Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word Count: 760
Versions of this essay have been published in the Greensboro News and Record and the Blotter
We were picking up early-season sweet potatoes on the second blistering afternoon of a hotter than normal August in eastern North Carolina. 1968, it was. The deep furrows of the potato plow bared the cool sand that had not faced the brutal sun in well over a year; the brown, damp soil turned quickly to gray, dry dirt, pocked with sweet, swollen, orange tuberous roots, occasional quartz stones, and errant rusted bottle caps from hot seasons and thirsty diggers past.
We were an invading force, stripping the land of the luscious blue-green vines and occasional potato blossoms, leaving in our wake the naked, drying soil, ripped in rows long hidden, tangled with withered, stringing vines and yellowing leaves.
The fruits of our labors were lines of wooden crates from Mexico filled with “Number One Sweet Potatoes” bound for the early market of North Raleigh. There, the going price would be two, maybe three, times what we would get next month. The boxes were arranged in jagged lines along corridors in the dusty field, awaiting the men who would grunt, lift, and stack them on my daddy’s old flatbed truck with six in-line cylinders, dual rear tires, and a growling bull-gear. The truck was barely able to heave its load through the axle-deep sand of the newly pillaged field.
Six of us worked quietly in bare feet, short pants, thin or no shirts, and, occasionally, hats. The vapid conversation of the cooler morning had left with the dew, and now, an hour past lunch, the discussion of the food that was and the weekend that would be had both withered in the unrelenting heat. We went about our labor, automatons bent on simple, if ragged, survival, approaching the ends of the rows, each in turn, those in front helping those to the rear, no one getting to far ahead or too far behind. I was rarely the first or the last, but usually toward the middle, sometimes helped, sometimes helping, always pulling the countless tubers from the ravaged soil.
The end of each row meant a break in the shade, a cup of cool water, a chance for some to sit and for some to lean, a brief rest in the welcomed breeze that stirred the shade of the wild cherry trees. Our water sat in an orange Igloo cooler on a concrete block under the tallest cherry tree, five gallons, a chunk of block ice, one cup, and six people, five black and one white: me.
I was second in line to drink, and for the first time in my fifteen years, I faced the certain and undeniable prospect of drinking behind the coloreds. Ahead, a young woman of about my age drained the cup, sighed in the lingering pleasure of cold water on a hot day, and handed the cup, a molded, dimpled smoke-green glass of undistinguished design, to me.
I reached for the wet cup, still cool from the chilled water, the intensity of the moment searing my brain, burning my soul far beyond anything the glaring, scoffing sun, glinting from the lip of the cheap five-and-dime glass, could ever do to my shirtless back. White people didn't drink after coloreds, an unexplainable, heretofore immutable, and now apparently untenable law with me at the cusp of eternal damnation.
There I stood, cup in hand.
There was no visible spit on the rim, but I had watched those brown lips, heard that soulful sigh, and even imagined a slight string of spittle spun from lip to glass as she lowered it, closed her eyes, and swallowed the water that cooled her.
I wonder if she saw, or felt, my pause. Did the others? Did they feel the same for having to drink after me?
I held the glass in my right hand not wiping the rim, drew my water with the left, raised the cup to my face, gazed at the distorted reflection of my nose, lips, and tongue, and drank it all, ignoring the cold chill that burned my throat.
Was this burning the mutation I feared? Was it my soul in flight, fleeing its soiled and impure vessel? Was it the end of the life I had known? Would friends and relations shun me? Would dogs chase me? Would God cast me beyond purgatory, now that I was one of the damned, one who had drunk behind the coloreds?
My throat thawed while the chill spread through my heated innards, bringing a shiver to my spine, and I handed the cup to the smiling, wizened gentleman behind me.