Why (Still) Hallowe’en?

Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.

When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.

The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.

But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.

Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!

Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)

Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.

And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.

We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.

The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.

Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.

But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.

The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.

And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?

I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.

The pleasure that goes with it!

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989. Most recently appeared here in 2006. Time flies when you are dead.]

A long time ago…

1977 Star Wars newspaper adI saw Star Wars for the first time on its original release date: May 25, 1977.

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. My memories tell me that I saw it some time after my high school graduation, which would have put me in the theater in June, not May. After poking around a bit I was reminded that South Florida in 1977 was not even a second-tier movie market, so it was not in the first two waves of release. I can’t find a precise date for the first showing — thanks for having locked archives, Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel! — but me and my friends would have gone to that matinee some time in the latter half of June.

I went, however, on opening day for our area, that’s for sure.

Shortly before its local release, the newspaper ran a full page ad for it: that amazing, thrilling, beautiful poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt (although reproduced in half-tone black and white — newspapers didn’t have color in those days, kids). My small nerdy tribe was familiar with the Hildebrandts through their Middle Earth calendar the year before, so the connection brought with it an unstated expectation of epic scope and fantastic visuals.

Star Wars does inadvertently provide a window into the early history of geeky fandom. Without the ubiquitous information source of the Internet we had to scrounge and scrabble for scraps and rumors about this movie. I’d found the novelization in Waldenbooks several months earlier, its cover proudly proclaiming that it was soon to be a major motion picture. That was rare in those days: a big budget science-fiction film with good special effects and a raucous, action-driven story.

Sitting in that theater and seeing it for the first time was as close to an ecstatic experience as I’d had to that point. I saw it for the second time on the same day, having moved down to the first row in the largely empty house. That was followed immediately by the third time, and I’d have stayed to see it again but hunger and sensory overload finally won out. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie more than once in the theater, and — the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz excepted — there was no other way to see a film again in those pre-VHS-and cable days.

Star Wars pre-release novelizationWe talked about it quite a bit, me and my friends, particularly the goofy ending that clearly left open the possibility that there could be further installments. That would have been too much to hope for, though. More Star Wars? Might as well ask for our own TIE fighters, while we were at it. Sequels were rare creatures, generally reserved for major critical (The Godfather) and box office (Jaws) successes.

Of course, Star Wars met the latter criterion with bells on, so it didn’t take long for the newly-minted genre magazines like Starlog to break the news that Lucas had an entire universe of stories planned. What we’d seen was actually the fourth of a planned nine — NINE! — Star Wars films! Our minds could barely comprehend the bounty we’d been granted.

When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I stood in line for the first showing — a national release this time, thank you very much — arriving hours before the curtain went up. (There was no ticket presale, of course, so if you didn’t camp out in line you might not get in, and that would be unbearable, a shame you’d have to carry for the rest of your life.) TV stations sent crews out to film us standing in parking lots in the sweltering Florida sun. Newspapers sent reporters and photographers to ask lame questions. Mundane citizens going about their lives gawked, shook their heads, and carried on.

It’d been a long three years waiting for that day, years filled with speculation, hype, and… well, okay, real life. But still, release day was a gathering of the tribe. You could talk to anyone around you, because we were united in our purpose. It really was a celebration.

Of course, after the movie the first crack appeared, with some jerks deliberately discussing Luke’s parentage as they walked past the line of people waiting for their chance to worship at the galactic altar. (I have memories of someone being slammed against the stucco wall by an enraged fan, but that may be a bit of wish-fulfilling selective memory.) Still, a strong sense of community pervaded the occasion.

There followed another three year wait — three years of nerdy talk, three years of a growing fandom community, three years of speculation as to the nature of “the other.” Good money was on Boba Fett, but really, pretty much anyone who had an action figure was a candidate. All we knew for sure was that we had absolute faith in Lucas; after all, he’d had this whole thing plotted out for years!

And at the end, another multi-hour giddy wait outside a Miami cinema waiting for the conclusion of the middle trilogy. News crews came back and newspapers sent reporters, but this time they were more likely to be fans themselves. Star Wars had morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and you didn’t have to be a nerd to like it (but it helped). People in line were threatening to beat the shit out of anyone who gave away the secrets of Return of the Jedi. (They weren’t spoilers yet; that word wasn’t coined until after Jedi was released.) There was a community, but it was already growing a little unwieldy.

