Richie turned on the spigot and held the half gallon glass Kerr Mason jar underneath. His Momma had put some ice cubes in the jar in the kitchen and had sent him out to the back of the house with specific instructions. Richie had been appointed water boy and his job was to provide water to the people picking cotton. It was October and the cotton in the seven-acre tract across from the Hoffman house was gleaming white with cotton bolls ready to be picked. There were going to be a total of four people picking cotton—Richie’s Momma and Russ, Richie’s Daddy, and two colored women from over around the mill hill at Harden. The Hoffmans had used the colored women last year and had found them to be good workers
Richie remembered that last year he had the same “water boy” job and had done okay with it.
“You have got to keep after it purty good, ‘ cause you don’t want your pickers getting’ hot and thirsty; if they get that way they are liable to up and quit,” Richie’s Momma had told him. So he had done a pretty good job last year, and had even tried his hand at picking cotton, but he gave up on it pretty quickly. He had watched how his Momma had plucked the brilliant white balls of fiber from the scratchy husks; the husks reminded Richie of how the pink hibiscus flowers looked after they had bloomed and “gone to seed.” In fact they looked that way presently. The hibiscus bushes were at either side of the front porch and were very pretty every year, being nurtured by Richie’s grandmother, an octogenarian they all called Granny; she lived with them. Granny was Richie’s Daddy’s mother; Russ had agreed to take care of her for as long as she lived in exchange for his siblings signing a quit claim deed relative to the family property, around thirty-five acres, which had included an old two story clapboard house with a tin roof, a barn, and some good bottom land. The barn and house had been built aby Russ’ father Dave; Dave had died in the early thirties. In the forties Sarah and Russ had saved their money and peddled butter and eggs over on the mill hill and built the house where they presently lived.
Richie filled the first half gallon jar and screwed the metal top down on it tight The top was grey metal and had a milky white glass seal under the cap. Then he filled the second jar; the first jar was clear glass and the second one had a green tint—-it was for the colored women to drink from.
“And don’t you get them mixed up,” Richie’s Momma had told him as she gave him a hard look and sent him out the back door with the two ice laden jars. Richie filled up the second jar and picked up one in each hand. The jars had a wire handle that was attached to a circular wire that fit around the top of the jar neck, under the lip where the glass threads stopped. As Richie carried the water around the side of the house he walked by the dormant hibiscus bushes. He felt a little sad as he looked at the hibiscus husk that reminded him of the cotton husks, remembering how beautiful the deep pink petals had been in the summer, and how the long white pistils had been displayed. He thought about how they would be open now, and then close up about nine o’clock. Richie remembered how he used to call them “high biscuits” until one of his sisters had corrected him; she had done it gently though and had even told him how to spell the name. Richie really loved the flowers, and remembered how upset he had been one day in late summer when he had stayed up real late and overslept the next morning. When he woke up he knew it was late and was chagrined when he looked out the east facing windows to see that the beautiful flowers were already closed. He at that moment had vowed to never let that happen again. He had avoided that tragedy for the remainder of the summer.
Richie walked over and sat down on the low concrete porch on the front of the house and looked at the hibiscus bushes as he waited on the cotton pickers to go to the field. Then he would stay pretty busy keeping them in water; when he had some extra time he would try his hand at picking the fluffy bolls, but he didn’t hold out much hope for getting very good at it. Guess some people are more suited for totin’ water, he thought to himself as he sat and waited on the porch.
Eliza and Bess were walking the two miles to the Hoffman farm to pick cotton. They were almost there, fording the small creek down the hill from the frame house that Russ Hoffman had built ten years before. The creek was shallow at the ford, and for at least ten feet the bottom of the creek and the banks were solid rock. Unless there had been a lot of rain it made for an easy spot for a car to cross, and equally easy for a couple of colored cotton pickers.
Liza and Bess were sisters, both in their mid-forties, Eliza being the older by eleven months. When they were little their momma used to dress them like twins. They lived in the little shack they had grown up in over near the Harden crossroads. Their Daddy had been a sharecropper for a long time until he had saved up enough money to buy the little five hundred square foot shanty from his boss, Hiram Castner. The shack was down in a hollow below Hiram’s boy, Joe’s house. It had no indoor plumbing but did have a spring up on the side of the hill and an outhouse straddled the swift creek that ran through the two-acre plot. The girls’ daddy, Adrian Friday, had been a proud man, mighty proud to be a landowner. Adrian knew that the white scum that lived on the mill hill looked down on him but he figgered he was considerably better off than that bunch.
