Pumpkin Toss

“Are you taking that pumpkin to the river?”

 

“Oh this?” I said coyly, as if a man walking into the wilderness with a pumpkin wasn’t obvious. The couple in the truck, neighbors from up the hill, nodded.

 

“No, I’m going a little farther,” I answered, smiling from ear to ear.

 

“To the Taos plateau?” the man asked.

 

“Yeah,” I shrugged, “something like that.”

 

*

 

“Okay!” I shouted, waving my hands in an attempt to gather the attention of thirty-odd adults. We were standing in a large meadow at New Buffalo, ringed with sage and the golden husks of sunflowers, daisies, chicory and primrose. A dozen squat pumpkins sat in a small dirt ring nearby. Our children, slowly returning in two’s and three’s, were walking up from the field below, each holding a smaller version of that ubiquitous autumn symbol in their hands.

 

“Now that the children have had a turn,” I continued, “I’d like to challenge the adults. The next event is the pumpkin toss.” I paused for emphasis, then continued. “Now, some people – like Silke over here – have suggested that throwing a pumpkin is, perhaps, disrespectful. They’re food, after all. But I think that’s mistaken. You can throw a pumpkin with all the humility and grace with which you can carve it or eat it. It’s just a matter of how you approach it. In fact, these pumpkins, which have been stuffed with prayers, will, if you’ll believe it, veritably explode with blessings after a vigorous toss. We have a sort of deal. They, being orange and cumbersome, allow us to throw them, while we, being lanky and uncertain, laugh at the prospect.” I eyed the crowd cautiously. I was excited, but most folks milled about noncommittally.

 

“Plus! In case anyone is still hesitant, let me announce that the winner will receive a fifty-dollar gift certificate to Cid’s!” A few people perked up. Who doesn’t want fifty bucks at the local green grocer? “And look,” I continued, taking the gift card out of my shirt pocket, “it even comes in a frilly little bag.” Silke, having obtained the card, had, of course, placed it in such an encumbrance. “Finally, in case it’s not obvious…” and here I spread my arms wide, “the real purpose is that we get to watch each other throw pumpkins, and laugh.” I smiled and looked a few folks in the eye.

 

“Does anyone want to go first?”

 

*

 

“Can I leave these in the cart, or do you need me to…” I trailed off, motioning to the cashier as if I were putting one of the fat pumpkins onto the conveyor belt.

 

“Yeah, I need to weigh each one, so…”

 

“Right. No sweat,” I answered, cutting her off. I began pulling each one from the cart, careful not to rip off their stems.

 

The cashier, a middle-aged woman with dark hair, was obviously tired from a long day of work. Ten years ago, I spent a summer working a busy register at an inner-city garden store, ringing thousands of marigolds and impatiens through an outdoor register, so I knew the feeling. It’s nice being on one’s feet, but you can’t actually move but a foot or two in any direction, often for an entire eight-hour shift. And on top of that, every two to fifteen minutes you have to have another shallow social encounter with someone like me.

 

“How’s your wrist?” I asked, noticing the woman twisting her left hand uncomfortably.

 

“Oh, it gets sore sometimes. Just freezes up,” she answered, continuing to lug my pumpkins, ten to twelve pounds apiece, onto the scale. With her right hand, she quickly punched in the PLU code.

 

“Ugh,” I said, scrunching up my face in a sign of sympathy. Working the register was hard on my legs, but never my hands. It was years later that, sitting behind a computer, I developed carpal tunnel symptoms, the result of constant tiny motions of the mouse. Between each pumpkin, I watched as the woman flexed her wrist in both directions. I hesitated between saying something, or not. Having studied my own work posture, I learned that problems in the wrists and fingers originate much further up the line, around the shoulder and neck. I wanted to suggest a deep breath, with both arms raised above the head, ideally every ten to fifteen minutes throughout the day, perhaps followed by a deep squat to relieve the pressure on her lower spine. But I also knew that was ridiculous. This woman, a complete stranger, saw hundreds of people a day and the last thing she needed was more advice, or for her boss to see her doing yoga with a svelte young man while a line of customers stacked up behind the register.

 

“Thanks,” I said, looking her in the eye as she gave me the receipt. I tucked it into my pocket. “I hope you get some rest soon.”

