Alas, another Halloween has come and gone, and with it, Spooktober comes to an end. However, here is one more short story I wrote last year the day after Halloween, posted here for the first time for you to enjoy as you say farewell to Spooktober!
“Making Friends with the Neighbors”
A short story
By T.D. Smith
“Why don’t you just ask your neighbors?” Lenna asked Jim. “They’re going to know how many trick-or-treaters your neighborhood gets.”
Jim frowned. He had only moved into his new home, a house, out of his tiny, dingy apartment down the way in August of that year. Now he lived in a sizable house with a large fenced in backyard that was perfect for frolicking with his dog. He had a considerable amount more space for storage and felt more comfortable, too. He was able to unwind and relax after coming home from work each day and not feel compressed on either side by neighbors and noises. The house was positioned at the intersection of three relatively non-busy streets, with only one neighbor directly on one side of the house. The other neighbors’ houses were a good distance away from Jim’s, but still within a stone’s throw. His property was a veritable island of solitude surrounded on three sides by an expanse of yard and pavement. A quiet paradise.
The space between buildings, however, while comfortable, along with the facts that Jim was gone nearly every weekend either for work or visiting Lenna, his girlfriend, who attended a graduate school in the next big city about an hour east of the town in which he currently resided, caused him not to know the neighbors very well. Jim was not an introvert; nor was he incredibly extroverted. He described himself as an ambivert with introverted tendencies. While Jim enjoyed attending parties and large gatherings sometimes, he needed to enjoy these interactions sparingly and in moderation. Sometimes it was fun and oddly soothing to attend an event with large numbers, to become lost, absorbed in a crowd. Other times it was overwhelming to the senses, and deeply unsettling. As a general rule, Jim usually preferred people in small doses, too.
There were, after all, only a relatively small group of people on this planet that he genuinely liked. He could handle these few and proud in relatively large doses. However, at the end of a long, busy, and stressful day, if given the choice of going to a large, loud place with numerous throngs of people, or having a quiet beer with himself and a long walk with the dog, Jim would always choose the latter. Besides, Jim sometimes had a tendency to put his foot in his mouth and come across as awkward to people he was just meeting or didn’t know well, at least such was his own perception, which he often internalized despite his best efforts and being one whose natural axis leaned towards that of someone who did not care about such things.
That fact notwithstanding, Jim still thought it would be nice to know the neighbors and have someone to hang out with in his spare time on the few weekends and evenings he was free and not occupied with something else and someone else somewhere else. It was now October 30th, the evening before Halloween and as he made small talk with his significant other, the subject of which had wandered to the looming holiday, he pondered whether and in what quantity he would have trick-or-treaters. Several of his neighbors’ houses were decked out in orange lights, pumpkin decorations hooked to the sides and in the windows of the houses, and many jack-o-lanterns with varying cut designs and patterns carved into and sculpted out of them, which indicated to Jim the potentiality of numerous costumed Halloween candy connoisseurs and consumers on this street the next evening.
“I never talk to the neighbors. I hardly ever see them.” Jim replied. “What am I supposed to do, just knock on the door and say ‘hey it’s me the quiet neighbor you hardly know, how many trick-or-treaters we get around here, anyway?’”
Lenna giggled. “Well, when you put it that way it seems awkward. But hey, remember back in August when I was over and the total solar eclipse was going on and your neighbor lady just walked on over, introduced herself and let us borrow her son’s welding mask so we could watch the eclipse without frying our retinas?”
“Yes.” The thought appeared crystal clear in Jim’s mind. He remembered the day well. The heat sweltered in excess of ninety degrees, with nearly one-hundred percent humidity. It was a good day to stay inside, and the kind of day on which any other occasion both he and Lenna would have been. But on this particular August day they had stood on the front lawn, their faces pointed down to the earth as they attempted to gaze, unsuccessfully, into cereal boxes covered in aluminum foil to watch the total eclipse. The act of bringing the welding mask over on the part of Tina, whose role was wife in the couple that lived next door, had not been an intrusion but a neighborly act of outreach and kindness. It had been a positive peer interaction, something which Jim had experienced sparingly in his new neighborhood before and since.
