P umpkins never went under the knife at their house. More than the threat of a sharp blade or making a mess all over the sink and counter, the issue was pumpkins classified as food, so wasting them was wrong. Every October, as Halloween approached, Janice and Buddy drew crayon faces that could be scrubbed off later when their mother split and stewed those big orange gourds for pie filling and soup. But no matter how hard they pressed on their black crayons, even crushing them against the rind, the waxy triangle-shaped eyes and noses never passed for real cutouts. A drawn-on, jagged-tooth mouth couldn’t compare to the gaping grin of a hollow head.
In the fall of 1970, when Janice was ten and Buddy nine, they began to wonder if their mother’s refusal to let them make jack o’ lanterns was due to meanness. One stinking pumpkin, for crying out loud, they’d complain to each other. But Janice had begun to notice other things, too, which hadn’t bothered her before. They bought day-old bread, and the butcher always gave them soup bones that still had a little meat on them. Boxes arrived from out-of-town cousins filled with hand-me-down clothes, some that fit and some that didn’t, plus ratty-haired Barbies and scuffed-up GI Joes.Being deprived of a pumpkin to carve hit a hungry spot where Janice buried what she didn’t want to look at or feel; like when she stole a quarter from her mother’s purse, or wished that the popular girls would fall on the playground, then the delightful horror when one of them did and went to the nurse’s office with a bloodied knee. Those girls, with their Brady Bunch families and outfits that matched, pointed at her and asked if shopped at the Salvation Army. Before fifth grade none of that had mattered, but now it did. The boys chased the prettiest girls around the schoolyard at lunchtime, while Janice sat on the teeter totter with her friend, Arlie, who breathed through her mouth and smelled like bologna.
The way those other girls looked at her, Janice knew they could tell she and Buddy didn’t have a father. Even the straggly kids who lived way out in the sticks had two parents. Maybe their dads didn’t have jobs or got caught hunting deer out of season, but at least they had fathers to talk about. All Janice had been told was that, when she was eighteen months old and Roy Jr. (soon to be called Buddy) was three months old, their father took off. That made him sound like a dog who bolted for the woods and lost the scent for home.
They lived in a small house that had belonged to their maternal grandparents who were dead. Uncle Bobby, their mother’s younger brother, stayed most of the time in a trailer on the edge of the property. He’d take care of storm windows, relight the hot water heater, and fix whatever sagged or broke, but being only twenty-six, he stayed mostly to himself—working on his Mustang and going out with his girlfriend. The latest was called Honey, on account of her blond hair.
Their mother had a friend for a while—Gary, who was a patient from the dental practice where she did some office work. He drove a two-door Pontiac Grand Prix and had long sideburns. For a few months, their mother lightened her hair, wore makeup, and took to humming a little as she cleaned the house. When Gary came to dinner, Janice and Buddy swore to be on their best behavior and almost nothing got spilled. By the end of September, they didn’t see Gary anymore. Noticing her mother’s sad eyes, Janice knew better than to ask if he’d run off, too.
Now it was October, just three weeks to Halloween. Janice had been a princess for four straight years; the dress didn’t fit anymore and the mask barely covered her face. The elastic band snapped on Buddy’s Tweety Bird. But their old station wagon needed more repairs than Uncle Bobby could do by himself, and she and Buddy both grew out of their school shoes. Janice knew they couldn’t ask for new Halloween costumes. They’d have to make do.
On Saturday, Arlie came over, but while they were jumping rope on the driveway, she tripped and chipped a tooth. Arlie went home with an ice cube pressed to her mouth, and Janice had nobody to play with except Buddy. With nothing else to do, they rode their bikes down the road, past neighbors’ houses spaced far apart, the Methodist church with the crooked steps, and the cemetery where the headstones leaned at all angles. When they stopped at the fork, their usual turnaround point, Janice saw them: orange globes peeking out of the high grass in a yard, beside a house so old and rundown, it could have been abandoned, except wash flapped on the line.
The ditch dipped low to a trickle of water and rose steeply up the other side. Janice and Buddy walked with their backs rounded, trying to keep themselves small and unseen, moving faster as they passed the front windows.
“You think they can see us?” Buddy whispered.
Janice studied the dirty panes and shook her head. She tried to keep from imagining a face behind the lace curtains hanging limply inside.
Weeds overgrew the garden, and half-rotted tomatoes littered the ground. They counted eight pumpkins in the patch, which the mice and squirrels would probably get to before long. They only took two, a little smaller than bowling balls and nearly as round.
Riding one-handed, pumpkins under their free arms, made for slow progress. The noise of an approaching car sent Janice bumping off the pavement, sure that whoever lived in that old house had seen them, but the car passed without slowing down. They made it home, pumpkins intact, and hid their treasure under a bushel basket in the garage.
“Don’t talk to nobody about the pumpkins,” Janice scolded. “Nobody!”
Buddy double crossed his heart and swore to die. But at dinner, pushing peas and macaroni around his place, Buddy asked their mother what she liked better—smiling jack o’ lanterns or scary ones.
“Well, I suppose the happy ones,” she replied. “World is scary enough without adding to it.”
Janice kicked Buddy under the table, and when she got caught tried to explain it was an accident or that she was only kidding. She had to do the dishes by herself that night, while Buddy got excused. Later, she pinched him until his eyes watered. “Shut up about the damn pumpkins,” she hissed, feeling the power of that four-letter word, which she heard plenty from Uncle Bobby, but had never said aloud before.
