This short story by J. J. Steinfeld is a finalist in the Furious Gazelle’s Halloween contest. The contest’s winner will be announced Friday. View the rest of the finalists here.
“The Nefarious: A Tale of a Notorious Halloween Dance” was first published in Strange Lucky Halloween (Edited by Sandi Reed-Chan and Jean M. Goldstrom, Whortleberry Press, 2013).
© 2014 by J. J. Steinfeld
“We haven’t gone dancing in years, Shane. Not since we first got married, let alone a Halloween dance,” Cynthia said to her husband of almost thirteen years. In fact, their thirteenth anniversary was in a week, two days before Halloween, and the dance Cynthia had been invited to by her boss, Edvard Bellwether, of Bellwether Worldwide Insurers.
“I used to love Halloween when I was a kid,” Shane said, staring up at the ceiling of the living room of their suburban apartment condominium, seeming to be locating himself in the past. I usually went trick-or-treating as one superhero or another, but I don’t remember ever going to a Halloween dance.”
“When I was young and not so young, I went to some wonderful Halloween dances, wearing beautiful costumes, always beautiful, elaborate costumes for me. Seems we grew up in different social strata,” Cynthia joked, but Shane lowered his head and gave an exaggerated growl, recalling the first time he met Cynthia’s upper-crust crustacean family as he always referred to them, and the contempt with which he still maintains they treat him because he was from a poor working-class family. Cynthia’s parents, both in their mid eighties, did not approve of their daughter’s marriage to a younger man, even after thirteen years, and a wedding her father had described on numerous occasions as a disappointing, lacklustre city-hall affair, Shane emphasized with rancour. As for Shane’s family, Cynthia once remarked they reminded her of a cross between the Munsters and the Addams Family, and Shane, who usually had a lively sense of humour, called that ridiculous comparison disrespectful and insulting, despite Cynthia’s claim that both of those fictitious families were delightful even admirable in an absurd social commentary sort of way.
“What should we go as?” Shane asked, recalling the years he went trick-or-treating as Batman or Superboy in costumes sewn by his mother. He closed his eyes, his fingers periodically poking into the air as he appeared to be counting Batmen and Superboys, and added, “I think it was six times as the Caped Crusader and five times as the Boy of Steel, between the ages of four to fourteen, inclusive.”
“Edvard told me this dance has been going on for ages, every Halloween, even before he started his insurance company two decades ago, and they always have a theme. Until now, he’s never invited anyone from our company. Felt it wouldn’t be proper, whatever that means. But when I told him when we got married, even if it was two unfortunate days premature, as he characterized it, he said he couldn’t resist. And thirteen years ago, of all anniversaries, his luckiest number. One’s costume has to somehow be connected to the theme, even tangentially or obliquely, he said. Edvard likes to use fancy words.”
“So what’s this big theme, Cynthia?”
“Is that a noun?”
“I guess you can make it into a noun. I told you Edvard likes fancy words.”
“Whenever I pick you up at your office, the guy always gives me the creeps.”
“He’s great to work with. The best boss I’ve ever had, and as you know, I’ve had my fair share of bosses and supervisors.”
“He looks like Edgar Allan Poe, if you ask me.”
“You’re not the first person to say that, but I think he’s a handsome man. Edvard even hinted he might go as Poe to the Halloween dance.”
“I never said Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t handsome, only creepy looking. John Cusak is a handsome actor, and he played Poe in The Raven, for which, if you recall, I wrote a glowing review….” Both Shane and Cynthia were avid film buffs and each wrote weekly reviews for an online film website, Shane for more current films and Cynthia specializing in older films, especially classic films. Shane liked to say that film reviewing was his passion while his successful house-painting business was a sideline.
“After I told him we got married two days before Halloween, thirteen years ago, it was the first time I ever heard Edvard laugh. He went on for about a minute, and the whole office started laughing, turning the entire first floor of the building into a strange theatre of frivolity.”
“That sounds creepy, too.”
“Not at all, darling. It was rather fun. Things can get sombre with the crazy work load this month for reasons, I assume, that have nothing to do with Halloween.”
