A Painted House - Page 11

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Chapter 11

The week began in the semidarkness of Monday morning. We met at the trailer for the ride into the fields, a ride that grew shorter each day as the picking slowly moved away from the river back toward the house.

Not a word was spoken. Before us were five endless days of overwhelming labor and heat, followed by Saturday, which on Monday seemed as far away as Christmas.

I looked down from my perch on the tractor and prayed for the day when the Spruills would leave our farm. They were grouped together, as dazed and sleepy as I was. Trot was not with them, nor would he be joining us in the fields. Late Sunday, Mr. Spruill had asked Pappy if it would be all right if Trot hung around the front yard all day. "The boy can't take the heat," Mr. Spruill said. Pappy didn't care what happened to Trot. He wasn't worth a nickel in the fields.

When the tractor stopped, we took our sacks and disappeared into the rows of cotton. Not a word from anyone. An hour later, the sun was baking us. I thought of Trot, wasting the day under the shade tree, napping when he felt like it, no doubt happy about the work he was missing. He might have been a little off in the head, but right then he was the smartest of all the Spruills.

Time stopped when we were picking cotton. The days dragged on, each yielding ever so slowly to the next.

Over supper on Thursday, Pappy announced, "We won't be goin' to town Saturday."

I felt like crying. It was harsh enough to labor in the fields all week, but to do so without the reward of popcorn and a movie was downright cruel. What about my weekly Coca-Cola?

A long silence followed. My mother watched me carefully. She did not seem surprised, and I got the impression that the adults had already had this discussion. Now they were just going through the motions for my benefit.

I thought, What is there to lose? So I gritted my teeth and said, "Why not?"

"Because I said so," Pappy fired back at me, and I knew I was in dangerous territory.

I looked at my mother. There was a curious grin on her face.

"You're not scared of the Siscos, are you?" I asked, and I half-expected one of the men to make a grab for me.

There was a moment of deathly silence. My father cleared his throat and said, "It's best if the Spruills stay out of town for a while. We've discussed it with Mr. Spruill, and we've agreed that we'll all stay put Saturday. Even the Mexicans."

"A Painted House"

"I ain't afraid of nobody, son," Pappy growled down the table. I refused to look at him. "And don't sass me," he threw in for good measure.

My mother's grin was still firmly in place, and her eyes were twinkling. She was proud of me.

"I'll need a couple of things from the store," Gran said. "Some flour and sugar."

"I'll run in," Pappy said. "I'm sure the Mexicans'll need some things, too."

Later, they moved to the front porch for our ritual of sitting, but I was too wounded to join them. I lay on the floor of Ricky's room, in the darkness, listening to the Cardinals through the open window and trying to ignore the soft, slow talk of the adults. I tried to think of new ways to hate the Spruills, but I was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of their misdeeds. At some point in the early evening, I grew too still, and fell asleep on the floor.

Lunch on Saturday was usually a happy time. The work week was over. We were going to town. If I could survive the Saturday scrubbing on the back porch, then life was indeed wonderful, if only for a few hours.

But on this Saturday there was no excitement. "We'll work till four," Pappy said, as if he was doing us a real favor. Big deal. We'd knock off an hour early. I wanted to ask him if we were going to work on Sunday, too, but I'd said enough on Thursday night. He was ignoring me and I was ignoring him. This type of pouting could go on for days.

So we went back to the fields instead of going to Black Oak. Even the Mexicans seemed irritated by this. When the trailer stopped, we took our sacks and slowly disappeared into the cotton. I picked a little and stalled a lot, and when things were safe, I found a spot and went down for a nap. They could banish me from town, they could force me into the fields, but they couldn't make me work hard. I think there were a lot of naps that Saturday afternoon.

My mother found me, and we walked to the house, just the two of us. She was not feeling well, and she also knew the injustice that was being inflicted upon me. We gathered some vegetables from the garden, but only a few things. I suffered through and survived the dreaded bath. And when I was clean, I ventured into the front yard, where Trot was spending his days guarding Camp Spruill. We had no idea what he did all day; no one really cared. We were too busy and too tired to worry about Trot. I found him sitting behind the wheel of their truck, pretending he was driving, making a strange sound with his lips. He glanced at me and returned to his driving and sputtering.

