I started running when I moved back to Honolulu. Running in Madison was difficult for me because it was always either too hot or too cold most of the time. It’s hard to develop any kind of a routine when there are only a few weeks of decent weather in spring and in fall.
It was so much easier to get into running shape back home, where the weather was predictably good most days. I liked to run in the evenings anyway, so it was always a bit cooler. One of my running friends once asked me why I ran at night, and I told him it was because I didn’t want people to see me.
“What? Not see you. What do you mean?”
“I have lousy form,” I said, “and it’s kind of embarrassing to think of people watching me run and making fun of me.
My friend thought this was ridiculous, but I didn’t. So on I went, a running creature of the night.
When I was a kid, there were a ton of children out collecting candy on Halloween. There aren’t too many kids in the neighborhood these days, all of them grown up and most of them moving on. But back then the place would be crawling with kids out hunting for candy.
There was always one house, from the time I can first remember my trick-or-treating years, that initially scared the bejesus out of me – so I was thankful my parents had me by the hand – but as I grew older, I was more and more entertained by what I would always find there.
It was a woman, I could never tell how old she was due to the copious amounts of makeup she’d use to age and uglify herself, not to mention the extended fake nose and large warts she applied liberally all over her face. She’d dress all in black, wear a black pointy hat, and speak in the witchiest voice imaginable. Throw in scads of cackling, and you had as bonafide a sorceress as you’d ever hope to meet.
True, she would give out candy, but she would also offer you boiled baby meat on a plate, complete with toothpicks to jab it with. By boiled baby meat she meant the meat she’d stripped from a quite horribly flesh-torn looking plastic baby that sat in a big black pot, fake fire flickering beneath it, dry-ice steam rising around the poor child to give the appearance of boiling water.
At some age I finally figured out that what she was chopping up on her cutting board was bologna or some such processed meat. I assumed that other older folks in the crowd knew this too, but I never saw anyone grab a toothpick and dig in.
The pot sat in the middle of her garage. The place was lit up with red lightbulbs, and there was no shortage of fake cobwebs strung throughout. Maybe you can understand that as a child of five this freaked me out. She was great.
So the first Halloween I was back home, I happened to be running by that garage, and sure enough, the place was lit up that glowing red, and that freaky looking woman was doing her vintage act to the delight of more the parents than the frightened children.
At least I thought it was the same woman. I leaned in over the bobbing heads and saw that it was plainly a much younger woman, maybe even younger than myself, it being easy to observe this fact since she had no make-up on. I had a bad feeling that the older woman might have passed away, or at least was too aged now to play the witch role anymore.
This younger woman did cackle and use the same style of witchy voice, but the effect wasn’t the same since her face looked so non-witchy normal. After the current crowd had moved out, I said, “Excuse me, but the woman who played the part you’re playing, what happened to her?”
“Oh,” she said, “my mom passed away. I didn’t want to see the tradition die, so I decided to keep doing it for as long as I can.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. And that’s so good of you to honor her in this way,” I said. “I always enjoyed her when I was a kid. Well, she scared actually scared me until I was old enough to enjoy her act.”
“Well thank you,” she said. I’ll do that. My mom would have been pleased to know that.”
And off I ran, a bit saddened for the fact that the wonderful woman who took so much time and energy to put on that annual performance would no longer do so. But I was happy in a way, even though I thought her performance not as convincing as her mother’s, that the young woman was willing to keep the show going.
The following Halloween a year later, I decided to run by the garage and see if the daughter had managed to pump up her act. Sure enough, I could see the red light pouring out into the street as I approached. There being no children jamming the garage at that moment, I walked in.
The woman, sitting there carving up baby meat, looked up at me, and I could see she’d gone all out to create the face of a truly scary witch, just as her mother had done in the past.
“I’m glad to see you so well made up this year. You really look like your mother used to look on Halloween.”
The woman looked at me most quizzically. In what I took to be her normal voice she said, “I’m sorry, did you say my mother?”
“Yes, before you started doing this last year, because your mom passed away. You know, the way your mom used to do her make-up. It’s really great this year, how ugly and scary your face is.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’ve been doing this every Halloween for the past 30 years. My mother never did this.”
“But,” I said, “didn’t you say last year that you were taking over this Halloween witch role from your mother? You, or she, said you were her daughter, that your mom had passed away.”
“Hmmm,” she said, “I’m not sure what you mean. For one, I don’t have a daughter. I do have a son who lives in Japan, but no daughter. You must be thinking of another house.”
Well, I knew I had the right house, and yeah, she was pretty old now. Perhaps, I thought, she was experiencing signs of dementia. At any rate I wished her a good evening and told her I was glad the tradition still held.
Now this old woman’s Halloween get-up the following year was a must-see for me. As I ran toward the house, however, I could see that white light emanated from the garage.
I stopped and stepped in. A man was stacking boxes. It looked like he was packing things up.
“Hello,” I said. “I was hoping to see that old woman playing her annual witch role here. I used to enjoy it so much.”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s my mom. She loved doing that.”
“Oh,” I said, “so you’re her son, and you live in Japan.”
“Yes, that’s right, how did you know that?”
“Your mom told me that last year.”
“Oh, yes, her last year playing the witch. She wanted to hold on to do it one more time, offer everyone the boiled baby meat that no one ever ate, but she passed away three days ago. It was cancer. I flew back to pack up her things and put the house up for sale.”
I decided to test my theory. “It’s too bad that your sister couldn’t carry on the tradition,” I said.
“My sister?” he said. “Sorry, but I don’t have a sister. I’m an only child.”
I tell you, even compared to when I was so young that the witch woman scared me out of my pants, I was never so scared as I was when her son said this to me.
“I just have to say,” I said, “that I was sure there was a younger woman who played the witch role two years ago. Wasn’t there?”
He laughed. “Yeah, no, there’s no way on earth that my mom wouldn’t be the witch herself. Not while she was alive. She owned that role.”
I stopped my night run abruptly and walked home. I have absolutely no idea what had been going on with this whole deal, and I kid you not, it scared me nearly as much as the old witch had scared me when I was five.