When to cut out the heart of a watermelon

Iowa Writers' Collaborative.  Connecting Iowa Readers and Writers.My father says the only way to eat a watermelon is to cut out the heart. To break it up and discard the pieces even remotely close to the bark. He told me about it last summer while we were vacationing in Montana. Visiting my wife’s family in a hunting lodge. We coordinated this great holiday as a celebration. After we were all vaccinated and itching to leave our homes.

On the penultimate day of our stay, my father approached me. I stopped him amid the amplified voices bouncing around a metal-walled, open-plan cabin.

¿Y tu eres que escogio la sandia?

“Yes, I chose it. ¿Porque? It’s not good, is it? I could have sworn it was.”

He laughed. “No. It cruda. I know you picked it because it’s no good.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, shrugging my shoulders slightly. I wanted to explain how long I had been rummaging through the box of watermelons in the store. How I googled the steps to finding the absolute perfect melon from the bunch. Pronounced yellow spot. Distinctive webbing. I held my phone in one hand while swatting away the melons that didn’t fit the bill with the other.

I didn’t tell my dad for fear of more ribs. I put up with my father’s teasing. I was just glad he was there to hand out the ribs. That he and my mother survived their struggles with COVID.

COVID-19 felt like a giant, contradicting itself at every turn. It was moving slowly and incredibly fast at the same time. A lumbering slasher villain who spawns behind you when you call. Like the phone call my mom told me my parents heard. I caught my breath when she revealed to me that my father was unwell. Over the next week, the first of many virtual appraisal interviews took place at my job. “How have people been getting along?” one Zoom square asked the others.

“You know. It’s hard. I felt like I was looking at as much as I could!” Another Square responded to a chorus of tinny laughter from my laptop speakers brain whirled. We talk about it when I’m scared this meat plant will eat up my family?

My father worked in a meat processing factory, which was deemed essential during the pandemic. They stuck a swab up my dad’s nose and sent him home on Friday. An automated call greeted him on Sunday night, telling him his results were negative (they weren’t) and that they were expecting him the next morning.

He couldn’t go in even if he wanted to. He got up from his deck chair, only to lean breathlessly against the wall after a few steps. Once he turned to my mother and said: “We will die from this. In this house. Alone.”

Words cannot express how angry I was at the factory for this automated phone call. In a society that abandons and exploits us. I had family members at a factory across the state. Where bosses had a betting pool on which of their workers would catch COVID first.

When my mother called, I felt more alone than ever. Not because it was four months and counted in isolation. Not because my parents were upset that my wife and I refused to visit them during the holidays. But because it felt inevitable. The way we tried, but it still rocked my family the way it was.

But on the other hand, the families were busy on the last day of our stay in Montana. My father waved a watermelon he had bought that morning. He picked it out using a method he has yet to tell me. One I bet smartphones or Google don’t exist. People circled my father, shoulder to shoulder, craning their necks behind the crowd as he produced a pocketknife. After wiping the blade on his shirt, he cut into it, being careful not to stab the knife all the way into the fruit. He shoved and broke off pieces, which he threw in a nearby trash can.

What remained was an image of a watermelon that I had never seen before. It saw like a heart, red and bared from the pieces my father tore from it. My father rocked the bottom of the sandia in his arms as he cut pieces for the crowd. We grabbed them with our bare hands. Eat quickly before the juices ran down our arms onto the floor.

My father smiled as others at the lodge climbed over to get a piece. Children weaved through adults’ legs, holding up grubby hands to get their own piece. It was one of the best watermelons I’ve ever tasted. After all, it’s the only way to eat it.