by Dennis Hiatt


     On the morning of the last Halloween he would trick or
treat, John Jr. ate his oatmeal slowly and tried not to look
at the broken kitchen chair.  The night before, his dad had
stumbled in drunk and beat his mother.  John had covered his
ears with his pillow to block out their screams.  It hadn't
worked. It never did, and he'd wished that he was still
little so he could get up and ask for a drink. He would have
stepped into the blinding light of the kitchen blinking and
squeaked for a glass of water. They'd have crossed their arms
over their chest and glared at each other while he drank.
Their rage would have soaked the air, but for a moment, they
would have quit tearing each other apart.
     John's father always left for work before he got out of
bed.  John Senior would stop off at Barb's Blue Bird Cafe for
breakfast and coffee, and talk to the men that hung out there
in the morning.
     "The oatmeal okay, Honey?" His mother rested a hand on
the back of Junior's slim neck.
     John smiled up at this mother and nodded.  He couldn't
see any bruises, nor did she look hurt or angry.  He thought
that she must have started her morning with a pill.  She
hadn't done that in a long time.
     The warm, pretty woman mussed his hair.  "Okay, eat your
breakfast before it gets cold."
     John dug into the oatmeal and as he chewed he asked,
"Mom, can I have a dollar and ninety-nine cents for a
Halloween mask."
     "Oh, Honey ...." She sighed and shook her head. "Your
dad doesn't get paid until Friday."
     John stared at the milk and brown sugar surface of his
oatmeal.  "Mom, do you believe in demons, like in the Bible?"
     She poured herself a cup of coffee. Steam rose from the
white mug.  "Well..." She sipped the coffee. "...I don't know
about that, Honey.  Was it a devil mask you wanted?"
     John nodded. "I was thinking I could make one.  But," he
stared at his oatmeal, "I'd have to skip school."
     His mother's smile warmed the morning air.  Her soft,
brown hair hung over one sly blue eye like an old time movie
star.  Her eyes crinkled at the corners.  She smiled, "None of
that now."  As she lit a cigarette, her green housecoat fell
open a little, and John saw a purple bruise spiderwebbing
away from the heavy, white curve of her left breast.
     Outside, the morning was bright and still.  The sun cut
through the pines and elms that bordered the little farm at a
low angle.  John saw the dead cat on the edge of the long
porch and grinned.  The black and white cat had been struck
by a car, but not run over.  This was much neater than usual.
John's dog, Lady, often brought home parts of animals that
had been killed on the highway.
     Cat by the tail, John started toward the garbage burner
and then stopped.  The cat had long, lovely hair flecked with
blood.  For a long second John stared at the hair.  Then, like
a startled quail, he broke and ran to the barn.
     In the barn it took John Junior twenty minutes to cut
the mask from a dusty burlap sack and linoleum glue some
fine, long hair to it.  All he needed was a rubber band and
he had a bloodstained demon mask.  No, better yet, he could
get his mother to sew an elastic band on the mask after it
dried.  John laid the demon face on a tackle box to dry and
closed the barn door.
     Outside the barn, Lady limped up, wagging her tail and
bouncing her odd, off-center bounces.  Then John remembered
the dead cat, petted Lady, and retrieved the cat from the
barn.  This time, when he left the barn, he didn't close the
     The school Halloween party was low keyed and sweet.
John flirted with Reba Hanson while they waited to bob for
apples, and she ate her cake with him.  Reba was a small girl,
smaller and thinner than John, and she couldn't seem to keep
her long, straight hair out of her face.  John couldn't keep
his eyes from smiling at her.  Reba wouldn't look him in the
face, but her knees brushed his, and she smiled as she looked
at her cake.
     Here, in the sunlight that made its way through the
school window, as Reba ate black and orange jelly beans from
a paper cup, she looked like a lady.  Her mother was on
Welfare, and once or twice a month, would end up downtown
drunk and screaming at people on the street.  The older boys
at school said Reba's mother was a whore.
    "Are you going Trick or Treating?" he asked, looking down
at the smear of frosting on his paper plate.
     "No."  He saw her shadow shaking it's head.  "Mom wants me
to stay home."
