Nineteen year old Joh Pember careened down the center of Freeman Farm road spinning whorls of dust and spitting gravel. He wheeled the ten year old 1929 wood-sided Model A like it was stolen and new, like anything oncoming would give way. He was on the road to Clyde Adock’s Feed and Seed to pick up corn for hogs he hated. Gluttonous beasts, they broke through the electric fence almost weekly. Always the one to fetch them, Joh found pigs in the peanuts or sweet potato mounds, rooting up a week’s worth of sweat and backache. He drove them home with a stout club. If they dawdled, he landed a hard kick.
But that morning, the hogs were securely in their pen. Joh was alone in the truck and, with a little money in his pocket besides what he needed for feed, headed to town. The sun was shoulder-high over the drab and green fields, and as he swept past the light skated and slid, played coy and reappeared, a bright warm spot on the seat beside him, a slender beam bending across his face.
It was in that new-sprung, flirty light that Joh saw her, yellow skirt swinging around her brown muscled calves and bouncing up the back of her thighs as she jumped hopscotch. The sight of her hit him like his first drunk—a sweet, surprising, full-body flush—just like the half a bottle of communion wine, stolen when he was twelve years old. He forgot the near-empty feed troughs and that Namon, his older brother, had warned him what would happen if the hogs broke free again. He tooted the horn, a bright frivolous sound, and steered the truck to the side of the road.
“I know you,” he said as he leaned out of the window, his red “PURE” motor oil cap matching his red and khaki checkered shirt. “Your mama sing in the choir. Y’all live down Blackrock. What you doing all the way out here?”
She nodded toward the bush of golden rod, just budding, flanking the path home. “I stay here now with my Aunt ‘Melia. You Joh. How come you don’t come to church no more?”
“Cause I didn’t know you was out of nursery worshipping with the grown-folks,” he said.
She smiled. “I bet you don’t even remember my name, if you ever knowed it.”
Joh turned his face to the windshield as if he might find her name magically there, then back to her, admitting, “You right, you right. I don’t. But I’ll pay for the privilege with a ride to wherever you going.”
“School! You still in school? How old you?”
“Fifteen! Most folks I know been left school! You trying to learn it all, ain’t you?”
“I’m gon’ be a nurse.”
“A colored nurse? ‘Round here?”
“There’s other places ‘cept ‘round here.”
“Is there? Why don’t you climb in here and tell me ‘bout some of’em.” He reached to the passenger side and loosened the wire that held the door shut.
“Thank you,” she said, “I’ll wait for the bus.”
Joh shrugged, shut the door. “Suit yourself.” He looked up the empty road. “Sometime the school bus come. Sometime it don’t. Depends on if they got a full load of white. Depends on if they feel like driving down here.”
“I got legs for more than hopscotch.”
Joh smiled as he slid the gearshift into first. “That’s what I know,” he said. “That’s what I know.”
He came back any morning when he and his brother worked separate corners of the farm and whenever Namon left the truck unattended. She traded her name, Molly, for sweet talk and bars of candy - almonds, coconut, chocolate - that had cost the biggest portion of Joh’s spending change. But still it took weeks to get her into the truck, and weeks more before Molly abandoned her school books under the flowering cover of her aunt’s lemon-gold hedge, and let Joh teach her all else those strong brown legs were good for.
Molly grasped the dashboard and tried to keep her seat as the truck bounced in and out of potholes. They were finally headed home, to the farm Joh and his brother owned. As the landscape had grown more and more familiar, they’d talked less and less. Miles ago, the complaints of the truck began to fill the space left by their voices. Molly scooted forward at the turn off to Aunt Amelia’s, now flanked by the laden boughs of Bradford pear trees. A breeze volleyed the leaves like flags of welcome.
“We ought to live with your aunt,” Joh said quietly.
