verkaro.com

Blogs and tales by Warren R. Smith

There Came a Knock - pt1

Ventura’s neighborhood, long paling in the shadow of greater Los Angeles, was little more than two blocks of crumbling homes. The architecture remembered days of street-cars clanging down Main, barefoot strolls for watermelon, the neon-spoked cartwheels of Ferris-wheel nights, and dreamily attending the Sunday matinee. The times spoke then of the endless youth of summer.

Now it is another autumn. Instead of outdoor cookouts and raked burning leaves, the air has a complex bouquet of fast food, alley trash, and automobile exhaust.

It is Halloween day, one not altogether askew of traditional expectations.

At the address of Ventura’s home, bundled stalks of tasseled corn aptly frame the front door. Encircling the door-knocker, a wreath of nut-bearing branches and twine artfully bid all would-be visitors a silent (yet not altogether quiet) greeting.

Welcome… well come… well come in… well…

And sitting on the bottom step, patiently waiting for night to fall, was the Master of Ceremonies himself — a massive pumpkin carved ear to ear with a mischievous gap-toothed grin.

These were the kind of homespun decorations in which Ventura took pride. She trusted in old fashioned creativity and decor that it might recommend this house above all others as the place to stop and rest from one’s haunted wandering.

“Lord, save me from myself. Is everything done?” She worked her broom down the front steps and up the walk with explosive bursts of swishing and sweeping. “Why is a pig in the living room like a house on fire? — Because the sooner it’s put out, the better.”

Repeating the joke, she practiced her delivery and comic timing. She tried another. “What lives only to devour itself? — A candle.” She worried the walk’s edge with the broom. “Ventura, you silly old fool, all the jokes you know are older than the hills. Children these days just won’t understand. And then where will you be?”

Next door, the neighbor eased his car into the garage. He pulled the overhead down with a rattling bang and turned to go inside.

Ventura called, “Halloo over there! You all ready for haunts tonight?”

The man froze where he stood like some startled feral creature, maybe Bigfoot with a briefcase, trying to get home after a long day at the office. His dark glasses were unreadable.

“I said, are you ready for Halloween night?” Ventura waved shyly.

For reply, he retreated to his cave and shut the door. None of this surprised or put off Ventura. She understood his kind well enough. He was a perpetually irritable man whose best contribution to Halloween night would be to turn off all the house lights and pretend no one was home.

She smiled at that, however. Tonight, her neighbor’s rudeness would work in favor of better plans laid — namely her plans.

Ventura was the old-timer of the neighborhood and the last of her generation. All her friends had either moved away or passed on leaving behind gravestone inspired sobriquets, in a hundred different ways of saying, “Here lies , all bills paid.”

An endless stream of cars jockeyed down her street now, all of them on the way to somewhere else. Since the close of World War II, things seemed to change so fast. To think about it made Ventura’s head spin and her heart heavy. She turned back up the walk to the only stable structure left in life.

On the welcome mat was painted an arching black cat perched on the hook of a crescent moon. She lovingly swept it again, trusting in the magic of holiday decorations to draw a line between the world, grown strange outside, from the one within, warm and welcoming. She opened the door, stepped inside.

And the magic proved true.

The festooned room greeted her with twisted black and yellow crepe ribbons hung like suspension cables from the ceiling. Grimacing Jack-O’-Lanterns shared the company of smaller similarly carved apple’s, cucumbers, and squash. They were placed here and there throughout the living room, on tables, upon the mantle, and nested in the corners with golden sheaves of straw. The smell of eugenol oil and dry corn shuck wafted through the room like a spirit of warm conversations, years past.

Construction paper figures dangled from above, fluttering as she passed. They were cut out pumpkins, silhouette witches flying, hunched over brooms, and stunning black cats. She touched them here and there, like a museum curate after-hours unable to resist. They loved her attention and, in return, whispered promises of laughter, fun, and a night of mystery.

The table centerpiece was a giant pumpkin with the top cut off, filled with yellow chrysanthemums and licorice scented goldenrod. Spread around its base were bay leaves and figures of nibbling chocolate mice. In approval, she passed a hand across her forehead over the sum of a week’s preparation. Word would surely get around among kindred spirits. The candy bowl was full. Reserves bulged in plastic bags behind the door.

They must come, or her heart would break.

She busied herself on her left, rearranging small crystalline candy skulls here, and on her right, polishing a brass candlestick holder there. She had not felt this way or worked this hard on the occasion for as long as she cared to remember. The spirit, once the idea took hold, mercilessly drove her old bones. She went along with the work, alternating between wild anticipation and unquiet foreboding.

At dusk, she saw from the window the first fluttering ghost two houses down. Parents watched from the sidewalk as their little apparition went from door to door, taking sweet tribute for the dead.

When the first knock and cry of “Trick or treat!” came at Ventura’s door, she was rapturous in the answering. “What do we have here? A Witch! My you do bring a chill to my old bones. And you? Such big, big teeth you have Mr. Wolf-man. Here you go some for you, and you, and especially you, my little ghost. Happy Halloween!”

More children hurried across the yard toward the light of her open door, and all were satisfied. When they had gone, Ventura patted her heart. Such dear little ones.

As evening turned dark, the visions presenting themselves at the door became progressively taller and more gruesomely outfitted. This age group interested Ventura most. Ventura left the door open and displayed the bowl of candy in plain sight just inside.

Splendid! A teenage scarecrow, with hay sticking out from the buttonholes and pockets of his stuffed shirt, glanced in at the door. He escorted Dorothy. She wore sparkling ruby shoes and carried a plush toy dog under one arm. Marvelous! There were more of the curious standing behind. Ventura beckoned all to enter for a drink of cider and games. Lights were dimmed, emphasizing the glowing eyes and grins of Jack-O’-Lanterns.

continued