When I heard the tractor coming, I went into the house, where I found my mother lying on her bed, something she never did during the day. There were voices around, tired voices in the front, where the Spruills were unwinding, and in the rear, where the Mexicans were dragging themselves to the barn. I hid in Ricky's room for a while, a baseball in one hand, a glove on the other, and I thought of Dewayne and the Montgomery twins and the rest of my friends all sitting in the Dixie watching the Saturday feature and eating popcorn.

The door opened and Pappy appeared. "I'm goin' to Pop and Pearl's for a few things. You wanna go?"

I shook my head no, without looking at him.

"I'll buy you a Coca-Cola," he said.

"No thanks," I said, still staring at the floor.

Eli Chandler wouldn't beg for mercy in front of a firing squad, and he wasn't about to plead with a seven-year-old. The door closed, and seconds later the truck engine started.

Wary of the front yard, I headed for the back. Near the silo, where the Spruills were supposed to be camping, there was a grassy area where baseball could be played. It wasn't as long and wide as my field in the front, but it was open enough and ran to the edge of the cotton. I tossed pop flies as high as I could, and I stopped only after I'd caught ten in a row.

Miguel appeared from nowhere. He watched me for a minute, and under the pressure of an audience, I dropped three in a row. I tossed him the ball, gently, because he had no glove. He caught it effortlessly and snapped it back to me. I bobbled it, dropped it, kicked it, then grabbed it and threw it back to him, this time a little harder.

I had learned the previous year that a lot of Mexicans played baseball, and it was obvious that Miguel knew the game. His hands were quick and soft, his throws sharper than mine. We tossed the ball for a few minutes, then Rico and Pepe and Luis joined us.

"You have a bat?" Miguel asked.

"Sure," I said, and ran to the house to get it.

When I returned, Roberto and Pablo had joined the others, and the group was flinging my baseball in all directions. "You bat," Miguel said, and he took charge. He put a piece of an old plank on the ground, ten feet in front of the silo, and said, "Home plate." The others scattered throughout the infield. Pablo, in shallow center, was at the edge of the cotton. Rico squatted behind me, and I took my position on the right side of the plate. Miguel performed a fierce windup, scared me for a second, then tossed a soft one that I swung at mightily but missed.

"A Painted House"

I also missed the next three, then ripped a couple. The Mexicans cheered and laughed when I made contact, but said nothing when I didn't. After a few minutes of batting practice, I gave the bat to Miguel and we swapped places. I started him with fastballs, and he didn't appear to be intimidated. He hit line drives and hot grounders, some of which were fielded cleanly by the Mexicans, while others were simply retrieved. Most of them had played before, but a couple had never even thrown a baseball.

The other four at the barn heard the commotion and they wandered over. Cowboy was shirtless, and his pants were rolled up to his knees. He seemed to be a foot taller than the rest.

Luis hit next. He wasn't as experienced as Miguel, and I had no trouble fooling him with my change-up. Much to my delight, I noticed Tally and Trot sitting under an elm, watching the fun.

Then my father strolled over.

The longer we played, the more animated the Mexicans became. They hollered and laughed at one another's miscues. God only knew what they were saying about my pitching.

"Let's play a game," my father said. Bo and Dale had arrived, also shirtless and shoeless. Miguel was consulted, and after a few minutes of plotting, it was decided that the Mexicans would play the Arkansans. Rico would catch for both teams, and again I was sent to the house, this time to fetch my father's old catcher's mitt and my other ball.

When I returned the second time, Hank had appeared and was ready to play. I was not happy about being on the same team with him, but I certainly couldn't say anything. Nor was I certain where Trot would fit in. And Tally was a girl. What a disgrace: a girl for a teammate. Still, the Mexicans had us outnumbered.

Another round of plotting, and it was somehow determined that we would bat first. "You have little guys," Miguel said with a smile. More planks were laid around as bases. My father and Miguel established the ground rules, which were quite creative for such a misshapen field. The Mexicans scattered around the bases, and we were ready to play.

To my surprise, Cowboy walked out to the mound and began warming up. He was lean but strong, and when he threw the ball, the muscles in his chest and shoulders bulged and creased. The sweat made his dark skin shine. "He's good," my father said softly. His windup was smooth, his delivery seamless, his release almost nonchalant, but the baseball shot from his fingers and popped into Rico's mitt. He threw harder and harder. "He's very good," my father said, shaking his head. "That boy's played a lot of baseball."

