"Trick or treat, Mr. Buell!"
Vito Corleone, a.ka. thirty-seven year old Robert "Bubba" Buell, snatched a well worn violin case from atop the planter just inside the front door of the house in which he grew up as a kid, opened wide the screen door and, in his finest Godfather-esque voice, rasped, "You'z guys wanna me to play you'z a nice tune on ma li'l violin, eh?"
The three juvenile M & M's -- red, white, and green, short to tall, left to right, respectively, on the other side of the door -- giggled kindergarten through fourth grade acknowledgments of Bubba's perfected-over-the-years 1930's bad guy affectation while opening wide their bags.
"Oh please, sir, don't hurt us," beamed Greenie, a boy no more than six inches short of facing Bubba head to head, sopranoing a surprisingly skilled melodramatic level of fright, for a neighborhood youngster, as the soundtrack of The Sting ragtimed sotto voce in the background.
Bubba, fashionably clad in his annually worn "Gangsta Suit," as he called it, smiled at the children, his standard neighborhood smile, through the disguise. A few years prior, he had paid far too much for the authentic blue-gray, pin-striped get-up and he knew it, but didn't care -- not now, not anymore. He loved Halloween, everything about it -- the inherent charade of it all, the doling of the goodies, the absolute otherness of the day -- and now he was finally in a position, financially and otherwise, to entirely enjoy his favorite holiday with the neighborhood, "... especially with all the good kids here...," referring to them as his "... junior troops..." on more than a few occasions, with more than a few of his neighbors. The gray, felt, wide-brimmed hat had been his father's and was an ideal accessory for the bit, fit him perfectly when slanted just so, and the gleaming two-toned wing-tips were ever so cool.
"Off you go, Donovan kids," he said in his own voice, having selected several mini-candy bars from his violin case and dropping the chocolate treasures into their bags. Then, ala Corleone, "Have fun, you'z kidses."
"Thanks, Mr. Buell!" as they skipped off, leftover giggles evaporating in their wake.
"Be good, please," was Bubba Buell's stock, smiling response.
* * *
Three years earlier...
"A toast, my boy?"
Bubba Buell -- ex-pro football star, distinguished war veteran, and everybody's local hero -- sat forward in his padded folding chair and raised a glass of Scotch, neat. "It's just the two of us here, Mr. Minter," he said, smiling modestly, panning the nearly empty room in jest.
"First of all," cut in old Mr. Minter, relaxing back in his matching chair and lowering his glass, "now that we're both adults, or s'posed to be," he emitted an aged, hoarse chuckle, "enough with the Mister Minter bull." He stared long into Bubba's eyes. "Once upon a time I was a 'Mister' to you and you were the cute kid next door, runnin' all over hell, chuckin' that damn ball up against the garage all hours o' the day and night. Now I'm just Will, the old fart neighbor. Deal?" He sat up straight and re-raised his glass.
Bubba's smile emitted sound. "Yeah okay, deal."
"Welcome home, son."
Their glasses chimed softly and were emptied, a swallow apiece. "Got time for one more?" suggested Bubba, bottle in hand. "Will?"
The older man laughed hard. "Time?" He tipped his head back and stared blankly at the ceiling. "Time is pretty much what I got now, my boy."
Bubba Buell had always been the neighborhood darling throughout the early years of his life. Always in the top ten percent of his class academically, he was much more highly acclaimed for singing the male lead in all three winter quarters' high school musicals and captaining two successful sports teams, which, of course, were all much more publicly visible and entertaining. His senior year at Eden Prairie High -- a much esteemed upper middle class neighborhood high school, both academically and extra-curricularly excellent -- was topped off by he being named the best high school football player in the state of Minnesota, a year in which he had quarterbacked his team to the state AAAAA title. He went on to receive all-American honorable mention honors as a University of Minnesota Golden Gopher quarterback and was drafted early in the second round by much despised rival, next door neighbor, Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers. He resolutely refused to sign, held out for months, for all intents and purposes forcing a trade to, exclusively, his long beloved Minnesota Vikings, where he was the multi-millionaire signal caller and lone superstar for ten seasons on an otherwise fair to better than average team.
"Y'all moved in then, son?"
