Bringing Back the Dead

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By netlancer2006/ Flickr

By Michael Laser

On this day thirty-nine years ago, my mother died.

Last night I went down to the kitchen and lit a candle for her, as I’ve done for many years. Standing before the flame, I remembered her face and certain moments when her playful, girlish spirit glowed most brightly. More ambitiously, I tried to open myself to these memories, to love her and grieve for her again—to cut through the hardened skin and reach the tender place that time has buried.

As always, I fell short.

It’s a Jewish tradition to light a yahrzeit candle (the word means “time of year” in Yiddish) the evening before the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I’ve been doing this for a long time—for my mother, for my sister’s first husband, who died when he was thirty-six, and for my father. You’re supposed to light the candle at sunset, but I wait longer, until my children are asleep and my wife is watching television upstairs. Bringing the dead back to life requires solitude, silence, and concentration.

The memory I reconstructed last night was the time my mother took me skiing at Sterling Forest. I was fourteen and itching to ski a second time, after a trip organized by a local Jewish center the winter before. My mother never managed to pass her driver’s test, so we took a bus from the Port Authority, after an hour-long bus and subway trip from Queens. (This took place during the two-year period of my parents’ divorce, before she gave up her dream of a happier life and married my father again.) She didn’t dare put on skis herself; instead, she spent the day in the heated lodge. Each time I checked in, she smiled a full-to-bursting smile. She may have been glad to see her son enjoying himself—or perhaps some handsome stranger had flirted with her. She had always craved adventure and romance, and rarely got any.

Looking back, her generosity seems almost superhuman. Getting there without a car had taken hours—and then she had to spend the day inside a soggy snack bar. Yet she never complained, or even sighed. (Of course, it’s possible that I’m misremembering.)

Not even this memory, though, could break open the locked place. The trouble is, I’ve used it before. My fund of memories is limited; I’ve gone back to the same ones too many times.

The candle burned on the stove all night, and it’s still burning today. Each time I pass through the kitchen, the pale flame reminds me to pause and think of her. Each sighting is another chance to pay her the tribute she deserves.

Again and again, I fail.

•••

My parents never belonged to a synagogue. I grew up without Hebrew school, seders, or religious belief. I find it odd therefore, and a bit absurd, to catch myself lighting yahrzeit candles.

There’s a simple explanation: when I was young, I saw my mother do this for her mother. After she died, it seemed a comforting way to honor her. For me, the custom has nothing to do with faith. Rather, it’s a way of repaying through remembrance the love I owe to those I’ve lost.

But why is it so hard? It shouldn’t be. I’m not trying to contact the spirit world, or hold a soul in my hand, or see eternity.

The answer is scar tissue. My mother died when I was nineteen and away at college. She’d had a hysterectomy the year before, and it had gone badly; she swelled and never felt right again. Still, her sudden death, alone at home while my father worked, stunned and overwhelmed us all. Those first few days, I worked to keep hold of myself, to get through the hours without breaking down in tears. Then a little granule of thought or memory would set loose an overpowering wave of grief. I hated the feeling—like a seizure, or a psychotic episode—and fought it with all my will. Holding it together: the words describe perfectly the effort to keep from falling apart.

I resisted grief just as tenaciously as I resisted other difficult emotions. My parents’ raging fights had terrified me as a child; I closed the door and shut out their voices to keep the horror from touching me.

Those waves of pain after my mother’s death battered and breached my fortifications. Each one left me more determined not to give in to the next.

Since then, I’ve built more barricades. That’s the real reason why I can’t reach the place I seek as I stare at the yahrzeit flame: the armor is too thick. I’m no more capable of voluntarily returning to that pain than I am of strangling myself with my own hands. The older I get, the less of the mourner’s feeling remains. I linger at the flame, but eventually have to accept that I’m not getting any closer. Regretfully, I leave the candle behind and go upstairs.

It’s not that I’m no longer capable of grief, only that I can’t recover the sensation in these old wounds—not by concentrated effort, anyway.

