Daddy drove down a dirt road between the rows of cotton and stopped in a clearing near the wagons. He talked to the boss while we waited in the car with Mama. The man had a fierce look of doubt on his face, but he soon shrugged and pointed to some buildings at the far edge of the fields. They looked like apple crates hunkered under the hot sun.
The man handed a folded stack of bags to Daddy and stood back to watch. Daddy looped the straps of each bag over his shoulder, pulled them behind him to the car, and pitched them in to Mama. Then he hauled himself onto the front seat. The man's eyebrows lifted. He shook his head and turned back to his work.
"We'll start after the noon meal," Daddy said. He pointed to the apple crate buildings. "We're to stay out there."
We headed down the dirt road, but the closer we got to those little houses, the harder Mama's face looked. A dozen one-room cabins sat spittin' close. The board siding gaped, leaving little chance of privacy, and the only cabin empty leaned on its blocks like it was tuckered out. She stepped in, glanced around at the mounds of blown-in dirt and weeds, and stepped out. "We'll stay in the tent," she said.
Mama picked a place off to one side near a scrub oak, and we hurried to set up camp. Out in the fields, workers dropped their cotton bags. Some pulled towel-wrapped meals from their overalls and ate where they were, leaning against half-filled sacks. Others walked back to the cabins. By the time they trickled in, Daddy had fired up the coal oil stove and Mama had pancake batter sizzling in a hot skillet. We wouldn't have time for pan bread today. She flipped the cakes out, sprinkled them with a bit of sugar, and rolled them up. The sugared pancakes tasted good, but they did little to sweeten my sour thoughts.
I ate under the tree and watched men gather in the sliver of shade cast by the cabins. They sat in the dirt and leaned against the warped siding while women and kids disappeared through open doorways to fetch their meals. Seems all of them stole curious glances at us. I wondered if my growing vexation showed on my face, but I should've known it was Daddy they were looking at. A few men nodded our way, and Daddy nodded back.
When we finished eating, Mama wrapped each one of our fingers with narrow strips of rags so the prickly cotton bolls wouldn't tear up our hands. Except for Bobby. He got a spoon and a wooden bowl for digging in the dirt. Mama handed Jacob his hat and told us girls to put on our bonnets. "Stay close to Daddy," she said. "He'll show us how it's done."
Jacob and Emily followed Daddy into the field with their long bags, but I dug my toes into the hot dirt and waited for Mama. She tied her bonnet with bandaged fingers and pulled Bobby toward the field. I should've kept my mouth shut, but I knew I'd bust like an overripe melon if I didn't say something. I fell into step, drew a deep breath, and spit it out. "Did Daddy lie to us, Mama?"
She stopped and frowned hard at me. The look made my gut tighten up, but I was determined. I jerked my slipping bag back over my shoulder. "He promised we'd live on the coast and fish, Mama, and here we are in a cotton field."
She shook her head and gave me a look that made me feel small and mean. "Your Daddy's a smart man, Sadie. He's here for more than just pay."
Mama pulled Bobby into the field and left me standing in the dirt. I hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse, but I did.
I don't remember much about those five days except for the hot, achy work and wondering what Daddy was here for if it wasn't the money. At dusk, everyone came in from the fields too tired for socializing, so I knew Daddy wasn't here for that. But like Mama said, I could tell he wanted more. Every evening he sat outside the tent like he was waiting for something. It wasn't till the last night that I understood what it was.
While me and Mama washed up supper dishes, a few workers drifted our way. Daddy shook their hands and introduced himself. "My name's John Wynn," he said. He nodded at Mama. "And my wife here is Raine."
Mama smiled her hello. Her name was really Lorraine, but Daddy liked Raine better. One day I asked him why and he said there was nothing in this world sweeter than rain, and Mama wasn't much different.
The men talked with Daddy a while, then more came with wives and kids. Mama made coffee, and me and Emily played hopscotch by lamplight with a green-eyed girl named Dollie Mae Gillem. She was thin and wiry with freckles and short curly red hair, the only girl in a family of six boys, and nothing at all like Wilma. Her steady stream of chatter left me wondering if she'd pass out from lack of air.
She told me about all she had to put up with, being the only girl in the family, and pointed out three of her brothers huddled around a game of marbles. "There's Davis-he's thirteen and the oldest-and that's Oren and Wyatt next to him," she said.
I saw Jacob smack in the middle of them, hunched over a circle drawn in the sand.
"Mama's holding baby Caleb," she said, "and over there, that's Ethan and Tanner." She pointed out the last two Gillems playing tag with Bobby and a few others. They chased around the tent, hollering and laughing so hard their mamas had to put their cups aside to settle them down.
Daddy sat on the ground, his crippled legs folded sideways, out of the way. He talked to those men like he wasn't any different at all. And soon they talked back like they didn't see his crippled legs anymore. Always quick, he caught me looking and smiled. Daddy had a handsome smile, and I felt it swell inside me like a clean breath.
