He started showing up on Halloween in the year 1955 when Pearl’s twin baby girls were only a year old and the house the little family shared was brand new. In deep anticipation for the first Halloween with babies and a new house, Pearl decorated the front porch − two jack-o-lanterns, a handmade miniature scarecrow along with a stalk of autumn corn hanging over the porch light. Then she waited impatiently for trick-or-treaters. As she sat she laughed to herself thinking this was about the first time she had relaxed for many months. She and her husband Jack had been quite busy, what with the babies and a new house. Why they hadn’t even kept up on what was going on in the world. We need to renew our newspaper subscription again, Pearl thought to herself. But first things first, Halloween is here!
She loved any holiday, parade, or party. Pearl lived life to the fullest as is often the case with someone that takes what should be serious – well, seriously − but pooh-poohs life’s lesser annoyances. She was a willing joiner in hilarity, celebrations, and feasts. Pearl was one to make merry and make sure everyone around her was making merry, too.
While she was hanging the cornstalk, Pearl’s husband Jack was inside hollering from the kitchen begging her to come on and eat her dinner. She told Jack to go ahead and eat – that she was going to be busy handing out candy to the goblins and witches outside. She also told him to listen for the babies’ cries just in case they woke, what with all the scurrying noises on the porch and shouts of trick-or-treat that she knew would soon prevail.
A few hours later, Pearl realized she must have passed out hundreds of pieces of candy and heard ‘trick or treat’ just as many times. She hadn’t even had much time to sit on the porch swing. Finally, the last of the costumed masses had come and gone making her think that she could probably call it a night. As she leaned over to blow out the candle in the second jack-o-lantern she heard footsteps approaching the porch from their sidewalk. Glancing up she became aware of a dark figure advancing toward her door.
With the porch light illuminating the figure she began to notice that the masked shape was much taller than her usual Halloween visitor. Her heart started beating faster. Squinting, she tried hard to figure out his costume. She realized that the figure was that of a young man. Looking further she saw that he wasn’t wearing a costume at all. The only item that would give him away as a trick-or-treater was the mask. He wore jeans that were popular for the time; Levi’s – yes that’s what they were – rolled at the cuff. She noted his white t-shirt and some type of heavy necklace that he wore under a black leather jacket, the epitome of taste for a young boy that year. His hair was dark and had that rolled jellied sleek shiny large curl at the top; – a pompadour? Is that what they call it?
Pearl almost laughed out loud at her questioning thoughts. She knew she should be slightly afraid, out on the porch alone in the dark with a stranger that was taller than she, but for some reason he didn’t scare her. It was the mask – a Howdy Doody mask that boasted a huge grin from ear to ear. To others the stranger might have looked down right eerie, but to her he looked comical and somehow endearing.
As she gathered herself and straightened up away from the jack-o-lantern, the stranger held out a white pillowcase and said trick-or-treat. She had run out of candy. As she ran into the house to find something to give him she glanced at the pecan bowl just inside the living room. Jack always had pecans to crack and eat as he watched television. She turned back to the screen door and hollered through it at the stranger to wait a minute, she would be right back. Pearl grabbed huge handfuls of pecans and carried them in her apron. Opening the screen door was difficult with her hands clutching the bounty held in her apron. As she walked out onto the porch she said out loud “here ya go!” to the night air. The stranger had left. She ran down into the front yard and looked both ways down the street, but he was gone.
Halloween passed that year as did Thanksgiving and Christmas. The babies grew and became those little monsters everyone describes as toddlers in the throes of the terrible twos. Summer months were spent at the town swimming pool. Pearl became acquainted with the other mothers and picked up bridge playing. Summer melted into fall and soon it was time to bring out the jack-o-lanterns onto the porch again.
Pearl hadn’t forgotten about her strange visitor of last Halloween. She had told Jack about him in great detail. So, as the leaves started turning she began to wonder if he might reappear. She really didn’t think he would, that he was probably now pretty busy with girls and sports and whatnot, but all the same she was hoping that he might just surprise her.
