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My father frowned at Garland and said: 'Aw, quit messin' around and throw that shit in the fucking washer,' which was the way they talked to each other when there weren't any women around.
Then Elijah and I joined in to help, knowing my father would expect it. He motioned us towards the sacks with the guards' clothes and kept the ones with the German's clothes for himself and my uncle. Ed did kind of hang back at first, and asked if he would get paid.
'How about if I pay you in not taking a belt to your ass?'
Ed didn't move and then the old man laughed and said, '15 cents each, how's that?'
Then we started working hard and after a second watching us my father said: 'And how many times to I have to tell you all to keep away from that camp, anyway? Just stay away from there, hear? Leave it alone.'
Sunday was church. We all dressed up and walked together to Mount Zion which at that time was only a block away from our house. We sat down in the same pew--Dad, Ed, Elijah, Jewel who was the nearest to me in age, Big Sis, the oldest, Mama on the end and me, Henry, which I've been meaning to mention my own name, in the middle. Even though it was winter, when the church was full and it always was, it got hot and so everyone had their fans with the drawings of prayerful hands and I remember it was a sea of them flitting away, some fast and some slow and in a rhythm. The service was pretty long and I remember thinking I was sitting still but maybe not because Big Sis thumped me in the back of the head a couple of times.
After we got out, it was time for me to go to help the Agriculture man. My father gave me a ride to the Elks lodge in his pickup. It was about two in the afternoon and he--I can't remember his name--was waiting for me at the door. The Elks was the one place on the Negro side of town where all the men went to let off steam. It had been the old apothecary shop and when that business failed, my father along with some of the others in town, had bought up the location. The Agriculture man was meeting me here because he wanted to talk to just the colored farmers who would come into town from all over Robertson County. A different white bureau man had already come through for the whites.
Anyway, the Elks lodge had a projector and a screen you could set up on a tripod. The only others in town were locked up at school--or maybe the Kiwanis had one, I don't know. I went about setting up the screen towards the back wall while the Ag man was up front letting people in and gladhanding. I rolled the little green stand they kept the projector on to a spot on the floor marked with old white tape. Then I went and asked him for the film. He jumped like he'd forgotten the most important thing, but it was in his pocket--one old-looking 8 millimeter reel. I peeled it out a bit as I walked back to the projector. The film was pretty worn down; some of the sprockets were torn through and it had been heavily spliced with tape. I went ahead and started to thread it as all the men began to sit down around me--there was maybe 50 or 60 of them, a few locals still in their Sunday clothes, but mostly sharecroppers, who generally wore grimy dirt-caked overalls. They filled all the chairs and some others were leaning up against the walls.
The agriculture man gave me a look as he walked towards the front to start and I nodded that I was ready. He held out his hands for quiet and went right into how there was an infestation spreading from the deep south and they expected it would reach Texas in the next planting season. While he went on, I tightened up the rear spool so that the film would run steady and made sure the bulb was in right, which I knew was a problem with this old Bell and Howell. I guess I got busy with my hands because he said now we will see a little movie and he said it sharply so I think he'd already given me the high sign once or twice.
When I switched the movie on, the first thing on the screen was the seal of the US Department of Agriculture and then 'Claude R. Wickard, Secretary of Agriculture' underneath in big letters. Then the title: 'Menace of the Boll Weevil.'
One of the fellows standing against the wall--who would be dead by August--threw out a crack, 'Menace to my money.'
And everybody laughed as the movie showed a cotton field in full bloom which meant that it was maybe from the last year. A bunch of colored people with sacks slung around their shoulders were picking down the rows--just like me and my brothers and sisters did every summer. Then one of them dropped out of sight, like he'd been hit from the back, and another, and then another until they were all gone and the field seemed empty and there was a sudden jump in the film where it'd been spliced and now we were in a hospital, I guess, with some boy just a little older than me sitting on a table with his shirt off and his eyes rolling around in his head. On his chest, there were three big fist-sized bumps that seemed to be slowly moving across his body. The film pulled back to show two doctors in masks and gloves standing next to him. One of them took out a little ruler and held it against the bump so we could see it was about 5 inches long and probably two inches deep. Then the camera swiveled to show another one of them moving up his arm, only it was nearer the surface; when it got to his bicep it broke partly out of his skin--it was scaly like a pillbug only milky white--then it went back under and kept rolling towards the boy's shoulder but at that moment there was a pop and the film burned through on the screen. I stopped the projector fast as I could only the old splicing tape they'd used had caught on fire against the hot bulb and it ate up the rest of the film before I could put it out. The Ag man frowned a bit and said: 'Well, there wasn't much more of it, anyway.'
He stayed to take questions, but everybody was mostly quiet and muttering to one another as they went ahead and left. I put away the screen and rolled the projector back into its closet. The agriculture man shook my hand to thank me and gave me the dollar and a half he owed me. As we walked out of the lodge, he told me it was an old movie so it wasn't my fault that it blew up on us. I asked him where he was headed as we got into his old green Ford sedan and he told me that we were his last stop before heading back to Dallas, which was quite a long drive. I told him I hoped he'd be careful and he should try and be out of our county by sundown to be safest. He let me out at home and as I went inside I realized that I was really in clover. I had the two dollars from him plus the extra one I'd made at the camp with Ed plus the 15 cents from working at the laundry for three dollars fifteen cents total. I couldn't even think of three dollars worth of anything I wanted at that time, to be honest.
Once home, I stripped out of my Sundays, threw them in the wash my two sisters were getting ready to do--which got me a cutting look---and after I got dressed they ran me out of the house by telling me my brothers'd gone fishing down at the Brazos. Ed would fish even if he knew the water was empty and Elijah was probably just tagging along.
I went down to the river and walked along the bank until I found them just past the highway bridge you take west to Gause and Thorndale. Ed was standing right at the river's edge, lazily tossing his line into the brownish water; Elijah was sitting on a rotting tree trunk eating some cheese and crackers, which he let me have some of. It was maybe four o'clock. The sky was dull grey, no clouds, like it'd been all week. I looked out into the water and teased Ed that he wasn't going to catch a thing.
Ed didn't say anything to that but started to pull his line in and then we could both see what first looked like a giant oil slick moving under the water's surface stretching almost from bank to bank. Elijah saw it too; he stood up off the log and came over to stand by us. I say the thing looked like an oil slick but it was moving slow and steady like the current itself was moving it along. Now out in the middle of the river, I could see something that looked a bit like a blue stovepipe lazily folding itself out of the water's surface. It swayed and suddenly inside my head there was a hissing and I'd been looking at the Brazos river but now I only saw white, like an empty movie screen lit by the projector's light.
And I was on my back on the river bank face up to the grey sky. My head hurt. I could feel blood running out of my nose. I turned slowly and saw Ed, who was on the ground too, blinking with pinkish tears leaking from his eyes.
A jeep came barrelling down the river's edge then, coupled with a second jeep over on the other side. It slowed as it came near us. There were three men in the jeep, the driver, passenger, and one in the back seat holding up a long metal pole, all of them in uniform wearing the helmet with the red 'A' on it. Looking across the Brazos, I could see the other jeep was the same. And the light hit just right so that I noticed that there actually were spider web-like strands connecting the two poles. The officer in the passenger seat looked at us and said, 'They're all right, keep going.'
And they drove on down around a bend in the river and were out of sight as the three of us struggled up to our feet. Elijah was wiping the blood out from his eyes, looking after the tracks where the jeeps had gone and actually, years later when he was a professor at Prairie View, he was one of the ones who got to the bottom of what had gone on, but that is another story which I realize I have said a lot here, and I apologize.