When I was about 6, my parents moved from an apartment into a single family row home with a back yard. A row home is like living in an apartment building because the house is sandwiched between two other single family homes. And depending upon how thin the walls are, you & your neighbors can hear each other. – In the bathroom. In the bedroom. In the basement. All over the house, pretty much. But such is life in a row home.
The old woman who sold my parents the house lived right next door. In fact, her home was a mirror image of ours inside and out. But for the bathroom, the two homes shared a single wall, so of course, we heard her and she heard us. But whaddaya gonna do? A house with a back yard is preferable to a tiny apartment. And besides, we got along for the most part. At least we did for the first couple weeks in, that is.
The seller’s name was Critchen, and, to me, she always seemed not quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why she spooked me, but there was just something about her that did not seem kosher to me.
If she smiled, it was with her mouth more than her eyes. And she never showed her teeth. (Probably to hide the fangs.) Although she was clearly elderly, she was very agile and did not move like an elderly person. She was unnaturally quick on her feet given her age. In fact, I had seen her in motion on numerous occasions and to me, at least, she didn’t walk as much as she seemed to glide by. (Much like Gary Oldman did as Dracula.)
When we first moved in, she wore her hair in a tightly pulled bun giving her a kind of school marmish vibe. The clothing she wore was circa late 1800s. (Which was probably the last time she was still fully human.)
But after a little while, she didn’t bother to pull up her hair anymore. She wore it instead in bushy waves down to her shoulders. (Like an escaped mental patient.) It was long and fire engine red, which I found very disturbing because my entire reference for an elderly person rested with my grandmothers who both had short salt & pepper colored, thinning hair and shuffled stiffly and painfully when they walked.
Intially, Mrs. Critchen was nice to us, but at some point during those first few weeks, she either turned bat shit crazy or had just been hiding it really well. To this day, I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that this particular experience caused me to become an expert at ID’ing (and avoiding) crazy people. I can pick up mental illness now like stench coming from rotten meat and have yet to be wrong about strangers I’ve assessed as a nutjob.
Not that it mattered to me, but every time I saw her, Mrs. Critchen no longer said hello. Instead, she would scowl and tell me to park my bike on my own side of the pavement instead of by the bottom step that both homes shared. I didn’t like that I had to see her every time I was outside because she made me very uncomfortable, and, I liked it even less when she talked to me, but what did I know. I was six. I blew her off accordingly because I had more pressing matters to attend to. Like riding my bike. And making damn sure that I pedaled away fast enough before she could catch me on her broom or send her evil, flying monkeys after me.
The bat shit crazies came on subtly in Mrs. Critchen like a really cheesy horror story from the 70s. She had gotten into the habit of sweeping up street dirt & debris and putting it into an empty cereal box which she would then inexplicably deposit on our porch at the front door. The first time I found and showed it to my mother, she thought I had done it as a joke. The second time I found another cereal box on the porch, it was filled with dog shit. Or so that’s what kind of feces it appeared to be to me & my Mom. And as we did not have a dog, she accepted that the box was the neighbor’s doing, not mine. This continued for the next few months, and, to my knowledge, went largely unaddressed by my parents.
Meanwhile, life continued for me as usual. Each time I’d go outside to ride my bike, I could see Mrs. Critchen standing in the front room of her house staring with a scowl while looking out the window at me from behind intricately detailed, lacy curtains yellowed by age. (She probably hung those curtains in the 1600’s in celebration of having returned from her vacation in North Carolina and after having successfully made the Roanoke Colony disappear.)
I could feel her eyes boring holes into the back of my skull as I rode my bike down the street. Occasionally, she’d come outside to either yell at me or she’d spout some nonsense about my mother. I don’t remember clearly what she’d said, but it didn’t sound very nice. And I also noticed that the only time she would venture outside was during the evening and/or on not particularly sunny days. (Avoiding direct sunlight so as not to incinerate into ashes, no doubt.)