“Well, as long as he gives you a good raise.”
“I’ve only been with Bellwether Worldwide Insurers seven months, Shane, for Heaven’s sake.”
“You’ve already proven yourself a valuable asset.”
“Edvard actually said we should have gotten married on Halloween…in costume.”
“You were married in costume, so speak…a wedding costume.”
“I told him I had a very sexy dress…for a city- wedding.”
“You were the sexiest forty-two-year-old newlywed I’d ever seen or married.”
“Stop with your silliness, Shane.”
“Silliness is what gets me through all the silliness of existence, if you know what I mean, Cynthia.”
“I know exactly what you mean, I think…more or less.”
“Now who’s being silly?”
“Perhaps the question should be, who is being more silly?”
“Your forty-one year old young hubby, looking lovingly at his sexy fifty-five year-old wife,” Shane said, and hugged Cynthia, even though it annoyed Cynthia whenever he underscored the disparity in their ages. He had just turned twenty-eight and she was two-thirds into forty-two when they married thirteen years ago,
“Who shall we go as, Shane?”
“Has to fit the theme, you said.”
“I’ll research nefarious folks on the internet and see what I come up with, Shane. Movie characters with nefarious reputations might not be a bad place to start.”
“Too bad Batman or Superboy wouldn’t qualify as nefarious. Believe it or not, Cynthia, I’m looking forward to this Halloween dance, especially if you can wear something nefariously sexy.”
“Sounds like something Edvard might say…”
Cynthia and Shane decided on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They watched the film several times on DVD to get a feel for what kind of costumes to wear, acting out in their living room some of the scenes. Shane even wrote an in-depth review of Bonnie and Clyde, and used it for this week’s online review. He usually didn’t review films made before 2000, but became so enamoured of the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, and its place in cinematic history, he decided to make an exception. Cynthia wrote a long review essay on old gangster films, which Shane said was her best writing about film to date. After watching Bonnie and Clyde for the fourth time, they went to a vintage clothing store and found the perfect 1930s outfits, including hats close to those the actors Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty wore in the film. When Shane told the thirtyish clerk at the clothing store that both she and he weren’t even born when Bonnie and Clyde hit the big screen, but his lovely wife was already in grade school, Cynthia became angry and stormed out of the store, vintage outfit in hand.
By the time Cynthia and Shane arrived, there were already over a hundred partyers, everyone in costume and dancing enthusiastically at different levels of competency. The dance was being held in a large but somewhat run-down community hall in a less than desirable section of the city Cynthia had never been near but Shane had grown up in, and trick-or-treated there, he mentioned with time-defying fondness. The lighting in the large hall was dim and periodically would flicker or go out completely for brief periods, with a dark-blue spotlight on the twenty-piece band that entertained almost non-stop during the dance, the musicians dressed as a rogue’s gallery of notorious criminals from history, ranging from nefarious assassins to infamous dictators to vicious serial killers. Cynthia enjoyed herself dancing, saying she felt her spirit was rejuvenated and she felt younger, at least by a few years. Shane said dancing made him feel older, making his point by rubbing his knees which were acting up painfully.
During one dance, to a song neither Cynthia nor Shane could place, Clyde Barrow, another Clyde Barrow, cut into the costumed Cynthia and Shane/Bonnie and Clyde couple, and another Bonnie Parker took hold of Shane, as Edvard stood nearby and oversaw the switch in partners.
“I feel so embarrassed,” Cynthia said.
“Why should it be embarrassing? It’s rather flattering,” the other Clyde said.
“Yes, most flattering,” the other Bonnie added.
“The movie is stupendous, and holds up quite well in comparison to more modern gangster films,” Shane said, as the other Bonnie tightened her hold on him.
“Your duds look like they’d fit pretty close into that period,” the other Clyde observed.
“You look awfully…what’s the word—” the other Bonnie said.
“Authentic,” Edvard said. “Authentic with a capital ‘A’.”
