Betty bellowed, as best she could under the circumstances, for her grandson to answer the door. It was Halloween and they had Trick or Treaters. She pulled her mask, the one she had to put on twice a day to keep her alive, slightly away from her mouth to cough up the phlegm that was being produced by the steady stream of oxygen pumping into her emphysema filled lungs. Jonathon, or Johnny Mike or JM as his grandparents always called him, ran from the middle room, the room where most of the happiest moments of his childhood took place. This room, aptly named for being in the middle of the house, stored the memories of Betty’s fingers stroking his ear, Tod’s tangents while playing Brain Quest, his recuperation from having his wisdom teeth pulled filled with ice cream and laughs, breaks from swimming back when they still had that big blue pool, and countless movie nights where the six of them would cram into this 10×10 that seemed much bigger when he was smaller.
Jonathon and Tod were playing Wii bowling. Once upon a time, Betty was almost a professional bowler. She and Tod played in tournaments, leagues, and Betty taught lessons after school. Marge spent many days of her childhood in and around bowling alleys. And then Betty threw out her back; the surgeries began and the career was over. But Tod and Betty were “Pros” on the Wii, never playing a game with less than seven strikes a piece, and Betty never missing a moment to give some advice to Jonathon on how to throw the ball (wind the arm all the back and twist the wrist at the end of the follow-thru — sometimes yelling at the ball to “get over there!” helps).
Betty was also a video game connoisseur. Back in the 80s, when she was still smoking and still had teeth, his grandmother was a Pac-Man master. Trouble getting to Level 3? Give the remote to Betty. Late at night, from the fold-out couch with that spring that always seemed to find his back, beneath the fuzzy flowered blankets with the polyester rim, the ones from which he and and his younger brother Stephen used to pull lint balls caused from one too many trips through the dryer, Jonathon could count on a series of “Oohhh!”s and “Shut-a-roo!”s, Betty’s version of cussing, to emanate from her back bedroom, the one Stephen and he later slept in 15 years ago when they all lived together while their house was being built (oh, the way he hated Tod would cheerily enter at 7 am, “Rise and Shine like a Hardee’s biscuit!”), letting him know that Grandma was losing at Dungeons and Dragons.
And then the West’s became a Nintendo home. Betty and the grandkids — Jonathon and Stephen’s cousin Scott joining them on the holidays — learned the warps and pipes of Mario’s Third World (the best of the trilogy) with the assistance from the Cheat Guide, then in magazine form before the days of the Internet; this guide had all possible “N” card configurations, allowing them to maximize their arsenal of feathers and plunks, and told them where to net the coveted whistles (watch out for that turtle in 1.3!) to transport them to worlds they would never beat.
Somehow Super Nintendo was skipped in the pantheon of old school gaming systems and Betty went straight from the square gray cartridges, the ones that required a good horizontal blow whenever they acted up, which was often after Jonathon spilled his orange Vess over the gate, to the smaller black rectangles of the N64. Mario in 3D? Amazing. Yet frustrating. Jonathon, never one to take failure with a grain of salt, could be heard screaming, “Aargh!”s and “Shit!”s, the beginnings of his version of cussing that would only escalate through the years, from the Middle Room or Stephen’s bedroom overlooking the Saia’s backyard where they also had an N64, courtesy of Tod and Betty West. (Their grandparents also supplied Jonathon with his two favorite non-Mario related video games: Bugs Bunny’s Hidden Castle, the game with which his first boyfriend, Luis, tried to woo him back — “I found it for you to play online!” — that night it was most definitely over; and Booger Man, a game in where the hero farts, burps, and flicks his boogers to victory, a game almost tailor made for the Saia clan.
Whereas Mario 3 was Betty’s domain, Mario 64 was Stephen’s. After the inevitable “Goddamnit!” and the violent shake of the controller as if it were someone’s throat, Stephen would be called for, screamed for, throughout their large two-story house to take care of business. He would sweep in like a vigilante, smirking at his older brother’s petulance and dominate the seemingly insurmountable Bowser with the aplomb of a pro.
“Oh, that’s how…I almost had that. He totally should have died that last time. This shit is rigged!” Jonathon would profess in a one part defensive, one part Watch Me Laugh Away My Anger cadence. Stephen would mumble his placating “mhm” with a hint of sarcasm and return to the trampoline to perfect his back flip.
