Sauk Valley Community College

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First Place - "Pumpkin Vendor"

1998 Anne Horton Writing Award
First Place
"Pumpkin Vendor"
by
Ryan Grove

The tattered remnants of summer rotted to the ground leaving the landscape exposed like a skeleton. The marble sky hovered close to the earth, held up only by a cluster of grain silos rising from the barren countryside. Huddled around the silos, hidden from the rest of the world, was the little town of Hammond.

Eleven months out of the year the town was stagnant. The charred shell of the old post office, long since gutted by fire, lay like a rotten tooth amidst a single row of houses. There was a convenience store, a tavern, and beyond that lay the old mill. That was the town. However, each October the town came alive for three short weeks with Hammond's Harvest Days. Local farmers and their families brought pumpkins and haystacks, scarecrows and Indian corn, gourds and crafts, everything symbolic of the harvest season, to sell at the market festival.

My dad and I walked along the main drag. Harvest Days was bustling with full force. We wandered to the end of the road where several people stood in line for a hay rack ride. The warm afternoon sunlight had faded to an orange glow, making way for the chilly evening air. My dad decided not to get in line. We had been outside for quite a while, already, and he figured we would freeze to death by the time we actually got on the ride. I had no objections. I was cold and I found farm stuff to be quite uninteresting anyway.

We started back up the street. From the corner of my eye, I noticed someone watching me. I turned to see an old man and an old woman sitting on lawn chairs in front of a flat bed truck loaded with pumpkins.

The old man wore dingy overalls yanked up over his boulder- sized belly. His bald head rested on three bloated chins stacked one on top of another. He had a sneer permanently etched into his wrinkled face. His cheeks and lips had collapsed into his mouth, pulling the nose down with them, for there were no teeth left for support. The old woman sitting next to him wore a faded flowery sun dress beneath her weather worn flannel coat. Two fleshy white calves dropped beneath her dress and tapered into swollen purple ankles.

The old couple was still. Only their eyes possessed life. They darted and flickered about like flies; landing on one person then zipping to the next, gobbling up everything they saw. The old man's eyes had landed right on me. He studied me for a moment, then did something peculiar. He tilted his nose up slightly ... and sniffed. He was trying to smell me.

His face lit up. Without breaking his gaze he poked his wife.

Before I could turn away he called out to me with a slithering, toothless smile.

"You look like you need a jack o'lantern."

I tried to ignore him. My father, who had also noticed the weird couple, was not so rude. "What's that?"

"You fellas look like you could use some pumpkins." He waved us over.

To my horror, my dad took me by the shoulder and went over.

"You got any good ones?"

The old man wrestled himself to his feet and adjusted his trousers.

"They're all good. They're only seventy five cents apiece no matter how big or how small. You can't beat a deal like that nowadays." His lips quivered and flapped with each word.

His eyes fell back on me.

"Who's this corker?"

"Ryan. " The moisture had disappeared from my throat.

"How old are you, Ryan? Eleven? Twelve?"

"Nine."

"I'll be. I would have bet the farm that you were at least twelve. "He poked at his wife. "Don't he look twelve?"

She grinned. "Sure does. Not a second younger."

I knew well enough that I was much smaller than most kids my age. I resented the patronization. Never the less, I had been instilled with a mechanical sense of courtesy.

"Nope. I'm only nine."

He stretched out a withered hand to pat my head. I lurched back as swiftly as a snake's recoil.

"Whoa!" said the old man. "Sorry, corker. I didn't mean to make you jump."

My dad was a little embarrassed. "He's all right. He's shy around strangers."

The old man squatted right in front of me. His poisonous breath rolled up my nose and clawed it's way down to my stomach. "I'll guess he is. I'll bet he's a blazin' pistol when you get him home though."

He gave me a slow deliberate wink. As his one eye swallowed me whole, the moist tip of his meaty tongue slipped out between trembling lips.

A quiet hiss leaked from his mouth as he tried to speak. The tongue refused to let any words pass. It wanted only to be close to me.

I don't remember too much about the rest of that day. I suspect that my father doesn't remember anything. It was one of the many insignificant segments in his life that have been long since forgotten. For me, all the wild and weird energies akin to October, which manifest themselves into the dampness of the streets, into the shadows on the roof tops, and into the very minds of people, had converged into one single moment in time and space, burning itself into my memory. Whenever I see a load of pumpkins or smell the smoke of wet burning leaves, I'm forced to see that moist tongue and speculate on what it was that drove it to peek out. I'm compelled to imagine what it's intentions were had it been given the opportunity to come out all the way.