112. Relatives

Tom had come for
James. Typhoid season, in
The midst, Riah’d
Got an itch to
Send James off–to
Her aunt’s flat in South
Texas. Nothing
Less would do.
Though each summer past
Had brought the sickness,
This time Riah
Pitched such anxious fits,
Tom made nervous
Jokes: “You seen a fetch?”–
Ghost that claimed
The dead. She’d not.
Somehow she got
Cash and bought a ticket.
Packed James south by
Train. Two weeks
They ate cornmeal,
Last cents saved for gas.
Today here was
Tom to claim his son.

James played
In the yard.
Uncle Wynn sat
Down with Tom inside.
“So,” Thomas said,
Wishing Riah there, “How is
Work?”
Wynn, a tall, gray man:
“No complaint.
At the canning
Plant. I sort tomatoes.”
Tom, politely
Nodding. “And what else?”
Wynn shrugged.
“That’s it. Sort
Tomatoes.” Tom:
“In the field?” That
Might not be so
Bad. Wynn smiled.
“Naw, been picked.
Hell, I ain’t no
Picker,” he declared.
He explained:
“Fifty of us
By this moving belt.
The tomatoes
On it, rolling by. Grab
By size. I pack
Big ones.”
“Oh, I see”: Tom
Scratched a scab. Sorting out
Tomatoes by the hour?
All day. One hour,
Two….Lanky
Man like Wynn.
Sitting. Pick up,
Drop, pick, drop. Five
Hours, six. Nine,
Ten. Thomas
Broke out in cold
Sweat. Said: “All
Day?”
“Yep. Sunup,
Down, in season. And
We’re the lucky ones.
Some of them
Other machines, they’ll
Take a man’s hand off,
Like that. Then
The company, it
Lets them go. Sometimes
Docks them for the hours
Missed that day. I will
Tell you though, my
Butt gets sore!”

Tom ran bony
Hands along scuffed
Pants. “Well,”
He said, “guess they
Start you there.
Learn the canning
Trade from bottom up.”
“How’s that?” Wynn asked.
“You know, working up,”
Thomas offered, jovial:
“Sort tomatoes
Good and they’ll
Promote you soon’s they
Get the chance. You’ll
Supervise.”
Wynn reflected.
“I suppose I
Could. Run up,
Down the line,
Tongue-lash the weak
Sisters, or the ones
Who’s brought their kids
To work. They sort
Too slow.”
This was not what
Thomas had in mind,
But he said, “Sure.
Five years, you’ll be
Boss.”
Wynn laughed
Briefly. “That’ll
Be the day.
Supers ain’t allowed
Inside front office.”

Tom sat
At a loss.
He stared off
Awhile. “Seeing
All your work,” he tried,
“‘When you’re heading
Home, it must feel fine.”
“Makes me feel like
Picking up my
Paycheck,” Wynn replied. Tom
Changed the subject:
“Your wife work?”–rude
Question. “I mean–”
“She’s the main
Type-writer. Works
Six to six. Types
The men’s names, and
Their hours, and
Their pay.”

South Texas
Hills: while driving home,
Tom found his mind
Ranging, ready
For the scorched and
Paler, higher Plains.
But if they stayed
There, they’d turn to
Losers. Left back
In a dead place.
Left back, left
Behind.

“Dad,” James said,
“Can’t we move?
No drought here and
I could play with
Ned. We won’t go
In the street.”

Thomas did not
Listen, but said
No.

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