Molly watched as the pear trees shrank then disappeared. The yearning in her gaze altered as it settled upon Joh. He looked small inside his blue checkered shirt - narrow chest and charcoal skin, nineteen years old - a skinny black boy, not a husband. But they were married. A letter signed by her mother. A half-hour at the courthouse. Afterward they drove to the Outer Banks. With no money for a room, they’d left Hargraves’, the only place where coloreds could drink and dance, to sleep in the bed of the truck. Her honeymoon night, but Molly did not want to make love. Grudgingly, Joh let her be. But his hand, moist and heavy, settled against her bare belly. When he fell asleep, Molly rolled away.
“She ain’t gon’ want nothing to do with me for a while,” Molly said. “You said your brother will let us stay.”
“Then why you talking ‘bout living with Aunt ‘Melia?”
Joh drew his lips tightly over his teeth as if to hold in a mouthful of things. He looked toward the road. “Namon gon’ be mad I kept the truck, is all.”
The house was stark. Wood, brick, glass. It was nothing like the home Molly left behind, Aunt Amelia’s, where there were so many potted plants on the stoop it was hard to gain the door, and the yard burst with every flowering bush imaginable: royal purple hydrangea, lavender-pink Josee Lilacs, white-turned-golden fountain grass, the pale raspberry of Paree Peonies. In Joh and Namon’s yard, there was not even the promise of a bud; even the grass had been chewed by the tire treads and buried in the ruts.
Joh cut the motor. Namon Pember, out front cleaving stove wood, waited with the ax hanging at his side. He was tall, hard-muscled, profoundly black. Up close, Molly found her new brother-in-law to be as severe as his house. He switched the ax from hand to hand. “Where you been?” he demanded.
“Out to Duck,” Joh answered. “Hargraves. I’m married.” Clipped words hid the quaver of his voice. Molly stopped herself in the act of reaching for Joh’s hand.
“She gon’ have a baby,” Namon said flatly.
Namon’s gaze hardened as it moved from Joh’s quaking bravado to Molly’s shamed face.
“Goddamn!” he said, his words for both of them. “Goddamn if you ain’t the stupidest -” Namon raised the ax high above his head and brought it arcing down. Biting wood chips flew at Joh and Molly.
They did not step back or even cover their faces. Defenseless, wordless, Molly and Joh stood guilty before Namon, less husband and wife than trembling children.
Molly watched dollops of sweetened cornmeal batter spread in hot lard as she stirred hamhocks, mustard greens and white potatoes with a splintered wood spoon. She heard Joh outside washing up at the pump. Namon already sat at the kitchen table. “You forgot the ice water,” was all he’d said since walking through the door. His broad hand spread over Pathways in Science and Learning About Our World, a much mended schoolbook Molly had set aside to make supper. He pushed the pages back and forth. “Whenever I see your aunt down to the store, she bragging on you,” he said. “She always saying how smart you is. How far you come in school. You ain’t so smart after all, is you?”
Molly flipped the bread. She took a pitcher of water from the ice box and set it on the table. Her hands shook.
“What was you gon’ be? A school teacher?”
“Is gon’ be,” Molly said, voice trembling like her hands, “a nurse.”
“Gon’ be? There was already three marks against you. Poor. Colored. Girl. Now you married. Gon’ have a baby.”
“Nothing to say I still can’t be a nurse.”
Joh rushed through the door with his cap off and his hair and face still damp. “It ain’t on the plates yet, Molly?”
“Feed them hogs?” Namon asked.
“Joh, get my book,” Molly said, as she turned toward the table with a plate in each hand.
Absently, Namon grabbed the book and dropped it to the floor. “You setting to this table and them hogs ain’t ate?”
“I been -” Joh began to explain as the plates clattered to the table. Molly stooped to retrieve her fragile book. Dismayed and angry, she looked up at Namon.
“I got to take care’a that! Miss Bond won’t let me borrow no more if I tear it up!”
“What you need a book for?” Namon asked as he pulled a plate forward.
“I’m going back.”
Again, Namon snorted. He turned to Joh. “What I tell you gon’ happen if them hogs get out again?”
