Authors: Bryant Delafosse
Claudia and her mother, Pat, had originally left Haven for greener pastures and a better job. Mrs. Wicke had been a counselor for a school up in Dallas/Fort Worth, four hours away from the tiny forgettable town that is Haven, population 475 or so.
Haven, Texas, the town where I was raised. I’ve never spent any significant amount of time anywhere else. It’s been sixteen years since I was born, and as Mom is fond of telling me, very little had changed. While the rest of the world advanced, Haven had always seemed to be frozen in time.
The old saying—if you stayed in a place long enough, you became part of that place—seemed to have been created for our town of Haven. Visitors came and went, but the anchor families formed the hard nickel-iron alloy which was the central core of our community. Their hearty material composition seemed to be mostly French and Irish stock, with names like Richard, Bertrand, Thomas (or Thompson), Murphy, Kelly, Sullivan commonly heard at our school and the Rotary Club and Knights of Columbus meetings.
The main reason Haven had managed to stay so small: Location.
Haven was an hour’s drive from the nearest big city, Austin, and not close enough to any major highway to attract any capitalist interest from the likes of McDonalds or Walmart. But that was exactly the intention of Haven’s founders.
When given the opportunity to host a train depot back in 1865, the founders said, “Much obliged, but no thank you.” When asked if they would permit a minimum-security prison to be built in Haven around 1946, the founders said, “We’ve got enough scoundrels already. No imports necessary.”
As a result, the town became like a ship in a bottle--a model of good old-fashioned 1950’s horse sense with a touch of technophobia. While the rest of the world sailed out to meet the future, Haven stayed stubbornly on shore, arms folded.
Yet more and more lately, Mom had begun to change her tune, adding that more had changed in Haven since the days of hanging out at the Lucas Park and Eat (Broward County’s answer to the Dairy Queen) in “bobby-socks” than had changed in the century and half since the town’s creation. Cable television arrived in 1995, (about 15 years after most of the civilized world), and only recently have we gotten a decent Internet service.
Like Old man Barrett, proud owner of Anderson’s Parts and Feed Store, was fond of saying: “Progress s’ fine, long as it don’t go too far.”
So, surely you would have thought that every year the median age of Haven must rise due to the exodus of those who couldn’t bare living in such a “prehistoric” community. But for every teenager who left for college, someone else moved in. As a result, the population of Haven, Texas tended to stay oddly stable, hovering just shy of the five-century mark.
As surely as a cork bobber shooting back to the surface of a lake, Claudia and her mother Pat followed this formula and returned to town in late August, just before school started again.
Pat (or Mrs. Wicke as I know her) was “released” from her counseling job, because of a “difference of vision” according to the vice-principal. What it came down to was that she was fired for talking to a student about faith in a higher power. “Apparently, teaching fourth graders natural selection or how to put on a condom is completely acceptable, but mentioning the word
or even insinuating that there might be an intelligent guiding force to the universe is crossing the line,” Mrs. Wicke told us the weekend she got back into town.
After my initial shock of seeing Claudia again, Mrs. Wicke and my mom had several hours of conversation over coffee. I don’t recall hearing that much laughter in our house in years.
Before she left, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind saying “hello” to Claudia in the school hallways once in a while. “She was into a lot of negative things in the city. Fighting and hanging out with friends with dark ideas,” she told us. “Unfortunately, being the daughter of a counselor seems to mean that your mother is the only one you
Next Monday I decided to finish lunch early and make a pass by the bleachers before practice. On the way down Junior Hall, I happened to see a small group of senior girls giggling around one of the lockers. After they went their separate ways, I realized that they’d been standing in front of Claudia’s locker door.
I knew this only because of the graffiti written across the front: “HALLOW,” it read in large letters of bright red lipstick.
When I reached the bleachers, Claudia was already there, wearing a shapeless black blouse and jeans, almost identical in color, and scrutinizing a worn notebook in her lap. A plastic baggy filled with what looked like Crunch Berries cereal and a can of Coke sat with reach. An empty brown bag sat atop a black backpack upon which was drawn a spiked ball and chain in silver. Some unidentifiable distortion leaked through the buds in her ears. Wires led to her breast pocket, where I surmised the player must be hidden.
