by Debi Schmitz Noriega
Outside the nursing home in biting autumn air, I watch people commute to work and school. They scurry like rodents of the human race, always in a hurry, up and down the sidewalk. I don’t leave my home, but I see the prominent bank at the end of the block, the syrupy-sweet bakery, and the coffee shop where customers spend small fortunes daily.
I observe the city park across the street where people play with children, toss frisbees to dogs or skip stones in the small pond. My existence whirls around these people. I have nothing to fill my time and nothing more to accomplish in my mute life. Their stories have become my stories.
When young, I enjoyed being outside in the sunshine, but age has taken away that vigor—now it’s a challenge to get through each long day. Once surrounded by family and friends, I accept that I outlived most of them and now face my own mortality, alone. I merely exist from darkness to darkness, watching unknown people in hours of daylight and under streetlamps.
Today is gray, dreary and winterish; the icy breeze cuts through my transparent tissues. I think back to a warm spring day when a red-headed, heavily freckled boy looking for a kite, stopped to visit with me. He sat slumped over next to me for several minutes, smearing his tears across his dusty cheeks. Of course, I couldn’t help him in my state. His brother inspected the aromatic lilac bushes at the side of the faded crumbling brick building. Gloomily, they walked away together; the youngest with a defeated look on his face and a broken kite under his arm.
Another day, a pig-tailed girl skipped into the park with her bouncing beagle puppy towing her along on a bright pink leash. She tripped on a jutting pavement chip just as the puppy yanked on the leash. She sat crumpled and crying for her mother. Her mother scurried up, checked the child for injuries, hugged her, and wiped the bloodied knee with a Kleenex from her pocket. I heard her promise an ice cream treat from the parlor down the street. The idea of a chocolate chip cone miraculously soothed away the tears as they strolled past.
Summer brought families to the city park in droves; children squealing with delight as their parents pushed them high on swings or caught them at the bottom of the red swirly slide. Picnics were popular along the banks of the pond on blankets or at the covered picnic tables. Mottled pigeons flocked to the ground after the event to gorge themselves on crusts of bread and apple pieces or other tidbits left behind.
On hot nights I watched as the teenagers gathered. They rose from the shadows, two and three at a time. They sat on top of the picnic tables and laughed, flirted, and sometimes swore at each other, but you could tell they enjoyed being together. Often I smelled the sweet, pungent smoke they brought with them. I worried about fire, but thankfully, they were careful.
Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of flesh as the paired couples wandered to the bushes by the small, glimmering pond. Nervous and wrapped in each other, they literally looked like one shadow at times. I watched and wondered. I’ve never known this feeling. It seems that I’ve always been alone.
Evolution of the seasons has changed the palette in the park across the street. Although the vibrant colors of fall replace the emerald green of summer, I don’t feel exuberant. I’m abandoned to the biting breezes. Autumn reminds me of those that I have lost; as I continue to age, I see friends and family drift away. Winter is drawing near. Intermittent cold rain and the settling frost makes me shiver on this dark night. Looking through the glass of the window, I see happy faces anticipating the holidays.
Tonight, several couples wander by, bundled in sweaters and jackets, walking their dogs or simply strolling hand in hand to the lake’s beach to admire their reflections in the icy water. Others rush by with wrapped presents, baskets of baked goodies, and jingling bells on hats and scarves, not noticing me.
I watch the old woman make her way home from the bakery just as she does every night. She goes into the bakery in the early morning and slaves until early evening. When she leaves at the end of the day, she appears three inches shorter than when she went in, bent from exhaustion. She has a neat silvery bun in the morning, but as she plods home, it appears frazzled; a hairnet now ripped away. She’s been a silent friend, a constant in the neighborhood.
The cold air and brutal humidity makes my bony structure rattle. I no longer feel warmth; I’m always cold. Aging is a promised part of life; we are all destined to it. Death is our final repose. I’m so cold now that I shiver uncontrollably. My skin is dry and chapped; it peels back and exposes my well-defined veins. I’m drained.
The old woman approaches the cracked worn sidewalk where the little girl fell last spring.