When memories come unsolicited, though, I can still surprise myself. A few days before my father’s yahrzeit this year, a speaking engagement took me to Florida, where he had lived for the last twenty-four years of his life. As my wife and son and I stepped out of the jetway, the familiar blend of heat, air-conditioning, and humidity carried me back to the many times when I’d visited and found him waiting right here at the gate, searching for my face. The emotion I’ve been seeking at the candle nearly drowned me. For my wife and son, who’d known my father only in old age, this was an ordinary arrival, free of emotion. For me, it came with a crushing reminder that my father, whose bent leg I used to slide down, will never come to meet me again.

•••

For some, religious ritual opens the door to the spirit. Not for me. Reluctant to say words I don’t believe, I avoid ceremonies and prayers of all kinds.

That doesn’t mean I deny the spiritual altogether. There’s more to us than earning a living, running errands, and watching TV. I don’t want to lapse into sentimental hooey, but I do believe that each of us has a soul—a stew of hopes and sorrows, ideals and memories, rarely perceived except in solitude.

Once, in Central Park, I found myself alone under the trees with rain falling quietly on the leaves around me and on the umbrella above my head. That unexpected peace filled me with bliss. Though inexperienced in such matters, I recognized the state as a gentle form of what others might call religious ecstasy.

Yahrzeit candles serve as another entryway to this mysterious place. If anything can inspire meditation, it’s a small, slender flame. (Think of Georges de La Tour’s paintings, especially “The Penitent Magdalen.”) Even a whisper will upset the fragile fire; a forceful breath will put it out. As the flame consumes wax and wick, you can’t help thinking of the span of a life.

By gazing at the candle, I remove myself from the tasks that keep me busy. Although my goal is more emotional than spiritual, the effort resembles a monk’s prayer: an attempt to contact something intangible. I find it ironic, even a bit embarrassing, that I—the most irreligious person I know—should end up in so devout a pose.

If my goal is unguarded love and sorrow, then I’ve never reached it. I can admit to myself now that I no longer expect to. Even so, there’s satisfaction in simply pausing before the candle and remembering. Though sometimes the memories that come back are exactly the wrong kind—my mother sobbing because the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, my father’s vicious words when they fought, my brother-in-law shouting, “Prick!” at another driver who’d cursed him—recalling these moments brings my lost family back into the world. That’s no small achievement, after so many years.

Rather than struggle to feel what I can’t, I intend to celebrate future yahrzeits by enjoying the memories: Danny, my brother-in-law, making waves with an air mattress at Aunt Dotty’s above-ground pool until the water splashed over the side, sending cousin Gregory and me to the highest heights of boyish happiness. And my father patiently driving me wherever I asked him to on those Saturday mornings when they were divorced—to Kennedy Airport to watch planes take off, and the new McDonald’s for lunch, and one Shell station after another, so I could collect a complete set of commemorative coins of the presidents. I see now why he indulged that ridiculous desire: like my mother taking me skiing by bus, he knew their battles had left me wounded, and would have done almost anything to repair the damage.

Those pointless coins have been lost for decades. The memory is still with me, though, rich enough to yield new understanding even now.

•••

MICHAEL LASER writes novels for adults and adolescents. His most recent book is Hidden Away, about a teenager who disappears on the morning of the SAT. For more about him and his work, visit michaellaser.com.

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Something From Nothing

redcirclebike047
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Carol Paik

I had been thinking a lot about paper—specifically, about how much of it I throw away and how wasteful that seems—so I decided to try making some of my own. This happens to me from time to time: I become overwhelmed with guilt about the garbage I generate and I then think, well, it’s kind of pathetic to just feel bad, surely, there’s something constructive that Can Be Done. At other times when I have felt like this, I have taken up yogurt-making and bread-making, not for health reasons or because I’m preservative-phobic—quite the contrary, I’m all in favor of preservatives, at least in moderation—but because it seems that yogurt containers, bread bags, and paper are the three things I throw away in unconscionable quantities and I have this vision in my head of the Pacific garbage patch that won’t dissipate. The vision won’t dissipate, and apparently neither will the garbage patch.