And while Jedi gave us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the trilogy, it was also a disappointment. Maybe the intervening years had just taken their toll on our innocence, but so much of it was obviously created to sell toys, and not tell to tell an exciting story. We all knew that the big battle was supposed to be on Chewie’s home planet, because — thanks to the explosive growth of fan press — that had been leaked from early scripts. What was this teddy bear bullshit?! And “the other” turned out to mean absolutely bupkis.

It didn’t stop us from going to see it a few times, but instead of fun, it started to turn a little ugly, like picking at a scab. Sure Star Wars was still great, and we liked to jabber about it, but my interest it was fading fast.

There was some talk about the “prequel” trilogy for a while. It was supposed to be all about the Clone Wars, and take place maybe a hundred years before the first movie. (It still feels wrong to call it A New Hope.) That fell apart, though, and took the rest of my interest with it.

Still, I was honestly surprised when the first prequel was finally announced. Not that they were finally making them — I was surprised that I didn’t care. Many of my friends were getting worked up about the possibilities, but I just felt… nothing. When the first one was released and eviscerated by the fans, I felt simultaneously justified and sad. I’d been hoping that maybe they would rekindle the fond memories I had, that perhaps they’d be a new beginning. Who knows? Maybe if — as with most of my peers — I had a family, some kids with whom to share the experience, I’d have been excited. But no. To date, I’ve still never seen even one of the prequels.

Now it’s time for the post-quels. Social media has taken over the world, and my feeds are full of people I love talking excitedly about tomorrow’s release. I have a smidgen more curiosity this time, I confess, primarily to see the old familiar faces returning to the screen. It feels closer to my heart. Still, I didn’t buy an advance ticket, and didn’t make plans to see it. Strangely enough, though, and cementing the place Star Wars has in general culture, my employer decided that as a holiday gift they’re taking us all out to see an afternoon show next week.

However.

Star Wars Original Soundtrack LP coverA few minutes ago I played a bit of the opening theme, the piece of music which assured John Williams’ place in musical history. The triumphant brass, the soaring strings, the pounding tympani — I didn’t even make it through the fanfare before I broke out into a smile, my heart started swell, and my eyes got misty. In spite of my general indifference toward the current Star Wars zeitgeist, the chill in my heart was blasted away by the force of memory. Once again I was seventeen years old, sitting in the Florida Theatre in Hollywood, being swept away by a tale of spaceships, lightsabers, naive heroes, ominous villains, goofy robots, and a nearly endless supply of corny cliches.

The past is always far, far away. Fortunately, memories are not.

Invisible lessons

One of the more difficult aspects to moving away from South Florida has been leaving my dad behind. No, I didn’t spend a lot of time at his house before I moved — “cat’s in the cradle” and all that maudlin business — but it was good to have him close by, and know that seeing each other was just a matter of making time, not making plane reservations.

He’s still with me, though, all the time. When I walk down the power tool aisle in a hardware store I remember how my mother used to buy him a new saber saw or electric drill every Christmas, which he might use once or twice. While I’ve never managed to acquire a taste for wine, the word “merlot” is now permanently associated with his glass at dinner  (and occasionally, lunch). And every time I sit in a La-Z-Boy and find myself instinctually starting to drift off. it’s Thanksgiving again, with my dad and my brother snoring in the family room, ostensibly watching a football game.

But it’s more than just the silly, every day memories that keep him close to me. When I manage to completely screw something up, it’s my dad’s voice in my head reminding me to figure out what I did wrong, and learn from it. When I do the right thing for someone else instead of the right thing for me, I thank my dad for teaching me that I’m not the center of the universe. And when I tell stories that make people laugh, without them ever noticing they’re being taught something, too, well, I’m carrying on a family tradition. After all, I rarely noticed how much he was teaching me, while he was doing it.

Thanks for everything, Daddy, and happy Fathers Day.

Here are a couple of stories about my father, from the archives.

Slow learner:

But so much of who we become originates with our parents, for good or ill. My mother taught me to use my imagination and be creative, to have a vision, to reach, and to make the best use of what I was given; these are essential parts of my creative nature, and I wouldn’t have any of it without her influence. It was obvious that her goal was to mold me into an artist of some sort. My father, though, shaped who I became without me ever noticing it.

