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Vol. 5, No. 4

Watermelon Days
by Tom McNeal

~

Doreen had no experience whatever with babies, and to the degree she’d thought of them at all, she’d sketched them in as sleepy, genial creatures, pleasing to dress up and roll about in buggies, but Edna Arlene was none of these things. She was drooly, colicky, and overly covetous of her mother’s touch. At night she would not sleep alone—Doreen would rock her to sleep, but the moment she set her down in the cradle and let go, Edna Arlene awakened screaming, so Doreen finally brought the baby to bed, where she slept between her and Monty. During the day, the baby cried when awake and napped only when held. Doreen’s exhaustion was complete.

     She hadn’t exchanged a word with Aggie for over two years, but now dashed off a penny postcard. Did I mention I was a missus and a momma? Edna Arlene is my baby girl, cute as a button but a demon for ceaseless screaming. Advice? Love, D. The return card read, Dear Yoked Up in Yankton, Must be in the bloodlines—you were a Banshee yourself and saved from sacrifice only by use of earplugs! Love, A.
     One day when Monty was off at the station and Edna Arlene’s shrill cries were like a strafing, Doreen wanted more than anything to clamp her hand over the baby’s mouth and face but instead laid her down screaming among pillows on the floor. She went out on the front porch and closed the door, but the cries pierced the walls. She began to walk. When she reached the corner of Fifth and Mulberry, she stood for a full minute meaning to go back, but didn’t. Instead she walked the five blocks more to Wilkemeyer’s Drugs and bought a package of Lucky Strikes. When she thought the girl at the register was staring at her, she said, “The neighbor’s watching my baby.” Doreen made a little laugh. “That baby’s a handful. It’s awful nice to be out for a minute or two.” She hurried back to the house, uphill, breathless, and was at first terrified when she heard nothing at all from the room where she’d left the baby. But Edna Arlene was nestled among pillows sleeping so calmly she seemed hardly to breathe. Doreen lay down on the floor beside the girl and on an impulse leaned close to lightly kiss her smooth forehead, which snapped Edna Arlene awake and started a fresh course of screaming.
     By the second year the crying had somewhat abated. Edna Arlene would play quietly as long as Doreen or Monty was within eyeshot. And though the girl made syllable-like sounds, they didn’t evolve into intelligible words. If she was hungry or otherwise needed something, she made a series of urgent guttural squeals that Doreen couldn’t help but think of as piggish. When Doreen raised the subject with Monty, he was unalarmed. He said that he himself hadn’t spoken until his fourth year and that big tongues ran in his family. “Big tongues?” Doreen said. She’d never heard of tongues hereditarily big. She considered writing Aggie about it, but instead took the girl to Dr. Murphy, who peered into Edna’s mouth and, pinching the tip of the suspect tongue, waggled it side to side. Then she released it and said, “Well, it’s good-sized all right.” She smiled at the girl and turned to Doreen. “Your daughter will talk when she’s ready. She might lisp and she might not, but in any case it’s nothing to worry about.” In all other ways, Dr. Murphy said, Edna Arlene was perfectly normal.
     When Edna Arlene began to talk shortly before her fourth birthday, she did in fact lisp, which her father found endearing. He began to use it on the radio. After reporting, for instance, that the WPA boys were in town cleaning Marne Creek and widening Main Street, he said, “Well, as my baby daughter likes to say, ‘Thank goodneth for mitha Woothevelt.’” Listeners responded favorably, and the observations Monty Longbaugh passed as his lisping daughter’s soon became the standard closing element in his news summaries.
     Edna Arlene liked hearing her father’s voice on the radio, and enjoyed it when he talked in the funny lisping voice. One morning, at the end of the eleven-thirty market, weather, and news, Monty Longbaugh said, “Well, as my baby girl said just the other night, ‘God muth not’ve been payin attenthin when he made up gwathhoppeth.” Doreen, sitting smoking a cigarette, didn’t laugh, but Edna Arlene did. Then she asked her mother why Papa didn’t bring that baby girl home to visit.
     Doreen asked what baby girl she was talking about and Edna Arlene said the one on the radio that talks like that.
     Doreen stared for a moment at Edna Arlene, then began to laugh. It had become a husky, hollow laugh, rattly, as if there were in her throat tiny dry leaves she couldn’t expel. Edna Arlene’s first five years had corresponded with drought and other assorted maladies. Hopper swarms defoliated fields and formed horny encrustments on the walls and porches of lighted houses. Whole herds of anthrax-infected cattle were shot and bulldozed into mass graves. Civic-minded hunters brought to the Red Cross blood-stained flour sacks weighted with rabbits for the hungry. Barbers gave free haircuts to those who couldn’t pay, and the town’s two banks consolidated. At night, tramps congregated around cookfires along the riverbank south of Burleigh Street. It was a life as distant from Philadelphia as Doreen could imagine. She said, “Edna Arlene, the girl your papa’s imitating on the radio is you.” She wanted to stop, but couldn’t. She said, “It’s you everybody’s laughing at.”
     Edna Arlene’s body stiffened. Her face contorted and her lower lip doubled downward. She was about to cry, but instead she did something surprising. She turned stoic. Her eyes settled. Her face became itself again. “No,” she said, “thath not twue.”
     Doreen’s voice softened. “The world’s full of hard truths, little miss, and the sooner you learn it the better.”
     Edna Arlene went to the sewing room and slipped into the knee well of her mother’s Singer. From there she could see what her mother couldn’t. It was true that Monty Longbaugh on the radio was her father, but not exactly, because Monty Longbaugh on the radio was always someplace different, where he was somebody different and where he had his own radio family that was different, too. That baby girl her father talked about on the radio couldn’t be herself, Edna Arlene, because she didn’t sound like that girl her father talked about, not one bit, and, besides, she never said the things the radio girl said. She’d never said anything about God not paying attention when he made grasshoppers, for example.
     To a surprising degree, Edna Arlene was able to believe what she told herself that day. Still, she began to talk more quietly and less often, so people wouldn’t make the same mistake her mother had.

