BY JOE JIMENEZ
Riding in a car along cotton fields, of which there are a shitload in South Texas, your eyes might think, for a moment, that the field rows are running swiftly beside you, and that is one of the magical images from when I was a boy, which I hold onto now as a man in the middle of my life.
I could think of other magics: standing next to a horse for the first time, her muscles, the brawn of the bulky flanks, the unbridled thickness of the shoulder, carried around with shine and with mass, which tremble marvelously, a bit, as she walks; and I am standing in front of a mirror, watching my head be shaved for the first time, and I am loving it, loving my own scraped scalp, loving my own exposed skin, loving the clippers’ soft, even buzz on my body and in it, the dark pelitos falling off me like an odd cataract of pebbles; then a man, one afternoon, at the shore, whose body was one I wanted, for myself, to wear, to build upon, a musculature of grey-black tattoos and sweat-clad brown flesh, but whose body was one I wanted, too, for myself, for those other reasons.
If I take the time to listen to my life, no matter what I want to hear, no matter what I have told myself is there for years, if I step away from that slow throb in my eyes, which is my ego, as I am doing now, what I have is a wad of cotton, dirty and from the side of the road, leaf-muddled and still holding its dark seeds.
There comes a day when nothing but true things will do.
I am not too old to wish for something marvelous. No one is. Even today, sitting in my old house, listening to a newscast about a woman who was shot by police, I think I might one day need to arise out of my bed and decide to change my life. Maybe it will be a momentary lapse. A quick quasi-resolution to some sadness or small upheaval of the day. Overcoming small sadnesses is nothing to laud—it’s the giant ones I am hunting. Maybe this wakefulness is the largesse of living a life I didn’t think I’d ever have, that one day you open your eyes, and your heart, filled with fires and ductwork and birds, will tell you: the life you have always been wanting, it’s here and it’s yours.
When I was much younger, I would ride my bike along the cotton fields near my mother’s house on the Texas coast. I especially liked doing this in the late afternoon, as the sun gave up its place in the sky and dusk settled over the country. A red sky is a beautiful field, also. But the cotton fields were the ones that called on me, if full of plump mallow, the three-lobed leaves and bolls in the dry heat, even if plucked, harvested by the giant combines, those machines which parked in the field also held a magic to their forms and their silences. For long spans of time I could sit on my bike, my feet in the dirt, or walk it slowly along the roadside in order to look upon the order of cotton rows—the long perfect orderliness of plantings and harvesting and growth.
During these trips to the cotton fields, the task was to get out of my mother’s house, away from yelling and insults and coercions, housework no one else wanted to do but me, though I didn’t really want to sweep and clean dishes or wipe the toilet, it’s not what I dreamed of, but since no one else was doing it, I did. I wouldn't call it an escape, these moments in the cotton fields with the sun and wind coming at me together. It wasn’t fleeing. It’s the same when I take a breath, a long and deep one, after a difficult day or a daunting set. Because the body really is looking for peace in everything I do, standing at the cotton field’s lip procured for me a grip of time to think of the life I wanted to live. Anywhere but here was typically my response. I could be more specific, but then I’d be lying.
At the edge of the cotton fields, where the combines or other machines were loading great lumps into truck beds and maybe bales, whatever fell off the load laid in the dirt. I could pick up these stragglers, these leftover clumps, hold them in my hands. All along the roads to the gins, semi-white patches of cotton, seeds intact, brown brittle leaves and pieces of stem, too, scatter about the roads. Why mention these unwanted scraps of field cotton? Why mention a bit’s ability to snare anything that might connect with its body, the softness of the mallow it was and was not?
I grew up in a town surrounded by cotton fields, and so I might say I grew up in a town surrounded by magic. In this life, we don’t always get to live beside magic, much less hold it inside our hands. We don’t always carve time to open our eyes very wide and look at what stands inside us. There is nothing deliberate to the magic of the body, which is the one reason we must know it.
A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard. When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds. But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.
Okra, hollyhock, hibiscus are all cousins of cotton. The roots of the cotton plant grow deep, and in search of nutrients, the roots often burgeon swiftly, two inches per day, the subterranean root mass extending to a length twice as great as the plant is tall. And I wonder if there is a sound a root makes when it reaches for more, when it splits earth. Two small leaves will sprout from the wet seed, once it germinates; cotyledon is the name for the two visible leaves, which, when open, absorb light and feed the plant, allowing growth.
