In honor of the High Holiday, here’s an original short story posted to this website.
Happy Halloween to all the celebrants in the Macabre Republic!
By Joe Nazare
“You’re never gonna believe this,” Tyrese forecasted as he stormed into the room.
Frankie sat cross-legged atop his bed, sifting through his afternoon haul. He’d already sorted out M&Ms and Milk Duds and Tootsie Roll Pops and Smarties. Reluctantly, he turned his attention from his sweets. “What?”
Tyrese, looking half-gruesome in his Harvey Dent costume, needed a moment to catch his breath before blurting: “There’s some lady over on Stevenson Ave. handing out alcohol to trick-or-treaters.”
“What?” Frankie repeated. “Gimme a break.”
His friend stood there nodding insistently. “It’s true. She’s giving out bottles of stuff right there at her door.”
“Oh yeah? So then where’s yours?”
Tyrese grunted his frustration. “I didn’t say everyone: only the bigger kids are scoring liquor. For the rest, it’s standard candy. But Jeff Marion and Glenda Walinski and Peter Settembrino got a bottle each,” Tyrese said, naming the trio of sixteen year olds from Hallorann High.
Although Frankie could easily picture the teens (who he’d often seen hanging out in front of Shop Rite’s liquor annex) being supplied with alcohol, he still struggled with the scenario Tyrese painted. “But why would this lady just be giving the stuff away?”
“What do I know?” Tyrese shot back, in the key of “what does that matter!” He lowered his voice and theorized: “Maybe she’s goin’ on the wagon. Maybe she’s moving away and has to clean house. Maybe she’s one of those rare, cool adults who don’t mind kids partying. The point, nimrod, is that she’s handing out free booze. So why just sit here asking why?”
Finally Frankie understood where this was heading. “Hey, you really think I could get a bottle off of her?”
“If there’s an eighth grader who can pull this off,” Tyrese said, “it’s you.”
Frankie took the statement as fact rather than flattery. While he didn’t have much meat on his bones, he had plenty of height in his favor. Barely thirteen, he stood two inches shy of six feet. He played center on his CYO basketball team, towering over not just pipsqueak point guard Tyrese but the rosters of the entire league. A young man amongst boys, Frankie wore the signs of maturation plain on his face. When he used his mom’s makeup to rub fake beard growth onto his cheeks today, he didn’t have to bother with his upper lip, where puberty had already penciled in the dark strands of a mustache.
Sitting in his bedroom now, Frankie imagined how his schoolyard cred would skyrocket if he managed to snag a Halloween bottle of liquor. “And you know exactly where this lady lives?” he asked. When Tyrese bobbled his head “yes,” Frankie popped to his feet and quickly reassembled his costume. He slid back into the old flannel shirt that had belonged to his father. Then hefted the broomstick with the sock-stuffed bandana tied around its end. “Okay, let’s go.”
They barreled downstairs and toward the front door. “Going out to do s’more trick-or-treating with Tyrese!” Frankie announced as they hurried past the laundry room, where his mom stood pulling a tangle of clothes from the dryer.
“Be careful,” she called after him. “And make sure you’re back before supper, hear me?”
Tyrese, who liked to watch old shows on Nickelodeon from the dark ages of black-and-white, intervened with his best Eddie Haskell imitation. “G’night, Miz Baldwin. Don’t worry, Frankie and I’ll look out for each other.”
Then they were out the door. Following the sun’s lead, the temperature had dipped in the time since Frankie’s return home earlier. And the wind had picked up, raking orange-red leaves across the slabs of sidewalk, leaves that crunched underfoot like squashed beetles as the boys sped down the block.
They wove through the neighborhood, Tyrese in the lead. His pace doubled when they made the final turn onto Stevenson.“There,” he said, stopping short and pointing diagonally across the street.
Just an ordinary-looking house—brown brick front and dented beige siding. A wide perimeter of patchy grass separated the house from its nearest neighbors. Frankie had probably passed the place hundreds of times in his life, oblivious to it. But he studied it closely now, wariness gnawing away at his anticipation.