Again, Jack ate dinner without her as she was too engrossed in handing out Halloween candy. The babies were asleep after going earlier with their father to only a few of the neighbors’ houses. Pearl handed out even more candy than last year and was pretty tired when the last of the trick-or-treaters were gone. Two-year-old twins can wear a person down, she thought. She opened the door to take her candy bowl in and heard footsteps. Turning around she saw the boy. He was dressed the same as last year; jeans, white t-shirt with dangly large chain necklace, leather jacket. His hair still had that rolled pompadour. And he wore the Howdy Doody mask.
She smiled at him as he stuck his pillow case out at the same time he uttered ‘trick-or-treat.’ I have something for you – don’t go away, she told him. She ran in to get Jack. Relaxing in his recliner, his hand in a bowl of popcorn, he glanced up as Pearl rushed in blocking the lit scene on the television and casting a shadow across his face. She couldn’t believe it, she told him, but Howdy Doody is back. Come see. She grabbed the pecans she had stashed in the kitchen just for the occasion and ran out to the porch.
He wasn’t there, but she saw him heading down the house’s sidewalk towards the street. She pointed at him in a nervous fester while glancing back at Jack. Jack shrugged telling her he didn’t see anything. She ran down the porch steps looking again in either direction. But he was gone.
The next year she was prepared. Jack and the girls were tuckered, the girls in bed and Jack again in his recliner watching television. All the trick-or-treaters had gone home but she sat on the porch swing waiting. Just when she decided that it was getting too late she heard footsteps coming up the steps. There he was, Howdy Doody mask in place, pillow case stretched out in bidding hands. Trick-or-treat, he said. Here ya go, Pearl told him and gave him pecans that she had wrapped up in cellophane. I think you will like these, she told him. They are my husband’s favorite treat, and as a young man you might want a little more than chocolate. He thanked her and left, walking down their sidewalk and on to the street. She started to yell at Jack but knew that it would be hopeless. Her trick-or-treater would be gone by the time he woke up enough to come out on the porch and look.
The years rolled by. Jack’s hair thinned. Pearl found a part-time job at the local library. The twins became involved in school activities, went on dates, and volunteered at the local pet shelter. The children of the neighborhood were growing up. The sound of cars honking and car radios blaring replaced the sound of children playing. Pearl didn’t buy as much Halloween candy as she used to because of the small amount of trick-or-treaters. But Howdy Doody didn’t miss his annual visit. After the last of the trick-or-treaters had filled their plastic pumpkins up with candy he came.
Pearl learned to always have some pecans at the ready on the porch for him so that he wouldn’t leave before he got his treat. To contain the pecans, she would use plastic wrap at first, then sandwich bags tied with orange ribbon. She didn’t dare go in the house or leave knowing that he would be gone. The seasons came and went and with them years of Halloween trick-or-treaters. Each year at the end of the night, after all the Spider Men, Wonder Women, and later vampires and zombies had gotten their fair share of candy, Howdy Doody would show up.
She grew accustomed to the fact that no one else saw him, not Jack or later, her daughters. A few times when he visited he would be right up on the porch standing right there next to Pearl but they couldn’t see him. She would drop the bag of pecans in his sack but the girls or Jack would tell her it only looked like she might have dropped them in her pockets for all they knew. She would pat her pockets and anywhere else she could have hidden them to demonstrate the treats couldn’t possibly be anywhere else but in the stranger’s sack. Jack or the girls never believed her. She even asked her bridge club (since they were also her neighbors) if they ever had a teenage boy sporting a Howdy Doody mask trick-or-treat at their houses. They always told her no as they glanced at her with questioning eyes.
