With fists, with words, with kindness
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Fall came. The leaves turned. Daylight savings time ended, and it was suddenly dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. When carved pumpkins began to appear on porches, the four of us — Albert, Daemondopolous, Shtarkie, and I — tried to figure out our position on Halloween. We were twelve and too old to put on costumes and go trick-or-treating, although we wouldn’t have minded the candy. Billy Mailer, the worst of the Mailer kids, had simplified the trick-or-treat process: he’d wait until some smaller kid had filled a pillowcase, and then he’d mug him for it. Billy had no patience for going door-to-door.
Our social-studies teacher, Miss Trotski, wanted us to trick-or-treat for UNICEF. Daemondopolous tried to explain to her that no adult was going to give money to a bunch of adolescents who claimed to be collecting for charity. Even the stupidest adult could see through that. Miss Trotski replied that we’d have little blue-and-silver UNICEF cans, and that she expected adults thought better of us than we thought of ourselves. It was hard not to be in love with Miss Trotski, who never wore a bra and was rumored to be a communist. (Her name didn’t help.) So when she gave out the UNICEF cans on Halloween day, we shrugged and took them.
Ours was a neighborhood of two-family homes in upstate New York. My friends and I each lived with our parents on one floor, and a bubbe or a zaide, or both, lived upstairs. These weren’t Norman Rockwell grandparents; these were the sometimes bitter survivors of America’s Great Depression and Europe’s Holocaust; or, in the case of the Lichts, a personal tragedy.
Like most older neighborhoods, ours had a haunted house. Mrs. Licht and her grown daughter lived in it. (Mr. Licht had died many years earlier.) The lawn was unkempt and overgrown with weeds, the windows had wrought-iron grillwork over them, and the green paint on the clapboards had cracked into a scaly pattern like the skin of a lizard.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew Mrs. Licht’s story: During the Depression she had scrimped and saved and gone without, and she’d kept her dollars hidden away in an old, unused wood stove in the kitchen. (Even a kid, upon hearing this opening line, could guess what happened next.) One day Mrs. Licht’s husband came home while she was out shopping, and he lit a fire in the stove. Who knows why. Maybe he was cold. Mrs. Licht came home with her bread and milk and sardines, saw what her husband had done, and went crazy on the spot. She never left the kitchen after that. Day and night, for the rest of her life, she kept a perfect vigil at the stove, as if waiting for some miracle to restore her money. Her husband died. Her two daughters grew up, warped in their own ways by their crazy mother. One moved away, but the other stayed. She worked, she never married, and eventually, so rumor had it, daughter and mother grew well-off. But they went on living as they always had, and Mrs. Licht still wouldn’t leave her stove. Her house became the Haunted House, and every child in the neighborhood knew not to go near it. And though my friends and I thought of ourselves as daring in any number of ways, we stayed away too.
Halloween night arrived. The damn UNICEF cans looked at us accusingly. We assumed whatever pennies we could collect would never make it to the big-eyed poster girl, but would be stolen somewhere along the way, because we knew that the Billy Mailers of the world grew up and found more sophisticated ways to plunder trick-or-treaters. But we were restless, and we didn’t want to disappoint braless, communist Miss Trotski.
Daemondopolous paid more attention to the world at large than the rest of us did, and in that world there was a Cuban Missile Crisis. So Daemondopolous suggested we put on fake beards and dress up as Fidel Castro. He thought it would score him some points with Miss Trotski, Fidel being a communist and all. Shtarkie, who was a bit older and could have grown a real beard if his parents had let him, seconded the idea. Albert, whose own puberty was nowhere in sight, agreed rather than make an issue of it. I went along with the rest.
We made black beards and green hats from construction paper. When we were done, Daemondopolous looked in the mirror and said, “I look like Fidel Douche Bag.” So Shtarkie pilfered some real cigars from his dad, and we felt a little better with them stuck in the corners of our mouths. Albert wanted to wear his baseball glove, because he’d heard that Castro had once tried out for the Yankees, but we vetoed the idea. Then we grabbed our little blue-and-silver UNICEF cans and went out.
Everyone thought we were dressed as rabbis. So Rabbi Fidel Castro and Rabbi Raúl Castro and Rabbi Che Guevara and Rabbi Simón Bolívar went house to house for UNICEF, while, ninety miles from Florida, medium-range ballistic missiles threatened to turn Miami into marmalade. People were surprisingly generous. They put dimes and quarters in our cans and gave us candy for ourselves. Emboldened by the warm reception, we stayed out a long time, and when we reconvened at Shtarkie’s, our little cans sounded like maracas. We shook them approvingly and fell into the goofy spirit of the night and our costumes and what we called our “redistribution of wealth.” Albert revealed that he’d been experimenting with making cider, and that he had a batch fermenting in his basement. We thought we should celebrate, so he went to retrieve his experiment. It tasted like apple juice gone bad, but we drank it anyway, and soon we were back outside singing “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” And what had begun as a guilt-induced but well-intentioned night of charity took a strange turn. We decided to trick-or-treat at the Licht house.
It began with a dare: A while back, Daemondopolous had set himself the goal of taking a dump in the bathroom of every house in the neighborhood. Of course he’d graced Albert’s toilet, and Shtarkie’s, and mine. Then he’d begun to knock on doors, feigning an emergency and asking to use the bathroom. It had become a hobby of sorts, like collecting in reverse.