“Go ahead, big guy,” Tyrese prompted him.
“You’re not coming with me?”
“I can’t,” he said. “She might not give you the liquor if she sees me with you. I don’t wanna blow your cover.”
Frankie could understand the reasoning, even if he didn’t relish the thought of going solo. But then he considered how approaching the house alone would only enhance the story of his exploits.
“Alright. Wait here.” Prepping himself with a deep breath, Frankie hurried across the street and onto the flight of concrete steps. He wondered who waited on the other side of that front door. Some senile old bat who’d lost the distinction between a bottle of Scotch and a bag of Skittles? Or did she know exactly what she was doing?
Still scaling the steps, Frankie glanced back over his shoulder. Tyrese had squatted down behind the fender of a parked Jeep. His waving hand directed Frankie to keep going.
A sudden, horrid thought, though, stalled Frankie. What if Tyrese was even more two-faced than his costume suggested? What if he’d set him up for a Halloween prank? Were his goblin-masked accomplices huddling behind the front door right now, waiting to jump out once Frankie approached? The more he thought about it, the whole story about a woman treating kids to bottles of liquor sounded too good to be true.
But what if it was true? What if he blew a once-in-an-underage-lifetime opportunity by chickening out? One thing Frankie was certain of—he didn’t have time for indecision. All too soon, his mom would be expecting him home.
Chafing at the thought of his mom’s unwavering overprotection, Frankie made up his mind. In a burst of gangly movement, he finished the climb to the doorstep.
Masking tape covered the presumably dead doorbell; PLEASE KNOCK had been inked across it. Swallowing, Frankie followed the instruction.
Within a half minute that felt like a half hour, Frankie heard shuffling footsteps inside. The door swung inward, and the space filled with a solitary female figure.
This wasn’t some crazy hag, Frankie saw, just a middle-aged housewife dressed in a purple turtleneck and blue jeans. She was nowhere near as elderly as his imagination had cast her, but for some reason she also struck him as looking older than her actual age. Shadows rimmed the eyes sunken in her otherwise pale face. Her scraggly black hair had a skunk stripe streaking back from the temple, just like Johnny Depp in that Sweeney Todd movie Frankie and Tyrese had snuck in to see at the Cineplex.
The silence growing exponentially awkward as the lady eyeballed him, Frankie stammered, “Umm, t-trick-or-treat?” A Tyresian voice immediately sounded in his head: C’mon, nimrod, act like you’ve done this before.
But the imagined chastising only made Frankie realize what differed from his previous foray that afternoon: he’d forgotten to tote the old pillowcase that served as his candy bag! He felt practically naked in his present empty-handedness.
The woman’s gaze narrowed. “How old are you, kiddo?” she asked in rasped voice.
“Sixteen,” Frankie lied, not daring to stretch the truth any further.
“Sixteen,” she repeated, seeming to chew over the answer. She looked him up and down, and then past his shoulder, perhaps checking for adult supervisors or other potential witnesses curbside.
“Okay, hang on,” she told him at last, pulling back behind the partly-closed door.
Frankie was so keyed up by that point, he didn’t know what to expect. Would she come back holding a candy bar? A demonic barber’s straight razor? A phone with his mom on the other end of the line?
But a torturous moment later, she stepped back into view choking the neck of a long bottle of clear liquid. Amazingly, she held it out to him. “Here you g—”
Before she could finish the sentence, Frankie snatched the offering and bolted down the flight of stairs, his knees pistoning as if he were emulating a drill from basketball practice. Overwhelmed by a potent mix of anxiety and exhilaration, he forgot to even thank the woman for her special treat.
Lorna watched the lanky hobo race down her steps. After scanning the twilit street, she withdrew into the house.
She turned toward the long snack table lining the wall to the immediate right of the door. Atop it sat an orange plastic bowl filled with nugget-sized Snickers and Three Musketeers. The bowl was one of those motion-sensing pieces specially tricked out for Halloween: whenever a human hand reached into it, the scaly green one poking up from its center came slapping down. Lorna, though, had removed the decoration’s battery, having long since tired of such routine.
