The alarm clock sounded boldly, with no apparent consideration for the abrupt way it woke up the man in bed. The “eee-eee-eee” echoed and rebounded around the room for nearly half a minute before he grew irritated enough to unceremoniously sling his arm through the air in a wide arc that ended in a vicious slap on top of the clock. 5:40 A.M. The thin sheet covering his body felt slightly damp because of the swamp cooler in the opposite room. The ceiling fan had made the sheet cool, but he welcomed and relished the dampness because he knew that the heat of the day would be unrelentingly hot and mouth-parchingly dry.
He stared at the ceiling for a while before the warm smell and the burping sound of coffee percolating beguiled him out of bed.
He plodded down the hall in his t-shirt, boxers, and socks, his feet thump-thumping on the old wooden floor. When he entered the kitchen the image of his grandmother greeted him. She stood in her faded, flowery nightgown in front of an ancient gas stove, hunched over a cast iron frying pan that held several biscuits sizzling happily in grease. He walked over and kissed her on the cheek.
“Mornin’” she replied. “Eggs, bacon, and coffee are on the table. The biscuits got a minute yet. I’ll bring’em to you.”
He sat down and began eating. After a few minutes Mam-maw walked over with a small plate of golden brown, pan-fried biscuits. Crispy on the outside but moist and pillowy on the inside. She sprinkled a pinch of granulated sugar on the top of the biscuits, and then she sat them down on the table in front of his plate. She finally sat down herself and began sipping her coffee.
“What time did you get in last night, Mitch?”
He answered in-between bites, “Midnight. I got in, called Samantha, and then went to sleep. I was pretty tired. I hit quite a bit of traffic coming up through Austin…biscuits are good.”
“You know you coulda come up later. You didn’t have to rush.”
Mitch had a mouthful of food, but he still tried to talk, “Dunno. I talked to Danny this week. He said the fields were ready, and I didn’t think it would be smart to wait. If Pap-paw has to run loads to Houston that leaves you, Danny, Ramiero, and Andrew in the fields. You need me.”
“We woulda been fine till Monday” she said. “And don’t talk with your mouth full. We managed for years and years before you and Danny were even thought of, you know.”
“Well I’m here now, so it doesn’t matter.” He took a bite out of a biscuit. “Hey, where’s Danny anyway?”
“Outside. He ate before you got up. Your grandfather seems convinced that someone has been stealing oil outta the shop again. Daniel’s puttin’ locks on the cabinets, but they should be ‘bout done. They better be.” She glanced at the clock that hung above the kitchen table. “We need to get to work. Longer we wait the hotter it’ll be.”
Mitch crammed one last biscuit into his mouth and stood up. “Pap-paw always thinks someone is stealing his stuff. No one wants his old junk.” He said as much to himself as to his grandmother. He carried his plate to the sink.
“I know that. Daniel knows it, too. He uses the stuff hisself, and then he forgets.”
As Mitch rinsed his plate, he said, “You and Danny better keep a set of keys. Pap-paw will lose’em, and then no one will get any oil.”
“One step ahead of you.” Mam-maw put her coffee cup in the sink, looked at her watch, and said, “Go tell Daniel to quit messin’ with them cabinets. Ramiero and Andrew probably waitin’ out at the field.”
Mitch quickly changed into his work clothes and walked outside. The rising sun, which sat low and large in the east, already felt hot, but Mitch knew that it would be exponentially hotter by noon. Especially in the fields. He glanced over at the pecan tree where the big thermometer had hung for as long as he could remember. The “Jupe Mills” name emblazoned on the side had faded so badly Mitch could barely make it out, and the pecan tree had lapped over the top as if the tree was slowly eating it. But it still worked just fine. Eighty-seven degrees. Damn, he thought. It was only 6:30.
Mitch walked around the house to the big metal shop our back. He heard his grandfather and brother before he saw them.
“Dammnit, Bubba, I know how many cases of Castrol was in there!” Mitch thought it appropriate that his grandfather had started complaining well before they got to the fields. Set the mood for the rest of the day.
Danny walked into the shop where his brother and grandfather argued. His grandfather’s back faced him. “All right, Pap-paw,” Danny muttered. He was doing a poor job and hiding his irritation. “No one’s going to get into them cabinets now. Not unless they got a crowbar.” Danny looked up at Mitch and winked. Their grandfather had yet to notice Mitch.
“Sons-a-bitches damn sure better not. I’ll bet it’s one of Ramiero’s friends. He’s a good boy, but those kids he brings around are double-trouble.”
Danny started to speak, but Mitch beat him to it, “Pap-paw, if those ‘kids’ are the same ones that Ramiero has had around him since I was a teenager,” his grandfather spun around at the sound of Mitch’s voice, “they’re his cousins. The only reason you think they’re ‘trouble’ is because they don’t speak English very well, and you’re too racist to learn Spanish.”
When Pap-paw noticed Mitch his features softened and a smile played on his lips. “Well hell, boy, you teach English, and I think you’re more trouble than them kids are.” Pap-paw chuckled, Danny grinned, and Mitch hugged each one in turn.
After Mitch hugged Danny he said, “Glad you’re home.”
Mitch smiled at his brother. “Yeah…me too.”
Pap-paw slapped Mitch on the shoulder. “Grab the water cooler, boys. Bubba, go see if your Mam-maw needs any help. Let’s get started.” Mitch couldn’t decide if he was Bubba this time or if it was his brother. His grandfather liked to call any male under 40 “Bubba,” which could be confusing. Danny turned for the house, which answered his question.
