Halloween with the Red Van Raiders
by Tanya Ward Goodman
I was in third grade and it was Halloween. A bunch of people had gathered at our house to eat and drink before heading out to trick-or-treat. My mother was dressed as a gypsy fortune-teller. She swirled around the house in satin skirts and a patchwork vest, dispensing red wine out of a big green jug. My father took one of his sign-painting brushes and painted “5¢” on the bare flesh just under her collarbone. He added an arrow pointing into her cleavage and then painted a half moon on her cheek. She stood very still while he did this.
My father didn’t usually wear a real costume – that is to say he didn’t dress up like a vampire or a clown or a goblin. He wore his standard uniform of paint-spattered blue jeans, cowboy shirt with pearl snaps and Tony Lama boots. Over all of this, depending upon the chill of the evening, he might throw a fleece and leather coat with silver arrows on the collar. He might wear a grey felt top hat or a brown derby or maybe the big black Stetson. In our house there were a lot of hats hanging from nails Dad pounded into the ceiling beams of the living room. There were lots of cattle brands burned into the floorboards. There was a stuffed moose head wearing wire rim spectacles and a big glass cage where our iguana ate bananas and spent all day and night under a 40 watt bulb. What I mean to say is that Dad didn’t need to think about what he was going to “be” for Halloween, because he’d already decided who he was going to “be” for life.
Halloween was a big night for my brother and I. We often started planning our costumes in August. With the late summer monsoon clouds filling the New Mexico sky, we thought ahead to that night in October when the air would be crisp and cold and filled with the scent of woodsmoke. We knew there would be a pot of chili on the stove and a tray of caramel apples. There might be candied popcorn or cookies sprinkled with sugar. There would be empanaditas – the little crescent moon pastries filled with green chile and cheese. There would be the gutting of pumpkins for jack o’lanterns and the salting and roasting of seeds. And then, there would be candy. Free candy. While we planned our costumes, we also planned what we would do with the candy. We strategized. We plotted. We knew there would be trading and stealing and most certainly a fight over baby Butterfingers and miniature Snickers. There would be elation and awe and gratitude for the gift of a full size candy bar. There would be bingeing and hoarding and stomachaches and the inevitable let down that is the first day of November when Christmas is far away and Thanksgiving has only pie to recommend it.
I was dressed as the Pink Panther this year in rosy fur and a paper mache mask that smelled of flour paste and newsprint. I was disappointed that the costume had turned out baggy and shapeless – more like a Pepto Bismol yeti than a panther. The mask was bulky and awkward and made it hard to see. The big muzzle weighed it down and pulled at my hair. With the fur hood over my head and the mask on my face I could feel sweat prickle on my scalp. I wished I had chosen a more beautiful costume. I wished I were more beautiful. I had a big crush on most of the boys trick-or-treating with us. It would not be untruthful to say I had a crush on all boys. I kept these crushes very secret. I had already read my way through the school’s SRA Reading Series. I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in second grade. I was a smart girl. In my third grade mind smart girls were not boy crazy. They had more serious things to think about.
But I did think about boys. I thought about them the way I thought about store bought candy. They seemed as delicious and mysterious.
One boy was dressed as a Banshee, another as Big Foot. The Banshee was always losing the headpiece to his costume and Big Foot tripped constantly over his huge Styrofoam feet. The Banshee could draw any kind of animal, but was especially good at cats and hippos, which were my favorite. Big Foot had beautiful eyes and a sprinkle of freckles. He had a teepee permanently set up in the woods behind his house. In a perfect world, one of these boys would have taken my hand. In a perfect world, the Banshee’s grease paint would not have rubbed off on my pink fur and Big Foot would not have been so darned interested in my brother’s Matchbox Cars.
Bob Dylan was on the stereo and the grown ups were laughing in the kitchen. My aunt had wrapped herself in an old kimono from the closet and jammed chopsticks into her upswept hair. She rouged her lips. An impromptu Geisha.
“Are you ready?” My father bellowed. “Are you really, really ready?” He used his best carnival voice – the same one the midway ride boys working the Flying Bobs use when they ask, “Do you want to go faster?”
