MY GRANDFATHER SHOWED SIGNS OF SEVERE DEMENTIA after grandma died. It took about eight years, but the poor man slowly slipped away from us. The Alzheimer's left nothing of us, his kids, or his wife in his memory. We were all strangers to him. But it afforded us the interesting opportunity to see grandpa as a rebellious teenager. Needless to say, it was strange. My older brother Charlie used to say grandpa went nuts because he saw something called Pumpkin bones. I didn’t believe it, but I was obsessed by that. That idea was magical too me, and frightening.
Every Halloween, I’d ask my brother to explain to me what this thing was, and his cheesy answers only fueled my love for weird stuff.
“Where did Pumpkin Bones come from again, Charlie?” I asked, the night before halloween. I was warm under my blankets, listening to the quiet accrue around our house like the frost.
Charlie grumbled. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“But it’s halloween,” I said.
I heard him sigh and sit up in his bed. He clicked on his flashlight, and he held it up to his face. He paused. “Pumpkin Bones rattles in the night,” he hissed. I loved it. “Sometimes it’s waiting in the woods or lurking under sewer grates. You know, typical monster bull. You remember the McQueen family?” he asked. “Their daughter, Mandy, I have a class with her, she saw it,” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“She’s in some hospital, I think, I don’t know.” Charlie said.
I swore out loud. “Keep it down, Nathan,” Charlie said.
I watched the door. I wouldn’t put it past mom listening at the door. “Sorry,” I said. Charlie threw his pillow at me.
“Go to sleep. Tomorrow’s Halloween.” His flashlight clicked off.
I woke the next morning to the smell of pumpkin pancakes. Charlie was already up. I flung my blankets to the floor and stumbled to the kitchen. Dad stood by the stove, frying eggs and pancakes.
“There’s the man,” he said.
He put down his spatula and wiped his hands on his Bela Legosi apron leaving a spider web of greasy finger prints on the classic Dracula’s face. I looked down at the hideous Frankenstein’s monster slippers, the rattling eyes stared up at me. Dad pushed his glasses up his nose.
“You ready to eat, boy?” He plated me up some grub and I sat down next to my brother who heaped another helping of bacon on his plate. Mom lowered the newspaper when I sat and looked out at me from behind her bat wing eye glasses -- fashionable for Halloween -- and smiled.
“Hi, baby cakes,” she said. I grunted.
“You excited?” she asked.
“Damn right he’s excited.” Charlie said.
“Watch your mouth, dear,” Mom said.
I spent the rest of the day watching all the monster and horror movies we had. Later, I walked past my parent’s bedroom and heard my name. I looked inside and saw Dad sitting on his bed. “Get in here,” he said, waiving me in.
“Make it quick, daddy-o, I got work to do,” I said, then really wished I hadn’t. It sounded so much cooler in my head. Dad just kinda looked at me a second.
“Well, okay then,” Dad said, standing. “I got something for you, Nathan. Close your eyes.”
“Come on, Dad?” I asked.
“Just do it,” He turned and rummaged through a box on the floor. “Are your eyes closed?”
“Yeah.” I restrained the obscenities. I felt dad’s hand engulf mine, slapping something in my palm. I opened my eyes and in my hand was a large jewelry box.
“Geez Dad, aren’t you already married?”
“Smart ass,” he said.
I opened the box, dreading Dad’s infamous lameness. A face stared out at me with stern, unyielding black eyes. I picked up the small object and revealed the black chain dangling from it. A pocket watch, the protective cover ornately decorated with the face of an ancient watcher, a face from the medieval period, bearded, angry, frowning and beautiful. I opened the clock lid, revealing bold roman numerals, and slender hands waltzing around the numbers like wrought iron scarecrow legs. The orange twilight glow of fire from under a black cauldron blazed behind the hands. Three figures stood around it, swirling the ghostly broth with wooden spoons.
“You like it?” he asked.
“Yeah, where’d you get this?” I asked.
