Three Small Slices of Pumpkin Pie
By the middle of sixth grade almost every girl had her pumpkin, small and effervescently orange, tucked beneath her desk, the green vine laying neatly against her leg. Janet's own pumpkin seemed slightly smaller than most, the rind a bit green-speckled. She could expect that to change as she grew older, Mrs. Bannon had reassured her, patting the side of a heavy, burnt-orange gourd. Liver spots dappled the back of the woman's hand, the same ruddy color as the patches around the top of the fruit. Janet couldn't take her eyes off it. Even during science class, her favorite, her eyes returned again and again to the segmented curves of the ancient pumpkin sitting beside Mrs. Bannon's ankle.
By the end of seventh grade, the boys had stopped keeping their distance from the pumpkins, no longer shunning the girls with the orange globes, shiny hair, lip gloss. What was once strange had become alluring. Particularly bold boys would pinch leaves off the girls' vines during gym class. Janet hated the tug and subsequent snap, something like the moment before a strand of hair pulls loose of the scalp, but the burst of pain was so small Janet knew she shouldn't bother complaining about it. She took to wearing sweatpants in gym, baggy things she could tuck the length of her vine inside.
Skinny Alice Steadman had no leaves to pick yet. She always wore black sweaters and her long blond bangs covered most of her puppy-fat face. Janet liked sharing a seat with her on the bus. With only her own pumpkin to manage, there was more space for Janet's feet and book bag.
As a sophomore in college, Janet found herself rooming with Alice. They had no classes together—Alice was majoring in theater—but after dinner, they would share the window seat and hold their cigarettes carefully outside the open window. Their pumpkins, good-sized and a mellow orange by now, sat on the floor like patiently napping dogs.
Alice offered Janet a slug from her pocket flask. Some kind of cheap whiskey, it burned like mouthwash. Nothing like the White Russians Janet sipped at weekend parties. Janet made a face. "Bleh. I can't believe you drink this."
Alice snorted. She dyed her hair red now, and wore a great deal of dark eyeliner. "It's not for sissies. Matthew got me started on it." She stripped a stray leaf off her pumpkin's vine. Bare vines worn on top of skirts were the fashion this year, especially with a cropped shirt that showed the vine's joining at the belly button.
Janet took the flask from Alice's bony fingers and took another drink, bigger. "Matthew? The poet?"
Alice grinned. "The sexy poet." She took a long drag from her cigarette and held it, thinking a minute. A trickle of smoke ran out her nose before she managed to blow the rest carefully out the gap in the window. "It's weird. Since things got serious, he just wants to do the pumpkin. Same as all the others, I guess."
Janet watched the ashes flick from the tip of her cigarette, settling onto her pumpkin like a moth, or perhaps like her father's hand, always resting on her mother's pumpkin possessively. Her nose crinkled in distaste. "Have you? Done it, I mean? What's it like?"
"Cramped. Boring as shit. I got tired of it."
Janet rubbed the ash off her pumpkin with her toe. She looked for a reply, some kind of inoffensive way to say she'd never go out with a guy like Matthew, never let that happen to her, but there was nothing she could say. She reached for Alice's flask.
"It doesn't hurt," Alice said. "And it's the natural order of things, isn't it? Like women being smaller than men or wanting to have babies. It doesn't mean anything."
She didn't meet Janet's eyes when she passed the flask, even though Janet tried to smile at her. The whiskey made Janet's mouth go numb as it swirled over her tongue. Her head spun a little at the combination of alcohol and nicotine. She felt light, light enough she could leap out of this window and float up over the campus. She passed the flask back to Alice.
"That's enough for me. I still have calculus homework."
Alice took another sip of the bitter whiskey. The pumpkins sat on the floor, their silence as loud as a dog's when it sits waiting beside the front door.
Trapped things should demand to be let out.
