cotton promises or it’s hard to be a cowboy dancer
she looked out at the cotton from a broken house and a wax paper window. she looked out from the daisy of a daydream and the cidered eye of a young girl caught in the catch of a cotton life. she looked across the fields and the wrinkled white heat of a cloudless blue sky writhing off a ruddy red dirt and the sad flat of a west texas plain and saw all she had ever seen. and she saw the long lonely of telephone poles and the single wire between them, stretching down dirt roads and nowheres and somewhere a horizon finally and an abilene. and she saw two lane county roads groping and fumbling their way to the edge of her sight and the end of the cotton fields. and she looked away from the cotton and held her breath and her wish and blew out twelve candle stumps on a slim cake she and her granny had made that morning. she was thirteen years old, twelve candles to a box. she was born with her grandmother’s eyes and the rare gift of sight, the instinct to see what a man could only look at. she knew things she would remember and forget and live with and without like a missing limb regardless of her memory. she looked out at the cotton and wandered in her wish and the secret fancy of a young girl and smiled sadly ‘say cheese’ in a hand me down blue gingham dress for a photograph her grandmother would keep in a cheap steel frame from the woolworth’s in stanford in a year called 1941 and always.
the dust fell around her and the sun through a window and a quiet that always fell before the rain. the day had started clear as a saint’s intent, but as her granny sang some cowboy song thru the thick black strap molasses air of the kitchen, she stopped and breathed heavily that it was too hot not to rain. stirring the cake batter and the clouds, she stole the old woman’s words to conjure a storm from the ground and the western verge of their cotton universe and the rumor of an oklahoma. the old woman felt the storm’s beat in her chest and looked to the girl and sighed and whispered a worn out prayer for the cotton and a right picking, looking out the window a tired mary. she prayed for the storm to break as easy as a used car saleman’s promise or a cowboy’s proposal drunk with whiskey and a saturday night. she asked her god to forget the child’s word’s, an absolution from her innocence and she thought again.
she looked at her grandmother looking out at the cotton and suddenly the old woman was old and wondering how and doubted if she knew a single thing. the girl poured the batter in the pan her grandmother had greased and held onto her little wish and watched the clouds gather like a crowd around a car wreck and the sky turn black and blue and bruised and angry. the cake swelled and the air outside rose up heavy from the red clay dirt with the promise of rain until the old woman thought the sky itself would break. and the world held a funeral hush and a secret and a promise to itself once.
the cotton was ripe and waiting. waiting like some high school romeo in a pick up truck on the county road with a six of dixie and a clean shirt, twisted with the lust of youth and the trick menace of love. waiting, boiling and about to boil over. waiting to ruin her with hope like it ruined her mama once. the cotton was always there always, always with the promise of a new dress and new shoes and maybe a new house and a big red car to ride into town in. but all the promises she knew were just lies dressed up fancy for church. the truth of cotton was hard work and heartache, a quiet, clenched jaw despair and a bone kitchen pantry. the sure, slow death of this west texas town and their tiny cotton lives was the only cotton promise ever kept, and keeping.
most of the men folk had left that spring for the war. they rode outta leuders with their hands and their hats sticking out of the train so it looked like a big metal centipede. all of them whooping and hollering, windows waves goodbyes and fists raised and promises to take care of the nips and the nazis and any other threat to the american way or their boot texas birthright. promises. and all the dirt cowboys and the wide – faced farm boys and the ten cent negro pickers were heroes for a lick of lightening, a time between train whistles and the next dry texas train station stop. and for one wondrous moment the sun broke through the afternoon’s black clouds and lit the world, this texas plain, with a light only a god could know or fashion, and it continued to rain a brilliant light and just as suddenly the world brandished a dark grin again and closed its heavy eyes on the sun again. perhaps that’s all any of us can hope for — a singular, brilliant, illuminated moment. they left the cotton for a new deal and an old promise and they came back whole and hollow or they came back in pieces or they never came back at all.
the girl’s mama had left some years before the war, just after her fourth birthday or was it her third ? she was just a sweet sixteen when her belly swelled with the stuff of the girl, the blood of a miracle, the debt of a young love. and she spit her out in the heat of a full moon in the middle of a night in a late august in the kitchen into her own mama’s arms. and she would stare at the child with heavy eyes and wonder if the virgin mother ever had a choice. she stayed on the farm for a few years after and finally ran away with an oil prospector with a greasy grin and a gold tooth and no real prospects at all. she promised to come back for the girl when. she smiled vaguely and drove away into the dust of a west texas plain and the simple truth of the lies we all tell ourselves. they took a room in abilene over the shoot em up theater where he spent most of his days down in the dark with a beer and the same old idea. beer was five cents, whiskey ten, the girls a little more and a lot less.
