Halloween Dad

Image Credit: “Rea House, Anaheim, Halloween 2010", traderchris, via Flickr.com. Used under CC License.

My parents divorced when I was six. Irreconcilable differences, or something to that effect. My mom was always a pretty reserved person and my dad was always the more emotional, the more outgoing. It was a day after Christmas that Dad started looking for new apartments…they’d made it through the holiday and he figured time was a-waistin’ and that I’d be too distracted by my GameBoy Color to put up much resistance. It was only a few weeks later he was boxing up all his things, quietly taking them out a Toyota Corolla at a time.

We got through January and February and into March before I started wondering when he’d be coming back. Mom had to break the news to me in her own way — a series of blunt, simple statements punctuated by a lilty “,OK?”

“Dad’s not going to live with us anymore, OK?”

“Mommies and Daddies don’t always love each other, OK?”

Four or five “OK?’s” later I was all full of tears and too upset to shed them. I felt like I was choking on nothing.

Dad handled things how he usually handles things: by overplaying his happy. Every part of his life that fell short, he shined the silver lining as hard as he could.

When he couldn’t cook, it was “Isn’t having pizza for dinner great!”

When his place smelled musty from want of cleaning, it was “Don’t you just love having the windows open and breathing that sweet summer air!”

When he lost another new girlfriend, it was “Don’t you love spending time together, just us guys!” My little brother always bought it. He was a hapless victim, the spell always worked on him. Plus, he was only three when they first separated so he was a pretty soft touch, though the effect lasted well into his teens.

It was May of the year my parents’ divorce was final. Dad managed to shore up a small savings. He surveyed his options and thought long and hard about the boxes he’d had to pull out of Mom’s house and what he might do with them. A full Corolla’s worth of those boxes were his beloved Halloween decorations. He was always a nut about Halloween and less-so about other holidays, so he volunteered to take the decorations for himself. But in his apartment, he had no room for the skeletons, the tombstones, the full-sized Frankenstein…Halloween would have to be a plastic door cover with a Dracula on it, at most.

Dad sized up the situation. $5k in savings and plenty of Halloween and no place to put it? Easy peasy. He called a realtor, sold his Corolla, and bought a little house about 20 minutes away from Mom’s, one with a nice front yard and a flat stone walking path to the front door. It was a nice house — two bedrooms and a den (which would become my brother’s room), decent construction, nice-enough neighborhood. It was mid-July when he moved in, in the grip of a pretty rough heatwave. Mom brought over some Gatorade and my brother and I to help. She didn’t bring Lonnie, her “friend.” It was a tad soon for that.

Dad was so thrilled that he now had a canvas for his masterwork. In August, he got my uncle Gary to help him put exterior plugs on the front porch. In September, he started testing his setup under various conditions, plugging in sequential strings of exterior bulbs to see how many he could work in without throwing the breaker.

He would sketch out ideas with my brother and I on his alternating weekends. We were both excited, telling him what ought to be there and how scary it should be. As part of his “brainstorming,” he would show us classic monster movies. We watched Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy — all the great old Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi vehicles. I usually just rolled my eyes at how corny they were, but then he showed me The Wolfman. I swear I didn’t sleep for three nights after I saw that. I convinced my little brother that he was the scared one so he would cuddle with me in my tiny twin bed and that way we’d both be safe.

The first Halloween at Dad’s house was the closest I’ve come in my life to having a wish come true. Everything my brother and I talked about was there, made real, in Dad’s yard. The stuff ran up the tree, across the porch, nearly encroaching into his neighbor’s yard. There was Dracula, sitting up in his coffin, his eyes flicking open and shut. Frankenstein froze mid-step on the corner of the porch supported by fishing wire. Bats and cats and pumpkins adorned the mailbox, the flagpole, the base of the tree. My brother and I were blown away.

“That’s not all,” Dad said. “Go take a look behind the tree!”

I eagerly plodded over to the base of that big oak and froze dead in my tracks when I saw it. There, hidden just beyond view, was a seven foot tall Wolfman.