I’m too tired to watch any longer. I release my hold on life.
On a breeze, my soul twitches and floats away,
down slowly and lightly past my memories.
The little old lady doesn’t notice me as she walks past. To her I am just a crisp dry maple leaf crushed beneath her worn sole.
Debi Schmitz has written numerous books, magazine articles, and online articles for the craft industry as part of her career. Recently, she is a member of a local writer’s group and has been encouraged to submit short stories and poetry to many different online journals, national magazines, and international anthologies with exciting acceptance.
Falling Autumn Colors and Haunting Memories, by Jill Jablonski
Fall hits hard in the Midwest. It’s a double punch of two esthetics. Something to be proud of, especially considering that there are places that don’t even have a fall. The first esthetic is the Autumn Harvest Feel. It’s like a soft summer. Plenty of hot weather that begins to taper off until you stop going to the lake to dip your feet in the cool water and start going for bonfires, sipping on both hot and cold apple cider. This early September is like pink gold. A beautiful equilibrium where it’s warm enough that you can eat cool pumpkin ice cream and cool enough to drink warm pumpkin spice lattes. True you get mercilessly criticized for drinking the lattes, but you’ll shamelessly do it anyway. And you won’t stop there. You can’t stop there.
This time of year, the sin of gluttony is demanded, so you gobble down caramel apples (eternally pronounced Carmel). They always stick to your teeth, but as you slurp down apple butter on a stale cracker, you won’t notice. Then, between bites of fall fresh apples that dance across your tongue like a thousand fireworks, you say hey, why not bake a pie? And at the thought of apple pie, your mind goes to pumpkin pie, which leads your thoughts to pumpkin patches. Surely if the apple orchards are open, the pumpkin patches are too…and besides, it’s not too early to buy a pumpkin…just so long as you don’t carve it…
And so, armed with two sticky apple fritters, a cowboy cookie, and definitely after a wagon ride, you drive to the pumpkin patch. You get the biggest, brightest, shiniest, most blemish-free pumpkin you can find after twenty minutes of searching because, unlike your brother, you didn’t find the perfect pumpkin in two minutes. And as you buy your pumpkin, you tell the cashier to throw in a frozen apple cider slush, because they’re never sold in apple orchards. And hey, why not take an itchy hayride? And too bad the corn maze isn’t open yet. You just have to be satisfied by looking at the squealing piglets. Soon they’ll be grown.
You exhale a sigh of relief as you take your pumpkin home. You’ve checked off one of your fall-time duties. Okay. Good. There’s still time to do the rest, and it’s only September, you have plenty of time for the rest. So, take your rest and eat that apple pie! And eat that pumpkin pie! But don’t let the season pass you by! Go to that harvest festival! Everyone will be there, and even if they’re not, they’ll still know if you weren’t.
You go to the festival, but you just can’t help it. It’s so easy to get distracted by work and school. You stay distracted until you notice the scarecrows are starting to look less warm and cozy. The weather has gotten to them, as well as the black, oily crows, and now their hats and stiff hay stuffing are falling out. And the scarecrows’ ranks have been joined by skeletons who look at you in shock as you notice you’re no longer pulling at your t-shirt. Now it’s your red cotton hoodie with your school logo on it.
The golds and pinks of September are fading, fading as the first tinges of color kiss the trees and the bushes drip with Jack Frost’s paint. September is quickly turning orange, and you are dropping the ball. You’re from the Midwest. God blessed you with a state that has all four seasons. Enjoy it! Live up to the ideal! Prove you deserve it! Get all your decorations out, including your fall-scented candles that fill your house with the smell of autumn wreath, harvest festival, and crisp fall night (whatever smell that is).
