In the neighborhood of my youth, Halloween was strictly for children. In small towns and rural areas, there were few, if any, Halloween parties for adults. It was simply a time for kids, costumes, and collecting candy from the neighbors. And in my eight years or so of going house to house in search of the cherished nugget-sized Baby Ruth or the equally prized popcorn ball, the expectation — and the result — was always the same: a smiling face, a hand extending beyond the screen door, and the reassuring plop of a piece of candy into my bag. Or in the case of old man McDougall, a ball of hard bubble gum launched at rocket speed, without any consideration to direction or specific target.
There was one man, however, who celebrated Halloween very differently. Rather than carving pumpkins or covering his house with “spooky” decorations, he found a very unique and personal way to enjoy the holiday. And while he didn’t wear a costume, he did everything he could to disguise his identity.
Mr. Ardell owned a small neighborhood grocery store in Bedford Heights, Illinois. I knew him because he was the father of my best friend, Kathy. His store was close to our grammar school, and Kathy would often invite me to walk there after classes to help with her “after school job.” In reality, it wasn’t a job at all, and we usually spent the time hanging out together, enjoying a soda and donut (our moms never knew), and reading all the new comic books. For a couple of 12-year-olds, it was a lot of responsibility. At the end of the hour, we both received a quarter for our efforts.
I always enjoyed spending time in the store, and I’m sure it was because Mr. Ardell made everyone — his friends, employees, and customers — feel right at home. And although I didn’t understand it at the time, there was also something special in the way others treated him. They not only respected him, they knew that he was, in a truthful, honest, and reliable way, a good man. A man of integrity. The same words the preacher used to describe him at his funeral.
With the passing years, Kathy and I did our best to stay in touch, and even though we both moved away from our little hometown, we always tried to spend a couple of hours together during our visits with family over the Christmas holidays. It was during one of those visits — 20 years after the death of Mr. Ardell — that Kathy and I found ourselves reminiscing about our childhood as we enjoyed lunch at a little fast food restaurant in the older part of town. The place had been there for 40 years, and neither of us had been inside since the eighth grade, when we would walk across the street from the junior high school to buy an order of fries and a Coke. There was a new counter and booths, but for the most part it looked the same, except for the pictures — old black and whites of Bedford Heights — that covered an entire wall. Many of them showed the downtown area from the 1930s and 1940s. The original post office was there and, in later photos taken in the 1950s and 1960s, the J.C. Penney, Western Auto, and the Madison Hotel coffee shop. These were all places I had actually been inside, to go shopping with my mother, or in the case of the Madison Hotel, having lunch with my father.
It must have been obvious how absorbed we’d become in the old photos, as one of the women working behind the counter came over and asked Kathy if she recognized any of the old downtown area. She told her she did and, in fact, had spent much of her childhood working in her father’s grocery store.
“What was the name of the store?”
Kathy told her and pointed it out in one of the pictures.
“Is your last name Ardell?”
“It used to be, before I was married.”
“And the man who owned that store, he was your father?”
Although Kathy was becoming a little apprehensive at this point, she admitted it. “Yes, that was my dad.”
“You wait here a minute. I’ll be right back.” The woman raced back into the kitchen and began yelling in Spanish. A burst of conversation followed. My Spanish is terrible, and with at least three people talking at once, I had no idea what was going on.
In seconds, the kitchen door burst open. As the woman and her two brothers swarmed over us, one of the men looked at Kathy and said, “Your father would drop off groceries at our front door. He would ring the bell and then run back to his car!”
As we stood there, not exactly sure what they were talking about, one of the men told us the story:
“Sometimes there was no work, and our parents had to struggle to put food on the table. And they hated it, because they were so proud, and yet they knew they needed help. But your father, Mr. Ardell, also knew. So they all played this game. Our parents would pretend not to know who brought the food, and your father did his best to keep it a secret, not telling anyone.”
It brought a flood of memories that had never made sense until that moment.
At least once a week, just before it was time to leave the store for home, Mr. Ardell would say, “I need to fill this order and drop it off.” Then he would go down the aisles, filling a large cardboard box with canned goods, soap, fresh hamburger meat, bologna, longhorn cheese, a head of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, an onion, and a dozen potatoes. He didn’t stop until the box was full, finally topping it off with a bag of penny candy and a handful of suckers.
I always wondered why he never parked close to the house where he was making the delivery. Instead, he would pull around the corner or stop several doors down, even though there was plenty of room directly in front. Leaving the engine running, he would tell Kathy and me to wait in the car while he carried the box to the door. Suddenly, he’d be running back toward us — fast. He’d jump in the seat and we’d take off.
“Just ready to go home.” That’s all he would say when I asked him why he always ran from each house. And now, 30 years later, I had finally discovered the truth — the real reason why he was always in a rush to get back to the car.
“We were chasing him,” the woman said. “My brothers and I would hear him knocking on the screen, but when we’d open the door, there was only the box of food. The first few times, we didn’t see anyone. Then later, we saw somebody running down the sidewalk. We wanted to catch him, to find out who he was. But our parents told us not to run too fast, to always let him get away. Eventually, we saw the car drive past and we knew it was the man who owned the store on the corner. Sometimes we would see both of you in the car, too. And we would think how lucky you were. To be so rich, to be able to give us candy.”
To me, it was just a delivery, another order that had to be dropped off before Mr. Ardell could take me home. To the people who opened the door and found the box of food, it was kindness and compassion — and hope.
I don’t believe Mr. Ardell ever told anyone what he was doing. Maybe he saw it as something that needed to be done, and he knew he was the one to do it. But even today, there are people in the small town of Bedford Heights for whom the phrase “trick-or-treat” means a great deal more than simply going door-to-door collecting candy. Instead, they treasure the memory of a man they call Mr. Halloween, a man who never wore a costume and would stealthily approach a stranger’s front door in silence. And after ringing the bell, take off like a streak, determined to remain anonymous, hoping his gift would feed both body and soul — and never at the cost of another man’s dignity.
I hope you enjoyed one of my favorite Halloween stories, excerpted from the short story collection, Love Travels Forever.
Originally published at jayefrances.com
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