Chief Paduke’s Revenge:

Several years ago my brother and I were talking about practical jokes we had played, stupid pranks and whatnot. My dad was around, and was laughing at the stories he hadn’t heard before, and pointing out the times we hadn’t been nearly as clever as we had thought. Now, my dad has a prankster’s heart, and we were fairly sure he had pulled off some good ones in his day, so we asked him about it. He laughed, and regaled us with the following tale.

 

Window of opportunity

In May of 1998 I made my first trip to NYC, in the company of my friend, Diana. It was a very short trip, just a couple of days, so there wasn’t time to see much more than a couple of landmarks. I fought my acrophobia enough to go to the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

To my surprise, I liked being up there, and took several photos on my crappy disposable camera. I would probably have taken more, but this was pre-digital, and I was cheap.

Later, we took the ferry to Ellis Island. During the transit, Diana pointed out the towers, and suggested that maybe we should head there next, as I might like to take some pictures from the other end of the island, too. I was a little nervous about going up still higher, but I liked the idea.

By the time we’d finished touring the Ellis Island memorial, though, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and begged off.

“I mean, this won’t be my only trip to New York, and it isn’t as though the towers are going anywhere, right?”

View from the Empire State Buliding, 1998
May, 1998

Found Notes on Hurricane Andrew

1992 notes on Hurricane Andrew
1992 notes on Hurricane Andrew

I was living with my wife in a Plantation apartment when Hurricane Andrew struck. I believe it was Marie’s first hurricane, and while I had been through several tropical storms during my twenty-two years in South Florida, it might as well have been my first, too.

This comes to mind because I recently discovered a small group of torn-loose steno pages in a dusty manila folder. The day prior to projected landfall I had started scribbling down some notes for some reason. Since this was years before the founding of Hidden City, I can only assume it was for possible use in my ‘zine of the time, Ambergris From Leviathan, but in truth I have no idea. Maybe I was writing myself past the fear. I do that.

It’s a bit premature, I know, but for your possible amusement I’ve transcribed the notes as is. Again, these are from August 23 and 24, 1992.

I guess I should start this before things get too weird.

I first heard about the hurricane on Friday, I guess, on national news (NPR). I didn’t pay much attention to it, because it had been a hellish week at work, and I was too brain-dead to notice much. On Saturday Tucker made a joke about it, and Tanya took Marie “hurricane shopping” with her.

When I got up this morning, there was news on the TV about it heading dead for us, with no chance of petering out. I went to the office to shut down the computers and phones. On the way to the ATM to get cash, I gave a ride to an elderly man I saw walking along.

His name was Sam, and he was heading to church. He had lived through several hurricanes himself, but seemed cautiously confident.

We decided to go to my parents’ house, and dismantled our apartment. I took all our photos and financial records and put them in boxes, along with all my diskettes and copies of AFL. We called the insurance company, and we are covered for $20,700. Marie said she had the REM song “It’s the End of the World, as We Know it” playing in her head.

Custer [our cat] has not taken well to the new quarters. My mother has three cats here (all bullies), plus she has taken in two neighborhood cats. As soon as Custer got out of the carrier, she rqan under a cabinet, and refuses to come out. I am very worried about her.

I have been (predictably) thinking about my mortality today. I have done a lot of evil things in my life, which I won’t ever atone for. The last few years I have tried to be a better person, as much as I can be. But maybe this is the end? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

The scariest thing about this hurricane is that for all the preparations my father and I have made, we could still be killed by the roof coming off the house. Nothing we can do about it, and it isn’t likely. There are also some windows int he house — facing a well-protected entranceway — which do not have shutters. We could lose one of those window, and get some very scary results. But it should be okay.

I have also had a lot of thoughts for friends in dangerous areas. Millie and Al live in the first evacuation area, but when I called at 10am, I got their machine. I hope they are okay. Also my friend Otto, and Bebbie and Ronnie, who just moved to Kendall.

The saving grace of having to watch all the TV coverage has been Brian Norcross, Channel 4 weatherman. He has taken a no-bullshit attitude, calling people who won’t evacuate “plain stupid.”

It is strange being in my parents’ house. I took a shower in my old bathroom, and we’ll be sleeping in my old room. No hurricane party here, though. We have things to drink, and I brought a bottle of Courvoisier from the apartment (for medicinal purposes, of course), and ‘Rie brought Wild Turkey.