So it was natural, inevitable really, that we dared him to shit in Mrs. Licht’s house on Halloween. The mention of Mrs. Licht occasioned one of our rare theological discussions:
“If I were God,” Daemondopolous said, “I’d unburn her damn money and put it back in the stove.”
The rest of us echoed the sentiment. I think we preferred an activist God to the laissez-faire God whose days of intervention seemed over.
It was Albert who put our disparate plans together into one grand scheme: “While Daemondopolous takes a shit in her bathroom, we should put the UNICEF money in her stove.”
“How about Daemondopolous takes a shit in the stove?” Shtarkie said.
“Another time,” Daemondopolous said.
We put our Fidel hats and beards back on, broke open the UNICEF canisters, and gave the money to Shtarkie in a bag. Then we headed for Mrs. Licht’s.
The night was colder now. It was getting late, and most of the trick-or-treaters were home gloating over their spoils. Trudging over the melancholy leaves, I tried to figure out what we’d tell Miss Trotski about the UNICEF cans. It would have been bad enough to return them empty; not to return them at all was going to look terrible. I was further bothered by the fact that we didn’t know how much money had burned, and replacing it with thirty-seven dollars and change seemed a decidedly second-class miracle, one that might call into question God’s omnipotent nature. Theologically, our plan was flawed from the beginning.
Before I could work through all of my thoughts, though, we arrived at the Licht house. Even Shtarkie and Daemondopolous seemed to hesitate. Albert finally rang the doorbell.
The door opened, and a woman in her forties, the daughter, stood before us in a bathrobe.
What else could we say? I think we frightened her as much as she did us. Then she recognized us as neighborhood boys, and her expression changed from frightened to annoyed.
“It’s OK if you don’t have any candy left,” Daemondopolous said. “But could I use your bathroom?”
Kindness is a natural first reaction to such a request. Daemondopolous looked uncomfortable, and the daughter said OK before a second reaction — a reluctance to let strangers into the house — could set in.
“Where is it?” Daemondopolous asked.
“Can we stand inside? It’s cold out,” Albert said.
Seeming flustered, the daughter left the door open while she led Daemondopolous to the back of the house. We stood in the vestibule and looked through a living room and a dining room to the kitchen, where, just as the legend had described, a white-haired woman sat before the stove, asleep.
With the daughter gone to take Daemondopolous to the bathroom, Shtarkie tiptoed through the rooms toward the kitchen.
“Where’s the light?” we heard Daemondopolous ask, and the daughter went into the bathroom to pull the chain. At that instant, Shtarkie stepped into the kitchen and dropped the bag of coins on the stove. Then he hurried back.
The daughter soon rejoined us in the hall, and we stood in awkward silence for what seemed like an hour. A look of growing consternation crossed the daughter’s face.
“What’s he doing?” she asked. She must have immediately regretted the question.
Albert paused, searching for the right word to bridge the gap between this strange adult and us. “BM, I think.”
“He couldn’t wait until he got home?”
Albert shrugged. And then, to our relief, the toilet flushed, and we heard Daemondopolous washing up. “Thanks,” he said to the daughter once he’d returned, and we scrambled out of the house.
We half expected to see a For Sale sign on the Licht house the next day, but none appeared. At school we blamed the missing UNICEF cans on Billy Mailer. We could see that Miss Trotski wanted to believe us but couldn’t.
After school I went to see her alone and told her the truth. (Or most of it. I left out the hard cider and Daemondopolous’s dump. I kept the Castro costumes, though, because I thought she’d like that.)
“How could you be so cruel?” she asked. “You have to apologize.”
“To UNICEF?” I said. I didn’t think my parents would let me go to New York City, to the UN, where I assumed UNICEF lived.
Miss Trotski took a step closer to me and gripped my shoulders. I tried not to look at the tops of her breasts. “No. To the Lichts.”
“Why? We gave them money.”
“Because you mocked their tragedy.”
“We were trying to help them get over it.” I believed this.
“No, you weren’t. Try to imagine it from their point of view: A woman lives alone with her sick mother. It’s dark. It’s late. The doorbell rings. She comes to the door and finds four rowdy boys. You won’t go away. Later, when she thinks she’s rid of you and her ordeal is over, she hears her mother screaming because she’s found the money. It was a cruel prank, the cruelest prank you could think of. You need to apologize.”
I told her I would. But there were many things I could not do at twelve, and this was one of them. Until then I’d believed that I would be able to do these things when I was grown, and so I’d kept intact my notion of myself as courageous. But I could not imagine ever having the courage to apologize to Mrs. Licht and her daughter. There was no grown-up version of myself that I could picture standing at that door. And I came to think of “grown-up” as a country I would never enter: my visa would forever be denied, and I would be turned away at the border. Oh, sure, Daemondopolous could knock on that door. Hadn’t he taken all those shits in strangers’ houses? And Shtarkie, who could already grow a beard, could grow one and stand there, protected by his beard, and do it. And Albert — bright, clueless Albert — could do it, because he wouldn’t even understand what he had done. But I couldn’t, and I didn’t.
I grew up anyway.