Making paper is actually fairly easy. (As it turns out, so is yogurt-making, if you have a yogurt-maker, whose sole function is to control temperature; and so is bread-making, if you own a bread machine. I probably don’t need to point out that purchasing these appliances, compact as they are, negates the whole purpose of yogurt/bread/paper–making, which was to reduce my carbon footprint. Also, they’re only easy if you’re content, as I am, with relatively pedestrian yogurt/bread/paper.) When I first read about papermaking, it sounded really hard. It sounded like it involved roaming around in the woods pulling up fibrous grasses and roots with gloved hands, pounding them with a wooden mallet or something equally unwieldy and full of splinters, or maybe stomping on them in a vat. It sounded laborious, in a tedious way but at the same time, in addition, as if it involved some mysterious technical dexterity, some sleight-of-hand. But really it’s easy. And it does help if you buy Arnold Grummer’s basic paper making kit, available online for about $30.95, which consists of a “pour deckle” (a rectangular wooden frame), “papermaking screen” (a piece of mesh), a sturdy plastic grid, a wooden bar, and a sponge.

And while you can certainly go out into the fields and gather plants and boil them and pound them and boil them again until the fibers lose their backbone and will, all you really need, and what the kit recommends, and the whole reason I wanted to make paper in the first place, is garbage. You take your paper garbage. You take your old copies of Fitness and More (for Women Over 40) magazines that you got free for running the More half-marathon last year and whose exhortations and promises now weary you; you take bank statements and credit card bills (from before you went paperless); letters from your kids’ high school administrators about what they’re doing to prevent sexual assault; requests for money from so very many worthy charitable ventures, so many that you couldn’t possibly give to them all. In particular you take your drafts of the young adult novel you’re no longer even remotely interested in finishing.

You take it all and you energetically tear it all up, first lengthwise and then crosswise, into jaggedy half-inch squares.

You put a few handfuls, or about as many scraps as could be puzzled into a letter-size sheet of paper, into a blender, add two cups of tap water and push “blend.” The instructions say quite specifically that you should have a designated blender for this task. You shouldn’t blend paper and then expect to use the same blender to blend your smoothies. Making paper is a toxic endeavor, as scrap paper is laden with chemicals. One papermaking book I read suggested going to the local Goodwill or the garbage dump and finding a used blender, but I would be afraid of something electrical that someone abandoned at the dump so I went to the hardware store instead and bought the cheapest blender I could find, although it was kind of hard to find one that didn’t have fifteen different speeds. And of course that was frustrating, because the whole idea, remember, was not to buy another appliance! The whole idea was that I was going to be making something out of nothing, and making something out of nothing and reducing the Pacific garbage patch shouldn’t involve purchasing a brand new blender. So already, before I even started, I felt a little defeated and sheepish.

But anyway, you take your non-fancy, non-European blender and blend the paper scraps and water, and when you have a blurry mess (takes about thirty seconds) you pour it into the wooden frame, which you have submerged in a small tub of water. There’s a lot of sloshing of water involved in the papermaking process, so you have to put the tub of water in the kitchen sink. Many papermakers advocate making paper outdoors, but it was wintertime when I felt the need to make paper, so outdoors was not an option. It made me wonder, reading this advice, whether most people who make paper live in California, or Arizona, or some place idyllic and temperate, some place that isn’t where I live, some place that doesn’t have long, drawn-out miserable winters during which you sit indoors thinking about how your kids will be leaving for college soon and won’t need you any more and how you’d better come up with a new sense of purpose or at least some hobbies.

