“The youths were consumed by the fire, so that no one was to hear their wedding songs.”
A funny thing about flashbacks: they come unbidden, and at the most unexpected times.
One moment I was standing in Walmart, and the next moment I was not: I was a twelve-year-old boy again, crouching beside the outer wall of a darkened house in a long-ago suburb, hoping that the shrubbery to my right and my left had adequately concealed my presence. A malevolent creature was intent on taking my head. He—or it—had an entire sack full of them.
That particular flashback is always especially vivid. When it overtakes me, I can feel not only the pervasive, all-consuming fear of those eternal minutes, but also the little details of my surroundings: the cold, damp ground beneath me, the scratchy feel of the barren shrubbery of late October.
This is one reason why I still believe that it really did happen—even after all these years. A delusion wouldn't include so many little details.
And then, in the next second, the flashback is gone: I’m no longer that crouching, quivering twelve-year-old boy. I’m a grown man in my mid-forties—solidly into middle age by any yardstick. I’m no longer crouching in the dark: I’m standing yet again in the fluorescent glare of the Walmart near my home in Cincinnati, shopping for a calculator.
Although I knew that I would come back (I always do!), it’s good to be back, nonetheless.
The calculator that I’m looking for is not just any calculator; it’s a TI-89 graphing calculator, one of the models that Texas Instruments designed especially for engineers. Don’t ask me how to use the thing, or about its features. I would have no idea. The calculator is for my daughter, Lisa. Lisa turns twenty on the third of November, during the week after Halloween.
Lisa is a student at the University of Cincinnati, and an engineering major. She’s a lot smarter than her dad, I don’t mind saying—even though her dad hasn't done badly for himself, all things considered. But Lisa gets her smarts from her mother, who has always been good at math.
Lisa has a younger sister, Hannah. Hannah graduates from high school next year. Hannah takes after her father more, which is to say she’s not so good at math. But she’s creative and more of a “people person” than her older sister. I look for Hannah to major in business administration or political science. Something like that. We’ll see. She has a year to decide.
Last week Hannah and I were talking about the future, and she shared her anxieties with me. It’s so competitive out there nowadays—nothing like the days of my youth, when any college degree would enable you to blunder your way into some sort of a professional career. And Hannah has always felt that she lives in Lisa’s shadow. Her older sister was always the one with the straight A’s—the one with the academic awards. Throughout grade school and high school, hardly a one of Hannah’s teachers failed to remember and mention her “gifted” older sibling.
“Maybe I’ll end up selling insurance with you, Dad,” Hannah said. She said this in jest, but it’s not a half-bad idea: My State Farm agency has brought in a good living over the past seventeen years. (I drifted into insurance sales after several false starts in other fields.) “Maybe you will,” I said. “Your old man would be glad to have you.”
Who knows? Hannah’s still in high school, and her preferences might end up channeled in one of any number of directions. But it’s something for us both to keep in mind.
I’m walking toward the Walmart’s electronics section when I catch a brief glimpse of the head collector in the rear area of the store—through the double doorway marked “Employees Only”. He’s standing there by a bare cinderblock wall, near one of the warehouse area’s fire extinguishers. The fire extinguisher enables me to gage his height: seven or eight feet, just like he’s always been.
I pause to rub my eyes, and look again: The head collector is gone, just as I knew would be the case.
It’s not uncommon for me to see the head collector at this time of year. I only see him briefly—and never up close. If I saw him up close, well, that might be enough to drive me over the edge. Far away, he’s an anxiety that I can live with.
Keep calm, I tell myself: I focus on Hannah and Lisa, and my wife of twenty-two years. I focus on purchasing the calculator for Lisa’s birthday.
Halloween is often a difficult time for me, though the flashbacks are only this vivid every third or fourth year.
The atmosphere inside the Walmart isn’t helping matters. There are only a few days remaining before October 31st, and the store is filled with every conceivable trapping of Halloween: There are cardboard black cats with arched backs and erect tails. Near a display of trick-or-treat candy, a mechanical life-size plastic witch with green skin and a jutting chin and nose twists back and forth. And everywhere there are jack-o’-lanterns: plastic hollow jack-o’-lanterns for collecting candy, inflatable jack-o’-lanterns to be used as lawn decorations—even some jack-o’-lantern-shaped candles.
My individual traumas aside, I note that Halloween doesn't change much. Well over thirty Halloweens have passed since what I consider to be my “last Halloween” in 1980 (the Halloween that I’m going to tell you about shortly); but the basics of that dark holiday don’t change much, do they? Halloween is impervious to the Internet, to the vagaries of politics and pop culture. Halloween is dark, eternal, and yes, strangely inviting. (That was why Leah and Bobby and I decided to indulge in that “last Halloween”, even though we were really too old for it by then. We didn't want to let Halloween go—not quite yet.)
I finally reach the electronics section. It has been my observation that Walmart’s “everyday low prices” are at least partly achieved by minimizing the number of sales clerks on the floor at any given time. But I’m in luck: there is a salesperson behind the electronics counter. She’s a young woman about Lisa’s age, maybe a few years older.
“I’m looking for a TI-89 graphing calculator,” I tell her from memory. (Again, I am absolutely clueless about such things.)
“Well, sir, we have that model in stock.”