“We’re ready,” we screamed.
“Your chariot awaits,” Dad said ushering us all out the front door.
The Red Van sat in the driveway. This was Dad’s most recent set of wheels and my favorite ever. Dad bought the white delivery van used and had the whole thing spray-painted fire engine red. He cut a hole in the roof and installed a Plexiglas dome on top. Inside, he built wooden cabinets to hold his brushes and paints and added a sleeping platform covered with a thick foam mattress and patchwork quilts. There were velvet pillows and dangling crystals. There was a glass eye glued to the gearshift and plastic dinosaurs parading across the dashboard. Two big doors at the back swung wide and we all clambered aboard.
“Don’t forget your hat,” the Banshee’s mother cried.
“Have you got your feet?” Big Foot’s mother asked.
We had hats and feet and masks and paper bags to fill with candy. What we didn’t have were seat belts or even seats. The adults lounged on the mattress and the kids all crawled underneath the platform. We were squashed together in the dark with the smell of turpentine and enamel paint, wine and caramel. The engine revved and someone slammed the back door shut. We bounced up the driveway and onto the road. The night had begun.
This was no neighborhood to wander in careful groups. There were no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no streetlights and no close gatherings of houses. Trick-or-treating in the mountains meant driving down darkened driveways, up winding roads and rambling for miles in search of a lit pumpkin. We hit the Tiltons, the Mullendoors, the Chesters, the Fullertons. We tumbled out at the Houseman’s to find giant tombstones set up in the front yard and the soundtrack of wolves cranked on the stereo. At stop after stop, my father flung open the back doors of the van and we poured out, shouting and running, up the wooden boardwalks and gravel paths and dusty driveways. We opened our bags to receive chocolate, gummy skeletons, orange jawbreakers, candy corn. We opened our bags to popcorn balls and home made cookies in little wax paper bags. Back in the van, we peeled foil wrapping and sunk teeth into marshmallow and crackle.
“More?” my dad asked.
“More!” we shouted. “More.”
In the van, under the platform, the sway of the road jounced me into the Banshee one moment and into Big Foot the next. What if, what if, what if one of them opened their arms to catch me? My heart beat hard beneath pink fleece. My face felt hot and red under my mask. If I’d been a fortune-teller, I might have painted my lips, made them ready for kissing. I might have had skirts to swish and swirl and long, mascaraed eyelashes to flutter. The Pink Panther costume was for kids. It had been a bad choice – so frumpy and unromantic.
“Have you got your hat?” The Banshee’s mother shouted.
“Where are your feet?” Big Foot’s mother asked.
Dad pulled the van into the parking lot of the Bella Vista Restaurant. I could smell the all-you-can-eat fish and chicken from the parking lot. We teemed up the steps behind my father.
“It’s a restaurant,” I said. “Will they let us trick-or-treat?” I wanted to believe they would and that no one could say refuse my father, but I was also worried that this place with its white table cloths and fancy folk from up the city would not have us.
“Of course they will,” Dad said. “We’re the Red Van Raiders. We’ll take them by storm.”
At the bar, my father ordered a beer and the hostess filled our bags with starburst mints from the bowl by the cash register. A waiter brought a plate of French fries. We jostled against each other, shifting the hot fries from hand to hand. We pilfered wrapped toothpicks that tasted of mint.
My dad draped an arm over my shoulder and raised his beer in a toast.
“To the Red Van Raiders,” he said. “To you, daughter.”
I looked around to be sure that Big Foot and the Banshee could see that my father was the leader of the Red Van Raiders. He’d given them membership in something so great and powerful that a restaurant would give us food for free.
We tumbled out of the restaurant and back into the van, teeth chattering, tongues flapping, elated by our success. All night, we’d been welcomed, heralded, celebrated. Our paper bags bulged with treats, our breath was sweet with sugar already consumed. No boy held my hand that night, but I felt embraced by the world, filled to the brim with sweetness and excitement. Next year I might wear skirts and paint my lips, but for now, this, this was more than enough.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” published by the University of New Mexico Press