Byron's invite stated quite clearly that he was expecting guests to make a bit of effort with their costumes this year, and he'd said more or less the same directly to Bess. Last year's Halloween party had been poorly attended due to torrential subtropical rain. I recall about eight of us showing up and I was wearing a sardonic t-shirt purchased from the local supermarket bearing the slogan this is my costume. I like to think that I was playfully questioning the medium of the Halloween party, obliging it to examine itself in a post-structuralist context, but I guess Byron didn't see it that way.
'Fuck it,' I said to myself whilst cycling to McAllister Park on the Wednesday morning. 'Why not?'
I don't really do fancy dress, or parties for that matter; and when I've made an exception I've historically regretted it, or at least spent most of the time wishing I were somewhere else. I once turned up to a costume party thrown by my friend Carl in work clothes. I was a postman at the time so I just wore the uniform, telling anyone who asked that I'd come as Sid James as seen in Carry On Postman, embellishing the conceit with an impersonation of Sid's distinctive laugh; and in case anyone feels inclined to check, no, regrettably there was never any such film as Carry On Postman.
On the other hand - so ran my train of thought on the aforementioned Wednesday morning - being fifty, I'd long since forgotten what the problem had been, so fuck it.
Cycling back from McAllister Park, I stopped to have a look around the local Goodwill, a charity shop large enough to house several fighter jets, should Randolph Air Force Base be having a spring clean. I figured I'd see something ridiculous which I could buy and wear, or which might at least provide inspiration. I saw a few decent looking suit jackets and a large cuddly tiger with such a winning smile that I found it really difficult to leave the store without buying him, but otherwise nothing seemed to suggest itself.
On the other side of the parking lot from HEB - the local supermarket to which I was ultimately headed - I noticed that an ordinarily vacant retail premises had once again been turned into a Halloween store. Once again because this is a yearly occurrence, the retail equivalent of tumbleweed or those fish suddenly born to puddles formed in the desert after rainfall, living just long enough to leave fertilised eggs drying in the mud, ready for next year's wet season. The Halloween store was full of costumes - Abraham Lincoln, Snooki from Jersey Shore, Spiderman; for just fifty dollars or thereabouts I might be instantly transformed into any of these through the magic of flimsy one-shot items of clothing and related accessories secured by elastic. I'd never been in this kind of store, so I found it weird and fascinating. I had no intention of purchasing one of these complete pre-packaged party identities. I was planning to improvise my costume, whatever it was. I just needed inspiration, some prop I could combine with whatever I already had at home.
The prop turned out to be a fake turban and a long grey false beard provided so as to effect transformation into a person of Indian or perhaps Arabic decent, a Muslim, you know - one of those people. Ignoring the obvious alarm bells, I decided I could combine these props with a kaftan and goatskin sandals brought back from Morocco and attend the party as Osama bin Laden. I made my purchase, then picked up a pack of party balloons in HEB along with the usual groceries.
Once home, I inflated one of the balloons and spent a day or two turning it into a bomb by means of papier mâché, acrylic paint, and a length of twine - specifically the kind of bomb wielded by villains in silent cinema or the Spy vs. Spy cartoons in Mad magazine, an ominous black sphere with a fuse and the word bomb painted across it in block capitals.
Next day I picked up an assault rifle from Walmart, a child's toy costing ten dollars. It was bright green and came as part of Kid Connection's Military Action Play Set recommended for ages five and upwards. I think it was supposed to light up and make a noise but the batteries were dead. I stood in the store reading the box.
Kid Connection toys are kid-approved and built for fun. Easy to understand with no complicated instructions, these durable toys keep you and your children happy. Day after day, smile after smile.
It's a fucking gun, I thought, which had obviously also occurred to the good people at Kid Connection:
Warning: This product may be mistaken for an actual firearm by law enforcement officers and others. Altering any state or federal required marking or coloration in order to make products appear more realistic and/or brandishing or displaying the product in public is dangerous and may be a crime.
To be honest, this bright green plastic toy was about as unrealistic a firearm as could be imagined without actually being the inflatable M16 I'd seen in the Halloween store marketed as Tony Montana's weapon of choice from Scarface; and in a country where Andre Burgess was shot by a federal agent whilst brandishing a gun which turned out to be the silver wrapper of a Three Musketeers candy bar, is it really going to make any difference?
The assault rifle came with a tiny plastic hand grenade and a similarly bright green handgun. It lacked any sort of carrying strap so I improvised one from velcro and the detachable strap of a holdall. Next day I noticed a far superior kiddie assault rifle in less lurid colours on sale in HEB for the same price. Aware of how seriously I was beginning to take this project, I didn't buy it.
I told my wife I was going to the party as Osama bin Laden, showing her the novelty turban and beard. She seemed initially shocked, then amused. 'Wouldn't you say that's a bit er...'
'I'm not going to black up, if that's where you think I'm headed.'
'Well, if you're sure.'
I'd considered all of this, wondering what distinguished me from minor royals dressed as Nazi stormtroopers on the cover of the Daily Mail. The point was shock and chuckles, I told myself just as Prince Gingerbollocks had doubtless told himself; but I've known many turbaned gentlemen, some of them Muslim, and I quite like Islam on the whole, in an admittedly wishy-washy liberal sense. I suppose I might potentially piss off the more redneck elements of the party, this being Texas and all - disgruntled fatties I imagined stumbling angrily towards me mumbling something about the twin towers and how I damn well better respect something or other. I suppose I liked this idea. Not to intellectualise a Halloween costume, but the problem with the political climate in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre as I see it is that Osama bin Laden is remembered as a cackling mediaeval demon, a silent cinema caricature clutching a comedy bomb and twirling his moustache. He hated us and that's all we need to know. God forbid that we should ever try to understand the situation, or what drives those we term terrorists to do what they do, or that we should recognise a political landscape of any complexity greater than what you'll find in a Batman comic.
