“The Watermelon King”–Dani Johannesen

Lowell attempted college. After amassing online gambling debts and contracting herpes, he’d moved back to the family home—a double-wide trailer next to his parents’ “Watermelon King” melon stand.

He slept in his old room, where his high school diplomas and debate awards still hung on the wall.

At 6 a.m. his father—The King—pulled on his overalls and headed out to survey the field north of the trailer. His mother started coffee, then shuffled into the bathroom where she scrubbed her face and caked on a layer of orange foundation.

Some mornings Lowell pulled his door closed and masturbated. It was one of his only secrets. He liked to think about the night he’d lost his virginity to that popular girl from town. He could still see her yellow panties balled up on the floor, tossed to the carpet like a penalty flag.

By the time he emerged from the bedroom, they were both outside, preparing to open the stand. He brushed his teeth and took a five-minute shower, contemplating suicide and ways to “make it” on his own.

He toweled off and pulled on his clothes. He grabbed his mug from the kitchen and filled it with coffee. Through the window above the sink he could see a few customers excitedly picking through piles of pumpkins and muskmelons. His father looked on proudly. His mother operated the cash register. Both of them smiled when they heard the screen door shut and saw him walking toward the operation.

“Need you to refill the gourds,” his father instructed, motioning toward two empty crates. “Lady came in this morning and bought all of ‘em.”

Lowell nodded and re-filled the crates. He swept dust off the crude concrete floor and surveyed the produce for rodents. At mid-morning, he took a five-minute break to drink a Coke and smoke a cigarette.

“You could save some money if you stopped smoking,” his mother said. “Then you could afford a cell phone.”

“And it wouldn’t hurt you to shave,” his father added. “We’re runnin’ a business here.”

Lowell wandered into the field to finish his cigarette. Autumn was hot and humid in South Dakota. A garter snake sunned itself near a young watermelon. A crop duster buzzed overhead. Fat clouds drifted east in the cerulean sky.

A van pulled into the lot, and Lowell crushed his cigarette in the dirt. Returning to the stand, he spotted a girl and her mother ambling through the heaping bins and crates. The girl wore mesh shorts and star-shaped sunglasses. Her sun-bleached hair was pulled into a thick ponytail. He could see the outline of her bra through the back of her t-shirt. She looked like she’d been exercising. He stared at her red toenails and imagined sucking on one of her big toes. She was fingering an unusual squash.

“That’s a yellow crookneck,” his father said. “You can eat it raw.”

“Interesting,” the girl replied. “You all live out here?”

“Sure do. That’s our place there,” his father motioned toward the trailer.

“Honey, don’t be nosy,” the girl’s mother said. “This is the most famous melon stand in eastern South Dakota.”

“You like it here?” the girl asked. “You must if you’re famous.”

Lowell’s father picked up an especially impressive muskmelon, turning it over and over in his hands.

“This here’s a muskmelon,” he said. “Cucumis melo. This here’s the only spot in the world where you can grow a muskmelon as fine as this one.”

“Neat,” the girl replied. “I want to be famous someday.”

They bought two muskmelons and a watermelon. Lowell’s father tossed the crookneck in for free.

“Thanks for visiting The Watermelon King,” he said. “Don’t forget to come and see us at the State Fair!”

Lowell helped the girl and her mother carry the awkward load to their van.

“Just set that one melon there in the backseat,” the mother instructed.

He carefully placed the melon in one of the van’s rear seats. The girl crawled up front, pulled another melon into her lap, and fiddled with the radio.

“Thanks again,” Lowell muttered, slamming the van’s door closed.

They pulled out of the lot and turned toward the highway. Lowell walked back to the stand. The sun was setting earlier now, and the heat of the day faded into a tangerine horizon. He refilled the gourds and moved some aging melons to the discount bin while his mother and father counted the day’s earnings. At 6 p.m., he and his mother headed toward the trailer. His father pulled the wooden doors shut and secured the lock.

They watched PBS while they ate dinner. After dinner, his parents moved to the loveseat. His father drank one beer while his mother read a John Grisham novel. At 10 p.m., each of them started getting ready for bed.

Lowell waited until both of his parents finished in the bathroom. He brushed his teeth and turned off the bathroom light. He crawled into his bed and waited. When his father started snoring, Lowell pulled on his shoes and grabbed the pocket knife he kept under the bed. He stuffed his cigarettes into the waistband of his shorts, then lifted the window and pushed out the screen.

At night, the field seemed like another planet—hundreds of dark orbs resting in the cool, soft soil. He walked to the middle of the field and sat down between the rows. He looked west, where the lights of the all-night gas station were barely visible. Soon it would be winter, the stand would be closed, and he would spend his days working there, peddling gasoline, selling antifreeze, bagging up sugary snacks in obnoxious wrappers. But for now he was here, in his Kingdom. He spotted an Aphrodite with an unsightly growth, pulled out the knife, and cut the melon from its vine. He struggled to push the dull blade through the netted skin. Then he found flesh. He lit a cigarette and slowly ran his fingers over the tender fruit.

DANI JOHANNESEN is a fourth-year PhD student in English/Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota.  She has worked as circulation manager for South Dakota Review and as associate editor of Best of the West 2011: New Stories From the Wide Side of the Missouri.  Her critical and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Western American LiteratureOakwoodVLPBrevity, and A Decade of War.

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