the harvest

Here’s a short story I wrote in college; the assignment was to write on the theme of death for a younger audience.

Copyright 2012 Cian FentonAs Kevin stepped out of his family’s two-story Victorian home on Auburn Street, bright red maple leaves were soaring across the blue October sky like sparks from a roaring campfire. Kevin felt a tinge of sadness on this crisp Saturday morning. Although he enjoyed the colorful shower of leaves, he knew that it would soon give way to the bland skies and bleached earth of November.

After strolling seven blocks down Auburn, he turned right onto Melrose Avenue. The public library, a red brick building with a large clock tower, sat comfortably upon the curb of the avenue two blocks ahead. It was almost nine-thirty. Remembering that the weekly puppet show began at that time, Kevin quickened his pace and soon found himself inside the library’s main entrance. As he stepped inside, he noticed an unusual silence. Much to his surprise, the children’s corner of the library was vacant—no puppet stage, no puppets, no people. He hurried to the librarian’s desk.

“Where’s the puppet show today?” he asked anxiously.

“There is no puppet show today,” explained the librarian in an even whisper. “We have puppet shows all summer, but not in the fall. They’ll start up again next spring.” She smiled apologetically.

Disheartened, Kevin turned around and slowly headed home, kicking leaves off the sidewalk and secretly wishing it were summer again.

Suddenly, his eye caught sight of several orange pumpkins peeking out of a lush garden on the corner of Auburn and Melrose. An elderly man in red overalls with a white baseball cap was milling through a jungle of squash vines. There were many other vegetables in his garden—tomatoes, corn, cabbage, carrots, peas and potatoes—but Kevin’s eyes shot instantly toward the large pumpkins resting in the shade of their vines.

Pumpkins fascinated Kevin. Every October, his father would drive him and his sisters to a roadside stand outside of town to find pumpkins for Halloween. Without fail, Kevin would search out the largest and roundest pumpkin available.

The old man in the garden waved to Kevin and, noticing the boy’s interest, motioned to him to come into the pumpkin patch. Kevin was overjoyed.

“Hello, young man,” said the gardener, removing his cap to wipe some sweat from his brow.

“Hi,” said Kevin in a distracted tone of voice. “These are the hugest pumpkins I’ve ever seen. Did you grow them yourself?”

The old man smiled warmly. “Not really,” he replied. “I planted them, weeded around them when they were small and watered them, but God did the rest.”

Kevin stood in silent admiration of the pumpkins. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. “Can I have one?”

Laughing softly, the old man replaced his cap. “Sure. They’re not quite ready to be picked yet, though. In another couple of days they’ll be ready. Come back sometime next week and I’ll let you choose one.”

“Thanks! I’ll stop by after school sometime,” replied Kevin as he turned back toward the road.

The old man called after him. “If I’m not in the garden, I’ll be up at the house. My name’s Sidney.”

Kevin turned toward Sidney. “I’m Kevin. See ya later, Sidney.”

The days flew past like migrating geese and soon it was Wednesday. When class was dismissed that afternoon, Kevin hurried home to his garage, padded his wagon with some leaves and headed toward Sidney’s.

When he arrived, Sidney was out in the garden picking squash. The garden had changed drastically since Saturday. All of the vines had wilted into limp brown clumps and the colorful squash sat exposed atop the withered foliage. Kevin was horrified by the change.

Sidney stopped his work and greeted the boy. “Hi, Kevin.”

“What happened to all the vines?” asked Kevin. He surveyed the garden with knitted brows.

“We had a hard frost last night. The vines can’t handle that kind of cold weather. The chilly nights are right on time; they always arrive just when the pumpkins are ready,” said Sidney.

“You mean it’s s’posed to happen like this?”

“Yep. Every year it’s the same. God has a pretty good plan for growing things. He waits for the plants to finish their work and then he puts ‘em down to sleep.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “It’s sorta sad, though, isn’t it? I mean, the dying plants and the falling leaves.”

“It all depends on how you look at it, Kevin. Look at this pumpkin here, for example. The pumpkin seed I planted last spring had one thing in mind when I put it in the ground; its task was to grow into this pumpkin. All summer long, it grew into vines to absorb the sun and water so that it could produce a pumpkin. Then, when the pumpkin was ready, the vine was no longer needed. So the cold weather came and took the vine away so that everyone could see the beautiful pumpkin. So it’s not really sad, Kevin. The vine did its job and the pumpkin is the result of its hard work.”