His eyes weren’t light-up, but they were made of old Christmas bulbs or some kind of reflective yellow glass. They shined even in the day. His teeth were large and white, but stained at their roots with blood. His claws were just plastic barbs, but they looked razor-sharp to my young eyes. The rest of him…I honestly don’t remember so well, looking back now. I don’t remember because I couldn’t even look over at that part of the yard.

I let out a yelp and ran back to dad. I was terrified and I was grabbing his legs. I overcame the sound of my own heartbeat to hear…laughing? He was laughing?

“I knew I could scare ya! I knew it!” He was enjoying this. I couldn’t believe it. Why did he want to scare me? I thought the whole point was to scare the other kids.

That night, we did our trick-or-treating rounds with Mom, who then dropped us off at Dad’s house so we could see the after-dark effects in action. Backlit smoke poured out of the fog machine. A boom box played the sounds of creaking doors and rusty chains rattling on a loop. Uncle Gary did a great job highlighting all the monsters with his flood lights. The neighbor kids loved it. There were even a few kids from school who came by and when they did the math on whose house it was, they were all stunned.

I was so lucky, they thought, to have a cool dad who had his own house and who loved to do Halloween stuff. It didn’t hurt that Dad’s candy selection was just as good as his taste in exterior illumination. Full sized Snickers bars. Caramellos. Double Bubble. And he used both hands to divvy the candy out to his adoring public. Both hands! Somehow, he had more than enough candy left over…

That night, my brother and I scarcely slept. Dad cleaned up a few things after the ten o’clock curfew and took down some little things so they didn’t blow all over the yard. My brother tossed and turned in his sugar-fueled insomnia. I stared intently out of my bedroom window at the shadow of the Wolfman, tall in the moonlight.

Every year my dad made his yard a little more garish, a little more scary. The paper showed up the third year and did a whole write-up on him for the “Around Town” section. The fourth year, he added a bunch of new tricks to impede the path to the treats. The piece de resistance was a working witches cauldron that billowed smoke. Every sixteen seconds (dad timed it out), a creepy hand shot up out of the soup. It was coated in glycerine so it always looked wet. Kids who got too close ran screaming when it shot up, terrified it might reach out and grab them.

Dad dressed as a scarecrow and stuffed his sleeves and pant-cuffs with straw. When kids got close, he’d jump out of his lawn chair and spook them. I delighted in watching them from the window, Mom standing just behind me, supervising the candy stash.

It seems uncommon now that Mom and Dad would be as close as they were post-divorce, but the truth was, they were good friends. They just didn’t love each other anymore. That was probably one of the few blessings my brother and I got as kids that keeps us semi-sane today, the fact that Mom and Dad weren’t constantly screaming at each other. Year four, Lonnie wasn’t invited over to help supervise candy with Mom, but he was very much still in the picture. He got us both candied apples and some flashlights with plastic pumpkins on the end. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was buttering us up to propose to Mom on Thanksgiving at his grandmother’s house.

Halloween night of year four, Dad spotted a very tiny little ballerina tottering up the walk and gave her a wave in his scarecrow outfit. He was trying to get her attention so he could keep her away from the spooky cauldron. Her aunt, standing a few feet away, saw her climb up in Dad’s lap and heard her tell him that she wanted “Myla pony” for Christmas. The aunt laughed, and jumped nearly three feet in the air when the claw shot out of the cauldron a few feet behind her. Dad pulled off the scarecrow mask and ran to chat with the lady, who mentioned that she was new to the area but living near her sister.

That’s how Jeneanne stumbled into our lives.

Jeneanne was a project manager for a defense contractor a twenty-five minute drive from our house. She scribbled down Dad’s number on a piece of paper in her purse and told him she’d call him soon. She was back within a week, having dinner with him at our pizza place down the road.