Bubba glanced at the few boxes in the living room. A confirmed bachelor for many years, he had been living most of his adult life in lavishly furnished luxury apartments. "Doesn't look like much, does it?" he said. He had picked up a moving van earlier in the day, emptied a small storage space he'd been renting for the past three years, easily by himself, which filled the van only about half full, with mostly knicky-knack type sentimental trinkets, family treasures, trophies, and various other commendations. There was no furniture in the room other than the chairs on which the two old friends were perched.
"No," said Will with a wink. "But with all that loot you been collectin' interest on these last few years I'm sure you'll fix it up real nice, real soon."
Bubba grinned, then uttered sheepishly, "Gotta buy a bed."
Will smiled, nodded, and sipped. "So..." he started anew, idly fingering the rim of his glass, "... a genu-ine, U.S. Army sharpshooter."
"Hey, you had a lot to do with it."
"Kinda, yeah. You're the one that took me to that pistol range when I was a kid." He gazed out the front windows, into the dusk of the day. "I was so small, I could hardly hold the gun straight." Completely entranced, Bubba was awash in memory, absently smiling. "I remember the first time I even hit the damn target, and then when I kept getting better and better, I used to get... I used to get kinda warm inside, a really good feeling, I remember it really well. And then, even before I hit the bullseye for the first time, but I was so sure it was gonna happen... it was like my blood was on fire. And every time after that, every time I hit the bullseye, same thing. Felt fabulous." Bubba allowed himself a few final moments of recollection. "And after that time you took me duck hunting... well, then I knew for sure I wanted to do something like that when I got older."
Will pondered for a moment. "Huh," is what he finally said. "Interesting."
Bubba rose and sauntered over to the kitchen counter. "So..." he started, freshening his glass with Scotch, then Will's, vocally tip-toeing, "... not to bring up a sore subject, Will, but... how's the kid? Still a pill, for the lack of a better term?"
'The kid' to whom Bubba referred was Will's fifteen-year old grandson Trevor, a boy to whom Will had been custodial parent since the lad's age of eleven, when both his parents were gunned down in an apparent random home invasion while Trevor was away at a renowned Behavioral Boot Camp. Trevor had been in and out of trouble with the law almost from the moment he could walk and talk at the same time -- drugs, vandalism, and petty theft headlining his juvenile rap sheet -- which is why he had been sentenced to such a camp in the first place.
"Same," mumbled Will. "Damn... keeps hangin' 'round that little shithead Louie LaFrenz, they're practically inseparable. Now there's a bad seed for ya, this LaFrenz character. Wait'll ya meet this beaut, my boy, he's a pain in everyone's ass around here. Damned kids. I'd like to... well, you know how it is." He sighed deeply, sadly, shook his head. "I may have already lost him, my Trevor. We were so close, once, not all that long ago, either. Now... now I'm not sure if I can reach him anymore, might be too late. I'd like to... change him, somehow. I do love him, ya know, love him to death, he's my blood, after all. It's very frustrating. I'm an old man, I'm supposed to be done with this crap. I wanna do something. I don't know what to do anymore." Will began idly pounding his knee with his fist. "I may have already lost him, my boy, I may have already lost him."
Bubba displayed a burgeoning frown. "Actually," he strained, "I've already had the dubious pleasure of meeting our young Mr. La Frenz."
"No no, a couple years ago, when I was back on leave. I spoke at the old Eden Prairie Middle School. Principal Evans asked me to speak on the topic of respect." A sad smile etched onto Bubba's face. "Little Louie and a couple buddies mooned my lecture."
Will wasn't smiling. "Shithead," he muttered.
They drank in silence for several minutes, staring out into the darkness. Suddenly, Will sat back, stretched out his crossed legs in front of him, clasped his hands behind his head, and said, "D'ja ever kill anybody over there?"
"I mean, how'd ya get out so damn quick? Good behavior? Ha! That's a laugh. 'Course, I s'pose if anyone could get out of the U.S. Army on good behavior it'd have to be you."
Bubba laughed uneasily.
"Wounded? Ya wasn't wounded were ya? Ya look good, that's for sure. There's only so many ways I know..."
"Will, I... uh..."
"C'mon, my boy, you can tell me. I was in Korea, remember? I can take it."
