PERFECT FOOD by SUZANNE CRAIG-WHYTOCK
ISSUE ONE: March, 2019
She lived in the blue house. Blue for Enda, faded blue. Once it was bright blue, when Enda had come home triumphant, struggling to carry six paint cans up the walk, a huge grin spread across his face.
“They were in the clearance section,” he laughed breathlessly. “’Delphinium’, it’s called. Somebody else’s leftovers, but a bargain. Blue is a good colour.”
“Enda Tierney,” she rolled her eyes. “How the neighbours will talk.”
“Let them talk,” he shrugged cheerfully, putting the cans down on the grass and squinting up at the house. “Blue is a good colour,” he repeated.
She smiled behind her hand and rolled her eyes again.
He spent the weekend painting, his lanky frame going up and down the old wooden ladder, as much paint on him as the house itself. Six cans weren’t quite enough—the back wall and one high corner of the south side were still the old gray hue, but Enda was satisfied.
“Ah,” he wiped his brow. “What do you think, Sal?”
She was thinking that it would have been better if he’d had eight cans. “It’s bright. Lovely,” she added quickly, so as not to spoil the moment. The neighbours, the Merediths, were walking by with their dog and two sons. The man, Paul, said something to his wife under his breath and they both glared at the newly blue house. The older boy snickered and twirled his index finger at his temple; the younger boy turned away.
She became aware in that moment of how it must look—sloppily done, half-assed, rusty bicycle in the overgrown grass of the yard, bed sheet in the window instead of proper curtains, and she felt herself stiffen. Enda looked at her, then at the Merediths; his broad smile wavered and fell into self-doubt.
“It’s LOVELY,” she said again, loudly, emphatically, and took his hand so the Merediths would see, and Enda would know it was all right. “Dinner’s just about ready—pork chops, baked potato, and watermelon for dessert.”
Enda loved watermelon, calling it a perfect food. “You can eat it and drink it at the same time,” he’d say. They would sit on the back stoop underneath the laundry on the line, spitting the seeds to see who could get the farthest. Enda always won. “We should plant the seeds,” he’d say. “Grow our own crop and have watermelon every day.”
He would say it, but never got around to doing it. Some days he would work like a whirlwind, fixing and talking and planning. On other days, he would just sit, silent, watching whatever was on the TV, answering her questions with a single, unfocused word, barely looking at her. She loved him with a heart that broke, but it wasn’t enough.
Early the next spring, she decided that she would plant the garden after all. She’d never had a garden before and didn’t know where to begin. “How do I start?” she asked.
“Start with the shovel,” Enda whispered.
She couldn’t bring herself to go down to the basement. Thankfully, the shovel was at the top of the basement stairs. It was dirty and covered with old soil but it was still sharp, and it cut through the overgrown grass until she’d created a rectangle of exposed dirt. She turned the dirt over carefully until the plot was ready for planting.
At the hardware store, the same store where Enda had bought the paint, she found watermelon seeds. When she approached the counter, Sam Coutts, the storeowner, said, “Hey, Sal. It’s good to see you. It was a…hard winter. How are you coping?”
“I’m managing,” she answered, handing him the seed packet.
He regarded her curiously. “Are you gardening now, Sal?” he asked.
“Just something for Enda,” she replied, giving him $1.29 in coins for the seeds.
“Oh?” He stared hard at the packet, avoiding her eyes. “Well, keep them well-watered. It’s supposed to be a dry summer, and watermelons need moisture to grow big.”
At the blue house, she sat on the back stoop beneath the empty laundry line and read the instructions on the packet. She made two hills in the soil, one at either end of the rectangle, and shoved the seeds down into each one. “What now?” she asked, squinting up at the clouds.
“Now the water,” Enda reminded her.
“Of course.” She went to the old shed and found a faded-green plastic watering can. “I’ll keep this by the back door so I don’t forget,” she said, sprinkling the hills to give the seeds a strong start.
Every morning, she gave them water and pulled any weeds that popped up. Every evening, she gave them water and looked for signs that they were growing. Soon enough, the first tendrils broke though the soil, curling gently like Enda’s dark hair. She smiled behind her hand and said, “It won’t be long before we’re spitting the seeds.”
“It won’t be long,” Enda agreed.
The days went on, and the tendrils stretched and flowered, then the flowers became eight tiny orbs that got bigger every day until they started to resemble miniature watermelons. She began to fret about the birds pecking at them the way they pecked at everything, so she went back to the hardware store for netting and poles.
Mr. Coutts was there as always, and he looked at her with concern. “Everything all right, Sal? What are you building?”
“I need to keep the birds away from Enda’s garden,” she answered. “They want to keep pecking at the watermelons.”
“Ah,” he answered. “Well, you can tie tin pie plates to the poles as well. The movement and noise will scare the birds away.”