So that's what I told myself.
'I wasn't going to bother,' Bess said, 'but now I feel I have to make the effort.'
Saturday arrives and we attend the party as Osama bin Laden with his bomb and his bright green assault rifle, and Mrs. bin Laden by virtue of a burqa my wife has improvised from various scarves. I have my bright green handgun in a shoulder bag along with four bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale.
Junior wears his gas mask, a hooded cloak, and a novelty AC/DC t-shirt featuring not images of the Australian heavy rock band but Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. He tells us that he is Timeshare Man, which is something derived from his own private mythology. About a year ago he took to asking people if they would like to buy a timeshare, because he finds it hilarious for reasons which probably make sense when you're twelve.
'Would you like to know where the timeshare came from?' he asked us one day in tones promising a rare glimpse into the mind of a comedy genius.
'Yes,' we said. 'Please tell us.'
He described his hiding behind some door at school, then asking the next person to open the door whether or not they would like to buy a timeshare. I started to explain that this was simply an account of the first instance of his cracking the supposed joke and as such provided little insight into either its origination or why he considered it funny, but I gave up, recognising my enquiry as pointless. Junior does what he does unburdened by either disingenuous humility or an excess of self-awareness, and it's just how he is. It's not uncommon for his jokes to be supplemented with spoken appendices regarding how funny they were and how well he told them.
I really liked it when I said that.
Byron has as usual gone to obsessional lengths to decorate his house with the trappings of Halloween, and no rubbish either. The front room is a clutter of animated skulls, tiny haunted houses dispensing ghoulish noises, portrait paintings which become skeletal at a specific angle. Junior's contribution is the question would you like to buy a timeshare? painted on the door to the bathroom, and now here he is to complete the picture in his gas mask and his cloak and his hood, making hilarious sense mainly to himself. I'd suggest he's come as the general concept of trying too hard, but I don't wish to seem uncharitable given how much pleasure this bewildering timeshare schtick obviously brings him.
It turns out that Roger has come as a pimp - purple suit with zebra pattern trimmings and a huge floppy hat. There's something which makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable about the only black man at the party having dressed as an ethnic stereotype, but maybe that's what he was going for. He mentions something about Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch but it's okay. I get it, and I appreciate that it somehow takes the heat off me. No-one is going to expect either of us to explain ourselves, because it's a Halloween party not a thread on a self-important internet bulletin board.
It's only just gone six, still light, and not many people here, so we make our way out onto the decking and talk to Byron's parents and his brother. Byron's parents, for the sake of reference, may represent the closest I've come to meeting real life Ewings - as seen on the television show Dallas during the days of Ron and Nancy. Their fortune is founded on oil somewhere back in the depths of time, but there the resemblance more or less ends. They're sharp, quick-witted but personable, and despite that they might legitimately regard me as some sort of cuckoo rather than a mere stepfather, they seem to think I'm great. Jay, the brother, has been living in Austin whilst studying for what I understand to be a position in the Episcopalian Church. I ask him how it's been going. His answer seems to take the form of a protest, although I'm not sure against what because I don't quite follow what he's telling me beyond that no, he's not yet doing whatever vicars do full-time.
Bruce and Lori turn up as respectively a demon and an angel, personifying a moral balance which Lori probably jeopardises whilst allowing me to cadge a ciggie. Time has passed and it's dark and we're all gathered under the trellises Byron has built in the rear part of the garden. He's growing grape vines up the supports. He's going to make wine, and in keeping with the ambience I'm on my second bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. It's going to my head because I don't ordinarily drink so much, or even at all. I don't smoke either, but I ask Lori if she can spare one because the moment seems right. I spend a second wondering what the acceptable American for gi's a fag might be, knowing it almost certainly won't be that. I'm unable to recall any scene of Humphrey Bogart helpfully scrounging snouts, so I try could you spare a cigarette, which is a bit like buddy, can you spare a dime?
It works, and thankfully I don't enjoy smoking it anything like as much as I thought I would, which at least means that this isn't me relapsing.
Bruce has turned himself into a demon simply by affixing two small horns to his forehead with adhesive. The horns really suit him, which is weird, although it's probably fitting that he's now telling us about some home brewed alcoholic concoction known by the delightful name of Thunderfuck.
'What's Everclear?' I ask, recognising the brand name from somewhere. 'Is that pure alcohol?'
Turner, who seems to know about these things, nods. My guess came from the context in that we seem to be talking about moonshine, or something like it, relating anecdotal instances of its distillation by agency of Everclear. I assume it's like the bottle of pure alcohol I nicked from the college chemistry department so I could clean the workings of my tape recorder, but it's alcohol brewed from corn and sold for human consumption in all but the nine states which have banned it.
Bruce made a batch of something called Thunderfuck at some point of his college years, and everyone else sat at the table beneath the trellis has a similar story.
I make it through a third Newcastle Brown and realise I'm drunk, or at least more light headed than I've been in years. It's quite a nice feeling, but it also means I'm done for the evening. Thankfully my wife is similarly partied out so we gather up Timeshare Man and head home. The hour, which we anticipate as being around ten or eleven in the evening, is half past eight. I've spent just two-and-a-half hours as Osama bin Laden, and it was a lot of fun.