IT IS A FACT universally acknowledged that a chap can never have too much of the ready stuff. I mean, of course, cash. Brass in pocket. The folding paper. Even a cove like myself, who might be said to be “in funds” or “a young man of independent means” (or, as my Aunt Agnes prefers, “a reprobate layabout who’s never done a lick of work in his life”) could always use a little more. Do you know what petrol costs these days? And cognac? It’s obscene.
In the United States, where I am about to lay my scene, filthy lucre is delightfully colourful. All the bills have a lovely green tint, rather like the patina on the Statue of Liberty. Hence, a Broadway boulevardier (Is that the word I want? It doesn’t mean “streetwalker,” does it? James assures me it does not. More of James anon.) who keeps up with slang has pockets full of “kale,” “lettuce,” or “cabbage.” And yet is still in need of more. James and I were in New York—
I might as well settle the matter of James right now. My valet, don’t you know. My personal gentleman’s gentleman. General factotum: Chef for Yours Truly, Drink Mixer, Packer of Suitcases, Maker of Railroad Reservations, and My Shoe Shiner. And, as anyone who has read my earlier memoirs will recall, Solver of Problems.
If I had a dollar for every time James has extracted Reggie Brubaker (yours truly) and/or some pal of mine (too numerous to mention) from a jam, I’d be on such intimate relations with President Washington that I would use his first name. Despite his being a traitorous colonial.
James and I were in New York at the request of an old school chum of mine, Viscount Woodson, “Woody” to his fellow Old Etonians. We were exact contemporaries at Eton and Oxford, and, despite his tender years, Woody was the chief backer of a Broadway musical that he insisted was going to earn a mint-full…of mint. (I’ve just coined that slang term. Still green, but better-smelling than cabbage.) I’d travelled 3,500 miles from London to determine if this was something I’d want to invest in. Plus, I needed a couple of shirts.
Devoted patron that I am of Savile Row tailors for suits, I must admit that only Brooks Brothers has just the right shade of pink and just the right roll to their button-down collars.
We met outside the New Empire Theatre on Broadway and 46th at noon on a late October day.
“Hullo, Reggie,” said Woody.
“Hullo, Woody,” I replied. “Looks promising so far.”
Everywhere people were running about lifting barges and toting bales. Men in shirtsleeves and flat caps who called everyone they met “Buddy” shifted scenery and rolled racks of flashy costumes. A dozen lovely young women in shorts and tops tied at the waist marched by as if on parade, their legs on display, their postures perfect. Ah, the sublimity of the legitimate theatre!
“So, what’s this extravaganza called?” I asked. “What’s it about?”
Woody scratched his head. “Well, that’s the thing of it, old man.” He frowned. “As near as I can figure, it’s about a girl named Catherine who lives in Hawaii and makes a good living dancing.”
“Haven’t you read the thing?” I asked. Clearly this was the first step in any investment strategy. You don’t plonk down at the race course without first giving the horses the once-over.
“Not as such. I’m just the backer. We’ve got a stage manager who covers all the details. But I’m sure it’ll be a hit. My fiancée Kitty is in the chorus.”
“Have you got the script?”
“Sure thing, old man.” He dug into his camel hair coat and pulled out a rolled-up sheaf of pages. The three brass fasteners along one side proclaimed this to be a script. The cover was purple.
I tried to pronounce the title. “The Call of…Cat’s…Hulu?”
“Yes,” said Woody. “The author is some chap over in Rhode Island. Cat, that’s the girl, I imagine. The Call, she’s luring in lots of business. Hulu, Hawaiian dance.”
“Isn’t that ‘hula’?”
Woody scratched his head. “Funny thing. Everyone I meet pronounces the title differently.”
“Hard to sell tickets if your audience doesn’t know how to ask for them,” I said.
“Oh, there’s been shows with worse names than this before. Remember Hitchy-Koo or Biff! Bing! Bang! with exclamation marks? They ran for a long time.”
