To begin with, this story is Faux Fiction. You, the reader will determine what's real … or not …
When I was 7, I longed for a shiny acetate store bought Halloween costume. They were glorious to look at, and if you got one, you were mighty special. You could be Dale Evans, Peter Pan, Mighty Mouse, a clown or the Frankenstein monster. Maw had made mine, and I endured it for years – A furry monkey costume, complete with mask and tail.
The thing about that costume is it itched me to death! I broke out in hives every year, but was too proud to admit it until I was safely at home with my bag full of candy, oranges and pennies. Making matters worse, I was forced to wear my costume over my school clothes, including tights, a pair of wool leggings with stirrups that fit over boots, and a heavy coat. On top of that, I had a tight hood secured to my coat, placed over a woolen cap. My monkey mask was tied around my bulky head, and my tail stood straight up. It's a wonder I could move at all. My friends never waited for me. By the time I got down our front stoop, it was almost November 1st.
It didn't matter because I was not allowed to go out on Halloween with my friends. Rather, I went with Maw, who stood right behind me as I went door to door down our long block. Maw hated the ordeal as well, but it was that way or no way.
At each and every door, Maw would stop; look the house over; and either nod or shake her head before I could approach the door. Then she would prompt me, “Say trick-or-treat!”
“Trick or Treat, Mam.”
“Thank you, Mam …”
And it went on and on. She was selective as to which houses I could stop at or not, and this always made me mad. I could see my friends running in and out of the street like banshees wailing and hissing in the night. I wanted to run wild and out of control too. I always wished Granddad would come with me, but he was left at home to pass out candy to the other children.
My friends never missed a house, and they always had bigger bags than I did; some had two. “Why can’t we go to the Rozelle’s house?” I would wail. “All the others are going there.” She'd say,
“Because you are neither a vagabond nor a scalawag, and you’ll go where I tell you … where the food is safe!” I rolled my eyes safely behind my mask.
Towards the end of the block, up by Marsden Street, there was Mrs. Hazel’s lonely little house, set farther back from the street than the others. We all had standard “Jamaica Houses,” with three windows and a door, but she had a tiny bungalow that was nestled back in the trees that shook when the Long Island Railroad rumbled by. This was the first year that we noticed Mrs. Hazel decorated her house for the holiday. She played in Maw’s bridge club, and she and her husband, a short quiet man, had no children of their own. Since she recently retired, we figured she'd be home. On her little porch was a pumpkin with a candle burning inside, and seated in a large cane back rocking chair was one of those big, stuffed effigies. You know, how folks take old clothes and stuff them with newspapers so that it looked just like a real person, placing them in chairs or trees to scare the kids. Back then, stuffed people hanging from trees weren’t too popular in our neighborhood. But Mrs. Hazel had a good size person on her porch. It was headless, with a large pumpkin for a head, and wore a red plaid shirt and old dungarees stuffed into some scruffy boots. His arms were folded across his chest and he was slumped down in the rocker.
I was terrified. “I don’t want to go there, Maw,” I whimpered. None of my friends were there to go with me, and frankly, Maw was even standing closer to the street than usual.
“Don’t be foolish, go on!” she urged. Chills tickled the small of my back, and I suddenly wished I had on even more clothes. I was so cold, and scared of the pumpkin goblin. I hate those things, and the pumpkin itself was beginning to ripen and stink. I rang the bell and ran back to Maw in a snap. “What are you doing, silly? Go back up there!” Just as I was about to defy Maw and fly home, the door slowly opened. Maw pushed me back towards the door.
“Trick or Treat, Mam.”
The door opened wider, and the warm light from inside lit the porch completely. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Hilda, is that you?” Mrs. Hazel hollered?
“Yes, girl! I’m out with Irene.”
“Well, well, well, is that you in there, Miss Queen?” She patted my layered head.
”What you supposed to be?”
“A monkey again, Mam.”
Mrs. Hazel was silent for a while, and then mumbled, “Sure you are, heh. Come on in!” Before I could protest, Mrs. Hazel grabbed my arm, pulling me in past pumpkin man, and Maw quickly followed behind. “Come in and warm up. I’ve been waiting for some nice company.”
