The Great Pumpkin Caper

His Dad pinned on major’s leafs the week before. Not bad for an orphan kid out of the slums of New York City – private to major in just two wars. William’s Dad announced on Saturday morning they’d drive to a farm in rural Pennsylvania to pick a pumpkin for carving.

Halloween was only a week away, and it was family time, but not for a kid thinking about his learner’s permit. In the driveway sat the Major’s work car, an old Chevy, two door coupe with many miles, but still running.
The day of the great excursion was also when his friends planned to help him work on the car.

William tried to keep the whine from his voice. “I didn’t know about the outing. I’ve already got Eddie and Jim committed and we’re using his Dad’s tools. They’ll be here in an hour.”

“Nope. This is a family deal, William. We’ll be back by five. Do the work tomorrow.”

“I can’t. They might have other things planned.”

“I’m not going to argue. We’re going as a family, and that’s that.”

William got the stare. The Rubicon was the next step. On the rarest of occasions, he crossed the line. When he did, there were no guarantees.

His mother saved him. “Oh, Frank. Let him have his friends over. He’s too old for Halloween anyway.”

Revolt in the palace. William was smart enough to keep his mouth closed and watch the inevitable collapse of his father’s plans. Only years later did it occur to him that these “family outings” were the fruition of dreams born from a hungry boy about to steal fruit so he could eat that day. William listened to the inevitable voices growing loud, then quiet, and finally resigned. He remained alone in his attic bedroom, and before long, the house grew still. He exhaled a victorious breath and descended the stairs.

By three that afternoon, the car was running again. The radio was cranked loud and empty soda bottles lay on their sides.

“Oh, this is so cool,” Eddie said. His eyes were bright as he pressed the throttle linkage. The old six cylinder roared. Eddie would get his driver’s license in two weeks, while William would wait until May.
Jimmy was the oldest and already driving. He covered his ears and laughed because the muffler lay on the ground. The boys convinced one another their problems lay in blocked exhaust piping, a great excuse to sound like the drag racers at the PITA.

The noise brought another boy to the garage door. Adrian stood watching the three, laughing and gunning the engine. “Hey!”

William held up his hand and the chatter quieted. His two best friends attended Strong Vincent on the west side, the good side. Adrian was a year older and the star athlete from East High, now William’s school. Eddie turned off the ignition.

“How you doing, Adrian?” William said.

The boy offered a nod. “Got your Pop’s car, huh?”

“Yeah. Maroon and White, fight fight.”

By pure happenstance the car was painted the school colors. William could see Adrian approved.

The boy tapped the hood. “Let me take her around the block once.”

This was his Dad’s work car, and wouldn’t become his part-time until May. Jimmy knew and tried to come to the rescue. “We still got parts missing, man. This isn’t even street legal. Besides, we got to get it done before his old man comes home.”

Eddie didn’t say anything taking an instant dislike to Adrian.

The boy glanced around and shrugged wide, athletic shoulders. William decided. “Yeah, sure. Once around the block. Careful for the cops because there’s no muffler.”

The boy slammed the hood and was quickly in. Eddie stood aside. The car revved and backed into the street pouring blue tire smoke. Before William could reconsidered his decision, the car was disappearing in a squeal around the corner.

“Son of a bitch, Bill,” Eddie said, and tossed his shop rag to the floor. “That was stupid. Who is that creep, anyway?”

“Goes to my school.” William’s words sounded hollow in his dry mouth.

Jimmy picked up his Coke. “Well, you better hope he doesn’t get a ticket. It’s going to be your ass if he does.”

In five minutes, William grew worried. Fifteen minutes went by, and he was distraught. “Oh shit. I am screwed.”

Eddie was too good a friend to comment, but Jimmy said, “I frickin told you, man.”

Adrian walked up to the garage a half hour later. The look on his face was no different than when he’d taken the car.

“I saved your ass, man. That damn thing broke down on me before I got a mile. Your Dad would’ve killed you because it’s obviously screwed up.” And with that, Adrian ambled away hands tucked deep in his pockets.

“Where is it?” William said.

The boy pointed with his chin and William ran. He never noticed his two friends following in the pickup.

The car sat front wheel up on a lawn. A homeowner was outside in a t-shirt holding a newspaper and shaking his head. “Is this your goddamn car?”

William ran to the driver’s side and turned the key. Nothing.

“Oh shit, man,” Jimmy said. “Look.”

William slid across the seat. The front wheel was bent at a terrible angle with dark dirt gouged out of green grass.

Eddie opened the hood. “You’re not going to like this.”

William looked in and saw the engine catawampus in the compartment, the mounts broken and the drive shaft snapped.

“Get this thing the hell off my lawn, or I call the cops.” The man was red faced and shaking his paper.

The boys pulled the Chevy back onto the street with a rope and the pickup. William took the keys and locked the doors.

“When you gonna get this piece of crap out of here?” the man said. He was already filling in the divot with a shovel and dirt.

William fought the tears that threatened. “As soon as I can, sir. I’m really sorry.”

The man was not mollified. “Goddamn teenagers.”

The station wagon pulled into the driveway at five-fifteen. Jimmy and Eddie were gone. The tail pipe and muffler lay on the concrete floor. His Dad stared at the empty bay and then at William. He loaded the pumpkin into Gene’s small red wagon without a word. William’s mother held the baby in her arms and gave her son a silent, sympathetic glance.

His Dad turned to him. “Where’s my car?”

“On Second street. A couple of blocks down.”

“Were you driving?”

“No, sir. I…”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, thank God for that. Show me.”

They were in the station wagon when William spoke. “I’m really sorry, Dad. We put the new carburetor on, and got the idle fixed. Eddie changed the points and condenser, and we…I took the muffler off.” His Dad glanced over. “We were just messing around making it sound like a roadster.”

His father was quiet. William stopped babbling.

The angry homeowner did not reappear when William’s father inspected the broken front axle. He looked under the hood, then pointed to the family car. “Let’s go home.” He asked one question. “Did you give your permission for someone to drive my car?”

“Yes, sir.”

He nodded and they drove in silence.

Sunday was quiet in the house. William went upstairs and started his homework. This was not unusual, but then not something he always did without prompting. When he came back down, his father was gone. Eddie called that afternoon, but they didn’t feel like talking.

Dinner waited on the stove when his Dad drove up in the station wagon. The meal was silent except for the baby fussing. They all watched Ed Sullivan while William finished his math homework.

For a week, he plodded to his classes and went to swim team practice after school. Snow fell on the day before Halloween. Adrian approached him once in the hall, but William walked away. A party was planned at Eddie’s house to give out candy, with a sleep-over after. He asked his Mom, and was told to see his father. William didn’t and stayed home.

On Saturday, a week after the party, his Dad parked a Plymouth sedan in the drive. The fifteen year old car was faded black and primer gray. The passenger side window was cracked and the car smelled like old food. The seats were ripped, and the bumpers rusting. The radio didn’t work.

“I don’t listen, anyway.” His Dad placed an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I’ll get the window fixed, and maybe rub the paint out a little. Some wax might make it look okay.”

“I’ve got some spray to help that smell,” she said. “And, maybe my SOS pads will take off the rust.”

“Sure, it can’t hurt. This isn’t exactly what a major should be driving, but it’s what we can afford right now.” He smiled at his wife. “You’ll have the station wagon and I’ll get this presentable enough to drive to work.”

“I can do that, Dad.” William stood behind them. “And, Mom. You don’t use SOS pads on rusting chrome. I’ve got some stuff.”

His Dad nodded and tossed over the keys. “Thanks, Bill. Maybe we can get that radio fixed by May.”