—–

5:00 AM: Woke up when A/C went off. Still just like a real bad thunderstorm. We have finally gotten Custer to come out — okay, she came out on her own, and we left her alone until she had calmed down some — and into my old bedroom. Marie & I slept for a while, but once it really kicked in, I wanted to get up and write this. Bryan Norcross and Channel 4 miraculously stayed on the air, radio and TV both. The National Hurricane Center was hit by a gust of wind at 164 mph, and their radar unit was wiped out completely.

6:40 AM: We should be getting the worst of it in the next couple of hours. Custer is terrified, mewing and panting. (It is starting to get hot and stuffy.) The odd thin is that we discovered that she is afraid of the dark. While the light is on she is scared but okay. When I turn it off, though, she immediately starts to cry.

I made an error earlier. I convinced Custer to come into the bedroom with us, which would have been okay save for one thing: the room faces the entranceway, and has a wall of unprotected windows. I don’t want to risk her staying in that room and sitting on the wondowsill, so I took out her litter box, bowl, and water, and put them in the hall right outside the door. She seems to be doing better now, though.

6:55 AM: The sun is theoretically coming up. It is getting a little lighter outside, and has the gray-violet look of a severe storm. The winds come and go.

Brian is still going. The reports are interesting — rumors of disasters, reporters trapped in cars, talking on cellular phones. Now they say we might get off relatively easy. We shall see.

7:18 AM: Went outside with my father. His carambola tree was wiped out by the neighbors’ black olive, which was overgrown and lost its top. On this street there are a few dead trees strewn about, but it doesn’t look too bad. Then again, it isn’t over yet.

Hurricane Andrew at landfall
Hurricane Andrew at landfall

The notes abruptly end. Of course the storm turned south, leaving Plantation and Fort Lauderdale relatively unharmed while devastating southern Dade County. Our apartment suffered a bit of water damage due to a leaky roof, but was otherwise unscathed.  I can’t say the same for many other friends.

This is probably why I never continued. In my life I observe the events around me, both to keep myself fully in the moment and then to lock down details in case it should prove a good topic for an essay. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out that way, because it just wasn’t that interesting, or I can’t find a handle on the story, or, sometimes, because my observations seem so small, so petty, in the enormity of the total event.

Nineteen years later I remember the building fear all too well. But I also remember the relief when we were spared the brunt of the storm, and the tremendous guilt I felt over that relief when the extent of the impact became known. Since Andrew I have taken storms seriously, very seriously. Right now my pantry has a good stock of canned tuna and saltines, and I know my evacuation plans and routes by heart.

I also spent a lot of time with my ex-employer’s emergency operations center, working on business continuity plans and disaster preparedness. Sure, a lot of that focus was on helping the company survive a disaster, but even when management’s focus was elsewhere, I devoted my energy to doing what I could to provide systems and services to help the afflicted employees and their families, when a storm struck. It was the right thing to do, of course, but it also helped me atone in a small way for my relief at avoiding Andrew’s wrath.

Now Face North

Miami is not my favorite place in the world.

This should not come as a surprise to long-time readers of Hidden City, and cannot possibly be surprising to those who know me personally. My tendency to sweat any time the temperature rises above 70° F is legendary, as are my complaints about it. At one time I even considered using the tagline, “Bitching about the Miami heat for over forty years,” but realized that people might get the idea I care about basketball.

A reasonable person might ask why I haven’t moved away, if I hate it so much. In fact, a good number of reasonable people — and a few unreasonable people — have done just that. The answer, though, is a bit complicated.

(I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone, either.)

Continue reading Now Face North

Waiting Room

“Mr. Hall?”

The nurse gestured toward the open door with his clipboard. I glanced at the clock. Not bad; I only had to wait forty minutes this time.

By this time the bi-weekly visits to the clinic were becoming routine. Get up early, drive to Midtown, give the receptionist my money, wait for a while, get blood drawn, pretend to listen to the doctor tell me how God will solve most of my problems, set a follow-up appointment, get in the car, drive home. I’d been doing this for a few months already, so I barely paid attention to the routine. My numbers had stabilized, so everything was under control. Except, of course, the $500 a month in medication.

A trainee nurse did the pre-exam honors. Hop on the scale — hey, I lost five more pounds! Cool. Blood pressure is fine, so those meds are still working. Temperature checked, pin-prick for the sugar test.

