Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Mellow Milo & Melanie Ryne

It wasn't the eye-popping poster pinned on the porch, nor the cheerful and chortling chatter which charmed the atmosphere outside that drew people in by the droves: it was the air.

A tropical breeze perpetually wafted out from between the two large wooden doors which hung on their hinges beneath the cautionary sign that read, "Take care: this door swings both ways," and trailed off merrily by quoting the rest of the Herman's Hermits' hit. The clinking of cutlery could be heard beyond the entrance was the second most common reason for passers-by to become partakers-in the little shop. The third reason that new people seemed so magnetically drawn to the building was its extraordinarily snowman-like shape. Three large globes sat stacked atop each other in architectural madness. Even the highest of brow and most impervious to temptation were finally broken by the curiosity stirred up by this magnificent feat. No one knows whether or not a fourth reason to enter was ever contrived of, as it was never required; every local, visitor and tourist was inevitably conquered by one of the first three.

Walking through the doors was like diving headlong into a giant vault of rainbow sorbet without any feeling of stickiness or chill. The experience was intensely pleasurable and refreshing, and if staying inside was not so obviously the superior decision, I wouldn't be surprised if people spent their whole day simply walking in, over and over again. But insidewas better.

Suspended in the middle of the enormous, open, multileveled space hovered threehumungous fruits. No matter what day of the week you choose to come you will always be met by one watermelon, one honeydew melon and one of six rotating berries: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, huckleberry, appleberry and chinaberry (a hybrid of Milo's clever invention which took a juicy, bulbous form with the crisp flavor of an Asian pear). They were open six days a week (closed on Sundays as a matter of principle), and every day the place was packed. It was no surprise, therefore, that Dani Dulce stood in the cue for a full nineteen minutes before finding herself next in line.

"Good morning! Welcome to Milo and Melanie's Mega Melon! Healthy is our philosophy and sweet is our tooth. Do you know what kind of spoon you'd like today?" Mounted on the wall behind the pretty cashier was a rhinocerosly large collection of spoons arranged in boggling spectrum.

"Yes," said the man at the counter. "I'd like a glazed candy-apple red spoon, short handled, medium weight and… let's go with strawberry Jolly Rancher this time. Thanks, Molly."

The girl gave the gentleman a flouncy sort of bow and spun around to face the wall. After a half-second she stretched up on her toes and lifted a spoon from its peg. She handed it to the man. "That will be thirty cents today, Mr. Jordan. If you have dimes, that would be lovely." The man chuckled. "I fill my pockets with them these days," he said, counting three out on the counter. The pair laughed mirthfully and he shuffled on his way. Dani stepped forward.

"I haven't seen you before!" beamed the girl behind the counter. "I've worked every shift since we opened and I can confidently claim that your face is a new one. This is your first time here, yes?" Dani nodded. "I couldn't resist the smell!" "Ah!" exclaimed the girl, "That's our primary marketing strategy - but as you can see, it isn't false advertising! Do you have a preference of spoon?"

The tinkling utensils were displayed without the clutter of labeled explanations. Thankfully Dani's dazed expression was answer enough and she was spared the uncomfortable confession of confusion. "I'll call Melanie and she'll show you around. I know it's a sensory overload at first, but you'll have the codes cracked in no time! Just take a seat over there and she'll catch up with you in a few minutes."

Dani was ushered toward a long bank of chairs that were oblong and dark in colour. They were carved of variously sized giant seeds collected from the days before Milo figured out how to reduce them in size from five feet in height and circumference down to one foot. The seeds collected nowadays were washed thoroughly and dropped into a machine that whittled them into helmets, for customers without the freedom of time to stay their hour. The Melon Baller (an intern in his early twenties, working his way towards a culinary scholarship) would scoop a sphere of their selected fruit into the helmet and send it down a long chute to the front counter. "Protect Your Melon!" was inscribed on the front edge of each container. Almost everyone still chuckled at the little joke.

A designer from California who specialized in the creative upcycling of giant orange pips ergonomically engineered the seats. His only requested payment was unlimited spooning privileges whenever his family found themselves across the country. Melanie and Milo were both thrilled by the arrangement and made a point of inviting them a few times a year. It was a profitable partnership for both parties and in a few short months "Seeded Seating" was in every other household for three towns around. But Dani didn't know any of this and she never thought to ask - there were so many other things to think.

Melanie Ryne, co-owner and co-founder of the Mega Melon, slid across the floor with the tap-dancing suave of Fred Astaire, leaping with the grace of a gazelle and landing with the confidence of a lion and the lightness of a bird. Her dress was of a pearled pink that matched a column of spoons and she wore jewelry of a gold so warm as to almost be rose-coloured. Her voice was both calm and excited: a sound that enticed a listening ear.

"Good morning!" she sang in a tone that reflected the joy of her expression. "My name is Mel. Molly tells me that you're looking for a tour?" Dani smiled and nodded. "Well," said Mel, "first thing first. We need to get you a spoon."

