Daniel J. Bourne
It was still dark when Cato Johnson awoke. He picked up an old newspaper that lay on the floor, and fanned himself vigorously. The exertion only made him perspire more, and he flung the paper away in disgust. He sat on the edge of his cot, and looked around the room. May Ellen’s cot was empty, and only Gramps Johnson was in the room, snoring evenly room a pallet on the floor behind the rusty pot-bellied stove. May Ellen had already heated the coffee left from supper of the previous evening, and the room was sticky with heat as the dying fire continued to throw off radiation in dying waves.
Cato glanced around the forlorn room. It always looks the same, he thought. Nothing about the room, or any of the other shanty cabin rooms he had known, ever seemed to change. It was as if one architect, touring five states, had put all the cabins together from the same plan, using rotten woods from some long forgotten structure, spacing the cracks in the floor at the same intervals, and somehow reproducing the same greasy, rancid, orgiastic odors in each of the cabins.
Today was payday, and Cato tried to find for a moment to believe it wouldn’t be like every other payday, but he knew it would. There had been a time when he managed to pretend that payday made everything else that happened during the week bearable. But this pretense had long since drowned in the adhesive knowledge that payday only gave way unfailingly to the same monotonous existence he was choking on, and he hated Saturday more than any day in the week. For Cato, Saturday didn’t herald the end of five days of hard work and hunger, but trumpeted the beginning of another week of the same.
Tonight after work, he and May Ellen would walk into town, and window shop the stores that lined both sides of the street of the one block shopping district. The windows would still be decorated with the same fly-specked displays, hawking cough syrups, remedies against constipation, Pangborn’s chocolates, Bull Dog’s workpants, and other items which neither he nor May Ellen had ever actually seen or hoped to own. But this weekly ritual always brought a gleam to May Ellen’s otherwise lack-lustre eyes. Cato imagined that the window displays effected her in the same way as the work mail order catalog which she thumbed through each night before going to bed, and carried with her from shack to shack, from state to state.
Each Saturday night they attended the weekly movie. When it was over, they went to the Paris Cafe to order cold strawberry pop and hamburgers ‘all the way’. The sandwiches never changed either. Like Cato’s life, they were tepid, watered down imitations of what the brightly attractive hamburger posters advertised and promised.
It never occurred to Cato that he might ask for something else. It was natural that Saturday night should remain constant. AS for May Ellen, he had never wondered whether or not she was satisfied, for he had long since reached a tacit agreement with her that he would act for both of them, and that whatever his decisions might be, they would be prompted by his desire to do what was best for their mutual interests. This arrangement suited May Ellen well, and she remained the stoical, shy and uncommunicative ten year old that the community had become accustomed to seeing once a week. May Ellen’s silence hadn’t attracted much comment for she was always by Cato’s side when she appeared in town, and was seldom required to speak to anyone or to ask for anything. She had acquired the rare talent of being present while at the same time making herself so much a part of Cato that no one really noticed her. Only Cato was sensitive to the barely perceptible changes that flicked across her face, and he sometimes felt trapped by them, as would a man with a painful conscience attached to his elbow. When May Ellen did speak, it was exclusively to Cato, and her short ventures into speech were delivered in a whispery monotone, her mouth as near to Cato’s ear as she could manage. She projected her quietness into labor as well. She cooked for Cato and Gramps, moving about the stove without banging a pan or scraping a bowl. Yet, she cooked for them with considerable talent; a feat that never ceased to impress Cato, as he could not remember anyone ever teaching her to cook. As a matter off act, thought Cato, no one had ever taught May Ellen anything. But she sometimes gave the impression that she knew more than he and Gramps together, a possibility that at times made Cato distinctly comfortable.
He started to get up, and then flopped back onto the cot. He closed his eyes, and for the hundredth time wondered why both he and May Ellen were each payed ten dollars a week for their work. Mr. Rutlege had to know that they didn’t pick the same amount of cotton. Yet, each Saturday night, Mr. Rutledge paid into Gramp’s wrinkled, palsied hand, twenty dollars. Gramps would hand a one dollar bill to Cato and stuff the remainder in his dirty overall pocket. Each Saturday night after they returned from their night on the town, they found a fresh supply of food on the table and Gramps either in a drunken sleep or sitting at the table drinking, and raving wildly at no one. If Gramps was in this mood, and Cato and May Ellen were lucky, they could talk him into going to sleep. Then, May Ellen would arrange the staples on the shelf above the stove in the order that she would prepare them throughout the week. Their diet seldom varied, and Cato had come to accept beans, fatback, cornbread, biscuits, molasses, and coffee, tempered by an occasional piece of fresh meat, usually game, as the only foods available to them.
