September 18, 2011

A Pumpkin Is Frightened, a Person Dies

Last October a writers' group on Facebook gave a prompt for a story that began with a pumpkin. I wrote a few lines and that prompt planted a seed and a few days later I learned of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), held every November. I decided to participate and a few paragraphs about a pumpkin that witnessed a suicide became the start of the first draft of "The Memory Tree" a novel about two brothers, a robbery, and the Athens Lunatic Asylum. I reached the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words within 30 days, but then the story languished on my computer. Recently, I began looking closer at three novels I had in various stages of completion, trying to discern which to finish and submit, after a lot of work, to an agent. In looking at the following paragraphs as they are in "The Memory Tree," I am not sure if they will make the final cut, because the book takes place in 1939-1941 and this scene is from the mid 1990s. 
Last night I read it again and thought, well, maybe it can be a story for the blog and so I offer it here. In memory of Allie Dickinson, who died much too soon.

by Janice Phelps Williams
A woman called Erin picked me and four other pumpkins off the back of a truck one Saturday morning, loaded us into the trunk of her car, and off we went to her home, a house that smelled like cinnamon, cigarette smoke, and hot cider. There were a lot of decorations as well as stencils, knives, markers, candles. The dining room table was covered with a vinyl cloth and music filled the house. 
After a bath in the sink, Erin dried me with a kitchen towel and placed me on the wooden table next to the others, ready for my destiny. Her hands were strong and I felt like something good was happening to me.
Soon, I had a mouth, eyes, a nose, a lid, a candle. When the candle was lit, late in the evening when the party was well underway, the scent of warm pumpkin wafted through the dining room and into the living room where Erin had hidden a gun under the fish tank there. It was her spare gun and you might wonder why a woman needs one gun, let alone a spare. But she did, she needed it for something.
The next morning when the guests had gone home and Erin's boots laid on their sides over the register in the kitchen floor, warm, gas-heated air drying bits of pumpkin pulp on one heel, Erin slept fitfully on the couch.
She drank too much Black Velvet, always. Though recently she'd tried her best to quit altogether. There were not enough cigarettes to smoke that desire away. Her favorite place to be was a neighborhood bar with a small dance floor where she wooed other women with her attentive blue eyes. Everything would be wonderful for a few months, maybe even a year, then "hell in a hand basket" was an appropriate cliche for the relationship's turn. There were a lot of empty baskets in Erin's closet.
Her wood frame two-story house, ninety years old but renovated and quaint, had windows that faced the Ridges, a hill above the town where the state mental hospital had been built in the late 1800s. In winter she could see the top of the buildings there, silent now since the asylum had closed years earlier. I couldn't see all this from the front porch, and that is where I was placed.
When Halloween had come and gone, Erin kept celebrating with friends, then alone. She drank on Sunday and on Monday called off work. She called in on Tuesday, and I think it was a good job she had too...said there was a family emergency. Said she needed to use a few of her vacation days. 
Wednesday night she went down to the liquor store and bought two more bottles of Black Velvet and two six-packs of beer, then came home and called her niece in Illinois, a college friend in Sedona, and Liz. I could hear her voice through the window, talking on the phone.
At two a.m. the candle that had burned inside of me all evening was finally spent and extinguished itself in the tiny foil cup at its bottom; my face went dark and I, too, went to sleep until the plopping sound of the Dispatch woke me in the morning of my last day as a jack o’lantern.
I had been surprised that morning by the woman who delivered the newspaper each day, and I liked watching for her. She's light-skinned and fat and wears a pink sweatshirt and a turquoise crocheted cap. I think she looks like a happy icing-with-sprinkles donut, her rusty old Honda sputtering along the street. That's when I wake up and start looking forward to the entire day and the lighting of my candle at night.
Anyway, about nine in the morning I started to wonder if Erin was going to miss work again. There were no sounds at all from inside the house. Then a white car pulled up to the curb and two policemen got out.
"We'll just knock on the door and make sure she's all right," said one.
"Seems a bit silly. Checking on a woman for being drunk," said the other.
"Yeah, but her friend said there was a gunshot."
I heard them pounding on the front door, then one peeked into the living room window. He noticed the antique instruments hanging on the wall, then Erin sprawled out on the couch. 
"Ms. Stewart?" he yelled tapping on the window. "Ms. Stewart, I need you to come to the door."
It took her a while, but she made her way to the wooden door. It was the original door to this house and last year she'd lovingly refinished it. Polished and warm, it was the entrance to every room in her house, literally and metaphorically. Oh, how smart I am for a pumpkin, you might wonder. If a pumpkin cannot speak in October, or November such as it is now, then there is no magic anywhere anymore. 
"Ma'am, we got a call from one of your friends and just wanted to check and make sure everything is okay. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine, you can see that can't ya?" Erin didn't sound like the woman who picked me out of the pumpkins; like the woman who gave the carving party; like the woman, even, she'd been the night before. When I was carved out to be a jack o'lantern, a light was put inside of me and I glowed, realizing my true destiny at last. But Erin sounded as if she'd had her insides carved out as well, with no illumination, no destiny, no future to look forward to. I know, now, this is the sound of hopelessness.
"Your friend suggested you might want to check into the mental health center for a few days. She's concerned about your safety. Are you a danger to yourself or others?"
"No, I'm not. It's not against the law to have a drink is it? Get the hell off my porch!" The wooden door slammed hard, a window pane cracked. The wooden slats on the front porch floor shook a bit and my vine-topped cap jiggled slightly.
"What do you want to do now?" one cop said.
"Not much we can do; she's got a right to be wasted. Let’s go." 
Nothing was making sense to me and a weird feeling seemed to sprout within the little of me there was left inside. A feeling of fear and dread.

