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Watermelon and Death

Dr. David, Editor / Publisher

T.S. Eliot wrote, "April is the cruelest month..." Here in San Miguel, May is the hottest. When June's rains arrive, I put away my fan. But every afternoon until then it is spinning.

Watermelon is another way to beat the heat. There is always some in my refrigerator, no matter the season. Call me boorish, but one of the things I like best about life in Mexico is the ability to eat watermelon year-round. A hot climate is required to grow it and to eat it. Back in naturopathic school, in the shade of the Redwoods, I once ate so much of it that my kidneys ached, which is a real no-no according to Chinese medicine.

There is an art to choosing a good watermelon, but you also need luck. A ripe watermelon sounds low when you slap it, but, be warned, so does one that's over-ripe. Then, there is the process of applying your ear to the end where the stem was and squeezing that rump between your palms. A popping sound, similar to what is heard through a stethoscope when there is water in the tiny airways of the lung, is what you want to hear... in the watermelon, not the lungs.

Unfortunately, even if the melon is perfectly ripe, it still may not be sweet. And while an under-ripe watermelon will still mature a bit in your refrigerator, a blah ripe one will only get mushy.

From the northern climes, no expert in what's involved, I always leave the choosing up to an employee of the fruit and vegetable shop. For years, I patronized the verduraria on Refugio sur, just down the hill from my place here in San Antonio.

I still shop at that store for general needs, but, a couple of years ago, a series of lack-luster watermelons changed my buying patterns. I started purchasing my whole green behemoths from a shop on Stirling Dickinson, just down the hill from my place in another direction. That store has more melons to choose from, and I had a good, long lucky streak buying them there. Yes, they charged more than the shop on Refugio, but I'll pay more for better watermelon... gladly.

I bantered with Pascual, the owner of the Stirling Dickinson shop, asking questions about his life and business, offering my jokes, applause and advice. Mexicans, of a certain class, love to laugh, and so do I. The place was a family affair. If Pascual wasn't there, and sometimes even when he was, the shop was attended by his wife, one of his two daughters or his son.

I've seen his boy grow a couple of heads in height, transforming from a skinny kid into a husky teen. To Pascual's great delight, I once declared in the middle of the shop, "¡Esta creciendo como un toro!" (He's growing like a bull!)

Another time, finding Pascual all alone, I asked where all his help was. On being informed that the family were all vacationing in Cancun, after complementing him on the health of his business, I suggested, "Puedes adoptarme" (You can adopt me), a comment that elicited coos of "Que lindo" (How nice) from a woman shopper.

All was well until two months ago, when a series of disastrous melons purchased from his store gave me pause. A mediocre watermelon, or one that starts passing its prime as I work my way through it, can be juiced in a blender and used to make smoothies. If you can't drink that many smoothies that quickly, the juice freezes well. But the melons in this disastrous string of purchases were all too over-ripe, useless even for smoothies.

I'd go back and complain. They'd give me another, at no charge. But each turned out to be no better than the ones before it. Then it was, "Come back next week when the new shipment comes in." Then, "Let's extract a sample before you buy it." Then, I went back to the shop on Refugio.

Usually, I schlep these whole watermelons on my bicycle. Hanging in a sturdy bag from my handlebars, it's more than a little precarious. So a few days ago, with only a day's supply of the magical fruit in my refrigerator, about to drive my car by Pascual's shop, I stopped and went it.

Everything was different: the broccoli was out of place, the shelves which held the dry goods were empty and, worst of all, instead of Pascual and his family, there were two strange young men managing things. I felt that I had stepped into a parallel universe, like Superman's Bizarro World, where things were the same, but different.

"Who are you? New owners?" I asked worriedly.
"No. We're just employees," they responded.
"Where is the owner?" I demanded, visibly upset
They couldn't say.
"Where is Pascual? Porque estan molestandome?" (Why are you playing with me?)

"No estamos molestandote," (We're not bothering you), one conciliated.
Then the other, rather sheepishly looking up, drew his thumb across his throat and murmured, "Pascual se murio?" (Pascual died.)
No me digas!" (Don't tell me that!) I blurted out in genuine horror.
"La Covid," he offered by way of explanation.

I tell it all rather quickly here, but actually there was more back and forth involved, including the purchase of a watermelon (mediocre) before the fact of Pascual's demise was revealed.

For a casual acquaintance, I took the news hard. I got into my car and drove home, shaken. With the sun just set, I gave my patio garden a good watering in dusk's gathering gloom, and thought of poor Pascual.

He was 46, vibrant, proud of what he had achieved, with great plans for the future. He had started selling fruit from boxes on the street. Then he acquired accounts with major restaurants in town, supplying them with fruit and vegetables. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy a bigger truck. He was really proud of that truck. I remember waiting two full minutes while he searched his phone for photos of it. Then he rented the store, and, verily, a lot of fruit and veggies passed through that shop. I told him that having the support of his family made it much more likely that he would achieve his ambitions, great as they were. Of course, he already had that factored in. But now, Pascual won't be achieving those ambitions.

I know that people die. But the ones I've known in San Miguel who've done so have gone off to the great beyond with some 30 more years than Pascual. At a different time of life, they didn't have his drive or ambition. They didn't have family members directly depending on them. And they weren't selling me watermelons.

I don't mean to be disrespectful. But that's what we had between us; watermelons, the occasional cantaloupe and a sense of humor. My glibness is in accord with the lightheartedness they have towards death here in Mexico. They make candies shaped like skulls. Anyway, Pascual would have gotten the joke. I like to think he's laughing about it now in that big fruit stand in the sky.

Rest in peace, Pascual.

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