A guest post by Floyd Sullivan
A short story based on real events. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
In October 1962 we were twelve and too old to go trick-or-treating. This was a more dire situation than the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had dominated the news and made most adults stop smiling. My classmate Steve Parsons sat next to me on the hall floor at St. Giles School in Oak Park, Illinois, a week or so before Halloween. We had our heads between our knees and our arms over our heads, but he still managed to talk to me. He always talked. During religion class, or arithmetic, or morning prayers. Didn’t matter. Parsons had something to say every minute of every school day.
“I got a plan,” he said.
“Plan for what?” I whispered. I was scared. Not of the Soviet atomic bombs being installed on Cuba, but of the fact that the nuns might hear us chatting during this serious exercise in preparedness. Almost as bad as talking during mass. And what made it ever more frightening was the fact that I couldn’t see where the nuns were in the hall because I had my head between my knees.
“Trick or treating,” said Parsons.
“Shut up,” I replied. “The nuns are going to murder us if they hear us. Tell me after school.”
“The bombs may drop by then.”
Later, as we walked home along Linden Avenue, Parsons detailed his strategy.
“Timmy wants to go trick-or-treating, right? But he’s too young to go by himself, and my mom and dad sure don’t want to follow him around the neighborhood. He usually goes with the Nelsons but they went to Wisconsin because if there’s a big war the Russians probably won’t bomb Stevens Point.”
We paused at Berkshire. Normally I would turn and walk east while Parsons continued south, but because of the serious nature of our discussion I decided to stay with him another block, until Division Street.
“So we volunteer to take Timmy trick-or-treating.”
“Yeah. Right. That sounds like a lot of fun.”
“No. Listen, moron. You come over after school and have dinner at my house and tell your parents you’re going to stay overnight. They’ll say ‘fine’ because they don’t want to have to pick you up and interrupt their cocktails. We take some Jewel bags with us and just happen to open them when the people come out to give Timmy candy. And I know all the best houses for getting Hersheys and Butterfingers and all the good stuff. No apples or popcorn balls.”
He had a point. And if we trick-or-treated in his neighborhood there was a much better chance of getting some really great treats because his house was located in one of the richest parts of Oak Park.
“And,” he continued, but paused, smiling as if he had just chalked a “KICK ME” on Sister’s habit.
“And I know where all the girls’ houses are. Talk about smashing some pumpkins! We’ll get ’em good.”
“But Timmy will be there.”
“He won’t tell on me. He knows I’ll pound the heck out of him if he does.”
Parsons was brilliant. This everyone in class knew. His grades were strictly mediocre, but he could come up with the best scams of anyone.
At his house Halloween night he had three Jewel shopping bags ready for us. We ventured out with his parents’ blessing right after dinner. Parsons’ strategy worked perfectly. Timmy was dressed as a cowboy, while, as his babysitters, we wore our regular clothes, but almost everyone gave all three of us candy. We worked fast, running from house to house until we came to the 700 block of Fair Oaks. Parsons stopped for a moment and then led us past several nice homes to a large red brick house with dark blue shutters. Four jack-o-lanterns sat illuminated on the front porch.
I knew the house. Mary Hellen Wade lived there.
“What’s wrong,” said Timmy. “How come we didn’t go to those other houses? Why are we just standing here?”
“I heard,” I said, “that all the girls were at a party at Mary Jo Grant’s house. So she’s probably not even home.”
“Who?” asked Timmy. “You mean a girl lives here? Ha ha! You’re a girl lover, Stevie! I’m telling everyone.”
“You wanna die?” said Parsons.
“Let’s just go up there and ring the doorbell,” I said.
“Yeah.” said Timmy. “I don’t care. I want more candy.”
Without saying a word Parsons began to take the first small steps up the narrow sidewalk that led to the porch. “Those pumpkins are dead,” he said, almost to no one. Timmy ran ahead of us and rang the doorbell. “Shoot, Timmy! You spaz!”
We mounted the steps and joined Timmy. The door slowly opened.
It was her, dressed as a flapper in a straight black dress with twinkling sequins, and a triple fake pearl necklace that hung low on her … chest. She had curled her light brown hair so she looked like Dorothy Provine in The Roaring Twenties.
