

I didn’t know the next house well, but the one beyond it had a reputation. The fellow there had been in the military and stationed in Japan. And not only had he married a Japanese woman, they had a child, a little girl. AND he had brought them all to live in our neighborhood. It was scandalous and I was a bit afraid of the ‘Japanese Woman’.

 

(I don’t think I’ll apologize for my 7 year old self. I was who I was, shaped by my time and place and the talk of the neighborhood.)

 

I knocked on the door and said ‘Trick or Treat.’ As the woman fetched the candy, I peeked around her house. It was very clean, with shoes lined up by the mat. I was given candy, ordinary American candy. And then the Japanese Woman, in English that was understandable if accented, asked me if I would take their little girl with me to trick or treat. I was shocked. I didn’t even know the little girl’s name. She was much younger than I was, probably only three or four. I didn’t want to take her. I had plans to cover a lot of territory and get a ton of candy, and because I had a couple of little brothers, I knew how slow little kids could walk and how quickly they got tired. But when a grown up asked you to do something and said ‘please’, the correct thing to do was to say ‘yes’. So I did. I don’t recall the little girl’s costume, only that she was very pretty, with her black bobbed hair and her Japanese eyes. She was very quiet, as shy with me as I was with her. I knocked on the doors and said ‘Trick or treat!’ for both of us. She held out her bag and people told us how cute we were.

 

I cheated. I took her around the block and up one extra street and then I took her home. I expected her to raise a fuss, as my little brother would have known that was a REALLY short trick-or-treating trip. But she didn’t. She seemed well satisfied with her haul, and her mother was very pleased. The Japanese Woman thanked me, and then, to my shock, tried to pay me some money for having taken her little girl around. I said “No, thank you”, several times, but she insisted, and finally stepped forward and dropped the handful of change into my pillow case. I think it was less than a dollar in coins, and I really did want it. I think I salved my conscience by saying it was likebaby-sitting. Or a different kind of treat. I said good-bye and immediately headed out to begin on my heavy-duty trick-or-treating.

 

By then, it was full dark. The streets were full of clusters of kids going from house to house. This was sururban California in its finest hour. Paved streets, sidewalks, street lamps at the corner, mowed lawns, and the smell of autumn flowers in the air. Almost every house had its porch light turned on. From one, ‘spooky’ music was emanating from a speaker hidden in the bushes. Jack-O-Lanterns glowed. There was laughter and shouting in the streets, and the bobbing dance of flashlights.

 

I went from house, to house to house, my pillow case growing heavier with each knock. At one house, the family wasn’t home, but they had left their little barbeque grill on the porch, full of candy. And kids were being honorable and not taking all of it, only a piece or a handful. At some houses I got apples, or home made popcorn balls or home made fudge. Tiny candy bars didn’t exist then. At some place I got regular candy bars. Or loose candy corn, or jelly beans or licorice or gum. I took it all without a qualm.

 

I was actually thinking about going home when I ran into my sister Mary. She was still making the rounds, so I fell in with her. We trick or treated a number of houses until we came to one with a very dim porch light. We weren’t certain about it, but the light was on, not off. So we knocked. A faint light was coming through the curtains, but no one came to the door. We were just about to leave when the door opened slowly and a woman with her hair up in curlers said, “Yes? What is it?”

 

“Trick or treat!” we replied and she looked startled. 

 

“Is it Hallowe’en tonight? I must have lost track of the date. Well, come in, and I’ll see what I can find you for a treat.”

 

And we stepped inside and closed the door behind us. The room was lit by only a few candles. “Something’s wrong with my power. My lights don’t work. You kids wait there now!” And she headed off for the kitchen. 

 

We stood there. Down the hall way, we could see dim lights coming from what we knew were bedrooms. After all, this was the suburbs. The layout of this house was identical to our own. A faint light came from one of the rooms. Suddenly, the door to one bedroom was flung open. A girl ran out, shrieking! Chasing her was a teenage boy with a bloody hatchet! The raced into a different room and the door was slammed behind them.

 

By then I was pulling at my sister’s hand. She didn’t budge. That was the courage of a fifth grader for you! “Let’s go!” I whispered but just then the housewife came back. She held out a brown paper sack to my sister. 

 

“Help yourself!” she said. And Mary reached insideand then jerked her hand back. 

 

“That’s not candy!”

 

“Oh. I must have made a mistake. Yes, indeed. That must be Morgan’s cold dead body.” And as if that were perfectly normal, she shuffled off and returned with another sack. This one did hold candy, a kind called ‘chicken bones’. We each took some and then she saw us to the door. Once outside, we darted down her walkway and back to the street and then agreed it was time to head for home. Most of the younger kids were already off the streets. Only the ‘big kids’ were out now.

 

“What was in that bag?” I asked Mary as we walked down the sidewalk.

 

“I don’t know. Maybe raw liver. Maybe something else.” 

 

And we ran. 

 

 

Back at our well-lit house, Dad was answering the door. He was wearing a gizmo that made it look like he had an arrow stuck through his head, and all the kids were laughing at that. We dumped all our candy into the big yellow bowl and pawed through it for the best kinds. Loot was shared on Hallowe’en night, with no protests. We knew we could rely on George to stay out until midnight, only coming home to dump his pillow case and then go out again. Coolest big brother ever.

 

 

1959. 
Almost 50 years ago. 
My first short story.

I have never forgotten that house, nor the woman’s line about ‘Morgan’s cold dead body.’ I wonder if she had any idea that she and her teenagers would define Halloween for me forever?  She set a trick-or-treating standard that I have since tried to live up to. Wherever those folks are now, I continue to wish them well for scaring the dickens out of me on that long ago Halloween night.

 

And about this time each year, when we dig out the Halloween box full of costumes and the little kids try on every single one, I remember the ‘Japanese Woman’ and her little girl. What a brave soul she was! She had come a long way to find a new home, in a country where many people still recalled the bitterness of World War II. How peculiar must our holiday of ghosts and witches and cowboys and spacemen have seemed to her? Yet there she was, entrusting her little girl to a neighborhood kid and putting her right out into the swim of our country and our tradition.

 

 Somewhere, I hope, there’s a woman in her early 50’s who might still remember that first time I took her trick or treating. I hope so. 

Happy Halloween!

One Response to Once Upon a Time in October

  1. I was glued to the screen reading this story! Halloween seems such a strange and exotic thing to me. Our All Saints day is a very solemn and quiet day for remembering the dead ones and visiting graveyards with candles. The kids here go out asking for treats on Palm Sunday and there are no “tricks” involved – they exchange well-wishes and a decorated branch for candies and such.