weekend-readsThe Cane Brake

Nathan Poole

Q.U is what we all called him, but the name really stands for Quintis. Someone gave him a navy blue hat years ago and he wore it everyday since. It had a big long flat brim and a blue mesh back and it read “Q.U’s Hat,” across the front in black, ironed on letters. Except the capital H had fallen off which left it reading, “Q.U’s at.” People eventually thought it was supposed to be that way, as if even his hat had somehow developed a Georgia accent.

I found him by accident when me and my sister Anna were playing in the cane break. He was lying there, crumpled on his side, down in the slump between two of the rows and I would have tripped over him if I hadn’t seen the hat resting in the dirt ahead of him. His eyes were fixed and his mouth was cast open. The tobacco stained teeth and gums were all exposed in a wide yawn and there was something about the way his face had drawn tight over his cheekbones that made it easy to imagine that I was seeing his skull right through his skin. My heart became footsteps through a ceiling, the way it sounds when I would put my head underwater in a bath tub or press my ears hard against a pillow. It was like boots landing in measured strides several rooms away but being heard through the floor. I remember thinking it was strange that it’s always the noises that come from inside you that sound the farthest away.

Anna had kept running. She didn’t see him. I would never have wanted to be alone with him. It was one of those times you knew exactly what you were looking at the moment you saw it. I know that’s true because I also remember wishing, for the first time in my life, that I was sightless.

My uncle Q.U had struggled for years to figure out what to do with his little piece of land. He tried cotton once and failed because the fields weren’t disked properly and so all of last season’s wheat came right back through and choked out the cotton. That whole year you could tell just by looking at him that he was crushed. His deep set eyes and weathered face took on the sharp pained look of public humiliation every time we drove past his fields. I would pretend not to notice the bristly looking cotton plants with tall disgraceful stabs of wheat growing around and through them like whiskers. There were times when it seemed like my aunt Paula had given up on him. She spoke increasingly of his weakened heart, as if it were easier for her to conceive of him as sick, rather than a bad farmer.

I’m not sure Q.U ever recovered from that. He did, however, discover that his land was perfect for sugar cane. For the next five years he grew cane high and proud on those front 12 acres. He would trade jars of molasses for everything. The use of a neighbor’s tractor. A pile of empty five gallon buckets. I think he even traded molasses for gas at a gas station. The problem was that cane wasn’t a market crop. You couldn’t insure it, and so you couldn’t expect a fair return on its acres. Too stubborn to risk failure again, he continued, year after to year to plant cane and also to process his own molasses in a big brick boiler he built in his front yard. Somehow the man managed to barter his jugs of molasses like moonshine for whatever he needed. Q eventually began to lurk around after church or at family gatherings with his molasses in the back of his truck as if he really were just a bootlegger. Some said the dignity of farming was lost on him. The worst thing about them saying what they did was that the more they said it the more he began to act like it was the truth. His brothers would make jokes about it and I would wait for him to defend himself. I always hoped he would tell them that at least he hadn’t leased out all of his land to Bill Porter. At least his land was still his. But instead, he would just nod and smile and hum some song to himself.

During our summer breaks dad would drop me and Anna off at Q’s on his way to work. There would usually be a breakfast out on the oak table in the kitchen for us. Anna rarely finished her food and my Aunt would say that her and Q ate like the sparrows, or worse. The real reason she didn’t eat was because she always wanted to go play hide and seek in the house. At least for the first few weeks of summer she did. I usually wanted to stay at the table while Paula read us things from the paper. I liked the dim light and warmth of her kitchen in the early morning.

I remember from the window in the kitchen you could see the sun turning the early sky blue across the tree line. When the light was high enough you could see Q out standing in his cane. I felt better seeing him out there. You could tell every so often that he had all the dignity any man could need for himself. It was small things: the way he would take his hat off by the brim and wipe the sweat out of his face with his forearm. You could watch him as he looked out across the road on those mornings and if you wanted to you could honestly believe that he owned half of Georgia, you could even imagine that he had at one point, a long time ago, been the kind of person no one would laugh at. I guess the real problem was that to see him that way, the way he was, you had to want to and most people just didn’t want to.