“Well, she just waltzed right over here that day like it was no big deal then. You could just walk over when you see her or her husband tomorrow before dark and ask them. It wouldn’t be that out of the ordinary.” Lenna replied.
“Yeah maybe...if I have time.” Jim said.
“You have bought candy?” Lenna asked, inquisitively.
“Yes, of course I have. Got a whole bag.” Jim said, defensively.
“Okay….hope it’s enough!” Lenna said, teasing Jim slightly by saying this. A slight anxiety arose in Jim’s mind. He briefly pictured a scenario of throng after throng of children pouring through the neighborhood, and marching up the steps of his front porch. He imagined their disappointed faces when he had to turn them away from an empty bowl, their dejected facial expressions and body language as they left in droves, passing over his house thereafter as he turned off the lights for the night and quietly lamented the fact of only buying one bag. He imagined himself becoming that guy, the house on the corner that notoriously handed out bad candy, or worse, none at all, and one that children began to steer clear of, avoiding each Halloween night. There had been a couple of such houses in his childhood neighborhood, filled with residents who were infamous among his neighbors for being incorrigible killjoys. Had Jim become a killjoy like these miserable neighbors of his former years? Had be grown so old as of late?
No, surely not!
Then, Jim’s thoughts turned. Halloween being tomorrow, the last day of the month, and coincidentally also pay day, he did not wish to overdraw from his low funds in his checking account by purchasing any more candy for strangers’ children. The stomach butterflies dissipated and he did not feel as bad as this sequence of thoughts ran through his mind. Still, maybe tomorrow afternoon he would grab an extra bag, just in case. Just one. He wouldn’t need more than that, would he?
“I’m sure Olaf would help you out and spot you some candy, if you asked…” Lenna suggested after the brief pause and trying to read Jim’s face.
“Again, he’s another one I’ve only ever met once, that time he walked his dogs past and we were outside. I’ve literally never talked to him again.” Jim said.
“Still, he seems nice enough. He wouldn’t mind helping out a neighbor in need.” Lenna insisted.
True, Olaf was a nice guy. At least Jim thought so. The only things in the world he knew about the man were that he had three dogs, which he could walk all at once, he lived down the street in a house he had bought that had been a business on the main road which he and his wife had re-converted back into a residence, and that he shared a name with a snowman from a certain popular Disney CGI cartoon. Jim’s mind flashed back to the events in August immediately following meeting the neighbor for the first time.
“What’s the name of the cartoon again, Finding the Frozen Tangled Mermaid, or something?” Jim had asked. Lenna’s look she shot him could have vaporized standing water.
“Finding the Frozen Tangled Mermaid? Really, dude?” Lenna said, rolling her eyes all the while. Jim had chuckled cheekily. Lenna had tickled him after revealing his ploy of intentionally appearing ignorant of the film’s actual name.
His thoughts fading back to the present moment, it occurred to Jim that he rather liked the idea of Olaf, and would possibly enjoy being friends with him. After all, the several things he currently knew about the man were several more than he knew of some of his cousins and blood relatives. He sighed at length. These things are so arbitrary and relative, though. Soon after his sigh, Jim and Lenna continued their conversation, the subject of which took a turn toward other topics entirely, until the question over the numbers of trick-or-treaters had completely left his mind.
Later that evening, he drove the hour long trip home and went to bed, watching shows through the internet stream on the small television in his bedroom. Although the shows were Halloween themed, thoughts of trick-or-treaters, regardless of size, shape, age, quantity or quality, never crossed the young man’s mind again, and he was deep asleep, his dog curled up beside him on the bed with her head and snout lying at rest above the curve of his knees, before he ever realized he had lost consciousness.
