An East Hampton Haunting
She brandishes her wooden spoon and yelps for Jeffrey.
Ina tugs her witch hat over her bangs. She can barely hear the fire crackling in the living room over the wind and rain.
“This weather sure is adding to my witchy mood,” Ina calls to Jeffrey in the next room. She only knows he’s there by the sight of his L.L. Bean slippered feet resting on the ottoman. He’s probably posted up with that new Steinbeck biography he’s been going on about.
She whips open the drawer beside the stove and selects an old wooden spoon, the very one she purchased the day she first saw the classified in the Times for the Barefoot Contessa Fine Foods shop in Westhampton Beach. On her way home that day, she stopped by her favorite specialty kitchen store in D.C. and bought herself a brand new spoon for luck. And when the Barefoot Contessa soon became hers, she made sure to thank the spoon. Her special utensil has certainly seen better days now, having survived countless scalds on the woodburning stove. But that only adds to her costume—an old witch with an old spoon.
Before the stove, she stirs her brew—or, in tonight’s case, a sweet-and-savory butternut squash soup. Wouldn’t be Halloween without something orange. Aside from fall leaves and the occasional autumnal soup, though, Ina generally detests orange. She’s still annoyed that her producers forced her to film exactly one Halloween episode of her show years ago. Designing a “Halloween menu” was certainly a grasp at straws. At least she got her witch hat out of the whole ordeal.
A crackle of lightning illuminates the kitchen, making Ina jump. She splatters her black blouse with a speckle of butternut.
“Perfect,” she grumbles.
“Between the storm and the virus,” Jeffrey says from the living room, “I bet we won’t have many trick-or-treaters tonight.”
“Not unless their costumes require umbrellas and N95 masks,” Ina says, dabbing at her blouse with her fingers. She taps her spoon against the dutch oven’s side.
“Good thing we forgot to pick up a bag of candy anyway,” Jeffrey says, sweeping into the kitchen for a crunch of a canapé, which Ina had set on the counter before starting on the soup.
At the sight of him, though, Ina nearly drops her lucky spoon. “What is that you’re wearing, darling?”
Jeffrey twirls a wooden spoon of his own. “You don’t recognize me? Oh, wait!” He turns and scuttles back into the living room, apron strings flying behind him. When he returns, he brandishes a comedy shop rubber chicken and throws his voice to a froggy falsetto. “Bon appetit!”
Ina claps her hands in delight. “Julia Child! What a surprise!”
“Did I get the voice right?” Jeffrey asks, trying in vain to set the chicken upright on the counter.
“The voice was perfect,” Ina says. “But I’d lose the slacks and slippers.” She points to the creased chinos and cozy feet under his floral apron.
“I thought you’d get a kick out of it,” Jeffrey chuckles. “Though if you don’t mind… I’m not really one for aprons.”
He unwraps his “costume” and sidles next to Ina at the stove. “I prefer my chefs undressed.” He leans in for a kiss and Ina’s witch hat topples off, landing dangerously close to the burner.
“That could have been bad,” she says, lifting the hat to safety. As she settles it back on her head, though, the kitchen clunks into sudden darkness. All the power has clicked off, from the recessed counter lighting to the living room chandelier. Ina reaches instinctively for Jeffrey but catches only the air.
“Over here, love,” he says, squeezing her shoulder, and she breathes deep at him warm beside her. A silly moment of panic, that’s all. “Must be that storm. I’ll go investigate,” her husband says. “I bet it’s a downed tree limb.” She hears him shuffle cautiously to the front door.
“Be careful!” Ina calls, steeling herself to be alone in the dark. Before the pandemic, she was well used to being the only one in the house, navigating the kitchen for a midnight snack with ease. But it’s been months since she’s spent a night without Jeffrey and, even though he’s just outside, the emptiness of the house—without lights or noise to distract her—is unsettling.
The house feels cavernously quiet, and the storm seems to have moved closer. The living room fire is casting strange shadows. Ina’s usually-cozy stove is quickly cooling and she needs a flame for her front burner. She tries to remember where in the myriad drawers of her beloved kitchen she's stowed the matches. Outside, wind whips the rain sideways on the glass patio doors. There is a rumble of thunder, but it doesn’t catch to lightning.
“I guess Mother Nature’s having trouble with a light, too,” Ina quips aloud to keep herself company. At last, she finds and strikes a match. It comes to happy life and she hastens to the stove. But before she can get there, the match sputters out to a thin trail of smoke. She strikes a second, which meets the same fate.
“Shoot,” she says. But Ina isn’t ready to give up just yet. If she had two failed cakes on her hands, she wouldn’t simply bake a third without a little investigation.
She waves her match-striking hand out in front of her until she feels it: a thin but steady breeze running through the kitchen. Her eye follows the draft to its source. Even in the dark, she can see that the far window is ever so slightly cracked. Isn’t that strange? She doesn’t remember being over there today. But that’s just another feature of pandemic life—there’s someone else in the house now, picking up her glasses accidentally and setting them down elsewhere, moving a plate from the sink to the dishwasher. It’s not like Jeffrey to leave a window open, though.
She’ll just shut it and get back to the matches. Ina moves that way, wooden spoon in hand, her back prickling. Has Halloween gotten to her, or is that the shape of something—someone—she sees in the yard? At first she thinks it’s her own shadow somehow, distorted by the witch hat, but no. It’s definitely something.