 

“Oh, I will honey,” she said, weary but peacefully. I smiled, then turned to exit my “car cart”, packed with a week’s worth of groceries and a hundred and fifty pounds of pumpkins, out of the aisle and into the no-man’s land between the registers and the sliding glass doors. “Pema, you good?” I asked. She was in the huge plastic “car” attached to the front of the cart, effectively doubling the size of our conveyance.

 

“Yep,” she answered, content with the tangerine she had gotten at the store.

 

As I hit the sunlight and fresh air outside, I pulled the receipt out of my pocket. Just how much did twelve pumpkins cost?

 

*

 

“Can I throw it however I want?” asked Michelle, one of the children’s mothers.

 

“Of course,” I answered, “That’s part of the fun.” A little ways down the field, Jeff, our volunteer line-judge, stood waiting. I had thrown the first one backward, over my head, trying to look as awkward as possible. But Michelle took her time, testing out her grip on the pumpkin, the stem, swinging it sideways, then underhand, overhand. I knew she would do this, and I was glad for it. Most of the other parents were circumspect, and if they ventured to toss a pumpkin out of obligation they were liable to do it the same way they saw me do it. Part of the humor, though, would be watching all the different ways people tried to move a pumpkin through the air, and Michelle was making it happen.

 

“You’ve got to bowl it!” shouted one of the parents, “Like a bowling ball!” Now we were cooking. The field was pitched slightly downhill, and, based on the first couple throws, it appeared that rolling was perhaps more effective than brute heaving. Michelle held onto the stem and gave it a few practice swings, then decided against it.

 

“Do it, Mom!” her son yelled. Or maybe it was another one of the parents. The children, based on their ages, were either eager or embarrassed. Either way, they were riveted. One little boy, whom I had only recently met, was permanently attached to my leg. “Can I have a turn?” he begged. “We’ll see,” I answered. “I want to give the adults a turn first. If there’s any pumpkins left, you can go.”

 

Settling on a two-handed, underhand toss from the side, Michelle was finally ready. Stepping up to the edge of the dirt ring, she made as if she was about to throw, then paused and looked at me. “Can I…?” she asked. “You can start as far back as you want,” I answered, reading her thoughts. “You just can’t throw from beyond the ring.”

 

Walking back a few feet, she paused one last time, then ran up a couple steps and heaved the pumpkin into the air. There were two, maybe three, glorious seconds as the twelve-pound squash hovered in the air, sailing along with an almost planetary rotation. The mountains in the background smiled approvingly. The sky parted, and a dove came down bearing an olive branch. I had been anticipating this moment for so long, and it was worth every second. So long little pumpkin, I thought. Send us some good prayers.

 

*

 

“Okay, listen,” I said to the wall of children in front of me. We had just run out of the labyrinth, and I was now squatting with them at the entrance, where a makeshift harvest altar had been set up. Two orange pumpkins, to be tossed by the adults, sat behind me, along with a few aspen branches, an array of colorful crystals, and a bowl of yellow corn meal.

 

“Do you see the field below us?” I asked the children. “Yes,” some answered. Others nodded their heads. “Well, the fairy wasn’t able to bring all the pumpkins back. They were too heavy. But she told me that she brought them to this field, one at a time, and hid them amongst the grass.” In the center of the labyrinth, on Silke’s cue, I had told a brief story about the pumpkins. The dragon, who ever-loves mischief, had stolen them in the hopes of ruining our fun. Fortunately, a tiny fairy, which lived in a pumpkin no larger than a grain of rice, had thwarted the dragon and returned them to us.

 

“Now, some of the pumpkins are round and orange, like these…” and I pointed at the two behind my back. “And others are bumpy and all sorts of colors. That’s because the dragon breathed on them. He likes warts and discomfort.” The children smiled.

 

“Alright, on the count of three, you can run into the field and see if you can find one. Okay? And, my big kids,” I added, eyeing some of the older children, “If you find one, you can help some of the younger children find one too. There should be enough for everyone to have one.” Heads nodded. “Okay. One…two…three…go!”

 

I stood and turned, walking slowly behind the children. A few other parents followed. “Oh my goodness,” someone said behind my back, and we all smiled dreamily as thirty-odd children ran through an acre of gold and brown grass.

 

*

 

“Okay, I have one more thing,” she said, eyeing me cautiously. There was a hint of a smile on her lips. “The pumpkins. What was your thinking behind that? Think of it as a sort of lesson plan. What was your motivation?”

