The road had only been paved for less than ten years, and, out of respect to its previous condition, it still managed to cough up clouds of red dust whenever the occasional tourist or bored valley local managed to pull up under its rusty-red “WATERMELONS” sign or up to its solitary antique Sinclair gas pump. The small island around the gas pump was cracked asphalt, but the rest of the store’s “parking area” was still dirt and gravel. The round globe on top of the pump had the Sinclair logo with Dino, the green dinosaur, but several years before, some of the valley boys had thought that it would be amusing to scratch Dino’s legs off. Consequently, Dino looked more like the Loch Ness monster, but that had certainly not been the intent of the valley boys, who were on a moonshine binge and were easily amused by the thought of a legless dinosaur.

It was a hot afternoon in August of 1967, the middle of tourist season, and the old man had been driven out of the hot store onto the rickety front porch. He poured tobacco from a little cotton pouch into a thin piece of paper in his lap and rolled a cigarette, which he lit with a wooden match from a box in his pocket. He pulled his seasoned straw hat over his sweat-drenched forehead, tugged at his suspenders and leaned back in his chair as he gazed out toward the road, scanning for prospective customers. They would either be tourists looking for gas, or locals dropping by for a game of checkers on the front porch or to pick up one of his county-famous, delicious watermelons that he and his wife, Bertie grew in their own garden.

Across the road from the store, at the top of a large whiteoak tree, a flash of black feathers and a “caw, caw, caw!” briefly distracted Jonah and he squinted up in the direction of the sound. Behind him, inside the store, among the cans of soup and dogfood and boxes of soap, above the noise of the frantic (yet unsuccessful) efforts of a valiant ceiling fan, his old vacuum-tube radio crackled with local farm news and reports from the Vietnam war on the other side of the world.

Ah yes, the war. For a moment Jonah reflected on his experiences in the trenches of France in the first war. Like always, these memories segued into the foggy scenes of the frustration of he and Bertie anxiously waiting to hear from their son, Roy Lee chasing after Hitler in Germany. Both he and Roy Lee had survived their respective wars and had returned home intact to the mountain. This time, though, it was his grandson Dale’s turn, and the old man couldn’t help feeling little twinges of doubt as to how it would turn out for him. In the ’40s, he had still been relatively young and strong, and he had always felt that if Roy Lee had gotten into a jam, he would have somehow managed to get over there and bring him home. After all, he had survived the ordeal once before, jammed into uncomfortable conditions and French villages with hundreds and maybe thousands of other men, and he had lived to tell about it. However, he’d left a first cousin and one of his childhood friends over there. His cousin had taken a German bullet through the heart; his friend had been struck down by that mysterious flu, and it killed him just as dead, though not as quickly.

Dale’s war was different. Jonah and Roy Lee had had distinct objectives; win the war or die trying. In both cases, the enemy was obvious and defeat would have been a disaster. With Vietnam, however, Jonah felt like the goals were hazy, and though he had enthusiastically supported Dale’s decision to enlist, he couldn’t quite figure out the objective for this new kind of war. He also knew that if Dale got into trouble, he’d have to get himself out of it; Jonah was too old to travel to the other side of the world, and Roy Lee had lately been having some medical problems. This fear for Dale’s safety was not unwarranted; initially, the family had gotten several letters a week from him, but the letters had stopped abruptly the month before. Dale had warned that there may be a break in the correspondence—they were on the verge of some sort of special mission deep into the jungle—but he had promised an update as soon as he was “in the clear.” He had hinted that there may be a promotion for him on the other end of the mission.

Jonah’s war-torn reverie was abruptly broken by the unmistakable pop-pop-popping sound of car wheels on the gravel in front of the store, and he looked up to see a county squad car crunching in fast from the opposite direction. The deputy, J.D. Blevinger, was a big man. He slowly pushed open the squad car’s door, as his rear-panel antennae whipped back and forth like an old gradeschool teacher’s chastising index finger. He flipped the stub of a brown-stained Winston, burned down to the filter, into the gravel as he huffed and puffed his way up to the store’s wooden steps. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, framed by strands of short, greasy black hair around a receding hairline. The sweat had also created large, dark floral patterns under his arms and down the front of his pressed khaki uniform shirt. Together with his deputy badge, it gave the appearance of a huge traveling map, with a shiny star in the middle.

