Saturday, Oct. 25, 1986
“Oh my god! You’re not actually wearing that thing inside are you?”
The tail lights of Mom and Dad’s car were barely out of sight, and it was already happening. I didn’t need to look to see who owned the shrill voice, but I did anyway.
Half-blind from the eye holes of the mask that covered my face, I had to crane my neck at an odd angle to peer at anyone I wanted to see. After a couple of awkward moments of looking around, I saw Valerie Rochester to my left, walking toward me. More accurately, She-Ra was approaching.
She wore a vibrant, white sheet fashioned as a mini toga, perfectly formed to her athletic figure and held in place by fishing line that barely showed against her otherwise bare shoulders. Long, blond hair – a wig that covered her shorter but equally blond real hair – flowed down her back in waves. Her head and blemish-free face were framed by a styrofoam headpiece spray-painted gold, her slender waist belted by a similar piece. A shiny red jewel – for all I knew then, an actual ruby – rested at the center of the headpiece. Completing the ensemble was a long sword made of cardboard and balsa wood, painted with gold leaf.
Beneath the Comfort Rock Middle School parking lot lights, she glistened like one of the trophies on display in the gym.
Meanwhile, I had a plastic, molded face that covered pimples and curly red hair, and my torso was draped with a garishly colored plastic smock that explained who I was with a picture and a name next to it.
Hoping to escape into the crowd inside, I ran to join the dance on the other side of the gym doors. I was stopped short by She-Ra’s golden sword, though.
“Hey! Where you running to? I just wanna talk about your … uh … costume.”
I looked down, ashamed of the expresionless facade that covered my face.
“What about it?”
I glanced up and saw her sneer.
“Where’d you get it?”
“I got it at … Mom got it at Ames for me.”
Valerie’s sneer grew into an expression of mock surprise.
“Ames! Of course. Well, who are you supposed to be, anyway?”
I wanted to push past Valerie, go inside and find Kim and Dave for a bit of solace. But I wasn’t the pushing type, so I stood there and let things play out to their ugly, natural end.
“I’m, um, I’m Jem. You know. From Jem and the Holograms. It’s my fav–”
“Of course!” Valerie said. “It makes sense to me now that you’re wearing a pink garbage bag with Jem’s picture and name on it. Like, it’s not what she wears on the show, but she doesn’t have gross, pinkish-purple, clumpy hair like your mask does, either. You just went for not really looking like Jem, I guess. You’d make a really good Misfit, though.”
“It’s all we could afford,” I said, suddenly realizing how muffled and ineffective my voice sounded behind the mask.
I adjusted it with my hand, but as I did, the elastic band holding the mask onto my head rolled up, tangling a bunch of hair around it. I winced and reflexively pulled the mask off.
“NOOOOOO!!! Put it back on! Put it back on!”
That’s when I decided I didn’t need to push past her. I turned around and headed back down the street Mom had driven me up just a few minutes before. Dad wasn’t coming back to get me for two hours, and it was a half-hour walk back home, but I didn’t care. It was better than sticking around for more abuse. Walking away, I heard Valerie howling in laughter.
I couldn’t let it stand. I had to get in the last word.
“Hey, She-Ra!” I yelled. “Where’s your boyfriend He-Man tonight? At home snuggling with Skeletor?”
Valerie stood up straight and fell silent. I was certain that I got her. Then she started laughing again.
“She-Ra and He-Man aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, you idiot. They’re twins. Sisters and brothers only date in your family!”
I wanted to die right then and there. Heaven- or hell-bound, it didn’t matter. I just wanted it to end. Because Valerie was right. I was an idiot. Couldn’t leave bad enough alone. Had to go and make it even worse.
Streetlights lined the first 10 minutes or so of my trek back home. I walked with mask in hand, swinging it violently by the elastic. I couldn’t wait to turn off Main Street and head down Judkins Road, into the dark so I could vent my rage. Not even the stories locals told about the strange woodland beasts that supposedly existed around here gave me pause.
I headed into the blackness.
Once on the dirt road, with no light but the full moon and a handful of scattered stars, I wrapped my hand around Jem’s face and squeezed. The mask folded under the pressure. It wasn’t enough. I thought of Valerie and her fancy homemade costume and shopping at Ames every year for Halloween outfits and Christmas presents and back-to-school supplies while the other kids got to enjoy stuff from the bigger, nicer stores in Burlington.
I tightened my grip, and I felt Jem’s nose split open. I pried my index fingers into the fresh wound and pulled hard as I could.
The mask split in half, held together only by the elastic now. I quickly yanked one end of the band from the staple that held it in place. I tossed half the mask into the field beside me, off to the left, and sent the other piece in the opposite direction.
I thought of only three weeks earlier, helping Dad and the other hired hands he managed as they baled hay here. It was a long but fun day. But this was a different place now. A different time.
I walked further and yanked the smock off the thin flannel shirt it was covering. The costume stretched as I pulled at it with both my hands. I mangled it, tore it into distorted chunks. I let the pieces fall one at a time in the road behind me as I walked, my mind raging.
Stupid, ugly, cheap costume. A piece dropped.
Even stupider Valerie Rochester and her expensive, beautiful, homemade costume. Another chunk of plastic followed.
Being poor when Valerie and her dad had so much money and land. Three pieces fell in a row.
Living on the stinky ol’ Rochester farm. The last pieces floated to the ground.