After a minute or two of my staring, she finally lifted her head. Jet black sunglasses covered her pale, unmade-up face. Taking the eye contact as a sign of acknowledgment, I approached. She seemed to stiffen and grow smaller at the same time, like a cat preparing for flight.
“Stay back,” her body language screamed. “I bite.”
She sighed heavily and made no attempt to remove the buds wedged into her ears. “Yeah?’
“What are you doing up here?”
She must have deduced that I wasn’t the threat she had first perceived and lowered her pen back to her notebook. Settling with a jingle around her wrist was a charm bracelet, upon which a silver ghost, a skull, a bat, a crescent moon, and what looked like a tiny haunted house lay there sparkling in the sunlight in contrast to the stark white paper.
“You with the thought patrol or something?”
That one had staggered me a little. Didn’t she recognize me? I figured I’d spur her memory a little.
“Y’know, your mom came by our house Sunday.”
That ought to be enough of a hint.
Her eyes never wavered from the notebook. “So what.”
As I languished in the hot Texas sun for a few moments, I considered how much less awkward this had seemed when I had played it out in my mind.
“So, your mom looked happy. It was good to see her, y’know.”
“What are you doing here, Paul?” she asked in a condescending tone as she pushed the pause button on the tiny device in her pocket.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Other than skipping class?”
Heavy sigh. She turned back to her notebook.
Okay, I’d had my daily limit of abuse and was just about to leave, when I recognized the shape of stanzas. Thought I’d take one last shot. “You into poetry?”
Claudia grimaced and looked up at me through those jet black lenses covering her eyes. “Yeah, like you’d even recognize a poem if you saw one.” Claudia ripped the page she was working on out of the notebook, wadded the page, and tossed it back over her shoulder. “Okay, what is this? Did the ‘counsinner’ send you over here to talk to me? Draw me out? Is that what this is about?”
I studied her in astonishment. I wasn’t used to open hostility from strangers, and especially not from strangers who I’d once known. I could only stare at this slight wisp of a girl who wrapped herself in a cloak of oppressive darkness so overpowering it was like a physical presence that seemed to weigh even on me.
She removed her glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose. Finally, she looked up with a great pronounced sigh that Atlas himself with the weight of the world on his shoulders would have had problems reproducing. Dark circles exaggerated the intensity of her eyes, the deepest, darkest eyes I have ever seen. Eyes of obsidian glass. Pools of crude oil they were, which seemed to catch fire as she realized I wouldn’t leave peacefully.
Had her eyes always been that color? I couldn’t remember.
I met her fiery stare and countered with one of sympathy. I’d never lost anyone I loved, much less a parent, so I had no idea how it might affect me. “Look, I just wanted to tell you that what you did yesterday outside senior hall...” She glanced up. “That was impressive work.”
She just gave me an undecipherable blank look.
“By the way,” I mentioned as I started away. “They wrote on your locker door.”
“Yeah, I know.” She gave me a shrug that seemed to say, “It’s beyond my ability to care,” before returning to her work.
My time sufficiently wasted, I went back to the band hall, where I waited for practice to start along with the decent humans. During practice, a funny thing happened to me. My mind kept wandering to the wadded page Claudia had tossed over her shoulder, and after rehearsal, I did something that I hadn’t planned on. I went under the bleachers and wandered among the trash and mud and found that ball of paper. I felt weird doing it, like I had just copped a look through the door of the girl’s locker room or something. Nonetheless, I unraveled the paper and read the hideous scrawl that was her handwriting.
“Death is a
at the edge.
All alone I am.”
She had written the last line twice. The second one left an impression on the page more heavily than the first, and a long scraggly line had been drawn under the word “alone” all the way down to the bottom of the page, where the pen stroke had ripped through the page.
The words sent an actual chill through me. I wasn’t much on poetry, but I knew healthy artistic expression didn’t look like this.
I wadded up the page and tossed it into the garbage under the stands where the girl who had thrown it there had meant for it to stay. I couldn’t help feeling that I had glimpsed a part of Claudia that she had never meant for me to see.
As I started back to the building, I decided that maybe her writing was the sort of dark exercise that people did sometimes when they were alone. Perhaps, it was a way of purging her soul by putting those darkest fears down on paper then discarding them.
