Downhill from Here by Stuart Watson

Rupert Dakota had a brown thumb, and a pile of potatoes higher than a haystack. As high as the sky. Without buyers.

Rupert stood at the entrance to what they called the cellar, looking at the expanse of potatoes. Whatever the season, whatever the moisture, whatever the heat or weird frosts in July and August, he could count on an explosion of tubers. 

Spuds. Taters. Murphs.

But this was too much. A casual observer wouldn’t see the regulatory spider web that left Rupert in a pile of spud. People still loved them some taters. He just couldn’t sell them, because of Chinese tariffs, slapped on in retaliation for his own country’s tariffs. He was the little man stuck in the middle, man. 

Rupert went for lunch. His wife, Ricotta, sat at the kitchen table, sipping dark coffee. She looked at him. He shook his head. 

“So many,” he said. “Where are the buyers?” 

She didn’t have an answer, but he didn’t expect one. Any more than he knew why the president seemed hell bent on crushing exports. 

“What is wrong with that guy?” he asked. 

Ricotta looked up. That was her answer. 

Ricotta didn’t grow potatoes. She cooked potatoes. Baked. Sliced and fried. Mashed. When she asked how he loved them, he said “Scalped.” He liked cheese and cream on his potatoes, and it showed. Rupert wore a dually Dunlop around his middle.  

Thanks to the trade war, Rupert couldn’t get the big screen he wanted.

“Government,” he spat at Ricotta. “Got damn government. Ought to stick to what they do best. Pump me some water, get out of the way.”

He thought on all the talk about protecting salmon. Anybody that had ever seen a salmon would know how dumb they were. Always going upstream to spawn and die. 

“You never see a potato do that,” he said. 

Ricotta sipped her coffee, dark as the dirt outside. 

“Taters just lie in their beds until it’s time to reproduce.”

Like farmers, Ricotta thought, but didn’t say. In Idaho, Ricotta thought, but didn’t add. Didn’t want to give Rupert ideas. 

Standing at the kitchen door, looking back at the barn, he looked down at his youngest son. Pelvis sat in the dirt carving a potato. He was born a year before Picky, their first grandson. Like brothers, they were. 

Rupert looked at what Pelvis had carved. It looked like Richard Nixon. 

It gave Rupert an idea. He would create a potato carving contest. Offer free potatoes to any school that wanted them. The local school people welcomed a chance to put the spotlight on Gurley. They were thinking that if it did, maybe people would flock there, and the demand for housing would force up the prices for builders and plumbers and appliance stores and carpeting and tile people and boost the tax base and the school budget. Potatoes could be educational.

So, after a committee of volunteers created the carving contest, Rupert shipped bags of potatoes to every city in the Pacific Northwest. Schools in Oregon and Washington and even western Montana suddenly took delivery of a 50-pound bag of potatoes. Rules were stapled to the bags. Kids would line up and get a potato and a dull knife. The knife was horrible for carving, but prevented the kids from killing themselves. 

They gouged and slashed and used rocks to hammer the knives into the potatoes until they each had a mess at their feet. Lots of parts, very little art. OK, no art. Turns out, kids weren’t very good at carving potatoes into anything that a panel of judges could judge. At the end of the day, there was no clear winner.

“Stuff woulda looked better if they boiled it,” opined one judge, Miss Euberta Flora.

Rupert became further distressed. Ricotta to the rescue. Picky was visiting Pelvis and the boys were bored. She grabbed a pot full of potatoes, filled it with water, set it on a propane burner to boil. When they were done, she got a big masher and turned them to mush. Added a little dirt to help it set.

“You boys let this cool, then you can make something with it,” she said.

They dumped the glop onto the ground and began shaping it. And to Rupert, it started to look like a mountain. Small, but same as down at Disneyland. Every time he thought about it, Rupert shook his head.

“Damnedest thing,” he would tell people who asked about their trip to the Magic Kingdom. “Thousands of people pay over a hundred dollars to go in and stand in line with each other. Hours and hours in line, for a two-minute ride. Damnedest thing.”

The boys grew tired and wandered off. And Rupert found himself staring at the small mound of mashers. That night, winter arrived. Temperatures dropped, and so did a little snow, and when Rupert returned to his yard in the morning, he was staring at a small version of the Matterhorn bobsled attraction from Disneyland. At least that’s what he thought of when he saw the frozen pile of mashers, dusted with snow.

Rupert saw salvation. They would boil and mash and sculpt a half-million pounds of potatoes into a mountain of their own. 

He wasn’t sure what he would do with it, but the novelty of such a thing in their table-flat landscape would surely attract visitors. He could sell them hotdogs and fries. Get some T-shirts printed. Anything to cut his losses.

The crew dove into their work. One crew boiled, one crew mashed, another crew hauled and dumped. And still more people sculpted the mash into the shape of a mountain.

