The house was disheveled and in disrepair. Had the neighborhood been more worldly (or, perhaps, visited more widely), the property would have likely qualified for a county-mandated leveling. Even so, and despite (or perhaps in spite of) the home’s obvious daytime dilemmas, come Halloween its lights were always on.
Whenever I’d visit, I knew what to expect. The home was a long-standing and long-feared tradition. A part of our Halloween trek. Its resident would scare and taunt. It took precious minutes but eventually, he’d hand out nut-laden bars, mostly Snickers and Almond Joy. Sometimes Zero Bars and Pay Days. On one rare occasion, an O Henry!
The homeowner kept a round table with a triangular tower of rectangular Mounds to his left (always left untouched). With a frown (more like a glare) and a series of repetitive warning to beware, he’d follow a similar routine (always a tad too rough). His left hand remained on the screened storm door; his right hand always offered a single candy bar. Full-size. Freshly picked.
“Gotta get rid of the nuts,” he’d say. His voice loomed large. An even larger bulldog (equally unfriendly) sat by his side. All senses engaged.
Each of us knew how to play. We’d keep our heads down and our eyes guarded. We stocked and shielded all signs of sympathy (also shared sentiments). We prioritized milk and dark chocolate full-sized bars (heavy on nougat and cream) over the safety of our parents’ nearby cars.
“Thank you,” we’d offer, then turn and run. “Happy Halloween” would linger like trail mix dust under a long-dissipated hot summer sun.
He’d grump, then growl. “Watch out for the nuts. They sure are foul.”
We’d continue our trek. Confident that was one less nut we’d have to confront. Our fear of the strange man with the strange habits fueled our fun. I’d hear the kids tease him (and his habits) as we ran. They’d snicker and snort. “Crazy old fool,” some would sputter. “A prime catch for a loony bin hatch,” others would jeer.
Their laughter would linger. Like a grand slam cheer as the home-town pitcher’s head hangs low. I never fully understood. Neither him nor them. Halloween always about consumption of predictability and pride. Dressed in plastic masks and torn-up sheets, we were as confusing as his solemn and solitary feats. Each of us would don ridiculous costumes (mostly homemade) as if we had neither pride nor nothing to hide.
The lot of us maintained our annual routine from Grade 2 and age six straight through Grade 7 and age fourteen. Up until the time I started to follow the news, I’d comply without question. The so-called “Candy Crazy Man’s” house of nuts and his habits an ongoing destination.
Somehow, I developed an uncanny infatuation with obits while listening to rhythm and blues. A few days before Halloween, the fall I’d turn fifteen, I recognized his face. Each wrinkle deeply traced in both memory and minutes standing on his front porch stoop. All bags open to consume his loot.
He understood the limits of time and wrote his own goodbye. Turns out he was the one with nothing to hide. His note revealed facts I learned too late. The bulldog was named Babe Ruth. The house a family heirloom. It was only then that I learned the candy man’s given name was Henry. “Too many nuts,” he wrote as his claim. I wondered if there was anyone else for whom he was their fame. Perhaps his bulldog was one of many. I thought of attending the service, but then realized it wasn’t even worth a try. “Private,” read the memo. Again, handwritten and in a full tempo.
Now, I linger outside his house, still boarded, when I walk. The bulldog is gone, as are the lights. I wait and hope that he might still linger. Mainly so we can talk. I fear we (I) (us kids) had mistaken his gruffness for roughness when all he might have needed for nuts to be fully weeded was a bit of homespun sweet.
His eyes, deep round holes of fire, linger in my dreams and Halloween plots. I’ve since designed my shopping rituals to match some of the Candy Man’s (a true O Henry!) giveaway plots. Full-size bars only. Freshly picked from a pack of six. I prefer Pay Days and Babe Ruths. Mounds never on my menu. My costume’s always fully attired. I plan to remain forever too young to ever retire.
As I’ve grown, I realize I’ve adopted some (more) of his ways. However, I’m careful not to follow his days. I hand out full-sized bars on Halloween. All freshly stocked and stacked. I try not to make too many mounds of his void. He may be displaced but can never be replaced. On Halloween Eve, it’s solid milk chocolate for me. All year long, his memory remains sweet.
Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. She is a Best of the Net nominee, with stories, poems, and essays published in a wide variety of literary and scholarly journals. She is the author of A Collection of Recollections (Next Chapter), Invisible Ink (Toho Pub), On Daily Puzzles: (Un)locking Invisibility and On Crossroads and Fill in the Blank Puzzles (forthcoming, Moonstone Press), and Blindfolds, Bruises, and Breakups (forthcoming, Atmosphere Press).