“Afternoon, Mr. Kinsey,” Blevinger said, pausing on the steps and wiping his sweaty brow with a nasty handkerchief, “Hot enough for y’all?”

Jonah’s first thought was to say, “No, Blevinger, come on inside and we’ll fire up the cookstove so maybe it can melt the rest of that pea-sized brain you got rolling around behind that ugly mug,” but he managed a weak smile instead and said, “I do believe it is, Deputy. Would you like a Co-Cola to cool you off?”

“Yessir, thank ya,” Blevinger said, smiling a gap-toothed grin, “That sure would hit the spot.”

“Plus, it’s free,” Jonah thought to himself. He went inside the hot store and reappeared with a frosty bottle of coke; it had already begun to sweat as he handed it to the deputy.

Blevinger threw his head back and let the cold liquid drain down his throat. “Thanky,” he said, wiping his mouth with his hammy paw, “Ain’t nothin’ like a Co-Cola on a summer day.”

“So they say,” Jonah said, once again scanning the dusty road and tugging at his grizzled gray beard. “Well, Deputy…what brings you out to the valley this fine day?” he casually asked.

“Hippies,” Blevinger replied, “We got a call that there was a busload of ’em headed out this way.”

“What’d they do?” Jonah asked.

“Nothin’ yet, as far as we can tell,” Blevinger said, “But we gonna keep it that way. Ain’t no reason for ’em to be here. So’s I mean to find ’em and escort them out of the county. That is, unless I find somethin’ on ’em that shouldn’t be. All we need is marijuana or heroin spillin’ over into this county,” he winked, “We’ll leave that kind of foolishness to Knoxville and Nashville and Merry Christmas to ’em.” As if he were awakened by his own speech, Blevinger suddenly seemed to have a new sense of urgency, and he stood up, finished off his drink, rubbed his big hands together and waddled down to the squadcar. “If you do happen to see ’em, Mr. Kinsey,” he called up, sticking his head out the squad car’s window, “Call the headquarters, and they’ll radio me.”

To Jonah it sounded more like a command than a request, and he felt the stirrings of anger beginning to move like bile up his gut, but before the impulse could reach his tongue, the calm of the afternoon was interrupted by a convertible with an elderly couple tearing down the valley road past the store. “Whee-e-e-e-e!” Jonah thought. Blevinger quickly screwed on his Smoky Bear deputy hat, flipped on the red light and siren and took off in the direction of the speeding tourists, thowing dust and gravel in the direction of Jonah and the store.

“Dadblamed mo-ron,” Jonah said disgustedly under his breath, shaking his head, but before the dust could settle, the old phone inside the store began to ring. “What now?” he said. He made his way inside the sweltering store and switched off the radio before ambling back to the ancient black phone on the wall behind the counter. “Hold your water, I’m coming,” he said to the ringing phone. “Store!” he said into the receiver after yanking it off the hook.

There was initially silence on the line, but finally the voice said, “Jonah?” It was Bertie. “Jonah, has Roy Lee been down at the store?”

Jonah’s voice softened. “Not today. Somebody looking for him?”

“No. He and Bettye just got back from Nashville and they stopped by here, but I was out in the garden, so I missed them, and I thought maybe they’d stopped by the store.”

“No. Hadn’t seen ’em,” Jonah said, but he was thinking, “What’s wrong? What’s going on...?”

“Their neighbor across the road, Miz Bell, said Western Union was there this morning right before they got home from Nashville, and now they’re worried that it’s some news about Dale,” Bertie said, worriedly. “Western Union didn’t leave any kind of note or nothing. Why would they do that? So now Roy Lee is nervous as a cat. This is the last thing he needs. ’Course, Bettye’s crying and crying. You know how she carries on.” Bertie sighed, “If they didn’t stop by the store, maybe they just went on into town to Western Union.”

“I hate telegrams,” Jonah thought, “It’s never good news. I hate Western Union.” But finally he said, “Did they call down to Western Union?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t talk to ’em,” she said. The phone line was popping and crackling. “I was out in the garden and I heard them drivin’ off, but I couldn’t catch ’em. They’s already on the main road when I got up to the house. So I called Miz Bell to see if she knew what was goin’ on and she told me about the Western Union man. Wonder why he didn’t leave a note?”