Kevin thought he understood what Sidney was saying. He had another question, though. “But why does the vine have to die?”

“Vines aren’t meant to last forever. Although they grow and spread through the garden, they’re mostly interested in making a pumpkin. That’s the important thing. When the pumpkin is ready, the rest of the plant isn’t needed anymore.”

Satisfied with this answer, Kevin began to survey the pumpkin patch. He soon discovered his favorite pumpkin; naturally, it was the largest. Sidney helped him twist the pumpkin from its vine and put it gently into the wagon.

“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” said Sidney. “Why don’t you come inside and have a cup of cider and some cookies? Then you can meet Judy, my wife. I told her you were coming, and she baked a batch of cookies yesterday so I’d have something to give such a hard-working pumpkin picker.”

Kevin had no objections. As they entered Sidney’s house, the aroma of cinnamon and apples wafted through the door to greet them. Judy, a kind woman with a face full of smiling wrinkles, greeted them as well. The old couple chatted with Kevin about the garden and the neighborhood and pumpkins. “If you’d like to help me plant my pumpkins next year, I sure would appreciate the help,” said Sidney. Kevin thought it was an excellent idea.

Soon, Kevin remembered that he had homework waiting for him. He thanked the old couple for the snack and stepped out onto the porch. “Stop by any time,” Sidney offered. “Enjoy your pumpkin.”

As autumn turned to winter, Kevin made regular visits to Sidney’s house. Sidney and Judy treated Kevin like a grandson; they had no grandchildren of their own, so they always enjoyed his company. Whenever Kevin visited, Judy would bring out a set of finger paints and then Kevin would create a masterpiece for the front of their refrigerator. By Christmastime, the refrigerator was covered with his artwork.

One day in February when Kevin stopped by, Judy came to the door and told him that Sidney was sick and couldn’t get out of bed. Kevin asked if he could see him. “Well, since he’s not asleep, I don’t see why not,” replied Judy.

Kevin entered the bedroom quietly. “Hi, Sidney.”

“Well, it’s Kevin!” Sidney exclaimed weakly. “It’s nice of you to stop by. How are you?”

“Okay,” Kevin replied. “Are you real sick?”

Sidney smiled. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I went out to get the mail without my coat on last week and I think I just caught a little cold. If I rest up, I should be healthy again in no time.”

“You look awfully white, Sidney. You sure you’re all right?”

“I think so. I went to see the doctor yesterday and he’s supposed to call me if it’s anything serious. Hey! Guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you,” Sidney said, reaching for a small wrapped package in the top drawer of his nightstand. He handed the present to Kevin.

Kevin unwrapped the present recklessly. Inside, he found a package of pumpkin seeds. “Mammoth pumpkins!” Kevin exclaimed after examining the label. “Wow, I bet these’ll be huge!”

“I guess we’ll find out next summer,” said Sidney. “I’ve never tried that kind of seed before.”

After visiting for a little while, Kevin returned home. He could hardly wait for the arrival of spring when he could plant the seeds. Arriving in his bedroom, he stowed them safely in his sock drawer.

Later that week, Kevin went back to visit Sidney again. This time he brought some of his mom’s chicken noodle soup. Judy greeted him at the door. She took the soup graciously and gently placed it on the stove. Her wrinkles looked different today, Kevin thought—they were stretched more tightly, almost stretched into frowns.

Sidney was still in bed, and he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, he told Kevin that the doctor had asked him to go to the hospital where doctors could take better care of him.

Kevin sat in frightened silence for a moment. “Are you gonna get better?” he asked with a quivering voice.

Sidney paused for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said softly. “I’m getting pretty old and I don’t fight off sickness like I used to. I’m sure they’ll take good care of me at the hospital, and maybe I’ll be coming back home real soon.”

Kevin winced, trying to hold back tears.

“Kevin, it’s okay if you want to cry. I cry sometimes too.”

Kevin was sobbing uncontrollably now. Sidney reached out and embraced him.

