Monday, November 13, 2006

Having Reservations

This October, I made the 200-mile drive from Chicago to my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. I drove past mile after mile of scrubby fields newly shorn of the summer’s corn crop, dilapidated red barns in need of more than a few licks of paint and dulled-grey metal grain silos. Over the years, I’ve probably driven this route more than 100 times. I know the curves in the road and the special hiding places the state troopers like to frequent, just looking for a city slicker speeder like me. I’ve calculated the distance down to the minutes and the mile. Dixon marks the halfway point, 90 minutes left to go. Turning off the toll-way leaves about 42 miles still to cover.

Now, my hometown may be like many in the Midwest. It has some historical claims to fame; Carl Sandberg was born there, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place there and it was the home of the man who conceived that fairground favorite, the Ferris Wheel. And in the not so distant history of my childhood, it was a hive of industry. No less than three railroads crisscrossed its streets at one time and ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, lawnmowers and assorted car parts where made there.
On Saturdays, the Main street and later in the early ‘70s the newly-build Sandberg Mall would bustle with activity. It wasn’t unusual to bump into a friend, a neighbor or even your less-than-favorite third-grade teacher while making your weekly shopping rounds.

But today each time I go back, the town seems quieter and more run-down. And the bustle is definitely gone: only ghosts walk the sidewalks of Main Street now.

Much of the industry, except the railroad, has moved production south of the border leaving lots of folks unemployed or underemployed. You can see it in the shuttered businesses and the empty lots that once held homes that were subsequently condemned due to disrepair or abandonment and torn down. Lake Lawn the private tennis and pool club that we could never afford to join when I was young is now owned by the city and its once green and guarded confines can be enjoyed by all.
Even the swanky neighborhoods seem to have far less swank. The houses now go for prices that even I could afford and still have some change left over if I was to sell my less-than-palatial city abode.

The fact of the matter is, Galesburg has become a little grim. Well on its way to becoming a ghost town. It wouldn’t be out of place to see a billboard along Main Street proclaiming “Last one out of Galesburg, please turn off the lights!” But no matter how many trips I make, there’s always one place I have to go in town. One place that’s unchanging and feels like home. The Landmark.

Right smack in the middle of historic Seminary Street, it’s the best place to eat in town. I’ve been a frequent customer since the place first opened back in the '70s. And almost thirty years later, not much has changed (even after a fire in the ‘90s).
The menu is still printed on the same stiff, ecru paper that I remember, the painted tin ceiling still makes it seem twice as populated as it usually is and Phil, the maitre’d, is still the guy who greets you at the door. And best of all, my favorite menu offering is served up every day: Spinach Bisque.

Every time I go through the door, I’ve never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a table and every visit reminds me of all the ones I’ve made before. I only have to look at the table in the corner by the mirrored coat rack to see myself at nineteen seated with my mother. I’m wearing the red Pendleton sweater I got for ten-cents at my college town’s thrift store and my hair is cut short at a rather punkish and jaunty angle. And we’re drinking coffee, waiting for our cups of Bisque and sandwiches to come along and we’re laughing. About what, I don’t remember. . .I just remember that we’re laughing.

Over nearer the large plate glass front window, I see an even younger me—maybe fifteen--sitting with mom again and her best friend Liz and her son Marc. We’re all eating Bisque (after all, what else is there?) and gossiping. And it’s easily apparent that I have a raging crush on Marc, because everything he says is just plain hilarious.

And so after my three-hour drive into town, I was more than happy to find myself joined by my best friend and her three children opening the door to the Landmark to get some much-needed lunch. “Table for five.” I said to Phil, smiling in my “remember me? I used to come here all the time” kind of way.

Phil looked up at me slightly sternly, as if he’d never seen me before, and replied, “And that that would be under?”

“Under?” I thought to myself, my mouth falling open in astonishment. “Uh, do you need a reservation? I didn’t make a reservation,” I mumbled, clearly taken off guard by this apparent change of protocol.

“Today, yes,” Phil replied brusquely. “It’s homecoming weekend.”

