By John Dejesu
“The Halloween Party” first appeared in Curry Arts Journal 1979.
I could see the glow from under the sheet. The blasts through the itchy speaker suggested a slow, agonizing shell mission. I had fallen asleep before the movie came on. Pressing the end of the cover taut around my neck I felt secure that my body was nourished in its own warmth. The window by my head was open allowing walls of air to pass by my exposed face. Then, beneath the silence and the purity of the autumn night-sky, came this:
“Hey c’mon, you up? Sammy? Hurry, get down here.” It was an unrecognizable voice in the crisp stillness. “Turn the tube off and c’mon. We’re late!” The last word-LATE-was pronounced with a higher pitch, more hurried. It was Lorna Layton. Her voice was alone and indistinguishable. Aside from the droning of traffic on Route 13 – a din so unending, almost like silence itself – her voice was nighttime noise made detectable by its urgent whisper.
“You’re late, Lorn. What took ya? I nodded out waiting for you,” I said in the general direction of the window as I hopped up, whirling the sheet back in place, turning the TV off in the same motion.
“Just get down here before your parents come peeping out the windows. I’m not dealing with them now,” Lorna said, concealing her voice below a yell.
The air felt chilly because I had just risen from sleep. I told Lorna I must have looked like a Chinaman because my eyes hadn’t had a chance to fully open yet. She agreed with a laugh and rubbed her hand up and down my back to get me comfortable again. Mom came to the door to confirm my destination. She stood ominously on the brick steps, stiff in the Halloween-night air, directing her authority in statements to Lorna and me. She said nothing to Lorna, not a hello. She only mentioned that she and Dad would be at the Layton’s Halloween party if anything happened. We turned after the door had lashed shut with the brush of autumn cold against glass and metal.
“Did you get the eggs and those flower bomb things Marcus told us about?” I said.
“Yeah. And some shave cream of Dad’s and three or four rotten, oozing, cancerous tomatoes from the bottom of the bin in the fridge.” Like a goblin she was excited with the last bit of artillery added to our soft-core arsenal.
“Great,” I said. I couldn’t get anything from here. Mom didn’t like the idea of me throwing away good food. She didn’t think we should cheat some starving kid out of ‘sound nourishment,’ as she said. “What took ya, anyway?” We walked toward the station wagon.
“Mom’s bitchin’ at Dad and I couldn’t get the car till now. I had to help Mom set up for the party. Everybody’s coming. It should be a real cooker! Mom wanted me to get the liquor but Dad said they probably wouldn’t sell to me at Sonny’s. I would have loved to have told him about the times we bought there already. It’s not locked,” Lorna said as we stepped into her mom’s car.
“Did you buy tonight Lorn?” I questioned with hope, fearing the letdown of no beer. Lorna was older than I – not much, maybe a year and a half, but she could probably buy anywhere. She got shot down once after we drove an hour out of the state to Peeks Ferry. The owner wouldn’t take her I.D. She then started saying something about experience and how he, the guy selling, probably wouldn’t know what to do with it once he got it. She was drunk and I was too and wanted no part of any argument out of state, so far from home. We got more beer down the road.
“Sure,” Lorna said, tapping the bag behind her. “You think I’d forget beer on Halloween? I headed for Sonny’s as soon as I stepped out of the house.” A grin focused upon her face as she turned to me. I was excited and smiled right back.
Lorna was an only child who bore an incredible resemblance to her mom. Mrs. Layton was frosted, social, always going somewhere else. She occupied herself with what was most important in her life, the stores on the “row” in our town. She dined out every afternoon and was never in before seven on any weeknight evening. Lorna was conditioned to this as I was conditioned to my mother’s cyclic rotation of meals, varying on a weekly basis, always at the same time – six o’clock every week night. Mr. and Mrs. Layton never bore any children of their own, though, and this made Lorna’s resemblance to her mom so inexplicable.
We drove to the elementary school parking lot where Lorna parked way down in one corner to stay out of the way of stray cars passing by. I was looking out for the yellow Bonneville, Mom and Dad’s car. Whenever I went out I was aware that the Bonneville might be close by. It had once prowled behind me while I was drinking wine on the circle drive in front of the high school. Dad got out, dragged me by the collar into the Bonneville then held my head up straight as best he could as bits of dinner flew out of the passenger window. He said the next morning my lesson was quite apparent. I swore to him I would never drink again. Dad laughed. I was drunk with Lorna the next Saturday.
