Our first year on Glen Street we never once saw our next door neighbor.
The house was much like ours but gloomy, brooding in its stillness; all its curtains remained drawn shut. And except for the milkman, who delivered quart-size bottles of milk on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the mailman, no one ever visited there.
"Maybe they're vampires!" my youngest brother Clay surmised. "Or monsters, maybe."
Sometimes we'd station ourselves in the drainage ditch across the street and watch to see who-or what?-would come out on the crumbly cement porch to retrieve the milk. After a short while we'd tire of the spying game and wander off on a less furtive, less covert mission-the search for and collection of empty pop bottles.
On Halloween night we went door-to-door collecting candy from every house on two streets…
…Every house but one.
"Let's go," I told my brothers.
"Uh-uh," said Clay from behind his thin plastic Red Devil mask. "I got enough candy, don't need none from no vampires."
"Vampires don't celebrate Halloween," said my brother Jimmy matter-of-factly. "They're like Jova's Witnesses. Besides, they might kidnap us."
Silently we pondered possible kidnapping scenarios which entailed painful bondage and periodic episodes of grisly bloodletting.
And so it was settled. We would not trick-or-treat the house next door.
A week or so before Christmas, Clay came running into the house, shouting, "I seen one! I seen a vampire!"
"Liar!" was our response; it was still daytime and everybody knows that vampires sleep in coffins during the daytime.
"One of 'em was peekin' out the window!" said Clay breathlessly. "I saw the curtains move!"
Outside we stood in the vampires' yard, gazing at the large curtain-shuttered window, waiting for something to occur.
"You can come outside," Jimmy said loudly, addressing the house and its mysterious occupants. "Look, the sun ain't even out."
His theory was that vampires, who had a clearly understood aversion to sunlight, wouldn't get burnt up on such a cloudy day.
"They ain't comin' out," Clay said somewhat disappointedly. "But I saw 'em. I seen the curtains move."
"Maybe they're scared," I offered.
"You're crazy," said Jimmy. "Vampires ain't 'fraid of nothin'"
"Little kid vampires get 'fraid, maybe," Clay said while skidging snow into a pile with the edge of his boot.
"Maybe…" we all agreed, mulling over the possible fearfulness vampire children might suffer.
But the curtains never did move.
Christmas Eve a man in a truck came to our house. After putting a couple laundry baskets full of food and toys on our porch, he drove away. Later our mother explained that it was charity, so that we'd have a happy Christmas.
Until then we were oblivious to our own poverty-oblivious to the struggles of a single mother raising three young boys. We never knew why she'd sometimes veer away from a seemingly content moment of togetherness and slide headlong into silence and tears. "We'll be okay, Mom," we'd assure her, trying as it were to recharge her wan current of resolve and fortitude. We only had each other.
We were a team.
Outside, the smell of woodsmoke clung to the quiet chill. Snowflakes fluttering earthward created a rushing haze-a cool white veil blurring the holiday's grinning façade. Some neighbors were out shoveling their driveways, but other than that the street was calm and Christmasy.
With the food baskets safely in-house, we went out in the yard to climb our tree, and then-
The voice was frail, innocuous, almost inaudible.
"Over here, boys."
"Uh-oh," said Clay, already on the first branch, and we all looked over to the house next door.
Old and slight in a dowdy, flower-print bathrobe, she stood on her crumbly porch, an apparition in the snowy haze…
A grandma vampire!
But what did she want?
"Please come here, boys. I have something for you…all three of you."
My heart quickened. Should we risk becoming kidnap victims, held incommunicado in a dungeon beneath her house?
"C'mon," I said.
"I ain't goin'," Jimmy said.
"I ain't neither," said Clay, holding tight to the tree. "Uh-uhh."
"She don't look like no vampire," I said.
"They never do," said Jimmy. "Not in the daytime. They don't get fangs 'til darktime."
"Okay," I said beneath my breath. "I'm gonna go."
"Yeah, and we'll keep an eye on her, make sure she don't make any false moves," said Jimmy. "If she grabs you, we'll call the cops."
"We'll call the cops," said Clay bravely.
Sibling assurance is heartening.
She stooped, opened the milk box, removed a lone milk bottle and then put in an empty one. Snowflakes salted her disheveled gray hair, clung for a moment, then melted away leaving dewy beads. And in that brief space of time I stood wondering what, if anything at all, I should say-wondering too why an old lady vampire who consumes milk by the glass quart was wearing a crucifix on a chain around her neck.
When she smiled I was pretty certain she wasn't a granny vampire, except that her fangs might've been in a glass of fizzy water on the nightstand…Still I could feel the apprehension sluicing out of me.
Finally, clutching her milk bottle to her chest, she said, "Wait her, I'll be right back in a jiffy."
Our neighbor came out, slowly. "I think you boys'll like these," she said, handing me three small, brightly wrapped gifts. When she placed a hand on my head I was not afraid.
"Merry Christmas," she said.
Later my brothers and I shoveled snow off her porch and walkway. In springtime we raked leaves in her yard, and pulled the milkweed and Queen Anne's lace in summer. Sometimes she would give us each a dime, good for a cone at the Dairy King, or ten pieces of penny candy. Still she rarely came out of her house, and the drapes never ever opened…never.
And when the cool winds of late September began to churn the crisp fallen leaves, our next door neighbor loosed her frail grip on life. But she left knowing that she had touched the lives of three young boys…
On Glen Street, 1969.