"Girls first," somebody said. Tally picked up the bat and walked to the plate. She was shoeless, and wearing tight pants rolled up to her knees and a loose shirt with its tail tied in a knot. You could see her stomach. At first, she didn't look at Cowboy, but he was certainly staring at her. He moved a few feet toward the plate and tossed the first pitch underhanded. She swung and missed, but it was an impressive swing, at least for a girl.

Then their eyes met briefly. Cowboy was rubbing the baseball, Tally was swinging the bat, nine Mexicans were chattering like locusts.

The second pitch was even slower, and Tally made contact. The ball rolled by Pepe at third, and we had our first base runner. "Bat, Luke," my father said. I strolled to the plate with all the confidence of Stan Musial, hoping that Cowboy wouldn't throw the hard stuff at me. He let Tally hit one, surely he'd do the same for me. I stood in the box, listening as thousands of rabid Cardinal fans chanted my name. A packed house, Harry Caray yelling into the microphone-then I looked at Cowboy thirty feet away, and my heart stopped. He wasn't smiling, nothing close. He held the baseball with both hands and looked at me as if he could saw my head off with a fastball.

What would Musial do? Swing the damned bat!

The first pitch was also underhanded, so I started breathing again. It was high, and I didn't swing, and the Mexican chorus had a lot to say about that. The second pitch was down the middle, and I swung for the fence, for the left field wall, 350 feet away. I closed my eyes and swung for the thirty thousand lucky souls in Sportsman's Park. I also swung for Tally.

"Strike one!" my father yelled, a little too loud, I thought. "You're tryin' to kill it, Luke," he said.

Of course I was. I tried to kill the third pitch, too, and when Rico threw it back, I was faced with the horror of being down two strikes. A strikeout was unthinkable. Tally had just hit the ball nicely. She was on first base, anxious for me to put the ball in play so she could advance. We were playing on my field, with my ball and bat. All of those people were watching.

I stepped away from the plate and was stricken with the terror of striking out. The bat was suddenly heavier. My heart was pounding, my mouth was dry. I looked at my father for help, and he said, "Let's go, Luke. Hit the ball." I looked at Cowboy, and his nasty smile was even nastier. I did not know if I was ready for what he was going to throw.

"A Painted House"

I stutter-stepped back to the plate, gritted my teeth, and tried to think of Musial, but my only thoughts were of defeat, and I swung at a very slow pitch. When I missed for the third time, there was total silence. I dropped the bat, picked it up, and heard nothing as I walked back to my team, my lip quivering, already daring myself not to cry. I couldn't look at Tally, and I sure couldn't look at my father.

I wanted to run into the house and lock the doors.

Trot was next, and he held the bat with his right hand just under the label. His left arm hung limp, as always, and we were a little embarrassed at the sight of this poor kid trying to swing. But he was smiling and happy to be playing, and that was more important than anything else at the moment. He hacked at the first two, and I began to think the Mexicans would beat us by twenty runs. Somehow, though, he hit the third pitch, a gentle looping fly that landed behind second base, where at least four Mexicans managed to miss it. Tally flew around second and made it to third, while Trot shuffled down to first.

My humiliation, already enormous, grew even greater. Trot on first, Tally on third, only one out.

Bo was next, and because he was a large teenager with no visible handicaps, Cowboy stepped back and threw from a full windup. His first pitch was not too fast, but poor Bo was already shaking by the time the ball crossed home plate. He swung after Rico caught it, and Hank roared with laughter. Bo told him to shut up; Hank made some response, and I thought we might have a Spruill family brawl in the top of the first inning.

The second pitch was a little faster. Bo's swing was a little slower. "Make him throw it underhand!" Bo yelled at us, trying to laugh it off.

"What a sissy," Hank said. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill had joined the spectators, and Bo glanced at them.

I expected the third pitch to be even faster; so did Bo. Cowboy instead threw a change-up, and Bo swung long before the ball arrived.

"He's mighty good," my father said of Cowboy.

"I'm hittin' next," Hank announced, stepping in front of Dale, who didn't argue. "I'll show you boys how it's done."

The bat looked like a toothpick as Hank hacked and chopped with his practice swings, as if he might hit the ball across the river. Cowboy's first pitch was a fastball away, and Hank didn't swing. It popped into Rico's glove, and the Mexicans erupted in another burst of Spanish jeering.

