I have no idea how he died. I think they told me, but I was too terrified to hear a word of it. Between the chattering of my teeth and the knocking of my knees, I’d become temporarily deaf.
“Come touch the dead man,” said one of them as I was passing by.
“Don’t be chicken,” teased another.
Being the man that I was at the ripe old age of 10, I walked up the driveway and took my place in line to enter the pitch-black garage – the very garage where the dead sat waiting patiently for my arrival–at least that’s what I’d been led to believe.
I don’t know why, but I chose to go trick-or treating that year as the Batman. It didn’t take long to second-guess my decision. I loved being identified with the Dark Knight. I mean, c’mon, what little boy doesn’t at one time or another dream about wearing a cape, living in a cave, and kicking some Joker or Penguin butt with some really awesome tools from your really awesome tool belt, right?
Unfortunately, the designer of the full-faced plastic mask aimed at providing the young ne’er-do-well with said identity clearly had no idea as to the importance of vision and breath to one’s survival, let alone to the pleasure that is the trick-or-treating experience.
From the moment I left the house, I felt more like a half-blind Robin–holy false faces, Batman! How’s a young crime fighter supposed to see anything wearing this obscuring veil?–than a special sighted Caped-Crusader.
And that was under the bright streetlights. Once inside the garage, where the vile darkness managed to completely chase away the last glimmer of light’s beauty, I had no hope of seeing anything, not even a finger in front of my innocent little eye.
But if seeing was difficult, breathing was impossible.
The second I stepped inside the room of death, my stomach tightened and my throat constricted. It was like a python had started at my midsection and slowly coiled itself around me. Slithering all the way up to my neck, the beast threatened to give me the kind of hug I’d never forget.
The beast, of course, was nothing more than the sheer terror of knowing that I stood within feet of a dead man. But added to that was the fact that I was suddenly inhaling the most unexpected and unexplainable odors, aromas that forced me to take short, spirited sips of soured oxygen through the mask’s frighteningly small mouth hole. To this day, I cannot describe the smell blanketing the room. None of the odors I encountered were among those that I would have equated with death at that tender age—and yet they were far from pleasant.
As I waited for the “experience” to begin, that strange feeling began to slither from the back of my neck down through my spine. My body shook under it’s imaginary yet terrifyingly real weight . To steady myself, I reached out for my friend’s shoulder.
My other hand, meanwhile, held my plastic pumpkin, my bright orange candy collector. Sweat poured down my arms and wrists, beads of it sliding down my face, puddling in my mask. I wondered which pieces of candy were being unceremoniously moisturized as thick drops of sweat from my chubby little chin plunged into my pumpkin.
(In case you are not aware, Halloween in Florida often means 80-degree weather and plenty of humidity. Maybe it’ll dip into the low 70s or high 60s — but only if you’re lucky.)
Before I knew it, a Hand grabbed mine and shoved it into something wet and mushy. My fingers grazed what could only be described as a stringy–maybe even sinewy or fibrous–goo-like substance. “That’s his guts,” said the Voice, clearly the owner of the Hand. Taking charge once more, the Hand plunged my hand deeper into the man’s innards. I recoiled, and even squirmed, but I didn’t run.
A queasiness came over me. If it was aware, the Hand didn’t care. With a firm, unrelenting grip, it directed my hand further to the right. I felt something completely different this time. A pair of slimy round objects rolled around under my palm and then between my fingers, all under the careful direction and guidance of the Hand. “That’s his eyeballs!” came the Voice. Squeezing my fingers around the slippery orbs, the Hand forced me to note their squishiness, their sponginess.
By the time the Voice, and its equally mysterious counterpart, the Hand, had finished guiding me on the unsolicited tour of the dead man’s body parts, all that was left for me to do was to puke in my Batman face. Fortunately, I managed to rip off the plastic version just in time.
My buddies spent the rest of the night collecting as much candy as possible. It was a banner night, I was told, a great haul. After cleaning myself up from the barf fest, I would spend hours trying to get rid of the smell of that dead man. Even the next morning, the scent lingered on my fingers, my wrist, and my palms. To this day, one whiff of an inside of a pumpkin, and I’m right back to 1977, and the night I touched death three houses down…in my neighbor’s garage.