Author’s Note: I wrote Of Water and Melons thirty years ago. I usually rewrite my stories dozens of times, let them sit for a month or a year, and then rewrite them again. But Of Water and Melons came out exactly as I present it here. When I first read the story to an audience, I was besieged by people wanting copies of the story. So the next time I read the story in public, I came armed with a dozen photocopies, and these were instantly snatched up, with several people insisting on paying for the story. Meanwhile, I eventually submitted the story to virtually every literary magazine large and small in America, and though I received many glowing personal letters from editors who loved the story, none chose to publish it.
On the twentieth anniversary of the birth of this tale, I read the story to an audience in Sacramento, California. After the reading, I was approached by the great poet Quinton Duval who said he wanted to bring the story out as a chapbook from his Red Wing Press, so that I might always have copies to share. My friend Vance Lawry did the lovely drawings for the chapbook, and copies are available, signed by the author, for five dollars from underthetablebooks.com.
Of Water and Melons
by Todd Walton
It was an evening in the spring of the year the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped. 1932. I remember sitting on the bench at the kitchen table, wedged between my mother and my older brother Junior, eating my serving of potatoes as fast as I could in hopes of getting a little more. My four younger sisters were on the bench across from me, eating as fast as they could, too. My father sat at one end of the table, eating slowly, his portion assured, while my tiny grandmother sat at the other end, barely eating anything at all.
We didn’t usually talk much during meals, our mouths being occupied with more important matters. Sometimes Junior would tell a good lie, or my sister Kitty would share some movie star gossip she’d heard from her friend Lynn who had a cousin in town with a radio, but usually we just ate whatever there was and then got as far away from the kitchen as we could because it smelled of food and we were still hungry.
But that night we talked and talked, even my father, which was rare. We’d all of us been tense and worried about the Lindberghs and their baby. It didn’t matter that we got our news from the talk up at Delaney’s store where anything resembling the truth was hard to come by. The Lindberghs were real to us. It didn’t matter that they were rich and we were poor, that they could fly and we were stuck down in the dirt. We cared about them and we prayed every night for the safe return of their child.
We must have stayed at the table until after midnight, worrying and wondering out loud to each other, and it was the first time I had ever really expressed my feelings to anyone other than God. I was twelve years old.
My father was not a tender man. His life had been too hard for that. He worked from sunup ‘til sundown seven days a week, and he fell asleep in his big wooden chair every night listening to my mother read the Bible.
I have no memory of him ever touching me, except once, though my mother told me he carried me everywhere before I learned to walk. A year or so before she died, I asked her if she remembered him touching me after I was a boy, because I have always had difficulty touching other people, and she said with her sweet Carolina accent, “Well, he beat you good a few times, so you must have been touching him across his knees. And there was that night we talked about the Lindberghs.”
That night, after we had talked and talked about the baby and the airplane and the curse of wealth, my father came out to the little barn where Junior and I slept most of the year except when it was too wet or too cold. I remember hearing him come in, his big boots crunching the dry straw. He came close and knelt down beside me and put his huge hand on my forehead and it felt so good the tears just welled up and I began to sob.
Then he caressed my face and said, “Sonny, I heard you was afraid though you didn’t say so and I want to tell you that one of the blessings of poverty is that nobody ever gonna want what you got. Nobody ever gonna want to kidnap you.” Then he put his hand on my shoulder and waited a long time for me to stop crying.
And finally I said, “So it’s good we’re poor, huh Papa?”
“No,” he said sighing, “we’re too poor yet, Sonny, but I got me an idea how to make some money.”
“Not so much,” I said warily.
“No, just enough so we don’t have to hurt no more from wanting.”
“What’s your idea, Papa?”
“Well,” he said, taking his hand away forever I think, “old Grove Adee up to Chesterton grew a half acre of watermelons last year and made a hundred dollars ‘cause nobody else knew to try. Now they were saying up to Delaney’s he made five hundred, but I rode out and saw him myself and he said they give him a dime for each melon and he made close onto a hundred dollars, fifty anyway.”
“Who bought’em?” I asked. The sums were too vast for my young mind to comprehend. A dime was a good deal of money in 1932. A dollar was a fortune to a boy of twelve, especially a poor boy living way back in the hills.
