Turning Over a New Leaf

Cotton Barbeau thought of himself as both lucky and damn smart. He was called Cotton by everyone who knew him even though he had been given the Christian name of Edwin—Edwin Peale Barbeau III—because he had a shock of white hair he had been born with and kept even into his late fifties. White with streaks of blond and eyes as blue as ocean so that women just naturally gravitated toward him and men were wary around him. He didn’t necessarily like the name Cotton, but someone had told him once that one of the founding Puritans up in New England had the same name and so he took it on as a source of pride rather than as a nagging affront. The truth was, he knew he couldn’t pick a fight with everyone who called him that so he just resigned himself to live with it, until finally it grew on him to the point where he began to see the name as a kind of badge of respect and admiration.

Admiration is what Cotton wanted most in life. He had been born short—too short. When there was no longer any chance of him squeaking out another quarter of an inch at the age of twenty-one, he was five-feet four inches tall—give or take an inch. What with the almost white hair and his diminished height, he felt himself as a target from grade school on into manhood. So admiration was something he had to work at, fight for, do whatever it took.

And anyone he would have confided in—which he never would do, not in a million years—would have asked the logical question then of why he felt himself lucky. Well, that was easy: targets are noticed and concentrated on. Plus the fact that he was always thinking ahead of the other guy and he was given four strapping sons all of whom were over six feet in height. Not that height had been much of a problem for him. Cotton Barbeau could be one nasty son-of-a-bitch and many a bigger man than he ever would be had found out the hard way. Cotton Barbeau was no one to fool around with. That was the word that was told around, and those who didn’t know found out one way or the other. He was like one of those wolverines the grizzlies and even men with guns will avoid rather than tangle with. Put your mind to it, there isn’t anything you can’t do or accomplish, he said to his sons like some mantra a Buddhist monk would chant every night in his solitary cell. Man thinks he can ridicule you or make you look like a failure because of your size or what he sees as a weakness in you, make him understand in a hard way he’s wrong, he always said to them.

And his boys were what he felt luckiest about. Maybe that and the farm his wife was given by her old man when he passed away. But without the boys to help run it—when it was still a working farm, and he made sure that wasn’t too long—he couldn’t have done what he always had wanted to do. Four boys all over six foot and all wanting to please him as if he were a damn sheik. He was always with them from the day they had come out of Margie, his head nearly pushing the doctor out of the way at each event just to be certain they had the right equipment. Another one Doc, by god, which makes four and there isn’t one damn need to push our luck so you may as well tie old Margie up. She done her work and you can’t ask for anymore than that.

Four strapping, blond-haired boys, their eyes just the same as Cotton’s: as deep blue as sky and like him each with a slight touch of madness so that men looked away and women drew nearer to see what was inside, beyond that blue. Everyone of those boys following him around so that if he didn’t watch his step they would have gotten squashed just like the small kittens sometimes do when they get under the cow’s hooves at milking time. That was just the way he liked it though, telling them as they all did chores together all that he knew and thought he knew, all of them nodding in response the way the zealots do on Sundays. Edwin, Mathew (after the father-in-law), Curtis and Jacob, every one of them white-headed. Mathew was probably partial to his mother, but Cotton wouldn’t have noticed. He was blind to anything that didn’t fit into his own view of what he wanted.

Lucky too, because he predicted what a lot of the farmers never saw coming. He knew they was going to be pushed out by taxes and bad milk prices, so instead of buying new tractors like so many of them did, mortgaging half their farms for tractors that would set in the barn most of the year and had air conditioning and radios and cost more than their barns and cattle, he scooted them smooth talking salesman right off the property. He and his boys would laugh at the supper table about how they hurried back in their black cars not even looking to see what was behind them as they slammed in reverse. Not Cotton, he limped along with his Farmall Super M—the best tractor made he told his boys—a Farmall H, two John Deere C’s, and a Massey Furgeson. Instead, he went nearer to the city and quietly bought two big dump trucks and a backhoe and a bulldozer and hid them in the machine shed.