“Them dumbasses pay rent to the cotton mill for them shitty houses they lives in and then as soon as they get paid run over there to Adrian Costner’s and buy white likker, having barely enough money left to eat on. And they looks down on the colored landowners. Shit, they ain’t got good sense,” the girls’ daddy had told them many times. But that had been many years before and Liza and and Bess’ momma and daddy had been dead quite a while, but they had left the little shack with the half acre garden to their daughters. There was also a good milk cow and some chickens, and the girls would raise a hog every year, so they were able to get by, and when the opportunity arose for some extra money like at cotton picking time they jumped on it.
After they crossed the ford the road curved sharply to the left and went up a pretty steep hill. There were thick woods off to the right in the bottom land, but as you went up the hill there was a clear area where a small board and batten house stood. The girls knew the people who lived there, Helen Cloninger and her son Ellis. They always liked the pretty flowers Helen kept around the place; as they walked up the hill they saw Ellis standing out in the yard. He was a short, stout man, clad in Red Camel overalls and a thick, coarse grey cotton shirt. He always wore a flat short, brimmed hat like the ones taxi drivers wore. He waved at them and they waved back. The girls knew not to expect to see Helen outside; the Hoffmans had told them that Helen had a cancer and was right bad off. Ellis had quit his job running a road scraper for the county to take care of his momma.
Past the Cloninger place the road curved back to the right and the Hoffman granary came into view. It was a long rectangular building with a tin roof. The foundation support at each corner was a rock turned up on its edge; Eliza looked at the gable on the east end of the building as they walked by, thinking the wood vent with the curved top was mighty fancy for a granary ‘til Bess’ reminder that Mr. Hoffman had salvaged the vents from an old demolished church. Hoffman worked as a salesman for a lumber supply company in Gastonia and would run across such things from time to time.
Past the granary at the top of the hill was the little white frame house with german siding where the Hoffmans lived. As Eliza and Bess made the climb up the front yard they saw the Hoffman’s kid sitting on the front porch with two half gallon jugs. “Guess he’s the water boy again this year”, said Bess, and she and Liza chuckled and waved at the little boy.
Russ and Sarah were finishing up breakfast when they heard their collie dog Polly bark. “Must be the cotton pickers”, said Sarah as she sopped up the last of the egg yellow with a hot biscuit and drained the remainder of her glass of cold buttermilk. “Probly so”, said Russ, “ I reckon we better get on out there.” Their two girls, Gail and Rose, had already caught the school bus to Costner Elementary, the red brick WPA era school three miles up the road. They rode bus number 34.
“I reckon it will be lonely next year when Richie goes into first grade,” Sarah said wistfully. “Oh, don’t be worrying ‘bout that sugarpie,” said Russ, “I don’t think you’ll get so awful bored,” and as he said this ran over to where his wife was standing in front of the Leonard refrigerator and gave her a big slap on her ample fanny.
“Oh monk,” she said, grinning a gap-toothed grin. “Like I said Red, there will always be something to do,” Russ said, showing his perfect teeth in a wide grin and winking at her. Those were their pet names for each other—-“monk” was short for monkey, a suitable moniker for a big broad-shouldered man who would jump around on the living room floor and sing some silly song when his wife was mad at him. It always worked, as she would ultimately begin to smile and then laugh watching his antics. He called her Red because of her red hair.
Granny was on the back porch spreading newspapers on the concrete floor to catch the drippings from her cottage cheese. She sewed together strips of worn-out white sheets to form sort of a casing to receive the clabbered milk. Then she would tie a string around the top of each casing and hang it on a wire that stretched down about halfway the length of the porch. The wire was a clothesline for when it was raining outside and you needed something to dry right away.
“Russ, did Clyde dump me some chicken manure out there near the bottom of the yard? I need to spread it around my Red Hot Pokers,” she called back into the kitchen.
“Yes Mom, he took some out there before he went to work,” replied Russ. Clyde was nineteen years old and worked at an electrical supply store over on Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia..He looked like a slightly smaller version of his daddy, the main difference being the shape of his nose. Russ Hoffman and all of his siblings had the same kind of honker, pretty large and essentially a right triangle, but Clyde had inherited his momma’s nose, fairly small and sporting a small hook. He tanned easily and drove a black Ford Fairlane with red seat covers and a folding food tray that slid back under the glove compartment. Clyde had already set out for work. Since he had not been at his job very long he had been excused from picking cotton; Russ was taking a couple “vacation” days to get the job done. Mr. Abernathy, the owner of City Lumber Company, knew to expect it this time of year and did not begrudge his salesman the time off.
Granny came back into the kitchen from the back porch. There was a step down onto the porch and she negotiated the step up into the kitchen by hanging on to the door jamb with one aged gnarled hand and putting her weight on her “stick”, which is what she called her old walking cane.
