“Thank God for Xanax and alcohol.”
That's what I tell myself as soon as I feel the air turn crisp and the leaves on the trees start to change to their bright autumn colors. It signals the arrival of fall, and memories I struggle to forget. My nightmares cling to those memories. I have woken many nights in a cold sweat reliving the fall of '67 when I was in fifth grade.
I always loved the change of seasons and the cooler days. I looked forward to wearing a cardigan sweater or a jacket on my way to school, in the morning, as I kicked through piles of leaves on the sidewalk. It was exciting seeing mums blooming in vibrant falls colors and pumpkins waiting to be carved into jack-o-lanterns. It was the beginning of the school year, and time for me to start thinking about my Halloween costume.
I lived within walking distance of my elementary school. I had several ways to get there, and my mom knew the time it took to walk each route. Every morning when I left the house I’d hear, "Don't dilly dally on your way to school." My mom didn't want me distracted by my friends and missing the morning bell. My mom was very concerned with lolly gagging and dilly-dallying. I grew up thinking they were horrible habits short of committing a mortal sin.
Lolly gagging was more an afternoon phenomenon - that's when I always heard that declaration.
Right before I left the house after lunch, she would kiss me on the cheek, and wag her finger in my face, "No lolly gagging after school. Come right home." There was never any doubt that my mom had Eminent Domain over me. I needed to account for every move, and needed to be in the house before lockdown at Momcatraz.
My friends always liked to push the limits with their parents, and my classmate Tommy Dodge was always bragging about barely escaping the “belt”. He often missed his school night curfew.
“You’re a badass Tommy,” we’d all say. “Better than a sore ass,” Tommy would snicker.
I preferred to avoid any flinging belts and potential lockdown situations, so I followed my mom’s strict time schedule. The final school bell of the day rang at 3:00 pm and my feet were on the pavement by 3:01 pm. I lived ten minutes from Franklin Elementary School, so I was expected at home by very latest 3:45 pm. The main reason I always hurried right home from school was I had to watch my favorite show – Dark Shadows.
No matter what my friends wanted to do, I always had to be home by the time the waves crashed against the rocky coast and the Dark Shadows logo flashed onto my black and white television. I had turned down seeing Kelly Martin’s underpants, Billy Taggart’s new Siamese kitten, Freddy Pastorelli smoke one of his mom’ cigarettes, and a glimpse of Joe Stuart’s tattered copy of Playboy.
Nothing was more important than Barnabas Collins. He was the resident vampire of the Collins family. The show and its creatures of the night, included witches, ghosts, werewolves and other assorted supernatural characters, they all enthralled me.
Nothing was more important than being transported to the fictional town of Collinsport everyday from 4:00 to 4:30pm. I preferred to be glued to the screen of my TV and frightened. I had a sister and I could see underpants anytime. I wasn’t going to give up seeing who would become the next victim of the vampire.
Looking back I can see how family and friends thought I had a vivid imagination, and I could get carried away with my daydreams, but I never thought they wouldn’t believe me when weird things started happening in my neighborhood. That was the fall an evil old woman moved onto Raven Lane.
The day I noticed she had moved into the neighborhood was during a trip to Ben’s Market after school. Tommy Dodge had stopped by my house to walk back to school with me after lunch. Everyone in Franklin Elementary went home for lunch. There wasn’t a cafeteria or a lunchroom for students. We all got the pleasure of going home to see what Campbell’s Soup and sandwich we would have.
Tommy rang the bell and waited patiently for me to slip into my jacket. “Get money from your mom, “ Tommy yelled through the door.
It was Wednesday and that meant a candy trip to Ben’s Market. I always looked forward to our candy day. It was a chance to fill up a little brown bag with all types of penny candy treats. I loved wax lips and mustaches, also candy dots on paper. I loved those sweet multi-colored lumps of sugar stuck to paper. I don’t know why I enjoyed eating candy with a paper backing – I just did.
“I am getting a jaw breaker today,” Tommy said proudly as he leaned against the fence in the school playground. “I have a dentist appointment next week, and I want to see if I can chip a tooth, “ he grinned.