Pulling up a neighbouring seed, Melanie unfolded a large card from her pocket and spread it open across her knees. It was an oversized photograph of the cutlery wall, with pull-tabs at the head of each row and column. "You may have noticed," she politely began, "that our fare is a fairly fine-tuned affair. We peddle plastic and medal handles with sculpted sugar scoops and we sell the dissolving not-so-silver wares to our patrons by the hour. We needn't charge much, as the fruit is donated daily and sugar is cheap. My husband is a brilliant chemical engineer and concocted a formula that, regardless of flavouring, would stay stiff for fifty-nine minutes and dissolve by the sixty-first. We sell the spoons for thirty cents a piece: ten cents covers cleaning and reforming of the spoons, ten from each goes toward the cleaning and maintenance of the building, and ten is divided amongst the volunteers at the end of each day. We don't have a cash register - just four large jars behind the counter. If we are paid in dimes, they are immediately divided among the first three causes. The fourth jar holds any other money that needs to be divided later. We have never been stockless, lightless or dinnerless in seven years of business, thanks to the loyalty and generosity of our clientele."

"But what of the fruits?" asked Dani, still mystified by the magnificent melons.

"We befriended a family of foreign giants shortly after we were married, you see. Each of our great fruits is gifted to us by one of three salad-growing farms. Agriculture in their lands functions quite differently from the fields of the human realm: instead of one or two crops that will be manufactured into many different products, giants simply choose one or two products they most enjoy and raise them directly from the earth. On one of our travels we once came across a greenhouse full of baby ice cream parfaits! Unfortunately they weren't quite ripe and we had to forgo the experience. Too bad, really. But I digress."

Melanie gave the first tag a tug and the column furthest left popped up like a children's book. "From left to right the spoons are arranged by colour. We begin with pearled pearl," she said, wriggling the first tab, "then pearled rose, saffron, apricot, buttercream, wild lemon, aloe, mint, forget-me-not, corn flower, eggplant, mica and chestnut. Then come our glazes in a similar array, then the mattes, the chrome metallics and we're waiting on a new line of organic stained bamboo." She worked her way across the board, tugging out and swiftly returning each tab. In total there were ninety-seven represented pigments on the pop-up pictograph.

"In each colour set," she continued with the rapid precision of language that comes with a passionate and familiar speech, "there are seven rows organized by sets of nine spoons." She indicated the top block of pearled pearl, running her finger along the micro row of three. "By weight across, we have light, medium and heavy; by length down, short, medium and long in each flavour. So, we begin here with pearled pearl, vanilla, light-short and work our way down to black licorice bamboo, coconut, heavy-long, giving us a grand total of 6,111 different options. About half of our flavours never change: vanilla yogurt, chocolate, marshmallow and coconut. The other three rows are on a monthly rotation of popular sweets. Right now we have Fuzzy Peach, strawberry Jolly Rancher and Swedish Berry. We've had everything from Milk Duds to Big Feet and we'll do almost all of them again."

Dani gave her a curious look. "Were there a couple of failures?"

Melanie almost winced. "Last year one of the local boys spent a month convincing Milo that garlic-avocado would be the next big hit. It was not, but even after trying it himself Milo wouldn't believe it was a terrible business move for weeks. When he finally did see the light, he forced the kid to eat all of the remaining stock over a three-day period. It was disgusting," she smirked, "but hilarious. He works for us now, up in product testing. Cast iron stomach, that one."

Melanie moved the card from her knees to Dani's and asked a few leading questions. Before long Melanie was armed with her usual pearled rose, chocolate, light-long and Dani had chosen a sky-blue glaze, Swedish Berry, medium-long spoon which she was quite happy about. After they placed their order with Molly and retrieved their respective thirty-cent spoons, Melanie led the way across the great hall, almost directly beneath the hovering honeydew. She leaned against the simple fence that ran around its base. "This is a giant melon," she said, giving the slippery fruit a little jab with her handle, "and we only have one rule that must, without exception, be obeyed. ONLY spoons may come into contact with the fruit. My Milo has made the mouth-parts of our products to be self-sterilizing. Don't ask me how, he's a genius and the science he can employ is far beyond me! He ran several hundred tests before we settled on the final process, but even self-sterilizing spoons can't stop contact-caused contamination. That's why we came up with this." She walked towards a large wall panel plastered with goofy looking mug shots. A plaque above it read "Melon's Felons" and each person photographed was wearing a look of the most exaggerated guilt. "Anyone who lays finger or face against the fruit gets their picture taken. We keep it fun and as painless as possible for our patrons, but we decided that we needed something to deter misbehaviour. It's been working well so far. Very few repeat offenders. Well, the smell must be driving you crazy! Shall we dine?"

Dani's mouth had been watering with anticipation from the moment she'd arrived and she was very ready to eat. Her shiny blue spoon seemed equally anxious, digging deeply into the flesh of the fruit. She was not disappointed: the first bite was nothing less than euphoric.

Clean, sweet juice flooded her tongue and her mouth filled with the deliciously light syrup; the slice of melon melted away after a chew or two and trickled its merry way down her throat. She could taste that first bite half way through her digestive system it was so good. If it was possible, the second spoonful surpassed the first... and the third the second.