she dreamed they’d strike it rich someday like he always said, driving down the road leaning onto her, rifling through the glove box for a stray smoke and never finding any. she dreamed of a 100 dollar, dry dirt lean on the pan handle with a secret waiting to be tapped and told. she dreamed she’d get married proper in a baptist church in a fine white dress and they’d drive into leuders in a fat black cadillac and buy her mama’s house back from the bank and bring the girl to a big ranch house w/ doilies on the end tabled furnitures and fancy lace curtains and a brick pony barn. but all her daydreams soon turned to a yellowed wallpaper stare. she would never see him again or smell his whiskey skin. word was he and one of the dancers, a girl named elnora, had beat the texas line in elnora’s husband’s car for a nevada and a new dream called las vegas. downstairs at the bar that night the shoot em up’s fat owner told her the story and that her rent was due and poured her one on the house and offered her a job and his own oily idea. she made the rent and a little more and got her picture on a poster just like a movie star.
she sat in her room during the day, before the night, and wondered where it all went to. she watched her life like a flat muddy river, never knowing its beginning or end, just a slow slip into the promise of a sea. all she knew was the numb of now, the now she had traded for the hard cotton innocence she once wore. she couldn’t feel herself or even remember when she could, but she could feel the men’s desperation seeping from the audience at night looking into the lights and into the dark of them. she could feel them breathing one collective breath like a rabid animal. she could hear their teeth in their mouths and their thin hearts beating. and she knew their hands and their oily breath and soaked in the tub most of the day to try and get clean. she died in the mirror every morning and felt the tug of this life’s bit in her mouth. and she knew the truth of cotton and this texas town life and whispered to herself as much as to her god that it’s hard to be a cowboy dancer. she made a face in the mirror and painted it and went downstairs and pretended to be a big texas star in a big texas sky.
the girl and her granny and a few cheap negro pickers too old for the war effort and too weak for any decent farm would pick the farm’s cotton next week and two weeks after that and deliver it to the gin in leuders every end of the day on old man whiley’s truck. one evening they would be done and they would have chicken and corn bread stuffing and gravy and a whole watermelon. next morning the truck would come for her and the old woman and they would pick cotton across the handle until the cotton was picked and delivered and their hands were splintered and cracked and bled. cotton was king and kings are to be served.
she closed her eyes and wished for a storm, a wistful cain to kill the cotton and its truthless pull. a rain and a hail to smash the fields’ lie and a pick up truck noah to deliver her from this cotton life. if the cotton came in, she would have to stay on the farms and their negro’s quarters and live in the little lie of this crop’s pocket prosperity until the cotton turned on them again and left them with nothing. she dreamed of living with her mama in the city in an apartment with running water and a radiator and her own room with new dresses in the closet and new shoes. and she would walk right down the cement sidewalk past the neon signs and the crowded store windows to the theater where her mama danced and watch her in the cool dark just beyond the bright stage lights. she wished her birthday wish and walked to the window and cooed and called to the wind and the clouds and made a storm.
it started like an idea, like an instinct , something inside your gut and out of reach. the first blots of rain dotted the dirt and the porch, and the wind laughed around the mesquite and the squat trees like children playing at a july church social. and with a whip crack the sky opened and the rain fell as hard as any truth. the old woman bit down on her teeth as if the cotton were rooted to her jaw. just as suddenly the rain stopped. the storm rolled to the north and to the east and broke apart across a blank horizon. and all that remained of her wish and the storm was a beer bottle brown broken across the sky. the girl sat on the porch and cried and watched the storm die into the earth, another broken promise. and her grandmother started to sing again, wiping off the dishes from their birthday cake and smiling and feeling maybe she knew something. she knew hard work and hardship, a right picking and the good sleep of an honest life. she felt in her apron pocket for a letter postmarked abilene and threw it onto the stove’s embers from the morning still before the girl came into the house. and the old woman looked up at the kindly jesus on the kitchen wall and whispered a thank you between her teeth and a why on a borrowed breath and sang an old cowboy song.
(published Water-Stone, 2002)