Josh and I found the pumpkin way out on 412, a little country crossroads I couldn’t locate again with a map. We were just cruising on the sunny fall day, our first afternoon away from teaching in six weeks, stunned at the larger world after the pressure of the semester at Kelldon, and when we saw the spill of pumpkins and the roadside stand, Josh pulled over. It was too big for his car; I knew that before we even asked about it. There was no way we were going to get it into his Jetta. We strolled around among the gourds for a while, checking out the monster squash and the bins of bright tomatoes. It was fun being away, and we were a little beery from the roadhouse lunch we’d had in Hanley, and it felt good to stretch our legs and look at all this stuff. But we kept coming back to the pumpkin. I had a little one picked out, something like a tall basketball, which would have carved up nicely into Ichabod Crane for the guys in my cottage, but I knew now we were spoken for. We both wanted to get that giant pumpkin and show it to Sarah Milford, who also was a new teacher at Kelldon, who’d graduated from Yale five months before, and whom we were both crazy for, crazy to show off for, determined to win. She taught German.
The guy who ran the place was about forty, khakis, cabin oxfords, and an arresting silver watch. He was filling a crate with sweet potatoes, pulling them from a bag. Josh had his hand on the pumpkin.
“There’s a few pies in that,” I said to the man.
“I’d say,” he answered.
“What do you get for these?” Josh asked him.
“Pumpkins are three, six, and nine dollars.”
“Give the man nine dollars,” Josh said to me.
“It won’t fit in the car, Josh,” I told him.
“That one’s sixty dollars,” the man said. “For nine I’ll let you take a picture of it.”
We were all smiling. Josh had his mouth set up in his sure, sure, sure, and he was nodding. “We’ll give you twenty-five dollars, American money.”
“For twenty-five you can take a photograph and get an interview. The pumpkin is sixty.”
“We need this pumpkin for a school project,” I told the man. “We’re teaching over at Kelldon School in Mercy.”
“It’s going to make a fabulous project,” the man said. He folded the empty burlap bag and tamped it into a stack of the things.
“Forty dollars,” Josh said. “That’s fair.”
“Not really,” the man said. He took a moment and looked from me to Josh. “Boys, don’t try to jew me down on this.” Josh pulled his hand from the pumpkin and looked into the man’s face. The man added, “I’m not dealing.”
Standing by the pumpkin, Josh would have looked good in a photograph. “What do you want to do?” I asked him. It was a drill we’d gone through five or six times in the three years I’d known him. We’d been roommates at Virginia, paired there by an experiment that put a group of radical underachievers on one hallway. I was a self-described nothing from nowhere, that is a vacant Protestant from Hoboken, and he was a non-practicing Jew from Ithaca, but we ran into these situations. Sometimes it was just a dorm discussion, an offhand remark about a rabbi or some Jew in a joke, and I learned to ask him, knee-jerk really, what he wanted to do: fight or walk, and he took it up and usually rose to the insult, above it, with a withering remark of his own, an extended and beautiful sentence which burned its way through the moment so obviously that our housemates learned to make little searing hisses even before he finished speaking.
A new Ford pickup pulled up and two women got out, both in plaid shirts with their hair in bandanas.
“We’re not fighting this fine American farmer,” Josh said. He was speaking very slowly. “And we’re not going to try to jew him anywhere. He’s wary of being jewed. And we’re not going to sneak back here under the cover of darkness and do anything anytime, such as kidnap his many melons, though we might have considered it before you explained so kindly where we lived and where he might be looking for jumbo here. Since we need to have this pumpkin, let’s do this: give the gent some money and take legal possession. Eighty dollars.” Josh handed me two twenties and I put it with mine and handed the cash to the guy.
“Sixty,” the man said, offering a bill back. Josh moved toward the car. “What are you trying to do to us, sir?” he said, getting in. “We won’t pay a penny less for this pumpkin. It is an honor to take possession from such a dedicated and hard working kibbutznik.”
I moved over and spoke to the two women who had picked out a basket of squash; if they were going back the way they came anytime soon, we needed them.
