The devil on the fiery porch. He was back again that year, the same as he had been for five years running, keeping the majority of Trick or Treaters behind an imaginary line of uneasiness
drawn at the edge of the curb with his Hell-red grin and burning cauldrons. It was a scene from Faust, only this was no play; this was my neighborhood.
It wasn’t just kids who lingered apprehensively in the street, but parents as well. In a place where the definition of Halloween was more like cardboard skeletons and plastic jack-o-lanterns, a guy with a penchant for fire and pitchforks could be extraordinarily scary. Really young children were hurried past the residence altogether via lawns on the opposite side of the street, hopefully distracted by candy long enough to save them from the psyche-scarring nightmares certain to result from even the smallest glimpse of him. This left only the few - the brave - to make the journey and collect one of the candy bars given out by the devil basking in the red glow of the doorway.
Trick or Treating in the 1970’s wasn’t the flirt with death that it can be today. At that time, in most suburban settings, people lived in the same house for years and made the effort to get to know their neighbors and their neighbor’s children. It was a safe haven from the malicious world beyond; a stronghold of sterile thoughts and selective ideals. That is why it was more alarming when the occasional anti-Cleaver odd balls, like the Warren family, managed to infiltrate the peaceful utopia and upset the balance of neatly trimmed lawns and Tupperware parties. Especially when at Halloween their oldest son Wayne Warren painted himself red, donned horns, and sat on a throne between two flaming cauldrons on their sunken porch.
My first encounter with him was when my father volunteered to secure one of Satan’s fat candy bars on my behalf. I watched wide-eyed at the curb while my mother yakked up the other neighborhood mothers about the sick nature of the affair. Later that night, as I spread my bounty out upon the living room floor, she snatched the King Size Snickers that the devil had given and tossed it into the trash. Only later did I understand the action, although to my knowledge no one had ever reported any ill-effects from his confectionery treats.
The greasepaint devil quickly became a milestone of bravery for the youth of our neighborhood. As we got older, our worth was measured upon whether we had Trick or Treated his house on our own. For most of the neighborhood kids, it was a confrontation with their own childhood fears; a rite of passage. But my own eventual encounter with him reckoned with more than mere cultural demonspeak. For me it was not a conquest, but a beginning; a passageway to a haunted life well beyond the October ritual. And after what it indirectly wrought upon my life and the life of my childhood friend, Dan Rutgers, I came to realize that I had more in common with Wayne Warren than anyone would ever know.
I was old enough to Trick or Treat on my own. I had been for a few years - having entered the seventh grade - but had thus far chosen to skip the devil’s house despite my Samhain freedom. And as the candy collectors stood entwined in trepidation at the end of his lawn that night, I looked on, ready to cast away silly childhood fears. In the recessed front porch of the tan-stone house, the devil sat on a black throne, pitchfork in hand and grinning like a madman. On either side of him a cauldron belched hot flames, which illuminated the entire alcove with a yellow-red glow that brought a little piece of Hell right there to our suburban street. Dark music, probably borrowed from the Omen soundtrack, boomed from somewhere on the porch like a theme for a black mass, while Sounds of the Haunted House crept out of the home’s dark windows. They were opened just enough to let in some of the autumn air, which was uncharacteristically cool for Texas even in late October. Every once in a while, the devil would bark out something to the effect of "come on up kids" or just let out a string of vein-chilling laughs that echoed off of the houses and faded into the night air like a horde of goblins. As a fan of the horror film classics, somewhere inside I had begun to admire his mastery of Halloween, but the fear of something I did not fully understand still outweighed this association. The man behind the red face was something real, and that’s what made him scary to me, even if some people simply wrote him off as a self-aggrandizing jerk.
"Are we going up there?" Dan asked me as I stood at the curb siphoning the last bits of courage from my body.
Dan was a few years older and several inches taller, but we were two boys made from the same mold. We had been best friends for six years now, both possessing a fever for Hot Wheels, Big Jims, and superheroes. I could see his own reservation just under the green skin of his Incredible Hulk face. His mother was an inferno preaching Baptist and though I could not understand at the time, he grappled with issues far deeper than my own regarding the fiendish display.
"Yeah," I answered, although I had yet to top off my courage tank.
Our mutual friend, Bob, spoke from behind his Planet of the Apes mask. "Ya’ll can go if ya want, but I ain’t. My brother says that guy’s a goon and he don’t wanna have ta kick his butt when he finds a razor blade in my candy bar."
