By Change100 © 2010
I told Meredith I'd pick up the pumpkins because I wanted to drive her car. It wasn't a particularly remarkable vehicle but at the time, her blue-green Subaru might as well have been a Ferrari and Interstate 57 the Cote d'Azur. I wanted to drive. I didn't care where I had to go to do it, I just wanted to get behind the wheel. Only six weeks into fall quarter, I longed for my little red Volkswagen, rusting away in my parents' driveway back in Los Angeles. All summer, I'd driven her just to drive—to Malibu, to Oxnard, to Carpinteria, turning around for home once I'd had enough wind in my hair for that day. I hated the stasis of being confined to only a few blocks of college-town streets. Without a set of car keys, I felt stranded.
Meredith handed a set of directions scribbled on the back of an old flyer for a performance by one of the university's a capella groups. I was supposed to pick up 150 pumpkins that had been donated by a farmer in a small town about eighty miles downstate. I'd fetch the pumpkins, drive them back to campus and we'd sell them the following morning as a fundraiser for the musical Meredith was directing.
"Are you sure 150 pumpkins are going to fit in here?" I asked, looking at her four-door hatchback.
"Just cram in as many as you can," Meredith replied as she tossed me the keys. "Try to be back by five."
All thoughts of attending my 10:00 class evaporated once the keys hit my palm. I pulled out of the driveway of the theatre building, turned out onto Sheridan Road, and made my way through the leafy north shore suburbs on my way to I-94. The locals had names for it that seemed to change every few miles. One minute it was the Edens Expressway. Then the Kennedy. Fall was in full, furious bloom, the burnt orange and red of the dying leaves the last bits of color in the landscape as winter encroached and threatened to turn the entire middle of the country into graying, lifeless tundra.
I found the Dan Ryan Expressway and watched as the skyscrapers of the Loop gave way to the bombed-out south side once I merged onto I-57 south. Charred warehouses. Empty lots. Graffited billboards. Once the street numbers reached the triple digits, it didn't take long for civilization to fall away, concrete and mortar replaced with a patchwork quilt of farmland. For as long as I could take the cold, I rolled down the windows, singing along with a Stephen Sondheim musical on the tape deck. It seemed like no one was out here. Wide open spaces.
Forty miles later, I exited the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The last town I'd seen was Kanakaee, a few miles back. No gas station. No supermarkets. I took the Subaru down a two-lane road, passing a farmhouse every few miles.
"You'll see an enormous yellow tractor parked outside. That's the place. Park out front and ask for Ellen or Henry," wrote Meredith in her loopy scrawl.
Well, there were a lot of tractors in these parts and for a moment there, I felt like I was in the opening scene of a slasher movie, the naïve girl being lured in by seemingly folksy farmers who then proceed to hack her to pieces and sell off her organs to smugglers. But there, over the tiniest ridge, was indeed an enormous yellow tractor, and outside a simple, single-story bungalow sat a woman who reminded me of Sissy Spacek, sitting behind a table making beaded necklaces. I parked the Subaru at the edge of the dirt patch where her lawn should have been, and stepped outside.
"You must be from the university," she said, hardly looking up from her work.
"Yes. How'd you know?"
"We don't see too many new people around here. I'm Ellen. My husband has your pumpkins. He'll be out in a minute."
"Thank you. We really appreciate the donation."
"We really appreciate y'all taking them off our hands. Glad someone will be able to enjoy 'em. You should probably pull your car up to the conveyor."
"The conveyor. Over there," she said, pointing at some contraption I didn't understand the use of.
I nudged the Subaru up toward the device.
"Turn around! You need to back up towards it!"
"You want to load the pumpkins in the back of the car, right, turn around!"
Feeling like a completely inept urbanite, I executed the worst three-point turn of my life and attempted to follow her instructions. Just as I pulled the parking brake, I heard the unmistakable screech of metal-on-metal, followed by a thundering shudder.
What the fuck had I done? Had I hit something? Scraped the bottom of Meredith's car? Would insurance cover farming-related damages.
"Hurry up, open the hatchback. They're coming out," shouted Ellen.
"The pumpkins, they're coming on the conveyor."
Just then I saw a mountain of a man emerge from behind the house. Henry wore a flannel shirt and overalls and a muddy green baseball cap. He had a wild gray beard and a sturdy gait that was unfortunately outpaced by the dozens of pumpkins that seemed to emerge from nowhere and rumble toward me down the conveyor belt.
Do I grab the pumpkins? Do I wait for Henry? And which choice will make me look like less of an idiot?
I went for the pumpkins. I went for them fast, and started hurling them in the back of the car as fast as I could. I didn't know how this conveyor worked, if it was like the baggage claim at the airport and I'd have another shot at these suckers, or whether it was like the one in the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy just couldn't keep up with the chocolates and ended up eating most of them. Either way, this wasn't going to turn out well for me. The hatch was already a mess. The pumpkins were getting bruised. And there was the matter of my black combat boots sinking into the mud up to my ankles.
Henry tried not to laugh at the sight before his eyes.
"Whoa there. What's your hurry? You don't have a lot of space there so we're going to have to arrange these just right.”
"So they'll come back around?"
"Of course they will! You think I could get anything off this thing with my back the way it is?"
Henry went to work re-arranging the pumpkins I'd already hurled into the car while I pulled off the remainder of them into the neatest pile I could manage.
"Y'all wanted a hundred and fifty, right?"
"Right, but are we going to be able to get them all in there?"
"Oh, I'll make 'em fit," said Henry with a deep sigh, as he lifted a particularly heavy one. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"How'd you guess?" I replied with a smirk.
"We don't see too many folks wearing leopard-print down this way. Or boots like those. Not too practical."
"No, I'm from Los Angeles.”
"You're from Hollywood? No kiddin'! My niece, she lived there a while. Now she's in New York City. Just got a job writing that Saturday Night Live show."
"Wow, that's amazing. I wouldn't mind doing something like that myself."
"Anything you can put your mind to, I always told her. Anything you can put your mind to, you can do. Me, I like to put my mind to this. My land, my potatoes. You know I mainly grow potatoes. The pumpkins were sort of a special thing for us. Just ended up with too damn many of 'em."
By some feat of exceptional special geometry, Henry crammed 150 pumpkins into Meredith's Subaru hatchback by laying down the back seats and allowing a couple dozen to ride shotgun with me. Somehow I made it eighty miles back up the highway, my rear view completely obstructed by a wall of orange.
Change100 is a writer from Los Angeles, CA.