Down in Black Patch

by Simone Boone

Louise Hodge blinked her eyes as her father snapped the pink beauty from the crown of the plant. At each meticulous snatch, she closed her eyes and felt the motion in her belly intensify. "He gonna find out about ya soon," she whispered. "But don't ya worry, I got a plan. We gonna make it." Louise concentrated her eyes on her father, took in a deep breath, and slowly exhaled into the heavy Kentucky air.

She had witnessed him deflower tobacco leaves on many occasions but never dared speak against him. She did not tell her father that she thought the precious blooms of a plant were God's work. She knew his work was to destroy beauty. No plant of his would ever show one bloom. "At the end of a hard day's work I don't wonna see nuttin' but green," her father often said. And green was all Louise could see from the front porch of Hobart Hodge's house.

Her father's home was rumored to have once been occupied by a nephew of tobacco pioneer Washington Duke. Townspeople hated to see the small farm of distinguished lineage lay abandoned, but when one by one they lost their own, attention shifted away from the Duke farm, making it possible for a quiet Negro man to acquire it few years later without dissension. The formerly grand facade was now covered with layers of chipped white paint, the shutters that once highlighted the second story windows were missing, and the sweeping wrap around porch was riddled with rotted out boards and loose railing.

Louise settled into the rickety, front porch swing and yelled, "Daddy, supper's on the table."

"I be there in a minute," he said without looking up.

Louise's eyes drifted from her father's image to the landscape that engulfed them both. "Cain't even see the road fer all that." She motioned to the endless rows of tobacco that spanned the entire landscape in front of the house. Every season, Louise watched her father's livelihood slowly breach her view of an old dusty road that meandered out of Crittendon County. Few people used the road, but when a car did go by she enjoyed imagining its destination.

"Whacha lookin' at, girl?" her father asked. She hadn't even noticed him come up the steps.

Startled, Louise crossed her arms around her waist and shifted so her back was to him. "Jes tryin' to see the road from here," she replied.

"Well you might as well stop lookin', cause all you gonna see from where you sittin' is green," he said with pride. "I bet I pulled off a hunert thousand buds this evening. You comin' back in the house?"

"No, I ain't," she replied as he walked toward the door. "No, I ain't."

Once the door closed behind her father, Louise let out a long breath. She methodically analyzed her movements and speech, fearful that her father might notice a difference in her. At the same time, she pitied him because she knew what he would never know--when a man seeds any soil, he's supposed to let whatever comes out of the ground grow to the sky, not break it and mend it to make it what he wants it to be. She imagined herself confronting her father, "Daddy, If I gotta look at tobacco day in and day out, the leas' you could do is leave some of the flowers on it. A young girl needs to look at pretty thangs sometime."

But Hobart Hodge was only concerned with whether she did her part to keep the house operating. Hobart could not afford much hired help, so he put Louise to work. She had never been allowed to attend school or even socialize with other girls because her father needed her help around the house. "What a girl chile need wid a ejucation inyways," he once told her. " Looks tuh me they ain't learnin' nutting but how to beg and make babies. No reason fer ya to be in that kinda comp'ny. What you gonna do is stay right here and keep yoself clean 'til you'se marryin' age." Louise cringed upon recalling this comment.

Once she knew her father was in the house for the evening, she reached under the swing and began to loosen a plank. The creaking of the wooden board then allowed her to recall what flowers in bloom must feel--before they are beheaded.

Donald Tucker had been working for Louise's father for two days before she noticed him. She was picking tomatoes from her father's vegetable garden when she saw opportunity in the form of a large, dark figure walking into the curing barn that sat adjacent to the house. As Louise approached the wooden structure, she could see the smoke rolling out of the spaces in between the planks, and decided to open the door.

She lay down her load of tomatoes at the threshold and stuck her head inside. "Hullo in there," she said in her most adult voice. "Inybody in there?"

Tucker stepped outside of the door, and Louise focused her eyes on an ebony face covered with sweat. "Well hullo there," he said smiling. "Can I do somethin' fer ya?" .

"Well, not really. I was jes lookin' for my dad," she replied, trying to sound more mature. Louise had never seen such a sharp contrast of perfect white teeth and smooth black skin. All of her father's previous workers had teeth soiled with snuff.

"Well, I ain't seen 'im. Reckon you can spare one uh them tomatoes?" He wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt and added, "A man sho gits hungry workin in that old curin' barn."

"Why, what's it like in there?" she asked while reaching into the basket.

