Haunted House

The year she and my dad got sober, my mom went all Martha Stewart for Halloween. She was up at her usual hour—her former cocktail hour, five in the morning—and spent the whole day mixing and stirring, beating bowlfuls of butter and eggs, sugar and cocoa. She slapped not stingy spoonfuls but copious scoops of peanut butter chip cookie dough onto shiny baking sheets and set five dozen of the cake-size cookies on wire racks to let them cool.

She rolled a dozen Red Delicious apples in a homemade caramel sauce of butter and brown sugar—Kraft, schmaft. She coated a dozen more with melted chocolate and chopped cashews. Pans clattered and mixers whirred and the oven door squeaked open and slammed shut all day long, the oven timer atwitter like a randy spring robin. She poured a cow's worth of milk into her big iron stew pot to make real hot cocoa: not the instant stuff or the drink brewed from a premixed cocoa-sugar blend but the kind made with pure cocoa powder sifted—sifted!—with cinnamon, sugar, vanilla, and black pepper.

My mother had bought four pumpkins, big ones that cost about 40 bucks apiece, and carved them in masterly fashion: a mean one with fierce-looking eyes; a sad one with a big frown; a sinister one with fangs; and a maniacal one with a wild grin. She scooped out the fleshy insides and put them aside for pumpkin ravioli and even carved little recesses in the shell bottoms for candles. My dad, a firefighter, argued in vain for flashlights.

"This is going to be a real Halloween," Mom insisted.

My dad helped her fit our collie, Meggie, with a pointed black hat and, out on the front porch, assembled a plastic skeleton that had a motion detector inside. When trick-or-treaters walked past it, the skull's eyes glowed and it cackled and shouted, "I'm gonna get you!" My younger sister Elizabeth, rail thin, dressed in goth black, glared at it as she tramped out the door to some high-school party. "The neighbors are gonna hear that," she said. "They'll call the cops."

I assumed she was referring to the previous year, when the Todds put on quite a show for the kids in our Sacramento neighborhood. Dad had gone out for something we didn't need—milk or sugar—and come home hours later, drunk and raging. Elizabeth ran out to the backyard to hide behind the picnic table. I scrambled out my bedroom window. My mom tried to hold Dad off in the kitchen. The finale was spectacular, with two policemen escorting my father, handcuffed, from the house, as trick-or-treaters watched from jack-o'-lanterned porches, the flashing lights of police cruisers reflecting off their masked faces.

A year later, as dusk fell, my mom and I peeked out the window, watching as parents shepherded their children anxiously past our house. Mom lit a cigarette and looked back at the kitchen, at the cookies and apples, at the pot of cocoa on the stove. "What are we going to do with all this crap?" she said. Eventually she announced that she was going to bed. "You wanna stay up in case anyone comes to the door?" she asked.

"Sure," I said. I sat down at the kitchen table to work on a college paper about Joan Didion. I jumped when the doorbell rang. I glanced at the clock: it was 10:25. I looked out the front window and saw three teenage trick-or-treaters with bike chains wrapped around their legs and black eyes and pointy goatees drawn on their faces in charcoal. They were checking out the cackling skeleton.

"Trick or treat," one boy said flatly when I opened the door.

"Doesn't anyone answer their doorbells around here?" muttered another. I pointed out that most trick-or-treaters were in bed.

There was a long pause; then I said, "Hang on." I went into the kitchen and returned with a huge plate piled with the giant peanut butter chip cookies. "Take them all," I told them, handing over the treats in towering stacks. I brown-bagged the caramel apples and handed those over as well. The teenagers, their treat bags stretched to bursting, gaped at me.

"You want some cocoa?" I asked. Before they could answer, I went back to the kitchen and ladled out three Dixie cups emblazoned with black cats.

"Is it spiked?" one of the teenagers asked.

"Not this year," I said, smiling, before shutting the door. The kitchen was dark except for the light above the stove. I lifted the pot of cocoa and slowly poured the contents down the drain, so that my mother wouldn't hear the sound, and I left the cookie plate in the sink so that she could see it was empty—proof that the neighborhood children had come.