His four boys didn’t even bat an eye when he come up the first night with the backhoe on a rented trailer, the old purple, flatbed International one-ton truck hauling it, likely as not that old truck never having been outside the machine shed when stars were out anymore than an owl comes down into the barn at daytime. They just stood around it their hands in their pockets watching as Cotton unchained that brand new backhoe, backed down the trailer, and put it inside the machine shed next to the corn picker. Once he came out of the cab and made his way down to the oil-soaked floor of the shed, he turned both his hands palm upward and outstretched his arms, bent his knees and pulled his hands in like the football coach does when he wants his team to gather round. All four boys crowded around Cotton.

“Boys,” he said, “this here is the first installment in what will soon become known as Barbeau and Sons Construction.”

His prediction came true, and by the end of the seventies, there were only about fifty working dairy farms in the whole county. The roads were expanding, schools were growing, shopping malls and strip malls were replacing fields of corn, rye and wheat. Just as Cotton had predicted, the farmers were being pushed to sell by high taxes and low milk prices. There was an added burden to the dairy farmer that even Cotton hadn’t predicted even though he would have said he knew it was coming even if he hadn’t put it to words, and that was that the young boys in farm families didn’t want to work seven days a week, milking every morning at five and every evening at the same time. Seven days a week and smelling like cow shit no matter how many showers you took after work. City girls who were transplanted by their skittish fathers after the blacks rioted in Newark in the sixties who had come out to live where blacks weren’t welcome. Italian and Irish and Slavic girls who laughed at the farm boys who soaked themselves with aftershave and still had the white above their hat line. Laughed at them because they were farm boys who looked down at their shoes when they were spoken to and had rough, calloused hands that hurt when placed against their soft, city skin. Cotton said to himself that his boys, if he had kept the farm running would have worked along side him just like they always had done. But by 1975, Cotton had sold his seventy-two Holstein cows, the truck coming one morning and Margie refusing to leave the house for three days after they were herded into trailer cars, the old ones going for slaughter and the young ones bought from a dairy farmer in South Jersey. His boys were in high school then, Edwin a senior and Jacob a freshman. All of them were wrestlers: the Barbeau boys as people would call them once they began to win state titles.

By then Cotton had expanded his construction business so that he had to hire men outside of his own boys. They were in school and what with wrestling practice and tournaments, they only could help on weekends and in the summer anyway. But if they were going to wrestle, Cotton said often, they were going to be the best. Jacob’s first tournament as a freshman was at Del Val, and he lost to a farm boy in the final minute. Got pinned in the final minute. Cotton and the boys piled into the truck after the tournament was over, but Jacob had to run in front of the truck all the way to their farm. Thirteen point three miles and Jacob Barbeau had to run all the way, the headlights of the truck as a guide. No son of mine is going to get pinned in the final minute of a tournament by a Del Val farm boy. No Barbeau loses without remembering it for a long time after.

Of course the story got around so that the Barbeau boys as wrestlers even got more famous, and of course there were those who disapproved of the Draconian measures. No one ever said a word to Cotton. Not one single person said a word. And Jacob never got pinned again in high school, going on to be the state champion in the 178 pound weight class. There were those, especially those that saw the world getting a little off center what with drugs and sex and rock and roll, that nodded their approval of Cotton’s actions and pointed to the results to justify why they were right. The world was getting bad when a parent couldn’t any longer discipline his children to make them better people. No wonder the world was going haywire when the damn government could pry into your own personal business and actually take your children away if they seen that you were spanking them. Whatever happened to spare the rod, spoil the child?

But Cotton Barbeau didn’t listen to anyone anyway. He did what he thought was right and usually he was right. Just look at the way he hid away that construction equipment and then sold his farm cattle and machinery at the right time. Look how his sons had turned out. Sure, Mathew was a little strange, a little too girlish, but he was a hell of a wrestler and he worked just like the rest of them boys. He was just a momma’s boy is all. But Cotton was the only ex-farmer they knew who kept all his land—well, Margie Hordych’s land if you were going to be technical—and was one of the most successful men in the county. The only one that joined the local country club and ate maybe twice or three times a week at the Clinton House, hauling Margie and all four boys in there where it happened that they actually had their own special table. Cotton always eyeing the waitress and telling her how pretty she was and making her blush, even lavish with his tips so that most of the waitresses fought to get his table when he entered. The boys grinning at their old man and how he was so relaxed around pretty girls and so easy with his words and compliments. And the most important people in the area would come up to the table and say hello, lawyers, Realtors—who were rapidly becoming as important as lawyers—doctors, and business men, all walking up and shaking hands with Cotton Barbeau and Margie and even shaking hands with each of the boys, the Barbeau boys, the state title wrestlers.

