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Pumpkin Hill is a story about going forward even when there is no clear path to follow; it is about tenacious hope in the face of desperate truth; and ultimately, it is about the everlasting power of human connection.
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Six people's lives are changed forever by the startling events that occur at a rural crossroads named Pumpkin Hill.
Harry Backman is a mentally ill young man whose voices draw him to what he hopes will be an apocalyptic moment on Pumpkin Hill. Leonard Grace is an elderly man in a loveless marriage on his evening walk. Laura Hall is a writer and the wife of a Presbyterian minister whose automobile accident that night on Pumpkin Hill forms the heart of the story.
Warren, Laura's husband, is a young minister searching for the truth while struggling with whether his wife will survive her accident. Eloise, Harry's longsuffering mother, fears the worst about her son's involvement in what happened on Pumpkin Hill. Bertha, Leonards crusty wife, wrestles with what is real and what is wishful while coming to grips with years of loss and now her husband's fate.
“Connections,” he said, “there’s always connections, though.” The wind was stiff, the snow and rain pelted his back and neck as he turned his collar up. The roads would be closed soon, closed to everything except the plows. The snow, in steep banks along the roadside, was covered with a glittering layer of ice. He turned into the wind, gloved hand shielding his eyes, squinting to see the top of Pumpkin Hill. Telephone lines dragged on the ground and the sound of tree limbs snapping, like gun shots, echoed in the night. The fields of snow and ice lay unmarked, king sized beds covered with fresh linen. “Beautiful,” he thought, “beautiful what the Lord has wrought, though.” He was heading home, still a mile or more to go.
“And awful. Beautiful and awful, though. Beautiful and awful.”
He turned with the wind, the back of his coat like a sail; almost losing his balance, he lurched to the side steadying himself, the sound of police sirens rising in the background. He could still hear the car horn blowing.
He looked at it again, soft as lamb’s wool; clutching it to his chest like a newborn, he continued his trek home.
“Macaroni and cheese tonight,” he said. Better hurry.
Warren Hall reached for the quart of milk warming on the table and poured it over his second bowl of Cheerios. He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. He turned in his chair and glanced out the kitchen window. A line of naked elms, their latticed arms silhouetted against a hint of light in the eastern sky, stood still in the morning air. Barely dawn, Warren had been sitting at the table for two hours after lying awake in bed for three, after sleeping for one, after going to bed too late, after spending the previous evening sitting in his rocker watching the sun fade in the west and darkness rise in the east.
The paper should have been here a half hour ago, he thought. He stood and walked to the front room and glanced out the window and down the long road that stretched west for a mile or so before rolling out of sight over Pumpkin Hill. No one on the road yet. He walked to the dining room and looked south across the garden that Mert had plowed and disked for him so he could start his spring planting. It was mud season in the country; the thaw was well under way as evidenced by the herds of deer that crowded the fields around the swamp, their winter shelter. The neck high weeds and wild flox would conquer the garden this year. Warren was not in a planting frame of mind. He stared at the lot remembering the 30 pound pumpkin they’d grown and her reluctance to carve it at Halloween. “Don’t sacrifice my baby!” she said with a laugh.
He stepped away from the window as a car passed, its headlights running across the opposite wall. The car turned left and was gone in a minute leaving only a faint whir in its wake.
There was a knock at the door.
“Morning. Saw the light on so I figured you were waiting for this.” He tossed the tightly folded paper.
“Season’s almost ready to start, Reverend.”
Warren looked absently at the front page. “What?”
“The season, you know. Baseball?”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve been so…”
“I don’t think the Bucs got much of a chance this year, do you? I mean they really suck, I mean…”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Warren laid the paper on the table and stared out the window again.
Mikey laughed nervously.
“Who knows, Reverend, maybe this will be their year again, ya know?”
Warren didn’t answer.
“You know, maybe a miracle?”
“I don’t know about miracles, Mikey.”
“Yeah, what they need is pitching.”
“Yeah, that’s probably true,” Warren said, turning to the stove where the water for his tea was boiling.
