Since we didn't work on Sunday, the house became smaller as my parents and grandparents busied themselves with the few light chores that were permitted. Naps were attempted, then abandoned because of the heat. Occasionally, when the moods were edgy, my parents tossed me in the back of the pickup, and we went for a long drive. There was nothing to see-all the land was flat and covered with cotton. The views were the same as those from our front porch. But it was important to get away.
Not long after Stick left, I was marched into the garden and ordered to haul food. A road trip was in the making. Two cardboard boxes were filled with vegetables. They were so heavy that my father had to place them in the back of the truck. As we drove off, the Spruills were scattered across the front yard in various stages of rest. I didn't want to look at them.
I sat in the back between the boxes of vegetables and watched the dust boil from behind the truck, forming gray clouds that rose quickly and hung over the road in the heavy air before slowly dissipating from the lack of wind. The rain and the mud from the early morning were long forgotten. Everything was hot again: the wooden planks of the truck bed, its rusted and unpainted frame, even the corn and potatoes and tomatoes my mother had just washed. It snowed twice a year in our part of Arkansas, and I longed for a thick, cold blanket of white across our winter fields, cottonless and barren.
The dust finally stopped at the edge of the river, and we crept across the bridge. I stood to see the water below, the thick brown stream barely moving along the banks. There were two cane poles in the back of the truck, and my father had promised we'd fish for a while after the food was delivered.
The Latchers were sharecroppers who lived no more than a mile from our house, but they might as well have been in another county. Their run-down shack was in a bend of the river, with elms and willows touching the roof and cotton growing almost to the front porch. There was no grass around the house, just a ring of dirt where a horde of little Latchers played. I was secretly happy that they lived on the other side of the river. Otherwise, I might have been expected to play with them.
They farmed thirty acres and split the crop with the owner of the land. Half of a little left nothing, and the Latchers were dirt-poor. They had no electricity, no car or truck. Occasionally, Mr. Latcher would walk to our house and ask Pappy for a ride on the next trip to Black Oak.
The trail to their house was barely wide enough for our truck, and when we rolled to a stop, the porch was already filled with dirty little faces. I had once counted seven Latcher kids, but an accurate total was impossible. It was hard to tell the boys from the girls; all had shaggy hair, narrow faces with the same pale blue eyes, and they all wore raggedy clothes.
"A Painted House"
Mrs. Latcher emerged from the decrepit porch, wiping her hands on her apron. She managed to smile at my mother. "Hello, Mrs. Chandler," she said in a soft voice. She was barefoot, and her legs were as skinny as twigs.
"Nice to see you, Darla," my mother said. My father busied himself at the back of the truck, fiddling with the boxes, killing time while the ladies handled the chitchat. We did not expect to see Mr. Latcher. Pride would prevent him from coming forward and accepting food. Let the women take care of it.
As they talked about the harvest and how hot it was, I moved away from the truck, under the watchful eyes of all those kids. I walked to the side of the house, where the tallest boy was loafing in the shade, trying to ignore us. His name was Percy, and he claimed to be twelve, though I had my doubts. He didn't look big enough to be twelve, but since the Latchers didn't go to school, it was impossible to lump him together with boys his own age. He was shirtless and barefoot, his skin a dark bronze from hours in the sun.
"Hi, Percy," I said, but he did not respond. Sharecroppers were funny like that. Sometimes they would speak, other times they just gave you a blank look, as if they wanted you to leave them alone.
I studied their house, a square little box, and wondered once more how so many people could live in such a tiny place. Our tool shed was almost as large. The windows were open, and the torn remains of curtains hung still. There were no screens to keep the flies and mosquitoes out, and certainly no fans to push the air around.
I felt very sorry for them. Gran was fond of quoting the Scriptures: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," and "The poor will always be with you." But it seemed cruel for anyone to live in such conditions. They had no shoes. Their clothes were so old and worn, they were embarrassed to go to town. And because they had no electricity, they couldn't listen to the Cardinals.
Percy had never owned a ball or a glove or a bat, had never played catch with his dad, had never dreamed of beating the Yankees. In fact, he'd probably never dreamed of leaving the cotton patch. That thought was almost overwhelming.
My father produced the first box of vegetables while my mother called out its contents, and the Latcher kids moved onto the front steps, eagerly looking on but still keeping their distance. Percy didn't move; he stared at something in the fields, something neither he nor I could see.