We kept the pumpkin the only place we could: on the little porch of Josh’s apartment in the basement of Quaille, where he kept his bicycle, hibachi, and the boxes his stereo came in. The boxes were ruined, had been ruined for weeks. His porch, which faced the lake, was a private place for us where Monday nights after the marathon faculty meetings we could have a couple beers and wonder what we were doing. Across the lake we could see two or three lights of the village. The big orange pumpkin looked good there out of the rain, by his back door.
The two squash women had taken the pumpkin in their truck back to New Hephron, and we unloaded it there and left it behind the closed Sunoco with a note on it that said: Property of Sarah Milford, Kelldon Academy. We love her very much and one of us will have her before finals.
“You’ve said it now,” Josh told me, when I read the note to him. “One of us.” I felt okay about it; he’d had no better luck at Virginia with women, the few we had both known, than I had. We borrowed DuMann’s flatbed truck; he was the manager of the food service and we’d had lots of coffee together. When we finally backed around Quaille Cottage, and got out to unload the pumpkin, there were two people out by the gingko tree standing there like actors. It was a little old woman and a man her age; she was in a yellow traveling dress and he was in a pressed blue work shirt. We unloaded the pumpkin, again taking too much care which is the way we’d handled it all day. We were trying to out care each other. I was a little nervous about leaving it with Josh, but there was no way we were getting up to my little place on the top floor of Clair Cottage. We both patted it and while we were standing there like two fools, the man called hello to us.
They’d met there, that was the story. Sixty-four years ago, they’d met under this gingko tree. She had been sixteen and he had been up from Yale on an Outing Club tour. “My father was the first French master here,” she said. “John Lightner, his portrait is in the Alumni Room.”
“I’ve seen it,” I told her.
“We’re on a bit of a memory tour,” the man said to us, stepping closer. “Could you take our picture?” He handed me his camera. The late afternoon light had turned the lake gray, the day had hazed up, softening.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Get close,” he told me. “We’re not going to look at the camera. We’re going to look at each other.”
We all moved over in front of the ten-story gingko, and they held hands, and while I focused, they looked at each other.
When I’d handed the man back his Olympus, the woman said, “This tree drops all of its leaves on one day. Gingkos do.”
“Well, I’m going to stay out of the way,” Josh said looking up at the heavy green and yellow tiers of the tree. All over campus the trees had been shaking out for a couple of weeks, and many already stood in golden circles of their fallen leaves.
The woman took the man’s hand again, and they walked around the cottage and up toward the quad.
“Wow,” I said.
“Irony,” Josh said, “is totally overrated. Let’s have a cold one and try to forget we’ve just seen something we’ll never have.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“I know, but why do I feel this way then?” He went into his apartment and came out a few seconds later with two Rolling Rocks. We sat on the edge of his porch and he leaned back against the pumpkin. “Fall’s a trick, right? The trees all red and yellow, the shorter days, the sunlight like some kind of flare. It absolutely makes me want to mate.”
“Who’d you meet when you were sixteen?” I asked him.
“Myself,” he said. “We’re still estranged.” He put his bottle up and I touched it with mine. “At least we’ve got this pumpkin.”
School grabbed us again that night, and forced us under, crushed us all week, wrecked us, dragged me from composition to club soccer back to the dorm and four kids smoking cigarettes (my favorite kids!) which rates a lecture from me, a short speech from the head, and a letter home (a second infraction and they’re out). The week presses on, back to comp through the dirty clothes piling up in my little apartment toward club soccer in the light rain, gray skies pushing toward dinner, some guest speaker on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and home again to the eight guys I lived with in my cottage, nobody smoking, lights out at 11:30. Through the days, as always, I saw Josh for five minutes at lunch which was cafeteria style, how you doing?, and then a hurried beer on his porch late after lights out, leaning against that pumpkin, time a slipstream, talking with our eyes simply closed in fatigue. Whenever in this dream I saw the light of the days, Sarah Milford, it was never lovely, me emerging from the boys’ room outside the library or finding her at my shoulder as I bussed my sloppy tray after dinner.
She was anomalous in my experience, that is, a young woman who was not athletic and all jocked up, a woman who wore dresses and had a kind of sensuality that was provocative. She was our age, but seemed older, always walking down the corridor of Main, surrounded by three or four students, smiling, chatting, and if you watched for a minute or two, you could see her open her mouth and laugh. There had been no time to court her, to get her away for a dinner at the Slow Brown Fox, the one inn in town, or even a drink, though we’d talked about those things—vaguely—when the three of us, Josh, Sarah, and me, would find ourselves dawdling over a last cup of coffee before study hall.
