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you are not there

We are taking the little one for a ride on her new sled. It is bright orange, with a fuzzy black and white seat cover to keep her extra warm. Her tiny hands in tiny gloves hold the sides as tight as she can. I pull her down a path, shouting "woohooo" and then she replies "woohoo". N's turn is next, pulling her more schoolgirl than mother for a few minutes. There are other parents with children on sleds passing us. Their eyes straight forward, faces completely blank they slip by in silence. I flash a smile to them, and they do not even look at me. I am not there, just another tree leaning towards the stream that runs below.

There are ducks still, flapping around the brackish water and we throw pieces of stale bread to them. I start to think, not about the complete absence of smiles in this culture. I stopped asking about that long ago, told over and again that smiles are reserved for home, behind closed doors. But I wonder, for the children -  these wiggling bu…

she draws me

The pigeons take off in a thrashing flurry, as more than thirty of them whip past my head. I hear it all, the deep stereo sound effects like I am in a movie theater, the rush of air, the shadows draping across the ground. They sit on a ledge now, scattered, waiting for what I do not know. 

E is ready, bursting out of that door and we are down the stairs. The air is warm and moist around us, not as cold as last week. Shuttling through the metro, running upstairs she drops everything on the floor. The costume I bought in New York is dancing in her hands. The tights have apliques of bones on them and must be pulled straight in front and in back. She stands patiently now, her back waiting for me to pull the zipper up on the dress. The wig is too big for her, so we pull parts of it into ponytails. It wiggles around on top of her head like a lopsided mushroom until we find some kind of solution. 

She sits with her hands folded on her lap, legs crossed. I paint her face in stages, being sure to clean the brush every time I change colors. I study the cartoon pictures on the bag, making dots and lines, circles and shading while she presses her eyes closed. 
When I am done she runs to the mirror and howls with laughter.
"Pop, you really got it right!." She says from the hallway.

I am looking for my sheriff badge in my desk drawers. I call out to N, who has no idea where I put it. She is in black, a pair of kitten ears in her purse. I have Halloween in my blood. She is learning. 

I pull on old brown boots, trying to explain all at once who Marshal Dillon was on Gunsmoke, how I watched it every day I came home from school alone in the house. N is my Miss Kitty, I tell her, the wisecracking red-haired girl from down the street in that wild west town. She smiles, humors me, tells me not to forget my passport and wallet.

There is no trick-or-treating this year, no cluster of expat townhouses on the outskirts of the city to visit, to run from home to home like I did as a boy, to have strangers ask what your costume is, to marvel at the elaborate accomplishments of children you do not know.

We are going to a Halloween party, that promises a haunted house, clowns, games, pumpkin carving and a bag of candy at the end. Upstairs, we are led to our reserved table. People are scarfing down plates full of lukewarm chicken wings and limp french fries. E stares at me, asking what she should do.

Wandering around, we find the handful of people we know. There is a man shouting into a microphone in Russian, leading younger kids through a series of competitions. The sound is three times louder than it needs to be. I need to lean into my friend's faces for them to even hear me. A lot of the kids are lethargic, resorting to eating chicken fingers dipped in ketchup.

The afternoon unfolds, and E plays with some new girls. They wriggle through a series of cardboard boxes that is the haunted house, with little lights in one hand to see which way to go. They go back again and again, until they huddle under a counter playing games on their phones, nibbling on pieces of watermelon, giggling and whispering.

The room has no air, no open windows. The guy on the microphone just won't let up. N feels the same. She sips coffee, watching the children with me. We pick our favorites, the ones who are oblivious, smiles plastered on their faces, costumes left behind now as they stalk the room in nothing but tights and t-shirts, with maybe a smeary star left on one cheek.

And all at once, it is time to go. We did get a pumpkin, carved by some men in the corner who followed E's lines. Phone numbers are exchanged. Friends who know what Halloween is all about shake hands saying nothing out loud, just that all-knowing half-smile. We did what we could. The kids put on costumes at least.

As we leave I want to ask for E's bag of candy but the words are beyond me. I try to have N ask for it, but they are pointing at a man in a costume with a bowl of hard candy. This is the only candy, not even in a bag, just what you can grab at. I was not expecting those gems, the mini-snickers bars, the tootsie pops, but at least some chocolate. I am gnashing my teeth, swearing,
E is looking up at me, wondering where the candy is.
She knows that much.
No, there is none.
"How the fuck can you have Halloween without candy?" I say louder than I should, but no one understands me.

Down in the street we suck in the night air, eardrums still throbbing. E is half-disappointed.
"At least I made some new friends." She offers as we cross the street.
"I know." I tell her. "That was a nice surprise."
"One of them speaks French and Spanish." She adds.
We make our way to the car.
I stare at the street lights, letting myself be angry for five minutes. I can see myself, my face twisted in frustration. It is laughable, when I step outside this way. I want her to know that crazy luxury, the end of the night when you flop to the living room floor, spreading the candy into various piles like a bank flush with tens and twenties.

We still have a birthday party to go to. The day is only half-over.

Later, E has me sit still, the way she did when I painted her face.
She draws me.


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