Praedial Larceny

Wayne McCray

Story image for Praedial Larceny by

I t is a humid Saturday. Mzimu Tennison has been in motion since before daylight. Now at his third stop, a backroad somewhere in Isola, Mississippi. He unloads two yellow wheelbarrows and several shovels off the bed of his spaceship silver, mud-caked, 2018 Limited 4WD Super Duty F-450 pick-up. The tools get placed behind the seven large grain bins. His task now done, he jumps back into his truck and maneuvers around mounds of crushed gravel, then motors down a winding unpaved road, kicking up brownish-red dust while passing endless fields of soybeans.

Mzimu soon reaches 49-West. His heavy foot rarely lifts up or off the gas pedal for the brake, unless necessary. Cosmic jungle music blasts through lowered windows while he ignores the posted speed limit. Behind the steering wheel, his head bounces with the beat. He finally turns left onto State Highway 3, a narrow, two-lane blacktop which goes straight through the Township of Moorhead and past Mississippi Delta Community College. His road view isn’t much to look at – simply an extensive, dull, and flat landscape unless one includes the occasional cluster of small forests in the distance.

The straightaway soon becomes a bend and there the town of Moorhead and the junior college appear, ending all the landscape monotony. It is a beautiful but small campus, with a green stretch of road graced by rows of historical street lamps and a succession of old and new red brick buildings – some more elaborate than the others – lined with colorful flowers, pecan trees, and magnolias. Since it is the weekend, the sidewalks lack the usual foot traffic. It doesn’t take long for him to cruise through the campus and across the railroad tracks marking the boundary.

Mzumi rolls up to the town’s only traffic light. He looks right and notices a beat-up, rust-colored Toyota pick-up truck parked roadside in a vacant grass lot, watermelons on the tailgate. One of them lays split open, seedless, glowing bright red. Alongside it is seated a black couple in lawn chairs underneath a small patio tent, the woman working a church fan hard. Before them, two long foldable tables with a variety of garden vegetables neatly laid out.

Something about it and them doesn’t feel right; so much so, his gut tightens.

Mzumi doesn’t stop, but slows; he looks upon them and their set-up and contemplates doubling-back to go confront them; the Double Quick (a Mississippi version of Circle-K) parking lot is right there. Instead, he decides against his intuition and keeps going. Why waste his words?

US Highway 82 is up ahead and his dashboard clock reads 8:03 am, so he makes a quick stop at the Dollar General. Inside, Mzumi is surprised. Unlike the others, this store isn’t in utter shambles. Merchandise isn’t blocking or laying in the middle of the aisles. The place looks professional, clean, and orderly. Maybe, this is what it is supposed to look like before shoppers run in and out of it. He crouches and grabs a yellow handbasket and begins shopping for junk food.

A short and plainly-built brown girl comes in, resting a fairly fat baby on her left hip, and starts talking freely with the cashier – likely a friend. The young mother’s free arm moves about emphatically, cell phone in hand. Mzumi, at first, believes she is an upset migrant farm worker, based on her speech, the bandana headwrap, dirty hoodie front and denim jeans from all the constant hand brushing. The dirt stains even appear on her child, her backside, both knees, and shoes.

“Anna Marie!” says the cashier, taking a deep whiff. “Girl? You smell like you look and what is that child chewing on?”

“A piece of cucumber.”

“Cucumber? You don’t have nookie?”

“I lost it somewhere on this farm, picking vegetables,” Anna Marie replies. “I tried looking for it, but it was too dark.”

“Picking vegetables?” says the cashier. “For money?”

“No! Even though I could use some. Girl, don’t you know? Grocery prices have gone through the roof and food stamps don’t buy as much anymore. I mean, it’s bad out here.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“And you know I ain’t lying. Have you been to the County Market, Shoppers Value, or Wal-Mart lately?”

“I know, I know.”

Shortly thereafter, he is standing in line. Both women continue to chat about high grocery prices and being black and broke. They talk around Mzumi until the cashier finally pauses their discussion so she can perform her actual job. Anna Marie steps aside, readjusting her hip-cradled baby. Mzumi comes forward and pays for his Haribo gummy worms, Gatorade, Hershey chocolate bars, Jack Links’ beef jerky, and NTense energy drinks. All the while, the child is fixated on him, her brown eyes bright and wide with owl curiosity. Mzumi smiles back then collects his bagged items.