“Because I hate Western Union,” Jonah thought, but he said, “It’s probably nothing. Don’t worry until you have to. Just let me know if you hear something, and if I need to, I’ll close up and head home or over to Roy Lee’s.”

As Jonah hung up, he was vaguely aware of someone standing behind him in the store. He must have quietly come into the store while he was on the phone with Bertie. Jonah was not a timid man, but he was carefully cautious; his experiences during wartime had permanently ingrained that into his various routines. He had always felt that that caution had not only kept him alive during the war, it had continued to keep him alive. He had had some minor shoplifting in the store through the years, but as long as he had owned the store, he had never been robbed, and he meant to keep it that way.

Instinctively, he felt along the shelf under the cash register for his hidden blue-steel .38 as he turned to address the stranger. He was startled to see a young man, in his early 20s, with long, curly hair and a full beard staring back at him with a quizzical gaze. “It’s just a kid,” Jonah thought. He relaxed his grip on the hidden gun and folded his arms as he surveyed the young man. “Can I help you?” he asked.

The boy wore dirty bell-bottom blue jeans, frayed at the bottom with quilted patches on both knees. His outfit was magnified with dusty Mexican sandals and a worn, yellow t-shirt with splotches of aqua and purple and “LOVE NOT WAR” printed across the chest. “Does your gas pump work?” the boy finally said.

“More than you,” Jonah thought of saying, but instead he replied, “Should be working.” He looked past the boy, through the screen door and studied the vehicle outside, idling in front of the store. It was a Volkswagen van, and a young blonde woman wearing a full dress was climbing out of the passenger side and stretching. “Well, Deputy, I found your hippies,” Jonah thought to himself.

“So you sell watermelons.”

“Say what?” Jonah returned his gaze to the boy.

“Watermelons. You’re the watermelon man. S’posed to be good watermelons. Is that true? Or is it some overblown hype. Let’s see one of these magic watermelons, man. Show us what you got.”

“Is this kid messing with me?” Jonah thought. “If he is, he picked the wrong day, the wrong store, and the wrong old man...”

“Listen, son...” Jonah began, leaning across the counter toward the young man, but he was interrupted by the screen door flying open and a young blonde woman sailing into the dark store.

“Did you ask him about the watermelons? Those special, magic watermelons?” she demanded.

Jonah turned abruptly to address the woman, “Alright, listen, you two...” he said, trying to control his rising anger, but the girl’s appearance stopped him in mid-sentence. She was pretty, that was clear enough, but she seemed to try and hide it under a floppy hat, a long flour-sack cotton dress and wild flowers and sparkly beads from the brim of her hat to the hem of her long dress. Her outfit was rounded out by bright red and black cowboy boots. She was smiling, and her beautiful blue eyes were twinkling. What?!!! Not only had she already chosen one of his melons, she had already sliced it and was sucking on a big piece, the juice dripping off her chin. An image flashed in Jonah’s head of a toddler, holding a raggedy baby doll, climbing up onto his lap and smiling with those same eyes and straggly blonde hair, holding a big slice of watermelon in her hand.

Wait a minute!!! “Frances?” he said, somewhat confused. “Fran? Frannie? Is that you?”

“Papa Joe,” the girl said, “You still have the bestest watermelons in the world!” She was handing a slice to the boy.

Jonah came out from behind the counter and brushed by the boy, who was also smiling, to hug the girl. “Frannie! What are you doin’ here? We all thought you were in California. San Francisco?”

“Yeah, Frannie,” the boy said, “what are we doing here?”

“Sit down. Sit down. Sit down,” Jonah said, pulling up a couple of old wooden folding chairs.

“This is Steed,” she said, blushing and nodding at the boy, “Steed, this is my grandfather. And Papa Joe, I go by ‘Fern’, now.”

“Oh that’s great,” Jonah said, “A horse and a plant, all the way from California.”

“That’s my granddad!” the girl laughed.

“That’s my ‘Frannie’!” the boy said.

“Ha ha,” she said, shooting the boy a pretend look of anger.

“You’ve been gone for two years,” Jonah said, “I didn’t hardly recognize you. What have you been up to?”