"You mean you ain't never been in y'own daddy's curin' barn?" He laughed a big hah hah.

"Well, no." Louise lowered her head. "I run the house, not the farm. I guess that's why he hired you."

"I s'pose you right. Mebbe I show it to ya sometime, Miss, Miss..."

"Louise. My name's Louise." She extended the offering and added, "I thank I'd like that." Louise felt her face flush with heat when Tucker turned toward the barn. She had never had a real conversation with any of her father's workers before, and she knew he wouldn't like it if he found out. "They'se mostly trashy niggers," he always said. 'Ain't got nuttin, ain't never gonna have nuttin'." But Tucker didn't look trashy to Louise. His sable face had deep dimples that punctuated the sharp lines that creased when he smiled. He did not walk stiffly, as her father did. He was graceful and fluid in his movement. And when she handed him the tomato, she felt hands that were rough with the world's work, instructing her to act promptly, as most of her father's workers did not hang around very long.

That night, Louise resolutely traveled across the yard.

"You oughtn't tell yo daddy ya come here," Tucker explained as Louise closed the barn door behind her. "Yo daddy's a big man 'round here. Ain't many black mens own fifteen acres. I can git in a whole heap uh trouble."

"Don't worry," Louise said. "Daddy's in the house asleep. Besides, he don't know 'bout everythang I do."

Louise breathed in the heavy mix of fire and sweet leaves, feeling it float into her head before traveling through the rest of her body. She looked around the barn to see large bunches of leaves hanging upside-down from hooks that protruded from the walls. "So whatcha do with the leaves once Daddy breaks them from the stalk," she asked.

Tucker motioned to the embers that were burning in the center of the room, "Well, ya see that there pile of black? That's what's lef' uh the coals that hep the leaves to dry up. They adds to the taste uh the leaves as they dryin'," Tucker explained. "My job's tuh make sure they stays burnin'. If they goes out, the leaves can git real bitter tuh the taste."

"Well, don't ya git bored out here all by yourself?" Louise questioned.

"Naw, it ain't that bad. When I finish here, I'll jes go to the next farm and do the same thang. And when the season's over, I'll jes g'on home."

The thick scent made Louise drunk with desire. The heavy aroma and Tucker's presence, added to the urgency she had been feeling. "Where's that?" she asked. "I mean where's home for ya." Louise looked into Tucker's dark eyes and moved closer to him.

"Well, My Mama's over in Salem and..." Before Tucker could finish, Louise had placed her full, hungry lips on his and left them there until he pulled away.

"I don't thank whatcha doin' is a good idea, Miss Louise," he said. "I can git in a whole heap uh trouble." "Oh, I ain't gonna tell," she replied. "Don't ya thank I'm pretty?"

"Certainly do," Tucker replied. "But I'm sure Mr. Hodge got somebody better'n me in mind fer ya."

"Well, I don't wonna wait that long." With that, Louise grabbed Tucker's hands, slowly pulling him to the dirt floor of the curing barn in an awkward but eager embrace. Louise found herself hoping to siphon the experience of Tucker's rough palms into her own body, so she drank in the rich smell of coals and leaves and man.

Louise quieted the plank and gently freed it from the other boards. She reached under the porch and clutched a small bag. "Ain't no way I'ma let him butcher me and mine," Louise said. "This here ain't no mistake." She lifted herself to her feet and looked inside the window of the house. Hobart Hodge was sitting, half-asleep in a wooden rocker, silently preparing for the next day's work. Before long he would be asleep, not to be disturbed.

Gravel crunched under her feet as she slowly made her way toward the large wooden gate at the end of the driveway. She imagined herself traveling down that old dusty road and meeting another somebody headed somewhere. Maybe that somebody would have a car and drive her to Salem. Maybe she would walk all the way to the ferry and cross the Ohio into Illinois. As if to signal her departure from the farm, the wooden gate creaked loudly when Louise pushed it out of her way. She paused before stepping out into the road, suppressing the mental picture of her father chasing her down the road with a leather strap. "Well, we free." She massaged her belly from side to side. "Where you wonna go?"

Louise wiped a bead of sweat from her brow and began walking down the road, convincing herself that Hobart Hodge was not on her heels. There was no need to look back, but for some reason she stopped abruptly and looked over he right shoulder. Instead of a seeing a grown man in chase, Louise found her view obstructed by the tall, green maturity of her father's tobacco crop.

Down in Black Patch by Simone Boone

© Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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