Molly stood. “Ain’t I going back to school, Joh?”
Joh looked from his brother to his wife. He pulled a plate forward. “Hush, Molly,” he said.
“Ain’t that what we said?”
“Hush!” Joh ordered. “I can’t taste my food for all this foolishness!”
Molly took a step toward Joh. “We said -”
“School is out,” Namon spoke firmly. “What you look like sitting up in a school room full of children when you got one in your belly? You married now. There’s work for you ‘round here.” He picked up his fork.
Standing beside the table, Molly clutched her book. She watched Namon and Joh bend their heads over greens she had picked clean and boiled. Their white teeth tore her cornbread. They chewed and drank and swallowed as if the matter were settled.
Namon Pember waited in Clyde Adock’s store to buy a pack of Chesterfields. He stood aside at the long wood and glass counter while Adock talked to Roy Gilliam, an extension agent and a sometime cotton-ginner. It was Roy’s job to travel Bertie County, bringing word of better farm equipment and pest control to farmers. Somehow, though, he never managed to make it to the coloreds and poor whites. In harvest season, when farmers had little time or attention to spare, Gilliam once in a while ginned cotton, his skillful extra hands allowing the overrun gin owner to stretch the workday from early morning until late in the night.
Commonplace except for his job, Gilliam was born of the peasant farmers who bartered and sold at Adock’s. Nowadays, with a buzz cut that showed a clean pink scalp and starched khaki shirts with “Gilliam” sewn in heavy grade, dark blue thread over the breast pocket, he was better off. Still, on his rounds from big farm to big farm, he always stopped at Adock’s for the time it took to win a game of checkers and drink a beer.
At the counter, he debated crop quotas and government price supports, brushing off Adock’s reluctance to argue and efforts to wait on Namon. The checker players got fed up. “Gilliam!” one called, “I got a crop to bring in in ‘bout three months. You be ready to play by then?”
Gilliam slapped the counter. “You gon’ see, Clyde!" he said backing away. "You gon’ see that Roosevelt ain’t nothing but one’a them socialists!” He took another step and his heel clipped an open bag of feed. “Damn it!” he said, as he looked down at the flow of spilled grain. Then, as easy as shoving a suitcase at a bellhop, he gestured to Namon, “Pick that up.”
Clyde Adock was already coming from behind the counter with a dust pan and broom. “I got it, Roy.”
“He’ll get it,” Roy said as he reached deep into a barrel of ice for a bottle of beer.
Namon stood stiff as a cooling board. This was not his first run in with a man like Gilliam. It wasn’t his second. Perhaps Namon understood better than Roy Gilliam himself why he so despised colored people and beggared whites. Gilliam was all but one of them. A favor or a phone call from a rich white man, and Gilliam had been lifted from the status of poor white trash. Now he had a job that put him on speaking terms with men of historic names and Confederate deeds. They might offer him a whiskey or a cigar in return for exclusive information. But he had the same chance as Namon to sit at their tables or be introduced to their daughters. Namon said, “I wasn’t nowhere near that bag.”
With his hand on the cap of the amber glass bottle, Roy Gilliam tensed.
There rose in the store the atmosphere of a cockfight - strutting, speckled birds with razors fastened to their feet - calming only when one rooster tore the head from another. Clyde Adock surveyed the room. The white men who played checkers and ate sardines and cheese in his store had a lot in common with Namon Pember. Their farms were always at the mercy of animal disease and crop blight. Like Namon, they were passed over for loans while big acreage “farmers” who rarely touched dirt reaped subsidy checks. All in the same leaky boat, Adock had extended credit to every one of them to a man. Sometimes they called this to mind. Adock had seen them trade remedies, tools, and sometimes a cigarette with Namon. Yet these were the years of Scottsboro, when good white citizens marveled that a gang of black boys jailed for raping white women had lived long enough to deny it in court. They straightened from the board. The gaze of every white man was on Namon, and Adock. Gilliam’s hand slid down the neck of the unopened bottle. He gripped it like a hammer.