She stopped speaking of him since her family would just stare at her like she was as nutty as the pecans. But with great anticipation she waited each Halloween for him to show and smiled with delight when she heard his steps mount her stairs. The routine was always the same – he would utter the words ‘trick or treat,’ stand leaning from one foot to the other as Pearl gave him the pecans, say thanks, then run down the steps. The first few years Pearl tried to get him to talk. She would ask him who he was or even desperately on one of his later visits she asked how he managed to always look the same even after ten years had passed. He would look at her through the mask and then dash down the porch stairs. Pearl tried to follow him more than once, but as he left her yard he would somehow disappear. She gave up on that, too.
As time passed the girls each were married, one not soon after college, the other a little later. They both had babies and settled with their families in Pearl’s town. Pearl made sure that the grandbabies visited often. But on Halloween, she would ooh and aah over their costumes then shoo them on home after a while so that she could get her pecans ready for her visitor.
As the grandbabies grew and Jack retired Pearl decided the two of them would travel. Again, no matter how far from home they went, they were always back for Halloween. It wouldn’t seem right not to be there to hand out candy. Their neighborhood had changed again bringing young families and many trick-or-treaters. Pearl grew tired easier than in the past but that didn’t stop her from waiting for her visitor. And as always she had to wait until after the last trick-or-treater showed.
Jack passed away. Pearl couldn’t leave their house, it wouldn’t feel right. So, five times since Jack died she alone gave out candy on Halloween and five times she gave bags of pecans to Howdy Doody.
At 94 years old Pearl’s daughters became adamant that at her age she had to come live with them – they would take turns having her year by year. Until I die, Pearl thought to herself staring at the ‘For Sale’ sign puncturing her yard outside on her last Halloween at the old house. Oh well, Pearl thought, the grandchildren are grown and have families of their own – maybe it will be good for all of us.
The doorbell rang and Pearl cautiously handed out candy from her bowl simultaneously leaning on her now dependent cane. She smiled at each tiny face as she doted and admired the costumes and the regalia. As the sunlight faded and darkness began, the trick-or-treaters started to dwindle until after many minutes she knew they were done.
She sat on her old porch swing holding the bag of pecans and peered out into the night. After what seemed like a long time she heard footsteps and saw the broad smile sitting perched at the top of a black leather jacketed figure. Howdy Doody climbed the stairs with ease as always. He pocketed the bag of pecans as Pearl handed them to him smiling, tears in her eyes.
He took them saying his usual thank you then glanced out into the yard. He turned back toward her fishing in his jean pocket. I have something to give you, he said as he slipped something in her worn gnarled hand. Happy Halloween he said then turned and walked down the stairs, out into the yard, and faded as he entered the street.
Over the next four years Pearl alternated between daughters’ houses, one year here the next year there. As her body began to decline and related aches and pains took over she would think about how grateful she was for all the years she had. Over and over she validated her life. She was grateful for the all the time she had with Jack, her daughters and her grandchildren, grateful for her friends, and grateful for her time in her not-so-big house with its welcoming front porch.
After Pearl died the girls gathered her things; jewelry, clothes, mementos – and for the most part either divided them between them or donated or sold them. They kept all the photos of course and her wedding ring. They kept the nutcracker Jack used for his pecans. And they kept another memento; a necklace. They had no idea why but their mother always wore it from the day she moved out of their childhood home.
A few years later the daughters decided to hold a joint Halloween party. One of them volunteered her house for the celebration so on Halloween night party voices, music, and laughter could be heard all over the block. Later, as the partiers began to settle down around the fireplace one of the guests started a ghost story. Before too long others were telling theirs; the usual campfire stories – creepy dolls, things heard in the night at their grandparents’ farm, séance tales.
When all tales were exhausted, the partiers sat in silence. Because it was so quiet and no one seemed to want to leave yet, one of the daughters decided to tell the story of Pearl and Howdy Doody to their guests. She told them that neither she nor her sister could see him (as her sister nodded her head in agreement). She told them that her mother would give the trick-or-treater a treat –always a bag of pecans.
