- This Is How It Always Is
The morning of Halloween was the first one in months Claude came downstairs in anything other than a dress. He was wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt and a crown he’d cut out of red construction paper. It took Rosie a heartbeat to place him. It had been so long since he’d come down to breakfast looking like her little boy.
“Arrr, that’s not a costume.” Roo popped up the moss-stitch eye patch Rigel had knit him to look at his baby brother.
“Yes it is.”
“You’re just dressed as you.”
“Without the girl clothes,” said Ben.
“Claude as Claude instead of Claudette is not a costume,” said Roo.
“Dad said Grumwald looks like me,” said Claude.
“No one’s going to give you candy without a costume,” said Rigel. Penn suspected that was not strictly true, but he did worry (number seventeen or so) Claude would feel left out at school when everyone else was dressed up.
“This isn’t all of it,” said Claude.
“Where’s the rest?” said Orion.
“It’s a surprise.”
“Well, get it!” everyone said.
Claude grinned, clomped upstairs, clomped back down again. In his hands, a foot, maybe more, taller than he was, Claude held a cardboard cutout, crude but recognizably human: circle head atop rounded shoulders, no neck, sloping into too-long, uneven arms with tiny hands—Claude seemed to have traced his own and cut them out—a torso attached to thick legs with feet sticking out in opposite directions at right angles, the toes all stacked atop one another as if viewed from above, all of it covered head to toe in aluminum foil. A hole was cut out for the mouth with a balloon taped underneath. Glued all over the balloon were words he must have cut from catalogs, for the scraps read things like “Available in size S, M, L, and XL,” and, “Order by Dec. 21 for guaranteed Christmas delivery!” and “Choose from honey lavender, meadow sage, pumpkin orange, or heathered denim,” and “Now with leak guard technology!”
“What the hell is that thing?” said Roo.
“Roo!” Rosie and Penn said together, though it was not an unreasonable question.
Claude propped his cutout up against the kitchen wall and stood on his tiptoes to peer around the balloon into its mouth, and it dawned on Penn like sudden sun: Prince Grumwald peering into the armor outside his bedroom to release infinite story, words without end, the ceaseless narrative of catalog shopping. Tears came to his eyes immediately. It was the most perfect Halloween costume he had ever seen.
“That’s gay,” said Roo.
“It’s creepy,” Rigel and Orion said together.
“It’s Halloween.” Claude shrugged.
“That’s true,” they agreed.
“How will you hold that thing and your candy?” Roo asked.
Claude grinned, produced a hollow plastic pumpkin also covered in aluminum foil, and hung it from a hook taped to the back of the knight’s right hand.
“No one will know who you’re supposed to be,” Ben warned.
“No one ever does,” said Claude.
There was a party at school in the morning, then a parade through the neighborhood so all the parents and grandparents could stand along the streets and shiver and take pictures, then a dance, the elementary-school version of which was that everyone wiggled around on the blacktop drinking hot cider and eating bat brownies and pumpkin bars and doing the Monster Mash. How that song was still in circulation, Penn could not fathom. Roo and Ben had their own Halloween dance, the alarmingly grown-up kind, at the middle school, which suddenly seemed impossibly far away. Penn had deliberated what sort of fatherly advice might be most appropriate and useful for an almost teenage dance and finally decided that the greatest assistance he could give them was not making a big deal about it. Still, he was glad he didn’t have to watch. Instead, he stood and chitchatted with the other elementary school parents and watched his little ones. Rigel and Orion, stuffed together into an XXL T-shirt, looped ear to ear by a custom-knit extra-wide orange-and-black headband, were fighting about whether both of them or neither of them wanted more cider. Claude was off by himself under the basketball hoops, slow dancing with his tinfoil knight, the catalog text balloon bouncing lightly against the top of his head.
“You still here?” said a voice by Penn’s shoulder. Dwight Harmon. The principal.
“Rosie at work?”
“Halloween. Big day for emergency rooms.”
“I can imagine,” the principal said. “How are the boys?”
“Roo and Ben. How’s middle school?”
“So far…” Penn trailed off. He’d meant to add “so good,” but he wasn’t sure. He and Dwight went back a long way—they were on their fifth boy together after all—and Penn knew better than to bullshit the principal.
“Big dance today?”
“You got out of chaperoning?”
“I had to be here, didn’t I?” said Penn.
Dwight grinned. “That why you keep having kids? So you never have to go to the middle school dance? Lucky bastard.”
“You too.” Penn smiled. The superintendent’s office had wanted to promote Dwight to middle school principal, but he liked where he was.