It doesn't take long for me to select Lisa’s calculator and pay for it. The total comes to $146.78 with tax. Throughout our brief interaction, the sales clerk calls me “mister” and “sir” any number of times, pointedly reminding me of my age. Not that I mind. There is only one woman for me: my wife; so I don’t care if the young sales clerk thinks I’m an old guy. And if being called sir is the price of having two wonderful daughters, then may the whole world call me sir.
That done, I collect my purchase inside its white plastic Walmart bag, and head for the main exit. On the way out I pass another sales clerk. She’s a bit older and rather on the chubby side.
As I’m about to push one of the glass doors open I hear her say, “Hey, you’re going to lose your head!”
I whirl around, my heart suddenly beating rapidly. The head collector, I think.
But she looks at me innocently.
“You dropped your receipt,” she says, pointing to a small strip of paper on the floor. Now I understand: What the clerk had really said was, “You lost your receipt”—or something very similar.
I stoop and pick up the receipt.
“Thank you,” I say.
I’m out in the parking lot, glad to be done with Walmart and all those Halloween decorations. I think again about the head collector, and how I caught that brief sight of him in the back of the store. Would he follow me out here?
The skies above me are overcast and grey; but it’s a little after 10:00 a.m.—broad daylight. (Another perk of self-employment: You can do your shopping at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, when the rest of the world is otherwise engaged.) The head collector wouldn't follow me out here. That is not his way.
I start my car, a pearl white Toyota Avalon. Yes, it’s a middle-aged man’s car. Hannah jokingly refers to it as my “Avillac”. You get it? A combination of Avalon and Cadillac.
I drive home, thinking mostly good thoughts: My two nearly grown daughters, my wife. Maybe I’ll make love to my wife tonight, I think. (I may be a middle-aged man, but I’m a long, long way from being too old for that.)
But inevitably, I find myself thinking of the past, too. I think about Bobby and Leah. I think about the head collector, of course.
And I think about Matt Stefano. Yes, I really hate to think about him.
“You wanna die, Schaeffer? You wanna die right now? Because I can kill you, you know. And there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Would you like that?”
Although Stefano had no doubt intended the question to be purely rhetorical, I shook my head, even as Stefano tightened his grip around my shirt collar, making it more difficult for me to breathe. Nor did I really believe that Matt Stefano would kill me—though there were times that I wondered. But it would not be beyond him to hurt me very, very badly. Matt Stefano, I believed, was either seriously crazy or pathologically evil—and possibly both.
Behind me, I could feel the brick wall of the rear side of St. Patrick’s Elementary School. Why had I been stupid enough to wander back here after eating lunch? When you’re a twelve-year-old boy who is trying to dodge a bully, there is always safety in numbers. You want to be out in the open, where everyone can see everything and everyone.
The rest of the seventh and eighth graders—not to mention two or three teachers—were on the other side of the building. But they might as well have been a mile or two away. Back here, beneath the late autumn shade of the pin oak trees that dominated the rear of the school building, it was only Matt Stefano and I.
“Do you wanna die?” he repeated. “Do you?”
What did he expect me to say? I might have pointed out, for instance, that this was far from a fair fight. Matt Stefano was not only an eighth grader—but an eighth grader who had been held back at least once. (And there were persistent rumors that he had been held back twice along the way.) So I was twelve years old, and he was fourteen or fifteen. At that age among boys, two or three years of growth confers a big advantage.
Add to that the fact that Stefano was a naturally big boy. He was by far the tallest of the eighth graders, coming in at just over six feet and perhaps a hundred and eighty pounds or so. He could easily have been an athlete, but it was clear that Matt Stefano much preferred to be a hoodlum. He wore his hair long, even as long hair was now starting to pass out of style, a remnant of the recent sixties and seventies.
In those adolescent years in which the concepts of sex appeal and popularity are nascent, Matt wasn't quite a heartthrob. Not quite. That honor was reserved for the more clean-cut, mainstream boys who excelled at basketball and baseball. But Stefano definitely had a following among both the seventh and eighth grade girls.
While I waited for Matt Stefano to do his worst, I had a random thought: Why had my parents sent me to St. Patrick’s Elementary School in the first place—instead of the nearby public school, Youngman Elementary?
Certainly they had wanted me to get a Catholic education. At St. Patrick’s we wore the typical Catholic school uniforms: white shirts and dark slacks for the boys, plaid skirts and white blouses for the girls. We attended mass once a week, and one of our regular courses was indeed called Religion—a mixture of church history, Bible study, and current events from a Catholic perspective. My parents were both devoted Roman Catholics, so that was important to them.
But maybe, I thought, they also wanted to spare me the indignity of being held against a wall by a school bully like Matt Stefano. What was he even doing at St. Patrick’s, I wondered? Who had signed the papers that had allowed him in here?
This town, Withamsville, was not even a town, properly speaking, but a “census-designated place” not far from the Cincinnati city limits. Withamsville was a mixed income community where the old money neighborhoods of the city bled into a semirural zone of body shops, trailer parks, and pony kegs. Withamsville was neither city nor farmland, but a no-man’s land where newly built suburbs mingled with postwar tract homes, and still older, decaying neighborhoods inhabited by the sons of Appalachian migrants, and white-flight refugees who had fled the poorer sections of the city following the race riots of the 1960s. It was a world that was alternately refined and rough, where upper middle class kids like me often fell prey to working class bullies like Matt Stefano.
