Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I NEVER DRESS FOR HALLOWEEN I haven't dressed for it in damn near half a century. I annoy friends, show up at their costume parties as, "what the hell’s he supposed to be?" "Ah…a depressed writer? See? To me, Halloween smells like mothballs. Every year the first whiff of apple cider or the whisk of dry leaves waded-through or wind-drifted against whatever door I live behind at the time starts it. But in deepest October, parties, leaves and cinnamon-cider aside, I catch a scent of phantom camphor in my life and feel a dry wool ghost brush my bare skin. And there I am: in the attic at 831 North Fourth Street, Reading, Pennsylvania, delving for Halloween.
831 was built at the turn of the old century. It’s nothing special. Like most houses in that railroad town, it was red brick with a slate roof. Bigger than most, older than the shotgun row-homes on the half-streets where my friends lived. And 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 up the way and across from Charles Evans cemetery. He bragged about guts, living near the dead and all. Not much to be afraid of. Evans was a rolling green forest, dark mossy trees and brown hills going to seed. It was filled with soot black mausoleums, tall granite memorials and the iron-spiked flags of the war-dead. In summer, Evans was a great place to pack lunch and go read, leaning against cool granite in shaded heat. In winter it had the best sledding hills in the northwest corner of the city. No, 831 was scarier than Pete’s graveyard neighbor. Our place had a house-long cellar lit by three hanging bulbs with and a wooden coal bin the size of New Jersey at the front. When we moved in, Fall of 1947, 831 had a gas-fired water-heating 'coil'. The thing had to be lit and extinguished manually; turn the cock, listen for the his, strike a spark and hope it didn’t blow. In the cellar’s near-dark, the coil flickered, hissing just beyond the octopus-arms of the furnace. The damn water heater waited to kill. You never went out–not to a movie, not anywhere—and left the coil on. A constant check went 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 of mold and rot and noise s not accounted for, and bad bad darkness, all that was below. On the living floors, the house whispered constantly. Walking from room to room, boards cracked in places where feet were 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 oozed down to disappear into the baseboards. Hallway chandeliers shivered and clattered in the stillest air. Several parts of the house had external wires ending in 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 electricity from those dead lines. Finally, daddy ripped the damn things off the walls and plastered the holes. There! (Halloween, Larry, get back to Halloween) 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 didn’t do, anyway. My world. 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, their pikes angled in a forest of passionate tangles, worried a deer. Old stuff, dark with blood. 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 that peered up from damp garden earth. No place for bare feet, our attic. The front windows overlooking Fourth Street were large and mullioned. The branches of the elm canopy reached from the curb to the windows, their fingers tapped them in the wind. There always was wind and the room always was shaded by branches and gathered dust. The smaller attic room was darker. It looked across the narrow way between our house and Cliffy Mahler’s. Into Cliffy's bedroom. This room was filled with time. Stacked trophies of my Pop-pop's long run as a national skeet shooting champion. There were piles of books from his, Nanna’s, Pop-pop’s kidhood. There were my mother’s boxes filled with fading, dying pictures of long dead people and the scent of sachet and newsprint. And there were 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; there were wooden crates, valises, satchels whose leather was flaking into dust from times before I was born, from the time when my parents had been "on the road!" Their life on the road was piled in the corner, one box, valise, trunk, and case atop another. You've come this far with me. There's something you should know. My parents were dancers, members of the Catherine Behney Dance Company. Don’t rack your brains, you've never heard of it before now. Behney’s was one of many companies supported by Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Arts Administration projects during the Depression. 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 Company, 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 as needed, you know. In addition, he met his future wife, Fern Emma Adams on the road. Mother was the troupe's prima ballerina. She also was a poet who never wrote, a painter who didn't paint, a runaway rich kid, who fled Princeton and West Point weekends and who had given up on her own schooling a couple weeks shy of the end of her senior year in high school. She was a sweet girl who ran to the road from her mom and dad -- the social crème of Reading and Wyomissing, PA . On that road, she 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, who danced some and ate bugs and streaming dirt for the crowd's thrills and the few extra bucks it brought. 

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 the air picked up the scent I knew as 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, anywhere, 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 then, “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 skins. The skin they'd discarded to build me. Who was I? Dressed as a Scotsman, a World War I ace? A harlequin? 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, were killed driving back from Florida 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 and still the season smells of mothballs.

END COPYRIGHT © 2012 Lawrence Santoro

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