Please don’t read this to your kids. Nothing about South Jersey is child appropriate.
There is a four-letter word that I am absolutely sure none of you have ever read. If you ever did read it, you would be so utterly horrified and offended, you would instantly die of a heart attack. Unfortunately, the offending word is part of the standard vernacular in the Northeastern United States, which is where today’s story takes place.
The word has multiple meanings determined by context, making it difficult to translate into standard English. To preserve the realism of this story, I have maintained the natural use of this word in the dialogue of my characters. But to ensure that the delicate eyes of my West Coast readers are not scathed, I’ve censored it like so @#$!.
South Jersey, 2006
Kevin lived in a one-room house with a hole in the roof. He had inherited the house from his great aunt. He hated it. It smelled like mildew and had strands of yellowing wallpaper peeling down the interior. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was shag carpet in the bathroom. Kevin had no choice but to live there. He was jobless and couldn’t afford to eat, let alone get a new place.
The house’s only redeeming feature was that it was hidden in the Pine Barrens. Few dared venture there for fear of the infamous Jersey devil, so no one could gawk at Kevin’s misfortune. Kevin was pretty sure that his great aunt was the Jersey Devil and with her passing, no one had anything to fear.
Now, because Kevin was too poor to buy food, he survived by eating penny toads and other endangered wildlife. He could have gone to the food bank, but he couldn’t stand the idea of some long-lost high school acquaintance recognizing him there.
What he wanted, more than anything else in the world, was an Italian hoagie. Sometimes, as he lay down to sleep, he would stare up at the crumbling popcorn ceiling, imagining the cold cuts and spicy oregano. That hoagie was his biggest dream and greatest ambition. If he could only get that hoagie anything would be possible.
One day, as he was out swallowing penny toads, he looked skyward. He was trying to look at the moon, but couldn’t see it thanks to the thick layer of smog that covers the Garden State.
“I’d give anything for a hoagie,” he bemoaned.
“What the @#$! are you doing?” came a voice from over his shoulder.
Kevin spun around to see a woman standing behind him. She looked furious, she sounded furious, but Kevin knew that this was not the case.
You see, in South Jersey, “What the @#$! are you doing?” can mean anything from “Are you alright, sweetheart?” to “You are literally an idiot.”
Context told Kevin it was probably the former.
The woman’s skin was tanned from hours of shore time. Her dark brown hair was thrown back in a half-hearted ponytail, with many strands escaping. Her mouth was frozen in a scowl and if that didn’t make her look angry enough, she was wearing dark brown eyeliner all around her eyes. She was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, with capris and flip/flops.
Kevin responded by blinking a few times then saying:
“I was studying the local wildlife.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” The woman snapped. “Why are you eating toads?”
“Why are you on my property?” Kevin demanded.
“You call this dump property?” the woman returned.
“Get out of here before I call the cops!” Kevin cried.
“Call the @#$%ing cops,” the woman continued. “I’ll tell them you were eating the @#$%ing wildlife.”
The argument escalated, Kevin and the stranger hurled the vile word back and forth, until they’d established mutual respect. When things finally settled down, and the woman said, “Alright fine, here’s what I am going to do for you.”
“What are you talking about?” Kevin snapped.
“What I am going to do to help you solve your problem,” she continued.
“Will you shut the @#$! up and listen?” the woman snapped. “My name is Madison, I’m the guardian fairy of South Jersey and I help losers like you solve your problems.”
“Oh @#$!,” Kevin groaned. Which in this context probably meant, “I wonder if this woman needs help,” or “Perhaps I am the one who needs help.”
“I said shut it,” Madison snapped. She pulled a tiny pouch out of her purse and handed it to Kevin.
“There’s an empty field behind the Wawa on Trout Ln,” she explained. “It’s yours now.” She pulled some papers out of her purse and gave them to Kevin also. “What you’re going to do is plant these seeds on that field.”
“The @#$! is this?” Kevin mumbled, which meant, “can you please provide me with some clarification?”
“They’ll grow into houses, which you can sell.”
“Okay,” Kevin nodded skeptically. He wondered if eating the penny toads had made him delusional.
“Now pay attention because this is the most important part,” Madison continued.
Kevin stared blankly.
“You paying attention?” Madison demanded.
“Sure,” Kevin nodded.
“Okay, I’ve only given you one field. Once you’ve filled this field you must bring the leftover seeds back to me.”