Tod struggled up from his seat, the one that was like a fold-up wheelchair. His arms shook as if bench pressing a car, his hands clenched in a death grip to its handles. Sometimes he would get stuck half way. Embarrassed, beaten down, and seemingly ready to tell God, “It’s time,” Tod would whisper to his grandson for help. Jonathon secretly enjoyed this act, this ability to give back. It eased some of the guilt he felt living away for so many years, leaving his parents to deal with the ugly decline of the people they loved. And Tod had been on his way down for years. Heart attack. Lung cancer where they took his entire lung. Then liver cancer where they removed a golf ball sized malignancy. Then the collapses. The broken legs. The fatigue. And the presence of another giant tank in the living room with another maze of black hoses, allowing them to roam the house, even the basement, which Betty knew was off-limits, but seemed to descend any chance she got for the attention it would garner when she huffed and puffed for the following twenty minutes. Jonathon called these machines R2D2.
“Just a second!” Jonathon let go of his grandfather’s arms with caution, like a parent letting go of their kid’s bicycle, hoping they won’t crash. “You OK?”
“Yeah.” Breathy and relieved, ready to fight another day.
Jonathon weaved his way through the hoses, kicking them to the side to protect his grandparents, and dashed to the kitchen table. He reached in the gallon Ziplock filled with Lay’s potato chips and stuffed a small handful in his mouth. He wondered why Lays, so simple, could taste better than most other chips on the market. Is it the salt? No. All chips have salt. This is what gives them their addictive quality, their ability to trick you into eating an entire bag, giving credence to Pringles’ slogan. Is it the oil? Perhaps. But it is so ordinary! Jonathon savored the bites, imagining they were infused with vinegar, his favorite of the line, before grabbing the box of king-sized Three Musketeers. Betty was deep into her seventh game of Solitaire.
“Is he alright?” Betty’s eyes, dark and tired, filled with worry for the clear love of her life. Jonathon nodded through his potato chip mouth and headed for the door.
Batman stuck out his plastic pumpkin, demanding and silent. His parents had obviously not schooled him.
“What do you say?” Jonathon waited for the response he had been taught, the response the whole world had been taught, those three words that practically defined Halloween. Batman’s father nudged his 3rd grader to say it, not out of fun or the spirit of the holiday, but out of obligation and haste. Just say it so the man will give you your candy.
His “Trick or Treat” was pitiful. As if he had never said it. As if this Give Me My Candy Routine had worked on everyone else. Apparently it had. But not on Jonathon. Not on this most sacred of days. On Halloween, people must play by the rules.
Jonathon anticipated Halloween more than any other day of the year. The mystery! The make-believe! The candy! Coupled with his birthday and the changing of the leaves, that autumn MidWestern breeze, October was easily Jonathon’s favorite month.
Richard and Marge had lit the pilot light of his Halloween bon fire of passion. Costumes were planned weeks in advance, running the traditional gamut of spook, Dracula, and Wicked Witch of the West to the more “button-pushing” attire of Catholic school girl, Catholic priest, and Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
Marge was a master decorator and knew her son appreciated the flavors of the fall. Labor Day’s sun would barely have set and the giant Tupperware containers were lugged up from the basement and its contents sprawled out on the living room rug. The banisters grew a vine of orange and forest green leaves. The yard became a graveyard. The doorbell changed to a cycle of tunes, sometimes “Monster Mash,” sometimes Beethoven’s 5th, sometimes the theme song from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
When the big day finally came, Richard and Marge would take turns passing out candy and taking their sons throughout the neighborhood. Passive dolers of candy they were not. The one who bestowed the treats didn’t shy away from getting into the spirit with a costume. Marge was known to portray the Cowardly Lion or don a pumpkin frock; Richard sometimes was a shower. Not a man in the shower, but the shower itself. Jonathon’s favorite costume, and a typical example of his father’s style, was when he would dress up as Dracula. Richard would sit on the front porch in a chair with a basket of candy in his lap. His eyes closed, unmoving and silent, Richard would wait for just the right moment, hand mid-reach for the Butterfinger, before opening his eyes and croaking, “Good Evening.” The Saias gave you tricks and treats.