"I ain’t gonna eat the candy," I replied, stating what I thought was obvious.
The music boomed forth with a new strain and I looked hard at the real fire, the past prime teenager in the red makeup, and the iron gates which stood open at the porch’s arc.
"Well, he ain’t gonna kill us or anything. He’s been doing this ever since I can remember and lots of kids have gone up there." I nudged my head toward two older kids who had just been up to Satan. "They just went. And if they did then I’m going. Dan, you coming?"
Getting a yes from Dan, I put my foot onto the devil’s brown lawn and began the approach. I tried to imagine what I saw across the street the other three-hundred sixty-four days out of the year. A stony looking house with a dark porch and some skinny druggie guy coming and going in his beat up Camero. Sometimes kissing or beating his girlfriend a little, but always giving me a chin-up nod as if to say I was cool. It was just Wayne Warren…not the devil.
Telling myself this made it a little better, but on Halloween this guy was just plain different. Just plain scary. And as I neared I tried the customary cool nod, but Wayne didn’t nod back. Instead he grinned like a mental patient and let out a laugh that resonated in the sunken porch as if it sunk all the way down to Hell.
Dan, in an attempt at proper All Hallows etiquette, moved up beside me, held out his bag, and muttered "trick or treat" which sounded ridiculous under the circumstances.
"Heh, heh, heh," Wayne cackled and threw a Chunky bar into his bag.
Then he focused on me and my spirit-gummed wolfman face. "Something special for you my friend!" he said, reaching down beside his seat. He pulled out something, gazed at it a moment and then threw it into the sack I held open in front me as if it were my empty soul waiting for him to fill. I didn’t get a good look at it, but I didn’t care. I’d have a better look as soon as Dan and I got out of the yard.
Without any more explanation, Wayne stoked one of the cauldron fires, spit, and turned his attention to a group of approaching teenagers. Dan and I hurried back to the curb where Bob waited.
"Let’s go next door and check out whatever it was he gave me," I said.
Squatting down under a street lamp, Dan and I pulled out our devil’s booty.
"Just a regular candy bar, but maybe there’s a razor blade in it?" he said ripping into the package and breaking the Chunky into several pieces finding nothing but chocolate inside.
Bob removed his Cornelius mask. "What’d you get?"
I pulled out the weird item Wayne had thrown into my bag and held it up in the bath of white street light. "It looks like a tooth or maybe a horn," I said, not having seen anything like it before.
The thing was about three inches in length, jagged at one end and tapering into a curved point at the other. But instead of bone or enamel, it was made from a semi-transparent material with what looked like microscopic electronic components inside.
"Let me check it out," Dan said grabbing it from me. "That stuff in there looks like this computer board that my dad showed me."
I took it back and looked again beyond its translucent surface. "Computers are a lot bigger than this," I said authoritatively.
Bob squinted at it. "That’s weird. I bet my brother knows what it is."
"Maybe we should ask him?" I suggested.
Bob’s brother Ronnie rolled the horn-thing between his fingers as he looked at it under the desk lamp.
"Looks like it came from a robot or something. Ya’ll are a bunch of goons." He tossed it back at me. "Maybe it come from that alien that crashed over in Motor Valley," he added making a spooky whoooo sound.
"Huh?" all three of us replied.
Ronnie laughed. "I guess ya’ll were still in diapers. A few years ago, the cops and everybody went out there when something crashed in the woods between Motor Valley Road and Screaming Bridge. Supposedly, they found a blown up flying saucer, but never found any aliens. When that idiot Wayne Warren was still going to school, I heard a rumor about how he and a friend of his were out there drinking one night and found some flying saucer parts. I think that was about the time he started dressing up like Satan on Halloween. Maybe he’s givin’ out those UFO parts instead of candy; cheap ass. I think it’s all bullshit."
With that Ronnie left Bob’s room.
We all looked again at the thing.
"Pretty cool story, man. We oughta go out there and check it out. Maybe this did come from a space ship," I suggested.
Dan nodded. "I ain’t never seen anything like it."
"Ya’ll are crazy," Bob said, looking suspiciously at us both.
