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.
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.
Red, what happened?”
you ain’t fixing to believe this. You’ve heard of them pine beetles, that
destroy pine trees by the millions and millions?”
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."
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.”
eat up three states’ worth so far, and they’re due in here tonight.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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
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.
Uncle Red said, “if we can hold out long enough, this baby will bring its
weight in gold.”
anybody know we’ve got one?”
indeedy, and if they did, we wouldn’t have it long.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was a long, long ride, and Shayner was asleep when he was carried from the
vehicle inside his box.
he woke, it was in a strange room, and he carefully crawled out.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.