But of course they did. Richard’s family was known for being festive. On Memorial Day, the gang would all meet at Tom and Shirley’s for rousing games of badminton and near death experiences on the tire that hung from their tree. Tom would barbecue in the back yard, before the pool took it over, while Shirley and Marge would rustle up pasta salad in the kitchen and fill the room with their intoxicating energy. Marge and Shirley’s chemistry was alluring and dangerous. Anything could happen and usually did. One time during an Easter egg hunt, they accidentally pelted Richard’s youngest sister Jackie with a plastic egg, filled with Hershey’s kisses so the weight of it was palpable. Their response: “Well, if her nose wasn’t so big…!” Jonathon loved moments like these. It saddened him when they fell out of friendship, why remains unclear, and rejoiced for his mother when their dynamic duo was back in business. Jonathon, Stephen, Emily, Amy, and sometimes Kristen would run down to East End Park, play very bad tennis, hang upside down on the monkey bars, and jump in unison (“Get out of my bath tub!”) from the swing set.
Christmas would rotate between four of the five siblings who lived in the area (for some reason the oldest of the three brothers, Jim, never seemed to host holidays). Jonathon liked it best when Christmas was at his house. Marge the Master Decorator decked the banister with lights, the bathroom with snowmen, and trimmed the tree with all of her favorite ornaments made by her kids. Andy Williams, Karen Carpenter, and the Muppets sang to them throughout the season. When the big day finally arrived, hopefully with a fresh layer of snow, the Saias would sit around the giant tree with its mounds of presents — before the days when they adopted the Right Family tradition of five dollar generic gifts — and watch whoever was wearing the hats (the ones that said “I Believe in Santa Claus”) pass them out (and watch Rita, their matriarch take ten minutes to open one gift and then fold up the wrapping paper, saving it for next year, while versions of “Don’t forget to save the tape!” were shouted as if in a round).
Jackie the Egg Lady — not to be confused with Julie the Pig Lady, one of Richard’s California sisters — had the annual Halloween party the Saturday before so the kids could still partake in trick or treating. The hallway leading to their front door was laced with spiderwebs or filled with fog. Her husband, Mark, 6’4″ and stoic, would wait for the bone-chilling scream that served as their doorbell for the night to answer it with his Lurch style theatrical flare. As they arrived, the kids would join Mark in his quest to scare the other partygoers, the latecomers, the ones who did not understand the magic. Once everyone was in and properly spooked, the pictures for the scrapbook were taken, and the costumes received their necessary attention, the party would shift into a Saia Family Gathering like any other: The Oodler was thrown. The Pit bell rang. Dirt cake was devoured. Only tonight it was filled with spider rings and gummy worms.
When Jonathon was about 10, Stephen and he started trick or treating in Tod and Betty’s neighborhood. The giant, barren field at the end of their street had recently been converted into rows of pre-fab homes, filled with children. The pickings were good.
After an hour or two roaming through the parade of Disney princesses and Ghostbusters, the Saias would return to 709 Gawain for a recap of events to Tod and Betty and maybe the end of a scary movie on TV as they ate some of their candy. Richard and Marge were not the worrywarts to x-ray their children’s treats, a free service Anderson Hospital would provide this one night only. They took precautions from razorblades and drugs by only collecting from those they knew. And by the time the new neighborhood and its new adults had sprung from their fallow ground, they had been parents of two kids for a decade. Broken bones. Chickenpox. Kidney stones. The anxiety, the checking to see it they still breathed at night, had passed. For the most part. The glare of heart ache’s threat never leaves a parent completely, only dims enough not to need a machine check if strangers are trying to kill their offspring.
As the years passed and the novelty of Trick or Treating had subsided, Jonathon began spending his Halloween nights with his grandparents. This was when his pilot light of love for the holiday became a full blown brush fire.
It began with the movies. Betty was primarily a stay at home Mom. Tod’s mother had to work to raise three kids after his father died and he never wanted the fatigue and the burden of the work day to rest on the shoulders of his wife so he would work long hours at whatever factory would have him. Illinois was steel and copper country. Ciro and A&O Smith appeared on paycheck stubs.
