Read an Excerpt
Cullen’s eyes swelled to mere slits, his roughened cheeks itched, and a sharp line separated the raw skin on his neck from the skin protected by his shirt. It had happened every planting season for his entire twenty-seven years and it would happen for the next.
He yanked off his gloves, shirt, and undershirt, worked the pump, then stuck his whole head beneath the water. The icy stream stung and soothed all at the same time. He dared not dither, though. Those cotton seeds rode on the breeze and any exposed skin would begin to itch within a day’s time.
Rearing up, he combed his fingers through his hair. Water drizzled down his back, mingling with the sweat collecting between his shoulder blades. The hinges on the back-door screen squeaked. His stepmother clomped out, her plump body listing with the weight of the pail she toted.
“You ready to throw that out, Alice?”
She nodded, dirty water sloshing over the sides of the bucket. “I’ve got it. You get on inside. You know better than to be out here without a shirt on.”
“A few more minutes won’t hurt.” Taking it from her, he retraced his steps, tossed the pail’s contents, and pumped fresh water into it.
She stood at the door, her back holding the screen open. Her auburn bun sagged, as streaked with muted white as a song sparrow’s wing. “Come on,” she said. “Ya look a fright.”
Pulling off a boot, he glanced inside. His father already sat at the head of their hand-hewn table, shaking out his napkin. Three plates balanced across its slightly slanted surface. The table had been Cullen’s first attempt at making a real piece of furniture. He’d presented it to his mother on his eleventh Christmas, prouder than any rooster in the henhouse.
By the time he realized her other table was not only level but also nicer, she’d already passed away. She never let on, though—just stroked it as if it were made of mahogany and asked Dad if he didn’t think it was the grandest table he’d ever seen. Dad would give Cullen a wink and agree that it surely was. To this day, Cullen didn’t know what had happened to their good table.
“Ya gonna stand out there all day or cm in so we can eat?” Dad tucked a napkin into the collarless neckline beneath his bushy black beard.
“Coming.” Dropping his boots outside, he stepped in, plucked an undershirt from the wall peg, and pulled it over his head. At least his arms and chest still held a healthy glow. Two strips of startling white skin dissected his coppery torso, delineating the spots where his suspenders rode. Going shirtless during the plowing was not a problem, it was the planting, weeding, and harvesting that bothered him most. “Smells good, Alice.”
The door banged shut behind her. “Made ya some bean kttl soup.”
He suppressed a cringe. Bean kettle soup. Again. It was the third time in as many weeks.
Shrugging into a shirt, he secured the buttons, snapped his suspenders into place, scraped back his chair, and froze. A letter from the National Commission of the World’s Columbian Exposition sat beside his plate. “What’s that?”
Dad scratched the back of his head, fluffing his wiry curls, the same black color as Cullen’s.
“Yer the reader in the family,” he said.
Cullen jerked his gaze to Dad’s. “Why’s it addressed to me?”
Alice plopped a cast-iron pot on the table. Dad handed her his bowl.
“It’s been opened.” Cullen lowered himself into his chair, being careful to keep his hands clear of the table and envelope.
“I had Luther read it to me,” Dad said.
If the store clerk had read it, then the whole county would know of its contents by now. Everybody but Cullen, that is.
“What did it say?” he asked.
Alice served up bowls for the three of them.
“Accordin’ to Lthr, it said you’ve been accepted as an exhibitor at the World’s Fair.”
He wheezed in a breath, his swollen airways in as bad a shape as his face. “An exhibitor? Of what?”
“An automatic fire sprinkler system.”
A prickling sensation began behind his eyes. “How did they find out about my sprinkler system?”
“I told ’em.” Dad took a spoonful of soup, chewed the ham, and swallowed.
“Told them? How?”
“I sent in an application fer ya.”
The headache that had danced along the edges of Cullen’s skull began to make inroads. “You can’t read or write well enough to do that.”
Dad shrugged. “Got me some hlp from the preacher.”
Cullen started to rub his forehead, then stopped when he encountered tender skin. “And why would you do a fool thing like that?”
“Watch yer mouth.”
“I want to know why, Dad.”
He leaned his chair back on two legs. “I found the World’s Fair ad for exhibitors underneath yer mattress last spring when I took it outside fer Alice to beat clean.”
Moisture began to collect on Cullen’s neck and hairline. “So what? The entire world’s been reading about the fair since it was awarded to Chicago in ’90.”
“The entire world ain’t hiding it under their mattress.”
