That Time I Locked Us Out On Halloween
Although temperatures soared into the mid-80’s earlier in the week, the night of Halloween 2014 dipped to a frigid 35 degrees, because of course. This year Caroline decided she was going to be “Dorothy Anne” from The Wizard of Oz, not because she was familiar with the story (evidenced by her confusing the name with a Magic School Bus character), but because she realized she’d get to carry around a pretend puppy in a basket all night, which is one of her favorite things to do anyway. It was just past dusk. The twinkles of stars had begun to show and the air smelled faintly of wood fires burning in back yards. We’d already scrummaged around on our block for what candies we could get, and I realized the few houses near us formed an isolated bubble of light in a sea of darkness. I knew we’d have to go interloping, the definition of which (“to thrust oneself into the domain of others”) had always fit me perfectly in terms of trick-or-treating. When I was a kid my family moved around a lot, but we never seemed to reside anywhere resembling a town, preferring—apparently—the rural squalor kind of lifestyle, so if we wanted candy we had to pile in the back of a pick-up truck and head to the kind of place that had stop signs. With the purchase of my new home I have solidified interloping as a way of life, as it sits in one of the strangest loops of a school district I’ve ever seen. Even though I’m a resident of Richmond Heights, Caroline will attend an entirely different municipality’s schools. Very high ranking schools in neighborhoods where starter homes go for a half mill and people give out full candy bars to Dorothys and Spidermans and little Pumpkins. We are interlopers thanks to the guy who was drunk when he made the district map, or needed eyeglasses and was too proud to admit it, or maybe his elbow got bumped when he was drawing the lines and he didn’t feel like fixing it. I’m not really sure. Anyway, here we were getting ready, and as usual Caroline was giving me some trouble getting out the door.
“C’mon, let’s go, it’s getting darker outside sweetheart,” I said to her.
“Okay, okay.” She slipped out of her coat.
“No, no, no, the coat has to stay on. It’s really cold out tonight.”
“Whatever,” she said with a tone in her voice. Lately she has started saying ‘whatever’ with a teenager’s attitude. I hate it, and if I ever find out who she got it from, I’m going to punch them in the face.
“Honey,” I said, picking up the coat and starting to get a little edgy, “I know you want your costume to show, but everyone can see Toto in the basket and no one wants Dorothy to get frostbite. Now, let’s go.”
“Okay, okay.” She begrudgingly put it back on. “Mama?”
“It’s when you get really cold and…uh, look it’s just bad okay? C’mon.” I ushered her to the door, and then thought of the pumpkin bucket. Where was that pumpkin bucket? Oh there! I grabbed it and went to dump out the little bit of candy we’d already collected onto the kitchen table.
“No, no, no, no! I want it!” she cried. “I want it, I want it, I want it!” She shook herself out of her coat.
“But honey, now there’s room for more candy, see?” I said, walking back into the living room. “Now we can fit more candy in the bucket! Get your coat back on if you want to go. I mean it, it’s cold.”
“Not…gonna…do it,” she asserted. This is also one of her go-to phrases at the moment, and when she says it, she is a DEAD RINGER for Dana Carvey doing George Bush. It is positively uncanny. It’s like she stayed up all night practicing, that’s how perfect it is. All I have to do is teach her to say “wouldn’t be prudent,” and she’ll have nailed her first impression.
I avoided the urge to laugh and went another round with her about the coat and then about a sock that didn’t feel right, and by the time I had her, the coat, the bucket and me out the door I realized the keys were just inside. Right on the table by the door, where I sat them when I had to fiddle with her sock. I tried the knob, but it was locked. Because of course.
“Mama, I’m cold.”
I turned and looked under the planter on the porch, the big one holding a dead fern like a sentry that says to visitors “we don’t care here.” No key. I had a spare key under there a week ago, but I remembered thinking it was too cliché, so I removed it and made a mental note to find a better hiding spot. It was currently hiding inside the house.
“What’s wrong?” Caroline asked.
“Honey,” I sighed deeply. “I locked us out. See?” I rattled the knob to illustrate to her our current situation. “But don’t worry. I’m going to break in, okay?” I said as I began shuffling through my wallet for any type of plastic card I didn’t care about. I decided to use my license—not my current license, but the old license I keep in front of the new one, because it still has a picture of me from before graying hair and worry lines and the general look of a woman who feels defeated most days.
“What’s ‘break in’?” Caroline asked.
“It’s when you try to get into something that’s locked. First I’m going to slide this card between the door and the frame to see if I can pop the knob lock.”
“To break in. Keep up here, Caroline.” I wiggled and jiggled and pushed and pulled but the card would not pop the lock.
