by Margaret Mendel
Enjoy another scary mystery short story for this Halloween season. You can find the rest of the stories, and more from last year, in our Terrific Tales section.
My husband, Tony, and I took an early Sunday morning drive upstate. The fall foliage, usually vibrant in New York this time of the year—with uncountable shades of yellow, amber, gold, red and peach—was dull against the gun metal gray sky, the stark branches bared by an early frost and heavy winds the week before.
We stopped at a rickety farm stand north of Nyack and bought Granny Smith and MacCoun apples, spaghetti squash, fat white onions with roots and long withered stems still on, new red potatoes smelling strongly of dirt, and a large bag of what a sign taped to the gunny sack said were fresh fallen walnuts.
I hadn’t tasted fresh walnuts since I was a girl living on a farm in the Northwest. Tony had grown up in the Bronx. He remembers stick ball, handball courts, scooting bottle caps across the sidewalk playing a game he and his buddies called scully and eating a slice of pizza every day after school, and he said he didn’t know about such things as fresh fallen walnuts. We had one of those discussions, like others we have over the years, the kind when we learn something new about each other, even after being married twenty-six years and raising two children.
We arrived home in time for Tony to watch the Sunday Giants football game. He made a pot of French roast coffee. I put some walnuts into a bowl and set it on the coffee table. We perched ourselves in front of the TV. In no time, Tony was mesmerized by men in helmets hurtling themselves against the Astroturf.
I watch football halfheartedly; truthfully, the game bores me. In the last couple of years though I had taken pity on Tony for having to watch the Sunday games by himself. Not so long ago our son and daughter would have been on the couch beside their father counting the downs, groaning at missed passes and cheering interceptions. But our kids have both gone off on their own and now it’s just Tony and me. I keep Tony company during the games, I think, to fill the void we both sense as we adjust to being empty nesters.
I picked a walnut out of the bowl. Tony clapped his hands and called out, “Okay, way to go.” I looked up at the TV. The players were helping each other up off the field.
I went back to my walnut and placed it between the two metal legs of the cracker and squeezed. Hard. Too, hard and the shell broke into dozens of pieces, leaving only a couple of large chunks of the nutmeat stuck in the crevices of the broken shells. I dug into the shells with my fingernail and popped the pieces of the nut into my mouth while I watched the Giant quarterback throw a long pass.
I bit down on the walnut and everything around me melted away. All that remained was the walnut and I. There was no Tony. No TV. No football. I closed my eyes. I was 12 years old again, and it was Halloween.
As I exhaled a woodsy smell, musty, like newly sprouting mushrooms and mossy rotting logs came up from the back of my throat. I was standing outside the farmhouse where I grew up and my two younger sisters were standing at my side. Mom had put me in charge of them. We were getting ready to go trick or treating.
Mom was going to have another baby soon, and Karen, my youngest sister, thought we should paint a pumpkin face on Mom’s tummy and she could come along with us as she usually did.
But Mom was too tired to do much of anything. I’d heard her tell Dad at the dinner table, “Maybe the full moon tonight will bring on the baby.”
I took another broken piece of walnut into my mouth. I could see my sisters and we were each wearing one of Mom’s old dresses that she had pinned, tied and tucked in every which way. I remembered the dresses dragged along the ground with uneven floppy hems, despite her handiwork. We thought we were beautiful.
“Oh, Madam, you look so pretty,” Janet, my middle sister, said to Karen. Janet smiled, her lips pursed together as if she had just swallowed a tablespoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice. This was her version of a grownup smile.
“You, too, my dear,” Karen responded, pushing at a mass of curly hair that had come loose from a barrette—and we all curtsied to each other.
Fidgeting and impatient, we could hardly wait for the final touch to our costumes, Mom’s lipstick. I remembered my lips tickled as Mom painted my loosely opened mouth with her tube of greasy red color. The lipstick had to be red or we weren’t dressed up. When I blotted my lips and saw the blood red mark my mouth left on the tissue I felt like I had been transformed into a woman.
All dressed up, unable to stand still any longer my sisters and I twirled around in the kitchen, our skirts billowing up. Then we dashed through the house and out into the damp evening air just as the sun began to set. Halloween night, with a full moon coming, a magical time, a time when I thought wishes came true.
“Now, Wilma, watch your sisters,” Mom called to me from where she sat at the kitchen table. “Just go up the old gravel road, no further, then come back.”
“OK,” I shouted and we ran out into the sunset, with the sky looking like it had been torn into ragged strips of magenta, purple and gold. When I think about a Northwest sunset I always remember those extraordinary colors.
