How was I supposed to resist it?
That summer was HOT; one of the hottest I’d ever been through. The temperatures weren’t as high on the mercury scale as I’d seen in my time in the San Fernando Valley outskirts, but the humidity there is far, far lower. Here, in the deep south, east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason Dixon line, the air was what my parents always called “muggy.” I wasn’t sure why it was “muggy,” or even what “muggy” meant, but I got the idea that it made the hot feel hotter. The days in Georgia could be stifling.
As a kid, you don’t mind as much. My brother and I were used to playing outside in the heat, and we were getting used to the idea of no air conditioning in the house to help ease it, too. My father thought he was clever and he placed two box fans in two windows in the house: one in my parents’ room blowing air in from the outside, making their room wetter and cooler with passing air. The other fan was in our room, and was pointed blowing OUT, to “create airflow.” That’s what my spineless, selfish old man told us; ours had to point out so that “airflow” could move through the tiny house. And of course, that ain’t what happened. The hot air gathered in the middle of the house and sat there like a fat, hot cloud of humidity and warmth, so that my brother and I could barely breathe. Every night I turned that damned fan around so that it was blowing inward from our window, and every morning the old man would curse and swear about it and turn it back around on his way out to work. His dumb-ass plan didn’t work and he wouldn’t listen to the complaints my brother and I gave. It’s not easy to sleep when you’re roasting in your own juices, and when I suggested he turn the fan in HIS room to blow out, well, that was the end of the discussion.
So, we jumped at any opporunity to go someplace air conditioned. This time, it was Aunt Eudie’s house.
I didn’t even know I had an Aunt Eudie until that day. My grandmother — my father’s mom — came up the driveway that morning and asked if we wanted to go with her to visit Aunt Eudie, her sister. Apparently, Aunt Eudie was keen on seeing us again. I wracked my brain to remember when she’d ever seen me the first time, but couldn’t find it in the recesses of my memory. I shrugged and asked if she had an air conditioner in her house. When my grandmother said she did, I was all in. My brother too, so while grandma went back home we bolted to secure the necessary permission from my mother — who wasn’t drunk yet that day. Then we were off, racing down the driveway to grandma’s house on the bottom half of the lot to join her in her forest green Aspen. We didn’t know where Aunt Eudie lived, but we knew grandma had an air conditioned car, so the day would be spent in sweet coolness.
My brother and I came racing to her front door. It was partially hidden beneath the wooden staircase that clambered up to the second floor. My grandfather built that house sometime in the distant and unclear haze of the past. He died before I was born, and I didn’t know how much farther back the house dated than that, but it was newer than the one we lived in. Our tiny green asbestos-clad shack was where they lived while he built the newer, larger white house where grandma lived, I surmised. When grandma stepped through the screen door, a bulbous, jiggling figure followed her: our cousin, Chubs. He was going with us.
His face brightened when he saw us. I think he’d been staring down the barrel of spending all day with two old women alone, with no one for company but them. When he saw us, he knew, just as we did, it was going to be a lot more fun. Chubs, Ryan and I always seemed to have a good time. He was a couple of years younger than me and a couple of years older than my brother, so he sort of became the middle brother we never had. He could relate to both of us, so he always made for good company. As a bonus, his whiney sister Missy was nowhere to be found.
After the initial greetings, and finding out he’d been dropped off by his mother while she and Missy went out shopping, we all piled into grandma’s car for the trip. I assumed it would be some distance, since grandma was taking her car. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Aunt Eudie lived less than a block away at the top of the cross street that terminated Bell Avenue to the south. I laughed aloud when we pulled up to the crisp, white double-wide on the narrow strip of grass just beside the bend in the road. It wouldn’t have taken 10 minutes to walk the distance; the air conditioner in grandma’s car didn’t even get cold before we got there.
The house was cool inside, though. It smelled of old person, but what are you gonna do? She’s old. As kids, we didn’t pay much attention to the decor, but I remember yellowish, pale shag carpet and wood-paneling on the walls. I remember the popcorn ceilings and the pale yellow and white patterned sofa, still covered in plastic. I remember the faux-wood octagon dining table and the wrought-iron and vinyl chairs tucked tightly against the apron. I remember the green glass half-dome over the white ball hanging down over that table, and the ticking of a clock that I could never find.
And the smell of watermelon wafting to us from the “formal dining room” — a niche cut into the family room wall, lined with mirrors, hung with a black wrought-iron chandelier made to look like it was holding candles, and a table covered with a lemon-yellow tablecloth. It was stacked with stout, striped watermelons.
But the first thing I noticed was Aunt Eudie.
She must have been six feet four, all pasty skin and beehive hairdo, with mushy, doughy hands that were soft and dry and creepy. She shook my hand, and it reminded me of a soft man’s hand with long, manicured nails. A shiver ran up my spine, but I struggled to control it. I tried to meet her eyes, but couldn’t. My brother was unusually quiet, and I knew he was feeling the same, eerie sensation: Aunt Eudie could have been a man for all we knew.