“Thank goodness it’s not that other famous capital ‘A,’ the one in the Scarlet Letter, a film a gave a lovely review even if most other reviewers weren’t in agreement with my assessment,” Cynthia said, as the other Clyde tightened his hold on her. Both of the other Bonnie and Clyde liked to dance extremely close, as though attempting to meld their body with their dancing partner.
“Look around,” Edvard encouraged, “just about everyone has had a film or two about them, maybe a lot more,” he said, putting his arm around Jack the Ripper, “or as nefarious characters in a horrifying film about someone else,” and soon the discussion revolved around the films that contained either major or minor roles for The Nefarious, and a discussion of what qualified as nefarious behaviour, historically, in fiction, and cinematically.
A group of strikingly realistic-looking gangsters, standing close to a little too skinny and much too tall Al Capone, rattled off the names of dozens of movies and someone commented it sounded like the rat-tat-tat of an old-fashioned machine-gun. Machine Gun Kelly went out to his car and came back with a machine gun which Edvard said was authentic. Machine Gun Kelly aimed his authentic-looking weapon at Shane, and when Shane cowered, said he shouldn’t be a fraidy-cat. Shane started to walk away from the menacing Machine Gun Kelly, but he was blocked by five tough-looking gun molls that Cynthia later speculated two of whom were men dressed as gangster women, two definitely females, and the fifth was androgynous but Shane thought was a female and Cynthia a male. The five eagerly identified themselves as Helen Wawzynak, who had been dancing earlier with Baby Face Nelson, Beulah Baird with Pretty Boy Floyd, Kathryn Thorn with Machine Gun Kelly, Virginia Hill with Bugsy Siegel, and Evelyn “please call me Billie, everyone” Frechette with John Dillinger, and each gun moll tried to outdo the others with what sounded like first-hand descriptions of their nefarious backgrounds and exploits alongside their nefarious gangster associates.
Edvard, Shane pointed out, was using the word authentic a great deal. He was using it for nearly everyone, except for Shane and Cynthia whom he mildly flattered by saying that they certainly approximated the period but didn’t quite capture. He did admit to never having seen the 1967 film, but his friends who were costumed as 1930s Bonnie and Clyde had shown him photographs of the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Parker, a thick album of old photographs, and the resemblance was uncanny, or authentic, as Edvard said several more times. As he continued to talk about the authenticity of the other Bonnie and Clyde, Edvard did a slow gyrating dance with Cynthia/Bonnie, and Shane/Clyde gave him a hard shove, but Edvard held on to Cynthia and laughed it off by saying let bygones be bygones, and let’s not turn this festive occasion into a horror story. “Mind you,” Edvard said, “Edgar Allan Poe might appreciate a more horrible tone to the festivities, and I am the nefarious Poe tonight, am I not?” Edvard even suggested that everyone call him Edgar, if only until the Halloween dance was over. After he let go of Cynthia and eyed another potential nefarious dance partner, Edvard claimed that his middle name, coincidentally, was Allan, Edvard Allan Bellwether, but Cynthia and Shane both thought that was untrue, a Halloween verbal trick.
As Cynthia danced yet another time with the other Clyde, she could see the other Bonnie dancing again with Shane, holding her husband too closely, occasionally whispering into his ear what Cynthia imagined were suggestive, erotic words. The other Clyde told Cynthia that jealously was a wretched emotion, a wicked green-eyed monster that can shred one’s emotions, and if his Bonnie wanted to rob a bank with someone else and then have a wild sex romp afterward in a cheap motel room, he wouldn’t mind.
“We could pull off a few heists together,” the other Clyde went on, whispering close to Cynthia’s ear, much in the manner the other Bonnie whispering to Shane.
“Bonnie and Clyde met a horrific end,” Cynthia said firmly, and stepped away from the other Clyde.
“That was in a Hollywood movie, not real life. The movie-makers got it all wrong. That is, the cops killed the wrong folks, and we got away.”