Betty was an inventive interior decorator. Tod and Marge tell stories about coming home from work and school and never knowing how the house would look because Betty may have torn down a wall and moved it to the other side of the room. And good luck telling her not to. If Betty could be described in one word, it would be “stubborn”. But when she wasn’t reconstructing the lay-out of the house or making crafts for the fair, Betty was watching movies.
The 1960s brought an influx of movies to television, thanks to the ingenuity of Lew Wasserman and networks needing hours of air time to fill with programming. When Marge was young, she and her mother had movie marathons on Saturdays: Shirley Temple and Abbott and Costello. Marge passed her loved for these onto Jonathon with their own marathons, beginning his obsession and respect for the cinema, particularly Old Hollywood. One Christmas in the 90s, Marge received the entire VHS box set of the Shirley Temple Collection from her parents. This was also the year that Richard and the boys gave her Limited Edition Barbie dolls. When Marge was 13, they lost their home, their trailer on the Mississippi River, in the Great Flood of ’73. These gifts brought her comfort and closure.
Betty’s video collection, and most of them at this point actually were on video, put some rental stores to shame. Catalogued by number, faux-categorized by “genre” (all of the Chuck Norris movies were together on the shelf, all of the Planet of the Apes), Betty allowed her patrons, of which Jonathon and Marge were her only two regular customers, to flip through the “books,” handwritten sheets of loose leaf stuffed in binder sleeves in two three ring binders, in order to find the appropriate film for the night. Betty’s collection was so expansive, eventually reaching over 1000 movies once DVDs came in to the picture, that she ended up with duplicates, forgetting what she already owned while rummaging through the $5 movie rack at Wal-Mart. Years later, on return trips from New York and Los Angeles, Jonathon would discover the repeats in the collection and as a reward for being a loyal customer and an amazing grandson, Betty would release them to him, free of charge. This made Jonathon very happy.
Movies were also a huge part of sleep-overs. The boys watched many unconventional things on these evenings with their grandparents: musicals, Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks, and if they stayed on a Saturday, a double header of Jerry Springer and American Gladiators. But horror films were the most consistent and Jonathon’s favorite. Unlike many parents, Richard and Marge trusted their kids’ maturity and intelligence that it was all make believe when it came to the movies. They had started watching Rated R movies at very young ages, catching the tail end of Friday the 13th Part 3 on television with their Dad when Jonathon was 10 and Stephen was 8. Jonathon and Marge watched The Exorcist together when he was 14. (“As long as we watch it during the day,” she qualified.) Action flicks with F bombs like Passenger 57 and Speed were heavy in the rotation during sleepovers. But horror movies were planned events. Betty would take Jonathon and Stephen to Di’s Movie Company, the local video store in a large shoddy building next to what eventually became the KFC, to see what she had in the ways of terror. Chucky. Jason. Freddy. Stephen King. Leatherface. They watched them all, curled up on the couch in Grandma’s arms or as background during a game of Scrabble. But no horror film was more powerful or filled Jonathon with more rewarding joy than Halloween.
Maybe it was the music, that pulsating piano warning you of impending doom. Maybe it was that opening shot, the one Jonathon learned years later when he began studying film history was lifted from the opening sequence of Welles’ Touch of Evil. Maybe it was the dialogue, that mix of melodramatic prophecy and “totally” hilarious high school foolishness. No. It was none of these things. It was the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis.
As a child, Jonathon could not discern her amazingness. It wasn’t as obvious as, say, Judy Garland, quite possibly the greatest entertainer the world has ever known. Jamie Lee’s greatness sneaks up on the viewer, like the surprising power an ex-lover may yield when they contact you out of the blue. Curtis, daughter of superstar actors Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) made her debut in the industry’s first “slasher” film, heralding a wave of imitations by Sean Cunningham, Wes Craven, Eli Roth, and countless others. Jamie Lee became known as the “Scream Queen,” appearing in Halloween knockoffs like Prom Night and Terror Train. Halloween was a run-away success and became one of the most profitable films of all time, spawning sub-par sequels — Halloween: Resurrection stands as the worst movie going experience of Jonathon’s life, filled with cell phones ringing, patrons talking, and Tyra Banks trying to act — and revamps by Rob Zombie — films he has never seen on principle out of love and respect for the original. John Carpenter himself never made another film as impactful or consistently good as this tale of a psychopath, “with the blackest eyes…the Devil’s eyes” killing babysitters.