“Roy,” Adock said, “there ain’t got to be none of that. Namon gon’ do what I say. How he gon’ feed his animals and fertilize his cotton he don’t?” Adock spoke coldly to Namon, “Nobody asked where you was. Do what he said.”
Namon scanned the room. The only other colored in the store was Irving, the thirty-five year old stock “boy.” High up on a ladder, dusting the red labeled cans of mackerel, he didn’t even look down. There were five whites. Adock wouldn’t pile on, but Irving wouldn’t help. Namon had a new crop in the field. He couldn’t work if they beat him badly. Joh could not do the work alone.
On knees that bent as if they were bit by bit breaking, Namon knelt and scraped the floor clean. But before he did, he looked into the eyes of Roy Gilliam - as if he were not outnumbered and surrounded - with the white-hot fury of any other man.
With a hand still coated in grain dust and floor grit Namon reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette. Nothing.
“Goddamn!” he said, bringing his attention back to the road just as a sow and three shoats trotted across. He slammed the truck to a stop, fishtailing in the road.
As fast as the truck and the narrow dirt lane would let him, Namon sped home. He found his brother in the hog pen kneeling among the slack fencing. Just as Joh looked over his shoulder to explain, Namon drew back his foot. Full weight and full of rage, he kicked Joh.
“Find,” he said, “those goddamned pigs.”
Molly’s Aunt Amelia squatted by a whitewashed tractor tire filled with dirt. She was setting out the plant clippings that usually crowded her window sills. Beneath a fraying straw hat, she hummed The Old Sheep Know the Road, breaking her melody only to murmur, “Root for me now, hear?” as she lifted plants from jars, tangled roots dripping, and arranged them in the soil. Around each plant she poured murky water from its own jar so the strange new home would feel familiar.
“Aunt ‘Melia,” Molly said.
Her name spoken in a misery voice, and Amelia was yanked from her only peace. She studied her full hands for the briefest moment, then look up. “Well, what happened?”
“I ain’t going back to school.”
Amelia studied the girl’s woeful expression. This was news, it seemed, but only to Molly. “Why?”
“Joh’s brother say I can’t.”
“What Joh say?”
Amelia studied the hydrangea cuttings, then gazed about her yard. In some patches and corners, weeds had gotten ahead of her flowers. Amelia kept gardens for a few women in Windsor whose husbands were still wealthy enough to pay, and she came home in the evenings with her back aching and her inspiration spent. She was late putting her own garden into the ground. Maybe the plants would root and she’d have “snowballs” bordering the walk to her privy, their white petals carpeting the ground. But all of this could be for nothing. Thrive or shrivel. One was just as likely as the other. So it was with this girl. All of that hard work and hope gone to nothing.
When Molly said she wanted to be a nurse, Amelia had begun holding back a portion of her tithes to pay for schooling. She had envisioned introducing the girl, “This my niece. She a nurse,” meaning, “She educated. You can’t do her like you do me.” Now she understood the enormity of her sin, the arrogance of her dream. When Molly turned up pregnant, Amelia said, “That’s what come of robbing God.”
“I said don’t let that boy turn your head.” Amelia gouged a hole in the dirt. “Go to school. Get your lesson. You wouldn’t listen. You wanted to be grown. Thought you was grown when you was sneaking off with that boy. That didn’t make you no woman.” She paused. She could almost see the rebuke, the reality, spreading through the girl like that dark water taken up by the roots. “What you feeling right now,” Amelia said sadly, “that make you woman.”
Molly finally spoke, her voice diminished like the third sounding of an echo. “What am I gon’ do?”
Amelia might have told the girl to go home to her Ma, but there were still four hungry mouths to feed at Odell’s. Molly’s mama didn’t need a grown girl coming back with a baby. She might have, again, taken Molly, but hard times were turning desperate. City whites were moving back to take field jobs, and what they didn’t take, cotton picking machines did. Hoot, her husband, hadn’t worked steady in weeks, and weeks were all it took for the notes on the stove and furniture to fall behind. Amelia’s cupboards were not bare, but she and Hoot had little in abundance. Molly had a husband who owned part of the land he farmed. Two men to plow and harvest and hunt for food if it came to that. She had to stay, hard bed and all.
