Thursday Dec 07

JuliaNunnallyDuncan Julia Nunnally Duncan is a Pushcart Prize nominee for poems published in her most recent poetry collection A Part of Me (Red Dirt Press, 2017). Her debut nonfiction title A Place That Was Home, an essay collection released by eLectio Publishing in 2016, was nominated for a 2017 Christian Small Publisher Book of the Year Award in the category of Nonfiction: Biography. She enjoys writing about her 1960s upbringing in a Western North Carolina textile mill town. New essays are forthcoming in Conclave and Cowboy Jamboree. Julia lives in her hometown Marion, NC, with her husband Steve and their daughter Annie.

  The Party

            The houses in my working-class neighborhood were one- or two-story wood frame homes with neat front yards. Some neighbors had vegetable gardens in side yards and fenced in back pastures with a barn, a woodshed, a milk cow or coop of chickens. We all had wells for water, and by the mid-1960s, everyone had an inside toilet, though a few outhouses still stood.

            My family’s home was a two-story house with gray asbestos shingle siding, a large front porch, a wide cement walk that led from the porch steps to the street, and ample front, side, and back yards that my mother adorned with fragrant, colorful flower beds and decorative wooden border fences. Elm, poplar, maple, and apple trees provided shade, and our lower side yard was large enough to accommodate my older brother Steve’s baseball games with the neighborhood boys. The upper end of our backyard was enclosed by a white-washed wooden corral and contained a red barn for my Appaloosa Thunder. An adjoining plot of woods was fenced with barbed wire for Thunder to roam in.

            Though located a short drive from town, our neighborhood retained a rural quality and was a safe and fun place in which to live. Children of all ages and both sexes were abundant, so I never lacked playmates. The adults were friendly, more like communal parents. Many of us attended the same community Baptist church, and the kids frequently went in and out of each other’s houses, sharing meals and spending the night.

            Every family, except the elderly ones, had a dog. Through the years, there was my collie Laddie and our border collie mix Loonie, a stray that we took in. She became Laddie’s mate and whelped eight healthy puppies, which quickly found new homes. Other neighborhood dogs included Tramp, a terrier; Lucy, a cocker spaniel; Cleo, a beagle; and Buster, a German shepherd. Buster was a vicious and feared dog that was said to have bit off the ear of a child. We all kept vigilant for Buster when we walked down the sloping street, passing the hillside where Buster and his owners lived, to get to our school bus stop at the highway. But otherwise, the dogs and people all got along happily.

            Our neighborhood began to change when two one-story duplex apartment buildings were constructed across the street from Thunder’s woods. The apartments were built by a businessman Gene, who, for a while, lived in one of the units with his wife. Besides being in the construction business, Gene was also a pilot and flying instructor for our local airport. He often flew his private airplane over our community and offered rides to folks in our neighborhood. My older brother and his buddy Joe, who lived across the street from us, took a ride once, and Gene flew the plane upside down in some trick flying. Other neighbors commented about how interesting our neighborhood looked from the air, everyone’s property neatly blocked off. Though I never rode in Gene’s airplane, I enjoyed seeing him fly over the street and waved at him as he passed overhead.

            Gene was a congenial man who walked across the street from his apartment and stood at Thunder’s barbed wire fence, feeding him vegetable scraps. Gene was well-liked, and I don’t recall anyone remarking negatively about the apartments or resenting his bringing a new kind of housing into our traditional neighborhood.

            Gene’s two duplex apartment buildings were brick structures, each unit containing a wide picture window, a front entrance door, and a side door at the carport. The apartments were modern, stark, and efficient—typical of the minimalist style of the 1960s.

            The tenants never mingled with the rest of us, though we kids used the apartments’ level paved entranceway and sloping driveways for our bicycle turnarounds. I could really pick up speed there on my blue Western Flyer bike. Tenants came and went, and I never knew any of them. They were couples or single people, it seemed, with no children evident. I never entered any of the four apartments, but I did have an occasion to get a glimpse inside one of them.

            It was Halloween in the mid-1960s, and my next door neighbor Katie and I began our trek around the block to trick or treat. We had already begun celebrating the season by transforming an upstairs bedroom of my house into a “haunted house.” With Katie’s direction, we hung an old white bed sheet, streaked with red paint borrowed from my Paint-by-Number Kit, across the room. This “blood”-stained sheet was our entrance curtain. Behind this we cluttered the floor with my troll dolls, model horses, and stuffed animals as if they were victims of some perverse captor.

            We sat on the bed and plotted how to make the room scarier, but quickly grew bored with our project, and Katie went home.

            My mother came upstairs to see what we’d been up to. She looked around the room and shook her head.

            “Don’t you and Katie ever tear up this room like this again,” she said. And she expressed her disapproval that Katie had left me with a mess to clean up by myself.

            “We won’t,” I said, and we didn’t.

            It didn’t take me long to realize that Katie could be creative, but mischievous at times, such as this one.

            For our trick or treat jaunt, I had dressed like a hobo, wearing ragged pants, my brother’s cast off plaid wool jacket, and a floppy hat. I believe Katie wore her Junior Girl Scout uniform, of which she was so proud.

