The Long Row

David Joy


            Sprigs of grass rose amidst crops just as fast as blades could hoe, and keeping the rows clean, soil turned absent of weeds, was a chore Ruth despised. But there was no time for rest that late summer of 1930. Papa had been stern about wanting the cotton field weeded, and with nearly forty rows, all fifty yards long, Ruth and her three brothers—Jean, Oscar, and Billy—would be lucky to have it finished by the time Papa hit the kill switch on the Buick. Though the four of them were only children, the sixty-acre farm required all to work every minute of daylight while Papa framed houses to keep the bills paid.

            The four had spent the early morning hours tending the garden in the backyard where collards, okra, tomatoes, peppers, and beans were separated from outstretched vines of cucumbers, squash, and melons. Somehow they’d managed to tend and pick the garden by nine that morning, before dew even had time to lift from the prickly leaves of squash plants.

            Ruth didn’t even take time to wipe the sweat from her brow before moving onto the next chore and she was already half way up the first line when the boys rounded the house. They always lagged when Papa wasn’t around to oversee and blamed the lack of progress on Ruth, but their father never bought their lies. Bolls swelled to the size of taw marbles and the children knew they’d be picking soon. Ruth dreaded when the time came to pluck fluffs from opened cotton squares, when the sharp tips of dried burrs would stick her hands like thorns. Prices were low, but the family had come to depend on every dime, and swollen burlap sacks still fetched seven cents a pound.

            For now, the leaves were green as cucumber skin and the only thing the children had to watch out for was the throbbing prick of packsaddle worms. The brightly colored caterpillar—a lime green body with a cream colored spot outlined in white across its back like a horse saddle—loved cotton leaves as much as weevils loved bolls. The pain felt like boiling water when skin jabbed the needlepoints of stingers.

            Ruth hoed slowly to chop away sprigs of grass and dandelion greens. The swung blade chomped at hard clay and turned soil churned into a chowder of dirt clods while the white roots of weeds dried in the sun. She took her time to do the task right. She knew that even though the weeds would sprout again, her father would appreciate the job done. Her brothers on the other hand had already caught up to her mid-row on the three neighboring lines they worked. As Ruth hoed away on a stubborn patch of curly dock, Jean, Oscar, and Billy sped past. Racing footsteps and quick swings did little to rid the strangle of weeds and whole patches were missed as they rushed, but the boys joked on with their eyes settled on ripened fruit at the end of the rows.

            In a thicket at the edge of the road, a wild plum tree stood short and fat amidst entangled honeysuckle vine and blackberry bushes. The plums never reached the deep violet of English strands. The fruit peaked ripeness instead in a red as bright as wild strawberries. The tree limbs were heavy with thick clusters of plums and as the boys reached the end of their rows they dropped their tools to the ground, snagged fruit from the tree, and plopped into shade under loaded boughs.

            Oscar scrubbed a light haze from his plum against his shirt and the fruit shined before he took his first bite. Juice dripped from his mouth when he bit into soft yellow flesh and pulled the sweetness away from the pit with his teeth. As the juice dripped to his shirt, he pointed back into the field. Ruth was still hard at work and sweat beaded heavily across her brow. Jean and Billy looked up from picking cuckle burrs off of their pant legs, and all three boys began to chortle at their sister. Ruth heard the boys and looked up, but paid their ridicule no mind and quickly went back to the task. When she reached the end of her row her brothers still sat under the plum tree. All three of them lay back on the ground with their weight rested on their elbows.

            “What you working so hard for Buggy?” Oscar asked. Jean and Billy joined Oscar in laughter at the sound of her nickname.

            Months before the school physician had sat every child at school down in a chair and combed their hair looking for white specks milling across scalps. The physician found lice in Ruth’s head and sent her home from school. Mama doused Ruth’s hair in a mixture of glycerin and kerosene to kill off the lice and Ruth was back at school by the end of the week. But ever since, all the boys teased relentlessly.

            “Papa wants these rows cleaned up by the time he gets home. I reckon there’s forty rows to hoe, and there y’all sit chewing plums.”

            “Calm down Buggy,” Oscar said. “Ain’t no need to get your panties in a wad.”

            “Yeah, calm down Buggy,” Billy repeated the words of his older brother. All three boys laughed again.

            Ruth just turned around and worked her way back to the house. Three scraggly rows of cotton half-hoed separated the line she’d finished and the one she now worked.

