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"JACK'S HALLOWEEN CLASSICS"
Halloween creeping up on us, so for tonight
it's my hope to creep you out with eerie stories.
Let's start with a true one.
NOT A LIVING SOUL.
The backcountry road led to Cassadaga,
the Spiritualist center.
We turned right at the old hotel
and threaded through the little lane
that winds past the church and around Spirit Lake.
Not a living soul was out in the afternoon heat.
I'd been here before to do a series of articles,
and was well past the stage of being spooked.
But I was nervous today.
I was here for my first "reading" with a medium.
It wasn't ghost fear I had, but fear of letdown.
I had tried to be open-minded.
I just didn't believe in talking spirits.
As our tires brushed to a stop against the high curb
under the Spanish moss,
I was preparing myself for disillusionment.
I looked at the small countrified house
and was already pre-hearing
the vague, but tricky generalizations
that fortunetellers are known for.
I was going to have none of it!
No table thumping either.
First of all, I thought,
if the medium does actually contact dead people,
my dad, John, and my grandparents, Clair and Ethel,
would surely try to reach me.
I tried not to look suspicious
as Mae Graves Ward led me into her pleasant little reading room,
and invited me to sit in the old rocker in front of her desk.
Before I sat down she said this:
"John is here"
"I know it's a common name", she apologized,
"but there's a man named John here.
Do you know him?"
John then proceeded to recap our lives together,
making comments on things I'd done since his departure.
He joked around a little, in his way,
and sent greetings to my mother,
although he knew she wouldn't believe it.
The sun came through the white lacy curtains
as Mrs. Ward continued to doodle with a pencil on scrap paper,
and cheerfully relay messages from the other side.
"Did your father have a younger sister
who passed away very young", she asked?
I said no, a little embarrassed at her mistake.
"Well", she smiled, "We can't win 'em all.
This young girl is here anyway.
She seems to be about twelve years old,
and her name starts with an 'Ro'.
"I don't know who she is", I said.
She came a little too close for comfort with my grandparents.
Right on the money.
And she introduced a lot of other people.
Most I recognized, a few I didn't.
I left the five-dollar donation, said goodbye,
and returned to the car in a daze.
Misty asked how it went.
I said, "I can't talk about it just yet.
I have to try and digest all that just happened."
The sun was setting
and the fishing boats were coming in
as we crossed the St. Johns River bridge,
and I began to talk.
And I went over it again later for my mother's benefit,
as we sat around the dining table.
"But the medium missed a couple of things", I said.
she asked if Dad had a sister named Roberta who died young."
"Her name was Rosie", my mother told me.
"She died at twelve years old."
* * *
A true story that should have been called "The Nut Before Halloween".
THE NIGHT BEFORE HALLOWEEN.
Fidel Castro was a threat,
we were in Miami and very young,
and I had a weird talent:
using stage makeup.
It seemed like a good idea at the time,
and it was the night before Halloween.
Those are all good reasons to go nuts
and terrorize an entire city.
The costume shop guy said
this Halloween would be loaded with Castro's,
in fact he was completely sold out of Castro masks
and trick cigars.
I had already bought army fatigues and cap,
black boots, and a realistic toy M-1 rifle.
Lack of a mask was not going to stop me.
My early theater training went not for naught
(not for naught?).
I sought out a store, selling stage makeup,
(I sought not for naught.),
and bought nose putty, black crepe hair,
spirit gum, and tan pancake makeup.
An hour later I looked EXACTLY like Castro.
I knew it was good when Misty didn't laugh.
She just said "You ARE Castro!”
Meanwhile, she had become a cowgirl.
That was the point where I went nuts.
I thought I was Fidel!
I chewed my foot-and-a-half-long cigar,
and swaggered like a man in command.
This was just supposed to be a trial run,
but it was too good to waste.
We hit the Miami streets,
not knowing what havoc was to be wrought
(We wrought not for naught).
On that night before Halloween,
the world wasn't ready for a couple of premature screwballs.
We burst through the door of a prominent nightspot,
and stopped the show.
The entertainers got the joke
and called me on-stage for an interview.
I told them, with a thick accent,
that I just came over to get my welfare check,
which may be the most conservative thing I ever said.
