The Middle Distance 11.8.13: Among the Ghouls and Goblins

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5min 58sec
Credit Sean Cayton

Last week, amidst the long parade of trick-or-treaters and Halloween festivities, I consciously tried to invoke my beloved departed. Some friends and I even staged a Dumb Feast, the Celtic ritual of Samhain in which guests partake of a silent meal with an empty place set at the head of the table for the spirits of the dead. That night I was able for the first time to close my eyes and summon a vision of those I love who have died — my son, my nephew, my sister, my former spouse — and picture them well beyond suffering, released. I have long enjoyed post-mortal visits with my grandfather who died over 20 years ago, but the one I have never been able to summon is the restless spirit of my father who died in a state of unmitigated denial in 2001. Though he’d been handed a death sentence nearly a year before, up to his last breath he flat out refused to go.

Communing with his spirit was problematic when he was alive and downright impossible after his death.

But two nights after Halloween, sitting in a darkened movie theater with a sack of leftover miniature candy bars, an image of my father appeared as my teeth sank into the soft nougat of a Snickers bar. Daddy wouldn’t have appeared at Dumb Feast with its peaceful, candlelit aesthetic and austere meal of soup and bread. He was undoubtedly among the ghouls and goblins on the street, filching treats and calculating tricks.

I should have looked for him in the candy bowl.

If he had lived, Daddy would turn 87 this month and he would have hated it. It wasn’t just that he didn’t like the idea of aging, he couldn’t conceive of being old, even at 74 with advanced lung cancer. Though he’d rarely been able to work over the last few months of his life, he was still employed as a salesman and still held the keys to a company car, its trunk packed with boxes of sample items: Excedrin PM and Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo. When I called his boss, the poor man was shocked and mortified that the company had failed to send flowers.

Daddy hadn’t even told him he was sick.

Bill Carpenter was the only child of Louise and Emery. He grew up in Pembroke and St. Bethlehem, tiny settlements along the Kentucky-Tennessee border. His feistiness was evident at an early age. His second wife loves to tell the story of Daddy’s little terrier puppy Topsy and how when he was left alone with her, he’d bite her ear. When his mother came back into the room, she’d coo over little Billy and feel Topsy’s ear to see if it was wet. His aunt Ida always said “he was the most spoiled little boy ever I seen;” when he wouldn’t sleep, Mammaw and Granddaddy would put him in the car and drive all the way to Hopkinsville, Billy squalling the whole way.

He grew up to be a prankster in high school — he loved telling the tale of disassembling an old farmer’s plow and reassembling it on top of the barn, of leading a live cow on a rope to the third floor of his high school.

“That old cow went up easy,” he said, “but you just try getting her down.” He was a damn good third baseman and for a time was a sailor in World War II. He was an energetic businessman with a good house, a wife and four kids by the time he was thirty. He strained for the road and toward the big city. He was good-looking and a sharp dresser, a guy who liked the company of other men but craved the attention of women.

He could charm the bark right off the tree.

Daddy wanted to make it rich in the worst way. He dreamed of hitting the jackpot, discovering a surefire money-making business scheme, winning at the racetrack. He loved a good golf game and loved even more a celebrity tournament in his chosen hometown of Nashville where he could rub elbows with Chet Atkins or Boots Randolph. He never counted himself among any fraternity but got along well with strangers.

When I think of him now, I recall sparkling blue eyes and a jigglingknee. He can’t sit still long enough to hang around with the beloved departed. Instead he drives along an endless highway in the sky, the windows rolled down, a Snickers bar in his free hand — restless, footloose and ageless.