Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Butt Pumpkin - A Very Special Buttered Noodles


In September of 2002 we bought a two-flat on the northwest side of Chicago with another couple; we moved into the first floor unit and they moved into the second. At the time I worked as an executive coordinator at a company that sold advertising air time to cable television stations, and it was as soulless as it was demeaning. I worked for a bully of a boss who enjoyed throwing his weight around and making people feel uncomfortable, but it had seemed like a good job at first, mostly because of the nearly $10K increase in pay over my previous job. I'd managed to stick with it for over two years, but after about six months I'd learned all I could and had no interest in moving up in the company. I grew bored, and began taking classes of all kinds to take my mind off of work: a yoga class at the Y; a magazine article writing class at a local college; and a ten-week intensive course on Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. My boss noticed my lack of interest, but rather than encourage me to expand the scope of my work he began removing items from my plate. He was over six feet tall and easily 300 pounds, and from time to time he'd call me into his office, close the door, lean his fat red face inches from mine and ask things like "is there a problem?" No answer I gave was ever the right one, and he'd keep me captive until I was inevitably reduced to tears. The following day he'd tiptoe around me and greet me with false smiles and a saccharine platitudes, but I knew it was just a cycle that was bound to come around again.

I had been sending out resumes for months and would have stuck it out until I'd landed another job if it weren't for one incident in particular. It had to do with a presentation my boss needed for an upcoming business trip. I'd worked on it for weeks in collaboration with another executive, and there were several versions of it on my computer. Somehow the version I gave him turned out to have an older set of data from an earlier iteration, and when my boss caught the error he called me and my colleague into his corner office that overlooked Michigan Avenue, right across from the Tribune Tower. I watched his massive frame turn from the closed door and approach the table where I sat with my colleague, and steeled myself for the coming onslaught. He opened by telling us that the numbers in the presentation were wrong, and that if he hadn't looked it over he would have taken it onto a plane the next day with him and brought it into a conference room, only to discover that he had bad information in front of a client. He said some bosses would find this kind of thing to be grounds for termination, then stared directly into the eyes of my coworker and held his gaze, turned to me, and did the same. My colleague, a formidable human being and the only reason I could stand coming into work day after day, took the blame saying he had been supervising the project and should have caught the error. I don't remember exactly what I said, something generally apologetic, and when the moment seemed right my colleague and I stood from the table. "Not you," my boss said to me, "you stay here." I stared longingly at the back of my colleague's retreating figure, and lowered myself back into the chair I'd been sitting in. I knew what was coming next, and in that moment something inside me snapped. I'd simply had enough. I offered my resignation on the spot, and asked for six weeks notice instead of the usual two so that I could finish closing on the house and maybe even have a chance at finding a new job. I had to sign a humiliating document stating that I knew my performance was poor, and that if my attendance or performance were unacceptable at any time between now and the agreed upon termination date I would be asked to leave immediately. It was one of the lowest points of my working life.

We closed on the house in late September, but as exciting as it was to move in, I fell into a malaise. I foresaw a miserable fall and winter of working temp jobs until I could find steady work again, and worried about money. A couple weeks into our home-ownership M and I went grocery shopping, and came across a display of pumpkins outside a Jewel food store. This would be our first Halloween in our new home, and we were excited at the prospect of trick-or-treaters ringing our doorbell. In the apartment building we'd moved from there was really no point in buying Halloween candy, but this would be our first communal act with our new neighborhood, and we wanted to be prepared. Of the hundreds of pumpkins on display outside Jewel that night my eyes lit on one that had a cleft down the center, a long wispy tendril that looked like a piece of jute rope emerging from the middle of the cleft, and was shaped exactly like a butt. I laughed so hard that tears ran down my face, and M walked a few paces away so as not to be associated with me. That butt pumpkin gave me a bigger laugh than I'd had in months, and I had to have it. M tried to talk me out of it, we'd just moved into the neighborhood and he didn't want to put a butt pumpkin on the front porch when we hadn't even lived there a month, what would the neighbors think? I gasped and sputtered and wiped away my tears, all the time saying "butt pumpkin... butt... pumpkin," and then collapsed anew into a seizure of bent-over laughing and eye-dabbing. "Alright, pull yourself together," M finally said, "we'll do our grocery shopping and if you still want the butt pumpkin when we're finished we can buy it." M is the king of this kind of evasive maneuver, and I saw right through it. "We'll see" from M means the same as it did when my parents said it to me as a kid, and waiting until the grocery shopping is done was just an attempt to distract me.