That was about the time when we both heard the rock crash against the wall, not so very far from Matt’s left ear. The sound immediately captured both our attention, and Matt temporarily relaxed his grip on me. But he didn't let go.
Matt turned around, and there was Bobby Nagel. He wasn't on top of us, but he was within sprinting distance. The cavalry, I thought, or something like that.
“What are you doin’, Nagel?” Stefano growled. “Did you throw that rock at me?”
“Naw, I just threw the rock,” Bobby said evenly. “If I’d have wanted to hit you, I’d have hit you.”
I was more than a little amazed—and more than a little admiring—of the way Bobby stood there, staring down Matt Stefano. Bobby was only an inch taller than me, but he was a scrapper with a fair share of fisticuffs on his adolescent resume. Like Matt Stefano, Bobby came from what was then called “a broken home”. Although Bobby and I were friends, I had met his father perhaps once or twice; and Bobby claimed to see the man only rarely.
“Come on, Matt,” Bobby said. “Let him go. He ain’t bothering you.”
Matt now held me by the collar with one hand. He punctuated his next question by pointing his finger at Bobby.
“Or what, Nagel? Are you going to make me?”
Bobby paused to contemplate this. He was a lot tougher than I was; but he was no match for Matt Stefano.
“A teacher’s headed this way, you know,” Bobby said, dodging the direct challenge.
“Bullshit! You’re bluffing!”
“But what if I’m not, Matt? How many more demerits for you before you get suspended, huh? How many before they throw your ass out of here, and you’re off to Youngman Elementary with the other criminals?”
“You son of a bitch!” Matt yelled. “I’ll kill you!”
The subtext of Bobby’s insult had not gone unnoticed. When he called Matt a criminal, he did not mean the term in its generic sense. Everyone at school knew that Matt Stefano’s father, Tony Stefano, had recently been arrested and charged with burglary in Cincinnati. The elder Stefano was presently doing time at Lebanon Correctional Institute, about fifty miles north of Cincinnati. Bobby’s reference, however oblique it may have been, had touched a raw nerve.
I was sure that Matt was going to charge Bobby, or perhaps take out this new wave of anger on me. Then Mr. Malinowski came into view. Bobby had not been bluffing about the teacher, after all.
I hadn’t seen Mr. Malinowski approach. That wasn't really surprising, though, given that Matt Stefano had me pressed up against the side of the building.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Malinowski asked. That much was fairly obvious, wasn't it?
“Nothin’!” Matt said, instantly releasing me. Though Matt Stefano was easily the toughest and most feared kid at St. Patrick’s, he wouldn't directly challenge a teacher. That simply wasn't done. A hoodlum like Stefano might get by with thinly veiled sarcasm and the occasional lie; but had he physically confronted a teacher, he would have been out of the school and off to Youngman—or maybe even reform school. Just as Bobby had said.
“It didn't look like ‘nothin’’ to me,” Mr. Malinowski said. He was well into his fifties, but Mr. Malinowski was a big man. Moreover, I could tell that he didn't like Matt Stefano. None of the teachers did, really; but Mr. Malinowski’s tone suggested a degree of antipathy that extended beyond an educator’s professional exasperation with an incurable problem student. Reflecting on this moment years later, I would sometimes wonder if there had been a Matt Stefano in Mr. Malinowski’s childhood. That would have explained a lot.
Mr. Malinowski, ignoring Bobby for the most part, walked closer to Matt Stefano and me. Matt now took a deliberate step away from me, as if to demonstrate his innocence.
Without warning, Mr. Malinowski grabbed Matt by his shirt collar, and shoved him up against the building, much as Matt had been doing to me a minute ago.
“Picking on other kids again?” Mr. Malinowski asked, bringing his face to within inches of Stefano’s. “Maybe you ought to try picking on someone your own size—someone who can fight back.”
I know what you’re probably thinking about now: There is so much about this entire exchange that would be impossible nowadays, or would result in multiple lawsuits.
But keep in mind: this was the early 1980s. Nearly two decades before Columbine, schools were much less vigilant about bullying. Unless one of the victims really made an issue of a bullying problem, the schools tended to make students work out these problems among themselves.
And as for a teacher laying hands on a child in a threatening manner: Corporal punishment was still practiced in many schools in 1980, and no one thought anything of parents spanking their own children. Not like nowadays, when spanking has become a matter for media worrywarts and United Nations human rights lawyers.
I was half-expecting Mr. Malinowski to throw a punch at Matt Stefano, but instead he let the boy go and shoved him away. Even in the early 1980s, a punch from a teacher would have constituted an “incident”. I also wondered, briefly, if Matt would have retaliated at that point, and what the outcome might have been. At six-foot-three and maybe two hundred and forty pounds, Mr. Malinowski was somewhat the larger of the two. But Matt was younger, probably faster, and almost certainly meaner.
“Don’t let me catch you doing that again, Stefano,” Mr. Malinowski said. “And to help you remember, I’m going to write up three demerits for you. They should add nicely to your total.”
By this time I had moved away from Matt Stefano and Mr. Malinowski. I was standing next to Bobby. Mr. Malinowski turned to Bobby and me. “Why don’t you two boys join the rest of the students in the front area of the school grounds,” he said. “Lunchtime is almost over.”