Pretty soon, the police started showing up at my front door on a regular basis. I wasn’t really sure what brought them to the house. All I knew was that my parents were getting into angry shouting matches with Mrs. Critchen because Mrs. Critchen would make it a point to bee-line straight for them and proceed to bitch them out when they were sitting on the back porch. Sometimes I couldn’t even go out into the yard because my parents would caution me to avoid being caught alone with her.
From what my mother told me, Mrs. Critchen had called the cops to complain about her. She said that Mom’s secret identity was Patty Hearst, the kidnapped newspaper heiress who ultimately joined her kidnappers to rob banks. You would think that this would have caused the PD to ignore Mrs. Critchen, but you’d be wrong. Before long, she started telling them that not only did Mom rob banks, but that we were also manufacturing plutonium in the basement and building nuclear weapons!
After about six months of this crap, as the complaints to the PD became more & more fantastic, coinciding with whatever the nightly news reported, eventually, they realized they were dealing with a nutjob & stopped bothering us.
When winter rolled around, Mrs. Critchen developed more creative ways to fuck with us. We could never prove it, or catch her in the act, which was probably a very good thing because one or both of my parents would have choked the shit out of her if they had, but her new favorite way to terrorize us was to wait til the temp dropped to freezing, and then pour a bucket of hot water on our porch so that it covered and dripped down the stairs turning navigating down them into a neck-breaking proposition. I actually slipped & tumbled down those stairs on several occasions on my way out the door to school.
Mrs. Critchen also liked to alternate between icing over our stairs AND pouring buckets of hot water into the wheel wells under my father’s car tires after a particularly heavy snowfall. The better to strand him there as it was not a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
During the daylight hours, I tried not to think about Mrs. Critchen’s odd behavior any more than I absolutely had to. Notwithstanding the screaming matches with her, my parents didn’t seem to pay her any mind above or beyond questioning her sanity and cracking jokes about it.
I reasoned that if they weren’t all that bothered by her, then there was no reason for me to be. But sometimes, I’d lie in my bed at night waiting for sleep and listening to the winter wind whistling through the naked branches of the ancient Chestnut trees across the street imagining that Mrs. Critchen was hovering outside in a mental patient dressing gown, scratching at my window with her bony fingertips. Her eyes blazing and bloody red fangs bared in a horrifying grimace, the same one she often had on her face while watching me in the street on my bike.
I don’t remember what ultimately became of Mrs. Critchen. I think she moved out when she realized she couldn’t get the cops to arrest my Mom and that we all were ignoring her. Before she left, she put up what we came to call the Berlin Wall out in the back yard. (Probably to hide the bodies.)
Our yards were longer than they were wider, and crazy ass Critchen erected a heavy wooden fence that ran the length of the two yards down the middle. All told, it stood approximately 12 foot high and was about 50 feet in length. As it was being built, I often heard my parents cracking jokes between themselves that they half expected to see barbed wire and shards of broken glass installed at the top to keep the prisoners from climbing over the wall.
One of the last incidents I remember happened on a weekend afternoon right before she moved out. I had just finished watching TV and was heading outside to ride my bike. I no sooner hopped in the saddle and Crazy Mary’s (as she had come to be called by us) adult son came running out of the house in his longjohn’s. The son was the least of our problems as he was apparently mentally deficient somehow, but mostly harmless. (Not to be confused with his mother’s brand of mental deficiency.)
He also spooked me because he was bald, toothless, and shouted out obscenities to himself whenever he escaped from the house. Oh, and he also had a habit of running out into the middle of our one way, Maple & Oak tree lined street, pulling down his drawers and whacking off. Because Junior had escaped from the house again, I had assumed he was going to perform his usual act, but this time, he was bleeding profusely and covered in it from the neck down.
He burst out the front door, almost fell down the stairs and ran down the street yelping and holding his neck while the blood pulsed out in waves covering his white longjohn shirt and hand. My mother had heard the commotion and immediately ordered me into the house when I described what I had just seen.
And that was the last I ever heard from or saw either Crazy Ass Critchen or her mentally disturbed son.
She’s probably still alive, you know. Crazy people don’t die. Particularly rich ones who look like they’re 900 years old but move like they’re 19. There’s a Lovecraftian story in here somewhere…
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