Jefferson City Halloween 1977

A scary story. • Michael Gerber
 The author, on the night in question.  Photo by Gregory Gerber.

The author, on the night in question. Photo by Gregory Gerber.

T

he rot emerged at a different time and place for everybody, but for me it started in 1977. It was Halloween night, and we’d just moved from St. Louis to Jefferson City. Jefferson City is the capitol of Missouri, but don’t let that fool you; it was — and I suspect still is — a sleepy little burg wheezing along on the miniscule pleasures and manufactured excitements of small town life. Trips to the pizza parlor. Church socials. High school football. 

Some people love this life, but even at age eight, Jeff City was not for me. Our old neighborhood in the Central West End was like Paris in the 20’s compared, and my mother the painter had gotten off on the wrong foot when she asked the gingham-clad mother of a schoolchum, “Are there any good bars in town?” 

Mrs Smith (we’ll call her that) wasn’t rich enough to have pearls, but whatever she did have, she clutched. In small town America, it’s not polite to discuss one’s pleasures. Those are things to be feared, then given into in secret — at home with the lights off, or in the woods, or at a truck stop men’s room six miles out on Highway 50. 

Tragically, all this shame turns the natural and inevitable search for a little fun into something that might ruin your life. Back then the scourges were pregnancy and paraquat, but the Jeff City I knew was an opioid crisis waiting to happen. People there didn’t worship God, as much as hide behind Him — praying He’d protect them from themselves. 

And that brings me back to the rot.

Halloween had always been a favorite holiday of mine. First, my mom made awesome costumes. Second, people seemed to be more themselves on Halloween, and I’ve always found that reassuring. Back in the CWE, on Halloween gay people got a little gayer; blacks and whites got along a little better; bartenders would give you an extra cherry in your Shirley temple. 

I was going as a bum, and between Mom’s expert styling and Dad’s overcoat, I looked great. My best friend Ross had an awesome Chewbacca costume which, in that Year of Star Wars, promised to be a crowd-pleaser. The two of us were poised to extract so much candy that High and McCarty streets would require a full year to recover. 

Ross and I planned it like a military campaign. We’d start out on his block, where the homes were a little bigger; big houses give out big candy, especially in the early evening when stocks are plentiful. We’d work five blocks of McCarty, then turn and go down High, towards my house, where we’d finish the night. This, too was part of the plan; Ross’ father was ex-Navy and could be strict. My dad was young and artsy, a professional photographer, and likely to turn a blind eye to anything we did, as long as we didn’t actually throw up. 

Plus, my parents loved Ross. In that inauthentic town, he was always 100% himself. This didn’t always serve him in school — he did well in the classes he liked, and nodded off in the ones he didn’t — but he was the best kind of friend. He was kind and imaginative and funny, and when Ross told you something, you knew it was the truth…if only to him.

The night started out perfectly, and soon we were holding so much candy that the black handles on our little plastic pumpkins were beginning to give. “Let’s go to my house and dump,” I said when we finished McCarty. “Then we can do High.”

Ross looked dubious. I had a crazy dog named Gus, half black lab, half devil. “Gus eats books and bras,” Ross said. “Just think what he’d do to candy.”

Straining, I raised my plastic pumpkin. “Your Dad sees all this, he’s going to end our mission. And your mom is going to throw most of yours away.”

Ross had a problem with sugar. His problem was, he loved it; loved it like a foot fetishist loves stilettos. Once, when he was spending the night, my parents made the huge error of letting us go to Whalley’s Drugstore and buy Hostess cupcakes. Mom, Dad, and I watched in amazement as Ross basically reverse-engineered the thing. First he removed its cap of black, slightly rubbery icing; then he peeled off the white strip of squiggles. After breaking the icing into twenty, roughly equal pieces, Ross then split the cake in half. He licked out the center filling, expertly, then began to eat the cake. Each bite of the spongy, bitter pastry was paired with a piece of icing. As Ross finished, we all resisted the urge to clap, so intense was his commitment to this harmless pleasure. (Harmless until about an hour later, when the sugar hit. Bedtime came late that night.)

Back under the streetlights, Ross knew I was right. “OK,” he said, “we’ll go to your place.”

Walking into my house, we fought Gus off and went into my bedroom. Helping each other raise our buckets, we dumped our massive haul onto the dresser.  “Can I have your Butterfinger?” 

“Sure.” I didn’t like them anyway. “But wait to eat it. I need you sharp.”

Dad stuck his head in. “Done already?” 