The small buds which carry the cotton flower will bud, their leaves a little jagged, almost like fringe. They are called squares. Soon, the bud bursts into the flower, which is mallow, which I only remember being yellow or off-white. I have never seen the pink flower, so I can’t say if it really, as they say, blushes red. The flower, after pollination, will wither and fall off, and what is left is the boll, which bears seeds and is therefore a fruit. The boll grows fat with mallow, each boll holding nearly half a million cotton fibers. Each plant itself can hold 100 bolls. On its own, the boll will open, the insides growing too much for the boll’s hull, or the carpels, as they’re named. Once split open, the dried carpels are burs, and the cotton opens up to the sky, white and of the world and ready to be unlocked. Over the course of 25 or so weeks this happens. Once harvested, the cotton is driven to the gins. So much about cotton, I’ve learned, is about opening. And this happens every summer where I am from.
There are wonderful stories about cotton, which I could spin. I might convey the artifacts, how ancient working the fabric is, all the uses, the bridges it has built. But I’d be incorrect and would lack empathy if I didn’t tell you there are horrors to cotton as well. My aunts, my grandmother, people I don’t know can sing of how picking cotton can break the back or the spirit or both—how forced labor and low-wage work demolishes a body. These are not my stories. And so, I pause now to know who I am in relation to other people’s grief.
A story: A man I loved forged my name on a deed to my house. The deed said he could have it all. When I took him to court, his daughter and his best friend testified we had been married—this man and me—and they said on that day, the day of this fabricated ceremony, they had witnessed me sign over the house. When I told the court I left because my ex had tried to hurt me, the judge sighed and ruled that I had no claim to my house. I will never forget the pang of that judge’s sigh, though the pang of telling the truth and not being believed in a court of law stings most.
I am driving to my mother’s house. It is December, a few days after Christmas. 2011. For a few days, two of my dogs and I have been staying in a Super 8 Motel in San Marcos, Texas. When my second lover put a knife to my throat on the day after Christmas, he said, “If you don’t leave, I can’t promise I won’t hurt you.” By this time, I had already sought help from a domestic violence hotline. A counselor had suggested I pack my car with necessities, in case I had to suddenly leave, which was the case, and was what I had to do.
What I lost when my second lover tried to kill me? I lost nearly everything I owned. Sure, some might say, It’s just stuff. Shoes and hoodies, old Ben Davis pants, t-shirts and books and photographs, drafts of half-written stories and whole poems, two of my dogs. Stuff can be replaced, I heard. At one time maybe I believed, fully and with ardor for making goodness in my heart, that I could be fine without the things I’d lost. But I wasn’t fine. I wasn’t able to simply say It’s just stuff. I hurt. I was humiliated by being a man who didn’t have very much to begin with and then lost it all.
In any case, I decided to change my life. I decided I deserved better. In some sense, I am underscoring that two simple sentences cannot carry the weight of such a moment; in this way, like so many others, language fails and simultaneously achieves its aim. Two sentences or one, really, is all the body needs to understand its own magic.
But nothing can prepare you for the moment you have to walk away from a person you know will die. Why I stayed so long? I knew when I left he would end his life. I feared this. I’d stopped him a handful of times before.
On the drive to my mother’s house I am listening to my body tell me I can do this. It’s a sound that spins from the ankles and ribs and from the little nodules of the spine, the ones that help the ligaments of the shoulders and lower back and lats feel like wings, become powerful and flexible, capable of moving the body forward. On iTunes, I listen to Nicole Scherzinger’s “Don’t Hold Your Breath Now.” I listen to the same song for more times than I care to count.
If not for my mother and brother and his wife, I suppose I would have lived in a motel for as long as I could and maybe, when the money ran out, I would have gone back to my second lover, who’d tried to kill me.
Our choices are harder when there’s no money.
