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Monday, October 29, 2012


Scenes from Childhood Dept.: To honor the approaching holiday, if that’s the term I’m after, here’s a piece of mine that appeared in Metroland Magazine many years ago.


A KID UNDERSTANDS the importance of tracking down the neighborhood ghouls. The kid knows (as parents don’t) that those ghouls exist. It’s just a matter of finding them.

We had a witch on our street. I don’t know if we really saw her as someone who consorted with bats and such, although the movie “The Three Lives of Thomasina” gave witches a pretty good image. But we convinced ourselves that this lady was at least gently malevolent—and she certainly added a tinge of excitement to my afternoons.

It was our after-school ritual to tramp through the woods behind the houses on my street, back in a time before my Connecticut town annexed itself to New York City and lost its woodland to developers. Next-door neighbor Kenny, my brother, and I built primitive shelters and hacked at the bark of trees.

We discovered, on a neighbor’s property, an abandoned car. It sat in a woodsy corner of an otherwise immaculate lot, a hulk with the squatty wheelbase and sloped top of a vehicle in an old gangster movie, pale blue where any paint survived. At first we just sat in the smelly old thing, imagining it to be a limo or rocket or time machine. Than we got more rambunctious. I jumped on the roof, enjoying the bouncy resilience of the metal. My brother broke the windows, delighted with the reticulation of the old safety glass. Kenny peed on the engine.

Our games got noisy and attracted the property’s owner. She came after us waving a stick, like the lady on the old Dutch Cleanser can, careening across a quarter-acre of fresh-trimmed lawn to flush us from her rotting car.

We fled, in terror and giggles. Of course she was a witch! It wasn’t our noise that had attracted her, but a sixth sense or a crystal ball. The stick she wielded was a spell-casting wand. The car was a trap . . . .

Then Hallowe’en arrived.

Not that we expected anything special from the Witch on the occasion of her holiday. We knew her to be a 365-days-a-year practitioner. But our trick-or-treating routine had taken us to her house before, and that’s the part we now dreaded.

I wanted to be the comic-strip Phantom, which proved to be an unpopular idea with the costume-makers. So I settled on a black mask and some garish makeup My brother was (boring as usual) a clown. Kenny was an astronaut. My father was elected to squire us through the neighborhood.

Even before we left our house, my brother blew the game by getting all trembly when it was announced that we’d start at the Bengstons. “We can’t go there!” he wailed.

“Why not?” asked bewildered Dad.

“Cause she’s a witch! Ask Byron! He knows it!”

And thus I was asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I tried to be calmly evasive. “She’s just a little weird.”

My mother joined the conversation. “Have you kids been back at their car again? She called me, you know, about somebody breaking the windows of that old thing.”

This was news. We hadn’t even gotten yelled at for it. Maybe my parents also knew the truth about Mrs. Bengston.

Kenny squirmed; silent tears roiled from my brother’s painted eyes “Than we’re going to the Bengston’s to apologize,” my father declared.

Our previous Hallowe’en stops had been conducted in ignorance of her power. Now, in the October dusk, with lighted pumpkins flanking the door, the building seethed with evil.

There were kids on the doorstep already, no doubt getting tainted candy dropped into their sacks. No way to warn them, either, not with so many parents around.

Mrs Bengston was on the stoop, laughing – cackling, to my ears – and bidding farewell to the unwitting little children. She gave the group of us a smile of greeting. “And what have we here?” she asked, answering her question with, “A spaceman, a clown with a runny nose – and what are you supposed to be?”

I tried to meet her gaze. Was this a trap?

“He’s supposed to be polite,” said my father, “but I understand that he and his friends have been horsing around in your old car again.”

“Oh, these are the children!” she exclaimed.

If she hadn’t used the word “children,” it might have been different. If she’d said “kids” or “brats” or even “hoodlums,” I might believe she was on the something approaching the same wavelength as we mortals. But nobody except kindergarten teachers and witches used the word “children.” There would be three mortally ill children after this Hallowe’en. I realized with sudden terror that she probably could put a curse on my whole candy sack and ruin everything.

“Well,” she continued. “I’m sure if I give these children lots of nice candy, they’ll stop fooling around that old car.” My brother burst into tears.

“Oh, for god’s sake,” said my father. “I want you to apologize for calling Mrs Bengston a witch.”

He said it! Oh, parents, parents, do you understand nothing of the way black magic works? Kids do and they’re not even trained in it.

Mrs. Bengston gave a laugh. “A witch! That’s a new one!” Then she winked at my father.

Were they in cahoots? Oh, god, had she suckered him into some nasty little alliance about which he knew nothing? Kenny closed the lace flap of the football helmet he’d painted silver.

“I’m sorry I called you a witch,” I said brokenly, hoping to win at least a couple more years of my wretched life. “And we won’t go near your car again.”

“Well, it’s for your own good,” she said “There’s a lot of broken glass there and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” Then she leaned close to me, slipped a lot of candy into my sack, and murmured, “And I am a witch, you know.”

We never went near the car again. The following spring it was hauled away on a flatbed.

I was pestered that night and for many days thereafter to reveal what Mrs Bengston had whispered, but no power on earth would loosen my tongue. I knew it was my responsibility to protect my family and playmates from the terrible truth. I’d been burdened with the curse of unwanted knowledge.

Early the day after I emptied my sack of candy into a nearby river. It was a shame to see so much good stuff drown into oblivion but I took pride in my cleverness at outwitting her. And it was the first time since I could remember that I started the month of November without being ill.

Metroland Magazine, Oct. 23, 1986

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