“From into Charlotte,” my father said. “Came out in a truck and took’em all. Told him folks were paying two bits and more in town.”
Now we had thirteen or fourteen acres of land. Thirteen if you asked Chester Parch, fourteen if you asked my father. The disputed acre, fortunately, was not a good one and neither farmer was eager to work it. But as a thing to bicker over, it was fine. Chester was a blasphemer and a drunk and he smelled bad, so it was just as well we had reason to feud with him. His daughter Cassie was the first girl I ever kissed. Forbidden fruit, Cassie’s lips.
Of the remaining thirteen acres, four were prime, and five carried decent pasture in a wet year. The other four acres were steep and rocky and we worked them because they were there, not because anything good would grow from them. We had an ornery cow who gave us bitter milk, several dozen hens whose eggs we sold, three or four hogs we couldn’t feed, numerous cats to kill the more numerous rats, a dog to sound the foxes coming for the hens, a cross-eyed mule named Toby, and two parakeets in the kitchen for my mother and grandmother and the little girls to fuss over.
When my father proposed to plant two of our prime acres in watermelon, my mother strenuously objected. By that I mean, she said that if my father planted so much as one watermelon seed in our prime ground where we grew our corn and beans and potatoes, she would make life even more miserable than it already was. How she would accomplish this she didn’t say, but I realized much later in life that she was probably referring to lovemaking and the suspension of those privileges.
My mother was barely five feet tall, and slender all her days. There was a blue sheen to her skin, and my sister Kitty said that was proof we were descended from royalty. In most things my mother deferred to my father. He carried nearly twice her weight on his long, skinny frame. But when it came to keeping her family from starving, she outweighed him with her will. Those four acres of prime ground were all that kept us alive. In the depths of winter we would need all the beans and potatoes and corn we could coax from the soil. Watermelon was a silly whimsical thing, an illusion, and besides it wouldn’t keep, so she was against it, with the Bible and an empty root cellar to back her up.
But they finally compromised on an acre of the prime, and three of the steep and rocky. I know for a fact it was the purchase of a sewing machine, on time, from the Sears catalogue, that swung her around to my father’s way of thinking.
And so he bought the seed. And we planted four acres of watermelon. By hand. Every two yards we would dig up a few square feet of soil, mix old manure into it, and sculpt a little hill into which we would put four seeds an inch under the surface. Then we’d build a little moat around the hill and fill that moat with water.
Now this water did not come out of a hose. I didn’t know what a hose was until I was seventeen. No, this water came out of buckets. Two of them. Carried by me and Junior and my father. They were big buckets, too. Full of water, each one weighed well over thirty pounds. Depending on which hill we were watering, the trip from the spring could be as short as twenty yards, as long as an eighth of a mile.
That was the summer I got strong. Real strong. That was the summer I got so hungry after a day of hauling water that I could have eaten all the food intended for the nine of us and still gone away hungry. So I started hunting.
Now I suppose all country boys hunted back then, and every pot appreciated a squirrel or a rabbit killed now and then by a boy being a boy. But when I say I started hunting, I mean I set out to kill in order to survive, so I could carry water all day, so those melons would grow and the men would come in a truck and give us money so we wouldn’t have to hurt anymore from wanting.
This meant I had to get up early, before breakfast, which meant before sunup. It meant I had to have things to kill with, and since I didn’t have a gun, I had to use a slingshot, rocks, clubs, snares and my bare hands. It also meant I would have to kill, which was a sin, but worse than that it went against my nature. I did not and do not like to kill things.
But I did. I set out each morning, my stomach growling, and I did whatever I had to do to bring home meat. One day the best I could do was six little blue eggs I found in a nest while I was climbing a tree to get at a squirrel. And one morning I brought home six nice rabbits I’d clubbed one by one as they were returning to their burrows at sunrise.
Then there were the night watches. We took turns, Junior, my father and I, patrolling the fields to keep the varmints from destroying our crop. Every third night I’d walk the land, guarding all the plants, but mostly the melons, because they were magical, whereas the corn was real and therefore less important to a boy of twelve.
There were hot, muggy afternoons when I simply could not stay awake. I would lie down wherever I happened to be weeding, and I would sleep a hard, dreamless sleep until I woke on my own, or the flies or my brother roused me.