 

Sarah, a cherubic young woman with radiant eyes, sat across from me, her belly round like a pumpkin, swollen with life. A Waldorf teacher with extensive experience and training, she has recently become my mentor. Having long entertained the idea of taking a small group of home-schoolers, including my own daughter, from first through eighth grade, I’m using this kindergarten year to start getting serious. Sarah and I had just finished a two-hour session, roughly sketching out plans for the next few years.

 

“Well, I didn’t think it out in any major way,” I began, “I just… Well… Last spring, we had an Easter celebration. I had hosted some events before, New Buffalo being such an easy place to gather, but that was the first time Silke and I had specifically co-hosted an event. It was…” and I paused the same way I pause every time I recount that day, “…well, it was just magic. It was a lot of things, the simplicity of it, the way people came together… I mean, on the surface it was for the children, but it touched the hearts of everyone, and it did it without being… overt. All the adults…” and I paused again, regathering my thoughts. “Anyway, one of the things that made it fun was the tug-of-war. Silke and I had talked about drawing out the adults, not just the kids, in a playful sort of way. By and large, that went really well, and as I was thinking about the harvest festival, I wanted to include something like that.” I stopped and looked Sarah in the eye. “Throwing pumpkins is funny.”

 

Sarah looked back at me with the same kind of face Silke had given me when I had first told her of the idea. “Okay,” I said, “I know some people think throwing pumpkins is weird or wrong. They’re food. They’re plants. Blah, blah, blah…” Sarah continued to look at me, and I started to wriggle. Her partner, a dedicated farmer, grows a substantial portion of the food they eat. Damn it, I thought, feeling a bit penned in, but sort of rejoicing at that. I like being challenged. I also like being right. But what I like most is being wrong and then explaining why I’m right. I began digging further into my mind for a bit of leverage, something that would throw her off. “But I think… You know…” I closed my eyes and tapped my fingers. “I mean… Besides…” Thoughts were swarming faster than I could keep up with, but I enjoyed it all the same. Finally, knowing the game was up, I settled indiscriminately on, “I think there’s even a gender difference. I mean, boys just like to throw things. Haven’t you ever thrown a rock into the river?”

 

“Okay,” Sarah countered, “I’m not accusing you of anything. I just, well, I woke up the next morning and I was thinking about Joe and the pumpkins, and when I wake up with something on my mind I know it’s important.” Oh geeze, I thought, these Waldorf people, all dreams and fairies. “While we were out there,” Sarah continued, “I didn’t even think about it. I enjoyed it as much as anyone. It was fun. But after the fact, when we came back…” She paused, then restarted. “I loved your story in the labyrinth, and when the children ran to find the pumpkins – it was beautiful. But then, as each child came back with their precious little pumpkin, we immediately turned to a game where the adults threw them. It was funny, and I’m not saying there’s anything terrible about throwing a few pumpkins…” She shook her head tactfully, showing a smile. “But afterward, as we were all walking back… Did you see some of the boys on the play structure? They were holding their pumpkins above their heads and,” here she laughed nervously, “trying to smash them on the ground.” Then she gave a long pause, coupled with the you know? face.

 

“Well, okay,” I answered, admitting defeat. “I see your point.” Shaking my head in a thoughtful frown, I chewed my thoughts for a minute, then swallowed and struck back up, “To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that at all. I just thought it would be fun.”

 

Silke had raised a similar objection prior to the party, but I had understood her concern to be about the pumpkins, not the children. I had quickly, perhaps too quickly, waved her off as a goody-goody. But now, sitting here with Sarah, I saw the gist of her argument, even while, inside, I was already cordoning off sections of my mind, like stringing fence in a field. This is, as I understand it, one of the great advantages (and disadvantages) of being male. I understood Sarah’s perspective, but even still I compartmentalized along a few strategic fence posts. I didn’t want to smash the joy I had experienced that day, and afterward, with the cold reality that perhaps I had screwed up. But I had to work fast. Within seconds, while keeping a calm and pleasant conversation going with Sarah, I had about three or four large fields strung. In one sense, she was right, the timing and structure had perhaps been unthoughtful. I placed a few sheep inside the pen, and hopped over one of the poles. On the other hand, I hadn’t intended some kind of smash-the-world lesson. I hadn’t really intended any lesson at all (maybe that was the mistake). Anyway, I had approached it with real joy, and even a sort of prayerful intention. I meant it when I said those pumpkins were stuffed with prayers. So, I put a few sheep in there too. Climbing under a length of barbed-wire, I stood in another field and realized that, if anyone tried to disagree with me, I would smash them with my fists, then my logic. I put two sheep in there, smiled smugly, then hopped over to the first field. I chased one of the sheep down, and, wrangling it over my head, dumped it on the other side. Assholes. Then, dusting my hands off, I climbed under the fence onto the far side of the field, which got a little grass in my shirt and hair. Standing up on the other side, I recalled that I often say or do things in order to see if I even believe them. I sort of try them on for size. Did I actually believe what I was saying about the pumpkins? Before? After? Did I believe Silke, or Sarah? Was it all just posturing? I wasn’t really sure, but I put a few sheep in there for good measure, because uncertainty is a rustic and hardy sort of breed. Then, as if in a dream, while Sarah and I still conversed about the day and our next meeting, I bent over and spread my arms over the earth. Feeling myself move bodily into the air, I spotted the various sheep and pens I had created, the conversation still pouring from my lips, and watched the whole movement with an incredulous smile. Life. So funny.