By the time the last bit of plastic was gone, I was at the foot of the driveway. Mom and Dad’s bedroom light was on at one end of the trailer. At the other, so was the kitchen light. Across the yard, the barn was lit up, too. It didn’t make sense, being well after chore time.
Something was wrong.
I ran down to the milk house and opened the door. Dad was at the big sink, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, arms and hands covered in soap suds. Hot water steamed up from the basin. He turned toward me.
“Pumpkin? What are you doing here? Don’t you have the dance?”
“I just …” I nodded toward him once. “What are you doing here?”
He smiled his gentle smile. The one that made his scruffy orange beard float up his face.
“I didn’t wanna be there. At the dance, I mean. So I walked back. Why are you in here washing up? I saw lights on in the barn.”
Dad returned to the basin and rinsed off.
“Well, I was checking on the dry cows earlier, before I went home for supper. Didn’t wanna be too surprised by new calves first thing in the morning. I got to looking close at 42 and thought maybe something wasn’t quite right. I went up and grabbed a bite from home, then came back down. Sure enough, her calf had started coming out backward between when I left and got back. Hind legs first instead of the head. So I had to put the chains on to get the poor thing out of her. It was born dead.”
Dad shook his head in disappointment. It wasn’t the first calf born dead on the farm and wouldn’t be the last, but he always had an apprecation for the value of life and the many interpretations of that on a farm.
“How about 42? She ok?”
“She will be,” Dad said. “Could have been a lot worse as far as that sort of thing goes. Saw a calf fully breech once, born tail first. That was somethin’ awful. Poor ol’ cow didn’t make it either.”
He returned my single nod from earlier.
“Didn’t you leave home with a Halloween costume, or am I thinking of another wonderful girl?”
I looked away, my lower lip quivering. It wasn’t enough he had to deal with an ungrateful kid, but he had to do it after losing a calf. I heard him tear some paper towels from the dispenser to dry off.
“Y’know what?” he said. “Let’s go talk about it up on the porch.”
Dad put an arm around my shoulders and walked me out. His skin radiated warmth from the intensely hot water he’d used to cleanse his arms of afterbirth and various other bodily fluids that go with helping deliver a calf.
We sat on the second of three porch steps.
“Costume?” he asked, taking off his Agway trucker cap and tousling his hair.
I shook my head, covering my face with my hands.
“I see,” he said. “I’ll see if I can figure it out then. Hmmm … maybe seventh grade is terrible?”
“Yup. And dances are never as fun as you think they’re gonna be?”
“Knowing folks around here, you probably didn’t have a costume certain people thought much of?”
I sat up and put my arms around Dad, resting my head against him. His shirt smelled like hay and manure and cows and about a million other things that make a barn smell like a barn. It smelled good. Comforting.
“I tore it up, Daddy. On the way home. I was so mad and embarassed. I’m so sorry.”
I felt a deep, silent sigh escape from Dad’s chest.
“Oh, my pumpkin. I am so sorry.”
“You’re sorry? Why? You were here taking care of 42, and I was acting all … spoiled.”
Dad unwrapped my arms from his upper body and stood up. He stretched, clomped around a bit in his big, rubber barn boots, then crouched down in front of me.
“Well, my love, I’m sorry because we are where we are. You and your mother are where you are … because of me. You know, I ain’t exactly giving you and Mom the greatest experience in the world here. Farm life is hard in lots of ways, and we sure aren’t swimmin’ in cash like other folks. I should be doing better by you. Should have worked harder when I was young to prepare for now.”
I leaned forward on the step, and Dad knew to lean forward, too, until we were touching foreheads. As a baby, I’d pull his head to mine, and we’d connect. It remained a tradition throughout our time together.
“Don’t say that stuff, Daddy,” I said quietly, hoping to keep his words away from the world. “Please. It’s just a stupid Halloween costume.”
I felt Dad rock his head slowly against mine, shaking it in disagreement.
“No it’s not. It’s a Halloween costume tonight, but it’s been other stuff before, and it’ll be other things … bigger things like cars and college … down the road.”
He paused for a few seconds. Fallen leaves scattered across the driveway, blown by an easy autumn wind. In the barn, pigs grunted as they jockeyed for comfy sleeping spots.
Dad leaned back and looked at me.
“But you know what?” he said.
I told him that I didn’t.
“I think maybe this life we have here, it’s also this, too. Sitting out here with you, knockin’ our brains together, talking at the end of a hard day for both of us. And going in to see that beautiful mother of yours. Maybe watching a rerun of “Little House” on the couch with you both. No Halloween costumes or dead calves or anything else. Just us. That’s not so bad, right?”
I smiled and looked at him, his face obscured by the mask of nighttime.
“I think it’s nice,” I said.
Just then, Mom turned the outside light on, and I noticed how tired Dad looked.
“Your ears are beet red, Daddy. Like they get when it’s time for sleep.”
Dad chuckled and gently flicked one of my ear lobes.
“Yours too,” he said. “Time to call it a day.”
A stern look crossed his face.
“You know, pumpkin, that you’ll need to go out first thing tomorrow and clean up that mess you made with the costume, right?”
“Good kid. We don’t need Mr. Rochester finding that stuff scattered all over his fields tomorrow.”
“I know, Daddy,” I said, practically whispering as the smallness of my world brought a lump to my throat.