"Throw the ball over the plate!" Hank yelled as he looked at us for approval. I was hoping Cowboy would drill a fastball into his ear.

The second pitch was much harder. Hank swung and missed. Cowboy caught the ball from Rico, and glanced over at third, where Tally was waiting and watching.

Then Cowboy threw a curve, a pitch that went straight for Hank's head, but as he ducked and dropped the bat, the baseball broke and fell magically through the strike zone. The Mexicans roared with laughter. "Strike!" Miguel yelled from second base.

"Ain't no strike!" Hank yelled, his face red.

"No umpires," my father said. "It's not a strike unless he swings at it."

Fine with Cowboy. He had another curve in his arsenal. It at first appeared quite harmless, a slow fat pitch headed toward the center of the plate. Hank reached back for a massive swing. The ball, however, broke down and away and bounced before Rico blocked it. Hank hit nothing but air. He lost his balance and fell across the plate, and when the Spanish chorus exploded again, I thought he might attack all of them. He stood up, squinted at Cowboy and mumbled something, then resumed his position at the plate.

Two outs, two strikes, two on. Cowboy finished him off with a fast-ball. Hank speared the bat into the ground when he finishing flailing at the pitch.

"Don't throw the bat!" my father said loudly. "If you can't be a sport, then don't play." We were walking onto the field as the Mexicans hurried off.

Hank gave my father a look of disgust, but he said nothing. For some reason it was determined that I would pitch. "Throw the first inning, Luke," my father said. I didn't want to. I was no match for Cowboy. We were about to be embarrassed at our own game.

Hank was at first, Bo at second, Dale at third. Tally was in left-center, hands on hips, and Trot was in right field looking for four-leaf clovers. What a defense! With my pitching we needed to put all of our fielders as far away from home plate as possible.

Miguel sent Roberto to the plate first, and I was sure this was deliberate, because the poor guy had never seen a baseball. He hit a lazy pop-up that my father caught at shortstop. Pepe hit a fly ball that my father caught behind second base. Two up, two outs, I was on a roll, but my luck was about to run out. The serious sticks lined up, one after the other, and hit baseballs all over our farm. I tried fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, it didn't matter. They scored runs by the truckload, and had a delightful time doing it. I was miserable because I was getting shelled, but it was also amusing to watch the Mexicans dance and celebrate as the rout hit full stride.

"A Painted House"

My mother and Gran were sitting under a tree, watching the spectacle with Mr. and Mrs. Spruill. Everyone was accounted for except Pappy, who was still in town.

When they'd scored about ten runs, my father called time and walked to the mound. "You had enough?" he asked.

What a ridiculous question. "I suppose," I said.

"Take a break," he said.

"I can pitch," Hank yelled from first base. My father hesitated for a second, then tossed him the ball. I wanted to go to right field, out with Trot, where there wasn't much happening, but my coach said, "Go to first."

I knew from experience that Hank Spruill had remarkable quickness. He had taken down the three Siscos in a matter of seconds. So it was no great surprise to see him throw a baseball as if he'd been throwing one for years. He looked confident taking his windup and catching the ball from Rico. He threw three nice fastballs by Luis, and the first inning massacre was over. Miguel informed my father that they had scored eleven runs. It seemed like fifty.

Cowboy returned to the mound and took up where he left off. Dale went down on strikes, and my father stepped to the plate. He anticipated a fastball, got one, and ripped it hard, a long fly ball that curved foul and landed deep in the cotton patch. Pablo went to search for it while we used my other ball. Under no circumstances would we leave the game until both baseballs were accounted for.

The second pitch was a hard curve, and my father's knees buckled before he read the pitch. "That was a strike," he said, shaking his head in wonder. "It was also a major league curveball," he said just loud enough to be heard but to no one in particular.

He flied to shallow center, where Miguel cradled the ball with both hands, and the team from Arkansas was about to get shut out again. Tally strolled to the plate. Cowboy stopped his scowling and walked halfway in. He tossed a couple underhanded, trying to hit her bat, and she finally hit a slow roller to second, where two Mexicans fought over it long enough for the runner to be safe.

I was next. "Choke up a little," my father said, and I did. I would've done anything. Cowboy tossed one even slower, a lazy looping pitch that I smacked to center field. The Mexicans went wild. Everyone cheered. I was a little embarrassed by all the fuss, but it sure beat striking out. The pressure was off; my future as a Cardinal was back on track.