At night, the fresh mash added to the hill would freeze to what had been laid before. They established a wide base, then sloped a circular path up the outside of the hill as they tipped wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of mashed potatoes onto the pile.

It took about three weeks to finish the hill. It stood about 100 feet high, and was maybe twice as wide at its base. In the final days of work, the upper reaches had turned dangerously slick. Rupert fitted his crews with crampons, and it worked, mostly. But as one worker was returning down the trail with his wheelbarrow, he slipped and fell. The wheelbarrow tumbled off the trail, and the worker accelerated on the slick surface of his jacket, whipping down and around the hill until he spilled into the yard. 

All the other workers burst into laughter. And applause. With a sheepish grin, the worker stood up and took a bow. 

Rupert had his answer. In less than a week, he had printed up brochures inviting visitors to toboggan down his Taterhorn. He set a metal frame at the summit, to support a pulley. He ran a rope through that and attached one end to his tractor, the other to a sled. He stationed one of his crew at the top, to aim the sled and sledder in the right direction. 

A week before they opened for business, the local newspaper sent a reporter with a camera. That was all it took. 

Local kids and their parents were the first to show up. Rupert had MacGyvered a ticket booth out of an old port-a-potty and set Ricotta up on the crapper with a cash drawer and a roll of pre-printed tickets.  Igor, the child of Russian immigrants who worked at the yogurt factory outside town, was the first person to test the hill. 

His classmates gathered around the base of the mountain.

“Go! Go! Go!” they chanted.

So he did, speeding at breakneck pace until he hit the icy surface of the lot, spinning in  circles until he came to a stop. Rupert quickly ordered his crew to pound in stakes and string up some of that orange construction netting to arrest the sledders at the end of their run. Not quite like the pool of water at the bottom of the Disney Matterhorn, but more authentic to a sledding hill made of mashed potatoes in southern Idaho.

Rupert watched cars stream onto his property, snaking out into the fields for a place to park. Parents and kids straggled back, pulling cheap plastic sleds. The excitement was palpable. 

Rupert beamed at his friends and strangers as they bought tickets and got in line for a chance to sled the Taterhorn. He felt delivered from financial devastation.

A TV news crew from Boise showed up with a reporter in a Blizzard Buster jacket. She was doing a stand-up in front of the hill when Dillard Thimkin, a stout lad from having consumed too much of the local farm product, ascended the back side of the mountain in his sled. The reporter turned and gestured toward the mountain just as Dillard shot down the slope, screaming with glee through his entire descent.

Government inspectors hadn’t tested the safety of the construction netting, nor had Rupert asked them to. It would just stifle his enterprising spirit. So no one knew if the netting was adequate to retard Dillard’s momentum. 

Which it didn’t. Dillard hit the netting and burst through it, continued across the lot and slid at full speed under his dad’s huge Ford 750 truck. It had pretty good clearance, but not quite enough for Dillard to pass safely beneath. His head hit the running board, snapped back — and clean off, if we’re honest. 

His mom ran over and scooped up his head and started running around, screaming. 

All the kids waiting in line for the haul sled, they stopped, turned, looked at their friend’s mom and his head. Two or three started to cry. A couple of boys started to laugh and point.

“Cool,” one yelled. “Nice brakes, Dillard!”

And then their moms descended on them like crows on a squashed possum, covering the eyes of their children, and swept them off in a flurry. 

Just a minute was all it took for the entire lot to empty.

Except for Rupert, who stood in shock, next to the port-a-potty and Ricotta. 

Dillard’s mom was still running her son’s severed head in circles. 

Looking like the embodiment of mayhem, Dillard’s dad was walking slowly in their direction. Rupert noticed his own situation. Calm breathing. No sweat. Quiet confidence that he would not shortly become a retribution statistic. 

Surely Dillard’s dad knew that now was not the time to exact revenge. 

Not with the eyes of the world watching. 

Not with Dillard’s head cradled in his mother’s arms, his eyes staring out at his father.

The father surely knew that right behind him scurried the reporter.

Apparently not. 

He continued his slow advance toward Rupert. 

The reporter, waving her mike, turned and smiled at the trailing camera guy.

“You’re getting all this — right?” she said. “This is gonna be GREAT!”

For thirty years, Stuart Watson worked as a newspaper journalist. He loves the writing of Joy Williams — and others. Watson’s work is in The Maine Review, Yolk, Two Hawks Quarterly, Revolution John, Montana Mouthful, Wretched Creations, Flash Boulevard, Bending Genres, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hippocampus (books), Brilliant Flash Fiction (anthology), Danse Macabre, Red Planet Magazine, Sledgehammer Lit, MysteryTribune, 365 Tomorrows, Fewer Than 500, Erozine, Five South, Barzakh, Pulp Modern Flash, Dribble Drabble Review and Wanderlust Journal. He lives in Oregon with his lovely wife and their awesome dog. 

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