What seized her attention now wasn’t the still-brimming candy bowl but rather the stark emptiness of the tabletop alongside it. She’d just given away the very last bottle of liquor from the domestic cache.
The realization set off a tremor in her hands. She felt as if every last droplet of saliva in her mouth had evaporated. Oh c’mon, her conscience scolded her. Show some grit. Don’t stand here acting like you’re getting the DT’s.
She’d made her sober resolution after many hard nights and many days of soul-searching. Knowing she couldn’t just pour the liquor down the drain, she decided to get rid of the cursed bottles by handing them out to the older kids who knocked on her door today. She figured that such disposal constituted a crime, albeit a minor one in the grander scheme of things.
The layout of the house was such that the front door opened directly onto the living room. Lorna couldn’t help but sigh now as she turned and surveyed the surrounding space. Neglect appeared to be the room’s dominant motif. Grime tinted the vinyl slats of the window blinds. Dust bunnies roamed the long-since-swept hardwood floor. The crocheted blanket hung crooked as a parallelogram across the back of the sofa, and a slew of old magazines formed an artless mosaic atop the coffee table.
It saddened her to be so visibly reminded of how far she’d let things slip, of how long she’d carried on like she had. But now certainly wasn’t the time to dwell on past folly, not with the opportunity for liberation looming before her. If she could just somehow get through tonight, tomorrow’s outlook would be infinitely brighter.
A sudden rapping startled her from her thoughts. Lorna opened the door to find a husky, acne-masked teen waiting there. “Trick-or-treat,” he recited. Along with a knowing grin, he wore black denims and a red sweatshirt. A few rubber-banded Heralds protruded from the satchel slung on his shoulder. Lorna didn’t believe this paperboy was even in costume; she was sure she’d seen him making his neighborhood rounds in weeks past.
Either way, he looked crestfallen when she broke out the candy bowl. No doubt he’d had his heart set on schnapps, not Snickers.
Sorry, kiddo, she wanted to tell him. But you should’ve gotten here earlier. In this world, timing is everything.
Frankie thought he was home free, until he realized that he still had to smuggle the bottle into his own house.
He’d just parted ways with Tyrese, who’d been yipping at his heels like a toy poodle: Let me see it/Let me hold it/Let me smell it. Tyrese had such awe for the bottle, you woulda thought he expected a genie to come smoking out of it. Finally Frankie had to tell him to go on home. Not too harshly, though, since he knew he’d need his friend to back up the story of this escapade come Monday morning at school.
Without Tyrese here driving him nuts, Frankie could take the time to study what he held. BACARDI Puerto Rican Rum, the wording on the slender bottle labeled its colorless contents. Frankie didn’t know anything about rum, except that the Pirates of the Caribbean were crazy for it. He didn’t worry much about the fact that the seal was broken and the bottle only half full. Who knew if he’d ever get around to actually drinking the liquor; right now the possession of it was what mattered most.
Frankie unscrewed the cap and lifted the bottle to his nose for a curious sniff. Ewww—reminded him of lighter fluid.
He twisted the cap back on tight before turning onto his block and closing in on his house. His ears burned red and his heartbeat kicked into overdrive when he reached the front door. This was it.
Frankie dropped his broomstick prop alongside the entrance; he’d come retrieve it once he’d delivered the bottle to his bedroom. For now, he hid the contraband as best he could by draping his flannel shirt over it and cradling the bottle to his chest.
S…l…o…w…l…y he turned the brass knob and pushed the door open. As he crept into the foyer, he could hear the NBC anchorman relaying the evening news on the living room TV. Frankie didn’t hear any sound of his mom moving about, which was good. Most likely meant she was sprawled out on the couch.
With all the strained grace of a cat burglar, Frankie tiptoed down the hall and up onto the staircase. He took one gradual step at a time. He cringed when wood creaked beneath him, his nervousness exaggerating the sound into that of a splintering redwood. But the noise failed to alert his mom of his return, so Frankie continued his labored ascent.
