An Ugly Woman
Flossie Mae had no right eye tooth. It had not fallen out from decay or been knocked out in an accident. In her seventeen years, she had never had one…not even a baby one. In childhood, she had acquired the habit of inserting her tongue into the space between her teeth and making a grotesque sucking noise. The right side of her face would screw up so that her eye was almost completely shut and a hideous sound would emit, high pitched and wet sounding.
She was large, almost six feet tall with hair her mother described as “piss-burnt brown,” frizzy and unkempt. Her eyes were so light they defied color and her mouth was wide as if stretched to fit her massive frame. Before she died, Flossie’s mother told her, “Baby, you’ll never be beautiful, so see to it you’re tough.” Flossie had taken these words, the only guidance ever given her, to heart.
Each summer Flossie and her father would leave their one-room shack in the hills and take to the road. Put in the fields when hardly more than an infant, Flossie learned early to be proud that she could work as hard as any man. She was rough, dressed in men’s clothing, and, at some point, it seemed, most people forgot she was ever female.
Every autumn they traveled to Marked Tree to pick cotton for Ike Davis. This first fall after Pa’s death, Flossie returned to Ike out of habit. It was 1941, and opportunities weren’t that abundant. She lived in a tenant house and down the road a short distance were the homes of the sharecroppers who stayed on with Ike all year.
At noon, everyone stopped picking to eat. It was not uncommon to find Flossie in the midst of the men eating watermelon and spitting the seeds through the prodigious space next to her front teeth, sticky juice dripping down her arms, leaving red stripes that would eventually turn black with dust and grime.
When Flossie walked home at the end of the day, she would sometimes hear laughter. Generally it was from girls her age; pretty dainty little things that couldn’t even pick one hundred pounds of cotton. Flossie would sigh but she accepted her ugliness without complaint as one accepts a burden that cannot be lifted.
It was early, the sun was still low, the air still had that misty morning heaviness to it when Flossie lifted the cotton sack and handed it to Ike for her first weigh-in of the day. “Damn Flossie,” he said handing her back the cotton. “That’s a hundred pounds already. Puttin’ in a good day today.”
Flossie tossed the heavy sack to the top of the wagon and climbed the ladder, dumping it in at the top. “Yes, sir.”
Flossie wasn’t the only woman cotton picker in the field, but she was by far the most productive, more productive than most of the men. Ike glanced down the row and turning to Flossie told her, “If you’d pick more for yourself and less for others, you’d do yourself a favor.”
Flossie hung her head. “Yes, sir,” she mumbled climbing back down. She knew he was speaking of Doane Walker. She was ashamed that Ike knew she was helping someone else, nevertheless, she knew she would help Doane as soon as the sack she was working on was filled.
She knew Doane was no good. He was lazy and a womanizer. Yet, Flossie saw something in him. He was frank with her and kind. He didn’t act like she was just another man, like the others did, and he didn’t laugh at her like the young women. He was simply, Doane, out to get what he could from her, but at least he was honest about it. His honesty made her comfortable.
“Hellfire, Flossie!” Doane exclaimed as she rejoined him the middle of the cotton row. “That’s a hundred pounds already.”
Flossie spat through the large gap in her teeth and then smiled. “Oncet I get this in, I’ll help you if you want.”
“I’d be obliged.”
Flossie often helped Doane. It wasn’t uncommon to see the cotton she was picking end up in his sack. He held a fascination for her; the same kind of fascination money holds for a poor man. He was dark, lithe in his movements and handsome. Flossie knew other women helped Doane pass the nights, but she helped him in more tangible ways.
“You’re moving slow today, Doane,” she remarked.
He smiled his good natured smile, the one women found irresistible. The creases in the corners of his eyes may have betrayed his age, but there was a beauty in that dark face that bewitched Flossie.
“It’s hard to work when you been up late.”
“What you out so late doing?” she asked although she already knew.
He stopped for a minute and pushed his hat back mopping his forehead with his sleeve. Glancing at her he asked, “How old are you, Floss?”
“Seventeen,” she reminded him though she’d told him before.
“Then you’re too young to know,” he returned getting back to work.
Flossie shook her head. “Someday I ain’t gonna be here to pick for you and you’re going to go hungry.” The statement was made less in rebuke and more in concern.
“I know it ol’ gal,” Doane said in agreement. “And I’ll never find another like my Floss to help me out of a scrape.”
Flossie’s heart warmed involuntarily. “And what’s to become of you then?”
“I don’t know.” He began to cough and then spat angrily. “Damned cotton dust.”
Flossie put a dense boll of cotton in Doane’s sack. “You close to weigh in?”
