In keeping with the season I’m reposting a true Halloween story from my memoir The Kid in the Kaleidoscope. I hope you enjoy it:
Haunted houses belong in the realm of goose bumps, foggy nights and old neighborhoods, not pristine suburbs with freshly asphalted streets, unblemished sidewalks and immature trees. But a ghost lingered across the street, in a house where a man died.
I was only two when our neighborhood suffered its first fatality. Kilarney Park (later to be swallowed up by the Silicon Valley) had just opened for occupancy and neighbors had yet to come together with barbeques and meet-and-greets. It didn’t help that none of the parents on our street seemed to know the dead man’s name, much less how he died. By the time I was eleven no one could even remember what he’d looked like. For years he was referred to as The Ghost of Kilarney Park.
Once after an excessive dose of cough medicine, I peered out of our front window and saw the ghost sitting on a nearby light pole. The next day I got the best grade I’d ever received on an arithmetic test, a C+. I figured the ghost was good luck and I spread the word. Soon kids in the neighborhood were attributing good luck to the ghost, as well as bad.
The deceased had been married to Verna, who continued to live in her neat little house at Kilarney Park until I was eleven. She wasn’t old enough to look grandmotherly, but she appeared older than the adults on our street. If she had any friends or family they were never seen visiting her.
Verna’s house was a colorless shade of gray. Her car was gray and she went to work on weekdays wearing gray suits that matched her gray hair. She planted no flowers. Weeds such as dandelions might have added a hint of color but they refused to take root in her soil. The developer of Kilarney Park had planted sycamore trees in the front yards but Verna’s died. In its place was an Italian cypress shaped like a giant candle stick. It was such a dark shade of green that it appeared black. My mother complained that the sight of it depressed her.
“Why?” I asked.
“Italian cypresses are associated with cemeteries.”
“Because the roots don’t fan out. They grow straight down and don’t disturb the dead,” she said.
On weekday mornings Verna could be seen driving to work. She was the only woman in our neighborhood who worked outside the home until my mother landed a job when I was fourteen.
Verna was grist for our rumor mill; our fertile imaginations ran rampant: The reason The Ghost of Kilarney Park hadn’t moved on was because his wife had murdered him and his soul cried out for revenge. She done it with poison—rat poison, maybe. Or maybe she slit his throat with a carving knife while he was snoring. My best friend Ricky Delgado didn’t buy that one; he said the police would have hauled her away if her old man was found among blood-soaked sheets with a gaping hole in his throat. Another theory was that she asphyxiated him with car fumes in the garage. There was little by way of malice that we kids in the neighborhood wouldn’t attribute to the poor widow.
Randy Bernardino who lived three doors down from us was a feverish Twilight Zonefan; he floated the idea that Verna was as dead as her husband—a ghost, one who might not even know she was dead. This notion of Verna being a troubled specter caught between two worlds began to lose plausibility when her battery died and Dad rescued her with jumper cables. It seemed improbable that a ghost needed a car to get around in.
The years rolled past and Verna continued to live in a universe parallel to ours, keeping her own company while never interacting with anyone. She drove by our lemonade stands, lawn parties and garage sales until she faded from our sight. But after several years of invisibility, an episode happened that brought her vividly into view.
Except for Christmas, Halloween was my favorite holiday. My mother always checked my booty when I returned, claiming she was looking for tampered candy or hidden razor blades. She always used this as a pretext for confiscating some of the best candy. Ricky Delgado and I always worked on our Halloween costumes together. One year he’d be a pirate and I’d be a cowboy. Or he’d be a spaceman and I’d be a vampire.
Several days before Halloween in 1963 we both decided to be robots. Since neither one of us was willing to consider a different costume, we played a game of rock-paper-scissors to see who got to be a robot. My paper covered Ricky’s rock, but my best friend could be a dickwad and wouldn’t lose gracefully. So we both built robot costumes.
Boxes were glued together, a small one for the head and a large one for the body. Openings were cut from the inside so our heads could slide into the smaller box like the headpiece of a space suit. Wire coat hangers were straightened and attached as antennae. The larger box was supposed to rest on our shoulders to prevent the weight from pressing down on our heads, but the costume still managed to give me a tremendous headache.
When it came to finishing touches, Ricky struggled to keep up with me. I never received a grade less than an “A” on art assignments. In the fifth grade I was King of the Bulletin Boards. (The extra credit helped get me a “C” in arithmetic classes.) I cut neat openings for the eyes with an X-Acto knife and appropriated a broken shower nozzle for the mouth. After spray painting the boxes silver, I painted rivets and welded seams. My pièce de résistance—a laser blast to the body where a space creature had zapped me. A few more details here and there, legs and Keds wrapped in aluminum foil and presto—Man of Metal.
That year Halloween fell on Thursday. I faced an arithmetic test the next day and wasn’t prepared for it. (I’d spent too much time working on my costume.) My mother refused to let me go trick-or-treating with Ricky until I’d finished all my homework and assured her that I was ready for the test. Hearing my mother hand out candy to trick or treaters on our front porch only darkened my mood.
Ricky was long gone by the time I covered my legs in aluminum foil, slipped into my costume and grabbed a pillowcase for the candy.
“It’s getting late. Don’t go too far,” my mother said without commenting on my costume. “And don’t eat anything until you bring it home so I can check for razorblades.”
A wane moon floated overhead as I began knocking on doors. Many houses had already handed out their candy and turned off their porch lights. I received an unexpected reception by those still handing out goodies. I’d worked hard to make my costume memorable, but I hadn’t realized just how similar mine was to Ricky’s. Everywhere I went I was mistaken for him. And he had over an hour head start. The candy distributor at every house I approached said nearly the same thing as they closed their door in my face, “Nice try—you’ve already been here.”
As fast as possible for a chubby kid dressed in boxes, I huffed and puffed to a section of neighborhood where I didn’t normally go. Still, every doorbell I rang had already been rung by Ricky. Before long my Zorro wristwatch was telling me it was time to head home: I was the only kid still walking the pavement and most porch lights were off. My empty pillowcase hung limp in my hand as I headed home.
The lights of our house were likewise off when I turned a corner and headed home. I had a splitting headache from the heavy costume pressing down on my head and a back itch I couldn’t possibly scratch. Then I saw a light. In the strangest of places.