{ It's the Only Way We Know How. }
Jennifer Meccariello

kitchen with knifeMy dad's hands wrapped around the curved, orange flesh, heaving it softly onto the newspaper-covered table. My mom, perched with pen in hand, sat in her usual dinnertime seat, trying to make a reasonable facsimile of the sketches my brother and I had been working on all day.
   "Do you want a smiley pumpkin, or do you want a scary one?" she asked both of us in turn, trying hard to mask the humor in her voice. Our sketches were in tatters, drawn on white notebook paper, crumpled like little white flags that have been waved in the wind for a too long war.
   "Scary!" we both cried, jumping for her pen, trying to write over what we've handed to her, just so she'll understand. She understood.
   My mom always drew the faces on the pumpkins, my dad always carved. My brother and I always got all the squishy stuff out, wrinkling our noses and throwing goop at each other when our parents weren't looking. This annual ritual usually took place about a week before Halloween. We'd already chosen our costumes by then, and sometimes our jack 'o' lanterns reflected these choices. My brother, for example, once insisted on a Grover pumpkin, trying to convince my mom that he could dye the orange hue out of the skin and replace it with "Grover blue."
   It was simple really, and made perfect sense to our little minds. Bleach and dye were invincible coloring agents, things to be reckoned with and avoided, and anything was possible back then, including changing nature.

"Did you have fun tonight?" I ask and scrunch up closer to him. He's warm, but then again he always is, like a little heater baking my skin to his.
   "Uh, yeah, I guess," he stammers, keeping his eyes on the road. "Did you?"
   I did, and I tell him, and I tell him more, making things up, smoothing things over. I scratch his knee through his pants and fiddle with the knobs on his car stereo, trying to find something Seventies, something Elton John. I look at him occasionally, trying to read what's going on behind his eyes, something I used to be able to do so easily, but now it's like my infrared vision into his mind is failing, losing power and scope.
   "Hey, you know what we should do?" He grunts in reply, switches on his high beams, glances at the circles I've engrained on the leg of his pants. "Get a pumpkin and carve it. Tonight."
   "It's three a.m., kid," he says. "Where are we going to find a pumpkin?"
   I'm positive there's some at the grocery store. "The all-night one," I assure him. He switches lanes, takes a different exit. Eventually we get there, stumbling blindly into the fluorescent lights, holding onto each other's hands, pretending things did go as well tonight as I said they did. I spot a winner all by itself, hidden under the drooping lettuce, tucked away behind the romaine jungle. I carry it around the store by myself while he gets a few rations to get us through the weekend, hugging my heavy treasure to my chest, smiling into the light, trying to anticipate his every move and guess how I can make things better.
   "When was the last time you carved a pumpkin?" I ask him, somewhere between the cereal aisle and the eggs.
   "Middle school, I think. We never really did that kind of stuff in my family."

With all the pumpkin innards safely wrapped up in bags, my dad began to work his magic, wielding a steak knife like a wand. My mom had drawn very different faces on our two little pumpkins, smartly avoiding the ensuing fight that was bound to happen if my brother and I couldn't tell them apart. We all sat back and watched, ooohed and aaahed as he slid the knife into the flesh, carving out the eyes first. If we were lucky, there was a Halloween cartoon special on the TV behind us, maybe "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" or "Garfield's Halloween Special", which always scared me just a little.
   Sometimes my brother and I would eat pumpkin bread while mom finished the dishes, putting huge slabs of the sweet dark heaven into the microwave, slathering it with butter while it was still hot. My mom's best friend stole the recipe from someone in their office before my parents were even married and copied it—the directions are still on that same mimeographed sheet, twenty-five years later.
   With baited breath, we watched as my dad started in on the mouth, trying to decide the sex of our pumpkin, just in case we were asked.

"You're just like a little kid, you know that?" he chides me, smiling behind his annoyance. "There's dirt all over the kitchen sink from where you washed him." He's already decided that our pumpkin is male, and after much debate, that he should look like Dr. Doom, whose face is nothing more than two slits for eyes and a rectangle for a mouth. We've been playfully arguing and sketching faces for over an hour now, our new masculine friend sitting next to us in the bedroom, modeling his best side.
   "Do you want a smiley pumpkin or a scary one?" I ask, refusing to give-in to his Marvel pumpkin dreams. "He's not a superhero; he should have his own face." I still haven't mastered the ability of drawing the definitive jack 'o' lantern countenance, and have given up control of the pen to him. He's drawn the same face three times now just to make me mad, but it's not working—I'm too excited about the new tradition we're creating, the old tradition he's helping me keep up.
   "Okay, let's compromise," he says, holding the paper close to his face, hiding whatever he's drawing from me. I turn my attention back to the television, poorly feigning indifference. I want to see, I want to push things forward, make them right and fun—but I resolve myself to wait, to let it happen. Finally, he shows me his design, perfect and small on the white paper, mimicking the order of his house, his life.
   "Slits," he says, and for a second I think he's commenting on the image on the television. "Slits," he says again, staring at the expression on my face. "We just carve a bunch of slits, sorta outline his face and features. I've seen this done before, it looks really awesome." He picks up our pumpkin, our dirty little perfect son and raises his pen, attempting to cover up all of the marks I've made on it. He sketches and smiles, winks and gives me knowing glances. Finally, he's done, and sets our boy down in front of me.
   "Wait," I say, screwing up my nose, "you want him to have ears?"

