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Picking the best melon’s an art

Features column

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

"Dear Mandy,” the email started and what followed was perhaps one of the top four oddest questions I have ever been asked by a stranger.

“How do you pick a watermelon?”

I stopped reading a moment and backed up. How do you pick a watermelon? Yep. That’s what it said all right.

And I was puzzled.

Why would someone ask me that ... And then it hit me. A few years ago I wrote about just that — how a stranger in the grocery store taught me how to pick a watermelon.

And this is what he said.

He was there in the fruit and vegetable section, the fingers of his right hand slowly rubbing the side of his face, his left hand firmly in his pants pocket jingling car keys or loose change or maybe even both. He was thinking, that was for sure, staring straight ahead at the oversized bin sitting in the middle of the floor, his eyes fixed on the bulbous assortment in front of him.

Watermelons. Piled as high and as wide as their round, swollen rinds would allow, wearing shades of green so light, so dark and so perfectly in-between. The sign said seedless — $3.99.

I watched as the man moved a little closer to the bin and stopped again, this time bending down a hair to get a closer look. Then he straightened up and started walking, slowly walking, around the overflowing display. He didn’t touch. Not yet. Just looked.

“He’s on a mission,” an older woman confirmed as she and her buggy appeared beside me, and it was obvious she knew him well. “I’ve been married to the man for 58 years and you’d think by now I’ve learned how to pick a good watermelon, but he doesn’t trust me. He’s got to pick it himself.”

“What’s he looking for?” I asked her because, in all honesty, I was interested and not just being polite. Finding a good watermelon is not always easy. You take your chances.

But when you find it, the right one, you know it almost as soon as the first cut, when you slide the knife through the rind around the melon’s bulging belly like a trained surgeon, just part way, of course, because part of the joy of a watermelon is hearing the crack when you pull it apart. Then you inhale a little piece of heaven and it’s confirmed just as soon as you see that ruby goodness and the first sweet taste melts in your mouth. That’s a perfect watermelon. You know it.

Henry knew it.

“Henry, tell this young lady your secret,” my new friend said as her husband carefully placed his watermelon — the chosen one — in his wife’s grocery cart.

“Just common sense,” he said and there was a gruff in his voice but I could tell it was only for show. He had kind eyes, too, and a farmer’s cap and as he stood there he put his hand back in his pocket and started jingling again but he didn’t stop there. He walked back over to the overflowing bin of watermelons and picked one up and I followed him. My watermelon Yoda.

“You look at the bottom, see, where it laid on the ground. It’s got to be a creamy color, yellow even, that tells you it rested on the earth for a good, firm time until it was ripe. If it’s pale ... like this one ... then you don’t want it. It got picked too soon.”

We stood there for a minute or two more, looking over the watermelons, picking them up, rolling them over. Henry doesn’t thump watermelons. Henry’s daddy didn’t thump watermelons and his daddy before that. It’s not always reliable, so why waste a good thump, he says. A very good point.

I left the store with a good watermelon that day. I didn’t have to even cut it to know it was a good one. Henry said it all.

And I still remember what he taught me.

“So what are the other three oddest questions a stranger has ever asked you?” my friend asked as I told her about the watermelon email. I pondered, but only for a moment.

“Would you like to try a fried roach?”

“Can I take a picture of your foot?”

“Excuse me, but is that the nose you were born with?”

And for the record, don’t ever ask a girl if her nose is the one she was born with. Like picking a good watermelon, that should just be common sense.

Contact columnist Mandy Flynn at flyn1862@bellsouth.net.