Thomm Quackenbush, author

11.07.05 10:00 p.m.

Live in this world like a stranger, a wayfarer, and deem yourselves as dwellers of the graves.  

- Muhammad

 



Previously in Xenology: Xen spent much too much time scaring small children.

The Haunted Mansion

I arrived dressed all in black, as is necessary tradition, and am immediately greeted by people yelling my name. Until I stepped before The Haunted Mansion, I had not realized how much I missed the experience of being on this hallowed horror ground. While I anticipated warm greetings from those with whom I work in the past eight years, they were genuinely thrilled to see me, as though I were a long estranged friend. A man named Kelly ran up to me and said, "I knew you'd come. First day we opened, I said, 'Oh, he'll be here.' And you are!"

"Well, yeah, I wanted to get here but sickness, weddings, rain... life in general got in the way. But I'm here now. What can I do?"

I was immediately assigned to be in the wax dummy room, though I was given no indication what this would entail. As I waited for the person displaced from this part to show me the ropes, children approach Joselyn and ask for their parts. They seem too young to go through the house by themselves, let alone work in it, and there came a dawning comprehension why the veterans are so pleased to see me. As least my voice and testicles dropped. Who on earth is going to be frightened of a ghoulie monster who is still a preteen? Aside from a teacher or parent, I mean. For the price of admission, I would want a threat who could look me in the eyes.

I was never this young, quite certainly. I began the Mansion when I was sixteen, which is just about the right age to begin such an activity. Any sooner and you cannot truly appreciate terrifying babies and having tough guys thrust their waifs as shields before them. In the heightened emotionality of the Mansion - provoking fear and sexual arousal seem tightly linked in the human psyche - a ten-year-old is liable to get his first kiss from a fifteen-year-old with a corroded and worm chewed face. That is just not a memory a kid should have.

I pick my part up with the first few groups and start making revisions and amendments to the spiel to make it work better with my delivery and sense of humor. I am invariably the English gentleman with a sardonic and homicidal sense of humor, no matter my part. My task was to be the artist behind a row for four wax serial killers, the fictional Stuart Hall, Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, and Lizzy Borden. I would introduce and explain them in time with the automated spotlight hitting them. By the end of the night, this is how my monologue went: I would usher the people into the room and surreptitiously hit the button that activated the electronics. I would have roughly forty second to say, "I am the brilliant artists behind the works of art you see before you. Crowd around, crowd around. They are made of wax; they cannot hurt you." To illustrate this point, I would hit the nearest dummy, usually Stuart. The entire time, I would be pacing around and darting into the crowd to keep them off balance. "I turn mere wax into perfect serial killers. You have to have a hobby and this is mine." The light would hit Stuart's painted face and I would say, "This fellow is Stuart Hall. He was a circus clown for Ringling Brothers' in the fifties. After hours, he had a curious proclivity for following pretty girls back into the parking lot after shows - " by this time, I would be by or ideally behind a girl " - and slitting their throats open. But he was a clown, so you have to balance the slaughter with the laughter. And you can't spell slaughter without laughter! Go on, try. I know you won't."
You don't want to kiss her  
You don't want this to be your first kiss.

The light would click off of him and onto Jack. "But Stuart wore too much make-up, which would have made him a potential victim for our next contestant, Jack the Ripper. He was reviled. Feared. Infamous. An artist! He was never caught or even identified, so how do you imagine I knew what he looked like to make this figure?" I would wait for a moment and get right next to a member of the crowd. "I don't. That is merely a drifter I killed and dipped in the wax."

The light would switch again to the Boston Stranger. "We do know what this fellow looked like, however. The Boston Strangler, Albert Fish, cut a swath through Beantown decades ago. You'll note he has pantyhose on his head?" I would ask a man in the crowd. "How do you expect those were used?" The man would invariable stutter in stammer, so I would cut him off, saying, "That is sick, sir! He used them to strangle women to death. Don't be a pervert."

