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Winter/Spring 2020

The Watermelon Past

Sallie Hess

 

A group of old men sit around a food court table,
in suspenders and thin plaid shirts, mesh-back hats,
like they took a wrong turn off the highway,
saw there was coffee, and gave up, settled in.

 

The bright plastic chairs and fluorescent lights,
so different from where they used to be:
the warm, shabby diners where deals were made over eggs,
and your check written longhand, in duplicate;

 

or the co-op, with a high concrete loading dock
and dusty, worn plank floors,
on the edge of a county seat town
even then growing into something else.

 

They would quietly preside from mismatched chairs,
smoking pipes and giving terse replies
to requests for seed corn and onion starts,
point to bushel baskets holding one or two types.

 

It was a different kind of monoculture:
their expertise earned through failure,
hard clay soil, and long, hot days;
strength tested over weeks of praying for rain.

 

The small brown bulbs were like daffodils’,
and I can still hear the whisper of dry skins on the sack,
the crack as paper tautened under their weight,
pink treated seed corn crunching underfoot.

 

That was all we needed; people used to save their seeds.
Once, we had a perfect watermelon on vacation,
dried the black tabs of germplasm to try at home.
Now, that watermelon would never grow.

 

The traits aren’t true, or depend on hormones,
auxin and gibberellin making up for splicing genes out.
How naïve we were, to think we could escape
the perfect future of seedless smoothness and disease resistance.

 

And here I am, like the men at the mall, musing
on the watermelon past: the onion starts and hot pink corn,
the strong and battered co-op floor,
and the ghosts who walk across it. 

 

[Check out Sallie Hess' back porch interview]