The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And pumpkins. And bales of hay.
Or so I decided when I took MJ on a “date” to Mr. Bones’ Pumpkin Patch this week.
Or sort of a date. Truthfully, I was covering the event for a local parenting blog and had to drag her along. It’s not like we were going to a lecture on particle physics, though. I knew it would be fun. I told her as much, in shrill, overly certain tones, as we drove all the way across town to get there.
“There’ll be pony rides! And a petting zoo! And pumpkins. And, um, bats!” I had never been to a Pumpkin Patch before, so my idea of it was somewhat sketchy.
“We already have a pumpkin,” MJ groused.
“We’ll get another,” I declared. “You can never have too many.”
That turned out to be untrue. Mr. Bones, you see, is an extortionist. Thirty dollars for a medium-sized pumpkin. Ridiculous. We immediately gave up on buying anything in the Halloween-bedecked shop. Or I did. MJ remained obsessed with the specialty gourds they had for sale.
“I want a lumpy pumpkin.”
“Or a white one!”
“We’ll get it at Trader Joe’s.”
This discussion repeated itself for the next, oh, two hours.
Then there were the activities. Some, like the pony ride and face painting–of a pink pumpkin on her cheek–were fine. Nice, even. The petting zoo was a little less successful. The ducks kept running away from us. Like we were serial killers. Which, I guess, humans sort of are, to ducks.
It was all downhill from there. But not on Mr. Bones Giant Slide. MJ was too afraid to go on it.
“Come on, it looks like fun!” I wheedled.
“No way,” my daughter cried.
I should’ve known. Saying Myra-Jean is physically cautious is like saying that Miley Cyrus has a tongue. It’s true, but hardly tells the whole story. She’ll be rounding the bend on college before she even considers going on a pogo stick. Giant slides are pretty much never gonna happen.
Forgetting the idea, we walked over to the hay maze.
“You’ve never done one of these before,” I said as we approached. “It’s going to be great!” I could almost see the memories forming: she and I with straw in our hair, laughing, pretending we were lost…
Then we got inside. Jesus. Talk about a claustrophobe’s nightmare. This was no Minotaur’s maze. It was subterranean. You had to crawl into covered tunnels made from hay bales. They were long, dark, and unbelievably narrow. Like something out of a nightmare. You couldn’t have paid me enough.
As for Myra-Jean, she took one look and said “There’s probably black widows in there.”
I winced. “I’d like to say you’re wrong, but–”
There was a moment of silence.
Then Myra-Jean spoke. “I’ll go after you.”
Next was the Pillsbury-sponsored cookie decorating area. Otherwise known as the Tent of Processed Confections. MJ made a creature, of sorts, out of artificial pastry, fake frosting, and lurid toppings. Then she ate it, smearing food coloring all over her pumpkin-cheeked visage.
Michael Pollan would’ve wept.
And I should’ve. For, minutes after the cookie eating, she started to show signs of sugar-related dementia. Major signs. Her mood, which had been fairly sanguine, went dark. Her face pale.
It was when she brought up the bouncy house, though, that I knew we were in trouble.
“Mama,” she said, rubbing ersatz cookie off of her chin, “there’s a pumpkin bouncy over there. Look!” She pointed unsteadily, her hand sticky with marshmallow.
“I see it,” I said carefully. “Do you want to go in?”
I knew the answer. Or thought I did. MJ hates bouncy houses. Too chaotic. Too out of control. Too similar to balloons, for which she has recently developed a phobia. She’s literally afraid they’ll pop.
But MJ rose and, like a zombie, started walking in the direction of the great orange bubble. “I want to,” she muttered. “Yes.”
“Shit,” I muttered. This couldn’t end well. Grabbing my Pillsbury goodie bag–the first hundred people inside got one!–I trotted after her.
When we got to the bouncy there was a line. In the sun. We walked to the back and planted ourselves behind two moms with five kids.
“When can we go on?” MJ asked.
I glanced at a sign taped to the side. “It looks like only a few children can go at a time. For five minutes. So we have at least five minutes to wait, because there’s a group in there now, and then these guys”–I jutted my chin at the kids in front of us–“get to go.”
MJ considered this.
“Should we skip it?” I said hopefully.
She looked up at me. She had no sunscreen on. It was really hot. She was going to get burned. Except where the pumpkin was painted. She didn’t care.
