Melon Mall by Jeanette Topar
Arlen stood in the kitchen running his tongue over his gums and wondering what he could cook himself for dinner, something that didn’t require chewing. He hadn’t put his teeth in for weeks. Maybe they were in a glass in the upstairs bathroom or else right there in one of the kitchen cabinets. He hadn’t put on a shirt for a while either—he was a big bear of a man and sweated too much in the July heat to bother. He stared at the coffee can on the windowsill filled to the rim with grease. The bottom of the can had at least a few layers that Bea had poured from hamburgers, bacon, or scrapple she’d once made for him, and he’d continued the routine after her. The very next thing he fried was sure to cause an overflow. He carried the can to the back door and slid the congealed, gray cylinder onto the lawn.
He bent over to examine the brown specks and black chunks suspended in the melting fat. Somewhere in that lump was a piece of the last meal Bea’d cooked for him before she took to her bed.
“No hospital,” she’d insisted. Bea had been a woman of few words, and during their fifty-seven years of marriage Arlen had learned to pay close attention to those few she spoke.
Bea died exactly a year ago on the Fourth of July, in the front bedroom, while fireworks exploded over a neighbor’s field. Arlen had watched the display from the porch, seated right by the open window where she lay. He kept one eye on his wife and the other on the colored flashes in the night sky. She must have stopped breathing sometime during the grand finale, the part in the fireworks show where they throw in every last rocket they’ve got.
“And no funeral either,” she had said with that look in her eye, like a crow fixed on a grub worm.
So there’d been none, and everyone—the two daughters, the neighbors, the church—agreed it was for the best, especially since it was one of Bea’s last wishes. It wasn’t such an unusual request. All the Sheaffer girls down the road, when they passed—in their nineties, one right after the other—had gone straight from their bed to their grave without a fuss. Of course the Sheaffer girls were crazy and dined on groundhog some Thanksgivings.
Bea was cremated and her ashes spread on the shores of the Susquehanna right near the spot where, every summer, Arlen and Bea had run The Melon Mall, selling what they grew—cantaloupe, fruitpunch, honeydew, and Crenshaw—to the cars and rigs speeding along Route 11.
As he stood there watching the grease sink into the grass, somewhere deep in his brain Arlen heard a tiny whir. He hadn’t been bothering with his hearing aid for months either, so he wasn’t sure if the sound was from inside his head or out in the wide world. Or perhaps it was Bea, murmuring instructions to him about why he shouldn’t have dumped the can right there. But it was too late now, even for Bea’s advice about grease from the great beyond.
The wall phone in the kitchen was ringing.
Arlen was slow to lumber back inside to answer.
At the other end of the line, a woman said, “I got the message.”
Arlen dropped the receiver and it clattered on the floor. From faraway a voice he knew asked, “Arlen, Arlen, you there?” Instead of picking up the phone again, he opened the refrigerator and pawed past the carton of sour milk to find the open can of Yeungling he’d been sipping on the other night. He needed steadying to take this call.
“I got the message you left yesterday,” the woman on the other end shouted.
“Amelia.” Arlen took a big gulp. “I’m glad you called back.”
Later, after he hung up the phone, Arlen swallowed the rest of the beer and sucked on the opening until the empty can collapsed into itself.
His left leg trembled. He staggered backward onto a kitchen stool and sat down.
He thought about calling up his daughters to come over, but how could he tell them their eighty-year-old father wanted help getting ready for a date with his old high school sweetheart? After all, Bea had also made known to them, many times, another of her last requests.
“Don’t go calling up Titus’s widow the minute I’m cold,” she’d said when the cancer set in.
Arlen was going to have to find his teeth on his own.
© Jeanette Topar, 2015
Jeanette Topar writes short stories and lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in regional magazines and national literary journals such as The Greensboro Review, and featured by Liars’ League NYC at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Her one-act plays have won national competitions and been produced around the country. She has an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Newark.
Melon Mall was read by Jeff Wills on 5th August 2015 for Short & Sweet Flash Fiction