Did you have a haunted house in your neighborhood when you were growing up? I fear with all these Mc Mansion cul de sacs everywhere we may soon be saying so long to the traditional, eerie neighborhood haunted house. Somehow a million dollar, well manicured, haunted house is just not as effective…. (By the way, we use to call cul de sacs “dead ends.” I guess that is now considered offensive to dead people. Sorry dead people. )
Ours was the next street over. A small brown house, it was neglected, overgrown and inhabited by an elderly woman who was rarely seen. We convinced each other that she had killed her husband and kept his body in her garage in a large crate. We would periodically dare someone to look in the window, the rest of us hiding in the trees.
Here is what happened to me at the Haunted House in the fall of 1978.
I never told anyone before, but it’s all true, I swear….
THE HAUNTED HOUSE
The haunted house was directly behind ours, the yards separated only by a thin chain link fence. The old brown house leaned so far to the side it looked like it would fall over in a good breeze. The concrete steps were chipped and broken, and the metal handrails that ran along the sides were rusted through. A few of the windows were broken; some ill fitted with pieces of cardboard to keep out the rain and winter chill. The trees and bushes were tangled together, their branches snaking up the sides of the thin clapboard. In the evening there was only ever one light on and a small television screen barely visible, flickering behind the dirty windows. The newspapers would sit outside collecting in the cracked driveway for weeks until the owner of the house; a tiny, twisted, ancient woman would shuffle outside. She always wore a dingy grey sweater pulled tightly around her, even in the oppressive summer heat. Shaking her head and muttering to herself, she would inch her way gingerly down the broken steps to collect the soggy bundles.
But it was not the house that fascinated us…it was the garage. The small building was almost lost in the overgrown, dense backyard jungle of intertwined trees and vines. It too leaned to the side, held up by only a few cracked wooden beams. The windows were all smashed, probably by neighborhood kids throwing rotten apples at them, and at some point a tree had fallen over and landed on the roof, crashing halfway through, creating a hole that was never fixed. The hole let in just enough light that we could just make out some of the contents inside laying among the cobwebs; corroded cans of old paint, abandoned fishing rods, rusty tools…and one large wooden crate with a heavy lock and chains wrapped around it.
All the neighborhood kids knew what was in that box; it was the body of the old woman’s husband. She had put his remains in the garage, locked tightly away in that wooden coffin, so know one would find him. There were many stories about how he died, some said she killed him by cutting off his head and then put his headless body in the crate. Some said she poisoned him by serving him rat poison in his food, and others said she didn’t kill him quickly at all but rather she had locked him up in the box, letting him slowly starve to death. Depending on which story you believed, at night you could sometimes see his headless ghost wandering around, hears his cries of pain, or listen to his moans of hunger.
Halloween of 1978, we were in sixth grade, too cool for costumes, but not yet ready to give up all that free candy. We roamed the streets scoffing at the little kids in their ridiculous outfits, rounded the corner of the block and stopped… shocked. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Every light in the haunted house was on. The whole place was lit up like a Christmas tree, and there on the steps stood the old woman. There was a small, carved pumpkin sitting next to her with a candle flickering gently inside. Her grey sweater was pulled tightly across her frail body and she held in her hands a tray piled high with homemade donuts. The most wonderful smell of cinnamon and sugar wafted across the street, drawing innocent trick-or-treaters closer.
We looked at each other and screamed, certain that those doughnuts were steeped in poison. We laughed, pointed, and jeered, “KEEP AWAY! HAUNTED HOUSE! POISON!” We ran up and down the street loudly warning everyone about the crazy old lady, and telling them not to go near the house.
The old woman stood on those broken steps all night, proudly holding her treats and waiting for the children to come trick or treating at her house…but no one did. Child after child, family after family scooted past, some politely nodding their heads hello, some looking away embarrassed or scared. No one stopped.
Later that night, after counting, and stacking and trading our candy, we climbed into our sleeping bags to tell ghost stories. One by one everyone fell asleep, except for me. I lay there, too frightened by the spirits of Halloween to close my eyes, and stared out the window into the back woods certain I would see the ghost of the murdered husband.
Then I saw it, a wisp of light, shining through the trees. What was that? I crawled to the window and peered out. A woman was running through the yard across the fence. She turned, looked around, laughed and headed towards the haunted garage. What if something happened to her? What if the ghost got her, or worse, that crazy old woman? I had to warn her. I tried to wake the others, but it was no use, so I snuck out the basement door and traipsed through the dark, cold October night, over the chain link fence and into the backyard of the haunted house.
I heard a giggle coming from the garage and snuck quietly up to the back, dropping in through in through a broken window. I landed softly on the floor and looked, there in front of me stood a young woman.
“Oh my,” She laughed. “You nearly frightened me to death!”
She was breathtakingly beautiful. Her blonde hair cut short in a twenty style bob, her skin milky white and her eyes an icy blue. She wore a flapper style iridescent, white dress, with loops of shiny beads strung around her neck, and a dingy grey sweater tied loosely around her waist.
“Did you hear us running in the woods? Sorry if we woke you. I was playing tag with him. I thought he came in here, but I guess he left…again. He always leaves.” She pursued her lips together thoughtfully, and then clapped her hands together in delight.
“But now you came to visit! I have been lonely for so long! This is wonderful! Come on, I will teach you how to Charleston and Shimmy. I’m Claudia.”
She took my hands and threw me around the room, dancing fast, singing and humming as she swept me away. Finally she stopped and leaned back against the locked wooden crate, breathing hard, catching her breath.
“Whew! Wasn’t that was fun!”
She rubbed her hand along the crate lovingly.
