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Costumes: What’s below the surface?

During our renovation we peeled back the layers of our kitchen and made some discoveries.

We uncovered the original wallpaper from the 1960s that had lurked behind our cupboards all along.

When we knocked out a pantry, we found tile of the same vintage.

Removing some drywall showed us it that had never been properly attached to 2 x 4s as crooked as Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick.

We also found inadequate insulation and . . . creative . . . electrical wiring. Our kitchen had worn a costume that covered up unseen details and flaws. 

A beautiful costume is important, but it’s only as good as what’s below the surface. At Hallowe’en we are fixing all the problems and preparing a new costume for a brighter, more open, more functional and safer kitchen.

When it’s finished, we’ll love the new costume—and what’s below the surface too.

 

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Have fun with Hallowe’en

I am a “fun” Hallowe’en person, not a “scary” Hallowe’en person. I like clever pumpkins, candy, and cute kids on my doorstep yelling “Trick or Treat.”

This is one of my Hallowe’en creations this year: the three little pigs and the big bad wolf.

3-pigs-and-a-wolf

Last year, I made certain the cute trick-or-treating kids knew how to find the candy.

halloween-pumpkinHave a fun Hallowe’en!

Hallowe’en: Tickle Trunks and Friendly Giants

In a Hallowe’en store this week, the clerk selling me the cape for my son’s costume (Superman, NA NA NANA NA NA NA, Superman) asked me what my costume would be this year. I said, “I’m not sure. I’ll dig through what we have in the basement and find something.”

“We have a tickle trunk full of costumes in our basement too,” she said.

The clerk was about 20 years old, so I thought she would not know about Mr. Dressup’s tickle trunk. I said, “I’m so happy to hear you use that term. I thought you were a little young to know that show.”

“What show?” she said.

I explained Mr. Dressup to her, and told her to look him up. “I will,” she said. “I had no idea. I just thought “tickle trunk” was what you called a costume box.”

Thank you, Mr. Dressup, for coining a timeless phrase.

The conversation triggered memories about other children’s shows. There’s no better way to celebrate Hallowe’en than with the wonderful opening to the Friendly Giant, Hallowe’en edition.

A Hallowe’en short story: “Ruby Slippers”

My short story, “Ruby Slippers,” was published last summer in DESCANT magazine. The offbeat story made it into their “Summer Subversions” edition—enough said about what to expect when you read it.

I set “Ruby Slippers” in an embalming room, so I thought it would make good Hallowe’en reading.  Enjoy.

“Ruby Slippers”

© Arlene Somerton Smith

Dead women really should wear ruby slippers. Kirk Brady learned that lesson on opening night of his Little Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz.

When the show wrapped at 10:12 p.m. to whistling applause, I lay on the embalming table at the Brady & Son Funeral Home. While the cast and crew warmed the bar stools at Finnegan’s Pub for hours after, Kirk’s father, Sean, prepared my body for my casket. I watched Sean touch me. Fingertips I had longed for in life found my tender, private places in death. Fluorescent light flickered beside me, around me, through me, in rhythm with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major—Sean’s favourite embalming music. He fastened the last cream silk button on my blouse, perched on a stool and held my hand. “Mary, I’m getting old,” he said. He smoothed my hair with a trembling hand that lingered in a gentle stroke of my cheek. His thumb caressed my lips. The living touch the dead in mysterious ways.

But the crowd at Finnegan’s was oblivious to all that. Everyone in the place was either part of the show or part of the audience. The Tin Man watched highlights of the Toronto Maple Leafs on CBC, the Cowardly Lion sank the 8-ball into a corner pocket, and Dorothy sat beside Kirk and their friend, Maggie, at the bar.

“Kirk, there’s no one else who could play Scarecrow like you. When you dance, straw flying everywhere, I can hardly keep a straight face.” Dorothy’s real-life persona, Brooke, hoisted her beer. “Here’s to the most . . . elastic . . . person in town.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Maggie said. “You do the full splits and then just rise up again. How do you do that?”

Kirk shrugged. “All my years as a goalie pay off at times like this, I guess.” He poured the dregs from the pitcher of Labatt Blue into his glass, drained it and set the empty on the bar. “I have to get going. I need my Scarecrow beauty sleep.” He gave the girls a half-salute/half-wave then turned to Ed Duncan, who stood behind the bar drawing a pitcher of Canadian for the Lollipop Guild. “I’ll be in at 11:00 for the lunch shift tomorrow,” Kirk said. Ed nodded and continued pouring without looking up.

