"What am I going to be?"
The cry was very faint and came from the top floor of the house. It was repeated with rising volume as the crier rushed down the stairs and into the kitchen.
"What am I going TO BEEEEE?"
It's an existential question every child asks at some point. It is a question that takes on special urgency when Halloween is upon you, you must leave for school in five minutes and your cornucopia of ideas is empty.
"I thought you were a candy bar."
"Nah, I changed my mind."
"Can't you change it back?"
"I never made the costume."
"I am ice cream," said the littlest child. In a bag, she carried her costume of dark trousers and shirt, pale-green shawl and a torso-sized box decorated to look like a gallon of mint-chocolate-chip.
"That's great, but it doesn't help me."
"You could be food, too," said the littlest child, but no one heard her.
"How about a gypsy?"
"Fairy? Princess? Witch? Pirate?"
"No, no, no," said the undefined creature. These were boring, hackneyed costumes. She wanted something zippy and surprising, or at least something witty. But what could be thrown together in five minutes?
"You could go as a concept or a noun," said the girl's mother. "If we had cigarettes, you could take one and a bottle of beer and go as your principal's worst nightmare."
"Brilliant idea," sniggered the teenage boy.
"No!" said a shocked daughter.
"Well, I once went to a costume party in a brocade Chinese dress with toy trucks dangling from ribbons from my wrists," the woman went on. "I was the U.S.-China Trade Deficit."
"Children," said another child in a friendly way, "do not want to go around on Halloween dressed as taxes." She herself was carrying a bag containing arm braces and a field hockey uniform: For some reason, she and her friends planned to march around in the school's Halloween parade dressed as injured athletes.
"The deficit isn't -- nevermind. Darling, weren't you going to be Betty from the Archie comics, and your friend Bea was going to be Veronica?"
"Yes, but that's for tonight," said the girl. "But I need something for today." Like many children, she had begun to feel obliged to have two costumes at Halloween. The first had to be able to pass muster (and scrutiny) at school; the second needed to be warm enough to wear tromping around the neighborhood at night.
"Five minutes," said the children's father, putting down his coffee. He glanced at the clock. "Actually, you're now five minutes late."
"You could be food," said the littlest child again. This time everyone heard her.
"Yes!" yelped the costumeless child, suddenly remembering a get-up her brother had once concocted. "Pizza!"
"We have pepperoni!" yelped her mother.
With speed that would have done a NASCAR pit crew proud, the family members sprang into action. The mother procured two cardboard circles left over from actual store-bought pizzas. One child ran for the markers, another for the stapler, a third for clear tape to make shoulder straps, and a fourth to the fridge.
Scribble, scribble, scribble went the markers, zip, zip, zip went the tape, ka-snap went the stapler, and hey presto: They had put together an instant Halloween costume.
The identity crisis had passed. With pieces of real pepperoni stapled onto the cardboard amid drawn-on mushrooms and green peppers, the solution even smelled authentic.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.