Joshua Allen, “I, Robot”
A bee in my father’s bonnet, who knows, maybe embarrassed by the gleaming, pristine tools hanging on the basement wall. He buckles down. Spraypaints a cardboard box silver, cuts arm and leg holes. Rigs a battery and toggle switch so multicolored lights on the chest illuminate at will. A cardboard cylinder for the head, complete with cellophane visor and antenna, all held together by tiny nails. Arms and legs made out of white dryer tubing. Takes half an hour to suit me up and I can’t help but move like a robot when I’m in it. Super-elaborate, and the buzz at school is palpable. Other kids are glad for the cheap plastic Spiderman masks that hide their humiliated and jealous faces. And yet, and yet my robot loses to Boba Fett in the costume contest. Basically one of the taller sixth graders wearing hockey gear and construction paper. My father bristles. He seriously can’t believe it. These are the people in charge of educating my son and yet, and yet, etc. But all the effort pays off later that evening when I’m staggering through the neighborhood, maybe ten percent visibility, arms sticking out, walking like my pants are at half-mast. I fall down maybe every third house, once rolling down a swollen hill to the sidewalk. I’m on my back, in the box, in the helmet, in the tubing, arms and legs flailing, readout lights flickering. I’m not going anywhere, trapped inside the cavernous robot torso. I can sort of make out the laughter from family members and strangers alike, and my father takes his time coming over to help me up. At the candy postmortem I realize it’s the finest costume I’ll ever wear. The miniature Mr. Goodbars don’t have the burnt-almond aftertaste of cyanide.
Sarah Hepola, “I Don’t Hate Halloween; I Fear It”
I don’t hate Halloween; I fear it. I fear my costume won’t be clever enough. I fear my costume won’t be original enough. And since I want to avoid looking stupid and unoriginal I push the whole thing out of my mind till the night before, like taxes, when I find myself at The Party Pig dropping $80 for whatever stupid and unoriginal crap is still left on the shelves. “I’ll take a bleeding skull mask and some pink fairy wings.” I fear Halloween because people got so blasted clever. Gone are the days of white sheets and magic markers. These days people dress like cartoons, like two people at once, like parts of speech. The gerund. The onomatopoeia. I don’t even have enough time to exercise and eat right, but pockets of people spend their October weekends building conceptual set pieces. What, do they never go to the bar? I fear Halloween because I am a girl, and in addition to looking clever and original I must also look cute. Sure, Scooter from sales can throw on a bear suit, and drunk girls grab his ass. I dress like an eggplant and everyone treats me like I wore purple cleats to the Prom. Hey, where are all the guys? They’re talking to the hot Japanimation girl, the one with the silver mini-skirt and the gun stuffed in her cleavage. They’re drooling on the French maid. No room on the dance floor for Eggplant Girl so I best take a seat (I’ll need two). I fear Halloween because Halloween actually SAYS something about a single person. My parents can fret over the size of Christmas, what picture to send with the greeting card, but I just breeze through for the presents and free food. No, I fret over Halloween, what my outfit says about my wit, about my pocketbook, about my desirability. I fear what throwing a Halloween party says about my life. Do I have enough friends? Will they choose my party over the other Halloween parties? I even fear I’ll disappoint the trick-or-treaters. I can’t be the lame candy house, the one the kids scoff at because the old lady just handed out pennies and wet balls of wheat germ. So I buy the most expensive candy available, two bags of it. But now I fear that no one will come to my house at all and it will just be me waiting by the door in a bleeding skull mask and fairy wings, holding a bowl of import chocolate like a baby. And do you know who’s going to eat that chocolate? I am going to eat that chocolate. I don’t hate Halloween; I fear it. There’s plenty to love—the pageantry, the debauchery, the candy—if I could just get past all this anxiety. Huh. Gimme a white sheet and a magic marker, and a pair of purple cleats.
Dennis Mahoney, “Mr. Hemple’s Apples”
On Halloween morning, Mr. Hemple went for pins. In the afternoon, he napped. He woke up feeling younger than he’d felt in years.