“Gee, Reverend Hall, if I didn’t know better I’d think you just didn’t care this year.” Mikey laughed again, this time a guttural laugh that even surprised him, a laugh that wasn’t a laugh at all, but a sound that was intended to encourage laughter that wasn’t there.
Warren looked at Mikey, a faint smile on his face as he realized they had this same conversation every spring training season. “Of course, I care, Mikey, how could I help but care, right?”
“You got it, man; I mean Reverend,” Mikey said with relief.
Warren found his way back to their script.
“Well, they’ll need a lot of help.”
“They’d need Bonds back, right,” Mikey said eagerly, happy to see Warren taking the cue.
“No Michael, they’d need more than that.”
“Here we go,” Mikey laughed.
“They’d need Maz at second.”
”Whoever that was.”
“And the Deacon on the mound.”
”The Deacon, right.”
“And the great Clemente in right field.”
”Pops, of course.”
“Okay, whatever you say.”
“Well, that’s what I say.”
“Who else, Reverend, who else would they need?” Mikey said, clearly enjoying
this annual ritual.
“Well, let’s see Michael. Let’s see.” Warren knew that everyone was looking for signs that he was back to normal and this little question and answer session was no different. “I guess we’d need Murtaugh on the bench.”
“Yep. And what about Homer whathisname?”
“That’s Honus, Honus Wagner, greatest shortstop ever. Yes, we’d need him too
and Pie Traynor at third.”
“Now you’ve got it, Reverend, now you’ve got it.” Mikey was backing out the door now, satisfied with his visit, satisfied for this sign of spring.
“We’d need ‘em all,” Warren said, if only to himself. “So great a cloud of witnesses.”
Hall went to the bookshelf and pulled down his Baseball Encyclopedia which fell open to the Great Clemente. Higher career batting average than Mays, Mantle or Aaron. He sure could roam right field. Warren remembered his first baseball game in 1959. He and his father sat in the right field corner of old Forbes Field, a pillar blocking his view of home. But it didn’t matter because right in front of him was Mr. Clemente himself, his squared jaw and self-assured gaze. Between pitches he’d take his batting stance in the outfield, cock his head and twitch his elbow, imagining that next pitch and how he was going to drive it into the gap in right. Next thing you knew he was flying into that same gap, stretching it out to rob some poor sucker of a double, then wheeling on a dime and firing a laser to second base, picking off a wayward runner. Or maybe he’d just float into the right field corner and look up, waiting impatiently, waiting with disdain, his glove just below his belt, his eyes skyward, the ball nestling harmlessly into his leather basket and then with an underhand flick of the wrist the ball would float just as harmlessly back to the infield, as if to say, ‘How dare anyone even try to get a ball past the Great Clemente.’
When the 1972 season ended he had reached the magical milestone of 3,000 hits. In the off-season he died in a plane crash carrying out a mission of mercy in his beloved Dominican Republic.
Cooperstown waived the 5 year rule and immediately voted him into the Hall of Fame. Only Gehrig before him had had that honor. No one ever got to heaven faster than Mr. Roberto Clemente.
“Perfect,” Warren whispered, surprised to hear his own voice. “Perfect.”
Warren picked up the Bible and wondered what kind of ballplayer Jesus would have been. Probably a journeyman infielder, well traveled. The line on him might have read: “…good glove man…not much of a hitter…excellent sacrifice bunt…Specialty: the suicide squeeze.”
He turned to the book of Mark: “And when the sixth hour came, there was darkness over the whole land…” His gaze settled on the torn piece of paper he used to mark the passage. He’d used it every Sunday since it showed up in his mailbox that day. A memento. Where had it come from? It was the first thing he had found or perhaps more accurately, the first thing that had found him, so it mattered; after a time, though, all that really mattered was that he had these pieces, these sacred shards. Where does anything come from? And where does anything go?