This was a command, not a request, though both Bobby and I were more than happy to comply. I shuffled away, Bobby at my side, while Mr. Malinowski continued his lecture at Matt Stefano. The teacher’s intervention had been a mixed blessing: On one hand, I had been saved from immediate peril. On the other hand, though, I had (however indirectly and without fault) subjected Matt to three demerits and humiliating treatment at the hands of an adult authority figure. Matt would be looking for a payback.
“Why does that guy have it out for you so much?” Bobby asked.
I shrugged. “Doesn't he have it out for everybody, when you think about it?”
“I guess,” Bobby said. The truth, though, was that Bobby had never directly incurred Matt Stefano’s wrath. Matt might have been able to whip Bobby easily, if it came to that; but Matt’s favorite targets were the boys who lived in the newly built neighborhoods in Withamsville, the sons of attorneys, engineers, and corporate middle managers. It was a form of classism in reverse, though back then I wouldn’t have expressed the situation in those terms.
We made it to the front area of the school grounds just as the other teachers were summoning the seventh and eighth grade kids back into the building for the afternoon’s classes. It was one of those golden October days that hover just on the edge of summertime warmth. (That brief period from mid-September through late October is the only truly beautiful season in Ohio.) There was a small breeze, and the big trees that ringed the school grounds were an explosion of red, bronze, and burnt yellow. Neither of us was anxious to go back inside, where we would sweat inside the basement classrooms.
“I guess we should enjoy our recesses while we still can,” Bobby said, as if reading my mind. At St. Patrick’s all students from grades one through eight were given twenty minutes of outdoor time in the morning, followed by approximately half an hour after lunch. “There’s no recess in high school. Not at Bishop Stallings. Not at Youngman, either.”
Although Bobby was referring to the weather, his mention of the two high schools raised an uncomfortable truth: After next year, we would be parting ways, as I headed off to Bishop Stallings High School, and Bobby headed off to Youngman High School, the high school equivalent of Youngman Elementary.
Bobby—like many of the lower income kids at St. Patrick’s—received defrayed tuition from a parish grant. But Bishop Stallings was a consolidated Cincinnati archdiocese high school, and it cost serious money to attend. While the tuition was not an insurmountable burden for my parents, it was hopelessly beyond the reach of Bobby Nagel’s mother. And as for his father contributing—well, that notion was so unlikely that it was never even broached. According to my mother, Joyce Nagel was lucky to collect two or three child support payments per year from Bobby’s errant father.
“You might wonder why I did that,” Bobby said, clapping me on the shoulder. “I mean—sticking up for you like that.”
“Of course I know what you mean,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Well, I didn't do it for you,” Bobby said. “I did it for me. I figure that Matt Stefano and I are bound to mix it up sooner or later.”
“Bobby. You can’t whip Matt Stefano.”
“Exactly.” Bobby clapped me on the shoulder again. “I figure I’ll show him that I’m not afraid of him now, while we’re both here at St. Patrick’s. Then when we’re at Youngman together, he’ll leave me alone.”
That logic didn't make sense to me. Matt Stefano wasn't the type to forget a grudge. On the contrary, he would spend the next two years calculating the interest on his vendetta against Bobby.
Moreover, while Matt’s “gang” at St. Patrick’s was limited to a handful of hoodlumish eighth grade boys, at Youngman he would be among his own element. By the time Bobby faced him there, Matt would be part of a regular gang of like-minded delinquents; and boys of that ilk had no qualms about fighting with unequal numbers.
It occurred to me that this might be Bobby’s way of making me feel less awkward than I already did about him functioning as my unofficial bodyguard.
I merely nodded. “Well, thanks anyway. I was in a jam back there.”
We were drawing near to the mass of other students now, who were filing into the seventh and eighth grade classrooms of St. Patrick’s in two single-file rows. The lower grades were taught in a separate building—a much older red brick structure that was built around the turn of the (twentieth) century. The junior high classrooms were housed beneath the church. That building had been built in the mid-1960s, so it was still fairly newish in 1980.
As was now my habit, I began to look for Leah. I had known Leah most of my life, and I had seen her on a daily basis since kindergarten, more or less. But that had all changed lately: each time I saw her it was now a special event. This was a season in my life in which I would often lay awake at night, wondering if Leah Carter might ever feel the same way.
I could not find Leah among the two queues of students. She must already be inside. Thankfully, no Matt Stefano, either. (The latter was likely still being detained by Mr. Malinowski.) I took my place in line, behind Stephanie Santangelo and Julie Brinson. I tried not to stare at their legs, which (as lots of campy male fantasy literature has made much of in the intervening years) were visible in their Catholic school girls’ skirts. Both sets of legs still bore the deep brown of the recent summer’s tan.
How long had it been since girls’ legs had been of any interest to me at all? Less than a year, I would say—and now I was all but obsessed with them. Not only girls’ legs, mind you, but their hair, their voices, and the degree to which they were “developed”.
Only a year or so ago, my sole concerns had been summer little league, comic books, and playing video games like pong and stunt cycle. (A few Christmases ago, my parents had presented me with a Telegames console from Sears. Crude by today’s standards, it was a forerunner of the Atari video game consoles that would take the country by storm within a few years.) But now I noticed seemingly every girl I came into contact with, and I was constantly trying to gauge their reaction to me.
I followed the flow of people inside. We passed through the main foyer of the building, past the staircase that led up to the church proper. Looking upward, I caught a waft of incense, and a glimpse of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, her arms outstretched, a serpent crushed beneath her sandaled feet.