The next day was a busy one for Jim. He was up by 6 o’clock, like every day. Let the dog out to pee, like every day. He then dumped a pint of food into her bowl, refilled her water, put his k-cup coffee maker on and proceeded to the shower, just like every day. After dressing, he let the dog back in, who immediately scurried to the front bay window in the living room, leapt to the top of the loveseat bordering the windowsill of the window in a single bound, and took up her post as watchman of every move on the front lawn and beyond for the day.
After a long and difficult day at work, Jim returned and let his excited dog out into the fenced yard and played ball with her for roughly thirty-five minutes before taking her back inside, feeding her again, and heading right back out the door to go to his second job. At about 6 o’ clock in the evening, Jim returned home for the final time and walked his dog down the street and back, followed by another round fetch in the yard within the fence.
As the last light of the autumn day slowly waned behind the orange, red, brown, and yellow leaved mountains, an ever so soft, chilly wind blew through Jim’s hair. After a warmer than usual summer, it finally felt like an October night, indeed like Halloween night. Jim and his dog climbed the steps of the back porch and went inside. Jim pulled on the Jedi costume his grandmother had sewn for him long ago. His belly protruded out of it further than it had in previous years. Gray hair peppered the black of his youth, and he now had a gray and black colored beard, a new development from the last time he had donned the Jedi robes for the premiere of the most recent Star Wars film. Wielding his electronic light-up green lightsaber toy, his old man Luke Skywalker from the sequel Star Wars films costume was complete. Filling the green plastic bowl with candy by ripping open the ends of the plastic bag he had acquired from the local Wal-Mart (yes, only one!), he moved into the living room, flipped the light switch to the front porch, opened the front door that connected the porch to the living room, and waited, while his faithful dog sat and watched out the front glass screen door.
By 6:45, no trick-or-treaters had arrived. Jim sat and assisted his dog in donning her own Halloween costume: by weaving in the strap of the famous sash and saddle bag into her collar, with her brindle coloring Jim’s canine companion made a perfect Chewbacca. The Jedi Master and his best furry friend sat in wait in their home, candy at the ready.
More time passed. It was now nearly 7:30. Still no trick-or-treaters. Oh well. Time to crack open the beer. The pint-and-a-half sized brown glass bottle hissed like the top of a newly discovered Egyptian sarcophagus releasing ancient, stale air from its elaborately decorated tomb as Jim’s bottle opener twisted and popped the cap off. Jim poured the liquid nectar slowly into an icy glazed glass he had retrieved from his freezer. The glass sat on his counter, the beverage a dark, creamy, deep amber that effervesced, giving out aromas of mild hoppiness, coffee, chocolate, and bourbon barrel whiskey. Jim breathed it in and exhaled, his eyes closed and face grinning. Jim was just about to take his first sip when all of a sudden there was a tapping sound coming from the glass screen door and an excited whine from his dog.
“Trick-or-treat!” the toddlers, one dressed in a bright red witch getup, the other two as Ninja Turtles announced with their mothers, who were wearing similar, adult-sized costumes but with tutus, in close proximity behind them. Jim grinned from ear to ear and let the children choose a piece of candy from the green bowl.
“Thank you, Happy Halloween!” the girls said in unison.
“You’re welcome, Happy Halloween to you, too!” Jim replied. The girls and their mothers turned and left.
Another fifteen minutes passed before the next wave of trick-or-treaters came by. This time there was a mix of age and genders, ranging from 2-8, which included several Batmen, a Wonder Woman, Pink Power Ranger, Elsa from Frozen, a Clone Trooper, a Spiderman, at least two villains from the DC comic book universe, which Jim found rather disturbing, and a black-cloaked young human whose gender Jim could not tell from behind the skeleton mask he or she wore. The parents stood behind these children, too, some of them in full costumes, some of them in face paint, others wearing plain clothes.
“HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!” the children called out in chorus. They reached into the bowl and got their candies. Jim allowed this group to get a bit more than the previous group, seeing as there had been so few trick-or-treaters by at this point and it was nearly 8 o’ clock.
Some more time passed and eventually, just before 8:30, another wave of Halloween merrymakers appeared in front of Jim’s house. These were another group of toddler-aged children and their parents, who pulled up in a car at the edge of the front lawn and crossed over towards the front porch deliberately and carefully.
Jim deposited several candies for each of the young ones, one of whom was dressed as a pumpkin, another Winnie the Pooh, a third Piglet. There were several other small ones dressed as various Halloween-themed skeletons or witches, as well as classic cartoon characters of a younger age-oriented variety. One group of parents were dressed as the cast of The Big Bang Theory, over which Jim enjoyed a chuckle.
“Happy Haddoween! Happy Haddoween!” said the smallest young girl, the one dressed as Piglet, said repeatedly as she walked down the sidewalk and away from Jim’s house into the night.
As this group dispersed, Jim stood on the front porch and looked around. His Chewbacca-clad companion stood by his feet, sniffing the wind. The streets were deserted. Most likely no more trick-or-treaters would be coming by. Jim was not upset by this fact. It was an odd tradition. The only conceivable time in his society that it was acceptable to take candy from strangers, and reciprocally, it was expected that you buy complete strangers’ children candy! Giving one final glance about, Jim closed his door and turned off the light to the porch, with a still half full bowl of candy in his hands. He turned on his television and watched goofy movies in a spooky Halloween shell and downed the contents of his beer glass, which paired nicely with a certain name brand chocolate covered wafer candy that came in a red wrapper.
Once he had finished the bottle and its delicious contents, Jim harnessed up his dog and took her on a longer walk down the winding paved path beside the river across the street and down the hill from his house. They walked two miles, a mile out and a mile back, enjoying the brisk autumn air and the smell of dry, fallen, slowly decaying leaves. Returning home, the man and dog retired for the night to deep sleep and dreams without being woken or disturbed in any way.
The next day was like any ordinary day. Jim followed the exact same routine to a tee as the day before. The only difference was that on this particular day, he did not have to go to his second job. Arriving home at his usual time but being able to stay and play longer without abruptly leaving his dog again, he played fetch outside for an exceptionally long time. Long enough, in fact, to see Olaf pull his truck into his driveway across the street, and to wave at him as he got out and went inside.
Olaf evidently worked a second job in the evening like Jim, because roughly 45 minutes later he appeared outside his house again, this time wearing a different smock with another company’s logo embroidered in big, pink letters upon it. Olaf smiled and waved to Jim, as did Olaf’s wife, who followed out the door of their house closely behind him. They started walking towards Jim, across their yard and venturing onto the sidewalk. The edged their way closer to him. Jim’s heart began to beat faster in anticipation of the imminent social interaction. His thoughts followed suit with his heart and began to race increasingly faster, too. “What should I say? What do they want? Don’t ask yourself what they want! They’re nice and you want to be friends, it’s a good thing they’re walking over here. This is good. But what should I say?”
“How ya doin, Jim?” Olaf asked.
“Hi Jim!” said Tina, Olaf’s wife.
“Hello neighbors!” Jim said, mustering as much enthusiasm as he could, whilst simultaneously trying his best not to sound fake.
“It’s been a while, we just thought we’d come say hi.” said Olaf.
Jim smiled and nodded.
“Well, hi!” he said. Tina and Olaf smiled and nodded in return. There was a brief, awkward pause. “It’s good to see you two again.”
“Likewise!” said Olaf, smiling. Another awkward pause.
Jim began to panic as it dawned on him he had absolutely nothing to talk about with the couple. After all, what did they have in common? “Ha-ha, I am one part of a couple, too!” he envisioned himself saying to Olaf. No! That was stupid. Don’t say that! Jim could feel beads of sweat forming on his brow. The nervous butterflies were fluttering about in his stomach. He felt as though he were about to start a race, the flight or fight response pumping adrenaline into his bloodstream, filling his muscles, all of his organs, every capillary, and causing his thoughts to race ever faster, trying to obtain their best time ever as they accelerated, racing more quickly around each lap of the track of his mind as his anxiety levels grew ever higher in perplexed and anxious anticipation. “What do I say? What is there to say? Come on brain, give me something!” He needed his thoughts to slow down, he needed to relax, to just slow down. He needed to take a deep breath and clear his mind, but could not do so without committing a social faux pa in front of his neighbors.
“What do I do? What do I say? Screw it, just say something, anything!” Jim’s conversation with his own mind pled, in desperation. In that instant, neurons fired. Synapses connected, and Jim’s mind flashed back to he and Lenna’s conversation from two days prior. The endorphins followed quickly after, indicating that something positive, something good, had happened in his brain. Aha! A topic of conversation!
“So,” Jim spoke, “Do we normally get many trick-or-treaters around here? I don’t know what to expect…” Shit! That wasn’t the right thing to say! He knew it as he was saying it, but he couldn’t stop the words from cascading out of his mouth like a waterfall of septic liquid pouring out of some God forsaken drain pipe issuing forth into an isolated refuse for vile excrement. The universe slowed around him. He was experiencing the moment in slow motion.
The folds of Olaf’s face wrinkled into an expression of confusion and disconcertment. Tina’s face briefly indicated that she was perhaps pondering if maybe she had misunderstood Jim’s question, but then gradually shifted into a similar expression as her husband’s. They exchanged a glance, nonverbally communicating that each was as confused as the other. Olaf turned to Jim.
“Shouldn’t you know that? Halloween was last night…” Tina looked at Jim and seeing that he was clearly embarrassed, interjected.
“Now Olaf, maybe he meant was last night a normal amount of trick-or-treaters? Don’t be rude to our neighbor!” Tina said.
“Y-yeah, that’s what I meant. Is the amount we had last night pretty typical? Are there usually more? Less?” Jim stammered, taking advantage of the situation and deftly attempting to mend his error.
Tina and Olaf told him that yes, last night was a pretty typical representation of Halloween festivities in their neighborhood, although in any given year the numbers could fluctuate up or down some. They exchanged a few more pleasantries. This would probably be the last exchange for quite some time, though, Jim thought. He could tell on their faces that he had made them feel uncomfortable. They thought he was weird, awkward, and socially inept. The body language said it all as they hurriedly scurried back across the street onto their own property thereafter, Tina giving Olaf a quick peck on the lips before he leapt into his truck and took off for work. Without a second glance Jim’s way, Tina sped to her house, closing and locking the door as quickly as she could. Even if subconsciously, the couple were already conceiving prejudices and misgivings about Jim, seeded deep in their neural networks by the memories of that uncomfortable interaction, of this Jim was sure.
Jim sighed, walked inside and sat on his ottoman looking out the bay window. He briefly lamented the awkward exchange, but then his dog trotted over to him, leapt up, and placing a paw upon each of his shoulders, lovingly licked Jim right in the face. The show of unconditional love from his loyal canine companion as she licked him, making direct eye contact with Jim, warmed his heart, and he quickly forgot the previous, negative feeling.
“Oh well, I prefer dogs over human companionship, with the exception of Lenna, of course, anyway.” Jim said aloud. “Isn’t that right, girl? Yes!” and Jim proceeded to scratch his best beast friend behind the ears, much to her satisfaction. “Ha, so much for making friends with the neighbors!” Jim breathed. “Oh well.” Besides, he still had his dog, his house, his life, his girlfriend, and family, those handful of people he genuinely liked and some of whom he even loved and loved him back. That was enough to make him a lucky guy in this at times prodigiously awful world.
It was like some great philosopher once said, was it Socrates? “Be yourself because those who mind don’t matter, and you should always use mind over matter.” Or something like that. And was it Socrates? Or Kant? Gandhi? Whatever. It didn’t matter. Standing, Jim harnessed up his dog again, and they took off together, walking into the day’s waning sunlight, down the path next to the river, as the autumn sun glinted and glimmered off the river in fantastically beautiful glimmering light.
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