The Devil’s Work
Mike Ramirez moved to our town a week before school started, and by the second week of September he was one of my best friends. He was likable and laid back; in addition, he was a tremendous athlete. We played touch football on the soccer field after school, and afterwards Paul Denton and I would often go to Mike’s house.
Mike lived in a well-kept Cape Cod with his mother and younger brother. His father, he said, lived someplace called Garden City. Mike’s mother was a short plump woman who worked odd hours as a nurse. She was always polite to Paul and me, but when she spoke to Mike it was in Spanish and often sounded as if she was angry. Mike would answer in Spanish, and his tone would sound irate also, the only time I saw him like that.
Usually we played Super Nintendo for an hour or two until it was time to go home for dinner. I’d then walk home and turn on my own Genesis system.
“Where were you?” my mom asked one evening.
“Is that the new boy?”
“That’s the third time you’ve been there this week. You must really like him.”
I shrugged, feeling slightly embarrassed, and then said simply, “He’s cool.”
“Well, that’s nice.” To my relief she returned to the kitchen, and I scrolled down the list of teams on John Madden Football and tried to decide which one to be.
September ended and October began. Decorations for Halloween appeared in our classroom and the hallways: drawings of jack-o’-lanterns and monsters, cutout pieces of black and orange and white construction paper in the shapes of witches and pumpkins and ghosts. Walking past these decorations made me excited, as I couldn’t wait for Halloween. I was twelve, and like most of my friends I was not going to dress up; but we trick-or-treated anyway, and I looked forward to the huge pillowcase of candy I’d have at the end of the night.
Halloween fell on a Friday. During last period our entire school went outside on the blacktop, and every class took turns parading around in their costumes. Only a few kids in my grade got dressed up, but our two classes were forced to walk in a line around the blacktop as well.
We returned to class a few minutes before the last bell, and my teacher, Mr. Green, reminisced about Halloweens from his childhood. The only person who listened to him, or made a show of listening to him, was Nathan Jensen, the class kiss-ass, who sat in the front row. Nathan had gotten dressed up; he was Robin Hood, complete with a plastic bow and arrow.
The bell rang, and everyone but Nathan stood up. Mr. Green was still talking, and Nathan apparently didn’t want to appear rude by walking out on our teacher in midsentence. As the rest of us filed out, Nathan looked over his shoulder at us longingly.
I met Paul by the basketball court. In front of the school’s entrance, kids in the younger grades got picked up by their mothers while others got on the yellow school buses.
We’d just assumed Mike was coming with us. But after a few minutes he still hadn’t showed, and Paul said, “Where’s Mike?”
“He was in Green’s class last period,” I said. “I don’t know where he went, though.”
“Isn’t he coming?”
But right then we spotted Mike walking around the corner of the gymnasium, and we called his name. He stopped and hesitated, as though reluctant to come over, but then he walked toward us.
“Aren’t you coming?” I said.
Mike looked at the ground and shook his head. “I can’t.”
Paul and I exchanged glances, as though Mike was playing a joke on us.
“What do you mean ‘you can’t’?” Paul said.
Mike kicked the earth. “My mom won’t let me,” he said.
I was confounded by what I was hearing, but I no longer thought Mike was kidding. “Why not?” I said.
Mike sighed. “It’s against our religion,” he said, and kicked a few pebbles.
Paul and I looked at each other. I think he was thinking the same thing as I, which was, “What the hell religion is against Halloween?” But all Paul said was, “That’s too bad, Mike.”
“Yeah, that sucks,” I said.
“If you can slip out,” Paul said, “or if your mom changes her mind, try to find us.”
Mike Ramirez nodded and looked at the ground. Then he said, “I’ll see you guys,” and walked away.
For a moment Paul and I simply looked at one another. Then Paul said, “That sucks.”
“Yeah,” I said, and shrugged. “Come on. It’s already ten after three.”
We then walked across the baseball field, on the other side of which were the first houses we planned to hit.
A woman in her forties with curly brown hair answered the door. When she saw us she rolled her eyes.
“Trick or treat,” I said.
She put her hands on her hips. “You kids aren’t even dressed up.”
“Sure we are,” Paul said.
“Yeah?” She studied Paul. “Who are you supposed to be then?”
“I’m an undercover agent.”