This was the first time I ever thought in those terms: courting. All the dating I’d done, girls I’d known, it just happened. We were all together in class or some summer job, and you went out. You were never in love, exactly, and you never said so. But now all the intensity of Kelldon, the forced march of boarding school, and we were the only three unmarried faculty who were under forty, and nothing was going to happen unless something happened on purpose. Invitations were going to have to be extended.
There were a couple of times I came close to trying such a thing. Oddly enough, one was right away, the first week of school when I was dewy enough to be casual, before she became a north star for me. We were at the ditto machine when I asked her if she might like to get a beer at the Fox some time. She didn’t look up from where her syllabus was being printed. “Good idea,” she said. “With you and Josh?”
I think I said, “Yeah,” or “Right,” but for the first time it bothered me that Josh and I were seen as a package.
Sitting on his porch, we’d talk: first to do this, first to do that. I was first to help her take materials to her classroom, first in her classroom, first to hold a chair for her in the refectory. Josh was first to shake her hand, touch her arm. He was first in Gibson Cottage, her dorm, where he went to take a student her book. We set goals. “I’m going for first to eat off her fork,” he said. “Held in her hand.”
“I’m going to cross her threshold,” I said, “sit in her apartment.”
“Do that,” he said. “Have a cup of tea, put your feet up, chat in the fall afternoon, say something witty, get her to laugh and put her hand on her throat.”
“She has a wonderful neck,” I said.
“She does. Get her to laugh there and put down your tea cup and move toward her sweet doe eyes as they welcome you into her arms.” He put his arm on my shoulder to push himself to a stand; he was going for another bottle of beer. “But before you melt together into one creamy fudge, look out the window where I’ll be running drills with my club soccer kids in the bitter wind. You can be the first one home free in the scented layered depths of her big bed, first to forsake your dearest, dearest friend. The young ethnic kid, he might have been Jewish, who once walked almost a quarter mile one way on a February night to procure the ingredients (bourbon whiskey, cold syrup, lemon tea) for the toddy that brought you back from the ragged edge of the Bubonic, if not Teutonic flu, so you could finish your paper on Frederick Jackson Turner and thereby graduate from college, where you grumbled most but were treated best.”
“It goes like this,” I said, taking the new beer from him when he sat back down. “Do you—as you enter first those arms we both aspire toward, look out the window down to where I struggle with my troops in the bitter wind?” It was stupid to ask, because he was waxing and would wax further. I’d seen him hold entire wing meetings in our dorm hostage with filigreed orations about the plumbing.
“I don’t think I should until I finish the business at hand, because the business of loving a woman, as I must have told you on more than one occasion in the past…”
“You’ve told me, you’ve told me…” I tried.
But Josh was moving now and he stood out on the dark lawn that sloped away to the still plate of the lake, a muted silver in the night. His arms were out in the fashion of a nightclub singer as he continued. “The business of loving a woman, especially this woman, for the first time is not a business done with one hand on the wheel. It would require a special focus, energy, and single-minded purpose. To be true to the moment would mean being absent for all others, even an old friend, a guy you knew at college, a guy who was willing to fight for you every time some slacker—and slackers abound!—slighted his heritage. Yes, I would look down through the window for a moment at my old friend, and then I would move with delicious certainty toward the destiny in Ms. Sarah Milford’s arms.” Josh bowed and trotted over to the porch, sat beside me, looked out at the lake.
“Given that,” I said, “what do you want to do with our pumpkin?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re in fifty-fifty. It seems a little mundane to haul it over there and say, ‘Here.’”
What we did, of course, is what any two freshly college-educated young people would do: we arranged a stunt. We each taught a couple of the girls who were in Sarah’s dorm, and I had already known these girls were making me a better teacher. Both Josh and I knew, if we could impress these girls, we could get to Sarah Milford. They were the reason I was more prepared and more alert than I’d been for a few years, bearing down on becoming the best comp teacher these young women had ever seen, wise, funny, fair, well-groomed. I assumed a worldly nonchalance in the classroom, breaking through it from time to time with killer epigrams about the writing life. I nodded meaningfully as the students read aloud, pausing a moment afterward as if to gather my emotions, before I began my hefty evaluations. I tried to smile with my eyes, look grave, be wry. I was doing some actor, but I couldn’t remember who it was, and the whole endeavor was stressful, exhausting, but worth it. I could hear one of these charming young girls saying my name in the common room of Sarah Milford’s cottage as being the best, funniest, smartest, fairest teacher they’d ever had, and I could see Sarah Milford turning her head and saying, “Oh, really?”