 

~

One Sunday afternoon in mid-August, while Monty was at work, Doreen sat on the front porch with Edna Arlene. It was hot and dry and gritty. Doreen had damp-ragged the dust from the porch chair before she sat in it. Edna Arleen played with a miniature car, painted orange, except where the metal showed through. She ran the car slowly along the top porch rail, one end to the other and back again, something she could do for an hour, trancelike, without uttering a word.

     In the center of town, a watermelon festival was in progress, and its distant music pulled at Doreen. “Let’s go to the festivities,” she said, and Edna Arlene stopped her car and turned around to stare. Doreen said, “There’ll be music and carnival acts and pyramids of melon.”
     Edna Arlene quickly tucked her car into her pocket to indicate she was ready to go.
     Doreen took the girl’s hand and walked toward the music. In the park there were sack races, seed-spitting contests, and free melon, all of which interested Edna Arlene, but Doreen was drawn to the pavement dance. It was the accordion player and his Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra. Doreen positioned herself among the encircling fringe of onlookers and after a while stepped onto the pavement and pulled Edna Arlene out with her, trying by her own example to coax the girl into dancing, but Edna Arlene stood miserably with her eyes down until Doreen gave up and slipped back among the nonparticipants.
     Doreen bent down and said in a tight whisper, “Little miss is a horrible lump.”
     Edna Arlene held tightly to her mother’s print skirt with one hand and her orange car with the other, and peered straight ahead.
     They’d watched perhaps three dances when a man in a cowboy hat broke free from the opposite fringe and started working his way through the dancers toward Doreen. He was a complete stranger, a tall loose-jointed man, pleasing to look at as he moved easily through the dancers, smiling and apologizing politely, nodding and touching the brim of his dress Stetson, but all the while keeping his gaze fixedly in Doreen’s direction. Doreen thought, Oh, Lord, and didn’t know whether she was hoping he was going to ask her to dance or hoping he wouldn’t. He was handsome. He was handsome, and how. As he moved nearer, Edna Arlene’s grip on Doreen’s leg began to tighten and Doreen herself was suddenly overcome with something that seemed equal parts panic and exhilaration. He wore a neatly pressed pearl-buttoned green shirt. His smile seemed playful. But his eyes, which had seemed fixed on Doreen’s face, seemed to shift just to her side. He was looking beyond her. His shirt sleeve grazed Doreen’s bare hand as he slipped past her. Behind her, she heard him say, “Well, if it ain’t Gordy McAllister! And here I thought you musta succumbed ages ago.”
     A big laugh issued forth, presumably from Gordy McAllister.
     Doreen took Edna Arlene to the free-watermelon line and found herself a bench in the shade. She waved when Edna Arlene turned to wave from line, and again when the girl turned happily as she neared the men handing out slices. Doreen felt all-overish. She closed her eyes and opened them again when a woman passing by hummed a tune vaguely familiar to Doreen. I’m Billy Jones, I’m...something something...and we’re a—, Doreen couldn’t remember it.
     Across the square Edna Arlene was eating her melon with another girl, who then led her off to a small group of girls playing a game Doreen couldn’t fathom. The girls sat stock-still in a circle for a time and then, out of the blue, two of them would suddenly stand, race to touch a nearby tree trunk, and return shrieking to the circle. The one who lost was consigned to run again against someone else. It was plain that Edna Arlene, slow and clumsy, would be doing a lot of running.
