The annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was a very big deal to us kids. From the beginning of that weekend until the final drum-rolled, record-breaking tally (it was always record-breaking), replete with bursts of confetti and a brassy instrumental version of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Michael D. and I took the challenge to heart. We’d put our entrepreneurial skills to work planning to raise the most amount of money in the history of the telethon, feeling directly responsible for each new unfathomable total that flashed on the gigantic tote board next to Jerry’s white-toothed grin of an exclamation point. Already successful with the sale of homemade air-fresheners, water balloon grenades, and two Dixie cups of gutter oil, all this fundraising (and for a good cause!) seemed right up our alley.
Nanda facilitated our efforts by sending us out into the neighborhood with plastic milk jugs cut into makeshift piggy banks. My brother, too, would do his own share of door-to-door collecting, but he couldn’t be bothered with the likes of two grade school hangers-on. He was now an insouciant sophomore while we languished through the lower echelons of 5th and 6th grade. To motivate us even further, Nanda would phone in and donate five dollars in each of her three grandsons’ names. But I know there was at least one occasion where she substituted Michael D’s name for distant and bratty cousin Jay. Sitting on our knees just inches from the television set, we waited for the brief segment when the local station would scroll donor names across the bottom of the screen, a fleeting moment of glory we did not take for granted. Nanda sometimes referred to Michael D. as her “little orphaned grandson” because he didn’t appear to be that well-cared for. His grimy fingernails, ratty clothes and sad, apologetic eyes had raised questions regarding his home life. Michael D. eating with his mouth open and licking his fingers at her table once prompted a tongue-clucking tut-tut-tut and the infamous line Danny and I had heard before, Young men eat at my table, not little pigs! Her sympathy only went so far.
Nanda loved the telethon for all its heartbreaking stories profiling innocent children (“Jerry’s Kids”) struck down by the debilitating disease, causing her to wipe an occasional stray tear with the hem of her caftan. But even more so, she loved the guest performances by the likes of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and her favorite, Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass. The minute “Spanish Flea” started, she grabbed my arm and shouted, Okay Lover! Let’s Dance! Springing from her chair with surprising agility, she pulled me to the center of the living room floor where she swayed her large hips side to side as we took turns twirling one another around and around. The dance always concluded with our doing a dramatic heads-up, cheek-to-cheek tango from one side of the room to the other. As long as I avoided the glowing tip of her cigarette, which bobbed up and down in the corner of her mouth, I managed just fine.
Not only did the telethon signal a holiday weekend and day off from school, it announced the coming of fall and the annual Lion’s Club Carnival which ran every weekend throughout the month of October, culminating in a big celebration on Halloween night, our favorite holiday of the year. Despite plans to devise the perfect costume, Michael D. and I ended up once again going as a skeleton and hobo, respectively. All our creative inspiration must have been tapped from previous fundraising schemes.
The carnival was held each year in the parking lot of R.E. St. John Memorial Stadium, where the world-famous precision dance team Kilgore College Rangerettes out-shined any sporting event to ever take place there. Conveniently enough, the stadium was an easy bike ride from our apartment at Tanglewood II and Michael D’s house. And we made certain to hit the carnival at least a couple of weekend nights before Halloween finally arrived. For rides there was the Tilt-A-Whirl, bumper cars, Chair-O-Planes, Ferris Wheel and carousel. But the Zipper was our favorite. Inside the narrow padding-less metal cage there was only room enough for two and because each cage spun freely off the main axis while the entire ride rotated, this caused a wild flipping and spinning, forwards and back and upside down. Loose change could be heard plinking its way through the metal framework, thus we fought to keep one hand on the lap bar and the other on our pockets. As soon as we got out, back in line we’d go, riding till one of us nearly puked. Then it was time for The Fun House where warped mirrors, maniacal wide-mouthed clowns, pulsating strobe lights and the smell of stale beer mixed with body odor made it not so fun. Even worse was all the funnel cake, hot dogs, giant sour pickles and cotton candy we’d consume. If we didn’t get sick on the Zipper or in The Fun House, our gorging the night away always came back to haunt us.