That was so much fun,
we started making the rounds,
winding up in North Miami Beach at 4 AM,
bugging anybody we could find.
I got out and hitchhiked,
and cars turned around and went the other way.
I lurked outside diners until somebody spotted me,
then I'd disappear
and let them try to tell the rest of the crowd.
At one diner,
four cops were sitting in a booth
when I stood in front of the window.
The rest of the customers saw me and were laughing.
When the police finally spotted me
they went for their guns,
and everybody laughed harder.
I melted into the shadows.
At 5 AM,
exhausted, laughed out, and hungry,
we went into an all night restaurant
and waited for a waitress who never came.
We eventually gave up and walked out.
We were met at the door
by a mob of police in uniform and plain clothes.
Patrol cars with flashing lights were all over the place.
I stuck my cigar in my mouth,
hiked up my "rifle",
and we walked straight to our car.
They watched us,
uncertain what to do.
A detective tapped on my window and I rolled it down.
"I feel a little foolish", he said,
"but we've had twenty-three calls tonight
from citizens who swear they saw Fidel Castro.
Do you mind if I pull your beard?"
"It might come off", I said in American.
We told him we were warming up for Halloween.
The Miami Herald headlines the next day read:
“FIDEL STALKS MIAMI NIGHT!"
I did TV interviews in full makeup.
They also interviewed the detective,
who said we were nuts.
But we weren't nuts for naught.
* * *
Still in our halloween mode, with another true story.
THE WEIRD GIG.
Back when I was still a good boy
I was part of a teenage musical trio.
Ronny Loft played upright bass,
and his brother Jerry played rhythm guitar.
They both sang better than me, but I played better than them.
I played piano, so we were all acoustic,
and could play in a blackout.
We leaned toward Western campfire music,
with some boogie,
and a few Hank Snow, Lefty Frizell. and Ernest Tubb songs.
We often played for free,
because we were learning, and loved to play.
When the brothers sang together it reminded me of the Mills brothers.
Being the dark ages,
our only sources of music were AM radio and vinyl records.
I'm glad we didn't have karaoke tapes and echo effects
because we responded to each other.
That's missing when you use artificial music.
The tape or CD doesn't change with you.
It's the same every time, and it's somebody else's music.
Our music was rudimentary, but pretty good,
and it was our own.
The Loft brothers were Mohawk Indians.
Their extended family mostly lived on what was then called
The Six Nations Reserve, in Canada.
I spent some time with them on the reservation.
One year I went to stay with them on the reservation
for the Fourth of July horse races, a big event up there.
I never asked why Canadian Indians would celebrate our Independence Day.
Jerry and Ronny's relatives were the most important people up there.
They ran the General Store, the Post Office, and the funeral parlor,
all in one big rambling house.
We all had trouble sleeping because we were excited,
being young and on a new adventure, especially me.
In the middle of the night,
Jerry and Ronny tiptoed into my room and said to come with them.
They wanted to show me something.
We sneaked down the dark creaky stairs,
not wanting to wake up the whole house.
With a flashlight,
they led me to a strange old wooden pump organ
carved with with angels, curling vines, and lattice work.
They showed me how you pump the air with foot pedals
while you play the keyboard with your hands.
I caught on quickly.
I started playing a boogie very softly,
because it was late and people were sleeping.
I looked up and the guys were gone!
I expected a moving wall panel to turn,
taking me and the organ into some secret passageway,
but in a few minutes Jerry and Ronny returned with their instruments.
We started jamming.
I looked up a few minutes later,
and there were enough Indians there to make a John Wayne movie.
They were smiling and clapping to the beat.
With that encouragement we played for over an hour.
The lights had not been turned on,
just a couple of candles somebody had lit.
We ended to a big round of applause and somebody hit the light switch.
I blinked at the brightness and this is what I saw...
We'd been jamming in the Indian funeral home,
and there were two dead bodies in the audience!
I'd been playing boogie on the funeral organ!
It's one of the weirdest gigs I've ever played.
* * *
The rain blew down in sheets
and rolled off the dead man's face like tears.
His hat lay upside down several feet away,
collecting rainwater and flapping in the wind.
Rapid bolts of lightning reflected in his wide-open eyes,
and flashed the tombstones on and off,
leaving the chalky names and dates in deep black.