“That is obvious, isn’t it? But shouldn’t you be somewhat older, Clyde, say over a hundred? Bonnie and Clyde were killed in 1934, after all, he twenty-four and she twenty-three”
“Heck, deals can be made, potions can be found. I saw Mephistopheles over by the refreshments a little while ago, having a chat with Dillinger,” the other Clyde said, moving close to Cynthia again, and quickly gave her a kiss before she could avoid his lustful lips.
“By the way, that green-eyed monster you mentioned, and I can handle, thank you, is from Shakespeare, who I much prefer reading than dancing with you,” Cynthia said sharply to the other Clyde, and hurried away to the opposite side of the large room.
At the start if the last song before the costume judging, Edvard asked Typhoid Mary, wearing a surgical mask, to dance. Earlier there had been heated debate among some of the other costumed partyers that Typhoid Mary wasn’t nefarious because she had been asymptomatic and didn’t believe she was infecting others, but a veterinarian dressed as Mr. Hyde eloquently argued that since she refused to cooperate with medical authorities on many occasions, the results if not the intent were nefarious and therefore Typhoid Mary qualified as nefarious.
Edvard was the first person to ask Typhoid Mary to dance all evening. “I insisted she wear the surgical mask. Nice touch, wouldn’t you say albeit a bit of an anachronism? Maybe she’ll take it off later, but I think that’s prospective irony, if you get my drift,” he said to Cynthia and Shane, who were dancing together not far away from them.
“Not exactly, Edvard,” Cynthia responded.
“It hardly matters. Wait until the judging. First prize is incredible.”
“A get-out-of-jail-free card?” Shane said, having recently commented on how much jail time some of the characters had served, and even attempted to estimate an aggregate total of time, at least a thousand of years, he estimated, spent incarcerated by those costumed characters at the Halloween dance.
“A five-million-dollar life insurance policy, with the yearly premiums paid for a hundred years, in case the winner has longevity in their family,” Edvard said, offering a mischievous glance in Cynthia’s direction.
“I already have adequate life insurance, Mr. Poe.”
“One can never have enough life insurance. I’m sure Cynthia would appreciate the bigger policy.”
“Don’t forget the booby prize,” Typhoid Mary said, raising her voice in excitement.
“What would that be?”
“Later, Shane. Hold your horses and keep on your pants.”
“What an odd term, booby prize, isn’t it?”
But apposite…and authentic,” Edvard said, just as Cynthia joined the group standing around the gregarious organizer of the Halloween dance.
Edvard revealed that he had won three times in the last twenty or so years and the booby prize twice, “Hard to fathom that, but it’s all relative and subjective and unpredictable,” he said, rubbing his Edgar Allan Poe moustache.
“Why would anyone want the booby prize?” Cynthia asked, shaking her head in bewilderment.
“One must have a booby prize, the coveted booby prize. The booby prize consists of the first and last place costumes ending the evening with a romantic dance, depending on sexual preferences, but I‘m sure you know what I‘m getting at. I’ve seen first and last place smooching and the opening sparks of a romantic relationship. Well, last year, a dapper Beelzebub and a drab-looking Angel, albeit an Avenging Angel, really hit it off. They had to be pried apart or they’d still be kissing. They married last week, less than a year after that monumental osculation. I understand they are in their honeymoon in a hot climate, at Beelzebub’s suggestion.”
Sweeney Todd and Typhoid Mary won in a tie, and Cynthia and Shane received the booby prize. The band began their final number, and Sweeney Todd took Cynthia onto the dance floor, and Typhoid Mary pulled a reluctant Shane toward the centre of the dance floor as all the other costumed partyers formed a cordon around the two dancing couples, as if they were contemplating escape, “There’s no escaping this tradition,” Edvard said, seeming to be reading their minds, or at least their body language.
Near the end of the dance, Typhoid Mary removed her surgical mask and gave Shane a deep kiss he would never forget, he already starting to look more than a little ill.
“Typhoid Mary is about as authentic as you can get,” Edvard said, “even if she wasn’t nefarious in her heart…”
You can read more about J.J. Steinfeld at http://www.ditchpoetry.com/jjsteinfeld.htm