He picked up the sack and felt it. “Yeah, I’ll see what I’ve got.”
She watched him walk to the scale. He always walked slowly when there was work to be done, but as soon as the day was over he’d get a sudden burst of energy. He’d prowl stealthily through the fields like an old tom cat and sometimes she’d see him take some girl out to the Cypress swamp.
It never really bothered Flossie, though. She never felt she deserved much in the way of comfort or companionship. When beauties don’t adorn you, you take what you can. If Doane talked to her throughout the day, that was enough.
“Think it’ll rain today?” Doane asked Flossie as he rejoined her where she was picking.
She scanned the sky. “I think it’ll wait ‘til evening.”
“Damn,” he replied. “I was looking for a day off.”
Flossie laughed. “I know you were.”
They worked side by side. Flossie preferred these cloudy days when the sun didn’t beat down so hard. The glare wasn’t so harsh in her eyes and she didn’t have to stop and mop the sweat off her forehead.
“You going to the tent meeting tonight, Floss?”
“Don’t think so. It ain’t got much appeal for me.”
Doane stopped picking for a moment and looked around him in disgust. “Every other goddamn woman in town is going.”
Flossie made her sucking noise with her tongue against her teeth, the sound that made people cringe. “Let ‘em go, then. I ain’t never seen no need in it.”
Doane laughed at her. “Hell, maybe a little religion would do you good.”
“Got no use for a God that would make me look like this,” she answered him.
He seemed surprised by her candor. “Jesus, Floss.”
“It’s the God’s honest truth, Doane. You know I’m an ugly woman.”
That evening the rain that Flossie had predicted was falling as Doane ranged through the tenant houses. He found his way to Flossie and plopped on the porch beside her. “Hey, Floss,” he said offering her a bottle.
Flossie took it and swallowed a large gulp of whiskey. “What you doing around here?”
He shrugged his shoulders. The smell of alcohol was strong in the air. “Ain’t got nothing to do,” he told her. “Just about everybody’s off to town to hear the sermon.” He took another long drink and, again, shared the bottle with Flossie.
“Poor Doane,” Flossie said sympathetically. “Got nobody to pass the time with.”
He began to cough, painfully, and they were quiet until the spell passed. “Damned cotton dust.” He took another drink.
The rain was falling gently on them as they sat on the porch. It soaked through their clothes, but they were in that state where little could bother them.
Doane looked up to the sky and let the rain fall into his face. He seemed to like it. “You ever seen the ocean, Floss?”
Flossie smirked a little. “I seen Number One ditch. I reckon that’s the closest I’ll ever get to seeing the ocean.”
Doane took his hand and ran it across his face, pushing his hair up out of his eyes. “I seen it once. Went to Florida to pick oranges.” He looked at Flossie sharply. “You could probably pick oranges. You never tried?”
Flossie shook her head.
Doane laughed. “Didn’t care no more about picking oranges than I do about picking cotton, and that’s a fact. But that ocean, she was a sight to see. Ageless, large, powerful, green water and breakers as far as the eye can see. And drowsy hot sand.” He closed his eyes and smiled.
Flossie took another drink of whiskey. She was soaked, but the liquor kept her from being chilled. “Green water and sand don’t sound like a lot to me.”
Doane eyed her. “That’s cause you ain’t seen it. You’re an awful hard woman. How old are you anyway?”
“Seventeen,” Flossie told him again.
“I got married at seventeen,” he informed her, taking another long drink of whiskey.
Doane stopped drinking and looked at her over the edge of the bottle. “Ain’t you never felt love before?”
“Don’t need to. I seen married love. Once I seen Pa beat my mama so bad she climbed under the bed to get away from him.”
“It ain’t right for a man to hit a woman.”
Flossie laughed bitterly. “I’d like to see one try with me.”
Doane laughed with her. “Aint’ likely to happen, is it?”
Their laughter died and they were silent again. “What happened to her?” Flossie asked.
Doane slumped forward looking at his feet. “Don’t righly know. Just know one minute I was out in the barn and the next minute the house was on fire. I could hear screaming inside. I had kids in there, too. I tried to get in but that fire was something.” He pulled up his shirt sleeve revealing an arm covered with angry red scars and welts. “That was all I got for my trying. Someone come and drug me out of there.” The bottle was empty and Doane threw it against a tree. It shattered, scattering slivers everywhere. “I wish they hadn’t.”
Thunder rolled angrily in the distance and Flossie pulled out a snuff container. “You dip?”
“Thanks,” he replied. They were silent a moment and then he asked, “Think it’ll rain tomorrow?”
The next morning Doane was moving no faster. “Hell, Doane, you don’t move no faster even when you ain’t been out late,” Flossie remarked to him.