“San Francisco is...incredible. We have thousands of friends and thousands of friends we haven’t met yet. There’s music and art and love everywhere. In June, we were at a concert with 60,000 other beautiful people and it was just...groovy.”

“It was what?” Jonah asked. It didn’t sound beautiful to him. There weren’t 60,000 people in their county. He couldn’t imagine that many people in one place at one time. It sounded worse than a college football game, which he’d rather listen to on the radio.

“Don’t mind her, Papa Joe,” the boy said, “She’s just talking hippie.” Jonah wasn’t sure he liked this kid calling him Papa Joe. The boy continued, “What Fern is trying to say is that it’s just a peaceful place. Everyone helps their neighbors. If someone’s hungry, we find food for them. If someone’s broke, we find some money for them. It’s like Utopia, man. It’s peace, and love and music, everywhere, all the time.”
“Okay,” said Jonah, alreday weary of the discussion, “So what brings you back to the valley?”

“That old microbus,” the boy laughed, pointing to the van outside. “But...yeah, that’s a good question. Fern...what brought us back to the valley?”

“I missed you, Papa Joe!” she said, seriously. “And Mama Bert, and Dad and Mom. And this store. And the valley. And the mountains. And your delicious magic watermelons!”

“Yeah,” the boy added, “and we weren’t really doing anything in San Francisco. Nothing important, really...just trying to make music, live in peace and end the war!”

The war! Suddenly Jonah remembered the situation that had hung in the air before he was interrupted by the arrival of the two young people. Jonah shot a long, stern look at the smiling boy and then he turned to the girl. “Frannie. We think something may be up with your brother.”

“What’s going on with Dale?” she said, suddenly serious.

“We haven’t heard from him in awhile. The last letter he sent us from...” Jonah shot a glance at the boy, “VIET-NAM...he was going on some sort of special mission. It may be nothing, but your folks had a visit from the Western Union man this morning. They missed him, actually, so they may be on their way downtown to the telegraph office.”

“Oh, Papa Joe, you know Dale,” she said, “He’s always gotten into scrapes and he’s always gotten out of them. Remember when those Cosby boys ran him off the road and cornered him down by the stone bridge? Over some Cosby girl. There was four of them and one of him...”

“Hope you’re right. But we’re not talking about the stone bridge and a few Cosby boys. We’re talking about a big ol’ dark jungle and a few million Commies in...VIET-NAM,” Jonah said, looking over at the boy and daring him to comment.

The boy opened his mouth, but the loud ring of the ancient phone stopped his response. Jonah shuffled back behind the counter and lifted the receiver off the hook. “Store,” he said, much more quietly than the way he previously answered it.

It was Bertie on the line. “Jonah,” her voice quivered, “I think you’d better close up and come home. I just got a call from Roy Lee. They’re coming over to the house.”

“What’s going on?” Jonah asked. The two young people watched in silence.

“Roy Lee and Bettye found out something, but they didn’t want to tell me over the phone,” she said. “Can you close up and come home?”

“I’ll be right there,” he said, before hanging up. Then, to the two sitting in the store, “That was your grandma. I think we got some news about your brother. I don’t know what’s going on, but I...we...need to get to the house.” Jonah jerked his head and cursed under his breath. “I didn’t even tell your grandma you’re home. Boy, this is some kinda day.”

As the three walked out onto the rickety porch, the deputy’s squad car roared into the gravel, kicking up dust and blocking the VW van. As he jumped out of the car with his hand on his holster, his hat went sailing over the car’s roof and into the road. “Hold it, you two,” he said, “Don’t move.”

The boy suddenly went pale, but Jonah just rolled his eyes. “It’s okay, Deputy,” he said, “They’re harmless.”

“Thank you, Mr. Kinsey,” Blevinger said, “But I’ve got some questions for these two.” The deputy started up the old steps, staring at the two young people, his hammy paw still on his holster.

“Actually,” Jonah said, “I need a word with you.” He grabbed the deputy by his gun arm, gently at first, but squeezed until the large man looked at him with surprise. “Let’s walk down to your car.” The deputy hesitated at first, but with a parting glance at the two on the porch, followed the old man down to the car.