“Your Great Grandpa gave this to my Dad on his tenth birthday. I thought your grandpa lost it, but I found it in this box.” Dad motioned to one of the many boxes of grandpa’s stuff. Recently Grandpa had been rapidly falling ill. So Mom, Dad, his sister Margret and her husband Jim, decided grandpa needed assisted living. Grandpa was not thrilled, but he didn’t really know what was happening anyway. “I loved this watch, Nathan.” Dad sat down on the edge of the bed. “I stole it from his dresser one year and wore it outside. I almost lost it. Grandpa went nuts. I think that’s when he hid it.”
I looked up at dad. “Dad,” I asked. “How is Grandpa?”
“Not well,” He said. “Listen, why don’t you finish getting ready. Mom’s downstairs making dogs and beans and Susan will be here soon.” I closed the watch lid and handed it back. “No, no.” he said. “That’s for you. Wear it. I can’t think of a better time than Halloween night to use it.”
“Why didn’t you give it to Charlie?”
“I tried. He didn’t want it. He thought it was cool, but he’s not interested as much as he used to be.”
I left and passed the window in the hall. I glanced out onto an autumn world of orange leaves that skipped down the road like marionettes. The sky burned like the pumpkin glow at midnight as the sun cast the last illuminating breaths over the street. I went back into our room for my costume.
“Hurry, up,” Charlie shouted at me as I passed him. “Susan’ll be here soon, try not to embaras us all this time?” He said
I said nothing and smiled. I watched him leave then sat on my bed. Last august I saw Susan in her bikini out back with Charlie, and she saw my shameful boner through my swimming trunks. That bastard always brought that up. I felt kind of stunned, just angry I couldn’t let those words past me. But there was no way in hell I could let him know how it hurt. I got up and opened the closet, removing my costume. I put the vest and the heavy cloak my mom made around my body, slipping my arms into the long, almost monk like, black sleeves, the lining a blood scarlet. I pinned the watch chain across my stomach. Looking sinister, and I went downstairs and saw Mom lighting the jack o’ lanterns, their eyes and mouths dancing and flickering like firefly sprites on the porch steps. She wore a white wig and a cheap witch’s hat. The sun became a strawberry smear on the far corner of the sky, fleeing the phalanx of the oncoming night. It was dark enough that the moon was already making her slow and grand arrival like the pale lady dressed in an elegant ghostly dress at some ghoulish ball.
“Hi Mom,” I said. “What do you think?” Mom looked up from the scarecrow she put on the lawn next to tombstones, coffins and skeletal remains. “Need help?” I asked.
“Well, Margret and Jim will be here soon with Grandpa. You could help with the food.” I regretted offering my services immediately.
“Can’t I just hand out candy?” Four kids walked through our wrought iron gate, looking up at the makeshift gallows Dad hung from the fake Victorian London street lamps along the brick path. Dad came out of the front door. “Beth!” he called to my mother. “Beth, did you turn on the fog machines?”
“Uh,” mom replied, really thinking hard. “Yes.”
“Where’s the fog?” he asked. The kids looked up at him, a grown man dressed like a pirate, looking like a drunk and a scoundrel with a dash of debonair intellect.
“Beth, where’s the fog then?” Dad called.
“I don’t know. You turn it on.”
Dad swore “Here,” he said handing me the bowl. “Give out the candy.” He fled down the steps. “Wait,” he said. “Do you smell something burning, Nathan?”
“The food!” Mom cried. She ripped off her hat, racing up the steps past me, and cursing me as she passed.
“You said I could hand out candy!” I called after her.
My aunt and uncle’s van pulled up our driveway. My grandpa wobbled out on creaking knees, but his wrinkled face looked stone cold cruel. His white hair was greased up, he wore a leather jacket, and a distinct lucky strike dangled from his lip. This wasn’t a costume. Aunt Margret and Uncle Jim followed behind him with my cousins.
“Hey, Grandpa,” I said.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Nathan,” I said. “David’s son.”