The hammer was still in his hand.
The game was over, and nobody won.
It had been building for a long time, the argument,
mostly around the bar at The Golden Pheasant.
In a small town, a dispute can last for months or even years.
Nobody's going anyplace.
But even for people who know each other well,
it can be hard to gauge how seriously
and personally the other guy may be taking the heat.
These things can get out of hand.
After all it was just a discussion about religion,
or spirituality, if you prefer.
Andy, the bartender and owner, was an agnostic,
so he was more like a referee, with nothing to prove.
Four or five of the guys were steady churchgoers,
and liked to gang up on the lone atheist, Henry Peckham,
a farmer with a few acres north of town.
Henry always held his own,
calling them pie-in-the-sky guys, and things like that.
He sneered at their Bible quotes.
"What kind of proof is that? The ravings of ignorant primitives."
He seemed to be the coolest head in the crowd.
He could really get the churchies red in the face,
and enjoyed doing it.
Last Wednesday night the whole debate took an unforeseen and fatal turn.
It was the wager that did it.
Hugh Turley, church deacon and local John Deere dealer, had had it!
He said, "Nobody dies an atheist.
It's just a pose to pass the burden of proof to others.
How about a little test?"
If Henry was a true unbeliever,
he would dare to go to the town graveyard on the next stormy night,
and exactly at midnight,
pound a wooden cross into the ground and shout:
"There is no God!"
The other fellows took it more as a joke,
and the laughter is what pushed Henry Peckham over the line.
He shouted: "GOOD!"
According to the TV weatherman there was a storm due Saturday night.
Arrangements were made,
and it was too late to back down.
* * *
They watched Henry from the shelter of their trucks,
as he walked up Cemetery Hill,
his long raincoat billowing in the wind,
the cross in his left hand, and the hammer in his right.
The hard rain sounded like sleet against the truck cabs.
Nobody was laughing.
He stopped at the top of the rise,
and in silhouette they saw him check his watch.
It was moving up to midnight.
He looked back once at the trucks and smiled.
Then he got down on one knee,
held the cross in place,
and hit it squarely with the hammer several times,
driving it solidly into the wet earth.
He raised his head
and shouted something they couldn't hear over the storm,
but they knew what it was:
"There is no God!"
As the atheist got up to leave,
there was violent thunder and lightning,
and SOMETHING GRABBED HIM!
He tried to run, but he couldn't move!
They were in no hurry to run up there,
just to have Henry sit up and laugh at them for their foolishness.
They sat and waited him out.
They could hold out longer in their vehicles
than he could in the rain.
Fifteen or twenty long minutes passed
before they opened the truck doors and got out.
The rain was letting up
and wet moonlight was backlighting the clouds.
Henry Peckham was obviously dead as hell.
* * *
"A heart attack", Doc Emmerson said.
"Odd. Henry had no history of heart trouble.
He didn't know what grabbed him.
It was just the cross he'd pounded through the hem of his coat.
It literally scared him to death.
What in God's name would an atheist be afraid of?"
* * *
The sound of the city rush hour wakes him up early.
He's been sleeping under the newspapers and cardboard,
dreaming that he's still a boy,
at his grandmother's house...
That he still has someone who gives a damn.
That he's still somebody!
Dreams and reality have been becoming blurred lately.
He drinks coffee from a Styrofoam cup
and watches the people going to work,
and then again in the afternoon
he watches them from a bench,
as they crowd the bus stop,
studying the signs on the buses,
waiting for the one that will take them home.
He never sees a bus that will take him home.
The sun goes down
and the city changes character
as the temperature drops.
The well-dressed business folks
are replaced by dangerous people.
Desperation makes you dangerous.
He's gotten some wine somewhere
and is wandering the downtown night alone.
He checks pay phone slots for change,
and finds a quarter in one.
For some reason,
after thinking about the dreams of family he's been having,
and being about half stoned,
he drops in the quarter and dials Grant 1623,
the phone number that was his grandmother's,
a lifetime ago,
when he was a child.
Somehow the wires and circuits of time get crossed,
and from across the void,
his grandmother answers the phone.
She says, "Hurry home, dear.
Supper's on the table.
I hope you're wearing your sweater...
You'll catch your death of cold".