“I wasn’t hiding it. I just, I don’t know, didn’t have anyplace else to put it.” Even to his own ears, his excuse sounded feeble. “Besides, I forgot all about it.”
“I looked at it again when I got hm today. Its edges are frayed and it’s been opened and closed so many times the paper is splittin’ along the creases.”
Cullen placed his arms on both sides of his bowl. “Look, Dad. I’m a farmer, just like you. Just like Granddad. And just like Great-Granddaddy before him. A little boy who mourned the loss of his mother rigged up that stupid thing.”
“A little boy who became a man overnight.”
“It’s nothing but a toy.”
“Ya spent years perfectin’ it.”
Cullen fisted his hands. “And it didn’t help one iota when I spent heaven knows how much of your harvest money installing it in the cowshed. The thing still burnt straight to the ground and very nearly caught the barn on fire.”
“Ya fixed that when ya added them fusible joints.”
Cullen slammed his fist, rattling the dishware and causing Alice to start. “I’m not going to the World’s Fair, Dad. I appreciate the gesture. I know your intentions are good. But I’m not going. Especially not now. It’s the planting season, for crying out loud.”
Dad’s chair thumped to the ground. “Don’t ya thnk I know what time o’ year it is? I may not read so well, but I can sure tell the difference in the seasons.”
Closing his eyes, Cullen tried to calm himself. But his pulse was ticking, his breath was coming in spurts, and the prickles behind his eyes had turned into hammers. “You’re missing the point. I meant no insult.”
“Then at least give me enough credit to see when a fella ain’t cut out for farmin’. Look at ya. Ya can’t see in the spring. Ya can’t breathe in the summer. And ya can’t hrdly stay standing during the harvest. Never have, never will. You know it. I know it. And yer mama certainly knew it. Why do ya thnk she spent so much time givin’ you all that book learnin’? So you could hide ads under yer mattress while ya killed yourself in the cotton fields?”
Cullen surged to his feet. Dad made it to his just as fast.
Alice rapped her spoon on the table. “Sit down. Both of ya. I spent all day on this soup and if ya don’t eat every last bit, I’m gonna make nothin’ but mush for a month of Sundays.”
A bird preparing for nightfall landed on the windowsill, pecked at the curtains, then took off with a chirp. One of the dogs out front barked, the others responding in kind.
The tension eased from Dad’s shoulders. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Alice. We’ll be glad to sit down. Cullen, tuck yer napkin in.”
He sat, stuffed his napkin in his collar, then shoveled mouthful after mouthful of the soup into his mouth. The sooner he finished, the sooner he could escape to his room. He was reading The Farmer’s Encyclopedia and had just gotten to the section on tongueless plows.
He could feel Dad’s gaze but refused to acknowledge it. Swallowing was an effort, though. He cursed himself for even saving that ad. He didn’t know why he had. He certainly didn’t expect anyone to ever find out about it.
Heat began to rise up his neck. Had Dad told Luther about the ad? Did the whole county know about it?
Dad cleared his throat. “Luther said the folks runnin’ the fair turned away all but a third o’ the applicants. That to be chosen is not only a grt honor for ya but for all o’ Mecklenburg County.”
He kept his head down. “I’m not going.”
“I’m asking ya, son. Fer me.”
Dropping his spoon in the bowl, Cullen whipped up the envelope, yanked out the letter, and shook it open. He skimmed it, quickly finding what he was looking for, then held it up for his dad. “Did Luther mention exhibitors are responsible for the costs of transporting, handling, arranging, and removing their exhibits?”
“He did. He also said them fair folks weren’t chargin’ ya fer the space.”
“Even still, do you have any idea how much it will cost just to transport the equipment?”
Dad scratched his chin beneath his beard. “Seein’ as the railroad will let ya carry a hundred pounds fer free, I reckon it shouldn’t cost ya nothin’.”
“Nothing but the packing crates, the fare to and from, my room for six months, my meals for six months, a suit that fits, city boots, extraneous expenses, and who knows what else.”
Dad raised his brows. “Since ya seem to know so much about it, maybe ya oughta be tellin’ me how much it costs.”
“I have no idea.”
“Well, I do. Somewheres around three hundred dollars.”
Alice took a quick breath.
“Then why are we even discussing this?”
“Because I already paid it.”
Alice whipped her head toward Dad.
“Paid it?” Cullen’s body flashed hot, then cold. “Are you out of your mind? No. That’s, that’s . . . crazy.”
