By Terry Sanville
In a field along an eastern reach of the Gambia River, Nyima picked cotton. Her daughter suckled at her breast as she stooped to pluck the white fluff from the sharp bolls and slipped it into the sack. Her scarred fingers moved quickly and she sang in the hot afternoon stillness. Coming to a tall gangly plant with colorful flowers, she stomped it into the dust.
“Why did you do that, Nyima?” Nell asked. Her face was red and sweating as she labored beside the coal-black woman.
“Them cotton no good. Bad color.”
“Bad. No white.”
Nell pried open one of the broken plant’s bolls. A wad of greenish-brown was packed tightly inside. She removed it and measured the fiber length.
“Nyima, why don’t you pick this?”
“Seed no good. Grow no white.”
Nell stripped the plant of cotton and stuffed it into her bush jacket pocket. She continued picking through the long afternoon. The gins were running round the clock and the village must get its crop in before they shut down for the season. That night at the Peace Corps compound, she separated the pocketed seeds from the lint. They looked like any other cotton seeds. It was one more mystery Nell discovered in that strange West African country. She lay back on her reed bed and thought about the past year spent in Sukuta with its thatched huts, about her California homecoming, but mostly about how hard it would be to leave Babukar, her tall black lover.
“So who is this woman, anyway?” Stuart asks his wife.
“We were both in the Masters program at Riverside. Studied plant pathology.”
“Why’s she calling you now?”
Joan stops peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink and frowns. “Don’t really know what she’s been up to. Sort of lost track.”
“Were you guys close in school?”
“Yes, best friends and roommates for a while, until Russ came along. Nell had just got back from the Peace Corps in Africa and was having a hard time. I used to help her with chemistry homework.”
“What’s she been doing for the past twenty-five years?”
“Out in Arizona farming or ranching. Don’t really know. I was surprised to get the invitation…and then that phone message.”
“So what are you going to tell her?”
“I don’t know, Stu, honey. But wouldn’t it be nice to take a winter vacation to the desert? We’d only be gone a week.”
“And do what?” Stuart asks and frowns. “I mean, this woman’s farm or ranch or whatever the hell it is, is out in the middle of nowhere!”
“Come on, it’ll be good for us. We’ll take the camper, spend a couple of nights under the stars… and not tell the boys where we are.”
“As if they care,” Stuart cracks. “They’re too busy hustling the babes at UCSB to worry about ole Mom and Dad.”
That night, Joan e-mails Nell a response:
Thanks for the invitation to your harvest party. My husband, Stuart, and I would love to come visit for a few days. Plan on arriving late Friday afternoon, February 3rd and leaving on the 6th. We’ll bring our camper, so don’t worry about putting us up. Can’t wait to talk with you. It’s been too long. Are you still with Russ? And what’s this harvest party thing anyway? Talk with you later.
An hour later Joan receives a response:
Yes, I’m still with Russ, well sort of. He’s my farm manager. If I tell you more about the harvest party, you might decide not to come, heh, heh. So I’m keeping it a secret, but it should be fun. Call when you pass through Aguila and I’ll have Russ bring you in through the gate. Hope my directions are clear. Can’t wait to talk with you.
Joan turns off her computer and sits in the dark, thinking. Back in college, Nell was so idealistic, wanting to work for the United Nations as an agricultural consultant, travel, see the world, marry Russ, have kids, the whole package. Now, all this time later she turns up on a farm in one of the more desolate parts of the Southwest desert. Joan had googled the town of Aguila, Arizona, but only found out its name meant “Eagle” in Spanish. She smiles. Leave it to Nell to find some part of hell and try to change it.
Stuart frowns as he watches the gas gauge of his F-150 drop toward empty. They’d left Hermosa Beach near dawn and had been driving due east for eight hours. The brown smoggy clutter of Southern California has given way to sand, sagebrush, rocky hills and a robin’s-egg-blue sky. Their two-lane highway disappears in a one-point perspective toward the horizon. The cold desert air has given Joan a nosebleed. Stuart glances over at his wife and smiles. She’s stuffed Kleenexes up each nostril and is snoring. He gives her a gentle nudge.