“An undercover agent.” She rolled her eyes and then looked at me.
I wore jeans and a white T-shirt from the Gap, and remembering a special on Hollywood I once watched with my mother, I said, “I’m James Dean.”
The woman snorted. “James Dean? Honey, do you even know who James Dean was?”
I held my chin up slightly with defiance, with aplomb. “An actor.”
She considered me, her eyes narrowed. “Name one of his movies.”
I didn’t know any of his movies but racked my brain for all of the old Hollywood film titles I knew. I didn’t know many and so chose the name of one of my Dad’s favorites but which I’d never seen myself.
The woman folded her arms and stared at me in disbelief. “Honey, James Dean was not in Shane. Alan Ladd was in Shane.”
I didn’t have a retort to that, so I simply stood there and didn’t say anything.
After a moment the woman snorted again; then she took a bowl of candy from behind her. “Here.” She tossed each of us a Milky Way bar.
“Thanks,” we both said.
“James Dean,” she muttered, and closed the door.
As we walked to the next house Paul said, “Who’s James Dean?”
But after that most people didn’t ask us why we weren’t dressed up; they simply regarded our everyday clothes with something between bored disappointment and sardonic amusement, but gave us candy anyway.
By six o’clock it was dark, and our pillowcases were almost full. We were tired, and I had to go home for dinner, but I agreed to meet Paul at his house at seven to trick-or-treat more.
I dumped my candy on my bed and looked at it. There were Kit Kats, Snickers bars, Skittles, M&M’s, Reese’s Pieces, Hershey’s Bars, and others. I gazed upon it like a pirate looking at his treasure.
“Excuse me, mister.”
I turned around. My mom stood in the doorway.
“You better put all that candy in a bowl in the dining room or kitchen. I don’t want to get ants.”
“We’re not going to get ants.”
“Just please put it in a bowl.”
After dinner, I put on my sneakers.
“Where are you going?” my mom said.
“Trick-or-treating. I’m meeting Paul.”
“Didn’t you go out enough today?”
“Let him go,” my father said. “It’s only once a year.”
My mom sighed but didn’t say anything.
I put on my jacket and left.
Paul was shooting baskets in his driveway under the outside light. We played a few games of one-on-one, and then set out.
We headed toward the neighborhood by Veteran’s Field. On Pine Street we saw a familiar figure dressed as Robin Hood ringing a doorbell, accompanied by two girls from our grade.
“Look,” I said. “It’s Nathan.”
“I have an idea,” Paul said.
I followed him over to some bushes, and we crouched behind them.
“Watch this,” Paul said, and picked up a pinecone lying on the ground.
He waited until Nathan and the two girls walked toward us. One girl was dressed as Cinderella, the other as a bumblebee. As they passed Paul threw the pinecone at Nathan. It hit him on the side of the head.
“Oh,” Nathan said, grimacing. “Ow.”
“Nathan!” the girl dressed as a bumblebee said.
“Are you all right?” Cinderella said; she gently touched his head.
Nathan obviously was hurting, but it was more his pride than his head that was injured; as though to prove to the girls he was unfazed, he pointed toward the bushes with his bow. “Who’s there?” he said. “Show yourselves.”
Paul threw an even larger pinecone. This one hit Nathan on the forehead and caused him to stumble and fall down.
“Ooof,” he said.
“Oh, Nathan!” the girl dressed as Cinderella said, as though he’d been mortally wounded.
We laughed again.
“Come on,” Paul said.
We hurried through two people’s yards and came out on Roosevelt Drive. As we paused to catch our breath, Paul said, “Hey, look where we are.”
We were a block away from Mike’s house.
“Should we stop over?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Paul said. “What if his mom’s there? I don’t want to get him in trouble.”
“Maybe she’s still at work,” I said. “Sometimes she works late.”
Paul shrugged. “I guess we can try.”
We walked over to Mike’s house and rang his bell, but no one answered the door.
“I guess he’s not home,” I said.
“Unless he’s in the backroom and didn’t hear the bell,” Paul said.
We walked around the side. Through the sliding-glass back door we saw Mike sitting on the floor playing Super Nintendo. Paul knocked on the glass. Mike turned, startled, but when he walked close to the glass and saw who it was his he opened the door.