“You are crazy,” I laughed. “Your mom would kill you if you broke a tooth.”
“Why do you think I am doing it?” he asked. “My mom is constantly busting my chops. I need to get back at her whenever I can. Besides, I think I would look tough with a chipped tooth.”
“Right,” I agreed half-heartedly. “Just like half a vampire.”
Tommy laughed, grabbed me and gave me a head noggie. “Yeah, Barnabas Collins right? I can give you a one tooth bite.”
“You’re not biting me. I don’t want a Tommy Dodge bite, but I bet Vicki would.” I chuckled.
He started to go for my neck as the loud school bell rang to signal the start of classes. We headed back into the school. “Only two more hours until candy time,” we both said in unison.
During our science lesson, we passed notes around the class to see who was joining us on our weekly trip to Ben’s. Jennifer Moore and Vicki McMahon were both eager to join us. I knew Vicki was a little sweet on Tommy. Armed with change in our pockets, we were ready for class to end. There was difficulty concentrating on the planetary system when thinking about red licorice and bubble gum. I watched the clock tick away the minutes toward the buzz of the dismissal bell while Mrs. White droned on about the Milky Way. She was taking about stars and I was picturing a gooey candy bar. When the bell rang, we promptly grabbed our jackets from the cloakroom and headed out the door.
Ben’s was two blocks away from the school on Broad Street. We had to cross over to Raven Lane to get to Broad. Raven Avenue was home to many of the older, larger residences in my neighborhood. Our family doctor had his office on this street, and the mayor also lived here in a big brick house with a creaky wrought iron gate. The street was tree lined by giant oaks that were busy dropping their red and russet leaves on this mid-October afternoon.
At the corner of Raven sat an old abandoned house we called the “Langley Place.” An old guy who we only knew by the name of “Mr. Langley” had owned it. A year ago, the newspaper delivery boy had reported to the police that the papers he was delivering were stacking up at the front door. He was afraid the Mr. Langley was sick and unable to come to retrieve them. When the police came to investigate, they found that Mr. Langley was not sick – he was dead.
Evidently, Mr. Langley had died in his sleep, and seemed to be alone in the world, since no one was checking on him. My friends on our bikes were all there to watch the stiff Mr. Langley shoved into the back of the hearse from Ashton’s Funeral Home. Billy Taggart swears he saw Mr. Langley’s dead arm sticking off the gurney and it was green like a zombie.
After the former “Mr. Langley” vacated the house, it sat empty and in disrepair. It was already pretty dilapidated when it was occupied. Now it was slowly falling apart. The white paint was cracked and peeling off the wooden siding. The front porch floor sagged and some of the bricks were crumbling off the chimney. The fact that someone had died in the house made it even creepier.
My friends all said that the house was haunted, and that Mr. Langley would appear in the front doorway at dusk and beckon people to enter. Since I was almost under house arrest by my mom, I never was around the Langley place at dusk. I had no visible proof, but I certainly believed in spirits. Many scary stories were shared in the shade of the sliding board on the school playground.
As we approached the Langley House that afternoon, I noticed that the overgrown weeds and vines surrounding it were all cut back, and a sign on a wooden post was stuck in the front yard. “Look guys,” I pointed out. “I think the house is for sale.”
The ongoing conversation about Vicki’s new braces stopped, and my little group turned their attention to the house. “It not a sale sign, ‘ Vicki lisped through her braces.
We all stopped in front of the house so we could read the sign. “Candy Apples For Sale” the sign read. It was written on a white piece of board in red lettering. The paint used for the lettering had dripped a bit, so it looked like blood running down the sign.
“The sign is scary looking,” Jennifer said.
“Looks like it was written in blood,” I agreed.
“Ewww!” Jennifer squealed.
“Who would be selling apple taffys, from this place?” Tommy questioned.
“Maybe it’s a joke,” Vicki said.
We all stood looking at the house, because there was something different about it. It wasn’t just the fact that the grass was cut, or that there was a sign posted in the yard. There seemed to be a new eeriness about it. Standing on the walkway to the house, I felt like I was waiting to be called into the dentist office – for an appointment where I would be poked and prodded with rusty metal instruments.
