Excerpt: Chapter 1
A Wilderness of Sweets
A wilderness of sweets . . . Wild above rule or art; enormous bliss.
-John Milton, from Paradise Lost
I live on Garden Place in Brooklyn Heights, New York. A sleepy idyll, forgotten in the crazy speed and riot of New York City, it rests outside of time and outside of the cacophony. Only one block in length, the street is made up of single-family town houses and brownstones. Someone usually has to die for a house to go on sale here. Tree branches overhang the street, flowering pink puffballs of cherry blossom in springtime. They create canopies over the children, who are permitted to play ball in the street without supervision. On warm evenings, they gather for capture the flag, skateboarding, and manhunt, screaming “Car!” and racing to get out of the way of the occasional interruption. Everyone on the block dutifully shovels the snow within hours of a blizzard, puts out the trash only on designated garbage days, and responsibly accepts FedEx packages for the neighbors. People’s window boxes change seasonally and predictably: mums in fall, evergreens in winter, daffodils in spring, geraniums in summer. If a baby wails late at night, a family goes on vacation, or a child gets into Harvard, the neighbors are the first to know. The street whispers safety, stability, understated affluence. There should be no failures on Garden Place or bankruptcies or terrors or tragedies. We like to play dress-up at nightmare only. Every Halloween, the block becomes the center of such a maelstrom. It takes off its apron and goes all dark and wild-but only for the night. Unlike people in other parts of the neighborhood, we wait to begin decorating our houses late that afternoon, as if to emphasize that misrule and mayhem, evil and chaos, only occur for one night here and will be exorcised by morning.
In a flurry of activity, we make over the street with only a few hours to spare. The ornamentation is not elaborate; most of the decorations were purchased a decade before and still retain a bit of dust from having been hauled out of the basement. Glow-in-the-dark skeletons hang in effigy out of second-story windows, clumsily carved pumpkins line the stoops, and cobwebs festoon the gates and trees. The homemade, somewhat tattered props suit our block: they shroud it, offering just the right sprinkling of decay and spook to transform the carefully maintained prettiness of our street.
At five o’clock sharp, street traffic is prohibited, and we officially open our doors. Lugging baskets filled with candy outside, every family on the block settles on the front stairs, adults with cocktails, children with macaroni and cheese. My family-my husband, Eric, and two children, Benjamin, thirteen, and Lilly, ten-always invites a crew of extended family and friends to join us. My only rule is that everyone who comes over that night should wear a costume. My love for my family rises exponentially every year as I see them struggle to comply with this rule. My usually elegant brother-in-law Nick permits us to swathe him in purple velvet swashbuckler attire. My mother-in-law, Maria, unrecognizably silly, giggles in a clown costume, while my refined sister Jeanne gets funky in seventies rainbow-colored Afro and platform shoes, and my brother- in-law David raps in a blue polyester tuxedo and bling. My children’s costumes, long discussed, carefully conceived, have evolved in response to their growing maturity: Tinker Bell transformed into a teenage rock star; a dalmatian devolved into Dracula. I tend to like wearing small touches only, usually accessories that somehow hint at my mood that year: a black pointy witch’s hat, crown, Mardi Gras mask, fairy wings.