A story: a boy drove with his father down a country road, dust running behind them, like clouds being dragged behind the car. His father laughed with the woman who wasn’t the boy’s mother, who sat in the front seat, beside his father. They listened to Barry Manilow. A cassette tape. The boy was a boy. The boy looked out the window. He leaned against the dull spotted glass and wished he was far, far from that car. There were cotton fields. Long rows. Row after row. Blue sky and brown clouds behind them. The cotton fields ran beside the boy. As fast or faster than the car.
As with all life, there is risk. When I was seven, we stayed with my grandmother, after my father left us. I realize now that it was best that he left, seeing how bad men often proffer sons with similar proclivities. She lived in a small wooden house with yellow siding on the front and sides, but the back lay naked and wooden because the money had run out and what mattered more than appearance?
When alone, I often took to fire. I lit cotton balls. In the sink, for fear that the fire might grow uncontrollable, my plan was to extinguish any heat I couldn't control—using the faucet and the sink’s basin I could ensure this. As they burned, the balls’ white fibers glowed a marvelous orange, and it was a trailing burn, like a few tiny fuses all bled together, made of each other, made of light. I used a match. I watched the fibers be eaten by the glow. Embers and then ash and then water. The dark drain swallowing what didn’t burn and what had.
Privately, I committed these burns. I wanted no one to know.
Knowing this was wrong—burning things inside my grandmother’s house—knowing there was peril, I only did so while my mother and grandmother were at the grocery store or had walked to my vis-abuela’s, my great-grandmother’s house, three streets away. A few times I grew brave and wanted to hold the fire in my hands, so I dampened my hands and picked up the glowing ball of fibers, and I tested myself, seeing how long I could hold that small hungry fire in my palms. The first couple of times I let the ball go, quickly, almost immediately, since the heat quickly became unbearable and I was afraid. These times, I dropped the burning cotton into the sink, the faucet resolving the burn. The last time I tried to wield this fire, I held on longer than I ever had, longer than I thought I could, yet, when the pain struck, I released the tiny fireball and it fell onto the shag bath rug. Panicked, I smashed the little fire with my foot. No, I did not burn down the house. I stomped and thanked God and promised Him I would never do such a thing again. I’ve made such a promise numerous times in my life.
I would like to tell you about the beauty of cotton fields and small towns, even if they are dry and littered with left-behind scraps of white seedy cotton, some of them barely towns, backwards and unwelcoming to outsiders or difference, even if I am afraid sometimes, I confess, driving through these towns in my red truck, whether it be alone or with my lover.
I do not have a siren song for these small towns. I do not bring an anthem. But I love them.
If you have never seen a water tower glimmering with sunrise, if you have never smelled horses, not their shit, of course, of course not, but their muscles and their nostrils, the amnesia they give us to forget every city we have ever been to, every debt we owe, every pain, and to belong, for a moment, only to that field, beside that horse, beside that sky, then, I tell you this tale about worthiness and joy. If you have never sat on a tailgate on a dark country road and held another man’s or woman’s hand, drinking a beer and listening to the stars, or the radio, or just your own hearts, if you have never let your body be held by nothing else but sun and wind and dirt, then, I hope, one day, if it calls you, now or ten years from today, that you make it, that the road you are on takes you there, or that you love yourself enough to change roads, to change your life.
A story: One day there was a boy who was no longer a boy but a man in a car near a cotton field. And the man was leaving behind his life. Everything he owned that didn’t fit into a bag. The man had his fears, and he was driving down a country road, and there was blue sky and two dogs behind him, their tongues pink and full of slobber, in the backseat. In the fields, little white bursts of cotton.
For a moment, the man forgot where he was or what he was doing and he rolled down all the windows so the wind filled the small car, making everything, the man and the dogs and the radio, made of wind. He drove, and the dogs bit at the wind, and he turned up the radio. Reba McIntyre—and he remembered he loved her and he remembered that yes, there was life out there. He remembered the smell of horses and water towers and salt water and birds. In the field, long, long legs ran quickly beside the man’s car, never tiring, just running and running and not getting left behind.
Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize for the book Allegory, Rattlesnake, which will be published in 2019. His essays and poems have recently appeared in Iron Horse, RHINO, Gulf Stream, Waxwing, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites. Jimenez was recently awarded a Lucas Artists Literary Artists Fellowship from 2017-2020. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops. For more information, visit joejimenez.net.
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