We students went downstairs instead, toward the classrooms. I was passing through the downstairs doorway, still sneaking glances at Stephanie and Julie when I felt a much larger presence brush past me, deliberately knocking me into the doorframe.
Matt Stefano surged past me without doing further damage for now, elbowing his way through the crowd. But he did take the time to look back and glare at me; and his message was clear: It wasn't over between us; no—it wasn't over by a long shot.
I put Matt Stefano and my troubles with him out of my mind as I prepared for my afternoon classes. Yes—I was still afraid of him; but now I was also thinking about Leah, whom I would see in the first of my afternoon classes.
I walked down the hall toward Mr. Snyder’s classroom. The surrounding walls were decorated for Halloween: cardboard ghosts, jack-o’-lanterns, and haunted houses—all the usual clichés.
Was twelve years old too old for Halloween? I wondered. My father certainly seemed to think so. When I announced, several weeks ago, that Leah and Bobby and I were planning one last trick-or-treat, he gave me that gentle, fatherly disapproving look of his and shook his head. My father was a member of a very different generation, and he had some equally different ideas about the proper lines between childhood and adulthood. I was certain that I hadn’t heard the last from him on the issue.
And I was ambivalent myself about this year’s trick-or-treat being a threesome of Bobby, Leah, and I, even though it had always been so, ever since we were little kids. I would have much preferred it be just Leah and I.
As I walked into Mr. Snyder’s classroom, the teacher was jotting some notes on the chalkboard. This was seventh grade religion class. Although we sometimes discussed church history and theology, Mr. Snyder was one of those “free ranging” teachers who liked to incorporate plenty of discussions about current events, too.
And in that fall of 1980, there were plenty of contentious current events to discuss: Since the previous November, fifty-two American embassy personnel had been held hostage in Iran. That provoked the question: Should the U.S. bomb Iran, or try to make a deal? Most of the boys in the class seemed to think that the US should send in the bombers. Mr. Snyder urged a more cautious course.
“Don’t forget,” Mr. Snyder admonished. “President Carter did attempt to respond with force last spring. Operation Eagle Claw. And it was a disaster, wasn't it?”
In those days before CNN and the Internet, few seventh graders read the newspaper or watched the six o’clock evening news. So one day Mr. Snyder showed us a newsreel film about the botched operation: We learned how the U.S. aircraft sent to rescue the hostages had collided with each other and burned in the Iranian desert.
Discussions about the hostage crisis naturally segued into discussions about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. As Mr. Snyder had repeatedly noted, President Carter’s approval ratings had fallen as low as 28 percent. His administration was under siege not only from the Iranians, but also from the flagging economy.
All that made the victory of Ronald Reagan more likely. And with the election only days away, this was a hot topic in class.
I had no real grasp of current political topics like supply-side economics, East-West détente, and stagflation, of course. My parents were both Republicans; and in classroom discussions I supported Ronald Reagan out of a vague sense of parental loyalty.
This was one of the few topics about which Bobby and I disagreed. Out on the playground one day, he had solemnly informed me that he was a Democrat and would be rooting for Jimmy Carter. When I asked why, he merely kicked up a little clod of dirt and said, “My old man is a Democrat.”
But on this day, it appeared that Mr. Snyder would not be discussing either theology or current events. Taking my seat, I noticed the exotic-looking words that the teacher had written on the chalkboard: Samhain, Crom Cruach, and Bwca Llwyd.
“All right,” said Mr. Snyder. He was a tall, thin man in his mid-thirties who had gone prematurely bald. He had a brown mustache that the more ironically inclined students often likened to a caterpillar. “We’re going to take a break from our usual flow of topics. Since Halloween is this Friday, I thought it might be a good day to talk about the origins of the Halloween holiday. And it does relate to church history, in some ways that might surprise you.”
I surreptitiously swiveled around in my desk so that I could steal a glance at Leah. She was seated two rows over from me. When I saw her I felt my heart flutter, as they say—and even at the age of twelve I had enough self-awareness to feel a little silly for this. As I’ve mentioned, I had been looking at her for all of my life.
After wearing her blonde-brown hair straight for years, Leah had of late begun wearing it in the feathered hairstyle that celebrities like Farah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith had recently made all the rage. She had grown a few inches, too, so that we now stood more or less eye-to-eye. (My pubescent growth spurt, which would eventually bring me to my present height of 6’1”, would begin the following summer; but I had no idea of this at the time.) Leah’s legs were long, tanned, and lightly muscled.
She was by no means the prettiest girl in the St. Patrick’s junior high. But she could easily be counted among the most attractive ones; and I grew more than a little anxious whenever I saw other boys talking to her—especially the taller, stronger, and more aggressive boys in the eighth grade.
“Halloween,” Mr. Snyder began, “was originally a Celtic holiday in the British Isles, known as Samhain. The Celts celebrated Samhain after the fall harvest. Samhain represented the end of the growing season, and the beginning of the darker time of the year.”
I was mildly disappointed. Halloween a mere “harvest holiday”? The beginning of winter? So what? But Mr. Snyder was far from done.
“Of course,” he continued, “there was a lot more to it than that. This is a spooky time of year, isn’t it? Have you ever noticed that?”
I involuntarily nodded, and felt a little chill. I remembered the figure whom Leah, Bobby, and I referred to as “the ghost boy”; and I wondered if we would see him during our walk home today.
