October is the time for Halloween, charity, and football, and Chlora mixes them up.
It was Saturday, and last night’s football game
weighed heavily on everybody’s mind.
Mom suddenly realized they had committed to
going trick-or-treating for UNICEF this morning
and the kids Halloween costumes weren’t ready yet.
Grandmother had tried to figure out how to make
a Spanish princess gown for Chlora,
like Infanta Margarita in those Velasquez paintings.
Her huge oval skirt was the shape of
a princess telephone.
Chlora covered her big sister’s pink princess phone
since it was perfect for discussing princess problems.
Grandmother said it’d require
some heavy-duty petticoat wiring
and Chlora would have to walk sideways through doors.
Might Chlora consider something else?
How about a ballerina?
Disney had done a number
on this generation of girls,
and there were simply not
enough princesses to go around.
Chlora’s girlfriends had already claimed Aurora,
Snow White and Cinderella costumes,
and it’d be awhile before DIsney came up
with some ethnic beauties
who were not damsels in distress.
Still, Chlora wanted to be a princess
for Halloween, not a ballerina.
You have to have a turning point
to be a ballerina.
A Spaniard from the Golden Age would do.
Time was short; Chlora would now have to use
whatever she had on hand for a costume.
What if they just got out the permanent markers
and drew tattoos all over their bodies?
This would work just fine except on the hairy parts.
The bigger problem was that yellow
didn’t even show up on their pale skin,
and how could you do a good picture
without all three primary colors?
A clown suit would be easy to assemble.
Chlora raked through her trunk of dress-up clothes
and came up with plenty of clown-worthy accessories.
She liked how artist Rouault
painted lots of colorful clowns,
so she found his book and
snipped out the largest face in there.
With elastic tied on and the eyes cut out,
it’d make a fine mask. It sort of looked like Jesus,
maybe it was Jesus, which was OK
since he was always in the middle
of some three ring circus too.
A striped shirt, some old jeans, there!
Chlora was set.
Except she needed a Bozo the Clown wig.
Yep, she would be a bigwig, with no head.
A mop head would do if she could dye it orange.
Does she or doesn’t she?
Chlora inquired as she
rummaged through the bathroom cabinet
for her Mother’s red hair color rinse.
She squirted it on the mop,
but it came out mousy brown.
That was better than pink,
which sometimes happened to Mom.
She blew up the limp latex gloves from the dye kit
till they looked like ballooney clown hands.
Later on, she could snip off the fingertips
to make little rain boots for her kittens.
Chlora added a floppy straw hat to the mop;
it looked fine. The mop would not come off the stick,
and she was running out of time.
She took the whole thing and stuck it down her back.
As she tried on her Dad’s huge wingtip shoes,
her brother J.P. sauntered in with a corncob pipe,
dressed in his plastic gladiator armor,
singing I’m strong to the finish ’cause I eats me spinach!
Chlora told him to quit mixing metaphors and motives.
Popeye was a sailor, not a crusader.
J.P. sneered and said she looked ugly as sin,
like a scarecrow.
That wasn’t nice but it wasn’t a bad idea either.
In her damp mop wig,
Chlora did look like death warmed over,
or leftovers reheated for the third time.
Still, she strived to be a clown.
Big shoes would help.
Dad’s shiny black wingtips,
lined up beside his shoe shine kit,
were so big she could not walk in them.
In haste, she substituted her pink ballet slippers,
her only homage to the princess outfit
she’d desired earlier.
These were her old beginner
ballet shoes with the full soles.
She’d worn them out. Ballet is hard work
and if you graduate to toe shoes,
your toes end up bleeding.
She would gladly quit ballet dancing
before that happened.
Mom had gotten her a fancier pair of ballet slippers
with split soles but she didn’t want to ruin them
like in the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses
who sneaked out at night to go to dance parties,
like some Baptist friends of her sister.
Every morning their mom wondered what had
happened to their beat-up dance slippers.
Under the bleachers at the ballgame,
Chlora and her friends compared
people’s souls to the soles of their shoes.
Chlora was a bit superstitious that these new split soles
ballet slippers might affect her spirituality.
Chlora often lost those little pink slippers
and at the last recital she had to
wear her sneakers instead.
Unlike all the other girls in their delicate shoes,
Chlora clomped around like a hippo from Fantasia
on the creaky wooden floor.
The ballet teacher was highly offended,
but then, she was French.
Chlora preferred to take tap dancing lessons,
which seemed more American,
and make some intentional noise.
She glued Coke bottle caps to the soles
of her red Sunday shoes.
She tried them out one day after ballet class.
When she did the shuffle-ball-chain,
the taps scraped off.
how the wood floors got so badly scratched.
Mom hollered that it was time
to go collect cans and coins
for UNICEF, so hurry up!
How come Joanie Kay
doesn’t have to go?
Because she’s a teenager.
But aren’t teenagers charitable?
Chlora and her little brother Jerry Pete
piled into the car with all their
costume gear ready to wear.
JP looked worse that she did.
He and Mom had added to his plastic suit of armor
by making a sword out of aluminum foil.
Under his overly large helmet of salvation,
J.P. bragged that he was a crusader knight.
He looked as goofy as Mr. Potato Head
who was such a cross-dresser that he even
had all the battle equipment
mentioned in Ephesians for spiritual warfare.
Chlora asked if spiritual warfare wasn’t an oxymoron,
and J.P. tattle-taled that she had called him a moron
and Chlora defended herself by saying
he might risk a lack of oxygen under that big helmet.
Mom drove them to the church
where they got their orange UNICEF
half & half milk cartons
for coin collecting and a big basket
to hold donated canned goods.
Doing good deeds prior to gorging yourself
with candy helped cancel out
their upcoming Halloween gluttony.
As soon as this canned compassion
was over with, they could go full-greed ahead
to the Halloween carnival.
They were all full of swag
for their upcoming good deeds.
A church lady asked if Chlora was a scarecrow.
This was beginning to sound better than a clown,
so Chlora decided to go all out
and alter her costume.
She found a broken yardstick
to put inside her shirt sleeves
to enhance her scarecrow look.
With the yardstick straddling her shoulders
and a mop up her back,
there was no wiggle room in this outfit.
It wasn’t comfortable, but then scarecrows
surely aren’t either,
hanging there on a cross
all by their lonesome out in a field.
She would have to walk stiff as an Egyptian,
like Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live.
Why hadn’t she thought of Cleopatra sooner?
She could’ve been a glamorous Egyptian princess
with lots of eyeliner and gold jeweled sandals.
Chlora might not be as glamorous as Cleopatra
when she seduced King Tut but who cared?
King Tut was a hard-hearted Pharaoh
who flung plagues around,
while his grand Sphinx slouched in the desert
headed toward Bethlehem,
where the Schulammite woman lay in wait
to give Cleopatra a run for her money.
That lady was one of the bad girls of the Bible,
why hadn’t she thought of that?
She could’ve been Salome with a flurry of scarves,
or Rahab the Harlot, either of whom could
do a burlesque routine.
Chlora’s friend Tammy met them at the church
in her blue Sleeping Beauty gown.
She looked elegant as Aurora, with long blonde hair.
But talk about an inactive princess.
All Aurora ever did was sleep.
Though before her lifelong nap,
she pricked her finger while weaving.
In that, she too was like a Velasquez painting,
the one of the Fable of Arachne
where the spinner’s hands were a flurry of activity,
either mimicking a spider
like the one under the bleachers
or weaving a myth about time.
Time being spun, cut off,
and woven into a tapestry.
Did Aurora even consider such a thing?
J.P.’s best friend Walter was jittery
in the hand-me-down leopard costume
that Chlora had worn three years ago.
Walter announced with a growl that
he was one of the beasts
from the Dark Wood in the Divine Comedy.
The four of them joined forces
with other costumed devils and angels
and set out in earnest, campaigning door to door,
like God himself was up for re-election.
Chlora lagged behind, her stiff arms
whacking into anybody within three feet of her.
She was as stilted as Frankenstein, and feared
that what she had created might destroy her.
J.P. and Walter would argue over who got
to ring the doorbell.
J.P. quickly found a way to beat Walter,
by poking the doorbell with his sword of the spirit.
He would then stand firm with the
truth buckled around his waist,
with the breastplate of righteousness proudly thrust out,
and the shield of faith protecting them all
from whatever might be behind the door.
He was a sight upon this earth.
Tammy would give a sweet, canned spiel
about UNICEF, and Chlora would mutter something
about giving from our largesse
doesn’t change the system.
Nice housewives would clink quarters
in all four milk cartons.
Then they’d feel sorry for
for the awkward, clownish scarecrow
at the rear and give her an extra coin.
It was going pretty well,
with a coin here, a can there.
One woman said Chlora looked like Pitiful Pearl.
The lady asked if she would like a purse
to go with that hat,
and Chlora said no thanks,
but she sure could use
a shoulder bag for the cans.
The lady scurried up a burlap sack
and kindly slung it over her shoulder.
One man was in his yard trimming his rose bushes
and he twined a long rambling rose
around Chlora’s hat.
It was pretty but it also looked like a crown of thorns.
Another lady asked if she’d come from Oz
with a new brain. One corny man announced that
she was outstanding in her field.
Then he grinned and encouraged her
to keep watch over
those second chance crops of autumn.
He stuffed a bit of dry grass
around her cuffs to make her look
and gave her a whole dollar bill, folded up
to fit into the carton’s slot.
Aurora and the leopard also got
several bonuses. Next to adorableness,
pitifulness earned the most loot.
Other people were equal opportunity offenders,
slamming the door on scarecrows,
angels and devils alike.
The face-to-face encounter was worse
than being a telemarketer,
and Chlora was relieved to be wearing a mask.
She walked on the curb like on a balance beam,
steadied by her outstretched arms,
all the while susceptible to the tipping point
that would upset the balance
between good and evil.
Her milk carton jingled with coins
and the burlap bag clanked with cans.
Then they made a lucky strike.
Somebody had cleaned out their whole pantry
and filled their big basket with cans upon cans,
saying they liked their can-do spirit.
Chlora was so happy she would’ve done the can-can,
if she didn’t have a stick up her back.
She had to give up the stick to help Tammy
lug the overloaded basket of cans
and it began to creak and break apart.
They should’ve brought the red wagon.
The best thing about their landfall
was that they could quit now and go back.
This costume was looking ratty,
and the dyed wig seemed to be seeping
into her shirt collar.
After all this posing, a hunger for authenticity set in.
Chlora resolved that when she grew up
she would wear a uniform instead of a costume.
This would give her more of an identity,
and better yet, instant credibility.
The quartet wobbled down the middle of the road
with their mother lode of cans.
Finally they returned to the church’s food pantry,
They were greeted by some volunteers
who were shooing away latecomers
from the bread line.
But at least these church ladies
were helping for good reasons
and they weren’t trying to turn the church
into some political rally.
Worse yet were other charitable groups
that only allowed volunteers who qualified
by being upper class,
being of the correct race and religion,
and paying expensive dues.
One unwritten requirement was that
they be oblivious to the fact that their exclusivity
undermines their benevolence.
They could easily ignore the wide gap
between their piety and their unexamined privilege
by keeping busy doing fund-raisers.
Noblesse oblige required the type of humility
of one beggar telling another beggar
where to find bread.
But who actually wanted to be a beggar,
except St. Francis and those Buddhist monks
with their begging bowls?
First the cartons of money were tallied up by a lady
who seemed right pleased with the kids’ efforts
and told them they’d grow up
to head the charity ball committee in no time at all.
Chlora asked if that was the party coming up
for the migrant camp and if so,
were the migrants invited?
Next the trick-or-treaters hauled
their canned goods into the food pantry.
It had served a long line of recipients
that morning and the distinctive smell of poverty—
sweat, urine, booze and fried food—
still hung in the air.
People had waited a long time, grumbling,
telling their life stories to the kind listeners
who cautiously served them like they
were exotic zoo animals.
The quiet, overlooked violence called hunger
was palpable even when people were absent.
The yawning gap between
the rich and the poor just
made everyone sleepier.
Maybe that’s what really happened
to Sleeping Beauty.
The numbing numbers
of charity lay heavily upon them and Chlora
needed her calculator to figure it out.
Surely God got overwhelmed by all
of our slow motion save the world projects,
and who could blame him if he
sometimes acted like Robin Hood,
snitching from the rich to feed the poor.
Robin Hood was not gullible like
Little Red Riding Hood,
even though she had the better costume.
Chlora had a good imagination
but the wild idea of equality was beyond her.
The poor might always be with us,
but the rich sure showed up better.
Most of the poor were simply invisible
while most of the rich subsidized themselves
with fierce self sufficiency
and a lucky absence of suffering.
Chlora took off her mop and yardstick
so she could use her hands to unload
the fruit basket turnover.
Many of the donated cans were dusty and dented.
And the itty-bitty sausages from Vienna
looked kind of obscene.
The lesson here was if you couldn’t
really help the poor at least have the decency
to worry about them and do something.
Be compassionate knowing you can’t do much,
and leave the remainder to Christ.
There were lots of cans of fruit
and it is expensive.
Maybe they were better than nothing,
or at least better than the oily peanut butter
which the bag ladies were so tired of,
with Peter Pan in his fruity green suit
flitting around, ever trying to be young.
Somebody should donate
jars of grape jelly so it’d taste better.
Chlora sorted out the cans of fruit,
boiled and sealed shut,
as if they had met their dead end.
Someone should buy some juicy
to compensate for the grotesque canned grapes,
and donate those to the school
carnival’s Haunted House.
Peeled grapes make fine eyeballs
in the body parts section.
At the bottom of the basket Chlora discovered
a pair of old gloves left behind,
like the type migrant fruit pickers might wear.
The gloves were palms up, as if receiving communion,
as if the basket had been helped by hidden hands.
Chlora considered borrowing
the workers’ gloves for her
scarecrow costume, but figured that’d be stealing.
She was already under the threat
of works righteousness.
On the pantry wall was a framed picture
called the Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio.
This was his earlier rendition of the dinner,
where two amazed disciples
practically turn over the table,
because they realized it was Jesus himself
who had just broken the bread.
By then he was supposed to be dead and gone.
The bread got him recognized,
and a sign below the painting read
You will know them by their fruits.
Chlora did not want to be known
by canned grapes.
The baskets had been containers for life
and the empties were piling up on the floor.
In Sunday school they’d studied the prophet Amos
and he had a basket of fruit too.
It was an omen and a pun at the same time,
and the vision riled him up against Israel’s
shoddy treatment of the poor.
The Caravaggio painting had a basket of fruit
that was about to topple off the table.
Surely those apples and grapes were symbolic,
as well as the pomegranates and other autumn fruits.
Or maybe they were warnings that
without God’s help, our attempts
to help people would flounder.
Caravaggio was a rascal and a scoundrel
and he probably didn’t even know that,
or the scripture about
bearing fruit that will last, as most of his painted
ones were overripe and had bugs.
He probably thought bearing fruit meant
to wear it in your hair like Bacchus
or Carmen Miranda.
Chlora asked in a loud voice if they were giving out
can openers for the canned fruits of the spirit.
And wouldn’t it be better if this food pantry
just shut down due to no business.
Then she asked how come
this place just keeps growing?
Is it because God is hungry?
If we are serving the greater good, well,
what is it?
Chlora was comfy with ambiguity
but she had a bit of reality fatigue
amid all these shelves of food.
And, how many poor people are there anyway?
And does anybody here know any of them?
Or will we just kill ’em with kindness?
Someone answered that the poor
will be well fed in heaven.
Chlora muttered that won’t do ’em
a lotta good now, and why doesn’t somebody
get to the root causes of this,
like Scarlett O’Hara when she
dug up carrots and ate ’em raw, dirt and all.
A chorus of voices said shut up, Chlora!
They were doing the best they could.
You’ll never know the results
of acts of mercy. You can’t quantify justice.
Besides, Scarlett ate radishes.