Thanksgiving came and Lonnie popped the question to Mom, who cried real tears when she saw the ring. Lonnie’s grandma was so happy to finally marry off her “late bloomer” grandson. “I can die now!” she said with a glee that didn’t make much sense to a ten-year-old me or to my little brother who ran up to her and tugged on her dress and said “please don’t die, that would be sad on Thanksgiving.” The old lady giggled and scooped him up in her big flabby arms and nuzzled him in his neck. Her name was Alethia and she was as close to a great-grandma as I got. She loved me just as much as she could muster.

Dad went to Thanksgiving at Jeneanne’s sister’s house. He brought onion rings from Popeye’s chicken. Jeneanne still laughs about that.

Year seven of Dad’s Halloween experiment saw even more extravagances than years gone by. Jeneanne and Dad got married a year before and spent three weeks in Bermuda that May. Jeneanne loved Dad’s Halloween spirit and Dad loved Jeneanne.

Better still, Jeneanne was a Christmas Freak. Not a Jesus Freak, but a Christmas F-R-E-A-K. When she and Dad bought a house in the Summer after their wedding, one of her biggest demands was space for all her “Christmas Cheer”. Between her decorations and Dad’s, the attic, basement and garage rafters were all packed for the holidays. They barely had room to store their winter and summer clothes, and they used to joke about letting us sleep outside so they could take our rooms.

There were a few surprises in year seven. Alethia died that New Years and both Mom and Lonnie were broken up about it. Alethia was the only person in my life who had died up to that point. I didn’t have much time with her but she loved me and I loved her. Dad and Jeneanne talked to Mom and Lonnie a few weeks after the funeral to ask if I’d been as funky at home as I had been with them. Mom got worried, as this was not Dad’s M.O. Dad overlooked things and always saw the bright side.

But the cloud over me didn’t seem to lift. Eventually, they put me in kid’s therapy with “Dr. Dave”. Nobody seemed to be okay with how sad I was. I was fine with it. It passed, in time, and I can’t speak to Dr. Dave’s contributions except that he recommended I give Adderall a try.

Three weeks in, I stopped eating and I was pulling out my eyebrow hairs. Mom and Dad were both in firm agreement that I go off of it.

I was thirteen. I started feeling sad about things other than Alethia. I was angry and hungry and horny all the time. Dad and I were still “best pals”, but he seemed to be shorter with me than he ever had before. He was always on me about homework and my grades, even though I kept a 3.5 GPA. He would always tell me how important school was.

“Must be, or they wouldn’t make me go by law,” I said to him on the drive one day.

“You can take that mouth back to your mom’s house, because I don’t have room for it here,” he snapped back.

He felt bad about it by the time we got to the drop-off.

Dad and Jeneanne got started with their Halloween planning in August that year. They talked to my uncle Gary about their exterior wiring and they started using LED bulbs that didn’t draw as much current. Jeneanne was really good at painting yard decorations and keeping the peace between Dad and I. When September came, Dad asked me and my brother what we wanted to be for Halloween. My brother said “Power Rangers” as he had for years and years. I decided to really shake things up.

“I wanna do wolfman.”

Dad’s eyes twinkled. He started looking up videos on the Internet about how to make realistic fangs out of wax and how to use spirit gum to attach fake hair to my ears. He even thought about contacts with yellow irises but talked himself out of it when he saw the cost. He bought plenty of fake blood, though.

I ripped up a few old flannel shirts and an old pair of Lonnie’s khakis. Mom said she was too freaked out by the test-runs of the costume to even bother looking at me night-of. She managed to keep her composure for a few pictures anyway. Lonnie thought I was, his words, “really cool looking.”

I stepped out of the house with my black claws and face paint and fake hair and fangs and I turned to Mom and Lonnie and asked if I could go out on my own this year. They didn’t think that was a great idea.

My brother and I hit all the regular houses and finally got to Dad’s. Mom and Lonnie headed home to chill, only stopping to have a cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie with Jeneanne inside. My brother started tearing off his costume and immediately started gorging himself on candy. Jeneanne grabbed the camcorder and started taping him. “Oh my gosh,” she kept saying and laughed along with him. She worried that he was choking on a lemonhead but he quickly corrected himself and she kept on chuckling at him.

