It was a dark Halloween night. A cold drizzle soaked the leaf-covered sidewalks and extinguished jack-o-lanterns that perched on porch railings and steps, their cold, dark, empty faces even more frightening than their candled-glowing ones from earlier that night.
The year was 1964 and this Chicago neighborhood was a combination of single-family homes, apartment buildings and, at the very end of the blocks, small businesses. Dozens of trick-or-treaters hurried from house to house and street to street in search of Halloween treasure; apples, popcorn balls, pennies or, the most sought after treat, penny candy.
She was six. Old enough, her mother had decided, to trick or treat, but only under the care of her two older brothers who were eight and nine.
With her little body enveloped in an old flannel shirt, a pair of one of her brother’s corduroy pants and her curls stuffed into an old hat, she was sure she was the epitome of a hobo – whatever that was supposed to be.
The evening had started out chilly, but dry and as her pillow case grew with the delightful treats, she had hoped the night would never end. But now, two hours later, with rain soaking her costume and her little body shivering with cold, she was ready for the experience to be over.
“I want to go home,” she said, her teeth chattering, to her brothers.
“But our pillow cases aren’t even half full,” the younger brother replied with impatience. “You said you wanted to go with us, so stop complaining.”
“But I’m cold and tired,” she replied.
“Okay, listen,” the older brother said. “See that apartment building over there?”
He pointed to a six-story brick apartment building across the street and she nodded.
“It’s got an elevator and everything,” he continued. “And it’s inside, so it will be warm. You go trick and treat there and we’ll hurry through the next couple of blocks. Then you wait for us at the apartment building and we’ll come and get you in a little while. Okay?”
“But Mom said I had to stay with you,” she said, her heart thumping with worry. “To be safe.”
“What could happen?” the younger brother asked. “It’s Halloween.”
They left her in front of the elevator, pushed the up button, and hurried back out into the street. She stood, dripping on the black and white tile floor, her pillow case dragging on the ground beside her. Finally, the door opened and she stepped inside.
Her brothers had not considered her diminutive height when they left her at the apartment building. Once inside the elevator, she found she couldn’t reach the buttons to direct the elevator to the next floors. So, the elevator sat, with its doors open, while she tried to jump up and press a button to no avail.
Finally, tired and frustrated, she decided that she would leave and find her own way home.
The streets were dark and nearly empty. Most of the other children had given up when the rain started. She looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of her brothers. With a resigned sigh, she chose right and headed down the darkened street.
Even if the porch lights had been lit, she didn’t have the energy or desire to walk up any steps and make her pillow case any heavier, so she just trudged along. She walked along the empty sidewalk, first crossing one street and then another, hoping she was going in the right direction. Finally, when she saw the street lights from the busy street ahead of her, she knew she’d gone the wrong way.
Looking around, she spied the familiar store entrance to Bernie’s Shoe Repair. It was a tiny corner store and smelled of wax and burnt rubber. But she loved the store, because Bernie sold penny candy to the kids in the neighborhood. A whole section of his precious space was filled with Mary Janes, Boston Baked Beans, Red Hots, Bit O’ Honey, Lemonheads, Jaw Breakers, Tootsie Pops and, her favorite, Candy Necklaces. She hurried over to the store, climbed up the single step and sheltered herself from the rain.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she pushed against the door and, to her surprise, it opened. She stepped onto the old wooden floor and looked around the darkened store. The street lights from outside were enough for her to see her way toward the counter.
She looked up and smiled. That was Bernie’s knick-name for her. Bernie reminded her of a leprechaun, he was very short, a little bent over and walked with an old wooden cane. He came out from behind the counter and handed her a candy necklace. “Trick or treat,” he said.
She tried to smile, but a big tear ran down her cheek.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m losted,” was her sincere reply.
“How about I walk you home?” he offered.
Nodding eagerly, she followed him out of the store and back into the rain. As she walked with the old gentleman, they shared stories of Halloween nights and discussed the benefits of the different kinds of penny candy. The walk was accomplished in no time. When they were a half-block away from her home, she saw her brothers coming up from the other way.
“That’s them. That’s my brothers,” she said, turning to the old man. But, to her surprise, Bernie was no longer there.
She hurried ahead, meeting her brothers outside their house.
“Where did you go?” her older brother exclaimed. “We couldn’t find you.”
“I got losted,” she replied, looking over her shoulder.
“What?” the younger brother asked, peering into the dark where his sister was searching. “What are you looking for?”
“Bernie,” she answered. “Bernie walked me home.”
Both brothers grabbed hold of their sister and pulled her towards the bright light of their own front porch.
“What?” she asked, confused.
The older brother looked down at his sister and shook his head. “Bernie died last week.”