“No. I want to go in.”
My shoulders slumped. “OK.”
The moms in front of me stole a glance back. Their faces seemed sympathetic. Or did they? Maybe they were being judgmental. Whatever. They were wearing black lycra. Their kids were loud. I had nothing to say to them.
Myra-Jean tugged at my shirt. “Mama, you can come in there with me, right?”
I made a face. I wanted to go into a hot pumpkin bouncy like I wanted a gunshot wound in the eye. “I don’t know, honey–”
Her eyes became frantic. Her voice rose. “Please!”
Jesus. I gestured for calm with my hands. “OK. Let me go ask the guy.”
The man in question was sprawling on a crate by the pumpkin’s zipper door. He looked like he needed a hat. And a drink.
I side-stepped past the lycra ladies. “Excuse me,” I said to him, trying to look bemused. “My daughter wants to know if I can go in there with her. To the bouncy.”
“No,” he grunted, without looking up.
“Really? I could just sit–”
From behind me I heard a wail. At first I thought it was a fire engine. Then I knew it was my daughter. I turned to see her crying hysterically.
“You have to come in with me!”
I looked from her to the man. He was unmoved. I spun back to MJ. “Honey, I’m sorry–”
“YOU HAAAVE TOOOO COME IIIIINNNNNN!”
It was a very loud scream. Now the lycra ladies were fully engaged. They glanced back and forth at us like it was a tennis match.
Tears poured down MJ’s face. I watched as the picture on her cheek melted, mixing pumpkin with sweat and purple frosting. Spinning back to the ticket guy, I hissed “can you see what’s happening here? Can I just go in the damn bouncy with her?”
He thought about it. MJ suppressed her sobs long enough to hear his answer. The two moms stretched to listen.
“You can put your head and shoulders in. No feet.”
I raised my eyebrows and turned to MJ. She thought about it. Finally she took a shuddering breath. “OK.”
Just then the group inside the bouncy house came tumbling out, and the kids ahead of us climbed in. Taking advantage of the extra space, I moved MJ and myself into the shade. We sat down on a bale of hay, nearly touching the bouncy. And waited.
A moment later one of the kids–a girl in a striped dress–crawled quickly back out of the hatch. “Something’s happening in there,” she said, not calmly. “It’s blowing out.”
One of the moms said “It’s what?”
“It’s blowing out!”
Everyone looked at each other, confused.
Then the entire pumpkin began to deflate. Fast. Folds of hot, orange rubber fell against us as kids came pouring out of the hole head first. MJ screamed like a banshee.
Great, I thought. This is great. PTSD from a fucking Pumpkin Patch.
I grabbed her and prepared to run. But I needn’t have bothered. The man in charge got things quickly in hand, and in seconds the pumpkin was back to its former stature.
The kids who had been inside, however, were done. I couldn’t really blame them.
It was our turn next. To my surprise, MJ still wanted to try. Sort of. She made one quick attempt to climb in, but, when she felt the breeze inside, shrieked “it’s cold! It’s so cold!” and refused to try again.
We were done. Done with the bouncy, done with pumpkins, and done with Mr. Bones.
MJ made me carry her all the way to the car. All the way. I thought I would die. As I trudged slowly in the heat, my Pillsbury crescent rolls not melting–because they’re not food–but definitely weighing me down, MJ asked one plaintive question after another:
“Why did the bouncy fall?”
“Why was it so cold in there?”
“Why could only your head come in?”
“Why couldn’t we buy a lumpy pumpkin?”
When she was finally strapped back in her car seat and we were on the road she declared “I don’t like Pumpkin Patches. I don’t ever want to go again.”
I nodded solemnly. “I hear you, kid. Sorry that was such a bust.”
MJ sighed and stared out the window. There was a long silence. Then she spoke, sounding weirdly like her normal self again.
“You know what, Mama?””
I glanced back, surprised at her cheerful tone. “What?”
“I think I mostly just had a stomach ache. That cookie was pretty bad.”
After that we spoke no more of any of it.
Pressing the pedal down hard, I sped back to the East side. Where I would promptly throw away my Pillsbury swag. And try to forget that such a thing as a Pumpkin Patch ever existed in this world.
Until next year. For hope, like pumpkin bouncies, springs eternal.