The other neighbors didn’t fill me in on this until later, but apparently, October officially arrived on Hadley Street when your doorbell rang between six or seven in the morning. Standing in front of you would be the Underwoods, looking marginally more awake than you but far more chipper. They’d greet you with the same question every time: “What do you think?”
Paul carried around a stack of photos he’d printed from various store websites, capped off with a mash-up of them all he’d photoshopped together that night, while Cora dutifully stood by with a notebook and a pen. My assignment, apparently, was to give feedback on their hypothetical Halloween lawn decorating. This year’s theme: a skeleton wedding. The bride was draped in polyester cobwebs and carried a bouquet of black roses while her husband-to-be wore a tattered tuxedo. They stood before a grim reaper in one of those pointy bishop hats at a bloodied altar littered with plastic entrails that, they told me, would conceal a fog machine and a stereo that would play an off-key version of “Here Comes the Bride”. Filling out the scene would be several other skeletons on the benches, rounded out with a few still-rotting bodies that battery-powered bugs would crawl around, popping up at intervals to hiss at trick-or-treaters.
I took a moment to answer my visitors. I’d promised myself I’d get to know my neighbors as soon as I was done moving in, but this wasn’t how I expected to meet that smiley couple across the street. “Um, well, it’s impressive,” I said honestly.
“But will it be too much for the kids?” “Should we keep the bishop or do something else?” “Do you think the bugs work?” Paul launched into a whole litany of questions about their plans, while his wife, as if on autopilot, noted down every shrug, “no”, “uh-huh”, and “sure”. The fact that she didn’t seem all that awake either calmed me down a little. Once it was all over, he thanked me for my time and zipped off to ask someone else. I can only hope that whoever they went to next had had the chance to get some coffee in their system first.
They seemed to have gathered enough data by the end of the week by the time I woke up to see their lawn littered with the components of their display-to-be. I’ve never been much of a fan of Halloween, but even I had to admire their commitment. I made a daily ritual of looking out the window, watching them make the scene piece by piece. Apparently they saw me, because a few days later, Paul was at my front door again, asking for help with the Grim Reaper. I compelled myself to make my early morning groan into a smile. After all, I moved here to be part of a community, and apparently, this was the way to do it.
“So the idea is for him to hover over the congregation, like an omniscient observer,” Paul explained. So he couldn’t hang too close to the street lamps, lest the kids see the wires. He couldn’t be displayed too close to the house, or that would break the … meez-on-sen? Some French thing I promised myself I’d look up later. When I turned to Cora, she just shrugged and redirected her attention towards the decaying guests. Lastly, he had to be exactly high up enough so that his miter (apparently, that’s what the pointy bishop’s hat is called) was too far out of reach for any ambitious pranksters. After an hour’s worth of ladders, angle measurements, and strength tests, I found a spot for the display that fit Paul’s criteria. With some wrapping, bolting, and some cleverly concealed tape, the Underwoods had their deathly diocesan.
“Perfect! What do you say, Cora?”
“Oh!” Cora snapped out from behind the pews and ran to the other side of the yard. She returned, rolling the bloodied altar into place, then examined the display. “It looks great, dear. But I’m worried he might be too out of the way for the kids. Maybe we can tie him in closer to the scene if we lengthen the cowl; I’ve got some spare fabric in the—” she cut herself off as she and her husband made eye contact. “Never mind. This works. We’ll—”
“Great! Now, the main attraction.” And off he rushed towards the skeleton bride and groom. Before she took off after him, Cora flashed a half-smile at me. “Most wonderful time of the year,” she sighed.
Soon it became clear that things weren’t working out as they’d planned. At least an hour went by as I watched them try to get the skeleton couple to align correctly before the altar. She recited a litany of “maybe if we’s” and “but how about’s” and “what if’s”, and he met them all with some variation of the same theme: no, we couldn’t do that, because that would break the illusion. As she grew quieter, he grew more exasperated; whatever she had to say wasn’t even worth trying, as he knew it was wrong already. This would mess with the acoustics of the spooky stereo. This would ruin their line of sight. That would be too similar to the bishop. That would confuse the trick-or-treaters. None of her ideas held up, and neither did the skeletons.
After an hour of hovering around listening to the half-argument, I interjected. “Um, this is just a suggestion, but what if—”
“FOR ONE MINUTE, JUST SHUT THE HELL UP CORA!” For a split second, he looked directly at me, and I recognized that face immediately. A year of that glare was why I’d moved out here in the first place. Then he caught himself, realizing he’d admonished the wrong woman. “So sorry, Miss!” he said in a much smaller voice. “Here, I know there’s some cords in the back we could try.”
I just stood speechless and still as a bone. A year’s worth of memories ran through my head. Of course, my ex and I never fought specifically about Halloween, but that glare, that look that breaks you down and makes you regret having ever spoken out of turn, having dared to be out of turn, in the first place, froze me in place. A minor eternity went by before I turned to Cora. I still couldn’t speak. Luckily, she seemed to understand.
“How about you call it an afternoon? I’ll handle it from here,” she said. “Thank you,” I said smally as I headed towards the gate.
Later that day, my doorbell rang again. Standing on my porch was Cora, alone. “Hi,” she began with a little wave. “I just wanted to apologize for earlier today. We didn’t mean to make a scene in front of you.” I invited her in.
“I should probably apologize too. I’m new around here, but clearly, this means a lot to you and your husband. I don’t want to impede on that.”
