Out in front, up against the side of the whitewashed cinderblock wall, just to the right of the propane exchange and out of the way of the afternoon heat, sat a wire mesh bin, the kind of cage you might use to kennel a large dog in a small yard. The cage was open on top and loaded with melons. Not the small, modestly tanned cantaloupes that his father brought home from weekly trips across town to the Fruit Ranch, but big, gnarly muskmelons, piled on top of each other like misshapen basketballs.
The pile was four feet deep and just as high, as if someone had collected boulders and gathered them together at a roadside rock yard. How could anyone ever expect to sell them all? He picked up the biggest one from the top of the pile, just to see what it felt like. Solid, firm, and quite heavy, with a bit of caked mud dried and left in the deep crevices on the flat underside where the melon had sat for day after day on the wet ground, taking in nourishment through some now abandoned sinewy vine, growing in weight and stature through long days of intense Missouri sun and muggy heat. Its weight was unmistakable; it suggested an interior life filled with the luscious watery weight of sugary juice, the creamy summer-like smoothness of firm sherbet.
These ballsy, irregular muskmelons were unmistakably local, grown in a particular place in a particular season, with a distinct, uncompromising appearance, not unlike the Scuppernong grape, the Vidalia onion, the Brandywine tomato, or the Crenshaw melon. Missouri had its own idea of what was beautiful in fruit.
He just had to take one home. He chose the largest one that he could find without excavating the entire pile and carried it through the squeaky doors into the dim roadside market. This melon seemed to him to be a kind of perfect souvenir, an exotic capture, a memento of this lonely, solitary westward journey. The grief that had led him to urgently pack the car and abruptly leave home one early afternoon several months ago could not crowd out his affection for fruit.
The cashier's smudgy reading glasses dangled from a sequined chain and hung down over her polka dot blouse. She rang up the $3.85 melon as he dug through his pockets, trying to identify the feel of an elusive five-dollar bill. She stared down at the melon as she waited on him, as if she were listening to it. “Melons are like husbands,” she said, as he handed her the mashed bill. “You don't know what you got until you get one home.” That sounded a lot like something his mother would have said.
The large melon just fit in the old corrugated milk crate that he kept in the back seat. He lay down some clothes underneath to pad it, then nestled the treasure box between his metal camping stove and his old pack, and he was back on the road. The car radio was broken and the air conditioning had never worked, but the wind blowing through the open windows, the straight stretches between interesting places and the solitude of his engaging thoughts suited his temperament. Every now and again he'd adjust the angle of the rear view mirror to catch a glimpse of the melon, its mass protruding out over the rim of the box, like some small fleshy iceberg adrift in an August sea.
What mattered at home did not seem to hold weight out here. While pumping Unleaded at a crossroads market near a county line, he watched as a faded old Caprice Classic rolled in at half speed and double-parked beside him. The driver’s door opened with slow, ceremonious speed and a lanky man emerged, wearing tattered Bermuda shorts and penny loafers, no socks, three-day growth of beard and a dirty ball cap rakishly set sideways on his seventy-something-year-old head. His stomach stuck out before him like an ample storage locker, and he shambled across the asphalt with an odd limp that seemed to favor neither leg in particular.
Within moments the man returned with a single Bartlett pear in one hand, tucking some loose change into his right pocket with his other hand. As he leaned against the hood of his car, he carefully extracted the stem from the tip of the pear, and with no apparent hesitation chomped down on the very top of the grainy fruit, devouring the entire top quarter of the pear with one decisive, unapologetic gulp.
It wasn't hard to be in the moment out here. There was something vaguely comforting in following the Mississippi River, passing the towns and structures that stretched out along the river's banks–-moving ahead in time while not being sure where the time was leading. He went out of his way to find a life-sized bronze of “The World's Tallest Man,” a stooped figure in coat, tie and eyeglasses, leaning on a cane and smiling. The figure stood towering over a small benchless park, the giant seemingly slouched or weary in his pose, as if prematurely aged, the challenges of his immense scale and exaggerated physical weight captured and forever preserved in this likeness.
He discovered an old Chautauqua settlement of stucco houses with long screened porches wrapped around on three sides. Amidst the small network of dead-end lanes and overgrown wild flowers, he tried to sense the remains of the spirit of community or cultural civics experiments in this now abandoned, crumbling real estate.
