Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rites of autumn

        After a while, the pumpkin became a problem.

It was a big pumpkin, a venerable giant of its race, a specimen to enter into the county fair with pride and a deep-seated assurance that any and all competitors would quail at its sight. I remember wrestling it into the car—I believe it was the Chevy Vega, the Microsoft version of automotive engineering with its underpowered aluminum engine, execrable performance and repulsive styling—barely squeezing it into the back seat for the drive home to our apartment, and then manhandling it back out to stagger ungainly to the porch where it commanded a presence not to be trifled with. Or, at least, that’s how it seems when filtered through the decades separating then from now.

To tell the truth, knowing our financial situation early in our relationship when all the world was fresh and new, it probably wasn’t that big. We were newly married and had bills piling up from job finders and the new (used) Vega, a replacement for the Karman Ghia that self-destructed during our relocation to Denver, and pumpkins were far down the list of necessary expenditures. But it was sizable enough to become a problem once Halloween came and went.

The pumpkin was Lori’s idea. I would have preferred using the money for candy, ostensibly for the hordes of trick-or-treaters we expected, little ghouls and goblins clamoring for sweets as if entitled to the largesse of their anonymous neighbors. And I begrudged them, oh, most assuredly so. It was my candy, cunningly selected to my own refined tastes, Brach’s candy corn, dark chocolates and Butterfingers, Twixes and Mr. Goodbars and Paydays, and I wanted it all for myself. Being forced to distribute my personal stock to the masses was socialism, pure and simple. 

The irony is sweet as sugar and as cloying. At the time I was not only a member of the National Rifle Association, I was also a registered Republican and voted accordingly. You could say I fought socialism before most Republicans ever heard of the term. 

Fought, and lost. The pumpkin graced the patio with a rustic autumnal flair, the iconic symbol of harvest and fall and the changing seasons. Had we added a brace of corn stalks or a hay bale the representation of a rural ideal would have been complete. Had we carved a menacing expression into the pumpkin a darker, more menacing tone would have been injected applicable to the approaching holiday.

Carving it, however, was forbidden. Lori adamantly refused to let me get anywhere near the pumpkin with a sharp knife. My entreaties for adhering to tradition and customary rules of observance fell on deaf ears. Stymied by her refusal, I sought reasons that might explain this inexplicable mindset. Did she have an underlying phobia about jack-o’-lanterns as some do about clowns, public toilets or germs? Had a jack-o’-lantern in the past done her wrong? Did leering faces smoldering in the dark summon childhood nightmares long forgotten? She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say. Nor would she budge. Of all the pumpkins in our apartment complex, only ours remain unscathed.

Halloween rolled around. Trick-or-treaters came and went depleting my precious candy stock, leaving me sullen and nursing my grievances, but also turning my thoughts to what I considered the next step in the evolutionary cycle of pumpkins, to wit, pie. 

I can’t recall being a huge fan of pumpkin pie in my youth. In fact, I can’t recall pies of any kind. There was my grandmother’s pound cake—impossible to beat and, in what seems a contradiction in reason, the only species of cake not requiring copious layers of frosting, preferably vanilla, preferably fringed with thick gobs of frosting flowers and flourishes and, preferably, all mine—and pecan pies, which I refused to touch. There must have been others, lemon meringue, chocolate and pumpkin, but if so they’ve receded into the unrecoverable past. Dessert was unfamiliar territory until I met Lori’s Kansas grandmothers who dutifully fed me until I swelled like a tick, but it was their pumpkin pie that made a believer out of me.

Their pies didn’t derive from a can. They grew their own or bought or bartered from neighbors, and unlike my wife they had no qualms about slicing, coring, gutting and skinning the fruit. Their pies were meaty and thick, heaped with whipped cream and spiced just right. More than dessert, they were revelations, culinary inspirations of perfection and, dare I say, a better reason to celebrate the harvest season than even candy corn. 

I know, it sounds blasphemous, but there you have it.

Lori, however, had other ideas. Or, to put it another way, she had no ideas. Day after day, week after week, the pumpkin remained inviolable and untouchable. I begged, I pleaded, I groveled, but to no avail. She was thinking about what to do, she said, and until she made up her mind I was to leave it alone.

Time has a way of making our choices for us. The pumpkin, not content to lead a solitary life of privilege, began to shrink into itself. Its coarse skin lost its sheen and spidered with cracks, the stem tilted like a sinking ship and a pool of viscous liquid pooled at its base. Insects, drawn to the sweet effluence, swarmed the porch in thick clouds. And then it began to smell.

Because we lived in the city, disposing of the pumpkin wasn’t as simple as tossing it into a compost pile or rolling it into a field to decompose. Nor would the trash man pick it up. Whatever Lori’s   incomprehensible reasoning to safeguard the pumpkin, whether vacillation, indecision, girlish stubbornness or something unnameable, daily it became more evident that the pumpkin had to go.

She finally relented. Wearing gloves now and protecting the back seat with a plastic tarp, I maneuvered the spongy blob into the car. An hour or so later we parked by a steep drop-off somewhere on a side road branching off Golden Gate Canyon where “No Trespassing” signs were ubiquitous. I hauled the pumpkin back out and placed it on the edge of the precipice.

“Any last words, fare thee well, bon voyage?” I asked.

She shook her head. 

For a moment she looked like a young girl, poutish, sad for misunderstandings and slights known only to her, wounded grievously somehow and now facing her tormentor. My mocking tone, my relentless insistence on murdering her prized possession, my loutish attitude, were obliterated by a surge of guilt. Standing there with one foot on the pumpkin I bitterly rued my actions and vowed never again to let my masculine stupidity blind myself to my wife’s sensitivity. But as I desperately sought a way to mollify the situation, to find common ground and alleviate any pain I might have caused this beautiful young woman, the whine of an approaching vehicle intruded. I nudged the pumpkin over the edge. 

Several things happened at once. Even as a car rounded the curve and passed us, its passengers eyeing us with distrust, the sound of a wet explosion echoed down the canyon. We smiled back as innocently as we could, just a pair of weekend sightseers enjoying a mountain drive and some fresh air, newlyweds feeling their way into a future bright with promise and empathy, and pumpkins, too, some carved and some not, some big and some small, every one a reminder of what matters most. 


shoreacres said...

I was sitting down to write until I read this. Now, I'm going to go push my mushy manuscript over the edge of some yet-to-be-discovered ravine, and go pout.

This is perfect.

Tom Parker said...

Well, not perfect but okay. But thanks--and please, retrieve your manuscript and keep perfecting it. Your stuff rocks.