When Edwin—also known as Cotton Junior—got married, Cotton built a large addition onto what was already a rambling and rather roomy farmhouse. The addition had its own kitchen and bedrooms and it was sizable enough to start a family which is exactly what Cotton Junior intended to do. There was no sense living anywhere but on the farm anyway. He worked with the old man every day and he might just as well live next to him too. Cotton Junior and his wife Laurie had two boys—both blond-haired like their parents—and Cotton couldn’t have been more pleased.

Mathew didn’t follow the others though. He told his parents he wanted to move away for a while. He wanted to go out west, maybe California, and see what was up out there. His father didn’t understand why he would want to do that. There was no point in it, he said. “Hell, Matt, you’re just gonna come back and join the rest of the crew in the end. Why waste your time going out there. There ain’t nothing out there but sissies and hippies anyway.” But Mathew was determined to go anyway. He had saved his money and bought a good pick-up, and he loaded up clothes and other things he held dear, and drove out of the driveway. Mathew, or Cotton either, didn’t know then that they would never see each other ever again.

The other boys though, Curtis and Jacob, followed in the footsteps of their older brother. They too had an addition built on to the Barbeau estate, as they now called it, and they too started their own families. By the time the 1990’s rolled around, Cotton and Margie Barbeau had eight grandchildren, all of them boys and all of them with the same hair and same eyes as their grandfather. Barbeau boys. And people would shake their heads when they thought of the Barbeau family. They were one of a kind. All of them living at home and all of them working together and damn near sleeping together too. Of course they would never say that to a Barbeau, not if they wanted to eat the regular way and not through a straw. All of them boys except of course Mathew. He was always the strange one, going out to California somewhere and never really calling or writing. Somewhere in Southern California was the suspicion, and people talked that he was always the odd one of the Barbeaus—they were all odd of course, but Mathew was the oddest—and they even hinted around that maybe he was gay. That was the talk, but none of that would ever reach the ear of a Barbeau, not even a murmur of it.

The business prospered too, Barbeau and Sons Construction Company. Cotton was a talker and he realized that the more time he spent in The Clinton House, the more business connections he made and the more business he acquired. Not only that, but he could rely on his sons to take care of the actual construction end of the business. He spent most of his time looking at jobs and giving quotes. He was good at that because he knew just how much to charge in order to make a good profit and to undercut his competition. You’re not gonna be a millionaire doing one job. You have to take away the competition and then the money will start rolling in. McDonald’s waited to beat out all the other small guys and then they started charging what they wanted.

He and his boys would sit inside the old machine shed at night and drink beer and talk business. His boys would tell him what had gone on when they did a job, what workers were pulling their share and which weren’t, and Cotton would pontificate about how to make profit and how to expand. No one was ever allowed inside that machine shed if he wasn’t a Barbeau. They had had many men who worked for them who had given them complete loyalty, but only Barbeaus ever discussed the business of the family. Cotton knew he could control the business as long as his sons were not influenced by outside people, and he knew that like when they were children, they would do whatever he said.

He also knew that if they were aware that he was seeing a few women on the side, he would lose their trust. He was very discreet about that part, and always chose women he knew wouldn’t talk. He had his first affair with a cute waitress at The Clinton House. One night, when he had been drinking for most of the afternoon and had started to leave when no one was any longer at the bar, the cute brunette, the one he always thought had a cute face and nice legs, stopped him as he was putting on his coat. “You’re not driving home in your condition, are you Mr. Barbeau?”

At first he bristled at the question. He didn’t like when people told him anything different from what he wanted to do. But she had such a bright smile and such a pretty face, that he realized her question was inspired by concern.