Chest deep, Amelia sighed. “Go home,” she said. “That’s what you gon’ do. A woman with a child don’t leave home over nothing like that.”
Amelia let Molly sit and weep as she quickly set out the rest of her cuttings, the joy of planting gone, the fancy arrangements forgotten.
Joh came home from the hog pen to find Molly asleep at the kitchen table, head on folded arms. Her book lay open in front of her. The stove was cold. The skillet from breakfast sat unwashed. Plates, frosted with grease, waited in cold dishwater. He shook Molly until she waked.
“This what you been doing?”
She raised her head and looked around as if she expected to wake in a different place. Gradually, her features settled. “I went to Aunt “Melia’s,” Molly mumbled.
“An left the house like this? An come back an come back an ain’t fix supper?”
“I come back in time,” she said, defensively, rising awkwardly, her body still adjusting to the weight and ride of the baby. “I was just tired, I guess, from the walk.”
“Ain’t too tired to put your eyes in that book.”
“What my book got to do with anything?” Molly snapped. “You hungry, I’ll get you something. Gon’ wash.”
Joh came in from the pump to find leftover hominy and ham warming in the skillet, but the breakfast dishes were still in the pan. Molly sat at the table, her fingers skimming over pages.
“You ain’t wash that frying pan,” Joh said.
Molly shrugged. “Bacon grease is bacon grease.”
From the backdoor, Joh reached her in three strides. His fist hit her book like a hard swung bat, knocking it to the floor, shattering the rotten thread of the binding.
“What’s wrong with you!” Molly screamed.
She threw herself down, stooping and squatting, gathering the strewn leaves. Joh raised his foot.
He stomped near Molly’s fingers, near her face, until she crouched on her haunches; only her bewildered gaze followed Joh. Dirt and hog shit from the tread of his boot smeared the pages, imprinted a chapter deep. He ground his heel until layers of pages ripped.
“Now!” Joh yelled as he stood over Molly. “Tend to something!
Namon arrived not long after Joh stalked back to the fields. He came upon Molly as she stood by the stove staring down at her belly with an expression too fierce to be love.
“How come you looking at it that way?” he asked.
“What way?” Molly asked. “I ain’t looking at it no kinda way.” She made up her face like she made up the beds. Folded and tucked. Neat around the edges.
“You ain’t so dumb after all, is you?”
“Hominy and ham all there is for supper,” Molly said.
“Dish it up then.” Namon approached the table. Her book lay there, pieced together, even the shit-covered pages. “Book don’t look so precious today,” he said, flicking it with one finger.
“Leave it ‘lone, please.”
Namon withdrew his hand. “What got hold to it?”
“Hateful!” Molly teared as she asked in a quieter voice, “What it hurt yall if I read my book and go to school?”
Namon gripped the back of a chair. He only knew that all of her talk of going to school caused a desperate anger to well in him. It was a filthy feeling, like when a pounding rain caused the outhouse to flood and run over, but he could not help it.
“That ain’t your place.” He sat at the table, waiting for Molly to bring his plate.
Instead of spooning grits and ham onto a plate, Molly stared at Namon. He stared back. Between them was the same feeling that had risen in Adock’s store. The tension felt like the moment just before the cocks were released.
“It moved,” Molly said. “I was looking at it that way ‘cause it moved.”
For two days and nights, Molly and Joh performed the obligations of marriage - he brought in stove wood, Molly cooked his breakfast - but little else passed between them. On the third night, Joh dropped heavily onto his side of the bed. He shucked off his shirt. His back was stamped with a spreading bruise, less apparent because of his dark skin, but painful. Stiffly, he bent to unlace his boots. Molly turned her miserable face to his injured back.