“The ancient Celts believed,” Mr. Snyder said, “that this season at the end of the traditional harvest, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, was a liminal time.” Mr. Snyder paused, realizing that he had used a word beyond the range of the average twelve year-old vocabulary. “That means a time when the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead break down, or at least grow very thin. The Celts believed that the post-harvest holiday of Samhain was a time when the souls of the recently departed returned to their earthly homes, to visit their loved ones.”
Now I definitely felt the chill. I had been but a small boy when my grandfather and grandmother Schaeffer had died. My memories of them were fragmentary at best. If what the Celts believed was correct, then maybe they still visited us from time to time—perhaps on one night per year, perhaps more often than that. This thought was simultaneously comforting and unsettling.
Mr. Snyder talked on, and told us how the Celtic festival of Samhain had been co-opted by the Catholic Church, and transformed into the holiday known as All Saints Day or All Hallows. The modern Halloween, he explained, was actually a truncated form of “All Hallows Evening”, or the night before All Saints Day.
Then he told us how the jack-o’-lantern had been originally carved from a turnip, and then a gourd, and finally a pumpkin. The jack-o’-lantern was once thought to ward off evil spirits.
But by now I was only half-listening, my mind wandering off onto other topics. I was reflecting on the fact that I had never had a girlfriend before. I was enumerating Leah’s qualities: Not only was she pretty—she was smart; she had the second-highest average in math so far this year, and seemed to breeze through every class discussion in our other courses, always prepared, always knowing the right answer.
I was wondering (for what might have been the millionth time) how many other boys had noticed her by now. How long would I have to make my move? I needed to ask her to “go with me”—as we said in those days.
That would require a previously unknown level of courage for me; I knew I wasn't up to it yet. How shattered I would be if she said no—that she “only liked me as a friend”.
And, of course, with the walk home only a few hours away, I was also thinking about the ghost boy.
At 3:10 p.m. I met up with Leah and Bobby at the western edge of the school grounds, where Shayton Road bisected Ohio Pike. The latter road would, if followed west, take the traveler into the posh old-money eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, and after that, into the city itself.
Shayton Road was a two-lane highway that cut through farmland, pockets of residential housing, and endless acres of woods. This was the route that the three of us followed home everyday.
And more recently, Shayton Road had become the road of the ghost boy, if that was indeed what he was.
On the way to our rendezvous point, I spied Matt Stefano smoking cigarettes in a distant copse of trees past St. Patrick’s all-purpose athletic field and baseball diamond. I didn't believe that he had seen me. At any rate, he was otherwise occupied and I seemed to be off the hook for now.
When I arrived at the edge of Shayton Road, Bobby and Leah were already waiting for me. Before they saw me, I watched them interact: Bobby said something funny or sarcastic (which I could not hear), and Leah playfully punched him on the shoulder.
This sort of interaction between them would have passed unnoticed by me two years earlier. But things were different now, and I felt a little pang of jealousy, followed by stabbing feelings of guilt. Bobby was my friend, right? Right—of course he was. But I nevertheless wished that he had gone on by himself, and left me alone with Leah.
“Hey, Schaeffer!” Bobby called out, having seen me. I hoped that he wouldn't mention my earlier humiliation at the hands of Matt Stefano. Not with Leah around.
“Yo,” I said perfunctorily.
“You look kind of down in the dumps,” Leah said, beaming. How had it gone unnoticed by me all those years when we were just kids, playing kickball and riding bikes around our neighborhood—how vivacious and lovely Leah would become?
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Jeff had a rough day,” Bobby began, until I cut him off with a sharp glance.
“What?” Leah inquired.
“Nothing,” Bobby said quickly, understanding dawning on his face.
“That’s right,” I said. “Nothing.”
“Hey,” Bobby added. “Every day at school is a rough day for Schaeffer here because he’s not exactly the smartest kid in the school, you know?”
Leah made a face at him. “Look who’s talking. Okay. Fine—whatever. I have the feeling that there’s something the two of you aren’t telling me; but if you want to have boy secrets, be my guest. Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”
“Only you, Leah Carter, would rush home to do your homework,” Bobby teased.
We walked for a while, leaving the school behind us and passing through a section of Shayton Road that was mostly wooded lots, and the occasional farmhouse. The subdivision where Leah and I lived was maybe a mile up ahead.
Yes—there was a school bus at our disposal, and we could have ridden home. This was 1980—not 1930 or 1950. But riding the school bus meant an extra hour of travel time, due to the way the route was configured. We therefore walked home whenever weather permitted.
We had walked not far at all when Leah broached the subject of trick-or-treat. The idea of going out for “one last Halloween” had arisen spontaneously among the three of us several weeks ago, and Leah had seemed enthusiastic about the prospect at the time. Her next words led me to wonder if she might not be on the verge of backing out.
“Are the other kids in our class going out trick-or-treating this year?” she asked.
“I’d say about half and half,” Bobby answered. Bobby’s assessment was probably accurate, more or less. “Why?”
Leah shrugged, hitching her backpack higher on her back. “No reason.”
Of course there had been a reason, though. And while I was willing to let the matter drop, Bobby wasn't.
“Should we take a—what do they call it—a survey, Leah? Would you feel better about going out trick-or-treating if you found out that Brian Hailey and Sheila Hunt were going, too?”