Arriving at the second floor landing an eternity later, Frankie turned down a hallway that seemed to have stretched to nightmare length. He treaded as softly as possible, thankful for the muffling pad of teal blue carpet beneath his feet. When only a few feet from his bedroom doorway, he shucked his self-restraint. Sensing himself in the clear, he disentangled the bottle from his shirt and scurried the last few steps into the privacy of his room.
Only to find his mom standing there at his closet hanging up his laundry for him.
They serenaded each other with their startled gasps. The liquor bottle jumped right out of Frankie’s hand and dive-bombed to the floor, detonating upon impact.
His mom’s eyebrows bobbed on her forehead, then sloped sharply once the telltale smell drifted toward her. The simultaneous disappointment and displeasure molding her features proved scarier than any Halloween mask.
“Frankie!” she screeched at him, and he could tell from the tone that it wouldn’t be her last word on the subject.
Lorna stared unfocusedly at the sitcom flashing its banality across the TV screen. She sat slouched on the brown suede sofa, with her arms crossed and her hands cupping her elbows. For all the spirits she’d exorcised from the house today, she still felt haunted.
She realized that dispensing with the stock of liquor had been the easy part. The immediate aftermath was the crucial factor, and would determine whether her whole endeavor turned into a smashing failure. Lorna flicked a glance toward the dust-coated grandfather clock towering in the corner of the room, and shuddered.
Did she really think she was going to be able to hold out, to get through this night in one piece? Not even 6:30, and she was a nervous wreck already.
That old maxim sounded in her head, chiding her: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.
Then Lorna heard the clacks on the steps outside, followed by the rattle of the doorknob and the creaking swing of the front door itself. She didn’t move from her seat, and barely shifted her gaze. She could have identified her husband’s nightly entrance blindfolded.
Alvin pushed the door shut behind him, sloughed off his jacket and slung it on the wooden rack affixed to the wall on the right. In concession to the holiday, he had dressed this morning in black slacks and a deep orange shirt and matching tie. “Hey baby,” he called, beelining toward her.
He leaned over and planted a long, open-mouthed kiss on her lips. The duration of the smooch enabled him to reach across and give her right breast a firm squeeze, like a shopper testing produce at the supermarket.
Lorna couldn’t keep her nostrils from sniffing. She detected the beer on his breath, believed she could even smell the alcohol wafting through the pores of his cheek and neck like some faint aftershave. Alvin worked as assistant manager at the downtown Barnes & Noble, and every Tuesday and Friday joined his staff for happy hour at the adjacent Houlihan’s. Had one or two—but never more—sociable drinks before heading home.
Oblivious to her reaction, Alvin straightened. He beamed a smile that promised further groping later on tonight. “OK, lemme go wash up and change,” he said, as if she were the one stopping him. Turning to exit the room, he added, “Give a holler when dinner’s ready.”
Dinner? The word alerted Lorna to her own absentmindedness. She’d been so preoccupied with this afternoon’s handouts, she hadn’t even thought to plan a meal for tonight. Oh well.
Rather than scurrying into the kitchen, she maintained her perch. Stationed at the front end of the house, she could still hear the cascade of the bathroom faucet.
Frowning, Lorna eyed the grandfather clock once more. Hardly any time had passed since last check.
Her fidgeting hand found the remote and used it to zap the TV. The ensuing silence amplified the sound of Alvin’s activities within. Lorna heard him flip the light switch in the bathroom and shuffle down the hall. She heard the rustle of his undressing in the bedroom, soon followed by the slide of the closet door. And then she heard Alvin scream.
“LORNA!” The cry seemed to reverberate off every wall in the house. Lorna swallowed, braced herself for this moment of truth. She was by no means clairvoyant, but clearly understood what her husband had discovered.
