Sheldon Lee Compton

Slate Rock Candy Holiday

The backroad in my town, Virgie, Kentucky, was a ribbon of sun-bleached blacktop broken off in spots to show the patches of dirt road that had been there decades before.  It wrapped around Virgie in a horseshoe shape and dotted along the backroad was the homes of all the people who knew all the people.

Come Halloween, the backroad became ground zero for the town’s small population.  Elbow to elbow, parents and kids alike roamed beginning at six in the evening until the last of us decided it was time to call it a night.

It was, to wax nostalgic if only this once, magic.

My last Halloween, I dressed as a coal miner.  The preparation started ten minutes before everyone was to hit the backroad.  I pulled my grandfather’s old shirts from drawers and found a pair of his boots that still had strings.  For the maximum effect, coal was actually on hand to apply dust across my face, my fingers, a novelty slab of coal with my grandparents’ names engraved given to Papaw shortly after a mine fire forced him to retire.  I pushed some of the coal under my fingernails and smudged it at the corners of my eyes.  I remember Papaw smiling, telling me I might get a raise if I worked that hard for the rest of the month.

I was never interested in the candy.  Few people, for whatever reason, visited our house and I usually had plenty of the leftovers.  And if I hadn’t, I would still have concentrated on the throwing of eggs and the tossing of corn and the streaming of toilet paper across car hoods and front porch awnings.

A buddy of mine, Doug Robinette, was the son of a body man – or a guy who owned a body shop to fix dents and mangled fenders on cars and trucks and so forth.  The garage where this took place was positioned on top of a fine hill that overlooked the backroad.  This is where we would set up shop with our supply of corn, eggs, and whatever else.  Doug’s brother Chad, however, slightly lost his mind on my last Halloween.

While Doug and I and there rest of the crew peppered passing cars below with corn and eggs, Chad slinked off and returned with a slat rock about half the size of a coffee table.  It was a millions years old Frisbee and Chad was to launch it.

We should have stopped him, but we were blessed with the oblivious notion that as long as we did not fling the damned thing then we were beyond any future indictment.  Besides, it was slat, big but then, then enough you could break it pieces with your hands.  Worse case, it lands and shatters and scares some folks.  Good Halloween laughs all around.

Chad edged to corner of the garage roof and in perfect form, shot putt form, he twisted his body and brought the rock around, extending his arms, and we watched this beautiful thing spin and drop – a sound like wings trying and failing to catch wind but instead doing nothing more than splitting the air, and fast.

Below, headlights eased around the AEP power station, the first building on the backroad before Robinette’s Body Shop.  As the headlights eased up the hill, I could make out the model.  It was easy to spot exactly who was coming up that hill, and his name was Spider. 

Well, that was nickname.  Had a tattoo that covers his bald head, an Indian ink spider whose body covered the whole top of his head with the spindly legs draping down his forehead and sides of his melon just above the ears.  Looked like hair from a distance, or in the right, low light.

So when the slat rock, in perfect timing, landed flat and hard on the roof of Spider’s car, I didn’t need to hear the cannon boom it made or see the torso-sized hole it created on impact to know Spider would be getting out of that old ’78 Aspen and tracking the path of that rock.

Me and the crew flopped to our bellies and watched Spider step from his car, spin around left, then right, and then crane his neck and gaze up the hillside.  His body went still and maybe his breathing even slowed and, despite the cover of late dusk, it seemed his eyes shone a darker shade and his headtop spider clicked its legs along his skull and readied itself for something like battle.

When Spider began stalking up the hill and made the turn onto driveway leading up to the body shop, we popped up from our bellies and one by one jumped from the roof onto the nearby hillside that lead up to the auger road and safety, some one hundred feet of climbing, but worth it.

Before we cleared to ridges, about halfway to the old mining road, we heard Spider’s voice demanding what was going on.  Confusing, as we were quiet as squirrels in dry season heading up that mountain.  And then we saw Chad, hanging from a gutter along the edge of the roof that was a far cry from being able to hold his baby fat for very much longer.  Posted like a sentry beneath him was Spider.

We each found the largest tree we could locate in the darkness and eased closer until the mumbling became words we could make out.

What do you think you’re a doin? Spider asked.

Frozen like an icicle, hanging with numb knuckles, Chad answered, a defeated whisper, his voice.  I was just making funny boo noises at the trick-or-treaters, Chad said.


Rather than face Spider and Chad’s complete dropping off the ball in a most embarrassing way possible, Doug and I and the rest of us continued up the mountain until we reached John Attic Ridge, a full two-hundred yards above the auger road and waited.  We waited until the sounds of Halloween – the chatter of voices and the electronic squeals from front door witch and ghost door fixtures at last stopped.

It was a strange thing, that last Halloween, hiding in the mountains and waiting for the population of my small town to go quiet, never knowing what fate Chad been made to face.

I never asked about it after that, simply assumed Chad got a good lick from his dad, who, do doubt, had to fix Spider’s roof free of charge.

I’d never felt so strongly that I had abandoned someone as strongly as I felt that night, while, at the same time, taking a thought with me I hold to today.  You get yourself in, you deal with whatever it takes to get out.  Or you take a lick or two.

Not the most mind-blowing lesson to pick up, but a good one all the same.

Spider left town about a year later when the coal truck company folded up and the cut-through project took Virgie off the old Route 23 mainway.  The high school went out, two churches closed, restaurants became buildings so broken by neglect they seemed only buildings, no one able to truly remember what had ever been there before the town went off life support.

I took my youngest child to Virgie for Halloween a few years back and found the backroad silent as a cave.  One of the old hanger-ons, a lady who retired from the 5 and 10 store when it closed the year before, told me they had trick-or-treat at the grade school up Long Fork now.  Called it Safe Trick-or-Treat. 

We stayed ten minutes before I realized the magic was not only lacking, but gone.  Hallways packed with children walking through their school dressed in plastic costumes with bags of candy and long faces.  Each classroom another stop for candy.

No crisp, fall air.  No buzz of streetlights coming to life, no backroad, no danger, no festival or even a faded photocopy of a festival. 

Maybe I’m old.  Maybe I miss the “good ole days”.  Call it like you see it.  But Halloween was an event that, in my part of the country, became little more than a PTA meeting in a place most kids spend five days a week waiting to get away from to do something fun.

Call me whatever you like, but I call it like I see it.  And I call bull shit.  Stock up on eggs, get some corn and toilet paper.  Do all of this, and avoid the slate rocks, unless you think quickly on your feet or your folks own a body shop.


Sheldon Lee Compton lives in Eastern Kentucky. His work has appeared in numerous journals and been nominated for several awards, as well as anthologized on many occasions. He is a past founder and editor of three literary journals.

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