How ironic that my own homecoming now necessitated the need for RESERVATIONS! And I had none. “How long is the wait?” I asked still somewhat in disbelief that I was not going to be momentarily ushered to a cozy table for five.

“About an hour,” Phil replied. “Maybe more.”

“Never mind,” I said turning from Phil back to my friend and her three children and motioning them towards the door.
“Let’s go to Steak and Shake,” I said as we made our way back to my Chevy and piled in. But still, I was somewhat shell-shocked. I’ve made so many trips back to Galesburg and never before had I not been able to get a table at The Landmark.
Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again. So much of the town had begun to feel different to me. So much of it changed. Friendly faces gone. My childhood home now occupied by a new family who keep the shades tightly drawn, never letting in the sun or curious glances from previous residents.

And now I couldn’t even get into The Landmark. Surely, this town no longer had a place for me. But that evening after a rousing wrestling match with my young godchildren, I was still thinking about The Landmark. “Maybe I could call and make a reservation for lunch tomorrow,” I said to my friend Jo, still partially in disbelief that such forethought and planning was even necessary.

“I’ll do it,” Jo replied, reaching up to grab the slim phonebook from the top of her refrigerator.

The following day arrived dreary and overcast. After a morning of pancakes, coffee and the busy chatter of the children, we again piled into the car to go to The Landmark. This time, with trepidation. Would our reservation have been recorded properly? Would there be a problem that would prevent our entry?

Again we came through the front door and Phil sat sentry at his usual spot. But this time, I was ready. “Reservation for Sumner for 12:30,” I said rather formally half expecting Phil’s brow to crease with anxiety.

But instead he stepped from behind his table and ushered us in with a smile saying “Right this way. We have your table all ready for you.”

And I followed him happily thinking this is how it should be. I’d begun to have serious doubts about my place in Galesburg. I lived here for ten years growing up, but with each return visit it seemed to become more and more foreign to me. Not getting that coveted table at The Landmark seemed to be the last straw. But as I sat enjoying my delicious bowl of Spinach Bisque I did feel like I was back home again. My former selves were still seated in memory all around me and all seemed right with the world.

As we rose to leave, I stopped at Phil’s counter to pay the bill. “Was everything ok?” he asked in his usual manner.

“Great,” I replied smiling in his direction, my annoyance of the previous day now dissipated as I signed the credit card slip and handed it back to Phil.

He took it from my hand and as I turned to leave he added, “It’s good seeing you here again.”

With that, any lingering reservations I had about my place at The Landmark also vanished. I exited knowing that no matter how much things changed in my hometown of 34,000, this place would probably always be here. And I’d have a place at the table and a bowl of Bisque just an order away. Just nowadays, I might have to remember to call ahead first.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Last Time

I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the afternoon darkness creeping in, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of things.

Like the last time you saw a certain person or place. . .the last time you did something ordinary only to realize later that its action was suddenly no longer relevant to your evolving existence.

My husband Craze and I talked about it. We agreed, more or less, that while we frequently make big fanfare over what we know to be an official “last time,” it is more often the case that a “last time” goes by unnoticed. Quietly slipping by you. It's only later, when subsequent knowledge spells out the enormity of that overlooked moment, that we strain to remember it. Or more poignantly, we recall it all too clearly—and the present knowledge that we let it pass by makes it sadder still.

I can think of several official “last times,” most governed by a schedule or contract—the last days of high school and college, the last night I slept in my single-girl apartment eighteen floors above Dearborn Street, the last day at my “real” job after I resigned.

Each of these “last times” brought their own moment of nostalgia at the recollection of times past. And yet still, they were tinged with a greater sense of expectation. The brightness of the unknown sometimes added a sense of hopefulness and excitement that the next stage along might be even better than the last.

But I remember other “last times,” too.

The last time that I saw my mother she was being carried from the house where I grew up on a stretcher, her slipper falling from her foot to the green, sculptured living room carpet below. I remember picking up the embroidered beige satin slide and thinking that I would have to retrieve the other one at the hospital.