Bubba eyed Will searchingly for a moment, then abruptly tore his focus from the old war veteran, relaxed back as well, and breathed deeply, again staring through the un-draped, floor-to-ceiling, front picture windows, out into the looming darkness of his first night back in the old haunt, his new home, for many seconds before answering. "I'm thinking about putting in a garden," he said, just as the street lights popped on, immediately silhouetting his entire front yard, particularly two nearly full grown, lolling willow trees . "Liven up the place a little. Whad'ya think, Will?"
Will cracked a grin back at Bubba, then gulped his glass dry. "I think," he paused, rising slowly, "I think I need to hit the head."
* * *
"Trick or treat!"
"Hey, you'z guys wanna me to play you'z a tune..."
Bubba bought the house following one defaulted mortgage and one family that ultimately decided that Eden Prairie was "... too suburban..." -- whatever that meant, Bubba never cared to know. Everyone knew he could have bought any house he desired after returning from Afghanistan, in any part of the world. But he wanted to return home, to the old neighborhood, where he felt most vital.
"And what are you two? Are you little demons?"
The little boy tittered while the littler girl shied behind her brother. "No, you silly Mr. Buell. We're Hobbits," the boy explained.
"Oh, of course, Hobbits," said Bubba, screwing a faux concerned look onto his face. "Pretty scary little Hobbits, I'd say." He broke into his neighborhood smile as the candy was dispersed.
It was either a coincidence or blind fate that the old Buell homestead just happened to be on the market, exactly when he was looking. And, as with his "Gangsta Suit," he knew he probably paid way too much for the house. But once again, he didn't care; the house was his.
Bubba Buell was, indeed, the entire community's local hero. As if his prowess and fame as a gridiron star plus the three year army stint didn't equal local hero status, Bubba Buell was, flat-out, a nice guy, everybody said so, ever since anyone could remember. While he had always been overly cautious when choosing his true friends, and therefore, never had many close relationships growing up (next door neighbor old Mr. Minter being the one notable exception), he was sociable and kind to literally everybody and, from early youth on, every word that came out of his mouth seemed to be filtered through some sort of abnormally mature sieve of respect, which made him particularly stand out amongst his oft-juvenile delinquent classmates. Perhaps peculiarly enough, and certainly more often than most kids his age, he found himself in the middle of many potentially ugly teen situations, when he might just as easily have lost his cool and fallen completely if not justifiably out of respect for some unruly young antagonizer. But every time, he would recreate the same unusually mature response: he'd simply smile, shut up, and walk away. His overall sterling reputation brought out the worst in some of his more unpleasant classmates, attempting to shatter his outwardly unflappable demeanor. But he never buckled under the pressure of his peers. Not once.
Tom Stankey, a reserve running back on the State Championship team and perhaps the closest thing to a best friend Bubba had in high school, one his own age, after witnessing one of the star QB's finer silent but friendly rebuffs of a particularly profane, drunken bully in the McDonald's parking lot after a game, asked Bubba if he didn't feel a little extra pressure to always be nice, to always keep his head about him, never make emotional, snap judgment decisions. And didn't he ever feel like going a little crazy at somebody, just once?
Bubba simply smiled at Tom, who recognized it as his friend's "What are you talking about?" smile. He'd seen it before, everybody had, and it certainly wouldn't be the last time.
* * *
"So..." said Will, returning from the bathroom, "... I saw the awards, the medals, ribbons... pistols, rifles. Good for you. Didn't take ya long to get those suckers up."
"Just wanted to empty a box."
"Sure, absolutely. Congratulations."
"Interesting place to hang 'em. Standin' there takin' a whiz, on the wall right in front o' ya."
Bubba shrugged nervously, several times. "Hey, I like 'em. Seemed like as good a place as any." He chuckled once. "Besides, it's a good reminder -- never miss."
Will snorted, "Very funny," then sipped slowly, deliberately. "So... other than a garden..."
"Maybe a garden."
"... other than maybe putting in a garden, what are your plans, my boy?"
Bubba stood and stretched. "Well..." he began, "... first of all, I know for a fact you guys don't have a neighborhood watch program..."
"... I checked with the realtor. Which surprised me, such a nice neighborhood and all. I'd like to get that started. Think that'd fly around here?"
"With you starting it? Can't miss."