As soon as they got everything loaded, Mam-maw and Pap-paw got into the cab of the dented, black Ford pickup, and Mitch and Danny hopped in the back. It took them ten minutes of driving on a dusty gravel road to arrive at the field, where Ramiero and Andrew were waiting under a shade tree, and they spent the majority of the day in the hot, Texas heat picking watermelons.
Mitch loved how the deeply green vines snaked down the rows of the field. Brightly golden flowers, the precursors to future melons, dotted the tops of the vines, and every few feet or so, rested a full-sized watermelon. Some melons hid under the vines as if they didn’t have the courage to face the world. Thanks to the shade, these melons took on a dark, green color that reminded Mitch of a rain forest. Others laid out in the open, directly on top of the vines, as if to openly defy the power of the sun. For their hubris, the sun bleached the tops of these melons to a whitish-yellowy hue.
When the sun had risen all the way up, it heated the sand so hot they could feel it through the bottoms of their shoes. The sand may have looked finer than powdered sugar, but it had the color of a rich honey and the abrasiveness of table salt. When they were kids, Danny and Mitch would wear flip-flops to pick melons, and Pap-paw would let them hold on to the bumper of the pickup as he drove and they “ skied” down the rows of melons.
Mam-maw would walk down the row of vines inspecting the melons. When she found one that looked ripe, she would brush it off and give it a good thumping. If it sounded hollow enough, she would cut it off the vine with a rusty old picket knife. A bad back, ruined by years of picking, prevented her from doing anything more, but Ramiero was right behind her to pick up the melon and throw it up to Danny or Pap-paw in the bed of the pick-up. Mitch worked the row on the opposite side of the truck, pretty much doing the same as Mam-maw. The only difference was that he was strong enough to pick and throw his own melons. Danny and Pap-paw would stack the melons in the bed of the pickup truck, and Andrew would steer the truck down the rows. Andrew really didn’t have much to do except match the pace of Mam-maw, which was actually slower than the truck’s speed when it idled.
When they were younger, Mitch and Danny would take turns pickin’ and stackin’, but they eventually figured out that Danny enjoyed stackin’ a lot more than pickin’. He stacked more solidly than Mitch, and plus, it gave him more time to rile up his Pap-paw, which Danny seemed to identify as a viable hobby. Danny would systematically annoy and pester him until Mitch would hear Pap-paw irritatedly yell in his gruff voice, “Goddamn it boy, stop talkin’ to me and get to stackin’, or Bubba’s gonna find hisself with one less stacker in the back of this truck!” Mitch would giggle under his breath, anything louder risked redirecting his grandfather’s rage, and Danny would let up for a while. And then he’d start in again.
If they needed a snack, Mam-maw would use her rusty pocket knife to cut open a couple of culls. The knife didn’t even need to be sharp because the melons were usually so ripe and bursting with juicy meat that they practically burst open and split in two at the first stab. They would sit under a shade tree and snack until their hands and face were all sticky, and Pap-paw would inevitably start complaining that they were wasting the day.
They would quit picking when the stack of watermelons in the back of the truck reached the top of the cab, which usually occurred at 1 or 2 in the afternoon. They would go home with a truck full of melons, fix a late lunch, and set up the produce stand and begin selling the morning’s load.
Thus the summer passed with very little deviation. At night, Mitch would call or Skype Samantha, whom he missed dearly. Then he would eat dinner with Mam-maw and Danny. If Pap-paw hadn’t driven to the Houston market, he would join them. After dinner, Mitch and Danny would go out on the porch and drink beer and talk about nothing late into the night, until the mosquitoes finally drained them into submission. Or until Mam-maw yelled at them to go to bed. Whichever came first.
Before he knew it the season ended, and the responsibilities of life forced Mitch to head back to his job. He packed his duffel bag and loaded it into the car.
Mitch said good-bye to his grandparents. Mam-maw had packed him a lunch. Chicken salad sandwich and a zip-lock baggie of bright red melon.
Danny said, “I’ll walk you to your car.”
As they walked outside, Danny said, “Mitch, I’m glad you came up. It always helps. And we’re glad to see you…I’m glad to see you. But you know you don’t have to do this every summer, right? I mean, I know you don’t teach during the summer semesters, but I also know that Sam misses you.”
“Yeah…I know I don’t have to. Sam understands.” Mitch could tell by his face that his brother didn’t understand at all, but he hugged his brother anyway, and then got into his car. He put the key in the ignition, but stopped before he turned it. He felt as if he owed Danny a deeper explanation, so he rolled down his window and said, “Hey, Danny do you remember Wordsworth’s poem “The World Is Too Much With Us?” Mitch asked.
“Uh…” Danny shook his head side to side. “Nope. Totally slept through Brit Lit.”
“Well the beginning is:
‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
And it goes on like that, lamenting the loss of Nature, which, ultimately, is our loss of humanity. I guess it’s…well, we were born here, man. No matter where I am I can smell the green smell of the melon vines and feel the hot sand. But the longer I’m away, the more those memories fade, and I begin to wonder if they’re still real. I love teaching, but here…here, I don’t feel like some little part of me fades away with time. I feel part of something. I feel like this nature is mine. Know what I mean?”
Danny was silent for a moment. “Mitch, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I majored in Ag., remember? I’m just glad to see you when I do.”
Mitch chuckled. “Yeah. See you at Thanksgiving.”
Danny smiled. “’K. Say ‘hi’ to Sam for me.”
Mitch backed out of the driveway, onto the gravel road, and headed away from the farm.