This remark caused Leah’s face to turn red, ever so slightly. Brian Hailey was the likely captain of the basketball team, an all-around athlete since little league. Most of the girls in the seventh grade had a crush on him. Leah probably had a crush on him, too.
Sheila was his female double, more or less. Little Miss Popular. All the boys had noticed her, whispered shyly about her on the playground. The girls, meanwhile, were divided: between struggling to imitate her and hating her.
“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,” Leah said, shaking her head. To my surprise, Leah was smiling. Bobby’s remark had sounded fairly nasty to me; but Leah had found it endearing, apparently. “Never mind: We’re going trick-or-treating. My mother has already made my costume. I’d never hear the end of it if I changed my mind now.”
“There he is,” I said. I was secretly glad to put an end to their all-too-cozy banter. But there was more to it than that: The ghost boy was here today—as he had been about two out of every three days over the past week or so. We were still a comfortable distance away from him. But we would have to pass by him in order to make it home.
He was sitting where he always sat: on a fallen log beside a stagnant pond that formed the pit of a little bowl of land alongside Shayton Road.
The pond was not a proper pond, really, but rather a low point where rainwater had collected. The depression in the land had been the site of an old industrial building, a structure that had once been a slaughterhouse (so the rumors went), or maybe just a warehouse. In any event, the building had been very old, and had been vacant for a long time when it was finally demolished two years earlier.
Now all that was left here was a barren crater filled with miscellaneous debris, and a shallow pool of water. The scene looked vaguely like something from a war zone. A bomb might have landed on the now nonexistent building, rather than a crew of demolition workers and a backhoe.
The crater was inaccessible for all practical purposes: It was hemmed in by two steep, slippery-looking hillsides behind it, and a sharp drop-off at the edge of Shayton Road on the near side. We had never played in the depression, never seriously thought about exploring the banks of the sludgy pond. This place was foul and muddy; and venturing down there would have meant a twisted ankle, if not a broken leg.
The crater had never attracted our notice much at all—until the ghost boy had begun appearing there.
He was wearing what he always wore: an old army fatigue jacket, jeans, and beat-up sneakers. The ghost boy might have been fourteen or fifteen years old—a few years older than us. He was smoking a cigarette and watching us approach. Doing, once again, what he always did.
I tried to look for his reflection in the pond and couldn't see it, though a skeptic could have easily claimed this was a result of the position of the boy, the pond, and the angle at which we approached him.
What was more difficult to explain was the way the kid seemed to blend into the hillside behind him—a craggy, muddy incline of dirt boulders and scrub pines. We had all noticed this: it was as if he were alternately there and not there.
“Maybe we should just ignore him,” Leah said. We were drawing close now, though still just beyond earshot. “Maybe if we ignore him, then he’ll ignore us.”
Bobby snorted. “Fat chance. He doesn't want to be ignored. We’ve tried ignoring him before, haven’t we? But he always calls out to us.”
Leah nodded. “That’s true. But you know—I was thinking: He could be a dropout from Youngman. Or—maybe he’s already graduated. We’ve been scaring ourselves—telling ourselves that he’s some kind of a vampire or a ghost or something. But maybe he’s nothing more than an ordinary smartass, and we’re psyching ourselves out.”
“No,” I said. “There’s something about him that—isn’t right. I don’t know exactly what it is; but there’s something strange.”
“Don’t look at me, Leah,” Bobby said. “I think I’m with Schaeffer on this one.”
There was something about this kid that wasn't right. And it was more than his appearance. This kid knew things about each of us—knowledge that a stranger could not possibly possess in such an offhand manner. But the only secrets he mentioned were the ones that we were ashamed of.
One day the boy had asked Leah, “Hey, you—blondie! What happened to your sister’s favorite doll? Two summers ago. You know—that one she really liked.”
This had meant nothing to Bobby and me, of course. After we passed by the boy that day, though, we had noticed that Leah’s face had turned pale. “He knew,” she said. “I don’t know how; but he knew.”
When we asked her to elaborate, Leah recounted a quarrel with her sister, Katie, from two summers ago. Katie had an antique doll that she practically loved; it was not only rare and unique, it was also a family heirloom that had belonged to their grandmother.
“I was so mad at Katie that day,” Leah explained, “that I went into her room and stole the doll from her dresser drawer. I knew where she kept it. Then I threw the doll in the trashcan out by the curb. About an hour later I felt bad about what I’d done, and went to retrieve it. But by then the garbage truck had already collected the trash.” Leah hung her head. “Several days passed before Katie discovered that the doll was missing, and I played dumb. I’ve never told anyone about what I did. I still feel lousy about it.”
On another occasion, the ghost boy had asked Bobby, “Hey you, the tall one in the middle. Yeah, you: Why do you hate your dad so much?”
This had provoked an angry reaction in Bobby, and Leah and I had had to restrain him, to keep him from plunging down the dangerous embankment between the road and the pond.
“Don’t listen to that guy,” I’d said. “He’s just talking and making random guesses. He doesn't know anything about us.”
But of course, the boy had known things about us—he’d known about Leah’s secret disposal of the heirloom doll, which would have been virtually impossible for a stranger to have conceived through random guesswork.
Today, I would discover, I was the ghost boy’s chosen target. We walked by the edge of the depression, trying our utmost to ignore him, and he said:
“One of you has a secret today!”