     The girls grew silent as they noticed Doreen drawing close. “It’s OK,” Doreen said, “don’t stop your game. I just wanted to tell Edna Arlene that I’m running a tiny errand and will be back in a little bit.”
     Doreen had thought she might go home for something to settle her stomach, but gravitated instead to Wilkemeyer’s, away from the hubbub. There were a few other customers, but Doreen met no one’s eyes. She seated herself in the same booth she’d shared long ago when Monty Longbaugh had to speak to her before the next sunset. She ordered a seltzer and saltines. While she waited she took a pen from her purse. She printed her maiden name on a napkin—DOREEN SULLIVAN—and stared at it in hopes of remembering what it meant to be that person with that name, but all she saw now were oddly familiar letters—the feelings that defined the name had slipped away completely. Doreen was crying before she knew it, and when a waitress she knew came over and in a kindly voice said, “You all right, darlin’?” Doreen had snufflingly nodded and said, “Oh, you know, it’s just one of those days.”
     The waitress waited a second or two. “Monty was in a little bit ago, beaming like a bride. He said if you came in to tell you he had some news that might interest you.”
     Doreen snufflingly laughed. Well, I’ve got a little news for him, too, she thought, but what she said was, “Well, I’ll be looking forward to his news flash.”
     The waitress said, “He probably spent the morning dreaming up some new way for you to make him money. That’s what my Donald does.”
     A few minutes later, while Doreen was sipping her water, the waitress came to the table with a rolled magazine, which she presented to Doreen. It was the new Photoplay, with a sultry James Stewart staring out from the cover. (In a circle superimposed on his shoulder were the words BORN TO DANCE!) Doreen looked at the waitress.
     “Keep it,” the waitress said. “I’ve already read it.”
     The elusive tune streamed again through Doreen’s mind—I’m Billy Jones, I’m blankety-blank—and she gave her head a quick shake to dispel it. It was a novelty song, she was pretty sure, and she didn’t like novelty songs. She paid her bill in change, then stood for a moment outside the pharmacy wondering if Edna Arlene was still playing with those girls. She decided to walk up to the station to hear Monty’s news, but when she got there she walked by and kept walking until she found herself in Foerster’s Park, strangely quiet with the citizenry drawn to the festivities in town. She seated herself at a shady table near the rock amphitheater and pretended not to see three tramps standing and drinking some distance away, also in the shade. She read her magazine for a minute or two, then lay her arms on the table and her head on her arms. She closed her eyes. Even when she heard a crack of twigs and the definite tamp of footsteps, she kept her head down and eyes closed.
     “Everything all right, miss?”
     A male voice, a little high in pitch.
     Doreen didn’t speak.
     “You sick or something?”
     As Doreen raised her head, the tramp removed his cap. He was surprisingly young, a boy, in fact. His cheeks were pink and smooth. “What do you want?” she said.
     He shrugged. “You looked like something might be wrong.”
     “There’s not though.”
     The boy stood where he was.
     Doreen said, “Aren’t you awful young for a tramp?”
     The boy with some spine in his voice said, “I’m full sixteen.” Doreen doubted this, but didn’t say so. The boy said, “And I just think of myself as an unfunded traveler.” Then he said, “I used to have a job in Omaha killing chickens, but that ran out.” He said, “A lot of the old guys ride up in the boxcars, but I ride underneath, on the connecting rods. You never get caught riding down there.”
     Doreen gave the boy her first full and direct look. “What’re you and your unfounded-traveler buddies over there drinking?”
     “I’m not drinking nothing,” the boy said. “I made a promise I wouldn’t till I was eighteen.”