 

*

 

Amanda, a young mother of three, stepped into the dirt and hefted a sizable pumpkin into her hands. The crowd, warmed up by the first few tosses, cheered good-naturedly. With little fanfare, Amanda, tall, thin and dressed all in black, lifted the pumpkin above her right shoulder, then twisted and launched the pumpkin, overhand style, through the air. We all watched as another planetary sphere rotated through the cosmos, then landed with a thump. The shell cracked, but it managed to keep its basic shape, rolling slowly downfield, dodging broken bits of earlier pumpkins here and there, as well as the small, but stiff branches of a long-dead sagebrush, where one pumpkin, quite forcefully thrown, had been stopped flat.

 

Running out of steam, Amanda’s pumpkin performed one last lazy rotation, then finally came to a rest. The crowd grew silent. Amanda squeezed her hands. Surely it was a contender. All eyes turned to Jeff, our line judge, as he stepped forward to survey the field. “That’s it,” he said, smiling gently, “That’s the furthest.” Amanda twirled excitedly, like a little child, and the crowd stirred knowingly.

 

“Okay,” I shouted, “who’s next?”

 

*

 

“Hey Joe!” Andrew shouted, “I found a pumpkin!” His voice was squeaky, belying a certain excitement. Having injured his hand the previous week, his whole left arm was now covered in a thick, red cast. He had stayed home from school that week, but he and his parents had come to the harvest fest all the same. It had been good to see him, vibrant and running around with the other children, and I was especially delighted to see him walking out of the big field with a pumpkin in his good hand.

 

Now, as Andrew looked up at me excitedly, he had found a second pumpkin.  It was three days later, and we had been wandering the same field in which we had searched for pumpkins earlier, but now it was a school day. We were in search of materials for fairy boats and castles. As I watched Andrew try to squeeze the pumpkin between his good hand and the stiff, red cast, I recalled the cashier at the grocery store, bringing a sort of fond memory to heart. Good luck, I said, holding the woman silently in my thoughts. Then, as if reflexively, I snapped my wrists back and forth and reached my arms over my head in a wide arc to reset my shoulder joints.

 

In retrospect, the father who had hidden the pumpkins at the party had perhaps done too good of a job. The grass and flowers, all brown and gone to seed, were nonetheless thick and tall, and many of the adults, never mind the kids, had had a hard time finding the little squashes amongst them. “I’m pretty sure there’s a few pumpkins left in the field,” I had announced that school day, as we advanced through the grasses. Sure enough, Andrew found one right away.

 

“Can I keep it?” he asked. He had finally gotten a grip on the pumpkin, picking it up for me to inspect.

 

“Yeah,” I shrugged, “You found it, you keep it.” I knew there wouldn’t be enough for all the kids, but so be it. Andrew beamed with pleasure, and I was glad of it. Cradling the cantaloupe-sized squash in his good arm, he walked ahead.

 

“Hey look,” Pema shouted, pointing at the shattered remains of a pumpkin a little ways ahead of us. Several of the pumpkins from the pumpkin toss had landed without cracking, and two of those had been given to children who hadn’t managed to find a little one. A couple days later, one of my housemates scraped the seeds from the broken pumpkins and roasted them in the kitchen. But the rest of the guts still lay splayed about in the field. I had wondered if the sheep, or the donkey, would eat them, but aside from a few peck marks from passing birds, they were just as we had left them.