Bobby gave him the finger. “Shove off, dickhead. We’re not buying into your crap today.”
The ghost boy leaned back on his log and took a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. For a brief second, I could have sworn that I saw solid earth and trees through his body; and then that illusion was gone. He was all there again—unusually pale and odd in any number of ways, but there.
“Oh, a tough guy, huh?” the ghost boy challenged. “Well, I’ll let you go today. After all, you hate your father, even if you won’t admit it to yourself.”
“Don’t listen to him, Bobby,” I cautioned. “He’s only trying to get a rise out of you. Like before.”
“Oh, ho, ho. A peacemaker, are you?” he asked, addressing me. “Well, it just so happens that you’re the one who has a secret today. Imagine that.”
This made me immediately nervous, because I knew that I was harboring secrets. I was feeling differently about Leah than I ever had, and I didn't yet know how to tell her so. Although Bobby was my friend, I was no longer content to have us hanging around as a threesome all the time. I wanted Leah to myself.
I didn't know how the ghost boy could have known any of this, but I was almost certain that he grasped my innermost thoughts. He had done no less in the cases of Leah and Bobby, after all.
That wasn't a conversation I was prepared to have. Almost without thinking, I knelt and picked up a rock. Then another.
The ghost boy smiled. In a voice that was a few octaves deeper than his normal adolescent boy’s voice, he said, “Go ahead, try it.”
So I threw both rocks. The results of that effort were almost as strange as the ghost boy’s impossible knowledge.
“Come on,” I said to Leah and Bobby. “Let’s get out of here.”
Simultaneously, we all resumed walking, quickening our pace to double time. Leah and Bobby had seen what I had seen, hadn’t they?
Our one lucky break was that there was a bend in the road directly beyond the pond. We didn't stop our forward march until we were well on the other side of that bend, and beyond visual contact with the ghost boy.
Leah said, breathing heavily, “Tell me you guys didn't see that, okay? I need to believe that was just my imagination playing tricks on me.” She stopped, unslung her backpack, and allowed it to drop at the side of the road. “So tell me that guys, okay?”
Bobby shook his head slowly. “If that was your imagination, then my imagination was doing the same thing. What about you, Schaeffer?”
I might have been visibly trembling now. Probably I was. “I saw it. I don’t know what to call it, but—”
“Just stop! Okay?” Leah shouted. “Can we just forget about it, already?”
Bobby looked at Leah, at me, and then back at Leah.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s just forget about it. We don’t have to talk about it, do we, Schaeffer?”
“Nope. Nothing we need to talk about.”
“Okay then,” Leah bent down and hoisted her backpack again. We resumed walking.
In another ten minutes we reached the Shayton Estates subdivision, where Leah and I both lived, but on separate streets. Built on converted farmland back in ’77, Shayton Estates represented the march of suburbanization into Withamsville. Bobby lived farther down Shayton Road, in a little rundown farmhouse that he shared with his mother, and a dog named Bluebell.
“See you later,” Leah and I both called after him, as we made the turn onto the main road of our subdivision.
“Later,” Bobby said, not looking back, but casting up a single hand in salutation.
Alone with Leah now, I felt that I needed to somehow maximize this time alone with her. But what could I say?
I naturally said the wrong thing.
“Listen, Leah,” I said. “If—if that bothered you back there, we don’t have to go trick-or-treating Friday. It’s okay.”
She stopped in the middle of the road.
“I don’t mind going trick-or-treating. Didn't I already say that I’m going to go? I simply don’t want to talk about—that—other thing again. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. Jeez, I thought.
“Listen, Jeff: I’m sorry. But I don’t want to talk about that ghost boy anymore. Got it? And from now on I’m riding the bus home. At least tomorrow, anyway.”
“Okay, Leah,” I said. “You have a good night.”
“Have a good night, Jeff.”
We had reached Leah’s street, and she turned toward her house. After that exchange, I wasn't about to offer to walk her home (although I would very much liked to have done that).
The ghost boy had clearly upset Leah. He had upset me too, for that matter—and not only with his embarrassing secrets.
The rocks that I threw at the ghost boy had both found their mark, almost by accident. (In truth, it had been my intention for them to merely land close by, perhaps splattering him with mud.)
The ghost boy did not attempt to evade the projectiles, nor did he raise a hand in reflex, as most people would.
Leah, Bobby, and I had both watched in silent amazement as the rocks passed through the body of the ghost boy.
And when each rock passed through him, the ghost boy changed. For a split second he was no longer a boy at all: he was a rotting corpse with exposed rib bones, a grinning skull trailing remnants of long hair.
It was as if the rocks had broken whatever energy field sustained the illusion of an actual boy. That was the explanation I would give myself in the years to come, as I reflected back on that day by the little pond, when I threw rocks to avoid the revelation of uncomfortable secrets.
Those thoughts would become the reflections of a much older man, who could look back on the actual events with a certain degree of detachment. At the time, I pushed the few seconds of the nightmarish vision to the back of my mind. Truth be told, I was at that juncture more concerned with Leah: What would it take for me to move past my fear and make us more than “just friends”?
In a more normal year, my crush on Leah might have remained the defining event of the season. But Halloween of 1980 was to be a time of strange sightings for the three of us. And we hadn’t seen the last of them yet. In the very near future, it would be impossible for me to avoid confronting them.
End of excerpt.