It’s that time of year again; for me, the best time. The air has that ineffable quality, a sort of crystal clarity that opens your chest and pins the flaps back so that everything that is beautiful – like the cruelly cerulean blue of the October sky – arrows directly to your heart. The moon is a lantern hanging low on the evening horizon. The air has a smoky ripeness and an apple-cider bite.
This is not a time of last musteirng – the best of summer is going or gone. No, the loveliness of this time is about the slow surrender of life, the beauty that can be found in accepting that death, darkness and cold are inevitable and nigh at hand, adding a sharp sweetness to every moment that slips through the fingers and is gone.
Fall has always been my favorite season. Falling leaves and a cooling sun in a tall blue sky make me think of back to school, a time of promise, a clean slate on which I optimistically inscribed the same promises each year: study hard, work hard, no procrastinating, not only not get behind, but stay ahead.
When I was growing up, fall meant a couple of Saturdays spent home working on family chores like leaf raking, winterizing the flower beds, repairing the gutters. Even though it was hard work, there was something about all of five of us in the yard together, everyone in motion – raking, piling, bending, climbing, sweating, inspecting hands for blisters – that made it seem kind of fun too.
Of course, fall is the runway to holiday season, and one of the best days of the year for a kid: Halloween. If you could go back in time and visit the neighborhood I grew up in, I have no doubt that you would take one look around and foolishly conclude that the best house on Halloween would be the Musek house. But even though it had six stately white pillars in front and not one but TWO chimneys, all the Musek’s ever gave out were see-through cellophane packets of candy corn, or those black and orange wrapped maple taffies that looked Halloweenish but tasted like wax turds.
The best house in the neighborhood on Halloween was also the worst house. It was the Richter house, an ordinary ranch of dark brown siding and a car port in front of the front door, which was a nice reprieve if it was a rainy night.
This was the time before the occasional candy tampering incident, an age when parents were not hovering helicopters of anxiety believing they could remove every single threat to their child’s well-being and safety. This was a time when Halloween meant that, by age ten, you could rove a six block neighborhood of mostly known houses with no adult supervision (avoiding, per parental instruction, the party poopers with their porch lights off) with doubled up brown grocery bags or pillow cases and get enough candy to keep you ill for a month.
This was a time when you could also accept homemade treats, and in fact convened with other little monsters and witches and ghosts on this corner or that to find out who was giving out the stuff you could eat NOW. Mrs. Richter’s house was always high on the list of the best homemade treats. She made cool things like popcorn balls or caramel apples or gave out awesome store-bought candy like really long licorice whips you could wrap twice around your neck and eat while you were walking.
On one memorable occasion she made rootbeer floats for me and my four friends; she served them in actual frosted glass mugs with handles, and she wasn’t stingy with the ice cream either.
Mrs. Richter lived alone with her dog, a fat Chihuahua that bit. Its name was Poppy but we called it Porkie Pie, though never in front of Mrs. Richter. Normally when you went by her place you were on your bike and could just wave. Porkie Pie would sometimes be inside, but sometimes she’d come running from out of nowhere – around the side of the house or from under the car or from the shadows in the car port. She could move pretty fast for short distances despite being so fat and having a bad case of puppy piano leg. But no matter how pissed off she was, she wasn’t any match for a bike, even though your heart could get going pretty good if you’d slowed down too much and Porky had got too much of a stealth start.
Halloween meant you had to go inside – you had to do the time if you wanted the treat. Mrs. Richter was old and couldn’t carry the treats to the door, and besides, she liked to make a big fuss over your costume. So we’d stand there in the too-warm living room and Mrs. Richter, who was pretty blind, would look around and say “Now ,where is that dog? Don’t mind my Poppy, she’s just a good old girl.”
Then we’d hear it – the clicking of the long toenails, and the breathing like someone who has had a tracheotomy and is now drowning in his own sinus drainage. The dog’s lower teeth jutted out like a piranha, and the eyes were bulging and huge and black, with little white rims that had thick red veins. The dog would walk around among us wheeze- growling and lunging near-sightedly at our ankles; we tried to keep an eye on it while Mrs. Richter admired Scott’s wizard hat or my harem pants.
Then just when you thought it wouldn’t happen, you’d feel it – needly teeth would sink into your ankle. It hurt, but that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was prying the dog off without it making that scary yelping I’m-being-murdered sound little dogs are so good at. ‘Cause if you hurt Porkie Pie while prying its piranha jaws from your tender young flesh, Mrs. Richter would hear it, and get upset, and start calling the vet, and you couldn’t really grab the caramel apple and leave, so you’d have to stay, and try to reassure Mrs. Richter even as blood was trickling from the puncture wounds on your Achilles.
Which is how we ended up two years in a row spending prime trick-or-treating time in Mrs. Richter’s living room, lined up on her avocado-colored couch eating caramel apples or oversized marshmallow Rice Krispies squares with Lawrence Welk paying in the background and Porkie Pie snarling asthmatically at us from her doggie bed in the corner of the kitchen, Mrs. Richter wringing her hands and waiting for the vet to call her back and set us free into the October night.