     "Oh."  Out in the schoolyard the younger fourth grade
children raised dust as they ran and played.  "How come?"
     Reba shrugged and tossed her hair back.  John, surprised
and taken by this womanly gesture, said, "Tonight's my last
time...I'm," he grinned and leaned toward her ear, "Going as
a Dead Cat."
     "No!" Reba tittered and slapped at his knee.
     "No," he agreed, looking down at the red stitching in
his offbrand jeans, "I'm going as a kind of a monster."
     Reba poured a few jelly beans from her cup into John's
empty cup.  "A monster?"
     "Well...maybe more of a Devil."  He looked at the black
and orange jelly beans, rattled them in his cup and looked
out at the children in the play ground.  John said, "My dog's
crippled," smiled at Reba and ate the beans.
     "Yeah?" She poured him two more jelly beans.  They were
both black.
     John nodded.  "Dad ran over her foot so she can't hunt,
so you know what she does?"
     Reba shook her small head.  Spider webs of wispy hair
covered her brown eyes.  John's grin flickered.  His eyes lost
their smile.  "I take her hunting."
     "Oh," Reba said as their teacher called the class to
order and told them to clean up.  They'd missed the apple
     Walking home, John decided not to eat more than half of
the candy he would get tonight.  Tomorrow, he would surprise
Reba with the best of his candy.  Tomorrow, he would be a
hunter bringing her a deer or a bear.  Tomorrow, he would see
her smile and toss her hair back.
     From the highway, John saw the smoke of the garbage
fire.  He wondered if his mother had covered the dead cat or
had left it on top of the newspaper, leaves and food scraps.
The smoke drifted through the pines and elms like streamers
of bleak paper caught in a soft wind.  He turned down the dirt
road wondering if his father would come home drunk again.  As
the small farm house came into view, John saw that the fire
was dying out.  He laid his books and lunch pail on the porch
and picked up a long stick before he went to the garbage
fire with its stinking, stinging smoke.
     John churned the layers of thick, black newspaper ash.
Up came a scorched can, then a cracked ketchup bottle.
Something round, grey and charred bobbed out of the black ash
and sank back.  John stirred the can and the bottle back into
the smoking fire.  Lady jumped up, placing a foot on on John's
back, and he turned and held his dog in a parody of a couple
dancing.  The breeze changed, and smoke blinded and choked
John.  Dragging the stick on the ground, he made his way to
the barn.  Lady limped behind him, wagging her tail and barking
at the stick.
     The mask was gone. John froze.  He looked around the vast
dim room with its thousand hiding places.  He opened the barn
doors wide and looked behind the tackle box.  Who could have
stolen his mask?  He walked around the front of the barn.
There was no mask or anything that could pass for one.  Maybe
his mother had found it and had taken it in the house to sew
an elastic band on.  He thought that must be what had
     He found the mask on the porch.  It was badly chewed and
and utterly ruined.  Lady limped onto the porch and picked up
the mask.  She shook it at John and he, with a choked cry,
swung his stick at her crippled foot.  Dust leaped from the
porch where he'd struck, and Lady leaped backwards onto the
ground.  John sprang after her, swinging the stick for her
head.  Lady dodged and dropped the mask in the dust.  It was
moist, and the dirt clung to it.  John swung the stick at Lady
and grazed her head.  She yelped and ran limping for the
     It took John a moment to stop crying.  He burned the
fouled mask and, when his eyes were dry, he went around back
and came in through the kitchen door.  He could hear his mother
on the telephone.  Her voice was angry and somewhat slurred.
     "... little spick slut shaves it too!
     "I don't care Mom...
     "Maybe we didn't get married too young...maybe, I guess I
wasn't young enough....
     "He wants it shaved, he'll get it shaved...
     John stepped into the living room.  His mother was still
in her green house coat.  She saw him and motioned him to her.
He sat close to her on the sofa.  He could smell wine on her
breath.  She stroked his neck like he was a cat and said to
her mother, "Yeah...Well...Hey, I've got to go.  My little
man's here and he's hungry....Yeah, 'bye Mom."
