For several weeks now, Louise Milsap has been painting pictures of watermelons. The first one she tried looked like a dark-green basketball floating on an algae-covered pond. Too much green, she realized. She began varying the backgrounds, and sometimes now she throws in unusual decorative objects – a few candles, a soap dish, a pair of wire pliers. She tried including other fruits, but the size of the melons among apples and grapes made them appear odd and unnatural. When she saw a photograph of a cornucopia in a magazine, she imagined a huge watermelon stuck in its mouth.
Louise’s housemate, Peggy Wilson, insists that a rich collector from Paducah named Herman Priddle will buy the pictures. Peggy and her husband, Jerry, had rented an apartment from him, but Jerry ran away with Priddle’s mistress and now Peggy lives with Louise. Peggy told her, ‘That man’s whole house is full of them stupid watermelons.’ When Peggy said he would pay a fortune for anything with a watermelon in it, Louise bought a set of paints.
Peggy said, ‘He’s got this one cute picture of these two little coloured twins eating a slice of watermelon. One at each end, like bookends. I bet he paid at least thirty dollars for it.’
Louise has lost her job at Kroger’s supermarket, and she lies to the unemployment office about seeking a new job. Instead, she spends all day painting on small canvas boards in her canning room. Her husband, Tom, is in Texas with Jim Yates, a carpenter who worked for him. A month before, Tom suddenly left his business and went out West to work on Jim’s uncle’s ranch. Louise used to like Tom’s impulsiveness. He would call up a radio programme and dedicate love songs to her, knowing it both embarrassed and pleased her to hear her name on the radio. Tom never cared about public opinion. Before he went to Texas, he bought a cowboy hat from Sam’s Surplus. He left in his pickup, his ‘General Contracting’ sign still painted on the door, and he didn’t say when he would return.
Louise said to him, ‘If you’re going to be a born-again cowboy, I guess you’ll want to get yourself all bunged up on one of them bull machines.’
‘That ain’t necessarily what I’m aiming to do,’ he said.
‘Go ahead. See if I care.’
Louise, always a practical person, is determined to get along without Tom. She should look for a job, but she doesn’t want to. She paints a dozen pictures in a row. She feels less and less practical. For two dollars and eighty-nine cents she buys a watermelon at Kroger’s and paints a picture of it. It is a long, slender melon the colour of a tobacco worm, with zigzag stripes. She went to Kroger’s from force of habit, and then felt embarrassed to be seen at her old checkout lane.
‘Old man Priddle would give you a hundred dollars for that,’ says Peggy, glancing at the painting when she comes home from work. Louise is just finishing the clouds in the background. Clouds had been a last-minute inspiration.
Peggy inserts a Dixieland tape into Louise’s tape deck and opens a beer. Beer makes Peggy giggly, but Dixieland puts her in a sad mood because her husband once promised to take her to New Orleans to hear Al Hirt in person. Louise stands there with her paintbrush, waiting to see what will happen.
Peggy says, ‘He’s got this big velvet tapestry on his wall? It’s one big, solid watermelon that must have weighed a ton.’ Laughing, she stretches her arms to show the size. The beer can tilts, about to spill. Three slugs of beer and Peggy is already giggly.
Louise needs Peggy’s rent money, but having her around is like having a grown child who refuses to leave home. Peggy reads Harlequin romances and watches TV simultaneously. She pays attention when the minister on The 700 Club gives advice on budgets. ‘People just aren’t smart about the way they use credit cards,’ she informs Louise. This is shop talk from her job in customer services at the K Mart. Peggy keeps promising to call Herman Priddle, to make an appointment for Louise to take her paintings to Paducah, but Peggy has a thing about using the telephone. She doesn’t want to tie up the line in case her husband tries to call. She frowns impatiently when Louise is on the telephone. One good thing about living with Peggy – she does all the cooking. Sometimes she pours beer into the spaghetti sauce – ‘to give it a little whang,’ she says.
‘You shouldn’t listen to that tape,’ Louise says to Peggy, later. The music is getting to Peggy by now. She sits in a cross-legged, meditative pose, the beer can balanced in her palm.
‘I just don’t know what he sees in a woman who’s twenty years older than him,’ says Peggy. ‘With a face-lift.’
‘How long can it last, anyhow?’
‘Till she needs another face-lift, I reckon.’
‘Well, that can’t be long. I read they don’t last,’ says Louise.
‘That woman’s so big and strong, she could skin a mule one-handed,’ says Peggy, lifting her beer.
Louise puts away her paints and then props the new picture against a chair. Looking at the melon, she can feel its weight and imagine just exactly how ripe it is.
While she paints, Louise has time to reflect on their situation: two women with little in common whose husbands are away. Both men left unconscionably. Sudden yearnings. One thought he could be a cowboy (Tom had never been on a horse); the other fell for an older woman. Louise cannot understand either compulsion. The fact that she cannot helps her not to care.
She tried to reason with Tom – about how boyish his notion was and how disastrous it would be to leave his business. Jim Yates had lived in Denver one summer, and in every conversation he found a way to mention Colorado and how pure the air was there. Tom believed everything Jim said.