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Thank You, Neighbor

I love autumn. I love the colors. No dainty pinks here, thank you. Rather oranges and golds and burgundies that sear the senses. I love the weather. Cool breezes to refresh the body and the spirit after the wilting heat of summer. I love the clothes. Cozy and snug without any winter bulkiness. Absent pumpkin spice lattes, I love the food. Soups and stews, apple harvests, roadside stands with homemade pies and preserves. Comfort food to steel us for the cold ahead.

I write this on October 9th, after mowing the yard in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, getting a sunburn in 90-degree temperature, and sneezing my brains out because of ragweed.

It’s autumn in Houston because the calendar called it on September  22nd, but the rest of nature doesn’t much care what the local weather person has to say. The leaves are brown and brittle. They just give up and fall off the trees, cluttering everyone’s gutters, drains, and yards. Raking is a chore. There’s no fun in plopping down into piles of leaves. You can hurt yourself on their sharp edges. My students think that because it is October, they should dress accordingly. I see them bundled up in boots and sweatshirts, and I wonder what they are going to do when the temperature dips to 75. Watermelons and grapes rest beside pumpkins and gourds in the supermarket.

And there are scarecrows everywhere. It’s something of a cognitive disconnect, to say the least.

But I don’t despair. My neighbor valiantly creates the season for the children (and adults). Every year, during the last week of September, he begins the countdown to Halloween. He enlists his entire family and some of their friends. I think that his sons-in-law had to pass the Halloween set-up test before he allowed them to marry his daughters.

A U-Haul truck appears early on a Saturday morning, and before lunch, the driveway is filled with crates and bins. A wrought-iron fence topped with skulls goes up around his lawn’s perimeter, and a sign is posted to begin the countdown to Halloween. As the days go by, the cemetery comes to life – so to speak. There are skeletons everywhere, and they each have a story. One is in scrubs, another in a straightjacket. A third is a social influencer, complete with platinum hair, a leopard-print dress, and the ubiquitous cellphone, poised to take an infernal selfie. Pet skeletons are strewn everywhere, hands reach from beneath the ground, clawing their way free from their graves. RIP is clearly an oxymoron in the Last Stop Cemetery. There are giant spiders and even bigger webs, zombies, gargoyles, the headless horseman, even a funeral with skeleton pallbearers. At night, mood lighting illuminates the cemetery, adding to its eeriness, and creepy music wafts through the neighborhood, just loud enough to be unsettling.

And he’s not done yet. He still has to build a Haunted House. Because of COVID last year, kids couldn’t go into the House, but they could still hear the screams as a claw handed them candy. This year, he’s building an insane asylum. Kind of fits after the year we’ve had.

When we were kids in Washington Heights in Manhattan we used to trick or treat in the neighborhood, knocking on every door, never worrying that someone had hidden razors in our apples or laced the pixie stix with poison. If we got sick, it was because we had greedily devoured our entire stash, never thinking to save some for the next day, not because someone had tried to kill us. But shortly after we moved to Houston, someone did just that and ruined childhood by making Halloween a dangerous holiday. Door to door Trick or Treating stopped. Churches took over, hosting controlled events for neighborhood kids. Hospitals offered to x-ray candy before kids even unwrapped their goodies. It was still fun, but it wasn’t memorable. Kids from our street came to our door. No one ventured farther.

Then, ten years ago, my neighbor moved in and Halloween was back. People drive by or stroll past to monitor the cemetery’s progress. Little kids stand behind their parents and peek out at the spiders and skeletons. It makes me smile to see them. On Halloween night, they stop at our house first, fortifying themselves with candy courage before they approach the spooky extravaganza next door. As if the decorations aren’t enough, the whole family and their helpers dress up to really scare the daylights out of everyone.

The next day, everything is gone. What took over a month to build is disassembled, packed away, and moved back into storage for another year. There aren’t even candy wrappers in the grass.

For Christmas, he puts a Santa hat on a giant skeleton and calls it a holiday!

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