Watermelons Come Full Circle
by Spec MacQuayde, September 28, 2016
High pressure lingers over the Ohio valley, finally, after the most humid summer I can recall. Mildew and insects thrived. The yellow chanterelle mushroom harvest, known mostly to hippies who have experienced the West Coast, continued from late June through August. Mosquitoes nearly the size of toy, remote control helicopters droned in our ears at the Farmhouse, which lacks screens on the windows.
A plague of black moths darkened our ceilings while we jammed, staying up all night, snoozing in hammocks in the heat of the day when the only pestering winged creatures were the corn flies that we dubbed "sweat bees" mistakenly, they told us, possibly unleashed upon this terrain by the soldier-like formations of GMO corn that dominate the entire Mississippi watershed.
Some of the early seedless watermelons wound up with white, rind-like globs that formed like baseball-sized tumors and fouled up the otherwise red flesh, on account of all the rain. However the flavor and consistency improved as the atmosphere dried out, and one Friday afternoon recently we were just preparing to harvest melons when the Cooper twins, Stacy and Tracy, showed up at the farm.
We had attended high school together back in the late 1980's. We'd also planted watermelons in the spring of 1987, my first professional hoeing experience.
"You're already in my farming memoir, 101 Ways to Use a Hoe," I told them as we cut a seedless moon and stars melon. In a fit of bravado I pulled a bottle of high-end vodka out of the kitchen cabinet. "Nothing beats the combination of vodka and watermelon."
Even 25 years later, Stacy and Tracy are nearly indistinguishable. They both speak with the same high-pitched lilt. "My sister is the total opposite of me," they both say. We reunited at HoeFest 2016, and I guess on this particular Friday they came out to the farm to get Stacy's ukulele tuned.
Somehow I convinced them that we should load watermelons in their truck, rather than mine, for the Saturday market up in Seymour. I didn't know whether it was Stacy or Tracy's truck. Neither of them are married, though it turns out Tracy has been living with a surgeon the last eight years, and their relationship has grown cold. I sat in the front seat between them as Tracy drove to our other farm and hippies rode in the back. The day's atmosphere was muggy like a steam room, and all I wore was some ragged camouflaged shorts. Our knees, elbows, and shoulders brushed bare skin on either side like they did on that April evening back in 1987 in their dad's 1970 Ford F150 truck with the three on the tree tranny.
We'd been working all day for Uncle Huck. Back then people still direct-seeded watermelons in the sand around here. Huck, who was 21, and his buddy, Johnny Johnson, who was a high school senior with a full-ride baseball scholarship to Purdue, had picked me up in the morning. I was only a freshman, a catcher on the JV team, so Johnny was my hero. Rumor had it that he'd sent a home run over the left field fence and up on top of the gymnasium roof. Using hoes, he and Huck walked ahead of us, following marks in the sand scratched by a cultivating implement, chopping a slight concavity every eight feet or so. The Cooper twins followed them, losing their T-shirts in the sun and sporting those nylon '80's shorts with bikinis for tops, nail bags strapped around their waists. They dropped 3 to 5 purple-coated Crimson Sweet seeds in each depression. Another kid from up the road followed along with me, using hoes to cover up the seeds. All day we did two rows at once, and the Cooper twins flirted with Johnny and Huck.
I'd never had so much fun. Late in the afternoon we got into the beer cooler. I decided right then I was gonna be a watermelon farmer. After we got paid our $3/hour cash, the Cooper twins offered to give me a ride home. They had taxed some beer from Huck. On the way we stopped by the river and kicked it for a minute. Their voices hypnotized me like they do now. Like they almost sing, or sang. They asked if I'd ever kissed a girl. I was only 14, pretty green, awkward. They gave me some lessons. We got to know each other. Their mom had run off from their dad for a black dude up in Indy when they were 10. All the racist rednecks, which constituted Verona high school called Stacy and Tracy "Nigger Lovers" because their mom was with a black dude. So they were raised in the country by their dad. They'd ridden horses all their life, tomboys. They took me home to my parents' place on the Lake Road.
In addition to $3/hour, Huck had gifted me with a sandwich baggie full of Crimson Sweet watermelon seeds, and that night I worked the little acre field out back my parents' 3 acre Eden inspired by the writer/farmer, Gene Logsdon. I planted maybe a quarter of it to watermelons on Easter Sunday, imagining that the Cooper twins were out there with me in their bikinis. Of course I was an eighth-grader with no wheels and could barely even fantasize that those girls would show up if I'd had the means to call them, not so easy in the days before smart phones. That night I dreamed that they had followed me out to the field, but I had to take a leak. It felt funny. I woke up and realized what had occurred, and didn't want my mom or sister to discover the soiled tidy-whities, so I sprinted out to the melon field before dawn and startled a couple coyotes, using a hoe to bury the evidence.
