It was mid-morning, late June, and Harlan’s truck was shaking, rattling and rolling, kicking up dust on a snake-neck red gravel road two miles northwest of Big Creek, Mississippi, hauling ass over about a hundred square miles of nothing but hills and woods, heartache, hydrocodone and honky-tonks, bait shops and the occasional double-wide Baptist church, making our way by fits and starts to the backwaters of Grenada Lake.
I was red-eyed from a blunt, grumpy and road-weary, but Harlan was ebullient behind the wheel, grinning like a Tartar, regaling me with his cynical and irreverent observations on the state of mankind and his critical assessment of my life as a microcosm thereof.
“I told you not to take up with that nigga Ricky, but did you listen? No, hell no, you had to move into that shit-hole duplex he shared with his sister.”
“That was three years ago,” I said. “Besides, I was in love. People do stupid shit when they’re in love. What about that Miss Lauderdale County you took up with who threw that five-carat engagement ring you gave her out the car window while y’all were driving across Lake Pontchartrain?”
He just threw back his head and laughed and said she was worth every damn carat and if he’d had any sense at all he wouldn’t had fucked her sister. Suddenly it occurred to me how little I knew of Harlan; he never mentioned a wife, never mentioned children and always changed the subject.
For the last week and more emphatically for the past hundred miles he’d been explaining why we were making our way to a farm near a place called Cave Hill in the middle of nowhere to get a damn watermelon. Harlan claims to be the world’s leading expert on watermelons. His qualifications include a stint in the Navy, a PhD from Cornell and 32 years in USDA’s harness. Along the way he picked up enough knowledge to make him a recognized authority on not just watermelons, but the melon family of plants. Watermelons, however, are his consuming passion and he has traveled across the globe in search of rare ancestral varieties. On his farm in George County, Mississippi he grows dozens of varieties, his prize crop the white-fleshed tsamma of the Kalahari. Harlan is a tall, solidly-built man with a head full of thick, unruly greying red hair, an incandescent smile and a voice like Sam Waterston. He’s also full of shit he can talk his way between tiger teeth and gets his way in places most people won’t even go, like this farm in the middle of nowhere that grows the world’s most sought-after watermelon.
Bred from ‘Black Diamond’, ‘Moon and Stars’, ‘Charleston Grey’ and the Ur melon itself, the so-called “vine of Sodom”, Citrullus colocynthis, the fabled Red Zeppelin is a pearly green oblong melon averaging some twenty-five pounds, it’s most distinctive characteristic a lateral ribbing of pale, subtly shaded stripes that gave the fruit an illusion of light ribbing unknown in Citrullus lanatus. The Zeppelin is also distinguished—indeed ennobled—by a dense, velvety flesh of surpassing succulence. Arabian weddings are scheduled around its ripening in late August, when second-field melons are just coming in from other farms.
The watermelons grow on a tall dune that climbs out of an indenture in the ridge south of the Schoona River, the “hill”, nd a deep depression of red, clay-ey sand with an ever-weeping spring. We’d been on the road a long time, and I was just flat-out tired from the long drive up from Jackson, tired of the road and impatient with Harlan, who seemed alternately fidgety and distant. I just wanted to get there, get the ‘Zepp and go.
On a wave of bravado, I summed our mission up: “So basically this laid-back ass-lick who makes more money in a day than I see in a month working for a slick new regional calls you up out of the blue and says he’ll give you a dollar a word?”
“I’m all over it.”
The sun, lowering towards the rim of the world, shone in random rays over a stark country sculpted by loggers and downpours. The road turned round and around, looping over the hills, plunging down the hollows, following the design of some sweaty, half-drunk supervisor to no rational destination whatsoever.
Then suddenly there it was, a gently sloping sandy hill, glowing and imposing, on the red side of gold, a washy bronze in the pale summer sun. as lyrically striated and undulating as a vineyard and punctuated by tiny glowing ovals situated like so many open whole notes up and down a page of symphonic notation, As we grew closer I made out upon that terraced hillside a lithe figure in loose, faded red overalls with wearing a broad red straw hat with a billowing polka-dot ribbon gently hoeing a row of bouldered vines.
“That’s Royce,” Harlan said. “Let’s go on up to the house.”
The house was a solid dogtrot overlooking the broad Loosa-Schoona bottom. The original structure, which dated from the 1890s, had been refitted with a wrap-around porch sheltering high windows that framed dangling melded Mardi Gras bead disks, swinging strings, mandalas and figurines of colored glass. Each line, angle and corner of every room of the house, glowed in turn with ruby, topaz, purple, aquamarine and a hundred dozen colors in between, refracting light into blades, spears, and arrows. The brilliance brought tears to my eyes.
As we stood in the foyer, Royce came in. “Hey, daddy,” he said.
“Hey, sugar-booger,” Harlan said, giving him a sloppy kiss and a pat on the fanny. “Where’s Owen?
“He’s on his way back from Grenada. He’ll be here around dark. Y’all come get something from the refrigerator and we’ll sit on the porch.”
The winds were warm and shifty, the gloaming sky a bowl of scattered dirty cotton clouds. We arranged ourselves on the back porch. Around dusk, a light breeze sprang from the bottom. We could see the cloud pushing it sailing north up the river from the backwaters of the reservoir. and a little slipper of a moon dangled over the fading sun. Soon,we heard a car horn beeping in the distance.
“Here comes Owen,” Royce said, looking in the distance, and turning to Harlan said,“Where is she?”
Harlan exhaled, stretched, stamped his feet and said, “In the back floorboard. I had a nice little box made, put a couple of photos in with her. One of us on our honeymoon in Daytona Beach. We both were wearing cut-offs. We were so happy. I put a picture of you in there, the one at the Sugar Bowl after the touchdown. She did love you, Royce. Don’t rob yourself of that.”
Royce looked up and pointed to a faint star at mid-heaven. “There she is, Daddy. That little dot of light nobody can touch caught in the middle of the sky. Momma was a lightening bug in a beer bottle, caught up in a storm of her own making.”” Royce leaned over and patted Harlan on the knee. “I’m settled with it, daddy. You know, she always tried to keep herself pretty for you, even when she saw the end coming. Let’s go get her.”
Owen, dark and quiet, embraced Royce as we walked down the hill, the field sky blue around us . We came to the east side of the hill, and there in the shadows Harlan placed the glossy black box on a flat red rock beside the weedy rill leading from the slow spring. The wind began to rise again, and Royce said, “Bye, Momma. Go home now. Don’t hurt anymore.”
Harlan began crying and we helped him back up to the house where we sat on the porch and drank and told stories about love and pain and loss until the noise of the night coaxed us inside and abed. In the morning Harlan and I drove south with a clutch of pearly melons nestled in pine straw against the cab in the bed of the truck. An orange-red sun blistered the morning sky.