Seedlings

by W.T. Paterson

It was a silly thing to say, he meant nothing by it really, but his daughter found the idea to be horribly wretched.

“But Dad, I already swallowed a watermelon seed,” Heidi said, her ten-year-old eyes swelling with tears under the late June sun.  The neighborhood barbecue was teeming with people stuffing their faces with juicy hotdogs, sizzling burgers with slices of cold yellow cheese, and cans of soda popping open like an arthritic knuckle.

“Uh oh, Heidi” Louis told her. “Looks like you’re going to have a watermelon grow inside of you.”

Louis should have told her it was a joke, he later realized.  Kids didn’t know any better, but also wasn’t that a bit of the fun?  A single father raising a daughter wasn’t exactly the job he had hoped for, but it was the job he had been handed after his wife Alma had died of an unexpected aneurism on a flight back from London a year ago.  She was the one who had done the bulk of the childcare while Louis was off consulting with growing business on how to create stable employee infrastructures. On days when he was home, more often than not, Louis felt like he was less of a father and more of a casual acquaintance to Heidi, his own daughter.

They had been invited to a neighborhood barbecue after moving out of Chicago and into the suburb of Evanston, Illinois.  Neighbors saw the moving trucks and slipped an invite – a bright green photocopy of the fun details – under their door.  Louis mentioned the party to their therapist who loved the idea and recommended getting back out there, that new friendships were often the key to overcoming tragedy because on the whole, people were welcoming. 

It was true.  An hour into the event and Louis had already gotten the phone number of three separate single mothers and was on his way to a fourth when Heidi butted in slobbering on a piece of watermelon, her lips bright pink and shiny with juice.

“Are we going to do anything for Mom’s birthday?” she asked.  It was an innocent question, they had discussed potentially heading to the cemetery with cake and flowers, but out of context it made Louis look like a dirty dog.  The single mother scoffed, folder her arms across her bosom, and walked away mumbling about how all men were the same.

“Don’t swallow any seeds,” he told Heidi, slightly annoyed. “You don’t want a watermelon to grow in your tum-tum.”

In truth, he felt that Heidi was a little too old to believe that a watermelon would actually grow in her little belly.  She’d already debunked Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy that year when she’d caught Louis in the act as he put sloppily wrapped presents under their Christmas tree, or loudly came clomping into her room with a fistful of singles to slip under her pillow.  But for some reason, the idea of swallowing a seed stuck and the little girl looked as though she’d been handed a death sentence.

Heidi lowered the remaining chunk of melon and rind back towards her small paper plate and placed it on the chipped wooden table beside them.  She placed a hand over her stomach and looked up at Louis.

“I don’t feel well,” she said.

“It’s probably already starting to grow,” Louis joked, looking to see if there were any other women around without husbands that he could schmooze with.  It wasn’t as though he was glad his wife was gone, it actually pained him horribly, severely even.  It was that getting attention from someone new made him feel like he was in high school again where the idea of romance instead of pain was as wild and magical as sitting on the hood of an old beater car watching the sunrise with the captain of the girl’s varsity soccer team.

Heidi rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrist and wandered over to a tree to sit by the gnarled stump in the shade.

“Not feeling well?” a woman asked, walking over holding a silver tray with a pyramid of rice crispy treats.  She had close cropped black hair with angular bangs swooped across her face and tucked behind her right ear.  A low cut maroon v-neck revealed an array of beaded turquoise necklaces against perfectly mocha skin. Gold and silver bracelets dangled off of her arms, one of which had a dream-catcher tattooed just below the crook of the elbow.

“She’s fine,” Louis said.  “Stress of the move.”  He craned his neck to look at the plate of treats and felt the sides of his tongue begin to water.

“Take two,” the woman said.  “I’m Navi.”

“Louis.”

Navi held out the shining metal plate while Louis took two squares that were stuck together.  He nodded a quick thanks before shoving the first into his mouth and chewing without closing his lips.  Crumbs sprayed out like sand from the back of a shoe after a day at the beach.  

“So where are you from?” Navi asked.  She placed the tray down on the chipped wooden table and politely sat on the accompanying bench.  Louis instinctively followed.  The day was unusually warm, something more in line with late August than early June.

“Chicago,” he said, licking his fingers of the excess sticky marshmallow.  It reminded him of the time that he had lost his mother before Heidi was born, back when Alma was new to the picture.  Hesitant, he broke the news in an awkward phone call so filled with pain that he could barely keep his thoughts together.

“My mother is gone,” he said, startled by the pain of saying it out loud, let alone to someone he been dating for only a few months.

“Gone how?” Alma asked.

“To get cigarettes, like those dads that go get cigarettes and never come home,” he said, wincing at his own spiraling narrative.  She’s dead, he needed to say.  Just tell her she diedPeople have strokes all of the time.  But the words wouldn’t come.

“That’s weird,” Alma said.  “I didn’t know she smoked.”

