This story is by Claude Bornel and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was still dark as night when John Baker turned left onto Turnpike’s North ramp to drop his son off at school. The radio was on Legends 100.3. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” said even oysters, Cape Cod clams, and lazy jellyfish do it. Her singing soothed him from wondering where the time went. Summer barely finished, now the sun took longer and longer to rise. Blame it on the new season or on the age that made it harder to wake up and get ready, he thought. Ten years ago, John didn’t have to rush to take Nate to preschool. Nowadays, he needed to arrive before seven if he wanted to avoid the traffic jam in the car line and outside the high school.
The forty-three-year-old smiled at the sight of clear lanes ahead. The red arrow of the speedometer measured eighty miles per hour—way over the speed limit. Passing by the solid waste plant in West Palm Beach, John felt nostalgic looking at the dark-haired sophomore boy at the passenger seat, wearing a black and gray jacket. His son reminded him of when he wasn’t the driver.
“Concerned with your Biology test?” John said, noticing that Nate checked his cell phone three times in the same minute. The teenager’s raised eyebrows wrinkled his forehead and his mouth was slightly open. It looked as if his heart raced over a hundred mph on that October, Friday morning.
“This too,” Nate said, fingers tapping the back of the phone. “If I ask you something, promise you don’t freak out?”
The man wearing a brown tie over a beige long-sleeve dress shirt nodded and turned off the radio.
“Can we go to the pumpkin patch at Bedner’s tomorrow?”
Taking his eyes off the road for a second, John offered an open wide smile. “Wait. No fights over our family picture this year?”
Nate pressed his lips hard against each other and avoided eye contact.
“Hm. What changed your heart?”
“Nothing, Dad. Can we just go?”
“It’s a girl, isn’t it?”
The son turned his face to his window. “You’re annoying.”
John took a moment before reacting. His memories traveled back in time as he took the Beeline Highway exit. “I used to love going to pumpkin patches,” he said. “But I was like you, I turned twelve and it became so embarrassing.” The driver talked about the troubles he gave to his parents for three years until the Fall of 1989. His behavior changed as leaves turning from green to red to brown. The change had a name: Trish.
It started in the first week of ninth grade. John sat right behind her in Language Arts, and she asked him to borrow a pencil. There was something about her soft tone of voice and her long blonde hair moving. John fell in love with her. He wanted to do something but never found a chance. If she wasn’t talking to a teacher after class and rushing to the next period, she was hanging out with her friends, Cassie and Jane.
“I was also afraid of rejection, too. She was my first crush,” John confessed.
When he learned she would volunteer at the pumpkin patch at Trinity United Methodist Church, he decided he had to man up.
“Did you go? Did you talk to her?” Nate said while his father stopped at the red light on North Jog Road and Beeline Highway.
“I promised Dad I would be good if I could choose the place to go,” John winked, saying he remembered seeing Trish in the distance when they parked.
She was at the table selling pumpkin bread, recipe books and hand size pumpkins for painting. Temperature was around seventy-nine degrees. The wind chill and the shade of the tall trees around made it feel colder, but it didn’t bother Trish. The girl wore capris jeans shorts and a plaid red and white shirt, which highlighted her blonde hair divided into a two side ponytail falling over it.
Smiling for the camera wasn’t a problem that year. John stood with his parents and sister by a giant sized orange pumpkin arrangement. There was a pile of haystacks behind them, some greenish warted gourds around, and two giant smiling scarecrows sticking out on the sides. The photos would further reveal amused expressions of his family while he grinned to a different direction.
At the end of the picture session, John’s parents became entertained with his younger sister, Daisy. She still nurtured excitement for the shapes, sizes, colors, and textures of those hundreds of squashes on the ground. John saw then a chance to tell the girl how he felt. The moment he rehearsed many times alone in front of the mirror had finally arrived.
“Hi, Trish,” he stood tall in front of her, taking deep breaths, holding his two hands together, his legs shaking. She was checking the monies inside of an old metal rectangular box.
“Hey, you. I’m glad you came,” she said with a smile, her eyes shining. “I can’t believe how busy is this first weekend. I saw Mr. Robbins this morning.”
“Our Science teacher?”
“Yeah,” she paused. “And Cassie stopped by, too. She bought a large pumpkin and a loaf of pumpkin bread.”
“I have to tell you something,” he barged in on her saying.
“Excuse me, dear. How much for the cooking book?” A pale white overweight lady carrying a red purse interrupted them with a warming smile. John stepped out to his right, turned and puffed his cheeks.
“It’s fifteen dollars. Would you also like to take home one of our loaves?”
“Of course, my dear,” The lady gave three ten dollar bills to Trish and winked, signaling with her head towards John. He was moving back and forth in the same spot, his hands were inside his cargo shorts pockets. Trish smiled and handed the change to the woman. John moved back closer when she left.
“I have something to tell you, too,” she anticipated him. “When Cassie came here this morning, she asked me if I saw you. She was hoping to see you here.”
“Why,” he said, left hand scratching the top of his head, while the right hand was on the hip.
“You don’t get it? She is falling for you.”
Nate’s jaw dropped and he heard his father. The boy on the passenger seat held his head with two hands without worrying about the hair he spent almost ten minutes combing. That reaction was priceless in John’s eyes. “What did you do? Sorry, dad, but I wish I was there to see your face.”
They both laughed hard inside the white Nissan Rogue. Traffic was slow at the corner of MLK Blvd and North Congress Avenue. In between laughs, John clarified what was the worst part of that situation. Opening his heart to Trish proved to be far more uncomfortable than seeing his crush saying someone else was in love with him.
“We avoided each other for months. Eventually, we talked it through and I realized she wasn’t the one. At least, I took it off my chest, you know?”
“Can we go to Bedner’s tomorrow, then?”
“If you smile and look at the camera…”
The sun hadn’t risen even then as they drove around the car line loop, free from the massive ongoing flow of cars John wanted to avoid. It was five to seven and the school gates were still closed. There was a crowd of students waiting outside as if it was for a rock concert. Father and son decided to park and linger for another moment.
“And what happened to the other girl? The one who was falling for you.”
“Cassie? Well, I wasn’t in love with her at first, but I admit she grew on me,” John said, offering a sweet smile. “Nineteen Falls later, I can say for sure, she still is.”
“Wait a minute,” he connected the dots. “Mom?”
The time came and Nate got out of the car and opened the back seat door to grab his backpack. He couldn’t help grinning as he walked away, right arm perpendicular to his body, waving awkwardly to his dad the way they always did. Neither Vivian was in his mind, nor the Biology test in the first period. The boy’s thoughts were flowing with the light cold wind blowing on his face, wondering on the changes ahead of him.
As John drove away to go to work, he turned on the radio again. At seven twelve, the sun finally rose and he saw it shining on his rearview mirror. He heard Jo Stafford singing on chilling breezes, memories, and dance pavilions in “Early Autumn.” “Hey, sweetie,” he called his wife. “I know it’s early, but how about we go out, have dinner tonight? Yes, you and me.”