 

“You can take a piece if you want,” I told the children as we came up to them. I hoisted a large piece into my hands. “I’m going to make a boat out of this one,” I announced. “Yeah!” shouted Peter, “Or we can make salamander-catchers!”

 

“Or fairy houses,” said Laura.

 

“I’m taking mine home,” said Andrew.

 

*

 

“We’ve got one last pumpkin,” I shouted. “Anyone?” I was surprised to see Silke hadn’t taken a turn, but then again...

 

I looked about the crowd. Most of the obvious candidates had already gone. Then Shai, a heavily bearded father of three, whose entire family had only recently immigrated from Israel, began walking forward. I could see from his demeanor that he didn’t expect to win (and how could he, every toss since Amanda’s having been knocked down by the ever-increasing field of obstacles) but he seemed to be enjoying the fun of it. Why not?, he seemed to say with his jaunty steps, and I was grateful.

 

Picking up the last pumpkin, he smiled an infectious beard-smothered smile, then turned to face downfield. Gripping the pumpkin like a bowling ball, he set the pumpkin adrift, one last moment in the cosmos, then stepped back to watch as it sputtered down the field, bouncing and ricocheting off shattered bits of pumpkin and clumps of grass. Coming to rest midfield, he shrugged his shoulders and we all clapped and hollered. Even without Jeff’s final call, everyone knew who had won.

 

With innocent enthusiasm, Amanda bounded through the crowd to receive her prize. “Wow, I can’t believe it,” she said, smiling from ear to ear. “Fifty bucks at Cid’s! Thank you!”

 

“You’re welcome,” I said, smiling back, overjoyed to give it to someone who seemed to appreciate it so much. I gave her the card, along with the frilly little bag, which she raised above her head triumphantly as she returned to the crowd.

 

It was such a beautiful day. The kids had been so precious in their search for pumpkins, and the adults had stepped up and made a good game of it. The prize was inconsequential in my mind, but Amanda’s excitement made it all the more delightful. I turned to Silke, who was on the far side of the fragmenting crowd, and, placing my hand to my open mouth, raised my shoulders quizzically. She smiled and nodded. It was time to eat.

 

*

 

The day before I met with Sarah, I had walked out some distance upon the Taos plateau. There is a tree out there, in the middle of nowhere, twisted, half-dead, and therefore vibrantly alive. Surrounded by acres of sagebrush and little else, this particular juniper, though not much taller than I, is at least a couple-hundred years old, making it mature, but hardly an elder.

 

I often stop by this tree on my walks. It is so conspicuous. I typically have food with me, so I leave a little bit here, or sometimes tuck a crystal or a bone into its cracks and hollows. Whatever I might have. Usually, I just bow or touch my hands to the earth. The trunk itself completes a full one-hundred and eighty degree turn before branching into thick, wind-warped limbs, some of which are alive, some dead, creating an aesthetic beauty that envelopes me. I don’t believe in magic or spirits, but if I did this would be the kind of place I’d expect to find them.

 

A person, it turns out, is far more likely to act for the good if they believe in an invisible realm of spirits, whether that realm exists or not (see D.S. Wilson – Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society). In other words, whether this tree is a sacred gate to the divine or not is of no great consequence to me. Supposing it to be so is all I really need.

 

On that particular day, my heart having swollen with the fullness of the harvest festival, I had a deep yearning to spread that goodwill into the earth. And nothing spoke that intention better than a pumpkin. Having carried it a good hour and a half, first in one hand, then the other, I set it down by the old, twisted juniper. Its gray-red bark and mute-green sprays were a perfect foil to the pumpkin’s audacious skin tone. Spying a nice cradle a little ways up in the dead branches, I picked the pumpkin back up and climbed a few feet off the ground. The milky-blue juniper berries were ripe. Getting some well-deserved scratches, I hoisted it in place, dropped off the tree, and walked back a few steps. It was so beautiful. The mountains in the distance were turning purple-red with the setting sun. Then, as if in a dream, I bent over and felt myself lift bodily over the earth. I watched as the tree receded, and the pumpkin became but a pinprick of orange. There were goats and sheep in the distance, and fences and rails of all sorts, plus the crumbling mountains and wide-open mesas. I watched the whole movement, even the cars coming down the highway and the porchlights coming on. A conversation still poured from my lips, and I was incredulous with smile. Life. So funny. So lovely. And then I landed, tumbling end over end till I came to a rest in the grass and my heart cracked open.

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