The A & P

She rolled a tomato in her hand, pink rubber
ball engineered to fit a machine. The motion
recalled Florida, toward the Glades, Pahokee,
Belle Glade, Miccosukee, fields crawling
with tomato plants, and the proportion all wrong
between the rows: wide enough for a truck to drive
through. A truckload of migrant workers, Cuban,
Haitian, Jamaican, perhaps Creek, Seminole,
turning, rolling to a spot on the horizon, stopping
somewhere, the next unpicked spot the same,
on the row, assembly line.

                                             A voice from somewhere
                  urban, in her ear: We have forgotten where
                  our food comes from.

                                                         But she remembered exactly.
      Between the rows of manufactured produce she remembered
      Lib Martin's bucket of tomatoes: green, red,
      irregular skin cracked like red dirt, drought,
      rain. The acid juice gushed against thirst.

Not forgetting. Learning certain things, like these sweet
potatoes, knobbed roots broken to yellow clay,
eating them baked as some ate clay, hot
from the sun, comfort. Sweet potatoes twenty cents a pound.

A man in Nash County died digging them last fall,
forty cents a bucket, seventy buckets a day, take out
a hundred fifty bucks a month for beans and rice.

                  Pull wild salad, fish the Tar River, drink
                  cheap wine, a dollar a pint. Can't escape,
                  beaten with tree limbs, the woods full of snakes. Be
                  so hot. Fall into dirt from your own digging, and die.

Not about forgetting. Never being told.

        Eating the lives of others like a child, unconscious,
        sucking the breast. Herself as a girl sucking
        sugar cane by the gas heater, hot, sweet,
        knowing nothing of the cold field, the knives of cane,
        the women and the men, rounding the mill like mules.

But it was about forgetting. Every day she wanted to
forget something she'd learned about the house, the fields,
the lopped cedar posts propping up the scuppernong arbor,
the fallen grapes fermenting on the ground. If she could have,
just tonight, a little white wine. The amnesiac sugar,
liquor, how good it tastes. It used to be whiskey,
or a little rum-and-coke.

                                            How drunk she got
         that night, her and the two men, drunk, standing up
         in the boat between two rivers of stars, between
         the muddy banks of the Black Warrior.
                                                                          They sang
         until the boat sank, then waded out as if
         free in another country. She'd washed the black muck
         off her feet, clinging weight, erosion, lives
         she knew, lives she did not know. She had walked
         up the bank, stagger, not like her father. Just like
         her father. What did he know?

                                                                Too much, her mother said,
                 he knows too much to be happy.

                                                                            Drinking to forget
         what he did, or what he should have done? At the river,
         the river bottom land.

                                                      Maybe the grapefruit in her hand,
          yellow globe, pink flesh, came from there, prison farm
          in the bottoms. Hot boxes. Boxes of fruit. Each piece
          wrapped like a jewel in green tissue paper.

She had learned about grapefruit, lemons, oranges.
In the store, workers unpack them like presents. Pesticide
spreads skin to skin, and your hands begin to die,
go numb, skin falls off, membrane of a peeled orange.

                   Stay conscious, a voice said. Can't do nothing if you don't
                   stay conscious. Right foot should know what the left foot is doing.

But every time, every damn time, she walked
into this A & P to get groceries, she had to decide
not to be like her father. Decide like tonight.
No grapefruit, no tomatoes, none of that Iowa honey,
bees that never saw a flower, their universe a warehouse.
Ask where the sweet potatoes came from. Then a few
in a paper sack, thudding like lumps of dirt.

Then her feet up and down the aisles twice as wide
as a row should be hoed, making her feet take her
past, her hand not reach down a bottle, not even
the scuppernong that could give her back herself
innocent, under the arbor, sucking grapes down
to the skin, the familiar taste, numbness, a long
slow spiral down the river, oblivion's boat,
her feet never stepping out on either side of land.

She made herself walk past the wine, to check-out,
to figure up how much this food would cost her.
She could dig up the backyard again this spring,
some rows of tomatoes, some cane poles spiraling
bean vines. Some squash, three seeds and a fish head
at the bottom of each hole.
                                               The dead silver eye
would look at her again. Again she would ask herself
the use of what she was doing, and again as she hoed,
barefoot in blackjack clay, and as the tomatoes came in
to be picked, eaten, given to friends, canned for winter.
Again as the blisters came, and then the calluses on her hands.

:: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Walking Back Up Depot Street (Pittsburgh, 1999)

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