Jeff Tracy sighed, and shifted in his seat. The hay bale that he was perched on was okay as far as it went, but there was this one piece of straw that managed to poke him no matter how he moved around.
Well, it was his own fault, really. Had he listened to his mother, and planted a few pumpkin vines a while ago, he wouldn't be here at this commercial pumpkin patch trying to ride herd on five active kids.
It had seemed like a good idea initially. A weekend family outing, just Jeff and his boys. The ad in the Kalvesta paper had touted old-fashioned fun, and he had to admit, for the most part, it had been fun. The three acre corn maze had given the older three a chance to run wild and work off a lot of their energy, and the petting zoo had delighted the two babies.
The hayride was interesting in that it proved to Jeff once and for all that none of his sons could sing a lick. It was something he'd suspected, but it was now verified by the disconcerted looks on the faces of other parents. The carnival area with its old fashioned beanbag, ring, and Ping-Pong ball toss games had kept the boys clamoring for change as they vied to win trinkets and toys, and god help him, goldfish.
All of the attractions had taken enough out of his kids that when it came to finally picking out the pumpkins, they were calm enough not to run like mad men. Jeff had assumed they would each pick their choice within a few minutes, and they could head for home.
That was before the boys had gotten a look at the actual pumpkin patch. The damn thing was at least an acre, and probably more. Even though this was the third weekend it was open, there were still literally hundreds of pumpkins to choose from.
And his boys seemed intent on inspecting each and every one. Jeff looked down at his watch. They'd been at it for over an hour.
At the moment, Johnny and Virgil were off to one side, staring at a huge pumpkin, hands in their pockets, looking for all the world like a couple of guys discussing a used car. Scotty was shepherding Alan through the patch, the three-year-old frowning as he tried to find that one perfect pumpkin. Four-year-old Gordon was trailing behind, seemingly more interested in shifting the pumpkins than choosing one. As Jeff watched, the red-haired youngster set down the pumpkin he'd been carrying for the past few minutes in favor of yet another one.
He considered going over and attempting to hurry things along, but the truth was, he was to content to watch his eldest, Scott, manage things. That boy had been a wonder to Jeff from the day he was born, and he still had the capacity to amaze.
Like the patience he was showing right now. Jeff knew for a fact that if he were in charge, he would have forced a pick on Alan long ago. But Scott just let the three year old wander, limiting his interference to occasionally pointing out one that he felt the three-year-old might have missed.
On the surface, it might have appeared as if the twelve-year-old was ignoring little Gordon who was a few feet behind. But everytime Gordon stopped to change pumpkins, Scott's head swiveled around as he paused until Gordon had picked up a new one.
Jeff could watch his eldest son interacting with his brothers for hours on end. And at the moment, it looked like he'd have that opportunity. Then suddenly, Alan shouted with delight, "There you are!" and ran to pick up what was apparently the pumpkin of his dreams.
Relieved, Jeff whistled to get Scott's attention, and when the boy looked up, pointed to his watch. Scotty grinned and nodded. He pointed Alan in Jeff's direction, and when the youngster would have run, said something to him. Alan looked up at his big brother and nodded, and started walking, carefully cradling his selection in his arms.
Scott turned to Gordon and said something. The four-year-old looked at the pumpkin he was carrying, and nodded vigorously. Scott pointed towards Jeff, and Gordon followed his baby brother toward the hay bales where Jeff was seated. Scott headed off to round up Virgil and John as Jeff watched his two babies coming toward him, their little faces wreathed with delight.
His own face blossomed in a smile to see such joy. Alan was so excited he couldn't help but run the last few yards. "Daddy, I gots a punkin!"
"You did? Let me see!"
Jeff squatted down and Alan proudly displayed his prize. "I'm gonna call him Petie. Petie Punkin."
Jeff blinked. The pumpkin in his son's hands was not much larger than a softball, and like a ball was perfectly round with a smooth skin, and a stem just long enough to be grasped by tiny hands. Not exactly one he would have chosen, but if it was Alan's choice, it was okay by him. "Well now, that's a mighty special pumpkin, son. Petie, you say? Well, let's just see if your brothers can pick pumpkins as well as you can."