He laughed. “What do I need to hurry for? The cotton ain’t goin’ nowhere.” He began to cough and spat. “I hate it out here. Damned dust is gonna kill me.”
It was sunny but the cool autumn air felt chilly and crisp. Winter’s cold was not far off. “Thinking the cotton won’t hold out much longer,” Flossie said. They had been together, everyday now for eight weeks. The field was almost picked clean. “Two, maybe three days.”
“Then where do you go, Floss?”
Flossie paused in her work and looked around her. “Ike says I can stay on here. One of the sharecroppers could put me up.” She paused. “What about you?”
“Got no place to go,” Doane told her. “I just stop where I stop.”
“Don’t you never want to stay put?”
“Not anymore.” Doane thrust a cotton boll in his sack.
She was thoughtful. “You ever think of staying around here for the winter?”
Doane laughed. “Ike don’t think as highly of me as he does you.”
Flossie knew this was true. “Maybe if you didn’t run around so much with the women…” she began.
“The women,” Doane interrupted angrily. “Couldn’t tell you one name of any of ‘em.”
“But…” Flossie seemed confused.
Doane took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. “Women are like pillows,” he told her replacing the hat. “You can sleep without ‘em, but it’s a lot softer when they’re around.”
Flossie spat and eyed Doane critically.
“Don’t be givin’ me that look, Flossie Mae.”
“I ain’t givin’ you no look,” she answered looking away and nimbly picking the cotton bolls.
“Well don’t,” he told her. He watched her work a minute and asked, “You ever think of going to Florida to pick oranges? Hell, you could climb a ladder and pick as many as any of ‘em down there.”
Flossie shrugged. “Ain’t never put much mind to it.”
“You should,” Doane told her. “It’s warm down there in the winter. We could go together.”
“How would we get there?”
“Hop on the train,” Doane answered. “They don’t care.”
Flossie hesitated. “Would we get to see the ocean?”
“I thought it didn’t sound like much to you,” Doane replied.
“I ain’t seen it, so’s I don’t know”.
He smiled at her and Flossie’s heart beat faster. “If you want to see the ocean, we’ll see the ocean,” he said, persuasively.
Flossie still hesitated. She would be leaving behind security, a house and job to go with Doane.
“You’re young, Floss. The cotton will be here when you get back.”
She knew there was no fondness for her in Doane’s eyes, no affection. He simply needed her, but, in a strange way, she needed him, a pleasing familiar in a cheerless world.
She had no one else. Her light eyes turned to his trustfully. “Okay, Doane,” she told him decidedly.
Cotton picking season arrived again, though summer still held on in the humidity that blanketed the fields in a willful haze. In spite of this, autumn’s chill could be detected in the breeze, in the sunlight that bathed the white cotton fields in its golden glow. Ike Davis looked over the field with satisfaction. It had been a good year.
“Hey, Ike,” a voice said.
He turned to see a woman. He quickly removed his hat. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
“You needing pickers?” she asked him.
He looked her over. “You fast?”
She seemed surprised. “Ike, it’s me. Flossie Mae.”
He stared at her. She was still tall, but different, less rough. She was dressed like a woman, her hair pulled back neatly. She would never be beautiful, but she had a new found dignity, a smattering of grace where there had formerly been none.
“What happened to you, Flossie?” Ike asked. “I thought you were staying on for the winter and the next thing I knew you was gone.”
“I wintered in Florida,” she explained. “Picked oranges.”
“Oranges?” Ike said in surprise. “What was that like?”
“A little like cotton,” she answered. Her face grew strangely soft and feminine. “I saw the ocean.”
Ike studied her for a moment. “How’d you like it?”
Flossie’s eyes grew moist. She could feel the salt in the air and the wind blowing. It was strong, bracing, sustaining. Doane stood beside her on the sand, his face drawn, but content.
“What did I tell you, Flossie Mae?” he asked her hoarsely. “It’s sturdy and powerful like it could swallow up all earth’s cares. It makes me forget everything.”
She smiled in wonder staring out over the vastness of the sea. “I feel so small,” she told him as the waves crashed loudly against the shore. “I’ve never felt small.”
He began to cough. His body jerked with the force of it and he had trouble catching his breath. When he was done he shook his head, “Damned sea salt.”
She turned to him. He was thin and wasted, but still handsome. “Let’s go,” she told him. He leaned on her heavily; it took all her strength to help him up the pathway.
Her mind jolted her back to the present and she was startled to realize Ike was staring at her. “The ocean?” she repeated. “What was it like?” She thought for a moment and then replied, “It was big. Big and strong.” A smile flickered in her eyes. “It was beautiful.”