Pumpkin Grins


It’s cool tonight, and I light a cigarette and sit down among the leaves. The pine trees rustle from a breeze that doesn’t quite make it to where I’m sitting. The dim sodium light by the road outlines the bare branches above the house. Candles flicker in the laughing faces I’ve carved.

My earliest memory of Halloween involves my sister and I dressing up in stuffed costumes and going to our grandparents’ houses for candy. There is little memory beyond those vague recollections. The clearest image I have is of walking to the car, the streetlight having flickered out. I remember the comfort I took in holding my parents’ hands as we moved through chilly darkness.

A stray cat is walking along when it takes notice of me. It’s clearly nervous, and stands completely still while I smoke. I don’t move except to breathe. The cat looks off to the side, and something startles it enough so that it breaks into a run. I look where it looked. There isn’t anything there. I tell myself it’s the wind I hear sighing.

When I was about five, there was a Halloween when I was left alone in the living room. Not really alone, mind you. My parents were less than half a dozen steps away. But when you’re that small a shadow is an impassable divide. I sat beside the electric jack o’lantern, dressed in my plastic vampire costume, and listened to a battery operated ghost moan in the window whenever someone walked by. I became aware that I was alive on a magic night.

A light comes on inside the house. A shadow moves across the curtains. I’m apprehensive even though I know it’s just my sister. The light goes off. The shadow I saw won’t leave my vision.

When I was ten I rode through a spook house at the city fair. It was one of the better ones, before traveling dark rides let themselves get irredeemably cheap. I screamed when a rotting corpse hanging from the wall waved us by. I had never felt more miserable and scared than I did then, cowering in that electric car, my father’s arm around me. When it was over, I begged my dad to take me through again.

I carved three jack o’lanterns, even though Halloween is over a month away. They all have triangle eyes and triangle noses. Two laugh with square teeth. One screams with hastily carved fangs. The dark swirls like floodwater when the candles inside threaten to flicker out. The backyard is deathly quiet, and the streetlights do not reach where I sit.

Halloween when I was twelve was unusually robust. Every other yard was flooded with fake spider webs and plastic zombies. Three haunted houses left eager lines of giggling children trailing into the sidewalks. I filled two pumpkin pails with candy, and stayed up till two watching scary movies because it was a Friday. The next morning the decorations hung like crumbling ruins, and the city was quieter than it should have been for Saturday morning. It occurred to me that November 1st is the saddest day of the year. I consoled myself that weekend with a private marathon of old Hammer horror movies.

I lie back in the leaves, and watch the orange grins shimmer across the walls of the shed. At this angle I can hear the wafting of the candle flames. They each have a secret story they will only share with each other.

One Halloween, when I was nineteen or twenty, I met a girl at a party. We were probably both a little too drunk for it, but we ended up in a back bedroom. We kept our costumes on…mostly…and when we were done she was the first to leave. I dozed off for less than ten minutes, but it felt like I’d been out for hours. Before going back to the party I watched the shadows the tree branches made against the streetlight, and listened to the moan of the air as it rushed through a crack in the windowsill.

There are footsteps in the leaves around me. I tense up, until a telltale rustle tells me it’s a squirrel, out late to forage. It breaks away when an owl calls into the night. I hear movement in the trees.

I felt bad for eating the last of the candy. The last trick-or-treater had gone all-out, giving herself bloody makeup worthy of a Jason flick. I made up for my transgression by breaking into my secret stash, the cupboard where I stored my Lindt chocolate and my Ghirardelli bars. It was either that or give her a bottle of Maker’s Mark, so I erred on the side of caution. When they saw the fancy candy, her parents told me lightheartedly that I take Halloween too seriously. I told them earnestly that that was impossible. Later my roommate and I navigated our way through a haunted house, a warehouse to be exact. A rainstorm screamed against the tin roof while we scrambled through the dark. We were soaked to the bone when we made it to the car. The rain kept coming when we entered a haunted trail off a nearby mountain. I screamed and cowered as we went through cabins and actors whispered in my ears. Usually the performers went after my roommate. She’s five feet tall and petite, but between us I’m the coward. One actress picked up on this and terrorized me brilliantly. By two a.m. I was in my underwear and drinking beer, watching a horror movie while a strobe light flickered through my window. The light from the television imparted an eerie quality to the ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on my bookcase. I didn’t remember it facing me when I first lied down.

The cigarette has gone cold. I need to get up for work in the morning. I lean forward and blow out each of the pumpkin’s candles. For a moment I sit there. I let the chill in the air soak into my clothes. I can smell burned candle wax. The wind has picked up a little. It tells me a story, but only in whispers. I stand up, walking carefully through the leaves. Something instinctive tells me not to make too much noise. Even if I can’t hear it, something hears me.

I go inside, I lock the door, and I go to bed. Halloween comes every night, but only for the diligent.


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