He inhaled smoke then dropped the cigarette, stamping it out with new black cowboy boots. “Look,” he said. “I don’t know who’re talking about, but I aint got no son.” Aunt Margret and Uncle Jim came up behind him, smiled a hello to me, unwilling to even try and correct Grandpa. He limped passed me. I wanted to hug him, but I knew I couldn’t. I felt in shock. Aunt Margret placed a hand on my shoulder and complimented my costume then asked where my parents were. I said somewhere. Jim greeted me the same, asked if my Dad had any beers left, it was one hell of a day apparently. My cousins Carole and George passed by, swiping candy. Dad came out on the porch and relieved me of my candy duties, pulling the upside down, severed head candy bowl from me.
“Go on in, and say hello,” he said.
The family was in the living room, drinking cider served from a witch’s cauldron my mom found somewhere. Charlie and Susan were sitting on the sofa together.
“Hey Nathan,” Susan said.
“Hi,” I said.
“Uh oh,” Charlie said. “Looks like you got him excited again. Don’t get a boner, dude.”
Susan punched his shoulder. “Shut up, Charles.”
“Thanks,” I said, and turned away. My face went red behind the makeup. Why was he always saying these things around her? My embarrassment disappeared when I saw Grandpa sitting close by Aunt Margret, a proximity limit she implemented, with his arms crossed. He glanced over at Susan and us, winked and pulled out something from his jacket pocket. “Is grandpa cleaning his fingernails with a switch blade?” I asked. The blade flashed open like a little piece of lightening, and he expertly dug the grit from his fingernails, blowing kisses across the room.
`“Jesus Christ, Dad,” Aunt Margret said pulling blade out of his hands. “Don’t worry. It’s just a trick comb.”
“I aint your Dad,” he said. “But I’ll be her daddy.”
Charlie laughed. Susan looked a little worried now. Aunt Margret’s face went blank and hollow while Charlie still giggled in my ears, but I couldn’t stop watching her. She put the fake comb switchblade in her pocket. Uncle Jim placed his arm around his wife. “I know,” he said. “I know.” Charlie stopped laughing.
“Come on,” Charlie said. “Let’s get out of here.” He stood, taking Susan’s hand. “You want to go out now, Nathan?” he asked.
“Yeah!” I said running upstairs and grabbing my pillow case for the night’s loot. I came back and Grandpa fought to keep a flask from Aunt Margret.
“Well, Nathan,” Charlie said. “Susan? You ready for Old Pumpkin Bones?”
The struggling stopped behind us. My aunt stumbled back when Grandpa let the flask loose. He stood, with some difficulty, and said, “You say Pumpkin Bones?”
“Uh, yeah,” Charlie said.
“You’ve seen him, haven’t you?” Grandpa grinned. “I have, you wanna see where? I’ll show ya, let’s go.”
“Oh, Christ,” Uncle Jim said. “Get that man back in his seat. Dementia and Halloween do not go together.” Uncle Jim put his hand on Grandpa’s shoulder, settling him into a chair and handing him back his flask. “Here,” Uncle Jim said. “Pass out.”
Grandpa snatched the bottle and took a sip. “Go on without me, I’ll catch up.”
We walked out onto the brick path and Dad called out, “Have a good time, don’t eat any children now, you hear?”Our feet clapped over the wet pavement as we crossed the street. I looked up at the yellow, pock marked moon through the twisted and decrepit bare branches of the neighbor’s tree. The October night filled my lungs with ghostly footprints of fallen leaves, and pumpkin. What a good night, i tried to tell myself, but the image of grandpa hung with me, like millstone around the neck. I was frustrated.
“Grandpa’s really gone, isn’t he?”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” Susan said. Charlie didn’t say anything.
I felt pretty badass in that outfit, regardless. I only wish I hadn’t tripped on my way back from the first house door. “Smooth one, Drac,” Charlie said.
“Leave him alone, you shit,” Susan said. We started walking off down the street to the next house.
“You see, at least someone loves me,” I said.
“I love you,” Charlie said, slipping the hockey mask up on top of his head. “Who else will give you your first cigarette?” Charlie pulled out his pack and gave one to Susan and I. “Come on,” he said.
“Don’t make him,” Susan said, removing a lighter from her pocket. “He’s just a kid.” I couldn’t believe she said that. I thought she always had my back. At first I didn’t want to smoke.
“Give it here,” I said.
“Atta boy,” Charlie said. He lit the cigarette in my mouth. He laughed when I coughed. “You all right?” he asked.