“Honey, wake up.”
“Could ya check the map and see how many miles to the next town? We need gas.”
“Yeah, sure. Where are we anyway?”
“Should be getting close. We’re about 50 miles east of the Highway 60 junction.”
“Why didn’t you stop earlier?”
“Didn’t want to wake you,” Stuart improvises.
Joan studies their triple-A map. “Looks like Aguila is the next town. If they don’t have gas we’ll have to drive on to Wickenburg, then backtrack.”
Stuart groans and tries not to stare at the gas gauge, willing it to stop its slow descent. The bare desert floor gives way to flat cultivated fields. Knee-high plants displaying puffs of white from star-like pods extend to the base of the rocky foothills. One of the rocks has a hole in it.
“That must be the Eagle’s Eye Mountain,” Joan says. “Nell told me we’d be almost there when we saw it.”
“Yeah, what I’m worried about is finding a damn gas station. Help me out here, will ya.”
“Hey mister, don’t get mad at me! I’d have stopped back in Blythe.”
“If you were driving we’d never get here,” Stuart grumbles.
It’s an old argument both have danced through countless times. Stuart stares down the highway. A wrinkle on the horizon slowly resolves into a town. As they get closer his heart sinks. Derelict buildings and smashed pole signs front the highway. A few battered homes hide among the bush junipers. But Stuart’s face splits wide when he spies a convenience market with gas pumps out front.
“Jeez, will ya look at the price of gas,” Joan grumps.
“All these desert joints are the same. But it sure as hell beats the alternative.” He grins with relief.
As Stu fills up the truck and tries to scrub the bug juice off the windshield, Joan calls Nell on her cell phone.
“Hey, this is Joan. We’re here in Aguila at the 7-11.”
“Great, fantastic! I’m so glad you made it. Some of my other friends just pulled in too.”
“So you want to give us directions?”
“No, better not. Things are a little, ah, complicated. I’ll have Russ come get ya. Gol-leee, this is gonna be fun!” Nell’s lilting girlish laughter floats over the airways. The last time Joan heard that delightful sound was at their graduation party. They’d all smoked too much pot and ended up at a Shakey’s Pizzeria with a bad case of the munchies.
“Okay, then. We’ll wait here and take in the sights,” Joan quips.
“Ya might not recognize Russ, so go easy on him.”
“He’d better go easy on me, Nell. See you in a little while.”
A strong afternoon wind buffets the camper as the couple waits in silence. But they don’t wait long. A mud-splattered red pickup with a full gun rack rolls up and an aging hippie with long red hair and a walrus mustache steps out and walks toward them, grinning.
“Jeez, is that Russ?” Joan mutters as the couple slides from their truck.
“Well, y’all look about the same,” Russ says and winks at Joan.
“Yeah, right. Having two boys didn’t help my girlish figure, and my hair…” Joan swipes at salt-and-pepper strands whipping her face.
“Don’t talk ta me about hair,” Russ says and lifts his cowboy hat, exposing a sunburned and deeply freckled dome. He turns to Stuart and extends a meaty hand.
“I’m Russ. Nell says you’re some kind of high-class architect in El Lay.”
“That would be me,” Stuart replies. “Thanks for coming to get us.”
“No problem. I got a pair of gloves that’ll fit ya fine. But Nell will explain all that later. Follow me and I’ll take ya through the gate.”
Russ spins on his heels and marches back to the truck.
“Not much of a talker, is he?” Stuart says.
“Nah. But he sure was sweet on Nell,” Joan replies. “I wonder what happened?”
“You’ll have plenty of time for girl talk later. I need to use a restroom, and soon.”
“Jeez, and you complain about me.”
