I wanted to post an appropriate Halloween-themed blog but over the past few years, I’ve written a number of blogs about all things horrific/supernatural/spooky (like this and this) that I don’t know if I have any additional stories that could top what’s already come. So if you’ll indulge me, I would like to tell a different kind of Halloween story; about a different kind of horror. One that involves an old woman, a young boy in a cheap skeleton costume and a trick-or-treat experience gone wrong.
I immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when I was four and one of my family’s early residences was a small two bedroom apartment in the sleepy San Gabriel Valley suburb of Alhambra, California. Alhambra is a mecca for all things Asian now (including some of the best Chinese food around), but back in the early 80s, the huge influx of Asian immigrants hadn’t arrived quite yet. Our neighborhood was mostly white and Latino and next to our apartment building was a house where an elderly Caucasian lady resided.
I can’t remember this lady’s name so let’s just call her Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith was probably in her 70s and she lived alone. She had been in that house for decades—she was a widow and if she had children or grandchildren, I wasn’t aware since I don’t remember anyone visiting her. I mostly remember her being very kind to my younger sister and me. Perhaps it was just a case of her being neighborly but looking back now, I think she was lonely.
She’d do things like bring out lemonade if she saw my sister and I riding our bikes up and down the street on hot summer days. We’d sit under the shade of the big tree in her front yard; sipping that ice cold lemonade while she’d ask us questions about how school was (I remember she’d ask this during the summer even after we had explained we were on vacation). I thought she was nice, but beyond that, I have to admit I didn’t give her much thought.
Flash forward to Halloween.
Back then, the Halloween costumes of choice, especially if you weren’t well-off like my family, were these generically boxed costumes that you could buy at places like Thrifty Drug Store. They came in a box like this:
The costumes basically consisted of two parts: a cheap plastic mask that only covered the front part of your face and what amounted to an even cheaper plastic bib type costume that covered your body. This is what they looked like:
This particular Halloween, I was dressed in a cheap plastic skeleton. My father came home early from work so he could take my sister and I trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. Our trick-or-treat bag was literally just that—a paper bag from the local supermarket. But I didn’t care—I was going to fill that paper bag with all manner of goodies. That was all that mattered. The rest of the 364 days of the year, my parents rarely let me have candy because it was apparently “bad for you,” but this one night, I had permission to come back with as much sweet booty as that bag would carry.
So we spent the next couple of hours trick-or-treating. I planned the route to get the maximum amount of candy as possible and by the time we were hitting the final stretch of houses back to our apartment, all I could think about was the yummy goodness inside my brown paper bag. The last house we would visit before heading home was Mrs. Smith’s house.
We rang her doorbell and shouted the requisite “trick or treat!” Mrs. Smith smiled when she saw us, but instead of handing us a candy bar from the bowl of treats she had by her door, she disappeared into the kitchen and came back with two huge caramel apples. “Special treats for special children,” she said to us. She had made these especially for us.
And that’s when disaster struck.
Perhaps my paper bag was flimsier than I imagined. Perhaps it was further weakened by the weight of the goodies already collected. Perhaps the caramel apple was heavier than it looked. All I know is when Mrs. Smith dropped that apple into my bag, the bottom tore open and all my treats fell out the hold created by the caramel apple.
In the bigger scheme of things, that moment was about as insignificant as they come. But at that moment, it was the most tragic of tragedies. My precious sweets falling and scattering all over the ground. I was devastated. I was angry. And I let my displeasure be known which is to say I overreacted in the way that only a kid who thinks he’s lost something precious can.
As shocked as I was, the look of horror on Mrs. Smith’s face was even worse. She immediately apologized, grabbed a bag and helped us collect all the fallen treats. Her face turned white and she kept muttering “I’m sorry” the whole time we were picking up candies.
In the end, we were able to salvage everything except…her caramel apple. It had rolled into the garden and now the caramel was covered with dirt and foliage. There was no way I could eat it. It went in the trash.
But as I walked back home with my sister and my father, the rest of the candy safely in my replacement bag, I remember looking over to Mrs. Smith’s house and seeing her standing in front of her door—her gaze fixed on the very spot on the ground of the caramel apple-induced accident. And there was regret in her eyes. All she wanted to do was share a special treat with two neighborhood kids to make them happy. And instead this happened. And my childish overreacting to the situation made her feel even worse than she already did. I was the reason she was frozen in front of her door, unable to move.
So I did the only thing I could think of at the time. I ran back to Mrs. Smith, reached into my bag of goodies, pulled out a Butterfinger candy bar (my favorite at the time) and held it out for her. Considering she already had a bowl full of Butterfingers for trick-or-treaters in the house, I don’t think this was the best choice of an “I’m sorry” gift, but she took it anyway, smiled and said, “you’re a good boy.” I’m sure she meant it, but I’m also sure I didn’t necessarily make her feel better.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Smith passed away. We were told she had a heart attack and collapsed in her driveway between her car and the house as she returned from the market. The grocery bag she was carrying dropped to the ground; spilling the contents onto the lawn. It was mostly lemons–I imagine to make lemonade for an immigrant kid too young and clueless to know at the time that her acts of kindness were much more than that.