And it seemed God loved us. For though the Lindbergh baby died and my sisters cried when they heard the news, our melon plants thrived and set ten thousand blossoms. And one night, when the moon was full, my father borrowed a shotgun from the Widow Davis and he and Junior killed three starving deer coming for the corn, and for the first time in my life I ate until I could not force another piece of meat into my mouth.
Oh how those melons grew, even in the rocky soil. It was as if every ounce of water I poured into the ground was sucked directly into the melons, for they seemed to swell as I emptied my buckets around them.
Then a week before the melons turned fully ripe, my father saddled our old mule and rode the thirty miles into Charlotte to arrange for the sale of the melons. All of us, even my mother, had counted the melons. There were over two thousand of them, none weighing less than twenty pounds, some weighing as much as fifty.
I remember my mother leading our prayer at supper that night, the night my father was gone. I remember her sweet, sad face, her eyes so bright, as she exhorted us to pray for his safe return. I remember her voice so vibrant and full of hope.
Late the next day my father returned. I ran down the road to meet him. I was going to ask him what had happened, but something told me not to. He was slumped forward in the saddle and did not look like himself.
At supper that night my father said, “There will be some trucks coming next week.”
I wanted to ask if they would be paying a dime for each of our melons, but I could not. The words were in my throat, but I could not release them.
My father said, “It seems that lots of farmers planted watermelons this year. All over the state. I saw a good many patches on my way to town.”
This was his way of telling us we would not be getting a dime for each melon.
The next day I went to the spring and dipped my buckets. My arms had grown strong, my legs muscled, my chest was thickening up. I lifted the buckets easily and turned away from the spring toward the field, and my father was there, just a few feet away, watching me. He looked so sad, so deeply hurt.
“Put the buckets down,” he said.
I set them down and looked at him.
“Better to let them ripen up dry,” he said. “Gives them a better taste. More of the soil, less of the water.”
I remember wanting to hug him, to tell him it was okay we weren’t going to get a dime each. I wanted to tell him that this summer of hope was worth more than a year of easy living, but I was twelve and didn’t know how to speak my feelings.
“We’ll just get to weeding the new corn,” he said, turning away from me.
I remember standing there, my arms itching to feel the weight of the full buckets, watching him walk away from me, and I remember thinking, I will remember all this someday and try to tell somebody about my father and the summer we tried to get rich with watermelon.
A week later, five big trucks came rumbling up the dirt road to our farm, and in each of the trucks there were three men. They had short knives with hooked blades for cutting the melons from the vines. The boss man walked out into the field and picked the biggest watermelon he could find and brought it over to my father. My father held the melon, closed his eyes and busted it over his knee. Then he cut a piece out of the deep red heart and handed it to the man. The man put the piece in his mouth, crunched down on it and swallowed. Then he looked at my father for a very long time, and then he nodded and the men got to work.
My father and Junior and I worked with them. We cut the melons, carried them to the trucks and handed them up to the men who stacked them. I realized as I cut and carried the melons that I knew each of them. I could look up into the trucks and remember from which vine each of the hundreds of melons had come. It seemed to me I could even remember each of the thousands of buckets of water I had poured into the ground to give these big green things life. And there were some melons I didn’t have the heart to take from their vines, so I left that deed to the others.
At sundown the trucks were stacked high with melons and there were still a few hundred more in the field. Then the trucks rolled down the road out of sight. And then we cracked open ten melons and ate only the hearts, and nothing before or since has ever tasted so rich and sweet and pure.
After supper that night my father said, “Well, I have a story to tell. It’s a…well, it’s a kind of fairy tale I guess you’d say, and if you don’t mind, Mother, I’d like to tell it before we commence to reading the good book.”
We gathered in the other room. I remember the dazed expressions on my sisters’ faces, because my father rarely spoke and he had never told a story, let alone a fairy tale. I was dazed myself. I looked at Junior. He was frowning. My mother and my grandmother both looked worried.
