- Cotton Baby, and: The Boss’s Store, and: Their House Is No Sweet Home, and: After His Father Dies, and: On the Liberty Ship, and: The Port Battalion, and: You Call This a Bar?
It’s dawn in the cotton fieldand his mama’s singingtill the high sun takes away her song.He’s a cotton baby, lyingon the picking bag, draggeddown the cotton rowsthe whole day long.Mama’s face is shining,cotton bits stickingto her sweat-slicked skin.He cries hungry till Mamasits to feed him on the cotton bag.She can’t let that foremansee her cotton baby, can’t ever letthat foreman see her breasts. [End Page 87]
The Boss’s Store
not a real store anyway, unpainted walls chinkedwith cotton, open one day a week to buy what
they can’t grow—coffee, cornmeal, the boss, fanning himself on a pile of feed bags, hauls himself up, opens
a can of lard, scoops it out, goes behind the counter to cuttobacco with his knife and tally their debt in a dog-eared notebook,
so hot a peppermint stick, cool burn, is what he wants,more than anything. What are you looking at, boy?
Papa told him not to look, so he can’t say. Boss saysA cross-eyed boy’s bad luck and kicks him out of the store.
He sits in the truck, so hot his head’s a baked yam about to burst; his arm hangs out the window to catch one flutter.
Everything smells of dung; the sun’s cookingthe cotton fields the cart rumbles through on their way home. [End Page 88]
Their House Is No Sweet Home
His papa’s eyes are red with cottongin dust. He’s a white man’s sharecropper,same as being shackled for everything he needs,
and his papa knows what he’ll never have,a weatherproof house, and for eachof his children, a pair of shoes and a bed.
Sometimes when his papa’s sick of fighting,he tells them how he played the banjoat dances when he was young.
While the children crowd around the woodstove,Papa roasts peanuts and tosses them.Conceived in slavery, he’s a Sunday
preacher, unpaid, and from his pulpit,he preaches love of God, never sayslove each other. Their home is swearing
and whipping, and he, the youngest boy,stands trembling. Papa never hugs himand he even fights with Mama,
who stitches his worn socks into glovesto save his hands from cotton burrs. [End Page 89]
After His Father Dies
They’ve packed up what little they haveand hired a white man with a Ford coupeto drive them to his older sister in Kansas.He sits with his mother in the rumble seat.She’s made him wear his church clothesand it’s hot. Even the wind blowshot in his face. His first car ride,and the world is spinning.He’s trying to take it in, but hedoesn’t know how to look fast.Big houses, herds of cows, cornfields,cotton fields, field hands picking.Then the skies open, too muchrain for the driver to see the roadso they stop at a farmhouse to askif they can get out of the rain.The woman lets them stand on the porch.She brings a glass of sweet teafor the driver, a tin of water for his mama,until the woman’s husbandcomes up from the barn and shouts,Get them off my porch!The driver says, But it’s raining so hard,and the farmer says he doesn’tcare what it’s doing.He and Mama climb back intothat soaking rumble seat.She puts their shoes in a bagso they won’t get ruined.The driver stays on the porchtill the rain lets up. [End Page 90]
On the Liberty Ship
Camp Harahan, New Orleans, 1943
The president asks for volunteers.He drops out of high school, ready to go.Basic training is knots; hot, odorous weeks