Jamie Lee, like Carrie Fisher, another progeny of Hollywood royalty, dismisses her talent and takes the whole fame thing in stride (Why else would she do yogurt commercials boasting that her bowels are regular?). Jamie Lee, unlike Carrie Fisher, doesn’t rely on her parents for material or inspiration or career projection — although if her mother was Debbie Singin’ in the Rain Reynolds, a character too unbelievable to invent, and her father was an alcoholic ex-singer who abandoned them for Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps she would. Curtis claims her greatest performance was in True Lies, one of James Cameron’s epic action films in where she plays Ahnuld’s mousy housewife. And yes, Jonathon would agree; Ms. Curtis gives a very strong performance, full of humor, insecurity, and brazen sexuality (the striptease alone is a balancing act of tone not many actresses could achieve). However, Jonathon has always felt and will preach to anyone who cares to listen or anyone who even mentions the name Jamie Lee Curtis that she proved her prowess as a dramatic actress in Mother Boys (1994), a thriller in where she plays a sociopath trying to take back the family she once deserted; and turned in her greatest work in Freaky Friday (2003), a remake of the Jodie Foster flick from the ’70s in where a fortune cookie makes her switch bodies with her daughter, played by a pre-drug, pre-DUI Lindsay Lohan. Jamie Lee is equally believable in both mother and daughter roles, adopting the teenage body language of shoulder slumps and eye rolls, and the sarcastic inflections of a girl at war with the world. Jonathon would especially want viewers to notice the last scene at the engagement part, where Curtis as Lohan confesses to Lohan as Curtis what the impending marriage and her “daughter” means to her. One could make the case that this scene is the strongest work Ms. Curtis has ever committed to celluloid. The pundits, with their predictions and wishful thinking, included Jamie Lee on some of their short lists of potential Oscar nominees for Best Actress. But it was not meant to be. A few months later at a Barnes & Noble signing for her latest children’s book, while wearing his Halloween t-shirt, walking away with elation from a photo-op, the one that never was supposed to happen, but his love and enthusiasm for Jamie Lee Curtis, the Jamie Lee Curtis, had obviously shown through, Jonathon turned about to her — after he and Blake, his fellow film enthusiast friend from AMDA whom everyone thought was a slut but really wasn’t, after they embarrassed themselves with the babblings of fandom, netting ironic gazes from the Jamie Lee Curtis, the ones she gave after calling them “those people,” to which Jonathon responded, “Whatever do you mean, Jamie?” to which she countered, “You know exactly what I mean!” — and shouted for all to hear, “I just want you to know. You were SNUBBED for an Oscar nomination for Freaky Friday!” Jamie Lee Curtis, the Jamie Lee Curtis, looking flattered and wondering if she needed to call security, thanked them from afar with a wave as they descended the escalator in jubilation.
Despite her consistently interesting body of work, lest we forget Drowning Mona (2000) and the 1989 Kathryn Bigelow cop drama, Blue Steel, it was Halloween that brought him back to Jamie Lee year after year. While some people looked forward to annual showings of The Ten Commandments or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Jonathon and Betty tuned into a marathon of Haddonfield murders, even the underrated Season of the Witch, which had nothing to do with the trials of Laurie Strode and her adopted brother. He would gorge himself on 5th Avenue bars, his favorite (That crispy peanut butter! That milky chocolate!), sleeves of Saltines, housed in that vintage tin on the Lazy Susan, half a jar of the bulk sized Jif, and cans of the Nintendo staining Vess. The three of them would order KFC, play Canasta, and spread the holiday cheer with every Reese’s given.
