The storm woke me at three in the morning, and of course my first thought was that some of the cats were still outside. Being cats they would have found shelter, and would most likely all be huddled together on the porch, staring wide-eyed into the torrential darkness. We're in the city, but you could be fooled into thinking otherwise after sun has set. We have street lighting, but not much of it, and our houses are all built some way apart because if Texas has anything in abundance, then it's room in which to sprawl. The darkness can sometimes seem profound, a somehow more fundamental prospect than the harsh sodium orange of English cities after dark.
Anyway, I got out of bed to let them all in. The rain was briefly deafening as I held the porch door, something approaching Biblical volume. This was not of itself unusual. South Texas rainfall is either a misty drip or chapters six and seven of the Book of Genesis.
This brief rising was enough to disrupt my sleep, and so I wake late on the morning of October the 31st - Halloween. It's Saturday so I do my usual stuff, just a little later than is my general habit. I head out on my bike for the sake of exercise but some of the trail is underwater, as it tends to be for a day or so in the wake of a storm. Towards the end of the afternoon we get ourselves ready for Byron's Halloween party. Ordinarily we would have taken Junior out trick or treating - a tradition which makes a lot more sense to me now that I live in the US - but it seems pretty clear that trick or treat will be most likely rained off this year.
In England I recall the conspicuously imported tradition as either pitiful or annoying, depending on whether you're the kid scouring street after freezing street looking for just one house where it doesn't look like they'll tell you to piss off, or whether you're the disgruntled resident either ignoring the knock at the door or else telling the caller to piss off. It doesn't really make sense unless nearly everyone is involved, and so we usually take Junior over to Alamo Heights where entire streets become the sets for Universal horror pictures of the thirties for just one night, lawns covered with fake tombstones, inflatable zombies, life-size plastic skeletons dangling from every branch, and usually the resident family of witches, werewolves, and Frankensteins sat waiting on the porch, ready to dish out the sweeties. The tradition is frankly ludicrous, and that's kind of the point, and what makes it so enjoyable, weather permitting.
Junior isn't his actual name, but it's what I call him on the internet for the usual reasons. Byron is his father, or my wife's first husband if you prefer. I never imagined that we would get on, but Byron is one of those people whom it's very difficult to dislike, no matter how hard you try. Were the two of us to find ourselves trapped in a lift for a couple of hours, we might struggle for conversation after thirty minutes or so, but this is only to acknowledge our differences and should not be taken as a judgement of character. I've never been a party animal, and Byron tends to throw parties with some frequency simply because he's a naturally generous guy. He likes to be surrounded by people, and he likes to see that everyone is enjoying themselves; and so once again I am forcing myself to move in the general direction of a party. It seems like the right thing to do.
Junior has decided he is going as an empty child from Doctor Who, essentially a sinister schoolboy in a gas mask from wartime London. The three of us are also chalked up to attend a comic book convention in Durham, North Carolina later in the month, so Junior's Halloween costume will get several outings. Bess ordered a gas mask through the mail and we were able to cobble together just enough of the right sort of clothing to pass him off as a schoolboy of fifty years past from a different country. He looks pretty good.
We get into the car and drive to Byron's house, a journey of a mile or so through Alamo Heights. Junior sits in the back, gas mask pushed up to his forehead, building on his empty child routine - variations on are you my mummy?, which the creature asks over and over in the television show. I've find the most recent era of Doctor Who irritating and so have to walk a fine conversational line, engaging with the boy without succumbing to my customary sarcasm.
'You know, that costume could probably work just as well if you'd decided to go as Harry Potter,' I suggest.
There is a pause of the usual length as Junior's gears grind out some fresh observation. They're not all gems, or anything like as funny as he thinks they are, but he's on top of his game this time.
'Then I'm going as the Empty Harry Potter.'
We chuckle for the rest of the journey as the boy overeggs this latest pudding, hammering the joke into the ground - despite which it remains funny.
The rain is coming down again, and we are the first to arrive at Byron's house.
'Are you my mummy?' Junior enquires in greeting.
'Come in,' says his father, sighing.
Each table, ledge and mantle piece, every surface but for the one on which the food is arranged is home to some horror novelty. Plastic spiders hang from the ceiling, and an entire town of tiny Lovecraftian dwellings runs along the sideboard, each one sheltering some gruesome animatronic scenario within its illuminated interior, like Insane Clown Posse versions of the nativity. Plastic skulls sit on top of cabinets and cupboards, motion sensors prompting each to its own gruesome pre-recorded promise from beyond the grave as we pass. We load our plates with cheese, sausage, olives and the like, and stand munching at the hatch while Byron labours within the kitchen, preparing more for his guests to eat when they arrive. It turns out that we are actually a little early.
Mickey and Minnie Mouse arrive. Minnie is very convincing, although Mickey seems more like some guy Byron might know from either rodeos or barbecue tournaments who just happens to be out in mouse ears on this one occasion. Byron runs a barbecue team. They have a couple of trailers and turn up to cook at all sorts of public events. His cooking is impressive and he's won a string of awards.
Next to arrive are Duffman, the beer-themed superhero from The Simpsons, and a day of the dead Muertita, apparently also a local television newsreader, although I probably wouldn't recognise her even without the skeletal face paint.
Bess, Minnie, and myself sit at the hatch on tall stools as the kitchen fills with barbecue experts. There is a large flat-screen television mounted high up on the kitchen wall and it's tuned to a barbecue programme with some guy making a pit out of an old propane tank. The men assembled in the kitchen have all fallen silent, as they watch the propane tank being sawn in half. I realised that I too am transfixed by this, and have even begun to consider the practicalities of making culinary equipment out of an old propane tank. I think this means I've gone native, which I suppose isn't too surprising given that I've been here nearly five years.
Minnie rolls her eyes as the guy on the screen works his retractable tape measure and goes into unnecessary detail.
'That's so anal,' she observes.
'You like what?' Mickey deadpans his comic concern with perfect timing.
At least three of us burst out laughing.
Crash. Crash. Crash.
A skeletal Halloween version of the toy monkey who bashes a couple of cymbals together does its thing at the far end of the lounge, possibly activated by the sudden laughter. We are all momentarily startled.
'You made the monkey clap!' Minnie scolds her husband.
Bruce and Lori are next to arrive. They have come as characters from The Maltese Falcon. The next few guests are people to whom I've almost certainly been introduced at some point or another but can't quite remember in detail, even were I able to recognise them behind the face paint. They are a vampire accompanied by the Black Widow from the Avengers, and then it all becomes confusing and crowded. We leave, feeling a little more stuffed than seems healthy, but happy to at least have made the effort. A flood warning is issued on the news channel, and we are home just before nine.