We’d gotten into it earlier that night. It wasn’t a blow out and it might have just been a misunderstanding about a joke one of us took too seriously. I don’t know. Everyone we talk to says things like this will happen in the first year or two; that those are the hardest. Which honestly has been no help at all.
Misunderstanding or not, I went to the grocery store to get out of the apartment for a few minutes, and filled a cart with things we would eventually run out of and non-critical one-offs we always seemed to forget. I’d checked out and was on my way to leave when I saw the big cardboard bin full of pumpkins by the door.
Jen had suggested carving pumpkins in the past and for whatever reason we never ended up doing it. The last time I carved a pumpkin I was just a little kid. God only knows what that one was; maybe a cartoon character or something. That’s a little optimistic. It was probably just some uneven shapes I called a face. None of that’s important though. Seeing those pumpkins I decided this might be a nice gesture. Real argument or not, this was a good move. There was no downside except that I would have to carve a pumpkin. But I had a couple beers in me at the time so even that didn’t sound too bad.
I went to the customer service desk, explained that I had something else to get and they said they’d keep an eye on everything until I got back.
I sorted through the pumpkins and found a couple without any big dents or scuffs. They were good-sized pumpkins. Not huge, but the biggest I could carry in each arm. It was a bit of a balancing act getting them to the register and out to the car, because by then I’d forgotten all about the cart.
Jen was on the couch reading an old magazine and didn’t look up when I walked in, so I assumed this whole misunderstanding wasn’t a joke after all. I put the pumpkins on the kitchen table, pushing the stacks of bills, a dirty plate still there from dinner and the vase where we collect our burnt-out light bulbs out of the way. She looked at the table and put the magazine down.
‘What are those supposed to be?’
Somehow, this made the situation worse.
I got a couple of steak knives from the kitchen, stood in front of the table and said, ‘This year we’re going to carve jack-o-lanterns.’ I sat at the table and fiddled with my pumpkin, pretending to do something while I waited for her to accept.
She poured herself a glass of wine and joined me at the table where we cut out the tops of the pumpkins, reminding each other to cut at an angle so they didn’t fall in.
‘What about all the goop inside? Are we going to make pumpkin seeds?’
‘That’s up to you.’
‘It’s cold and gross.’
‘It’s completely gross. We’re adults and we know better, so if we don’t want to sort through all that ropey slime for seeds we’ll end up throwing away anyhow, I’m fine with that. I’ve never once missed the taste of pumpkin seeds.’
I went back to the kitchen for a couple of tablespoons and pulled the trash can over. We scraped out all of the insides and spent the next hour talking and laughing and carving away. Somewhere in the middle of it all we sorted through whatever banal thing we were upset about by deciding that no one was right. This was just one of those difficult situations and there were sure to be more so we might as well just sweep it under the rug and move on.
I’ve seen pictures of pumpkins carved by professionals, the ones where they put celebrity faces or iconic movie scenes on them. What we did wasn’t that impressive, but it was light years beyond any pumpkin I’d ever seen in real life.
When she was done, I asked her who her pumpkin was and she said it was Luciano. When she was a girl she imagined she would marry a handsome, world-famous theater actor and they would split their time between a brownstone in New York and a villa in Italy. His name was Luciano and this was how she always thought he would look.
I told her I didn’t want to say who mine was because it was dumb, which was a mistake because after that I knew she’d never let it go. I should have just lied, but I told her. It was the guy who played the witty hero in that old action show on TV. The one with the robot sidekick. Not him now, but back then. These days he’s a mess. It was the only thing I could think of. I have no idea why.
She said that was dumb and I was wrong because it actually looked like me, except that he was smiling and I didn’t smile that much. I said this was just another one of those things we’d have to agree neither of us were right about and be happy our marriage was progressing at such an accelerated pace.
‘So where are we going to put them? We can’t put them on the porch. Someone will just come by and smash them. Even if they don’t, they’ll rot before Halloween.’
She had a point.
‘Well, we can’t keep them in here. That’s for sure. They’ll stink up the place in no time and they’re sure to attract bugs. That’s the last thing we need.’
