The Offer (I’m Glad) I Didn’t Refuse: Cotton Balls and Guffaws


Halloween was less than a week away and I was in a quandary over what costume to wear for the two nights of trick-or-treating. I was eleven now and in sixth grade at Yorktown Middle School. I was almost a teenager and felt that it was time to drop the childish, rayon costumes that were at times too warm to wear over your clothes or weren’t warm enough when it was chilly out. And those silly masks held on by a flimsy strand of rubber? Nah, I was too old for that nonsense. Besides which, I learned the hard way that eyeglasses fog up underneath those stupid masks. It was time to step up my game.

Like everything else I do in life, though, I dragged my butt and waited until almost the last minute to put my costume together. The pressure of not having a costume five days before Halloween was compounded by the impending visit of the Witter family. They were coming over that night and Brad would want to know who or what I was going to be on the second biggest day of the year. I needed to come up with something and come up with it fast.

Like so many of my best ideas, the idea for the costume came while I was using the bathroom. As always, I brought along some reading material to pass the time. Usually, the reading material was a comic book. This time, however, providence lent a hand as I grabbed a magazine from an end table for my sojourn.

A few pages into the magazine lay the answer to my problem: an article for an upcoming television event so huge that it would take two nights to do it justice.

“That’s it!” I thought. “This is brilliant!”


It didn’t take long for Brad to ask the question about my Halloween costume.
“You’re gonna love it!” I responded. “Follow me.”

I led him to the utility closet first where I grabbed a bag of cotton balls. He gave me a quizzical look. I shook him off with a smirk and motioned him to follow me to my bedroom. Once there, I grabbed a handful of cotton balls from the bag. “This,” I emphasized, “is what will make this costume work.”

“You haven’t told me what costume yet,” Brad noted sarcastically.

“Just a sec,” I told him as I turned my back to him. With that, I shoved six cotton balls into each of the cheeks in my mouth and packed them down between my cheeks and gums. When I turned back around I did so while nonchalantly flicking my left jaw upward with the back of my fingers, saying, at the same time and with my best Italian accent, “I’m The Godfather.”

Brad fell backwards on my bed laughing. At first I was worried he thought it was a stupid idea. “That’s great,” he said. “How’d you come up with that?”

I recounted a story about the making of the movie “The Godfather” and how Marlon Brando prepared for his role by sticking cotton balls in his mouth to make his cheeks and jowls look puffier. After sharing the tale with Brad, I looked in the mirror to check my new look. “Hmmmm, that doesn’t look like enough,” I determined.

Two more handfuls of cotton balls later and the look was perfect. I looked at Brad in the mirror and said, “I gotta go thow Mom and Dad!”


“What the hell?” Dad asked.

My college education at any school of my choice could have been funded if I had a dollar for every time Dad wondered “What the hell?” at something I did or said.
Jerry and Nancy both started laughing. It could have been over what Dad said. It could have been me. I never found out.

Mom’s back was to Brad and me when we walked into the kitchen. She looked up from her pinochle hand to see what all the laughing was all about. The other three parents were all looking at us, or more likely, looking at me. Brad could have been a lamp stand in the background as far as they were concerned. Mom turned just enough to see me standing there in my jowly glory.

Mom rubbed her left eye as if she were trying to rub away a headache, glanced across the table at Nancy, shook her head, then looked back at me. This type of reaction she had over me and my doings began sometime around the second grade. The older I got, the more often I saw that same type of reaction. Gone were the days of sitting me down on the sofa to explain life to me.

“Thad,” she started. Gone, also, except for exceptional occasions, were the days of calling me “Honey”. “What is this?”

“Itth my Halloween cothtume,” I answered less proudly than previously expected.

“Your Halloween costume,” Mom said. I nodded. “What is it?” Jerry and Nancy, who had not stopped laughing, were now joined by my own father.

With a backward scratch of my jaw I answered with what I now realized was a poor Italian accent, “I’m the Godfather.” The other three adults in the room were now roaring with laughter. The din was enough that Susie, Jane, and Holly had to come see what was so funny. Even my brother Mick, all of two years old, was laughing.

Mom somehow managed to keep her composure. “What’s that in your mouth?” she wanted to know.

“Cotton ballth.”

“Cotton balls?”

I answered in the affirmative then shared the story of how Marlon Brando achieved his look for the movie. The mass of cotton balls made it difficult to speak, something I had not considered beforehand. The deeper I got into the story the less Dad laughed and the more he began to hang his head at the shame I was bringing upon the Studebaker lineage.

“I read that story, too,” Mom shared. “He only used the cotton balls once. He wore an appliance for his mouth for the movie.” All I could think to do was stare at the sink over her shoulder and ponder my situation. An appliance of my own was definitely out of the question. The cost and the time the dentist needed to craft the damn thi-.

“How many did you use?” Mom asked, snapping me back to reality.

“Huh?” I felt defeated and just wanted to go back to my room.

“Don’t give me ‘Huh?’, Mom admonished. “How many cotton balls did you use?”

“A dothen.”

“A dozen? You wasted twelve cotton balls for this.”

I noticed a spot in the ceiling I had never seen before. Where did that come from? How long has it been there? I fixated on that spot as I scratched behind my ear and dropped another beauty of a bombshell.

“On eatth thide.” It was not my proudest moment.

To her credit, Mom did not erupt. Doing well to hide her frustration, she instructed me to go spit out the cotton balls and to not waste half a bag of them in that way ever again. As I made my way to the bathroom, the sound of laughter died down enough that I could hear some of what was being said in the kitchen.

After some back and forth that I couldn’t quite make out, I heard Dad tell Mom, “Oh, no. He got that from YOUR side of the family.”  The sound of uproarious laughter shook the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.


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