“I think I’ll be okay,” I said. The veins in my head throbbed with the flutter of a headache. I inhaled again and wished I hadn’t.
“I’m sorry man. Put that thing out.” Charlie said.
“Why’d you let him have one,” Susan asked.
“Ah hell I don’t know,” Charlie said. “Here, put it out.” I dropped the cigarette and stamped it out. “You wanna go home?” Charlie asked.
“No,” I said. “We’ve only been to one house.”
”Look I’d rather you spew at home than on the street,” Charlie said.
“But it’s Halloween,” I said.
“You don’t look so good, hun,” Susan said. “We should take him home.”
I knew if I didn’t sit down I’d vomit. I lumbered over and sat down under a tree in the neighbor’s lawn. Charlie and Susan sat down on either side of me. Charlie put his arm around my shoulder and Susan felt my forehead.
“I’m sorry, man,” Charlie said. “I really wanted to have a good night.”
“Me too,” I said, watching the rippling mass of costumed boys and girls. A recorded shriek sounded form a lawn decoration somewhere nearby.
“We should quit, Susan,” Charlie said.
“Yeah” she said. “I don’t want to die of lung cancer.”
We sat huddled together in the breeze watching witches and madmen. We heard cursing, and the patter of feet.
“Is that grandpa?” I asked.
Grandpa hurtled toward us, yelling, “Follow me!” He flashed past us over the side walk and through the crowds. We heard Uncle Jim somewhere swearing while Charlie stood up. Grandpa limped away on his old knees, I was terrified he’d buckle and be trampled.
“Christ,” Charlie said and ran off down the side walk. Susan stood too. “Wait,” she called. Susan and I followed the annoyed voices until we came to the end of the block where Polaris Ave crossed with Apollo Blvd. We found Charlie staring down Apollo coughing into his hand.
“Where’d he go?” Susan heaved.
“There,” I said pointing down the street toward Starburst St.
“Oh hell,” Charlie said. “He’s heading for the gas station.” He didn’t have to say why. It was the first place for the next three miles that sold booze. Everything else were houses.
Grandpa was leaning against the wall, smoking his cigarette, as we approached the gas station. He saw us then waved us over. He looked exhausted, thin, wrinkled. My heart was pounding from fear more than running down here. For the first time in my life, I genuinely feared for the safety of a family member. I never wanted to feel like that again.
“You made it,” he said.
“Grandpa, what the hell are you doing here,” Charlie asked.
Grandpa flicked his cigarette at Charlie and said, “Don’t any of you dare call me that no more.” Grandpa patted his jacket pocket hiding the switchblade. Charlie didn’t say anything. A man got out of his parked car, and started past us toward the store entrance. “Never mind,” grandpa said, watching this guy. “Hey,” grandpa said. The man turned. “Hey sir, you look like a kind fellow. How about buying me a bottle?” Grandpa offered money. I saw the pink bills. It was monopoly dollars. I looked up at Charlie. His eyes seemed to ask the same question I was thinking: What happened to grandpa? The man looked at him for a moment then looked at us.
“Right man. Happy Halloween.” He chuckled and walked onward into the store.
Grandpa swore. “All right, folks. Let’s go.”
“Maybe we should head home,” Charlie said.
“No, no, no,” Grandpa said. “You need to see this, because I saw it last Halloween, on the old bridge. I guarantee you’ll see it too.”
“The bridge near East Oaks Cemetery?” I asked.
Grandpa grinned. “Yes indeed,” he said.
“The bridge isn’t that far,” Charlie said turning to Susan and I. “Maybe we could take him then head back home.”
Smoke billowed out of Grandpa’s nostrils. “All right, that’s the ticket. Come on.” We followed grandpa down Starburst Ave past antique shops decorated with pumpkin buckets from the 30’s with the wide grins and giant green eyes, past the old tea shop and crossed into another neighborhood. The sky was studded with a thousand sparkling piercings in the backdrop of dark flesh. Clouds whispered past the moon like mustard gas. Distinct figures of trick- or-treaters scurried across the street like insects. The neighborhood ended in a black road between tall evergreens with heavy boughs, twisting into faces and leers in the wind. Son we heard rustle and ripple of the water sounding below the bridge and growing when we neared. Grandpa leaned against the old Victorian stone, his leathered elbows scratching over the dewy stone.
