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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

The cameras they use in dreams are tricky things. Simultaneously they picture you, and are you. The one recurrent dream I had as a child—though it might have just been a dream that it recurred, and maybe it only came to me once but was so potent an image that in retrospect it seemed to capture me again, and again, in the night—showed a silent clip of a lone figure running across a dark lawn, white sheet flapping behind like vapor. Then gone.

It was me at Halloween. Only it was not me. Unless I once dressed as a ghost and did not remember I did.

It was scary, not knowing who this was, or why she kept appearing to me.

But that was the level of costuming we attained back then—put white sheets over our heads, cut some eye holes, and called it a night.

Halloween is a much more complicated undertaking these days. Not to mention expensive.

It is another of those holidays now screaming on the runaway railcar called capitalism. We spend scads of money for prefabricated costumes that come in plastic bags fronted with a picture in which the attire appears to have been constructed from actual fabric, as opposed to the extruded test-tube shiny-stretchy film it really is, presenting a simulacrum of the costume it purports to be. It snaps up the back, while the front is just that—a front. But it costs $44.95 nonetheless.

I am not handy with a sewing machine, and indeed lack a sewing machine (the sewing portion of junior-high home ec was the only class I’ve ever failed—gotten close with others, like shop, but never outright failed, until I made this machine run backwards and eat up its own thread, back into its innards, which then finally crawled to a stop, strangled by miles of filament, while a meandering trail network of stitching now bolted two sides of a putative dress together). And so I must go shopping for the boy’s costume, and it is a terrible penance to pay for my lack of aptitude with machinery. Especially since the bloating of the holiday now means three separate costumed appearances for the youngsters: the town parade, the school parade, and finally (at long last) trick-or-treating. And it can’t be the same costume, either, if you are a little boy, because little boys require dressing as men bearing weapons of one sort or another, and weapons are outlawed at schools. Zero tolerance. Which means that, say, a boy who wishes to emulate the virtuous anti-capitalist Robin Hood may not do so—bow and arrow forbidden.

I have to buy two costumes.

Though I will have to make accoutrements for Nelly, however, since they don’t make U.S. Cavalry saddles for twenty-pound border collie mixes. Can you believe it?

The boy wants to be a nineteenth-century cavalry captain, which requires a blue uniform (and for Nelly to be his steed). And guess what all I found at the local seasonal emporia of Halloween gimcrackry? Outfits for the Men in Gray: confederate uniforms only. Robert E. Lee, to be precise.

What, may I ask, happened to the folks who won? Forgotten? Drowned in whiskey and sickness and corruption and mistakes, like the victor from Ohio, the commander in chief of the forces of Union? The man who helped us regain unity?

This is a bittersweet time, indeed. I cannot shake the memory—not even the corn-syrupy promise of harvest mix will now dislodge it—of the coming of Halloween two years ago. Cold descending from the sky, hard and heavy. In the last celebration I was to have in the house I loved but was soon to leave, I invited the parents of other children, my friends. I made a large vat of chili, pans of cornbread, and hauled the picnic table down to the fire circle. It was advertised as a Burn the Past Bonfire, what I faux-bravely, and prematurely, wished to do. We all brought paper items that represented historic burdens we hoped to render into ash. And when it was done, we piled into our cars, ferrying our children into the dark night of sugar and happy fright.

This year, most of the past does feel fairly well incinerated, except for the memory of how much I wanted it to be gone. That will stay with me, and recur, like the dream of the childish ghost running silently across black suburban lawns, disappearing only to reappear again another night.

Don't get me started on my travails with sharp knives and pumpkins. Truly frightful.