Jeff lifted the boy onto the hay bale, and Alan sat cross-legged with the pumpkin nestled firmly in his lap. The small boy stroked the smooth skin possessively, and never once looked up as Jeff frowned, looking for Gordon.
From the time he could walk, Gordon had been one of those kids you had to constantly watch, or he'd disappear on you. For a moment, Jeff's heart started to seize up when the little red head wasn't visible. But almost before he could form the worry, Gordon popped up from behind a couple of giant pumpkins. Apparently he'd found a new pumpkin that he liked, and had been picking it up.
Seeing his Dad watching him, he broke into a grin and hollered loud enough to wake the dead, "Daddy! I got the best one!"
Affronted, Alan yelled back, "Nyuh-uh! I did!"
Jeff made a shushing motion. "Keep it down, boys. You'll scare off the pumpkin elves."
Alan's head jerked up, and with wide eyes, he asked, "Punkin elves?"
Meanwhile Gordon stopped dead in his tracks and began looking around wildly, "Where, Daddy? Where are the pumpkin elves?"
"Come on over here, and let me see your pumpkin, and I'll tell you."
Gordon came, his arms laden with a much bigger pumpkin than his brother's, but still pretty small by Jeff's standards. With a grunt, the boy put it down on the hay bale next to Alan. "See? Mine's a really good pumpkin."
Alan looked, and sniffed. "My punkin's name is Petie, and see? He's all smoove."
Gordon peered at his brother's choice, then with a crinkled nose shook his head. "My pumpkin's name is Mr. Orangie because he's the orangiest one. I like orangiest ones best."
"I like smoove ones," Alan declared.
"Yours is the smoothest, and yours is the most orange. I'd say you both win," Jeff smiled.
"Yeah!" Gordon cheered loudly.
"Gordy, you're gonna scare da elves," Alan scolded, then turned to his father. "Daddy, I didn't see da elves before."
"Yeah, Daddy, I never seen any ol' elves."
"Well, maybe you have, and maybe you haven't. My pa used to tell me that pumpkin elves are shy, and don't like to be seen, so they turn into rabbits when you look at them."
The two tykes turned astonished looks at each other. "I've seen rabbits before."
"Me too! Me too, I seen a bunny just the other day!"
"Now, boys, you need to remember, not all rabbits are elves, some are just rabbits, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if you saw a pumpkin elf that looked like a rabbit. If you boys are good, tonight I'll tell you all about the pumpkin elves, just as my pa told me."
Gordon climbed up on the hay bale and put his arms around his father's neck. "Daddy, I don't wanna wait. I wanna hear about the pumpkin elves right now."
"Me too, Daddy."
"Well, your brothers are coming and it's time to go. I'll tell you what, I don't recall that I've ever mentioned the pumpkin elves to your brothers either. Tonight, after dinner, I'll tell you all everything about them while we carve the pumpkins. How's that?"
Young as they were, they knew when their father couldn't be pushed. With a sigh, Alan nodded as Gordon answered for them both, "Okay, Daddy."
The two children were quiet, patting their pumpkins, eyes roving to catch sight of an elusive elf. Gordon couldn't stay quiet for long though, and after a moment, asked, "Daddy, what's carf mean?"
"It's how you make pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. You…"
"Daddy! Look at my pumpkin!" Johnny came huffing up, carrying a pumpkin that seemed almost as big as he was.
"Well, now, that's one fine pumpkin, son." Jeff grinned.
The two little ones were impressed by the size, and ooh'd and aah'd. Alan held his up for inspection by his older brother, but Johnny scoffed. "That's too little, Allie. There won't be enough seeds in that one. You gotta get big ones for seeds."
Alan and Gordon shared identical frowns, as Gordon asked, "Seeds? What kind of seeds?"
"Pumpkin seeds, silly. Don't you remember? Last year when we got our pumpkins, Grandma made us pumpkin seeds? They were really good. I liked them a lot, so I got a really big pumpkin so I could have a lot of seeds. You guys won't get hardly any with those little pumpkins."
Jeff listened with half an ear as he scanned the patch for his two eldest sons. Halfway down one of the rows, Virgil stood with a pumpkin in his arms, waiting for Scott to pick his. Knowing Scott had spent his time riding herd on the babies, Jeff was inclined to give him the time he needed.
