Two pumpkins sat on the neighbor’s deck. They had appeared three days ago and lent an air of cheeriness to the house. Jack did not know where they had come from. He assumed that either Kate or Thomas had put them there. They were good neighbors, Kate and Thomas. They were young and educated and kept largely to themselves. The couple had moved into their house at roughly the same time Jack had moved into his. They’d been at one or two parties together and sometimes chatted from their respective yards.
Jack watched his neighbor Kate one late Friday afternoon. He was pouring himself a drink when she pulled into her driveway. Mildly interested in the domestic scene unfolding before him, Jack took a lazy sip from his glass. The window from which he was watching framed the scene and exempted him from it, as his TV did to the news he occasionally watched.
Kate was attractive with a confident gait. She reminded Jack, on their first few meetings, of a girl he’d once known. The similarities between her and Kate wore off eventually, as did the memory of the girl.
Kate took a grocery bag out of the passenger’s seat and mounted the steps, approaching the pumpkins. The pumpkins roared with color their presence to the grey fall day. Swiftly, deftly, and seemingly apropos of nothing, Kate kicked one. Without pausing to see the pumpkin topple off the porch (it was low, without railings), Kate strode to the front door and opened it. It shut firmly behind her.
She had not hesitated after the kick. She had not taken a furtive glance around to see if anyone had been watching, as the one who was watching would have done. She did not appear to regret that her action resulted in an entrance that was not longer symmetrical.
The pumpkin landed in the grass, split open to reveal its innards. They were much lighter than the pumpkin’s smooth skin.
Jack sucked on an ice cube, reflecting. What the hell? When he next looked out, well into his second drink, Kate was in the yard surveying the carnage from the height of someone exempt from responsibility. Caught by an uncomfortable wave of emotion at the sight of a box elder bug making its way across a vast expanse of coffee table, Jack forgot Kate for a moment. When he looked out again, she was gone.
Jack took a seat in the leather chair that mushroomed out from the wood floor. His Friday had become dreamy and contemplative. He tried to draw some profound meaning from what Kate had done. He wasn’t sure there was one. He wasn’t even sure it had happened.
Since high school, and especially in college, the only thing that Jack had really heard in his English classes (for he had been an English major) was “What is the theme of this piece? What conclusion can be drawn from this work?” Jack wondered that now, in bed. He awoke with a pulsing headache and no conclusion. His head was still rushing from last night.
It was Saturday, sweet Saturday. There was nothing to do. He was not new in town or even at work, but he had no friends. He’d been so popular in college, he thought miserably to himself. What had changed, he asked. He leaned in to the bathroom mirror. Nothing had changed. Not even him. He was self-conscious enough to think himself attractive, though not incredibly so. But he was not remarkable. No one would call him that.
The phone rang. Jack let it ring for a while before moving urgently towards it as if it was a call he’d long been expecting.
“Hello?” he answered. “Oh, Mom, hi.” He was deflated. For a moment he’d hoped it was a friend he’d forgotten he had, calling him to talk in that fervent, rushing way that friends do when making last minute plans. The conversation with his mother continued dully, as it did each Saturday when she called. Jack said goodbye after numerous halfhearted chuckles and grunts of feigned interest.
The receiver clicked as it welcomed the phone back, and it was all suddenly clear. Kate had kicked the pumpkin because she was unhappy. She wasn’t satisfied. Jack stood in awe in the kitchen, stunned into stupor by his realization. Kate was pretty but sad, he saw now. That’s why she reminded him of that girl he used to know. Both girls were sad. Life hadn’t turned out as she thought it would. She had met Thomas in college (he remembered the couple saying so when they first met) and had thought that the glory of their simple togetherness would continue. That friends would still drop by, as casual and lovely as the falling leaves. That jobs would come and not pass, but grow more meaningful by the day.
Kate must have watched in dismay as those hopes dissolved, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until she kicked the pumpkin off of the porch. The job wasn’t fulfilling. It was mindless. The friends had married off and moved away.
Wondering how he could go out to get the mail after this monumental deduction, Jack went out to get the mail. He looked across the leafless lilac bushes and saw Kate exiting her own house.
“Hello,” she called out.
“Hello,” Jack responded. His heart thumped. He knew! He knew!
Their paths converged at the shared row of mailboxes.
“What a beautiful day!” she said.
“Yes, yes.” Jack was distracted by the sincerity of her voice. And yet she’s still so sad, he thought.
“I hope you’re doing well,” Kate smiled, studying him. “We rarely see you out and about anymore. And you weren’t at the Morenci’s last weekend.”
The who? Jack looked up.
“You used to come to all of those dinners,” Kate continued, helpfully.
He’d been invited to and attended far too many of those dinner parties. He’d even spoken of hosting one once, when he was courting a single girl who also frequented them. Morenci had invited Jack to one of these parties Jack’s first week of work. He’d gone and continued to go, associating with all of the successful people his age, gleaning from them less and less pleasure the more he went to.
“Well, you know how things are,” He replied shiftily.
Kate was politely puzzled. She was unclear as to how things were.
“Thomas and I are hosting next Saturday. There’s not one tonight, though,” she plowed on excitedly, “but you ought to come to the next. My girlfriend will be there, too. She’s visiting.”
Her last comment seemed to be a non sequitur until he realized what she was implying. A look suspiciously resembling pity crossed her young face. Confused, he gave a quick and forced smile and set to work inserting the key into the keyhole of his mailbox. Kate chattered on.
“You definitely must come. Thomas is making ratatouille. You know, we talked about it at Emma and Chase’s. Maybe you weren’t there.” She frowned. “But we all give him hell for not being able to cook.”
Jack thrust his hand blindly into the mailbox. God, this woman was positively sunny. It’s all a farce, though, he reminded himself. A well played game of charades. She didn’t know he’d witnessed the incident with the pumpkin. He felt as though he’d seen some private part of her and was now in on a secret. He would try to play along.
“Oh, a package.” Kate inspected a small box she’d retrieved along with a stack of magazines and envelopes.
Jack tapped the bills he’d received against his open palm. He was distracted by her ease and her grace. She did not appear to be burdened by any dead or dying dreams. Jack stood looking at her awkwardly for a moment before they wordlessly agreed that the mail had been checked.
“It was lovely seeing you!” Kate, standing on her top step just feet away from the remaining pumpkin, was enthusiastic in her goodbye. Her front door opened before she reached it, and Thomas’s head appeared, snaking around the door to see to whom Kate was talking.
“Oh, hello, Jack!” He waved.
“Hello!” Jack was by now thoroughly disheartened by the whole episode.
“What a gorgeous day!” Thomas was unaware that his just spouted meteorological line was almost identical to his spouse’s. His eyes lingered on the sole pumpkin as he smiled at what Kate was saying, something soft and gentle and too low for Jack to hear.
“Yes.” Thomas raised his voice replying to Kate for Jack’s benefit. “We’re going on a drive today. The leaves are brilliant.”
Jack was staring stonily at the porch that housed the beaming couple. He cleared his throat, faltering. “Well, uh, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. The leaves are beautiful.” His voice rose manically as the sentence ended. He could see no reason to continue this. He felt strangely wooden standing there on his porch. “Enjoy your ride. Goodbye, Thomas, Kate.”
“See you!” the two replied in unison.
Jack could still hear Kate talking as he went inside.
“Look, Tommy, we got a package.” There was a pause. Laughter seeped under Jack’s closed front door. The sound was loud and out of place in the silence of his foyer.
Jack’s eyes came upon a useless old umbrella stand, some supposed family heirloom. The impulse to kick it subsided when he exhaled the breath that he’d been holding.