The Wicked Witch of the West, her glass of vodka and cranberry half way to her mouth, watched Kirk all the way to the door. The Cowardly Lion leaned on his pool cue and savoured the view of Kirk’s firm buttocks weaving through the tables. Brooke shook her head. “There goes the best-looking, most confused scarecrow you’ll ever meet.”

“Yep.” Maggie nodded.

The clock in the town hall tower struck 1:00 a.m. as Kirk jaywalked across Conroy Street. He paused at the corner of Main Street in front of the new sign for Knox Presbyterian Church. Plastic letters slotted crookedly into place read: SOMETHING WE CANNOT SEE IS SOMETHING WE NEED MOST.  “Well,” he said. He tilted his head to one side and then the other. “I see the sign, so I guess I don’t need it.” He chortled to himself and sauntered toward the bridge.

His steps slowed and his smile faded as he crested the rise of the bridge. On the far river shore floodlights emblazoned the gold letters on the sign his father installed the month after Kirk was born: Brady & Son Funeral Home. Kirk sagged against the railing and looked down at the dark rapids. The river surged and frothed over jagged rocks then hurried downstream past the old flour mill that had been renovated to accommodate viewing rooms and a chapel.

Light shone through a small window beside the abandoned mill wheel. Kirk clenched his jaw, as I had seen him do many times in his life when this light told him his father was working late in the embalming room, or his father forgot about his game, or his father missed opening night.

Kirk pushed off from the railing and ambled toward the blazing Brady & Son. When he reached the old mill, he paused at a fork in the front walk. The glow of the sign lit up the left side of his face; darkness shadowed his right side. “There’s no place like home,” he said.

If he slipped in the front door, his father would not hear him, but Harry McLeod was laid out in Room 2 and Kirk shuddered at the thought of the darkened visitation room, Harry’s coffin and those creepy hands. “Bastard,” he muttered. But if he used the private residence side door by the embalming room, his father would hear him. Kirk considered his options: Harry McLeod, or his father. A dark room with a coffin, or his father. Those hands, or his father. Finally, he closed his eyes, sighed and walked to the side door.

The ancient hinges creaked as he stepped inside. Ahead of him, grooved wooden stairs climbed to their apartment. To his right, linoleum-covered steps led down to a door labelled “Preparation Room.”

“Kirk?”

He winced. “Yeah, it’s me.”

“Come on down. I want to see you.”

“I’m beat. Can it wait`til morning?”

“It’ll only take a minute.”

Kirk rubbed his temples and took a deep breath. “Okay, Dad.”

He tip-toed down the stairs, pushed open the door and stood outside the threshold. He knew my body lay on the steel table, but he could not look at me. Instead he examined the bottles of pink, purple and orange fluids. Dodge Inr-seel. Dodge Poze.

Sean Brady bent over the head of the table. He wasn’t as tall as his son—he didn’t quite crack six feet—but he had the same dark curls and green eyes. Silver highlights crept up his temples. He dabbed lotion onto gloved fingers and tenderly massaged my forehead and my cheeks, smoothed out lines, instilled peace.

The irritating odour of formaldehyde reached Kirk outside the door, and he screwed up his face and started to breathe through his mouth.

The irritating odour of stale beer reached Sean, and he wrinkled his nose. “God, you smell like the pub floor. You were at Finnegan’s?”

“Yeah. We were so wired after the show we went there to wind down.”

“Sorry I had to miss opening night. But, unfortunately, people don’t die conveniently.” He added another dab of cream to his hand and massaged my throat.

Kirk was poised to bolt, but after this direct reference to me and my condition he risked a quick glance at me. He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. He leaned against the door frame and watched his father’s fingers trace the line of my jaw. “Dad?”

“Yes?” Sean’s fingers moved up to circle my temples.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

His father straightened. “Do what?”

“This.” He nodded his head in my direction. “This.” He waved an arm to include the whole room. “This.” He waved both arms to include the building, the business, the entirety of it all. “I don’t know how you can do this. I mean, you knew her, really well. How can you do this?”

“All the more reason for me to do it. I can’t think of a more loving tribute.”

“I couldn’t do it. I need . . . I need . . .” Kirk searched the shelves of pink jars for answers. “I need people to smile when I’m around. I need people to be happy to see me.” He leaned into the room. “Like tonight,” he continued. “Tonight was amazing. Everything just clicked. The music was perfect. The voices were perfect. There was such an incredible feeling in the room. It was like we were all—the cast, the crew, the audience, everyone—all one.” He relaxed against the door frame again and grinned. “Even Toto hit his marks.

