Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Treat for the Devil

Halloween night, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1992.  I was living in a moldy studio apartment filled with cockroaches the size of paperback books.  At night they sounded like pattering rats as they scuttled over the kitchen carpet--the whole fetid box was covered with the same splotchy gray fabric, even the bathroom--and tried to dig their way into the cereal box or oatmeal cylinder.  My girlfriend had recently taken a job in Kentucky and I was fighting horrid loneliness, a reappearance of aggressive foot fungus because of the humid, swampy Louisiana atmosphere, and the irony of teaching creative writing up at LSU while being massively blocked myself on both a novel and a screenplay.

Outside, as I sat on my bed reading and swigging from a jug of cheap wine, the following things lurked:  A misty, swampy rain, sauna hot even at the end of October, swirling down grayish-green and phantomish from weirdly-lit orange clouds; an alligator that I and several other residents had spotted repeatedly, skulking and swishing its way through the weed-choked parking lot into the woods behind the complex--animal control hadn't yet responded and each trip to my car parked a few feet from the door was terrifying; a ferret owned by the lesbian witch masseuse who lived upstairs and was always bounding and leaping up and down the stairway, fixing you with its black eyes and making a horrid FITZSSSS!!! . . .FITZSSSS!!! sound at you; my neighbor a few feet across the hall who looked exactly like Peter Lorre and never made a sound except a sickly giggle when our paths crossed.

One year ago this very night a Japanese LSU exchange student dressed up in a luminous skeleton costume had been shot to death on his way to a Halloween party when he and some of his friends attempted trick-or-treating in the wrong neighborhood.   A Cajun who didn't much care for Halloween, or perhaps didn't understand trick or treating, blasted the costumed foreigner with a shotgun when the kid rushed the house screeching and waving his arms, trying to have some spooky American fun.

 Hurricane Andrew had torn through the state just over 2 months ago, uprooting hundreds of the city's centuries-old live oaks.  Their twisted boughs and branches still formed a nightmare maze-like jumble over the debris-strewn streets, and the clean-up was still in progress.  I doubted that any trick-or-treaters would be out, and it was highly unlikely anyone would find my secluded studio, tucked in next to the laundry room in the back of the old brick building.

About 10:00 PM, when I was dithering over reading a student's story about a New Orleans undertaker who had a different sexual fetish for each day of the week--one involved mint juleps and pacifiers--or watching a horror movie on TV, there was a knock at the door.

A small person stood looking up at me through the eye-holes of a cheap molded K-Mart devil mask.  It wore a red cape and tights.   "Trick or Treat!"

"Take off your mask and let me see your face, devil."

The small person complied.  It was a boy about age 7.

"Trick or Treat!"

"How old are you?  Where are your parents?"

"I'm six.  They're at home."

"You're out by yourself?"

"Yeah, it's okay.  Trick or Treat!"

We bantered back and forth another minute or so, me worried about this kid out alone and unsure what do to. 

"Look," I said, "I don't have any candy--I didn't think I was going to have any visitors tonight.  I think I should talk to your parents or something.  Give me their phone number, devil."

"Give me a treat first."

"I don't have anything sweet in here except for some cinnamon raisin bread.  I could make you some cinnamon raisin toast with whipped-butter spread, if you want."


I stepped over to the toaster, within sight of the kid.  "Look, I'm going to trade you the toast for your parent's phone number, or maybe walk you home."

As I shoved a slice into the toaster slot, the devil said, quite forcefully, "Don't toast it too much!  I don't like the taste of carbon!" 

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