For a while, the grown-up talk took on a festive mood. Seems we were all glad to be done with the cotton and looked forward to collecting our pay first thing in the morning. I hoped Daddy would bring out his fiddle, but he must've had more important things on his mind. I caught snatches of talk about the Depression, about looking for work and the worry of feeding hungry kids. A woman, her dress hanging slack over her whisper-thin body, cheeks shining wet, listened at lamp's edge. She clutched a rag doll to her chest like a baby, and I had to wonder at the kind of misfortune that put such a sorrowful look on her face. Even with all we gave up, I guessed we might've been luckier than some.
Before long, Emily tired of playing hopscotch and wandered off. Dollie balanced on one foot, watching her go, then threw down her rock. She grabbed a spare cotton bag and pulled me away from the light.
"Finally," she said. "Now we can be alone. Would you like to sit down and talk? You have a real sweet sister, Sadie, and Lord knows I'd love to have one just like her instead of all those brothers, but I've been dying to get you all to myself. She's only five, after all, and it's hard to speak your mind with a little one around."
Dollie spread the bag, sat on one end, and looked up at me. "Come on," she said. "Don't you want to get to know each other?" Not waiting for an answer, she patted the space beside her and kept talking while I sat down.
"I've never seen anyone with hair dark as yours paired up with blue eyes and white skin," she said. "Papa would say you're a beauty, that's for sure." She smoothed her wild curls with her hand, but they popped right back up. "I'd trade you if I could, but I guess I'm gonna be stuck with this red mop the rest of my days."
I fingered one of my thick pigtails and stared at her. I couldn't remember anyone describing me as a beauty before. I felt my cheeks color up, but Dollie didn't notice. She kept on talking, telling me about how she'd come from Ohio two years ago, and how out of all the places they'd tried to settle along the way, she liked South Texas best. She talked about what it was like living by the bay, and how much she missed having a friend her age in the neighborhood. Clumps of red hair bobbed as she spoke, and though she asked dozens of questions, she never waited for answers. She prattled on and on about the things we could do together if only I lived close by.
I didn't say much. Even if I'd wanted to squeeze in a word or two, it seemed a waste of time, seeing as how our families would scatter different directions in the morning. Besides, I already had a best friend, and I had no intention of breaking my promise to Wilma.
While Dollie rambled on, I wondered what Wilma would think. I smiled, already hearing that hiccuping guffaw of hers. She'd laugh for sure-but more at me than at Dollie, for letting myself get cornered and corralled.
I couldn't do much about Dollie's endless chatter, any more than I could've stopped Daddy from moving. But after a while, I figured I could do something about my listening.
I stood up right in the middle of a story about a girl named Lou Ann Waller, who wanted to get away from the smell of fish and shrimp so bad she threatened to run off with her boyfriend. "I'd better get back," I said. "Mama doesn't know where I am."
Dollie looked up, surprised, but it didn't seem to bother her none. She gathered up the cotton bag and followed me to the tent.
When we got back, everyone was shaking Daddy's hand and wishing us well. All but the Gillems. They stayed a bit longer.
Once they were finally gone, Mama shooed us off to bed while she and Daddy sat in the starlight, talking. We didn't complain. I was bone-tired by then and knew the other kids were, too. Bobby fell asleep right away, and it wasn't long before Jacob and Emily's breathing turned slow and steady, too. But tired as I was, I couldn't sleep. I lay there, instead, watching the red glow from Daddy's cigarette and listening to his hushed voice tell Mama all the things he'd learned from those men.
"In Aransas Pass, there's a big dirt seawall by the harbor," he said. "Built to keep storm tides from washing the town away. We can camp there free."
"The owners won't care, John?" Mama asked.
"There don't seem to be any owners. People all over the country bought those lots in a big land auction in 1909 and never showed up to claim them."
I waited for Mama's voice. Daddy must've been waiting, too, 'cause I didn't hear a word for a while. When Daddy spoke again, it was in a whisper. "The harbor's close there, Raine, and the fishing's good."
I knew neither of them liked living on someone else's land. But I knew, too, Daddy was thinking about how hard it'd be to get to and from his boat every day.
Still, Mama was quiet.
"Dan Gillem said he and Irene are going back there tomorrow, and we could go with them."
I sucked in a surprised breath and was thankful when the sound disappeared under Mama's sigh and the rasp of Daddy's rough hand rubbing her shoulders.
"Might be a good place to settle," Daddy said.
I rolled over, finally understanding what it was he'd hoped to find in these cotton fields. I'd found something, too, whether I wanted it or not. I was getting my new life, just like Mama said, but it was coming ready-made with a chattering, redheaded girl who wanted to be my friend. A girl who didn't know I had a promise to keep.
Copyright © 2004 Marian Hale
This text is from an uncorrected proof.