I didn't see the Cooper twins again for 25 years, except for high school and the county fair, but they showed up for HoeFest this summer. I guess we had reconnected there. Now, in the watermelon field, they drank beer while Calico Jack, Dave, and I tossed the fat fruit, loading the truck. When we had to pull around the field, they let me drive it, one of those newer Chevy rigs with a cab like a Cadillac that seats at least 6.
"What am I gonna do with all these watermelons?" asked Tracy, who actually owned the truck.
"Well we're going to the farmers' market in Seymour tomorrow."
"I can't go with you! My boyfriend will be across Tipton, in the hospital!"
"Oh, God what am I getting into? Hanging out with all you hippies!"
At first I thought maybe Stacy and Tracy would both be staying, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Clearly Tracy had to stick around, on account of the truckload of watermelons, so Stacy peaced out on us after we hit the tavern in Verona.
"She always tries to steal every guy from me," said Tracy on the way to the farmers' market in the morning. Rain steadily fell from eight until noon. Still, we hawked off a few melons, maybe half the truckload. That night I was supposed to play a gig at the Porthole Inn up in Brown County, on the shores of Lake Lemon. Calico Jack and Quate were going to jam along on mandolin and guitar. Also this divorced ex-Lutheran farm woman and her lovely 18 year-old daughter were riding to the show, so Stacy--I mean Tracy drove us and all our instruments up through Nashville to the venue.
We barely arrived in time to set up, but nobody cared. Nobody knew who the fuck we were, except the waitresses, Tracy, the ex-Lutheran lady, and her lovely 18 year-old blonde daughter, who all sat in a booth and shared a pizza. The owner of the Porthole Inn purchases boxes of vegetables from our farm, has a dining area, and the place is open to minors. They make pizza from scratch, but I couldn't ingest any of what was on the table because the peppers and onions and sausage were all changing colors and drifting like boats in San Francisco Bay, circa 1968.
"I'll have some pizza tomorrow," I told Tracy. "That shit is moving too much."
Calico Jack had to run sound all night. The pizza was mobilizing for him, too, he confided. He introduced our act on stage, and I played a few songs solo because they featured too many lyrics or else their chord progressions were too complicated for run of the mill stoners to jam along to if they hadn't already memorized them, especially in a bar where the pizza undulated and French fries wiggled like night crawlers after a June rain.
The crowd is mixed at the Porthole, with redneck patrons and fishermen who have sat around those tables for decades, though the place was recently purchased by a dreadlocked buddy of mine whose band is called "Zion Crossroads." So you get rednecks, hippies, and a few bikers. Calico and Quate jammed on the more repetitive chord progressions, and after us the main acts played, a guy named Coot Crabtree and Brandon Lee, a red-headed dreadlocked motherfucker who did a version of "Ruby" that would bring tears to your eyes.
At closing time the pizza and fries still refused to shut up and sit still, so we asked for a to-go box. They paid us a hundred bucks and said it was time to leave. We loaded our gear and a case of beer in the back of Tracy's truck, on top of the lingering watermelons. She navigated to Nashville where we stopped at a gas station because everyone needed cigarettes.
I don't smoke. I was also barefoot and shirtless, living in fear of the unruly pizza, so while they were in the store I sauntered out and tossed a green beer can into the receptacle next to the pumps, just trying to be conscientious about open containers in Tracy's truck, to be respectful. Normally I would just have chucked it in the back and recycled later.
A cop fresh out of cop school approached me. "Did you just throw an open container in the trash?"
"So you were drinking that beer in the cab of the truck, then."
"Absolutely." I wanted to tell him that the pizza and fries were safely immobilized in closed containers.
Gradually the whole group emerged from the gas station, and I inserted the nozzle after removing the gas cap. There was Quate with his black dreadlocks, Calico Jack the pirate with a red beard, the ex-Lutheran lady drunk and limping from a bad knee, her lovely daughter, and Tracy.
Another cop pulled up. He was fresh outta cop school, too.
"I smell marijuana," they said.
I glanced at Calico Jack who was clearly ingesting the last of the five joints we'd pre-emptively rolled for the night. "Hey, you're spot on. Us hippies already smoked all our weed, though, and we ain't got paraphernalia."
"We're gonna search the truck."
They stretched plastic gloves like condoms up to their elbows. In the side door they discovered a pair of fencing pliers.
"What are these?"
"Fencing pliers," said Tracy. "My dad has eleven horses."
We bullshat for an unquantifiable eternity. They opened the pizza box.
"Be careful," warned Calico Jack. "That pizza is out of control. We're trying to keep a lid on it!"
Reluctantly they let us go. Back at the Farmhouse the bugs wouldn't leave us alone. We barely slept. In the morning Tracy had to get back home to the surgeon. "I don't know about you, Spec. Cops, drunks, bugs, sand in the bed. Not my usual challenges."
The pizza calmed down by noon, and I had a few slices. I spent the heat of the day in a hammock under the hickories and hard maples, staring up at the branches, musing.