She looked at me, puzzled. “Did you take your diabetes medication this morning?”

“No, because I’m not diabetic. My sugar’s never been high in my life. My father is diabetic, though.”

She left the tiny office and got the primary nurse, and showed him the meter. “Were you fasting this morning?”

“No, this isn’t a fasting visit, that’s next month.”

“Wait here, I need to get the doctor.” He almost ran out of the room.

I rolled my eyes. Damned Pop Tarts. But that was hours ago. How long does cherry filling stay in the blood stream? Whatever. The doctor would clear it up.

He walked in, wearing his gravitas like a robe.

“Mr. Hall, I am calling an ambulance. Your blood sugar is almost five times normal. If we don’t get you into the hospital you will die.”

He turned away without pausing for my answer.

I thought of the inevitable bills that come with a trip to the hospital. Thousands of dollars at a minimum, tens of thousands are more likely. All to save my life; fine, but to save it for what?

“Wait.”

He glanced back over his shoulder.

“I won’t go to the hospital. I’m going home.”

His brow creased as he parsed what I was saying, clearly unaccustomed to a patient asserting their own authority.

“That isn’t an option. This is very serious. Without treatment you will die.”

I was perfectly calm. I may have smiled. “I am uninsured and unemployed. I will not saddle myself with debt. I do not accept this treatment.”

His mask was motionless, emotionless: “Go to the waiting room.”

The nurse escorted me back to the crowded common room. I found a chair in the back row.

I was a bit surprised at my own calm. According to this doctor I was very possibly going to die soon, and it didn’t bother me at all. I felt truly relaxed.

For quite some time my life has been deteriorating, a combination of illness and circumstance and society. I spend nearly every hour of every day under stress, being crushed to death by fist-sized stones. America values nothing but money: you are your bank balance, so I barely exist. Anything that might bring me relief would be welcome, even if that relief is final. That the stress might finally be over was calming.

A short time later I was brought to the doctor’s office. The doctor’s voice resonated with exasperation. “Since you refuse to go to the hospital, we will give you insulin here for four hours. If during that time your sugar returns to reasonable levels we will allow you to go home. If not, you will go to the hospital, with or without your permission.”

I wondered briefly how exactly he was going to force me to go. Was he planning to call the police?

“How much will this cost me?”

He grimaced. “Nothing. Why is that— ?” He shook his head.

“Okay, I will let you give me insulin. If it doesn’t work I will leave.”

Back to the waiting room. I sat and watched the patients come and go around me. It seemed to happen very quickly, like time-lapse photography. Occasionally the receptionist shot me an odd look as I sat in my chair, writing in my composition book.

A shot in the left shoulder.

I waited, writing instructions: contact these people; distribute my possessions like this. I worried if my handwriting would be legible enough.

Test results: no significant change. A shot in the right shoulder.

More instructions: “Here is my primary password. This will let you into the storage for my other passwords.”

Test results: levels inexplicably rising. Back to the left shoulder.

A letter to be delivered to a distant friend: “I warned you this day might come. Here are the instructions on how to retrieve and post the final entry for Hidden City…”.

Test results: levels starting to fall.

A final shot in the right shoulder brought it low enough to call off the emergency. I was hauled away to the doctor’s office again.

He explained diabetes to me as if it were something rare and exotic. My life was now more complicated, I was informed; no more eating whatever I wanted, or whatever could afford. I was handed a photocopied “Welcome to Diabetes!” checklist, a prescription for still more pills, and sent on my way.

I walked to the parking lot through the afternoon sun. I opened the car door, buckled myself in, and sat there, letting the stale heat soak into me. I’d cheated death, or so his educated eminence had informed me. Shouldn’t I be singing hosannas, swinging around lampposts, heart filled to bursting with the joy of life?

The engine turned over on the first try. I drove home to wait some more.

Gifts

[This story originally appeared on December 25, 2009. Consider it a Hidden City Holiday Classic, if you will.]

I was up late again, sitting at the computer trying to get some writing done until long after midnight. I was having a little trouble with my focus. The ideas just weren’t coming to me, probably because of the day. Even though I’m well into middle age and not at all religious, I was working on Christmas Eve — how Dickensian! I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of my rum, snickering at the image of my bulk crouching on a high wooden stool, scribbling in an enormous ledger while my breath fogged the air. But then I remembered I was playing the roles of both Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. I’d no one to blame but myself.