Sean walked to a cabinet against the wall and brought back a large fishing tackle box. He lifted the lid on a collection of heavy makeup and selected a beige cream foundation. “So, people were happy to see you tonight? You made people smile?”

“Everyone just fell apart when I did ‘If I Only Had a Brain.’”

Sean removed a clean makeup sponge from a glass jar and scooped a small amount of foundation onto it. “Show me.”

“What?”

“Show me. I’d like to see it.”

“Here?”

“Why not?”

“Dad, that’s just a little too weird. There’s a . . . I mean . . . with the body and everything.”

“Mary won’t mind. She likes the theatre.”

“Dad.”

“Come on. I’d like to see it on opening night.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Come on. I’d love it. There’s lots of room over  there. And good acoustics.” His father crossed the room to turn down the volume on Mozart.

“I think I might find it hard to get into character down here.”

“For a character with no brain, you sure do think a lot.”

Kirk stared at his father. Finally, he shrugged. “All right.” He crossed over to the far side of the room, between the jars of fluids and a large stainless steel sink, assumed a scarecrow stance and sang. His father sat on the stool beside me and enjoyed the singing-in-the-shower quality of Kirk’s voice in the embalming room acoustics. Kirk sang tentatively at first and then with more confidence, wrapping up his performance with the same full splits and rebound that had impressed Maggie.

Sean’s applause echoed. “Ah, that’s a goalie stretch if ever I’ve seen one.

Kirk bowed deeply then moved to a stool on the other side of the embalming table. “So, what do you think?”

“I think people will remember that performance for a long time,” he said, turning back to me to apply foundation. “But there are lots of different ways to make people remember you. And lots of different ways to make people smile.” He passed the sponge over my eyelids and worked the colour into the crow’s feet in the corners. “And, sometimes, something we need the most is right there, but we just can’t see it.”

Kirk narrowed his eyes. “Hey, did you see the new sign at the church?”

“No. Why?”

“No reason.”

Sean tossed the used sponge in the garbage beside the table and reached for the tackle box. He tested a pink blush against my face, but shook his head. His hand hovered over the other shades, finally choosing a wine colour. He selected the proper brush and applied shading to my cheekbones.

Kirk studied the professional ease of his father’s hand. “I’ve never seen you do this before, Dad. You’re good at it. You could do my stage make-up.”

“Oh, no. Do your own. You’ll need the practice,” his father said.

Kirk didn’t reply.

Sean replaced the blush and chose brown/black eyeliner. He moved in close and drew it across my left eyelid and then my right. The eyeliner brought the canvas of my face to life.

“Eyeliner,” Kirk said, “makes such a difference.” He ran a finger along his lower lid that still held a trace of liner missed in his hurried clean-up. “It’s hard to believe she’s dead.”

His father picked out a cedar-coloured eye shadow. “Well, her body is.” He loaded the brush and started on my left eye. “And I need to make Mary look her best because Mary always likes to look good.”

“But if she’s dead, why do you talk like she’s still here?”

“She is.”

“Come on, Dad. You can’t seriously believe that. You, of all people. The master of . . . of . . .  decomposition.”

Kirk nodded in the direction of the embalming machine. “We’re all just . . . bodies and molecules. And when we’re dead we’re just food for other bodies and molecules.”

Sean Brady sat back. My left eye was professionally shadowed. My right eye was bare. “Really?” he said.

“Yes.”

His father put down the shadow and the brush and put both hands on the edge of the table. He drummed his fingers on the metal. “Well, okay then. Think about this. Do you remember when we went fishing for the first time and you caught a three-pound bass?”

Kirk nodded.

“Do you have that picture in your head?”

Another nod.

“Okay, hand it to me.”

“What?”

“Hand the picture to me.”

“I can’t do that. It’s just in my head.”

“Exactly. I have lots of pictures of Mary,” Sean tapped his head with a forefinger, “in my head. We went to school together. One year, when we were maybe nine or ten, we had a school picnic. We did three-legged races and potato sack races and all the usual. At the end, the teachers handed out containers of ice cream. You know the ones that came with a little wooden stick?”

Kirk nodded.

“Well, Mary and I were the last two kids in line and there was only one container left. The teacher was about to give it to Mary because she was the girl and that’s what you did in those days, but Mary told the teacher that I could have it. That’s one picture that I have of Mary. I have plenty more. Plenty.” He paused, looked down and cleared his throat. “And you know, you could cut me up into a trillion little pieces, separate all my protons and electrons and chemicals and you would never be able to find evidence of those pictures. But they’re there.”

