< halloween, 2014
There is a game that parents like to set up when they are throwing Halloween parties for large groups of children, no doubt perpetuated by their own parents or, for the youngest among the childbearing, posts online detailing how to put together this so-called crowd-pleaser.
The organizing parents collect a bunch of brown paper bags. In each of these bags they put some sort of innocuous, usually edible item: cooked spaghetti, mashed potatoes, cut hot-dogs, Jell-O chunks, peeled grapes, and so on. Each of these bags is labelled (or one parent is chosen to real-time emcee) with the decidedly non-familiar object that the material inside the bag is meant to represent: intestines, grave-mud, kidneys, unfixed brain, disembodied eyes, and so on. Almost always they are human body parts, or relating to interment, or death. Really it is a game about loss. And there are a couple of ways the game can be played. And even the youngest kid can understand the horror of putting one’s hand into an unseen space: the danger to it, the simultaneous lessening and greatening of an internal horror, all of this modulated through the adult’s giving the contents of the bag a name. The parents give a name to a sensation. The child has never felt eyes, nor the pearly jelly inside them. Most of the parents have not either. How could they? For the older kids, it becomes a game of naming what the object is really. Truly. In fact. Their job, or the job they take upon themselves, has become to break the illusion and, in doing so, join in accord with the adults that the feeling of an eye and its jelly, even if unknown to both parties, is definitely not that sensation, that one which is hidden inside the bag.
There are some children who are too scared to stick their hand inside any of the bags. Sometimes they are afraid of harm, but usually they are just afraid of the dirtiness. Dirtiness, even to them, is associated, somehow, with sickness, which is, in truth, a type of harm. Some children, conversely, will stick their hands into the bags greedily—they are usually a little older—they will hold onto whatever is contained and squeeze it so hard that it extrudes from the gaps between their fingers. Spaghetti all chopped up. Jell-O turned to shivering paste. Exploding eyes expelling their jelly. A brain crushed out of the possibility of all thought.
The unspoken rule is that the evil or grave object needs to be represented by something that is actually benign or harmless. Once I went to a party where, in an apparent moment of desperation, one of the parents chose that the sensation of a human liver inside a bag would be represented by a few pieces of raw chicken. The kids played their little game. One of the other parents brought a cellophane bag of dry ice in order to achieve a bubbling cauldron effect beside the bowls. And I stood by Susie, in the corner. Prismatic colors waggled across the ceiling, Lava lamps sat propped on top of coffee tables and granite countertops and divans, too hot to touch. The parents had a lot of them, like some shared secret. We did not partake in any of the games, Susie because she used crutches to walk on account of something that had happened to her legs when she was young, and me because Susie wasn’t going, and she was the only one making any sense. I was perhaps in fourth grade. We sat in the corner and I asked Susie about her deepest wish. She said that she wished her mother would have to walk around in crutches, too, so that way they could talk more about what it was like—all of the little ways that it is inconvenient and sucks. Susie says she doesn’t remember how she came to be the way she is, so she doesn’t know where to begin in trying to do the same to her mother. We whiteboard a couple of ideas. Possibly we could set it up so she would stub her toe really bad on a pried up floorboard. We could hit her with Susie’s father’s car.
The next week in school, many of the children in our class are gone. Just Susie, me, and kids who, even at that age, had been singled out for being irreconcilably different, unincorporatable into the rest of the fourth grade. The week drags on. The first kid back, Arthur C., pale in the face and seemingly sunken into his own bones, describes the wing of the hospital where all of the kids who got salmonella from the chicken bag were being held. Arthur’s mother is very upright: mouth a bloodless cut. We imagine nurses with red crosses on white hats. Linens. Stethoscopes. Wails. Between sentences, Arthur puts his head down and appears to ‘microsleep,’ which doesn’t stop happening until mid-way into the fifth grade.
All of the children live, although one of them catches a secondary infection that has him lose two of the fingers on his left hand. Everyone in the class tries to come up with a nickname for him, because of the fingers, but he moves away at the end of the year without anything having stuck.