Meanwhile, Gordon was inspecting Johnny's pumpkin with a skeptical eye. "I don't see no seeds."
With the all-knowing air that only an older sibling can attain, John replied, "Of course not, dummy. The seeds are on the inside."
"John. Don't call your brother names," Jeff ordered sternly, his eye on his two eldest.
"Okay, Daddy." John responded meekly.
Gordon on the other hand, was far more intent on the seed issue. "But Johnny, if they're inside, how does Granma make them into pumpkin seeds?"
Johnny rolled his eyes. "You have to cut them open. Don't you remember from last year? Allie was just a baby, but you were big enough. Daddy takes a big knife, and cuts off the top, then you dig out the insides with your hands, and then Grandma takes the insides and gets rid of all the stringy stuff and then she cooks the seeds, and then we eat them."
There was a moment of silence, then the crisp autumn air was split by a wail. Jeff belatedly looked down to see Alan holding his pumpkin in a death grip shaking his head, crying his head off. Little Gordon was frozen, as white as a sheet, eyes wide, lower lip trembling. Johnny was frowning at the babies, without a clue as to what had set them off.
Jeff sighed. There hadn't been a case of pumpkin trauma in the family since Virgil was Alan's age. Scott and Virgil came trotting up. "Dad, what's wrong?"
Before he could reply, there was a little hand on his arm, holding on with a deathgrip. Jeff looked down to see Gordon's soft brown eyes filled with tragedy. "Daddy, Mr. Orangie doesn't wanna be seeds!"
Jeff sighed as he picked the pre-schooler up. "Mr. Orangie isn't the carving kind, son. Don't you worry." Jeff handed the boy off to Scott, mouthing 'pumpkin trauma' over the little red head.
Scott immediately understood, and started calming the youngster down. Jeff turned to Alan, who was wailing away. He picked him up, and tried to soothe him, but the little blond was disconsolate. "Alan, it's okay, baby, it's okay. Nobody's going to hurt Petie Pumpkin. I promise."
Jeff held the boy tight, rubbing circles on his back. Alan was slow to calm down, and Jeff walked out among the pumpkins with him in his arms, hushing and hugging him until the wails had subsided to occasional hitching breaths.
Shifting the boy to his hip, Jeff put a finger under Alan's chin and brought the little head up until they were eye-to-eye. "I won't let anybody cut up Petie, okay?"
"I don' want no punkin seeds, Daddy."
"You don't have to have any if you don't want them, son. But let's not worry about that right now. What do you say we go pay for Petie Pumpkin and head for home?"
"And for Mr. Orangie, too?"
"Yes, for Mr. Orangie, and for everyone else's pumpkins, too. Come on, we haven't even seen Virgil and Scott's pumpkins. Let's see if either of them are as good as Petie."
Alan looked back at his brothers, curiosity overtaking the tragedy. Jeff carried the youngster back to where the rest of the family was waiting. Gordon came running up. "Daddy, Daddy! Scotty says he's gonna make Mr. Orangie look just like a fish! And we don't have to cut him either!"
"A fish? Well, that'll be a treat. I don't believe I've ever seen a fishie jack-o-lantern."
Alan started to squirm, and Jeff obligingly put him down. The toddler strode over to where Scott was standing next to his pumpkin. Alan looked it over, then shook his head. "This one's not smoove at all. See? It has bumps on it, Daddy."
Jeff smiled. Scott had always been one for picking out the homeliest pumpkin he could find, and this one certainly fit the bill. It was lopsided, more brown than orange, and as Alan had said, covered with bumps.
"Well, son, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all."
"Yeah, and Scotty needs glasses," Virgil quipped.
"Hey! It has character. I like a pumpkin with character. Unlike you and your giant sausage," Scott replied jokingly.
And sure enough, Virgil's selection was tall and narrow, and in a way did resemble a sausage. "All right now, as I see it, everybody's a winner here. Alan, you have the smoothest. Gordon, yours is the most orange. John, you win the biggest award. Virgil, yours is the tallest, and Scott… Scott…" Jeff paused in a teasing manner, frowning as if unable to come up with a title.
Alan piped up, "The bumpiest!"
Not to be outdone, Gordon cried out, "The browniest!"
"The ugliest!" John joined in.