After the daughter was finished with her story, one of the guests remarked that he remembered seeing an article a long time ago about a boy in a Howdy Doody mask. He quickly got out his phone and started searching. As he did the sister not telling the story (the one that lived in the house of the party) disappeared into the other room.
The guest found the article and started paraphrasing it out loud to the others. He related to them that the article was from the local newspaper, dated Halloween 1955. An entire family died in a car accident on Halloween night as they were coming home from a party. One of the sons and the daughter were asleep and never woke up.
As the story unfolded, their older brother had decided to drive home. He realized that his mom and dad were just a little too tipsy and although he hadn’t been driving long he was probably the most equipped to operate a vehicle in that particular situation. As they rounded the curve that brought them to their own street a car headed the opposite direction swerved only for a moment. The young driver panicked and ran off the road into a long ravine. Rolling several times the car landed upright. The ambulance driver and police officer on the scene later described the family looking as if they were on a nice car ride, “all sitting upright and dead.”
Everyone grew quiet. The other sister came into the room. She was holding something in her hand. This was our mother’s, the sister said. She wore it all the time for the last few years before she died. She started wearing it about the time she moved from our childhood home. She said they moved her the day after Halloween and both she and her sister always wondered if her wearing it had something to do with her Halloween visitor. The sister dangled a necklace from her hand. The necklace had an Irish Celtic cross on it – attached above the cross was a large bead of amethyst.
As everyone examined the necklace the original guest searched his phone again and said there’s a picture of the accident here. If I zoom in I can see the driver of the car, his mask, his hair…and there… can you see it? He asked the guest sitting next to him who first put on her glasses then gasped. What is it? The sisters asked as everyone waited. The phone was passed to the sisters as they grabbed it and looked. They saw a photo of the wreck with the caption below quoting the officer “all sitting upright and dead.” Behind the steering wheel sat a figure in a Howdy Doody mask, wearing a t-shirt, jacket, and a necklace – a necklace with an Irish Celtic cross on it – a large amethyst bead gleaming from above.
As the narrator of this Halloween tale I have the privilege of insight. I can tell you, thoughtful reader, for instance, that the young boy’s favorite holiday was Halloween. I can tell you that he loved trick-or-treating but his parents had told him that for this one year they were all going to a party instead. They told him that he was too old to go trick-or-treating, that his sister and brother didn’t like going as much as he did and they wanted to go to the party.
The boy wanted to tell his parents he was sick of growing up. He wanted to tell them that growing up meant he had to do all kinds of things that he didn’t feel ready for – like getting a job and preparing for college and a career, then picking the right girl, having a family. Geez – can’t he have this one night to go back to being a kid before he has to grow up and figure everything out on his own? But his parents were not going to waiver – not this time.
So, getting into the car after the party he decided he should drive. His mom and dad had quite a bit to drink and although it was the 50’s and everybody drove sh-wasted he didn’t want to be that one asshole that so totally had his driver’s license and didn’t go full adult on his parents so that he could prevent the precious Plymouth from becoming involved in some kind of fender bender.
After he explained this to his parents everyone situated themselves in the car. They drove off, his hands on the steering wheel, his dad beside him, mom in the back with his two siblings. Although he decided to keep his mask on for just a little while longer, he was proud of himself. Maybe this was the day that he started acting adult. Maybe he didn’t need to trick-or-treat any longer. Man up – isn’t that what his dad kept telling him? So, okay – I drove the family home, he thought as he came upon the bend in the road. Time to grow up.
And as for Pearl? How did she see Howdy Doody when no one else did? Pearl and Howdy Doody shared an enviable attribute. Few people know what it’s like to have a purely uncontaminated view of the world. Oh, people like Pearl and Howdy Doody can see the horror humankind has brought about – they know injustice and inequality. But they also know clean optimism and unadulterated joy at life. They see things we cynics and skeptics will never visualize. They can see it in a young kid in a Howdy Doody mask just wanting a special indulgence – if only for one night out of the year. Pearl could see it because she lived life that way. Howdy Doody? Well, because he never got the chance.