At that moment, I had no way of knowing that she would never wear those slippers again. That she would never be in our house again and that I would never see her face or hear her voice ever again.

And each time I think of that particular “last time,” it is always that silly slipper that still comes to mind—even after more than twenty years.

I remember too the last time I saw Lee on the final day of my sophomore year in college. I recall how it felt as we held each other and kissed in the parking lot of the brown Women’s Spanish House where I lived. And then how I took his keys and threw them onto the grassy lawn in a vain attempt to make him stay, if only a little longer. We laughed together at this, but the keys were all too easily retrieved. Then he got in his parent’s blue Datsun, started the engine and drove away from me all the same, not pausing to look back.

At that moment, he knew this was a “last time,” that he was leaving me for someone else and, he hoped, for some other, brighter future. And as I ran back into the house as quickly as I could, I held back an avalanche of tears. Finally in my room away from prying eyes, I began to sob loudly, my whole being racked with the most profound sadness I had ever felt. I thought I could not bear to be parted from him even for a little while. That I might not actually survive it.

I still remember that pain. How it ripped through me unabated. How it was so hard just to catch my breath. God only knows what I would have done at that moment if I had actually known that he had just left me for good. That this was the “last time” I would ever see him this way—young and beautiful, his black, black hair shining in the sun. So full of the future in front of him and, as I wrongly believed, in love with me.

I guess that’s the thing about “last times,” the ones we ceremoniously mark often blend into the background of our lives. Easily forgotten. Unremarkable in how they make us feel as we recall them—if, in fact, we bother to do so at all.

But the “last times” we overlooked at their happening, hold more emotional weight with their recollection. And even the most incongruous elements, the beige slipper, the blue Datsun and the keys lying in the green grass, only make a particular “last time” truer and harder to put behind you as you face each new day that follows it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Vote for Change

Like good citizens, Craze and I headed out this morning to vote. To say I'm not thrilled with my choice of candidates is truly an understatement. For the first time in my life, I actually voted in a write-in slot. I didn't write in Mickey Mouse or some similar silly protest. Instead, I wrote in the name of someone I thought actually deserved the job and got ripped off in the earlier primaries. Likewise for a major race, I cast my vote for the Green Party. Take that Republicans and Democrats!

I'm sure my efforts will prove fruitless, but maybe if enough people do the same politicians will start paying attention. Like many people, I'm so sick of all the negative, misleading advertising and government officials who are more concerned with keeping their job than doing a good one.

Maybe I'm just super naive, but why do politicians suck so much? Surely this isn't true for all of them. But, I'm so tired of all the rhetoric. All of the words getting so twisted that they end up being just a conceited waste of breath. Supposedly this is the greatest country in the world. We can say it as much as we want, but the words alone don't make it so.

We're fighting an unjustified war. Our valiant men and women are dying every day and we're wasting billions. But it's not making this country safer; it's just giving our enemies more reason to hate us. If the government had really been so concerned about our safety, wouldn't it have been better to spend much of this money on homeland security efforts within our own borders? Or on the border itself for that matter. . .

And don't even get me started on the dismal state of education. All that money could be going to improve our schools and help make sure that we don't continue to lag far behind much of the developed world in terms of educational excellence. Or it could be providing much-needed healthcare for those in need. Or helping the homeless get out of the streets. I often see an old women living on Irving Park Road and I'm sure she doesn't want to be there. In a country of such wealth and power, we should ensure that no one goes hungry or has to sleep on the sidewalk at night.

I'd rather be spending my tax dollars on setting some of these things right, plus helping New Orleans get back on its feet and a concerted effort to stop global warming, versus dropping one more bomb over Baghdad.

Maggie Sumner will be casting her vote for Obama in 2008!

Monday, November 06, 2006

You Say Tomato. . .

I'm a little obsessed with tomatoes recently. And more to the point, about how I can't seem to find one worth eating.

