Gather round. Turn the lights off. It’s time for a story…
THE LITTLE VISITORS
Halloween comes around once a year, of course. When the trees turn into dying torches and the nights fill with hollow sighs. I waited in my small living room in my small rented house on Garwood Avenue, in a small neighborhood full of mostly working moms and divorced dads. The house next door has been divided into three small apartments and students rent those, from the nearby small college. Everything here seems small and dingy, from the houses to the college. Someone is trying to change that college into a university, as being called a university seems much more legitimate these funny times we live in, but that is years in the future. A knock sounded on my door. The knock of a child. I grasped my bowl of Dollar Store candy and stood, with my elderly television on mute. I had chosen to watch Cat People, for some reason, perhaps because it was on one of the old movie channels. Val Lewton and shadows.
Standing on my cement step, on my brown and yellow welcome mat, is a small girl dressed as a princess, in a frilly, too-pink dress, with ugly garish plastic and tin foil jewelry and a carrot-red wig that tilts on her head and a cheap-looking tiara that someone should banish to the outer realms. “Trickrtreat,” she whispers, perhaps no more than seven. I see her mother or older sister sitting in the car, clearly wishing this night over and done with. This tiny fake princess holds up a plastic bucket shaped like a pumpkin where candy already waits for her to gobble down in about an hour or so, if not sooner. Tiny miniature candy bars, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops. All store-bought, safe candy for these troubling modern times we live in! She had giant brown eyes someone had lined with black and someone had painted the small lips with bright cherry red.
“Don’t you look great,” I told the girl, who smiled slightly, more a grimace than a smile. She had not quite caught on that she should perform like a trained lab animal to earn her treats. Give some buck for the bang. I drop three eyeballs into her pumpkin, badly wrapped solid chocolate balls. I also gave her four or five hard candies and the princess in training looked at my offering, then at me, then whispered, “Can I have another eye?” I gave her one and she nodded with a solemn resignation that of course she deserved a bit more candy from the skinny little man who had such a messy house. She trotted off, then stopped, at something her mother or sister shouted at her. The princess turned and waved at me and I waved back. She got into the car and they drove to the end of the street. I was their last house here. Off the car went, into the October night. I saw another costumed child slowly walking toward my house, dressed as a cowboy. Right down to the small dingy cowboy hat perched to one side on his head.
I knew him. I had seen him before.
The small cowboy walked slowly, in real cowboy boots, carrying a small pail, a miniature bucket. The wind kicked up, swirling dead leaves from the elm further along, further along. “Tricks or treats,” the small cowboy said, holding out his bucket, meeting my eyes. His eyes never blinked or looked away from me. He wore a leather vest, real leather, and a red shirt tucked into jeans, with small chaps tied just so about his skinny little boy thighs. A smudge of dirt on his pale cheek. And his smell, like just gone over milk. That faint sour smell of corruption.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked and the boy never looked away from me with his steady blue-green eyes.
“I’m Little Joe,” the boy said. “He’s my favorite. Do you have any popcorn balls?”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t. You mean Little Joe from Bonanza?’ I place some hard candies and two of the wrapped eyeballs in his pail. Mine seems to be the only candy he had managed to collect so far and it’s already seven thirty or so. Rather late to still be out.
“Bonanza. That’s it, mister. I really wanted a popcorn ball,” the boy peered down at the piddling Halloween offering, his hair cut brutally short, a near military-like cutting of that stark black hair. This was not a pretty child that would grow up to be a handsome man. Just an ordinary boy with freckles on his rather large nose. Not a sideshow freak kind of big nose, just a nose the kid would have to grow into. A nose with character, as my dad used to say. “Thank you.” And this boy had manners. Someone had taken some trouble to teach him some pleasing ways. I noticed, as I had every time he came to visit me, that the longer he stood there, the more I could see through him. He seemed to dissolve. As if the night slowly devoured him and I was not supposed to notice.
Little Joe wandered off, toward the main street and then he was just gone. My candy lay on the sidewalk and I fetched it, noting the hard candies and balls of wrapped chocolate had been frozen. They burned my skin a bit, being so cold. I stood and looked here and there, but the boy had gone back to wherever he came from.
Back to my house I walked. I waited for more knocks. Someone rapped on my door and my heart beat so hard, so hard. Up I got, and went to answer, finding a tall girl dressed like something out of a Robin Hood movie. She wore green tights, a long green jaunty shirt, and the cap with the feather. She had her hair swept up atop her head and blood trickled down the left side of her face, from a massive wound to her temple. “Hi! Trick or treat!” A big smile, her front teeth snapped off, and I could see the bones of her jaw from yet another wound that had opened the side of her face. She held out a paper sack, such as one might get from a grocery store. There was nothing in it. I dropped my offerings in and she gazed down at the five hard candies and two eyeballs with real dismay, then dredged up a smile, somehow, somehow smiling with her jaw bone exposed. “Gee, mister. You don’t have any apples or cookies?”
Apples or cookies. When no one gave those away these days. No one. “No. Sorry. I can give you some more candy.”