These are the first words he's heard in an eternity
that sound like somebody cares about him.
That he really exists at all.
* * *
The policeman says into his radio:
"We got a homeless here. No hurry.
I think it's too late for this one".
But the policeman is wrong.
The boy is already home.
* * *
Continuing in our Halloween mode.
A STEADY GIG AT MOE’S.
The musician woke up, checked his watch, got dressed,
and left his motel room with enough time to get to the gig early.
Tony had been living on the road
longer than he could remember,
moving from one job to the next...
mostly small motel lounges and clubs,
He’d become numb to homesickness.
The other members of his combo
were already in the bar, talking to customers,
Bob Seger on the juke box...”Shame on the Moon”.
Time for the first set...
and they gathered at the bandstand.
Something was wrong...
Their instruments and amplifiers were not onstage!
How could they possibly forget to set up
on their first night at a new club?
The crowd was getting hostile about the delay.
They hurried out to their van behind the club,
and found the equipment still packed inside.
In a panic, they started hustling the heavy cases in the back door,
and were told that another band had replaced them in the main room,
but they could play a private party upstairs...third floor.
After 40 minutes of grueling labor,
Moe said this to them:
“Forget it, guys. My customers won’t wait all night.
Move it all back out and go home.”
Tony said, “But we have a four week contract,
and we drove 750 miles to get here.”
Moe said, “ You didn’t do the job. You’re out.
My bouncers will see you to the door.”
The bouncers, three off-duty cops, laughed at the boss’ wit.
Tony left the guys to pack up
while he walked down Main Street
to see if he could scare up another gig.
It was a typical small town...
typical of fifty years ago.
No Wal-Mart, no MacDonald’s, no chain stores at all.
Dunavan’s Drug Store had a sign in the window:
“Special: Hot Turkey Sandwich with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy”.
The town looked friendly,
but the people, mostly rough looking men in heavy plaid jackets,
glared at Tony.
Tony asked a beat cop:
“What’s with these guys? Don’t they like strangers?”
The cop said this:
“We don’t like the way you bigshot musicians
didn’t care enough to show up tonight at Moe’s.
If I was you, I’d ferget my suitcase
and get outa town with my skin.”
“We showed up...” Tony began,
but the policeman was already disappearing into the mob.
Mob? This street was almost deserted a few minutes ago!
He turned and began hurrying back toward Moe’s,
where the guys were waiting.
He kept close to the buildings, trying to keep a low profile.
He passed a pawnshop he didn’t remember,
a tattoo parlor, and an adult bookstore.
They were all closed
with burglar bars over the windows and doors.
The street ahead didn’t look like the way he’d come.
Most of the streetlights were broken,
shadows were deep,
and the skeleton of a stripped car was hunched at the curb.
Deserted warehouses leaned over the pot-holed street.
He must have made a wrong turn somewhere.
Up ahead a patrol car slid silently out of an alley,
and into another across the street.
He was being watched!
At last! A familiar building came in sight.
It was Moe’s Club, but different!
It was closed, boarded up,
and looked as though it had been that way for decades.
Tony checked the parking lot
and, of course, the band was not there...
but the van was...sort of.
It was old and rusted out...
One headlight hung down on the end of a wire.
The handle came off as he struggled the driver’s door open.
Thank God! The keys were in the ignition.
He tried to start the engine, but it just clicked.
Damn! Dead battery!
He tried the starter again, and the motor caught, coughed and died.
He heard a siren coming from the direction of the town,
not a regular siren, but the old “wailing banshee” kind.
He turned the key once more,
and the engine started.
Tony thanked the Powers That Be,
jammed it into gear, and moved carefully out of the lot,
making a right turn, away from the town.
He floored the old van until it shook and rattled,
and the evil buildings were replaced by ghostly forests.
Country road, take me home.
Twenty or thirty miles down the narrow moonlit road,
he stopped at a pay phone outside an all-night diner.
He dug for his calling card,
and started to dial home,
when the impossible happened again...
He forgot his own home phone number!
He held the receiver to his ear while he thought.
There was a faint voice on the line...
a woman’s voice that sounded familiar,
but even though he pressed the phone to his ear,
he couldn’t make out most of the words.
“Hello?” he shouted.
The voice just kept on talking
as though in a conversation that he could hear only one side of.
