Dizzy from the walk, the tri-hourly breaking news, her age-defying foundation making her face feel like a hard-boiled egg, Renee barely remembers where the hell she is. A Halloween concert. Her new suburban town in a well-appointed suburb not far from Manhattan. Thursday night. The middle-school auditorium lights go dark and Renee is so desperate to hold her son’s hand that she grinds her teeth hard enough to crack the molars. Each tween onstage holds a rented instrument that shines like a brioche bun. Beneath their rubber animal masks, Renee can’t tell which of the eighth-grade chamber quintet are boys or girls, even though she knows it doesn’t matter. The upright bass sports a rubber horse’s head, the same mask she bought Sam, her seventh grader, a boy, to wear this year. It’s brown with black panic-flared nostrils, big teeth, silky doll’s hair mane. Her hand is Thing from the Addams Family, creeping finger by finger over the upholstered armrest to locate his. “Mom,” he snarls, annoyed, and she asks herself the secret question, and not for the first time, does he hate all women, or just me?
Since the move he finds her revolting, her affection as perverse as a kiss from a foul-breathed, round-eyed poop emoji. The second their fingers meet, he growls, “Cut it out.” He doesn’t understand, she’s never told him, how her love for him has made her do things she never imagined; breastfeeding on the A train, tasting edible sunscreen, caring about the future. Even as he’s in the seat next to her, captive for an hour, she aches for him as if he’s already out of the house, degreed, a job four states away in something vaguely environmental. Renee’s in deep mourning for all their valuable time together that he’s frittered away watching YouTube channels of teenage millionaires playing video games, lamenting the ways she’s reared Sam to be like every other successful asshole she’s ever met. “Mom, can I have your iPhone?” he asks, his voice deeper than she remembers, and she almost gives it to him. He always gets what he wants. And it’s all her fault.
“It’s starting,” she says the same way she chirps “it’s gluten-free!” when she makes a dinner that tastes like paste.
“Hooray.” He squinches down in his seat.
The quintet of darling overachievers holds their bows pricked over the strings, waiting for the projector to reboot. Technology is always failing, and yet everyone thinks it will save them. Sam has no idea about how dire the world is becoming; how important it is to be aware. Reality is the big reveal Renee’s been keeping from him his whole life. He’s not paying attention now, fiddling with a frayed shoelace tip, bored. Chimpanzee, seagull, chipmunk (panther?), pigeon, horse. The children leer through ten mask slits at their sheet music. I will do what it takes, she prays in the menacing lull, to help him survive. And no parent here is thinking any different.
This was her husband’s idea. “Go,” he said, “Text me, I’ll come get you.” He’s half right anyway, parking in this town is a nightmare. The concert is a “Halloween Week” school event. Halloween has twelve days now, like Christmas. It’s a Season. On the town’s Facebook page, a neighbor Renee had never met posted a photo of a decapitated deer. He’d passed it on his way to work, lying on its side on the corner lawn of a million-dollar house near the elementary school with the extraordinarily active PTA. Its head was missing, just a hamburgery stump. Is this legal? he had typed. Is there a number to call so someone can do something?
Renee is doing her best. She buys Sam award-winning graphic novels that panel by panel explore racism, the Donner Party, the lions that escaped the Baghdad zoo. But this life they’re providing him is the endlessly mock-able kind from the 1950’s, the kind her generation was raised to reject. Another neighbor gave her an aspirational “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” tea towel from a local boutique as a housewarming gift. She uses it to mop up watery chicken blood from the eco-chic bamboo kitchen island after dinner. They have it all: the safety of privilege, the danger of pop-culture rebellion.
“Mom,” Sam says, nudging her gently in the ribs. The screen stutters awake- finally! His hands, pale as Kleenex, are big enough to curl over hers like a father’s and seem to glow in the dark. Next year for Halloween he wants to be a Dead Businessman and collect his candy in a briefcase. He already has a cousin’s graduation suit, a red tie, a blond pompadour wig. A silent black and white cartoon flickers above the musicians while they play. Adorable skeletons back-flip up and over their own headstones. Their rib cages are xylophones they play with their own femurs. Holding hands, they prance in a circle, boog-a-looing. Animated light strobes over the quintet so they bow their strings in haunted slow motion while Renee feels the strands of her heart muscles being picked apart by tweezers.
“Can you see?” Renee asked, when she wanted instead to screech, there is nothing I can do anymore to protect you. She’s the cool mom.