“I want to try!” Caroline insisted. “Let me have a turn! I wanna!” She pawed at me. I gave her the card to keep her busy and ran to the car, which was unlocked. I grabbed some graphite and a paper clip and ran back to the porch.
“Well ya got it yet?” I asked.
“Okay, I’ve got a different idea. Here, scooch over.” I figured maybe I could pick the lock with the right internet tutorial on my phone, but I simultaneously needed my phone for lighting. Tricky.
After three minutes of that I gave up and decided to try the windows instead. The graphite had smeared all over my hands and I’d mistakenly rubbed my face for warmth in the nippy air, causing me to look like a small coal-mining child, circa 1900.
“I’m tired,” said Caroline.
“I know, honey, that’s why we’re trying to get in.” It was completely dark now, and I peered around to make sure no one was looking. Normally I’d appreciate my neighbors calling the police and reporting any suspicious activity at my home. Normally. I heaved my weight against the windows I could reach as Caroline shadowed my every move, peppering me with questions about breaking into places. We snuck around back to the basement door, which has a slide bolt lock on the inside. I thought I might ram it open by bracing myself against the retaining wall of the stairs and kicking as hard as I could. I did this several times and succeeded only in getting a headache.
“You’re not very good at breaking in,” Caroline told me.
“Whatever,” I said. Oh my god, she gets it from me, I thought, making a mental note to punch myself in the face later.
“Okay,” I said, feeling defeated. “Last method. Here we go.” I ran up to the sunporch off the rear kitchen door.
“Wait for me!” Caroline trailed behind in her blue checked dress and ruby slippers. “Bark bark!” said Toto.
I grabbed a hammer that happened to be laying around (I’m a lesbian, I’ve got tools everywhere), and warned Caroline to stay back.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m breaking one of these small panes of glass in the door, then I’ll reach around inside and turn the deadbolt knob.”
“To turn the knob on the inside so we can get in.”
I made a mental note to myself that it was way too easy to break in this way and that I should get an alarm system. Ironically, I have a dysfunctional alarm system installed by the previous owner that sometimes randomly beeps in the middle of the night waking me up, but every time I make a mental note at 2:00 a.m. to figure out how to completely disarm it, I forget the next day. I made a mental note to figure out how to remember my mental notes.
Right before I was about to smash through the glass, Gus the cat meowed and sidled up to the inside of the door right where the shards would rain down, because of course. I could just see the top of his unbrushed gray fur through the window.
“Gus, get out of here!” I yelled. Idiot damn cat. All he ever does is cost me money and knock over glasses of liquid I forget about.
“Gus!” I kicked the door to try to shoo him. Caroline joined in.
“Get away Gus,” she yelled, genuinely concerned. Caroline has a lot of natural empathy. It’s one of her best qualities. We kicked the door together until he finally moved.
“Alright, sweetie, stand back,” I said, took a deep breath and swung at the glass.
Nothing happened. Okay, really I had just sort of given it a test tap—you know, like when you’re having sex with someone new and you’re not sure if they like things like ass-slapping so you do a tiny ass slap first to see what happens. This was a new situation for me, and I had no idea how much pressure to exert. I banged a little harder till it cracked, then a little harder until enough pieces had fallen out for me to get my arm in.
“Alright, alright, alright!” I said like Matthew Mcconaughey accepting an award. “We’re in! Now let’s get outta here!”
“Yay!” Caroline cheered.
I wasn’t exactly sure which street we’d end up on, but I knew that a little over a mile from me there was a place where every house was lit up like the Taj Mahal, and dads in knit sweaters cooked grass-fed hamburgers on their lawns for the other parents, and happy smiling children with glow sticks and designer costumes filled the streets. A place where individuals spent more in the month of October to electrify their Halloween displays than I did on my house.
Three minutes later I pulled up to the curb of one of these streets and formulated a plan to look natural. I felt like pulling up to the curb didn’t look natural to begin with, as a passerby stared just a little too long, so as I went around the car to grab the child I made sure to say loudly for anyone within earshot to hear, “Okay honey, we’re gonna go meet Mike over on Oxford.” Mike is my boss. I had no intention of meeting my boss, but that way it seemed like we were supposed to be there.
“Who’s Mike?” Caroline asked.
“Shhhh, no one, forget about it,” I said. “Here, get your pumpkin.”
“I don’t want the pumpkin, I just want Toto. Bark! Bark!”
“Okay fine, I’ll take the pumpkin.”
“No one, I was just kidding. Now c’mon, let’s go.”