He was pretty sure he heard his own name.
He got back in the van
and headed in the direction where he thought home was.
There seemed to be no towns or intersections along this route.
No comforting signs pointing the way to an Interstate Highway.
He passed a junkyard with a blinding security light,
and a funeral home with a blue light in the window.
He felt a bump, and realized that the pavement had ended.
He was now on a dirt road.
It seemed damp and muddy, but there’d been no rain.
It soon narrowed to a single lane,
and then two tire ruts with grass and weeds between.
A sickly reddish stripe on the horizon
indicated that some kind of a sun was about to rise,
and that he was probably heading eastward.
The ruts morphed into a faint deer path in the foggy woods.
The old van motor coughed, stalled, coughed again,
and gave up the ghost.
Perfect timing, Tony thought. Out of gas.
He slid down in the driver’s seat,
sent up a doubtful prayer,
and fell asleep.
* * *
A bright light stung his eyes and woke him up.
He heard another familiar voice...this time closer.
“Are you okay, honey?”
He squinted one eye open, and said to his wife:
“What day is it?”
A hand touched his face.
“It’s the Sunday after the Grammy Awards, bright eyes.
You won, so wake up and come downstairs.
They love you, Tony, and you’ve earned it.”
“I’m dead and this is Heaven, right?” he said.
“You’re fine. It may not be Heaven,
but it’s going to be pretty good from now on” she said.
The musician squeezed his wife’s hand
and whispered something she didn’t quite understand:
“Why do I still have the feeling I’ll be playing Moe’s Club again?”
Another strange tale for Halloween week.
* * *
THE ROAR OF THE CROWD.
He sang the closing bars of the song
and the audience roared their appreciation.
He could hear them rising from their seats
for the standing ovation,
but he couldn’t see beyond the stage lights.
At first he had been elated at the enthusiasm
coming from the darkness in front of him,
but now he was beginning to wonder about it.
He’d opened the show with his latest country record,
and had done two songs since.
Each had evoked whistles, shouts,
and standing applause.
At least it sounded like they were standing up.
He looked back at his band for support,
but there was just a sequin curtain behind him.
Where the hell were those idiots?
And where was his backup music coming from?
He hated canned music,
especially since he was paying them damn good money.
He had always paid his band and road crew top dollar,
because that entitled him to the power he deserved.
After all, he was the star.
If he wanted to get high and make out with one of their wives,
And who says he doesn’t have a perfect right to yell at them,
on stage or off.
A little humiliation in front of the crowd kept them in line.
You had to be tough
to handle a bunch of ignorant pickers on the road.
He said into the mike:
they had a livestock inspection at the state line,
and I guess I lost my whole band.”
Laughter washed up from the dark like a tidal wave.
He didn’t think the joke was THAT funny.
Was somebody pulling a practical joke on him?
Maybe his own damn wife put ‘em up to it.
She was probably still mad
over that little black eye he’d given her.
My God! That was over a week ago!
And she had deserved it for sassing him back.
He was paying all the bills,
and it was his damn show!
They all better get used to it.
What was the next song?
They were causing him to lose his place
in front of his fans.
That was unforgivable.
He’d make them pay later.
He strummed a chord on his guitar,
trying to think.
The crowd went wild!
What the hell?
One chord brings the house down?
“What’s going on folks?
Is this some kind of a trick?”
Quiet now from the dark.
Just a cough from somewhere way back.
“Look, I’m a star with gold and platinum records
all over my bathroom wall,
which is bigger than your whole house!
You yokels better not screw with me”.
except for a child softly crying.
A tall man in a dusty looking tux came out on stage,
and said, “Isn’t this a great show, folks?”
The applause was louder and wilder than ever.
The strange emcee started to walk off.
Bobby Lee grabbed his arm and said
“What the hell is going on here, pal?
And I expect the TRUTH!”
The emcee turned and looked at him
with eyes so deeply set that they were just shadows.
He said, “It’s exactly what you’ve always wanted, Bobby.”
Bobby Lee yelled:
“What do you mean ‘what I’VE always wanted’?”
The shadow-eyed master of ceremonies said this:
The crowd roared again...
IF that was really a crowd out there.
All stories Copyright ©2006 Jack Blanchard. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.