I tried so hard not to cry. He was mentally crippled. Mentally dying. Charlie looked back at me as grandpa remained silent and smoked. Susan started walking toward me and charlie stopped her, then came over to me. “We’ll be okay,” he said, resting his arm around me. All I could do was nod my head. “We’ll be home soon.”
“Here,” grandpa said. “We’re in the right spot.” We gazed down the path of the glittering stream where it bent around the heavily forested hill. Beyond were the cemetery hills and in the autumn night, the cracked tombstones and weeping angels guarded the resting bodies. Our thin eyesight discerned the distinct outline of the iron fence encircling the colonial graveyard.
“I was here,” grandpa said. “When I saw it. It was down there.” He pointed off to the curving water. “It stumbled down the hill, over the fence and through those trees there then splashed its way through the water. It looked like it had three legs, or maybe a tail. A gigantic head. Then it slithered away over those rocks, and disappeared. I swear it was dragging a body.”
“What do you think it was?” Susan asked.
“Hell if I know. It was Pumpkin Bones,” Grandpa said. “I guess I’m not supposed to know. All I know is I didn’t want it seeing I saw it.” We waited, listening to the stream pass under the bridge, passing over the black rocks glistening under the sparkling moonbeams. “I remember,” Grandpa said. “Last year, I had this watch.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yep,” He said. “I was looking at it when I saw the damn thing. I must have dropped it.” Grandpa leaned his head and shook it. “It was black, with a black chain. It looked like coal.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember,” Grandpa said. He looked up and stared out onto the cemetery, his eyes like broken search lights, twirling in the hope they would blink back on. “My old man gave it to me. We were walking home this way once, and he gave it to me. I don’t know where he got it.”
I pulled the watch out of the vest pocket and unfastened the chain. I held it out in my hand. “I found this here, recently. Is it yours?” Grandpa’s face betrayed nothing in his head. I thought I offended him and my grin felt stupid.
“Where’d you find it?” He asked.
“Here, I was walking along one day and saw it. Here, take it.”
He picked up the watch, the glistening chain rattling in the dark like snake skin. He pressed the lid release. The orange clock face glinted. He held it up to his ear and we vaguely heard the click of the hands. “This is it.” He said, almost a whisper.
“Take it, Grandpa.” I said then I looked up at him, then back at wide eyed Charlie. We waited unsure what to expect. But Grandpa didn’t look angry at all by my slip. His face softened. He smiled. He reached out and touched my arm.
“Get bent and stop calling me Grandpa,” he said. But he still smiled. I smiled back but as soon as it came, whatever it was that still stirred within him, rolled back on itself and vanished. Then he removed his hand from my arm, and looked away from me. Grandpa was gone.
Charlie and Susan led the way back home. I stayed behind with Grandpa wanting to ask about the watch, but didn’t say anything. I just kept my eyes on the surrounding neighborhoods, watching the few late nighters return home. Uncle Jim’s van pulled up behind us when we turned onto our street. “God damn it!” we heard him shout out the window. “Where the hell did you find him?”
“The liquor store,” I said.
“Christ!” he said, rubbing his head. “Get in the car, I’ll drive you back.”
Uncle Jim explained they called the police and freaked out. My father stood standing with his cell phone in his hand, waiting in the drive way as we pulled up. He waved then spoke into the phone, hanging up. When Aunt Margret and Uncle Jim were ready to leave, George and Carole sleeping in the backseat, I watched Grandpa through the window, his head down, continually reaching into his jacket pocket, shaking his head then replacing the watch back in his pocket. Grandpa was gone.
Charlie didn’t say anything until the lights were off in our bedroom, but I didn’t want to listen. I imagined the rattling branches against our window was the passing shuffle of Pumpkin Bones like a dream fluttering away. “I remember when Halloween wasn’t real anymore,” he said. “You’ll get over it.” But I didn’t want to listen.
by Bill Pieper