The boy into whose truck she’d climbed was not this boy. That Joh had been a charming thing, a slim dark boy with a sly, easy smile. She likened him to something beautifully wild slipping through the woods. Molly had meant to go only close enough to take a look. One day, she left her books beneath a covering of flowers. Then another day, then another, never imagining she would not make it back.
Joh worked the ties on his boots. “Namon say he gon’ get a second-hand tractor if we make a good crop. He do, he won’t need me so much.” One boot hit the floor with a thud. “We could leave here.”
Molly rose onto her elbow. “Go where?”
“Virginia. Newport News. I might could get on at the shipyard.”
“A big colored hospital’s there. Whitaker Memorial.”
“I know,” Joh said.
He put out the light and crawled into bed. Molly lay back against her pillow. Neither slept.
After a while, Joh asked, “You feeling all right?”
Molly answered, “I’m feeling all right.”
Amelia brought baby clothes, cut and stitched by her own hands, diapers with sharp shiny pins, and a cradle mended and varnished. When she left, Molly pushed everything beneath her bed, out of sight. She felt the anticipation and fear of an expectant mother only for Namon’s crop.
For this, she put her book away. Like Namon, she examined the soil and watched the weather. Without being asked or told, she worked the fields, squatting, bending, weeding on the days when squares nubbed the young stems and when those squares split into buttery flowers. Molly gathered the fallen blossoms in each of their short lived stages, purple-tipped, then pink and red, and saved them like first teeth, like locks of hair.
Early in the season, when the first trembling, sunlit-green stand of cotton appeared, Namon set Joh and Molly to thinning out the plants. The task was simple. Where the seed bunched together, the new plants were to be dug out of the earth and resettled ten inches apart. Namon trusted Joh, but he kept close watch on Molly, finally leaving his own rows for hers. “Not so rough!” he ordered as he knelt beside her in a furrow.
Namon snatched the dented and rusted spade from Molly’s hand, but with seedlings he was tender. He dug a circle around a clump of plants, mindful of roots, and untangled them like a finger smoothing a wild brow. Molly noticed his hands - scarred from plow lines and wire punctures - coarse hands moving cautiously, not only, she suspected, because there was money at stake.
“You love this work.”
Absorbed, so unguarded, Namon grunted, “Yeah.”
Molly touched the miniature, hand-shaped leaf of a cotton seedling. She took a delicate stem between thumb and forefinger.
“I could rip it up,” she said, “the way Joh done my book.”
She saw Namon’s dismay before his face sealed in anger. Namon stood, but Molly held his gaze.
“I feel like that about school.”
“Just do like I say,” he ordered. He moved many rows away from her.
Molly knelt in the dirt, stretching beyond her growing belly, ignoring the low ache in her back. She worked the plants just as Namon had shown her, cautious with the fragile roots, each plant, in her mind, a separate page.
Over the months of summer, Molly followed the men, chopping weeds that came up faster than cotton, always alert for weevils. One day, Joh ordered Molly home when he found her pacing the rows shaking poison from a thinly woven croaker sack onto the leaves. White dust enclosed her.
Joh pulled her to the edge of the field. “Don’t you care nothing ‘bout this baby?”
“Weevils eat the cotton, we can’t leave,” she said firmly.
Molly had taken to heart words that Joh wanted to take back. In the time it took for bruises to fade - blood reabsorbed into blood - Joh had forgiven Namon. Not many days after Namon kicked Joh, he came confiding the dream of a second-hand tractor. “You good with machine things,” Namon said, “when it break, you’ll fix it.” Sorry - the only way Namon knew to say it.
Joh found himself trapped between the hard hopes of Namon and Molly. He pretended that he could serve them both. He did nothing to discourage Namon who planned an easier and more prosperous future with two men and a tractor. And Joh did not caution Molly who, in her ninth month, September, when cotton lint burst the bolls, looped a sack around her chest and headed to the fields.