Our dresses smelled delicious from mothballs, deteriorating dusty fabrics and the old cologne that hung along the necklines of Mom’s clothes. We smelled just like our mother as we pranced, one after the other, out into the cool air that bit our cheeks and sliced at our bare legs under the thin cotton garments. We headed for our secret shortcut that led through a grove of evergreen trees, then crossed over a small swampy patch we called a brook. This time of the year there wasn’t much mud, but if we weren’t careful we’d get our dresses dirty before we even started to trick or treat.
“Janet, you go first,” I said. I was in charge. “Karen you get in the middle and hold up the back of Janet’s skirt so it doesn’t drag in the mud.”
“Who’s going to hold your skirt?” Karen asked.
“I can take care of myself,” I told her, and picked up the back of Karen’s skirt with the hand that I also used to hold onto an old black plastic pocketbook, the one with the corner that had been chewed on by our dog, Cookie. Then with my other hand, the hand that held my trick or treat bag, I grabbed up my own skirt.
We each wore an old pair of Mom’s shoes and as we made our way through the mud, stepping on rocks and clumps of grass, we managed to forge across without getting our skirts dirty. A dense patch of fat, feathery, sticky ferns growing at the edge of the brook grabbed at our long skirts. We pulled ourselves free and ran squealing and laughing until we reached an open field where we followed a barbed wire fence. The fencing penned in lazy brown cows that did nothing but stand around all day chewing their cud, with long, sloppy drool coming down from the sides of their mouths. We shouted at the cows, “Trick or Treat,” and ran to where the path ended at the old gravel road.
This was where we’d begin to trick or treat. We knew which houses we were going to visit even before we’d started out. We were expected and we knew we’d have disappointed the neighbors if we hadn’t shown up.
The first houses we came to were two tumbled down shacks, one in back of the other, that belonged to Delbert. All the kids who lived on the gravel road knew Delbert as a cranky bachelor. He kept a mean, lop-eared hunting dog named Boy chained up in the front yard. No one tricked or treated at Delbert’s place.
The widow Johnson rented the house in back of Delbert’s. The widow was a plump, jolly woman who had no children. I’d overheard someone say once that she had come to our neighborhood carrying her bad reputation, whatever the heck that meant.
My sisters and I walked past Delbert’s mailbox, headed down the road to do our trick or treat deeds, the gravel crunching under our oversized shoes. Boy barked at us. I recognized his bark. Some nights we could hear him from our backyard, the low throaty howl made me shiver.
Karen grabbed my arm and screamed, “He’s go’na get us.”
“He can’t get us. He’s chained up,” I said.
“He just sounds scary,” Janet assured her.
Karen made a growling sound then barked back at Boy. “Shut up, you stupid dog,” she shouted. Boy kept barking.
Mom knew how to handle Boy. She and I walked past the bachelor’s place one day and Boy began to bark. Mom called out to him; “Quiet, Boy” in a tone she used with our dog, Cookie—and sometimes a voice she used with my sisters and me. It worked. Boy stopped barking.
“Quiet, Boy,” I shouted in a voice I thought sounded exactly like Mom. Boy kept on barking. “Quiet, Boy,” I shouted again. This time I lowered the tone of my voice to sound more serious. He continued to bark.
A big walnut tree stood at the edge of the bachelor’s property. I picked up a walnut from the ground, threw it at the dog, and shouted, “I said, quiet.”
The next thing I knew all three of us were throwing walnuts at the dog. We weren’t trying to hit him; he was too far away and our aim far too poor to ever reach him. But the more walnuts we threw, the harder and louder Boy barked. Without realizing it, as we picked up the walnuts to throw at Boy we had moved into Delbert’s driveway.
The porch light flicked on and someone shouted, “What’re you brats doing on my property? Get out of here before I get this dog after you.” It was Delbert, his voice snapped at us like a whip.
We screamed and ran up the road. We stumbled, nearly falling, holding on to each other running as fast as we could in Mom’s old shoes—all the while laughing and shouting. We were deliciously out of our minds with excitement.
By the time we reached old lady Worthington’s, our first intended trick or treat stop, we must have been some sight, because this friendly, ancient looking neighbor laughed so hard when she opened the door and saw us, her face turned red and purple veins popped out on her forehead.
When she stopped laughing, she fanned herself with a handkerchief she had taken out from the sleeve of her sweater and said, “My, my, aren’t you all just beautiful.” She gave us each an extra candy bar and a handful of walnuts. Everyone in our neighborhood had walnut trees and in the fall walnuts were so abundant they were left on the ground to rot. Halloween was a good time to get rid of them—a piece of candy and a handful of walnuts for all the little beggars.
