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Cantaloupe by Karen Loeb

 

Karen Loeb’s poetry and fiction have appeared recently in Hanging LooseThemaThe Main Street RagBloodroot,and elsewhere. Her story “The Walk to Makino” won the 2014 Wisconsin People and Ideas fiction contest. In the 1990s, she had two extended stays in Japan, and she has also lived and traveled for shorter times in China. She lives in western Wisconsin with her husband and daughter.

Editor's Choice (Kristin) - 2014 Raymond Carver Contest

 

The Cantaloupe’s Arrival—Rachel

The cantaloupe a friend gave us sits on the table. My father, who’s visiting from California, says, “It’s like a pumpkin waiting to be carved.” Except we’re in Japan, and a cantaloupe with a stem costs sixty dollars in the grocery store. Without a stem, it’s between fifteen and twenty dollars. The next day after the morning class I teach, I look forward to a luscious bite of fruit. Sam says it’s too beautiful to cut open, but I’m working on it.

 

Dinner Party Preamble, Osaka Prefecture—Sam

I hate to tell Rachel this, but she will never eat this cantaloupe. Her note instructs me to cut it open and make six servings out of it for the people coming for dinner tonight:

Sam: Be sure to leave the top with the stem on the sink so people might see it.

She’s been trying all week to get me to rip into it, with Cliff, her father, egging her on.

It won’t happen. I’m one guidebook ahead of her on this. The splendid cantaloupe, now five days older from the time Toshi brought it, is a pass-it-on variety. Grown for its hardiness and ability to ripen at a snail’s pace, it’s destined to be a gift the next time we go to someone’s house. Everyone understands this re-gifting and expects it, except us. Who knows how old this cantaloupe really is? And to think we assumed Toshi had gone to the store and bought it. Someone bought it, but if I want to believe this guidebook, it wasn’t Toshi, and it might not have been last week or the week before that.

 

Several Years Earlier, Michigan—Rachel

“I’m not going fishing,” my dad said. He was at the dining room table at the cottage, smoking while eating a piece of cantaloupe. I knew that when he was finished with it, he would harpoon it with his cigarette, causing a hissing sound. I didn’t want to be around to see the shredded cigarette in the melon rind, so I stood up.

“Where you headed, Rachel?” he asked.

“Porch.”

“Well, tell that misplaced Ishmael of a husband of yours I’m not going fishing.” A sizzling sound followed, sending shivers through my body.

“I’m sure he heard you, Dad.” I flashed a look at him, only to glimpse what I never wanted to: the cigarette bent, snubbed out in the wet melon rind, all of this sitting on his plate along with crumbling toast bits and hardened egg yolk remnants. My Aunt Doris stood and took his plate. I knew she didn’t approve of this mess, but she was always glad when my dad visited. Yesterday, she had come home from shopping holding a magnificent cantaloupe.

“A quarter,” she called out to everyone in the cottage. “They’re practically giving them away at the farmer’s market. Can you believe this? It must weigh four pounds.”

“You got rooked, Doris,” my father said, looking up from his newspaper. “I hear they’re two for a quarter at the farm stand near the filling station.”

“What? Cliff, you can’t be serious.” Dismay swam in her voice.

“He’s kidding you, Doris,” my Uncle Johnny said, blowing out a big puff of smoke from a White Owl cigar. “He’s ringing all your bells.”

Aunt Doris stood hugging her cantaloupe, closing her eyes for a moment. “I’m making sandwiches to take down to the lake. And no one touches this cantaloupe. I say when it gets eaten.” She stared at Cliff, her younger brother by twelve years. He smiled into his newspaper.

“I’ll help with the sandwiches,” I said, coming in from the porch. “Sam is already down at the creek fishing.”

“Just don’t make a move toward that cantaloupe,” my dad cautioned as I walked by his chair. “We’ll all be lucky if we get a sliver.”

 

Dinner Party Preamble, Osaka Prefecture—Sam

Rachel’s dad actually climbed into a jumbo jet and flew all the way to Japan to visit us. Three weeks has never gone so slow. I’ve explained over and over to Rachel that it’s one-fifth of all our time here for her exchange teaching.

