2011/06/01 § Leave a Comment
Nevada’s Ron Rash shares an excerpt on the topic of beasts.
The Color of a Cotton Picker
Soft spring nights scented by flowers and antithetical skies filled with the threat of twisting violence had given way to the Oklahoma sun of an extended summer. The unwavering heat of the mid-September sun seemed to add weight to late morning humidity already pressing hard on the backs of the field hands.
To a child of five, the arched backs of the workers, most dressed in white or light colored clothes in a pitiful attempt to reflect the sun’s brilliance, looked not unlike humped back whales feeding in a sea of brown, brittle shrubbery dotted with the white of their cotton flowers. The fruit of the cotton pickers’ labors often ended up as starched dress shirts on the backs of well-dressed men. The small boy watching the field hands this day wore another garment made from the cotton; a hand-sewn, scratchy shirt stitched from the colored print of a flour sack.
The boy looked up to see how far behind his mother he had fallen. The grown workers and young adults were already well away from him as they expertly worked their assigned rows. The cotton stalks and bowls had dried into brittle, glasslike organic shards waiting to slash and cut poorly protected hands in defense of their soft white flowers.
Young Guthrie Collins marveled that the grownups could pick so much cotton so quickly as they labored under the weight of the long white sacks slung over their shoulders and dragged on the ground behind them. His daddy, whom he was taught to call Mr. Collins, but whom he called Daddy anyway, said the sacks could hold upwards of 100 pounds, and at two and a half cents a pound for the pickers, a man had to stuff every pound he could in that damned sack. Guthrie’s momma, Audrey, didn’t like Mr. Collins to swear, but he knew a lot worse bad words than damn. Mr. Collins seemed to know every bad word ever spoken, especially when he was working on his broken down old Studebaker or talking about his boss.
Guthrie carried his own collection sack for the cotton, but it was not even half as big as the grownups. Completely full it might top out at 30 pounds. Since he weighed only 40 pounds himself it was a burdensome load when full. He inspected the load carefully and fluffed it up as best he could, but try as he might he wasn’t able to make the bag appear full. Mustering as much focus as fear will allow in a young mind, Guthrie decided it was better to have the weigh-in boss tease him about his poor work ethic than to try to catch his momma with such a heavy sack dragging behind him, especially when the weigh-in boss was just a few feet away.
A beaten and ill-maintained old Ford stake bed truck sat just inside a barbed wire fence that ran along side a lonely stretch of Oklahoma state road. On top, the weigh-in boss had already spotted Guthrie and was grinning through his tobacco stained beard at the boy’s hesitant approach. The boss’s voice carried the slow, melodic drawl of a lifelong Oklahoman. “Well, well sonny, y’all don’t seem to have a full bag o’ cotton there, know do ya!” A laugh followed that could only come from a slack-jawed half wit with nothing better to do than torment the helpless.
The boss peered through gray-blue eyes at Guthrie as he bent to lift the boy’s half-full cotton sack to the weigh hook. A series of counterbalanced springs moved the arrow of the circular face to just over 20 pounds. Again came the noxious laugh that the boy hated so much. “Y’all can fluff up the cotton in this here bag all ya want sonny boy, but the scales say twenty and one-half pounds. That’s it … that’s all.” The bully held the sack high above his head as if it were a trophy head of some animal he had just slaughtered.
Guthrie was always in awe of how easily the weigh-in boss could lift the heavy sacks of cotton to the weight hook. Granted his bag was puny by comparison, but the men’s sacks often went over 100 pounds.
He felt his clothes begin to ‘itch’ him as he adjusted them in all the tight places… under the arms, in the crotch and in the seat. He felt a welcome breeze kick up the front of his light blond-brown hair and cooled his forehead as the sweat of his brow evaporated. Tears were trying to form in Guthrie’s bright, dark blue eyes but he choked them back.
This time the boss’s voice boomed at Guthrie. “Go on now boy, you’re a startin’ to bother me. Go find that injun mother of yours afore I tell your daddy about this half empty sack you toted up here.”
“My momma ain’t no injun. And she ain’t that bad word you called her yesterday, neither.” Guthrie struck a defiant pose in defense of his mother but his bravado gave way to the indignity of a runny nose, which he promptly wiped on the tail of his shirt.
“You back talkin’ me boy?” bellowed the fat weigh-boss, scaring the boy almost to tears. “If’n I say yore momma’s a nigger and a injun, then that’s the way it is!”
Guthrie felt tears running down his cheeks and a lump forming in his throat, and the truth being self-evident, he was deathly afraid that the boss man would jump down off that old Ford truck and snap his head off his shoulders. But he was committed now, and he was going to defend his momma to the end. “My momma says she’s a woman of color. She says she’s part African, part Cherokee Indian, and Irish from the waist down.” Guthrie had no idea what the last part meant but it sounded important.
The boss man had had enough. He was afraid that the others standing close by would hear him losing an argument to a five-year-old brat. He tossed the young man’s cotton collection sack back at him with so much force that he lost his footing and fell hard on his butt in the bed of the old truck. “Get the hell outta here boy afore I take my belt to yer backside.”
Guthrie was knocked to the ground by the force of the light bag hitting him in the face and chest. As he pulled it from his eyes the first sight he caught was of the red faced boss man flat on his butt, and all the people around him trying to restrain their giggles. Realizing he was now in real danger, the boy ran. And ran. And ran. He was looking for his momma Audrey. As he closed in on the pickers at the far end of the field he looked frantically for her. Then he spotted her white trousers, white apron and slim legs standing just behind him and on his right. He turned and leapt at her and felt her strong arms carry him up to her breast. He buried his head in her bosom and cried softly, “The boss man called you an injun today, but I tole him you was a woman of color just like you tole me.”
“Boy, I love to hold on to ya like this, but I ain’t your momma … she’s right over there.” The woman laughed loud but affectionately and pointed to Audrey for the frightened boy. “And I don’t knows nuthin’ bout this woman of culah bi’ness.”
Guthrie was mortified and panic-stricken, still trying to beat back the tears as he fought furiously to escape the strong woman’s grip. A funny thing though, even as he fought to get loose, Guthrie was drawn to the woman’s big smile filled with bright, white teeth greatly contrasted against her brown-black skin. As the fight ebbed from him he was beginning to be reassured by her throaty laughter and pats on his behind.
Eventually the tall woman let him down, and with another pat on his small butt, scooted him towards his momma. He would remember her warm touch and rich laughter for the rest of his life.
Seeing his momma for real, the boy let loose with genuine tears and some unabashed wailing. “Guthrie child, y’all better hush now. Mr. Collins will beat you sure if’n he catches you cryin’ like this.”
She held him tightly and smiled at the other women watching the scene.
Ron Rash is an occasional writer of fiction and non-fiction stories. Ron resides in Henderson, Nevada with his wife Joanna. He has authored several short stories and novels, both published and unpublished. He enjoys his three grandsons and fly fishing, and loves to spin a good yarn.