“Please don’t let Gus in here!” I said as we pushed past. “You can have some candy.”

Ross was appalled. “Why did you say that?” he hissed as we galumphed down the rotting wooden stairs of our rotting wooden house. “Because, Ross, Dad will eat less than Gus will.”

High Street was, if anything, better than McCarty. A lot of parents were impressed by my costume — I had a cork five o’clock shadow, and smoked a carrot wrapped in brown construction paper. “Are you a gorilla?” the clueless ones asked Ross, and after a while, we started saying “yes” just to save time. 

Halfway down the block, I looked over at Ross. His mask was slid up on his head; and his mouth was covered in Butterfinger crumbs. “I couldn’t help it,” he said.

From that moment, I was racing against time — could we finish our rounds, get home and divvy up the loot, before all that high fructose corn syrup hit Ross’ bloodstream? The smart thing would’ve been to stop right then, but I couldn’t stop. We were on a roll. 

By the time we got to the last house, Ross’ movements were sudden and erratic, and his skin was coated in a fine layer of sweat. When he spoke, it came out in a rush, and invariably had to do with more candy. Ross had decided that I was walking too slowly, and sprinted ahead. As I walked up to the porch, he was doing ragged cartwheels in the lawn, candy wrappers falling from his pockets. 

“Couldn’t help it!” he said as he bounded up onto the porch. I was glad this was it; the only other house between this one and mine was owned by an obese ex-Merchant Marine named Charlie with no front teeth who (it was said) gave out beers for Halloween. I didn’t want beer, though I thought Ross could probably use one.

This house, though, was where our friends Ben and Luke lived. “Have you seen the twins tonight?” 

“No,” Ross said. “Maybe they’re sick?”  

“We’ll give ‘em some of our candy.” The lights were on inside, we could see that, but nothing happened after the first press of the doorbell. I got an ominous feeling. “We should go,” I said, and had turned when Ross, mad with candy-lust, gave the bell a vicious stab-and-hold. He was still pressing it when Mrs. Smith came to the door. As usual, she was dressed like Holly Hobby.

“Trick or treat!” Ross yelled. He was pogo’ing.

“Hello boys,” she said. “I’m sorry to see you.”

“Oh, Ross just ate some candy,” I said. “He’ll be fine in the morning.” 

“Are Ben and Luke sick?” Ross said.

“They’re not the sick ones,” Mrs. Smith said. Behind her shoulder I saw our friends. They were sitting at the dining room table, with their father, holding hands. The three of them were praying hard; they looked...scared. Mrs. Smith looked scared, too. Hands trembling, she gave us each a couple of small paper booklets. “Read these, while there’s still time.” Then she closed the door.

When the divvying came, Ross was in no condition to do business, so I just let him take whatever candy he wanted, and took his discards without protest. (That was the year I learned to like Mary Janes.) Then, we made a small pile for Ben and Luke, and hid it in the heating register next to my bed. (Unfortunately, the weather changed the next day, fusing it into a giant glob of sucrose and wrappers. Gus discovered it, licked it, then vomited.)

I ended up with all the pamphlets. I knew what my mom would say: “This guy can’t draw.” But if the pictures sucked, the stories were even worse: everyone I knew and liked, including myself, was going to hell. One pamphlet was about Catholics, that was us. Another talked about men like those nice friends of my parents, the one who made beautiful Christmas ornaments. Jews like my friend Rolf. African-Americans like my friend Stanley.

This was the rot. Sure, the Smiths were nice — to our faces. But if this was the God they loved, some part of them must hate us. And fear us, too.  If they feared us, what might they do to us, if they ever got the chance? That was a scary thought. But I also felt bad for them. To look at two 8 year olds dressed for Halloween and see Satan — the manifestation of pure evil — that sounds awful. It sounds like hell. What do you do for people that scared, that crazy? I still don’t know, but I’m proud of what the eight-year-old me decided: I would be so good and kind to the Smiths that they’d have to realize I wasn’t Satan. And once they saw that, maybe they’d see that Jews, homosexuals, and blacks weren’t either. I knew that whatever they were calling “Satan,” it was what made people hate and fear each other, and themselves. So I resolved to be kind.

…and to get the hell out of Jefferson City.  ◊

This piece will appear in issue #6 of The American Bystander.  

MICHAEL GERBER
I
is, almost inevitably, the Editor & Publisher of The American Bystander.
Michael Gerber is, almost inevitably, the Editor & Publisher of The American Bystander.
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