basement

Basement, 1989

We went to the movies today. We not only went to the movies, we went to the Chinese buffet place in the strip mall next to the movie theater. I loaded up on egg rolls and lo mein and these weird doughy buns sprinkled with powdered sugar that taste like oversized Chinese zeppoles.

A movie and dinner out is unheard of luxury for this family. We splurge on a few select days a year. Today is such a day. Today is Halloween.

We do this, rather than get dressed up and trick-or-treat, because my mom is currently a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses don’t do any holidays for various reasons, most of which relate to those holidays’ origins in either pagan ritual or jingoistic nationalism.

Halloween is tops on the no-no list, deriving as it does from scare-away-the-demons practices of ancient Celtic tribespeople. Witnesses don’t believe in hell per se (long story), but they do believe in Satan and his minions. They believe that Satan is actively causing mayhem on this earth. They also have the same Slippery Slope theory about demonic possession as law enforcement has about drug abuse. A cop will tell you pot leads to smack and crack. A Witness will tell you dressing up like a ghost on Halloween leads to actual devil worship, be it passive or active.

It is not enough for a Witness to simply not participate, however. We are told that we must educate the benighted many who celebrate Halloween, blissfully unaware it is setting them off on the primrose path to oblivion. And that’s not just via the usual Witness route of evangelizing door to door. When trick-or-treaters come to our door, we are expected to explain why we won’t be giving them any candy.

My mother is not one for confrontation, even with preteens in costumes. She feels she is already making great sacrifices by going Into The Field, as the Witnesses call it when they go out knocking on doors. Preaching door to door already runs counter to everything in her personality, but preaching to kids looking for candy is too much.

I understand Mom’s feelings. I believe in all of this too, as much as a kid can believe in anything. I don’t mind missing the holidays. I don’t mind being different in this way because I already suspect I’m weird, when not told so outright by my peers. But that doesn’t mean I want to be seen as being weird. Like my mom, I fear being Found Out by classmates, neighbors, the world in general.

And so we stay away from home on Halloween night as much as we can. Hence the movie and dinner we can barely afford. We can swing the cost of an evening out more than we can swing the cost of telling kids we can’t give them candy, and why.

It is nearly dark by the time we get home, and as we drive up the block, there appear to no more trick-or-treaters out and about, thankfully. If there were, we’d have to circle the block and come back when the coast was clear. If kids saw us come home, they’d think there was a new house to hit up for candy, which is the last thing we want.

When we get inside from the garage, we don’t bound up the stairs to the living room as we would after any other trip out. Instead, me, my two brothers, and my mom situate ourselves in the basement, which faces out on the backyard and the woods that stretch off into the hills. We never use this room. It is full of things that used to be upstairs before they got too old. An ancient sewing machine table, a busted couch, a little TV that was once in the living room. Our current living room TV is actually older than this one, inherited from my grandparents, but it is far bigger than the basement TV and therefore better. The busted couch was also inherited from my grandparents. Like my clothes, most of our furniture are hand-me-downs. There is also a fireplace down here but it is unusable, so it just sits there, a black void that stands even in this lightless basement. On the mantle above it, old soccer trophies and my grandfather’s awards from an Irish football hall of fame, and a collage of medals Dad won during his track-and-field years in high school.

The channel changing knob for the basement TV fell off and was lost ages ago. If you want to change the channel, you have to use a set of pliers. There’s little point in trying, though, because the basement TV can only receive barely watchable reception on two channels, CBS and NBC. The Atari used to be hooked up this TV, run through an old RF switch. It still is hooked up here, but nobody notices because no one plays Atari anymore.

We turn on the TV, the only light we dare turn on in the house. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is playing. This is allowable, despite a general ban on all other Halloween media and paraphernalia, due to a household love of Peanuts. No matter what the Witnesses say, it’s hard to see any creeping Satanism on display in this special. The volume is kept at a whisper, and we barely speak. If anyone shows up, we don’t want them to know we’re down here.

The doorbell clangs. No one we know uses the doorbell, which means it must be trick-or-treaters. Instinctively, I dash toward the TV and mash my hand into the on/off knob. We thought we were being quiet before, but now all noise stops, even breathing. I can hear my heartbeat pound my ears until the boiler kicks in with a low, sinister om.

The kids knock on the front door. I can hear them shuffling on our porch, jockeying for position to peer inside the windows and catch glimpses of candy hope. The wind is howling outside, the gnarled branches of the trees in the woods grasping at the air like talons.

basement_halloweedA metallic banshee howl shrieks from outside, like the sound of nails across a chalkboard slowed down a hundred times. We have all heard this song many times before. It’s the sound of a gust of wind whipping against the aluminum siding. Knowing this helps none us at the moment, and we all jump in our respective seats. It occurs to me that we’re not just hiding from the trick-or-treaters, but our idea of God Himself. We are hiding from what we’ve been told is our duty. We are hiding from it all.

A few silent moments pass, and we feel safe enough to turn the TV back on. I do my best to make out Charlie Brown’s form through the TV snow. I think I’ve calmed down until another gust shrieks through the siding. I shudder and my heart pounds once more. No one is safe who hides.