By Corey Davis
By Corey Davis
The Buzzcracker field juice stand was the most famous and sought-after of all the breakfast stands in operation. It was the only station for miles and miles across the angel- hair wheat fields that grew tufty and thick off the scorched southern clay. Customers said that it was basically a burn pile of cattle fence boards, gutted antebellum manors, and tool shed scraps painted kingfisher-azul, nailed together by hammers blessed in watery apple juice. Customers said that was how a heat-zapped roamer could spot it in the waving wheat. Customers said that one could also spot it by the wagons cutting paths to its counter like ants to a melon rind. Buzzcracker sold grape juice by the jug. Purple enough to be wine, priced steep enough to be trusted, livening enough to be blood. The demand spanned whole counties.
Juantonya had been in line since the tomato sun had clipped the hills that morning. It was directly overhead now, the prime furnace hours steaming sweat from her black hair and shift dress, ripening the almonds back home to the east. Her chicken-bone calves stung with cramps and heat rash and horsefly risings. The top of her head simmered. Her wedding ring tugged tight around her swollen knuckle.
Pokpok was with her, a grass sprig sticking out of his teeth, one leg swung over Bijou’s wheelbarrow, empty except for ten antique dimes and a sack of cashews. His hair and undershirt were sticky and flecked gold with flaxseeds. He was drumming idly on the barrow handles, his displaced attention scurrying out into the wheat like field mice. At that time of day, he was supposed to be hoeing the earth, weeding the rows, bouncing corny jokes off the peanut plants.
He was picked to go all along. Winnow had made dinner and a show of digging one work glove into the heirloom straw hat of names, and his had been read aloud with near relish. Juantonya had slipped into the top slot the moment Winnow caught wind of her catalog-order cranberry fingernail polish and read her name without even a glance to check the paper. The family had feigned gracious encouragement for a deep-set relief, the kind of no-harm-no-foul whitely told and cleanly gotten away with for its medicinal purposes, like burning grass to make it grow back greener.
Do your parts now, Winnow had preached to them. Save your babies and your daddies and your grannies and your family’s energy. For heaven’s sake, save your own idle-boned souls while you’re at it! You know how we need that juice!
They had made it to the center of Buzzcracker hours before to fall in line with the rest of the breakfast crowd, the dew dampening their clothes, the land one of fresh produce and cool crunch before the midday stove stoked up. Now it was all a slow roast. The field air tasted grainy and fermented and insulated. A lone barn owl lazed above the line, its shadow flitting over the train of wooden signs staked high over the wheat heads that reassured customers of their painstaking resilience.
The most famous: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”
And another: “Drink up, keep up, reap up bounty!”
And another: “All payments required in liquid form!”
The line moved forward. The owl swooped around, and Juantonya shielded her
eyes to follow it. Bad omen in a good spot. She licked her dusty lips and tasted salt and dirt and something sharp, like a sucked-on penny or a bad nut. Beside the line, there were signs staked back to back, some with words too busy for her to sound out. Beside her
worn-down sandals, there were ants organizing their own grocery line, sensing the breakfast sugar on the wind. Beside the stand, there was a crude hatch dug into the bare field floor. A string-bean man with a fishing pole had hopped down into it holding up four calloused fingers not long before. Now how much do I owe ya, mister? He had not come back up. She had counted two minutes. She didn’t know it but Pokpok had counted three-and-a-half. Customers had kept moving up, counting or not caring, the backs of their shirts pools of sun-boiled thirst.
“Children, children, here we go!” a baggy old biddy in front of them rasped through toothless gums. “Oh, we’ll be replenished yet! We’ll be turning cartwheels before we know it! We’ll live to harvest for centuries, even an old ghoul like me! Breakfast is almost ready! How much will you ask for, girly?”
Juantonya and Pokpok exchanged glances. The owl cut back around. The string- bean man stayed in the ground.
“Seven jugs,” Juantonya mumbled tersely. “Enough to last us good.”
“We did have a delivery system worked out,” Pokpok added with a friendly smile, slicking on his wonder-boy charm. “Us and a family way over in Lapsey Junction. Then that stand burned.”
The old woman gummed her lip, looking between the two of them. “Which one of ya will pay?”
“Well, the whole family pitched in their savings,” Pokpok said. “And if that doesn’t cut it, then we’ve got a bag of cashews fresh off the tree. Picked ‘em yesterday afternoon.” He smirked. “Touched by God, these goobs are.”
