The mosquitos and the heat were both biting hard that morning, so Jim decided to wander away from the homestead and go off to town. It was a long walk that he had made many times, as the horse was usually too busy working a plow to make the trip and his family was not wealthy enough to afford one of the automobiles sold down at Benny’s. He took to walking very leisurely, a pace he always took when the only destination was elsewhere.
The sun was blasting at its zenith as Jim strolled into the small town of Addis. There were even fewer folk living there then than now, if you can believe that, and most everyone in the area knew each other by name. Jim had no notion of what exactly he intended to do in town, so he took to loitering outside the Brass Tack Supply and Grocery. It was one of those idyllic stores that steeps the area around it in latent Americana, but most importantly, it had a large portico to shield passerby from the afternoon sun.
“Hey ‘ere Jim, here to look at the twelve-strings again?” Mr. Howard asked from inside the store. He was an elderly man who seemed perfectly suited to his age, with thick white muttonchops and sparse hair.
“No sir, just sort of, y’know, lingering.”
“Humph. Skylarkin’, you mean. Well don’t get any funny ideas or I’ll holler for the sheriff.”
“Yes-sir, no funny ideas.” Jim usually had funny ideas, but he was trying to stop, “Maybe I could take a peek at those twelve-strings though, if you don’t mind, sir.”
“Yeah, yeah, I figured that’s what you were here for. Go on, they’re still in the back.” Jim took to the store, weaved through rows of cans and burlap, and found himself at the rack of twelve-strings. There were three in all, and they were nearly identical save for the stain on the wood. Jim had been fascinated with the instruments from the moment he saw them, but he had no money to spend on anything so unnecessary as music. Mr. Howard specifically forbade touching the instruments, but Jim still had the funny thought of strumming one on a porch, with a crowd of family and onlookers cheering at every rhapsodic stroke. His imagination swelled with the smiles – maybe he could even accompany the choir, if he learned how to play well enough and asked the right people. Jim was all joy, slack-jawed and transfixed.
“Right, that’s enough lookin’, either buy one or get gone.”
“Sir, you know my pa doesn’t give me any money for things, but I really do want to buy one of those guitars – Maybe I could work in the shop for you in exchange for one?”
Mr. Howard hrm-ed and hawed for a few moments before reaching his decision. “No, but my brother is lookin’ for fieldhands to bring in the cotton. Fifty cents a sack, I reckon you could prob’ly afford a guitar after a few weeks of that.”
“When can I start?”
“Well I’ll tell him to pick you up around dawn tomorrow, if you want. He brings the truck ‘round your folks’ place in the morning anyways.”
“Alright! I’ll do it!” Jim thanked the grocer and then returned quickly to his home. He ate seconds at dinner, and went to bed especially early to build strength for the harvest.
Morning arrived too soon, as it always does, and with the dawn came a red pickup. The driver ushered Jim into the back with two other youths: each wore their pre-dirtied field clothes, each had the blank expression that signifies the preparation for manual labor. The ride was short, and deposited all three on a 150-acre cotton farm somewhere on the west side of town.
“Pretty goddamn hot today.” Called one of the boys, a wiry little foulmouth named Matthew.
“It’s hot every day.” Replied George, who was either a moron or a sarcastic genius (Matthew clearly figured he was a moron).
“Well what about the fucking winter?”
“…It’s probably hot somewhere. China or somewhere.”
“Pfh, well then there’s probably some Russkie freezing his fucking potatoes off right now, if that’s how you’re looking at it, hell if I know. Hey, new kid, you picked cotton before?”
“Oh, uh, I’m Jim, and no. I haven’t ever picked cotton.”
“Right, well, the sacks are in the barn, and you’ll get fifty cents a sack. We’re picking the east fields today.” Matthew rubbed a bit of snot onto his sleeve as he motioned in the respective directions. “It’s pretty simple really, once you realize you’re basically in hell and you’re okay with it.”
“Nothing, nothing, just go get a sack and some gloves from the barn.”
Jim retrieved his equipment from the barn, an old run-down thing that seemed built to stable horses, but only contained dust and rusting farm implements. He returned to the field and watched the other workers (There were twenty-some pickers that day) for a few minutes, before sliding the ten-foot sack onto his shoulder and getting to work just the same. It was brutal, much more than Jim could have expected – there was no inch of him that didn’t burst into painful waves after the first hour. His back was sore from the bag, his legs were buckling with all the crouching, the thorns of the cotton were actively attempting to turn his fingers to soup, and the heat was blistering – but Jim was raised on a farm, and he was as stolid as the trees his family tended. The work stretched on through the morning, seemingly interminable, but by noon he had picked his first sack of cotton. He dragged it back to the barn, where the rest of the workers reclined in the shade.
“How’d you do?” George asked from between bites of his lunch.
“Pretty good, I guess, I picked a bag.”
“A bag? In six hours? I picked four bags.” Matthew chuffed.
“I picked three,” George added, “But I’m going a bit slow today.”
“Oh.” Jim looked to the ground for a few moments, until a steady voice rang out from behind.
“Boy, you want some food?” It was the foreman of the day.
“Well, yes sir, of course.”
“Go to the house, get some food.”
“Yes sir.” Jim dutifully trudged back to the house where, to his delight, he found all sorts of food; catfish, hamburgers, sandwiches, pastries, iced tea awaited him, and he eagerly greeted the meal. He sat at a large oak table with a group of workers who eyed his hefty lunch – clearly, they were impressed with how much the teenager could eat. It made him feel tough, or at least noteworthy, to be noticed so universally. This was how he imagined playing the guitar to an audience would feel.
Soon enough lunch was finished and he found himself back in the field. The second stretch was worse, his wounds and stresses compounding with fresh cuts and strains, yet still he worked on through the heat, even faster than before. By the end of the shift he had two more sacks of cotton. He turned in the sacks and found the foreman.
“Three sacks of cotton, eh, that’s not bad if you’ve never picked. Now let’s see…That’s a dollar fifty for you, and that’ll be three dollars for the lunch.”
“What? But the lunch was free.”
“Ha! No, kid, the lunch was not free.”
“But you said-“
“I certainly never said the lunch was free.”
Jim thought for a moment and, indeed, he hadn’t been told the lunch was free. “But I assumed…”
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, kid. Lunch is three dollars. Everybody knows that.”
Jim contemplated his bloodied hands and the abundant stinging sensations of his skin. “So…I owe you a dollar fifty for this?”
“Yep. Got it on you, or do you just want to take it out of tomorrow’s pay?”
His answer was immediate, “Tomorrow’s pay, sir.”
Jim hopped back into the foreman’s truck, went home, and never picked cotton ever again.