He had a point. Both New York’s Broadway and London’s West End were strewn with the corpses of shows that had been hits despite off-putting or confusing titles. Animal Crackers, for instance, had had nothing to do with biscuits. And the less said about Little Miss Bluebeard—which did not involve pirates, but was in fact a bedroom farce—the better.
“Look, Reggie,” said Woody, “here’s the goods…Oh, nice shirt by the way.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Brooks. Goes well with my periwinkle tie, don’t you think?”
“Like a treat. Anyway, we’re all set for the opening. The rent, costumes, lights, etc. are all covered. We just need a little more money for incidentals.”
“What sort of incidentals?” I asked.
“The cast and crew. None of them have been paid.”
I glanced through the open door and into the New Empire. To say there was a cast of thousands milling about inside, some dancing on stage, some working the ropes and sandbags, would be an exaggeration. But not by much.
“Exactly how much do you need?” I asked. I couldn’t tell if the show was actually set on a tropical island, but, if so, I imagined palm trees did not come cheap. Not to mention the fellows who moved the lights and painted the backdrops. I could see a couple of said fellows now. They were beefy. They looked like they enjoyed eating regularly and like all that food went directly to the development and maintenance of their muscles. They did not look the type to be satisfied with IOUs.
“Only two or three thousand,” said Woody.
“Two or three thousand dollars!” I exclaimed. You could buy a Cadillac for that.
“Actually, ten thousand.”
“Ten! Te! T!” I stammered. “Look here, old man, I wasn’t thinking of putting that much into it. I thought I’d underwrite a few tubes of greasepaint. Or a couple of palm trees. That’s all.”
“But, Reggie, you have to help me. We were at school together.”
There is no appeal more solemn than that. Woody had touched on the very code by which our family has lived for generations. The Rule of the Brubakers: Never turn down a friend in need. It pained me to have to decline.
“I simply don’t have that much money at my disposal,” I said. “It’s all tied up. And back home in London.” My ready stuff wasn’t that ready.
Woody said, “Fine. Don’t invest. Just loan me the money. No need for you to bankroll what’s sure to be a multi-year run plus a touring company. I just need it for a couple of days.”
He didn’t seem to grasp that I didn’t have access to that sort of kale, whether for a week or a twelvemonth.
Woody continued. “Today is October thirtieth. We open on November first. Everyone needs to be paid then. Between effusive newspaper reviews and word of mouth from ecstatic first-nighters, come November second, we’ll have to beat would-be ticket buyers away with sticks.”
“Are you certain?”
“I guarantee they’ll be lined up from the box office all the way to Grant’s Tomb. You’ll get your money back that day.”
“I’d like to help you, Woody. But on such short notice, I couldn’t access even a fraction of that.”
“Haven’t you got a rich uncle or aunt you could appeal to?”
“Where do you think I got the king’s ransom I’ve already sunk into this?”
“Any friends? Aren’t all Americans millionaires? Seems like all the ones I meet are.”
“That’s because you stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, only eat at Twenty-One, and go to the races at Belmont Park. I really need this, Reggie. Otherwise—” He lowered his voice as a particularly beefy fellow hissed, “Move it, Buddy” and plowed through us, carrying enough lumber to build a small house. “I’ll be in a lot of trouble. And worst of all, Kitty will leave me. She only agreed to marry me after I got her on the stage. She said it was a sign of my seriousness. What about your millionaire pals?”
“Sorry, Woody, I don’t think I’m in a position to touch anyone for ten thousand of the best.”
“Well, that’s it then. I guess I’ll go throw myself off the Brooklyn Bridge.” He sighed. “There will be one less Old One at the next class reunion. Give my regards to Cloudy and Bongo.” He turned away from me and started walking.
“Wait!” I cried.
“The Brooklyn Bridge is that way,” I said, pointing left. “But there’s no need to shuffle off your mortal coil. I have a solution.”
“But of course. James.”