It may have just been a trick of the heat’s shifty powers, but Juantonya swore she saw the old woman’s face sink into itself, bags upon bags, wrinkles into wrinkles, a tan quilt of skin. There was a smart smile chiseled deep into her, a twisted intelligence. She didn’t take to it. It was almost akin to the way Winnow had simpered when she sent them off hours before with the crickets still singing and the moon still imprinted on the sky. Her coarse gray hair tied back, her sleeves rolled to her elbows, and “We’ll husk away! We’ll husk away!”
Then she had smiled as if to add, You youngsters. Oh, I’ll give you a piece of work, you noodle muscles, you dreaming minds. You laaazzyyy youth, I’ll show you what moiling is.
There was a wry humor in the way the old woman stared at Pokpok, a rotten blotch on an orange-peel face. She scrunched one last crow’s foot, one last sun rut, before the counter cleared and her turn came. Her clubby feet shuffled over flattened wheat strands. She almost strutted, the old bird.
“One jug, my man,” she told the salesman. “All’s I need.”
Pokpok loaded the ten dimes in his palm so he could set them down on the counter in a neat, countable tower. Juantonya’s heart pounded through her hands as she jiggled the cashews for confidence. Laying one hand protectively on the side of Bijou’s wheelbarrow, she craned her neck around the old woman’s back.
The view from the front of the line was overwhelming, gilded and luscious, rolling and dizzying. It was near about awesome, a small pension paid for her aching feet. The counter was empty, its chipped blue paint blaring; the juice must be stocked in an underground cellar. She eyed the dark hatch. Must be cool down there. Maybe the string- bean man got overheated.
The salesman was lanky and dark, skeleton-ribbed and sweat-shined. He unwrapped gray gums, corn kernel teeth, a sallow salamander tongue as he grinned back at the old woman. Something rumbled under the counter. He brought one shaking hand up and clattered a tin pie pan on the wood. It glared in the sunlight, smooth and metallic.
“All payments be in liquid,” he said, his voice deep and doggy.
Juantonya stared at his smile, at his one shaking hand. He was downright loony, downright drunk with silliness. His thick lips almost bounced with laughter. But the woman only raised her sagging chin in a nod. Something else rattled under the counter. The salesman’s hand reappeared, tremoring wildly and gripping a sliver of shine, a crescent moon stolen from the night before. A scythe blade.
The woman dutifully pushed up her sleeve, her skin a patchwork of spots and scars and smart smiles. Her veins bulged like grass snakes. Her tendons wiggled like earthworms. She laid her arm palm-up over the pie pan.
The scythe shook, and the pan dribbled full with her hot blood.
The life drained out of Juantonya’s face as she watched. Her breath sucked in through a scalding rag, a stout pillow. She clutched at her knees, doubling over, watching, looking, gagging up air. Pokpok breathed fine. He breathed hard and fast and frenziedly, closing a death grip around the dimes, staring at the fall of red.
The woman did not move. She stood in a stupor, her glassy eyes taking in the wheat field like the county lines of heaven, the slashes in her skin giving more and more.
She’ll bleed out, Juantonya thought. She’ll die right here in front of me, glassy eyes looking up at me. Girly.
The pie pan filled to its brim. The salesman’s yellow eyes goggled as his one steady hand batted her arm away. It floated out beside her, blood dripping onto the downed wheat. The ants marched in to salvage. The salesman flung the hatch door open, bent down into it, and came up hauling a glass liter jug of deep purple juice. He thrust it into her arms, and she teetered backwards. Juantonya fumbled to catch her shoulders, nudge her upright. She’ll die on top of me. Her flabby body was soaked with sweat. Her papery skin leaked red and runny. She waddled away without a word, cradling the precious jug, tripping through the wheat.
The salesman flashed a coyote smile back at Juantonya as he shelved the pan of payment down into the hatch.
“Nex’,” he beckoned.
Dutifully, her legs walked forward. Pokpok floated behind her, his face a blank shock, the wheelbarrow squeaking piercingly. A muffled thump and a slosh of liquid sounded from somewhere behind them, and Juantonya’s hand flew to her mouth.
“I’ll give it, Juantonya, I’ll do it!” Pokpok half-yelled, eyes darting behind him, cheeks rushing red. “It should be me! You’re married! I’m the most expendable! I just wanna get out of here!”
“No! No, where on earth did you learn a word like that?” she panted, hunched over the counter on bony elbows. “No, it’s not going to be you! It’s not going to be either of us! Now I need to mull this over! My brain’s near about to spurt out my ears!”
“We’ve got to get that juice,” Pokpok babbled. “We’ve got to. If we go back without it—"
“We’re not going back without it! We came here to get juice, and that’s what we’ll get!”
