It’s finally that time of year again; autumn has arrived. Of all the seasons, it’s my favorite. The warm clothes, the chilly air, the falling leaves, and the hearty meals satisfy my soul on every level. It’s also my most haunted time of year. Strange things have happened to me on many a Halloween night, but the following story tops them all. Perhaps that’s why this memory pushed itself to the forefront of my mind. Although this event happened over forty years ago, it’s the most unforgettable of all the autumn strangeness I’ve ever experienced. My story sounds like a tale that Edgar Allen Poe might have conjured up in his tortured mind. Although this reads like a piece of fiction, I can assure you, every word is true (no offense, Mr. Poe!).
When my children were very small (ages two and a half and eight months), my husband and I lived in a South Minneapolis duplex that was actually divided into three units. We lived in the larger of the ground floor apartments, and shared a bath with a single mom and her five-year-old daughter who lived in the smaller unit next door. The upstairs apartment took up the entire floor and was inhabited by a young family with a baby girl. A ramshackle garage went with our apartment, the driveway running along the side of the building beneath the south-facing windows. Our building had a small back yard with a chain-link fence that separated it from an overgrown alley that was home to several rough-looking felines. These cats mostly fought with each other and prowled around looking for food. It was difficult keeping my little daughter away from them because she always wanted to play with the “kitties.”
That year Halloween fell on a weekend, and both the family upstairs and the single mom next door went out of town. My husband’s three young step-brothers stopped by to take my daughter Kris out for her first trick-or-treating experience. Her baby brother, Scott, and I stayed behind and handed out treats. Kris came home at about eight o’clock, and then I tucked the kids into bed. The next two hours were spent answering the door and listening to choruses of “Trick or Treat, Money or Eats,” and handing out candy to the colorful, costumed visitors.
By about ten o’clock the trick-or-treaters had all gone home and the house became very quiet. Since my husband worked nights, I often did my housework after the kids went to sleep, but because of my candy responsibility, I got a late start that night. After I finished the laundry, picking up clutter, and vacuuming, I had one more task before I could sit down and relax—taking out the trash. While I didn’t mind the job, I disliked doing it after dark: there was a yard light in the back that managed to give off an anemic radius of light, but the burn barrel (in 1966 burning trash was still allowed) was located just inches outside the friendly circle, in the dark!
I took a deep breath and started on my mission. I picked up the box of farmer’s matches and the two wastepaper baskets, and then (for some reason) grabbed my broom as I left the kitchen. Why, you might ask? I have no idea—perhaps to bop the Boogeyman on the head, or to wave to the Halloween witches as they sailed across the moon. After quickly emptying the trash and striking a match, I dropped it in the barrel, waiting just a few seconds to make sure the fire took hold. I then hopped on my broom and flew off to join the witches for a night of fun and games. (Just wanted to see if you’re still awake.) Reality being what it was, I picked up the two wastebaskets to go back inside.
As I turned on my heel I heard a horrendous shriek. I froze in my tracks. The scream sounded almost human. I whirled around in time to see a smoldering cat fly out of the barrel. Good God! I had no idea that one of the alley cats was in there. I should have kicked the barrel before I threw in the match. Poor thing was probably scavenging for food. I felt horrible knowing I set a cat on fire. A few wisps of smoke hovered around the mangy-looking creature; however, it appeared to be okay because it disappeared into the shadows in the blink of an eye.
Suddenly, from out of the darkness, crept perhaps as many as fifteen cats, their voices raised in a mixed timbre of fury. The ominous mass of eyes and tails was slowly moving toward me from several directions—reminiscent of a choreographed fight scene in West Side Story. For a couple of seconds I was rooted to the spot in utter fear; my fight or flight response then kicked in. I began slowly swinging the broom at them in a semi-circle as I gradually retreated backwards. When I was within a foot or two of the house I finally felt safe enough to turn my back on those feline banshees. I jumped inside the enclosed porch and slammed the screen door shut. Once inside my kitchen I locked the door behind me.
My heart was pumping so hard that every pulse point in my body was throbbing. While shaking uncontrollably, I managed to light up a cigarette and then pry open a bottle of Diet Rite. It was close to midnight. All sorts of creepy thoughts flooded my imagination. Was this angry band trying to show their displeasure at my burning one of their brothers? Was the singed cat their leader? I didn’t do it on purpose. I love cats. I’ve always loved cats. If I weren’t allergic to them I’d own more than one. That sentiment, however, would be lost on the angry felines gathered outside the back door.
