We didn’t know anyone when we moved to Northfield. Minnesota isn’t known for welcoming strangers and, to make matters worse, this was summer, when the colleges empty, when the heat and the mosquitoes push everyone indoors or to the road. Our kids didn’t have anyone to play with, and neither did my wife and I—no one to drink beers with, see a movie, or go camping with. We wanted to make friends so desperately that we would pile into the car and roll by the parks, one by one, eyeing up the families that flew kites or tossed frisbees or picnicked there. “What about them?” we’d say. “Do they look like fun?”
Eventually we met the Bowers. They, too, were friendless and new to town. We bonded over our shared loneliness, groused about “Minnesota nice,” and decided to launch an assault on Northfield. If no one would invite us over, then damn it, we would invite them. All of them.
Fall came. The wind sharpened. The trees blazed with orange and yellow and red. Frost cataracted the windows. Combines grumbled in the fields. Pumpkins and straw bales festooned porches. And we threw the ultimate Halloween party.
Some background: I have a deep closet (called the tomb) that I unearth every October 1st. It’s packed with cobwebs and skeletons, giant spiders and black cats and bats, gravestones, scythes, garden zombies. We’re that house. The one people slow down for and whisper about. The Percys belong in the same address book—bound in human flesh—as the Addams Family and the Munsters.
We strung dozens of ghostly (powdered) doughnuts from our apple tree. We had a poison bar with ghoulish cocktails and beer bottles with labels reading Coroner Light and Frankenstout. We hung up a mud-stained, blood-smeared sheet—with excisions labeled eyeballs or brains—and people reached through to finger a bowl of grapes or ketchup-doused spaghetti. There was pumpkin bowling, a skeleton scavenger hunt, apple dipping, a haunted house, a monster leaf pile. We staggered tables and chairs throughout our yard for the potluck buffet that featured such delicacies as witch’s fingernails (Fritos) and pus-filled werewolf turds (a brownie sandwich with melted marshmallow filling).
No one was not invited. If you were local, and you had kids, we wanted you there. The only requirement: You had to dress-up. We had watched too many Minnesotans sit statue-still at a concert or offer muted applause from the edge of a soccer field. For one night, we needed everyone to sprout fangs and don a pointed hat and pretend to be a little wilder than they were. We had no idea how many would come.
They all did. Car after car after car crowding the neighborhood. Vampires and zombies and cowboys and soldiers and superheroes wandering in and out of our house. I shook so many hands—some furred and clawed, others painted green and stitched along the wrist—and heard so many people say it was great to finally hang out with us and thanking us for bringing everyone together. They seemed genuinely surprised and thrilled to be in such friendly company. Maybe we weren’t the only ones who were lonely. Maybe everyone had resigned themselves to loneliness.
When night fell, we ended the party with a shadow puppet theater. In the driveway close to two hundred people crammed together to watch. They laughed and gasped and shrieked, and it was then that at last we felt we were part of the same town: a town we built ourselves, with roadways busy with hearses and white picket fences constructed from bones.