So you need to occupy the kitchen sink. If other people need to use the kitchen sink or the surrounding countertop area, this could pose a problem, especially given the toxic nature of what you are doing. But you don’t care what anyone else needs right now, because you are determined to create something today, today you are going to make something, you are going to make something out of nothing, and that is a worthy goal, and one that is worth occupying the kitchen for, and if other people want to, say, cook, or get a glass of water, or something, they’re just going to have to wait because you deliberately and considerately waited to do this until right after lunch after you’d cleaned up the dirty dishes, so that no one should really need this area for at least a few hours and it’s not really asking that much for them to go away.

And furthermore those people don’t need to hang around and silently and concernedly watch you blend scraps of garbage with water in a blender, either. They must have better things to do.

So, you can decide how uniform you want your pulp to be. You can blend it longer and have a very smooth pulp, or you can blend it less and have some identifiable bits of paper floating in it. This is one of the parts of papermaking that is up to you; this is one of the steps where you can express yourself. Making paper in a blender is not rote or mechanical. It is an art, and this is why: you can decide how long you want to push “blend.”

Once you’ve poured the pulp into the frame, it floats around in the water and you dabble your fingers in it to distribute it around. Once the pulp seems fairly evenly distributed, you slowly lift the frame out of the water. There is a piece of wire screening across the bottom of the frame, and the pulp settles on top of this screen and as you lift it from the water a layer of pulp forms there. You hold it for a moment above the tub so the water can drain out, and then you are left with a layer of pulp that, once dry, will be your new sheet of paper.

The very first time I did this, it worked perfectly, and the second and third times, too. The pulp lay even and flat across the screen and I thought, there is nothing to this papermaking business. Not only have I tried something new, I have mastered it! In one afternoon! The fourth time I did it, however, with all the confidence of the seasoned, the pulp clumped up. I had to re-submerge the frame and stir the pulp around with my fingers several times until the screen was satisfactorily covered, but even then the layer of pulp was lumpy. I thought, good thing this didn’t happen the first time, I would have given up right then. My initial taste of success was sufficient, however, to make me keep trying despite this setback—but when I kept stirring and lifting and the pulp still would not lie flat, I almost gave up anyway. Who wants to make paper. What a stupid thing to want to do. You can easily buy paper. It cost more to buy the kit and the blender than it does to buy like a ream of brand-new paper. What do I think I’m doing, saving the environment or something? Go through all this trouble, and for what? Take up this space, make this mess, spend this time and effort … for what? For whom?

After this little paroxysm of self-doubt, I reminded myself that I am far too mature to have tantrums, that I am capable of handling a little frustration. I got a grip and went online. And the internet paper-making community rose to my aid.

I learned, through my research, that the problem could be that the little openings in the screen were getting blocked by paper pulp, making it so that the water did not drain out evenly. The screen needed to be cleaned with a brush. After I cleaned the screen, the pulp did in fact lie more smoothly.

Once you’ve lifted the sheet of proto-paper out of the water, you have to remove it from the frame. The screen is held in place by a plastic grid, which is strapped tightly to the frame with Velcro bands. You put the frame on an old cookie sheet (which you will never again use for cookies), unstick the Velcro, and lift the frame off the screen. And there is the paper, perfectly rectangular, with softly ragged edges that give it that unfakeable artisanal look. You then place a sheet of plastic over it and turn the whole thing over. You try to squeeze as much water out of it as you can with the wooden block, and when it’s pretty well squeezed you sandwich it between two “couching sheets” (other pieces of paper).

Then the paper needs to dry. You press the new pieces of paper under a stack of books so that they dry flat. The drying is the only time-consuming part of the process. You have to wait overnight at least. After that you—or I, anyway—get impatient and leave the pieces out in the open to dry, and they end up drying curly even after all that time being pressed under books.

Once I get started making paper, it’s hard to stop. You tear up paper, you pour in water, you push a button, you pour the pulp, you lift the frame, you remove the new sheet of paper. You do it again, if you want to. If you want to, you do it again. It can take on a rhythm. The grating noise of the blender no longer bothers you. You can become a little crazed. Soon there are damp couching sheets all over the kitchen. But tomorrow, you know, you’ll have a satisfying stack of curly, bumpy paper to show for it.

