Who is the Boy in the Stop Sign?

Halloween in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 197(?)

I came across this picture by chance, while loading photos from last weekend’s Halloween shindig onto iPhoto.

Halloween in Fort Lee, NJ, circa, I think, 1974.

There was that tug of nostalgia as my mind gathered scattered fragments of longago.

I remembered the broomstick my dad persuaded in through one sleeve, across my back and out through the other. How uncomfortable it was, forcing itself against my shoulder blades, prodding me to be much more upright than I felt. I soon figured out a way to twist my wrists and rest my gloved palms flat on the top of it and kind of hang there, just like a scarecrow would.

My dad was always great with costumes. He liked to let his creative side out – he also made busts of grey plasticine that stood on flat wood offcuts on the dining room table, next to the typewriter and the stacks of white pages which were his real work. They never really hardened, those busts. I guess he would pinch them and change them continually, shape and improve them whenever he needed a break from writing. They looked vaguely presidential. Mt Rushmore men, but only one at a time.

I remembered the scratchy feel of the straw he stuffed in between the broomstick and my skin, bulking me up inside my jacket, trailing out of my pockets, bursting from the tear he made in the knees of my jeans. I have a shadow sense of the illicit thrill when he ripped that hole in a pair of perfectly good pants – although I guess they must have already been too small for me. My dad liked to dress me in too-big clothes, so they would last.

To be a child is to be continually outgrowing.

I liked the way he tassled the bottoms of my pants. Maybe I wanted them to look like the ones the real scarecrow wore on his way to get a brain from Oz.

I remember how impressed I was with the leaves he pinned onto the outside of my jacket — right over my heart, like a badge.

And then I remembered something else.

When I look at that hat, I remember how we found it that morning in the walk-in cupboard in my parents’ bedroom. The bedroom that was now only his, because my mother had left.

‘Run off’, I think is the term they use, when someone leaves to be with someone else. They never seem to depart slowly, in those cases. For good reason, I suppose.

She must not have taken all of her clothes, or maybe she just took the winter ones she would need for the next few months. She’d left that hat behind. The turquoise felt smelt of her, of Joy perfume and scalp.

I think I remember my father’s mouth tightening into that don’t-think-about-it-don’t-talk-about-it straight line while we rummaged through her things.

And when I look at my face in this picture, under the shadow of that turquoise hat, I think my face is trying not to say the same thing. But failing, miserably.

And then (because it is better to be somewhere else) I wonder: who is the boy in front of me, the one wearing the stop sign? Did I know him? Were we standing together or just randomly in the same line?

I wonder what his face is like, under that mask.  If I knew that, then. Is his avatar an ironic take on his family situation. (Was mine?) Whose idea was it? Who helped him put his costume together, who constructed that imperfect octagon, painted it red and white, with a slit for eyes. What is he holding there, so tight in his pockets, besides gloved hands?

What was it, if anything, that he wanted to stop?

Some feelings you can outgrow. Others just keep on going.