“I guess I better get going on it before it gets so awful hot,” Granny said. “Where was Richie at this morning?” she asked, looking at her daughter in law over top of her wire rimmed spectacles. The lenses were very thick, a testimony to her cataract removal ten years previously.
“Oh, he was in here earlier gettin’ his water jugs ready,” said Sarah. “All he wanted was two butter and sugar biscuits and a glass of milk”.
Granny studied on that comment for a bit and said “Well I reckon that boy will be starved by dinner time.”
“I’m sure he certainly will be by twelve o’clock, but I’m sure he won’t give out Granny; have you looked at his growing little belly lately?” Sarah said. Granny displayed her wide toothless grin and the three of them left the house, Russ and Sarah going to the front porch to see the cotton pickers and Granny down the hill to tend to her red hot pokers.
Richie was sitting on the front porch with the two colored women when his momma and daddy came around the corner. Russ was carrying five feed sacks to put the cotton in. He had dropped a small rock in each corner of each sack and then tied a piece of twine around it on the outside of the sack; this gave it a little weight so that the cotton bolls would fall down in there easier.
“Hey Mr. Hoffman, hey Mrs. Hoffman,” Eliza and Bess caroled to Russ and Sarah. “Glad you could make it so bright and early,” said Sarah. “You remember little Richie don’t you?’ asked Sarah, looking at the two women.
“Oh yes,” said Bess and Eliza, both smiling broadly at the little boy. “He bees the champeen water carrier,” laughed Eliza. The little boy turned red in the face at hearing this and all the adult laughed.
“Well, he’s gonna try to do a little more pickin’ this year in addition to carrying the water,” said Russ, nodding toward his son. “That’s right,” said Richie as he puffed his chest out.
“With any luck I think we can get this field picked in two days; like always, start at the edge and work your way toward the middle,” said Russ Hoffman, and the five of them walked across the road and began picking cotton.
Picking cotton was not something one went at like “fighting fire”; it was a very methodical repetitive motion and sort of became automatic after a while—at least to the adults. Richie was having a little trouble getting the knack of it. After he had stored the two jugs of water under a tree at the edge of the field he opened up his sack and stuck the edge of it down the front of his pants. That left both hands free to pick with. But while the grownups moved along pretty well picking with both hands the little boy usually had to use both hands to get the cotton boll loose from its prickly cover. He watched enviously as the rest of the pickers got farther and farther away; as he struggled with the picking he got more and more disenchanted. Plus, although it was late October, it was still mighty hot and as the sun climbed up in the sky Richie found himself back under the tree “nursing” the two water jugs. He was even considering taking a nap when he was roused from his stupor by somebody hollering “water.” Russ had told his boy that was the way they would handle it, and that when Richie heard the call he was to take both of the water jugs and make the rounds, being sure that he stopped at each person. Richie picked up the jugs and started off to where his daddy was; Russ was a fast picker and had even emptied his bag onto the sheet they had laid at the edge of the field and had it almost half full again. When Richie got there he held up the clear glass jug to Russ; Russ took a couple of big drinks out of the jug, being sure he situated the dip of snuff in his mouth so that he would not swallow any of the juice. Richie watched in amazement; he was dumbfounded as to why anyone would want to dip snuff but was further perplexed how he could drink water and not swallow the snuff spit.
“Just takes practice, boy,” Russ told him when he asked about it. “And I don’t recommend that you try it,” Russ Hoffman said, looking hard at the little boy and then breaking into a grin. Richie shook his head violently; “No sir, not me,” he said.
Richie remembered clearly his one and only personal encounter with tobacco. It had been on a Saturday afternoon and he and Russ were on their way home from getting a haircut in Dallas. They had gone to Joe Friday’s barber shop across from the courthouse and Joe and Russ had made several trips into the back room while they were there. Richie wondered what was going on, and on the second trip he peeked around the corner just as his daddy bubbled a brown bottle, made a face, shook his head, and said “best stuff I ever had.” Joe Friday had laughed at this and then taken a big hit himself. After the haircuts had been administered they took off toward home, Russ turning up the volume of The Chuck Wagon Gang on the radio. Richie knew his daddy was a “little happy,” as his momma called it. About a mile from their house, out near John Rhodes’ house, Richie espied some chewing tobacco laying up on the dash of the car. Richie had seen his daddy and other men use chewing tobacco; the “cut” would be rectangular and encased in cellophane to keep it fresh. Then when you wanted a piece you would just cut off a chunk with your pocket knife. Everybody in the country carried a sharp pocket knife, even Richie. After Richie looked at it for a while he said “daddy, can I try that tobacco up there on the dash?”