But it doesn’t matter what that smell is, because the nights actually are crisp, tickling your chin like an old grandpa cooing at a soft baby. You’re not setting your fall color tour date any too soon. It’s hard to dance in the cyclone of gold, yellow, brown, orange, and red leaves in your long coat. But you do it anyway, do it until you’re laughing uncontrollably, and your lungs burn with every breath, because September is giving way to the burnt orange of October, and frost is on the pumpkins. And all your favorite holiday specials are playing again like old friends coming to visit: Practical Magic, Hocus Pocus, Adam’s Family, Monster House, as well as Casper. And it’s somewhere between Sleepy Hallow and Nightmare Before Christmas, you sit up straight out of your smooshy sofa with a start. You are hit with inspiration and desperation. You need to get your white pumpkin.
You hop in the car and start to drive to the pumpkin farm, but you never make it. Instead, you just find someone selling pumpkins in their yard for cheap. They even have brightly colored Indian corn and a donation box for their corn maze. Full of rustling corn that scratches your skin as you get lost in it, you lose your anxiousness and can pay better attention to the yard decorations on the drive home. Between the werewolf and vampire animatronics that looks terrifying next to inflatable, smiling ghosts and black cats in witch’s hats, you wonder if the corpses hanging in people’s lawns are murder victims or decorations. After all, the podcasts do say it’s never a mannequin…
The only thing you know for sure is that the burnt orange of October is a mere flicker burning inside a jack-o’-lantern now. The blacks, purples, and toxic greens of Halloweens have started. The maniacal laughs that herald Devil’s Night have begun to whisper across your cheeks. In not too many days, it will be the hour of the tricks before the treats, and it’s at this point you know the time is right to go to Cedar Point and get your haunted houses in for the season.
So you go, then curse yourself for waiting this long. The crowds are taking the amusement out of amusement park, and you are left alone with your thoughts for far too long. You can’t stop them from trickling into your skull like acid drips. It’s almost Halloween, the end of the party. Did you do it right? Did you forget anything? Did you enjoy to the fullest existent of everything before all the magic and nightmares are tucked away in a box and wrapped up with a plasticky red ribbon? You’re a Midwesterner. Celebrating the holidays is like your job. You set the bar for the whole country…
God, what are you doing for Halloween night? You’re not small anymore. You can’t go trick or treating, knocking your small hands against hard doors, proudly begging for candy, and showing off the lion’s tail you had made with your mom, on a warm wooden floor; your pudgy toddler hands grabbing at her long black hair. Those days of making cemetery dioramas by carving gravestones from chewy brownies and whipping up Cool Whip ghosts that always deflated are never coming back. Nor are the days when those paper tails and plastic face masks turned into pretty dresses and glittery fairy wings. Halloween nights with friends at barn parties trying to eat powdery donuts on a string, and toilet papering houses, are over as well. Most of your friends left for the coasts. The ones who didn’t are dressing their dogs and kids up in costumes and trick or treating, trick or trunking. Or hitting the nightclubs dressed as…
You start painfully pulling at your hair and jeans. Because no matter how scary the ghosts and goblins are, this is the terrifying part of Halloween: having nothing to do in a place where there is everything to do. Not only that, but you are responsible to do something, you’re a Midwesterner. If only you lived in a neighborhood. You could hand out candy to all the trick-or-treaters who brazenly refused to wear their coats in the cold, as you once did. Hopefully, one of your friends will take pity on you, and let you hand out candy with them, letting you take some of your decorations, candles, and jack-o’-lantern with their smell of burnt pumpkin. Because you need to carve out a little space for yourself.
So, you pray for this as you wait in line for the haunted house. Because there’s no fun in going to a club on Halloween. Or at least not the next day; when your feet are sore from dancing, and you ended the night too drunk to remember any of the compliments you got for your now alcohol-stained fancy costume that no one could see in the drunken darkness of the club’s bright lights anyway. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a person: having a Halloween with no memories of it. Although, it’s not the saddest thing that can happen to you on Halloween night. That’s watching old horror movies in bed alone, lonelily eating popcorn in flannel pajamas with no one to see your seasonal sock.
Jill is a third-generation alumnus of the University of Toledo, and her family has lived in Michigan and Toledo for more than five generations. After graduating UT with a degree in English Literature, she left the Midwest and traveled to Newfoundland, Canada where she earned a degree in Folklore. In the fall, she works as a haunt actress for Cedar Point’s HalloWeekends.