“Thank you,” he says. “You ladies take care.”

“You too,” says the cashier.

“I’m trying,” says Anna Marie, readjusting the baby again.

The sliding doors open and Mzumi exits.

Heading back to his pick-up, he takes a peek inside the young mother’s car – the only one in the lot besides his – and there in the back beside the baby’s car seat sit four grocery bags, full of vegetables.

Orbit-sml ><

E arlier, back at the patio tent another conversation starts.

Willie Mae: “Was that who I think it was?”

“Yep, that was him,” says Edgar.

“What is he doing over here?”

“They say the man manages another man’s farms.”

“I don’t care about that,” she says. “But did you see what he did?”

“What’d he do? I didn’t see anything.”

“Blind as always,” she says. “God wasted his sight on you.”

“That ain’t what you said,” he says.

“So they worked on that day,” she says. “What about now?”

“I’m not studying him,” Edgar says. “None whatsoever.”

“He might come back and say something.”

“And so what if he does, then what?” He says, “He can’t do anything. Nothing. Not a goddamn thing, okay.”

Right then, a clean white Mercedes G 550 SUV rolls up and captures their attention. The driver’s side door opens and a broad-butt, big Afro, dark skin girl steps out in her blue and white sorority colors. She strides towards them, hips swinging fluidly, eyes on what they have on display.

“Good morning,” she says.

“Morning,” they both reply.

Willie Mae is a short, plum-face, heavy-set woman, who now sits up and begins looking at the girl up and down.

“You look like somebody I know. Where’re you from?” she asks.

“Itta Bena.”

“Are you one of Jessup Wilbur’s daughters?” Wille Mae asks. “You kind of favor him.”

“Yes ma’am. That’s my daddy,” she replies. “I’m the oldest.”

“The one that went away. Sarah, right?” says Willie Mae.

“Yes ma’am.”

“You look just like him. How is he? I hadn’t seen him for a while.”

“He’s fine,” says Sarah. “Just getting old and as stubborn as ever.”

“That’s him, alright,” says Edgar. “Now Willie, let that girl shop.”

Sarah shops, but their conversation continues. They talk about things which didn’t concern them, about their peoples, Mississippi in general, and whether she misses home and prefers Louisiana. Sarah gives them a sort of smile along with respectful answers; but finally, after much friendship and giving the items more than the adequate sniff and eye-ball test, she gets to the point: “Is it my imagination they look and smell so fresh?”

“Not at all. Straight from the earth,” says Edgar, a skinny, sun-darkened man with striking features. His face is so narrow and long his wide nose dominates it. “Hand pick them this morning.”

“I can still feel the dirt,” Sarah says. “So how much for the bunches of turnip and mustard greens?”

Edgar gives a nice price.

“And the okra?” she asks.

Satisfied, she opens and reaches into her purse and money exchanges hands. Willie Mae puts the church fan in her opposite, reaches down into a green reusable tote bag, and hands her husband a few old and wrinkled plastic grocery bags. Edgar baggages Sarah’s produce. Turnips go into one, mustards in another two, as well as the prepackaged bags of purple and green okra.

“Those watermelons over there, they look sweet.”

“Thump certified,” says Edgar.

“I’ll take one.”

Edgar grabs the prettiest and biggest, then takes hold of all the bags, and follows her to the car. She presses the key remote which pops open the rear door and there he carefully loads them beside her luggage and other foods and items likely gathered from her visit. She thanks him and closes the rear door.

“I’ll let my daddy know we met and how you asked about him,” says Sarah. “And next time I am in town, I’ll let you know how my greens turn out.”

“You do that,” he says. “I still suggest smoked pigtails or ham hocks for your flavoring?”

“I know, but I prefer smoked turkey-necks,” she replies. “Less fat.”

“I never ate them like that,” Edgar replies.

“It’s healthier,” she says.

“To each his own.”

Edgar walks away and watches her slowly drive off. The black girl honks and waves goodbye through the window, driving toward the Junior College, and back to the State of Louisiana. He sees her personalized plate – Z WMN – then returns to his set-up and straightens his produce on both tables after a thorough inspection.

“Nice young lady,” says Willie Mae. “From good people.”

“Yeah, she is,” Edgar replies, now sitting down in his lawn chair. “But I don’t know about putting smoked turkey necks in greens.”

“Everybody ain’t high on the hog like you.”