“I’m not if you’re taking me,” he said, happy with his own clever reply.

“If you just wait until I clear my stations, I’ll be happy to do that. I don’t want you getting stopped by the cops.” She smiled brightly and he sat at the end of the bar and waited for her. They went to her place and she finally dropped him off at his car at four in the morning. But that particular affair only lasted a few months. She was too young and spent a good deal of her time complaining about how she was strapped financially. Cotton wasn’t anyone’s sugar daddy. His ego wouldn’t allow him to actually speak the words that he already had considered was the truth of why she had taken him home to her place that night, but he sure as hell wasn’t anyone’s sugar daddy. Not by a long shot.

Barbeau and Sons Construction just got bigger and bigger. Cotton Barbeau went on having his surreptitious affairs, he made certain no one ever found out, certainly not his sons, and the company prospered and expanded. And it was one day and Cotton was driving back from a job site where he and Cotton Junior had gotten into something like a shouting match—which they had a tendency to do more often, now that Cotton Junior was taking more and more control of the daily operations of the company—that Cotton pulled over to the side of the road and looked over at a meadow that had the distinct red flags of a recent perk-test and survey completed. He was surprised to see that this meadow was up for sale, because it was attached to a farm he had always thought would stay farmland. He knew the farm family, the Jacobsens, and he knew how intractable they had been to the creep of progress, of new houses and strip malls and widened roads. Now it was clear to Cotton that this land, this particular meadow was going to be developed also, and he felt a sudden sadness.

Not that Cotton Barbeau normally had introspective moments like this. He didn’t have time for such nonsense. He was a go-getter, a man of action. He had new cars and good, hardworking sons, he had grandchildren and a pretty mistress. He had a good wife who loved him and all his children and grandchildren. A god-fearing woman who sang in the choir on Sunday and made their house comfortable and domestic. He had everything a man could want. But on this particular bright and sun-filled morning, he didn’t feel like all was right. He tried to shake off the feeling—a feeling he couldn’t explain and had never experienced before—of some deep and profound despair. He wouldn’t have described it that way though; perhaps he wasn’t even familiar with the word. He didn’t read novels and he only read the local paper and watched CNN sporadically. Anyway, none of those sources would use the word either. But if he had known the word, that would have been the word he would have used to describe his emotion that particular cool and sun-drenched morning as he sat on the side of the road and looked out at the meadow he had passed perhaps a thousand times in his fifty-some-odd years and now couldn’t tear his eyes from. The small red flags whipped in the wind like single leaves on an anemic and single-branched tree. And he couldn’t escape the feeling of despair that lay in the pit of his stomach and in the hollow of his chest. He was going to die one day soon, he suddenly thought. All he had ever done and thought and was sure about suddenly gave him a hollow and empty feeling.

What the hell was going on in Cotton Barbeau’s head? He was a man of action, a man that didn’t take time to think about the silly things that many people spent their time thinking about. He went to church all right, but that was mostly because of Margie and what people who were influential would say if he didn’t. He never actually listened to the words or heard the songs he sung, his voice echoing in his brain. All of that was for show and didn’t mean a damn thing to a man like Cotton Barbeau. He didn’t have time for that shit.

Now though, looking out at the field, a field he had always thought of as there like the moles on Margie’s back was there, he couldn’t tear himself away from the feeling of sadness that marched through his brain and his chest. Despair. Cotton Barbeau full of despair. And what was more, he couldn’t make his hand put his Lincoln Town Car in drive. Couldn’t. And it was a long time before he finally was able to leave the view of that field. He wondered if he would ever have that feeling again. The feeling was as powerful as the first time he had ejaculated as a boy. He couldn’t pull away from the power of it for days afterward. And like that deep feeling of despair, a feeling as strong and powerful as any he had ever felt, he had another feeling that crept up on the other one, came right after it like cars that come up over the rise just after another one starts it descent and here is what that feeling was: he was certain he would never be the same again and the power of that feeling made actual tears roll down his face and drip onto his starched-white shirt. Cotton Barbeau crying, ain’t that a kick in the ass?


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.