Since there was no way our great pumpkin was going to rise over the corn stubble behind the football practice field without the use of more machinery than we could procure, we decided that he would appear at midnight in the middle of Kelldon Lake. It seemed possible. I mean we did have a school canoe. We noodled the plan forty ways, making our first mistake out of impatience: we carved our pumpkin too soon. Three days before Halloween we spent the afternoon carving it into a clear jack-o’-lantern, with a standard three-toothed smile and angry, arched eyes. We’d used my camping shovel to clean it out, getting pumpkined above our elbows. It was huge and started drying out immediately. We loaded it with a fist-size candle Josh had gotten from his mother and two large emergency flares from my trunk. We were ready.
On the very day, Halloween, we found Sarah hanging out with three of her students after lunch in the cafeteria, and we took our coffee cups and went over there and Josh took a chair on one side of her and she acknowledged him, and then I took a chair on her other side and she smiled at me too. “Well, it is the English department, come to say hello,” she said.
“Exactly,” Josh said. “And more.” He leaned down over the table to take the group into his confidence, and I followed his lead, looking left and right, so we wouldn’t be overheard. “But what about this?” He raised and lowered his eyebrows and nodded the ball to me.
I leaned lower and whispered: “How would you all like to see something amazing? Tonight at midnight?”
“Ladies,” Sarah Milford said smiling at them. “How would you like to see something amazing tonight at midnight?”
“Is this a date?” Bitsy Trumble said.
“A date with fate,” Josh said. “Tell them, James.”
I scanned the smart schoolgirls and tried to fix them in some kind of stare, squinting my eyes. “The Great Pumpkin will rise out of the lake at midnight.”
I saw Josh take Sarah’s elbow. “Have your cottage at the boathouse. Don’t tell anyone else. At midnight exactly call out ‘Rise O Great Pumpkin’ three times. If he rises, he’ll come out of the center of the lake. This is serious.”
Sarah Milford put a hand on each of our shoulders. I couldn’t tell whose shoulder she touched first. “We,” she leaned in and whispered, “will do our part.”
We misjudged everything. The wind was rattling and rerattling the leaves by the lake that night, and we unloaded our pumpkin off DuMann’s truck in the chilly park. We chose the wrong canoe. There were four, and three were aluminum which we decided against because of visibility. As soon as we balanced the great pumpkin on the sides of the green wooden canoe, and I stepped into the front, I could feel the wobble. Then when Josh pushed us out and climbed in the stern, it was terrifying. We were utterly high-centered, and every second we tipped right, left, right. “Don’t move,” Josh said. I hadn’t. We couldn’t even reach the paddles, and now his push had us out twenty then thirty feet, and the water already ten feet deep. We drifted like that, holding on, using every muscle and all of its little muscles to keep balanced in the lake.
“Shall we dump it?” I asked him.
“Not without dumping ourselves,” he said. “The water is probably chilly.”
So we sat there vibrating. It would have been a good picture, both of us in black sweaters in the breezy night, frozen in position at each end of the pretty green canoe with our masterpiece between us. It would be a lot of work down the drain. The face had dried and shrunken and the whole twisted deal looked scary now. “If we go over, are you going to stay with the canoe or swim for it?” I asked him.
“I’ll come up with the canoe and then we’ll decide.” Sarah and her girls were going to stand on the deck of the boathouse in their long nightgowns and sweaters at midnight and not see any pumpkin, great or otherwise.
“Get down in the canoe, James,” Josh said. He was talking to my back.
“Say it again,” I said.
“Be careful, creep back, sit in the bottom. We need ballast.”
The wind seemed more contentious out on the water and it was working us toward town. After several moments, I slid into the bottom of the canoe. It was worse. There was a rattling flutter and I held on and worked to steady us. “There,” Josh said. He now sat in the bottom too. “This is going to work,” he said.