On Halloween night, however, mom insisted on driving us to the carnival. It wasn’t so much that she was worried for our safety. It was all about transporting the cake. She was hell bent on one of her clan winning a cake in the Cake Walk. I loved this game because it was the safest, easiest thing ever. There were no teams. No shirts vs. skins, like in gym class. No real skill required, just luck. Numbered squares were ordered in a large circle and all you had to do was keep walking, one square to the next, as the music played. When the music stopped, so did you. If they called the number you were standing on, you won. To ensure a victory, mom would enlist us boys—and any of our friends nearby—to play until one of the crew hit pay dirt. Then the winner would pace the long row of banquet tables filled with coconut, Bundt, German chocolate, pound and angel food cakes, while crowding bystanders shouted out their favorites like bids on The Price is Right.
When we arrived at the parking lot of the stadium, we had noticed that Michael D. was barefoot in his black plastic apron with white bones patterned on it. Maybe his shoeless tactic was somehow meant to authenticate his costume. Skeletons don’t wear shoes. Maybe his parents hadn’t noticed or cared. Mom threatened to take us back home until our incessant pleas and the mild October night convinced her to acquiesce.
On the other side of town, Nanda filled her large crystal bowl to the brim with the traditional orange and black wrapped candy, the kind Michael D. and I discarded immediately when rifling through our haul. She too loved Halloween. Her haunting stories of the prehistoric bird in the radio tower and a feral dog roaming her neighborhood—both who ate bad little boys—were testament to that. She sat waiting at the kitchen table in her caftan with a red Solo cup of Bud and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, at least one of them still going strong. With those large dark eyes glaring through green tinted glasses, she herself could provide quite a scare to trick-or-treaters. Nevertheless, she waited in jovial anticipation.
Back at Tanglewood with at least two prized cakes on the kitchen counter covered in tinfoil and Danny and me in our bedroom talking in the dark, Mom phoned Nanda and Papaw. She had a tradition of calling them before bedtime, checking in to make sure everything was okay. But this Halloween night she didn’t get a response. Papaw retired to bed by seven at the latest and rarely answered the phone. Nanda, however, was the night owl watching her Johnny Carson and reading used Harlequin Romances well after the TV stations’ sign-off into the snowy, static hum. After several attempts ending in her slamming down the receiver, mom began to panic and decided she’d drive over there in her bathrobe without any makeup on. And mom never left the house without full makeup and meticulous hair preparations.
“Get up, Michael! We’re going to your Nan and Pap’s! One of ‘em’s probably knocked the goddamn phone off the hook!” she huffed as the lights flashed on in our bedroom. Under her breath, she muttered the rare Fuck! Somehow I was always the go-to sidekick in these unpleasant excursions. Probably because Danny would flat out refuse. I, on the other hand, was terrified of saying no to our mother. Getting into our sky blue Mustang II, I looked at my barely recognizable mom in her fuzzy bathrobe without any makeup on and almost laughed out loud before she gunned the engine, spun out of the parking lot, and fishtailed onto the highway.
Turning right onto Laura Lee Lane, we noticed only one house with the porch light still on—theirs. Pulling into the driveway Mom over-braked and our heads bobbed violently forward. Just stay in the car! she snapped. Stomping through the carport in her pink house slippers, she stood with hands on hips and stared through the screen door and into the open house. There, slumped over the kitchen table with the lamplight casting a shadow across her face, was her mother—open-mouthed, glasses askew, snoring. And the large crystal bowl still sat on the counter filled to the top with candy. The trick-or-treaters had not come. Nanda had waited up for as long as she could, but the children did not come.
My mother’s shoulders fell as she pressed her head into the dusty screen of the back door. She cupped her hand to her mouth and shuddered with heaving sobs.