He picked up the eye shadow and the brush from the table. “Something doesn’t have to be present to be here.”

He bent low and blended shadow over the lid of my right eye up into the brow. “That’s why I do this. When people come to see Mary they’ll make a memory picture of her. They’ll carry that with them and that way Mary will still be here. And they’ll lean on me for comfort—something solid and reliable at a time when their world is turned upside down. They’ll smile at me, through their tears. They’ll be happy to see me. They’ll carry that with them, too. People remember comfort long after they’ve forgotten laughter.” He straightened and leaned toward Kirk. “People remember my performances for a long time too, you know.”

As Kirk and Sean stared into each other’s eyes over my dead body, an intangible flash of energy crackled out of my solar plexus and radiated through the embalming room. A cone of gentle humming and buzzing settled around Kirk. The hair on his arms stood on end. A knowing, a new consciousness of exactly what he needed to do permeated his being. The dead touch the living in mysterious ways.

Sean shook his head. “OK, right.” He gave his head another little shake. “Yes, right.” He reached into the make-up case. “Now for lipstick.” He picked up two tubes. “What do you think? Café Grande?” He turned the second tube around in his hand. “Or . . .” He cocked his head. “Ruby Slippers?”

Their eyes met.

“Ruby Slippers,” Kirk said.

Hallowe’en, and not-so-Hallowe’en, costumes

A few years ago, I was called for jury duty. On the December day of the jury selection, a wild, super-snowstorm rolled into the Ottawa area. School buses did not run, people stayed home from work, and only those who really needed to venture out did so. I was one of those. It’s not good form to skip out on jury duty.

My usual 15-minute trip downtown turned into a 2-hour white-knuckle crawl in the storm, but I still arrived before the judge. (Phew!) I and the other potential jurors milled about the courthouse, waiting.

It gave me ample opportunity to people-watch.

A janitor strolled by, easily recognizable in his blue uniform. He had put on his janitor “costume” for work. The lawyers paced by with expensive suits, shiny shoes and briefcases. They had put on their lawyer “costumes” for the day. What struck me most, though, was how I could easily pick out the people in the crowd who were there for their court appearances. They had put on their “My life is a mess” costumes.

They labeled themselves with their clothing.

People didn’t sit or stand close to them. They were treated differently because of their appearance. I thought, “These people could probably completely change their lives if they just changed their wardrobe.”

On Sunday morning, I taught Sunday school.

Before I left the house, I changed out of my pajamas into my “Sunday school teacher” costume. In my class, the kids and I talked about Hallowe’en and what they were going to “be” for Hallowe’en. And that’s just it, isn’t it? Whatever we choose to put on ourselves, we become. We become it, because people develop perceptions of us based on what they see and then treat us accordingly. Then we start to believe the story ourselves.

This is a picture of me from university.

I went to a Hallowe’en party one year dressed as an accident victim. All night people kept saying, “You look awful.” You know, by the end of the night, I felt awful.

Choose the “costume” you put on every day carefully—your clothing, your makeup, your jewellery, your tattoos. What you choose to put on yourself, you become.

Harry Potter and the heart of good

What better time than Hallowe’en to write about magic and the battle between the forces of good and evil? Stephen Holmes, the acting head of divinity at St. Andrews University in Scotland, has good timing in that regard.

Earlier this week he endorsed Harry Potter—even called him Christ-like. Holmes hoped that the seal of approval of a respected theologian would open the minds of those who condemn the books as tools for promoting witchcraft.

I hope it helps.

The Harry Potter series has two powerful plus points. First, the books are a family experience. We read all seven books out loud together on long rides to the cottage. We laughed together and cried together, and I know many other families had a similar shared experience. Second, the overriding theme of the books is that good triumphs over evil, and love overpowers hate.

Hard to argue with that.

As we worked our way through the series, I wondered all along, “How is J.K. Rowling going to resolve this in a way that doesn’t involve Harry doing something evil?” I couldn’t imagine how Harry could remove Voldemort’s power without resorting to murder.

Isn’t that the way? When we face something evil, sometimes the only way that we can see our way out of it is doing something evil in return.

But J.K. Rowling didn’t take that road. In the end, Voldemort destroyed himself with his own evil rebounding back on himself. Good triumphed over evil; love overpowered hate.

We are Muggles, but, like Harry, we will often be tormented by Voldemorts in our lives.  We can follow Harry Potter’s example—place ourselves in the heart of good and see what happens.

Happy Hallowe’en!

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