Alvin kept all of his liquor bottles stashed at the bottom of the bedroom closet. He wouldn’t display them openly elsewhere in the house, lest any visitor note the extensiveness of his collection and cast aspersions on his character. His in-home binges were his dirty little secret, which inevitably besmirched Lorna as well.
Her husband’s preoccupation with surface appearance concealed more than just alcohol abuse. When in his cups and out of sorts, he yanked her hair wantonly, knowing such rough gesture wouldn’t leave visible mark on her. And even if his stinging smacks of her backside caused any bruises—which they often did—the handiwork could always be excused as the byproduct of bedroom kinkiness. Oh, Alvin was a sly one when it came to avoiding incriminating evidence.
“LORNA!” he boomed again. His initial naming of her had been a yawp of dismay; this next address was voiced in stern accusation. It chased Lorna to her feet.
She stepped back automatically when Alvin stalked into the living room. Instant regret of her transgression today swamped her. She’d miscalculated terribly; how could she have possibly thought that her crazy plan would work out alright?
He was stripped down to his white A-shirt, which Alvin in his political and alphabetical incorrectness always referred to as a “Guinea T.” Under other circumstances, he might have looked comical, standing there in his boxers and with his dress socks stretching up his calves. But his wavy black hair was disheveled from the hands that must have ruffled it, hands presently clenched into vibrant fists.
“What did you do?” he demanded in guttural voice. Although he knew she herself never touched the stuff, he had explicitly instructed Lorna long ago to never, ever touch his stuff.
Lorna stood static as a headlighted deer, watching Alvin snort temper through flared nostrils. His hooded glare bespoke a determination to help himself to a few belts tonight—one way or the other.
He didn’t wait for Lorna to mutter some explanation. Unmasked and monstrous, he charged straight at her.
Alvin synchronized his blows with his slurs. He knelt straddling Lorna in the middle of the living room floor, letting her know—and feel—just what he thought about her little prohibitionist ploy. Each fist fell heavy as an anvil, as if his fury had anagrammed his name and transmuted him into unforgiving steel. So engrossed was he in punishing the thieving, teetotaling bitch that he lost all track of his surroundings. It took him some time to realize that the staccato thunks he heard came not just from Lorna’s skull against polished hardwood, but from knocking on the front door.
Whipping his head over his shoulder, Alvin caught glimpse of the candy bowl on the snack table and immediately grasped the nature of the solicitation. “Getouttahere, you goddamn mooches!” he growled towards the envisioned grouping on his doorstep.
Even more persistent knocking answered the dismissal, fanning Alvin’s rage. Backhanding Lorna for good measure, he pounced to his feet and moved to give the kids outside an unsweet mouthful.
But Alvin froze as he was about to wrench the doorknob. Through the set of glass arches aligned high on the door, he spotted the figures outside. Some lanky teen dressed up as a hobo, bracketed by a pair of even taller companions. Their shiny silver badges glistened on the breasts of blue uniforms that were no mere costumes.
The realization sent Alvin reeling back from the threshold. He stared down at himself, suddenly conscious of his blood-gloved hands.
From their side of the doorway, the officers must have registered movement within. One promptly resumed knuckling the door, while the other vocalized the desire for admittance. “Mrs. Cahill,” the deep voice penetrated Alvin’s sanctum.
Alvin just stood there, his head slowly shaking. How could this be? How could they be out there hounding him right now? The timing was all wrong. The bordering houses sat far wide of this one, so no neighbor was likely to overhear him disciplining his wife. And even if someone had called in to report a disturbance, there was no way in hell a squad car could’ve been dispatched here this quick.
Flummoxed, he swiveled his gaze toward Lorna. She lay sprawled on her back, straining to tilt her head up off the floor. Though reduced to slits by the rapid swelling, her empurpled eyes blazed as they fixed him. A wicked, chipped-tooth grin carved itself across the bottom of her face. Drooling pink froth, the human jack’-o-lantern spoke at last. Alvin felt his sphincter seize up and an abrupt claustrophobia encage him as he translated the garbled phrase.
Timely yet uncanny, it sounded awful like “Trick-or-Treat.”