"Good, good." Bubba stared at his glass. "I know I wanna coach -- football and baseball, for sure -- parkboard, I suppose. Maybe something else, too. Smaller kids, preferably. Not too smart-assy yet, ya know, the little ones. But I'm not that picky."
"Admirable, my boy, damned admirable." Then, "Work?"
Bubba forced a hard laugh, "Naw," and again, even more forced. "I'm retired. I'm like you, Will." Will joined in the levity.
They sat silently, idly staring out the window, their minds mildly dancing from the Scotch. Suddenly, they simultaneously turned and faced each other and, vocally overlapping one another, exclaimed,
Will: "So, Afghanistan..."
Bubba: "Tell the Korea story again."
Quickly, Bubba blurted, "You first!"
They stared at each other for a couple seconds. Will smiled meekly, allowed his shoulders to drop, and tepidly complained, "But my boy, I must've told you that story ten, fifteen times already, a long time ago."
"I don't care. It makes me crazy motivated. I like it."
Will sighed. "Okay," he said. "One condition?"
Will inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. "Son, I gotta know... how could you just run off and enlist like that? You had at least five, maybe six good years left with the Vikes."
Bubba studied his friend closely, then hinted a smile. "Okay, here's the thing." He smirked, blinking his eyes several times before leaving them comically wide open, "If you believe some of my ex-teammates, I may have taken one too many hits to the head."
Will barely managed a smile. "That'd do it," he nodded. The smile quickly disappeared. "C'mon, my boy, seriously, you coulda ruined everything, you coulda..."
"Okay, okay," broke in Bubba stiffly, as if he had a readied answer on speed dial recall. "I know, I know... and I'm already sorry, sorry in advance. It's such an overused expression, but..." he paused to drink. "Aw c'mon, Will, it sounds so damn corny, ya really gonna make me say it?" He sighed. "Okay. It's... it's all about giving back. Sense of duty, whatever. For the country. Life, liberty... for everybody, for you guys, you vets, Korea and...
"Football is only..." He paused to consider. "It was kind of an easy decision.
"Same deal with the neighborhood, moving back home, giving back. I got money, Will. I'm good. For me... I'm all about giving back." He waited, but Will said nothing. Bubba hmphed to himself. "Maybe I did get nailed on the old melon a few times too many. And again, I'm really sorry 'bout all the 'giving back' crap. It's been done, I know."
Will examined Bubba for several seconds, emptied his glass, then spontaneously broke into wild laughter, Bubba eventually following suit.
* * *
"Trick or treat, Buell."
Not quite dozing, Bubba glanced up from his living room recliner at his grandmother's antique clock on the wall; it was 10:20. Nearly three hours after what he had assumed to be the end of the year's goody-giving festivities, Bubba had long since turned off The Sting, emptied the violin case of its undistributed sweets, and returned it to its prescribed home in the back of the front closet. He had changed into his robe, stowed away the "Gangsta Suit" for another year, and was watching the late local news over a nightcap Scotch, about twenty minutes from his usual bedtime.
Still, good sport he, and in keeping with the spirit of the evening, he opened wide the screen door, rubbed his eyes, opened them wide, smiled, and began, "You'z guys wanna me to play..."
He stopped. Bubba found himself face to face with Batman and Robin, in full costume, the former easily as tall as Bubba. "Ach," he emitted disgustedly, "I thought the voices sounded a little low," releasing the outer door to slowly spring back.
"C'mon, man, let's get with the goodies!" voiced Batman with volume, opening a pillowcase almost completely filled with candy. "Ain't no more little shits to rip off, they all went home to mommy and daddy." Robin laughed grotesquely, stupidly. "Let's go, old man, fork over the goods!"
Bubba allowed the screen to latch shut. "Aren't you fellas a little old to be on the receiving end of Halloween?" he said, yawning.
Robin stopped guffawing long enough to blather, "I just go where Bat-ass goes," slugging the taller boy hard in the shoulder.
"Yeah, be a sport," added Batman, turning to his partner. "Get it, a sport? Because, ya know who this guy used to be..."
"Yeah, I know, I get it, I get it!" blurted Robin, joining his fellow Caped Crusader in raucous laughter.
Bubba waited several seconds for a break in the hilarity. Then, "Look, gentlemen, I know who you are..."
"No you don't--I'm Batman!" the older boy impersonated, ala the movie.