It was getting light outside, and Cato arose from the cot and walked to the open doorway of the shack. He found May Ellen there, trying to enjoy what little was left of the early morning coolness. Unlike Cato, she was small for her age, but strong and wiry. Ten years of being lugged around by Gramps from state to state had taught May Ellen the art of survival. She sat on the edge of the porch with her legs swinging off the side. On her lap she balanced a chipped enamel plate filled with dark molasses, which she sopped up with a piece of cornbread left from last night’s supper.
“Hullo Cato,” she said, her voice little more than a murmur. “Hot ain’t it?”
Cato grunted his agreement. She says the same thing everytime, he told himself. He had decided several years ago that May Ellen was not quite right in her head, but he would never voice this opinion to anyone on earth, not even old Gramps. He loved May Ellen as much as anyone can love someone who is beyond them. She was all that he had, and he had never figured out any other reason for his being alive if it wasn’t to take care of her. Sometimes it bothered him to think that he might live his sister so much just because there wasn’t anyone else in his life to love. Cato knew that he would like to live someone else, but the possibility of it ever occurring was always a little absurd to him. But at times, he couldn’t help wondering about May Ellen’s chances of total affection if any other source ever materialized. But the terror of such unknown possibilities always caused him to quickly and guiltily push such thoughts out of his mind.
“Make sure you was your feet and legs before we go to work. I don’t want Mr. Rutelege or any of the other pickers to think we Johsons aint clean folk.” Instead of answering, May Ellen bobbed her head up and down and Cato knew she wasn’t going to speak again. He went inside and reached for the remainder of the cornbread and coffee.
The Rutelege farm ran for miles, and none of the pickers knew for sure just how much of it there was. This was the last of the fields to be stripped as Jerome Rutelege had put much of his land into the government soil bank, and for three years it had remained idle and unproductive. He still used human hands to pick his cotton. He knew it wasn’t any cheaper this way, but had decided against automation in his fields. This decision had been reached without a great deal of deliberation. An intangible warmth that he gathered from operating as he always had was the deciding factor. Jerome had never considered whether this decision was one of selfishness or the decision of a humanitarian. He admitted that he enjoyed the status quo and let it go at that.
The sun was climbing rapidly, its brilliance smearing the fields with a shimmering veneer of heat. Rutelege stood alongside his pick-up truck and squinted down the road. Shading his eyes with one hand, he watched as Cato and May Ellen trudged down the dirt lane approaching his pick-up. He watched them until they were almost upon him and then nodded his head faintly as if trying to adjust his head more comfortably to his neck. Then he turned and walked away.
Cato set a gallon jog of water, and a brown paper sack under the truck to keep it out of the sun. Choosing a long, white, tubular sack from a pile on the ground, Cato slung it over his shoulder and motioned with his hand to May Ellen, and they stepped into a row of cotton. She kept abreast of her brother as they swayed across the field plucking white fluffy balls from their mountings and stuffed them into sacks that trailed alongside them on the ground. They worked silently throughout the morning, and at noon walked from the field to sit beside the truck, keeping apart from the other pickers that formed picnic groups alongside the field. He divided equally their lunch. They took turns drinking from the jug of water, sweetened with syrup. They ate silently, mouths streaked with dust, grease, and sugary water. They turned at the sound of feet approaching them. Jerome Rutlege stood beside them holding a white paper napkin. There were two pieces of fried chicken on the napkin, a thigh and a breast.
“That old woman always packs more than is good for me. I hate to waste food.”
May Ellen sat transfixed, not knowing what to do. Only after Cato had assured her it was alright by accepting the gift, did she reach for this unexpected bounty. She smiled shly at Rutlege and nibbled at the breast, nodding her head in approval. Rutlege cleared his throat and Cato stopped eating and looked up expectantly.