The couple follows Russ east along Route 60 until he pulls down a dirt farm road and gets out to open a gate secured with three huge padlocks. The gate and fencing is posted with “No Trespassing” signs, many of them sprayed with buckshot.
“I wonder who their neighbors are?” Joan asks.
“Don’t wanna know. Why do I have the feeling we’re entering the Branch Davidian Compound?”
Ahead of them is a cluster of farm buildings, the main house a low rambling affair cooling under a grove of elm trees. Joan stares at the adjoining fields thick with knee-high plants. But instead of white puffs, they’re red-fox-colored, pea green, chocolate brown, or the color of sand dunes.
“What the hell is that stuff?” Stuart asks as they bump along.
“Beats me. Save your questions for Nell.”
As they pull up to the house, a tall woman with English-looking skin and wearing a straw sun hat jogs toward them, smiling.
“She looks just the same,” Joan complains, “except maybe a little grayer.”
“Easy, honey. This isn’t a competition.”
“God, what you don’t know about women…”
Joan bounds from the truck and runs to Nell. They fling themselves into each other’s arms and rock from side to side for the longest time, laughing like teenagers. Their cheeks stream with tears but their mouths grin broadly.
Throughout the late afternoon and evening people continue to arrive. A fat rosette of cars and trucks surrounds the ranch house. Nell is kept busy arranging space inside for sleeping bags, showing the newcomers the location of the refrigerator stocked with beer and the port-a-potties outside. It’s late before she slumps into a porch chair next to Joan and stares at the moths circling the light.
“You guys came all this way. I’m so grateful you’re here… and Stuart seems real nice.”
“Yeah, but are you happy? I was surprised to see Russ still hanging around.”
Nell’s face darkens. “We tried it for a while, ya know. Lived together for a couple of years when I first came out from Delano.”
“So what happened?”
“Russ and I make better friends than lovers,” Nell says and giggles. “Believe it or not, he’s this neat freak, while I’m Miss Piggy personified.”
“I remember from college. But it musta been more than…”
“Yes, yes, there were other things. I just didn’t wanna screw up our friendship. I asked him to stay on and manage the farm. He sleeps in a bunkhouse at the back of the property. Has his own friends over and…”
“Well, as long as you’re happy,” Joan says, shaking her head.
“I’ll be a lot happier when this operation starts making money. My family has been carrying me for years. Christ, I’m pushing fifty.”
“Don’t remind me,” Joan says, her seamed face twisting into a grimace. “Remember, I’m older than you.”
She stands and moves off toward their camper and a snoring Stuart. In the darkness, Nell’s three border collies patrol the outer perimeter, pattering softly amongst the cars and sniffing the tires, excited by all the attention from strangers.
At seven the following morning, Joan and Stuart awake in their camper to the clanging of a cook’s triangle. Outside, a crowd of sleepy-looking men and women form a line. Russ hands them metal trays while Nell dumps on dollops of oatmeal, hockey-puck biscuits, and scrambled eggs. The couple joins the group of maybe seventy-five, most of whom Joan met for the first time the night before. Stuart doesn’t know anybody. They all sit at picnic tables in the cold morning air, sip bitter coffee and shiver themselves awake. Finally, Nell climbs on top of one of the tables and the babble of voices quiets.
“Thank y’all all for coming to my first ever harvest party! I haven’t seen many of you for years… so it’s wonderful you and your oh-so-lucky spouses took time to, ah, drive all the way out here.
“Some of you know about fifteen years ago I quit my job at Applied Chemicals and moved to Arizona. But even before that I was playing around with breeding plants, trying to develop pure strains that consistently produce the desired color.”
“Yeah, what is that stuff in the fields?” somebody yells.