"... Mr. LaFrenz..." nodding to Batman, and, "... Trevor..." Robin. "... And I can smell your breath from in here."
"No you can't, we're wearing our Bat-Breath-a-losers!"
Neighborhood-disturbing laughter -- juvenile, affected, and very loud.
Bubba sadly shook his head and, through the din of extreme drug enhanced merriment, uttered an unheard, "Another time, gentlemen. Perhaps another time." And he shut and locked the door.
* * *
"All right, okay." He began, "One afternoon, kinda late, me and the boys..." He stopped and held out his glass. "Better fill us up one more time, this could get pretty boring."
"Boring? No way, not a chance." Bubba quickly rose and filled their glasses. "This is gonna be great."
Will displayed a wry smile. "Gettin' a little tipsy, are ya, my boy?" "Naw." Bubba frowned. "No more than you -- Will."
"No offense, no offense," said Will, eking a grin. He cleared his throat. "Now..." he said, starting over, "... like I said, me and the boys had been out on routine patrol all afternoon. It was really hot, I remember that, sun was startin' to go down but it'd been brutal all day, I'd drank a ton o' water..."
Bubba had set the Scotch bottle back on the counter, practically skipped back, and was sitting on the edge of his seat, avidly attentive. "And you had to take a leak, right?" he interjected.
"Wait, wait, wait," Will waved him off. "You're gettin' ahead o' me."
Will paused to re-focus. "Anyway, we come across this little abandoned village. What we shoulda been doin' is headin' back and we knew it 'cuz it was gettin' late, but we were so shot. So we sat in the shade of... I don't know, there were maybe ten or twelve huts, it felt good to take a load off. We was just gonna stay for a few minutes, ya know? Sit a spell, take a blow, before turnin' around? Somebody had obviously shoved off in a hurry, there was still pots and pans and stuff layin' around..."
"And clothes, and wood..."
"... right, blankets, stuff like that. Anyway we was all havin' a quick bite. I remember 'cuz some o' the boys started talkin' some trash 'bout their home towns -- me, too -- how great they was. And it started getting' a little heated, but friendly-like..."
"Heated! I love it! Because it was already so hot, right?!"
"That's what you always say," smirked Will. "Are you sure you want me to tell this story? You already know it by heart."
"No no, keep going, keep going, this is great! This is gonna be great!"
Will shrugged, "Okay," and continued. "Anyway, after about... it was too long, we'd gotten too comfortable and we knew it. It was about dusk. We figgered we better shove off. And okay, I had to take a leak.
"So I go behind this one hut -- it was a little bit away from the others-- and I was doin' my business. That's when the shelling started."
Bubba felt his heart pounding, his face warming. "Bastards!" he gnashed through his teeth.
"And there weren't nothin' I could do, literally caught with my pants down... sorry, bad joke."
"In the heat of the battle!"
"T'weren't much of a battle, my boy, nobody heard nothin,' I swear, no forewarning at all -- sneaky commies! And they was lobbin' shells at us -- Pkew! Pkew!..."
"Pkew! Pkew! Pkew!"
"... blowin' up all around me. And, naturally, they was aimin' at the huts where the boys were -- Pkew! Pkew! -- all but me, of course. There I was, stuck hidin' by myself, no more than twenty feet from where my buddies was losin' it."
"I remember thinkin' that I wanted pick off a few o' my own. Had my weapon loaded and ready to fire."
"Yeah! That's what I'd'a done!"
"But I couldn't."
"I know, dammit! I know!"
"It was frustrating as hell, my boy."
"Frustrating as hell!"
"But right then, in a split second of... I dunno, temporary sanity maybe? I figgered the only thing maybe -- just maybe -- keepin' me alive was maybe they might not've seen me, where I was, whizzin' away behind another hut, away from the others. My buddies was all dead, I was sure o' that, the rest of the huts all got leveled pretty much right away. Fightin' back would have been the death o' me, too, for sure. I didn't know how many o' them there were.
"Frustrating as hell, I'm tellin' ya, my boy. I wanted to fire my weapon... hell, I didn't know what to do."
"Couldn't do a damn thing!"
"So I figgered the best thing for me to do was hit the deck, play dead, behind what was left of my hut, which weren't much, I'm tellin'ya."