The paper is not necessarily beautiful. Some of it looks a lot like dryer lint. Some of it looks a lot like garbage that’s been ground up and flattened—surprising! But some sheets of paper are delicately colored from the inks in the recycled papers, and some have little remnants of words in them from the bits that you decided not to grind too fine. Some have truncated Chinese character limbs from the chopstick wrappers I used. Some have shiny bits from the linings of tea bags. One piece has colorful threads running through it that I harvested from the bottom of my sewing basket. Once you get the hang of it, you can start throwing pretty much anything in that blender. Even before you get the hang of it. You can throw almost anything in there, and you never know exactly how it will come out.

I’ve heard that all the molecules in our bodies have been used before. It’s the same with the paper.

But papermaking isn’t really transformative. You don’t really make a beautiful thing out of ugly things. I was hoping that at least I was making a useful thing out of useless things, but that’s not exactly true, either. I don’t think I can use this paper to write on. I don’t think I can run it through my printer. But still, I have a stack of paper where before I only had garbage. That feels like some cosmic gain.

When I decide I’m done for the day, mostly because other people do need to use the kitchen, I wonder what would happen if I had my own papermaking studio. With endless space and time to make as much paper as I wanted. To make whole, huge, luminous, empty sheets, using frames that require the entire stretch of both arms and all my upper-body strength to lift. Maybe I would make paper all day. I read about a man who does that, a professional paper artist. The Library of Congress insists upon using his papers to repair their most delicate treasures. But I wouldn’t want to do that. I would get tired of it if I did it all day. I would hate the pressure I would feel from the Library of Congress to maintain my paper’s quality. And what would I do with all that paper? The Library of Congress couldn’t possibly want it all. It would accumulate in stacks, in various stages of dry and damp, it would rise in dense towers, my house would fall down, I would never be heard from again.

I learned in this process that paper is a relatively recent invention. It was only introduced to the Western world in the Middle Ages. I am trying to imagine a world without paper. What did people use to write on? There was vellum, which is not technically paper, as it is made from skins, not from the particular water-based process used for authentic paper. Mass-produced paper did not exist until fairly recent times. Before that time, how did people write? More importantly, how did they re-write? They couldn’t, I bet. They probably couldn’t have conceived of wasting precious writing materials on a shitty first draft. They would have had to know what they wanted to say, and they would have had to have been convinced that it was worth saying before they would even have thought of writing anything down.

I have a growing stack of my own paper now. Each sheet is crisp and substantial, like a very healthy kind of grayish cracker. I like to look at the sheets. Some of them are little collages in and of themselves, with random bits of color and texture that are visually and tactilely pleasing. But whatever beauty the paper possesses feels so accidental that I can’t take any creative pride in it.

I shuffle my stack. I deem paper-making, overall, a qualified success, worth repeating when the issues of More start piling up. But in subsequent paper-making sessions I have been unable to recapture the thrill—no, I’m not overstating it!—the thrill, the magic, of seeing a perfectly flat, unique sheet of proto-paper emerge from the bath. Every sheet I make now feels like a product of a process, with some luck thrown in, rather than of magic. But maybe that’s okay.

•••

CAROL PAIK lives in New York with her husband in a half-empty nest. She expects to turn fifty next week. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among other places. She recently wrote the screenplay for a short film, Pear, that won the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film at the Sedona Film Festival, and will next be screened at FilmColumbia 2013 in Chatham, NY (www.filmcolumbia.com) and the Brattleboro Film Festival in Brattleboro, VT (www.brattleborofilmfestival.org). More of her writing at: www.carolpaik.com.

 

Haunted Wedding

haunt 2011 2
Courtesy Jody Mace

By Jody Mace

Two years ago, in early October, I found my husband, Stan, in the garage, fondling a pair of chicken wire breasts.