The salesman smacked his lips. “How many you need?”
Juantonya traced the splinters in the wooden counter with her eyes. “Seven.”
A grin sliced across his mouth as he reached down and came back up shaking a
milk canister the height of her bug-bitten shin. It banged against the counter, its tin surface sizzling in the afternoon sun.
“All payments be in liquid,” he stated. His one shaky hand slithered back down.
“Bloodsucker!” Juantonya shrieked at him, knifing a pointed finger at his foxy smile. “’Skeeter! Leech! You’re not getting my blood! No sir, I ain’t selling my soul over! No sir, I been standing out here since the change of the planets! I’ve rambled miles to get here! My body’s meltin’ off me, my mind feels dehydrated, I’m ‘bout to collapse of heat exhaustion, you smile like the devil, I got plow scars on my hands that I try to smear over with mud, I got cheated to go here, and I’m near about at the end of my rope with this!”
She arched her back sharply as if she had been pierced by a stray bullet, her hand working down her dress, unbuttoning, ripping open.
“Juantonya!” Pokpok reeled. “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
But she had already peeled herself out of her clothes. “I’ll pay up now, mister. I want my juice.”
Her hands wrapped around her limp shift and squeezed, strangled the sweat out of the cotton. It splashed into the milk canister like pump water. Pokpok goggled at her. She wriggled out of her underclothes and wrung those too, the wind whipping dirt and chaff against her bare body. She patted herself down for more fabric and looked down at her sandals.
“Dammit, I wish I had wore socks,” she said and seized her hair, dripping it over the canister lip. “Do as I say, Pokpok. Pay the man.”
Pokpok shucked his undershirt off, his pants, his socks, his skivvies. He dried them out over the canister and set to shaking his hair out.
“Pok----c’mon, wisecrack, get creative,” Juantonya commanded, jamming her fingers down her throat to bring up what little sloshed in her stomach. Then she blinked her face over the opening and let the tears drip off her eyelashes.
Pokpok hocked back all the saliva his tongue could sponge and gobbed it inside, repeating the process until he coughed up only dribble. He turned to Juantonya, his mouth sandy, his throat stinging. “How bad you gotta piss right now?”
Juantonya mounted her hands on her hips and panted, “To truth, I’m ‘bout to burst, Pok.”
The sun scalded overhead as each of them took their turn, the owl swooping leisurely and branding a dark shape of shade down on the line. Customers behind them had started to paw their caps off their heads, open their mouths, rub their squinty eyes, hop onto tiptoes and backs and shoulders. Pokpok steered Bijou’s wheelbarrow in front of Juantonya as she squatted over the canister.
“Stick your eyes back in your heads!” He shook his fist. “Or I’ll shove each one ‘a these dimes down your throats!”
After Juantonya was done, each of them scrounged up one more mouthful of spit to top off the pay before they heaved the canister onto the countertop. The blue boards creaked under its weight. The salesman’s grin curled up like a singed candy wrapper.
“There’s ya a little red to stir in for the color,” Juantonya muttered hoarsely, her chest pounding. She shaved off a flake of her nail polish and watched it flutter into the canister. “Now pay up, you incubus.”
The salesman’s wolfy eyes had shrunken, gone beady and crowlike. His hand rose up, quivering silver, so close that Juantonya glimpsed her naked reflection in it. His arm dove downward suddenly, and the scythe tip lodged into the wood. He tore his hand from it, his fingers crawling all over the counter, scratching up the paint, clawing at the nail heads, skittering thirstily to the edge and scrabbling back. Then, with a tweedy cord of a smile, he composed himself. Juantonya watched him bend over and fling the hatch door open. She watched it swallow half his body, heard glass tinkle, heard liquid slosh. Pokpok rearranged God’s cashews to one side of Bijou’s wheelbarrow, clearing space.
The heat crackled around the snaking line as late afternoon settled in. The wheat waved for miles and miles across Buzzcracker, rustling softly and secretively. The remaining customers shifted impatiently, uneasily for reasons they didn’t care to think why.
“Nex’,” the salesman beckoned.
Sore, sun-blistered feet shuffled forward. Payment pulsed and coursed and pumped. Two satisfied customers turned their bare backs to the blue stand and, eventually, to the waving wheat. They kept on until they were part of the distance, just two spackles of pepper against a white-hot cotton sky. The family was just finishing up the workday when they returned home with the smell of ripe almonds on the breeze, Bijou’s wheelbarrow squealing for a good oil, and their mouths ringed in deep purple.