Around noon a car pulled up. I recognized the car because it was Erin's friend from the pumpkin-carving party. Stacey had a man with her, someone I'd never seen before. She also had a key to the front door and soon they were inside, then I heard voices. Erin's voice, slurred then angry. Then soft talking.
"Erin, we're worried about you. We love you. Please, let us take you to the hospital for some help. Just for a few days, just to be safe. Please."
"I'mrrrr okay," Erin said.
"No, you're not okay. It's not safe for you to stay here by yourself. You need help, are my best friend, please let me help you."
"Go awwwaayh."
"Erin," the man's voice said. "You know you need to do this. You need help, just go with us this one time. Trust us, okay."
This talk went on quite a while. Two calm voices pleading, Erin's slurred voice saying no. Louder voices. 
"Okay, I'll go," Erin finally said. "Let me take care of a few things. I think I need some coffee . . ."
"I'll make it for you, you get ready," Stacey said. She went into the kitchen, the warm, inviting kitchen where we'd had our Halloween time just a few weeks earlier. The scene of so much fun.
The man followed her into the kitchen, I guess, because the living room was silent now. I didn't see Erin go over to her aquarium to feed her fish, but I heard about it later. She opened the cabinet door underneath the tank and retrieved her gun. Soon, the front door opened and she came out onto the porch, her steps determined and quick. 
Across the wooden floorboards and down the concrete steps to the walk that led to more steps and the sidewalk. By that time the man had opened the front door as well. "Stacey!" he called to the woman inside. "She's got a gun!" He could see it held tightly in Erin's hand against her hip as an old woman would clutch her vinyl purse close to her, keeping it from would-be snatchers.
Cowboy boots on, Erin stepped off the curb and into the street, which ended abruptly before a wooded area.
"Erin! Come on back, let's talk!" the man called out.
"Erin! Erin! Come back, come here, where're you going?" Stacey, who had run out the front door, called, her voice shrill and anxious, the heels of her leather boots sticking in the grass as she hurried toward her friend.
Erin turned and pointed the gun at the man. "Stay back," she said. Then, very quickly and right in front of my triangle eyes, she put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Her body crumpled and twitched on the asphalt like a rabbit Mr. Boyd shot on the farm, then gave to his wife to make a Sunday stew.
Stacey wailed and cried and held her friend's head in her lap. The man muttered and swore and yelled and pulled a phone from his pocket to call for help. But it was too late, she was gone, her spirit lifting quickly above the street, above the trees, above my point of view. Higher and higher it went until it merged with the gray clouds and became a part of them in a way that would forever bring to Stacey's mind thoughts of gray November days.
I knew my candle would never be lit again and sadness replaced every happy memory I had cherished. Sorrow and shock and grief went through me, around me, under me and within. My spirit caved in on itself, like an old hotel imploding, all sense of former revelry extinguished in a burst of dust and brokenness.
The couple who lived across the street hurried out to see if they could help. They'd been invited to a party Erin had held during the OSU-Michigan football game last year and were hoping to attend this year as well. Their youngest son had recently left home for the University of Pennsylvania, and they were having trouble adjusting to an empty home. Erin had a diverse group of friends and the Mason's enjoyed themselves. But now here she was on the street, still. What the hell?
Mr. Mason went to the man's side just as a police car pulled up, then an ambulance. A paramedic rushed to Erin's body and confirmed what everyone knew. She was dead. So was I, but I'm only a small pumpkin and can be thrown out in the trash, forgotten immediately and soon rotting in a landfill, my dreams of Halloween and my light gone forever. 
My last thought was the memory of being held in Erin’s hands. I felt this mixture of wonder and safety and destiny as she carried me from the table at the farmers’ market to the back of her car, those first moments suspended in the air, like a bird or a cloud, feeling lighter than I ever had. Anything could happen.
# # #

Excerpt from “The Memory Tree” a work in progress by Janice Phelps Williams. Copyright 2010, All rights reserved.
Painting at top of page by Janice Marie Phelps, 11/2004. Acrylic, modeling paste, and felt. All rights reserved. Painted on an outing with the wonderful Ohio Plein Air Society.
“Pumpkin” is a work of fiction, but is based on the suicide of a friend of mine, a woman who shot herself in front of her brother and best friend, in the street, just as the fictional Erin did. It was a horrible event and her death was mourned by many, many friends who loved her and her enthusiasm for Halloween and pumpkin carving. 
The publishing company I founded, Lucky Press, published a book this year by a poet whose adult son, suffering from bipolar disorder, committed suicide. Madeline Sharples’ memoir is “Leaving the Hall Light On” and you can find it at Amazon and at other online and in-store booksellers.

You may hear Paul Sharples wonderful jazz piano music at THIS LINK.

Madeline Sharples will be participating in a fund-raising walk/run for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Center in Los Angeles, California Sept. 25, 2011. Here is A LINK for more information or to make a donation to help those who suffer from depression and mental illness .

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