The ginnery, like most vital things, was located at a crossroads. It was not modern - a mule-driven holdover from the last century - but the only gin that Namon and other small farmers could afford. It sat directly across from the firehouse and cater-cornered to the large general store where people bought gasoline and groceries, but traded news and gossip for free. On the other side of the road was the ball field. Some Saturdays white men played, and some Saturdays colored men played. Colored or white, the women cooked. They sold pulled pork barbecue, fried fish with white bread, white potatoes fried with onions, and grape or orange Nehi. Small children scrambled underfoot while the women wiped sweat and fishy grease from their faces, too busy to hear the calls of umpire or enjoy the play.
But there were no games during cotton harvest. The playing field was overrun with wagons and trucks and trailers pulled by Rumley and Model-D John Deere tractors, as the local farmers waited to have their upland cotton ginned. The wait was many things: long and thirsty if a man had used up his credit at the store; tense with a season’s work piled in one place; worrisome with each man comparing quantity, texture, color, praying for a good grade, a high price.
Namon knew he had quality cotton. He had begun with high caliber, short staple cottonseed and picked only the ready bolls. He’d cautioned and badgered and eyed Joh and Molly to make sure they did the same. Once picking was done, Namon minded the cotton personally, sleeping but a little, taking care that the seed did not over-dry, trusting Joh to check the lint only a handful of times. Now, as Namon waited in line, he tried not to think how little any of that mattered. The quality of his cotton was determined as much by the vigilance of the ginner as it was by anything Namon had done while his crop was in the ground. The ginner’s job was to take utmost care with how the cottonseed was pulled through the saws, grates and brushes. If he allowed the machine to jam or even looked away as the saws drew the cotton though the grate, knots could form in the fiber. A year of work could be greatly diminished or even lost.
Namon arrived to find farmers already waiting. Wagons and tractors rolled forward slowly until, a couple of hours before sundown, Namon stood on the slatted floor of the ginnery, his cotton mounded around his feet. Around him, the dark faces of women who moted cotton were softened by the gauzy haze of floating lint. Their talk of children, in-laws, and men revolved slowly in the humid evening air. In soft, ashy voices, they called to the barefoot colored boys who hung around the gin, running errands for pennies, and offered them nickels or paper money damp with bosom-sweat to fetch Coca-Colas and peanut butter crackers. The marriageable women aimed flirtatious looks Namon. But one woman, older, with fingers that picked trash from the fiber faster and more deftly than the rest, did not aim to seduce. Her gaze traveled pointedly to the ginner who mounted the stairs.
Roy Gilliam crossed the gin house floor and stood in front of the cotton gin machine like a concert pianist. He nudged a mound of cotton with his boot. With a quick check of the belts and wheels, he glanced around for the farmer.
Namon stepped out of the shadow of a low-hanging, slanting beam. He kept his face expressionless; Roy Gilliam did the same, but they recognized each other. Their eyes, like glittering grindstones, gave them away.
Almost casually Gilliam asked, “You by yourself?”
“Yes, sir,” Namon said.
“Adock ain’t sent you?”
Lifting the cotton, measuring by feel, loading the machine, Gilliam said, “I thought he’d sent you.”
“No, sir,” Namon repeated, each sir feeling like a lit cigarette stubbed on his skin.
Gilliam kept close watch on his hands, filling the machine with dirty seed cotton. His tone was no different than if he said, sure is hot today. “I thought you was his boy. The way you cleaned his floor, I thought you was his boy. Ain’t you?”
Gilliam spoke loudly, but the moters pretended not to hear. An impatient cotton farmer, come inside to escape the mosquitoes and wait his turn, cocked his head to listen.
Namon glanced at the woman on the floor. Her fingers moved quickly and surely through the cotton lint. She did not look at him, but she did not have to. Yes, she would say. Put a roof over your head. Put food on your table. Put a tractor in your field. Put money away in case Joh’s new baby takes sick.