“Do you know what is in here? It’s his piano. He was a great pianist. So beautiful, no one played liked him…”
“And I was a dancer. A wonderful dancer.” She toyed wistfully with the beads around her neck. “It’s too bad he left…” She shook her head sadly. “Why did he have to leave? I have been so lonely.”
“Hungry?” she said.
She grabbed a plate full of doughnuts that were sitting on top of the crate and shoved one in my mouth before I could protest. I waited for the bitter taste of poison …but instead a warm buttery mix of cinnamon and sugar slid down my throat.
“Aren’t they just delish? It’s a secret recipe. They’re his favorite! I heard you and your friends screaming about them tonight during trick or treating, but I couldn’t quite hear what you were saying. I think you were saying how much you wanted one. Just think, now you can have then all!”
She began feeding me the doughnuts so quickly I couldn’t swallow them fast enough.
“Aren’t they just delish?” She kept saying as she pushed the treats in my mouth.
I felt them piling up in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. The doughnuts were landing one on top of another. The smell of the cinnamon and sugar filled my nose, and I had trouble breathing. My hands clawed at my neck. I was desperate for air.
“Come on, dance some more, before it’s too late!”
Claudia grabbed my hands. She spun me around and around the room, crumbs and bits of sugary doughnuts flying out of my mouth, until together we dropped to the ground, and I managed to spit out the last bits of the sweet dough. I lay there gasping for breath as she chatted on.
“Can you believe he just vanished? Like that!” She snapped her fingers. “But you won’t leave me ever…will you? You won’t just disappear?”
Just then the first rays of dawn began to poke through the hole in the ceiling.
“Oh shoot!” She pouted, “I have to go.”
Her eyes narrowed and not for the first time that night I felt afraid. Her hand reached out, her blood red nails digging into the flesh on my arm as she tightened her grip.
”How do I know you will come back? You might leave me like he did and then I will be all alone again. I couldn’t stand it!”
She looked around, her eyes resting briefly on the crate, “Maybe I should put you in the…”
Then she threw her head back and laughed, “Yippee!” as she twirled around in the early morning sun.
“Never mind, there is no more time. But you better hurry back. I am lonely here by myself. I will make more doughnuts for next time! Hurry!”
And with that she left, her sweater catching on a nail and falling to the ground as she slipped out of the garage.
I ran home, climbed over the fence and back into the basement. Everyone was still sleeping, as I slipped into my sleeping bag, exhausted, and fell fast asleep.
I opened my eyes slowly. Outside the sun was shinning high in the sky and I could hear kids shouting and playing. My head was foggy, and it took me a minute to remember where I was. My throat was parched and sore. I licked my dried lips, gagging when I tasted bits of cinnamon and sugar. I stood up and fell right to the floor. My legs were aching and sore, as if I had been running or dancing all night. I slowly crawled upstairs and sat at the kitchen table, shaking my head as I tried to separate my dreams from reality.
My mother came in.
“Good morning sleepy head,” she said. “You sure slept late.”
The steam from her coffee cup curled above her head as she glanced outside through the backyard.
“What in heavens is going on over there?” I heard her murmur.
I looked outside through the yard and saw blue police lights flashing through the trees. I got up from the table and ran through the backyard, throwing myself over the fence.
“Hey kid! What are you doing?”
I looked up. It was a policeman. He was carrying a flashlight and a box of tools, and was headed towards the haunted garage.
“What? Where?” I gasped.
“Are you looking for the old lady that lives here,” he asked gently.
“Too late sweetie…she died, last night sometime. Looks like she choked on a piece of a doughnut. Sure is a mess in there…she was cooking up a bunch of them for someone, that’s for sure. Don’t know who she was doing all that cooking for though…”
He scratched his head. “She didn’t have any family. Poor old soul. Claudia Jacobs was her name. Guess she used to be a famous show girl back in the day, a real beauty I hear. Became sort of a recluse after her husband ran off with another dancer. Well, that was the rumor. He just disappeared one day. No one ever heard from him again. She lived a lonely life after that…an odd bird. … Hey help me out, I hear there is some old stuff in the garage we might be able to use for the policemen’s auction next month.”
He tore down a few vines covering the entrance and we entered the dark garage, knocking over a few cans and wiping away the cobwebs as we went in.
“Well, I don’t think there is much in here,” he said, waving his flashlight around at the boxes of trash.
“Just an old ratty sweater and a bunch of crumbs. Must be a family of happy mice in here somewhere… Hey! Wait, what’s that? That might be something.”
He knelt by the old crate.
“That’s a pretty heavy duty lock. I bet there’s something really valuable in here!”
I stood behind him. Using his crow bar he pried the crate open and as the wood fell away, the last piece of Claudia’s love story was revealed.
The piano. It was shiny, a glossy black, with sparkling white keys. It looked brand new, as if it hadn’t just been sitting neglected in an old, musty garage for all those years but rather had been lovingly polished and cared for on a regular basis.
“Wooooo,” the policeman whistled. “This must be worth a fortune! I bet it will get a high price at the auction.”
A few weeks later I sat at the dining room table struggling with my homework and listening to the bulldozers in the back as they took down what was left of the old house.
My mom called in from the kitchen, “Interesting story here in the paper, honey. Remember that old piano they found over at the poor old lady’s house? Looks like they auctioned it off last week, and when the buyer opened the top he found a headless skeleton inside….”
My heartbeat quickened, my throat tightened and I suddenly smelled the faint scent of cinnamon in the air.
My mom entered, a familiar looking grey sweater thrown over her shoulders, and in her hand she held a tray.
“Doughnut sweetie?” She asked.
And that’s a true story!
I still think of Claudia every Halloween, and I still can’t eat cinnamon doughnuts.