And the winner for the 2008 Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off is… Bill Lane!”

Bill leaned into his wife for a kiss. His son beamed and Bill acknowledged the little boy’s pride with a hearty shake of his shoulder. Bill rose and to acknowledge the audience’s cheers, he smiled, clutched his enormous belt buckle between his thumbs and his forefingers, and yanked up the front of his pants.

He sauntered toward the stage, happy that the day he blew his money on Miracle-Gro for had finally come and was almost over. Soon it’d be nighttime, and tonight his wife’s day wouldn’t end when her son went to bed.

Bill set one foot on the steps to the stage. He turned to see how his wife was. She was teary-eyed looking from her husband to that 1,530-pound beast on the other end of the stage. That thing needed ten men and 50 yards of rope just to move.

But just as Bill was turning, someone ran past him and leapt onto stage. Bill didn’t realize what had happened at first; then he heard a voice in the microphone.

“Hi I’m not Bill Lane and this is not protocol but I have something to say.”

People stopped clapping not to listen but because they weren’t sure why to clap anymore.

“Yes so hi I’m not Bill Lane. I’m Orvall. Usually speeches by the losers aren’t granted in Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Offs, so I felt that this needed a change.

“Thank you for coming out here on this beautiful Massachusetts evening.”

People started to boo.

“Please. Come on—oh please come on, really? You all know me, we’re neighbors. All of us compete every year—hey, hey, come on. There are what, twelve of us here? Let me just say something.”

People started whispering to each other. “Oh God Orvall again? You know what his son did last year? His son sprayed every kid’s desk at school with Pledge—when the children tried to rest their heads on their hands, their elbows gave out and all of them—literally all of them, I saw their noses—knocked their heads on their desks.”

“Ok well hi I’m Orvall. I’m the runner-up this year in the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, and I’d like to offer my concession speech.

“I’d like to take a moment now to have the honor of congratulating Bill Lane on being the winner of the 2008 Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off.”

Orvall turned.

“Congratulations, Bill. This contest has been a test not just of skill and craftsmanship but also of perseverance and the endurance of the human will. This is a historic contest; it’s the only 2008 one we’ll have, and I recognize the special significance it has for every member of our community, and especially our children. It gives them good role models and good dreams to have.”

The audience started to clap for their children.

“I have always believed in this community of people. This Safeway Pumpkin Weigh-Off marks the most important event of the year for me—even more important than Christmas. Why? Because it brings us together the way other holidays—even Christmas—don’t.”

Now people started to look away or shuffle through their bags. Looking Orvall in the eye made them nervous.

“Even though I lost this year, I’m still happy to have been a part of the event. Look at that pumpkin I grew. It’s only 1,528 pounds, I know—and Bill’s a more impressive 1,530—but it’s huge! That pumpkin gave me a reason to get up in the morning. That pumpkin gave me a reason to turn off the TV, put pants on, and get my hands wet with the soil of the Earth.”

Someone stood up and yelled, “Hey Orvall—no one wants to hear it!”

Orvall was silent. He was about to dive into some personal stuff, so the interjection really caught him off-guard. “What—what do you mean?”

“What you’re talking about—nobody wants to hear it.”

Orvall was still stuttering. “But…but why?”

“Orvall, no one cares what this pumpkin contest means to you. We came out here to see some really big pumpkins. And we did. Now the day’s almost over and we sit through these formalities so that one day someone will sit through them for us when we’re heading to the stage. Orvall this isn’t about you.”

“Listen,” Orvall said. “It isn’t about me. You’re right. This is something I want everyone to know because I’m pretty sure they’ll be happy to know it.

“See, I had some problems, I’m pretty sure everyone knows that now. Marcia moved out and took my boy with her—and I—I’m going to be honest—I turned to the bottle—“

“Orvall! This isn’t an AA meeting! No one wants to hear it!”

“But it’s a good story. You’ll like the ending. I promise. I promise. It’s really about all of you.

“Ok, so, not so long ago, when I wasn’t in a good place, well, I didn’t leave the house, I rarely got out of bed, I couldn’t even muster up the energy to shave. That bottle of Jack was my only friend. It was terrible! I was no—“

“Orvall! People are going to leave if you keep this up—“

“Look, just listen, that’s all! I’m trying to explain why this pumpkin contest is a really great idea. You’ll think about it in a way that I bet you never have before—“

“Orvall! People like the pumpkin contest because of the pumpkins!”

“I know, I know, but you’ll like this, I promise, you’ll really like this.

“So back to what I was saying. I was a mess, a real grade-A mess, but this Safeway Pumpkin Weigh-Off really turned things around for me. I know it sounds funny, but don’t laugh…” Orvall was smiling.

Now people began to leave. Fathers were shaking their heads and mothers were leading their children out. Orvall hadn’t noticed.

“It’s how I got my feet back on the ground. All that addictive fervor I had, all that grief, all that anger—I channeled it into that pumpkin you see right there. Yes, that pumpkin was grown with love, but also with pain and hate!

“Every morning I got up before the sun rose to take a look at my pumpkin. Sometimes when I was inspecting it, I felt like I was waking it up, too. I cooked up breakfast for myself and a special breakfast for my pumpkin and ate breakfast right next to it every morning. I guess it was like we were both alone, and both growing, and we kept each other company through the hard times and the storms.”

The yeller stood up to say something else but stopped himself. It’d been a while since he’d seen Orvall and he’d forgotten that he was this way, that this was just the way he was. The yeller sighed and sat back down. It was a little too early to take the kids home yet—if he did, he knew Amanda would start cooking immediately, and if she cooked earlier, they’d eat earlier, and he’d wind up going to sleep a little hungry.

“Every hour on the hour I walked outside to check on my pumpkin,” Orvall said. “In the sun, I read next to it; in the rain, I erected a tent for it. It needs water but not that much water, I figured, so I kept the tent up and watered it myself. When my pumpkin had off-days, I had off-days. It felt like sometimes there was a worm eating away at part of me, too. We kept each other company and persevered through all of it.

“Now I’m here and I feel like a real person again. I’m part of this great community again, and it feels great to be back.”

The yeller looked around—no one but his family was left. His kids were getting antsy and his wife impatient with him.

“My pumpkin didn’t win, that’s true,” Orvall said. “It came pretty darn close but didn’t quite make it. Well, that’s ok. Bill Lane did a great job, and I’m sure he nurtured his pumpkin with as much love and care as I tried to.

“Marcia’s still gone and I haven’t talked to my boy since she took him… But I’m getting better. She said she wanted a new life with a different father for her boy. That’s…I’m fine with that now. That’s ok. Now that I know I have this great community of people to count on, I know I’ll make it.”

Orvall paused. He’d gotten a little teary-eyed. He hadn’t been interrupted for a few minutes, so he figured people had really taken a liking to his story. Orvall looked up, and no one was there.

“Oh—oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realize no one was here anymore,” Orvall said to the empty chairs, sort of mumbling to himself. “God, I’m so sorry, Bill didn’t even want to give a speech? I didn’t even talk for that long—why did everyone leave? All I said was what a great community we have and how they’re better than Christmas presents. They didn’t even—why did everyone leave?”

Orvall put his hands in his pockets. The next morning, he planted lemon seeds.