Anything good was usually off limits. It’s the tradeoff for having parents that give a shit about you. I wasn’t allowed in the creek, not allowed to attend spin-the-bottle parties, not allowed in the yard of the kid who talked like a sailor with a belly full of gin, not allowed to ride my bike to Dairy Queen, and basically not allowed to venture beyond the small quadrant of my neighborhood. Motor Valley was definitely off my childhood map. As a result, I spent half my youth in the creek or making bike runs out of the quadrant and the other half making up plausible excuses for why I was late. So a trip to Motor Valley with my usual accomplice, Dan, was nothing too exceptional. But the possibility of dead alien creatures was, and that’s why this mission was going to happen regardless of any potential consequences. Bob, however couldn’t go. He was grounded for getting caught with a pack of his dad’s cigarettes. Looking back, I can’t blame him for finding a way out.
Motor Valley got its name from the motocross track that was built on the west end of its expanse. Except for a few ill-repaired roads that cut through it, the valley was mostly brushy Texas woods and low lying flat land which collected water to create the closest thing to a bog Central Texas could have. If something did crash in there, it was no wonder that collecting all the pieces was difficult. But since the time of the crash, which I later dated at September 30, 1972 by searching old newspapers, much of the water had been irrigated out to subsidize a local cattle feed farm making it possible to get around in the area without sinking in muck.
Dan and I biked down the road past the old junior high school and out across Highway 10 where a few industrial buildings and a bar called The Firehose stood like holdouts against the concept of renovation. These were the last few constructs of civilization before Motor Valley took over.
As we reached the end of the industrial stretch, we right turned onto Motor Valley Road, which sloped down a gradual incline until it eventually curved south and cut right through the center of the valley itself. Few cars ever came this way unless they were there to dump something or to take a short cut to Highway 10 and Dan and I pedaled down the center of the curbless macadam as if we owned it. Off to the side, either in the gullies or along the occasional dirt paths that spidered away from the road, we saw discarded relics of prosperity littering the land like pock marks. Old washing machines, tread-bare tires, skeletal couches, and limbless dolls, in their abandoned afterlife, serving as shelters for the dark crawling creatures which hid underneath.
We stopped pedaling to coast the hill.
"Did you remember the horn thing?" Dan huffed.
"You’re gonna be grounded forever if your mom finds out about this."
I nodded dramatically. "What did you tell your mom we were doing?"
"Going to Dairy Queen and the arcade."
"I hope your mom and my mom don’t talk for some reason before we get back. You know how my mom is always calling to find out where I am. I told her I was just going to the arcade. She doesn’t want me going over to the Dairy Queen. She heard a story on the news where this guy went into a Dairy Queen in Lubbock and whipped out his pecker and got thrown in jail!"
Dan laughed. "Sounds like what Jimmy’s cousin did at his birthday party."
"Didn’t some girl kick him in the nads when he did?"
"Yeah. He had to stay in bed for two weeks."
We made the curve and headed onto the long stretch of Motor Valley Road. After more than a half mile, we made it to the narrow side road which led down to Screaming Bridge. I’m sure that wasn’t its original name, but that was the name it went by. One of those tragic lover suicide stories went along with it. We had heard plenty about it, but had yet to make the trip out. I guess it took potential dead aliens to make it worthwhile.
Turning left, we pedaled up the side road whose name was a mystery since it had no street sign. As we crunched along its crumbling blacktop, the trees began to grow thicker, leaning over the road to form a canopy. They cast a shadow across the road like a dark tunnel. Bony branches were beginning to emerge from the clusters of leaves, which were falling away with each cool gust of autumn wind. For a moment I thought of the forest in Oz, but such a pleasant thought quickly faded. I was positive that any beasts lurking in these thorn-ridden groves would not be singing or dancing. In fact, they were not even chirping or growling. It was oddly silent, which was even more disturbing.
As we neared Screaming Bridge, the asphalt turned to sandy loam making it difficult for our bicycles despite the fact that they were the rugged Huffy models with plastic gas tanks screwed to the crossbar to emulate motorcycles. We decided to park them out of sight and go the rest of the way on foot.
The bridge was nothing, really. A dirt road that ended in a huge drop filled with sun-faded beer cans and other less identifiable trash. After taking a piss off of its edge, we headed south in the direction Ronnie had told us the UFO had supposedly crashed. I checked my pocket for the lockblade knife I had bought with my allowance prior to my last hunting trip with my father. I was no stranger to the country, having been brought along on numerous deer hunts since I was old enough to walk. But in spite of my self-proclaimed exploration expertise and my determination to expose the mystery locked away in Motor Valley, my heart beat hard against my ribs. There was something about the place that seemed deceptive, maybe even evil, which I had not encountered in any of my previous rural expeditions.