Louis thought about smoking, and then imagined his mother getting cremated. It broke something inside. The deep roots of strength that he believed existed at his core were nothing more than seedlings poking through the ground during the first rain of hurricane season.

“I’m not doing this right,” he said, and his throat let loose a primal groan that seemed more appropriate for a zombie movie than a phone call with bad news.

“Oh…Oh lord” Alma gasped, realizing what he was trying to say.  “I’m at a gas station right now, but I’ll come over right away.  Work can do without me for an evening.”

Fifteen minutes later, Alma showed up at Louis’ door with a thin plastic bag bustling with chips, candy bars, ice cream and soda.  Louis fell to his knees and allowed himself to cry, to really accept the loss, and to let Alma see him as the broken man that he always knew he was.

Instead of passing judgment, Alma sat with him on the couch running soft fingers through his hair while the Chicago Blackhawks played on TV.  They ate the junk food together burning through bags of salty chips, gooey chocolate, and fizzy drinks.  They split a rice crispy treat, but as Louis ate his half, he caught Alma watching him.

“Take my half too,” she smiled.  Louis took the piece from Alma’s tender hands. He knew at once that he was deeply, madly, crazy in love and refused to imagine a future without the two of them together.

Now at the barbecue, the June sky hosting cotton candy clouds as a gentle wind skipped across the green grass chasing butterflies, everything began to sink back in.  Life had continued to push forward even as he silently begged for it not to.

“I love Chicago,” Navi said.  “You ever go to Second City?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Louis said, interrupting.  “If a person swallowed a watermelon seed…”

He started to trail off realizing the lunacy of his question.  Navi looked at Heidi who had moved to a different side of the tree.  Neighborhood kids had gathered and were giggling, interested in befriending the new girl.

“My father is Native American,” Navi started.  “He honestly believes that we cycle through life experiencing the same events in different ways until we learn what we’re supposed to learn.  Then, once we learned that lesson, life will change and start a new series of cycles.”

“My mother died of a stroke, my wife because of an aneurism, and I made my little girl’s head explode because I told her that eating a seed…” Louis paused again.  Saying true things out loud was harder than lying.  Being vulnerable wasn’t something he came by naturally.

Heidi got up from the side of the tree as a trail of kids followed behind.  She was clutching her stomach like she was carrying something heavy underneath.

“Daddy, you were right,” she said, lifting her shirt to show a swollen belly.  It looked like the little girl was pregnant. The protruding rounded skin was solid and turning green. Red veins traced the sides like tiger stripes.  Louis shot upright, shocked.

“What did you do?! How did this happen?” he asked, the same way he did when he found out Alma was pregnant.  Alma was smiling while Louis was terrified that their life together would be irreversibly changed.  He was right, just not in the way he had feared.

“I ate the seed,” Heidi said.  The girl seemed far less concerned than Louis.

“Children find ways of making real the things we say,” Navi said, reaching forward and tickling Heidi’s bare belly with the tips of her fingers.  Heidi chuckled and stepped back.  

“You don’t see…” Louis started, pointing at his daughter’s engorged, green stomach feeling horribly confused.  “I feel like I should get her to a doctor.”

Heidi shrunk away at the idea and turned to rejoin her new friends as they scampered back to the shade of the tree.  A dog barked in the distance.  Someone threw a yellow flying disc to their friend.

“Am I insane?” Louis asked.

“You’re shouldering a lot of responsibility,” Navi said.  “It’s natural to feel disconnected from time to time.” She pulled one of the treats from the tray and bit into one of the corners.  “What do you do for work?”

“Consultation for growing businesses.  We help them build infrastructures.  HR, accounts receivable, logistics, support, things like that.”

“That sounds helpful,” Navi said.

“For a growing business, absolutely.  Otherwise it’s chaos.  People get very bitter.”

“So it’s important that these growing businesses listen.  It’s important that they believe you.”

“That’s the idea,” Louis said.  Something about Navi reminded him of Alma.  Maybe it was the dark hair and mocha skin.  Maybe it was the way she listened without judgment and had an uncanny way of putting him at ease.

“My wife quit her job at a packaging plant to work for my company,” he said.  “She was our intake extraordinaire fielding phone calls, scheduling consultations.  It was perfect.  We sent her to conferences, let her work from home to be with Heidi.  But that’s what killed her.  It was a work trip abroad and…pop.” He made a bursting motion with his fingers near the back of his head.

“Did you tell her that you loved her?” Navi asked, taking another slow bite of the rice crispy treat.

“Not nearly enough,” Louis answered.

“And your daughter?”

“She knows,” he said, and watched as the children began marching back over to the bench.  Heidi was holding something in her arms that was wrapped in a beach towel.  The children cooed and whispered with hands cupped to their mouths.

“Look Dad,” the little girl said, unfolding the towel. “I had three watermelons.  Aren’t they cute?”

