Letters and Diary Fiction posted July 12, 2019 Chapters:  ...5 6 -7- 8 

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psychological fiction

A chapter in the book People We Once Knew

Growing the Great Pumpkin

by estory

I am sitting in a chair on my porch looking over my pumpkin patch. How, do you ask, did I get here? Where are the wife and kids? What about your job? As I look back on it now, from this perch, the life I lived before growing great pumpkins seems like it took place on another world. I think about the people I once knew, sure. But not very often anymore.

I think it all started the year my mother died. She had dementia, and one of the last things that I could connect with her in was gardening. She always had a beautiful garden, out back behind the house. Petunias, black eyed Susans, tiger lilies, Iris, daffodils; all kinds of flowers, blooming from spring to fall. I loved the colors when I was a kid. I used to help her put down the bone meal, spread the mulch, pruning the roses. Then we would sit together sipping iced tea and enjoying our handywork. Watching the butterflies and the hummingbirds. It was always so peaceful, like a little bit of the garden of Eden, or something. She also grew some vegetables; peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, squash and cucumbers. I used to love picking all those things and bringing them into the kitchen and washing them and cutting them up with her. It always tasted more delicious, I thought, than the store bought stuff. After she got sick, she couldn't even remember my name, but I could still sit out there with her, pointing out the sunflowers and the morning glories, and she would nod and smile. I'll never forget that.

After my mother died, I started a garden in my backyard. When I married Catherine, we moved about fifty miles away, so I didn't get to see as much of my parents after that. There were times when I would be sitting out there in my garden, among all my green and growing things, and feel that my mother was sitting out there with me. I think maybe it felt like she was trying to tell me something, or that there was something I wanted to tell her.

My father had a stroke about two years after my mother died, and we had to put him in a nursing home. I drove up maybe about once a month to sit with him, read him the newspaper, play him a game of chess. Things like that. He couldn't talk much. When I was a kid, I remember him vaguely lecturing me about what courses to take in college, what kind of woman to marry. Maybe I should have listened to him. I think he had some kind of dream that I was going to discover I had some skill, and open a business and become amazingly successful at it. My wife did not get along with my parents and she never came with me when I drove up there. And then, about two years after we put him in the home, seven years ago now, I guess, I got a call from a nurse's aid telling me that he had passed away.

At the funeral, I remember my brother Lenny asking me about the will. Lenny was always interested in money. I remember my wife whispering in my other ear, imploring me to make sure I didn't come up with the short end of the stick. When I ended up with the short end of the stick, in her eyes, and she gave me hell over it, I started digging over the rest of the backyard for a pumpkin patch.

I had seen one of those giant pumpkin contests at a county fair once, a contest where people brought their giant pumpkins from all over tarnation and weighed them off against each other to see which was the heaviest. It was something that I found inspiring, somehow; like watching sherpas climbing Mount Everest or surfers edging themselves into the perfect wave pipe. My wife told me I was nuts. I wouldn't say growing giant pumpkins is 'nuts.' It requires research, discipline, determination and yes, even imagination. Sometimes you have to think out of the box. You have to be smart.

As you might imagine, my wife moved out, I guess about six years ago now. She took the kids with her, and I suppose it was mutually beneficial. They needed attention, and there simply was no more room in my life for them anymore. Anyway, the more she demanded that I give up my hobby and remodel her kitchen, or get a second job to put the kids through college, or have
an operation to eliminate my snoring, the more I went down into the basement to prepare nitrate calcium food for my pumpkins. Sometimes I would just sit in the garden next to them, training the vines onto stakes so that they would snake a certain way through the yard, or injecting them with feed solution, or measuring them to see just how much they grew overnight.

Of course I still have the photographs, things like that. Pictures of my wife and kids, friends I used to have; you know, people who used to mean something to me. But I haven't talked to any of them in a long time. I don't know that I really miss them either; what seems to remain, like a kind of aftertaste, are the disappointments, the arguments, the pain. There is a calm sort of evenness to my life now. A predictable order. A certain satisfaction in achieving the simple things I set out to achieve, and a level of control that I have over the process.

You might ask me, in light of what I have told you, what I have actually gained in all of this. It is true that my wife left me, and she took the kids with her. I don't talk to my brother anymore. My friends, who were not interested in growing giant pumpkins, to say the least, stopped asking me if they could come over and watch ballgames or go out for fishing trips. But what I have to say is this: how much did any of these people really care about me? It seems to me now that when I stopped being what they wanted me to be, when I stopped giving them what they wanted, when I lost interest in their scheming and ambition, they lost interest in me. It's like finding out that someone only comes over because your willing to watch something with them on your 42 inch high definition television set, or someone who lives with you only because they need you to give them money to buy groceries or cars or living room furniture.

I don't need those things anymore, and I don't have the desire to go back to people who don't care about me. My parents cared about me, and I cared about them, even though we never really got around to telling each other how much we cared; and now they are gone. In many ways it felt like without them, I was alone in the world. They seemed like the only ones who worried about what I wanted, how I felt.

At first, after Catherine left me, I used to call her and ask about the kids. But then she always ended up asking me if I was still working or if I was maintaining the house. What the hell did she care if I was still working or if the house was falling apart? She didn't live in it anymore. And the kids would end up reciting their Christmas lists, and their birthday present requests, and it just seemed like they only cared about what was in it for them. So I stopped calling. And lo and behold, they stopped calling me too. Little by little, the memories of their faces, their voices, began to fade into the long sequence of sunny days, rainy days, the endless ritual of fertilization, cultivation, weeding and harvest. Sitting out in the garden, alone with my pumpkins, whose lives I can meticulously control, there is a sense of peace, of self determination and accomplishment. I cherish that feeling now.

I think what I really like about growing giant pumpkins is the process, the steps of the procedure, which, if you get carried away by it enough, fill up your life until you don't have to make choices or think about anything else anymore. It's all determined for you, by the results. And that's nice. You just follow the instructions, and let nature take its course. You have something tangible at the end of the day, that no-one can take away from you. A great pumpkin. No abstracts like wondering whether your business partners can be trusted or whether your wife really loves you, or what kinds of people your kids are going to become.

In some ways, amazingly enough, pumpkins are a lot like kids. You nurture them, you feed them, you give them space to grow, and in the end you stand there and look at what they have become. You can be proud of them. But there is a degree of uncertainty in raising kids that you don't have with pumpkins. Kids can do drugs. Kids can elope with garage mechanics. They can discover Buddhism and Communism. And they can become entangled in divorce proceedings. They can become pawns on a battlefield, messengers of pain that your wife sends you just to make you feel more wretched than she does. They can stop loving you. They can be withheld from you. Pumpkins don't metamorphisize into trolls, and they don't betray you or let you down. They just sit there and grow. If you talk to them, they don't talk back.

When I first started, I spent hours, even days, searching for the right seeds. After all, I wanted to do this right. And the seeds are the building blocks, the foundation of everything. I learned early on, after talking to other growers at those first few contests, that the truly gargantuan pumpkins that are everybody's holy grail come from a few hybrid strains of seeds that are hoarded by a few growers and marketed on the internet. Can you believe that? I couldn't come up with $5,000 to take care of my sleep apnia, but I once spent $2,500 on a package of seeds. I bought them from a guy who called himself Linus Van Pelt, of all people; a guy who demanded the money up front, in a certified check, to his address in Missouri. I always thought the Van Pelts were supposed to live in Minnesota, but I didn't dare offend him. Someone in a gardener's chat room told me he had once grown a thousand pound prize winner from one of his seeds.

I sweated it out, sending that check. But eventually, after a couple of weeks, a little box did arrive from him. The package was wrapped in three layers of orange Halloween gift paper, all covered with jack o'lanterns and black cats. Underneath that was a jewelry box covered in tin foil taped shut with masking tape. It took me a half an hour to cut through it all with a pair of scissors and a knife and finally get the damned thing open. Inside, were five, flat, white pumpkin seeds, with fairly sharp, pointy ends. I remember turning them over and over in my hands, running my fingertips over their cool, smooth shells, squeezing my palms around them until the points dug into my hands. The phone was ringing again, but I didn't answer it.

After that, I planted them in a mixture of peat moss, cow manure, compost and top soil picked clean of any debris, and perfectly ph balanced. I let them germinate in the basement, in a planter I made out of one of my wife's old suitcases. I put a heat lamp on them, and watered them morning and evening. After they sprouted, I kept a close eye on them. There is always one seedling that stretches a little more than the others, has a little broader leaves. Gets a little more robust. This one plant, you separate out into a clay pot, filled with the same soil mixture and fertilizer. The others, you can keep as backup. But this plant is the star, the chosen one. You can't do that with kids, but with pumpkins, you can. I named mine, Max.

In the next few weeks, I kept watering Max, fertilizing him, talking to him. I put him in the windowsill, and let him have his first real taste of sunshine. Of course, he never actually said anything, but I knew he loved it. He took off. I let him trail all around the sink, and the drain board. I deleted the phone messages, I let the mail pile up. I called in sick to work. I sat with Max, watching him grow, watching him take over the kitchen, fascinated with his ambitions. After a month, I transplanted him into the yard and let him spread his wings. Pumpkins love to spread their wings. Just like people, they like to take over, I guess. That summer, those months sitting out in the yard with Max were some of the happiest days of my life. All the tension, all the anxiety, all the pressure just disappeared, somehow. I stopped worrying about what my wife was going to demand next, or what my kids were getting themselves into, or what my brother was trying to embezzle from me. I was free, in a way. And I enjoyed it.

I did simple, amusing little things, like counting how many new leaves he sprouted each day, and writing all the numbers down on a calendar that I kept in the shed, comparing the growth rate, and watching the growth rate accelerate. Then, I would count the blossoms, as they started appearing. I kept track of those numbers too. Finally came the magical day when I noticed a little swelling behind one of the faded blossoms. That was the tell tale sign. The flower had been fertilized, the gourd was beginning to grow. In a way, Max was pregnant. I was proud of him, proud of myself. I even bought a six pack of Octoberfest beer in celebration.

Of course it meant that the other blossoms, fertilized or not, would have to go. I had read, during my long hours of research, that pruning would force the plant into putting all its energy into that one, surviving gourd, and would, in fact, double the weight of it on that strategy alone. To top it off, I milk fed him. One of the guys at the county fair had shown me that trick years ago. It involves cutting a slit in the vine just above the stem of the gourd and wrapping it in a towel or rag soaked in milk. The fat from the milk adds biomass, or weight, to the pumpkin. Only I used a special high protein milk solution on a tip from another grower on the internet. And instead of using a towel, I used a modified hyperdermic needle attached to a plastic aquarium filter hose, running out of a five gallon tank of solution mounted on a ladder in order to provide a steady stream of nutrition right to the gourd. It was something I came up with myself, and I was proud of it. It might give me, or Max, really, that edge that would lead to a championship. I even dreamed of how I could tell the other growers about it when they asked me how I had done it.

Day after day, I would sit there next to Max, and watch my creation develop. It was like creating a monster. After it passed the size of a beachball, in early July, and than a metal wash tub, I started measuring its circumference. I would add those numbers down onto my calendar, hanging in the shed. 60 inches. 62 inches. 65 inches. It was amazing that he was actually growing 2 or 3 inches a day. By the end of summer, he had become a yellowish orange, misshapen behemoth that, laying on its side, stood almost as tall as my fence, and covered a good five feet on the ground. One of my neighbors leaned over the fence one day, staring in amazement and horror, and said: "What the hell is that thing?" It was as if he were afraid of how much larger I was going to let it grow and that it was going to affect his property value. But I didn't care. When I asked him whether he would give me a hand getting it up to the fair, he disappeared fast enough.

In the end, when the day finally came, the day of reckoning, when Max's weight and rank in the world of pumpkins would be determined, I had to hire someone from a local construction company with a forklift and a flat bed truck to haul him down to the fair grounds. The guy's mouth fell open when he saw what I was moving, but he agreed to do it when I told him I would pay him what he wanted. It took me a few minutes to saw through the stem and then we had to take down part of my fence so that the forklift, with Max on it, would fit through and out of my backyard. I could see my neighbor watching it all, aghast, from his bedroom window. Then we had to call two more guys from the construction company to roll Max off the forklift blades and onto the flat bed. They were all looking at me as if I was crazy. One of them asked me how much the prize money was. I was honest. I told him it really didn't do much but cover the expenses. They shook their heads.

But we always attract a pretty good crowd, all of us giant pumpkin growers, and as usual they were all staring as I drove passed and parked alongside my fellow mad scientists. They were the only ones with whom I feel any affinity now. They looked over Max, and nodded approvingly, understanding, and I nodded approvingly, understanding, back. Just eye balling things, between the really great pumpkins, of whom there were four or five, I felt things looked pretty even up. But you can never tell with just volume estimates. It's the final weigh off that determines the official results.

Max came in at 832 pounds, good enough for third place. The other growers shook my hand, and I shook theirs. We respectfully congratulated the winner; a gargantuan 1,237 pound state record breaker. The other guys told me I had done pretty well, it was my best effort yet; but there was still something to hope for, to shoot for. More to achieve.

And that's the way I think I wanted it.

Afterwards, I chopped up Max with a chainsaw, and buried him in the compost heap. I hung my head, and closed my eyes, and crossed myself. But I saved a handful of his ivory, sharp seeds, and put them in a jar, to save for next year. Max would live on, would give his genes, his traits, to the next generation. And the whole process would start over next spring. There would be no time for family or friends, no time for my job, for worrying about what people thought of me. If there were any inquiries into my state of being, my welfare, I could say, with some firmness, 'I'm growing the great pumpkin.'

Story of the Month contest entry


This is a story inspired from a documentary I saw once about people who grow giant pumpkins. I was really amazed at how this ambition took over their lives, ruined their marriages, and cost them their jobs. It got me thinking. I decided it might make a good framework for a story about a person who is withdrawing from the relationships around him, because of suspicions of what they really feel for him, and the pain they cause him. Little by little, as he sheds these relationships and these people, he still finds himself driven by a need for some kind of gratification, and he finds it in growing great pumpkins. The level of control he has acts as a bandage on the pain he felt from not having control. I decided to write in a little wry humor, at certain times, to lighten up the dark comedy mood. Stylistically, it owes something to Jessica Anthony's story The Rust Preventer, from Best New Amercan Voices 2006, a story I was fascinated with as it delved into the issues of loneliness and social isolation. estory
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