Dad was staked out front. Literally staked, as he was pretending to be a dying vampire that year, lying in the big black plywood coffin. The kids went nuts, between him and the cauldron and the Frankenstein with the light-up eyes. There were big fake bats swinging around on the branches outside, emitting their tinny “OoooooOooOooo” noises. Shrieks of horror poured out of the MP3 player Dad kept specifically for Halloween sounds.

A lapse in candy-seekers came about 9:30 and Dad excused himself into the house to go to the bathroom. Jeneanne was still recording my brother, who by now was doing crazy dances to the “Monster Mash.” I was fiddling with my fangs when Dad turned the corner and took a deep breath.

“Did you tell the boys yet?”

Jeneanne seemed thrown off. My brother quit dancing.

“…no,” she said, startled.

“You didn’t tell them you’re gonna have a baby?”

My brother’s eyes lit up. Jeneanne was stunned and embarrassed, but happy. Dad was beaming.

My chest felt hot. I had to get up.

I ran to the bathroom, Dad grabbing at me as I went by. I threw up and it melted the wax off my canines. Nobody heard me over the “Monster Mash” and my brother shouting “Baby sister! Baby sister!”

My tears ran hot as I rinsed my mouth out. I pulled off as much of the hair as I could and scrubbed off the make-up and stripped off the shredded clothes. My fingernails were still black and there was some of Mom’s mascara in my eyes.

I stumbled out of the bathroom and Dad and Jeneanne were both waiting for me in the living room.

“Are you okay, honey?” Jeneanne asked.

“I’m fine. I think I ate too much sugar,” I said. It wasn’t strictly a lie.

Dad rubbed his palm on my forehead, hunting for a fever. I didn’t fight him but I wanted to.

“You feel a little hot,” he said. “Want a bottle of water?”

I nodded. He ran to the kitchen and Jeneanne sat me in the rocker and pulled the lever to elevate my feet. My ears were still ringing.

How could they be having a baby? Dad’s so old and my brother and I were still so young. Jeneanne was trying to wrangle my brother off of the couch and into bed, a nigh-impossible feat at this time of night with this much sugar in play.

Dad got me a bottle of water and snapped it open with a flick. I started to guzzle it but Dad warned me about being too hard on my stomach. He sat in the quiet, Jeneanne in the background trying in vane to get my brother to quit jabbering about nothing.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“I know this is kinda shocking news,” Dad said, reading my mind. “Believe me, it’s just as shocking for me, too.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Isn’t it great that you’re gonna be a big brother again?”

I shrugged. Dad realized he was playing a losing game so he finally turned off the porch light, the first official act of the dismantling of Halloween.

“I think we’ve done enough for this year. It’s gonna be hard enough getting your brother to sleep.” He went around the corner, turned off the sound system and started hitting his well-planned surge protector switches with his foot to slow down and silence his nightmare garden.

I drank the rest of my bottled water, went back to the bathroom to scrub off a little more of the leftover makeup, then put on my pajamas for bed.

I waited until the night was dark, no longer polluted with the pale green-and-purple light of Dad’s handiwork. I heard Dad come in and chat with Jeneanne for a bit.

“I think he just got overheated,” Jeneanne said.

“I don’t think he took the news well.”

“It’s probably just a shock for him. He’s going through so much already…”

“He should be happy! Right?” Dad couldn’t figure out why I was so disappointed or angry or whatever I was.

When I reflect on it now, I think it was halfway between jealousy and anger. Dad wasn’t satisfied with my brother and I? He wanted a kid he could keep all the time? Hey, news flash, you shouldn’t have left us with Mom. Maybe then you’d have your kids around you every day.

Those kids would get the full Dad treatment, all the time. He’d be “Halloween Dad” all year long. Happy Dad, excited Dad. And we’d get the leftovers on the weekends.