We were in my hotel suite. Lovely rooms. Very art deco with lots of mirrors and parallel lines. I was in a white armchair while Woody reclined on a black sofa. The sun being over the yardarm, I was enjoying a whisky and soda while Woody sipped a martini. That’s a lovely thing about the United States: even folks who never take a drink before noon can start five hours earlier owning to the different time zone.
We’d laid out the circumstances to James. He was not drinking. He stood at a sort of parade rest, as if he’d been given permission by his colonel to be at ease, but couldn’t quite make himself do it. To be a valet is to be a creature of dignity.
“Indeed,” James said. Which is what he frequently says while thinking.
“Take your time, James,” I said. Even if I wasn’t able to help Woody directly, I took comfort in the idea that James would. Vicarious assistance is not against the Rule of the Brubakers.
“Not too long,” said Woody.
“One moment, please, gentlemen,” James said, turning and slowly walking towards the suite’s kitchen.
“Has he got it?” asked Woody. “He is coming back, isn’t he?”
I took another sip. “Do relax, dear Woody. All will be revealed eventually. Ours is not to reason why. James has never failed me in a crisis.”
A brief rustling sound came from the kitchen, and James reappeared bearing a newspaper.
“This, gentlemen, is today’s New York Patriot-Herald. On page three,” he turned the large pages over, “you will find an advertisement which I believe will satisfactorily answer your requirements. I noticed it this morning as I was unwrapping the kippers.”
He laid the paper out on the coffee table (steel and glass, etchings of panthers rampant). Woody and I leaned in to read. Then we leaned back; it still smelled vaguely of fish. At the top of the page, within a large box bedecked with images of pumpkins and black cats arching their backs, was the following text:
THE NEW YORK PATRIOT-HERALD
ITS THIRD ANNUAL
PUMPKIN CARVING CONTEST
FIRST PRIZE $10,000
I knew of Halloween, of course. Not that big a bash back home across the pond. We prefer Guy Fawkes Night, when we can set off fireworks and burn chaps in effigy.
I was agog. “Someone is offering ten thousand dollars for first place in a pumpkin carving contest?” I’d heard of America’s streets being paved with gold, but this was beyond the pale.
James said, “It is a publicity stunt, sir. No doubt the newspaper’s proprietors calculate that they will more than recoup the expense through increased circulation and advertising revenue.”
Woody nodded. “You’d be surprised what pays these days. Take those dance marathon contests. I saw on a newsreel that the winners of one bunion derby went at it for over two thousand hours. And they pocketed three thousand dollars in prize money. If we had the time, I’d take up flagpole sitting. That’s where the real money is.”
“Let me see if I have this right,” I said. “All we have to do is carve a face on a pumpkin—”
“They’re ‘jack-o-lanterns’ out here,” added Woody.
“—submit the balmy thing, and, if we win, these newspaper tycoons will give us ten thousand of the real thing, American?”
“Indeed, sir,” said James.
“Remarkable.” Beneath the ad’s box were the fine print details, which I perused. “Says here we have to turn it in by three o’clock on Halloween. That’s approximately twenty-four hours from now.” I rubbed my hands together, invigorated at the prospect. “That’s a lot of cabbage for a pumpkin.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to carve a pumpkin, but, if you have, you know that the process is an absolute test of endurance. The thick shell needs to be punctured, and that takes the brawny arms of a village blacksmith. Then the entrails (seeds and such) must be removed, which requires both the steady hand of a diamond cutter and the cool disinterest of a professional butcher.
We had obtained our pumpkin from a local fruit cart. I was elected to do the carving. While none of the three of us had any experience working in gourd as a medium, I at least had once won second place in a school art competition with a pastel sketch depicting the routing of the Spanish Armada.
I had finished and was giving the old J-O-L a final inspection when Woody arrived at two the next afternoon, Halloween.
“That’s it?” he cried in dismay. “That’s all you’ve done?” He starred goggle-eyed at the pumpkin à la Brubaker. “It’s just two eyes and a nose—all identical triangles—and a jagged gash for a mouth!”
“Both my theme and style are classical,” I said. “I have endeavoured to create the archetypal jack-o-lantern.”