     Doreen said, “Who was that promise to?”
     The boy for the first time looked down.
     From town a rousing cheer carried.
     The boy lifted his head and said cheerfully, “Guess the prizefighting’s started.”
     They were both quiet, as if listening, but no other cheers followed. Abruptly, Edna Arlene came to Doreen’s mind, but then she thought, Edna Arlene is fine. To the boy she said, “One day from our front window I watched a tramp working his way down our street. He stopped and knocked at some houses and others he left alone. Why do you think he did that?”
     The boy’s eyes moved to Doreen’s as if pulled. “Did he come up to your house?”
     He had, but Doreen said he hadn’t.
     “Oh,” the boy said. The news seemed to disappoint him.
     She suddenly wanted a cigarette, but knew that lighting one in the presence of this tramp would seem to an onlooker familiar. Yankton was a good-sized town, but it was small at heart. She said, “You hungry?”
     “I could go for something to eat, sure.”
     “I don’t cook,” Doreen said. She opened her purse, found her package of cigarettes and tapped one out. She made a wry face and said, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” She was searching for her matchbook when the boy said, “I got it.” He held a lighted match in his cupped hands. She leaned close, took the smoke into her lungs, and leaned away. She exhaled and stared forward. She said, “My husband does all the cooking, every bit of it, and the cleanup, too.” She inhaled again, and this time released the smoke through her nose. “He made me promise I’d never tell that to a soul”—here she fixed the boy with her eyes—“and now I have.”
     The boy said, “I’m good at keeping secrets.” He said this so smoothly Doreen tried to look behind his eyes to see if he meant something by it, but all she found was more earnestness. She said, “What other sins did you forswear until age eighteen?”
     “Tobacco.”
     “That all?”
     The color rose in the boy’s pink cheeks.
     Doreen said, “So I guess there’s one other thing.”
     The boy said, “Yes, ma’am.”
     Doreen laughed. “And it’s not snuff.”
     The boy shook his head and said blandly, “Snuff’s included with tobacco.”
     The boy’s simpleness was both an annoyance and an enticement to Doreen, and in the past few seconds she’d experienced a strange effusion of feeling that, while unshaped, she knew at bottom to be illicit. Without looking at the boy she said, “In my coin purse there’s maybe seventy-five cents. It’s all I’ve got. Go ahead and take it.”
     The boy didn’t move. She looked at him. He said, “I’d rather you handed it to me, if it’s all the same to you. So I wouldn’t be removing it from your purse.”
     She poured the coins into his cupped hands. The boy said, “Thank you, lady.” The term had a deflating effect. Doreen smoked for a few seconds, then she said, “So how’d that tramp know? How’d he know to go to just the nice houses?”
     The boy shrugged. “There’s probably marks on the gatepost or under the letter box or something. A circle means good for a handout and a circle with rising squiggles means good cook.” The boy made an odd, crooked grin. “A circle with a crosshatch means a cranky lady or bad dog.”
     As the boy was leaving, Doreen said, “It was your mother who made you promise those things, wasn’t it?”
     The boy stopped. He took a quick glance at his companions as if to judge whether they might overhear. He returned a few steps and kept his voice low. “It wasn’t my mother. It was the mother of a pal of mine. In Omaha. This was two years ago, just before him and me were going off to Oklahoma to start up with a harvesting crew. She made us both promise.” The boy had a sheepish smile, like he was trying to explain something unexplainable. “She was just my pal’s mother so I didn’t think it would matter, but then I found it did.”

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