A Halloween Story
It was chilly for October, but I had to take an outside table at 12South cafe. It was a space reserved for dog owners and smokers, and I really needed a cigarette. Once lit, it sat unnoticed on the ashtray as I checked and rechecked my IPad for an email telling me the meeting was off. No such message, appeared, though, and I realized my right leg was jogging up and down. I forced it to stop. Was I about to have the weirdest interview of my freelance career? A pimply waiter approached from upwind, and I ordered a cafe Americano and a cinnamon chip scone. Not that I needed to be any more wired. I had to think up which angle to go at this particular character.
I met him a week ago at an early Halloween party. I didn’t know many of the people there, but hey, I’m single and can rock a sexy-cat costume as well as any starving writer (there was someone dressed as that, can you believe?). It was noisy and smoky inside, and I was getting bored when I noticed a guy dressed as classic Death. Cowl, robe, even the scythe. He was drinking a pale ale and watching the other partygoers with what seemed like detached amusement. I couldn’t tell if he was cute under the hood, but I dig tall guys, and the barely acceptable pinot noir I was guzzling had given me liquid courage.
“Hi, tall, dark and gruesome.”
I heard a deep chuckle and the neck of the bottle disappeared briefly into the hood. I couldn’t see his eyes, but thought I caught a glimpse of a bone mask. The hand that clutched the bottle was skeletal, an amazing prop. The cowl turned towards me, and even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I felt as pinned as a butterfly on an entomologist’s board. I fiddled with my plastic wineglass stem.
“So, you know the Craigshead’s well?”
‘Ah, no,” he replied, in a voice as sepulcher as a tomb (hey, I’m a writer, I can use words like sepulcher). “I’m just here to, um, meet someone.” His head nodded to acknowledge my costume. “I like black cats.”
That was all the encouragement I needed to continue the conversation. We talked inanely for a few moments, and the whole time he kept up the “Mysterious Death” persona. I sensed a possible story.
“Hey, I’m a writer, and would love to interview you as if you were really Death. Interested?” Again the amused chuckle, and that skeletal hand crept out of its sleeve to accept my card. As he pulled it back, a black shiny Philip Stein watch chimed an alarm that sounded like taps.
“Whoops, that’s my appointment.” He threw back the rest of his beer. Just then I heard a screech from outside. I turned towards the noise. “Wow, the party games are getting rowdy. Do you think…?” when I turned back, my gruesome friend was gone.
A few moments later, the party was broken up by a 911 call, and the tragedy of the host’s best friend, drowned in the pool. I guess he drank too much, and the full-body werewolf suit he was wearing had dragged him down pretty quickly. The police were interviewing everyone, but I told them I was inside talking to someone dressed as Death when the accident occurred. They had seen no such person leaving the party. And no one else recalled seeing him. At all.
But “Death” emailed me a week later, and agreed to an interview. So here I was. Not even sure how to market the story, even if he did show up. I fiddled again with my IPad. A dark shadow fell on the sunlit screen.
“Hello, Miss Lee”, said a deep, sonorous voice.
I looked up, and my mouth fell open. He was still in his hood and cape! Man, this was better than I’d hoped, even if it was a bit creepy. He took the seat across from me. I was surprised no one turned to stare, especially when he leaned his scythe against the table with a metallic screech. He leaned back. The costume that had seemed dark in the crowded, poorly-lit room at the Halloween party was even a deeper shade of black in the bright sunlight. It seemed to absorb the dappled shade caused by the sycamore tree at the edge of the cafe. The waiter brought my coffee and scone, but didn’t ask my “date” if he wanted anything. I didn’t blame him for ignoring an obviously insane person. I grabbed my cig, took a deep breath, and placed it back in the ashtray. I glanced at him, to see if he objected to my bad habit, but he didn’t seem to care, just sat expectantly.
“Thanks so much for coming today,” I began, as warmly as I could through my nervousness. “So, Death, do you, umm, have another name?” I picked up my IPad and looked at him, determined to be professional.
“Yes, I’m, you can call me Bruce. I’m not sure why I agreed to this,” he said. “Maybe because you were so nice to me at the party. I’m not used to people being kind when they see me.”