“You spent all night on that?”
“It took quite a while to…Um, James, what was it that Italian chap said about whacking away with chisels?”
James replied, “The artist Michelangelo, when asked how he had created his masterpiece, the marble statue of David, is reputed to have replied, ‘I simply removed everything that was not David.’”
“That’s it,” I said.
“That’s not it at all,” said Woody. “If anything, what you did was the opposite.” He sank down into the couch. “You’re an idiot, Reggie, and you’ve ruined us. Oh, Kitty, my love, farewell!”
I was taken aback. I had worked hard and was proud of the results of my labour. True, it was not the image of Napoleon I had started out to carve, but art is a series of compromises. As some chappie said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
I said, “Is that any way to talk to the principal backer of The Cat and the Hula?”
“You haven’t put a penny into the show.”
“But I soon shall. Have no fear, Woody. I guarantee this will be a winner. After all,” I stepped over to him and put an arm around his shoulder, “the show must go on!”
Woody buried his face in his hands. “I’m ruined. There won’t be any show. No one will work without being paid. And the crew will probably tear me limb from limb. They’ve all been promised money first thing tomorrow.”
“James,” I said, “what do you think of my pumpkin?”
“I have no doubt that in a contest whose stakes run to the five figures, it will be unique.”
“Meaning,” said Woody, “everyone else’s will be good.”
“James,” I said, “pack this up in a hat box or a cake box or something. Then we’re off to the offices of the New York Patriot-Herald.”
“It’s junk,” muttered Woody.
“You clearly know nothing of art,” I said. “We shall face this contest’s judges with all the bravery of an early martyr facing a lion in the Roman Colosseum.”
“Just before he gets eaten, you mean.”
“Are you kiddin’?”
The man performing jack-o-lantern triage at the newspaper’s front desk looked down upon my offering with scorn. “This ain’t no kiddie show, pal. Only serious pumpkins make it to the judges.” The lobby was crowded with people, young and old, armed with gourds of all shapes and sizes, their faces (the pumpkins’, not the artists’) carved in an amazing variety of visages from the gruesome to the comic.
“Next!” The man waved me to one side and examined the proffered pumpkin of the lady behind me. “OK, sister, yours will do.” Her jack-o-lantern bore an amazing resemblance to the film star Edward G. Robinson, complete with pumpkin-stem cigar. He took her pumpkin, then asked her name and wrote it on a slip of paper. “Come back at six o’clock tonight. Sixth floor. That’s when we’ll have the judging.” He turned away from her. “Next! No shoving, folks! No shoving!”
I tucked my pumpkin under my arm and walked back to Woody and James, who stood near a row of a dozen pay phone booths. “The man’s a philistine,” I said. “Does no one recognise true art anymore? Whatever happened to the spirit of Arse Gratia Arse?”
James coughed. “I believe, sir, you mean Ars Gratia Artis. Latin for ‘Art for art’s sake.’ One pronounces the first word with the Voiced S.”
“That’s the ticket,” I said.
“Is the Brooklyn Bridge to the left or the right of us?” asked Woody, slapping on his fedora.
“Your Lordship,” said James to Woody, “need not take any drastic steps. I believe we are still in the running, so to speak.”
“How so, James?” asked Woody, with exasperation. “They won’t even let us on the track, so to speak.”
“As it happens, I am on good terms with young Melvin Simms, the elevator operator in this building.”
“Hold the phone,” I said. “We’ve only been here three days. Until yesterday, you’d never even heard of this place.”
“I took the opportunity while you were engaged in the exercise of your craft last night to familiarize myself with the environment where the contest is to take place.”
“You cased the joint,” I said.
“As you say, sir.”
Woody asked, “What’s this Melvin bloke going to do for us?”
“For a small gratuity, he should be able to take us to the sixth floor, and, more importantly, grant us access to the room where the contest finalists are being stored prior to the judges’ arrival.”