I had stretched and started to get up when I heard the wood floor creak behind me. How weird, I knew none of the cats were in the room with me, or thought I knew. I started to turn to look.

“Please don’t turn around. It would really be a very bad idea.”

The deep voice was stern and commanding, the voice of someone used to being obeyed. My mind racing, I considered the possibilities. The office door was in front of me. The two windows into the room both had their storm shutters down. How the hell did a burglar get in here?!

Stay calm, I told myself, just do what he says. “Okay, I’m not turning around. You are in charge. What do you want? I don’t own much other than this computer.” I hoped the tremors in my own voice weren’t too obvious.

The floor creaked again, a step closer. Oh no, I thought, he’s going to knock me out. Well, if I’m out at least I won’t have a heart attack, I guess. I closed my eyes and tensed for the blow.

“Relax, I won’t hurt you. I can’t let you see me. There is a protocol, a tradition that must be observed. Just don’t turn around. Please.”

He had an odd but subtle accent, like someone who had moved to the Midwest a long time ago, but with traces of their original language remaining. It was pleasant, really, a rather soothing sound. Against my will I found myself relaxing.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, I promise not to turn around. Just tell me what to do.”

“Do? I don’t need you to do anything, Marc. I just want to talk with you a bit. You don’t mind, do you? It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and I could use a rest.” There was a rustling of heavy cloth, the sound of one of the many boxes sliding across the floor, and a deep sigh as he sat down.

He knew my name. Great. “Sure, um, we can talk. I like to talk. What do you want to talk about?”

Cellophane crinkled behind me, then a muffled crunch. A familiar, spicy smell filled the air. Peppermint. Now I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but by now I was starting to get a sneaking suspicion about this. “Wait, no, c’mon, seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, you’ve got to be fu—”

“Come now, Marc. Do you think I like that kind of language? I look the other way as much as I can, but it’s more difficult when people use those words right in front of me. It makes me sad, too.”

Yeah, that cinched it. I didn’t need to see the suit.

“I was checking the records the other day, and I noticed that you haven’t sent me a list for years and years and years. Why is that, Marc? You don’t want any presents? Do you really have everything you want?”

“Well, no, but I’m a grown-up now. Well, adult, anyway. If there are things I need I buy them, and if I can’t afford them then I don’t really need them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”

“Oh yes, yes, that’s how many people choose to do things, yes. But that isn’t part of the rules, you know. You are always allowed to ask for gifts.”

“Maybe I can ask, but who will buy them? My dad? I’m fifty years old, for— for crying out loud. Do you expect me to make out a list and address it to the North Pole?”

“You could, you know. Plenty of people do. But the letter isn’t the important part. Believing is. Isn’t there anything you want, something you know you can’t get on your own?”

“I think you have the wrong Peanuts special. The Great Pumpkin is the one about belief.”

“Still a smart-aleck, aren’t you?” he chuckled. (I don’t need to tell you what his laughter sounded like.) “No, this is about dreams and wishes and hope.” He paused, then chuckled again. “What do you want for Christmas, Marc? If you want we can skip the part where you sit on my lap.”

“Thank heavens for that!” I laughed, in spite of myself.

I could feel him looking at me, into me. “Seriously. It’s important. Tell me what you want.”

I thought of some of the material things I would like to have, the trips I would like to take, but ruled them out. I thought about the things I knew my friends needed but couldn’t afford, and the gifts that might make them smile. Then I got to the big stuff: all of the jobless people, the troops fighting overseas, my friends fighting disease.

“I guess world peace, an end to hunger, and a cure for cancer would be asking for too much, huh? Not to mention it would be an unbearable cliché.”

“So? A fat guy in a red suit isn’t a cliché? Marc, when you were a little boy, did you ever ask for a gift and not get it?”

“Don’t you know?” Silence. “Yeah, okay, of course. It happened all the time.”

“And what did you do when all the gifts were opened but there was no chemistry set under the tree?”

“It depended on the gift. If I really wanted it I’d whine to get it for my birthday, or save up my money for it. Most of the time, though, I would forget about it.”

“You were disappointed, though. Of course you were. But since it didn’t cost you anything to ask, what made you stop asking?”

Because the holiday became all about the presents, and the presents were a matter of money. But I didn’t want to say that to him, so I kept quiet.

