Family Lore

by Dan Brodnitz

We were seventeen years old and driving up to Vermont in Dave's car: Danny, Dave, Sherry, and me -- Dave at the wheel. To pass some time, we reminisced about a former friend, last name Bigelow, even dorkier than us and generally pitied; but yes, a few years before we'd hung out with him a little and, OK, the three of us guys had all played Dungeons and Dragons at Bigelow's house more than once. No denying it, Bigelow had a Charlie Brown head.

The day was going smoothly enough. High spirits, no traffic. And then Dave dropped the bomb. His parents, nice folks: religious, thin, outdoorsy, and quiet -- in the privacy of their home they had a nickname for poor Bigelow. They called him "Pumpkin Head."

And this kind of horrified Danny and me -- that Dave's thin parents with their outdoorsy ways could sit in the living room, fire burning, Dave and his older brother reading religious books on the couch, Dave's parents in their favorite firm armchairs, in front of the fire, sitting fragile and tall; and then Dave's dad looks up from his fly fishing magazine and he says:

"Maw?" corn patch twang.

"Yes, Paw?" her voice, floating up river with a long, steady beat between each word.

"You know that Bigelow boy David plays the devil game with?"

"Yes, Paw," turning a page in last year's almanac while Dave and his brother tune in, silently anticipating.

"You ever look at his skull up close like?"

"Yes, Paw."

"I been thinkin', Hell if it don't look like a . . ."

"Yes, Paw?"

". . . like a PUMPkin." And Paw lets loose some shallow breathing, puppy dog pleased with himself, while Maw looks over and mock scolds him, a light slap on the knee.

Another pause. Then, "Paw?" carefully placing her book on a small oak table that sits in between them.

"Yes, Maw?"

"From now on, let's call him . . ." one more pause as she smiles wide, "PUMPkin Haid!" And Dave's whole family just laughs and laughs until his brother laughs himself onto the floor, gasping for air, pleading for mercy and a hand up so he can return to his spot on the couch.

Well I'm sure that's not how it happened, and, in point of fact, both his parents have network news accents or close enough, but that's how we rode Dave while he drove the car and us in it from New Jersey, through Massachusetts, all the way up to Vermont and a week with his folks at the house his family owned. His grandfather had designed that house, carefully landscaped the property -- huge by New Jersey standards -- to make it look like something pulled from a painting. That's what Dave would tell us. Of course, we'd have to wait a day or two before he was ready to hand out any more family lore.

As we continued to speed north, conversation in that car just slowed to a halt. Dave was understandably irritable, and I was more than a little creeped out. It was a brutal decade: adults making fun of thirteen-year olds and Reagan in the White House.

Copyright © 1996
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