And so, just a couple of hours and a light dinner of lobster thermidor later, we three were standing in what is, in the parlance of the fourth estate, known as the newspaper’s “morgue.” It is the room in a newspaper office where past copies of said newspaper are kept. The archives, if you will. There were stacks and stacks of back issues dating to before Washington felled his first cherry tree.
Melvin had told us that the judges would be arriving in fifteen minutes. We could do whatever we wanted, but had to be out by 5:55. One large wooden desk had been cleared of half a year’s worth of papers to make room for seven jack-o-lanterns.
Exactly what tactic to employ had been discussed over dinner. I had drawn the line at out-and-out cheating. A Brubaker has integrity, after all. Thus, we would not A) put my name and address on all of the identification tags. Nor would we B) steal all of the other contestant pumpkins. Likewise, there would be no C) disfiguring of the OCPs. Our plan was simply to circumvent—if that is the word I want—the irrational prejudice and lack of artistic sensibilities of the lobby gatekeeper, and to present to a candid world my creation in all its elegant simplicity.
What might seem to be an elementary plan immediately hit a snag. Where precisely should we insert my pumpkin in the lineup? Woody favoured first, while James asserted that fourth was the optimal locale, between a ghoulish, wrinkled jack-o-lantern with pointed ears and our old friend, the Edward G. Robinson pumpkin.
As the two debated the matter, I noticed the purple-covered script peeking out of a pocket of Woody’s coat. Just to pass the time, I pulled the script from the pocket and started paging through it. I couldn’t make any sense of it. The dialogue was mostly place names I was unfamiliar with, spelled with lots of accent marks in odd places. I came across what appeared to be a soliloquy. Absently, I began to recite, hoping that if I heard it out loud it would make more sense. After all, Shakespeare is like that.
As I spoke, the image of the Edward G. Robinson pumpkin kept running through my mind. The woman who had sculpted it had nailed that movie gangster’s mug to a T.
I heard a moan.
I looked up from the script. Then I dropped it.
The EGR pumpkin was moving. Its thick, pumpkin rind lips slowly rolled the stem cigar from one side of its mouth to the other. Its eyes blinked.
“Mmm-yeah!” it moaned. Then again, more loudly. “Mmm-yeah, see!” Its eyes darted about, taking in the view. Being disembodied, the gourd could not move. But its parts could. Mouth, eyes, nose, and, I could now see, eyebrows, were fully animated.
Woody stood paralyzed.
“Indeed,” said James. To be a valet is to be a creature of dignity.
“Who’re you goons?” the pumpkin asked, his voice high and gravelly, remarkably like Robinson’s in Little Caesar. Despite having no teeth to clench it, the stem-cigar now stayed in one place.
“Uh,” said Woody.
I stepped towards the pumpkin, “Reginald Brubaker, at your service. This is my man James, and Fortescue, the Viscount Woodson.” I spoke distinctly and without hesitation. Woody and I may have gone to the same schools, but breeding will out. We Brubakers have been in Britain since the time of the Conqueror.
“Mmm-yeah. Well, look here, see. I’m the Pumpkin. The Pumpkin. The Boss Pumpkin, see. The Great One like.” His—I now had to think of him as a him—eyebrows arched and he frowned. His eyes were just empty sockets, but they changed shape as he looked around. I could see the concave inside of his shell opposite the sockets, and, as the eyes moved, my view of that interior likewise shifted disconcertingly.
“On this night,” he continued, “I rule all vegetation. Turnips cower before me, see. Carrots are my vassals. Mmm-yeah. All do my will!”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
“Likewise,” said Woody.
James inclined his head elegantly.
The Boss Pumpkin’s eyes scurried across the surface of his pumpkin head like mice running on a globe. The head didn’t move. Just the eyes. The inherent unnaturalness of this action made me feel a little dizzy.
“Dis ain’t da place,” he said. “Nah, see. Nah.”
“Precisely what place do you mean, sir?” asked James.