Janet put off introducing Grant to her parents until less than a month before the wedding. There were a number of good reasons, project deadlines in the lab and the cost of travel figuring largely among them. But they needed to buy the marriage license less than sixty days before the actual wedding, and since Janet's parents were both hosting the wedding and footing the bill—her mother planning the whole thing, actually, a dream-like production of sugar and lace—she could find no more excuses to put off the event.
She squeezed Grant's hand repeatedly as they drove from the airport.
He pulled her hand up to his mouth and kissed the knuckles without taking his eyes off the road. "Are you okay?"
The light ahead changed to red. He fixed her with his hazel eyes. "You've nearly crushed my metacarpals into dust. And you look pale."
"Nothing. Just…you know, excited. And a little nervous."
"You don't think your parents will like me?"
"That's not it." She shook her head, as if she could shake out memories of her youth. "They're really old-fashioned. I don't want them to scare you off."
"They're not going to expect us to go to church or something, are they?"
She laughed. "No, they're not that kind of old-fashioned. They're just settled in their ways. And I haven't seen them in a while." She slugged him in the shoulder with her free hand. "Anyway, how could they not like you? You're fantastic."
He gave her hand a firm squeeze and then eased his hand free. "Tonight is going to go just fine."
Janet tried to reassure herself that he was right, but she still felt queasy when they pulled into the driveway of her parents' gray ranch-style house. Nothing had changed. She half expected her bike to still lean against the side of the garage or her roller skates to sit on the front porch. The same yellow tulips bloomed in the flowerbed beside the front door. She might have been fourteen years old again.
She stopped herself before simply opening the front door and pressed the button for the bell instead. The door flew open almost immediately, her mother's face beaming at her.
"Come in, darling! Oh, you must be Grant—" Other words were cut off in a press of hugs and a cloud of floral perfume. Rose petals. Janet's mom always smelled like rose petals. Janet put down her purse and pumpkin and wrapped both arms around her mother, wondering if the smell would rub off.
"Well, hello there, young man!"
Dad's voice boomed down the hall, as if he hoped to clear the space ahead of him before he entered it. He was still wearing his blue business suit, although the dinner hour had come and gone already. Grant smoothed the front of his polo.
"Let's get you kids inside. Have a seat." Janet's mom beamed. "Can I get you anything?"
"Libby, get the man a beer. And something to nibble on." Dad waved them to the couch, the cushions freshly plumped and antimacassared. He sank into the easy chair and took a handful of roasted pumpkin seeds. "So. Grant. Are you man enough for our little girl?"
He waved a dismissive hand at her. "Come on, Jan. Now's the time for the man to speak for himself." He tossed the seeds into his mouth.
Janet couldn't tear her eyes away from her father's teeth, so white, so huge and square. He seemed to have more than humanly possible. The pumpkin seeds disappeared between them, closed off from the world by a gleaming front of incisors and bicuspids.
"Well, sir, I'm not sure what you mean by your question. Am I a man?" Grant shrugged. "Janet seems to think so. And so did the U.S. Navy."
Dad grinned. "That's good! I was an Army man, myself. But I like Navy boys just fine. Takes a lot of discipline to run a ship." He swung around in his seat. "Libby! Where are those beers?"
Janet could not remember a time when her father had taken a beer out of the refrigerator himself.
Her father swatted Grant on the leg, a sure sign he liked him. "But of course, what I really mean is how long do you think it'll take you to convince Janet to stop working at that goddamn lab? Dirty place like that is no place for a woman."
Grant grinned. "At least at the lab I can keep my eye on her."
Janet gave him a sharp look. He winked at her.
Dad roared with laughter. "Damn straight. I like you, Grant." He gave the couple a benevolent smile before reaching for a bowl on the coffee table. "Pumpkin seeds? Libby makes the best."
Her father held up the glass bowl, its sides cut in diamond-shaped facets that caught the light and broke it into tiny rainbows. The seeds inside were dull, brown with Worcestershire and chili powder. Their acrid scent made a pungent counterpoint to the rose perfume still clinging to Janet's sweater.
She looked at the seeds and tried not to think where they came from. Her stomach twisted on itself.