At the blue house, she sat on the back stoop and planned how she would build the canopy. “A hammer to pound the poles into the corners. What else?” she asked.
“The rope,” Enda answered.
“No, not the rope in the basement. I have some twine in the drawer. There’s no need for rope.” She got up too quickly, sat back down with the dizziness. “There’s no need for the rope,” she repeated, weakly.
She felt better later and built the protective tent over the garden. She could hear the birds in the trees squawking with indignation, and she laughed. “No watermelon for you!”
Over the next weeks, the orbs got larger and larger. She became more excited, and spent time planning the special meal she would make, with the first of Enda’s watermelon for dessert. “Pork chops, baked potato, and watermelon for dessert, just like the day you painted the house blue.”
“Blue is a good colour,” Enda remembered.
“Yes. It’s a good colour,” she agreed. “Let the neighbours talk.”
On Tuesday morning, as she always did when she woke up, she looked from the upstairs bedroom window down to the garden. Something wasn’t right—the netting and poles were broken and sideways, the grass was trampled and there was green and pink all over the yard. She ran downstairs and out, gasping. The orbs had been pulled from their vines and smashed, each and every one, their sweet insides laid bare on the soil as if a heavy foot had come down on them, striking them through their hearts. She stared in disbelief, then sank to her knees onto the wet ground, her face in her hands. “Why, Enda? Why?” She sobbed soundlessly next to the plot, no mourners to comfort her.
Enda was silent as a clenched fist.
After a while, she stood up. As she went to go into the house, she realized that Paul Meredith was watching her. They stared at each other for a moment, her tears drying in the hot sun, then he turned and disappeared into his house. She sat on the hard concrete stoop for a while, staring unseeingly at the destroyed garden. After a long time, she sighed, got up slowly, turned her back to it and went inside. She wandered from room to room, touching various things—a vase, a watch, an embroidered cushion, a mug—things that seemed like touchstones to another life. Finally, she lay down in her bed, hers and Enda’s, and slept. It was a fitful sleep, broken by dreams of smashing and tears and bewilderment. Then she became aware of a new sound, one not in her dreams. There was someone knocking at the back door. Ignoring it, she reached out her hand and placed it on Enda’s pillow. The cotton was cool to the touch and she shivered, pulling the covers up higher. The knock came again, this time more insistent. She closed her eyes for a moment and exhaled, then left the strange comfort of the bed.
She went downstairs and looked out the window. It was the younger Meredith boy from next door. He was standing on the stoop, holding a bulging grocery bag and rocking back and forth on his heels uncomfortably.
She opened the door and stared at him questioningly, wordlessly.
“Um, hi Mrs. Tierney,” he began, his words choppy and troubled. “I brought you this. It—it was my brother who did it. I’m really sorry.” He held out the grocery bag to her. She took it and opened it. Inside was a large, store-bought watermelon, striped bright green and pale green.
“Why?” she asked.
“He’s angry a lot. He wanted to go out with his friends, but Dad said no, he needed to help more around the house. He thought it was funny to smash them. I didn’t think it was funny, so I brought you this. I know it’s not the same, but Dad said that you seemed really upset.”
“Well,” she said. “Sit down on the stoop for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
She took the grocery bag with the watermelon into the kitchen with her. She found the good knife, and carved a few slices, putting them on a platter. She carried the platter back outside, sat down on the stoop, and placed it between her and the boy.
“Here,” she said, picking up a slice and offering it to him. “We might as well enjoy it when it’s fresh.”
He hesitated, then took the dripping piece from her and bit into it. “I’m really sorry about Mr. Tierney,” he said, chewing and swallowing. “I bet he would have liked the garden.”
“Yes,” she answered. “We used to spit the seeds, see who could make them go the farthest.” The boy spit—his seed landed on the bottom step. They both laughed.
“We shouldn’t spit them,” he said. “We should save them, and then you can plant the garden again. I’ll make sure my brother leaves it alone.”
“You take some seeds too,” she said. “Then we can both have watermelon in the summer. It’s the perfect food, you know—you can eat it and drink it at the same time.”
“That’s a good way to put it,” the boy smiled. He held up his watermelon wedge and carefully flicked the seeds out of it and onto the platter. “Here. You can plant some now if you want. Maybe there’s enough time to start a new crop.”
She took the seeds from the platter, cupping them gently in her hand, and walked over to the rectangle of dirt and vines. Kneeling, she pushed the seeds down into the soil and into Enda’s outstretched hand.
SUZANNE CRAIG-WHYTOCK was a high school English teacher in Ontario, Canada for almost 25 years and she now works for an educational agency. Aside from short fiction and a weekly humour blog, she also writes Young Adult fiction. Her first novel, Smile, was published last fall by Bookland Press, and her second novel, The Dome, will be released in Fall 2019.