Warren headed up the stairs to the bathroom to get ready for the day. He could hear the mournful honking of Canada geese slicing their way across the sky on their northerly journey. A sure sign of spring. The hot water felt good on his face and the cold blade felt even better. He liked the low scraping sound it made as he pulled it across his jaw. He liked the burbling sound of the soapy water when he shook his razor clean in it. He even liked the gargling sound of the basin emptying, all the shavings left behind. He always felt clean and new and somehow complete when he was done.
His father taught him how to shave long before he needed to. He’d stand at the sink in front of his dad, face lathered to a Kris Kringle perfection and then he’d mimic his father’s stroke and breathe in the scent of Gillette foamy.
He looked in the mirror and saw all the faces of all the men who had ever carried the Hall name. The mouth, naturally drawn down at the corners, the thin eyebrows and tiny blue eyes hidden under protective shelving, the smile that drew up slightly higher on the left making him look young no matter his age or his mood. His face looked inviting in a not so obvious way, just as a sidewise glance can seem more inviting than one that is straight on.
He wondered about all of those Hall men. Had they understood why they were here any better than he did? “I’m here because I’m not there,” his father would say with a laugh as if any question was so silly that it didn’t even require an answer.
Somehow all the worldly cares that slid off his father’s shoulders had fallen squarely on Warren’s.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have named you Warren,” his mother would joke. “It’s such a serious name. No wonder you worry so much.”
“Warren is a solid-as-a-rock name. It worked for my grandfather. It will work for you. It says, ‘I can count on you.’ What else could you ask for?”
As a kid, his friends called him Warnie, which worked well enough. That all changed on the first day of high school when his home room teacher was taking attendance and called, “Warren Hall.” His friends snickered, but Warren liked it. It made him sound older at a time when sounding older seemed like a good thing. He’d been Warren ever since.
He had been pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church for over two years. He had come straight from seminary in Boston with a head full of ideas about God and making a difference in the world; about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. He answered God’s call by coming to Central, which is to say it was the only church he could find. Central had been looking for two years and were glad when Warren showed the least interest in them. Laura wasn’t sure about the move, wasn’t sure about the ministry.
“Aren’t you supposed to have an actual, you know, call, as in a religious experience of some sort, that tells you that what you’ve chosen is what you should choose?”
“It doesn’t always work that way, honey. I don’t know anyone here who has had that kind of experience.”
“I know. That’s what worries me. This seems like any other graduate school anywhere else in the country.”
“Trust me, it’s more than that, just not in an obvious way.”
He always felt uncomfortable with her questions. His mother had joked that he received his call at the age of five when, just as he was about to stretch out for a nap in their church pew, old Mr. Franklin reached for the King James Bible in the rack, opened it to Genesis, put it on Warren’s lap and pointed to the first verse. “In the beginning, God...” Warren remembered this as a powerful event. But it wasn’t the scripture, which, of course, he was too young to read even though he stared at it for nearly an hour. It was Mr. Franklin’s stern face that survived for years as Warren’s image of a wrathful God, watching and disapproving of everything.
Central was a long way from that original calling and a long way from Boston where even in seminary hardly anyone spoke of God. Instead they talked about the Ground of All Being and Ultimate Concern and religionless Christianity and ideas that hadn’t yet reached the faithful in Central who believed that God wrote the Bible, that Mary was a virgin’s virgin, that Jesus died for our sins and somehow beyond all reason rose again after being dead for three days and then ascended to heaven while his friends and followers watched.
“How long did they stand there?” Warren and his seminary friends would ask in mock seriousness.
“I think he’s gone.”
“No, see that little speck?”
”Where, what speck? Oh, yeah, I see.”
“I think that’s still him.”