“Oh. Hi,” she said.
“Trick or treat!” shouted Timmy. She smiled and turned to a bowl of Nestle Crunch bars, the good stuff, on a small table next to the staircase. That stairway leads up to her room, I thought. She dropped two candy bars into Timmy’s bag. Then she turned to me.
“What?” I said. “I don’t want no candy. We’re just … we’re just taking care of Timmy. That’s all.”
“But you have bags,” she replied. “And it looks like you have candy in them.”
“Uh,” said Parsons. “These are Timmy’s, too. He got lots of candy tonight.”
“Huh?” said Timmy.
“Let’s go,” said Parsons. “Thanks.” He turned and ran down the steps.
That night we lay awake talking about the Bears and Fenwick High School’s football team and whether or not they would “take City” again this year. Parsons sat up suddenly. “We forgot to do the pumpkins.”
“We forgot to smash the pumpkins at her house.”
“You mean …” I could not possibly say her name out loud.
“Yeah. At … at …” Parsons couldn’t say her name either. “At the ‘quarterback’s’ house.” The ‘quarterback’? I thought a moment and then understood. Bill Wade was the Bears’ quarterback, so he was talking about Mary Hellen Wade. “I bet,” he continued, “that you can’t name all the Marys in our class.”
“Wow. Let me think.” I sat up. “Well, there’s Mary Hellen, and Mary Jo.” I paused.
Parsons picked up the trail. “Mary Margaret, Mary Ann, Mary Kay, Mary Eilleen.”
“Mary Ellen, Mary Pat, Mary Louise, Mary Frances, and Mary Jane. That’s about it.”
“There’s just plain Mary,” he said. “Mary Elliot.”
“Nothing plain about her,” I said, and regretted it.
“What? You like her?”
Parsons reflected a moment. “You know something. The way I figure it there’s a couple of girls who maybe ain’t so bad. Like the ‘quarterback.’”
“And maybe ‘the general.’”
“The ‘general’? Who’s …” I could almost see his eyes widen in the dark as he understood that the “general” had to be Mary Jo Grant. “Oh yeah. The ‘general.’ As in the Civil War general?” I nodded. He knew I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. “Say, how many Marys is that, you figure?”
“Didn’t count. There’s a lot of Mikes, too.”
“Not as many Mikes as Marys.”
Parsons coughed. “Uh, tell me something. If you had to pick one of the two, you know, the ‘quarterback’ or the ‘general,’ who would you pick?”
“Pick for what? To hit with a spitball?”
“You know what I mean. Next year we’re gonna have to go to the Halloween dance in the school basement. You gotta dance with someone. Who you gonna pick?”
I took a deep breath. “Well, it wouldn’t be the ‘quarterback.’ You?”
“It wouldn’t be the ‘general.’
Up until that moment during the predawn hours of All Saints Day 1962, we publicly hated girls. The previous winter we had encountered a group of our girl classmates at an ice skating rink in Taylor Park. We attacked them viciously with snowballs causing one to fall and break her arm. We were proud of this accomplishment, but worried sick that she would tell on us because we assumed that the girls hated us right back. We’d be in all kinds of trouble. But she never ratted us out. Maybe that was when we first understood that we were all in this together – just trying to get through the eight years without the nuns killing us. And now, as Parsons and I got up from our beds to get ready to go to mass, we had acknowledged that we didn’t hate girls at all. Quite the contrary.
Later, kneeling in one of our class’s pews, I reflected on how madly in love with Mary Jo Grant I truly was and fell asleep sometime during the Offertory. Sister Mary Quigley dug into my shoulders with her hands and violently shook me awake.
Floyd Sullivan was born in Chicago and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. He graduated from UIC (back then we called it “Circle”) with a degree in history. His historical novel, Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908 was recently published by Amika Press. He blogs at Waiting4Cubs on ChicagoNow, and works as a freelance writer and photographer in Chicago, where he lives with his wife.
For the month of October, Listing Beyond Forty is Listing Toward Halloween, featuring posts related to or inspired by Halloween.