“Abort,” I said. I lifted my paddle and then had to put it down. “You do it. Turn us carefully and head in. Halloween’s over; the pumpkin won.”
“No, no. We’re good,” Josh said, pulling us a couple strokes further into the lake. “Feel?” Most of the little shakiness was gone, but we were still top-heavy. “All we need to do is find our position, light the flares, and when we hear the girls, we turn the canoe around for all to see.”
He was now paddling with more force. “It’s a beautiful night.” And for one minute then late on Halloween night, it was beautiful being out on the dark lake in a canoe. I took a deep breath and looked up the hill at old Kelldon. I could see the tiny glow of Alumni Light up in the cupola of Old Main. It was on twenty-four hours a day and eventually all the graduates came back from their big lives to see the old school.
Josh paddled the canoe into the renewed wind toward the boathouse and then turned. “We better light it up.”
When Josh reached for the top of our jack-o’-lantern, the canoe tipped fully and a cold stripe of water fell over my knees. He sat back down in a hurry and steadied us. “I can’t get it.”
“Where are we?” I asked. “Do we have time to hit the beach and light up?”
Just then we heard girls’ voices, riding the wind. “I can see them coming down the hill,” Josh said. “Can you reach?”
“Hold us,” I told him. Backhand, I snaked my arm out and reached up and around the front of the face, and I could just get my hand into the mouth. With two fingers I pinched one of the flares and extracted it, and then I reached in again and got hold of the second flare. I could not feel the candle.
“Pull that plastic cap off,” Josh said. “Hold it up, and away from your face.” When I extended my arms straight out and pulled the cap, the flare hissed a second and then fired. I quickly lit the second. The edge of everything was pink in the brittle light. Turning as far as I dared, I poked both through the mouth opening, flipping them in as far as I could with my fingers.
“That’s plenty bright,” he said. Our movements had allowed more water to splash in, enough that I was cold. We heard the girls call: “Rise O Great Pumpkin!” On the wind you could hear the laughter in their voices.
“We’re too far out,” Josh said, and he was paddling against the wind. Water came over the sides alternately as he stroked.
“Josh,” I whispered. “I’m getting wet.” Along with the water slapping the canoe, I could hear the flare hissing like a torch in the pumpkin. The girls called again. “Rise O Great Pumpkin!”
“Can you see them?” I asked him. “Turn it; show the pumpkin.”
“We’re too far out,” he said, now working us into some pretty rocky water. I braced my legs against the side for balance and just took the water that splashed in. Josh cursed and said, “I’m not sure she’s worth it.”
Now I could smell our smoke and I sensed our giant pumpkin warm behind me. I put my hand on its side; there was one soft spot too hot to touch for very long. The flares were torching our dry vegetable in the stiff wind. And there was something wrong in what Josh had just said.
“Rise O Great Pumpkin!” The girls’ voices were urgent and thrilling and distant.
“Turn it, Josh. We’re on fire.”
He paddled another half minute or so and then I heard him stop. It all settled on me. “You saw her didn’t you? You’ve been over there already.” He didn’t answer and I felt the heat from the pumpkin at my back again. “Turn it, goddamn it!”
Tilting my head, I could see the hot spot on the bottom glowing, about to melt through. The whole creation had sagged into the canoe a little. I was sitting in an inch of water, maybe two.
When he turned broadside into the wind, the waves began to rock us fully, creating a regular spillway. The musky smoke billowed up and tore away. It was odd then; I mean, the smoke smelled kind of pleasant. Josh was holding on, trying to keep us from rocking too far. “It is,” he said. “It’s on fire.”
“Rise O Great Pumpkin!” the far away voices sang.
“They can’t see it,” I said.
“We’re a mile out. We’re on fire.” Now I could smell something else, woodsmoke: the canoe was burning. We were being blown around and tipping heavily.
“Throw some water in there,” I said. “Throw water!” I had swiveled with my paddle and was trying to pry the pumpkin off the canoe whether it tipped us or not, but it was too heavy and it had settled in.
“What are you doing?”
I was pushing as hard as I could. “So you got her in the sack before Halloween. When? Was it today?”
“We’ve got a fire here,” he said. Josh was on his knees cupping water at the thing and we were certainly now going to tip absolutely over.