Bubba sprang from his chair, fist pumping, perspiration dripping from his forehead, dotting his T-shirt. "Smart man, Will! Damn smart man!"
"The whole thing prob'ly lasted... seemed like a hour, prob'ly more like a minute and a half... before another unit of our boys showed up and blasted them damn commies into oblivion."
"Awright!" Bubba fist pumped, "Pkew! Pkew! Pkew!"
"The last thing I remember, right before that, was peekin' out from my hiding place and seein'... and it all looked so weird..."
"Almost surreal-like, right?"
"...yeah, that. With the sun settin' behind 'em and all, I saw the outlines..."
"Not the faces..."
"... couldn't see their faces, just the black outlines. They was gettin' drilled by our boys."
"Picked 'em off one by one!"
"One by one."
"Damn right, finally."
"And then it was over, right?"
"And then it was over."
Bubba sat down, both exhausted and rejuvenated, and sighed with contentment. "That story always gets me goin,'" he said, smiling broadly. "Thanks, Will, just what I needed. The perfect end to a perfect day. It's great to be home."
"Glad I was here." Will held out his glass to toast, smiling equally broadly. "And it's good to have you back home, where I always know where I can find you."
Bubba reached out his glass. "To giving back."
"To giving back." Their glasses met, clanging loudly, two tiny, imperceptible cracks fissuring the rims of each glass.
* * *
"Young Buell goes back to pass, good protection... he's got a man open!... He drills one... oh my God, he hit him right in the facemask! And he's down... that's the second time that's happened this game, let's see if he's okay, he's not moving... coach Minter out on the field..."
"Hey, take it easy, Bubba, he's one of ours."
"I'm sorry, coach, I'm sorry..."
Bubba rolled over and winced at the clock on the dresser -- a quarter to two. Closer to asleep than awake, did he have to pee or not before returning to dreamland, as long as he was already in a semi-conscious state?
Staggering across the hall to the bathroom, he heard it again.
He had heard something! Up against the house. At a quarter to two, dammit! Someone trying to break in? Vandalizing the neighborhood?
Neighborhood watch time.
It was his duty.
Finishing his business, he stared at the wall in front of him. He suddenly felt a warm sensation burst in his chest, then radiate in all directions; it felt good. Then, with extreme urgency and boundless resolve, Bubba tip-toed into the living room, checking around every corner like a paranoid fugitive.
"Bastards!" he whispered with mounting intensity.
When he got to the living room, he made a quick pan of the area, then raced to the front closet, staying low to the floor. He pushed aside the "Gangsta Suit" and violin case, exposing his hunting rifle in the far back corner of the closet. There, from his haunches, in the dim light seeping through the three triangular windows in the front door, he double-checked to make sure it was loaded.
He crept out of the closet on hands and knees and peeked through the bottom triangle.
Back lit by the overhead streetlights were two faceless enemy attackers, on the front lawn, down near the street, lobbing shells at Bubba's house.
Bubba felt his temples pound, his blood boil. In one violent motion, he turned the doorknob and flung both the inner and outer doors wide open. Then, his weapon aimed and ready to fire, he stated loudly but with an eerie calmness,
"One bullet for your head, sir, and another bullet for your head, too, sir."
And then it was over.
The Eden Prairie police were on the scene in less than five minutes. They found teens Louie LaFrenz and Trevor Minter quite dead, on their backs, sans their Caped Crusader costumes. Their bodies had been blown back into the street, now indecorously spotlit by the garish streetlights. There were two empty egg cartons laying between them.
Television camera crews arrived and were effectively cordoned off, many feet from the scene, from where their remotes originated. A small neighborhood crowd had awakened and was incident-gawking from their front yards, some parents sobbing quietly, everyone speaking in low, disquieted tones. The police wasted no time with their interrogations, some at the scene, others going door to door, waking people up to find out what they knew, if anything, about "Halloween XI: Teens Die," as the incident had already been headlined by the local media.
The police started with Will Minter's house -- for condolences, if nothing else.
They knocked -- there was no answer. The front door was unlocked.
Once inside, they found the old man slumped over the kitchen table, body drained of emotion, a single tear on the cheek below each eye, his right hand inches from the trigger of a .38.
The house in which Mr. Robert "Bubba" Buell lived as an adult was the next stop.