Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cyanide & Pixie Stix

I posted this over at STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED for my monthly entry, for October its always posting stories, poems, or essays. I wrote the following piece for OCTOBER DREAMS, edited by Rich Chizmar and Bob Morrish. I hadn't been asked for a story, but rather to contribute one of the many "My Favorite Hallowe'en Memory..." pieces, so I gave people both. A few people who commented to me earlier brought up the sense of smell and writing, and I mentioned back that I actually have been awoken from dreams because of a specific smell in the dream itself, not like awakening to smoke or anything like that. Vivid dreams involving all five sense, a perfect example being my dream/memory of the exploding clown I wrote about the last day of August...


It wasn’t that long ago I lived in Chicago, taking the elevated train into and back from the Loop each weekday. You live in a routine, you get to recognize sights and smells on an almost subliminal basis; anyone from out of town need only assume the subway entrances smell of sweat and sewage even during the harshest months, but there are sweeter smells from factories and warehouses that share the same blocks with tenement apartments.
At Ashland Avenue, the train stops just across the river from the Holsum bread factory, and when the doors slide open on a summer morning, it’s like a blowsy woman wearing just the right amount of perfume sashayed down the aisle. Further west where the blue line bisects the Eisenhower, the Pan Candy factory makes it’s presence known. Southwest, where the streets hump the train yards near Marquette Park, there’s the Nabisco cookie factory and the old joint where they still make Tootsie Rolls. It’s this last place where I’m reminded of the smell of death.
Walking from the train to my home, the smell from the confectionery smokestacks is intoxicatingly sweet, and I think of Pixie Stix, a brand name candy from my youth, long paper tubes of powdered sugar in pastel colors offerings of lime and cherry. In the early eighties, when I would be walking the same route home after college, immersed in espionage novels or wondering if I had it in me to write stories instead of poetry, Jack Malvides became the man who murdered Halloween.
At least, that was his nickname to the television audiences; every since “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy was arrested, catch-name killers were big in Chicago. Jack Malvides killed his seven year-old son in a heinous way, poked a hole in his boy’s Halloween stash and slipped some cyanide in. Difficult? No way, as the still unknown deviate who killed seven people with tainted Tylenol capsules, or the investigating cops and coroners, could attest to.
The cyanide was powder, just like the Pixie Stix. I think the candy company also made little candy buttons you could peel off of butcher paper. Malvides banked on an insurance scam against the makers of the product but that plan went bust mostly because he acted too shifty, or shiftless, depending on who was making the comparisons between grieving father and that of cunning murderer. So the police eventually wore him down, but the boy was still dead, along with the stigma of the one day a kid can get free goodies from neighborly strangers (or strange neighbors) and yet die choking on lime green vomit.
I hadn’t even been thinking about writing horror fiction at that time, if anything I was being deluded by the grand scale confusion Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsythe created in each new conspiracy. I would not write “A Field Near Grayslake” or “Rapid Transit” until the following spring. A part of me believes the death of Bobby Malvides allowed me to slowly desensitize my prose, which I did all that winter, culminating with my poem about spring for my senior year workshop, about a dog romping through a field with part of a woman’s skull in his jaws.
And as I said, there is an intensity to certain smells just as there is deja vu to a recurring image. I can smell copper in my sleep, to wake from some dream of an imagined fiend, with blood in my nostrils and my jaw numb from clenching. Twenty years later and everybody is desensitized by life itself. Every other day there’s some kid shooting up a school or random bombings by some idiot with an agenda.
I can still visualize what Pixie Stix felt like , the paper tearing away, the bitter powder on my tongue. Most times, it is the scents from the Tootsie Roll factory that provides the catalyst. But as the years pass, I find it increasingly hard to recall a Halloween afternoon filled with children not under adult supervision or in single groups of one or two, dumping piles of candy together one a living room floor and dividing the spoils.