A high school boy is found dead in a watermelon patch. Is it murder or suicide? What is the mystery surrounding his death? What are the valley secrets that turn this quiet, church-going rural Nevada upside down? The story is an intimate flashback to the 1950's, a coming-of-age saga. A time when kids hung out together and shared a chocolate Coke, not a sniff of cocaine or meth, listened to the music of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and were awed by the "aboveground" testing of the atomic bomb. But was this era in our history as simply lived as most today believe? Will the people in Pinon Valley find the answers and peace to their doubts and heartache? Will the shadows hovering over them all dissipate, making way for the sunshine of their lives as they once knew it?
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The Watermelon Patch
I stood beside my best friend's wife in the small crowded cemetery wearing last year's mail-order suit that pulled at the shoulders, and made me uncomfortable.
Clasping Ali's sweaty palm, I glanced down at her, saw her chin quiver and looked quickly away. As the mourners hugged the gravesite, the Bishop said a few words, then a couple of church Elders joined him in forming a half circle. Hands behind their backs, heads bowed, they prayed. I stared down at the dark-stained wood casket that hid Jimmy Joe from us because it was too hard to look at Ali, and memorized the kaleidoscope of colorful flowers draped across the lid.
When the men finished praying, I released Ali's hand, stepped forward, plucked one of the white roses from the casket and brought it back to Ali. She held it delicately to her nose, sucked in a deep breath and let out a shuddered sigh. I had to look at her; I couldn't look away. Her beautiful brown eyes swam with tears. The slightest flicker of a smile rose at the edges of her pale mouth, then died. She looked at me and mouthed, "Thank you," then clutched the stem of the rose with both hands over her heart. My eyes burned. I knew the dam was ready to burst. Somehow I choked back the spillover.
Looking for a diversion from all the sniffles and sorrow, fighting to douse my own, I bent my head, fastened my eyes on Ali's navy blue dress, the pucker at the waistline giving away her early pregnancy. A baby Jimm Joe would never see. A sister or brother for Sara. The tears came. There was no containing them now. Ali reached for my hand and squeezed it tight. I lifted my head and looked into her eyes, and oh, the sorrow exposed there! It was too much. Ali, the prettiest girl in the valley, with quiet, dark features, was far too young to be a widow.
I led her away.
People blocked our path, crowding around the young widow, trying to give her comfort with words. "I'm sorry," and "Jimmy Joe was the best." Others said, "You're young, you'll get over it," and "You have to go on--for Sara's sake." As they spoke their words of kindness, Ali's face collapsed and it was so plain. Some of their "comfort" hurt like hell.
The entire valley had turned out for the funeral in loving respect for Jimmy Joe and his family, but right now all I could think of was wrenching Ali away from all this unbearable craziness, take her home and lock the doors. I had such a need to protect her from their words.
All of a sudden, she started running. I stared after her, trying to decide whether to follor or let her go. Then I saw who she was running to. Sara, the baby in her grandmother Leona's arms. She reached out her chubby hands to her mother, sobbing her little heart out. Ali gathered the baby close.
As others made their way from the cemetery, I watched them go, unable to make myself move. How could I leave Jimmy Joe here alone without me, afraid if I did, they would lower him into the ground and cover him with dirt. It was just too hard to think of my friend lying in that big gaping abyss. Cold and dark, suffocating without air. He was too young to die. I felt the hands at my sides curling into fists. I cleanched my eyes shut and memories flooded in. No more camp-outs on Two Buck Mountain, no more trying to top each other's mischief. No more . . . I think I hated my friend a little just then. How could he die and leave me hear to hurt so much?
I felt the tears trying to come again.
And right on cue, the rain came, easy at first, creating tiny puddles in the red earth.
I saw Claire Wallis, Jimmy Joe's mother, walk up to her son's grave and carefully place a red rose on top of the casket, then brush her fingers slowly over the wood. Claire was strong and brave, but how could she possibly survive this catastrophe? Jimmy Joe was her only child.
The rain fell harder now and still Claire lingered--alone. Where was Jimmy Joe's father? Glancing around I spotted him standing detached, dark and brooding, several yards from the grave. There wasn't a hint of sorrow on his face.
Claire walked away, but not toward her husband.
I took one last look at the coffin resting on a dark green pad. Water beads danced on the polished top. "Good-bye, Jimmy Joe," I mumbled.
Thunder cracked and rumbled across the sky in dead earnest now. The rain came in sheets. Those who'd dawdled, ran for their cars, coats pulled up over their heads. From a distance, I watched Ali's desperate flight from the cemetery, holding Sara's head protectively against her chest. Her long dar hair, one enormous curl spiraling down her back, was tied with a blue ribbon at her neck. It bobbled up and down as she ran.
