Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Seeds of Destruction

What's that thumping sound?

By John Bridges

AUGUST 25, 1997:  If you did not grow up in Alabama, you cannot know what it means to be terrified of a watermelon. More precisely, you cannot know what it means to be terrified of a watermelon seed--just one, the fatal one, the one that could kill you if you swallowed it, the one that would fester and sprout in the warm, damp, fertile, darkness of your lower intestines and send its stem burrowing out through some still-unhealed crevice in your belly button.

You cannot know the horror of falling asleep on a dank August evening, only to awake in the wretched August morning, certain that a watermelon stalk was poking, sharp and stiff and irremediable, out of your abdomen, spelling death to you, more certainly than if you had put black-eyed peas up your nose, more surely than if you had swallowed a catfish bone. There would be no time to get you to a hospital. As certainly as if you had eaten lye, straight from the can under the kitchen sink, next to the Brillo pads, there would be nothing medical science could do.

In the hospital, a near-nauseous nurse would turn to the doctor and say, "Oh my god, Dr. Wombley, this isn't what it looks like, is it?" To which the doctor would have no reply, except to shake his head sadly and say, "Why don't you let me handle this, Nurse Burbelow? Go wait with the parents--they're the ones who're going to need you." Then he would click his ballpoint pen and slip it into his pocket. Without looking at the nurse, he would lean his full, heart-weary weight against the bedrail and say, "Go on now. No woman should have to witness something like this."

Come to think of it, if you lived in Alabama, and if your parents were going to tell you this sort of story, I have no idea why they insisted on cracking a watermelon open and placing it there before you, the flesh red and smelling of its own rancid, overripe readiness, the syrup clear as water, but still sweet enough to draw sweatbees and a listless swarm of gnats. I cannot think why they would have put this thing before you, this thing with which they had taunted you all summer, thumping its still-yellow skin and listening for its hollow, ready-to-burst wateriness, then proclaiming it not quite ready and letting you watch it as it grew darker and darker, protruding out from under the vines, begging to be bitten into and scooped out, its juice running down over your chin and mingling with the sweatbeads on your neck, staining your white T-shirt with the pale pink melon-putrid water, leaving its smell on you to go rotten in the late-afternoon heat.

I cannot think why anybody's parents would have done such a thing to their child if they knew full well that one watermelon seed, just one, swallowed inadvertently in the midst of a laugh or a gasp of childlike wonder, was going to kill him. But those are the kind of parents I had. They were also the kind of parents who gave you a Coca-Cola and an asprin, both at once, and then proclaimed, "Now you do know that's going to give you brain cancer, don't you?" They were the kind of parents who let you play with the cats and then said, "Don't you come into this house. I'm not letting you give me any ringworm!" They were the kind of parents who took you to the swimming pool, fed you a hamburger, and then reminded you that, if you got even one toe wet, and even if you were a little boy, you were going to get menstrual cramps.

I understand the watermelon-seed story now because I know now that it was all the terror my parents could summon up in those last, heat-heavy days of an Alabama summer. We did not live on a street, so there were no trucks or cars to run over us. There were no neighbors within shouting distance, so we had no fear of being caught in the random crossfire of a domestic shootout. We had been told that, if we ever saw a nun, we were to run and hide, since nuns had a habit of abducting small, non-Catholic children and burying them under the floors of their nunneries.

But there were no nuns in our county. So we were left with nothing to fear but cat poop, a noseful of blackeyed peas, and the hovering terror of the fatal watermelon seed. We were left with the terror of nature. It was, given their meager resources, the very best my parents could do.

They knew, because they were resolutely, cantakerously religious, that it was not a good thing for a child to grow up with no sense of his looming destruction. They had seen children like that, and they had stories to tell about them--stories about the little boy who hung his head out the car window, stories about the little girl who got all her hair burned off when she peeked inside the hot oven, stories of the two little children who went blind from watching too much color TV.

What's more, my parents could point these children out; they were easy to spot in public places. They were the ones who ran in the church aisles. They were the ones who bothered their mothers while their mothers were trying to have conversations. They were the ones who would walk up to the candy counter in the grocery store, take down a Three Musketeers bar, and bite into it, right there, without even asking. They were children who deserved to be paddled, on the spot, by virtue of their very existence. They were children who were not afraid of anything. Thus, they were children doomed for the roaring, implacable, hiney-slapping fires of hell.

I do not fear now for the fate of my immortal soul. I have no reason to fear eternal damnation, since I grew up in Alabama and had parents who told me the story of the watermelon seed. It is the same story that still lurks in the back of my mind when I think of flying to Paris, balancing my checkbook, or beginning a novel. It is fear as prophylactic. It is the sort of fear that guarantees that I will never steal a candy bar or jump in the pool right after finishing a Big Mac. It is the sort of fear that, to this day, makes me ask for a fork when I'm served a slice of watermelon. That way, I can know for sure that I will never wake up with a vine growing out of my belly button. That way, I can know that I will always be exactly the child I was intended to be. And in such knowledge, after all, there is a certain comfort. Even when you break open a melon, there is so little you can be sure of these days.

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