Mrs. Hazel led us to her small kitchen with the aroma of meat roasting and hot cider. It was quite warm and cozy in there. Her little round table had an orange linen table cloth and displayed a large milk glass punch bowl filled with hot cider, plates of cookies and candy corn.
“Wow!” I shouted. “Look, Maw!”
“Mind your manners,” Maw reminded me.
“Oh, Hilda, it’s Halloween. Let the girl enjoy herself. Here, Queen, help yourself.” She handed me a little china plate and I loaded it with cookies, ignoring Maw’s warning glance. I knew the gluttony lecture would be given once we got home. I sat sipping hot cider, which was very, very spicy and had an odd taste. I figured that was just Grown Folks Cider, and I was feeling very full and sleepy, while the two older women sat and gossiped quietly.
“Where is he, Hazel?”
“I don’t know, Hilda. It’s been two weeks. That woman stopped calling here and he hasn’t come home since. I know he’s with her!” Mrs. Hazel began to sob softly.
I had learned long ago from Maw what my place was and not to butt into grown people’s business. But this was good stuff! I tilted my head back in the chair, closed my eyes and pretended to doze off so they could speak more freely.
“Did he take his clothes?”
“No! That’s just it. He left for work that morning, and he never got there … Neither did she!”
“Nooooo,” Maw crooned.
“Yes, the dirty blood clot even took his lunch that day! The police ain’t doin’ nothin’ to help find him. He’s just an old man who run off wit de woman, that’s all.” They had both reverted from proper English to their more comfortable West Indian dialect they fall into when angered.
Through the slits in my eyes, I watched as Maw took another sip of cider after Mrs. Hazel doused it with a big splash of sugar cane brandy. Oh, brother, this is going to be a long night. Eventually, I really did sleep, and the next thing you know, Maw’s dragging me back out into the cold, past the pumpkin man and down our long, lonely street. It was dark and scary. All of the children had gone in, and I couldn’t even see our house at the end of the block. I was grateful when Maw grabbed my hand in hers and we trotted the rest of the way home.
I was freezing cold, and the frost from my warm breath in front of me swirled above my head like a ghost. The big Jamaica houses loomed on either side of us, and I was too afraid to even mention there was not a soul nor car out on this Halloween night. Finally, we reach the comfort of our house, and found Granddad waiting at the door for us.
That night, I didn’t even bother to sit up and count or sort my candy. I washed my face, piled into a pair of warm pajamas and climbed into bed without being made to. I slept fitfully, tossing and turning, enduring nightmare after nightmare. Soon I was awakened with a start by the sound of sirens wailing down the street.
That’s our street, I thought! I sat bolt upright in my bed, just as our doorbell rang. Who could that be so early in the morning? It was not even daylight yet. I heard Granddad at the front door talking with someone; who, I don’t know. He walked back to him and Maw’s bedroom, where they spoke in hushed voices. Suddenly, I heard my grandmother’s familiar bawling, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no! (her favorite expression),” then, “No, no, no, no!” They talked some more, and there was nothing to hold me in my bed any longer.
I stood outside my grandparents’ bedroom door and listened to him relay the story to her again. A neighbor had heard a gunshot coming from Mrs. Hazel’s house. When the police arrived, they found her shot to death at her kitchen table; apparently it was a suicide. Our finger prints are on that table, I thought. Something was burning in the oven. When they opened it, they discovered cooked human remains – a woman’s body stuffed in a big roaster, all fixed up with potatoes, carrots, onions and celery. On the porch was a headless Mr. Hazel propped up in a rocking chair with a pumpkin stuck where his head should have been. His own head, by the way, was found brewing on the stove in a large cider-filled stockpot full of cloves, cinnamon and apple peel … Grown Folks Cider ...
I never dressed for Halloween after that, and the monkey costume was finally put to rest. Today, as I sit sipping my hot espresso, and spread orange marmalade on my muffin, I am busy planning. How shall I dress my pumpkin man for my porch this year?
Excerpt from my novel “Queen Irene: A Garden of Easters,” not yet released.
Originally published in The Courier-Times, Oct. 25, 2015