“Hold your horses, I’m gettin’ there.” Nell grins and sips her coffee. “When I was in Africa I collected seeds from a plant that produced greenish cotton.” A rumble goes through the crowd. “By trial and error, I’ve been able to develop four distinct varieties and have secured patents for each. This year, Russ and I planted our first market crop. It’s small because we had to do it by hand. And we don’t have any machinery to pick it, either. That’s where y’all come in.”
“Sounds like slavery to me,” someone cracks and the crowd laughs nervously.
“Well, I’m herby imposing on your friendship. Hope y’all can oblige.” More laughter, then silence.
“I don’t expect us to pick everything. But I’ve got about ten acres I want to bring in and sell to, ya know, start some kind of cash flow. The organics market is good right now and I’ve got a few clothiers, like Levi Strauss, interested in trying my product. They like it ’cause they don’t have to use dyes, and cloth made from my cotton doesn’t fade. But I can’t afford to hire a picking crew. So I’m relying on your generosity. And if ya really hate doing it, don’t feel bad. We got other things you can help with.”
“Yeah, there’s always cleaning the outhouses,” Russ yells and the crowd chuckles.
“Anyway,” Nell continues, “each of you will take two buckets,” she points to a stack of white plastic paint containers. “One is to sit on and the other is to put the cotton in. If ya got tender hands, you’ll wanna use gloves ’cause the cotton bolls can tear up your fingers. I got a few dozen pair to choose from. Russ will collect the full buckets and give you empty ones. But whatever you do, DON’T MIX the different colors.”
“What about lunch?” a round guy wearing a brand new cowboy hat asks.
Nell grins. “I’m spending the morning making sack lunches. Russ will bring ’em out to you at noon.”
“When do we quit pickin’?” an elderly woman calls.
“Whenever the barbeque is ready… I’m planning on six o’clock.”
“Are we supposed to sing Stephen Foster songs?” Joan jokes.
“I remember your voice, Joan. For you, quiet humming would be best. Are there any more questions, wise-ass or otherwise?”
The crowd stands and moves noisily toward the stack of buckets, then into the fields surrounding the house. The pickers spread out under a yellow morning sky. Stuart and Joan choose a plot of fox-colored cotton.
“This stuff is the color of my aunt’s fur coat,” Joan exclaims.
“Yeah, I’d like a bush jacket in this color,” Stuart muses. “It’d look really cool.”
They settle onto their upended buckets and begin picking. Stuart’s first plant has bolls so tight he has to pry the sepals back to get at the cotton, slicing his ring finger in the process. He yelps and sticks it in his mouth.
“Here, watch me,” Joan says. She carefully slips her fingers inside a fat boll, presses downward until they fully encircle the soft russet fluff, then jerks upward, extracting the entire cotton lint and seeds in one quick motion.
“My hands are too damn big for that,” Stuart complains and pulls on a pair of canvas gloves. “My way will work just fine.” He rips off a branch, crushes a boll in his gloved hands and violently yanks the cotton from its cage.
They work in silence. In an hour, Joan’s back is killing her from the bending and stooping. Stu is in a zone, moving along the red clay furrow, never looking up, a perpetual picking machine. The sun burns hot in the clear quiet morning where only the cries of magpies and the chatter of grackles break the silence. Joan runs a hand across her brow and winces as sweat drips onto her scratched and perforated fingers.
“Nell told me about that folk song where they’re singing, ‘Jump down, spin around, pick a bale of cotton. Jump down, spin around, pick a bale a day.’ Do ya know how much a bale is?”
Stuart shakes his head and keeps picking.
“Five hundred pounds. Can ya believe it? Those pickers musta been fast.”
The couple works side-by-side, moving down a long row. Stuart picks up the pace but Joan stays with him. She’s a continuous bobbing and weaving machine while Stuart’s picking style is more like a wood chipper, shredding the plants as he moves along. At row’s end, they break for water. Russ drives up in a battered golf cart and exchanges their full buckets for empties.
“I’ve been watchin’ you two,” he says. “You keep up that pace and I’ll be haulin’ ya off to the Wickenburg hospital.”
