Mister Sweet Tea People

The watermelons of October

Mister Sweet Tea is back. For seven years, Jay Grelen wrote the Sweet Tea column at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Today, he returns with the first of his Mister Sweet Tea columns, which will appear regularly on AMP.

November 17, 2016

Never buy a watermelon before July 4, my dad always said, and never buy one from a grocery store.

Pop never offered an opinion about watermelons after Labor Day, so I was on my own the other day at the makeshift stand on Maumelle Bouvelard.

The plywood hand-painted sign …

A R K.

MELONS

Tomatoes

melons-sign

… had caught my attention several days prior but not until I was too far past to stop. The idea of watermelons in October, however, had been sown. For the next week, I didn’t see him.

But then my luck turned. The watermelons were back. And I noticed in time to stop.

So I did. But there was a problem. The watermelons were there, but the watermelon man wasn’t. He had left a sign to the right of his watermelon sign, this one also painted by hand but on a torn-up cardboard produce box instead of plywood. The sign hung over the edge of the table almost to the ground, secured by watermelons.

“Be back,” he promised.

melons-signBut his sign didn’t say whether he meant in an hour or on Friday.

So there I am, melons on the table, and tomatoes, and shelled pecans in clear plastic sandwich bags, and jars of jellies and preserves, and only three one-dollar bills in my wallet. And the storekeeper is out to lunch.

My dilemma: This is October. Late October. The chances that the watermelon man will appear here again are slim.

I thumped a couple of melons and decided I didn’t want to wait another year to try an October melon. So I chose to risk the honor system, by which I mean, take the melons without paying and return another day with the money.

* * *

This is watermelon we’re talking here. We’re talking the taste of summer when I’m ten, the late 1960s, and I go to sleep at night with the transistor radio under my pillow tuned to the Houston Astros, and the attic fan is sucking the humidity in through my open windows and fluffing the curtains. And Mama and Daddy are on the couch in the living room, on the other side of my bedroom wall, the sound of their conversation a security, even if I can’t understand what they are saying.

We’re talking about the floorboard of my daddy’s 1962 three-on-the-tree Ford, loaded with watermelons Dad would bring home once or twice every summer from his office at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, melons that Bill “Whit” Whitaker grew in his patch on the outskirts of Pollock, Louisiana, population somewhere near two-hundred. (Whit let us fish the bream out of his tiny stock pond, and pick his blueberries.)

We’re talking watermelon in Uncle Tom’s backyard in Nashville – the one in Tennessee. The melon slices set high on his homemade iron-leg wood-top table.  Uncle Tom, his hands on either end of a slice and aiming for his mouth as if he is about to play a harmonica. He looks over his shoulder at Daddy, who catches the moment with his 35-millimeter Exa on Kodachrome 64.

dads-exa

My dad’s 35-millimeter Exa, which he bought while he was in Korea with the Army during the war. Kodachrome 64 is the only film he used in this camera.

Two weeks later, back home in Louisiana, we’ll gather in the living room with the slide projector and relive the moment with Uncle Tom and the watermelon slice, this time bigger than life on the screen that Dad bought with S&H Green Stamps (double stamps on Tuesdays at the Dixie Dandy).

We’re talking the Sessions’ huge watermelon patch, south Alabama. I’m not ten anymore, and not quite forty, two beautiful watermelon-loving daughters waiting for me to show up at home with my floorboard loaded with watermelon. I’m hot-footing it along the rows with five of the Sessions boys, each of us tossing melons to our right, until each melon ends up in the hands of Coach Sessions, who is the oldest man in the field but works the toughest spot ~ he handles the most melons because he is walking next to the truck. He tosses every single melon we pick onto the truck, plus picks his own row. It’s August, and it’s south Alabama, and we hydrate as we go, breaking melons on the ground or over a knee, scooping out the heart, and dropping the remains of the melon back to the dirt from which it came.

* * *

We’re talking watermelon here, and it’s October, the last of the crop right there on the table on Maumelle Bouvelard. I’ll take the risk, take the melons now and pay tomorrow.

The watermelon man hasn’t marked the price of the melons, so I pick two and set them one at a time on his scale.

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This melon weighs in at 12.47 pounds.

I photograph each with my phone so that when I return with his money, I can show him the weight and he can charge me properly. I fountain-pen a promissory note on a business card and secure the card, along with my last three-dollar bills, beneath a jar of honey. I circle my telephone number.

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Payment in full (I hoped).

I set the melons onto the front floorboard, passenger side, and drive toward Little Rock on Maumelle Boulevard, wishing quitting time wasn’t five hours distant.

But time is fun, as Kermit the Frog says, when you’re having flies, and soon enough I am flying home from work on the bouvelard. I am in the kitchen, and I have set that shiny sacrificial green-and-light-green-striped watermelon on the counter.

I hone the blade on Daddy’s sharpening steel. I ceremoniously – we’re talking watermelon, remember – stab the point into the rind, and the melon splits slightly on either side of the blade with that satisfying ripping sound of a ripe melon splitting.

I finish the cut, and the halves fall away and rock a second on the counter top. The meat is a pale red around the edges, reddening to dark at the heart.

My bride watches hopefully ~ she shares my love of melon ~ and I go straight to the heart, cut out a scoop, and – viola! – it’s summer in October right here in our Maumelle kitchen.

To be honest, though, it’s not the taste of summer as I had imagined. Maybe this is the taste of Indian summer. What I’m trying to say is that this honor-system October watermelon gushed with all the flavor of … an October watermelon. Which is to say, the water in Maumelle water has more flavor.

I never saw the watermelon man again, and he never telephoned, so I assume my three bucks satisfied him.

As to my original question about watermelons after Labor Day, Dad never told me, but now I know the answer.

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