“Wanna beer?” Lorna said reaching behind her.
I said, “Sure, thought you’d never ask”
With the half-empty beer between my legs Lorna slid over and kissed me like the first time at Marcus’ party. Her head was small and I felt confident lacing my fingers through her hair to firmly grip it. Lorna pressed closer, one leg arched across both of mine and my pants bulged against the cold bottle between my legs. A car pulled into the spot next to ours. We were oblivious to the winding glare of the headlights. Lorna straightened.
“Sam-bo! Lorna-Lay! What might you be doing at this lovely site?” yelled a familiar smooth voice across the open windows through both cars. I got out. It was Marcus in his dad’s car.
I said, “For a minute I thought you were your old man checkin’ up on us.” Marcus laughed abruptly then turned the volume high on the car radio so that all of us present would enjoy the tune – obviously one of his favorites – as much as he had even at that blaring decibel level. I attempted to keep time on the roof of the station wagon by ringing my beer bottle to the dissonant Rolling Stones. I could pick up rhythm on “…gas, gas, gas…,” so it was on those words that I really beat on the roof. I preferred Leon Russell’s version better and I almost told him.
On the athletic field which we now bordered shone fluorescent dew. An unbroken cloud-grey haze had formed above the blades but all around lie strange pieces of debris: white toilet paper strewn in long lines over the chain-link fence and onto the field; mounds of shave cream planted surrealistically at random on the dried leaves. It all looked awkwardly out of place, desolate and wrong. I looked over to Lorna whose legs were now half out of the car as she spoke to Marcus. Once more I glanced out over the field and the image struck me like a book I once saw where an artist of lesser fame retouched several masterpieces, making them appear disjointed and basically goofy: Mona Lisa had three bosoms and the Gleaners were picking up modern day trash – beer cans and Hershey wrappers – instead of the imagist’s crop they were harvesting in the original. Marcus lowered the radio and coughed immediately. He apologized suavely. “I didn’t mean to interrupt but I saw the car, Sammy, knew it was you two and decided to make sure you were coming over to my house later. As you know, Lorna, your folks are having a bash and my folks are going. So, any time after nine is fine. It’ll probably go to, well…whenever your folks’ party is over. You know your mom, Lorn. They’ll be going all night over there. Last time Mrs. Layton was so drunk, Sam, my dad had to carry her down from the dining room table. She was dancing to The Stripper.” I had heard this before but I said nothing. Marcus looked at Lorna.
Lorna said, “I’ve seen her do some pretty crazy things.” She compensated for further explanation by rattling the bag for another beer. Marcus looked over us then away.
“You want one, Sam?” The emphasis shifted to me and I took one without word.
“Marcus?” she gestured wide-eyed.
“No thanks, Lorn. Plenty at home…Well you two, any time after nine. Whenever you’re ready,” Marcus said just before he pulled away, radio turned loud again.
Lorna walked onto the field, took a roll of toilet paper and hurled it into the sky. I grabbed two tomatoes and tossed them at a tree near the edge of the lot. Lorna wheeled around like a discus thrower and released a beer bottle into the air – a perfect arc then crash against the building. I pretended not to care or to have noticed. Taking the shave cream from the car I emptied the can on top of the cyclone fence, walking the perimeter of the field for about ninety feet before the can gurgled its last bit of surreal substance. The barbed steel pierced the shave cream once it settled. Picking up the wasted string of toilet paper, Lorna circled with her arm stiff, parading the fallen banner with a sense of injured merit. She did this to the midfield marker of the lined football field. With her coat and shoes off now she was vengeful. As she approached me the broad bases of her breasts bobbed suddenly and I felt the unavoidable stiffness against my cold pant leg.
“Your feet, aren’t they cold?” I asked not meekly. No answer.
“Let’s go peg some cars from behind the hedge,” was the suggestion from a being whose two eyes were all that were visible from the coated darkness, away from the urgency of the mighty school field spotlight.