After every house yielded to our threat of tricks or treats we made our way back down the old gravel road, heading home. The light no longer glowed in Delbert’s yard. I thought Boy would bark at us again and I was ready for him. But he must have been tired out from the barking he had done earlier that night with all the other trick or treat kids coming down the road riling him up.
A light was now on in widow Johnson’s porch. I man stood in the dim glow. A cigarette in his mouth flickered a faint red dot. The man looked a lot like Dad. But what would he be doing at the widow Johnson’s? Then I saw our car, parked behind Delbert’s shack, the back-end sticking out. I watched the man. He went into the house, and the porch went dark.
The full moon slowly crawling across the horizon looked like a big hole had been cut in the sky letting the sun shine in from yesterday, and, with my sisters in hand we made our way back to our secret path. I decided that the man on widow Johnson’s porch was not Dad. The moonlight had played tricks on me—because that night I saw shadows in the woods I had never seen before. The trees, instead of looking black the way they usually did in the dark, glowed silver.
My sisters and I wearily dragged our loot home across the muddy terrain, exhausted, but as pleased as though we each held a pirate’s treasure chest filled with doubloons and jewels, instead of Mars Bars, Hershey Kisses, bubble gum, sucking candy and the inevitable walnuts. Once we arrived home our energy returned and we sat at the kitchen table, dumped the candy from our bags in front of us, piling our collection as high as we could.
Mom sat at the table with us. She looked so tired and lonely while my sisters and I were having such a good time.
Every year we did the same thing. Mom helped us count and sorted the candy, putting the chocolate bars and Kisses, our favorite, aside to be eaten first. We made a pile of caramel squares, and a mound of fancy sucking candy, which had its own buried treasure of tart berry jellies. We stacked the bubble gum on one corner of the kitchen table and rolled all the sour balls and jawbreakers together. Mom put the different candies into separate dishes and lined them up along the back of the kitchen countertop.
The last to be put aside were the walnuts. We gave them to Mom. That year she found several mud-caked walnuts on the bottom of one of the trick or treat bags. “Who gave you these?” Mom demanded.
I looked at the dirty walnuts in Mom’s hand and I realized where they came from. Janet looked at me. She knew where they came from, too.
Somehow, during all the excitement, I had managed to hold on to a couple of walnuts from the bachelor’s yard until we reached old lady Worthington’s house. Instead of dropping the walnuts on her porch I slipped them into my trick or treat bag.
Karen looked at me and squirmed on her chair.
“I don’t know,” Janet answered quickly.
Mom would have been angry if she knew we threw walnuts at Boy. She knew something had happened, but she said nothing. She sighed deeply, I remember that, and then she washed the mud off the nuts, put them in a bowl with the rest of the walnuts and placed the bowl on the kitchen counter next to the stove to help dry out any remaining moisture in the shells.
The light from the full moon came thickly through my bedroom window, but we wouldn’t have a new little sister for another three weeks.
When all of our candy had been eaten my sisters and I reluctantly ate the walnuts, wishing they were a jawbreaker or a Pez. I remember coming home from school on cold and stormy afternoons, the wind whipping pellets of rain into a frothy sheet against the windows, while we sat at the kitchen table playing the game of who could open a walnut perfectly.
Karen, being the youngest, was new at this game and that year I taught her the best way to hold the nutcracker. Her fingers still too short to get a solid grip on the nutcracker, held the cracker with both hands, squeezing with all her might. The winner would be the one who could remove a whole walnut from its shell. The nut had to be curly and wrinkled, missing nothing; not a single bump could be broken off.
Carefully, we each worked the nutcracker with the precision of sculptors. And when a prize walnut had been pulled whole from its shell, the winning nut would be passed around the table for inspection. Triumphantly the prize walnut would then be popped into the winner’s mouth and chewed and chewed as though it took longer to eat a whole nut than it did to eat a lot of little pieces.
An explosion of cheers burst from the TV. I paid no attention and cracked open another walnut, this time more carefully. I ate it slowly and the dresses that my sisters and I had worn danced in front of me. I saw my favorite, a sky blue one with little white morning glories. I could feel the back of my feet flopping in and out of Mom’s worn-out high heel shoes, the white ones my sisters and I fought over. And I remembered the disappointment of having eaten all of my Halloween candy. I was too young then to know that someday this would be a memory.
I sat beside my husband and cracked open another walnut. I ate the flesh. The nut’s skin, acidic and slightly biting, the meat oily, the pulp ground into my molars drugging me, and I sank deeper into my memories.
My children are grown, I’m not a kid anymore—and neither are my sisters.
I watched my husband, a stranger in my childhood, as he carelessly forced the legs of the nutcracker together, while I rotated the walnut, squeezing firm but gently, making minute fractures in the shell, still trying to carefully produce the winning nut.