I NEVER DRESS FOR HALLOWEEN
I haven't dressed for it in damn near half a century. I piss-off Sally. I annoy my friends; show up at costume parties as...as
"What the hell you supposed to be, Larry?"
"Ah a depressed writer?"
See, Halloween smells like mothballs.
Every year at this time an idea of apple, or the dry whisk of leaves -- waded-through or scratching, wind-drifted, against whatever building I live in at the time -- starts it. But in deepest October, parties, blowing leaves and cinnamon-cider aside, I catch a scent of phantom camphor in my life, feel a dry wool ghost brush my bare skin, and there I am: in the attic at 831 North Fourth Street, Reading, Pennsylvania.
The place was built at the turn of the old century. Its nothing special. Like most houses in that railroad town, 831 was red brick and a slate roof. Bigger than most, older than the shotgun row-homes on the half-streets where my friends lived, 831 had a fake Tudor half-beam attic above the second floor.
It was a scary place in
which to be young and invent your world.
My best friend, Pete Reinhart lived across from Charles Evans cemetery, up the way. He bragged about guts, living near the dead
Not much to be afraid of. Evans was a rolling green forest, dark mossy trees and brown hills going to seed, soot black mausoleums, tall granite memorials and the iron-spiked flags of the war-dead. In summer, a great place to read, leaning against cool granite in shaded heat. In winter it had the best sledding hills in the northwest corner of the city.
831 was scarier than Petes graveyard neighbor. Our place had a house-long cellar lit by three hanging bulbs and a wooden coal bin the size of Jersey. When we moved in, Fall, 1947, 831 had a gas-fired water-heating 'coil'. The thing had to be lit and extinguished manually. No pilot; turn the cock, listen for the gas, strike a spark and hope it didnt blow!
In the cellars near-dark, the coil flickered, hissing just beyond the octopus-arms of the furnace. The damn coil waited to kill, and you never went out -- not to a movie, not anywhere -- and left the coil on. Never! A constant check, back and forth, mother to daddy, daddy to me, me to Pop-pop, "you turn the coil off? Did you? You turned it off, right!"
The coil -- and shining black water bugs, mice, smells and noises not accounted for, and bad bad darkness -- was below.
Above, on the living floors, the house whispered constantly. Walking from room to room, boards cracked in places where your foot was not. Alone afternoons, distant rooms sighed. Small things chattered in the walls.
Gas jets, capped and dead, covered softly with decades of paint, poked from the same walls where, from time to time, zillion legged critters coiled forth and slipped to the baseboards.
Hallway chandeliers shivered and clattered in the stillest air.
Several parts of the house had external wires and big rotary switches that showed bare copper. Daddy always said these circuits were cut from the mains -- he did it himself, damn it.
Mother nevertheless always stopped, perked, listened, entering these rooms, alert to faint crackles of electric life from dead lines.
Finally, daddy ripped the damn things off the walls and plastered the holes... There!
Halloween began in the attic. The attic was up the stairway at the end of a dark second-floor side-hall -- a place dad never re-electrified and which remained, consequently, always in ambient dark.
At the top of the attic steps, a wide, mullioned window overlooked our yard, the back alley, the yards of my friends Davey Brown -- a Seventh Day Adventist always somewhat depressed because the world was ending soon -- and Terry Hebhardt -- who did shitty things because he was going to get beat up for something he did or didnt do, anyway.
Beyond, lay the rest of Reading, red brick and slate. A mile further, the town tipped upward till it washed like a breaking wave against the green slopes of Mount Penn.
In October, the mountain was red and yellow.
The steps to the attic
were always dusty. The walls of the hallway and stairs were runneled and rough,
its wallpaper bearing medieval tapist scenes of stag hounds, huntsmen on rearing
horses, pikes angled in a forest of passionate tangles. Old stuff, dark with
In the attic, everything creaked. The floor boards were splintery soft woods, ages of dust packed between. With even my modest weight the floors sagged. The ancient cabinets and stored furniture nodded or quivered as I passed. Nail heads squeaked slowly up from the wide floor planks like thunderstorm worms peering from damp garden earth. No place for bare feet, the attic.
The big front windows overlooked Fourth Street. The branches of the elm canopy reached from the curb to the windows, their fingers tapped the glass in the wind. There always was wind and the room always was shaded by dust.