Jonathon’s tradition did not end when he left the comforts of Gawain Ave. In fact, he would go to ridiculous lengths to make sure a viewing of Halloween happened no matter where he was. One year in New York, after accidentally leaving his 25th Anniversary DVD — the one Betty bought him on a Wal-Mart sojourn with Marge one time he was home visiting — at the Barnes & Noble that fateful day he chatted with…her!, Jonathon roamed from store to store, panicking that it was 10 pm on Halloween night and not a copy was in sight; until in the 11th hour, he found it for $30 at a Borders in the West Village. Jonathon knew he should have let it go. A few days prior, he had purchased a copy of Courtney Love’s over-priced, over-rated Diaries and knew the responsible thing, the adult thing would have been not to make another frivolous, over-priced (yet underrated) expenditure on the measly paychecks he was collecting from Hershey’s Times Square, but this was Halloween. This was tradition. And memories. And Betty. Somethings were more important than money. However, within ten minutes of pushing play, before Jamie Lee inexplicably sings, “I wish I had you all alone…just the two of us…,” Jonathon was asleep. It was the principle that mattered.
Batman and his father bounded from the front porch, now thanks to Richard’s undying aide to his in-laws and reciprocal love for his spouse equipped with a concrete ramp and industrial strength chrome handrail to prevent Tod from having another spill, and ran to the next house to stick out his pumpkin in silence. Jonathon allowed the screen door to slam.
“Jesus. What is the deal? These kids just don’t get it!” Betty turned off her noisy machine, removed the tubes from her nose, and took a giant swig from her plastic blue water jug.
“What honey?” Betty grabbed a Chips Ahoy from its gallon sized Ziplock and popped it in her mouth. Jonathon wondered how being toothless never impeded her carnivorous junk food ways. He loved the noises she made through her gums, the way she used to smack them to get the dogs attention, the way she whistled as if it helped her win her card games; Jonathon and Marge loved to imitate these noises whenever they would speak tenderly of her mother.
“Trick or Treating is just not the same.” It had been ten years since he had been out there in the trenches. When he was 18, dressed as a vampire, Jonathon went door to door, all smiles, with his plastic pumpkin, collecting candy; the looks from the strangers made him feel ironic, nostalgic, and utterly awesome. The last time he had dressed up was four years prior, as a priest. Jonathon had coincided his annual visit with Halloween so he could relive the glory days with his grandparents. This was also the last time Betty wore a costume, that black robe and mask from the Scream movies, before her breathing problems escalated to the point of no return. Jonathon’s visit this time around was ostensibly for his other grandfather Jim, the one with whom he shares a birthday, and his 90th Bash. But he stayed an extra two days to pass out candy and maximize his visit with his favorite people, the ones he doesn’t call as often as he should, the ones he fears every time he sees them that it will be his last.
“JM. When I was your age, we used to get handmade balls of popcorn.” Tod had made his way into the living room. He slowly lowered himself into the chair next to his wife of 60 years. Jonathon watched from a safe distance, ready at a moment’s notice to intervene if necessary. Tod sighed. Betty gave a quick three taps on his hand. You made it. And I love you. “But now you can’t do that,” Tod announced in his I’m an Old Man Who Thinks this Modern World is a Little Too Crazy tenor.
Jonathon matched his grandfather’s sarcasm: “But of course. The razorblades! God, did that ever really happen? I mean, who is that stupid.”
“More people than you think.”
Jonathon lived for these interchanges, these conversations where he learned pieces of the past, where he and his favorite man were actually simpatico with their views. Politically diametrical, Betty hated when they talked government and religion. She thought discourse meant anger. Betty’s style was silence; Tod loved a healthy debate, something he passed onto his eldest grandson. But on this candy thing, this blatant disrespect for tradition, a tradition began, as Tod had told him some previous Halloween, to keep kids out of harms way, they were in complete agreement.
“You know, we got Drumsticks in the freezer,” Betty interjected. His grandmother would throw in these rogue comments as a way to pull him back to her, to win Jonathon’s attention and revel in every fleeting moment with her favorite grandson on their special day before he would leave her again in tears to return to his real life.
“Cool. Thanks. It’s my turn, isn’t it?”
Tod sighed. “I think I’m done for the evening. I’m pretty tuckered out.”
“Whatever. I’ll be back at Christmas.” Jonathon stood from the table, passing the pumpkin he and Tod had carved earlier in the day, and walked to the freezer. Below the rows of red plastic cups filled with ice they would use for their water jugs, below the who knows how old taquitos and mini tacos, Jonathon grabbed a Drumstick. How can I make this night last forever? He returned to the table just in time to see Betty win her game, Tod close his eyes for a moment of peace, and Jamie Lee run from house to house, screaming for help.