I've tried all kinds--organic, non-organic, plum, hothouse, vine ripened, cherry, grape, heirloom. I've even made attempts over the past three summers to grow my own; first right in my yard and then in large pots on my deck. But no matter what I try, nothing tastes just right. And maybe I'm trying to make them measure up to a memory that seems sweeter and more delicious with each passing year. Those tomatoes from long-ago summers spent far away from here in the home of my elderly British grandparents.

I can still remember so clearly as a child going to Wincott's, the green grocers, in Banbury. Down a winding and darkly cobbled road not far from the ancient marketplace in the town renowned for the nursery rhyme, the shop sat on a corner. Jim, whose family owned the place, always recognized my mother even if it had been years since our last visit. "How are you, luv? All right?" he'd call with a surprised and delighted smile from behind the counter when the tinkling bell announced the arrival of his latest, and quite unexpected, customer.

They would chat for a few moments and catch up. My mother would tell him about my cockney father, Sam. Having been a familiar face on his family’s market stall in Banbury for many years, he was still warmly remembered by the locals. But now he worked far away, back in the States while his family, my mother, brother and I, spent the summer with his in-laws in their tidy brick council house on Woodgreen Avenue. And as Jim and mother continued talking, my brother and I would wander through the shop, so unlike the A&P where we got our groceries in Illinois.

Artfully displayed groupings of the freshest veg lined the wooden display counters. The white cauliflowers were placed in perfect rows, the deep green pods of the delicious broad beans piled high. They were always my favorite. I loved the way the beans turned a purplish grey when cooked. And better still, I loved shucking them. The inside of their pods lined in a kind of lush lime velvet. Rich and sumptuous to the touch and smelling of earth and gentle showers, it seemed a tragic waste to discard such beauty.

And every variety of tomato sat plump and smiling, waiting to be weighed and carefully placed in their brown-bagged packets. Most were grown abroad as the British climate, so adept at growing many things, didn't usually provide adequate sunshine or the warmer temperatures that they preferred. Often, we'd buy the "misshapen tomatoes." My young brother and I would revel in their odd shapes; some like little hearts, others squared off and some like perfect teardrops. Their bright red flesh gave off a matte glow and, though beautiful in their own unique way, they were pence cheaper as they did not meet the expected, round shape of tomato perfection.

We'd pick out our favorite shapes and put them carefully in the paper bag. "About a pound," my mother directed, glancing our way while still chatting with Jim. We'd place the chosen tomatoes onto the well-worn counter for payment along with our other finds. Bunches of heavenly-scented white freesia and robust and glorious burgundy dahlias filled our small arms. Plus a pound or so of scarlet runner beans, wide and so, so long. And finally we added a larger bag of Cox's Orange Pippens, cheerful apples named like some kind of Dickens' character.

A handful of coins was usually all it took in those days before each of the packets found its way into our green string shopping bag. We'd take turns carrying the bag and the flower bunches, carefully wrapped in paper, as the three of us made our way back to the central bus station. There, we’d catch the number 11 back to the Bretch Hill stop and teatime.

Once home, Nana had already laid the table for tea. Pulling out the extra leaf from their heavy and darkly stained '30s kitchen table, she had then covered it with a pale blue and white cotton cloth still smelling of the wash line and the iron. The bone-handled stainless cutlery and Flemish green Spode sat at each place, just as it had every day for the past forty years.

We'd unload our purchases onto the grey Formica kitchen countertop. The scarlet runners went into the pantry awaiting tomorrow's 1 pm dinner. The flowers were artfully arranged in my grandmother's only crystal vase and placed on the top of their upright rosewood piano in the lounge, as they called it. The apples also went to the lounge put into Nana's only other piece of crystal, the deep fruit bowl which took pride of place on the tall, dark Welsh dresser that always smelled of lavender and wood polish. The dresser also served as my grandparent’s not-so-secret hiding place for chocolates and rose-infused Turkish Delight.

Back in the kitchen, the small brown packet of our misshapen treasures was finally torn open to reveal the tender rubies within. Gently washed and dried with a tea towel, they were then placed in a bowl and put on the table. Assorted buttery sandwiches filled another large plate; cucumber and fish paste, hearty white British cheddar with tangy, dark Branston pickle or HP Sauce, smoked ham and tomato with a tiny dab of Colman’s mustard. Each was neatly cut into halves.

