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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