“Do you think these are even?” he asked.

For a moment I thought maybe we’d gone too far.

But the feeling passed. I examined them with a critical eye. “I think they’re perfect.”

The chicken wire breasts were part of a chicken wire bridesmaid, who was part of a wedding party constructed of PVC pipe and wire. The wedding party ended up dressed in thrift store formal wear as part of a “Haunted Wedding.” The bride, her groom, and two bridesmaids created an eerie scene in our front yard. In the darkness of Halloween night, their frames were almost invisible, so the dresses and suit appeared to float in the air. Earrings dangled from an absent head. A gloved hand held a champagne flute high in the air. The scene captured the bride throwing a bouquet in the air, while bridesmaids waited with outstretched arms, invisible except for the long white gloves.

The year before that, our Halloween decorations were uninspired. Severed arms protruding from the bushes. A tombstone that shrieked when trick-or-treaters approached the front door. The usual stuff.

But two years ago we upped our game. I don’t remember why we decided to become That Family in our neighborhood. Maybe it was because our kids, at thirteen and sixteen, were (arguably) aging out of trick-or-treating. Maybe we just craved some kind of creative expression. I know that it started when I said, “What if…”

I’m an idea person. I don’t know how to actually do anything, but I have a whole lot of good ideas. Stan knows how to do things and what he doesn’t know, he can find on Youtube. He’s also obsessive and focused. While I was off looking for bargains on candy, he was laboring over what weight of chicken wire to use and how to secure the groom to the ground. (A tent stake through a hole drilled in the heel of a dress shoe, in case you were wondering.)

Between my ideas and Stan’s resourcefulness, the wedding scene was just the beginning.

First I came up with the back story about the doomed wedding. A quick synopsis: A jealous ex-lover of the groom plotted to kill her rival and the bridesmaids with poisoned tarts, which she carried around on a tray, having disguised herself as a waitress. However, the groom ate a tart as well. When she realized that she had unwittingly murdered the object of her affections, the jilted lover offed herself by eating the last tart.

Running with that theme, we made a video of one of my son’s friends, dressed as a bride, walking back and forth, forlornly, in a darkened room. Stan edited that video and punctuated it with a found video of a scary woman screaming. On Halloween night, he projected it onto wax paper, which was taped to the window of a room on the second floor of our house. From the street it looked like a ghost bride was pacing in an attic.

Next, I wrote the story in verse and recorded Stan reading the story. He then applied some kind of video editing magic to make his face look spooky. But that wasn’t all. He built a booth out of wood and set up what’s known in the “haunting world” as the Pepper’s Ghost Illusion. It involves special lighting (a lightbulb), careful angling of the video monitor and a sheet of plexi-glass. The result is the appearance of a floating head in the booth, telling the story. It was spectacular. The “special lighting” did cause the booth to catch fire early in the evening, but that was really the only glitch.

Maybe the best thing about our Halloween preparation was how it allowed Stan and our son to experience some real father-son bonding. Forget fishing or throwing the ball around in the backyard. Nothing can compare to the first time a father and son build a coffin together.

When our neighbors walked up our driveway, they generally just wanted to go to the front door to get candy, but I’d have none of that. They had to stand and watch the floating head tell the story of the haunted wedding before they could proceed. Besides, at the end of the video, another of our son’s friends jumped out of the coffin.

Some parents didn’t seem too happy because our display was too scary for their young kids. I have to admit that I didn’t really care. Every other house on the block was fine for little kids, but ours was the only one that had a line of teenagers. The little kids could skip our house. I’d even walk to the bottom of the driveway and give them candy.

The end of Halloween was sort of melancholy for us. It was over. There’s always something sad about dismembering your chicken-wire ghost bride and putting her into the attic.

Then, of course, we had to conduct a post-mortem analysis. What worked and what didn’t? It turned out that my rhymed narrative about the poisoning was a little bit long, despite the impressive special effects. People don’t appreciate literary efforts on Halloween. They really just want to be scared, and scared fast. The kid jumping out of the coffin was more effective.