“That’s because they don’t know what they’re missing.”

Willie Mae shakes her head, then uses the lull to pivot back to their earlier discussion. “That again,” says Edgar, crossing his legs, and lighting a cigar. After a few puffs and exhales, he eventually speaks his mind, ending the one-sided dialogue. “Alright already. So what’s he going to do, huh?”

“He might go home.”

“You said that already, but I doubt it. Not him and besides, that church group won’t show up for another hour or two. They got time.”

“That’s what you say, but you didn’t see him read us.”

“You’re looking to much into nothing,” says Edgar. “But, hey, if you want to call them, call them.”

“Don’t get uppity with me,” says Willie Mae. “The man saw us and I just got this feeling he ain’t going to let it pass.”

“If it’ll make you feel better,” says Edgar, “then call them. Just know we won’t have as much to sell to folks if you do that.”

Willie Mae dials out and a voice answers on the other end. She tells her son they better get-gone and do it now. “Just do what I say,” she says. “Take whatever you’ve picked and get out.” She hangs up and drops the phone in her lap, frustrated by the stubbornness coming from her eldest child.

“I swear woman, you’re so damn scary,” says Edgar. “That’s what you is – scary.”

“Shut up and do what you do best.”

Orbit-sml ><

E xtraterrestrial funk blasts. Mzimu is back behind the steering wheel, chewing on gummy worms. His open power drink in the cup holder. He speeds down US Highway 82. Already several miles east of Moorhead, somewhere in Leflore County, he turns onto another county dirt road and arrives at another collection of grain bins.

Mzumi parks next to a white Ford F-150 extra-cab pick-up truck, as dirty as his. He observes the propane man on the premises, refilling four huge gas tanks, so he lifts his arm and whistles. The truck driver takes off his baseball cap and waves it. Mzumi looks upward. There, he finds his crew atop of the grain bin, hard at work. He strides to and up the spiral staircase and across the lengthy catwalk until he reaches them and there hands each guy a bottle of Gatorade and his favorite junk food from the bag.

“Thanks Bwana,” says Embian.

“Same here,” says Hendrik. “And good morning.”

“That’s what’s up, Ghost,” says Johannes.

Mzimu isn’t overly fond of the description, but accepts it. Many know him as the whitest white man who isn’t a white man. A brawny fellow with skin drained of color, thick pink lips, broad nose, reddish-blond hair, and sharp hazel eyes. The given nickname coincides with the arrival of these South Africans, Afrikaners familiar with his kind. Several years back, Pennybaker Farms, the mom and pop farm he works for, used the H-2A visa program to hire them to come to the Deep South to do the seasonal farm work for eight to ten months, labor once done by local black Mississippi farmers and field hands across the Delta. And when these coevals first meet Mzumi, Johannes, now a longstanding migrant worker, said what the rest thought and called him Ghostface, and it stuck.

“Any problems with the dryer?” asks Mzimu.

“None,” replies Johannes. “None whatsoever.”

“How about the seals?”

“Nice and tight,” says Embian.

“I figure in another two months, give or take,” says Hendrik, “these soybeans should be dried and ready for the market.”

“Good,” says Mzumi.

As the day brightens, the humidity thickens, and sunlight bounces off the silo’s dome. Mzumi dons a pair of cheap sunglasses to protect his vision. He further informs them of the tools left at the Isola grain bin facility and the work required there. “Tomorrow, you two take the backhoe from the shop and use it to spread out the crushed gravel. Firm up and level as much of the ground as possible.”

“And the loading dock?” Hendrik asks.

“It too,” says Mzumi.

From up high, they take a moment to enjoy their cheap breakfast and look out on the carved-up landscape, irregular in pattern and shades of brown and green, but meant for agriculture. In the distance, Hendrik’s sharp eyes spot a two-vehicle caravan. A strange sighting since this less driven backroad is used mainly by farmers. To see non-farm equipment on it begs questions. Soon both vehicles cross the railroad tracks, and as they near their make and model become evident. The lead one is a discolored police-auction Crown Victoria, full of passengers. The other, behind it, an old Chevy C-10 pick-up truck. A black woman looks up through the passenger window and points at the grain bin. They suddenly sped up. Mzumi notices this, including their haul: what looks like a truckload of watermelons.

“Sonofabitches,” says Mzumi.

