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Vol. 5, No. 4

Watermelon Days
by Tom McNeal

~

The sun was low in the sky when Doreen returned to the Watermelon Days. Almost everyone was gone, but there were more flies than Doreen had ever before seen in one place. Edna Arlene was alone, slowly walking among picnic tables, eating pink remnants from discarded rinds. When she looked up and saw her mother, she dropped the rind at hand and ran over crying. Her chin was pink and dripping with juice and her cheeks were dirty with tears. “Momma,” she said, and Doreen leaned down to take her into her arms. The girl held on as if for dear life. Doreen held and soothed her until she felt the dampness of her sleeve beneath Edna Arlene’s buttocks, then she set her down at once. “You’ve wetted yourself,” she said. She took her to the water fountain and while the girl cried in humiliation took off her clothes and bathed her. The girl bawled and trembled uncontrollably. “Wheah wuh you?” she said. “Wheah wuh you?” and for a flashing instant Doreen wanted to say in a mimicking whisper, Wheah wuh you? Wheah wuh you?, but by this time there were onlookers, two women, not close by but within possible earshot. “I wasn’t far,” Doreen said. “I wasn’t far at all. I was right over there all the time.”

     When they got home and opened the front door, the air was rich with frying meat. Monty stood at the stove tending wienerwurst and onion slices in a black skillet. Doreen in a flat voice said, “I thought Sundays were meatless.” This referred to a belt-tightening strategy Monty himself had initiated.
     “Well, we’re celebrating,” Monty said, turning. He was wearing an apron over his faded street clothes. “I’ve got some good news.”
     “Me, too,” Doreen said, “but you first.”
     But Monty Longbaugh’s eyes were now fixed on his daughter, who stood whimpering in her damp blue dress. She held her wet underdrawers in front of her, pinched between two fingers. Her face was contorted from efforts not to weep. He said, “What happened to Edna?”
     Doreen shrugged. “That’s part of my good news. She ate too much melon and wetted herself so completely I had to clean her up in a public water fountain.”
     Monty Longbaugh looked at the girl and said, “Oh, Sweetie.”
     Edna Arlene said, “Some boyth took Tootie.” Her orange metal car.
     Monty said, “I know where we can get another Tootie. I know just where.” He turned off the stove and took her hand. “But right now let’s find you some fresh clothes,” he said, sweetly, almost crooning. “Then we can come back and all of us have a wienerwurst sandwich.” In her smallest voice, Edna Arlene asked if she could have a puddle of ketchup in the middle of the plate, and her father said, “Sure you can, sweetie. Smack dab in the middle.”
     In their absence, Doreen forked a sausage and several coils of fried onion onto a slab of bread, folded it, and ate it quickly over the sink, washed down with a room-temperature Schlitz. Then she went to the front porch and smoked. It was early evening, but still hot. She sat back in the shadows, watching boys pass by on bicycles, the occasional automobile, citizens on constitutional walks. From somewhere a man yelled, “Cyrus, where are you?” Doreen recrossed her legs and waited, for what she had no idea. She thought about going in for another Schlitz but didn’t. The man called again for Cyrus.
     Eventually Monty stepped onto the porch and quietly set the screen door closed behind him, which meant Edna Arlene was asleep. He settled into the chair beside Doreen. After a time, he said, “She seemed kind of shaky.”
     Doreen didn’t speak until she’d finished her cigarette and flicked the stubbed butt over the porch rail. She said, “Somebody whose voice I don’t recognize keeps calling for somebody named Cyrus. Who do you suppose he is, this Cyrus?”
     Monty wasn’t interested in Cyrus. “Edna Arlene said you left and told her you’d be back in a little bit but you didn’t come back.”
     Doreen hadn’t looked at Monty since he’d come out, and she didn’t now. In a flat recitative voice, she said, “After I left Edna Arlene at the little melonfest, I thought I was going to come home but instead I went to Wilkemeyer’s for a lemon Coke and a magazine. Then I was going to come see you at the station but instead walked on to Forester’s Park to sit in the shade. While I was there I talked to a tramp who was sixteen and had taken an oath against all sin. After that I came home and read my Photoplay in the bathtub until I remembered Edna Arlene. I’d just added hot water and I wanted to finish reading the magazine, so I did, and then I went and got her.” For Doreen, telling her husband this version of things in this voice provided a kind of repudiative satisfaction—it made her think of the childhood pleasure of carving a swear word into a park bench.
     Monty Longbaugh said, “You went alone to Forester’s and talked to a tramp?”
     Doreen had to laugh. “Why? Did the town council write up a rule against that?”
     Sullenly Monty said, “They didn’t have to.” He waited a few seconds. “So how long was Edna Arlene alone at the watermelon festival?”
     Doreen hadn’t thought of it that way, and gave it a quick computation. Two hours, and then some. “A while,” she said. “I wasn’t keeping a logbook.” Then she said, “Look, if what you’re trying to point out is that I’m not the tip-toppest mother, don’t bother. I can see my shortcomings.” Another silence developed. Finally Doreen in a quieter voice said, “Which brings us to my own bit of news.” She made an unhappy smile and kept her eyes forward. “It turns out I’m just a little bit pregnant.”
     She felt him staring at her, but she still didn’t turn. “And that’s not all the good news,” she said. “It also turns out that our good citizens have run out of town the only abortionist who kept her kitchen clean.”
     A second or two passed, then he said, “Abortionist? What in God’s name are you talking about, Doreen?”
     She said, “I’m talking about the present situation as I see it.”
     Someone was again calling for Cyrus.
     Monty said in a small voice, “Well, whose—” but Doreen cut him off. “It’s yours, Monty. Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.”
     “Then—” His voice trailed off.
     She said, “I’m bad with one child, Monty. I’ll be worse with two. And these aren’t exactly halcyon days, if you’ve been paying attention. There’s not a lot of loose change laying around.”
     Monty Longbaugh had turned from her and was staring out toward the street. “We’ll be all right,” he said, almost more to himself than to her.
     A full minute of black silence passed. Then Doreen said, “OK, so what’s your big news then?”
     Monty seemed jerked back from some distant place. “What?”
     “When we came home you said you had some big news. You never said what.”
     In a low voice he said, “I didn’t say it was big news, Doreen.”
     “I just figured it must be, what with your breaking out the wienies and all.” Wienies, she knew, was a term her husband didn’t like.
     He said, “It seemed like bigger news at the time.”
     “Well, either you tell me your news or I’m going to walk down to the river to cool off.” When he didn’t speak, Doreen stood up.
     “I won the new-slogan contest for the station,” he said, flat-voiced. “WBDY, your Midwest address for CBS.’ Mr. Birney said the vote was almost unanimous. He said there was over five hundred entries.”
     Doreen said, “What did you win?”
     “A treasury bond,” he said. “Just a small one.” Then he said, “It’s for five dollars.”
     Doreen stepped around him and walked toward the street. At the sidewalk she stopped to look back. Their house faced west. The last slanting light turned the white fence and gateposts a buttery yellow. She looked at one gatepost and then the other. There, a few inches above the ground, was some penciling. She bent close. A circle with vapors rising. She looked up at Monty sitting perfectly still on the porch beyond the light, a hobo’s idea of a good cook.
     She began to walk.
     He called after her. “Take a coat,” Doreen.
     She pretended not to hear. It wasn’t cold and she didn’t look pregnant. She took a meandering route to the river, waiting for dark. She felt the grip within her loosen. It was what she used to feel long ago after evenings in the Aldine, the unencumbering conversion of light to darkness, of known to unknown. She liked the river best when everything slipped up from darkness, the heavy rush of the water, its murmurings and shiftings, the wood smoke from the cook fires attended by tramps standing in half-light, laughter without cheer, songs she knew were bawdy but could not quite hear. To the side of the pilings, a landing overlooked the river. A lamp fixed to the underside of the bridge’s truss beam shone down on the overlook. When she paused a few moments to stand in that illumination with her hands folded below the waist and her back straight, she could sense a stillness coming over the camps, and feel herself pulling imaginations up out of darkness.