Every day, shadows settled last on Mr. Hemple’s home because it stood on top of a hill, overlooking low suburbia and all its children, like a father no one knew. The distance from the bottom of the driveway to the old front door was 50 yards exactly. Not a lot of children bothered trick-or-treating there with such a walk. Still, a few would come. They always did.
Mr. Hemple sat at the kitchen table with a pair of scissors. One by one, he snipped the heads off the pins. He put the pins on a plate. He put the heads in a bowl. They looked like rainbow-colored nonpareils. He opened up a bag of apples. Then he pushed a single pin in each and every apple. He did it at the stem so none of the puncture marks would show. He took his time. But even wearing leather gloves, the pins were sharp and hurt his fingers.
Mr. Hemple put the apples in a basket. Then he filled a second basket up with Snickers bars and brought them to a table near the door. He wore a rubber mask. He’d found it in a costume store. The mask was labeled: Baby Head.
He waited. Now and then a child came, but always with a guardian. Hemple saw them coming through a curtain on the door. Since all the children came with supervision, Hemple handed out the Snickers bars. “Happy Halloween,” he’d say, patting the child on the head.
The doorbell rang at 10pm. Hemple checked the curtain. Standing at the door were three young boys, dressed as Major League Baseball players. One of the boys had burnt a cork and smeared it on his face to make a beard. Their hats were red. They all had gloves and new aluminum bats. The boys were taller than Hemple liked, but they were unattended. Something in their smiles made him smile. Underneath their uniforms, he knew their bodies hadn’t started growing hair. He liked the thought of that.
He grabbed the basket of apples, opened up the door, and said, “Hello, and Happy Halloween.”
The boy with the beard swung first. Hemple fell. Aluminum echoed off his head, a hollow sound, the sound of hits at Little League. They broke his knees. They swung their bats in wide, descending chops. They hit him on the floor and cracked his ribs. They broke his nose. The baby mask was soon mishapen, bloody lipped, empty eyed. They took the bowl of Snickers bars and left. Mr. Hemple lay on the floor, circled by his fallen apples, wondering what on Earth the world had come to.
Kevin Guilfoile, “The Basement Prayer”
Why do the builders who build basement stairs
Put spaces between every step?
Aren’t they even the Tim-tiny, least bit aware
How a monster-free basement is kept?
Could that pool table nobody’s fooled with in years
Be an alien-probing ER?
Or that hu-midifier you picked up at Sears
A shape-shifting demonical Tsar?
As even the littlest, scared-y kids tell
The odds of a monster-made lair
Increase by a factor of stupid contractor-built
Openings between the stairs.
A highly trained monster will sit there and wait
The good ones aren’t easily rankled.
And just when your shivering goosebumps abate
He’ll reach out and grab your left ankle.
That’s all that he’ll do, un-
less he’s a blue one,
In which case he’ll feed on your marrow.
So here is a prayer
To repeat on the stairs
and make trips to the cellar less harrowed:
Lord let me walk in your footprints
May your goodness and grace be my ferry
And if there are monsters with blue tints
I have nothing against being carried
Clay Risen, “The Tenement”
I moved to New York City and I rode the subway, every day, between an office in Midtown and my second-floor apartment in Spanish Harlem that shared an alley with a storefront Baptist church. I didn’t make enough to go out on a regular basis, and within a few weeks my life had coagulated into a finite collection of steps, button-pressings, and stair climbs.
After a month of sitting in my studio, evening after evening, listening to the shouts and honks of nearby Lexington Avenue, the thought came to me, quite suddenly, that I should see whether my building had an accessible roof. I had been in such buildings before, though never my own, and it seemed to me a quintessential New York experience to have, at the top of your run-down apartment block, access to a view out over the glittering city.
I put on shoes, locked the door and began climbing the stairs. Most of my neighbors were families, and I could hear behind the doors a riot of sounds: babies, televisions, frying food. As I climbed higher, however, the sounds receded, as if the upper-floor tenants were older, or deaf, or never home.
By the seventh floor, the last before the stairs up to the roof, all the building’s sounds had faded. The four doors on the floor were green, with heavy bolts and a large eyehole in the middle. All were locked save one, beside the stairs, which stood open by about two and a half feet. Inside it was dark.