He immediately thinks about the girl holding her baby. She picked just enough for a week’s worth of dinners. Although displeased, he applauded her decency. Not that black couple though. Nor these folks in the two-car caravan. Theft is underway, but he wants to know for certain, because if true, it must come to an end by any means.

“Bwana, what’s up?”

“I got to go,” says Mzumi. “Just finish up here. I need to go look into something.”

Mzumi leaves fast. He hurries back across the catwalk, bounds down the spiral staircase, then gets into his truck and hauls ass. The South Africans look on with awe, their eyes alive yet confused, but quite impressed by his agility, particularly at how fast he descended from grain bin roof to truck to driving across the railroad tracks. What they don’t know is Mzumi’s home isn’t far, not for the country, only minutes away, located somewhere near Berclair, a fertile-rich township with two stop signs and a population of 1629.

He doesn’t slow down even with the threat of skidding out of control. Rocks and dust fly everywhere. Occasionally, an insect meets its demise on the dusty windshield, leaving behind a mucus splat. And soon, up ahead, amorphous shapes become solid forms. Unfamiliar cars line the gravel road in front of his 11-acre garden. A garden he set-up this year at the behest of the Catholic Church and their Feed the People program. Mzumi slams on the brake so hard it turns the truck sideways.

“Look at these motherfuckers,” he says, jumping out, music still booming and dust floating around him. “They’re in it like it’s theirs.”

Scattered throughout his garden, uninvited bodies. Some stand and look up, and come forward, but others don’t. Those who show up, black men and women alike, of varying ages, plead with him. To convince him to let them keep what they picked along with promises they will never return. Mzumi refuses. He tells them to unload it all and to go and go quickly, which they do. And not being gun-shy, he retrieves his handgun and fires it skyward: “Everybody out!”

He pulls the trigger again, again, and again. Gunshots send the remaining black folks scrambling as fast as possible for their cars. He flashes his weapon often, making sure they depart empty-handed and until they all clear out. He then walks sections of his garden and takes inventory. Everywhere he looks, he finds trampled rows and theft left undone. Plastic laundry baskets and five-gallon buckets sit full of red onions, mustard and turnip greens, hot peppers, carrots, okra, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, peanuts, and beans. Nearly every watermelon is gone.

Epithets flow of the foulest kind. Mzumi curses all the way back to his truck. And when he gets there, coming at him is a white passenger van. Close behind it, an old orange 1970 Dodge truck with a long trailer in tow, hauling a bunch of tied down large blue Coleman ice coolers. He glances at his watch and sees the time.

Two nuns exit the drivers’ side, Sister Rita and Sister Donald, and a diverse color of latinas follow them. Parishioners dressed in varying kinds of long-sleeve tops, their faces hidden by scarves except for the eyes, in denim jeans, galoshes, donning various brim headwear, and all wearing some kind of Camelbak. Yellow and blue rubber gloves hold black picking buckets. They come every four days to pick crops from his flourishing garden. As long as they provide him a bushel, the church kitchen keeps the rest. A bargain beneficial for them both, until now.

“Mr. Tennison,” says Sister Rita. “I didn’t expect to see you out here.”

“Me neither,” says Mzumi.

“Is something wrong?” asks Sister Donald, alarmed at the sight of a fisted handgun and looking at the baskets and buckets lying in the road.

“Kind of,” he says. “I ran off a bunch of low-life niggers.”

“Oh my Lord,” replies Sister Donald.

“I’ll notify the sheriff,” says Sister Rita, reaching for her phone.

“Don’t bother,” says Mzumi. “I got something else in mind.”

“I pray it doesn’t require a gun, does it?” asks Sister Donald.

“It won’t,” he replies.

Nonetheless, Sister Donald and Rita’s eyes never avert from his left hand. To allay their discomfort, Mzumi puts his handgun on the front seat. The truck is shut off and door locked.

“Hold up,” he says, calling for the ladies before they spread out and go into particular sections of his garden. “Ladies! You can take these, they’re yours,” pointing out what is in the road. “Also, any stray basket or bucket you find out there, please bring them with you, okay? Because after today, don’t bother coming back. So I suggest you pick as much as possible for as long as possible.”

Sister Donald says: “What? Why do you say that?”

“I can’t stand nigger-shit,” says Mzumi. “And this is what this is. It makes me wonder how long they’ve been at it.”