We did the dutiful nice things that kids do, answering her queries and laughing politely at her (not funny) jokes and one-liners, and then she asked us if we wanted to go outside and see her flowers. Hell no, we didn’t want to go outside and see her flowers. We wanted to sit inside and feel that cool air cascade over us from the air conditioner. I politely said that my allergies were acting up a bit, and if it didn’t offend her, I’d prefer to stay inside away from the flowers. She smiled and said that was fine, and would the other boys like to stay and keep me company?
They did, of course.
So, she towered over her sister and headed for the sliding glass door somewhere behind the kitchen, which I was sure was brown and orange or olive green and mustard yellow. When we heard it close behind them, Chubs was the first to utter it: the watermelon sure looked good.
We agreed. I walked over to one, and thumped it lightly with my finger, flicking it like the back of a weaker kid’s head. It sounded wet and solid, and thumped grandly.
I got to staring at that melon, and noticing it’s shape. It was oblong, and not too big, kind of like an oversized …
… Chubs spoke my words before I could: “Hey, that looks just like a big football!”
I nodded and smiled, and he picked it up. “Ugh, it’s heavy!” he complained, then hefted it to his shoulder. “He’s back to pass –” he announced, trying to pose like a quarterback about to make a deep throw.
“He looks long downfield –” I added, our imaginations transforming the tiny little trailer into a packed stadium of screaming fans. My brother opened his mouth and made the standard “roar of the crowd” noise while I moved farther away from Chubs.
How were we supposed to resist? It DID look like a football.
“He’s got a man open –” I continued, raising my hand like a receiver signaling for the throw.
Chubs stepped forward, putting his shoulder beneath his elbow and pushing with a mighty grunt as he hefted the bulk of that watermelon toward me like a shot-putter. I watched it wobble and arc slowly toward me, and shuffled under it, letting the weight collapse me as I caught it. It WAS heavy; it was like catching a small child. I grunted loudly, trying to figure out how the heck a melon so small could weigh so much.
“I’m open!” my brother said, waving to me. I wrinkled my brow, shaking my head.
“I don’t think so, Ryan,” I said. “I can barely catch it, it’s so heavy. I don’t want you to drop it.” And then I turned and chucked it at Chubs before the whining and complaining about being a big kid, strong enough, yadda yadda, could start.
Chubs WAS a big kid. Only a couple of inches shorter than me, but much stockier. He was a pudgy but solid Weeble, and I was sure he’d wobble but not fall down. The melon arced right into his arms at about chest-level, and I heard it slap soundly against his skin.
And I watched it slowly, painfully, slip right through his arms.
I froze, my spine stiffening like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi, while Chubs began to giggle his hyena’s laugh. He slapped one hand over the melon, his palm desperately trying to grip the smooth green rind, and as the melon inexorably pushed its way through his attempted blockade and down his gut he swatted frantically with the other hand.
No use! The melon kept sliding down his hips. Slap! Ssssslide. Slap! Ssssslide.
The insane, lilting laughter, the hands slapping at the melon uselessly, the unstoppable descent toward the bright, yellow carpet, slowly, slowly, the rasping of denim over the smooth, slick watermelon skin and the repeated slap of Chubs’ palms, trying to stop that melon.
At the knee, he couldn’t reach anymore. The melon went into free fall.
How bad can it be? I thought. It’s only knee high, for cryin’ out loud.
In super-slow motion, like an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, the melon spilled off of Chubs’ knee and went nose-down like a missile from the sky onto the chartreuse carpet, the stem side staring up at us like a watching, baleful eye streaked with alien-green stripes. The wild laughter of Ryan and Chubs, my own cries to catch it, catch it, stop it, STOP IT — all faded. All I could hear was the sound of my own heartbeat as the watermelon finally made contact with Terra Firma.
It exploded into a shower of pink debris, seeds, rind shards and juice, flying in a clothes-staining, carpet-ruining fountain that seemed so excessive for such a small melon from such a low drop. Endless pieces of internal watermelon organs sprayed up and out from ground zero and seemed to bounce from the walls, the ceiling, the mirrors, the furniture. In my mind’s eye, a torrential fire hose of watermelon guts sprayed over the entire living and dining rooms, covering everything, splashing us with plant blood spatter and forensic evidence, incriminating us, accusing us, tattling on us as the bottomless gourd spouted like a humpback whale.
I heard a sound, and I was certain that it was Aunt Eudie and my grandmother coming back in from the tiny flower garden — where there was far too little to see and it was far too hot for two elderly women — and I jumped like a panther toward the front door, leaving Chubs and Ryan desperately clawing at watermelon chunks and goo, trying hopelessly to scoop the mess up and somehow have it passable before they came back in. It was no good, I knew; it was useless to try. I crashed through that door leaving them giggling and crying “Hey!”, and heard only the beating of my own heart as I raced down the slight grade toward Bell Avenue. I rounded the corner and made a graceful arc in the middle of the street that terminated at our front door. I nearly knocked it from its hinges as I burst through and dove into my bedroom and onto my bed.
My mother came rushing in, hearing the commotion. “What’s going on?” she said, glancing me over quickly to assess physical damage. “Where’s Ryan?”
I panted and puffed, having made the journey in less than three minutes. “Oh … uh, he’s … with grandma. I … decided to … come home early. It was … boring.”
“Oh,” she said, and left the room.
But moments later — scant moments, with my heart still pounding and breath still burning in my lungs — the phone started to ring.