"Pace yourself," Melanie cautioned with a smile in her voice. "Don't fill up on the first floor - we still have two and a half more to see!"

A spiral escalator that wrapped around the perimeter of the building carried them up to the watermelon floor. The bowl that hung below the fruit was more prevalent on this level, as was the tube that extended from the center of it and into the wall... But that may have been because of the man dangling from it by his knees.

"Milo! Honey, what are you doing upside down like that?" called Melanie, running over to help him upright.

"The tube sprung a leak," said Milo after climbing back to his feet. "We were losing a carton a minute all over the tile. Getting mighty slick up here, which would have been reason enough to hurry even without the product loss. A little gumpaste and it's patched for now. I'll have to brew up a batch of caramel caulking tonight and really fix it for tomorrow, but it'll hold okay." He smiled broadly at his wife as she slid her arm behind his back and began an introduction.

"Dani, this is Milo. He's brains and brawn behind every technical operation in the place, and very good at holding it all together. I'm crazy proud of him." Milo glowed.

"If I'm brains and brawn, this woman is heart and soul," he said and kissed her on the cheek. "But don't you believe she's no brains. My girl is a visionary like no other. I'm heading down to Mikey in mailing; we got a letter from another Belgian confectionist and he needs a little help translating. Thought I'd call my cousin again?"

"Good plan. Say hello for me?"

"Will do. Enjoy the rest of the tour, Dani; it was nice meeting you. See you in a while, lovely."

The watermelon tasted everything like a perfect summer day. Every spoonful evoked a memory: the splash of your first dive off the dock; the drip of a popsicle into the sand; barefoot running through fresh cut grass; guitars and lightening bugs around a campfire; new freckles on your sun-kissed face and the tangy, ubiquitous smell of sunscreen. She spent thirty-one minutes in this glorious immersion before Melanie called her back and they caught the escalator again.

The roof of the building was made of a retractable glass. Every morning when the fruit was brought in by helicopter from the giants’ farms the great glass ceiling would sway aside to allow the daily load to be lowered into position. Once everything was in place and the chopper had moved safely out of the way, the roof would close up again like a Venus flytrap. Although the berry station was on the third floor where they hopped off, the escalator didn’t stop with them; it continued climbing another twenty feet up toward the high glass windows, wrapped around the top and then dropped off quite suddenly into a hole in the wall. “That’s our way down,” pointed Melanie, “but not just yet. Raspberry first.”

It had been a fifty-seven minutes between the first bite of honeydew to the first bite of raspberry. For Dani, most of those minutes had slipped away quietly while her eyes were closed and her mouth was full. Time had sped past with the illusion of standing still in those blissful moments, and the candied cradle of all such splendid seconds was about to melt away. The berry was exactly the perfect balance of sweet and tart. The Swedish Berry lacing behind it was a magical combination and her face burst with a wide, unhindered grin. It was wonderful, but it was briefly lived. Two minutes later the spoon felt thinner between her lips, and in another thirty seconds she felt a hole beginning in the center of it, like a lifesaver. Then it was gone. Just the handle shining in its glossy sky-blue remained. She looked to Melanie.

“It only lasts an hour,” she gently reminded. “Come on. This way.”

Together they rode the escalator once again, taking in the whole scene for a moment from the highest possible vantage point in the place. The rising air brought vaporous smells from every floor and they blended together in the rafter spaces like a smoothie of reverie and sensation that could make your skin tingle. Dani took a very deep breath… and then she dropped right out of the world. Gravity vanished. Light vanished. She could feel something smooth and cool against her back and then, just as abruptly as its disappearance, the world popped back into existence around her. She plunged into a deep pit of foam cubes, the kind found near running trampolines in Olympic-quality gymnasiums. In a few seconds she felt four sets of hands hoisting her up, out and onto her feet. “There you go, miss. How do you feel?” She gave her thoughts a moment to follow her back to the first floor. “I’m… elated, actually,” she said.

“Glad to hear it,” came Melanie’s voice from the pit behind her. “I thought about warning you, but by the time it occurred to me you were already dropping past the second floor.” Her hostess was lifted out by her arms and brushed off by one of the littler attendants. “Thanks, Max. You’re a dear,” she said and hugged the boy child. I don’t know how you grew up so fast and so tall, but it is so nice seeing you all the time!”

Melanie walked Dani to the take-out counter. They crossed the parade path of people, each waiting for their helmet with spoon in hand. “Spoons are thirty cents, and one helmetful is complimentary for those in a hurry. Here you can also purchase a carton of pure juice for seventy cents a litre, freshly strained from today’s delivery or iced into a slushie from the frozen collections of the day before. But you get one on the house for taking the tour, if you’d like something. Or another spoon, it you’d rather dive back into one of our levels?”

Dani gazed around the room. She had never been anywhere quite so wonderful, and wasn’t keen to leave. “Well, I was thinking, marshmallow would look pretty great next to a midnight lightning chrome…” Melanie smiled. “Believe it or not,” she said, “I get that all the time.”

The End.