Nanehís Melon Thieves
by William Michaelian

The louder you yell, she said, the less the world hears you. Whisper, and the mountains will come tumbling down. Can you remember that? Live wisely. Live wisely, and donít add to the worldís misery. Donít be one of lifeís fools. There are enough fools to contend with already.

I nodded obediently at my great-grandmother.

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, she said.

Yes, Naneh, I said.

Now, go down into the cellar, and bring me the biggest watermelon you can find.

Thereís only one melon down there, I said.

Did I ask you how many melons were in the cellar? she snapped.

No, Naneh.

Then, what did I say? I want you to repeat my exact words.

You said, Bring me the biggest watermelon you can find.

So. You do have ears. At least we know that much.

I left Naneh sitting and smoking at her oak table and started toward the cellar.

Where are you going? she called after me.

To get your watermelon, I said.

Good. Make sure itís the biggest one, she said, raising her right hand and cigarette into the air.

Okay, I said.

I opened the cellar door, gave the light chain a quick pull, and started down the steps.

Upon reaching the bottom, it was perfectly obvious that there were no watermelons in the cellar. Thanks to her insatiable appetite for fruit, Naneh had already devoured her last melon, a beautiful thirty-pound Klondike. More astonishing than this, however, was the fact that she had done so since my visit the previous afternoon. In a mere fifteen hours, not counting time for sleep, she had consumed thirty pounds of watermelon ó for an impressive two pounds of melon per hour ó and then forgotten all about it.

For a long time, I stayed down in the cellar, worried to death. I was only thirteen years old. I was full of piss and vinegar, as the saying goes, but I still had no desire to anger my great-grandmother. As I paced back and forth in the gloom, counting the quart jars of pickles, grape leaves, and jam, I thought of my brother, Alex. Poor Alex . . . Lord, protect me, I thought, if I should ever make her that mad. When he was eight, Alex called the old woman a son of a bitch. He did so without malice, in all childish innocence, but details like that didnít matter to Naneh. To teach Alex a lesson, she poured red pepper on his tongue and sent him into the street in tears. Tell the world! she called out after him. Go ahead ó tell the world what you called your own flesh and blood!

I tried to think of what to do. On the one hand, if I told Naneh there was no watermelon in the cellar, she would call me a liar. This prospect alone was not frightening. But then she would have said, Bring it to me, and would have ground the stump of her cigarette into her saucer full of ashes as a sign of what would happen to me if I failed to produce the melon. On the other hand, if I told her the watermelon was too heavy for me to lift, she would have laughed at my little joke. But then she would have grown impatient and said, Wonderful, my boy ó now go get the melon.

Finally, after pacing for another ten minutes or so, I came up with a plan. I tiptoed back up the steps and found Naneh puffing away and looking dreamily off into space.

Where have you been all this time, she said to me when I planted myself directly in front of her.

In the cellar, I said.

I thought you were dead by now, Naneh said. I was going to call your father.

Not dead, I said. But almost.

Where is the watermelon? Naneh said, ignoring my last remark.

Itís still in the cellar, I said.

What good is it down there? she said.

She put a fresh cigarette into her mouth. I struck a match and held it up.

No good at all, I said. But they wouldnít let me take the melon. I had to leave it downstairs.

They? What do you mean, they?

The thieves, I said.

What thieves?

The two thieves in the cellar.

No one is in the cellar, Naneh said. Thieves or otherwise.

Maybe thatís what I should have told them, I said.

Oof. What did you say, exactly?

I said, Excuse me, but I need this watermelon.

You were polite, in other words. Go on.

For Naneh, I said.

The old woman nodded.

And who is this Naneh of yours? one of the thieves said.

My great-grandmother, I said. Itís her watermelon.

And I bent down to pick it up.

Good, Naneh said. Iím proud of you.

Then the same thief said, If you take that watermelon, boy, we take your life. He stood up and twisted the ends of his mustache. But I knew you wanted the melon, so I picked it up anyway and started climbing up the steps.

Right away, I felt the thiefís hand on my shoulder. Weíll kill you, he said, and that crazy old woman, too.

Naneh, his breath was horrible. It smelled like garlic and old sheep meat.

Like your Uncle Aram? she said.

Yes. Exactly like that. But did I drop the melon? No.

Iíll give you the melon, I told the smelly thief, if you promise me one thing.

Whatís that? the thief said.

You can keep the melon if you promise to explain the situation to my great-grandmother. That way, she wonít think Iím the one who took her melon.

A fair bargain, Naneh said with a satisfied smile. She leaned forward and added, Then the melon is still intact?

Of course, I said.

And Naneh smiled again.

Anyway, the thief started to think this over. Then he turned around and whispered something into the ear of the other thief. The second thief shook his head up and down. A few seconds later, he whispered something into the first thiefís ear.

Naneh finished her cigarette and immediately lit another. This other thief, she said. Did he also smell like your Uncle Aram?

No, I said. But he had only one eye, and a big scab where the other should have
been.

Oof, Naneh said.

Okay, the smelly thief said to me then, and he repeated the terms of our agreement. We keep the melon, he said. In exchange, we tell the old woman upstairs to let you off the hook. Fair enough?

Fair enough, I said, and I shook hands with both of the thieves.

And so, here you are, Naneh said abruptly. Safe and sound ó but with no melon.

Thatís it, I said. Safe and sound, but no melon.

Naneh stood up. I will speak with the thieves now, she said.

Iíd better go with you, I said.

No. Sit down. I will go alone.

Naneh went to the cellar door.

She walked down the steps.

She was gone for almost half an hour.

When she finally came back, I was in the middle of smoking one of her cigarettes.

Did you talk to the thieves? I said.

No, she said. I looked for them, but they had already escaped.

Itís probably for the best, I said. Did they leave the melon?

Oof, Naneh lamented ó of course not. They took the melon with them.

Iím sorry, I said.

Itís not your fault, Naneh said. Today, melon thieves are everywhere.

William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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