For days, Janice imagined a knock on the door—someone asking if two kids lived there, the pumpkins being discovered in the garage. The police come, sirens on and lights flashing, the school principal with them. She and Buddy are forced to make signs that say “Pumpkin Thief” and wear them around their necks, even to school. The popular girls point and laugh. Even Arlie won’t play with her any more… With each scene added to her own private horror movie, Janice felt another cut, hollowing her out inside.
But they couldn’t give the pumpkins back. So the next Saturday, when their mother went over to her friend Donna’s to get a home permanent, and their Uncle Bobby was changing the oil in his car, Janice decided it was time. She and Buddy waved to their uncle as if they didn’t have two kitchen knives and a marker up their jacket sleeves, and carried the bushel basket like they did that every day of the week. When Uncle Bobby slid under his car, they ran around the back of the garage and into the field.
Janice told Bobby to stand back while she stabbed the pumpkin, expecting the rind to be wooden. The blade pierced easily, and she sawed around the crown. When she grabbed the stubby stem and yanked off the top, strings of pulp and seeds came with it.
“Come on, let me cut,” Buddy begged.
Janice sent him inside the house for a long-handled spoon, then told him to start scooping.
“Brain and guts,” Buddy kept saying with every splatter against the ground. They got most of them out, figuring that was good enough.
Janice drew the eyes and nose, then gave in to let Buddy do the mouth, which he messed up, and she had to spit on the rind to wash off the crooked line. Cutting the eyes was hard, but when the first triangle shape popped out, they marveled at the empty socket.
“Where’d you get the pumpkins?” Their uncle’s long shadow darkened the ground around them.
Janice looked up. “Found them,” she said.
“Really?” Uncle Bobby wiped his hands on an oily rag.
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “In a field.”
Uncle Bobby’s mouth curled up on one side. “Sounds like you robbed the pumpkin patch. Your ma’s going to tan your butt if that’s true.”
“It isn’t,” Janice said. “Found them fair and square.”
Buddy started nudging her before Uncle Bobby was out of sight, and Janice punched her knuckle into her brother’s skinny bicep.
Fear of getting caught made the second pumpkin less fun to carve. Janice let Buddy do the eyes, but he didn’t cut them evenly, giving the jack o’ lantern a squint. When they finished, they snuck the two carved pumpkins back into the garage and under the bushel basket. It was nine days before Halloween.
Uncle Bobby ate dinner with them that night, but nothing was said about the pumpkins. A few days later, Janice got the brilliant idea of telling their mother they’d won the pumpkins at school and that they’d carved them to surprise her. But when she and Buddy retrieved the jack o’ lanterns from the garage, the faces had started to shrivel like shrunken heads, and mice had gnawed around the eye holes, leaving a trail of orange confetti. They carried the bushel basket into the woods behind their property and chucked the pumpkins as far into the trees as they could.
The day before Halloween, when they came home from school on the bus, they found a pumpkin sitting on the counter. “One of the patients brought it,” their mother said. “You can carve this one.”
Buddy’s eyes widened and Janice hung her head. “S’okay,” she said. “We can color it.”
“But you’ve been wanting to. Come on. We’ll do it together.”
Their mother made the incision around the top, and set the pumpkin on several sheets of newspaper covering the floor. She put a roasting pan beside it. “Put the pulp in there. I’ll roast the seeds,” she said.
Janice scooped until her hand got tired and made Buddy take a turn. “A little more,” their mother told them. Finally, nothing was left inside.
Taking the marker out of the drawer, the same one they’d used in secret, Janice asked their mother to draw the face.
“Smiling or scary?” their mother asked.
“Uh, smiling?” Buddy’s mouth, though, turned down.
Their mother let them do the cutting under her supervision, but helped with the pointy corners of the grin. It was a good jack o’ lantern, better than the ones they’d carved. But when a stump of a candle was put inside and lit, the glowing face taunted Janice with the secret knowledge that she and Buddy had stolen those other pumpkins and, even worse, had wasted them.
The next evening, they put on their costumes and their mother drove them into town where they joined other kids going house-to-house, which was easier in the city than out in the country. Back home, their mother inspected their candy and threw away a perfectly good sucker just because the cellophane wrapper had split open. Janice took inventory of everything she got, counting four 100 Grand miniatures with their red wrappers; Buddy only had three.
That night in bed, her chocolate breath wreaked to her. Maybe there were kids inside that house who didn’t get any pumpkins. Maybe that’s all that family had to eat. Maybe they sold the pumpkins, and that was all the money they had in the world. When she finally fell asleep, she dreamt of being locked in a room full of pumpkins and having to carve every one of them, scooping seeds and cutting faces until her arms throbbed. Every time she finished, they changed back to pumpkins and she had to start again.
Buddy didn’t want to go back, but Janice said they had to. They lost their nerve about going up to the house, and instead, they opened the mailbox at the edge of the road. On top of yellowed flyers and junk mail, they left the note they’d written: “For two pumpkins. Sorry.” Buddy extracted a small Milky Way and a tiny Snickers from his pocket and put them on the paper. Janice fingered the red wrappers of two precious 100 Grand bars then offered them up.
When the farmhouse house was out of sight, Janice grinned at her brother and said she’d race him. They pedaled fast and free, all the way home.
Videography by Pat Commins