There was no end to the subtle, the unexpected. In one town along the river, someone had faithfully marked record year-high floodwaters on the side of a grain silo at a mill just down the hill from an old City Hall. Corporate sponsorship had gentrified last summer’s floods with a manufacturer’s logo and an ostentatious thick line. Over and over, day after day, he took the chance opportunity to pull over, stop the car, get out and just look. And none of it felt like time misspent.
By noon of the third day the melon started to smell. Its muskiness wafted from the car windows as he walked back from his picnic on an outcropping over the river. He covered his melon with his old white shirt, veiling the beast from the sun's stare. He thought more earnestly about getting home.
His aunt had a lot of respect for melons. “Never eat cantaloupe for dessert,” she advised. “After a big meal, it will just sit in there and ferment. And remember, people die every year from eating cantaloupe,” that last tidbit offered up as a fellow shopper was picking up melon after melon, smelling each, compiling some mental hierarchy in a search for the chosen one. Maybe his aunt was right—all those dirty hands over all those melons—whoever thought to wash a melon before cutting it open?
When he finally hit Milwaukee and drove up his parents’ street, it was as if he had never left. The old German man, with his garden hose in hand, stood on his front lawn watering the sidewalk. Mrs. Rank, outside her house in her usual apron, engaged with her elderly neighbor in some conversation so visually compelling that the two of them nearly missed his slow procession up the tree lined street. He pulled into the alley behind his childhood house. No one was home.
He leaned into the back seat and gathered the melon out of its traveling nest. It seemed more fragile now, the skin having taken on a waxy translucency where it had been a sturdy thick hide before. He climbed the back stairs to the second floor kitchen and ceremoniously set the melon down on the counter next to the sink.
That's when he noticed the grapefruit. Three softball-sized whitish-yellow grapefruit, recent arrivals from the Fruit Ranch, sitting on a shallow plate on the kitchen table. Modest, functional, reliable grapefruit. The muskmelon was in unfamiliar territory. It was the wild stranger, the oversized guest, the unexpected visitor amidst his parents' navel oranges, green grapes, morning grapefruit halves, and the occasional blueberries.
Sometimes in spring, his parents' pilgrimage would bring back strawberries. The moment they entered the house, his mother would go to work on them, picking them out of their green plastic enclosure, carefully examining them for signs of distress and laying them out on a paper towel-covered tray before sliding them into the cool darkness of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. “Have a strawberry,” she'd say, “before they turn funny.”
The trip had not been kind to the muskmelon. By the time his parents returned home it was listing to one side, as if the hull of flesh might give way and the cosmology of whatever fluid was inside would be set loose across the kitchen counter and onto the linoleum below.
He opened the top drawer, found the long knife, and slipped its tip into the skin of the melon. The knife met little resistance beyond the surface tension of the melon's bumpy skin. The knife slid down into the interior, and a bit of orange liquid oozed out of the cut as the knife moved further down the side. With a couple of simple moves, he extracted a wedge of melon and peered into the cave of orange meat and clinging white seeds. He cut a small chunk from the first slice and popped it into his mouth. Smooth, a little too soft, and almost flavorless. Whatever had been the melon's splendid peak moment was now clearly several days past. The melon had begun its subtle, steady slide towards eventual ooze and vinegar rank, drifting towards its new life as story.
His mother waited for him to witness the dissection. In the time it took to change out of his traveling clothes, she had chopped, quartered and segmented the melon into scraps of fleshy chips. The fragments were systematically spread out on old brown paper on top of the kitchen counter, like a collection of just-washed seashells from some exotic island beach trip. The melon’s grand, vibrant presence had been completely decimated into insignificant nubs, with as much presence as puny bits of charcoal in a morning-after campfire.
His mother stood to one side, preparing a double-bagged plastic burial cloth. She kept watch over her handiwork with a certain resolute weariness, like an exhausted wrestler after a hard win. Flies would never rise from this fruit.
He stared at the fragmented remains of his prized souvenir in a kind of final viewing. After a moment, he turned to his mom and said, “Well, I guess she’s just not what I expected.”