“Cato, the fields will be stripped clean in another couple days and the pickers will all be moving up state. I don’t know what your Grampa has planned, but you better tell him I won’t be able to use you and your sister after today.”
Cato swallowed a mouthful of chicken that lay dead and tasteless in his mouth. A crease of apprehension furrowed his forehead.
“You don’t reckon they’ll be anything else, Mr. Rutlege? Some other kind of work?”
Rutlege stood looking off into the distance for a moment at the wilted, discolored stalks of bare cotton plants. It seemed a long time before he answered and Cato held his breath.
“Afraid not Cato. But you can tell your gramps that if he wants to stay in the shack until next year when the pickin’ starts again, why he’s welcome to it. Ain’t no bother a’tall. Stay all winter if he wants. He looked back at Cato and smiled broadly before starting off to speak to some of the other laborers.
May Ellen sat picking at the remainder of her lunch and Cato suddenly chucked his half-eaten chicken back into the sack, took a long drink from the jug, and re-entered the field. Neither had spoken to the other but each knew they had been affected by the unexpected news. When May Ellen broke the silence, it so surprised Cato that he stopped picking and straightened up to listen.
“It’s gonna be bad, ain’t it Cato?”
“Maybe not too bad, May Ellen,” his voice carried a bravado which he didn’t feel. “Maybe we kin just stay on in the shack this winter and find somethin’ else to do in town. I’m kinda tired of so much movin’ anyway. Ain’t you?”
May Ellen considered his words for a moment, and then bent back over the cotton.
“It’s gonna be bad Cato.” and her voice carried an unfamiliar and chilling finality.
Cato snatched at the cotton balls bitterly. It was going to happen all over again; begging transportation to another part of the state; asking local church groups for winter clothing so they wouldn’t freeze during the winter; the hunger; the shame; the misery repeating itself all over again like a terrible, yet familiar nightmare. The utter helplessness of it all came surging up inside Cato until he felt the salty sting of tears in his eyes. He knew that he wasn’t going to accept it again, not ever again. Something had to happen. He had to make something happen. It wasn’t just another year of the same life. Not just another year of hating his grandfather for what he had become, and of protecting May Ellen when he knew deep down inside that his protection was futile. He knew that May Ellen would end up marrying some lout that would use her to cook his meals and wash his clothes, and sate his appetites, and that after four or five years of it, May Ellen would one day lie down and die from simply having lost the desire to live in a world without love. The only alternative that Cato could see which would prolong her life would be that of waiting for whatever came her way in the lonely, smelly beer joints that lined the worn side roads they travelled. The thought of this had never before penetrated Cato’s mind with such grim clarity.
Worse yet was the knowledge that he stood a good chance of ending up like Gramps. He understood, in a way that belied his fifteen years, the old man hadn’t always been such a complete parasite, and as worthless as he was today. He had dreamed his dreams of youth and planned what he would do with his life, and now he would grow out of the slime into which he had been born, forging a clean, purposeful life for himself. But somehow he never had. Then one day it was too late. He had become trapped in the way that people allow themselves to be trapped, without knowing how it happened, or what might have been done to escape. One year had followed another with dulling monotony, and when he began to get old, he discovered that as long as he stayed drunk, nothing mattered but keeping a bit of white lightning on hand for the following morning. Then he could make his dreams fade into nothingness, and for a while they didn’t haunt him.
May Ellen had remained silent all afternoon, and had stayed abreast of Cato, picking, never lifting her head. As the sun faded and the first of the pickers began leaving the field, Cato straightened up and flexed his back for a moment to ease some of the tightness there. His head throbbed from thought. He jerked his head towards the crew assembling around the pickup at the edge of the field, and wordlessly May Ellen fell into step beside him as they walked away from the cotton.
As usual they hung back from the crowd as the pickers collected their wages. His and May Ellen’s pay would be given to Gramps that night. This was the night they never had to walk home, but rode in the truck with Jerome Rutlege. When all the pickers had been paid and were chattering their way down the road, Cato leaned over and picked up a hoe that someone had left lying alongside the truck. He walked to where Jerome Rutlege stood in front of the truck.