“As long as the beds are soft, that’ll be fine with me,” Stuart says.
“Nah, you really don’t want to end up there. They got this Nurse Ratchet type that terrorizes the patients and –”
Two quick explosions echo across the fields. Russ spins around. To the south, the pitiful yelps of a dog fill the late morning. Two more explosions, then silence. At the far end of the farm, a woman runs through a field of tan cotton. She carries a rifle and heads toward the southern fence line.
“Shit, gotta go.” Russ jumps into the golf cart and hustles off.
All the pickers stand and watch. Two men in coveralls climb into a battered jeep on the far side of the fence and motor away. The woman with the rifle reaches the fence, shoulders her weapon, but doesn’t fire.
“If that animal’s hurt, I might be able to help,” Joan says.
“You’re a chemist. How’s that gonna…”
Joan takes off running toward the riflewoman. When she arrives, Nell is kneeling on the ground, her cotton dress splashed with blood from Eli, her oldest border collie. Russ is there with her. Whitney and Eli Junior circle them, tails tucked between legs, whining.
“By God, I’m gonna shoot those bastards,” Russ yells. “This time we’re callin’ the cops.”
“They won’t do anything,” Nell mutters. “Those creeps will say the dog was on their land and they had the right.”
“Yeah, well I have the right to payback,” Russ says grimly.
“It’s not that and you know it,” Nell says and wipes her eyes on her sleeve.
“I’m so sorry,” Joan says. “Russ said something about your neighbors but I had no idea it was this bad.”
A crowd of pickers has gathered around them. Nell bows her head and quietly sobs. A tight-lipped Russ bends and lifts Eli into the back of the golf cart and drives away. Joan kneels in the dirt and encircles the heartbroken woman in her arms.
“Come on Nell, let’s go back to the house.”
“No, that’s just what they’d want,” Nell says and stands, her face tear-streaked but her eyes defiant. “I’ll be damned if they’ll run me out of here before I even get started.”
“What are you talking about?” a young woman asks.
Nell looks around at the crowd, as if seeing them for the first time. She blushes and bends to wipe her face on her long dress, exposing unshaved porcelain legs disappearing into the tops of her brogans.
“Those men who shot Eli grow cotton on the 300-acre farm next to us. Them and the people on either side are afraid my colored cotton will contaminate their white crop.”
“What do ya mean?” someone asks.
“They’re afraid my cotton will cross-pollinate with their whites and they’ll end up with a hybrid and won’t be able to sell the seed.”
“Jesus, Nell, shooting dogs over colored cotton?” Joan exclaims.
“Yeah, I know. But they’ve already complained to the local gin owners, who now won’t process my product. I’ll have to haul it to Texas.”
Joan stares back at the house and the farm truck with its partitioned chicken-wire-sided trailer, where Russ has dumped all the full buckets of cotton. They form soft stripes of color on the flatbed, like melted Neapolitan ice cream.
“What about the gins in Fresno or Bakersfield?” Joan asks. “Isn’t that a lot closer?”
“I’ve already been run out of the Central Valley. The good old boys heading up the farm boards wouldn’t let me grow more than five acres, and only as a nursery crop. They’re afraid of the same thing.”
“We had no idea,” a Latina woman says and hugs Nell. “Come on, let me help with those lunches.”
The pickers turn and slowly walk back to their buckets.
“Actually, I can see their point,” Stuart mutters to Joan.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The white cotton farmers. They’ve probably been here a long time. Something new comes along and threatens their way of farming.”
“Yeah, so Toyota and Honda shouldn’t make better cars because it might threaten General Motors?”
“Come on, Joan. It’s not that simple. We all want new and better stuff… but there’s a lot riding on the way things are.”
“You mean a lot of money.”
“Well, let the white cotton farmers work it out with Nell. Killing things will only make it worse. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Stuart says and scowls. “But I understand how some people can get…get desperate.”