I climbed up the short flight to the roof, but when I got to the top I found that the door was locked. Through a window in the door I could see moonlight shining through. Disappointed, I descended. But at the seventh floor landing I paused, then, surprising myself, entered the open apartment—purposely, thinking that if I found someone inside it might look better than if I entered sneakily.
But there was no one inside. It was much larger than my own apartment; two rooms jutted off of a large main hall. I stood in the entranceway for a few seconds, then I entered the room on my left. It contained a bed and a dresser, covered in dust. Newspapers and magazines lay strewn across the floor. A slight stench like moldy bread hung in the air.
The second room was closed. I turned the handle and it went smoothly, but the door wouldn’t open more than a few inches; something heavy was blocking the way. I pushed harder and it gave a little, but not enough.
Finally I stood back and ran at the door, heaving myself into it. It flew open and as it did, I collided with a heavy object that had been hanging from the ceiling. I looked up to find a bloated, blue face staring down at me, perched atop a thick noose that held the rest of the body to a pipe running across the ceiling. A young man, in his twenties perhaps, with wiry black hair and wearing a brown sweat suit. I leaned against a bed on the opposite side of the room, staring at the body for what felt like hours.
Then without noticing what I was doing, I inched myself around the body, keeping my gaze fixed on it the entire time. Suddenly I heard footsteps, coming up the stairs, running. Before I knew it, a short, plump old woman followed by three girls and a small boy pushed past me and into the bedroom.
“Guillermo! Ah, Dios mio!” the old woman cried. She crumpled to the floor. None of them paid me even the slightest attention. Not knowing what to do, I went back to my apartment.
Inside, the door bolted, I grabbed a bottle of Jim Beam from atop the refrigerator and poured myself a shot. Then another. A few more. Was I right to leave? Of course not. But then I wasn’t going anywhere; they knew where to find me. I kept waiting for the police to arrive, or to hear the old woman scream again, but there was nothing. Just babies crying, televisions prattling, and food frying.
After half an hour and nothing from upstairs, I decided to go back. Maybe they were having trouble getting the body down. Maybe the old woman had had a heart attack. So I climbed the stairs again, and again, as I climbed, I noticed how the sounds emanating from the apartments grew dimmer with each flight.
The door to the apartment was open, but the lights were still out. I stepped inside, and it was as if no one had been there at all. The first door was open at the same angle as I had found it, and the second was shut, just as before. I tried the handle and it gave, and this time the door opened easily; the body was gone. The room was bare but for the bed, and in it two figures; as my eyes adjusted, I saw who they were: the old woman and the young man, his face no longer blue and contorted but rather flush and content, a thin smile written across his lips.
Rosecrans Baldwin, “John Gaetzi, My Father, and I”
The habit on Halloween in my town, for boys, was to take cans of shaving cream and modify them with the aerosol tops from spray paint cans—making weapons—with nozzles that shot a much longer projection than the average foaming shaving top. If you couldn’t find the aerosol caps in time, it was also possible to heat a needle over a lighter and use it to melt down the plastic spout on the shaving cream can so there was only a pin prick left, thereby forcing out the shaving cream with greater speed and a smaller stream, perfect for leaving your initials on someone’s garage.
It was a shame, then, that John and I did that very thing against my own garage, but my father told us to, though he wouldn’t admit it for a year.
We had big plans. We were going to hit the streets at nine, wearing black, and find packs of girls or parked cars to cover with shaving cream. The big goal was to find a cop car and, yes, shaving cream PIG on the door. What we’d do afterwards was never thought about; I can bet a lot of Milky Ways we would have run and hid in one of our backyards, then gone inside and watched Goonies. But we didn’t find anyone. We were wusses. We stalked the neighborhood for a total of twenty minutes, shaving-creamed a couple lampposts with our initials or giant, foaming SHITs. Eventually we had gone to the limits of our neighborhood and, fearing the much older and more dangerous eighth graders, especially the infamous Ollie Shulz-Rinke who rode around the blocks in the summer on his go-cart and tried to mow down anything small and breathing, we decided to go home.