Virgil put up a hand, "Wait! Are we talking about the pumpkin or Scott?"
The brothers, including Scott, broke out into laughter, Jeff joining in. "All right, boys, let's get these pumpkins up to the register so we can get home. I'm betting Grandma has a really good dinner for us, and if we're lucky there may even be pie for dessert."
There was a general cheer from the children, and the family trouped up to the carnival booth that served as a register. The grandfatherly man at the till asked, "Is everything okay? I heard your little one crying."
Jeff smiled, "Just a minor case of pumpkin trauma. His older brother told him the sordid truth about pumpkins and carving."
The man laughed, then said thoughtfully, "You know I have just the thing for that. Right over here, they're new out this year."
Jeff looked over at the display the man had gestured to. There were cards with plastic eyes, noses and lips, like giant Mr. Potato Head pieces. They weren't particularly impressive until the man pointed out, "They use that new speck battery technology. They light up at night. Gives the kids the full jack-o-lantern effect."
Jeff raised his eyebrows, but shook his head. "No, we'll just take the pumpkins, please."
Unfazed, the man smiled and rang them up. "There are some empty cardboard boxes over behind there, along with some straw. It helps keep the pumpkins from rolling around in the car."
"You're welcome. Have a Happy Halloween, now."
"You too." The boys had started for the car as soon as the man had noted their pumpkin selections. Jeff found a couple of boxes, and put handfuls of straw in the bottoms before trotting after his family. He got to the family van at the same time as the kids.
Opening the rear door, he set the boxes down, and said, "All right, boys, let's load those pumpkins back here."
Predictably, Alan balked at putting Petie in the back, but Jeff stood firm, knowing if he gave in to one, he'd have to give in to them all. The last time he'd allowed that, Scotty had been Johnny's age, and sat with the pumpkin on his lap all the way home. Well, almost all the way. A careless driver had cut Jeff off, causing him to brake hard, and the pumpkin went flying. There was pumpkin goop all over the seat, but worse, Scott had been devastated. Not even a new, bigger pumpkin had completely erased the boy's melancholy.
It took some cajoling, but finally, four pumpkins were firmly seated on straw in the two boxes. Johnny's was too big for the boxes, but the cargo net held it to the towhead's satisfaction. Finally, with the two littlest Tracys strapped into safety seats, with Virgil and Johnny behind them in the third seat, and with Scotty riding shotgun, Jeff was able to pull out onto the highway and head for home.
The excitement of the day meant for a fairly quiet ride home, until Gordon screeched, "Look! Pumpkin elves!"
Jeff jumped, then winced. One of these days he was going to move that kid's safety seat to the furthest corner of the van. There was a lot of movement as the five boys all peered out of the window. Alan immediately cried with excitement, "I see him! I see him!"
From further back, Johnny and Virgil were both confused asking where, and Gordon apparently pointed, "Over there! I see it! It's a pumpkin elf!"
Johnny scoffed, "There's nothing over there but a dumb rabbit."
Jeff stiffened, ready to stop the incipient argument, but Scott had turned around and said, "I don't know, Gordy, it sure looks like a rabbit to me."
"Yeah, but Scotty, Daddy says pumpkin elves turn into rabbits so people can't see them."
"It's a punkin elf, I can tell," Alan announced firmly.
Scott looked over at his father. "Pumpkin elves?"
The skepticism was plain in the twelve-year-old's voice. Jeff just smiled, "Yes, pumpkin elves. My pa told me about them when I was just a tadpole, and I reckon it's about time I let you and your brothers in on the secret."
"Oooookay. I'll take your word for it."
Jeff just smiled. He knew he could trust his eldest not to ruin the magic. He only hoped his mom could remember more about the pumpkin elves than he could.
The rest of the drive home was punctuated by occasional elf sightings, as Jeff worked silently to come up with an appropriate story for the little ones. The twenty-minute drive was just about at the limit of his boys' ability to sit still, and it was to the relief of all when they pulled into the long gravel drive.
Jeff marshaled his troops to carry in the pumpkins, then girded his loins for the daily 'I don't need a nap' battle. As they went through the back screen door, calling loudly to their grandmother, Jeff took a moment to hang back and just enjoy the sounds of his family. It was going to be a very happy Halloween.