I giggled the whole way through Jewel, recovering enough to check items off my list and push the cart up and down the aisles, but the butt pumpkin's high round cheeks kept making their way back into my mind's eye, causing me to burst into laughter at regular intervals. When our shopping was done, the butt pumpkin was still there and I still wanted it, but somehow M convinced me that we were already laden down with groceries and buying a giant gourd on top of all our purchases just wasn't in the cards. I giggled the whole way home, saying "butt pumpkin... heh heh... butt... pumpkin."

The next morning I woke to the buzzing of my alarm clock, and another day at my hated job. The worst part was leaving the house knowing I would spend the entire day in what was effectively a prison, serving out the final weeks of my sentence. At least I didn't have to sneak around about going on interviews; I simply told my boss where I was going and when I expected to be back. We were like a couple who had broken up but were still living together until the lease on the apartment was up. When I got back home I needed a good laugh, and I told M that we had to go back to Jewel and buy that butt pumpkin. We got in the car and drove to the store, but the butt pumpkin was gone.

In a stroke of amazing good luck I was offered a job with two and a half weeks to go on my sentence. It was for a job that I'd sent my resume to months before, and the interview process had been slow. I accepted immediately, and then gleefully called my boss who was out of town on business to let him know. Although he'd had several weeks to prepare for this eventuality, my boss didn't take my departure seriously until I had a job offer in hand. Suddenly he became frantic trying to find my replacement, and enlisted my help in interviewing the poor soul who would take my place. With three days to go before I left the company he gave the job to a woman who was unemployed and could start right away. I heard later that she had some of the same troubles I'd had, and about a year after I left my boss was let go from the company.

Ages have passed since that fateful October. Every year since I've searched in vain for a butt pumpkin, and every year I recite the tale of the ephemeral butt pumpkin from the Jewel parking lot, its powers growing larger and more magical in each retelling of the story, and every year M feels tremendously guilty for having denied me that one simple pleasure during such a dark chapter of my life. I don't mean to instill guilt in him, but thoughts of fall naturally turn to pumpkins, and thus to butt pumpkins.

I did manage to find a butt apple about a week ago at the farmers market, and I gave it to M to bring to work, where it caused quite a stir. People took pictures of it and uploaded them to their facebook accounts, and one of M's colleagues looked at it and said, quite casually, "I saw a pumpkin that looked like a butt on my way to work today." M demanded to know where this pumpkin had been spotted, and drove directly to the alleged location right after his shift was over. The pumpkin was prominently displayed and could be seen from the street. M made a beeline for the butt pumpkin and brought it to the cashier, who looked at M and said "we were wondering who was going to buy that one."

When I got home that night M said he had a present for me in the living room. I went into the room but didn't see anything unusual.
"Just sit down on the couch and watch TV," he said. I did as he said, but still didn't see anything out of the ordinary.
"Is it something on TV?" I asked.
"I can't believe you still haven't figured it out," he said. Finally I looked above the TV and saw it, and an involuntary sound escaped from me - a kind of half scream, half laugh. I clapped my hands over my mouth and stared at it in wonder.
"I got you to do a Pretty Woman yelp over a pumpkin!" M said triumphantly.

Now, at last, after all these years, I have my very own butt pumpkin. I have it prominently displayed in the window of our living room, where the whole neighborhood can see it, and it makes me smile every time I look at it.

7 comments:

Richard said...

Great story!

matt said...

BEST. STORY. EVER.

Curious City said...

Brilliant. Down with evil bosses, Up with fleshy pumpkins.

Vicki Simon said...

Very cute story. How did the next job pan out?

JP said...

Thanks everybody! And to answer Vicki, my next job was at a crazy nonprofit that had its own issues, and I moved on after about 4 years because the organization had some financial problems, but it was a million times better than the previous job and went a long way towards repairing my sense of worth as an employee. I made some good friends there who I'm still in touch with.

fancy said...

awesome. i heart the butt pumpkin, and M for getting it for you.

j.cro said...

Dontcha just love it when they surprise you like that?! It's the most wonderful thing in the world.

Yay for butt pumpkins!!