I must admit -- I've always enjoyed Halloween. The costumes and makeup, the overdone theatrics, the colors, even the formulaic horror movies. Besides, on what other day can so many people dress up and pretend they're somebody else, concealed behind costumes that everyone knows are just for laughs and show?
I pass a shattered pumpkin in the alleyway, its carved head smashed into a demonic grin. The garish glow from an overhead street lamp descends and shrouds the face in a ghostly fire. Pieces of orange pulp writhe in the after-light and seem to devolve into the weather-worn feathers of a fallen angel. A couple of steps down, a puddle reflects the engorged moon. As I near the end of the alley, I step over a rotted apple, probably laced with razors for the unwary.
A tangle of youngsters sprint past me. Their apparent innocent mirth is belied by their costumes for this year's Hallowed spectacle: a gladiator, a wrestler, and a camouflaged Marine. They all wield facsimile weapons, matching their costumes: a broadsword, a whip, and a machine gun. Accelerating through the patter of their departing feet, a black Mustang screeches to a halt at a nearby traffic light. A band of drunken male teens laugh uproariously from within the vehicle. Crude witticisms and lewd denigrations are uttered. I fix them with a cold stare and eventually focus on the fair-haired driver. He wears no costume other than a sweat-stained white muscle shirt and barbed-wire tattoos that form circular rings around his biceps. I ponder whether he will eventually commit rape or murder.
The driver notices me. He opens his mouth as if to say something, perhaps in challenge, and then he noticeably pales and shrinks back as he takes in my gaze. The passengers become similarly agitated and look away. One even yells out. "Ricky, drive -- get the hell away from here." But the Mustang stays rooted and the tires spin in their tracks as I play with eventualities and tethers. Finally, I turn away, bored. The driver shakes his head as if clearing out of a fugue, and guns the car head. The whiff of exhaust and burning rubber provides me with some enjoyment, although it is still barely a teaspoon of the satisfaction that I want from this night.
The representative violence beneath the surface of the Halloween holiday merely reflects an old truism: At base, people are savage animals who just need a nudge to revert to their primordial ways. That's why they secretly love to kill and do it everyday in their minds. At work when the boss chides them for a late report, at home when the spouse or children interrupt their favorite relaxing pastime, or on the road when an offending car abruptly switches lanes and cuts them off. They close their eyes and wish they could mentally blow out the other vehicle's tires. Or that they had a machine gun mounted to the hood of their car.
City traffic flows all around me as I turn a corner onto a busy downtown boulevard. Saturday is always a busy night for clubbing in the city but the fact that it is also Halloween just adds to the throng of teeming young people. A half-dozen underage girls, with painted faces and blonde highlights and bright nails decorated to look accommodating and of age sashay across the street to a brightly lit dance club named Neons. The towering twin doormen with muscles and baseball hats turned backwards exchange facile greetings with the girls and part to let them pass.
I move to cross the street when a middle-aged bum steps in front of me.
"Do you have any spare change?" he asks. The man is bearded and filthy and characteristically smells of cheap whiskey.
"Yes," I reply.
Taking my response for acquiescence, he nods and holds out his hand for an offering. I move past him.
"I thought you said you had some spare change?"
I turn around, trying not to let the disdain show too clearly on my face. The bum edges backwards.
"I have some spare change, however, I do not intend to give any of it to you."
"Come on now, help a guy out. I'm starving and haven't eaten all day. This isn't for drugs or booze."
"How would you spend your proceeds?"
"How would you spend the money I give you?"
"Not drugs. Something to eat."
"No," I say, staring hard and probing. "Again: How would you spend the money I give you? This time the truth."
The man's eyes glaze over and he answers as if by command, in a trance. "I'm going to work the street until around two and then, if I have enough, I'm going to get a bottle."
"And if I have anything left after that, I'm going to stop at the adult book store, and get some tokens for a movie."
"And when will you eat?"
"In the morning, I'll go to the soup kitchen. I get my meals there every day for free."
"Better," I say, handing the man a five dollar bill as I walk away, toward the bar waiting line.
Whereas the bouncers greeted the girls with smiles and friendly greetings, they stare at me with open hostility and contempt. Admittedly, at first glance, I don't strike a menacing pose. I'm 5' 7", thin, and paler than most. My shoulder-length dark hair is unkempt, and I've been told that my eyes appear irretrievably bloodshot, so that I'm typically taken for a habitual drug user. Of course, appearances, like costumes, can be revealing, but they can also mislead, sometimes to my advantage.
"ID," one of the bouncers grunts.
I say nothing and simply stare briefly at one and then the other and walk past them. Neither says anything or moves to accost me. If this was a movie, the bouncers would step to intercept me and I would be forced to deal with them, but movies nowadays often forget that superciliousness is lighter than exertion.
Inside, the place is much the same as other modern dance clubs. Two long bars line opposite sides of the structure, while a large dance floor awash in pulsating strobe lights rests in the center. A stairway in the corner leads to an upstairs bar and -- or so a placard advertises -- a special cigar room. The place is completely packed, with bodies pressed tightly and moving back and forth and gyrating against one another, and sweat and cigarette smoke blending to form a palpable haze over it all.
About half the crowd is costumed, and many have obviously put forth tremendous effort in their makeup and outfit preparations. A trio of college-aged men have garbed themselves as musketeers, complete with exaggerated coiffed hair, florid shirts, and swords. At least one woman has done herself up as Marilyn Monroe, although her bulimic face detracts from the resemblance. There are also the usual classic and modern horror characters: I see a lumbering Frankenstein lurching on the dance floor, a bespectacled Phantom of the Opera dancing close with a short, pretty Hispanic girl, and a would-be lycanthrope ordering a microbrew.
