"Daddy, did you see that man?" I asked more urgently, but Father ignored me.
I peeked through the side view and the man was still there watching. I think he waved.
"That's peas over there. See? Look at that. Boy, I usedta pick some peas back in Basile," Father said fondly after hanging up the CB.
It didn't matter which crop it was, he always would say he used to pick, cut, or dig that particular crop when he was growing up. Field peas. Mustard greens. Sugarcane. Potatoes. Rice. Turnips. Watermelons. And cotton. Cotton. Even Mother admitted to picking cotton back in the day. Now, when I first heard this cotton admission I recalled the TV movie Roots, with slaves picking cotton. It didn't make sense to me. How could they have picked cotton? Response? Somebody or the other had a cotton farm and the cotton had to be picked. In Father's case, it was part of his upbringing as sharecroppers if that's what was growing. But Mother, she took a more noble explanation, saying that all of her cousins had to go to their grandparents' house and toil under the sun to make the load as a rite of passage but, more important, as a lesson in hard work and how far black people had come.
Now, all of this was true. No exaggerations. And later I would discover that many people my parents' age from Texas and Louisiana shared a similar plight. Some by necessity, like Father. Others as an excessive summer camp hosted by family members who still practiced the ancient art of cotton farming. Something about saying that you picked cotton carried a sense of history, strength, and perseverance. And these people from that generation downright bragged about that shit. I had to pick cotton. I had to pick cotton every summer. I had to pick cotton every summer or my uncle wouldna' gave us nuthin' to eat.
Since I associated picking cotton with slavery, I'd ask, "Did they whip you real hard?"
"What?" Father would ask.
"The white guy on the horse with the whip. Did he hit you real hard?" I'd inquire innocently, lamenting poor Kunta Kinte trying to escape a color twenty-inch Zenith plantation with foil paper on the antennas. Mother made me watch it, but Father wasn't interested in reliving the past. I mean he really had a problem with Roots, which was really a show for white folks anyway. Why we gotta keep reminding ourselves about that shit? he'd say in his nonpolitical way. But keep in mind, Mother was the one who bragged about picking cotton, so a TV show that highlighted the labor was right up her child-rearing alley.
"If you was lazy out there, my uncle would get that belt," both of them would say. Always an uncle who whips your ass extra special.
I continued with the questions about the crops, and Father was more than happy to identify them. In some ways, it was a reminder of Basile and the toils of being a sharecropper, but what I didn't know was that he was an expert at things that grew from the ground.
He grinned and hummed Charley Pride in between sips of beer, puffs of tobacco, and my questions. But as we got closer to Angleton his mood began to shift and he quieted. It would soon be time for him to perform and he had to get in the zone.
We turned off FM 521 onto a gravel road that led into a desolate rough. Trucks and cars lined the sides of the road leading to an aluminum gate where an elderly black man in cowboy attire sold tickets for entry. Six dollars for adults. Three dollars for kids. Small, rectangular tickets were exchanged and we'd put those tickets in our hatbands. The rodeo arenas all looked the same, some larger or smaller than others. But always the same design, very functional and only the necessities.
A dirt road would lead to a large, usually one hundred yards, clearing in the middle of nowhere with a small arena built of rotting wood. Wooden bleachers sided the arena. Rotting wood, of course, with chutes and a wooden tower, where the announcer rambled from a scratchy PA system. Outside the arena, wooden, yes, rotting, outhouses were placed. And a shack with a huge barbeque pit in the rear served food and refreshments, and almost always hosted a jukebox and pool table.
Excerpted from Red Now and Laters by Marcus J Guillory. Copyright © 2014 by Marcus J Guillory. Excerpted by permission of Atria/Emily Bestler Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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