This year my brother's pumpkin is done first, which isn't necessarily the best position to be in. Having to wait for the second carving sometimes means more artistic freedom, getting to sit really close to our dad, supervise, plot. I don't think my brother ever fully understood this, he'd always dutifully don our "Momma's little helper" apron and dry the wooden serving spoons from dinner, glowing in his victory.
   Now it was my turn. I slid my chair closer to my dad's, took in his smell, looked at the hair around his ears. I wondered sometimes how he could hear with that jungle of hair around his lobes, but he always did, always listened.
   "Are you ready?" he asked, wiping the knife clean like a Revolutionary-War surgeon.
   "Yep," I said, not as loudly as I want, because I'm already thinking about the changes I want in the nose.
   "Here we go!" he swooshed out, delving into the eyebrows. Sitting in almost silence, except for the soft murmurs of my appreciation and the tiny grunts he made when the knife got stuck, we created my very own Great Pumpkin.
   When my dad finished, and I gave my final approval, my brother and I handed over our precious beings into the arms of our parents and searched for matches to light up our night.

"I thought you were leaving at noon today," he asks, rolling over and slugging his arm around my shoulders. It's two in the afternoon, and I haven't been able to force myself out of his bed, out to my car and my four-hour drive back home.
   "We didn't carve him last night," I mumble, trying to use his voice as a catalyst for sleep. "After we carve him, I'll leave."
   Two hours later, I'm sitting in the kitchen alone, steak knife in hand. Occasionally he walks in to check out my progress, fill his cup with water, tell me the score of the football game I can't see and don't care about.
   "He looks good," he assures me, kissing me on the forehead, avoiding the orange strings attached to my fingers. "You're going to have the best pumpkin in Pittsburgh."
   No, he's ours, and he's staying right here, I tell him, in the apartment I used to live in but don't anymore. This is his home. He kisses my temple and laughs at the pleading tone in my voice, thinking five moves ahead in our game. The commercial break's over, and I go back to sawing away at our premature pumpkin, whose skin is too tight to slide anything through, too young to be severed from his stem.
   The slit-effect isn't as easy as it might appear to be—not only do you have to cut from the outside, you have to cut from the inside as well to ensure that enough light passes through to the semi-transparent slivers of flesh.
   "Honey," he whines, batting me on the head during another commercial break. "It's too big, and not slitty enough, and his eyes are different, and...."
   Slowly I turn, raising my knife-edge towards him, glowering, boiling over, trying to contain all of the frustration and anger that's been piling up in me for the last six months.
   "Listen," I say. "I don't really give a damn what you think about our pumpkin, my pumpkin. Either stay in here and help, or leave us alone."
   His smile tightening, he strolls nonchalantly out of the kitchen.

My dad carried them out to the deck railing, like he'd done so many times before, juggling their weight easily under each of his arms. After he set them down, he reached into his pockets, making a big show of not being able to find the matches, while my brother and I squealed in the kitchen behind the sliding-glass door. My mom grimaced at his corniness, and helped us to prompt him into candle-lighting action.
   "Come on, Dad!" I said with feigned exasperation, enjoying every second it took him to pretend to light the match. At last, the task done, he replaced the tops of both pumpkins and slowly turned them around for us to see. My mom dimmed the kitchen lights dramatically and turned off the porch light as well. My dad lingered in front of both pumpkins, for one last shot at suspense, and then dramatically jumped out of the way, exposing our masterpieces, for they were never anything short of that.
   Ooohing and aaahing once again, my brother and I rushed outside to get a closer look, getting around the glare of the glass. It was cold, nothing like the Indian summers we have these days, our little mouths blowing steam circles like halos around our heads.
   "I like mine the best," my brother asserted, and I poked him in the ribs, admonishing him silently for his innocent jab. I thought they were both wonderful, even though I told him that his was lopsided. Soon we're ushered downstairs to bed, said our prayers and fell into an orange-hued sleep, where everything has a light of its own inside.
   When we woke up the next morning there are not two pumpkins, but three, a product of my parents late-night curfew and love.

"Listen, I'm sorry I snapped at you," I stammer, having cleaned up all of the mess. "It's just that you didn't help out much, and you left me all alone in there and then you started to complain and this is really hard, he's not ripe enough, my hand hurts...." Trailing off, I shrug, and he puts his arms around me and pulls on my hair.
   "I know, I know. I'm sorry, it's just that I can't do what you just did, I can't handle the knife as well as you," he says and smiles at me. I'm exhausted, can't think of the reason this used to be so important to me, why I desperately needed to implement my family's traditions onto someone who doesn't want to share them, doesn't have many of his own to add to our mix.
   "Let's light him up," he says, getting up to find a candle, returning with our boy in his arms.
   "We have to do it where it's dark—what about the closet?" He looks at me funny, his anal-retentiveness silently balking at having this large piece of fruit near his clothes and shoes, but ultimately breaks down and smiles. We troop in unceremoniously. I light the candle and plop it in; he shuts off the light and crouches next to me.
   "Oooh, aaah," I exclaim, taking my cue from so much history. He looks at me quizzically, and tries to mimic my sounds, letting them softly tremble in his throat, dying before they can reach his mouth.
   "Ok, so that's that," he says, blowing out the candle, turning on the light. "I'll put him in a bag or something while you get you stuff ready."
   Slowly, I turn to my clothes and try to pack away my disappointment. By the time I'm done, he has the rest of my stuff sitting by the kitchen door, sweeping me quickly out of his hair.

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