Before her son started playing the game with the snake that eats the dots, way before the game with the square people that try to murder each other with handmade weapons, he watched PBS. Pigeons, Renee learned from an educational wildlife cartoon, produce milk to feed their young. The viola player looks as if he/she/they found the head of a colossal dead pigeon on a local million-dollar lawn, scooped out the oversized brain with their bare, calloused, viola-playing hands, and pushed their own head into it just before the show. And now, the scream that flies from the viola’s gaping center hole sings of the dead mother pigeon, her breast feathers wet with milk, the sky black with death and hate and whatever it is that’s coming for them, the whole sorry human race, one way or another.
Renee presses her knee against Sam’s, to keep it from jittering. She wore new heels tonight, purple and gold booties that she charged on a card she forgot she had, trying to class it up, to honor culture, art, performance. “They’re like witch boots. Let me try,” Sam begged before they left. Maybe if Sam was gender free, Renee thought, he might actually love her again as much as he did when he was a toddler and she often ate the food that fell from his mouth. Sam was supposed to inherit a world where he could be anything he wants. A boy, a girl, a horse, a hand towel designer, a businessman. That’s what was promised. Sam sat on the edge of her bed and pulled with both hands, his feet already larger than her size six. The boot dangled off his foot, a Barbie shoe on an index finger. “Holy crap your feet are tiny, Mom!” he bellowed like a sultan, lording it over her, just like a man. There was a time he’ll never remember and she’ll never forget when his whole hand fit in her mouth, when his whole body fit inside of hers, when she ate jalapeños and to her horror at her breast, his tiny mouth burned.
“Mom, Mom. Mom.” Practicing for the Halloween Dance yesterday, his voice echoed inside the horse’s head, which he seemed to like. “Can you hear the echo like I do? Or not really?” He kept talking just to hear his own intoxicating hormonal cackle. His body was gangly and off balance, his chest oddly muscular. He wore a blue and white checked shirt, was a full three inches taller than her. He looked like a horse on a date. “I’m a dapper horse,” he said, adjusting his tie, and did a little jig. Inside the horse head he kept bumping into things, a plant, the coffee-stained couch, the banister, his mother. He looked lost, forlorn, a mute blind thing trapped in a maze on its way to slaughter.
“Can you see?” Renee asked, when she wanted instead to screech, there is nothing I can do anymore to protect you. She’s the cool mom. She’s laid back. She’s not worried about a thing. She remembers something she heard on a podcast– Listen, babe, be your best self and it’ll all work out in the end.
Three weeks after they left the city and moved into their new address in this new town, Renee accidentally put her iPhone through the wash and purposely didn’t mention it to her husband. Since the move, he only texted her when he was at the grocery store, then brought home nothing she needed or asked for. Her Facebook friends told her to bury it in rice and wait as long as she could stand. Five days. That week she was more lost than ever, never knowing what time it was, what terrifying new outrage to be alerted to and feel powerless to repair. The utter disconnection. She couldn’t bear it.
Sweat crescents darken the neck and underarms of the quintet. The air smells like burning hair, sex, and the kind of lollipops in wax paper wrappers they give away at the nail salon, as if an essential oil named “Pubescence” mists from electric diffusers. Sam smolders like a coal in his seat, so hot a bead of sweat bowls down his temple in the dim light. The film changes abruptly. Men wake from deep slumber, sultry and heavily eye-shadowed like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The subtitles are in German, each cell hand-tinted green. What the hell kind of kids’ programming is this? The town’s local Target is filled with whimsical Halloween fare from its “Hide-and-Eek” line. Now that real life is bone-chilling with unspeakable degradation at every turn, Halloween has been completely neutered. It’s all organic low-sugar treats and kids dressed like slices of pizza and donuts with ironic sprinkles. We become what we fear, she thinks. We have terrible imaginations.
On screen, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Morose, pre-WWII, Germans lurch through each frame. Beneath it, the chipmunk/mountain lion stares into space, counting rests, distracted by the absurdity of its own existence, how it all boiled down to this; this concert, this song, this moment in this perfect progressive town with its inclusive rainbow-painted intersections, corrupt politicians, and obscenely high property taxes, that can only sit on its hands and watch history on a loop.
This morning when Renee plugged her phone in and turned it on, it was alive. All her recent photos were intact, the ones from before the move, the ones from the first day of seventh grade, first suburban Fourth of July. All the milestones from before were out of proportion, the wrong colors, as faded as her actual memories. The clock isn’t ever right now, but it’s something. After this surreal performance, she’ll use it to text her husband, her lawfully wedded Uber driver, to rescue them. Her phone has risen, like the dancing hepcat skeletons, from the dead. And like about everything in her gift-wrapped life, she knows she should be beyond grateful.