Over time, I’d mature a bit and learn to love my baby sister, and not even bother with the term “half-sister”. I love her the way I love her baby sister, the way I love the baby brother that Mom and Lonnie would eventually have, Mom’s “miracle” baby she gave birth to during my first week of college.

But in that moment, I didn’t see the possibility of love anywhere around me. I felt dark inside. I saw the posters in my room and the light under the door. I watched it get dimmer and dimmer and finally die.

And I waited.

Eventually, a full, bright moon came rising. There, in the dark of my room, four square panels of soft, beautiful light rolled across the floor, centimeters at a time. Soft, chirpy snores rolled out of my brother’s door, left open just a crack. Dad and Jeneanne’s bedroom door was closed. There was no AC on, no heat — the house was well-insulated and had been warming up all evening with the heat of bodies and a fire in the hearth. I was perfectly content in my skin so I slipped off my shirt and yanked off my socks. I was there, bathed in moonlight from the window, cutting a strong-looking silhouette. I felt perfect. Perfect, and mean.

I went to the closet and pulled out the baseball bat Dad and Jeneanne bought me for making Honor Roll the year before. I whisked myself down the stairs, armed, dangerous, quiet as the shadow that laid long in front of me. I unlocked the front door and stood there, somewhat tall and somewhat muscular, tears hot behind my eyelids. But I didn’t cry.

I walked up to the wolfman, the same one that had petrified me for years, and I stood in front of him, bat slung over my shoulder. I hated the wolfman. I hated him. He was always my least favorite. Of course he was, look at him, all stupid and ugly and useless. I let the bat slide down my palm until the butt of it rested on the bottom of my fist. I hauled back and whacked the wolfman right in the jaw. Styrofoam and fake fur flew. With one clean hit, I had knocked the jaw off his stupid, shitty face. Ha ha, wolfman, you’re nothing now. Can’t bite someone like this, can you, you piece of shit. I hit him in the arms and knocked off a few of his fingers. I hit his legs and he crumpled down to the yard, his menacing claws now bent up toward me in a plea for mercy. No mercy. I’m killing wolf men tonight, which isn’t very lucky for you.

I beat the wolfman senseless. Unsatisfied, I went after a few of the jack-o-lantern’s. Bam, boom, bam, right down the line, the careful curves of the gourds splitting and crumbling under the bat. I kicked a few of the fake styrofoam tombstones over. I punched the mummy in the nuts, or where I thought his nuts might be. I laughed to myself, not too loud, but in a way that sounded hideous when I reflected on those moments years later. I stood in the yard, heaving, out of breath, the maker of untold destruction. I took a turn around to view my handywork. There was my dad’s masterpiece, in tatters on the ground. Spray paint, duct tape, glue, glitter, all of it garbage now.

I plodded back up the stairs, sweaty now, even in the cold. I ran my hands through my hot, thick hair and wiped my nose where my sleeve would’ve been. I looked across the porch — there was another figure, black in the shade of the porch, motionless. I decided I would spare the Dracula dummy. He was pretty cool, after all. There, there’s all the mercy you’ll have tonight, I thought to myself. I’m not good enough for you, well, now all this shit’s not good enough, either.

I went back to my bedroom and stashed the bat back in the closet. I laid in bed, shirtless, sweaty, my nose full of night air and my hands raw from the bat and the beatings. I breathed heavily and I fell into a deep sleep. I barely budged until the morning, when I heard my brother crying.

“They broke it?! They broke it?!”

I woke in a daze and stumbled over to my shirt, still crumpled on the ground, and threw it on. The morning was cold and the heat of the house had all flown out the door with my dad and my then-youngest brother.

I looked out of the living room window. It all seemed so much worse in the daylight. There were feathers and fur and cardboard and splintered wood…it looked like a tornado had ripped up and ruined everything around us.

Dad wasn’t yelling or anything, but there was a purpose and silence in his work that made my brother turn right around and not bother Dad with his many questions and comments. Jeneanne was on the phone when I woke up and ditched the call quickly when she saw me.

