Halloween Hermit- Lou Dean

It was a week before Halloween when my new stepmother, Anna, called us into the kitchen of her house in Purcell, Okla., and laid down the law:”You kids stay away from the rent house. That old Indian man who moved in there is crazy.” Anna looked right at me as she spoke. She might as well have sent me an engraved invitation.I was 12 at the time, angry and rebellious. My mom had left us when I was seven. Since then, I’d experienced my parents’ divorce and custody battles in court. I’d been chief cook and bottle-washer for my dad and younger brother, David, on our Oklahoma farm. I spent any free time between school and housework riding our horse, Maybelle, across the meadows with my dog, Shorty, running alongside. I imagined I was Geronimo, and Shorty and I were the last of our tribe.Then in late August 1960 Dad sat David and me down and told us gently, “I’m marrying Anna. We’re selling the farm and moving to her house in Purcell.”The day of the farm auction, I’d watched my beloved Maybelle disappear in a cloud of red dust, her eyes wide and wild in the back of the horse trailer.I’d stumbled off to the far side of the farm, where I couldn’t hear the voice of the auctioneer or see the people leaving with our animals and cherished possessions. I painted myself and Shorty with pokeberry juice and sang an Indian chant. Before we left for Anna’s house in Purcell, about 150 miles away, I cut my hair with pruning shears in a straight bob that resembled Geronimo’s.Anna and I got off to a very bad start in Purcell. The first day, she took me to her beauty parlor and said, “Do something. Anything!” Then, in an attempt to help me adjust to my new life, she took away my cowboy boots, Levi’s and the special Indian war paint and “potions” I’d mixed in mason jars and brought from the farm.So, that fateful morning the week before Halloween when Anna warned us about the old Indian, I perked right up.”His name is Mr. Tyree,” she said. “He’s a hermit. Stay away from him and the rental house. Both of you.”Dad, having rented the house on the edge of Anna’s property to the old man, had spoken to him several times. He laughed when Anna called Mr. Tyree a crazy hermit. “He’s just a lonely old man. A little eccentric, maybe.”Words fascinated me, so I ran to the dictionary. “Hermit: one who retires from society and lives in solitude.”That made my heart pound with anticipation. I’d had about all I wanted of society. Every night I cried myself to sleep, thinking about the farm and my old life. I’d already considered running away with Shorty and living alone on the Arkansas River. My long-standing romance with Native American history made Mr. Tyree all the more appealing. Somehow, I had to meet him.For days I watched the rent house, letting David’s baseball roll close enough to peek, or walking Shorty down the sidewalk past it.Mr. Tyree was an owl, never coming out during the day. He didn’t have visitors. The mystery surrounding him seemed to blend nicely with Halloween, so I decided that night was the perfect time to make my move.David was trick-or-treating with friends as the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, and Anna told me to dress up as Dorothy and go along with them. At the end of the block I stopped and eyed the rent house. “You guys go wherever you want. Meet me back here in an hour.”The Lion looked at Mr. Tyree’s dark yard and then at me. “What’re you gonna do, Sissy?””Go get you some candy and courage,” I said, pulling his tail. “Don’t worry about me, little brother.”I held my dog in my arms, like Dorothy, when I knocked at the door. Except for the full moon over my shoulder, everything was black. The rent house was the only one on the block not lit and decorated.I admit I was a little apprehensive. My first knock was feeble. I strained to hear any stirrings from within. Nothing. The second knock was stronger, but still no reply. I banged my fist until the screen door slapped loudly against the frame.Finally the door creaked open and a pair of cloudy brown eyes stared down at me. “What is it?” a voice barked.”Trick or treat,” I said, trying to get a good look at the old man while holding Shorty in a death grip.”What? What’s that you’re sayin’, girl?” He spoke loud and with an impatient edge.”You know,” I said, swallowing my fear, “it’s Halloween.”I saw the uncertainty in his eyes as we stared at each other. I began to explain. “All the kids dress up in scary costumes and go around to everyone’s houses and say, ‘Trick or treat. People give them apples and candy and stuff.””I have not candy,” he said. “Not apples.” He slammed the door. But before I could turn and leave the porch, the door cracked open again. “I do have juice, home-canned.”I accepted with an eager nod. “I’ll have to bring in my dog. He goes everywhere with me.”The door opened wider. What if the stories about him were true, if he were crazy? I said a little prayer and stepped inside.”Come on,” he growled, and motioned for me to sit. He had a wooden table and two spool-backed chairs, the only furniture I could see in the gloom.I told him how I’d read everything I could about Geronimo. He smiled and poured me a glass of juice. For a long time we sat in silence. Then, finally, he spoke: “Checkers?”That night when I curled up in bed, I didn’t cry. I wasn’t thinking about the farm and all the animals and the friends I’d had to leave behind. My mind was on an old Indian man who wore moccasins and had gray braided hair. The only thing mean about him was the game of checkers he played. He said four words to me when I left his house.”We will be friends.”A few days later, Mr. Tyree appeared on our front porch, banging his cane against the door.Dad was home. “What can I do for you, Mr. Tyree?””Where’s that girl?” Mr. Tyree demanded. “Said she’d come again and play checkers.” His voice boomed through the house.Dad shifted his weight, turned around and frowned at me. He knew Anna had forbidden us to go near the rent house. “Well, Mr. Tyree, I suppose that would be okay, as long as you two sit outside on the porch.””When were you over there, young lady?” demanded Anna later at dinner.”Halloween night,” I said. “I knocked on his door. He invited me in for some home-canned fruit juice, and we played checkers.”Anna shrieked and dropped her fork. “It’s a wonder she didn’t die of botulism.”Dad laughed, and a discussion followed about the impropriety of my befriending the old Indian. Dad, knowing I hadn’t made a single friend in Purcell, knowing how homesick I was for the farm, finally persuaded Anna to agree to the front-porch-only rule.My friendship with Mr. Tyree blossomed during the warm autumn afternoons, sitting at a rickety card table on his front porch playing checkers while Shorty napped at my feet. I told him all about the farm and how I felt I had the spirit of Indians in the deepest part of my own self.Mr. Tyree grinned, his gold tooth gleaming in the sunlight. “You have the gift of story,” he said, and he encouraged me to tell him more about the farm. Gradually living in Purcell became less painful, as if my time of mourning the farm was over. More and more, Mr. Tyree told me tales of his own, and I could tell he was enjoying himself too.On Thanksgiving, Anna fixed a huge platter of food and allowed me to take it to my new friend. Shorty and I helped him eat it, sitting on his porch and rocking together in the golden rays of late-autumn sun.Mr. Tyree died peacefully in his sleep many years ago. I think of him often and have come to believe that my knocking on his door that Halloween night was no accident. God knew how lonely and afraid I was, and that I needed a friend in the worst way.This year on Thanksgiving I’ll be sitting out on my porch with my dog, being grateful for the time God sent an eccentric old man to comfort me. I’ll remember how I’d considered closing myself off and becoming a hermit-and instead learned the value of opening myself up to friendship. And I’ll smile and whisper those four magic words that I too try to tell people who I sense may be lonely and scared:”We will be friends.”