We were in 11th grade when Mr. Burns, a sorrowful looking redhead with a frizzy ponytail, entered our English class to do his four weeks of student teaching. He was 26, wore jeans and wrinkled cotton shirts with thin, thrift store ties, and looked as though he never slept. His wire-rimmed glasses drooped down over his big pink nose.
We were delighted to have a teacher younger than 60. Mr. Burns taught us that Bob Dylan's lyrics were poetry. We studied "Mr. Tambourine Man." Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship / All my senses have been stripped / My hands can't feel to grip / My toes too numb to step / Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin'.
Far out. We were in love.
On Halloween, Mr. Burns invited us to his apartment for dinner. In the paranoid context of 2003, that might sound creepy, but in the context of 1970 and peace and love and dope, it was not, at least not in our eyes.
By the time we arrived at his place, the attic of an old house with a fire escape entrance, we were already a little bit creeped out. Hunter and I were in a social club and as part of our initiation we were required to adopt a needy family. Earlier that day, we had visited our family, the Sykes, and brought them a giant bag of candy corn and wax lips and a fairy princess costume for their little girl, Cindy.
The Sykes lived in a house with thin walls and slanted floors. The doors were always wide open and their kids ran in and out constantly. Cindy, the youngest, looked just like Cindy Lou Who and was adorable in her tiara, pink gown and net cape. But that day, the house smelled of something foul, like burning animal fur. The kids were swarming everywhere and the mother was nowhere to be seen. We went in search of the stench and found it in the kitchen -- a giant pot of stewed chitterlings, burning on the bottom. We screamed and turned off the burner and stared at the tub of guts. We had never seen chitterlings. We left the stinky house and headed for Mr. Burns' place.
Mr. Burns, dressed in a dashiki and blue hospital pants, let us in and led us through the low, cramped entryway to his apartment. Candles lighted all the corners, and dinner plates were set out on an Indian bedspread on the floor. We gave him our gift of candy corn, and more wax lips, and sat cross-legged in our places. He served us mushy beans and rice that smelled a little like the burned chitterlings at the Sykes' house, but we made do with Tabasco sauce and cleared our palates by chomping on the celery sticks Mr. Burns served as salad. Dessert was a shared joint, a cigarette and the bag of candy corn. We put on our wax lips and settled in for the post-dinner entertainment.
In honor of Halloween, Mr. Burns would give a dramatic reading of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."
Okay, we thought this was really weird but it was also cool that we were eating and smoking pot with our student teacher in his filthy apartment. Mr. Burns, crazed impresario of this bizarre evening, wrapped himself in a sheet, turned dramatically and began to read.
He had the eye of a vulture a pale blue eye, with a film over it. He put on his best Boris Karloff voice. Now this is the point. You fancy me mad.
We were caught between stifling giggles and running from the room. Mr. Burns went nuts at the part where the old guy's heartbeat makes him crazy and he can't stop hearing it, then he kills the old guy, then craftily deceives the police. Then he really went nuts. I felt that I must scream or die! And now -- again! -- hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! Mr. Burns collapsed on the wood floor at the end of his performance, panting like a tired dog.
"Okay, well, we'd better get home," said Hunter, edging toward the door. We thanked Mr. Burns and flew down the rickety stairs. We collapsed over the hood of her car, trying not to scream.
As we peeled out, I looked up at the tiny attic window. A lone candle burned, then Mr. Burns' red hair shadowed it, then it was snuffed out. "Hey Hunter," I said, "maybe it's not too late to go trick-or-treating."