The dirt puffs up in beige clouds around my feet as I trudge along the weedy road ruts bordering the fields. The heat pounds on my head. I’ve only been gone from home for half an hour, and already I’m desperate for water. The house where I get the water is another half mile or so along the road. Water first. Corn will just have to wait.
The pump handle shricks up and shreeks down four times—it’s a hard push-pull—and then water drips from the spout into a tin cup that’s tied to the spigot end of the pump. I haven’t told Mama about this pump, or this old house, either. She might not approve of my drinking water from an unwashed tin cup hanging in someone’s front yard in the backwoods.
She definitely would not approve of the house—unpainted, broken window, boards missing from one side wall, saggy porch with an old kitchen chair sitting on it. I climbed the rickety steps to that porch a couple of weeks ago and peeked inside. Dirt floor. A pot and some cereal bowls on a shelf above a small table with another kitchen chair. An odd-looking stove with some cut tree branches stacked beside it. A bed with an awfully thin mattress and a flat pillow. A few old clothes hanging on a wall.
I’m drinking the water, cool and good, when I see the man I buy the corn from come into the yard and head toward the house. So today I won’t have to find him in the fields like I usually have to do. That’s a shame. It’s interesting to see his mule flick her ears and stamp her feet when she sees me.
The man is sweaty, like me, but you can see it better on his almost-black skin. He looks over at me, stops, waits about 15 feet away. When I’ve finished the water, he nods. “Lil miss. Ate eahs?”
“Twelve,” I say. “We have guests from Indiana.”
He nods again and heads back out into the field to pick a dozen ears of corn. When he comes back with it in his arms, I hold out my bag. He takes it carefully and moves away from me again—he never comes very near—stuffs the corn into it, then moves forward and hands the bag back to me. I give him 36 cents, half of the amount I get each week in allowance, and he backs away again. He looks at that money in his palm, then smiles. When he smiles, he looks sad.
“Whas Indeeyana?” he asks.
“It’s a state. It’s way north of here, after Tennessee and Kentucky,” I answer. He doesn’t nod and his expression doesn’t change. “Uh,” I say, “a state, like this state. Like Georgia.”
“Ah, Jawja. Boss say Jawja ma home.” He shakes his head. “But he let me live in this here home. My home raaht heah, so long’s ah gives Boss da cohn.” He shrugs. “He give me someofit back tuh eat. Yazza.”
So that’s why, when I first asked this man if I could buy corn from him instead of from the grocery story, he waited so long before he answered me. “Boss” might not like him selling me corn.
It’s even hotter walking back home, but I don’t care. I’m remembering springtime on the bus to Adams Elementary when I would see this man following along after his mule, pushing his plow down into the earth. After that, I saw him on bus rides both to and from school with a huge sack of seed on his shoulders sprinkling it in the furrows made by the plow. Later, when I looked out of the school bus window and saw corn plants, I often also saw him toting buckets of water into the field–and I know how hard it is to push and pull that pump handle just to get a single cup of water. And now that it’s summer and school’s out, I’ve seen him on my walks picking ears and putting them into boxes. That man works hard, but he doesn’t have a closet. Or a kitchen. He doesn’t even have a bathroom.
When I get back, I’ll get to take a shower where water comes out into the bathtub in a proper bathroom. Then I’ll put on clean clothes and set the table while Mama cooks pork chops to go with the corn I’m carrying home. She’ll cook dinner on a real stove and serve it to our guests at a table with a tablecloth and lots of dishes and silverware.
I wonder if some boss will come sometime and take everything my family has away from us.
This story was published in the sixth volume of Sincerely Magazine, Hiraeth, in spring 2018.