“Did you get her to pity the poor Jewish boy?” I said. “The only Jew in all of the township, that kind of thing, some kind of wily maneuver?”
“Shut up, James.” Flames ripped from the eyes, nose and mouth of the great pumpkin like glowing rags. As we drifted in the rocky water, the fire licked at me sometimes and then at Josh. We tried to stay across the wind, presenting something that must have seemed at least a little scary to Miss Sarah Milford and her eighteen girls. We had wanted a Halloween they’d remember.
The water we’d taken on stabilized us, and we both sat up leaning as far away from the flame as possible. Though we splashed water at the fire, there was no way we were going to put it out. Those emergency flares were all business. It burned and burned, a bona fide pumpkin inferno, as we were drawn by the wind toward town. I kept my hands over my face most of the time, but when the wind snapped the flames my way I could feel them take hair.
By the time we stepped into the shallows at the Grove and pulled the smoking canoe up the greasy bank, two great bites had been burned out of each side. “I guess you want to fight,” I said to him. We were both wet.
“I think we should,” he said. “You’re pretty pissed off.”
“Aren’t you?” I said.
“I’m something,” he said. “Confused.” He ran his hands up through his hair. “That stupid school. It’s a poor excuse of a life when there’s only one girl in it.”
A car swung through the Grove gate and approached along the gravel drive.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was classic. We’re up in her place and she’s saying, ‘What are we going to tell James?’”
I wanted to hit him then, hearing my name taken like that, but as I swung I knew he wanted to hit me too. My fist missed low and I caught him below the ear plenty hard, harder than either of us understood, and his head jerked hard and he went down. The concussion ignited me, a guy without a temper, and I’d hurt my arm somehow. I dived on him and we rolled, punching. I had a good handful of his hair. I felt good, warm, strong; I could fight all night.
Then a hand on my shoulder tore me up and away from Josh. It was Roger Dove, the township sheriff. He’d given a talk at school the first week on water safety. “Okay, gentlemen, it’s late here. Let’s stand up.” Josh unfolded and stood up pulling his shirt from the sheriff’s hand. “Are we drinking?” the sheriff asked.
“We’re not,” Josh said. “Have you got anything in the car?”
A deputy had come up now and held his big flashlight over his head, shining it on me and then Josh and then me. “They’re not drunk and they’re all wet,” Roger Dove said to the deputy. “I’ll bet they know something about our little fire on the lake.” He turned to us. “Gentlemen?”
“Our pumpkin burned up,” I told him.
“Your canoe did too,” the deputy said.
“You’re teachers up at Kelldon, aren’t you?” The sheriff went on, “Give me a reason not to arrest you for a fire that alarmed over a hundred citizens and for fighting in the Town Grove at midnight and I’ll take it.”
“Sheriff,” Josh said. “Call it fighting, but if you must know the truth, if the truth would help…” Roger Dove looked at the deputy. Josh looked ready to launch an oration; his arm was out and then he let it drop. “Could you instead drive us back,” he said. “We’re friends.” I sat down in my wet clothes.
Roger Dove turned toward his car. “Drive them over,” he said to the other man. To us he said, “I want that canoe gone by noon so it doesn’t give any other young arsonists ideas. If it is still here, your headmaster is going to get a phone call.”
On the drive home, Josh talked the deputy into telling us the exact number of phone calls our fire had inspired: eighty-four. It made it hard not to feel good.
On the hill the cottages were all dark, except for the second floor corner suite in my cottage. Josh and I stood on the walkway and watched Cooper and Despain move back and forth before the window. They were smoking cigarettes.
“You going up there, bust them?” Josh asked me.
“I’m going to bed. Halloween has had its way with me.”
“You sure slugged me,” Josh said.
“We sure burned the eighty dollar pumpkin,” I said, walking back toward my cottage. It was way too early to apologize for anything said or done. I could still taste smoke.
“Eighty-four phone calls,” he said.
“Not bad,” I said. He hadn’t moved. “I’ll see you in school. You can tell her all about it. You guys have a long talk. It’ll be funny.”
“Hey, it’s not funny,” he said. He said that again. I was tired. I could feel a cold coming on and I didn’t have time for one. A cold would be a bad deal my first fall term at the Kelldon School.