The old man had grown to hate Halloween. He never said why, since no one ever asked. In recent years every time the end of October loomed, he felt like a premature, misplaced Ebenezer Scrooge, telling others who cared to listen that “trick or treat”-ing was a devilish kind of extortion and that even the spookiest of kiddie costumes were ridiculous. He wanted nothing to do with it. So over time he made certain he was never at home on Halloween evenings.
What happened last year, however, changed everything, its memory still as fresh as any morning.
* * * * *
It was late afternoon, so he headed to the mall to kill the evening at a movie. Kids and parents were already out and about, so he was glad to hit the Interstate if only for a few miles. For once, parking near Cinema Place was not a problem. As he limped across the lot, he passed a pick-up truck and noticed two kids – twins, actually – maybe five, six years old, in the front seat.
“Hey, mister!” one of them shouted, “Are you a ghost?”
He stopped, turned and saw four wide, excited eyes looking at him.
“Me? A ghost? Why are you asking?”
“Our dad said to keep our eyes open and we might see one.”
He approached the truck, a crooked question on his face.
“Do I look like a ghost?” he asked, using his deepest voice.
“Kinda,” the talkative one said.
“Then why aren’t you scared?”
“Because it’s Halloween,” both said in unison, “and ghosts are fun!”
“Well, boys, I’m not a ghost, and I think Halloween is stupid,” he said, turning toward the mall.
“Our dad said Halloween is the most important time of the year.” It was the talkative one again.
The old man took a step back, turning toward the truck. “Now why would he say that?”
“’Cuz … because it’s the only time we can laugh about death, our dad said.”
The old man cocked his head at that, started to reply, then turned sharply and strode away with very broad, if shaky, steps, glaring back just once at the truck. At the mall’s entrance a much younger man in jeans, obviously in a hurry, shouldered into him. His packages went flying; two identical skeleton costumes spilled out of a bag. The old man was able to steady himself as the man in jeans quickly scooped up his purchases, said, “Sorry about that,” and moved on. The old man stood a moment, then heard the talkative twin shout, “Hey Dad, we just saw a ghost!” The old man shook his head as if trying not to hear the boy’s words. Inside the mall, he found a bench and sat for a long while, sorting through some unsettling feelings.
* * * * * *
This year he sat home, waiting, a small bag of candies hanging on the inside front doorknob. A carved pumpkin sat outside, and he had the front light turned on. For the past year he had done a lot of thinking about what had happened and about, of all things, death. He remembered the twins’ excitement at seeing “a ghost,” namely himself, and still wondered what it was they had seen in him that he couldn’t see back then. But he knew what he had felt, sitting on that bench in the Mall: He certainly didn’t want to be a ghost before his time, and he needed to learn how to laugh about death…as they did.
He couldn’t do a thing about that last year. But now, here he was, in a pirate costume, eye patch, scar, peg leg, the works, waiting for the doorbell to ring.
“Me, a ghost? I’ll show them!” he smiled.
When the doorbell finally chimed, his unpatched eye widened as he stomped to the door, shouting, “Arrrgh! I’m coming, Mateys; I’m coming.”