Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Watermelon Love

Luke Wallin


Shayner Truitt was twelve when he received his calling. It was no sudden, amazing flash, though—just a natural certainty that crept over him one warm afternoon as he sat by the river rubbing a watermelon. Like the men in his family before him, he would be a watermelon man.

Then, during harvest days on his Uncle Red’s farm, Shayner discovered his uncle on his top porch step with his heavy face down in his hands. His bald head reflected the bright sun. When he looked up, Shayner saw tear stains in the weathered brown of his cheeks.

“Uncle Red, what happened?”

“Son, you ain’t fixing to believe this. You’ve heard of them pine beetles, that destroy pine trees by the millions and millions?”

“Yes sir.”

“All right. Well, the extension service man was just out here, and he says them little devils have formed themselves a new branch off their family tree."

“They have?”

“Yes, son,” Uncle Red said, and his blue eyes grew watery. He seemed blinded by sunlight. “These things go by the name of Watermelon Beetles, and they appear to be unstoppable.”

“Unstopp—"

“They’ve eat up three states’ worth so far, and they’re due in here tonight.”

That night was something Shayner Truitt would remember, against his will, for the rest of his long life. He stood guard under the full moon, armed with a .410 and a spray gun full of fire ant poison.

At first there was just the quiet sandy field, with whopper-melons polished in moonlight. It was a divine sight, but with this terrible destruction supposed to be coming. Shayner’s heart was beating loudly in his ears. The hours slipped by, and he began to hope. Maybe they’ll bypass our crop. My shotgun…well, it scares the crows away.

Then clouds drifted across the moon, and the wind came up in the pine trees across the field. Shayner yawned and stretched, and waited nervously for the light to return. More clouds piled over the others, and the night fell very dark. There was not a sound.

Suddenly, whoosh, the moon was wiped clean again, and its brightness fell down on an empty field. All the monster-mellons were gone. Shayner ran this way and that, horrified and stricken. He forgot about his .410 and his poison spray. Everywhere he looked, there were stubs of vines, pieces of rinds, and wilted leaves. He ran in wide, aimless circles, tears running freely down, jerking his head back and forth looking for just one melon to be left behind. “I didn’t even see them!” he cried out loud. “What did they look like?”

Pitiful and exhausted, Shayner walked the edges of the destroyed watermelon patch. And in the silvery Johnson grass he saw it. At first he thought it was a fire ant mound, the biggest in the world. But it was pale green with dark green stripes. They had missed one, somehow, and it was too big to be true. Shayner rubbed his fists in his eyes and walked up close. He touched it. He felt waves of hunger and love.

The watermelon beetles marched on. Everywhere, crops were eaten away. Hardly any melons survived, and they brought outrageous prices. Huge demand started to build. Uncle Red and Shayner kept their prizewinner monster melon locked in the spare bedroom and took turns guarding it with the .410.

“Boy,” Uncle Red said, “if we can hold out long enough, this baby will bring its weight in gold.”

“Does anybody know we’ve got one?”

“No indeedy, and if they did, we wouldn’t have it long.”

“No sir.”

“You know what I heard at the post office today? Watermelon dogs. That’s the next thing. Folks are training birddogs to point melons. Ain’t that a note?”

“Golly,” Shayner said.

Then the artists came. At first it was local painters who needed subjects to copy. This was their big chance to make some real bucks and they couldn’t find a single still-life model melon. Then the New York artists showed up. They roamed fields and woods, broke into roadside fruit stands, and dove into grocery store dumpsters. They had to have melons, pieces of melons, even rotten slices of rind covered by drunken flies.

Photorealist paintings of watermelons soared in the big time. Melon sculptures, in the form of steel chairs composed of slices, made the cover of Vogue. Then the famous and daring post-conceptualist Andre Slocket slipped into the country. He had already commissioned his European producers and alerted his sales force. He was serious. He bought every melon dog he could.

After a week the word got out. English Setters held point on the spare bedroom window. Uncle Red and Shayner were afraid to go for food. They weakened under the strain of long watches.

Angry and confused, Uncle Red put a sign out front that he would sell to the highest bidder on the following noon. Then he took a long hot bath and went to sleep. Shayner waited by the big fruit and his eyes grew heavy. He laid his cheek against its green skin and smiled. He fell into the dreamland of melons.

Next thing he knew, he was half awake in a daze, and the monster was gone. So was his .410. He stumbled out the back door in time to see a van pulling away. He ran hard, swung open it’s rear door, and lept inside. As he landed on a pile of boxes the van door crashed shut behind him. The van skidded to a stop. He crawled into a wooden box and curled up, his arms around his legs. The door
opened, and someone poked among the things. Then he it slammed again, and the van lurched off.

It was a long, long ride, and Shayner was asleep when he was carried from the vehicle inside his box.

When he woke, it was in a strange room, and he carefully crawled out. There was his super-melon, among the boxes, and he tiptoed into the next room to find an art gallery. It was cold and neat, with white walls and polished wooden floors. Everyone was gone. There were semi-abstract melon-works hung here and there. He wandered around the gallery slowly, touching the pieces, and wondering if their creators loved melons the way he did. He reckoned not. Finally he found a small kitchen, and a large knife. He took it back to his giant prize. He sat down and lay one hand on the great green belly.

Now he realized that this melon could become art. If he would just leave it alone, not touch it. And this would mean so much more than if he merely ate it. His watermelon might be remembered for generations. Somehow, this still moment seemed part of Shayner’s calling to be a watermelon man. He had protected it after he found it, and now he had one last challenge to meet. He had to save it from
himself.

To slice this thing and eat every sweet bite, after all that had happened, seemed to Shayner like the finest experience that his life could ever hold. Just the sounds of it, from the thump that revealed it was still perfectly ripe, to the rich unzipping sigh it would make if he cut it, would satisfy beyond
words. And yet, to resist, to sacrifice this chance, would build so much character in him that he wouldn’t know what to do with it. Uncle Red always said, “Boy, it’s the things you give up, the ones that really hurt,that make a man of you.”

All night long Shayner walked back and forth in the little room behind the art gallery. It’s a question, he thought, of the kind of watermelon man I am going to be. Do I tell this story to my grandchildren someday, about the taste of sweet fresh slices, the pink ripe melon meat, the flavor people were fightingeach other to get? Or do I tell about the art show, and how I passed up that eating experience for the creation of something that manypeople could enjoy? During the fevered days in which artists with birddogs had studied his uncle’s home, stalked his melon and finally stolen it, he had listened to his uncle explain. “Son, it’s just like taxidermy. You shoot the prettiest wood duck on the creek, you take his life, and you don’t get to roast him up, but you put him on the shelf. You make him into something that lasts and lasts.” Finally dawn light broke over the rooftops of the city, and Shayner knew his hour of decision had come. As the sun appeared like a great orange egg in the window,
he knelt silently before the mound of green, kissed it lightly, and plunged the knife inside. His eyes glowed as he sawed out the first piece.

___

Luke Wallin has published stories, essays, novels for children and young adults, and nonfiction books on nature and culture. He holds an MFA from Iowa and teaches in the MFA program at Spalding University.

 

© Luke Wallin

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2011