(Copyright Kirsten Petersen. Written June, 2006.)
Uncle Red was a tomato farmer. Back in the summer of '82 I went to live with him while my parents straightened out some unspecified affairs. I did know that my grandfather had died (not Red's father, but the other grandpa - Mom's Dad) but I didn't know that my parents were also contemplating a divorce. It was an unpleasant homecoming to say the least. But before all that there was the summer - the hot and sweaty summer in South Jersey with my Uncle Red.
I helped my uncle in the garden during the day. In the late afternoon, when it was too hot to move, we'd crash on the back porch with two tall glasses of homemade iced tea and a couple huge slices of watermelon.
Tomatoes were his business, but watermelons were his passion. "Sometimes, life is like a watermelon," he'd tell me. "Kinda sweet and juicy, but not much to it when you get right down to it - and if you forget to pick out the seeds, you'll get the shits." Uncle Red never edited his language around me, something I strongly approved of at that age.
He had a big old watermelon patch out behind the wood shed. There were far too many for just the three of us to eat - my Uncle Red, Aunt Phyllis and I - so we shared them around with the neighbors in exchange for blueberries, strawberries, pole beans and such. Uncle Red's cousin Larry owned a boat and took folks out fishing on the weekends. He was also a huge fan of watermelons and could sometimes be lured into taking us out in exchange for a few. Knowing this, I was pretty motivated to help my uncle out.
One day while we were out watering the garden, I caught sight of a monster watermelon, hiding under the leaves. I pointed it out to Uncle Red and he said "Quick! Cut that one loose. Don't let 'im get any bigger than that." He seemed so genuinely concerned that I just had to ask, what happens if you let them get bigger than that?
"Well," said Uncle Red, "my cousin Jimmy - poor fella - when he was just about your age, he decided to let one of his watermelons grow as big as it wanted. He watered it every day until it was as big as a house and made a creaky sound all the time, like you could hear it stretching as it grew. Well, cousin Jimmy's dogs disappeared one night, and all he could find was the collars, so he started to worry if that big ol' watermelon had developed a taste for blood. Finally, he decided to cut it open with a chainsaw. It took him three days 'cause the thing kept growing while he was cutting it. He finally got the thing split in half and found it was hollow inside, and no sign of his two poor dogs. The shell was so woody that it lasted the winter through, and the next spring when the farm flooded, Jimmy's family jumped inside the watermelon halves and floated to safety."
After that, I watched the watermelons pretty carefully. Sometimes I'd sit for hours, reading a book or just lying in the sun, listening for the creak of the watermelons growing. And I checked under the leaves pretty carefully each day, to make sure we hadn't missed some monster, lying in wait.
I liked the way the watermelons came on gradually: a few one day, a few more the next. And there never seemed to be any rhyme or reason to it. One morning I'd swear that little watermelon on the end of the row wouldn't be ready for a week, and the next day it'd be the size of a - well, of a watermelon. I asked my Uncle Red about it.
"Well," he said, "the watermelons hold a sort of election every night, after everyone else has gone to bed. The meanest ones get the most water, and grow the fastest, and the rest just make do as best they can. But the big ones get their necks cut in the morning and get eaten in the afternoon. So don't go feeling sorry for the little guys. That little pale green fella over there? He's been in my garden for twenty years."
A couple nights after that I snuck out my bedroom window and crept down to the watermelon patch, hoping to catch a watermelon election in action. But if the watermelons were doing anything besides sitting there, their leaves resting gently along those bulging ovoids, I never could tell.
About midsummer my father came alone to visit me and I started to get a feeling things weren't quite right. He and my mom were supposed to be settling Grandpa's affairs, as far as I knew, and my father gave no real reason for his visit.
"Evenin', Jake," my uncle said when Pop pulled up the drive and stepped out of his car. "Watermelon?"
I gave my dad a hug and we sat on the porch, eating watermelons and me telling my dad about all the adventures I was having. My uncle barely said a word to my father, but he wasn't rude precisely. He just didn't tell any stories like he usually would, and that was what I thought was strange.
Pop stayed the night, but he left early the next day, right after his cornflakes and coffee. "See you in August," he told me, and he was off again. I watched his beat-up old Toyota backing down the drive, and then I went out to help my uncle trim the grape vines. We were both pretty quiet that day until finally, as we sat on the porch, I asked him if he knew why so many grownups felt the need to be secretive with kids. He put down his watermelon slice and wiped his chin thoughtfully.