The light would finally go to the seated figure of Lizzy Borden. "This last figure is the lovely, the delicate femme fatale Lizzy Borden. She was actually acquitted of all charges in the axe murder of her parents. And as we know, OJ, if you are acquitted, you didn't kill anyone. However," I amended spreading my fingers into wide cups before me, "I worked very hard on her. Very hard, if you catch my drift. It's a lonely job, you see."

All lights would shut off and I would dash behind the crowd to say, "But one thing is not yet perfect about my figures. Killers need victims. Don't they, Stuart?"

By this time, an teenage actor dressed in Stuart Halls orange jumpsuit and diamond clown makeup would have spun from behind the mannequin. He would lunge at the crowd while I would quietly integrated myself in and generally be creepy, mumbling and staring at people to usher them into a room with a fifteen-year-old with the aforementioned corroded face, who would scream at them as though she were fighting with an errant split personality and slam her hand onto the table until I was certain she gave herself a stress fracture.

This was to be my first and only night at the Mansion. I love the place and love this one opportunity to act improvisationally, but I am getting to be too old for the rest of the actors. Worse, I really do want to do things with my friends more than I want to terrify children, the affliction of the aged. Had I the ability to entrance one of my close friends into volunteering to terrify people six or so hours a night every weekend for a month, I would have much greater motivations. But everyone has jobs that are prohibitively full time or spouses and children to which they must attend. So the Mansion becomes the kingdom of the kiddies as I focus on being a groomsman or heal up from teaching all week.

Sub Marine

I have begun subbing, which is significantly less of a problem than one would be led to believe. For the most part, I just have to keep the students engaged in what they are supposed to be doing. My first day, that entailed preventing the sixth grade students from exploding with laughter when giving the necessary answer "types of balls." I failed with my first attempt and just had to tell them that they were lame for laughing. With my second class, I made them promise that they were mature human beings before turning over the worksheet to that problem. They were baffled until I made them give me the answer, at when point I stifled the titters by saying, "But you promised!"

Yesterday, today, and for the rest of the week, I am a music teacher at a district elementary school. I am privileged in that this district is huge and I am therefore much in demand. I could very easily make this a full time job. All I need to do is sign onto a website and click that I accept a job. There is indeed a section for jobs for which I have been specifically requested which is a bit bracing given that this is my third day as a sub. Apparently I have immediately earned a good reputation by doing very little.

Aside from trying to teach a chorus class with no CD, a locked piano, and nil musical skill, I have done nothing more trying than shushing kids while watching the first thirty-five minutes of Shrek for the fourth time. I will repeat this with a different group of kids today, trying to coerce second graders to sing Smashmouth from the opening credits. For this, I will be richly rewarded with the ability to continue to pay rent.

When I entered my classroom today to put down my lunch (cleverly disguised as a messenger bag, which is much more professional than a paper sack) there was a blonde girl sitting and writing a lesson plan. I smiled the demur smirk of someone with no name who will be in a different school come Monday. She nodded acknowledgement. Then we both looked at one another again and realized we were old friends.

My connection to the girl in question is not strong. I had not seen her in years and even before that, we only spoke in passing. My strongest link to her is having kissed her chastely a few dozen times when we were in middle school and the memory of her liking Ace of Base more than Live. Of course, she was thirteen at the time and is a decade older now. She may no longer prefer Ace of Base. I did not ask.

She is a music teacher in the district, though blessed by having to drive all around the county to teach music every day. She still as the same voice I remember, cutely squeaky in the nicest possible way. In many ways, she seems little removed from the girl she once was. Her hair is a bit shorter and her face a trifle longer, but she is Carolyn. She is back in Beacon living with her parents, I estimated, and appreciating the arrangement exactly as much as one would imagine. Free food and shelter do not compare to freedom of movement for most over the age of twenty.

I wonder how I must look to her. Am I much divorced from the fourteen-year-old who swam in her pool so long ago?

Ugliest Little Boy

What constitutes an omen? I feel not unlike my character Shane even asking the question. Either everything is a miracle or nothing is.

Our Samhain ritual was focused on increasing my awareness of the goings on with the other plane. Emily did not feel that is was likely or appropriate to zap me with awareness all at once, were it even possible. Such things rarely end well in movies and we cannot expect reality to behave better.
We should always trick-or-treat  
Well, I think she's cute.