There was a girl in the house. Her name was Libby, age fifteen, the oldest of the brood, and according to the latest rumors in Black Oak, she was pregnant. The father had yet to be named; in fact, the gossip currently held that she was refusing to reveal to anyone, including her parents, the name of the boy who'd gotten her pregnant.
Such gossip was more than Black Oak could stand. War news, a fist-fight, a case of cancer, a car wreck, a new baby on the way from two people lawfully wed-all these events kept the talk flying. A death followed by a good funeral, and the town buzzed for days. An arrest of even the lowliest of citizens was an event to be dissected for weeks. But a fifteen-year-old girl, even a sharecropper's daughter, having an illegitimate baby was something so extraordinary that the town was beside itself. Problem was, the pregnancy had not been confirmed. Only rumored. Since the Latchers never left the farm, it was proving to be quite difficult to nail down the evidence. And since we lived closest to them, it had apparently fallen upon my mother to investigate.
She had enlisted me to help with the verifying. She'd shared some of the gossip with me, and because I'd been watching farm animals breed and reproduce all my life, I knew the basics. But I was still reluctant to get involved. Nor was I completely certain why we had to confirm the pregnancy. It had been talked about so much that the entire town already believed the poor girl was expecting. The big mystery was the identity of the father. "They ain't gonna pin it on me," I'd heard Pappy say at the Co-op, and all the old men roared with laughter.
"How's the cotton?" I asked Percy. Just a couple of real farmers.
"Still out there," he said, nodding at the fields, which began just a few feet away. I turned and stared at their cotton, which looked the same as ours. I was paid $1.60 for every hundred pounds I picked. Sharecropper children were paid nothing.
Then I looked at the house again, at the windows and the curtains and the sagging boards, and I stared into the backyard, where their wash hung on the clothesline. I studied the stretch of dirt that led past their outhouse to the river, and there was no sign of Libby Latcher. They probably had her locked in a room, with Mr. Latcher guarding the door with a shotgun. One day she'd have the baby, and no one would know it. Just another Latcher running around naked.
"My sister ain't here," he said, still lost in the distance. "That's what you're lookin' for."
"A Painted House"
My mouth fell open, and my cheeks got very hot. All I could say was, "What?"
"She ain't here. Now get back to your truck."
My father hauled the rest of the food onto the porch, and I walked away from Percy.
"Did you see her?" my mother whispered as we were leaving. I shook my head.
As we drove away, the Latchers were crawling over and around the two boxes as if they hadn't eaten in a week.
We'd return in a few days with another load of produce in a second attempt to confirm the rumors. As long as they kept Libby hidden, the Latchers would be well fed.
The St. Francis River was fifty feet deep, according to my father, and around the bottom of the bridge pier there were channel catfish that weighed sixty pounds and ate everything that floated within reach. They were large, dirty fish-scavengers that moved only when food was nearby. Some lived for twenty years. According to family legend, Ricky caught one of the monsters when he was thirteen. It weighed forty-four pounds, and when he slit its belly with a cleaning knife, all sorts of debris spilled onto the tailgate of Pappy's truck: a spark plug, a marble, lots of half-eaten minnows and small fish, two pennies, and some suspicious matter that was eventually determined to be human waste.
Gran never fried another catfish. Pappy gave up river food altogether.
With red worms as bait, I fished the shallow backwaters around a sandbar for bream and crappie, two small species that were plentiful and easy to catch. I waded barefoot through the warm, swirling waters and occasionally heard my mother yell, "That's far enough, Luke!" The bank was lined with oaks and willows, and the sun was behind them. My parents sat in the shade, on one of the many quilts the ladies at the church made during the winter, and shared a cantaloupe from our garden.
They talked softly, almost in whispers, and I didn't try to listen, because it was one of the few moments during the picking season when they could be alone. At night, after a day in the fields, sleep came fast and hard, and I rarely heard them talk in bed. They sometimes sat on the porch in the darkness, waiting for the heat to pass, but they weren't really alone.
The river scared me enough to keep me safe. I had not yet learned to swim-I was waiting for Ricky to come home. He had promised to teach me the next summer, when I would be eight. I stayed close to the bank, where the water barely covered my feet.
