Figures

by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz


She’d kept figures all season. Even made herself a pad — torn pieces of paper held secure by straight pins from the sewing kit — to keep those numbers on.

Her daddy couldn’t make head or tails out of what she’d written, but he understood the figures said that they didn’t owe this season.

Didn’t owe.

He wanted to believe her neat little numbers. Every season before he’d gone to the Graham house to settle his debts only to find another season of his life owing.

But she received such good grades in arithmetic. The teacher praised her! Why, she added as quick as one of them machines!

Didn’t owe.

His daughter’s voice had just enough lilt to intoxicate him. Maybe he’d surprise her with a new dress. Maybe he’d take her for ice cream — could you do that just before Christmas? He didn’t know; never having money he could spend how he wanted.

She had numbers for everything. Before, they’d never known what cotton was going for, but that girl of his with the good head had good ears as well, and all season she’d listened. She knew what the gin was paying a bale; even knew how many pounds of cotton it took to make a one.

But her figures weren’t based on that. She was smart enough to know Mr. Graham wouldn’t give no nigger the same as a white man, so she lowered the price, cut it in half, and increased the pounds needed. But even then they expected to profit something.

A fine little bookkeeper, you got there, he imagined Graham saying as the two men compared their figures.

Could see himself explaining as his daughter had said: There’s what I owe for seed. This here’s the food bill over at the commissary. The number of bales of cotton we made this year times how much a bale is sold for. What we made minus this here what we owe. Yes sir—everything accounted for.

He patted the pad in his shirt pocket and smiled as he joined the line of sharecroppers. When it was his turn, he stepped forward to the table where Mr. Graham sat.

Graham smiled at him. “You did good this season,” he said. “Makes a difference when you got your girl out there helping.” Graham consulted the ledger before him. “Made your crop.”

Didn’t owe.

“Looks like we’re even,” Graham said.

The man’s hand flew up to his shirt pocket and retrieved the little pad. It trembled in his hand.

“What you got there?” Graham asked.

The sharecropper stared at his daughter’s figures, then glanced over and compared them to the wild, illegible figures in the open ledger next to the gun. “It’s . . . uh. . . a list . . things my wife wanted once we’d settled.”

“Well, go’n over to the commissary. Tell Mr. Johnson, you’re starting next season’s bill. And here,” Graham said, holding out a dollar bill. “Get that daughter of yours something for the fine work she did this season.”


She waited for him on the porch, but he strode past his daughter, pausing only to yank that pad from his pocket, ripping it apart before he stomped into the house; leaving her trembling beneath the pieces of paper falling all around her.

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About Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a fiction writer and poet. Her work has appeared in various online and print journals. Visit her website where she blogs about the writing life. When she's not writing, she designs and hand sews teddy bears.