Grant smiled and lifted his hand in polite acceptance. Hesitated.
Janet's mother pressed a brown bottle into his palm. "Your beer, dear boy."
"Of course." Grant blinked back at her, as if rising from the depths of some deep pool of thought. "Just what I wanted."
"What took you so long, Libby?" Dad's teeth flashed as he chomped another handful of the seeds.
She shifted from foot to foot, smiling awkwardly. "I couldn't find the bottle opener. I'd put it in the wrong drawer."
"You silly little thing."
Libby snatched up the bowl of pumpkin seeds. "I'll go refill this. Dessert's in about half an hour." She gave a little laugh. "Does anybody need anything else from the kitchen?"
Janet moved to stand, but her father waved her back into her seat. "Libby's got this. You're company tonight, Janet. You just sit here and enjoy some time with your dear old dad." He gave Libby a tap on the butt as she turned to leave the room.
Grant patted Janet's knee. She watched her mother disappear into the kitchen and resisted the urge to put her pumpkin on her lap and hide it in her arms.
Janet's therapist had reminded her twice this session that the impending divorce was not her fault. Fault was never the right word, Louisa maintained. Fault implied shame and failure, whereas divorce was a time for growth. It was a chance to reestablish the self. Louisa had even made a recording of empowering music and phrases for Janet to listen to during her morning runs. She tripped every time she heard Louisa's cheerful voice between the power ballads.
The house sat quietly around her, waiting for her to fill it with activity. Since the day Grant packed his bags, she'd found herself going through the house and turning on devices in different rooms: the TV in the living room, the fan in the bathroom, the clock radio in Delia's old room. Things might have been easier if Delia had been home still, but the marriage had held itself together until the girl's first year of college.
Janet checked her voicemail and felt her body go stiff at the sound of Grant's voice.
"Hi, Janet. You might want to go out this afternoon around four o'clock. Megan's going to stop by to help me pack up the last of my stuff. That would probably be awkward. Well, thanks. Bye."
She sagged on the end of her bed, her damp jogging suit clinging to her, her pumpkin a lead weight in its backpack. Her bones felt too weak to hold everything up. Megan. Here. In her house. For a moment she thought she might throw up.
Janet kicked off her running shoes. "Fucking bitch. Fucking homewrecker."
Her socks resisted her attempts to slide them down her foot, but she clawed them off. "Stupid, good-for-nothing husband-stealing whore!"
She tore off all her clothes, not caring if threads popped as she tugged and pulled, threw them uncaring where they landed. She wished she could throw every stinking sweat-soaked scrap right into Megan's unlined face and suffocate her with the stench of them.
The pumpkin slid out of the backpack with a thud. Its rind looked dull and blotchy after all these years, almost as mottled as old Mrs. Bannon's. Janet crumpled onto the floor beside it, feeling the polyester threads of the carpet bite into her bare skin. She pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes and willed the tears to stay inside them today. She wouldn’t cry so much if she really believed this was all Megan's fault. If she believed that a younger face, a younger body was what Grant really wanted.
It was easy to remember the first time she had met Megan. Janet had stopped by Grant's office for a surprise lunch date, and he'd cheerfully introduced the newest member of the admissions team. It was nice to see someone more mature than the fresh-faced graduates the department usually hired, although Janet had been surprised by the meekness of Megan's handshake. The tall brunette had looked so confident, so put together.
Janet rubbed her eyes and let the spots clear from them. She herself had always taken pride in her firm grip. Men always commented on it. It was her trademark, like her pixie cut hair and red blazers. Grant had always said she looked good in red.
She wrapped her arms around her knees, taking the deep breaths Louisa recommended. The movement prompted the pumpkin to fall onto its side, its gray stem prickly against her bare leg. The pumpkin. Always the pumpkin. It was the only constant of a woman's life. Boobs fell, ovaries blew themselves out, men sought better company, children grew distant, but the pumpkin never left.