For a few minutes we listened to the wind picking up outside the window, moving through the palm fronds.

“Why did you stop at my house? I don’t have any cookies, or milk, either. What made you decide to stop here and scare the heck out of me? I don’t get it.”

There came a deep sigh; peppermint filled the air.

“Well, you have conversations with cats, so you are obviously—”

“Crazy?”

“Let’s say receptive. And you squeaked onto the nice list this year, too. Barely.” He paused. “Besides, I thought you could use the company.”

I thought the empty house around me, sighed, and took another drink. “Yeah, okay, you have a point.”

From behind me I heard the sounds of weight shifting, and a faint jingling of bells as he stood up.

“Most people only ask for toys of one kind or another. When someone does put together a less materialistic wishlist others treat it as a joke. But tell me, what’s so terrible about asking for a happier world at Christmas?”

“Because world peace doesn’t fit in your magic pack, obviously, or someone would have gotten it by now.”

There was a jingling again. I suspect he was shaking his head. “Sometimes you don’t get a chemistry set the first time you ask for it. But if you really want it, you’ll find a way to get one. If not this year, then next year, or the year after that. You just have to want it enough to ask for it, to tell people that’s what you want.”

Weight shifted, and the floor creaked again. “If enough people ask for the same thing, it’s a lot more likely that they’ll get it.” He laughed aloud. “Except for those new dolls. There are never enough of them. I can’t figure it out.”

A heavy, gloved hand settled gently on my shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Keep wishing for things that make you happy: big or small, simple or complicated, personal or for everyone. Everyone deserves presents, Marc. And I’ve given you something I know you need right now.”

As the scent of peppermint faded from the room I turned to look, but there was no package, no stocking, nothing at all to indicate that he had even been here. It didn’t hit me until I stood up to refill my glass. “Well, of course. What else?” I said to the empty room. I may not have asked for it, but he gave me something I really need right now.

He gave me hope, enough to share.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, friends. May you get everything you ask for, and more.

Grey Wisdom

I looked across the dark lawn from my porch at the silvery-green eyes peering from under my car.

“You may as well come out, I can see you. Why are you staring at me?”

“Why are you outside during our time?” The sleek grey cat stretched as he strolled out of the shadows. “You should be sleeping.”

“He doesn’t sleep much these days,” the fatter of the pair replied as she waddled out. “The one he calls Goblin told me.”

“Is that any of your business? And why are you talking to my cats, anyway?” It irritates me that these nameless and nosy outsiders are prying into my life.

“We inquire after you because it is in our interest. You leave food out for us, and then we don’t have to chase down our own prey. We like that. But why aren’t you sleeping?”

“It’s October, and that’s a difficult month for me.”

“Why?” The larger shadow crouched, then pounced on something small.

“October is one of the worst months of the year for my office.” As I spoke the first cat twisted to groom himself. “It’s also the anniversary of a lot of unpleasantness: my house was burglarized twice in October, I got divorced in October, Hurricane Wilma was in October…”

“Hallowe’en is in October, too.”

“True, but these days the holiday only stresses me out. I set my expectations too high, the world’s attitude toward the celebration has changed so much that it has lost most of its wonder for me. I end up sad.”

“Your people become sad during your holidays. We know this from living with single people.”

The fatter cat lifted her face from whatever she’d been gnawing. “This is your holiday and you cannot enjoy it. Most do not even celebrate, so you cannot share your anger. This is why you cannot sleep.”

“So then tell me, O wise cats, how I can solve this situation. How can I regain some of the spirit of the holiday and bring joy back into my life?”

Their eyes vanished into blackness as they turned away from me.

“That’s it? No answers? Just wander into the shadows and leave?”

Twin blurs leapt through the streetlight’s circle into the shrubbery and were gone. I picked up my glass and struggled to my feet. Four o’clock, I thought, as I entered the house.

Badfoot was waiting by the door. I decided to pick his brain a bit. “Hey, tell me something. In August I had a conversation with Greywhite on the porch and he didn’t reply in such a direct fashion. Why’re they talking to me now?”

As I walked toward the bedroom, I heard him say: “It’s October now.”

[Originally published 20 October 2006]

Why Hallowe'en?

Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.

When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.

The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.

But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!

Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)

Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.

And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.

We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.

The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.

Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.

The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.

And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?

I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989]