Then finally, Nana would take the cake tin from the fragrant pantry and cut slices of that week's cake assortment. Fat, perfect squares of Battenberg, a checkerboard of pink and yellow cake covered in nutty and sticky marzipan. Rich and aromatic slices of dark ginger cake were also added to the serving plate along with the doughy and delicious currant buns. They had been bought that very morning at the front door from the baker paying one of his frequent door-to-door visits, a wicker basket of freshly baked treasures at his elbow.

With everything arranged, the kettle finally whistled and a pot of tea was made. Only then would we sit, my brother and I fidgeting slightly with impatience until my granddad finally joined us at the table after pulling himself away from the cricket match on the telly. We were so eager to dig in and fill our plates with our favorite sandwiches and some of our tomato finds. After a few moments of steeping, mom would pour a little milk and carefully spoon sugar into the delicate cups. She’d fill each teacup halfway and then stop to give the pot a stir before making another round of pouring, finally filling each cup to the rim with the steaming brew. That way no one would end up with a weak cup of tea, which often happened if a cup was filled on the first pouring.

Once we began eating, we all commented on the deliciousness of the oddly shaped tomatoes. Some were small enough to pop in my mouth whole, their tender skins giving way easily, but not too easily, to the pressure of my teeth. The explosion of flavor was one I still remember. They were so sweet with a hint of acidity that you wanted to linger on your tongue. Perfect.

They were the tomatoes that every tomato since has been measured against in shape, size, color and, most of all, taste. And it seems no amount of money, gardening or searching has yet revealed a fruit that can compare to those discounted, misshapen beauties. And yet like those long-ago late afternoon teatimes, their flavor and delight are still ripe in my memory.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Arrested Development

Last night found Craze and I heading out the door at 10:45 pm to see a show. About 25 minutes later standing in Chicago's famed Double Door, our timing couldn't have been better. As we moved through the echoing, smoky, cavernous space, the headliners took to the stage. In a nod to our increasing foothold in middle age, we were there to see 1985 one-hit-wonder, Scitti Politti.

To say that many of our recent concert forays have us stuck in a time warp would certainly be fair. We've bought tickets in the past year or so to see Thomas Dolby, Siouxie and the Banshees, Pretenders, Midge Ure, Kraftwerk and The Fixx to name just a few of our eighties heroes. But to give us points for not totally living in the past, Scritti Politti actually has a new album out that got a pretty decent review earlier this summer in The New Yorker.

From the first guitar riff, Green Gartside and his band of accomplished musicians had our toes tapping and heads nodding to the familiar rhythms. And it was easy to forget that this guy's been rocking out since the late seventies and secretly revel in my "hip," still-club-going self. In his fifties, Gartside could easily pass for thirty and his current band mates were obviously in diapers at the pinnacle of the band's popularity more than twenty years ago. Together, this made his ensemble seem fresh, almost au currant.

Standing there in the crowd, I suddenly found it rather interesting that I'm doing the same kind of things I did twenty years ago when I first heard this band. With no kids at home, just a good-natured mutt and a couple of independent felines, Craze and I still live like a couple in our twenties. We have jobs and a house and some of the trappings of our forties counterparts, but have actively avoided many of the other accoutrements. We haven't purchased a Lexus or any other kind of luxury, status vehicle and have never seriously considered moving to the 'burbs. Our time and cash is not taken up with childcare or trying to find the "right" school for our little ones. Since the Bug graduated some time ago from puppy training and now is making good inroads at Agility Class, education of any kind is a hobby for us, not a parental necessity. We have the luxury of time and little responsibility that allows us to grab dinner, see a movie or hit a late night music venue at a whim without worry that the babysitter has to get home soon.

But then my train of thought asked the next logical question: "Will I still be doing this stuff twenty years from now, when I'm. . .60?"