It didn’t help that I pulled up right behind an early nineties rusted out Ford Tempo with bald tires and body damage. The car clearly did not belong to anyone who lived in this area—we weren’t the only ones interloping. But the school district of Clayton supports a desegregation program in which city students are bussed in, so for all I knew this car belonged to a future classmate of Caroline’s. Considering my childhood of food stamps and yard sale clothes and church-paid utility bills, I had more in common with the people from that Tempo than the people at 57 Crestwood Drive.
I looked around, deciding which house to tackle first. I had somehow skipped the half mill type places and landed on a street with million dollar type places. Many of the porches seemed to be lit by… was that fire in those Victorian looking fixtures? Was that burning gas, as though we live in Rockefeller’s America? What the hell is this place? Wait, what was that coming toward us? Was that a horseless carriage coming down the street? Seriously, there was a horseless carriage in the form of a stretch limousine golf cart, decked out with Christmas lights strung all around the top so that it glowed like a thousand jack-o-lanterns. Dorothy and I were definitely not in Kansas anymore. I made a mental note to figure out how to get rich.
“Who’s Mike?” Caroline asked as we made our way up the winding stone path to the first home.
“Don’t you ever drop anything?” I asked. The child has amazing hearing abilities. She only picks up what I don’t want her to, and every time I ask a question or give a command, she becomes strangely deaf.
“Now do you remember what to say when they open the door?”
“Poopy butt!” Caroline squealed with laughter at her own joke.
“Caroline, you better not say poopy butt, you hear me? No poopy butt.”
“Poopy butt! Poopy butt!”
“No poopy butt. Cut it out. Here take the bucket, I’ll hold Toto.”
Caroline didn’t want to knock on the door, so I rapped gently, and a kind lady of about fifty answered.
“Happy Halloween!” she said. “And who do we have here?”
“Dorothy,” I whispered to her.
“Dorothy Anne!” Caroline piped up.
“No, Dorothy,” I whispered. “Just Dorothy.”
“Well here you go Dorothy,” the lady said with a smile, sprinkling the bucket with chocolates. Then she motioned for us to hold on, and she ducked back inside momentarily. “You look like you could use one of these,” she said to Caroline, handing her an entire Hershey bar. “And here’s one for mama,” she said, handing Caroline a second entire Hershey bar. “I just love chocolate,” the lady said.
I nearly forgot myself and curtseyed and said, “thankee mum, wut takes care o’ us common folk, pip pip and god bless!” I almost did, but I didn’t.
“Can I tell you something?” Caroline asked, her usual entrance into any conversation.
“Of course dear,” the lady said.
“We know how to break into houses.”
Time slowed to half speed. What was happening? Was Caroline telling this nice rich lady we knew how to break into houses? Did it seem like we were casing her house right now as we were taking her candy? Was I standing there looking like a disheveled Dickensian street urchin? Was Caroline now telling her we had just finished breaking into a house?
“My mommy taught me how to pop a lock…”
I came to my senses. “Hahahahaha,” I laughed a little too loud and a little too long. “This kid!”
The lady had a queer look on her face.
“Let’s go Dorothy Anne,” I said, pulling Caroline away. Luckily a gang of confused Chinese children had wondered up on the lady’s doorstep as a distraction (a top-ranked private University happens to be a few streets away, so lots of nationalities new to trick-or-treating come out to see what Halloween is about).
“Caroline, are you nuts?” I demanded. “You can’t tell people around here we break into houses, okay?” I thought about it. “Just in general that’s probably not a good idea. Maybe let’s just not mention it again at all, alright?”
I realized of course, that it was my fault, as most things are. I looked down into the bucket. We got more from the first house here than from our entire block. Well at least at this rate we could leave soon. The rest of the night went without incident and I ended up carrying Caroline back to the car on my shoulders, something I do often.
“Mommy,” Caroline said as we piled in the car.
“I love you.”
“I love you too sweetie.”
The next morning I took Caroline to the dentist because who the hell goes to the dentist the day after Halloween? I knew the office would be a ghost town and I was right. We have to go to a Medicaid clinic in the city because Caroline is technically a foster child and despite my ability to pay, my court-appointed custody, and the length of time she’s been with me, I cannot have her on my insurance. We are the minorities at the clinic. As she sat in a ripped chair while a kid with a neck tattoo gave her x-rays, I couldn’t help thinking what a strange life mine is, straddling such different worlds. I don’t belong in either one, but I’m used to feeling like I don’t belong—having jumped from school to school as a child and being different in a way I never understood then. My entire goal in life is to make sure Caroline feels like she does belong—that she belongs with me wherever we are. And that she’s happy.
“No cavities, mama,” the dentist said after the exam. “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
I thought of the broken window at home, and all the forgotten projects, and the list of unfinished chores. Then I thought of Caroline saying she loves me.
“I will,” I said. And I smiled. Maybe I was doing something right.