She poured another glass of wine and came back to the table where we sat in silence staring at our creations like they might have an opinion to offer on the matter.
‘I know what we should do,’ she said. ‘We’ll take a picture of them, then go out and smash them ourselves. That way we’ll always have them and we’ll never be disappointed because no one got to ruin them except us.’
‘That’s a great idea,’ I said, but I didn’t think it was something we would actually do. I mean, imagine, two adults who do everything they can to come off like they have it all together, standing in front of an old apartment building with bats and golf clubs swinging away at some, quite frankly, beautifully carved pumpkins they had clearly put some time in to, and in September no less.
‘Then lets do it.’ She downed her wine, tucked Luciano under her arm and headed for the door.
She really meant it.
I grabbed the hero of my youth and followed her outside.
Thankfully, none of the neighbors were out on the porch to dismantle our enthusiasm with questions. Like all plans hatched from half-drunk ingenuity and emotion, ours was fragile and wouldn’t hold up under criticism, especially not that of our neighbors who all seemed to have accepted they would spend the rest of their lives in this building or others just like it. We weren’t like them and shared an unspoken fear that too much exposure would break us down and leave us as complacent with this life as they were.
‘Where do you want to do it?’
‘Right here. I’ll go first.’
She walked to the edge of the porch, held the pumpkin away from her and said, ‘Luciano, the time has come for you to shuffle off this mortal coil.’ Which was unexpected and honestly one of the weirdest things I have ever heard her say. I thought we were just going to have fun destroying things. I didn’t think we would be making little speeches.
She let go and the pumpkin fell to the ground. It landed on the grass with a thud, but didn’t break.
‘Looks like he’s not ready to let go.’
She stepped off the porch, picked up the pumpkin and went through the whole thing again, minus the speech and again Luciano dropped and didn’t break.
‘This goddam thing,’ she muttered. She climbed down again and picked him up, only this time she didn’t come back. Instead, she walked across the narrow yard to the parking lot, held the pumpkin over her head and threw it against the pavement. That did the trick.
‘Looks like he learned to let go the hard way,’ I chuckled.
Luciano was in pieces, but evidently not enough because she stomped at some of the bigger chunks. She picked up a softball-sized piece and was about to throw it into the street when a car pulled in. It was one of the neighbors. I tried to imagine the scene from their perspective and how they might be putting this together in their heads so it made sense, but it was impossible. There wasn’t a rational explanation anyone could come up with for how we got to where we are now.
She let the piece fall to the ground, gave it a slow, controlled stomp, wiped her hands on her pants and made her way back to the porch, trying to act casual, all the while mouthing the words, ‘Let’s go. Get inside. Go.’
I tucked the hero under my arm, held the door for her and we made it inside before the neighbors had a chance to say hello or ask questions.
We poured ourselves fresh drinks and started clearing the evidence of our work off the table when I mentioned that we never took a picture. She batted the air and said it was just as well. She’d held onto the idea of Luciano for too long. It felt good to get rid of something she always thought would make things better but only did the opposite.
The next morning, I saw my pumpkin still there on the kitchen table. When I left for work I took him with me and stopped at the dumpster. I held him up and said, ‘Well, Nick. We’ve had some good times and we’ve had some bad times. We’ve been through a lot, but our time has come to an end.’
I tried to throw him at the back corner where he might go unnoticed until trash day, but I overcompensated. He banked off the metal wall and cracked in such a way that he landed in the middle looking back at me, his carefree smile now broken.
There. Now you’ve shuffled off your mortal coil. Whatever that means.
I heard one of the neighbors come out to the porch and clear his throat. ‘Morning.’
I gave a wave and didn’t slow down as I made my way to the car.
‘Everything okay? Things looked pretty crazy when we were pulling in last night.’
I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. Everything was fine.
‘Because it looked like—’
I got in the car and backed out. As I pulled through the parking lot I swerved to run over what was left of Luciano, braking on top of him for a second to make sure the neighbor saw me and what I was doing before I drove away.
NATHAN WILLIS is a writer from Ohio. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Across the Margin, 99 Pine Street, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Ink In Thirds. He was also a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter @Nathan1280