Then my father sat in his big chair, took a deep breath and began, his voice charged with emotion. “Now once there were a poor family in the hills of North Carolina and they hadn’t any money and it was hard on them all for lack of it. So one day the father hears of this farmer making money from watermelon over to Charlotte, so he decides to grow some, too. And he does. But when he goes into Charlotte to sell his crop, he hears everywhere he goes that this year there’s more watermelon then anyone knows what to do with. Some people say they can’t give it away, not even for a penny, and him having planted an acre of his prime that might have been corn.”
I remember he paused at this point in the story and looked at each of us, looking longest at my mother. His face was red, the veins in his neck were swollen, there was sweat on his brow.
I wanted to say, “Papa, don’t tell no more. It don’t matter. We’ll do just fine. Me and Junior will get jobs. Me and Junior will hunt deer. We’ll do fine. Don’t tell no more.” But I just bowed my head and prayed to God the man gave him a penny each anyway, to cover the seed and the shovel I broke and maybe a little more.
“So he was worried,” said my father. “He was worried and he had a hurt in his chest from it because he wanted to do right by his family but now he didn’t see how he could.”
I looked at my mother. Her head was bowed. She was praying hard, her lips moving silently, her hands on her knees, her knuckles shiny in the dull kerosene light.
“So,” said my father, “he went to the last wholesaler in Charlotte where he hadn’t gone yet and the man there laughed at him and said, ‘They are plowing melons under all over this state. I cannot give melons away.’ And so the farmer was going to leave, but something made him stay and say, ‘Listen here. I’ve tasted these so-called watermelons they’re plowing under all over the state, and if I’d grown those poor excuses for a melon I’d plow them under, too, even if they was going for two bits apiece. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about God’s watermelon. I’m talking about the sweetest, juiciest, firmest watermelon in creation!’”
We all sat there, holding our breaths.
“Well,” said my father, “this seemed to interest that feller just a little. He asked where this patch of melons was and the farmer told him. ‘Too far,’ he says. ‘Wouldn’t make enough to pay for gas.’ ‘Listen,’ says the farmer, ‘if you come out there and you taste a melon and you don’t want to give me a round dime each, I’ll pay you for your trouble.’ ‘A dime!’ says the man. ‘A penny maybe.’ ‘A dime,’ says the farmer, though he’d a took half a cent.
“Well, that wholesaler stomped around his warehouse, scowling and cursing and threatening, but finally he says, ”If I come out all that way and I don’t want’em for a dime, it’ll cost you twenty dollars for the trucks and the men and all.’
“Well what do you think that farmer did?”
“He said come on out,” said Junior, looking at my father in a way I’d never seen him look before.
“Yes, he did,” said my father, nodding slowly. “But it wasn’t going to be for a week yet, and so he rode home on his mule wondering how he was going to tell his family. And he decided he mustn’t say anything until the men came.“
“And then they did,” I said.
“Yes they did,” said my father. “And then that wholesaler went out into the middle of the patch and cut himself a melon and brought it to the farmer and the farmer prayed to God to make that melon the best melon there has ever been, and then he busted it open and that feller tasted it, and then he told his men to go ahead and harvest the crop.”
My mother looked up then and opened her eyes. She stared steadily at my father and said, “Whatever possessed you, John? Whatever did?”
“Fear,” said my father. “And love.”
A dream I thought. Of not hurting from want. Of just once eating only the heart of the melon and throwing the rest away.
“How much money did he get?” asked my sister Kitty, her little lips trembling. She was nine.
“Well,” said my father, relaxing into his big chair, “he got his dime. A dime each.”
That night I dreamt they kidnapped me and took me away in a big truck. My father turned out to be Charles Lindbergh. He chased us in his airplane, but they took me down into the dark swamp where the airplane couldn’t follow. They took me to a room full of dead rabbits and deer and locked me in. I couldn’t breathe. I was suffocating. I woke up suddenly and found myself half-buried in straw. Junior was nearby, sleeping soundly.
I got up and went out into the night. I walked slowly through the trampled vines to where the hundreds of unpicked melons slumbered. I lay down beside one of them and embraced it like a lover. And then I heard a sound and held my breath. I thought it was a deer, but it wasn’t.
My mother and father were coming out to the melons, too. I am not sure why I didn’t reveal myself, but I did not. Nor did I ever tell them that I lay there, staring up at the stars, wet as tears, listening to them make love, sweet tender love, and that it was the happiest moment of my life.