Then she was gone.
The cemetery was empty, save the corpes.
Alone with my grief and memories, I dropped to my knees in the muddy red earth, let myself go and cried like a baby.
After a short time, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I ignored it at first, too consumed with pain to pay it any mind, then slowly angled my head and peered up at Bobby John Little. There he stood in the pouring rain, wearing only a thin, second-hand cotton shirt, soaked to the skin. A simple-minded child-like man with dirty thick blond hair so long it hung over his strange, two-color eyes. He was taller than me by several inches, and older by a year and a half. And the kindest human being on earth.
"C'mon, Lenny," he urged, pulling on my arm. "We gotta go. Yer gittin' awful wet sittin' in that soppy mud."
I let Bobby John help me to my feet and we walked out of the cemetery together to my old '41 Chevy.
We got inside and drove away.
The Watermelon Patch
Wow! Every now and then you will run across a book that really touches your heart so deeply that the story and characters remain on your mind and heart for days, weeks, and months after the last page. The Watermelon Patch is just such a book.
J. Gayle Kelly's characters are so real that you feel like you have met them at sometime in your own life. The innocense of being a teenager with all the joy of the bright dawn of becoming an adult, to the deep harshness of untold truths and abuses will take you from giggling with laughter to breaking your heart with tears. Kelly's breathtaking story takes you on a rollercoaster ride experiencing the joy of deep love between two teenagers, the excitement of a new life, the great bond between teenagers; parent's pain for their children, and the horrible agony of rape, incest, deception, physical abuse and youthful death.
...Evelyn Woodall, writing as Nanny Doodle
Author of Divorced at Six
The Watermelon Patch
J. Gayle Kelly doesn't tell you about poverty, she shows you. Kelly doesn't tell you about sorrow, trashed dreams, or hope, she tunnels these emotions into you with the preciseness only a talented writer can wield. Sorrow churns your gut, happiness lifts your heart, tears spill out ripped from you with the raw emotion Kelly pours into
The Watermelon Patch. But she never leaves you without hope for a better future for her characters.
From Spousal abuse, abject poverty, to a love so strong it transcends the pages, The Watermelon Patch touches on the personal lives of her characters giving new meaning to "Writing Down the Bones." There is no pretense here. It's as if Kelly had lived under the leaking roof, tangled web of relationships of Bobby John, his mother, Gerda, and his sisters, or she had been able to crawl inside a teenage boy's skin and know him from the inside out as she portrays Lenny Sir's growth from child to man. Watching and knowing life is fragile and not always fair.
I have a feeling this is a book that will have different meaning for different people. I think what you take away from The Watermelon Patch will depend on where you are, not just what physical area of the country you live in, but where you are emotionally, psychologically, socially, and--though America pretends to be a classless society--what class you are in.
This book is about family, the intimate family and their relationships with each other. It's about the family of classmates with whom you grew up. The one that challenged your belief systems, tested your wings and helped you become who you are meant to be while doing all the things teenagers do. But in the end, The Watermelon Patch, is about the community as family.
We experience all this through one character, Lenny Siri, though there are many equally strong, fascinating and delightful characters in the book that you will surely recognize on any street USA, where you grew up. You will be drawn to one of them. J. Gayle Kelly has rendered her characters so fully, so intimately, with very detailed and daring strokes of the pen, you'll become a very close part of the diverse community of Adaven.
When I think about The Watermelon Patch, I'm reminded that watermelons come in all shapes and sizes, the juicy center is the life of it, we spit out the seeds, get rid of them--if they land on fertile ground they will germinate and spawn to perpetuate the species, and maybe even be better than their parent generation. The Watermelon Patch is both metaphor and a significant icon of this book.
I highly recommend The Watermelon Patch. Guaranteed, you'll find yourself growing up with all the angst a teenager may feel, even in this world today many times removed from the 1950's of Adaven. In this world where the 1050's are relegated to stations playing the Oldies but Goodies, Take a walk through The Watermelon Patch. You'll never be the same.
...Billie A. Williams
Author of The Pink Lady Slipper, Knapsack Secrets, and other books
The Watermelon Patch
Although not truly a romance, The Watermelon Patch by my friend, J. Gayle Kelly, has a lot of romance in it. It is a coming-of-age in the 1950's with a mystery in it. I read it as soon as it was published and I highly recommend it. The book reads with a lot of reality and,having personally lived during this era, so much of what Kelly's characters do, rang true for me. It is a recommended read from me.
... Mary Jean Kelso
Author of The Homesteader, Blue Coat, Good-bye Forever, and other books.
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