“It feels colder here,” said Jennifer putting on the sweater she had tied around her waist. “You are right,” Vicki chimed in.
“I think there is just more shade from the trees here,” I said trying to bring reason to my uneasiness.
“It’s the coldness of death from old man Langley,” Tommy said in a ghoulish voice as he chucked a stone at the front porch. “Don’t worry girls I will keep you warm.”
Tommy approached Vicki and Jennifer with open arms as they giggled and backed away.
“I have my sweater. I don’t need your sweaty paws on me, but maybe Vicki needs help.”
We all laughed and Tommy threw another stone that pinged against the wooden porch.
“Are you looking to buy an apple?” we heard a voice ask. The front door of the old house opened and a haggard, elderly woman appeared at the door. We were all startled at the appearance of someone inside this pile of old wood.
Jennifer jumped back into the street, and Vicki actually let out a yelp of fright, as the woman appeared. “God! You scared us,’ Vicki yelled at the woman.
“Not the reception I was expecting,” the old woman said in a voice with a heavy accent. She closed the front door and stood as if she were surveying her land.
“Whom vas throwing stones at mein house?” she asked.
“You live here?” we all asked incredulously.
The woman nodded her head and bent over cautiously to retrieve the rocks Tommy had thrown.
“Come get your rocks,” she demanded.
We all huddled together and no one moved. The woman raised her spindly arm and stretched out a crooked finger. She pointed directly at Tommy. “You are the stone thrower. Come and get your rocks.” She grinned at us and my skin crawled. She was missing a few of her teeth and several others were gray and pointy. It gave her a ghoulish look.
Tommy grasped my arm and whispered out of the side of his mouth, “I think she is a witch.”
“Shhhh, don’t let her hear you,” I whispered back. He moved forward from the safety of the group and approached the woman with her out stretched hand.
“I don’t bite,” she said with a twisted looking grin. “At least not on good days.”
We all laughed uneasily, and Tommy slowly climbed the two steps onto the porch. “Sorry for the rocks, lady,” he stammered in nervousness. He grabbed them from her hand and backed away.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me,” the old woman crooned. “I love girls und boys.” She smiled in a gap-toothed grin and I think we all shivered at the same time.
“Where are you from?” Vicki asked noticing her accent.
“I am from Germany - born and raised,” she answered. “My father was German und my mother was Romanian.”
“Are you a Nazi?” Tommy blurted out.
“Such inquisitive kinder,” she said. “Mein name is Hildegard, and I am not a Nazi.” I am just an old lady trying to make a few extra dollars by selling my delicious apples.”
“My dad says all Germans are Nazis. What cha making poison apples?” Tommy said now showing some bravado, as he backed away from the porch.
“Shut up Tommy,” Jennifer said. “Your dad thinks all the Chinese own laundries and Italians are all gangsters. I wouldn’t believe everything he had to say.”
“I think the young girl is correct. Don’t judge a book by the tattered cover.” Hildegard pulled on a brightly woven shawl she had tied around her shoulders to reveal several holes worn into the design.
I glanced at my Mickey Mouse watch to see what time it was and the hands were showing it was already 3:30 pm. Time was ticking down until Dark Shadows, and we were losing valuable candy time at Ben’s.
“Hey guys, we are running out of time to get to Ben’s. I need to be home by 4:00,” I said feeling annoyed at this unwelcome distraction.
Hildegard nodded her head as if she were relinquishing our company. “You don’t want to try one of my delicious apples?” She spun around quickly on the heels of her shoes, and as she twirled, a sliver tray appeared. It contained the most beautiful candy apples I had ever seen. Large luscious apples covered in ruby red goodness. They were perfectly arranged on the tray and wooden dowels severed as sticks to hold the treats. The sugary coating glistened in the afternoon sun, as golden rays broke through the shade of the oak trees.
It was as if Hildegard had just revealed the crown jewels to us and we were enraptured by the sight. An aroma of fresh, crisp apples and the sweetness of the taffy coating crept into our noses. The prior feeling of uneasiness with an underlying layer of malevolence evaporated. I felt that I had been transported from a graveyard to Candyland.
