Dan Conradt: This is the best jack-o-lantern EVER!
We'd been picking through a sea of orange when Steven made a discovery: "Dad! Look at this one! It's perfect!"
I was holding a pumpkin that had an uncanny resemblance to Ernest Borgnine. I put Ernest back on the pile so I could see what Steven had found.
The pumpkin he was cradling in both arms weighed half as much as he did. It was bigger than a basketball, completely symmetrical and an unblemished shade of bright orange.
He might have found the perfect pumpkin.
We paid our $3, and Steven and his pumpkin shared the back seat on the ride home.
I carried the pumpkin in from the garage, spread newspaper over the kitchen table and used a Magic Marker to trace a circle around the three inches of vine still sprouting from the top of the pumpkin. I dug through a kitchen drawer until I found a paring knife, then cut along the circle, angling the edges so the cap wouldn't fall back in and snuff out the candle when the time came.
The top lifted off, dangling strings of pumpkin guts.
"Eeeeww!" Steven said. "I'm not touching that!"
I changed about a million diapers when Steven was a baby. Pumpkin guts don't bother me.
I scooped goop out of the pumpkin and put it on a plate. We separated the seeds, spread them on a cookie sheet, sprinkled them with salt and slid them into the oven.
It's another of our Halloween traditions.
"What kind of face should we give him?" Steven asked as the kitchen filled with the aroma of baking pumpkin seeds.
"Maybe we could do something like this," I said, and I sketched a face on the back of an envelope. It had beady eyes and a crinkly mouth that turned down at the corners.
Steven studied the drawing.
"No, I think we should make him look happy." He took the envelope and made a diagram of two triangle-shaped eyes with tiny pupils in the corners and a triangular nose. The mouth was curled into a snaggletooth smile, with two teeth showing on top and one on the bottom.
"What about something like this?" he asked.
"I like it!"
I used the marker to draw the face on the side of the pumpkin, and Steven offered constructive criticism -- the eyes needed to be bigger and farther apart; the nose needed to be smaller and a little to the left; the corners of the mouth needed to curl up more.
He inspected my revisions and declared them "Perfect," and I poked the blade of the paring knife through the pumpkin shell to start carving an eye.
I sliced around the outline, then pushed from the inside. An eye-shaped wedge of pumpkin popped out onto the table.
We had the start of a jack-o-lantern.
"Can I do the next one?" Steven asked.
I let him hold the knife, but kept my hand over his as we pushed the tip through the shell. With the cut started, I let him trace the shape of the eye.
The nose came next, then the toothy smile.
We stood back to admire our work.
"He looks great!" Steven asked.
"I know how we can make him look even better," I said.
I pulled a candle out of a catch-all drawer, lit it and managed to set it in the bottom of the pumpkin without burning my hand.
The candle gave off a faint pine scent, which was not unpleasant with the smell of fresh pumpkin.
"Let's turn off the lights!" Steven suggested.
In the darkness the candle threw a smiling six foot shadow on the wall.
"This is the best jack-o-lantern EVER!" Steven said.
He was right.
"We have to give him a name," I said.
Steven got thoughtful.
"What about 'Jack'?"
Not the most creative name I've ever heard for a jack-o-lantern, but he looked like a Jack.
We sat in the dark and munched pumpkin seeds that were still warm from the oven. The furnace kicked in, and a current of air caused the candle to flicker and gave motion to the six foot shadow.
And I would have sworn that the smiling face winked at us.
Maybe it did.
After all, it's Halloween.