“So how would you solve it?”
“Don’t know. Changing things can get ugly.”
“Change isn’t the problem. It’s how people handle it.”
That evening the exhausted pickers with bloodied hands shamble into camp to gather around the barbeque pit and stare hungrily at huge chunks of tri-tip burning on the grill. The beer’s been chilling all day and is grabbed up fast. Stuart feels strangely refreshed.
“I gotta get out of the office more often,” he tells Joan. “This picking business is just the ticket.”
“Yeah, all except for the gunplay,” Joan mutters and rubs her throbbing back.
Out on Highway 60 a loud roar approaches from the west. A pickup slows and stops outside Nell’s farm gate.
“Ah shit,” Russ growls and runs into the house.
“You fuckin’ pansie-ass hippies… get the hell outta here,” somebody yells from the road.
“Yeah, get the hell back where ya belong,” a second voice adds.
The barbeque crowd quiets. Russ busts through the screen door carrying a Winchester. The crack of rifle fire erupts from the highway. Buckshot and bullets rattle through the elm trees above them. Russ slams the rifle to his shoulder and fires seven or eight rounds as fast as he can cock the lever. The truck’s horn blares and the pickup suddenly twists into the ditch. Russ takes off running toward the road.
“Okay, listen up everyone,” Nell hollers. “It’ll take the cops about 45 minutes ta get here. I want y’all to clear out. This is our fight and I don’t want you involved.”
“But Nell…” Joan begins.
“Just do it, PLEASE. If I need anyone’s help, I’ll be in touch.”
“God, Nell, I’m so sorry…”
The pickers grab their belongings from the house, sling them into their vehicles, and roar down the farm road, leaving big rooster tails of dust. Russ has flung open the gate. As Stuart pulls left onto Route 60, Joan sees a body stretched out on the pavement in back of the pickup. Another man slouches on its tailgate as Russ ties something around his arm. Stuart guns the Ford and they rocket westward into the fading sun, following a necklace of red taillights.
“Slow down, will ya,” Joan hisses. “You’re gonna get us killed!”
“Seems to me speeding’s not half as dangerous as picking colored cotton,” Stuart replies and continues to lead-foot it toward the California border and home.
Four months later and after repeated e-mails and phone calls to Nell, Joan finally gets a late night response.
I think it’s finally over and done with. The guy from the truck fessed up to shooting at us and Russ admitted firing back and killing the driver. He pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and got a five-year suspended sentence. I think he could’ve gotten off completely by claiming self defense. But you know Russ, always has to do things his way. He’s supposed to check in with his probation officer monthly in Phoenix. All I know is I can’t stay here. I’m leaving tomorrow, don’t know where to, but I’ll find a place. Thanks for all your help and support.
My love to you and Stuart,
Joan thinks back over the years when she’d lost track of Nell, and knows it’s going to happen again. Sighing, she calls Stuart and shows him the e-mail.
“That’s really tough,” he says. “She was just getting started.”
“Yes, but maybe she’ll land someplace this time where the color of her cotton isn’t a problem.”
“Don’t bet on it,” Stuart says and grins.
The riverboat slowly chugs its way up the Gambia, past Ramra Tendar and Niami Maru and on toward Sukuta. Tall palm trees bend in the afternoon wind. Nell stands at the bow rail and inhales the almost forgotten scent of West Africa. In her bush jacket pocket is her passport and an official-looking letter from the Ministry of Agriculture, inviting her to bring her seed and to settle. I wonder if I can get the villagers to plant and pick my colored cotton? Nell thinks and smiles. And I wonder if Babukar still lives there?
Behind her a shorthaired Russ scratches his fox-colored clipped mustache and eyes the dark-skinned boatwomen in their brightly-dyed garb, as if they were fields stretched out ahead of him, waiting for the picking.
About the Author
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 230 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize for his stories “The Sweeper,” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.