Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | May 23, 2010

One Sack of Beans

May 2006. Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Wikimedia Commons

Da sent me out to buy ammunition. “Go, Rafi,” he said. “You’re the smallest. They’ll give you more for trade than me or the big boys.”

There were four big boys. From Salvo the oldest who was the same size as Da down to Diego who walked with a limp but could shoot straighter than the devil. Me, I was the runt. Mostly they forgot I was even there. I was Ma’s boy, the one who helped mend socks or cook bean mash soup.

But I wanted to hunt. More than anything. So I grabbed the sack of beans and hung it over my shoulder, pretending it weighed no more than a young chicken. It was more like a sack of rocks, but I didn’t dare grunt or sweat.

This was an important mission. We only had one gun, and each shot counted. If nobody killed nothing for a week, or if we ran out of ammo, we ate only beans.

The big boys learned to aim with slingshots and hand-crafted bows and arrows. The day Da handed them the gun loaded up with a real-to-life shell was the day they became men. Each of them, one by one, til I was the only one left.

When I was out of Da’s sight I dropped that heavy bag down on the ground and dragged, leaving a trail of dust behind. It hadn’t rained in ages–we were lucky to still have this sack of beans. Beans we could eat–or gamble with God as Ma says and trade for ammo to hunt something better.

And they chose me to go! Alone!

I reached the shop and hung towards the back of the crowd. What was I supposed to do now? I’d come before with Da or with Salvo, but I never paid much attention. I felt sweat drip from my nose and ears. You’re the smallest. They’ll give you more for trade. Da had said.

There were two people working the counter. The Gun Man–white-haired, face pock-marked with scars or maybe just moles, no teeth. And his wife–thin, hair dark as midnight down to her waist, no smile. But she had dimples. I could just see them as she handed a packet of beef jerky to a young mother in exchange for some hand-knitted socks.

She was the one I’d ask.

“Excuse me?” I was smaller than the counter. I had to reach way up and wave to get her attention. “Excuse me? You take beans for trade?”

The woman’s dimples disappeared. “We got eight bags of ’em already.”

I didn’t dare give up. “Oh, but I got best quality here. Up from South Farm. New beans, not old.”

Maybe it was a little lie. Maybe these beans were the ones Ma had hidden beneath the porch for an emergency. I reached into the sack and quickly sorted out a healthy-looking handful.

“See?” I lifted it up for her inspection.

She paused. Her eyes traveled from the beans, down my skinny arm, to my face. She caught my stare.

“No they ain’t.” She said.

The words hit like bullets. I couldn’t go back home with beans. I could not! Before I could stop it, a tear puddled up and dripped down. The woman’s gaze never left my eyes.

“What you want for them beans?”

“Ammunition, please. Three boxes.”

“Three boxes? You’ll be lucky I give you half of one. Alberto, see to this boy.”

The man with the scar face sidled over and grinned a toothless smile.

“Well then, some ammo for Emilio’s youngest? For a sack of worthless beans? See what I can do.”

He knew Da? My Da wasn’t one of the men who spent too much time up in town at the shops and bars. He kept to himself, and no one ever recognized me as his before. Maybe I was growing.

Alberto came back with one box of ammo. It wasn’t new – the cover was torn back and some of the shells had scratches or marks.

“Here. Good luck shooting.”

I grabbed the box and touched the cool, hard shells. A few were missing.

I had a wild and crazy and just a bit bad idea, then. I slipped one shell into my pocket. Da would never know.

Then one night, when I was ready, I’d borrow that gun and shoot a deer for the family. Just like that. I wouldn’t be the runt any more.

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