We move to the country when I am eight, and we have to take the bus to school. The Catholic kids sit up front and the public kids in the back. All the Catholic kids are let off at St. Francis Catholic School, and the rest of us walk a block and a half to the public school. On the way past St. Francis, I put my fingers through the chain-link fence and watch to see how the Catholic kids play. I notice they play a lot like us, but I know in that church they had other games, games like Catechism, some weird cross between catacombs and hypnotism. And the girls run about all in their plaid dresses and the boys in their blue shorts and white shirts. I wonder if when Halloween comes, they all have to be little plaid witches, and holy ghosts with short pants and white shirts.


Suddenly . . . whap! A ruler strikes my fingers through the fence.


“Nuns! Run for your lives, it’s the Nuns!”


So when Halloween arrives and Mom asks me what I wanted to be, I pick the most frightening thing I can think of. I say, “A nun. I wanna be a nun.”


“No,” she says. “Kevin, nuns are peaceful, God-fearing people.”


Was she brainwashed, or what?


“A monk? Then can I be a monk?”


“Yes, that’s fine.”


For some reason a monk was okay.


I wasn’t that keen on being a monk. When selecting a Halloween costume, I always liked to choose what I feared most, in hopes of overcoming the terror by living inside the feared thing’s skin. A monk didn’t fit my criteria.


My brother always picked a costume to try out another way to exact vengeance on the human race. One year we both went as Richard Nixon.


Another year he went as the devil . The costume was a plastic mask and red suit from the drugstore. After he got the candy, he said, “Thank you. I’ll see you in hell.” He never said it like a threat, more like, “See ya later.” Then he stood in the doorway; his happy little blue eyes peering from inside the mask. The effect was unnerving. Neighbors were calling for days wondering if Steven was mad at them for some reason, and whatever that reason was, they were sorry.


This year he is a Choctaw warrior. Mostly because he likes the word “Choctaw.”


So, I am a reluctant monk, and my brother is a Choctaw warrior, out for trick or treat. We are not happy. Now that we live in the country, there are only two houses within walking distance. About a block from our house, I turn and see my mom is nowhere in sight. I flip my hood around, pull up my white turtleneck with the hole cut in the throat, and presto chango, I am a nun. I laugh out a guttural “Ave Maria” and sing “Climb every mountain” and “Dominique, ’nique, ’nique.” I have a ruler hidden in my sock. Look out world, now it’s the nun and the Choctaw warrior.


We arrive at the first home and knock on the door. A woman comes to the door.


“Trick or treat.”


“Oh, trick or treat. Well, look at you. What are you?”


My brother says something completely unintelligible, and then looks at me.


“He says he is a Choctaw warrior, you silly white woman,” I translate.


“Heavens, and you?”


“A n-u-u-u-u-u-un, hahahahaha. Ave Maria!” I whip the ruler out of my sock and strike a pose.


She says, “What?”


“A nun.”


“But nuns are peaceful, God-fearing creatures.”


She was brainwashed, just like Mom.


Then this lady takes out a huge bowl of candy, dumps half of it into my bag and the other half into my brother’s bag, and says, “It’s so nice to have children in the area.” She closes the door and she’s gone. We’ve only been to one house and we have full bags of candy. We still have another house to go! The nun and the Choctaw warrior are now dancing down the street.


“Oh,” my brother drops to his knees and cries, “we should have brought the UNICEF cans.”


We next arrive at a dilapidated old farmhouse. All the lights are off and the windmill in the yard squeaks as it turns in the cold, gray wind. Spooky. I knock on the door. It opens, crrreeeeaaaakkk, and there, sitting in his front hallway, is Mr. Mershing. Mr. Mershing has pulled his La-Z-Boy recliner to the front door, and next to him is an end table, and on the end table are two jars of pickles. One jar is marked “edible.” And the other is marked “Halloween.”




“Trick or trea . . .”


“Oh, trick or treat,” says Mr. Mershing. “Well, do you boys like pickles?”


“We love pickles. We can eat a million pickles.”


“Oh, you can eat a million pickles?”


“A million, more or less.”


“Well, how about one of theeeeesse?” And Mr. Mershing takes the jar marked “Halloween,” unscrews the rusty lid, reaches into the jar, pulls out a pickle, and sets it on the table. These are the largest and most unnaturally green pickles I have ever seen. Mr. Mershing hands one pickle to me and one to my brother, licks his fingers, and rasps, “There you go, boys, and you can have as many as you want, but you must eat them all in front of meeeeeeeeee.”


No problem. My brother and I take our pickles, “Cheers,” and start in.


I take a large bite, and . . . and . . . ahhhhh, it’s so hot. Ahhhh, my eyes are watering, my forehead itches and I have a smile on my face, but not because I’m happy. It’s because my cheek muscles are pinching so hard my lips are trying to crawl around the back of my head. My brother has a smile too, but he isn’t happy either. I cough, wheeze, and finally choke down the rest of the pickle.


Mr. Mershing says, “Would you like another?”


“Of course we would. Pickles are supposed to hurt like this.”


We eat pickle after pickle, Mr. Mershing laughing the whole time. At one point he joins in, chomping on a scarylooking gherkin and sweating and crying and choking right along with us.


And every Halloween we return to see who can eat the most Mershing pickles.


Then one year, Mr. Mershing stops handing out pickles. They’re building a house where his garden used to be, another building where his house used to be. I ask my mom what happened to him. She tells me, “Kevin, Mr. Mershing was a farmer. He had lived in that house and worked that land his entire life, until the city started to move out here. Then his taxes rose so high Mr. Mershing couldn’t afford his land anymore. And that’s when they found him in his garage.”


Had he killed himself? I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.


The next year my brother and I tote full bags of candy from the housing development that has sprung up in the area. At Mr. Mershing’s farm, the house where his garden used to be is finished, and there is a new restaurant where the farmhouse used to be. 


My brother and I sit in the restaurant parking lot. I say, “I wish Mr. Mershing were here.”


My brother says, “Me, too. Maybe he is.” I ask him if he is afraid. He says, “No.”


I’m not either. I know if there is a ghost it’ll be Mr. Mershing. My brother reaches into his bag and pulls out a jar of pickles he’s brought from home. “How about one of theeeeese?”


And we sit on the curb eating pickles, waiting for Mr. Mershing. I’m sure to anyone driving by, it just looked like two Richard Nixons sitting in a parking lot eating pickles.