Of course, we were disappointed. Halloween that year was a bust. My father must have seen this. Deciding my mother’s offer of the left-over trick-or-treat candy wasn’t good enough, or manly enough, or something, he took us outside and whispered that we could, if we wanted, shaving cream our own garage. John thought this was great; I did too. In a quick decision that has become a marking point when I look back and try to figure out when I became the kind of person who enjoys doing dumb things for the pure sake of dumbness, rather than the more cool or interesting aspects (back then it was petty, water-salient vandalism; in high school it started to involve ways to put alcohol in a stomach with rubber hoses) we ran outside and spent a good five minutes writing our names in cream. It looked perfect: three-foot-tall white letters on the brown garage, glowing in the lights from our driveway.
John went home, I went to sleep. It wasn’t until the next morning that my mother found out what had happened and called John back over to our house and demanded to know why her garage, in the daylight, had our names burned into the paint, even after she washed off the shaving cream. Apparently, menthol shaving cream is the staining variety. We told her that Dad had said it was okay; she called him over and he denied it. Now we were in trouble for not only ruining our own property, but also for lying and trying to blame it on someone else.
A week later, John and I were outside on a perfect fall day, repainting the side of the garage.
It wasn’t until the next summer, when I finally confronted my Dad on why he lied, did he ever slightly repent, and say, laughing, “Did I really tell you to do that?” It’s time this became public: Yes, Dad, you did.
Paul Ford, “My Father’s Wedding, Late in Life”
It took me a moment to recognize my father in the crowd of guests, partly because all the men were in black tie, and blurred together, but more specifically because he was smiling—an unfamiliar expression to his square jaw. His wife, Elaine, had locked her arm with his, and they were walking around the ground floor of the house, laughing. It was her third marriage, his second. She was in a simple tan dress that showed off her thin arms and exercised legs. At 48, 12 years younger than my father, she was justifiably proud of her body. My mother had been 13 years younger.
I didn’t know Elaine well, only from a few dinners and a weekend we all spent at her father’s ranch in Montana, but she was pleasant, professional, a senior partner in an old city law firm. Listening to my friends tell about their own father’s second marriages—to women half their ages, women who were still excited to see more than one fork on the table—I knew I was lucky, that this was a good match, someone calm and collected to go with him into his later years.
It had never occurred to me, in my selfish 20s, how lonely he must have been. And he never spoke about my mother to me after her death; it was as if a curtain came down, and afterwards he had become cold, impossible to reach. Yet now that I was married myself I could forgive him; I realized how strange and sad those 20 years between my mother and sister’s death and this day must have been. My own wife was downstairs with the rest of the crowd, also younger than I (at 25), lithe, and, while not yet showing, three months pregnant.
Throughout the day there’d been no mention of my mother, which was appropriate but somehow unsettling. Her parents had given the wedding their blessing but not come. I’d been thinking of her more often lately, with news of the wedding, and had dreams in which I betrayed her in some way—never certain.
When I was 16, my mother, Francis, and my ten year old sister, Coral, had drowned. It was a Sunday. They’d gone out on our sailboat. My father was supposed to be with them. My mother was not a strong sailor, but she’d been independent and when my father said he wouldn’t go, she insisted on going alone. The boat struck something and overturned, washing up a few miles south, empty. I could barely remember those days now, the twin memorial services in the Presbyterian chapel, all pushed back somewhere in memory.
The reception was jubilant—a barbershop quartet of my father’s fellow judges were singing, and there was champagne, beer, a huge catered spread. I knew almost no one, although they all knew me, remembering me as a 12-year old or a high-schooler, asking me vague questions about my life. My hand was tired from shaking.
My wife was deep in conversation with a stranger, so I snuck upstairs, unseen, and then, nostalgic, went further up to the attic for a moment of privacy. I’d often hidden myself here as a child, looking out the two small windows, playing with toys. I hadn’t been here in at least a decade, though for no reason I could remember.
There were boxes, and more boxes. Dominating all was an old wardrobe, 7 feet tall, an antique. I opened it with a sudden sense of foreboding, of something long-repressed and feared coming forth. But it was only full of my mother’s dresses. I rifled through them, the fabric smooth against my hand, the fashions caught in the early 80s. I opened a box to the right of that and found old papers from 9th grade—a diagram in pen of the parts of the cell, a few tests with “B” on the top in red ink.
