Winter 2001, Volume 18.2
Kristine A. Somerville
Kristine Somerville lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she serves as a senior advisor for The Missouri Review and works as the tutorial coordinator for the University of Missouri football program. Her short stories and prose poems have appeared in a variety of magazines, including The North American Review, Hayden's Ferry, Quarterly West, The American Literary Review, The Portland Review, and Many Mountains Moving.
This morning at the kitchen table over coffee, my dad reads in the paper that at the zoo you can feed left-over Halloween pumpkins to Sassy the hippopotamus and her daughter Rae. Only our smallest pumpkin survived. The other two are scattered, orange puzzle pieces on the front lawn not far from where they were smashed against the trunk of a tree.
"You sit here, Jack," my dad says. He gently places the pumpkin on the car seat between us. We carved it too early. Thick green fuzz grows out of its triangle eyes. Even more fuzz in the cracks of its gappy teeth.
"Buckle up," he says as he backs the car down the drive.
"Dad, please," I say, trying not to sound too mean. Lately, he acts like the slightest criticism hurts.
"Don't worry," he says. "I meant you, not him."
We drive down the highway mostly empty at eight on a Saturday morning. Dad pops candy corn in his mouth, probably a pack he took from my stash kept in a pillowcase under my bed. He loves everything about Halloween. Last night he dressed like Hugh Hefner. My friends wanted to know why he wore an old robe. They worry about him since my mother left.
At the zoo, there's an arrow shaped sign with silhouettes of giraffes and elephants and tigers marching in a single line below the words "Out of Africa."
"The girls must be this way," dad says. He walks with the pumpkin held in the crook of his arm and then stops at the top of a hump-backed bridge where young families have gathered. A tangle of strollers makes it hard to find room.
"Excuse me. Excuse me," my dad says. He pulls me by the arm as he fights our way through.
Down below there's a lagoon of dark green water. On shore, a thatched hut, cattails, fallen trees. In the distance, the sea lions bark.
A dropped pumpkin disappears beneath the surface, sending out ripples of water. Then it floats back up, a splotch of orange coming through the grainy greenness. The pumpkin bobs from side to side and then stops face up. Water pours into the eye sockets, then the nose, the grinning mouth, making the head heavy, pulling it down. Everyone standing around me is waiting for something more; they are waiting for the hippo to feed.
"There she is," my dad says. He points to a patch of gray that looks like a floating island.
She surfaces with her mouth open and snatches the pumpkin, teeth chomping. Then she's gone.
"Yes," my dad shouts. "Yes, that was great," he says to the people beside him. "Wasn't that terrific?" he asks. No one answers.
I don't try to see if people are staring; I don't want to know. They should keep their eyes on the next pumpkin that has tumbled from the high perch. On the way down, the lid comes off and out falls a plastic red flashlight.
"Our turn," dad speaks to the crowd. "Our turn," he says to me. He sends his pumpkin over the edge with a naughty sounding spank.
I work my way out of the crowd and walk toward a small pond across a field where two boys my brother's age (he went with my mom) scatter pellets of food they bought from an old nickel gum ball machine. A mess of giant, splotchy goldfish climb over the backs of the ones below.
"She took it, honey," my dad calls to me. "The daughter Rea ate our pumpkin," he says. "Snap," he says, clapping his hands. The hollow pop echoes.
Finished, the boys wipe their hands on their baggy jeans and walk away. The fish dive down to the rocky bottom, searching for fallen food. Their bodies glow gold and silver like coins dropped in a fountain for luck.