Crisscrossing the area, we began to look for any signs of…well, whatever signs there might be of a flying saucer crash. But the undergrowth was thick and I soon realized that there would be little hope of finding anything without knowledge of the exact impact location. We wandered on though, scanning for burnt trees or any other peculiar markings.
After about thirty minutes, Dan signaled me over to a dense clump of trees where he had spotted something.
"Check this out," he said, directing my vision past the branches to a dilapidated shack standing in a clearing twenty-five yards away. It wasn’t a UFO, but at least it was something other than trees and rocks. Dan looked openly disturbed by the possibility of who - or what - might be making it a home.
"I wonder if anyone lives there? I don’t see any cars," I remarked.
"I thought I saw something move by that window," Dan said solemnly.
I looked at the filmy window. "I don’t know how you could have, look how dirty it is."
"Yeah, maybe I was seeing things. I think we better get out of here. Search back over closer to the bridge."
"Let’s not worry about it," I retorted, trying to look at the situation logically. "If anybody does live there, they’ll probably be real old and we could always outrun ‘em."
Dan nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t wholeheartedly backing me on the decision.
"Let’s go this…" I began as I heard the sound of a stick crack behind us. I spun around.
Just feet from us stood a man. He looked old, but his unkempt appearance made an accurate guess at his age impossible. His hair was a brownish gray and poked out from his head like wild grass, framing a dirty unshaven face. A demented smile revealed several missing teeth from the brown rotted mess inside his mouth. He was scratching himself through a convenient hole in his ratty overalls with a handful of long, curling nails as he leered at us.
We started to bolt.
"Hold on youngins! You boys caint just come pokin round out here without talkin to ol Licky."
The man made a scrunching gesture with his face, which looked like the epileptic wink of a madman. We halted our retreat.
I fished for something good to say. "My dad’s looking for some firewood right back there," I said, pointing in no particular direction. "We were just looking around."
"You caint fool ol Licky. I knows yer out here by yerselves. If yer dad was around ya wooden look sa scared," he said, this time fully protruding his tongue and circling it around his lips in a nervous motion.
"Really, sir…" Dan began.
But the old man cut him off. "My feelins might get hurt if ya keep lyin boy."
"We’re sorry, but we have to get back home soon," I added as if I were quoting from the repertoire of Wally Cleaver.
"Not bafore ya come on in and have a drink with Licky. I wanna show ya somethin."
He began to walk towards us.
Now to this day I can’t tell you why we went into that weirdo’s shack, but I guess we feared more what would happen if we didn’t follow his wishes than what would happen if we did. Maybe I had more faith in my knife than I should have. Regardless, I kept my eyes on the old man as he led us into the leaning gray shanty.
"You boys like co-colas?" he asked as we followed him inside.
"Uh, yeah," I said, knowing full well that Dan was a strict 7-Up drinker, but under the circumstances figuring it wouldn’t matter.
The first thing that struck us sour about the inside of the shack was the smell. Worse than the smell of Licky himself, it was like the musty smell of an old house exponentially worsened until it reached near organic putrefaction. A snail of nausea slinked across my gut as the first thick waft of stench rolled into my lungs.
The cramped single room of the shanty was as rotted on the inside as it was on the outside. The exposed boards of the ceiling were completely gray and covered with cobwebs. An old rickety cot was shoved into one corner, a brownish stain covering its sagging middle. Over at the opposite end was a broken-down stove, resembling a leper with its rust-eaten porcelain finish. A tattered beige couch sat rotting against the long wall, almost hidden by countless piles of old water-stained magazines. They looked mostly like Playboys and Hustlers as far as I could tell. To our right sat a dusty old wooden crate. It looked to me like a coffin used back in the 1800’s. A fat rat sniffed around its base.
But the most shocking aspect of the shack was the wallpaper. Old pin-up style nudie pictures had been cut from countless magazines and stuck to every visible inch of wall. Superimposed on top of this layer were random pictures of goats and other wild beasts, taken from magazines I was not familiar with. They were all faded by the damp and rotting conditions. I had seen plenty of naked pictures in my grandfather’s garage so I wasn’t too shocked. But Dan’s religious background didn’t seem to be mixing well with the mass of nude women and goats.