“You know, I’m not too worried about going to sleep and not waking up again. You know why? Because I’m sorta like that pumpkin plant I was telling you about. God planted me one day and has taken care of me for seventy-five years. While I’ve been here, I’ve branched out to see many things and meet many people, including you. I think maybe God’s getting ready to harvest me, though. He’s been waiting a long time for me, and I think maybe I’m just about ripe.” Sidney chuckled gently through the tears that were now in his own eyes. “When I’m ready, God’s gonna take me up to his house and I’ll be up there with him forever. So I’m not worried about dying.”

“I’m gonna miss you if you go,” Kevin blurted out between sobs.

“I’ll miss you too, Kevin. But we’ll be together again one day. Someday you’ll be ripe and God’ll pick you and bring you up to his house too. Until then, though, enjoy being like that pumpkin vine. Spread out your branches—meet other people and enjoy the things around you, and never forget that God’s your best friend. It’s an exciting thing, growing up. Scary, sometimes, too. God’s taking care of you and one day you’ll be with him for always.”

Kevin sat back and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I want you to promise me something, Kevin. If God harvests me before next spring, I want you to go ahead and plant those pumpkins anyway. You’ll do a terrific job. Is it a deal?”

“Deal.”

Kevin continued to stop by Sidney’s house to see Judy and bring drawings for Sidney that he had made at school. One day when he arrived at Sidney’s house, Judy didn’t answer the doorbell. Turning back toward the street, he saw a car pulling slowly into the driveway. It was Judy.

As she approached on the sidewalk, Kevin noticed a thin smile on her face. “Hello, Kevin. Have you been standing here long? I’m sorry. I just got back from the hospital. Come in.”

Once inside, Judy brought out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, without saying a word. Kevin knew that something was wrong.

“Is Sidney okay?” he asked anxiously.

“Kevin,” she said quietly, “Sidney didn’t wake up today.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say. He felt his stomach plummet—the way it would in a car speeding over the top of a steep hill. Staring blankly at the refrigerator with all of his paintings on it, he started to cry.

Judy followed his eyes to the refrigerator. “Those are some beautiful paintings,” she said. “You know, Sidney’s just like one of those paintings. God painted him one day and put him in the world to dry. It took a long time, but God was really patient. As soon as the paint dried, God wanted to put him up on his refrigerator so he could see him all the time. And you know what? I think Sidney’s pretty happy there.” A tear slowly worked its way across her wrinkled face.

Kevin nodded in agreement.

On a crisp Saturday morning in late May, Kevin went over to Sidney’s old garden and planted his pumpkin seeds with Judy’s help. He took his gardening seriously: as soon as he had planted the seeds, he went directly to the library to check out a book on growing pumpkins.

Kevin visited the garden at least twice a week during the summer to water the vines, to weed around the plants and to spend time with Judy. The vines spread from one edge of the garden to the other, meeting the fence on one side and embracing the rock terrace on the opposite. One pumpkin grew to be especially large. Since it was Kevin’s favorite, he decided to name it Sidney.

Before long, the maple leaves were once again dancing through the autumn breeze like blizzard-driven snowflakes. Kevin watched vigilantly for the first frost to steal its way across the neighborhood, and when it had, he padded his wagon and headed down to the garden to harvest the pumpkins. After enjoying some cookies with Judy, he picked the pumpkins and gave them all to her—all, that is, except one. Kevin picked up one enormous pumpkin and put it in the back of his wagon.

As he hauled the wagon down the driveway toward Melrose Avenue, he waved toward the bay window where Judy stood watching him. Then, surrounded by a flurry of red and orange leaves, he turned the corner onto Auburn Street.

“Come on, Sidney,” he said to the pumpkin. “You’re comin’ home with me.”

© 1990 All rights reserved

Saint Judas

After seeing this story out of Buffalo, New York in yesterday’s news, it seems to me that I need to get my novel and screenplay about seminary life (Saint Judas) written at the first opportunity. As it turns out, life is sometimes more salacious than fiction.