The apples seemed so inviting and appetizing. We all licked our lips and Hildegard looked pleased. As I stared at the silver tray and the old woman holding it, I felt that everything seemed better. The old house didn’t seem so dilapidated to me. The paint did not look as weather worn or the windows quite as askew. Hildegard did not seem like a stooped, old hag, but rather she now seemed like a kindly grandmother offering up her homemade confections.
“Oh wow, those have to be the most delicious candy apples I’ve ever seen,” Vicki cooed.
Vicki looked at the silver tray like she was gazing upon the cover of Tiger Beat with photo of her heartthrob - The Monkees’ Davy Jones. She dug into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a quarter. “How much for an apple?”
“Exactly the right amount – a quarter,” Hildegard replied. “Anyone else care for one of my wunderbar treats?” Tommy and Jennifer both nodded and dug for change in their pockets.
Although it seemed it would be heaven to bite into one of those crisp, juicy apples surrounded by the sweet candy shell, I felt hesitant and guilty to indulge. Every year my mom became the “Apple Lady” on our street. She would make trays of candy apples to sell to the neighborhood children and to pass out on Halloween night. I couldn’t buy from new competition.
It would break my mom’s heart to think I strayed from her kitchen of concoctions. My inner voice struggled with the dilemma of wanting to lick the red simmering delicacy before me, and realizing somehow mom would know I had betrayed her.
There was no way to fool mom. She would detect the red sticky telltale sign around my lips or spy some tiny drip of apple juice on my shirt. No, a quarter was too high a price to pay for my mother’s disdain. I couldn’t sit down to dinner with a full helping of mom’s anger.
I stepped back from my friends as they chose their apple.
“They all look so good,” Jennifer said.
“Such large apples, they’re like a meal,” Tommy said as he grabbed one off the tray.
“Not joining your friends?” Hildegard asked me glancing out of the corner of her eyes.
“No Miss Hildegard,” I said. “My mom makes apple taffys every year, so I can get them at home whenever I like. Yours look very good, but I have to say no thanks.”
“You’ll never taste one like this meine Kind.”
She tilted the tray to further entice me, and I felt like I was being rude to my grandmother. I began to slowly finger the change in my pocket as if I should just extract the twenty-five cents and join my friends. That wave of goodness was breaking down my resolve, until suddenly a breeze blew the aroma of the gooey treats away from me.
Just like Dorothy waking up from the Technicolor of Oz, my whole perspective changed. I had escaped from the sweet force field of the candy apples. My Disneyland had sifted back to a cemetery, and the delusional world of Grandma Hildegard evaporated. There was an air of enchantment surrounding those apples that made everything appear pleasant and tempting.
I looked at my friends as they all held their apples proudly in front of them. Vicki licked at the sticky, red surface and Tommy took a bite into the apple. I stumbled back and rubbed my eyes several times trying to readjust to the view. The silver tray that Hildegard held was now rusty and dented, and the apples were lumpy and oddly misshapen. The ruby red color of the candy now looked dark and the surface was gummy. It appeared I was looking at blood-covered lumps skewered with dirty tree twigs. I felt panic taking over, and I clutched my stomach that grew very queasy. At any moment I knew I was about to hurl my lunch onto my Hush Puppies.
“Are you alright boy?” Hildegard asked demandingly. She noticed that I no longer seemed to be enthralled by her tray of wonderment. She waved the tray toward me, as if she was trying to have the scent of apples and sugars entrance me again. I stumbled back further, almost to the curb.
The distance provided further clarity and totally removed the sugar delusion I had experienced. The scene unfolding in front of me was a horror. Tommy, Jennifer and Vicki were joyfully chewing on their apples, which now appeared totally grotesque to me. “They’re not apples’” I thought to myself. Once again, I glanced at the tray and gasped. Through the opaqueness of the crimson coating, I could discern features. I saw the shape of closed eyes, the outline of a nose and the impression of lips.
My body froze in terror, and I screamed, “Don’t eat them. Oh God! They’re not apples they are shrunken heads!”
To be continued………..