“Sure.” A big smile, her blood-filled eyes sparkling at me. I drop more candy in and she beams down politely, then thanks me and floats off into the night. I clearly hear that candy I gave her spatter on the pavement. Where she has gone, the candy cannot go. They want the good treats they had in their day. Where people baked homemade cookies and shaped popcorn into sticky balls and bought lots of apples to give away to the visiting little goblins each year. They had not lived through the stories of razor blades in apples or the poisoned cookies or that people poisoned their homemade treats…there were stories galore but no actual real proof that a swathe of the adult population were in fact out to kill all children at Halloween. Fear, however, runs the lives of Americans, not facts or logic.
A car cruises slowly about five houses down. The last stragglers of this year’s candy festival. I close my door, wondering how many more other little visitors I’ll get tonight. They don’t seem to visit anyone else. I am not great friends or that friendly with my neighbors; we generally genially ignore each other and nod at each other if we make eye contact. I keep to myself and I work. As the neighbors do. We keep our heads down and hope our cars keep running and we don’t get cancer. We vote once in a while and moan a lot. I occasionally head off to the Long Horn, a small dive bar where I can get a beer somewhat cheaply and get my ear talked off by the lonely old veteran who seems to think no one is any good anymore. There’s no goodness left in the world, none, he says to me over and over and over. I watch my muted television set as the woman who turns into a leopard struggles to fight her actual nature.
I wait for them to come to my door.
I heard the rustle of a costume and the whispers of a mother telling the child to knock, go ahead, like the others. I sigh, my air pushed out of me by my exhausted lungs. Surely they’re tired of sour air and contracting over and over and over. Bang bang bang.
A small boy dressed as a vampire, with a cape and fake teeth that keep slipping. “Twick treat,” the boy barked like a seal at me and I smiled, his mother just behind him wearing a black sweater infected with cheerful flat pumpkins. Her eyes held a tiredness all our eyes seem to hold now. The vampire held up a plastic green bucket three-fourths full of candy.
“Great costume, sir,” I said and the boy, with giant dark eyes, makes a face at this stranger trying to be funny. I’m not funny so my efforts in comedy should never be encouraged. “Here ya go!” I give him the remaining chocolate eyeballs and two hard candies. He grins.
“Look, mom! Eyes! Cool!” So the kids these days are still using phrases from the Fifties. Cool.
“I see that, dear,” the mom said with that perfect tired mom voice, that managed to be both nice and exhausted. She probably had to go home and get ready for a graveyard shift somewhere cleaning something or watching over old people or the disabled. “What do you say, Wyatt?”
A vampire named Wyatt? Oh no no. I bit at my lips to stop myself giving a truly foul giggle. Wyatt looked at me. He smelled like soap and cheap candy. “Thanks, mister!”
“You’re welcome, Wyatt.” I told him and his mother in her infected sweater. Had anyone told her pumpkins were catching? They both nodded at me and both turned to go to her elderly pickup. A big dent in the driver’s side. Off she drove, no doubt heading off for their home, probably a small apartment she could barely make rent on.
I went back in, shut my door. I only had hard candies left for any latecomers to the Halloween festivities. The wind made the leaves noisy. I sat in my easy chair with the sound very low, most of my lights turned off, waiting perhaps for zombies to try and get in. I had watched Night of the Living Dead near Halloween one year and had actually managed to give myself the willies. All of the lights turned off, a windy night. I heard zombies all night. Sometimes my imagination is not my friend. Perhaps that’s all this was. The strange yearly visitors. Just me perhaps having some sort of mental breakdown right on cue around the end of October. After all, ghosts were not real.
An hour, the movie ended with the lady who turned into a giant cat dead. Next came the sequel, which I’d never seen and had never heard of. Revenge of the Cat People. I waited.
A knock at my door.
I could hear a bit of rain now, on the windows that let out so much heat. Who was out so late on a rainy Halloween night? I had the notion to just let them knock and knock until they got tired and went away. My seven or so remaining hard candies huddled in the bottom of my white plastic bowl.
Twin clowns gazed up at me, through garish, too-bright greasy makeup. Both wore rainbow-hued wigs. The girl wore a big purple suit with a fake plastic pink flower on her breast. The boy wore a plaid hobo outfit. They wordlessly held up their little bags, paper sacks with Harbottle’s stamped on them. That store had gone out of business over thirty years ago. I had gone there with my own mother who had liked to finger their selection of fabrics whenever she got a notion to sew something. Both sacks held nothing but some traces of dirt. I smiled and dropped my remaining sad remnants into their bags. These two never spoke, a brother and sister who seemed stamped from the same twin factory. The boy’s face sometimes showed bone and torn away cheek, the girl’s sometimes showed her head caved in. Tonight they were just twin clowns. They solemnly looked down into their bags, with actual disappointment and then looked at me, with actual sorrow.
“A minute. I might have something else. Just a minute.” I got my bag of cheap Oreo knockoffs I’d gotten at the Dollar Store and when I came back to my open door, the two were still there. I had expected them to vanish. “You can share these.” I had not opened the package. I put them in the little girl clown’s bag. Both regarded my offering of cookies and then me, their eyes the same flat blue. Both nodded, waved at me and then turned to return to wherever they had come from. No car, or pickup, no waiting parent or elder brother or sister or aunt or grandparent. Just the slightly rainy night, the chill of the season trying to get ready for winter. I watched them walk off into the dark and wondered who watched over them and who had let them wander about, alone.
I wondered who had let dead children come trick or treating. I wondered that a lot.