The idea seemed kind of crazy. How does a sixty-year-old fit in at a place like the Double Door? And when, if ever, might it really feel right to put away my dancing shoes and just take up knitting or some equally sedate past time? This thought percolated through my head as I continued to sway to the tunes from the new album (see, showing my age again!). Looking at the crowd around me there were plenty of young trendsetters. The twenty- and thirty-somethings of the skinny jean and bangled-arm persuasion lit up frequently, still armor-proofed by youth, oblivious to how their next drag could kill them one day. The cute lesbians provided perhaps the most enjoyable spectacle, dirty dancing towards the front of the stage, their bodies folding neatly together in exuberant, simultaneous rhythm.

And then I saw them. Right at the front, stage left. A couple stood there, clearly quite a bit older than Craze and I; their faces bathed in the stage lights. They weren't in their sixties, but easily pushing fifty. Mr. John J. Boomer was dressed in his weekend uniform of jeans, navy turtleneck and denim shirt. He was almost completely bald and stared up at the lead singer with a kind of reverence. As if he was looking up at the face of God. And only occasionally did his prominent chin bob ever so slightly to the music, like he was absorbing every note, versus letting its course flow through him.

His lady friend reminded me of a shorter version of my mother. Her short, curly gray hair was nicely styled in a demi-bouffant, not unlike the coiffure of Queen Elizabeth. She wore a tidy gray car coat, brown plus-size petite trousers and equally sensible, brown, soft-soled shoes. The strap of her handbag was draped over her left shoulder and she clutched the purse at her hip. Mrs. Boomer had a ruddy, round-cheeked look, rather British, and, like her counterpart, stood virtually motionless, staring up with a look of perfect peacefulness as the band ran through their pop, rap, rock program.

They clearly did not fit in. Still, there they were, not just at the concert but right at the front of the stage. And while I found myself hoping to God right there on the dance floor that I'd never give in to such bland attire or, for that matter, let my increasingly gray hair remain its now natural color, their presence provided a reassuring answer to my earlier mental question.

In twenty more years, will I be heading out to the clubs to inhale too much second-hand smoke, make a dent in my ear drums and stay up way past bedtime? Chances are, if Craze has anything to do with it, we'll still be living in the city in a state of arrested development. I may take up knitting at some point, but we'll still be sporting the latest jeans and taking our nieces and nephews out with us for a spot of late-night fun.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Halloween Gets the Blue Light

Craze has never been much into making a big deal about any holiday. So, I was really surprised this year when he got all excited about Halloween.

Now, to be fair, he's always loved Halloween, just more in an "I'm going to dress up in a crazy costume and go to a bunch of fun parties" kind of way. He's never been much into decorating our house in an effort to make it a more trick-or-treat-worthy destination. But for some reason this year, he made a "hail Mary" effort to spook things up.

What this required was a last ditch trip to the land of the blue-light special, K-Mart, to try and get more ghoulish props. So on Sunday, that's where we went. To say it was a little nightmarish, wouldn't be a Halloween pun. The seasonal section was crammed with yelling, and some crying, children desperately trying to find a costume. The kids were spinning through the aisles like real-life whirling dervishes, pulling hangers off the racks at random and then just as quickly discarding them. Hulk hands, princess crowns, tiny firemen helmets and other assorted costume elements littered the floor of aisle 12 like so many autumn leaves, making smooth shopping cart passage virtually impossible. The parents, for the most part, made no effort to stop the commercial carnage or enforce any kind of good shopping manners. They just stood at the end of the aisle, apparently exasperated, their eyes glazed over. Like zombies really, at the mercy of their juvenile puppet masters.

And so into the midst of this lunacy, Craze and I ventured. We weren't really looking for costumes, although one of the first things Craze grabbed was a rubber ghoul mask with a black hood. "This is cool," he grinned like a kid himself, "I'll wear this when I answer the door. It will look great with that Dracula cloak I bought a few years ago. Do you know where that is?" he asked, not waiting for an answer and instead hurtling himself towards a pile of discounted conjoined skulls, perfect as a wall hanging.