“Sure,” said Russ, grinning at the kid. Richie reached up and got the tobacco; it was so dried out that it was coming apart. He put the dessicated cut to his mouth and sunk his little baby teeth into it. The tobacco was so strong that Richie immediately took it away from his mouth and started gagging and spitting out the open car window. He remembered how his daddy had laughed so much when he had told Sarah about what happened. Richie also recalled that he felt sick the rest of the day, so sick that his daddy had gone over to the little store at Shady Rest and got him a 6-ounce bottle of coca cola. The Hoffmans did not keep soft drinks around the house, but you did get one if you had an upset stomach. Richie had felt no desire to fool with tobacco since.
Russ Hoffman screwed the metal lid back on the clear water jug and handed it back to Richie. “Now take your momma some water and then carry that green jug to the colored women. Your momma will be going in to get dinner ready here in a while, so when you see her ask if you can be of any help, okay?” Russ said, and with that Richie took off toward his momma with the jugs.
Sarah took a big drink, told Richie she did not need any help in the kitchen and asked him how much cotton had accumulated in his sack. “Well, I been workin’ on it,” the little boy said sheepishly, suddenly being very curious about how the back of his left hand looked.
“Well do the best you can and go on and water them colored women. I’ll call when dinner is ready,” she said and watched her son take off across the field toward Eliza and Bess.
The sisters were mighty glad to see the little boy as the warm sun was getting’ on up in the bright blue fall sky. Richie quickly set down the clear jug and handed the green glass container to Bess. As the two women drank Richie told them that he would come and get them when it was time for dinner. They thanked him and he went on across the field.
“He’s a purty good lil’ kid, ain’t he?”,said Eliza. “Yep”, agreed Bess, “and seems a lil’ smarter than most. Course his momma and daddy are pretty sharp and mighty hard workin’. Ya know I heard that when Russ told the headmaster over at Kettle Shoals school that he was gonna quit school at the end of the sixth grade that teacher went to see Russ’ parents and begged them to let him stay in school. But Russ’ daddy, J.D., simply told the teacher, Frank Hight, that they ‘needed the boy to work on the farm.’ They would not change their minds; however, I reckon he has done alright for himself,” Bess concluded, and they went back to picking.
Both of them were thinking about how it wouldn’t be long before dinner time and how good they had been fed last year.
Sarah brought their dinner out onto the front porch where they were sitting out of the sun. The paper plates held fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fried okra, sliced tomatoes and two hot biscuits. The paper “dixie cups” were full of buttermilk.
“Now you come to the door if you want any more,” Sarah had told them, and they indeed had gone back for seconds. Afterwards Sarah had brought them apple cobbler; when they had finished eating they had rested on the cool concrete of the front porch until the Hoffmans came out of the house, signaling that it was time to head back to the field.
Richie had refilled the two jugs and added ice while he was in the house so he was carrying one in each hand when he came out. Russ walked over to his youngest when Richie came out of the house
“I would like to see a little improvement in the cotton picking” Russ said, looking at the little boy. “Okay daddy,” “I’ll try harder,” and with that the pickers scattered out into the field and Richie set the water jugs down under the tree in the shade and got his sack with the two rocks in it and went out into the field to try his hand at picking again. But it was pretty much a repeat of the morning futility and soon he was daydreaming again and looking around for a place to take a nap. But just when he thought he had found a place where he wouldn’t be seen he heard his momma holler for water, so he grabbed the two jugs and set off to where she was, way over in the edge of the field near the Griggs farm. Sarah Hoffman had on long sleeves and a hat to shield her fair skin from the hot October sun; she was sweating pretty good as she unscrewed the lid off the clear jar and took a couple of big drinks.
“Have you picked any Richie?” she asked the little boy. Richie studied his left foot and replied “I’m trying purty hard momma.”
“Well, you just keep after it,” Sarah said, “you know Rome wa’n’t built in a day.” Richie collected the jugs and headed off to where his daddy was, figgering that Rome must have something to do with picking cotton. When he got to where his daddy was he gave the jug and asked “daddy, do they raise a lot of cotton in Rome?” Russ looked quizzically at his youngest son; he had gotten accustomed to hearing some curious questions come from the boy so he was not totally shocked. “
“I don’t know son, but I think it is a real big city so I got to think that they don’t have a lot of room for farming in town.” This seemed to appease Richie and he picked up the jugs and headed over to where Eliza and Bess were, over near the center of the field. They had been hard at it, each of them having emptied their sack again since the dinner break.