No reply. She just looked wistfully out the window. I followed her gaze to see Paul wrestling with those previously-mentioned cords to keep the bride and groom upright, muttering obscenities to himself as he repeatedly knocked his head into the Grim Reaper’s dangling feet. When the wind blew the pointy miter hat off the Reaper’s head and the grown man chased it up and down the street, I laughed. Then I remembered I was sitting next to his wife.
“I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t be laughing. It’s just… He’s definitely committed.”
“Committed,” she echoed. “I remember that feeling.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s just, when Paul and I first got together, this was the highlight of the year for us. We’d bounce around ideas together and have some laughs,” she answered. “It was a lot of fun back then. Don’t get me wrong, it still is, but after all these years, expectations build up, and I guess…” Cora trailed off.
“You guess what?”
“I-I don’t know. It’s nothing,” she stammered. “Besides, it’ll all be over come November. Everything goes back in the basement, under the radar for another year.”
But from the look in her eyes, I knew this was bigger than just the month. And “the problem goes out of sight” never means “the problem has been corrected”. I should know; I spent enough time making those same excuses for my ex. Still, I didn’t have it in me to say it out loud. So, for a moment, we just sat with that shared feeling before I chimed in.
“Some friends and I are going out for a girls’ night this weekend; we’re gonna check out the Harvest Festival. Maybe you should take a night off from decorating and hang out with us?”
She smiled, but quickly reversed it. “I still have work to do.” Then she perked up again: “But could I take a rain check, for some time after Paul and I are done?”
I accepted, and we parted ways.
When I visited them again, he’d had some luck in getting the bride upright, but only by wrapping her in more chains and ropes than Harry Houdini performing hip-hop. I ignored him and made my way over to Cora to offer some help with the creatures in the pews.
“Like this?” I asked as I set the timer for a few of the bats and spiders. After about ten seconds of nothing, Cora took a closer look.
“They should have—” Three, two, one…
“EEEEEEK!!” Cora jumped back a little, then laughed. “That’s great. Now, the rats and snakes.” She walked towards the other control panel when something else caught her eye. “Wait a minute…”
Cora dragged one of the corpses out and leaned it against the pew by the front of the yard. She angled the feet, and sure enough, it stood upright without support. So did the next one. And a third in-between, just removed enough from the two mains.
She grinned and walked down the aisle to meet him. “Hey, Paul!”
As she went, he ignored her and kept cursing under his breath. “Paul, I think I figured it out. If we move the altar closer to the front of the yard, the root system won’t throw us off.”
“No, everything’s fine,” he said as he ducked underneath the Grim Reaper.
“Honey, we need to face the reality here. They cannot stand there; we don’t have the foundation for it. But if we move them up—”
“NO!!” He barked, flailing the measuring rod as she ducked. “The Reaper has to go here, so they have to go here! I’m going to make this work! And you’re not gonna mess it up, like you always do! I only ask you to do this one thing right once a year, and even that’s too hard for you! So stop making a scene in front of the neighbors and do something useful for a change!” Cora retreated back towards me in silence. All I could offer her was a matching look in my eyes.
HISSSS! “Well, at least the snakes work,” she muttered. “At least,” I agreed.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of someone screaming. Sure, it’s Halloween, but it seemed a little early for any scares. I looked out my window to see Paul, running door-to-door like a madman. I glanced over to the Underwood lawn and saw his problem: 65 inches of negative space where the Bride had been on October 30. I checked my phone to find a text from Cora suggesting I sleep in, and I gladly obliged.
Still, I couldn’t shake the habit of peering out the window to see how the display was going. By his lonesome, Paul was working to salvage the scene. He seemed quite proud of himself when he discovered there was a better foundation for the altar scene closer to the front of the lawn. He switched around some clothing and ran inside for some spare black fabric to wrap the new bride in, with some fallen leaves as a bouquet. Nothing fancy, but I doubted the kids would mind.
At last, the sun went down and trick-or-treating began. Probably because I’m so cheap, all of the pirates and princesses had exhausted my supply within an hour, so I just sat back for a quiet night in. That is, until the doorbell rang an hour later. I scrambled to the kitchen and found some raisins and cough drops to improvise with, and slapped my one October thing — a pointy witch’s hat — back on my head to greet the next trick-or-treater.
But standing before me was a grown woman with a familiar shine in her eyes and a 65-inch plastic skeleton wearing a veil of polyester cobwebs and carrying a bouquet of black roses. “About that girl’s night offer…”
As Gloria (we decided she ought to have a name, instead of being just “The Bride”) relaxed on my couch, I microwaved a lasagna as Cora and I closed out our October with some drinks and some laughs.
“Thank you, Teresa. For everything. I don’t think I ever would have gotten that off my chest if not for you.”
I blushed. “It’s nothing. If you need anything in the future, I’m right here.” We both smiled. “So, what are your plans for November?”
“Funny you should ask,” she began as she dug through her pockets. “I have one idea, and since you’re the voice of experience, I figured I’d run it by you.”
As I tried to remember which box my cornucopia might be in, she pulled it out of her pocket. But instead of plans for a dancing Tom Turkey or a Mayflower full of Pilgrims, she produced a brief list of the local divorce attorneys.
I nearly burst with laughter at the sight. “Sounds like a plan. My friend, you are in for a very happy Thanksgiving.”