Cabin in the Cotton

The inspiring song for the first round of If Music Be The Food flash fiction is by The Naked & Famous. The song is called “Rotten”. Have a listen before you read the first entry, written by none other than Jay Wilburn!

Cabin in the Cotton

The boy had no shoes as he tracked between the rows. He rolled up the cuffs of his overalls to nearly his knees, but still managed to muck the inside denim anyway.

The cotton turned stringy and dark on the plants to both sides, dragging the ground in the breeze when no one bothered to pick it. The boy didn’t like how the stuff felt on his ankles as he followed the curve of the rows across the field. Now that no one would pick it for free, the old man in the cabin was apt to leave the back acres to ruin in the rain, if the market price soured even a little. It wasn’t worth the nickels to him to keep it from waste.

The boy clutched the scrap of paper down by his side as the cabin with the sagging roof rose into view. Patch boards over the sides peeled away from paper and tar, baring exposed nails like angry spines. Story was the cabin had been fine and impressive at one time, but the years had not been kind to the man or the house. Only a promise from a generation past kept anyone from knocking it down for good. The land was worth more than the promise some said, but people kept it anyway.
The note had things about the boy’s mother. He mentioned his fears in it. He saved lines for everyone he knew was sick. The boy confessed wrongs as best he could remember – honest to a fault about his faults. He closed with a few lines complimenting the old man. It was the way his mother taught him to write such things.

The other boys closer into town and farther from the bank of the river said the old man couldn’t read. He had no eyes to see and wouldn’t care what folks wrote in their notes even if he did. His mother said the old man in the cabin read every word of every note even if we didn’t see him doing it. So, the boy was as inclined as not to believe it was so.

He left the short rows near the edge of the tall grass around the cabin and the gnarled trees which shaded the leaky roof. He wanted to roll down his pants again against the itch of the untended weeds, but the ground was still wet, so he refrained.

The boy rounded the front door which faced the two-lane running between town and points west. A warped post stood without the mailbox on its head any longer. Boys who could drive liked to take bats to such things and no one kept up with the old man’s business enough to notice or replace it. The empty post seemed to match well enough with the rest of the property.

The boy wished to knock on account of custom, but he couldn’t find a solid surface on the place he trusted. The screens folded away from rusted staples around the slat frame of the door. The boy reached through and unhooked the latch himself. The only part of the house determined to hold firm appeared to be the hinges. The boy forced a gap wide enough to slip inside.

He did not wipe his feet, but kept watch on the floor for nails and glass.

A figure passed from the backroom into the kitchen area.

The boy could smell it. The old man had lost his outhouse long before his mailbox. There was a hole in the floorboards in one of the rooms. A bucket formed a semi-permanent seat and business gathered below the planks for roaches and rats to deal with.

The boy crept forward not wanting to surprise the old man even though he had been by a few times before, if irregularly.

He sat at the table. His shirt was threadbare and his arms under rolled sleeves looked hard and dry like leather. Even the hair over his arms was grey now. His callused hands folded on the formica in front of him. The straps on his overalls tore at the clasps, but barely held still as they looped loose at his hips.
The old man’s head was big, especially around the forehead. His lips drooped on one side. Some folks said he had a stroke or a palsy. Others, mostly the other boys, said he was feeble in the head all along. Born dull right out of his mother, if a man that old could have ever had one. The boy often feared the old man in the cabin might be mad or dangerous below his quiet surface. How could he not be, living in a place like this?

He didn’t look up or acknowledge the boy, but the boy set his note upon the corner of the table and slid it toward the old man’s place, stopping just shy of the clasped fingers. The boy’s approach lost its courage and he left the folded paper there. As he withdrew his hand from the old man’s table, the note popped open an inch on its last hard fold.

The old man didn’t reach for it, if he saw it, and he didn’t raise his gaze. He mumbled something. It was still and small. The old man was known to talk that way, but the boy always expected something louder and deeper the way the old man was said to have spoken in the past, when people picked the cotton for free.

The boy couldn’t make out the words, but knew he had heard something. It was some proclamation from the man of the house.

The boy wasn’t sure if it was what the old man in the cabin wanted or if it would earn any of the things scratched on the folded paper, but the boy took up the broom and began sweeping. He started with the kitchen around the old man’s feet and then moved room to room. He didn’t exactly think sweeping bought a boy forgiveness for the things he listed on his paper. He wanted to believe he did it for grace and because he loved the old man in the cabin, but he never really knew. He swept anyway because there was a broom and there was always a mess.

He returned to the kitchen after spilling the gathered dust down the same hole covered by the bucket seat.

Even in the darkness under the house, he saw stuff moving. In the kitchen, he found the chair and table empty. The old man was gone and so was the note.

The boy propped the broom in the corner and walked to the front room to stare at the old man’s back. The old man stood facing the window with his arms crossed and the overall straps still loose around his bony hips.

The glass was dirty and gave a thin, shady look to the road and the world down both ends of the highway.

The boy suspected the window had once been clean and might be again, if someone did anything about it. Folks could see clearly out it then. He imagined it fell into the same tired neglect as mailboxes and leaky roofs.

“Is that it for now?” The boy didn’t like how his voice sounded in his own ears inside the place. The wet walls seemed to eat the sound instead of letting it bounce back natural.

He liked it less that he couldn’t hear the old man in the cabin respond at all.

He didn’t know if the old man had taken the note. Didn’t know if it was read or ever would be. It was delivered and out of the boy’s hands either way, so he forced his way out the door and past the stubborn hinges.

He crossed the weeds and reentered the curved rows between the cotton plants which were beyond picking – beyond saving through harvest.

He kept his back to the cabin in the cotton and traveled through the field to leave the back acres of the old man’s land behind. Where people wouldn’t pick for free.

Story was the old man still read the notes and still gave consideration to the things in them. Word was he did the work which needed doing before the boy or even his parents were born. No one alive had seen it, but story was these things boys wrote in notes were the kind of thing the old man in the cabin forgave still.

The boy couldn’t prove any of it, but he still brought his notes and still swept the floor, not knowing if the old man even cared about such things. The note was gone and the boy decided the leave the things he had written in it for the old man in the cabin to do with as he would or wouldn’t. His mother believed it and so then he believed it too.

He hated the dead, wet cotton around his ankles and the boy thought someone should have picked it long before it got this way back when it was still bright for the harvest.

Find out more about Jay Wilburn at his official site.