“Right,” Kevin replied.
“‘Cause if you don’t I’m going to curse you, understand?”
She shook Kevin’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure,” she smiled and then disappeared.
Kevin would have thought the entire interaction was a dream. But he found the bag of seeds next to bed the next morning, along with the deed to the field behind the Wawa.
It was crazy. He’d never try it. What would happen if some distant acquaintance saw him planting sunflower seeds behind the Wawa? He wasn’t sure he could stand the shame of it. Then he thought of all the Italian hoagies he could buy if he got into real estate. The year was 2006 and the real estate market was booming.
He waited until dark then slipped his hoodie on and started walking. He only planted one seed that first night. Then, reprimanding himself for his idiocy, he ran away home.
But as he walked past the Wawa a few days later, he noticed a frame in the field behind it. Someone was building a house in the exact place where he planted the seed. Curiosity nipped him and so that evening he returned and added two more. The giant homes sprang up so quickly, it was about three days from the time he planted a seed to the time a home was complete.
They were massive houses, all identical, with white siding and lawns that looked like emerald carpets. They covered the field in neat rows. Kevin could not believe his good fortune. He claimed one of the homes for himself and the rest he sold. He continued planting houses until every plot in his field was occupied.
Kevin feasted on hoagies daily and was able to live quite comfortably with the money he’d earned. But the little bag of seeds wasn’t empty and Madison had not returned to retrieve it. He began to wonder how much richer he could be if he bought another field and used the remaining seeds to expand his real estate empire.
He spun the idea around and around in his head until it became his biggest dream and greatest ambition. Of course, Madison’s warning about the curse gave him pause. He weighed the benefits and potential drawbacks. In the end, he decided to purchase a second field.
The evening after he did this, his doorbell rang. It was Madison.
“Nice work,” she said.
“Thanks,” Kevin replied.
“I’m here for the leftovers,” she explained.
“Oh, I um, actually used the entire bag,” Kevin said.
She raised a cynical eyebrow.
“Did you?” she replied.
“Yup,” Kevin nodded.
“Are you @#$!ing with me?” Madison accused. In this context, it probably meant, “Are you sure you are being honest, sweetheart?”
Kevin shook his head.
“Remember that thing I said about the curse?” Madison reminded.
“Yeah,” Kevin affirmed. He was fidgeting a bit wondering if he should come clean. But then he imagined owning his own real estate empire. Of dressing in a fancy suit and smoking cigars and being driven around in a limo. How bad could the curse possibly be?
“Honest, I used them all,” Kevin answered.
Madison narrowed her eyes suspiciously but left shortly thereafter.
Kevin created a second development, then a third. Watching his cookie cutter mansions pop into every open space in South Jersey filled him with such exhilaration he couldn’t stop himself.
Kevin bought some farmland. The couple who owned the land sobbed as they signed it over. It had been in their family for generations. Unfortunately, the land was no longer lucrative as a farm and so they had no choice but to sell. Three days later, a new development grew in its place.
Kevin grew wealthier, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy him. He could no longer be satisfied with one Italian hoagie. He needed ALL of the Italian hoagies. When the owners of some of the fields he desired refused to sell, he bought some government officials and had them invoke the almighty power of eminent domain. Soon it was hard to drive anywhere in the state without seeing fields of the architectural abominations.
One day, Kevin was playing poker with a group of associates. These associates consisted of other real estate moguls, mafiosos, government officials, and some people who fell into all three categories. They were all smoking massive cigars and laughing heartily at their brilliance.
The door flew open.
Kevin paled when he recognized Madison through the wall of cigar smoke.
“So you used them all up, did you?” Madison growled. “You think I’m stupid? You think I don’t see @#$!ing houses springing up everywhere?”
Kevin opened his mouth to answer, but what came out wasn’t English. It wasn’t any human language at all. It was a loud HONK.
Kevin looked across the table into the confused faces of his associates.
One of them stood up and pointed a stern finger at Madison.
“Honk!” he cried, then fell backward in alarm. Then everyone was honking and hissing at each other.
Their necks began elongating, and their heads turned black, except for their cheeks which became white. Their flapping arms became great brown wings and when they waddled out of the club, they were entirely goose.
To this day, Kevin and his associates can be seen wandering around South Jersey. They fight with each other and hiss at people and cover every field in crap. Madison’s curse didn’t change them much at all.