What I learned from my seminary experience was basically this:

1) it was an institution riddled with people who didn’t know who they were

2) since they didn’t know who they were, they were insecure and shifty; in a word: they lacked integrity

3) these people would say one thing and do another, thus fostering a climate of distrust

4) at that point, Satan could schedule a long vacation… he had other people to carry out his charism of sowing division

In shorthand: identity issues led to integrity issues, and integrity issues led to trust issues. It’s as old as Genesis 3.

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abandonment

I wrote this short story as part of a creative writing course at Franciscan University. It also appeared in the University’s literary arts magazine in 1991.

Ben stared emptily at the fresh mound of brown earth that sat beside the deep rectangular pit. The strong rays of the April sun that morning were eating away at the snow as though trying to reconcile this patch of brown with the surrounding landscape. Lance is down there, Ben thought to himself. Lance. Ben’s face, yet untouched by the blemishes of puberty, betrayed his attempts to hide sadness. Taking his cue from the dry eyes around him, he squinted just enough to keep the torrent inside and tightened his jaw so that his chin would not quiver in the chill of grief.

I’m going home in a few minutes, he thought to himself, and my brother is going to stay here. He mused over that thought for several moments but the more he thought about it the less he believed it. His father’s voice coming from the parking lot soon tore him away from this mystery. “C’mon, son” his father called.

Ben maneuvered his way between puddles toward the purr of the running stationwagon where his parents and three sisters sat waiting. Approaching the right door in the rear, he caught a cold and sour glance from Rebecca and immediately rushed around to the other side.

Reb had been a real brat since Saturday, he thought to himself. He hadn’t seen her cry once yet, although he suspected that in a moment alone she had probably bawled her eyes out. She was proud of her self-control and had shoved it in his face on that first afternoon when she found him crying in his bedroom. “Benjamin’s a crybaby,” she had teased. “Poor baby. Maybe I should tell Daniel to come over and see what a wimp you are.”

“Cut it out, Reb,” Ben had protested. “Lance is dead, Reb! Lance is dead!”

“I know that. Doesn’t mean you have to go crying all over the place like a pussy. Look at me. Do you see me crying? Stop acting like a baby. Crying’s not gonna change anything.” She left him with these words, went to her bedroom and turned up the volume on her stereo.

The purr of the motor was silenced suddenly and Ben realized that he was home. The family filtered into the house and immediately lost itself in the flurry of arriving mourners. Ben stood alone in the midst of the shuffle and listened to the sonorous beat of the grandfather clock at the end of the hall. Everyone was busy, his mother reminded him. Why didn’t he go play on the porch until everything was ready?

As he shuffled out the front door and settled himself halfheartedly in front of his Legos, he watched the approaching parade of flagged cars. Friends and relatives crowded into the house one after another. Their cheerful conversation seemed to deny what had happened, to deny that there was an emptiness inside the house now. Ben still felt the emptiness, though, pulling at his stomach like a vacuum.

For the most part, he was oblivious to the blur of people who, smiling weakly, passed him and occasionally ran their hands briefly through his blond hair. Amidst the grey glances, however, he caught a flash of blue in the eyes of a young woman of seventeen who was approaching the porch. It was Gina, Lance’s girlfriend. “Hey , Ben,” she said softly as she knelt down beside him. “Can I have a hug?” He conceded. “How ya doin’, buddy?”

Her tone of voice was consoling, but Ben couldn’t muster up the strength to look into those pools of blue that were focused on him. If he had gathered the courage he would have seen networks of red vessels surrounding those pools. He didn’t see them, however, for he was focusing on the Lego pieces before him with mind-numbing concentration. He hadn’t talked to her since the accident on Friday night and now felt caught without a word to say. “Okay,”he replied and then waited for an uncomfortable silence to usher in a lighter topic.

She began to play with the Legos too, hoping to earn a quick glance at his face. “I miss him a lot too,” she whispered to him after a long pause. Change the subject, thought Ben. Please talk about something else.

“We can still do stuff together. My sister and I are going to the matinee in town this weekend. Do you want to come along? Reb could come too.”

This suggestion sent Ben’s heart soaring for several seconds. He used to love it when Gina and Lance would include him in their activities. They had taken him to the zoo, the theater, the park and numerous other places in town. He always felt so welcome, so appreciated; losing himself in the presence of Gina’s bubbly personality and Lance’s playful spirit, Ben would forget that he was a tag-along.

