Trick-or-treating is really an exercise in cartography. I wouldn’t be able to give driving directions to the Alabama suburb where I grew up except under duress, but I could draw you a map of my Halloween neighborhood route with unerring precision. Sugar lust, after all, makes tacticians of all of us.
Here is the house that would only offer a few chalky rolls of Smarties for your trek up a steep, Virginia creeper–tangled front walk. There, a woman with a fake witch nose would request that put your hand in a container of peeled grape “eyeballs,” but reward you with a roll of quarters and a full-sized Snickers. Here, you’d find an empty bowl with a plaintive PLEASE JUST TAKE TWO PIECES tacked on the screen door, its contents long ago looted by a mercenary band of eleven-year-olds with pillowcases. That house, home to a diabetic child, gave out glow-in-the-dark slap bracelets, worth up to three packets of M&Ms in the candy bartering session at the end of the night. And here, the crown jewel of the cul-de-sac: the potato chip house.
The potato chip house was home to Major Bashinsky, an estate lawyer and heir to the Golden Flake snack food fortune. Bashinsky’s grandfather founded the company, which produces crackers, chips, popcorn, and ten kinds of flavored pork cracklins.
University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a state idol and good friend of Major Bashinsky’s father, shilled for the company on his local talk show in the late 1970s. Alabama schoolchildren still visit the Titusville factory by the busload, tasting cheese curls hot off the line. When I was growing up, the Bashinksy house was the Halloween destination for as many snack-size packets of cracklins as you could scoop up. In 2010, it entered neighborhood lore as the home of the pork rind magnate who staged his own murder.
Bashinsky was last seen alive on March 3, 2010, in his office in downtown Birmingham. His daughter found his abandoned Toyota Camry while distributing missing person fliers, an angry letter to the company and a packet of Golden Flake chips taped inside. Police found Bashinksy’s body two weeks after his disappearance, fully clothed and floating in the pond of a local golf course. A bottle was attached to his corpse, stuffed with the same note his daughter found in Bashinsky’s car. His arms had been bound with rope and his lips duct-taped shut. Inside his mouth, a coroner found the label from a bag of Golden Flake potato chips.
Conspiracy theories flew. Bashinsky was well to do, but he wasn’t flashy. (My clearest memory of him from my childhood, aside from his Halloween generosity, was that he had a trampoline in the backyard and didn’t mind one or two local kids scampering through the hedge to bounce on it.) He had two young children, and no more enemies than an average Alabama attorney. His stepmother Joann had inherited most of the Golden Flake stock after Major’s father died, possibly leaving him without any major stake in the company. The threatening letters found in Bashinksy’s car and on his person held no clues.
Nine days after police identified Bashinsky’s body, authorities ruled his death a suicide. A man believed to be Bashinksy had purchased duct tape and rope at a nearby hardware store on the day of his disappearance. Divers found scissors, car keys, and a roll of tape in the pond along with Bashinsky’s body. “We believe right now that he drafted all of those notes himself,” a spokesman for the Birmingham Police Department told ABC. “But we haven’t quite figured out why.”
Little emerged from the murk of speculation. Slowly, surely, Bashinksy settled into neighborhood myth. His brother Sloan, who came in last in the 2009 Key West mayoral race after running on a pro–nude beaches platform, posited on his Web site that Bashinsky killed himself to avoid being exposed as bisexual. Other bloggers pinned Bashinsky’s death to a series of suspicious fatalities that year in Alabama, possibly linked to financial dealings with GOP mastermind Karl Rove. My childhood neighbors swapped stories with raised eyebrows, pointing to the Golden Flake label ominously when they brought out pickle chips during parties.
This Halloween, a gaggle of pint-size witches, robots, princesses, and aliens will navigate the streets of that same cul-de-sac. Maybe they’ll avoid the well-meaning dentist who passes out floss. Maybe they’ll plot the shortest distance to the porch with iced-down cans of soda at the ready. Probably, the mental maps of corn syrup–hunting children in those few blocks are unrecognizable from the one I can sketch from decades ago. But no doubt, for one Halloween-related reason or another, our pictures overlap at the potato chip house.
Margaret Eby is working on a book about Southern literary shrines called High Holy Places, forthcoming from Norton in 2014.