Warren wasn’t very patient with these pedestrian religious ideas when he was in seminary and couldn’t imagine that anyone with half a brain could believe in a heaven and a hell and a God sitting in the sky somewhere trying to figure out who goes where when they die. Folks like Hitler were easy enough, but what about someone like Ralph Lucas, a pillar of the church, who tithed all his life, and was loved and respected by everyone. He was a successful insurance man in the community who was honest as honest could be and helped many friends and neighbors plan their futures so they would be secure and safe from every possible worry. Didn’t smoke. Didn’t drink and the worst thing he ever said was ‘Jiminy Cricket’. Everyone knew he meant ‘Jesus Christ’ and they respected him for his restraint. He had a nearly adequate tenor voice and sang “How Great Thou Art” every year on Easter Sunday, whether he was invited to or not.
So imagine Evelyn’s surprise when a young woman in a tight mini-dress, black stockings and heels to the rafters showed up at his funeral wailing as loud as Evelyn herself. Turns out Ralph had a ‘friend.’ After calling her number in a Buffalo paper the first time, he had been as steady and faithful to her as he had been with Evelyn and with the community that loved him. He saw her at least once a week depending on his stamina. Always visited for a while afterwards and asked about her life. Paid for her to get an associates degree at the local community college and even set her up with a fine whole life policy, recognizing that her line of work couldn’t last forever. “He was such a good guy,” said Mandy.
So, what does God do with someone like Ralph? Hard to imagine him burning for all eternity in the fiery flames of hell along with Hitler and all the other hard-core bad people. And yet, there was no denying that Ralph totally blew off one of the most important commandments there is. And not just once. Repeatedly and apparently with gusto. The fact that he kept this an air-tight secret until his untimely demise also meant that Ralph must have been a world class liar.
Still, was this enough to completely erase every good thing he had done in his life? He was still basically a ‘good guy,’ if you could say that about an unrepentant adulterer. Maybe God was more hard-boiled about these things. Maybe he really went Old Testament on Ralph’s ass for what he had done and tossed him into the flames like a meaningless match stick. But maybe not. Maybe God really is love. Maybe God just shook his head in amazement and disbelief at how messed up Ralph was but then welcomed him home anyway. On the other hand, if God would do that for Ralph, would he do the same thing for Hitler?
When the conversation got this weird, Warren felt a mounting pressure in his head, like it might explode. First, there is no God, if by God you mean some Really Big Person who watches us and judges us and speaks to us through televangelists in polyester suits and actually cares about things like who’s going to win the Super Bowl. Second, there is no heaven. No hell, either. Third, this world is it and if there is a God it’s because of what happens between real people who try desperately to love each other even though their success rate is often so small. Heaven is here. Hell is here. God is here. God is rooting for us and hoping all of us will cover the spread. That’s it. Deal with it. Believe in it. Then, live.
Warren wasn’t apt to say this from the pulpit, though.
And sometimes, especially in recent months, even though this is what he believed, it didn’t seem to be enough. He hoped there was more.
Despite their downright silly notions about heaven and hell, God and Jesus, Warren loved his flock. When they came forward for the sacrament on the first Sunday of each month and stood around the table and broke the loaf of bread that Nelle Sanders dutifully made and spoke to each other by name, “This is the Body of Christ, John” or Elsie or Dora or Gladys, he felt a love that didn’t have any words to explain it. Each of them came with a story on their finger tips as they reached for the bread, a story of a lost baby or a dying mother or a failed crop, nicks and cuts on their souls that they tried to keep invisible to the world, but not invisible to Warren. And what he saw in their eyes would surprise and even shock them. He saw Very God in this very world. They loved him back in the only way they knew how. They plowed his garden and left zucchini on his back steps and baked him pies and cut him fresh cabbage and in every way but words told him they loved him and they ached for him.
Sometimes it felt like a burden, their love. Sometimes he didn’t want it. He knew he didn’t deserve it. Yet there it was all over his back steps or in his garden, love like fresh manure making the dirt come alive again.
Warren folded the newspaper and put it in the basket by the refrigerator. He looked at the bag of clothes in the corner. It had been there for a few weeks. He had picked it up several times and taken it to the car, but it always made it back to that corner. He didn’t know when he would be ready to take it.
The phone rang. “Hi, yes….uh huh…oh my…how did this happen? She said what? Where is she now? Okay, I’ll be there.”