 

~

An hour or so after setting out, Doreen returned to the house. Monty sat waiting in the same place. He’d known she’d be back. She often walked; she always came home, usually with her spirits improved. She unlatched the gate. She seated herself on the porch next to him and after perhaps a minute had gone by, she said, “Pretty down there tonight.” Meaning the river.

     He didn’t speak. As they sat, the voice again called out for Cyrus.
     Doreen in a low voice said, “I think maybe it’s time Cyrus should get his little hindquarters home.”
     Monty’s laugh was sudden and caught him by surprise. It changed his mood slightly, caused some mysterious ignition of hope. He said, “Maybe Cyrus is doing something real important,” and was glad when Doreen threw in with a little laugh of her own.
     “Real important like what?” she said.
      In a low, loose voice Monty said, “Well, maybe Cyrus and somebody are conjugating a certain verb.”
     Doreen laughed easily and slid down just a bit in her chair. The tune came again to
     mind, and she hummed it for Monty, breaking in with the words she knew. “Yeah,” he said when she was done, “It’s that song from the Happiness Boys.”
     How do you do? How do you do?
     Gee, it’s great to see all of you
     I’m Billy Jones
     I’m Ernie Hare
     And we’re a silly-looking pair,
     How do you doodle doodle do?
     He sang it slow tempo in his low pleasant voice, his radio voice. It was a novelty song all right, but the way he sang it, it didn’t sound like one. “One more time,” she said. Doreen blinked closed her eyes and had a hard time opening them again. There was a handbill from Monty’s singing cowboy days. It presented his long, smooth, almost equine face framed top and bottom by a dark kerchief and a black Stetson, and that’s who, turning toward him in the dark, he seemed now to be.

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