Right now he’s outside, where we make him go to smoke his Camels. Across the road is a bamboo forest. You can’t get more scenic. But he stays inside our gate because he’s afraid of getting lost. We’ve given him a coffee can for the butts, which he dutifully takes with him. He did tell us, hoping for a change in regulations, that at home in California, no one makes him go outside to smoke, but Rachel mentioned that he lives alone, so he can pretty much do as he pleases. This brought up a mention of his second wife Ruth, now deceased, who he said never made him go outside to smoke.

“She didn’t let you smoke period, Dad,” Rachel pointed out.

“That’s true enough,” Cliff answered. “But I started up again the minute she was in the ground.”

He comes back in again, fumbling with the latch on the door, shuffling around in the genkan, sitting on the chair we’ve put there for him to use, taking off his shoes, and sliding his feet into slippers. “When’s Rachel due home?” he calls to me.

“Her writing class gets done pretty soon. Students might talk to her, though, after class.”

“Why the hell do they do that?”

I go into the hallway to avoid further shouting. “That’s what students do,” I explain. “They might have questions about an assignment.” I watch Cliff mull this over, his skin browned from working outdoors in his fruit orchard in California, his white moustache yellowed from tobacco.

“She’s a hard worker, that one,” he says and laughs for no reason I can guess. It’s the closest thing to a compliment I’ve ever heard him give Rachel. I can’t help but wonder how many minutes it will take him to pour himself yet another shot of Suntory whiskey, which Rachel so graciously supplied for him.

He stands. “So, when will we eat that cantaloupe? It’s been sitting on the table all week. My God, don’t you people know that melons don’t have a long shelf life?”

“I’m not sure that we will eat it, Cliff. Rachel wants me to cut it open, but it’s a gift cantaloupe. It probably cost sixty dollars or more. It’s for show.”

“Sixteen dollars? You paid that much for a cantaloupe? A cantaloupe, for God’s sake?”

“No, not sixteen. Sixty. And we didn’t buy it. You knew all this. When Toshi left last Saturday, we told you how much we figured it cost.”

“But I didn’t believe you. No one can believe something like that. Show me the evidence that a melon can cost that much. There is no cantaloupe on earth worth something like that.” He shakes his head. “Maybe I’ll go have a smoke.”

“You just came in from having one.”

He looks down at the coffee can by his chair. “So I did, so I did. When did you say Rachel will get home?”

 

The Dinner Party, Osaka Prefecture—Rachel

I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to invite my office-mate and his wife over for dinner. They live just next door, and Frieda, the wife, has been talking to my dad over the clotheslines in the side yards. In Japan, every house has a clothesline and every balcony of every high rise too. There is no such gadget as a clothes dryer in most homes, although the houses where the gaijin live come equipped with tiny dryers that become overpopulated with one sheet. You can see your fingernails grow by the time a load of laundry is dry. So we hang out, which is how Frieda met my dad. He’s used to puttering around his house and orchard, so he has become the official dishwasher and clothespin king for his visit.

Frieda is one of those goddess types with the huge tendrils of hair floating around her face like asparagus fern. Her hair is gray and glossy, so she’s a wise goddess type.

My dad is entranced with her. She’s at least a foot taller than he is, and she’s been married forever—she’ll tell you—to Lawrence, my office-mate at the university. There’s no possibility, but I can see my father mooning over her if he’s outside clipping clothes to the line, seeing her just over the fence.

They come over, Lawrence holding the required bottle of wine, and Frieda clutching some flowers in her fist as if she’s just picked them, but I know they come from a shop on shotengai that mostly sells funeral flowers. My father takes the flowers as if they’re meant for him. I recognize the spiky petals and muted colors. I picked out a bouquet there a while back, but the shop owner was saying something I couldn’t understand, moving her hands back and forth in front of her in the universal “no-no” gesture, realizing I was a gaijin and no amount of Japanese was going to get through. I thrust the bouquet forward, determined to make a purchase. Finally, she crossed herself, assuming I was Christian and would certainly now get it. Even though these flowers were destined for a Buddhist funeral, I did finally see what she meant–that I wouldn’t want to buy flowers for a dinner party that were meant for a funeral.

Lawrence is tall and rangy with silver hair to match his wife’s, only his is sparser, combed close to his head. He has a nervous habit of always looking around and then pouncing on one person with a fixed glare. Frieda is a goddess type, but Lawrence is more of a burrowing animal type.

