Bruce Drinkwater, a big guy in jeans and a battered fleece pullover, sidles up to the manager of the Spirit Halloween Superstore with the gruff yet familiar air of a man ready to talk football. Instead he grunts:
"Have any more angel costumes?"
And then hastily adds:
"In her size."
She is Nicole, his 11-year-old daughter, and she's standing beside him, sparkling with excitement (and maybe a smidgen of glitter rubbed off from a nearby princess outfit). Her parents don't spring for trick-or-treating gear every October because often as not there's a dance-recital dress or past year's costume that she can wear just as well as something new.
Lately, though, Nicole has grown so fast -- about an inch every six months, according to the pencil lines that rise like ladder rungs on the kitchen wall of their Timonium home -- that there's no way that the Raggedy Ann costume will fit again, nor will the footie pajamas she wore the time she dressed up as a baby.
Her mother thinks she should be a geisha this year. The geisha's flowing robe would leave plenty of room to grow.
Her father thinks she should be an angel.
At least, the angel costumes are what he seems most drawn to as he shuffles around the children's section of the Timonium store. He's used to this kind of shopping. A stay-at-home dad, he cares for Nicole while her mother manages a Burlington Coat Factory, and thus understands 'tween fashion far better than your average 53-year-old man.
Which is why he's starting to worry. The little girls pictured on the labels of the angel costumes look suddenly much littler than Nicole, who recently reached the 5-foot mark.
"I don't think you're going to fit in these anymore," he says gently.
The manager of the store, 22-year-old Matt Silverglate, sizes up Nicole.
"Yeah, she's either an extra-large kids' or a really small adults'." He pauses, then says: "I can take you over to the adult section if you'd like."
So the trio troops across the
cavernous store, its ceiling hung with skull chandeliers, stuffed corpses and hairy bats. They plow through the mists of the smoke machine and past the Chest Ripping Zombie, a robot that, true to his name, periodically tears open his decayed chest while emitting a deep, tormented groan.
Nicole's father looks nearly as anguished when they arrive at the adult angels section. Some of these angels are very adult indeed. There is a Fallen Angel, in jailbird stripes. There is an angel peeking over her shoulder, displaying an ethereal rear. Drinkwater grabs for the most modest cherub get-up, a white tunic that drapes from neck to ankle, but a closer inspection reveals that it's meant for plus-sized women. Nicole weighs 87 pounds.
Silverglate, who has suddenly and tactfully disappeared, materializes again, a couple of kimonos under his arm. Earlier he had overheard the word "geisha," along with the key phrase "mother wants," and now he thinks Nicole should try these costumes.
But Nicole has her own idea of who she should be. Last year, she had her heart set on George Washington. She held out so long for the right powdered wig that ultimately, when none turned up, she was stuck wearing a recycled witch costume, lugging a stuffed fanged cat along with her goody bag.
Yet Nicole is in her first year at Ridgely Middle School now, and impersonating a founding father no longer seems quite so appealing. One of her friends plans to masquerade as a Midnight Fairy, in a saucy little black skirt. Ever since she heard that, Nicole has thought that being a fairy sounds perfect.
"I want to wear a dress," she says, twirling the end of a red boa around her neck as she and her father make another pass down the rows of costumes. "I want to wear a dress and lots of makeup."
They pass countless witches, Cleopatras and pirate lasses, not to mention Bohemian go-go girls and a sexy construction worker whose brassiere consists of two bright orange traffic cones. Nothing calls to Nicole.
And then she sees it: the Neverland Fairy, a spunky knee-length green frock modeled by a pouty blonde. It costs $39.99.
"Oh Daddy, I like it," she says.
She grabs the costume bag, which includes an "iridescent sparkle apron" and a big green pair of fairy wings, and hustles into the dressing room. As her nervous father waits outside, studying the store floor as though it contains a hidden code that must at all costs be cracked, an explosively green velvet hem flashes beneath the curtain.
"Well, it fits," she says a minute later, tiptoeing out in the dress, minus the gossamer sleeves and wings.
"Hmmmmmm," Drinkwater says, eyeing the gown's spaghetti straps. "It would have to be a very warm Halloween."
"Daddy, I like it," she says again.
And her eyes are so bright that it's clear that the fairy dress is hers even before he says yes, which he soon will.
But first he smiles, and helps her on with her wings.
'Tweens are keen on the trendy