At last, the sun dipped bellow the scattered, brown horizon. Skunk Lowery raised his hand to it, curving his calloused fingers and cupping the orange shine, as though it were the pomelo he'd received for Christmas as a boy. The wild citrus smell was so beautiful that he didn't dare break open the skin, and he hid it under his rope bed like a buried treasure. Over time, it had turned rotten and bent in on itself, like the earth seemed to be doing now. Skunk dropped his hand and rubbed it against his trousers to clean the dirt off. He worried this season was too hot, that they planted too late, that the cotton wouldn't grow. Sharecroppers in Cimarron Territory couldn't afford such bad luck, but each year, the ground became stiffer. It cracked and flaked, like the skin of an old snake.
Skunk's father called out to him, waving a dusty hat through the air. “C'mon, Skunk! Best get on before the time's between wolf-and-dog!”
Skunk nodded, shifting the toe of his boot to cover the last of the seeds. If all went well this season, the Lowerys would be able to buy their homestead out from The Mumford property. They would no longer be squatters turned sharecroppers. They'd have a place in the world, however small their corner of it might be.
The men walked home, fatigue robbing them of their speech. As it was, their tongues were too dry and swollen to make much use of conversation. Their home leaned at the edge of the property, in a semi-circle of other sharecropper shacks, which were tucked away in an untamed curve of the prairie. The floor was packed, brown dirt. The only door was a flap of fabric that had long ago turned pink from the constant blister of sunlight. They slept on rope beds next to the pot belly stove and ate out of good china, white and dappled with blue flowers, that Skunk's mother had brought with her from the then owned Mexican owned south.
After a simple meal of corn pone pie, Skunk's father took down his penny jar and removed a rope of Low John. He cut off a hunk and chewed with a deliberate intensity, to get all the juice to wash the sour smell of his breath. Neither man held much in the way of words, on account of their ears being much bigger than their mouths. They listened to the cicadas begging for each other as they dropped from the far and few between post oaks.
“Say, paw,” muttered Skunk when it was time to turn up the gas lamp.
His father spit out Low John in answer.
“What'll we do once we buy out the place from Mumford?”
“What'll we do?” Skunk repeated. “Want to put up for a new mattress? We could get us a mule and make the work quicker.”
“Quicker or slower, the work is work,” he answered, flicking the root to the other side of his mouth. “Cain't think beyond today. Hell, you as good as die in your sleep if the Lord decides. Funeral's ain't cheap.”
“I figure if it's anyone dying first, it'll be you.”
His father snorted and knuckled a hairy earlobe. “Ain't so old as that. 'Sides, I gotta stick around show you how to father.”
“Ain't got no kids,” Skunk said. He took a bit of Low John for himself, chewing the root to cud. The fresh spark of it hit his tongue and he stretched out his legs. “Not for the lack of them at the Big House trying.”
“Them Mumford girls ain't nothing but trouble.”
“Marcy Mae-Ella could put a sour look on Jesus's face, that's true, but the devil gave her legs.”
“And the devil take 'em, too.” His father snorted again and spit. “You're always looking two steps ahead. Even when you was learning how to walk. Trying to get to someplace so fast, you'd end up tripping.”
“Man's gotta think about the future of his crops.”
“Ain't no price of cotton promised til the day you bring it in, boy.”
Skunk lifted a well muscled shoulder. As he carved the earth, so had it carved his body. He rubbed his chin, where a fine dark stubble had started to appear over the last summer. First thing he'd do with his money was buy a pomelo. He'd actually eat it this time, nibbling at the thin white skin, sucking free each tear drop of meat that came free of the rind. He'd scrub the leavings into the thick groves of his fingers, over his face, and down his arms, just so he could have the citrus smell to intoxicate him when the rest was gone.
“A man can hope for the best and still work in what's known,” he told his father. “I know ain't nothing promised, but I also know what could be had. That's what I aim for. Could be.”
“Might never.” His father said, lightly teasing.
“Just the same. No use in living iffin you don't aim proper.”
His father's head bobbed. The fine gray hairs that sprouted up his neck caught the flame of the lamp before he put his hand to them, rubbed them back into the red, peeling skin. “Like going hunting. You aim for the buck but make no complaints if all that turns up is rabbit.”
“Like planting seeds,” Skunk pressed. “Why else we put in cotton every year? Why not peanuts?”
“Cuz we know cotton grows. It's reliable in this soil.”
“Not promised though.”
“As good as.”
“I get your meaning.” His father flapped an impatient hand into the air. It was full dark now and the coyotes yip-you'd in the distance. Skunk's father leaned forward and his chair creaked at the joining parts, much like the man himself. His tone weakened with a stone that some internal water pushed up to his throat. “Truth is...boy...Truth is I ain't never learned to aim as high as you. I reckon there's a lot I can't see on account of it being past my nose. All I gots is my seeds but when we pay off Mumford, you go on and do what you want with the money. I don't mind. I don't mind one bit.”
He stood with a huff and scratched his chest. The skin on his hands was so dry, it cracked like the earth and little splits of blood came up like dying riverbeds. He put the rope of Low John back into the penny jar and made his way to bed. Skunk watched as his father bent low, pressing tired knees into the dirt floor, and looped the wooden beads of his rosary around worn fingers.
Skunk stepped outside to give him some privacy. All along the semi-circle, small yellow light flickered and lowered, puffing out, growing stale. Whispers of mothers putting their children to bed, the low hum of lovemaking, the wind tickling through the tall grass, all mingled with the soft passion, “...blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb...”
Squatting, Skunk pressed his palm into the hot dirt and spread his fingers wide. He prayed the crops would birth a spectacular harvest. He needed the seeds to grow, needed to be rid of the doubts and the anticipated devastation if they were to miss the debt by a small amount. “Please, spirits of the crop,” he muttered to himself, tongue heavy and in need of water. “Please. I ain't got nothing more to offer than a begging word.”
He pushed his hand deeper into the ground, hunting for the pulse of roots digging in and spinning wide. His father was wrong. Skunk couldn't imagine himself so far away, not even to the horizon. That seemed too big of a task and there was too much of the world for one man to tackle alone. All Skunk wanted was the right to his property. All he wanted was a pomelo earned from whatever the cotton seeds had promised.