 

The Dinner Party, Settling In, Osaka Prefecture—Sam

Rachel really doesn’t like this clown. He’s a business professor with a specialty in managerial ethics, which is the first thing he told us when we met him setting up shop in the office, having moved the shared computer into a cubby by his desk. I take the bottle of wine and offer him some of Cliff’s whiskey stash. Frieda goes to the kitchen, and I hear her exclaiming over something. Could it be the cantaloupe with the stem now sitting on the counter out there with its Yubari King label? The very cantaloupe that’s destined for our dessert. We finally decided that it was probably time for it.

This guy, Lawrence, sits on the couch next to Cliff and crosses his long legs, forcing Cliff to move over a little or be hit by a knee. Rachel won’t tell the story of the first day with Lawrence, but I will. Gladly.

Her first afternoon back from teaching, she found Lawrence in the office in front of the shared computer, which is by his desk, so all he has to do is turn his chair to get to it. There is no computer chair, only Lawrence’s chair. He tells her, and these are his words: “This computer isn’t working right. The Internet isn’t connecting. Too bad. We’ll have to get someone up here to fix it.” He continues typing away, with Rachel too polite to go over there to see what he’s doing on the computer. She waits him out. It’s dinner time by now, and he asks her if she’d like to walk back home together. She declines, saying she has some work to do before she leaves.

He ruffles through papers, looks in books, and finally, gets out of there. She waits a good while to make sure he’s not going to circle back. Then, feeling like a criminal, although the computer is a shared one, she goes over to Lawrence’s territory and sits in his chair because it’s the chair for the computer. She presses the magic on button, it boots up, and she clicks on the browser. What comes up is not only surprising because of the Internet access, but Lawrence has set up his own home page filled with up-to-date info about his stocks and how they’re doing. This is no lie. I’ve seen it myself. This guy, this Mr. Ethics, is a slam dunk prevaricator.

Rachel is just past five feet with dark hair that she’s wearing short and curly. She doesn’t have the physical presence that the walking swizzle stick Lawrence does, but she holds her own. After that first day, she marched right over there, and if he didn’t acknowledge her, she tapped him on the shoulder, letting him know she wanted computer time. And the balance of power was shifting.

He doesn’t know it, but the university has asked me to teach a literature course. I’ll be sharing the office too.

 

Early Childhood, Michigan—Rachel

I was six or seven before I realized that my mother was never going to come with us when we went to the cottage. I never did find out exactly what that was all about, but my mother didn’t speak to Aunt Doris or my grandmother, who lived with Aunt Doris and Uncle Johnny. My grandmother, with her German accent, was a permanent fixture at the cottage. Anyone who came back from the beach with a sunburn was given the vinegar treatment–cotton wads soaked in vinegar applied to the red. After the first time this happened to my entire back, I tried never again to get burned. For the next umpteen years, I wore a straw hat as big as a flying saucer and covered my body with shirts, jackets, and blankets when I sat on the beach.

One time when I was six my father was sitting at the dining table, eating cantaloupe for breakfast. He had a large wedge, and he carefully ate all the eggs, bacon, and toast before he started on the cantaloupe.

“This is like dessert,” he said. “There’s really nothing better.”

Then, before he dipped his spoon to the orange, glistening fruit, he grabbed the salt shaker and began sprinkling white crystals over the entire melon, and they weren’t casual sprinkles. He salted it well. I had never seen him doing this at home in Chicago, but here in Michigan, it seemed there were different rules for eating cantaloupe. My aunt Doris didn’t seem disturbed by this. She smiled at me. “It makes it sweeter, all that salt,” she explained. Cautiously, I reached for the shaker and sprinkled some on one patch of my melon. When I tasted it, it was sweeter, and it didn’t taste salty at all. I thought that was one good magic trick, equivalent to the first time I ever saw white sugar melt and turn into brown caramel.

 

The Dinner Party, Dessert, Osaka Prefecture—Sam

Lawrence is telling one of his stories of employment. This time it’s as a jazz musician. Cliff tries to mention something about his own interest in jazz, but Lawrence doesn’t pick up on it. This guy has done everything. I tell him a story of working in a deli–he’s done it too and sliced a finger off along with the corned beef, but they were able to sew it on again. I tell him about working in a library, and hey, he worked in one too, only the one where he worked had a flood, and he stayed up for thirty-six hours straight rescuing books. I tell him I bummed around after college, taking a road trip out west for the summer. Lawrence did too, only his road trip lasted five years, and he learned the power of meditation in the desert.