She lifted it to eye level. She had rarely examined the thing with any care. It was enough to know it was there, its loud orange shell drawing the eye before any of her features or her clothes. The first thing anyone saw when they saw a woman. She turned it slowly around.
The pumpkin was heavy, but not so heavy that she had to really work to hold it up. She wondered what kind of pumpkin it might be. Megan carried an oversized rouge vif d'etamps; Janet's mother had a run-of-the-mill Jack, oblong and very yellow. Her fingers traced the gourd's curves as she supported its weight on one palm. As pumpkins went, hers was really quite nice.
But something squished beneath her finger. A damaged spot, perhaps a nick or dent from falling out of the pack. She rubbed at it idly, watching bits of hard shell flake off. The flesh beneath looked so tender. Delicate. She picked another chunk of shell free. The gold-orange meat beneath parted a little.
She couldn't help it. It was too much like a peeling scab or a bad sunburn—she had to pick at it. She broke off another piece of the shell and the flesh seemed to exhale, a tiny sigh that carried a hint of sweetness, like a leaf pile steaming in autumn sunshine. She couldn't look away from the gap spreading around the top of the pumpkin, parting layers of shell and flesh, revealing the golden tendrils within.
The top of the pumpkin fell onto the floor. Janet stared at the goo-filled hollow within. There were seeds packed in there, but their surface looked smooth and therapeutic, like the wooden wheels on the back massager she'd once given Grant.
She stood up and put the pumpkin on the floor. It wasn't very big. She put her toes down inside the moist tendrils and seeds, feeling them swallow up each digit like a cool mouth. Her foot disappeared up to the ankle.
"Jesus, Janet—what the hell are you doing?"
She turned her head to the doorway. Grant stood alone, an empty tote bag dangling from his fist. His eyes looked large and stunned behind new horn-rimmed glasses.
She'd forgotten he was coming over this afternoon. She felt the pumpkin give a little shudder, grow a little looser. It knew there was a man in the room. She put her other foot inside it.
"Didn't you ever wonder what it would be like? To do the pumpkin?"
He said nothing, but she saw his Adam's apple bob.
"Have you and Megan done it?"
"Is that really any of your business?"
Her lips tightened. "Is she with you right now?"
He shook his head. He was staring at her tits instead of her face. She felt a hot surge of triumph in her chest, and the cool moisture of pumpkin innards around her knees.
"The lid is on the floor."
He dropped the tote bag and walked toward her. "Why?"
But she didn't answer. She dropped to a crouch and pressed her cheek to her knees. She saw the shadow of his hand holding the pumpkin lid and then everything disappeared into a warm darkness and the feeling of seeds like teeth pressing up against her face. She had never been so small, so perfectly defined and restrained.
There was a strange feeling of movement, like an elevator, and then a warming of one side of the pumpkin rind. He had picked up the pumpkin and he was holding it against his chest. She could picture it as if she stood beside him.
"I needed to do this to you," he said, and she heard the thud of his heartbeat reverberate all around her.
She pressed her hands to the walls of the pumpkin and felt their stiffness, their strength, and she pushed up against the lid. It did not wiggle, not even the tiniest bit. She knew then that he held the lid down tight.
His heart thudded, faster, excited. "I wanted this so much."
Tendrils and seeds pressed closer around Janet's face. She could no longer move her fingers or arms, she was so tightly packed into the juicy entrails. The slick seeds burrowed into her eyelids, her nostrils. Janet gasped for air and felt seed-slime run into her mouth.
It tasted like roses.
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of Skinwalkers, a Pathfinder Tales novel inspired by Viking lore. Her short fiction has appeared in many successful anthologies, including Shattered Shields, Armored, and The Way of the Wizard, and magazines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Lovecraft eZine. She is the guest editor of Nightmare Magazine's Queers Destroy Horror! special issue, and the nonfiction editor of Lightspeed's Women Destroy Science Fiction!, which was named one of NPR's Best Books of 2014. She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family. Find her at winniewoohoo.com.