“Don’t you want to head over to Marcus’ party?” I needed a beer in my hand. Lorna leaned closer to me with a smile thirty years old and pressed her bowed upper torso against me; in her hand hung the other can of shave cream, unused.
We kissed and I supported her reckless weight. She was sluggish to move and heavy on me, yet like a big cat she was purring in repose. We left the angry field.
Out the window of the car Lorna pelted masked children with the eggs she brought from home. They scurried off the street with their pillowcases filled with young Halloween’s sweet worth. Lorna was vicious yet I was on her side; she was crusty yet young. I felt like her father driving the family’s car – inactive except for possessing all control.
Lorna slid over on the seat next to me and placed her head in my crotch. I began to laugh loosely until she began to moan and warm spit soaked through to my skin. An egg suddenly spat across the windshield and Lorna jerked up as if she had been summoned once more to react on her somewhere conceived ideal that Halloween meant vigilance. I cleaned it off with a rag I had groped for under the seat and we were going to Marcus’ party.
The beer cartons were now empty, the last beer between my legs. Lorna sat up straight in the passenger seat. She had reached a lull. I thought it might have been Marcus’ recalling of how Mrs. Layton had behaved at previous parties that had silently agitated Lorna. She had finished an entire six pack of beer and then one other bottle. I dared not apologize for Marcus’ comments. Enough had been said. Maybe she hadn’t felt it. Mrs. Layton’s behavior was common knowledge, neighborhood chatter. No one was offended by her loudness. Mr. Layton found her humorous; he never made excuses for her. Once at a cookout for the Beach Association Mrs. Layton was talking to a bunch of my friends and some of the lifeguards at the beach. I remember she had her arms around two of them. Mr. Layton was working the grill and said nothing to her except to ask her what she wanted on her burger. He served it to her politely, gave her another drink and went back to cooking. It was common to see her with other men her age, being dropped off or having lunch. Mrs. Layton once owned a shop on the “row” and kept the acquaintance of many of the store owners in the area even after she had sold her boutique. The Laytons never fought with each other, at least not where anybody could see.
As we drove through the oak-lined streets of our town, I could sense a hurried rush of cars in one general direction. I figured a bunch of kids got caught spray painting a wall or a building side. Perhaps the guys I had turned down in order to go out with Lorna got snagged.
I rounded the corner to Lorna’s block. Parallel to the familiar cars of the neighbors attending the Layton’s party were police cars, four of them with their lights snapping in silent blue strobe, persistent against the houses, making their appearance as surreal as randomly strewn toilet tissue upon an autumn landscape or the incongruous mounds of textured white foam on decaying leaves.
I parked as close as I could to the sturdy brick house which was Lorna’s. The people surrounding the house – the whole neighborhood and a handful of trick-or-treaters out in the night with glitter capes and brittle plastic Frankenstein masks – gaped at us as if we were victims of a severe torture. I heard my mother’s voice for a splintered second.
Marcus’ car was in front also. I threw my last beer into the bushes of the adjacent house and crossed the street. Police lined the sidewalk to Lorna’s house – a respectably dead white brick house set back on marble pillared haunches.
“Marcus, what is it? What’s happened here? Is anyone hurt?” I asked as a cop passed by requesting an ambulance to another man in a suit. I felt a fraying hot tingle under my ribs as I inhaled.
“It’s Lorna’s mom,” Marcus said. “Mr. Layton hit her so hard she hasn’t recovered. She was in another room with Mr. Sigler. When Mr. Layton came in to get some cognac in a cabinet, he found them both. He just kept hitting her.” I flashed behind to Lorna, hoping defensively she hadn’t heard any of it, then back to Marcus in disbelief.
Marcus continued: “”He hit her so hard she didn’t wake up. The police are trying to find Mr. Sigler. He ran. Mr. Layton’s in one of those cop cars over there.” Marcus’ persistence in producing facts had not diminished, not even in the light of all this.
I looked back at Lorna behind me. She was faceless, etherized, noiseless. I said I was sorry. Lorna shrieked and I hugged her in restraint, wrapping all my weight around her. I was warm and slid off my coat. Lorna held me tighter and for a slicing instant I pressed myself against her warmth. Mom’s voice pierced the mumble of the sidewalk once more. The Bonneville was right there, parked on the curb next to us behind Marcus’ car.