His spirit faltered, however, upon those last words of hers. Yeah, Reb could come. Reb could come, and the world could end tomorrow. He preferred the latter idea. Besides, he thought, how much fun would he have when Lance wasn’t there? No Lance. There was the emptiness again, and he felt his stomach caving in like a drenched sandcastle. Lance was gone and there could be no replacement.

Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t responded to her. “I’d like that,” he said with hollow enthusiasm. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“Okay, it’s a date,” she said as she stood up and patted him on the shoulder. Finally he stole a quick glance at her eyes. The redness confused him and he looked down immediately. Just then his mom caught sight of Gina and called her inside. Ben was alone again on the porch.

Alone. He rarely enjoyed being alone. Solitude was a punishment: You’re in the way, so we’ll throw you out of our lives until we have time to trip again, the voices in his head seemed to say. He felt as though he were alone in a desert, miles from any sign of life. When silence laughed at him in his aloneness, Ben remembered how much he counted on having people around, people that he feared would leave him behind. It was a stupid fear – like his fear of the little area under the basement stairs that Reb would always kid him about – but it was a fear that never went on recess. It was always there, waiting for a quiet moment when it could bully him.

Just then Lance’s friend Bob walked up the driveway. “Hi, Ben,” he said in a near whisper. “What’s goin’ on, big guy?”

“Not much,” Ben replied quickly. He was relieved to see Bob pass quickly into the house. This was one of the only times in recent memory when Bob hadn’t called him “Savage Slinger,” an unpleasant name that reminded him of a tantrum he had had over Lance’s SuperShot Plus slingshot.

When he was six, he had wanted that slingshot like nothing else. His mother noticed and bought him a cheap imitation. Ben could still hear Bob’s bruising laughter as he and Lance compared the two slingshots: He remembered feeling rage, furiously attacking them with his slingshot, whipping their denim-covered legs with his weapon and hoping to see red stains of blood penetrating the blue denim. He had always resented being second-best. His tantrum had been incredibly funny to Lance and Bob; the sight of a six-year-old flailing his fake SuperShot at them was hilarious – so he became known as the “Savage Slinger.”

Ben didn’t want to be on the porch anymore. He walked inside quietly and had no problem avoiding attention: Everyone was gathered in the kitchen, hovering over the potato salad and green Jell-o. As he headed for the stairs leading up to his bedroom, however, he met Reb as she came up from the cellar with a gallon of cider. She looked down when she caught his glance and supervised her feet carefully as they led her to the kitchen.

Once upstairs, he climbed onto his bed and tried to fall asleep. He was too restless to sleep, however. Not knowing what to do next, he sat on the edge of his bed and surveyed the room pensively. After resting briefly on the SuperShot which Lance had given him, his eyes finally fixed themselves upon the fluorescent blue crucifix hanging above the light switch by his door. It was different from the crucifix at church which showed Jesus’ head bent down upon his chest. This glowing blue Jesus stared out toward him with a pained expression: What was he looking at? Ben wondered. It almost seemed that Jesus was crying for someone else. He wasn’t screaming out in agony; instead, he was weeping gently – there was a small tear on his right cheek. Ben remembered how, several years ago, his mother had found him standing on a chair by the light switch, trying to wipe that tear from Jesus’ face. “It won’t come off, honey,” she told him gently. He didn’t like that tear. It made him uneasy. He preferred the crucifix at church with the hidden face.

Just then, a soft laugh wafted up the stairs and interrupted the rhythm of the grandfather clock: It was Bob’s laugh. It wasn’t his usual mocking laugh, but it was Bob nonetheless. Ben cringed.

Ben had always been jealous of Bob. When Bob was around, Ben felt about as important to Lance as the winter hat Lance would throw into his backpack every morning when he was out of his mother’s sight. Ben remembered an afternoon at the amusement park when Bob and Lance had ditched him as he stood in line for the haunted house. Ben had dreaded the thought of going through that dark green Victorian mansion that was issuing smoke and occasional shrieks, but the boys had promised to go through with him. He remembered turning around and discovering that they had left him alone in the line. As the large door of the house grew larger Ben fully expected them to return. They never did. What did I do? he asked himself. I’m sorry, Lance. I heard you sigh when Mom asked you to take me with; I should’ve just stayed at home in my room. He remembered being afraid of the ghosts, the stiff-legged Frankenstein and the spider webs, but most of all he remembered the wrenching cramp that knotted his stomach as he stepped out of the house and still could find no trace of Bob or Lance. He had trusted them completely and they had ditched him. Ben didn’t feel that they had just left him behind: He felt as if they were making fun of his weakness.