But I was wrong.
I would soon discover that Death wasn’t a fear for Claudia Anne Wicke.
It was an obsession.
Last summer I started work as a “bagger” for Comeaux’s Grocery. I quickly moved up to “stocker,” which suited me just fine, as I didn’t have to deal with customers who said asinine things like:
“Young man, please don’t put those cans on top of my carton of eggs.”
Thanks for reminding me, old woman. I was just about to do that.
Although I was supposed to quit the job when school started, I was able to convince Mom and Dad to let me work Saturdays (and some nights on Thursdays, the day the new shipments came in) as long as my grades didn’t suffer. So, with the addition of the varsity football games where the band played on Friday nights, I was pretty busy at the beginning of my junior year.
The cool thing about working for Comeaux’s was that I was able to get discounts on books and magazines and (best yet) stuff for Halloween.
The last weekend in September, I was stocking the canned vegetables on a Thursday night when I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey, Graves, your Halloween selection sucks.”
I looked up and saw a shadowy figure gliding down the aisle past me.
“Yeah well, what do you expect? This isn’t Eerie’s.”
She stopped in the middle of the aisle, her back to me. The only sign that I’d intrigued her. “What’s that?”
“It’s a Halloween warehouse store in Austin.”
Of course, the selection at Comeaux’s Grocery was typical of a store its size. I figured I’d pick up a few of the essentials there—candy, glow sticks, black lights, maybe a cheap-looking paper skeleton. But I saved my money for the trip into Austin, which was around an hour away, where I would stock up on the unique, harder to get necessities.
Claudia turned and I saw that she was actually wearing sunglasses inside the store. It was killing me not to take the shot, but I didn’t want to extinguish the possibility of an interesting conversation. (It had been a long night so far.)
“Mom doesn’t let us decorate,” Claudia admitted.
Giving a shrug, she replied, “We haven’t since my father died.”
She stood there and
have been looking in my direction, though I couldn’t actually see her eyes through the shades. So, I went back to stamping the cans of French-cut green beans with price stickers.
She sighed and folded her arms. “So when are you going to this Eerie’s place?”
“Sunday morning. You want to come with? I have my own car, y’know.”
Claudia gave me a patronizing look. “And me without my box of cookies.”
I turned back to the green bean cans, before my face started to redden. “Listen, I don’t care what you do. I’m pretty much going anyway.”
“What, like I want to spend a whole weekend stuck at home with my
.” She put an icy lilt to the last word like it had a bitter taste. “Look, I better get back to the car before she starts thinking I made good on my threat to hitchhike back to DFW. Guess I’ll seeya on Sunday then.”
I gave her a nod and a “seeya.”
After she’d disappeared, I assessed how I felt about this. I was actually excited. I figured it must have something to do with sharing something you loved with someone you felt might appreciate it the way you do.
Growing up, I simply loved the whole season. I love how after a long hot humid summer, the weather takes a change for the better and the breeze takes on that special snap that balances out the warmth of the blazing Texas sun. I wait expectantly for that sudden transformation of color the natural world undergoes, those reds and browns and the oranges. And then there’s the smells in the October air, of pumpkin pies and harvest bonfires and latex monster masks. I loved the spectacle and magic that produces that intangible quality just one step back from the sacred, like the dark interior of a magician’s top hat.
Halloween had commanded my attention the very first time I saw a simple spider web covered skeleton displayed within an old wooden coffin outside an old T G & Y store in Austin--y’know, the ones that don’t exist anymore--back before every display vibrated, made sounds and emitted smoke.
It was only a year later when a Great Aunt on my mother’s side passed away—Mom’s side of the family was the one with the long life genes, while Dad’s had the bad heart genes--and I realized that the Halloween display I saw outside the TG & Y was, in fact, my first introduction to the concept of Death. That skeleton, something tucked away within every last one of us, is a reminder of our own mortality, of the hands of our internal clocks slowly ticking away toward our own personal expiration date.
Though at the time, I didn’t understand my own fascination with Halloween, it dawned on me that perhaps the holiday was nothing more than the way we human beings cope with the Unknown--that dark inviting corridor due south of the end of our long walk through Life.
A terrifying carnival-like journey with candy at the end.