The Spook Zone at Target also sold matte black harlequin crow masks for twenty dollars each. Renee bought two. The elongated beaks suggested something sinister and smiling to protect from the Plague. She thought that perhaps she and her husband had arrived at the costume stage of their marriage, variety being the spice of life. In their new bedroom, they still have no headboard or rug or curtains, but they donned the masks in their Spartan boudoir and Renee almost laughed and broke the spell. Naked and masked with dyed black feathers plummeting into the sheets like lawn darts, her husband terrified her. His nipples were dark and slanted, like melting eye holes, and the hair on his body was mink colored and satyr-straight, identical to the growth on Sam’s upper lip, the scribble between his cross-country legs. Then she looked into the mirror that they’d leaned against the wall. Her body was a Before picture in a liposuction ad, a homeless woman’s cadaver prepped for med students. She was unforgivably and horrifically middle-aged.
On the horse’s cue, they toe tap their way into the big hit, a delightful wedding waltz from hell. The audience knows this one, having heard it their whole lives in advertising, on the classical station every October. They’ve memorized every stanza. This was written, the program says, in 1874. It makes their heads spin. It’s catchy, this dance to the grave. Slowly the children rise like somnambulists. The impassive chimp leads the violins, then the seagull and pigeon violas. They play from memory waltzing joylessly among music stands and chairs and then up and down the aisles close enough to touch. Renee paws at her coat buttons compelled by their sweet body heat to fling open her wool lapels like the doors of an enchanted cabinet, clutch them to her chest and whisper, it’s ok, you can hide here with me. Hurry! I will keep you, yes all of you, safe. The music stops. In the silence, they turn on their heels and march out, stage left.
Rabid applause explodes like a grease fire. Even Sam knows what art is when it punches him, like puberty, in the face. He claps so hard he needs to rest his hands until they’re cool enough to begin again. They don’t come back for an encore. They don’t bow at the waist and pull off their masks to reveal damp apple-cheeked faces pink with potential. They are just and suddenly, gone. The audience is still bewitched, gasping like goldfish who have flopped out of their bowls, mummering around, finding their Subaru keyless fobs, their vegan leather purses, their iPhones and PETA-endorsed lip balms. Renee can barely speak, but she tries. She says, “I’m sorry everything is so broken, Sam. Things,” she gestures with her hands like she’s conjuring a demon, “are very bad.”
“Mom do this,” Sam says, ignoring her simpering wisdom. She’s a hipster mom. She’s up for anything. She’s vaped. Help me, she thinks. Help. Her lips feel threaded shut.
“Masks?” It begins with an m, like Mom, that helps ease it from her mouth.
“Masks,” he says. “Masks!” he sounds drunk.
“Masks,” she says again, seeing rack after rack of them, hanging like melted faces from bra hangers in the Hide and Eek Boo-tique. “Masks.” As she says it her mouth automatically performs its own skip and stutter. Embedded in the very word is its own heartbeat, it makes her mouth do things she never intended, like love. A thrill. “Masks!” she shouts. God! How she adores him.
“Jesus, Mom, cut it out,” Sam hisses.
A boy from his school approaches, sees Sam, “Hey,” the kid says, his stranger’s face up-lit from his cellphone like a floating skull.
“Hey,” Sam nods back, obliterating Renee, making her an invisible middle-aged specter that no one can hear. Or see. Or respect. This is how it is, now, her world.
She needs to get out of here. She has somewhere she needs to go, doesn’t she? Something urgent to do. The moon isn’t full but it’s bright and low, dirty-white as a used bar of soap. The path is dark, there are no street lights in this goddamned town. Sam follows her, her ridiculous boots clicking on the narrow sidewalk. New blacktop entombs the road. It’s hot for October but something far away is burning, a thin smoke hovers in the air like incense. Renee fumbles for her iPhone, a habit, and Sam, almost thirteen years old, veers to the outside, protective of her, a kind of gentleman overtaking her for her own good. A mother knows that he thinks this chivalry makes up for his earlier cruelty. But his instinct to hate her, just a little, muddies the ladder rungs of his DNA.
“Masks,” he snickers, a private punchline, and he’s a boy again, no man in him, his face naked and unguarded as a baby’s. They giggle, lovers sharing a secret, everything forgiven in a blink. She tries to call for backup, a ride, someone to grow old with, but Renee’s phone is dead at last. Sam strides far ahead of her, the three white gills on his indoor soccer shoes flashing. A wind sighs life into a honey locust tree’s tiny yellow leaves so they shimmer overhead like a school of sardines. Home. It’s around here, somewhere. Where did she see it last? She just had it in her hands. Gone overnight. Where did it go, and so quietly, velveting into the ether? Sam twists his broad shoulders and reaches for her without looking back. A boney wrist pokes from the ragged cuff of his hoodie. His hand is green in the moonlight, his nails square and filthy. And she grabs it, holding on for dear life.