Louis was so startled that his whole body jolted backwards.  The small watermelons were the size of chocolate Easter eggs, but more than that they appeared to be breathing and nuzzling against each other.

He grabbed the bottom of Heidi’s shirt and lifted it to look at the girl’s belly.  It was no longer swollen and green, but rather back to the ten-year-old pudge it had always been.

“They’re beautiful,” Navi said.  “You must be proud.”

“This is Nina, this is Pinta, and this is Santa Maria,” Heidi said.  She looked at the small watermelons with large, loving and eyes.

“Who gave you those?” Louis asked.  His voice was stern.  “What have I told you about strangers?”

“I know you’re scared, Dad, but I swallowed the watermelon seed.  It is I who must bare the consequences.”

Louis stood up ready to snatch Heidi and leave the barbecue.  Whatever game she was playing, it wasn’t funny.  That phrase, it is I who must bare the consequences, was something that Alma had said over and over when making big decisions.  He overheard her say it when she spoke with her boss over the phone when she left the packaging plant, at the OBGYN when she discussed the legacy of hemophilia in her family, and when she told Louis that she was in love with him.  It was possible that Alma had also said it to Heidi, but he had never once heard her utter that phrase after their daughter’s birth.  He wondered if all that time away had done something irreparable to his relationships because he constantly found himself in the land of not knowing.

Navi extended a gentle arm and blocked Louis from stepping forward.

“Such a strong girl to go through this all by yourself,” Navi said to Heidi.

Heidi looked at her father and frowned.  “Sometimes we have to,” she said, and then walked back over to the shaded roots of the tree.  The other children joined her.

“The first language a child learns is story,” Navi said.  “The second language is games, things like risk/reward, probability and chance, and what if.  Their third language, which is spoken, becomes their native tongue.”

Louis felt crazy.  Was no one else aware of the bizarre game his daughter was playing, let alone how she was pulling it off?  Shouldn’t he be putting in an emergency call to their therapist instead of sitting on a bench eating homemade desserts? He looked at Navi who didn’t seem concerned at all and so he drew in a long, deep breath and exhaled.  

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“I’m not an angel, if that’s what you’re implying,” she said.

“Your tattoo,” Louis said, pointing to her arm.

“Oh, I thought you were using a pick-up line.  You know, fell from heaven. Sorry.”

“I’ve always wanted one but could never commit to one design.  I’m too afraid I’ll regret it somewhere down the road.”

“The thing about permanence is that we adapt.  Our choices become our lives and so imagining a life without those choices is fruitless,” Navi said, looking at Heidi.  “The things that are actually important to us, we don’t wear them on our bodies.”

After Alma died, Louis had considered getting a tattoo of her name on his shoulder so that she’d always be with him.  He’d gone so far as to show up to a parlor and talk with an artist – a woman with tattoos up and down both arms and neck – but backed out when it came time to make a deposit.

“She’s with you regardless,” the woman said, un-offended by the last second cancellation. “Be well.”

Shocked, Louis left the parlor wondering how many of his life perspectives had been misaligned, misinformed, and shaped by pain.  That night, he swung by a pizzeria and grabbed a deep-dish pepperoni so that he didn’t have to cook.  He and Heidi ate it on their living room floor sitting side my side and leaning against each other for support.  They put on a movie so that they could both share something else, and twenty minutes in, Heidi fell asleep in Louis’ lap.  He pushed some strands of hair out of his daughter’s sleeping face and felt the terrifying pressure of raising a child alone. Alma had left him with such an enormous responsibility, but in watching his daughter sleep, he saw that she was still a part of them both in ways that he could have never imagined.

“Thank you for talking to me,” Louis said.  Navi stood up and brushed a few renegade crumbs from her hips and knees.

“You’re a good man, Louis,” she said.  “I hope you’re able to see it, too.”

“Hey, you wouldn’t want to maybe go out sometime, would you?”

“The cycle continues,” Navi said, this time with a hint of a frown.  “Heidi doesn’t need a mother right now.”

They looked over and the young girl was walking back.  She was carrying a full sized watermelon like a football.

“This is the only one left.  It grew up faster than I was ready for.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of how it goes,” Louis said.

“I’m sorry I ate the seeds, Daddy.  I didn’t know this would happen.”

“There was no way to know.  It’s impossible to know.”

“I’m in charge of this watermelon now, and I can’t pretend I’m not.”

Louis pulled his daughter into an enormous hug. Scents of barbecue were locked in the fabric of her shirt and the back of her hair. The sun beat down casting their shadows in slender stretches behind them. Louis felt the seedlings inside of him start to sprout and blossom in spite of the hurricane.  He needed his daughter as much as she needed him, and that was how they would both survive the storm.

“I love you,” he whispered so that only she could hear.  “You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” she said, the watermelon pressing into both of their bellies. “It’s just nice to hear it sometimes.”



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