Finally, he said "when I was a kid, my dad used to tell me crazy stories. I always believed him, until one day, I got to thinking he was full of it. Then I didn't believe him for a long time, not a damn thing he ever said. I even stopped talkin' to him. I couldn't figure out why he would tell me so much bull. But then I got older and started to remember his stories and you know what happened?"
"What?" I said.
"I realized every one of them was true. Every lying damn one of them."
I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure how my uncle's story was any sort of an answer to my question. By morning, I had forgotten all about it, because the tomatoes were on and we were busy picking.
Uncle Red's tomatoes were a thing of beauty. They were red all the way through, from skin to seeds, none of this whitish store-bought crap that you get today. And they were firm but juicy, spicy and sweet. We used to pick 'em right off the vine, slice 'em up, salt 'em and eat 'em for lunch, just like that. For six weeks I had tomatoes every day and never got tired of them. I loved them so much that I prodded my uncle constantly for stories about tomatoes, but he side-stepped all of my attempts.
"Did you ever have a tomato grow as big as a house?" I'd ask.
"That's ridiculous," he'd say.
"Well," I said, undeterred. "Did you ever see tomatoes talking or anything?"
He gave me a frowning look, his bushy eyebrows bristling. "What makes you think tomatoes can talk?" he said, then walked away.
Finally, out of frustration, I asked Uncle Red why he never told any stories about tomatoes.
"Don't have any," he said, wiping watermelon juice on his shirt sleeve. "Do you?"
The days rolled on, calmer and more peaceful than any I could remember before coming to live with Uncle Red. I spent my days in the sun and my nights listening to the crickets and cicada bugs roaring outside my window. The hot and humid air that I had found so stifling at first came to feel like a warm friendly blanket, always giving me a hug. The rains came seldom, but when they did, it was better than any show on TV - first the sticky air and the smell of ozone, then the distant booming of thunder, and finally the cooling breeze and pelting rain, always followed the next day by fresh, clean air that smelled like peaches and a garden so green it almost hurt to look at it.
Uncle Red's watermelon stories grew wilder and stranger as the summer wore on, just as the watermelon vines themselves grew rangier and more unkempt. The fruit was starting to ripen more slowly, and I kept an eye on that little green one Uncle Red had said was there for 20 years. One day its vine withered all up and the next day it was black and slug-ridden. I asked Uncle Red why it had died all of a sudden and he just shrugged and said its time had come. "Everything ends eventually," he said.
I thought a 20-year-old watermelon deserved more respect than that. So, I snuck off one afternoon and pulled it off the vine and buried it under my favorite maple tree, and said "Goodbye Mr. Watermelon. You hung in there for a long time, but you never amounted to much. Better luck next time."
By the end of August, I was starting to wonder if my uncle ever got tired of watermelons. Personally, I still found them pretty refreshing, but the mushy texture, the annoying seeds and the messiness of it all had lost their appeal.
I asked my uncle: "How can you eat watermelons every day?"
"I don't," he said. "Only in the summer. They don't keep so good. You have to enjoy 'em when they're fresh."
"Well, how can you eat 'em every day in the summer?" I asked.
He examined his watermelon slice seriously. "Well, they're good for you," he said.
"I thought you said there wasn't much to 'em?" I asked slyly.
"Sure," he said. "That's true. They're mostly water, and a little sweetness. But that can be good for you. Sometimes all we need is a little sweetness."
When my parents came to pick me up at the end of August - my mother staying in the car, her arms crossed and frowning, Pop looking like he'd been running a marathon for a year or so - I stopped at the front door to give my uncle a hug.
"I want to tell you something about tomatoes," I said.
"Oh?" said my uncle.
"They're not as dumb as you think," I told him, gaining momentum. "While the watermelons are busy arguing over whose the meanest and who gets the most water, the tomatoes are working together, quiet-like - helping each other. I've seen it."
"You have?" said my uncle, quite seriously.
"Yes," I said. "That's why the tomatoes are always kissing each other."
My uncle stared at me for a long moment, and then nodded slowly. "Mm-hmm," was all he said, as he opened the door and carried out my bags. He handed me a big watermelon after I'd climbed into the car. I saw a little twinkle in his eye as he said "this one told me I couldn't have her, so you'll have to take her with you. Make sure you share," he said, glancing at my parents, and I promised that I would.