"You boys wouldn’t be lookin fer a UFO would ya?" Licky asked as he began digging in a dirty box near the stove.
I peeled my eyes from a cherry-nippled blonde. "Why would you think that?" I asked.
"I’ve caught plenty a curious peoples diggin round here like moles. They think they’s gonna find some kinda alien body."
"Why would they think that?" I asked dumbly.
"A smart boy like you sure ta know about the UFO crash over here." Licky said pulling out two dusty bottles from the box. "Why else ya be out here nosin round?"
"Well, we’ve heard about it I guess, but I didn’t know about alien bodies."
"These are good co-colas," he said popping the caps off the dirty Coke bottles with his teeth and handing one each to Dan and I as he made another 360 around his chops with his tongue.
I discreetly knocked a dirt dauber’s nest off the side of my bottle and took a drink. Actually, I let the liquid touch my lips making it appear that I had taken a drink, not letting any of it slip into my mouth. Dan did the same.
"Howdoya like ol Licky’s place? You boys got names?"
"Uh, Jim," I said making one up.
Dan delivered one too. "And Horace."
Under any other circumstance, I would have busted out laughing. But the unsettling atmosphere suppressed any such reactions.
"I used ta have a granddaddy name Horace. Loved him to death that ol bugger. Silly as a whistle though. Cut his own arm off one night thinkin it was rattler." The old man laughed loudly and moved his arm around like it was a snake.
I glanced back at the door. I felt better knowing that we stood closer to the door than Licky. I noticed Dan still staring queasily at the exotic wallpaper with a clash of curiosity and horror as if he were looking at a car wreck.
"Did you see the UFO crash?" I asked, trying to conceal my nervousness.
"Well not exactly. I come here after that."
"You’re looking for the UFO too?"
"No, them rangers hauled that off. I’s waitin for somethin. A horn."
With that my heart went flatline. The thing in my pocket was in some way connected to the old man. I began to realize that maybe what Wayne Warren had said about finding some flying saucer parts may have been true.
"You ain’t happen ta see a horn out there have ya?" he said moving to the wooden crate.
"Was it a real UFO from outer space?" Dan finally kicked in.
"Yep. From a planet so far away that them stupid scientists ain’t seen it yet."
"You never answered bout that horn," his twang suddenly growing menacing.
Our faces began to flush.
"You little clever dickins know somethin, don’t ya?" He ran his hand across the crate like he was caressing the skin of a lover.
"Fess up boy. If you got the horn, ya cain’t resist it. I knows cuz I found the other one when I worked fer the sheriff’s office and we was out here cleanin up after the crash. I found somethin else too that the rest of em never saw."
Fear finally slapped my common sense. I pulled the clear horn thing out of my pocket. "I got this trick or treating," I said as I threw it to the floor behind Licky and bolted for the door. Dan turned to follow, but a deep bark stopped us mid-way. A large dog stood growling outside. We looked back at Licky fully expecting him to move in for the kill right then.
"Colossus! Simmer down!" he yelled gruffly. "He’s just a tad grumpy if ya know what I mean? Ya don’t gotta be scared of him or ol Licky. I like you boys," he said picking up the horn.
"What do you want from us?!" I demanded.
"Now youngin don’t get all upset. You brung me this here horn that I been looking for."
"Does that have something to do with the UFO?" I asked, trying to calm down.
"Where’d ya get it?"
"From some guy dressed up like the devil on Halloween."
"Heh heh! I knew it!" he said with a lick. "I knew it’d find its way back here one way or another. Dressed like the devil…goddamn!"
He seemed excited by the fact that Wayne had been dressed like Satan. I wasn’t sure what the connection was between him and this old man, or if there even was one, but somehow we had been transporting something very important.
"Does that belong to an alien?" Dan asked.
"Some folks might call him an alien," he began, "but it really belongs to the devil. I’ve been keepin his body here since his space craft wrecked waitin for this other horn to turn up. Sometimes it takes the dickins for things to work out. But they always do! Now I can get the rewards I deserve!"
"The devil?" I asked skeptically.
Licky patted the wooden crate. "Yes sir, he’s in here."
We were speechless.
"I bet you boys would like to see him, wouldn’t ya?"
I shook my head slowly as tears began to well in my eyes. Dan just stood frozen as if he were looking down upon Virgil’s nine rings of hell.
© Copyright 2016 Zachary Wentzell. All rights reserved.