“Good to see ya Richie,” called Bess as Richie arrived and handed her the green jug. As the two women drank Richie asked “how long did it take to build Rome?” The two sisters looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Well it wasn’t built in a day,” said Eliza. Richie looked at the women and picked up the jugs and headed back to the shade tree. “Sometimes I believe that people are just messing with me,” he mumbled to himself as he walked away.
The remainder of the afternoon passed fairly quickly as Richie made two more trips delivering water and spent about five more tortured minutes trying to pick cotton.
It was about five o’clock when Russ hollered that it was time to quit. The pickers gathered where they had been dumping the cotton on the sheets. There were four sheets full of cotton and Russ oversaw tying the sheets, corner to corner, so that none of the cotton would spill out. Then they carried the bulging sheets to the granary for safekeeping.
When they all got back up to the Hoffman’s white frame house Russ went inside to get his wallet; Eliza and Bess liked to get paid every day. When Russ came back and started counting out the day’s wages to the two colored women a black 1953 Plymouth pulled up; it was Buford and Bert. Bufford was Russ’ older brother. Like all of the Hoffmans he walked very erect, but he did not look much like Russ, being bald with a fringe of red hair and toting a pretty good-sized belly. Richie ran to the car to meet them because he loved company, and especially liked it when Uncle Buford and Aunt Bert came because they usually had their granddaughter Karen with them. Richie was not disappointed as he saw Karen’s blonde mop of hair bobbing in the back seat. Richie and Karen played well together, usually “riding sticks” around the yard and hollerin’ “giddyup” and “whoa”. Karen was crazy about horses, and also pretty nutty about dogs. Richie remembered one time when they had been in the Hoffman kitchen and Karen had asked Richie’s mom if she could have a piece of “light bread,” what the country folk called store bought white bread. Sarah had gotten the little girl a piece of bread and was shocked to see Karen throw it on the kitchen floor and get down on her hands and knees, growling and biting into the bread. Richie and his momma had just watched as she went at it; Richie decided he would prefer more traditional fare, asking his momma for a butter and sugar biscuit.
As soon as they got out of the car Richie and Karen tore off around the side of the house to the big pine tree where they kept their “riding sticks” corraled. Buford and Bert said hello to everyone, including the colored women, for they had worked in Buford’s sweet potato field just the previous year.
“Well Sarah, how in the world are you a doin?” asked Bert, noticing how she was wet with sweat. Bert was a big heavy woman whose legs were like tree trunks—-totally shapeless. Bert had on a thin cotton dress and had tied her hose off in a knot just below the knees of her trunks.
“Well I’ll swanny Bert, I surely have been workin’ like a nigger,” Sarah said, wiping her brow.
“So that’s the way you treat your help, calling them names,” shouted Eliza, the big black woman moving toward the smaller Sarah Hoffman. Russ moved quickly but silently to place himself in front of his wife. Sarah then realized her faux pas and spluttered “well I didn’t mean anything by it.” Sarah had backed up a step when Eliza had shouted out and she had turned beet red. Buford and Bert suddenly became interested in finding out where the kids were; they walked around the side of the house.
“I ain’t gonna work for nobody who calls me that,” hollered Eliza, looking at Sarah, who was still standing there behind Russ.
“Why don’t you let it go, she said she didn’t mean anything by it,” said Bess, putting her hand on Eliza’s shoulder.
“Just a minute, we’ll be right back,” said Russ, and he ushered Sarah through the screened door into the living room and then on into the kitchen where they would be out of earshot. “Now Sarah, just take it easy. You already told her you didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I know Russ, but what if she won’t work for us anymore?”
“Well that won’t be the end of the world; let’s go back out there and see if she has cooled off some.” When they got back outside Eliza had settled down a bit, but she was far from friendly.
“You gonna work tomorrow?”,Russ asked Eliza. “I imagine you can use the money.”
“I ain’t never, ever workin’ for y’all again until she says she’s sorry for calling me that,” spit out Eliza.
“Well damn, woman, she said she didn’t mean it,” said Russ.
“It ain’t the same,” said Eliza, her firm black arms crossed. “That ain’t no apology”.
Sarah tugged on Russ’ arm and loked at him imploringly. Russ shook his head, but Sarah went ahead with it.
“I’m sorry Eliza, sorry I said that,” said Sarah.
Eliza looked at Sarah and said “Okay, we’ll be back in the morning,” and the two sisters walked off down the road toward the ford.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” said Russ, looking at his wife and shaking his head. “I don’t think you sayin’ that was necessary at all.”
“I know it wasn’t necessary, “said Sarah, “but I know we need to get that cotton in the granary before it rains this weekend.”
Russ said “I guess so,” and smiled at his wife as they walked around the side of the house to where the rest were.