“We need more of a shock effect,” I said. “Next year we should have props that move.”

I had no idea how to make props that move, and I was already walking away, but Stan was on it. “We’d need an air compressor, pneumatics…”

•••

He discovered that there was an online community of “haunters,” as they called themselves. For years I’d been the one with the online life. When our kids were little, I discussed pressing matters like toilet-training with faceless names on the computer screen.

Now Stan had discovered the social aspect of the internet. Only, instead of discussing how to get kids to eat vegetables, he and his new friends talked about things like “corpsing,” which is making something look like a decaying cadaver, and recipes for fake blood. Instead of discussing the best places to buy diapers, the haunting boards explode when the cheap skeletons arrive at Wal-mart. The haunters fell into one of two camps, those who preferred electric motors (“smoother action,” they claimed) and those who preferred air cylinders (“more force!”) As you might imagine, the arguments could be fierce. If you’ve ever seen the anatomy of a breast vs. bottle flame war, you know what I’m talking about.

Stan talked to me about his new friends by name, or handle. When he spoke of “Mary the Scary” (name changed) it was with reverence. She knew how to weather Styrofoam stones, how to animate props through a computerized controller. She created tutorials and attended haunting conventions.

“She has a lot of authority,” Stan said.

With the support of Mary and the other haunters, last year our Halloween display was more interactive. Gone were the static displays in the front yard. Instead, Stan turned the garage into a haunted house.

I came up with the theme of The Plague. I recruited actors to play the part of plague victims and doctors, as well as some witches, for good measure. I got out the sewing machine that I hadn’t used since my ill-fated stint at a sewing class as the local community college. (I had left in disgrace after an extended bout of uncontrollable laughter when the elderly instructor kept calling asterisks astronauts.) This time I got a friend to show me how to use the thing and I created tunics for the actors. I never sewed anything other than tunics but I sewed a lot of them.

I also was responsible for the pustules. Here’s how I made them. I’d take a little piece of a cotton ball and put it on a plate. Then I’d cover it with Elmer’s Glue. When it dried I dabbed red and green paint on it with a Q-tip to suggest oozing blood and pus. When it was all dry, I peeled it off and adhered it to the plague victims’ faces with either more glue or something called spirit gum. But don’t go by what I say. You can probably find a Youtube tutorial on this if you want to try it yourself. My memory is fuzzy. I’m not good at crafts. We had a big problem with pustules falling off people’s faces.

Stan did the rest. The props he created were mechanical wonders. There was the corpse that jumped out the coffin, the “hanging man” who writhed around and screamed, the guy who pulled apart the bars of his prison cell and stuck his head out when trick-or-treaters approached.

•••

This is the third year of our haunt. It’s more elaborate than ever. I can’t say much more because I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I’ll say that some of the props that Stan’s been working on in the driveway have drawn concerned looks from our neighbors. There’s a certain look they give us. People walking their dogs just stop and stare for a long time. They say nothing. Then they walk away. Nobody ever says anything.

Bicycles, electric fans and ice cream makers lie, torn up, in our garage, cannibalized for their motors and wheels. A structure that looks suspiciously like gallows stands next to a tree in our front yard.

We are not ideal neighbors.

There’s a certain point in our planning when we question ourselves. Why are we doing this? In a way it all seems so…stupid. To spend all this time on an event that’s over in one night? It’s as if once the intense years of child-raising were over, we had to find a new project. A new way to express our creativity. And for reasons we can’t understand, we chose mechanical corpses jumping out at screaming children.

Maybe this will be the last year. Maybe next year we’ll sit on the stoop like normal people, compliment kids on their superhero costumes, and hand out Tootsie Rolls.

But on the other hand, I’m prone to good ideas.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The links in this essay will take you to actual footage from Jody and Stan’s extravaganzas. I seriously recommend clicking. —Ed.