It’s near Princeton, people would say of the town, as if that institution might rub off on us. It was 1976 or 77, which would have made me eight or nine. Over the summer, a pharmaceutical company had constructed its headquarters in the field behind our subdivision. It was finished but unoccupied. All of the ductwork was on the outside, hanging from a steel spine that arched over the building. Modern, my parents called it. It was like an alien spacecraft, crouching there. The Pompidou Centre in Paris had been designed by the same architect, a fact my mother remarked on more than once. Nobody in the neighborhood liked it, but my parents did. I was proud to defend the building on those grounds.
I wanted to be a wolf. My father said it would be easier to be a werewolf because I could walk upright and not get my palms all scuffed. He was known as funny, but I didn’t find him so. He glued a thousand strands of brown yarn onto an old college sweatshirt—MIAMI in small block letters, referring to Ohio—to make a hairy torso, affixing them also to the mask he made out of felt. For months afterward, I spotted pieces of that yarn in the neighborhood gutters. Besides those furred articles, I wore jeans and sneakers, like any normal day. “Werewolves don’t wear sneakers,” I argued. “This one does,” my father said.
There were the good and bad houses, us kids connected to our trailing parents by the beams of three or four flashlights. There was the hippy couple in the ugly house where the lawn was never mowed. Grad students, probably, my father said. The boyfriend had collected spiky sweet gum pods from the yard and spray-painted them gold, and that’s what you got in your bag. The girlfriend was the one who sat on the porch and distributed the pitiful bounty. She was pretty. I pushed my mask up. She wore her hair in two long braids, like the Indian maidens in a Thanksgiving book. “What you have to do,” she said, extending her hand over each of our bags and plopping one in, “You wait until New Year’s Eve, and if you look inside your golden ball just as the clock strikes midnight, you’ll see your true love.” I made a face. She winked at me, and my cheeks got hot.
There was the older couple with a flag flying from their porch, even on Halloween. They had good candy, full-sized Hershey’s, Mr. Goodbars if you liked nuts. But you had to talk to them more than just trick or treat. The lady asked each kid, “Now who are you supposed to be?” even when it was obvious, even when it was not who but what.
The parents caught up and bunched up behind us like a wall; they pinned us in place until we all showed respect to the old people. As each kid spoke, the old guy fluttered his fingers and said “Spoooky” in a Bela Lugosi voice, even if the kid was a hobo or something.
The old couple sat on rocking chairs on either side of a folding poker table. They’d set up a big bowl of candy and a flickering jack-o’-lantern. Next to the pumpkin were two framed photographs. One was of a kid about my age in a Superman mask, standing on the same porch with an empty pillowcase dangling from his hand. The other was a young man, just his head and shoulders, like in a school photo, with that same swirling blue background. He wore a hat like a policeman and was smirking a little, like someone was about to tell him a joke.
“Not a policeman,” my father said later, as we sorted through the candy and negotiated which pieces I could have in my lunch bag the next day, which one I could eat before bed. My mother plucked apples from the pile and put them in the trash. She held up the sweet gum pod by a stem and squinted at it like it might explode. I wouldn’t let her throw it away. Come New Year’s, I was going to look. Just because you didn’t believe didn’t mean you couldn’t look.
“Not a policeman,” my father repeated. “Their boy was a marine.”
He looked at me then in the way he sometimes did, like he still sometimes does, as if there were a scrim between us he needed to stare very hard to see through. It was years before I pretended to understand.
DAVID SCHUMAN’s fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have appeared in Conjunctions, The Missouri Review, Catapult, The Rumpus, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis, where he directs the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.