I despise Halloween.
I’ve always hated it, even as a kid. I never understood why a holiday that granted people the license to dress in gruesome costumes and knock on strangers’ doors demanding candy on a cold October night qualified as fun. Don’t people get enough sugar at home? Are we living through some kind of Snickers shortage that I’m not aware of? Can’t kids—and adults—think of something better to do with their time? The entire experience struck me as a colossal invasion of privacy and a deeply irritating waste of time.
Admitting this reveals what a hopeless prig I am—a killjoy of the first order. I sound like an overzealous hall monitor sniping about high-spirited eighth-graders running down the hall toward the cafeteria. My distaste for the “holiday” is a character flaw, but at least I know from where it springs, and how quickly it can spin out of control.
I was a shy kid. I wasn’t particularly sociable and didn’t have a lot of friends, so when Jim, a sixth-grade classmate, asked me to come to his Halloween costume party—the first boy-girl bash I was invited to—my parents encouraged me to go. The party was at Jim’s house, his pleasant, conventional parents were chaperoning, and it would end promptly at 11 p.m. What could be wrong with that?
I hesitated for two reasons. The first was that I didn’t have any idea what kind of costume to wear. The second, and more important, was that on that year, Halloween fell on a Saturday.
Saturday was a problem. It had been for as long as I can remember. I grew up in New England in the 1970s, amid the landscape populated by characters out of Updike or Cheever, of troubled marriages and unmet expectations. It was the land of too much booze and too little hope, of The Ice Storm, not The Brady Bunch. My parents fit right into what now seems like an almost quaint literary cliché: The repressed dysfunctional couple. They went out on Saturday nights, leaving my sisters and me home with my grandmother. What started out as a nice evening together invariably led to too much drinking, too much fighting, and a cataclysmic public scene as emotionally scarring as anything ever dreamed up by either writer. Did I really need to complicate matters with a Halloween party?
Despite my misgivings, I finally agreed to go when my father promised that he and my mother would make it an early night and pick me up from the party at 11.
I managed to cobble together a low-tech vampire costume of black turtleneck, black jeans, and a cape (two pieces of velvet scraps my mother quickly sewed together). The pièce de résistance: A set of plastic fangs that I cut out of an old Halloween devil’s mask that fit snugly (and surprisingly comfortably) over my top teeth, visible only when I smiled. The effect was satisfyingly creepy: Aside from my bad skin and thick glasses, I looked like the younger brother of Barnabas Collins from the old Dark Shadows TV show.
I had more fun at the party than I expected. I knew most of the other kids there, and we played the goofy games Halloween parties are famous for. I even won the prize for best costume, which was really more a commentary on the lack of creativity of the other partygoers than a tribute to my inventiveness.
Shortly before the first parents began arriving to pick up their children, everyone heard a loud, sharp sound outside, like a clap of thunder. A few minutes later, we heard sirens.
As one father came to pick up his daughter—who was dressed unconvincingly as Princess Leia—he said to Jim’s father, “Did you hear? There was a bad accident on North Street. Some drunk ran into a telephone pole. By the bridge.”
“Anybody hurt?” Jim’s father asked.
“You mean, anybody dead?” the father said. “Poor bastards.”
Anybody dead. Anybody dead.
Each new parent who arrived added more detail to the story. It was somebody from out of town. No, local. Definitely local. There were two people in the car. A man and a woman. The man was driving. No, the woman was. The woman’s alive but the man’s dead. The cops are prying the bodies out of the car.
It wasn’t long—less than 15 minutes—before I was the only kid waiting to be picked up. Jim and I sat in his living room, waiting while his mother cleared the dining-room table of chocolate cupcakes with orange icing and a plastic punch bowl full of room-temperature Hawaiian Punch. Jim was tired and didn’t say much. I didn’t either. It’s hard to think of something to say when all you can hear in your mind is the question “Anybody dead?”
“I think I’ll wait for my father outside on the porch,” I said after a while.
Jim yawned. “OK,” he said. “See you at school.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said as I stepped out into the cold, enveloping darkness, which freeze-dried my fear, and closed the door behind me.
I stood on the porch convinced that it was my parents, my drunk parents, who had rammed that telephone pole. I waited, but for whom? No one was coming.
Finally, at 11:30, Jim’s mother, who looked like a taller version of Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show, opened the door. “Your parents haven’t picked up you yet?” she said.
“No,” I said, clutching the vampire teeth I was holding in the pocket of my down jacket.
“Come back inside and wait. You’ll catch cold out here,” she said.
“I’m fine out here, thank you,” I said.
“Did your parents know that the party ended at 11?” she asked.
I nodded, squeezing the vampire teeth so hard the teeth dug into my palm.
“Do you want us to call them for you?”
“They’re out for dinner,” I said after a minute. The sting on my hand intensified.
“I’ll call the restaurant,” she suggested.
“I don’t know where they went.”
She frowned and turned back into the house. “James, what should we do?”
Jim’s father came to the door. “I’ll take him home,” he said. “Come on.”
I wanted to apologize for my parents not coming, but I couldn’t manage. If I opened my mouth I knew that all that would come out was “Anybody dead? Anybody dead?”
“Actually, I think I’m gonna walk home,” I said, taking a step down the porch stairs.
“It’s three miles and the middle of the night,” Jim’s mother said. “Your parents would kill us if we let you do that.”
Kill you? Not likely.
“It’s all right, I do it all the time,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant as I headed down their sidewalk. “Thanks a lot for inviting me.”
I ran to the corner just as a car was about to turn into the street. Our car. Relief flooded over me. I ran toward it climbing inside the passenger side with the car still rolling forward.
“All ready?” my father asked. His voice was thick.
“Yeah. Where’s Mom?”
“Still at the restaurant. Had a good time?”
“It was OK. You going back out?”
“You’re not staying home?”
“No,” he said.
“Great,” I muttered.
“What? What did you say?” my father asked. He turned to look at me, in the process running through a stop sign. He was lucky that there were no other cars going through the intersection. Lucky that he hadn’t rammed a telephone pole.
“Nothing,” I said.
We drove the rest of the way home in silence. He didn’t say a word when I got out of the car and went into the house. My grandmother was asleep in a chair, the television droning in the background.
For a moment, I had thought my parents had cheated death. They had beaten back my fear and been saved—by chance, by God, by something else I didn’t understand—from being wrapped around a telephone pole on Halloween night. But they had only nudged aside my fear for a little while—long enough to pick me up from a Halloween party. When they did come home that night, there was the usual horrifying public brawl over some long-forgotten slight.
My parents are better now. My father doesn’t drink anymore, my mother only occasionally. I’m not even sure if they really remember how they used to be, how they used to live. But I do. It was much scarier than any Halloween.