After placing the skulls, which featured a motion-detector that triggered them to sing a crazy Halloween song, into the cart, we officially began to rummage through the mess. Craze found a platter with a skull in the middle of it. Motion detector technology clearly the thing this Halloween, it also broke into song or dialogue when any hand ventured in its direction. A rattling rendition of "I Ain't Got No Body" was a favorite. Next, he found an almost life-size skeleton with blinking green eyes. I found a rather creepy and tattered raven apparently made with real bird feathers. In keeping with my dislike of any kind of dead animal, it sort of grossed me out. But then, I remembered that is the whole point of Halloween and offered it up for Craze's review.

After a few minutes, I'd had enough. While Craze continued to rake through the leftovers, I steered the cart to the calm oasis of the nearby candy aisle. It offered up a brief respite from the screaming, running kids and gave me a chance to shore up my candy supplies.

A few moments later after finally deciding that there was nothing left there to find, Craze emerged from aisle 12 and we headed to the checkout. Once home, he emptied his sack of haunted goods and set about improving our blood-curdling curb appeal. He found some green light bulbs in the basement and put these in the lamps on our front porch and entryway. This simple addition cast a spooky green glow over our entrance and, I was surprised to see, was really quite effective. Next went up the assorted skulls and skeletons. After the last nail was driven, our Halloween decor was much improved. All that was left was to wait until Tuesday and see how many kids we could scare up at our door.

Halloween itself arrived bright but really quite cold. As I walked the Bug around 4pm, I saw the first little trick-or-treater out with his mom. Thinking I might miss the rush, the Bug and I headed home. Once there, I put in a call to Craze to remind him he better not leave the office too late if he wanted to fulfill his wish of offering a friendly fright to the neighbor kids.

Our first visitors, Dorothy and the Princess Bride, arrived promptly at 4:33 pm. It was a full hour later before any more kids came calling and another hour before the rush really began. After our first couple doorbell ringers had arrived, I shut the Bug in the kitchen to stop her from barking away visitors and rushing the door. She likes to protect her territory and, Halloween or no Halloween, she had her own plan for scaring off any visitors and that just wouldn't do.

Finally around 6:45 pm Craze arrived. He quickly pulled the rubber mask over his head and the collar of his dress shirt and found the Dracula cape in the front closet. Pushing an eyeball ring onto his finger, he grabbed our boom box and rigged it up on the front porch to play scary music.

The next time the doorbell rang, he'd be ready. And as soon as the next set of footsteps fell on the front porch, he sprang into action. Opening the door to the unsuspecting kids, he moaned at them in a loud, fiendish voice, "What do you WAAANT?"

"Candy," was what most of the kids replied, laughing at their unexpected, scary host. One smart alec forgot about the candy and offered up a more demonic request, actually asking Craze for his very soul!

"OK, here you go," Craze would reply in a gravelly tone, handing out the peanut butter cups, crunch bars and assorted other goodies from the skull platter. "Now get out of here and LEAVE ME ALONE!" And then just for effect, as the giggling kids made their retreat down the front steps towards the safety of their grinning parents, he'd yell again as an agonizing afterthought, "and DON'T COME BACK!"

This repeated drama went on for the next hour or so, and it made me laugh with each performance. I'd relinquished my candy-giving duties to someone more capable than I and instead sat on the couch with the Bug. Every time the doorbell rang, the kids got candy and the Bug got cheese if she didn't bark or make a move to rush the door. Give our dog cheese, and she's putty in your hands.

Around 8pm, the number and frequency of visitors dropped drastically. And it was a good thing too, as we were on our last bag of candy. Craze and I finally sat down to eat some sandwiches, his mask pulled back over the top of his head but still at the ready should any stragglers appear. Finally after a few last-minute arrivals, Craze reluctantly closed up shop at 9pm, turning off the green lights and blinking skull eyeballs and locking up for the night.

Later that evening, I overheard him talking to his brother in Ohio on the phone. He was recounting all his decorative efforts and how he'd made the kids squeal. And over and over, he kept repeating that next year's tableau would be bigger, better and scarier.

Hello K-Mart. Here we come.