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THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT STRIKE TOO CLOSE TO HOME

Every year it seems like the Halloween bogyman shows up earlier and stays later.

This year, it feels like Halloween will be forever.

For twice this past week -- twice in five days -- I have watched a scenario right out of a Wes Craven film unfold in my car:

The 7-year-old climbs in, smelling of wind and sweat and boyhood.

He kisses the 7-month-old asleep in the red bunting in the car seat.

And then he and I discuss how he can help himself stay alive.

Last Thursday's talk starts this way:

We are driving home through Orchard Park, watching leaves swirl around parents practically Velcro'd to their kids. There has been a kidnap-and-rape threat to a counseling center in town, and as they urge small ones home through the autumn dusk, the adult faces look just awful. Tight. Grim.

Like mine.

"Mom? What's 'abducted'?"

We have gone down this verbal road before, he and I. And even though we hate this journey, we make it often; "what would you do if . . . " is always the main topic of conversation.

So as we drive, watching lighted pumpkins get set on stoops, and porch lights snapping on, hours before dark, we talk about kidnapping.

We talk about the bogyman.

"Grown-ups should always just stare at their kids," he says finally. "Then no one gets lost."

Then we see the lights of home. And for the moment, we are done with the bogyman.

But now it is Tuesday. And he is back.

"Mom? What did the man do? The one from California. He has ID."

"It's Chautauqua. It's a long way from here," I say, creating a distance I do not feel. "And he has HIV. It's a disease. The police say he gave it to some other people intentionally. Do you know what intentionally means?"

"On purposely."

"On purpose. And this man gave people this disease."

"But not kids."

"Well, they were very young. Teen-agers."

"How did he give them the disease?"

Tap the brakes. Silence. His voice again, insistent. "Mom, how did they get it?"

"They got too close to him."

"Like when you sneeze on someone and they get your cold?"

"Sort of. Only they got it because they let this man . . . " Damn this world for making us have to say these things, they're just children, dammit " . . . touch their bodies when they shouldn't have."

Silence.

"Mom, when we're at recess, sometimes the second-grade girls chase us and hold us down, and they kiss our cheeks. And we always say no."

"I know. We talked about that."

A pause.

"Mom?"

"What?"

"Will I ever get it?"

My stomach clenches.

No. No. You will not get it. You will not die before me. You will not die because of me.

You will not die because I stopped "staring at you" for a millisecond, leaving you to be carried off by a lunatic.

And you will not die because I stopped paying attention to you for years, leaving you to fill the void with drugs and sex from a stranger.

"No, you won't get it," I say.

The hugeness of the near-lie chokes me.

Because if I know anything, I know like I know my sons' names that at any juncture, even the most buttoned-down lives can come ripping apart.

And that, in the screech of a Paris car crash, in the whiz of an East Side bullet and the ringing silence of parental indifference, children can get pulled away from parents and set adrift like leaves kicked up by an October dusk wind.

They swirl in an eternal autumn. And where they land is where they land.

Some kids luck out, and land in a clean, well-lighted room, filled with sheltering family.

But others drift into the company of a mind thrilled by abduction and inflicted pain.

And all last year in Chautauqua County, dozens fell, in horrible need and helpless confusion, underneath the body of a man bent on perpetuating his own decay.

The lights of the house glow ahead. Get there. God, just get there.

This much I can do for them. This I can do: Watch the road. Watch for swirling leaves. Ferry them home safely.

Hold them, rock them, answer their questions. Then light the pumpkin and stare out into the dusk, waiting for the next knock from the bogyman.

This is the holiday we live all year now.

This is our eternal Halloween.

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