“I would offer you a Co-Cola, but I’ve done shut down my store,” Jonah said in a friendly voice, loud enough for the two on the porch to hear. Once they got down to the squad car, he leaned in close to the deputy and said in a quiet, but forceful voice, “Listen, Blevinger, one of the ‘hippies’ that you’ve cornered at my store, on my property, is my granddaughter, Frances. She and her friend are here from California to visit the family. You have questions for them? Well, join the dadblamed club...don’t you think we got questions for her?”

Blevinger moved back against his squad car. His hand was still on his holster and his eyes darted from Jonah to the two on the porch, like a big, trapped animal. “Mr. Kinsey, I got a job to do,” he said, “I don’t want no trouble from you, but I got responsibilities.”

“Okay, we got a few choices here,” Jonah said decidedly, “You can get back in your car and find yourself some more speeding tourists down the valley road, or we can call your boss—the sheriff—a man I’ve known since you were still making a mess in your diapers, and we can have a quick discussion with him, can take off that fancy gunbelt and we can settle it right here in front of my store. I will tell you this, though. Questioning my granddaughter and her friend from Cal-i-for-ni-a is an option that is not on the table for you. So...Deputy...what’s it gonna be?”

Blevinger open his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, an RV whisked by the store, crushing the deputy’s hat in the middle of the valley road. Blevinger suddenly looked relieved at the distraction and jumped behind the wheel and tore off after them. “They weren’t even speeding,” Jonah said to himself.

When Jonah and the two young people pulled up Roy Lee’s long, dirt driveway, he was surprised to see that the farmhouse was empty. “We must have beat your folks home,” he said to his granddaughter. The three got out of the old man’s pickup and climbed the steps to the front porch.

“Steed,” the girl said, “This is where I grew up.”

“Cool,” the boy said, pushing the porch swing, “I wish we had a porch swing like this back in the city.”

“I wish we had a porch,” she replied.

“Steed,” Jonah said to himself, sighing and shaking his head. “Good grief. I’m guessing his real name is Stanley.”

Beyond the farmhouse’s front pasture, a mourning dove’s call drifted across the field. As the old man looked in the direction of the bird’s call, he saw an approaching vehicle coming down the narrow asphalt road that ran by Roy Lee’s driveway before connecting to the valley road into the National Park. It was a late-model Chevy, painted in a light military green. Waves of late afternoon heat shimmered up from the pavement and added an eerie effect to the scene. A short distance behind the Chevy was Roy Lee’s pickup truck. Finally, a squad car followed the other two from a respectful distance. Jonah couldn’t tell if it was Blevinger, but, at any rate, at least the cruiser’s redlights weren’t flashing.

The three stood on the porch as the processional turned up Roy Lee’s long dirt driveway—Roy Lee’s house was at least a quarter of a mile from the paved road. All that was visible from their vantage point on the porch was the front end of the Chevy...everything else was covered in an orange-brown cloud of driveway dust kicked up by the arrival of the vehicles. The cattle in the two fields on each side of the driveway cautiously backed slowly away from their fences. A few bolted, but most just silently watched as the three vehicles made their way up the driveway’s eroded hill. The cloud of dust slowly followed them up the driveway, like a huge orange blousy curtain.

The three on the porch slowly stepped down onto the steps and silently watched as a solitary soldier got out of the Chevy, still shrouded in the cloud of dust. The only sound was the creaking doors of Roy Lee’s pickup being slowly opened. But the pickup was lost somewhere in the dust cloud, along with the squad car.

Suddenly, the girl bolted from the porch steps, covering the distance in the courtyard between the cars and farmhouse in a matter of seconds. It looked to Jonah like she was running in slow motion, like time had somehow slowed down and that moment was being captured frame by frame. Her path was littered with beads, wildflowers, and her floppy hat, all bouncing off of her as she ran, her cowboy boots kicking up the dust behind her. Her long cotton dress flowed behind her like a regal robe as she threw her arms around her brother in his dusty uniform. Across the pasture, the neighbor’s collie, Ranger, barked at a big black crow, which flew in lazy circles over the dog, taunting him from the air. A sudden breeze from over the mountain picked up the big bird, and he sailed with the strong current until he was on the far side of the valley, a black dot lost in the low afternoon sun.

©Copyright 2010 Bridgital/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.