My sister Anna was calling for me somewhere in the field but I didn’t answer. I just stood there, absolutely still. And then I ran. I ran in the wrong direction for about fifteen seconds until I realized that I couldn’t get back to my aunt’s house unless I turned and headed east. I would have to run through the cane instead of down the gap in the rows.

I remember Q telling me never to run through cane. I remember him guiding my small plump fingers out towards one of the stiff leaves, moving my pointer finger over the sharp serrated edges.

“Can you feel how sharp it is when its dry?” He asked me.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Do you understand?” He asked.

“Yes sir,” I said.

Now I understood. My arms began to burn as I plowed through the stalks, trying to keep the roof line of my aunt’s house in sight. I couldn’t keep the cane leaves off my ears and arms. The stalks seemed to reach out at me as I passed by them, gracefully writing line after line on my arms and cheeks in red ink. Those few acres of cane punished me beyond any beating I’d ever received as a boy growing up in Georgia.

When I got to my aunt’s house my skin was sticky and hot. My arms, burning and itching. My shirt was red at the shoulders and the blood from my raw ears had run down into my collar.

My aunt was sitting on the porch in an oversized rocking chair with a tall white back, knitting. I stood in front of her, breathing hard, trying to get my eyes to focus in on something. I looked down at her pink swollen feet and watched as her big toes pushed against the boards of the deck as she rocked herself back and forth. I stood there waiting for her to look up at me.

“Q’s out there,” I said.

“Uh huh,” she said.

She kept on knitting. She did not look up.

On trips to the store we would switch off on Q’s lap taking turns driving the truck with its big loose steering wheel. The truck was a light faded blue and smelled like diesel fuel and warm vinyl. The bed was rusted out along the wheel wells and there was a big silver sheep ram on the hood that reminded me of a gargoyle. I would drive and Anna would play the radio and then we would switch. Anna knew every song on Q’s gospel station by heart and she would turn up the ones she liked the best until the speakers in the doors began to crackle and even then she wouldn’t turn it down. Q would sing along with her under his breath and I would try to sing with them but I never really listened to the words so I just moved my lips along and pretended to know the songs.

I left my aunt sitting on the porch and I called out for Anna. Maybe I was tired of being alone knowing what I did. Maybe I was angry at my aunt. The more I think about it the more I realize I didn’t know what to do. I think I called for Anna everywhere trying to find her, my voice getting worse each time until it started to break up. The sound of it bothered me more than anything. I called for her as my aunt sat in her chair, staring out into the field. I called down the rows of cane trying hard not to look at the distant figure lying in the dirt at the back of the field. I called into the dark stale rooms of the house and it wasn’t until my voice fell flat and dry against the shirts in Q’s closet that I realized exactly where my sister was.

The boiler’s outside walls were overgrown with yellow jasmine and kudzu. Caramelized sugar clung like burnt tar to its insides and the whole place smell sweet and familiar, the way I remember Q’s shirts and hands smelling. Like sweat and sugar and wood smoke. Anna was sitting in the shade on an overturned five gallon bucket with her head down in her lap humming to herself. Pale streaks were carved out through the dust on her cheeks, starting in the corners of her eyes and running down to her chin.

“You saw him?” I asked.

She never answered me. She probably found him the same way I did and I have always regretted leaving her alone when she was calling for me. Especially when I think about how alone I felt calling for her.

I sat down beside her in the shade of the boiler until it got dark, until the head lights from our father’s truck could be seen outlining the hill in front of my uncle’s house. I listened to her as she hummed but I couldn’t make out the melody. To this day she still won’t tell me what song she was humming. I still remember how the melody went. It rose and fell in all the right places, like I’d heard it before, but I couldn’t tell you where.

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