Drownings were not uncommon, and all my life I'd heard colorful tales of grown men caught in shifting sandbanks and being swept away while entire families watched in horror. Calm waters could somehow turn violent, though I'd never witnessed this myself. The mother of all drownings supposedly took place in the St. Francis, though the exact location varied according to the narrator. A small child was sitting innocently on a sandbar when suddenly it shifted, and the child was surrounded by water and sinking fast. An older sibling saw it happen and dashed into the swirling waters, only to be met with a fierce current that carried him away, too. Next, an even older sibling heard the cries of the first two, and she charged into the river and was waist-deep before she remembered she couldn't swim. Undaunted, she bravely thrashed onward, yelling at the younger two to hold steady, she'd get there somehow. But the sandbar collapsed entirely, sort of like an earthquake, and new currents went in all directions.
The three children were drifting farther and farther away from shore. The mother, who may or may not have been pregnant, and who may or may not have been able to swim, was fixing lunch under a shade tree when she heard the screams of her children. She flung herself into the river, whereupon she, too, was soon in trouble.
The father was fishing off a bridge when he heard the commotion, and rather than waste time running to the shore and entering from that venue, he simply jumped headlong into the St. Francis and broke his neck.
The entire family perished. Some of the bodies were found. Some were not. Some were eaten by the channel cats, and the others were swept out to sea, wherever the sea was. There was no shortage of theories as to what finally happened to the bodies of this poor family, which, oddly, had remained nameless through the decades.
This story was repeated so that kids like myself would appreciate the dangers of the river. Ricky loved to scare me with it, but often got his versions confused. My mother said it was all fiction.
Even Brother Akers managed to weave it through a sermon to illustrate how Satan was always at work spreading misery and heartache around the world. I was awake and listening very closely, and when he left out the part about the broken neck, I figured he was exaggerating, too.
But I was determined not to drown. The fish were biting, small bream that I hooked and threw back. I found a seat on a stump near a lagoon and caught one fish after another. It was almost as much fun as playing baseball. The afternoon passed slowly by, and I was thankful for the solitude. Our farm was crowded with strangers. The fields were waiting with the promise of backbreaking labor. I'd seen a man get killed, and I had somehow gotten myself in the middle of it.
"A Painted House"
The gentle rushing sound of the shallow water was soothing. Why couldn't I just fish all day? Sit by the river in the shade? Anything but pick cotton. I wasn't going to be a farmer. I didn't need the practice.
"Luke," came my father's voice from down the bank. I pulled in the hook and worm, and walked to where they were sitting.
"Yes sir," I said.
"Sit down," he said. "Let's talk."
I sat at the very edge of the quilt, as far from them as possible. They didn't appear to be angry; in fact, my mother's face was pleasant.
But my father's voice was stern enough to worry me. "Why didn't you tell us about the fight?" he asked.
The fight that wouldn't go away.
I wasn't really surprised to hear the question. "I was scared, I guess."
"Scared of what?"
"Scared of gettin' caught behind the Co-op watchin' a fight."
"Because I told you not to, right?" asked my mother.
"Yes ma'am. And I'm sorry."
Watching a fight was not a major act of disobedience, and all three of us knew it. What were boys supposed to do on Saturday afternoon when the town was packed and excitement was high? She smiled because I said I was sorry. I was trying to look as pitiful as possible.
"I'm not too worried about you watchin' a fight," my father said.
"But secrets can get you in trouble. You shoulda told me what you saw."
"I saw a fight. I didn't know Jerry Sisco was gonna die."
My logic stopped him for a moment. Then he said, "Did you tell Stick Powers the truth?"
"Did one of the Siscos pick up the piece of wood first? Or was it Hank Spruill?"
If I told the truth, then I would be admitting that I had lied in my earlier version. Tell the truth or tell a lie, that was the question that always remained. I decided to try to blur things a bit. "Well, to be honest, Dad, things happened so fast. There were bodies fallin' and flyin' everywhere. Hank was just throwin' those boys around like little toys. And the crowd was movin' and hollerin'. Then I saw a stick; of wood." I
Surprisingly, this satisfied him. After all, I was only seven years old,. and had been caught up in a mob of spectators, all watching a horrible brawl unfold behind the Co-op. Who could blame me if I wasn't sure about what happened?
"Don't talk to anyone about this, all right? Not a soul."
"Little boys who keep secrets from their parents get into big trouble," my mother said. "You can always tell us."
"Now go fish some more," my father said, and I ran back to my spot.