Every Halloween, Bernie Flinders plays music to quiet her ghosts.
When the evening’s stream of costumed children dissipates to a trickle, she snuffs the candles in the jack-o’-lanterns, sets the remnant candy in a bowl on the porch, and walks into the backyard with her pitted ’75 Fender and a Marshall amp big enough to sit on.
They come, and she plays.
Great-Aunt Joan arrives first, every time. She was a nurse in Korea; she died in ’52 when an ammunition truck caught fire and rolled right into her ward. They never met in life. Bernie’s mother used to show her old photos of Joanie in her uniform with her hundred-watt smile and a ukulele. She always told the story of the night the call came through about Joanie, while she was in her fourteenth hour of labour. Baby Bernice arrived ten minutes later.
Joan flashes her teeth when Bernie plays a little laid-back bluegrass, and then she’s gone for another year.
Bernie doesn’t know why it has to be Halloween. Crinkling leaves dance around her feet and she purses her lips to keep the dust out.
Ambrose, her father, appears on the stoop, whistling a tune she can’t quite remember. He’s whittling the skin off a pumpkin to make the same Dracula face he’s always done. Jutting from his pocket is the pawn ticket he was taking in to recoup with his winnings from the track, the day he was hit by the midtown express bus.
Bernie’s been plucking away at “Classical Gas” for about forty years now, and maybe she’s just about got it. When the song tumbles from her gnarled and calloused fingers like a spring rain, Ambrose sets down his carving tools and fades away.
Skye’s always the hardest. Here she comes now, with her flannel shirt, the skirt with buckles and studs and the two hundred dollar pair of tights that came pre-laddered. What was magnetic under a spotlight looks too small now. Her skin is just a little too white, her lips are just a little too blue, and the take-no-crap butch goddess hair is matted to her scalp. All these Halloweens, Skye’s never said a word. Bernie can’t ask her: “Did you drive your tour van off that bridge by accident or not?”
All she can do is play “Come as You Are” until that secret tiny smirk cracks the bland teenage disdain, and her daughter leaves her again.
Bernie doesn’t know why it has to be Halloween. Maybe that’s the one day she can’t avoid thinking about them.
It rains cold and hard on her last Halloween. Bernie drags her kit out under the weathered gazebo. She drapes the Marshall with a tarpaulin, weighs it down with garden pavers dislodged by spreading tree roots.
She waits, but the ghosts don’t come. Who can blame them? So she plays for herself, letting her fingers find their rhythm and claw melodies from the night, from the past, from memory. She plays until the Fender slips from her grasp with a splash.
And they tell her the rehearsal’s done. It’s time to join the band onstage.