She comes to a cold halt and the shape sweeps past the patio doors, unidentifiable through the sheer curtains. The wind, a tree, a very large bat, she tells herself. Ina doesn’t rattle easily, but there’s no reason to dilly-dally. She hustles to the window, slams and locks it in one motion, and turns with a stifled shriek. There’s someone in the front room—a hunchback, a serial killer, a masked intruder? She brandishes her wooden spoon and yelps for Jeffrey.
“I’m here!” the shape says, coming around the corner.
And he is. Jeffrey’s fetched the candelabra from the center of the dining room table, and each of its ivory candles are ablaze. He’s dripping from the rain and holding a sodden cardboard box under one arm. When he sees Ina with her spoon in fight stance, he starts to laugh.
“Please! Don’t stir me!” he cries.
Ina’s shoulders slump in embarrassment and relief. “I didn’t recognize you without your curls,” she says, handing him a kitchen towel for his wet hair and lighting yet another match from his candles. She’s always happy to see her Jeffrey, but this time, she’s really happy it’s him.
Jeffrey’s all smiles as he sets the cardboard box on the kitchen counter. “The good news is I didn’t see any power line damage. The even better news is a little something arrived for you,” he says.
“For me?” Ina asks, setting her lucky spoon on the counter once she’s relit the burner.
“I’ve been waiting for this to arrive all day,” he says. “Looks like UPS brought it to the back patio for some reason. Anyway, open it.”
He places the candelabra on the counter as Ina slips on her glasses to examine the box in the candlelight. It’s an unassuming little box with no return address, or at least not a legible one—the label, like the package, is completely soaked from the storm.
Ina looks quizzically at her husband before grabbing a paring knife from the block on the counter. She swipes the blade across the top. “What could it be?”
When she opens the flaps and parts a sea of packing peanuts, she’s met with a gigantic set of red lips.
“Wax lips!” she exclaims in giggles.
Jeffrey joins in the laughter. “Wouldn’t be our 51st Halloween together without wax lips, now, would it?”
Oh, but he’s right. Over fifty years ago tonight, Ina sent Jeffrey out to fetch candy for their trick-or-treaters at their first apartment as she finished dinner. Lo and behold, he returned with a bag full of gigantic red wax lips. And when she laid eyes on what he’d selected for their Halloween candy bowl, she couldn’t help but give him a hard time. “Wax lips?!” she’d asked then. “Where’d you even find such a thing?”
“I figured those trick-or-treaters would see my beautiful new wife answering the door,” he said then, “and they’d want to give her a big old kiss. But if they try anything, they’ll have to use wax lips instead of their real lips.”
It was a hoot then, and it’s a hoot now. Fifty Halloweens later, their lives are only getting sweeter. She opens a set of the lips and bites down on them, puckering up at Jeffrey.
“Check these out,” Jeffrey says, reaching into the box and pulling out one of the crinkly plastic packs of lips. “Some of them even have fangs.” He opens the plastic and pushes the lips into his mouth, showing off his Dracula teeth.
Ina looks at Jeffrey, with his beautiful curls plastered flat to his head and his cashmere sweater shrinking by the minute, and the sight of the outsized smackers sends her over the edge. She spits her own wax lips onto the tile floor in laughter. “Y’know,” she manages between chuckles, “the fangs don’t look half bad on you!”
“I’ll save them for my next virtual faculty meeting.” Jeffrey smiles, spitting his vampiric lips into his palm. “Now, do you think the candlelight will make our Halloween dinner spookier,” he asks, “or more romantic?”
Ina hovers a hand over the soup’s surface, groaning when she feels only the slightest emanation of lukewarm heat (at best). No cauldron bubble here. “Unfortunately,” she reports, “I think dinner’s going to take some more time.”
“Well, we have the canapés!” Jeffrey says sing-songily. What a guy—always sunny-side-up, even when his tummy’s close to growling and dinner’s far from done. Ina goes to him, sinking her head into his plaid-flanneled chest. He crunches on yet another canapé, running his fingers through her hair… and down her back. This kind of spine tingle is a huge improvement over her earlier fright.
“You planned this outage, didn’t you?” she jabs.
“Maybe,” he mumbles, his mouth still full.
She listens for him to swallow his snack before moving in for a kiss. His mouth is all pumpernickel and lox.
Jeffrey looks at her and grins, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight. The older he gets—well, the older the both of them get—the sparklier his stare seems to become.
“So what’ll it be?” he asks in a near-whisper. “Trick? Or treat?”
“Ooh,” Ina giggles. “That’s a tough one.”
He chuckles, stroking her shoulders. “Well?”
“Well,” she says, “you’re always a treat, so I’d love to see what even more of a treat could possibly be from you.”
“Treat it is,” he says. And with that, Jeffrey goes in for another kiss, pushing his lips to hers even longer this time. Ina swoons all over again when he dips her back, moving his mouth down her collarbone.
“Bon appetit, indeed,” Ina murmurs against his shoulder. Her witch hat tips off again, and this time, she lets it fall. The power is out for all of All Hallows’ Eve, but the Gartens don’t mind in the least.
By Rebecca Joy and Hurley Winkler