To the left of that, my massive toy trunk, which I tried to open but couldn’t. I remembered a plastic apple with a bell inside, something I’d loved to play with when I was four or five, and old board games. It wouldn’t open—it was nailed shut, but the nail was loose and I pulled on the lid until it did finally open, impossibly curious. It had been lined with a thick, black plastic tarp, and resting on the tarp were two bodies. I jumped back, and then peered in with a kind of awe.
It was my mother, and on top of her my six-year-old sister, their eyes closed, both of them much smaller than I remembered, their mouths open, my mother in a nightgown and my sister in pajamas, everything stained brown, the skin of their faces tight and drawn.
I recalled them more from photographs than memory, but it was certainly them. My mind began to compile something, some story that I’d known but forgotten, a surge of repressed experience at seeing their bodies wizened, mummified. My father’s distance. My father’s strangeness with me after their death, what seemed to be fear. Because he was a killer. My father, the judge, the killer. I was in thrall, my mind moving furiously, as if I’d drunk all the whisky and coffee in the world at once. I heard the door to the attic open, and a voice call my name. It was my father, tall, gray-haired, immaculate in tuxedo. He saw me looking into the toy chest.
“I watched you come up. I was thinking of this, that it could happen. On this day of all days, but it makes sense. I had some fear, some intuition—”
My mouth was open, looking at him.
“You’ve forgotten it, haven’t you?” he said.
“How can you…have them?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I put them up here, I sealed it. The thought of disposing—of digging a grave myself—”
“You’re, a—” Suddenly I was furious. I yelled, “murderer!” I swore at him, raised my hand. He flinched, then reached out and grabbed my arm, strong.
“Be quiet,” he hissed, and though he was a murderer he was still my father, and I obeyed. We stood that way for a moment, silent. I could feel each of his fingers pressing into my arm, and his face became sad and quizzical, the smile from a half-hour ago gone entirely. He released his grasp. “You don’t know at all,” he said.
“How could I know you killed them?”
“I didn’t kill them.” He said my name, very silently. “You did.”
And then it did come back, and I knew that I had. The events came back in my mind as he told it:
“You drove home one night after a binge with your friends, all the little neighborhood shits you liked. You were sixteen. It was August 18, 1982. I heard you in the garage, and came out. You were rooting around in the dark, I thought you were robbing us. I turned on the lights, yelled at you, and you came at me with your Little League bat. It was PCP, I think. At least that’s the only thing I know about that does that.”
He breathed. My mother and sister, one on top of the other, lay still in their box, witnesses to the story, a musty, leathery smell rising off of them. “And knocked me out. When I was back up you were unconscious yourself, but you’d beaten them—” he trailed off, near tears. “And there wasn’t anything,” he said.
His voice came back only after a moment. “You had no idea what you’d done. You saw the bodies and pretended they weren’t there, kept asking where your Mom was. And I thought, I can’t lose my son, after all this. I have to save him, to keep something. I hid them. And I took out the boat that night, the dock silent, and hammered through the hull and took it out, and rocked it over. I wish I’d been caught, I wish—I had a story about them going out and planning to stay in a hotel, I called the police chief. And I was a judge…and so you went to boarding school…I couldn’t have you near me….”
I stammered something. I couldn’t place the memories—I must have blacked out, or shut myself down over those days. Chosen to believe him. I looked back to the bodies in the box, unable to recall any more than a muscle memory, of the aluminum bat rising in the air, then coming down, my 16-year-old muscles working furiously, first the sister and then, when she ran towards the noise, the screaming, the mother, my mother, and I shuddered before them, their familiar faces.
Elaine, the new wife, my new mother, yelled my father’s name up the stairs. He changed his voice, put his head over the banister, said he’d be down in a moment, just a little private father-son conversation. The attic door closed again. He closed the box, the loose nail falling on the floor, and put one of the boxes of papers on top of it.
“Come downstairs,” he said. “There’s nothing to do about it now. Except perhaps a burial.” He turned from me and went downstairs. I followed him, towards the shouts, the sound of clinking glasses.