“Hey,” Paul said.
“We rang your bell,” I said.
“I heard,” Mike said. “But I’m not supposed to answer. I mean, we don’t have any candy to give out so I’m not going to answer.” He looked at our pillowcases, and his eyes widened. “Is that all candy?” he said.
“This is nothing,” I said. “This is only from tonight. You should’ve seen how much we got this afternoon.”
“Man,” Mike said, in wonder, still gazing at the pillowcases.
“You really can’t come out with us?” Paul said.
Mike glanced at his watch and then eyed the pillowcases again.
I had to take a leak and went to the bathroom. When I came out I ran into Mike’s younger brother, Gabriel, in the hall. He gave me a look but didn’t say anything and then went into his room.
When I returned to the family room Mike was putting on his sneakers. Paul was smiling.
“He’s coming,” Paul said.
“Really?” I said.
“Only for a little bit,” Mike said. “My mom gets home in a couple of hours.”
“Cool,” I said.
As we were leaving Gabriel came into the room.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“Out,” Mike said.
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not going trick-or-treating, are you?”
“None of your business,” Mike said.
“You better not be going trick-or-treating,” Gabriel said. “Mom will be mad.”
“Go back to your room,” Mike said.
But his brother just stood there, glowering at us.
We opened the sliding glass door and left.
The first house we hit a pretty young woman in her late twenties smiled and gave us each two Kit Kats.
As we walked to the next house, Mike smiled down, as though in disbelief, at the candy bars at the bottom of the pillowcase he’d taken from home.
We went down Roosevelt and then onto Kinley Drive. After we hit a house where an old guy with silver hair gave us each a handful of lollipops, Paul said, casually but tentatively, “You said your mom doesn’t want you trick-or-treating because of your religion?”
Mike sighed, as though depressed to be reminded of this.
“What’s your religion?” I said, also tentatively, and Paul and I watched Mike, listening intently.
“We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Mike said, looking at the ground.
Paul and I looked at each other. By his expression I could tell he didn’t know exactly what that was or what to make of it, and by mine he must’ve discerned the same, so we both simply shrugged and didn’t say or ask anything more about it.
We hit every house on Kinley and then went down Evergreen Terrace. My pillowcase was getting full. Then when we reached the corner of Evergreen and Kent Street a kid on a bicycle approached and called out to us. I recognized Paul’s older brother.
“Mom sent me out looking for you,” he said. “She wants you to come home.”
Paul rolled his eyes. “It’s not even that late.”
“It’s 8:30,” his brother said. “She wanted you home by eight.”
“It’s 8:30 already?” Paul said, genuinely surprised.
His brother nodded, as though disappointed in Paul’s heedlessness but pleased with himself to be the one to tell him of his carelessness.
“Fuck,” Paul said. “I’ve got to get going.”
He walked off, with his brother pedaling a few feet in front of him.
Mike turned to me. “You have to go home, too?”
I shook my head. “Not for another half an hour.”
“Want to trick-or-treat some more?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
We walked down Kent, ringing doorbells and getting more candy, and talked about girls from our class, classmates we liked and disliked, and Mr. Green and our other teachers. I told Mike about what Paul had done earlier to Nathan. He laughed.
We were walking back down the front path of a brown ranch where the woman had given us two packets of Skittles each when a green Jeep drove past and then suddenly stopped.
“Shit,” Mike said; he handed me his pillowcase. “Here. Take this.”
Mike’s mother got out of the Jeep; she yelled at Mike in Spanish.
Mike yelled back in Spanish. Then he turned to me and said, “I have to go.”
As they got into the Jeep his mother continued to yell at him. I didn’t understand a word, but she kept saying one thing over and over that I picked up: trabajo del diablo.
The Jeep drove off.
I was a good fifteen-minute walk from my house. I had no desire to trick-or-treat alone and already had more than enough candy, and so began walking home.
As I carried the two pillowcases I decided I’d keep Mike’s pillowcase of candy in my closet; I’d stash it there until he could come and get it, or I’d even bring it to his house if he liked. Whichever he preferred- I just wanted to do the right thing.
S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has previously appeared in Steel Toe Review, The Tishman Review, Across the Margin, Razor Literary Magazine, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, among other places. His website is www.sfwrightwriter.com.