For nine years I lived in a freak house. I'm not talking about my family, necessarily, but about the house itself. I lived in one of the most upscale suburbs and school districts in the country--but our house was a falling-down rental at the end of a long, rutted driveway. It wasn't exactly The Glass Castle, more like Grey Gardens without the money.
Today that driveway is a smoothly paved road through a development of multimillion-dollar houses in Westchester County. But in my memory it lives on as a hellish byway of broken asphalt, ancient patch jobs and loose gravel that scared away parents and children, and ruined Halloween (and many an undercarriage).
When the access to your house involves a quarter mile of bottoming out, you'd better believe you won't have too many visitors. Factor in darkness and you've definitely got the place to yourself. I remember when I used to be driven home by dads after a night of babysitting: they would stop their precious Benz or Caddy at the beginning of the driveway and shine their headlights to guide me as I stumbled home. Hey, thanks for the ride! By the way, your son's a pyromaniac!
Once you got all the way to the end, it was pretty spooky, even in the daylight, and even on days that weren't Halloween. The property had been a nursery, and had several leaning outbuildings--two garages and a greenhouse--as well as a rusted old gas pump. When I was younger, the acres of overgrown fields, the woods, the apple orchard and even the crumbling greenhouse held immense charm. As I hit puberty, however, I learned to be ashamed of the way we lived. Like generic rice puffs and knee socks that wouldn't stay up, our house was a mark of failure, a manifestation of how we didn't measure up to those whose driveways were short and smooth, whose houses were sturdy and professionally decorated, whose cabinets were filled with Cap'n Crunch and drawers with socks that didn't droop.
On Halloween we kids had to make our way down the driveway to join friends for trick or treating at "real" houses. No one ever trick or treated at our house. My parents thought this a benefit--imagine the savings on Fun-Size Snickers! But then they also enjoyed the beautiful setting and unavoidable privacy in a way that a self-conscious adolescent just could not fathom. My mother actually looked forward to mowing the massive yard that she personally carved out of what had looked like a wheat field when we moved in. What gawky adolescent could make sense of that?
After trick or treating I would return to our house, with its clawed-foot bathtubs, its extension cord running up the stairs to provide electricity to my own personal attic, its dank basement and odd layout of bedrooms. I would replay the comments I'd heard during the course of the night: "Do you live in a haunted house?" "How do you go down that driveway? Aren't you scared?" "Do you ever get any trick or treaters?" I would recall my swaggering answers, all bluff and bluster: "I hate new houses!" "There's nothing to be scared of. I feel sorry for people who live in boring houses." "We don't get trick or treaters but that just means we get to eat all the candy ourselves."
And then I would eat all the candy myself.