I was supposed to have received answers within the night, omens guiding me to the next step. Beyond a sleeping man with his mouth wide, I cannot report that Halloween brought anything particularly off-putting or noteworthy.

During the ritual itself - carefully picked out over a meal of buffet Chinese food - I stared at Emily by candlelight and watched her features morph. She would have no eyes one moment and then seemed desperately sad the next. Often she was not herself and I could not intellectualize who she was to resemble. It could all have been optical illusions, but that is the nature of witchcraft.

Most of the time, things have to be written off as tricks of the light or coincidence because the mind recoils at the idea that it could be anything more. Even for me, one who has called himself a witch since he was eleven, magic is far harder to swallow than obscure science. Ideas of "Jungian Unconscious" and "untapped potential of the human mind" flick through my head, but I can justify what I think with what I feel.

Emily told me that she thinks this will be our last year trick-or-treating. Despite still getting carded going into R-rated movies, she feels she is getting too old. None of this is to insinuate that she loves the idea of it any less, merely that she had a hard time justifying still trick-or-treating a decade after most people stop for fear of being seen by their peers as immature. As I had to hide my face for fear that I would be begging for candy from children I taught, I cannot wholly fault this logic. I don't even like candy anymore.

Next year at Halloween, barring the hand of fate, I will be married. We thought Keilaina did not join us in our beggary this year for that very reason, though it had more to do with the fact that she was working late. People who trick-or-treat generally don't hold down full time jobs.
Wicked Cristin and FrankenZack  
He was made for her.

Still, trick-or-treating was not without its charms. Based on her covered hair and painted black face, one woman did call Emily "the ugliest little boy ever," which she seemed to imagine was a compliment. And on this night of all, it may well be.

I can't help but love this season and it has nothing to do with the fact that I am a tree-hugging dirt worshiper. The creepiness and unreality of it makes it well worth a month's devotion. It seems like the sort of holiday that resulted from a series of mistranslations. How else does a culture end up feeding greasy chocolates to diminutive demons threatening vandalism and delinquency if not appeased? At least America can tack it onto an ancient Celtic holiday that is the subject of hilarious Chick Tracts. The English celebrate an arsonist who tried to blow up Parliament with a suspiciously similar festival, which makes as much sense as holding parades for other attempted acts of terrorism. And isn't the season all about terror and explosions anyway?

No? It's not? Hm.
Death takes a vacation  
The little death

Days before the day itself and unaccompanied by Emily, who was kicking ninja butt in Florida, I attended a Halloween party given at the house of Rachel, a thin and pretty girl whom I knew in high school. I arrived sans costume, assuming that it would be far better to be the one guy not in a costume rather than the one guy who hadn't gotten the memo that this wasn't a costume party. Everyone else was in costume and I gravitated immediately to the side of FrankenZack's monster and Cristin the Wicked Witch of the Northeast.

"Where is your costume?" Zack immediately asked.

"I'm Reverse Dorian Gray. Somewhere, there is a picture of me getting younger and prettier." I later tried to persuade Zack to let me be the Doctor Frankenstein to his Monster, but he seemed to like being a freelance monster.

The person whom I found most intriguing at the party was a girl who was entirely covered in a Death costume. I did not even know it was a girl until informed that Death was the girlfriend of a boy I knew in high school. I merely thought the tiny corpse puppet on her hand was cute. She laughed behind her skull and proclaimed that I was the first person to ever consider the puppet adorable.

Turning to Zack, who was setting up The Musical Chairs's equipment, I said, "You know, the day will come that she spots me at the mall and insists I met her at this party and I'm just going to have to tell her that I never met anyone by her description."

When else in your everyday life can you think or say something like that? Sure, maybe you don't know the guy dressed as Santa at your company's Christmas party, but that doesn't even rate with a girl dressed as the anthropomorphization of death with a grinning corpse on her hand. Halloween should come more often.

Soon in Xenology: Housewarming. Ouija.

last watched: The Aristocrats
reading: Nine Stories
listening: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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