“Mr. Rutlege, today is payday. I don’t want you to pay my wages to gramps like always. I want to collect them myself.” Cato stood looking up into the man’s face with all of the defiance he could muster to hide the terror that gripped his stomach. Rutlege tilted his head slightly at Cato and frowned.
“I don’t know about that Cato. I made arrangements with your gramps about you two working for me, and he wanted I should pay him the wages each week. He’s all the family you got, and you two ain’t nothing but kids. I guess paying him is the right thing to do. The two of you just jump in the truck and we’ll go home. Then if there’s some kind of trouble, or problem, then all of you can talk about it together.” He opened the truck door, and paused when he saw that Cato made no move to obey. Instead, Cato took a step backwards, and swung the hoe over his shoulder.
“Mr. Rutlege, I ain’t never in my life been disrespectful to my elders, and I ain’t never hurt nothin’. But I promise you Mr. Rutlege, if you don’t give me my wages, I’m gonna try as hard as I can to hurt you. I ain’t going back to the shack tonight, or ever. You don’t understand it and think I’m doing something bad wrong. But I’m doing what I got to do. Maybe it’s the only right thing I’ve done so far in my life.”
Rutlege stood looking down at the boy for a long time. He had been angry for a moment, but something tempered his fury, something he saw in the boy’s face, a desperate pleading, and the anger turned to grudging admiration. The boy is wrong about one thing, he thought. I guess I understand alright. I understand damned well. Suddenly, he felt very tired and leaned against the side of the truck. If I had good sense, he thought, I would drive into town and report the boy for threatening me. But he knew even before his hand dug down into his pants pocket that he wouldn’t. He came up with a roll of bills and counted off fifty dollars. He offered them to Cato.
Cato relaxed his grip on the hoe handle, and a look of disbelief spread over his face. He snatched the bills, and stuffed them into his jeans, edging away from Rutlege. The man read the boy’s thoughts.
“I’m not going to try and grab a hold of you boy. The extra money is sort of your musterin’ out pay, so to speak, like in the army. It’s your decision. Every man meets the day when he has to make a big decision, maybe the biggest of his life. You’re making yours right now.” His voice was curiously gentle in a way that Cato had never heard it before. He let the hoe fall to the ground.
“Mr. Rutlege, sir, I’m sorry I took that hoe to you. I didn’t want to do it. Honest, I didn’t. He turned to May Ellen who stood frozen to the ground, staring at a brother she had never before seen. Her eyes were wide with freight and innocence of what was happening.
“May Ellen, I got to go away. You can’t come with me. Mr. Rutlege is going to drive you back to Gramps. Maybe later I can come back and get you. Don’t worry, May Ellen. I’ll try as hard as I can to come back for you.” He knew as the words came out of his mouth that she didn’t believe them anymore than he did.
May Ellen stepped up close to him, and grabbed his belt with both hands. Tears had begun to flow down her cheeks. Cato had never seen May Ellen cry, but instead of pity, he felt ahorror as he watched her face contort itself with helpless emotion. As he felt the harsh settling of the Judas mantle fall over his shoulders, her words burst forth, making her a part of the competitive world for this brief moment. May Ellen knew that she would now, at this moment, either live or die, and that the intensity of her words seared Cato’s face.
“Cato, I can’t do it, please, Cato,” and she choked on the tears that had welled up behind the dam for ten years.
He loosened her tiny hands from his belt, and knew as did so that it was he, Cato Johnson, who was pushing her into an early fulfillment of the future he had so dreaded for her only a few hours before.
“Maybe later you’ll understand that it ain’t what I want to do. May Ellen! It’s what I got to do.”
He turned and quickly walked down the road. The dust swirled softly upwards at the instrusion of his feet, choking him with its dryness. He heard May Ellen’s voice calling his name, and with each quick step he took the voice seemed to grow weaker, and soon he couldn’t hear it anymore. His gait slowed, and after a while he stopped for the first time, and looked back. A great sense of peace overwhelmed him. The road was deserted and forlorn in the twi-light, just as though it had never known any other footsteps but his. For one vacuumed instant, there never had been a Gramps, or a May Ellen.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the emptiness around him, and he hoped that he really was.