The smaller attic room was darker. It looked across the narrow way between big houses into Cliffy Mahler's bedroom.
This place was filled with time. Stacked trophies of Pop-pop's long run as national skeet shooting champion, piles of books from Nannas youth, Pop-pops my mothers, boxes filled with fading, dying pictures of old and long dead people, the scent of sachet and newsprint. And trunks: steamer trunks of wood and leather panels, brass corners and varnished hardwood ribs. Footlockers with more hinges than necessary, multiple straps and a dozen snaps; and wooden crates, valises, leather satchels flaking into dust from times before I was born, times when my parents had been "on the road!" sat piled in corners and one on top of another.
You've come this far with me. There's something you must know: My parents were dancers, members of the Katherine Behney Dance Company. Dont rack your brains, you've never heard of it before now.
Behney was one of many companies supported by one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Arts Administration projects. After the New Deal died, the company became part of a traveling carnival.
My father, Rocco Vitorio Santoro, was a guy who slipped away from home at 13 to earn his own damn way in the world. He worked a couple years at Mother Hubbard's Candy, 60 miles from home, then got a job driving truck and setting up for the Behney troupe. Trainable, he joined the corps. Eventually, when Behney joined the carnival, he earned a few extra bucks as a wing-walker, days, working with a barnstorming pilot who toured with the show. When someone was injured or too drunk to compete, daddy also filled in as a miniature racecar driver... Just when needed, you know.
In addition, he met his future wife, Fern Emma Adams.
Mother was the Behney Troup's prima ballerina. She also was a poet who never wrote, a painter who didn't paint, a rich-kid runaway from Princeton and West Point weekends who had given up on her own schooling a couple weeks shy of the end of her senior year, and a sweet girl who ran to the road from her mom and dad -- the social crème of Reading and Wyomissing, PA . On the road, dear mother fell in improbable, wonderful, madly focused love with this grade-school dropout son of immigrants who, every couple days, wired himself to the top wing of a Steerman biplane and stood out there for inside loops, outside loops and
Immelmen turns, danced a little and ate bugs and streaming dirt for the crowd's thrills and the few extra bucks it brought.
Eventually, on the back-leg of a southern swing into deep Florida, they married in D.C.
The trunks in the attic room at 831 North Fourth were filled with their road years, the parts they brought home when they settled in Reading to become the boring guy, the pleasant housewife, they disguised themselves as for me.
Those trunks were Halloween.
Opening each lid sucked the air of their years on the road from the bottoms. From between folds of cloth, from the sleeves, legs and necks of clothes, costumes and apparatus, jackets, boots, leather helmets, furs and goggles, silks and makeup, hats, feathers, powders, greasepaint and stays, elastic and crinoline, crepe hair and dry sponges, from below it all, from through the fibers, the air ran picking up dust and essence. And through tubes of camphor crystals and deliquescing mothballs picked up the scent I knew was Halloween.
Everything from those boxes and trucks scratched my skin, smelled of age and other places and times and covered me completely, hid me perfectly in what they had been.
The costumes we put together in the days before Halloween created a high standard of disguise. Nobody knew me. Not at school before unmasking, or in the back alley, when Dave Brown, Terry Hebhardt, Cliffy Mahler, Pete Reinhart, saw and didn't know me until I spoke and, Holy Jeeze, Santoro, that you!? Christ!
The costumes also became something else. Something that should have been obvious to me, but wasn't. Was not until I wrote this did I realize: Halloween put me into their skins. My parent's. The skin they'd discarded to build me. Who was I? Dressed as a Scotsman, a World War ace? Was I them? Dad, mother? Christ, no! Just me...but... Hell, no! They were, they are, my parents. Christ, don't you have to kill them off to become you? Sure you do. Christ.
When I stopped having to dress for school Halloween parties, what was it? in seventh grade? I never did again. I forgot the stuff that was left in the attic, then I left home and, several years later, moved to England.
Mother and Daddy with another couple, people I didn't know, driving back from Florida, were killed when a guy coming the other way had a heart attack at his wheel, died instantly and his car jumped the median and dead-ended into them. Five gone. Like. That.
I returned for a few months, got rid of the remnants of their lives and went back to England. And, no, I do not dress for Halloween but, still, the season smells of mothballs.
COPYRIGHT © 2001 Lawrence Santoro