Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cotton Season by Jim Parks

William Pierce, Jr., grasped his hip with both hands and tugged with all his strength against the action of the auger that had caught his leg and was pulling his body to bloody pieces.

Red Smith locked eyes with him over the stub of an unlit cigar. Pierce screamed without a sound against the deafening roar of the machinery. He knew that Smith had left the grating off the top of the horizontal floor shaft meant to cover the auger.

After Pierce's right leg was reduced to a bloody pulp up to the pelvis, Smith turned off the main power switch. All the machines shut down slowly. The vacuum hose that sucked raw cotton out of the wagons and into the gin was the last to stop, with a diminishing moan. In the sudden quiet of that moment, on cue, he smiled at Pierce, speaking around the stub of unlit cigar.

"You look real stupid like that, Mr. Pierce."

Pierce thrashed the air with his fists and howled again. Blood spattered Smith's white dress shirt and the gold pen and pencil set clipped in his breast pocket.

"I tried to tell you about rushing a man in his work." Indeed, he had warned Pierce earlier that morning. Pierce had reminded him that it was 1934, there was a lingering depression, and that he was lucky to have a job.

"I know you right, Mr. Pierce," Red had intoned, then spat tobacco juice at his feet. "You sho’ nuff right." Red knew what year it was. He had spent eight long years in the cotton fields of the Texas Department of Corrections planting, hoeing and picking cotton, running to the patch and running back to the house in the evenings. He’d seen men go mad after riding the Coke box in their bare feet, made to stand on the necks of glass soft drink bottles in wooden cases all night because of some imagined or perhaps real but slight offense against a boss or a building tender.

He had received a crooked trial in a kangaroo court for something not only he didn’t do but no one did because it, because the offense, in fact, never happened.

Burglary of a building.

What building? It wasn’t specified.

When? Where?

The jurors didn’t care.

He was just another drifter, a two-bit sharecropper with a barefoot family.

He’d seen men beaten with trace chains on their bare backs who went on to die of infections of the untreated wounds, seen them kept in the hole, fed piss and punk for days until they were unable to perform their work in the fields.

He had seen men lashed with the bat, a piece of industrial grade leather belting attached to a wooden handle, for being the last to reach the field or the last to reach the "house" in the evenings after running to and from. A few well-placed elbows and knees took care of any man that was targeted to become a boss’s boy or a building tender’s bitch. Broken ribs and strained knees or pulled hamstrings made a man last, put him in the unenviable position of being lashed to the bars of a cell door hand and foot, whipped until he screamed for mercy, and subsequently broken through sexual torture.

Red had seen it all, but he wasn’t broken, not by a long shot. He had family and that family had paid hard cash to keep him in the good graces of the crooked authorities. They paid to keep him in a job as a ginner in the civilian work force where the warden rented him out.

It had turned Red into a hostile, cynical piece of work. He was taciturn, dour and by turns downright hateful to all but his family. It was all he had, that sense of belonging to a family and fathering his own.

He was now living under the terms of parole, a system that placed him in the true state of feudal villainy, a man unable to leave the county without permission or to seek employment anywhere except where he had been assigned to work—for Pierce, the local cotton king.

But Red had also had the sense to make the best of his situation. His little girl Dotty was smart. It showed way before she went to kindergarten. By that time, she was reading him items from the paper, explaining the funnies, and adding up the family grocery bill based on the prices listed in the sale papers.

The Smiths knew they had a very special little person living in their family, someone that came along while her daddy was away and whose spirit had kept him alive through his darkest days while he waited for his Sunday afternoon visits with Mrs. Smith.

His problems with Pierce started after Dotty had been called to the high school office one morning the week before, told that she was the valedictorian of her graduating class, and given the morning off to go tell her mom and dad. She had practically run the mile and a half home to tell them.

They called everyone they could think of to crow the news. Ran down to the store to call long distance and local. Now their girl could compete for the scholarships that would lead to a university education, a good job—in short, a way out of the grinding poverty of the depression and the attendant rural politics of mere survival that poverty dictated.

She would be more free than they had ever hoped to be.

Then she went back to class after the lunch period and the world turned upside down.

She was called to the office and told that there had been a mistake. She wasn’t the class valedictorian, after all. Another student had beaten her record by a half a grade point.

She cried. She pleaded with the principal and the school superintendent to let her check the figures.

They refused her.

Then who had gotten the higher grades and displaced her from her spot?

The daughter of school board President William Pierce, Jr., owner of the cotton gin, the bonded warehouse, and the seed mill.

He had wheeled up to the school in his Cadillac to pick up his girl and get the good news.

And so, the next morning when a wealthy farmer came to the gin to complain that Red had told him to blow it out his ass when he demanded that his cotton wagons be unloaded first, Pierce came firing out of his office in his white shirt and wing-tip shoes, striding across the gin floor that he, in fact, owned, without looking where he was putting his feet.

That auger ate him alive.

"What happened, Mr. Red?" A colored man asked in the sudden quiet, strolling over with the arthritic gait of one that has grown old far before his time.

"I don’t know, Clarence. I purely don’t know." Red lighted a fresh cigar and sat down to wait for whatever would come next. He sucked at one of his front teeth and spit.

Then he whistled a tuneless tune.

Jim Parks is a Texan, a newsman, a truck driver, commercial fisherman, deckhand and a dreamer. Keep him away from the firewater and don't mess with his food or his woman.

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