“Were you ever thirsty?” I ask.

“Pardon me, Sam?”

“Thirsty?”

“Because when I went through the desert, all I could think about was getting to the next town so I could drink water. I was parched.”

“No,” Lawrence says. “I always made sure I had extra sacks of water. And meditation helps. It really does.”

Give me a break. Sacks of water. In goatskins, no doubt. Or camel bladders.

Most people have bottles or thermoses or kegs. Or a canteen.

Cliff tells something about a legal case he worked on, and he’s not one sentence into it when Lawrence starts in about all his paralegal experience somewhere in Arkansas.

I’ve noticed during all of this that the melon hasn’t made an appearance. It’s still sitting on the kitchen counter, t-shaped stem and all. By this time, our guests have seen it, and whether they’ve admired it or not, they know its significance. Meanwhile, Rachel has served a hastily concocted dessert. She hasn’t told me, but the cantaloupe is off the menu. Frieda is chirping about the dessert–little compote dishes filled with squares of tofu that Rachel drizzled with maple syrup.

“So creative,” she says. “Now what exactly did you put in here?”

Rachel smiles. “Chef’s secret,” she says.

 

‘Round Midnight, Osaka Prefecture—Rachel

The guests have left. My dad takes a long pull on a whiskey. “You could search all your life,” he says, “and you might not find people like them.”

Sam and I exchange looks. “Was that a compliment, Cliff?”

“What’s that?” my dad says. “Oh, I get it. I just hope they go back to whatever rock they crawled out from and stay there.”

“What about Frieda?” I ask him. “I thought you admired her.”

“She has bad taste in men. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” he says. “I’m on KP. You two stay there.”

With that, he goes into the kitchen.

I pop in a tape of Thelonious Monk playing “‘Round Midnight” and aim the speakers toward the kitchen. It’s the tape player we use for our Japanese language practice. I lean against Sam, feeling drowsy and relieved that any obligation we might have had to the neighbors is over. His moustache brushes my cheek and we kiss. The clatter of dishes forms a background for the music. A half hour passes.

Suddenly, there’s a loud “AW-NO!” We unlatch from each other, and I call out, “Dad!” and we head to the kitchen area. What follows is not pretty.

My dad is standing at the counter with a knife as long as a saber–this gleaming weapon must have been in a secret compartment of the towel drawer or something. I’ve never seen it before, though I thought I was familiar with the motley array of dishes and utensils that came with the kitchen. In front of him is the cantaloupe, sliced in half, pole to pole. Most people cut in half along the equator, but not my dad. “Look–here,” he says, waving the knife.

We come closer, Sam extracting the blade from his hand and setting it in the sink behind us.

“This isn’t fair,” my dad says. “It smelled so good on the outside.”

Before us, the beautiful cantaloupe shows us its innards: gray moldy fluff growing like cotton among the seeds, and a sharp, rank odor that makes me back up into Sam, who is backing up into the sink.

My father looks completely defeated. “I waited all week for this,” he says. “You couldn’t serve it when we got it—oh no. You had to keep your precious cantaloupe, for god knows what. And now look at it.”

Somehow, I have gotten the blame for the cantaloupe’s demise. “Well,” he says. “I suppose it’s good you didn’t try to give it to them.”

“I wish I had,” I say bitterly. “If I had opened it and found all this mess, I would have served it on plates.”

“No, you wouldn’t have,” Sam assures me, holding me by the shoulders, still behind me.

“You’re right. I wouldn’t have. I would have thrown it away without a peep.”

“But what happened here?” my dad asks. “Why did you save the melon? Look what it got you.” He shakes his head like I’m a chump.

Sam starts to scoop up the mess to throw it away. “Cliff, listen. The melon was bad from the get-go. It’s a gift melon. No one ever eats them. There’s some kind of miraculous outer cover that doesn’t degenerate for a very long time. I don’t know. Maybe it’s waxed or shellacked.”

“Dad,” I say. “Tomorrow we’ll walk to the grocery and we’ll get you a melon, one that’s meant to be eaten.”

“Is that a promise?”

“Sure. Of course.”

“I’ll drink to that,” he says, raising his whiskey glass, which in its own miraculous way is never empty.