Tuesday, January 30, 2007

#103 - Sassing The Man

Sassing The Man

1/25/07 (#103)

In Bangor, Maine, it was an autumn tradition for high school boys to woo the object of their affection by leaving a monographed pumpkin on the doorstep of her home.* While the most ambitious boys would scribe a poem of their own creation (usually some not-quite-clever twist on a familiar phrase, such as "Violets are blue, roses are red....", though it was ill-advised to use the most obvious rhyme for "red", lest her father be the first to find the pumpkin), most of us scoured the record sleeves of albums from The Baby's or Duran Duran in hopes of finding just the right words to capture the romance inherent in cluttering a stoop with an oversize squash. (An acquaintance of mine once scribbled the lyrics of a Blue Oyster Cult song onto his pumpkin---I didn't have the heart to tell him that if BOC can properly express your amorous inclinations, your love is suspect.)

It was just such an errand that brought my friend Bernie and I to Veazie one cold evening, a tiny burg immediately north of Bangor. Veazie is hardly a town at all---it was easy to drive through without realizing that you had, one of those hamlets whose budget allowed for only one police cruiser; as such, if you passed a Veazie cop as you crossed into their district, you knew you had carte blanche with the speed limits until you got to Orono, the next town north on Route 2. Most of their cops were probably from Veazie, as it was hardly the kind of assignment an academy graduate would seek out, and as such the cops knew everyone. I have no doubt that speeding tickets were strictly reserved for interlopers, with one or two issued to neighbors as retribution for adolescent offenses unrelated to the traffic infraction.

The goal of our journey was to leave a pumpkin on the doorstep of Donna Wampler, a girl I had recently dated but who had more recently realized that she was just too much for me. (To her credit, she was right about that.) But she was brainy and beautiful, and I was young and stupid, so I held out hope that a well-penned pumpkin might give her pause about her unceremonious dismissal of my affections. We stopped at Doug's Shop 'n Save en route to get the pumpkins, picked up a small pepperoni pizza at Papa Gambino's, and parked Bernie's Mom's orange 1976 Chevy Malibu in the parking lot of a darkened building around the corner from Donna's house. There, we ate dinner, laughing about which Blue Oyster Cult song not to use ("So I suppose 'Godzilla' is out?"), and got to work with our black sharpies. (Bernie was enamored with a Bangor girl, and we'd be dropping his pumpkin on our way home.)

Part of the allure of the secret pumpkin serenade was the danger of transporting it to the front porch, an often-precarious passage that underscored the impressive effort of the deed. Rumors and reality were replete with mock horror stories: pumpkins accidentally smashed on front walks when delivery coincided with the release of the family hound; orange orbs so large that a drop-and-run caused an unnaturally loud thud, the residents looking out the picture window to see a clumsy fool tripping through the hedge in fevered retreat; one poor sap even managed to bowl over and break a line of porcelain figurines, requiring him to ring the doorbell and sheepishly face the girl and her mom, embarrassed for his error but suddenly more embarrassed for having chosen the lyrics of Def Leppard as his poetic ambassador.

We anticipated no such drama during my delivery, as Donna and her family were out of town for several days. The mostly-eaten pizza sat on the dash and our pumpkins rested in our laps while the ink dried (heaven forbid one prematurely tuck the rotund messenger under their arm and smear the word "love" into something unrecognizable) when we were startled by a knock on the window, a sound generated by the doughy hand of a Veazie policeman.

Bernie rolled down the window to greet the man. The first thing we both noticed---the first thing anyone would have noticed---was the enormity of the man's belly. This gut had left the modifier "beer belly" behind many years ago; this was the kind of stomach to which your immediate thought addresses practicalities: "How does he find shirts that fit?!" Even your thought would have a tone of incredulity. If Veazie was Hazzard County, this man was Boss Hogg.

The bulk of the conversation is hardly worth reporting. In response to "Whacha doin'?", we explained exactly what we were doing: penning a pumpkin to drop on Donna Wampler's doorstep. (Fortunately, we were doing nothing wrong---for the first time in years, we hadn't even snatched the pumpkins from some innocent's porch.) According to the officer, the building in front of which we sat had issued a silent alarm---had we seen anything suspicious? We looked at the building---an old concrete box with a single metal door, with neither a sign nor a sign of life---and recognized his "good cop" methodology of making the suspect an ally. (We could see his partner walking the perimeter of the building, curious if there really was an alarm or if the Veazie police simply had enough time on their hands to enact an elaborate charade in an effort to convince us of the veracity of their claim.) We hadn't seen a thing, officer (we hadn't), and we'd be leaving momentarily. He smiled, wished us well, then issued the strangest non-sequitor I have ever heard from a policeman:
"What kind of pizza did you get?"
"Papa Gambino's."
"No, the toppings."
"Pepperoni", Bernie replied cheerfully. "Want a slice?"
He gave a bit of a chuckle. "No thanks. You boys have a nice night."

Bernie rolled up the window as the officer went back to his car. The ink now dry, we began donning our hats and gloves to prepare for the sprint to/from Donna's house, still marveling at the apparent tensile strength of the officer's belt, and were just about ready when the police car suddenly lurched up next to us.

It seems that in the car, the officer had relayed our alibi to his partner, a Veazie native who knew Donna---and knew she was out of town. Bernie and I later joked that it must have felt like a real Colombo moment in that cruiser, the cover story of two smooth-talking city boys blown by the keen observational skills of the Veazie police department. Poems on pumpkins? Bullshit, Roscoe, we got ourselves some criminals. The big man came to the car as fast as his waddle could take him while Bernie rolled down the window, and as the officer arrived, Bernie delivered the perfect line, straight-faced and serious, his voice so rich with generosity and sympathy that it perfectly disguised his insolence:

"Change your mind about that pizza?"

The cop didn't laugh, but I sure did. In fact, I still do.

©2007 wpreagan

* While this was a yearly ritual for my friends and I, my friend Zeth comes from Orono (8 miles north) and had never heard of it. I would love to hear from anyone who is familiar with this tradition.

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