A reluctant tear gained enough courage to force itself out of hiding. It was all right to cry, he told himself as he looked at the tear on the glowing blue face. He crawled back onto his bed and fell asleep.

When he awoke, a wave of loneliness came crashing over him and he found himself beached at the door of eleven-year-old Alicia’s bedroom. He knocked and, since there was no answer, put his ear to the door. When he heard a faint whimpering within, he tried the knob, but it was locked.

He approached Jennifer’s room next. As she invited him in, she pushed aside the magazines she had been browsing through to make room for him on the edge of the bed. “Hey, Ben. What’s up?” It was a greeting and not a question, so he kept quiet, knowing that if he tried to talk his throat would probably start to tighten. He crawled onto the bed beside her and she put her arm around him. “You didn’t want to be downstairs either, huh? Listen, I know it’s sad without Lance but I bet he’s pretty happy up in heaven. Remember what Father Ted was saying today? Just think about seeing God and the angels all the time. I bet Lance is having – ”

Just then the phone rang. Jennifer rushed across the room to answer it like any pious fifteen-year-old. It was her best friend Susan. Ben knew it would be a long conversation, so he excused himself and wandered back in the direction of his room.

Once there, he grabbed the slingshot and headed to the top of the stairs. He listened vigilantly. Happily, there was no sound but the methodical pendulum echoing in the hall: The guests were gone. He crept down to the main floor as silently as he could, trying to avoid the creaks in the stairs. After slipping out the back door, he followed the wooded footpath toward the cemetery with his fingers wrapped tightly around the slingshot. Jennifer was right, he knew. Lance was not alone. Still, he needed to visit his brother.

The mound was gone and the pit had been filled in. Flowers were arranged neatly atop the patch of damp brown earth. The bouquet was now complete with the addition of the SuperShot Plus. Ben stood there for a moment in silence, the spring breeze massaging his cheeks with its cool hands in the approaching dusk. Then he turned and walked back in the direction of home.

That night, he went to bed at eight-thirty as usual. After all, tomorrow was a school day. He never fell asleep at eight-thirty, though. He always waited until he heard Lance pounce up the stairs at nine o’clock for the Top Ten at Nine, his favorite radio program. Then he felt he could fall asleep.

Tonight the ninth toll of the grandfather clock was followed by a piercing silence. Ben’s stomach began to knot itself once again. A little later, however, he heard the stairs creaking heavily as someone slowly ascended to the upper level. Glancing past the glowing blue cross to the hall beyond, he saw his father turn on the light in Lance’s bedroom and walk inside. Ben jumped out of bed and softly padded down the hall to investigate. As he peered around the edge of the door, he saw his father sitting at the chair near Lance’s desk, his grey sock rubbing the carpet back and forth, back and forth. He was bent over the glass desktop, looking through at the photographs below. Ben quickly returned to his bed and pulled up the covers.

The light went out, the stairs creaked again, and the distant beat of the clock moved him further from his brother with every measured sound. All he could see was the small blue figure. He welcomed the arriving tears and let them dampen his pillow as he fell asleep. He remembered his father. He remembered Reb and her downcast glance. He remembered Alicia’s locked door, Gina’s eyes… and the permanent tear on the glowing blue face.

the priest as chaplain

Today I’ve published another one of my old papers. As part of my seminary education, I completed a summer internship at Regions Hospital in 1995, serving as a chaplain alongside other seminary candidates from various denominations. Among other things, it gave me a chance to reflect on priestly identity and the role of the priest in pastoral care:

Theological Integration Paper

My reflections were centered around C.S. Lewis’ essay, The Weight of Glory, so it seems appropriate to publish them on this blog.

NOTE: After a lengthy discernment with various turns, I have reached a decision in the past year to remain a layman rather than pursue what I once considered a call to ordained priesthood in my life.