I am a Jew, and when I was little we were, at the very least, traditional, in terms of our religious observance. Our habits changed though as my parents changed, divorced, and changed. I always went to Jewish school (except one dismal year and a half, but then all of school until I got to 9th grade was dismal).
The kind of Jewish we were included not only keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, going to shul every Saturday (driving because it was too far to walk), but also celebrating the American holidays, like Halloween and Thanksgiving.
I loved Halloween. It was my favorite. This was the 1970s and trick or treating was relatively safe then although I do remember getting a lecture in fifth grade about how we should throw away any apples we received because there could be a razor blade tucked inside.
Despite any poison apples, we bravely went from door to door, in groups, costumed, silly. On our block was another Jewish family who had the biggest and best Halloween gathering of all: spooky ghost and cobweb decorations on their patio, including the much beloved mummy hand reaching out of a potted plant. Donuts and candy apples inside, cider too, for tired children and parents who wanted to schmooze.
One year, Halloween fell on a Friday and I remember my father taking me around the block in the late afternoon to trick or treat, before it got dark, before sundown, before the Sabbath would begin. I was dressed as a ballerina, pink tutu and tights, and embarrassed to be the only one. It was somehow always a little embarrassing to be Jewish.
Otherwise the memories are all sweet candy corn and circus peanuts. My brother and I heading out again after hearing about the neighbor who was giving out multiple boxes of cracker jacks. The end of the night counting and catagorizing the little candy bars. Wandering the streets in a pack of ghosts. Darkness, freedom, hiding, escape. No one knew I was Jewish under that ghostly bedsheet with holes cut out for eyes.
And then there was that one time that I hesitate even to mention because I question whether I am remembering correctly. Was it my imagination? Did I dream it? Had I gone mad? Had I eaten a poison apple or debauched donut? Maybe I was an 8-year-old tipsy on grown-up cider. But no. What happened was the whole truth.
They had a number of clocks, this other Jewish family on the block that I mentioned above, cukoo clocks, grandfather clocks, and they were always ticking. It was like a scene from a movie when no one is talking and no other sound but the sound of the clocks. That’s what it was like at their house, even on Halloween, which also had the sounds of a dinner party and adults drinking Sanka. Clinking of teaspoon against saucer.
My best friend, who also knew this family, had told me the week before about a ghost in their house, a very mischevious ghost and how on Halloween this ghost was at his most frisky, pushing plates off the dinner table, adjusting the zombie hand on the patio, and generally, so it seemed, revelling in the party atmosphere and the comings and goings of the honored guests, us children.
But my friend had seen it. Her brother had seen it. Her other brother had seen it.
What had you seen? I asked, eyes wide. And she described again the falling planes and zombie hand and various other mishaps blamed on the wind or a child running past. And how the day after Halloween, it was gone.
We need a plan, she said.
What kind of plan? I said.
I don’t know, she said.
I do, I said.
And that was how we set out to lay a “trap” for this ghost, to catch it in the act with our polaroid cameras. Truth is we didn’t have any plan in mind other than watching and waiting.
Finally Halloween arrived and my friend and I showed up in the afternoon to pretend to help Mrs. P., but really we were on a mission. She was busy setting the table with best and brightest Dixie plates and cups on the planet. The table was a buffet of Doritos, corn chips, M & Ms, homemade cookies and candy apples, celery and some kind of thick yellow dip probably made from soup mix. Ginger ale and seltzer. Tick tock, said the clock.
We waited. Hours passed. We waited. Nightfall. We missed our trick or treating. And nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing fell off the table. No candy apples eaten by invisible guests. No gasps from the grown-ups at the mysterious and unexplained. We had been sitting under the table for hours, our fort. Long tablecloth like curtains. It had seemed the perfect place for a stake-out, surrounded by the knees of grown ups and the idea that at any moment something out of the ordinary would happen.
And then my friend finally admitted it. It was all a joke. Trick or treat. Tick tock.
It was almost midnight when my mother came from down the street to collect me, and as she took my hand and we were about to leave by the patio door, I saw it then out of the corner of my eye, barely perceptible, and yet I saw it, that undead fake-blood zombie hand. It moved. No wind. No child or cat rushing by. No puppeteer. It moved. Again.
I have to tell my friend I have to tell my friend NOW, I cried out. But my mother wouldn’t have it. It was late, it was time for bed, and she scooped me up and carried me the rest of the way home.
I never told my friend what I saw that night, that her story wasn’t a story at all, but truth. And for every year after that, until we moved away, I spent my whole Halloween at that house, watching and waiting. Everything else I saw? I’ll never tell.