I begin moving toward one of the bars when I spot two big, fraternity types with football player builds striding purposely toward the exit. People step over themselves to get out of their way. I note that their course will carry them to me, and though prudence is a cardinal virtue that I usually feel obliged to follow, perhaps because it is Halloween, I cross my arms and stand directly in their path. Predictably, the first doesn't acknowledge me and simply plows straight ahead, apparently intent to walk through me. What they don't know, of course, is that I can move very quickly when I chose. Afterwards, I leave them twisted and crumpled on the floor. By the time the bouncers rush to investigate, I have already departed through the club's back door and continued my Halloween stroll.
Halloween's origins date back approximately 2,000 years ago to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1, a date that marked the ceremonial end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year -- October 31 -- the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Unfortunately, as with all contemporary holidays, people have forgotten the origin and meaning of the holiday, content to commercialize pumpkins and costumes and numbly hand out candy and watch bland pretend horror movies.
After an hour or so of ugly streets and neighborhoods, I come to the city line and the beginning of the suburbs. While I of course enjoy every city's filth and detritus, suburbs and small towns provide me with equally satisfying flavors, with their prodigious consumption and somnolent banality. Going down one such sleepy residential street, I pause before a large white house with a picture window built into the front. I motion, and the window explodes inward, accompanied by a blast as if from a stick of dynamite. Lights flicker on up and down the street and people begin to peer out their windows and front doors to investigate. A pit bull from a neighboring yard, awoken by the blast, begins barking. When the dog sees me, its agitation increases and it hurls itself repeatedly at the fence. I have never been fond of dogs, with their troublesome yelping and frothing whenever I come near them. Before I depart this street, I leave the animal's tongue and much of its viscera on the street, discordant evidence for this suburb's police to match with the shattered picture window.
Fools. Humanity. Halloween is a drug, a truth serum that shatters geniality and restraint and unlocks primal aggression and savage self-interest. But, alas, people don't even know it. It's even a bit ironic. After all, it is not on Halloween when people don their various masks, it is in the concourse of daily life -- in the boardroom, the war-room, or the bedroom, an altered guise and personality shift for every contingency.
It's the acrid smell of smoke that draws me to my next stop. At first, I assume I'm picking up the drift of a faraway bonfire, detritus from some outdoor Halloween party. But as I spread out my senses, I detect that it is not a bonfire; rather, it is a blazing house fire, with the occupants still trapped inside. I feel three voices crying out in terror. I cover the dozen or so residential blocks to the burning house in a minute and re-assume form and enter by crashing through an upstairs bedroom window.
Flames and smoke are everywhere -- on the walls and furniture, even on the ceilings -- and a trio of overlapping screams rise to the tumult. I kick through a burning door and move into the upstairs hallway. Directly before me is a hysterical mother and her two young children, a little girl and a slightly older boy. They're trapped: the stairs are completely ablaze and the fire is spreading rapidly throughout all the upstairs rooms and hallway.
"Attend!" I say, loud enough to be heard clearly over the crackling flames.
Numbly, the mother turns her head, and I soften her shock but ensure that she manages no words.
"Mister, can you help us?" It's the little girl, brave and defiant, stepping forward in her oversized nightshirt, oblivious to the soot and ash on the floor.
"Yes, but we must be quick. Is anyone else in the house? Any other brothers or sisters? Your father?"
"No," the boy answers. "It's just us. Please help us." My eyes narrow as I examine the boy, and I sense institutively that he was the cause of the fire, that his petty jealousy led to a box of matches and one of his sister's dolls catching on fire. I glower at the boy and he too goes silent, eyes glazed to match his mother's.
Then I gather the family in and we walk out together. The flames and smoke retreat from us and clear a path because, after all, they are just flames and smoke, subject to laws and will, just like everything else. After we exit the burning house, the mother and children stumble and sprawl to the safety of a neighbor's lawn. As I hear the sirens of a fire truck approaching, I begin striding away.
After only a few steps, a tug on my trouser leg halts me and then there are arms hugging me, wrapping themselves around my legs. "Thank you, mister. Thank you so much."
I turn and bend down to the same level as the little girl. Her brown curls are tangled and literally covered with black ash. "You're welcome, Ally. You were very brave tonight."
"You saved -- hey, how did you know my name? Are you an angel?"
I throw back my head and laugh heartily. I'd been waiting for something like that tonight. "Perhaps. Maybe something like that."
The sirens grow louder and I see a fire truck approaching from a few blocks down.
"Are you going to take care of us now?" Ally slips her hand into mine.
Calmly, I extricate my hand and hoist Ally up into my arms. "Rest assured, little one, I will watch over you. Your heart is pure, the likes of which I've not seen in a long time."
"But can't you stay?"
"I cannot. I have a busy job to do, and tonight is one of the busiest nights of the year."
"What's your job?"
"I try and keep the good people safe. There aren't enough of them, and it makes where I come from too crowded."
Sirens crescendo and the fire truck arrives. "Now, Ally, the firemen are here to help you and your family. You must listen to them and they will take care of you." I set Ally down and begin walking away in the opposite direction.
"Wait, mister" she calls back. "What's your name?"
"My name?" Would she understand if I said Lucifer? "You can call me Uncle Lou."