            “I reckon she’s right.” Jean tried to get the younger ones back on task. “We better get back at it.”

            On Jean’s word, all three boys stood up from under the tree, picked up the worn-gray handles of their hoes, and headed back to start their lines. This time they worked slowly, kept pace with their sister, and carefully cut away every plant not cotton as they hoed back toward the house. When the four of them reached the end of their lines, Jean headed over to the porch to grab a tin pail filled with water. Each child took a drink. Oscar splashed a small cup-full against his face. Sweat ran from his forehead into his eyes and lit the whites afire.

            “Hell!” Oscar scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his right hand, while the handle of the hoe rested against his shoulder.

            Jean, Billy, and Ruth guffawed at Oscar, but he didn’t like being the butt of the joke.

            “Awww, shut up Buggy!” Oscar shouted, but none of the kids stopped laughing.

            “Yeah, shut up Buggy,” Billy repeated. He went from mid-laugh into an angry stare as he tried to back up his brother.

            “I think I could go for another plum,” Oscar said.

            Oscar sped off down his next line, hoed just as quickly as he had the first, and the other boys raced along their rows to catch up to him. Ruth just shook her head, settled her eyes on the start of the next, where grass turned to soil, a sharp line separating front yard from field. Less than a third of her way down, her brothers were back under the tree. They plucked plums, spit pits, and pulpy bits of fruit flew from their mouths as they fell back into laughter again.

            The ’27 coupe barreled down the drive around six, not long after Ruth had rested her hoe against the wooden planks of the barn. Papa stepped from the Buick and met Ruth along the side of the house. Ruth looked beaten. The daylong chore of swinging a blade had worn her thin and her arms drooped limp as cut cord.

            Papa put his arm around his daughter and kissed the top of her head. He rarely showed affection toward anyone, including Mama, but he recognized that trodden look of a day’s labor and it made him proud.

            “You look plumb worn out.” Papa cut a sly grin at his daughter. “Did y’all finish up?”
“Just a couple of minutes ago.”

            Billy and Oscar chased fireflies along the far side of the house where shagbark hickories cast lengthy shadows over half the house and the last ten rows of the cotton field.

            “Them boys got the energy of hummingbirds. Let’s me and you walk on over and take a look at the work y’all did.”

            There was a reason Ruth could barely walk and Oscar and Billy ran wild as hooligans. But as Papa’s eyes settled out over the field, Ruth could tell he recognized that reason just as sure as she did. Columns of ratty rows barred the field in groups of three, sparse patches of turned soil the only sign that a blade had touched any part of the lines. Yet, some rows were clean and red. The turned soil juxtaposed the broad green leaves of cotton plants. The field looked like the pattern of some horribly dyed fabric, blends of red and green striped in a jarringly stitched fashion.

            Papa kicked at the dirt with his work boots, shook his head, eyes fixed on the ground, and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand.

            “You go on in the house and get washed up for supper.” Papa tried to hide his frustration as he looked onto Ruth.

            Ruth did as she was told and went into the house. Through the open kitchen window, she could see Papa at the edge of the field with Jean, Oscar, and Billy in line beside him. Papa pointed wildly at mangy rows and yelled at the boys for the poor job. Jean seemed to catch the brunt of it, though Ruth couldn’t make out the words. Papa sort of expected the laziness from Billy and Oscar, but Jean was fourteen years old and Papa thought it well past time for a boy his age to put away foolishness.

            A few minutes later Papa came into the house and took his seat at the head of the kitchen table. Mama had just finished supper and set a plate of fried chicken alongside a steaming bowl of cream corn, a plate of sliced tomatoes, and a pot of green beans. Papa passed a basket of biscuits to Ruth before he had even taken one for himself. He would butter one for his plate only after his daughter had hers.

            There was an empty space three bodies wide beside Ruth along the bench at the kitchen table that night. When conversation died down to silence, Ruth thought she could hear the chop of blades on clay through the kitchen window, her brothers still in the field as the evening held the last orange of sunlight over the hickories. They hoed their rows again until night fell, but by the time they finished, Ruth lay in bed, her tired body just a sprawled puddle on the mattress. She slept too sound to care.

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David Joy is the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey, a 2012 SELC Reed Award and Roosevelt-Ashe Award finalist. His literary nonfiction has appeared in Bird Watcher’s Digest, Wilderness House Literary Review and Smoky Mountain Living. He currently lives in Glenville, North Carolina.