“Honey, are you okay? Did you hear anything last night?”

I looked at her, dumbfounded. I don’t even think I was playing dumb in that moment — I think I was truly ignorant about the goings-on and my role in them.

She ran over and gave me a hug. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I know this is you and your dad’s favorite thing.”

My heart felt like she had tied a lead sinker to it. This was what Dad and I did, once upon a time. Coming up with these crazy Halloween ideas. Executing them with what little we had. When Dad had nothing, he had Halloween.

Now, he had nothing again.

Jeneanne told me it would be okay. If she knew anything about what I’d done, she didn’t let on. She just got back on the phone with her mom after scuttling my brother into the kitchen for his cereal.

I took a few timid steps outside to the porch. I looked around at the devastation and I looked at Dad. I looked around for Dracula on the porch.

But Dracula wasn’t on the porch. His coffin was out in the yard, but…

Why would Dad move Dracula after the fact? He wouldn’t. Who would’ve put Dracula on the porch while I was out there tearing up everything? No one did.

We didn’t use the Dracula dummy this year. Dad dressed up as Dracula, with the stake through the heart…

I’ll never know for sure, but I think Dad must’ve followed me downstairs that night. He crept behind me, quieter than I was, maybe even holding his breath. He watched me do one of the worst things I had ever done in my life, in perfect quiet, from the safety of the porch. I don’t know, to this day, why he didn’t stop me.

There have been times when I hoped it wasn’t him, but a serial killer, biding his time, holding off from making his move because of the moonlight and the proximity to the house. Deep down, I know who it was. And I know what he thought as I wrecked years of hard work, work that he and I had done together. Now, he was shoving all his ghouls and ghosts into contractor bags. I stood watching, helpless.

“You gonna get down here, give me a hand?” he said without turning around. I felt all my blood turn cold, like he was holding me in thrall. The only heat in my body was in my ears and under my neck, the shame of what I’d done compelling me to go down into the yard and help Dad bag trash.

It was the last Halloween of its kind.

The next year, my brother was too busy thinking about baseball and basketball to care about trick-or-treating. I was too old and the baby was too new and it got to be too much money, so Dad didn’t bother with decorating the yard. Neighbors stopped by after a few weeks, curious as to when he would begin, disappointed when he told them he was taking the year off. One year lead into another. Dad and Jeneanne liked to take Gretchen, my sweet little baby sister, out to trick-or-treat. My brother decided to just be “a baseball player” in his game uniform and went along, holding Gretchen’s tiny little hand. The evening ended with pumpkin pie over at Mom’s house, where I was waiting, costume-less. I never went trick-or-treating again.

I got older, and eventually I went to college. My Freshman year I stayed at school during fall break and Jeneanne sent a card with pics of her and Dad and the girls. I studied the shot carefully; the only Halloween decoration was a small set of pumpkins, decorated to look like Bert and Ernie, complete with yarn for hair. Good job, Jeneanne.

My dad’s yard and his relationship with me were never quite the same after “the bad Halloween”. He loved me, always told me he did, but there was a distance between us. It may have only been mental, but it was there. He lost his love of Halloween and decided to put his energies into being a more consistent, more predictable kind of guy. For the girls’ sake. To some extent, for mine.

I think I finally figured out after all those years why I hated the wolfman so much. When a vampire bites you, you get to live forever and turn into a bat whenever you want. You sleep all day and party all night. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

When a zombie bites you, you die and come back a mindless biting machine. And who cares what you do? You’re dead. Someone will hit you in the head with a shovel and whammo, you’re dead again.

But when you’re a wolfman, you’re not always a wolf and not always man. It comes about predictably, but that doesn’t mean it gets any better for you. You always end up hurting those who try to help you. There are always a few villagers nearby who didn’t have it coming.

You hope when you get back to normal, you have the guts to say you’re sorry.

Like what you read? Give Jimmy Marks a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.