“Okay,” says Sister Rita. “Yes. Theft is bad, but it isn’t the worst sin. Maybe they’re hungry and desperate.”

“Hungry? Desperate? C’mon now, don’t be naive,” says Mzumi. “I know what that looks like and that’s not it. Greed is what I chased off, fucking greed, plain and simple.”

“Language,” says Sister Rita, “language.”

“Damn that and damn them,” says Mzumi. “But I got something for their black asses.”

“That doesn’t sound very Christian,” says Sister Donald.

“It sure doesn’t,” says Sister Rita.

“I got the devil in me now,” says Mzumi. “My mind is made up.”

“I think you should reconsider, whatever it is,” says Sister Rita.

“I suggest you ladies get after it,” says Mzumi. “Pick as much as you can.”

Albeit displeased and after much debate, they all go off into his garden and start picking. So for the next several hours, twelve latinas pick non-stop, as fast and as much as possible. Meanwhile, both Sisters and two other latinas stay roadside. They collect, carry, and dump bucket after bucket of vegetables into blue ice coolers capable of holding at least two bushels of produce. And today, they must try and fill up all twenty four coolers. Something they haven’t done since the first day, almost two months ago.

With the ladies in the field, Mzumi drives off to his open-front barn shed. There, he climbs into one of his John Deere tractors, cranks it, and then attaches its chisel plow. Pretty soon, the green monster is parked where the garden and gravel road meets. Its appearance attracts many eyes. He climbs out and sits on its rooftop. And while time slips into the past, he thinks about what it took to make this garden possible and to turn it into a charitable donation. He also makes some calls, informs Pennybaker Farms and his South African crew on why he is taking the remainder of the day off, and receives their pity and outright disgust.

Hours later, at three o’clock, a reedy whistle blows and a nun yells, “Quitting time, ladies.”

It is hotter and more humid than earlier. Sweaty, exhausted, and dirty, latinas rise up and come out of the garden. They emerge one by one, buckets in both hands, a slow procession toward the passenger van and truck. There they unload what they have. Insofar, until there isn’t any more room left. A conversation ensues on what to do with the extras buckets, and Sister Donald suggests sitting them on their laps.

Right then, Mzumi rides up in his John Deere and climbs down. He looks at their fatigued faces and asks, “Did you get it all?”

“As much as we could, Mr. Tennison,” says Sister Donald.


“So that’s what you’re going to do, huh?”


“I still don’t agree,” says Sister Donald. “This is going to hurt so many people, including the Church.”

Mzumi doesn’t care. His mind is made up. He tells them they better double check their straps, which they do. The nuns and latinas file back into their vehicles, saddened by the current situation. Mzumi watches them drive down the dirt road until they disappear.

“It’s for the best,” he says to himself, then climbs back into his tractor and begins chopping up the entire garden. From one end to the other, north and south, east and west, multiple times, turning over the earth until it is thoroughly plowed under.

And when done, perfectly fresh fruits and vegetables are buried in the soil. The garden is ruined. Mzumi makes sure. Produce is strewn all over, smashed and cut up. The gravel road is colored in red, green, and yellow skin and white flesh.

The air and dug up earth give off a strong sweet fragrance. But in time, the food will decompose. A rotten stench will follow. Mosquitoes, flies, wildlife, and stray animals will come. “Let them feast,” he says aloud. He rather them than those thieving lowlifes.

Even though the idea of destroying so much food hurts, it’s necessary. Inches given become miles. Sure, many will be upset. Some might point fingers and assign blame. Mzumi doesn’t give a fuck. “Talk to the greedy,” he will say. “Don’t ask me.”

He then drives his tractor back to the shop.

Along the way, he starts singing.


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Wayne McCray

Author image of Wayne McCray Wayne McCray is a Pushcart Prize nominee for 2022 and 2024, and a 2023 Best of the Net nominee. His short atories have appeared in Susurrus, The Hooghly Review, Afro Literary Magazine, Bandit Fiction, The Bookends Review, Chitro Magazine, The Dillydoun Review, Drunk Monkeys, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Ilinix Magazine, Isele Magazine, Malarkey Books, The Ocotillo Review, Ogma Magazine, Pigeon Review, Roi Faineant, The Rush Magazine, Sangam Literary Magazine, Swim Press, and Wingless Dreamer. He works diligently from his book-laden junk room.

© Wayne McCray 2023 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: Andre Hunter and AndreyC.

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