I wished the couple that lived upstairs were home. I wanted someone else to witness this spectacle. The terrible noise was getting on my nerves, so I walked into the living room to watch a little television. I turned on some old black and white movie and tried to get interested in it, but the racket outside grew louder, almost as if the cats were in the apartment. How could that be? Cats cannot go through walls. What the heck was going on? I peered outside the living room window and couldn’t believe what I saw! Assembled together on the driveway beneath the window were my angry accusers. How did they know which room I was in? I decided to test them by retracing my steps into the dining room that nestled between the kitchen and living room in our long, "shotgun" style apartment. Within seconds they were outside the dining room window. This was getting even creepier, if that was possible. I could see their glowing eyes reflected in the dining room light when I peeked out from behind the curtains. The cats and I actually made eye contact. Was I starring in a horror film?
The racket was so loud by that time I feared they’d wake my daughter. She’s a very light sleeper and once she wakes up, she’s up for the duration. I quietly entered the kids’ bedroom to check on them. Both were still peacefully wandering through Dreamland. I heaved a sigh of relief, until I heard the screeching serenade begin again. You guessed it. Outside the bedroom window was a dedicated posse still giving me the business. I quickly left the room hoping that they’d still follow me, because Kris was starting to move around.
My husband and I slept on the sun porch on the street side of the house. I sat down on our bed for a moment to think. Sure enough, the faithful feline army from Hell, though decreasing in number, was now camped outside those windows. I checked the alarm clock on the dresser. It was 12:10 a.m. My husband was due to arrive home in five minutes. How could I warn him about these cats? (We were still a few years before cell phones.) A scratch from one of those claws could result in a nasty infection. I lit up another cigarette, walked through the living room and tried to think what to do. The yowling wasn’t as loud as it had been, but I could hear the stragglers following me all the way back to the kitchen.
A few minutes later I heard our little VW chug up the driveway.
A last minute thought popped into my head. I could whack any cat that might challenge my husband. Perfect. Now where did I put that broom? Before I could find it, he was standing in the kitchen. As he parked his lunchbox and thermos on the kitchen table I said, “Thank God those cats didn’t come after you!” My perplexed mate looked at me like I had three heads and replied, “What are you talking about? There weren’t any cats out there.” I ran out on the back porch to see for myself. Sure enough—they had vanished into the night. Then, in one breath, I managed to tell him about how I’d accidentally burned a cat in the trash barrel, how the whole gang of alley cats started chasing me, and how they followed me from room to room, yowling at the top of their lungs. He said, “You must have dozed off and dreamed that.” I can see his point. It sounded like complete fiction, but it wasn’t. I’m no Edgar Allen Poe, you know!
A couple of years later we moved into a house that came furnished with its own spirit. My husband was still working nights, so all the ghostly events that transpired were again witnessed by me, alone. My pragmatic husband didn’t believe in ghosts, so naturally he didn’t believe me. Worse than that, women who I thought were my friends told me I was crazy and refused to have anything to do with me; I suffered silently for years. Back in the sixties it wasn’t fashionable to talk about spirits or haunted houses, and those who did were thought to be certifiable. My uneasy years in that house are chronicled in my new book The Ghosts on 87th Lane: A True Story, recently published by Llewellyn Worldwide. The first part of the book tells of my frustration and fear while I attempted to live a normal existence in a house that was anything but normal. Trying to hide my fear from my children was probably the hardest thing I had to do during those years.
The later chapters in the book tell of my dog, Max. For the past six years, this little critter has alerted me when "something" is afoot. You see, when he was about four months old I discovered that Max senses and sees spirits. Over the years I’ve tried in vain to see what he’s looking at when he utters his creepy ghost growl. Only once did he and I see the same spirit. It nearly blew me away.
These days my nerves have settled down. The kids are grown and are off living their own lives. For the most part the house has settled down, as well. Max and I are still surprised with an occasional visitor from the other side, although nothing like the first several years. Even though the activity has slowed to a mere trickle Max remains on call. He stares into the dark and growls when he senses “something.” When he begins to follow ‘it’ with his eyes I just tell him, “It’s only a ghostie, Max.” Sometimes he stops growling and sometimes he doesn’t. That’s when the heebie-jeebies start up again. When and if the ghostly activity ever comes to an end, it will be just fine with me; I’m almost positive my little four-legged ghost detector really won’t mind, either.
Autumn will always be my very favorite season of all; I eagerly look forward to it every year. And every year on Halloween night those familiar old tingly feelings return, as if I’m waiting for something significant to happen. Many odd things have over the years, but I doubt anything will ever top the frightening night when those yowling alley cats stalked me, scaring me out of my wits.