Clutching the shiny quarter in the palm of my hand, I stared at the rows of candy at the corner store. A whole quarter was a fortune to me in the fifties. My family was poor, and sugary treats were rare in our house. We seldom had soda pop, candy, potato chips, ice cream or other things my friends took for granted.
That quarter was special because I had earned it. Times were hard, and the construction industry my dad worked in was slow. My parents were resourceful and hardworking, supplementing our income by whatever means available. That meant working in seasonal crops, and traveling out of state if necessary.
Working in the local cotton fields wasn’t unusual for my parents. If any of us kids chose to go along, we were expected to work. The good thing was we could keep whatever we earned.
Picking cotton was my least favorite of my parents’ money-earning endeavors. Dragging a heavy canvas bag while the scorching sun beat unmercifully on your back, and cotton bolls with their hard, prickly edges cutting your hands and fingers, was not my idea of a fun summer day. However, having a shiny quarter to buy sugary treats was.
While my parents had canvas bags designed for picking cotton, I got to fill a gunny sack. Once full, the cotton sack was weighed and we were paid accordingly. By the time I picked enough to earn a quarter, I was done, asking the boss man why cotton fields didn’t have shade trees. His laugh wasn’t pleasant sounding.
With my quarter in hand and my friend, Joyce, at my side, I headed for the corner store the minute we got home from the cotton field. Leaning against the counter, I took my time making my choices. My mouth could already taste those sugary treats. A small candy bar was just three cents. Red cherry balls were three for a penny so I got several pennies worth. I used the rest for a bag of potato chips, a Popsicle (with two sticks that could be broken to share with a friend) and a cold eight ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.
I clutched my bag of goodies, giggling with my friend as we made our way out of the store. We found a shade tree to sit under. The first thing to share was the Popsicle because it was starting to melt. I carefully broke it down the center seam and gave one half to Joyce. We slurped and licked, purple rivulets running down our chins, fingers and arms. Never knowing when I might get another quarter, I licked my fingers and arm, the grape sweetness bringing joy to my tongue.
Next was the candy bar and Coke. The chocolate had melted but that was okay. I shared it with Joyce and we laughed as we licked each morsel of chocolate off our fingers. The carbonation in the Coke tickled our nostrils and we giggled when it made us sneeze.
Last, I divided the cherry balls. The outer part was hard and the inside was chewy. I let each one roll around in my mouth and click against my teeth, wanting to savor the sweetness as long as possible.
Once it was all gone, I felt as letdown as a deflated balloon. The excitement and anticipation of spending my quarter was almost as much of a rush as the sugar. Joyce and I trudged slowly home, saying goodbye in the alley that separated our backyards.
Mom was cooking dinner when I went inside. “Are you hungry?” she asked, stirring something on the stove, my baby sister toddling nearby.
“No,” I sighed, still able to taste sweetness in my mouth. Regular food would chase it away.
My brothers were running and screaming, so mom shooed them into the living room. My older brother had also picked cotton, but he was saving money to buy a car. I was sure he’d be picking cotton for a long time.
Dad walked into the kitchen and chuckled. “Wanna pick cotton again?” He must have suspected that I spent my entire quarter?
“Maybe,” I said. Although picking cotton didn’t appeal to me at the moment, my mind raced with images of sugary treats I would buy with my next quarter. For now, I still had my bag of potato chips, and could return the Coke bottle for deposit money, enough to buy a few more cherry balls.
Another shiny quarter would sure be nice, though.
**Fiction based on my actual childhood events.
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