“Well, it’s all arranged. Marty down at the train station took care of it fer me.”
“Where did you even get that kind of money?” It wasn’t his business, and under normal circumstances, he’d never have had the gall to ask. But these weren’t normal circumstances.
“I had a little tucked away from when the cash was rollin’ in back in ’90 and ’91.”
“A little?” Cullen’s lungs quit working. Try as he might, only a quiver of air would go through his pipes. “That’s a whole year’s harvest,” he rasped. “It’s way too much. And you know it. Especially with cotton prices as shaky as they are right now.”
“Pshaw. We’re fine.”
Alice pushed back from the table, her expression tight, her movements jerky.
Cullen grabbed the napkin from his neck. “Well, I’m not going. You’ll have to tell them you changed your mind.”
Dad took a deep breath. “Life’s an unsure thing, son. You know that firsthand. Sometimes, ya just got to rch out and grab it, right by the tail.”
“What about the crop?”
“Dewey’s boys said they’d hire on.”
Cullen’s jaw slackened. “You’ve already asked them?”
“What about Wanda? We’re supposed to get married.”
Dad studied him. “Ya set a date?”
“Well, no, but we’re going to. And it’ll be sooner rather than later.”
Dad folded his napkin in half, then in half again. “Forever’s a long time. A few months on the front end or the back end won’t make much difference.”
“We’re not talking about a few months. We’re talking half a year. We’re talking the planting, the weeding, and half the harvesting. We’re talking clear to November.”
Dad hooked his thumbs in his suspenders. “I know how long the fair runs.”
His nostrils flared. “What if I went all the way up there and nobody wanted it?”
“Then ya can come on home and be a frmr. You’ll be no worse off than ya are now.”
“You’ll be three hundred dollars poorer! The economy is in a mess and farming is as unreliable as a woman’s watch. I had no idea you even had a cushion like that. The last thing you want to do is spend it on something so frivolous.” He paused. “I can’t take it, Dad. It’s too much. I’d never forgive myself if it was all for nothing.”
“I’m gifting it to ya.”
Alice slammed a coffeepot onto the stove.
“I’m gifting it right back,” Cullen said.
Dad dragged a hand down his face. It had been a long time since the two of them butted heads.
“I know you mean well, Dad, but children are always saying stupid things. Things like, ‘I want to be a sheriff when I grow up’ or ‘I want be the president’ or,” he lowered his voice, “ ‘I want to be an inventor.’ It means nothing. It’s silly talk.”
“Not if that’s what they’re destined to be.”
Feeling all the bluster leave him, he allowed his shoulders to slump and played his final card. “I’m going deaf, Dad. Even if I manage to find investors, once they learn I can’t hear like a normal person and that I belong in an asylum, they’ll withdraw their offers.”
Alice twisted around, her face stricken, her hands crinkling her apron.
Dad’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tensed. “Yer not goin’ deaf and ya don’t belong in a madhouse. So maybe you have a lttl trouble hearing every single word a fella utters. Ya get by just fine.”
“When things are nice and quiet I do, but it’s getting worse. Especially if there are other—”
Dad held up his palm, effectively stopping him. “Madhouses are fer crazy people. There’s nothing wrong with yer think box. You’re more book smart than over half the county.”
“Nobody cares about book smarts once they find out there’s something wrong with you. Just look at Ophelia Ashford. She went blind after staring at the sun and her parents shipped her off to Blackwell’s lickety-split.”
“Miss Ashford’s parents are the ones who should be locked up, not her. But quit changing the subject. I’ve already wired them folks up in Chicago and accepted their invite. I’ve found ya a boardin’ house and paid fer yer room—nonrefundable, nontransferable. I’m not asking ya anymore. I’m telling ya. It’s why yer mother learned ya. You may be able to let all her hard work—her life’s work—go fer nothing, but I’m not.” Lifting up one hip, he pulled a ticket and a bulging envelope from his pocket, then slid them across the table. “Yer gettin’ on the Richmond & Danville in one week’s time. Yer goin’ to Chicago. Yer stayin’ at a boardin’ house called Harvell. And yer gonna give this thing a chance. The best chance it’s ever had. I’ll see ya in November.”
The anger simmering inside began to bubble again. He could not believe this. Swiping up the ticket, the money, and the letter, he stood. “Fine. I’ll go. And I’ll fail, like I always do. Then I’ll come back and we can put this thing to bed once and for all.”