Namon knew the words and posture that would get his cotton ginned to perfection. Grade A. Top price. He lowered his gaze to Roy Gilliam’s collarbone. In the humblest voice possible for a man of Namon’s size and ambition, he said, “Yas sir.” The words tore from his throat like a ribbon of flesh.
Gilliam inhaled. He nodded. “I knew you was,” he said. “I knew you was.”
He fed and adjusted the machine. The teeth grabbed the first bolls. Seeds rolled down the grate.
Though he saw the parts move, Namon was oblivious to the din of the saws and the rattle of the housing and gears. The approving nod from the woman was incomprehensible. Only shame reached him, humiliation so dense, it felt as if he’d crawled inside a cotton bale.
But as he watched, clean lint fell over the brushes; he forced out his hand. Namon clutched one fistful of seed-free, Grade A cotton before Roy Gilliam said, “Got to feed the mules.”
He sent the owner’s son, a boy of sixteen or seventeen, to gin Namon’s cotton. Downstairs, Roy Gilliam smoked a cigarette as he watched the mules - hungry, dumb, obedient - churn in the track, and the gin chewed Namon Pember’s cotton.
Hardly able to sleep for her own excitement and the baby stretching and curling within her, Molly woke instantly at the sound of the knocking truck motor. She shook Joh.
“Namon’s back!” she said, throwing off the sheet and maneuvering her legs over the side of the bed.
Joh pressed his face into the pillow. “In the morning,” he mumbled.
“This can’t wait ‘til morning.” Molly grabbed her dress from a hanger behind the door. “Joh! Get up!”
She stood by the window tugging on her dress. Nothing outdoors moved as excitedly. Grass and leaf-laden branches swayed. Some small vulnerable animal crept into a weed-clump near the shed. Only Molly and sleepless whippoorwills disturbed the night. She scanned the long trails of moonlight until she found Namon’s shadow. He sat motionless on the tailgate. He did not honk the horn or bellow for Joh to help carry cotton seed to the shed. He did not stomp through the house, rousting Molly out of bed to cook hot food on the night he’d sold his best cotton crop. Namon sat straight and still like the grief-stricken sit at funerals, as if minding heartbeat, breath and thought, anything that could race away and burst from him as screams. Molly sat that way one time, the day she understood she was pregnant.
Just over her shoulder, Joh heaved a months-old sigh. He stood in shorts and long-toed bare feet, thin chest and arms as wiry as his hair. Slowly, Molly took her hands from the buttons of her dress and turned to better see him. His face softened, caved like the center of a cake. They saw the same thing: There would be no shipyard job in Newport News, no training at Whitaker; he would not be blamed.
“There ain’t gon’ be no tractor,” he said. “We ain’t leaving.”
In a voice like skin splitting, Molly asked, “Why didn’t you let me alone? That first day? I told you -”
Joh, a stick-and-stuffed scarecrow limned by the moonlight, shrugged his shoulders. “I thought you’d let go of the notion.”
Namon softly spoke, “Go inside, you know what’s good for you.”
Molly ignored him. She heaved onto the tailgate.
They sat together in the churl of unseen frogs, the sound lingering, vacant. Separately, their gazes found, again and again, the moon-flooded field of withering stalks.
After a long while, Namon lifted his hand, trembling, and rested it on Molly’s belly.
Sometime before daybreak, Molly pressed her hands upon his.
During the writing and re-writing of “A Hard Bed,” my mother was often on my mind. She married young and had four children by the time she was twenty-eight. Her aunt wanted her to become a teacher. For a long time, I’ve wondered who that young girl might have become had she not been our mother. In addition to that, I am fascinated by the ways racism played out, historically, in black homes. Consciously or unconsciously, we enacted the oppression we suffered on those closest to us – the only people over which we had power. I wondered what would force Namon to recognize that the manner in which he subjugates Molly and his motivation for doing so are identical to the reasons and justifications of Roy Gilliam.
Princess Perry was born in Newport News, Virginia. She is a past winner of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award and a Virginia Commission for the Arts grant. Her short stories have appeared in African- American Review and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia.