October 29, 2020 | Narrative
charlie chaplin and the fairy
a halloween story
I don’t remember the last time I went trick-or-treating. I only remember the feeling.
I remember the nipping wind and the hint of oxygenated sugar it carried. Perfumes of candy wafted into my nostrils, and soft voices drifted into my ear canals. They beckoned me to come, come, come—and I would have, if not for the sacrificial example of Hansel and Gretel. I didn’t want to get baked into a witch’s pie, so the only option was to wait for The Adult to hurry out of the restroom.
And when The Adult finally shimmied into his oversized costume pants and adjusted his fake mustache, I remember thinking that my outfit was much better than his. I remember breathing in the cool sidewalk scent of freedom—because there is freedom in pretending to be another thing, in being wrapped up in 99 Cent Store fairy wings and carrying a pumpkin-shaped basket on your chubby wrist. There is freedom in hushed anticipation and the promise that if you eat all your dinner, you can go with Uncle So-and-So. There is freedom in a child’s realization that Silent Suburbia does indeed awaken.
I don’t remember how many candies I ended up snatching that day, or whether or not I successfully persuaded my brother to switch his M&M’s with my Skittles. I only remember wondering if deviled eggs were indeed demon-possessed, or if the rum-infused cake was actually dangerous enough to kill someone (the Adults told me that I was forbidden from touching it). I remember the older-than-you board games and the book that taught me how to twist my hands into shadow puppets. I read that lovely edition on the toilet, by the way, and practiced the finger configurations until perfection—or maybe until someone knocked on the door and told me to get out of there I’m going to poop my pants. I even remember the white-as-snow poodle who I believed to be the reincarnation of a princess tiara (because of her name, Jewel).
Mostly, though, I remember the funny little man in the funny little suit who refused to speak.
“He’s Charlie Chaplin,” my aunt explained, “but he’s actually my brother”—and in the silence of fantasy, I was intrigued. I tried to tickle a sound out of him as any kid would, but deep down, I hoped he’d stand his ground. I wanted to believe that there was at least one Adult whose dedication to imagination could be as fierce as mine. And he was a worthy opponent—so worthy that to this day, I only remember him as “Charlie Chaplin.”
I disliked “Charlie Chaplin” at first. He was strange, he didn’t speak, and like I said, his outfit was very, very lame (excuse my elementary-school-level insult). I disliked him on the premise that he was a stranger—and strangers were not to be trusted, as fans of Baba Yaga would know. My disapproval was aggravated when he claimed my family to be his own, and I wanted to shout, “She’s my aunt, not your sister!” even though she was both. But Charlie stayed quiet, breaking the silence only with pantomimed gestures, tugging me into his circle of humble imagination and inviting me to unravel my banana-peel walls. The more silent he stayed, the more I realized our unfamiliarity didn’t matter.
And so we greeted each other in an altogether different universe, introducing ourselves not as “Adult” and “Child” but as “Charlie Chaplin and the Fairy.” Our identities might have been the products of the Halloween heebie-jeebies or the mere results of amalgamated fabric. But our imaginations were legitimate, and thus we were justified. We gave ourselves the right to pretend unchallenged, to transcend the “trick” and indulge in the “treat.”
I believe the definition of a lovely childhood is just that: the near-immortal understanding of life as a treat.
Charlie Chaplin—whatever his real name was—allowed me to be a child. He did not shake his head disapprovingly when I abducted my 11th eggroll. He did not command me to get in line for yet another lame photo. He did not comment for the millionth time about how tall I had gotten, nor did he push me up against my cousin back-to-back to scrutinize our height difference down to the hair. His silence gave me the right to own my fairy wings. And when I grew weary of their weight, Charlie Chaplin accompanied me by tearing off his mustache.
Charlie Chaplin was an Adult who met a child where she was and didn’t insist that she follow him. He was not like the other Adults, who distinguished themselves by slingshotting underhanded jokes and staying inside on Halloween night to play poker. Instead, he volunteered to “take the kids out trick-or-treating,” and he didn’t just volunteer. He genuinely wanted to be a part of our world. Charlie Chaplin, as Charlie Chaplin, engaged in the tacit childhood pact of fantasy—and even when he did end up leaving the Lego Circle to recharge with a wine cooler, he never let his Adultness make me feel small. He tread the waters of youth with grace and humility. He showed me that the philosophy of “life as a treat” was not limited to the child’s psyche.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be my last “real” Halloween experience. The following Halloweens would be spent at home doing homework, turning off all the lights, and hiding from the rest of the heavily-costumed world. Maybe it was because of local news about drug-spiked candies, or because my parents were too busy to take me and my brother house-hopping—or maybe the magic just wore off at some point.
The gaps in my memory are, I think, reflective of my increasing distance from the legitimacy of imagination. Now, it takes much more effort to recall that fairy tales are quite true and that fantasy can remedy the biggest woes. As we evolve into our teens, twenties, thirties, forties, we begin to approach life more cynically, as if everyone around us is a horrible trickster. We hide behind our masks and show ourselves only in the comfort of our homes. It becomes harder to reach that near-immortal understanding as we question the strange Charlie Chaplins of the world. We wish for conformity and safety in numbers, and we sit, self-absorbed, until the night passes and the last deviled egg is eaten. We amuse ourselves with Adultness and we see imagination as a mere faculty of childhood—a dream from long ago, a trick in itself.
For most of us, “growing up” means replacing imagination with distortion: worry, doubt, and fear. We forget that imagination, in its fullest sense, cannot help but be good. We forget that to be human is to depend on the medicine of creation—to live earnestly and joyfully despite it all.
There comes a moment in life when it’s no longer socially acceptable to ask for copious amounts of free candy, and I don’t think COVID-19 is very conducive to that this year anyway. But when I do want to remember sweeter, freer Octobers, I think back to Charlie Chaplin and that night doused in true Halloween glimmer. I think of unadulterated imagination and the feeling of feeling. I think of that immortal moment of telling, and believing, and treating, and being treated.
And then I rummage in the pantry for a Twix or two.