“The patch, see. Mmm-yeah, the patch! Dat dizzy dame musta taken me out of mine. I gotta get to a patch, see.” He spoke with a voice of authority that made me want to help him. This pumpkin was truly one of nature’s noblemen. Like Edward G. Robinson, what he lacked in stature he made up for in sheer charisma. Or maybe it was the hypnotic effect of those eyeless sockets. His mouth twitched with a snarl. “Patch!” he shouted. His orange countenance swelled and distorted. Parts of his shell puckered. Bumps rose on either side of his face where ears might have been (How had he heard us, anyway?). Green leaves and vine sprouts quickly formed. “Not much time, see.”
A Brubaker does not hesitate. I grabbed the Boss, Woody grabbed my experiment in Neo-Euclideanism, and James opened the morgue’s door.
“Window,” grunted the Boss, and we three rushed down the hallway towards a window. “So little time! Faster!” Robinson qua pumpkin seemed much heavier than my own gourd and grew heavier with each step. We passed Melvin.
“Almost time for the—Oh, hey!” Melvin said. “Where you going?”
“Got to see a man about a horse,” I shouted.
“Did you say hearse?” asked Melvin.
“Quite possibly,” yelled Woody over his shoulder.
James tipped his bowler hat and followed.
“Thanks for the five-spot!” shouted Melvin, waving the lettuce and heading back to the elevator.
We stopped at the nearest window. It was two feet across by three feet high, hardly big enough for any of us to pass through. Not that we’d want to, six floors up.
“Now what?” I asked.
The Boss Pumpkin proclaimed, “I am The Pumpkin! Do my bidding!”
The window began to shake. Through the glass, I could see ivy moving. It gripped the glass of the window and its frame. Then, with a tremendous rip, the window was gone, falling through the air to eventually shatter six stories below. I could see the lights of Manhattan and the stars above.
“Now what?” I asked the Boss.
“BEHOLD!” he proclaimed, and thick, kelly-green tendrils shot out from his spherical phiz. Some grew to resemble giant, leafy wings. Still others wrapped themselves around our waists. “Onward, see!” he yelled. I had to drop him since he had become too awkward to handle, and, frankly, too large. He was now almost the size of a St. Bernard dog. Though I knew there was no candle inside him, he glowed luminously.
Using his vines as limbs to gain leverage, The Boss flung himself out the window, dragging us with him.
I don’t know if you’ve ever flown over New York City, carried by a giant pumpkin that was propelling itself with wings. If you have, then you know the combination of terror and exhilaration that filled me. It was rather like being at the top of a Ferris wheel when it stops. All of the city is laid out before you—the millions of lives, the millions of stories—but you really can’t enjoy it as much as you’d like because you feel as if you’re about to crash to your death at any moment.
“I need a patch!” the Boss yelled. His huge mouth (originally the size of a small banana, now a watermelon) had swung around to the back of his head to talk to us while his eyes remained straight ahead. “I don’t see nuthin’. Just apartments and offices. So much iron and steel and cement. I need a patch! Dat dame! Aargh! The sun is already down!”
We three were suspended below the Boss (who was now the size of a horse) by thick tendrils. Their ends girdled us around our chests, below our arms, like steamship life preservers. Woody had lost his fedora but still held my own small gourd. Despite the wind generated by the Boss’s speed blowing through us and around us, James’s bowler remained firmly in place. The man is remarkable.
“I believe I can offer a solution,” said James.
“You can?” I asked. I had to shout to be heard against the rushing wind. “When did you have time to learn the location of all the pumpkin patches in Manhattan?”
The Boss said, “Mmm-yeah. If you got a answer, Buddy, I’m all ears.”
“Markedly not,” said James. “But, nonetheless. If you will turn left at the next block and then travel up Fifth Avenue, a satisfactory solution will present itself.”
“Okay, pal.” The mouth swung back to the front of the Boss’s face.
Woody said, “I know that area. That’s—”
“Indeed, it is, Your Lordship.”
“That’s not a pumpkin patch.”
“Indeed, it is not.”
