In the autumn of 1985, I was a freshman in high school and my younger brother, J, had just started kindergarten. To say it hadn't been a good year for our family would be an understatement; I've had other bad years since then, but that was my first glimpse at just how wrong things could go, and how quickly.
Now it was Halloween, and J and I both wanted to carve a jack o'lantern, the way we'd been used to doing in previous years, but our mother said, regretfully, that she didn't have any extra money to spend on a pumpkin. J was crushed as only a five-year-old can be, and I wasn't too happy myself. But I was also a stubborn kid who didn't like to be beaten at anything, and I wasn't planning to give up yet.
"Don't worry," I told J. "I'm going to fix this."
I dug through my pockets and my school bag and scraped together all the change I could find, and then I took J by his sticky little hand and marched him to the supermarket down the street. There, I read the price on every kind of squash in the produce department and weighed them until I found one I could afford--it was a yellow spaghetti squash about the size of a Nerf football, with a nice flat bottom so it could stand up--and I paid seventy-nine cents for it and walked J home again. Standing in our dingy kitchenette, I cut that spaghetti squash open, and I scraped out the seeds and pulp, and I used the point of a steak knife to carve a miniature face with triangle eyes and nose and a gap-toothed mouth, just like a jack o'lantern. Then I stuck a single skinny birthday candle inside and lit it with a match, and I said to my brother, who had been watching the whole process with ever-increasing delight, "Here you go. It's a squashkin."
In the quarter-century since then, I've carved many real jack o' lanterns, and I'm sure J has too. As adults, we don't talk much or see each other often--it's been more than five years since the last time--and I don't know if he even remembers the squashkin. But I do. I remember it, and sometimes when everything is rotten and I feel as if I can't do anything right, I think about it and smile. It may have been a tiny win, but that day I won at life.