“Oh yes, the party!” I latched on. “Where you aware that a guy died that night?”
“As I said, I was there to meet someone.” he replied. “Oh, hello!”
From nowhere an opossum appeared in his arms. I recoiled, because it was hissing and grinning that horrid possum grin, and was – ick – bloody. Then I realized he must have stashed it inside of his robe, as a prop to accent his “persona”. He obviously pulled it out to startle me. But I tried to stay cool. “Bruce, what is that… creature… doing here?” He looked up from cuddling it, surprised, as if he had forgotten I was there. He pushed back his cowl, and
I was amazed to see pale, chubby cheeks and closely set, bright blue eyes dancing with joy. He snuggled the animal close. It scree’d, and grimaced even more widely. He scritched it on the head, nonetheless.
“I just love these guys!” He cooed. “Aren’t they adorable?”
Maybe, in bad light, a healthy ‘possum might seem cute, but this one was… mangled, for want of a better word.
“It looks like it’s been hit by a truck!” Despite my determination to not let him get to me, I was feeling queasy. But as I started to push back my chair – this guy was freaking me out, and anyway I don’t go for blue eyes – the heinous wounds seemed to close, and the ‘possum quieted. One last kiss on the nose (ewww!), and it disappeared back into his robe.
“I’m sorry, where were we?” he asked, blue eyes all innocent.
“What. Was. That.” I tried to be stern.
“I just love opossums,” he said. “”Really, really love them. Maybe more than I should. So I kind of… encourage them to visit me. I think they like me, too! They’re so eager to play dead…” He pulled his cowl back over his head, and once again I was seated with Death. I took a deep breath. Girl, in for weird, in for insane… but maybe this was my angle!
“So, then, what’s the deal with armadillos? I see an awful lot of them belly-up on the roads around Nashville, too.”
“Armadillos? No. Ick. I don’t like them at all. Stupid creatures, not even fuzzy. They could survive most car encounters, but they insist on jumping up into the air at the worst possible moment!”
Just then we were interrupted as another big ‘possum appeared on his lap. This one had two babies clinging to it, and a flattened, bloody face. But still he cooed over the new arrivals. I had to admit the babies were cute. Their overly large ears twitched in time with their darting, midnight eyes. “Mom” disappeared, but he played with those babies awhile longer. Then he put them away and apologized. “I especially love the little ones,” he said, “but I’m sure the rest of her litter will be along within the next day or so. No mother, and all.”
“Bruce, you really care about them, don’t you?” I decided to go for the
co-conspirator approach at getting info out of the interviewee.
“I care for all beings that pass my way!” He seemed to grow larger, straighter, and around us the shade grew as if a dark, dark cloud was passing over.
“Whenever a tree succumbs to the fungus that nibbles into its heart. When a crab is flash frozen in a tank for its meat. When an old faithful canine is put down in the last act of love a human can give, I am there.” He relaxed a little, and the sun returned. After a few heartbeats, I realized I was holding my breath.
“And humans?” I asked.
“Oh yes, humans…” he chuckled, with some sorrow. “There are so many now, and my time is valuable. I have to take my enjoyment when I can.”
As if on cue, another ‘possum popped into his arms and he delighted in it once more, even though the mangled animal was obviously trying to escape. He put it away and sighed.
“I’m sorry, but this might have been a mistake, talking to you. I wanted people to see my, er, human side, but I have to admit, I prefer working with animals.”
He rose, and I stood, too, unwilling to let Bruce – Death – just walk away. I stuttered, “Wait, Bruce, I have so many more questions!”
“It was really nice meeting you, Rose.” He grabbed his scythe with a flourish, and dogs tied to nearby tables cringed, though their owners noticed nothing. “I’ll see you later.” He pushed back his cowl to wink one blue eye, and his gaze fell on the cigarette smoldering, forgotten, at my elbow. “Or, maybe sooner.” His eye locked with mine, and he turned and was gone, vanishing into a patch of shade beneath the sycamore tree.
I smashed the cig into the ashtray.