The sun had set, but New York City is never entirely in darkness. Lights everywhere illuminated the skyscrapers and townhouses. Light picked out for us the outlines of buildings, if not the buildings themselves. And it framed the many square miles of darkness that lay at the heart of Manhattan. Lights ran along 59th Street to Fifth Avenue to 110th Street, then back down again.
Though its lush, green lawns and trees were mere shadows, light framed Central Park.
“That spot to the left might be propitious,” James said. “It looks particularly abandoned.”
The Boss Pumpkin’s giant green wings shifted, and we slowly descended.
After a few moments, he set us down with surprising care. We were in one of the Park’s many shaded glens. We were alone.
The Boss propped himself up on legs of vines that hung from his base like braces (“suspenders” at Brooks Brothers) that had fallen off the shoulders of a very fat man dressed all in orange. His eyes, as large as dinner plates, circumnavigated his head, causing me more dizziness, then came to rest facing us.
“What gives? Dis ain’t no patch, see,” he said to James. “I need a patch to move. I need a patch to launch! Sure, I can fly through part of one city, see. But to spread the spirit, I need a patch to charge me up! I need power to launch. I gotta get everywhere, see. Without me there is no Halloween!”
“Have no fear. It was Mr. Brubaker who brought you to life. He is a powerful wizard.”
“He is?” asked Woody, setting down my pumpkin.
“He is,” said James. Then, to the Boss, he said, “He can give you the energy you need to embark on your journeys.”
“He can?” asked Woody.
“He can,” said James.
“Mmm-yeah, well then, do it, see,” said the Boss.
I looked at James. What was I supposed to do? I was no wizard. I didn’t own a pointy hat or wand. Even my embroidered dressing gown at home featured sheep, not astrological symbols. I shrugged.
“Come on!” snarled the Boss Pumpkin.
James said, “Perhaps, sir, the spell as it was cast at the Drury Lane Theatre last Christmas.”
Ah! I raised my arms above my head like the evil wizard in the comedic Christmas panto production of Aladdin I’d seen almost a year earlier. I had no memory of the magic words he’d used, so I said the first thing that came into my head:
Oh, Boss Pumpkin
You must go
To spread your spirit
To and fro
Oh, Boss Pumpkin
Don’t be late
Fly forth and be
The gourd so great
“Your poems are right up there with your sculptures,” muttered Woody.
I looked at the Boss Pumpkin. Now what? I had done what James has suggested, but I had no idea what it was supposed to accomplish.
Suddenly, the Boss’s eyes grew wider and he moaned, “Mmm-yeah!” His mouth twisted from a frown into a rictus grin. “Yes!” he shouted. “Now I feel it. I am connected. I feel the charge, see! Oh, this is the ultimate patch. I feel myself all the way to them Pyramids and over to Stonehenge. And way down under to Ayers Rock. I have the power. Halloween has come!” His huge bulk glided silently on tendrils towards me. “You, Wizard Brubaker. How can I repay you?”
What did a pumpkin have that I would I want? Even unto half his kingdom is still just a bunch of seeds.
“We could use ten grand,” piped up Woody.
The Boss squinted. “Do you mean money?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
James said, “Not everyone can live on water and photosynthesis.”
“Oh, but of course,” said the Boss. He gave the smallest flick of a vine, and my pumpkin turned into a pile of cash.
Woody gasped, then dropped to the pile, drew out a bill, and held it up to the moonlight. “A hundred-dollar bill,” he said. “It looks real.” He held it to his nose. “It smells real.” He licked it. “Tastes real.”
“Farewell, see,” the Boss said. “Wizard Brubaker and…strange company.”
And without so much as laying a tendril aside of his nose, he ascended. Higher and higher he rose until he was out of sight.
“There’s something you don’t see every day,” said Woody. He waved another greenback from the pile. “Our worries are over. Well done, Reggie. Well done, James.”
“James,” I said, “what is that word you use when you mean to say ‘clear things up’?”
“Yes. I’m going to need a dashed lot of elucidation.”