     She hung up the phone and ruffled John's hair. "You
     He shrugged.  She was looking right at his damp, red
eyes.  He looked down at the floor and her bright red
toenails.  "A little."
     "Okay..."  His mother smiled at the top of his head, but
made no effort to get up.  John didn't think she was drunk.
More likely she'd had a glass of wine and another of her
pills.  She looked at him with her movie star look and said,
"Am I as pretty as that teacher of yours...what's her name?"
     Out of the corner of his eye John saw that her house
coat had fallen open.  "Miss Larsen?" he asked, then said,
"A lot prettier Mom.  A lot."
     John got off the sofa.  "I'm going to wash up," he said,
hoping she'd take the hint to start dinner.
     John went to his room and stayed there until he could
smell potatoes frying on the stove.  When he came downstairs,
he was surprised to find his father sitting at the kitchen
table.  On the table was a bag of candy for the Trick Or
Treaters, and the broken chair was gone.  His father had a
can of beer in his hand and was smiling.  It was safe to go
     "Happy Halloween, son."  John Senior raised his can of
beer to his son.
     From the stove, his mother said, "Your father sold that
broken down old tractor to Sonny James for three thousand
     "Sonny's a damn fool," his dad chuckled and inspected a
grimy, broken fingernail on his left hand.  "Say, what's this I
hear, you need a mask?"
     John, made sick by the smell of the frying baloney, shook
his head.  "I'm too old for that now."
     "Yeah," John Senior chuckled again and let his eyes fall
on the green robe where it was pulled tight over his wife's
rear, "You're just about big enough to start whipping your old
     John didn't know what would be safe to say.  The smell
of frying baloney filled the quiet kitchen.  John looked out
the window at the pines and elms.  When he turned back to the
table, a brand new .22 rifle was lying on it.
     His father smiled at him with eyes filled with pride.
"Now, I just don't know how that thing got here.  Do you?"
     "No, sir," John whispered.
     "Well, don't let it sit there and rust.  Take it up to
your room."
     "Yes sir."  John picked up the rifle.  He felt like he
was expected to hug his father.  He felt he should tell his
father he loved him.
     "Thank you," John said and cradled the gun.  "Thank
you."  John could not bring himself to look at the dirty,
smug man who'd handed him the rifle.
     His father nodded absently.  "You can take her out after
     As John was going up the stairs, his mother laughed,
"Now stop that!  You just wait till he goes out."
     After he'd eaten, John changed his clothes and put on
his work boots. He had about an hour of sun left and twelve
bullets.  When he passed through the living room on his way
out, John saw his mother's green robe on the floor by the
sofa.  The radio in his parents' room was playing loud, but he
could still hear the bed springs fighting.
     On the front porch, John stood in the long, orange
shadows and watched Lady limp up to him with a road-kill
squirrel in her mouth.  She dropped the mangled thing at his
feet and eyed him.  John petted her head, stepped off the
porch and started across the yard to the two huge lilac
bushes that marked the trail in the line of the pines and
elms that led to a small forest on the old Davis place.  Lady
followed John, limping.
     When John and the dog reached the forest, John veered off the
path.  In his head he could still hear the music coming from
his mother's room.  Tomorrow, he would have nothing to take
Reba.  And he would never have another Halloween.  Next week,
or the week after, his father would come home drunk and beat
his mother.  Like John's life, the shadows of the trees
stretched long before him.  The small forest was still.  The
rifle was long and clean.  Here, now, John really knew that he
was too old for trick-or-treating.
     Lady limped ahead of him, sniffing the ground.  The air
was cool and crisp like it got just before winter.  John
watched the dog and thought it was time for a little payback.
Lady smelled something in a large pile of leaves.  The dog
buried her nose and rooted in the crinkling bed of leaves.
John laid the muzzle of the .22 behind her left ear and pulled
the trigger.  Lady stiffened and collapsed into the brown
nest of fall leaves.  John stared at his dog and thought that
she didn't look near as bad as road kill.  She looked like she
was sleeping.  She looked like she could sleep through
anything.  He kicked leaves over her and, when the dog was
hidden, John picked out three really nice orange leaves to
take to Reba.