            Katie’s family rented the house of my late uncle Lloyd. His wife Jewell didn’t want to live alone after Lloyd died unexpectedly, so she moved home to a mountain county where her family lived. When we gained new next door neighbors, I was delighted this family included a girl my age.

            Though a couple of years shy of being a teenager, Katie looked thirteen—tall and willowy with shoulder-length dark hair, blue eyes, and a heart-shaped face. She reminded me then of Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. My jealousy of her slender build and pretty looks was balanced by admiration for her outgoing personality and pleasure in her company.

            Every Halloween, certain neighbors dropped the same treats into one’s bag. This year was no exception: an unwrapped chocolate-frosted cupcake from Georgie, a handful of popcorn from Marie, another handful from Cora, more popcorn from Ruby, a still-warm chocolate chip cookie from Dora, a few rare candy bars, and so on. By the end of the evening, our brown grocery bags held a mix of the salty and sweet, all stuck together in a gooey mess to be sorted out and eaten later.

            Tonight we decided to try a new destination that had never been approached. Walking down the steep street by Thunder’s woods, we noticed bright lights shining through the curtains of the picture window of one of the apartments. Cars lined the driveway, and music blared from inside.

            The apartments might have been considered off limits to our trick-or-treating since we didn’t know the families living there. But in the past, this circumstance of approaching strangers’ houses had never stopped the kids on my street from trooping across the highway at the foot of our street and prowling into different neighborhoods, such as the one where my grandmother lived, which were within a reasonable walking distance. So when Katie and I saw lights and heard music at the apartment, she was game to stop there and so was I.

            We went to the door, and Katie tapped. No one responded, the music drowning out her tentative taps. She knocked again, this time harder, and a man—probably in his thirties—opened the door. He looked at us, glassy-eyed, and smiled as if he didn’t quite recognize his newly arrived guests. Together Katie and I yelled, “Trick or treat!” A little unsteady on his feet, he said enthusiastically, “Come in!”

            Glancing inside the neat, sparsely furnished front room, we saw men and women mingling, glasses in their hands. I didn’t notice anyone wearing a Halloween costume. The scene reminded me of an episode of Bewitched—urbane and chic.

            Neither Katie nor I was naïve about alcohol drinking or drunkenness. Though my neighborhood was basically a sober one—most of us being members of the same Southern Baptist Church, which made clear its rule about forbidding consumption of alcoholic beverages (a sign in the vestibule stating this covenant)—a few families kept grapevines on their property and privately made homemade wine. Some momentary backsliding to sneak a can of Schlitz into a weekend’s relaxation was not unheard of. And a recent Sunday night intrusion into our home by an intoxicated man, who had wandered up the street to beg a cigarette from my father, had been an unsettling reminder of the realities of alcohol abuse. Tragically this man would die in a house fire shortly after his intrusion. He was rumored to have fallen asleep while smoking in bed after an alcoholic binge.

            Yet this incident was extraordinary. Our town was dry then, and our neighborhood discreet. Even the few drinkers who would have to go to a bootlegger or drive out of town to Morganton or Black Mountain to get a “package” wouldn’t dream of sitting on a front porch with a beer can in hand. And, truly, most of our neighbors simply did not drink. I’m sure of this, as I was in their houses enough, day and night, to be familiar with their habits.

            So to see the apartment tenant so happily tipsy, his guests unapologetically enjoying their drinks, surprised Katie and me.

            She and I stood mute.

            The man laughed, his brown hair disheveled and falling onto his brow. He looked at our grocery bags that we had thrust forward and at our outfits. Soon he realized we were not coming inside and connected why we had yelled “Trick or treat!”

            He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a fistful of change. He managed to drop some coins into each of our bags.

            “Thank you,” we said, and he nodded, clearly amused by our visit, and closed the door behind us.

            Well, I thought, he must be a “swinger,” and this was his “pad.” Only in movies or in TV sitcoms had I seen such a scenario as his party. Only in a mod apartment would such a person live—at least in my neighborhood.

            As far as I know, I never saw this man face-to-face again. I never learned his name. He may have lived in the apartment for a while, but he kept to himself, and I went about my business of associating only with the regular neighbors.

            Since then, the neighborhood has continued to change. Houses have been remodeled, modernized, upgraded. Vinyl siding has replaced old exteriors; carports added; barns and chicken coops demolished; fencing removed, woods cleared, and pastures mown to make manicured lawns.

            New faces have replaced the old familiar ones as new residents have moved into homes long occupied by others. Children are few and dogs scarce.

            Katie didn’t remain my next door neighbor for long. My aunt Jewell decided to sell her house to my oldest brother, so Katie’s family moved to town. I visited her there a couple of times, but our friendship faded.

            The apartments still stand, oddly unchanged—a remnant of the 1960s. Gene, their builder and an early occupant, passed away in 2016. A decade ago, while I visited a family member at Autumn Care, a local nursing home, I saw Gene spending time with the residents there. He regularly sent bouquets of roses to the elderly ladies who lived there. I thought this gesture unusually kind and imagined what the flowers must have meant to their recipients.

            I don’t know whether Gene still owned the apartments, and I have no idea who currently owns them. But when I see them now, I’m taken back to the 1960s again when a little hobo stood beside her Girl Scout friend, waiting for a door to open to an unfamiliar but very memorable world.