“Of course, sir. Of the exact nature and purpose of the Boss Pumpkin, I could not hazard a guess. However, based on what he said, I believe he would have come to life in his own pumpkin patch, had he been left there. That is his natural state and function. Outside of a patch, he would not have. Perhaps, just as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly requires the specific environment of a cocoon, he requires a pumpkin patch. We will never know.”
I asked, “How did he come to life then? You said I did it.”
“I believe you were perusing the script of the show at that time, sir?”
“It is a singular script. I read it at my table in the back of the restaurant while you gentlemen were developing your plan. I believe you brought the Boss to life through speaking a spell that was accidentally or intentionally embedded in the text.”
“But,” said Woody, “we’ve had weeks of rehearsals and nothing like that has ever happened before.”
I said, “Ah! But you’d never had a pumpkin in the audience before.”
“A shrewd observation, sir,” said James. “Also, I believe the fact that it is Halloween contributed to, let us say, the availability of magic.”
“It was in the air, eh,” I said.
Woody said, “So we need to make sure not to sell any tickets to pumpkins, and maybe we should go dark every Halloween. Got it. Thanks, James.”
“My pleasure, Your Lordship.”
“But what was all that launching stuff?” I asked. “And the bit about power? He said he needed to be in a patch to launch. This is not a patch.”
“I have an aunt who is an avid gardener. It has long been a maxim of hers that all pumpkin patches are connected through ley lines.”
“Through what?” I asked.
“Oh,” said Woody, “I’ve heard of those. They’re sort of like the power cables that bring electricity to our houses. But they’re made of spectral aether or something. And they deliver magic.”
“A close enough approximation,” said James. “I deduced that it was these that power the Boss Pumpkin’s travels. He just needed a few minutes to tap into them.”
I said, “That may be so, but this is still not a pumpkin patch.”
“Indeed not, sir. But Central Park is nonetheless a major ley line confluence. A hub, so to speak, of such magic powers.”
“And how exactly did you learn that?”
“The aunt in question emigrated to the United States many years ago, and her subsequent letters to me have contained a wide variety of notes of interest.”
“Ah, I get it. She emigrated to New York City. She’s up on all the local gourd gossip.”
“No, sir. She moved to Salem, Massachusetts. But she travels widely.”
“James, I will never question your sources again. It’s best to accept that you are a singular fellow.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But where did the money come from?” asked Woody. He was nearly done stuffing his coat pockets with the cash.
I said, “I think I’ve got this one, James.” I turned to Woody, “You heard it from his own lips. On this night, he controls the vegetable kingdom.”
“Oh, no,” said Woody. You don’t mean—”
“Yes, he commands all the cabbage, kale, and lettuce. In fact, all the green stuff in the world.”
“Amazing,” said Woody.
James said, “How right you are, sir.”
I said, “Let us see if we can find a horse-drawn cab anywhere in this park. I, for one, could use a stiff whisky and soda.”
Woody said, “Hold on a sec. I need to adjust…There’s something in it. Hmm. Wonder how that got there.”
“In my shoe. Somehow…I got a rock.”
Kevin Lauderdale has written essays and articles for the Los Angeles Times, The Dictionary of American Biography, and McSweeneys.net. His short fiction has appeared in several of Pocket Books’ Star Trek anthologies as well as various small press publications. His story “Box 27” appeared in the science journal Nature. This is his second James and Reggie story for Canyons of the Damned. His story “James and the Dark Grimoire,” which made Ellen Datlow’s Honorable Mention list for the year’s best horror and was nominated for a Washington Area Science Fiction Association Small Press Award for Best Short Story was reprinted in Canyons #6. More James and Reggie adventures are in the Canyons pipeline. With Jeff Ayers, he has written The Fourth Lion, a YA thriller set in contemporary Washington, D.C. and its surroundings. He hosts the Old Time Radio podcast, “Presenting the Transcription Feature,” and co-hosts “Temple of Bad,” the podcast about movies that are so bad, they’re practically a religious experience, both on the Chronic Rift network. He is a member of SFWA and HWA.