Trot swung at the first three and missed them all by at least a foot. "Four strikes," Miguel said, and the rules were changed again. When you're leading by eleven runs in the second inning, you can afford to be generous. Trot chopped at the pitch, and the ball rolled back to Cowboy, who just for the fun of it threw to third in a vain effort to catch Tally. She was safe; the bases were loaded. The Mexicans were trying to give us runs. Bo walked to the plate, but Cowboy did not retreat to the mound. He lobbed one underhanded, and Bo hit a scorching ground ball to short, where Pablo lunged to avoid it. Tally scored, and I moved to third.

Hank picked up the bat and ripped a few practice swings. With the bases loaded, he was thinking of only one thing-a grand slam. Cowboy had other plans. He stepped back and stopped smiling. Hank hovered over the plate, staring down the pitcher, daring him to throw something he could hit.

The infield noise died for a moment; the Mexicans crept forward, on their toes, anxious to take part in this encounter. The first pitch was a blistering fastball that crossed the plate a fraction of a second after Cowboy released it. Hank never thought about swinging; he never had the chance. He backed away from the plate and seemed to concede that he was overmatched. I glanced at my father, who was shaking his head. How hard could Cowboy throw?

Then he threw a fat curve, one that looked tempting but broke out of the strike zone. Hank ripped but never got close. Then a hard curve, one that went straight at his head and, at the last second, dipped across the plate. Hank's face was blood-red.

Another fastball that Hank lunged at. Two strikes, bases loaded, two outs. Without the slightest hint of a smile, Cowboy decided to play a little. He threw a slow curve that broke outside, then a harder one that made Hank duck. Then another slow one that he almost chopped at. I got the impression that Cowboy could wrap a baseball around Hank's head if he wanted. The defense was chattering again, at full volume.

Strike three was a knuckleball that floated up to the plate and looked slow enough for me to hit. But it wobbled and dipped. Hank took a mighty swing, missed by a foot, and again landed in the dirt. He screamed a nasty word and threw the bat near my father.

"Watch your language," my father said, picking up the bat.

Hank mumbled something else and dusted himself off. Our half of the inning was over.

Miguel walked to the plate in the bottom of the second. Hank's first pitch went straight for his head, almost hitting it. The ball bounced off the silo and rolled to a stop near third base. The Mexicans were silent. The second pitch was even harder, and two feet inside. Again, Miguel hit the dirt, and his teammates began mumbling.

"A Painted House"

"Stop the foolishness!" my father said loudly from shortstop. "Just throw strikes."

Hank offered him his customary sneer. He threw the ball over the plate, and Miguel slapped it to right field, where Trot was playing defense with his back to home plate, staring at the distant tree line of the St. Francis River. Tally raced after the ball and stopped when she reached the edge of the cotton. A ground rule triple.

The next pitch was the last of the game. Cowboy was the batter. Hank reached back for all the juice he could find, and he hurled a fastball directly at Cowboy. He ducked but didn't move back fast enough, and the ball hit him square in the ribs with the sickening sound of a melon landing on bricks. Cowboy emitted a quick scream, but just as quickly he threw my bat like a tomahawk, end over end with all the speed he could muster. It didn't land where it should have-between Hank's eyes. Instead, it bounced at his feet and ricocheted off his shins. He screamed an obscenity and instantly charged like a crazed bull.

Others charged, too. My father from shortstop. Mr. Spruill from beside the silo. Some of the Mexicans. Me, I didn't move. I held my ground at first base, too horrified to take a step. Everyone seemed to be yelling and running toward home plate.

Cowboy retreated not a step. He stood perfectly still for a second, his brown skin wet, his long arms taut and ready, and his teeth showing. When the bull was a few feet away, Cowboy's hands moved quickly around his pockets and a knife appeared. He jerked it, and a very long switchblade popped free-shiny, glistening steel, no doubt very sharp. It snapped when it sprang open, a sharp click that I would hear for years to come.

He held it high for all to see, and Hank skidded to a stop.

"Put it down!" he yelled from five feet away.

With his left hand, Cowboy made a slight, beckoning motion, as if to say, Come on, big boy. Come and get it.

The knife shocked everyone, and for a few seconds there was silence. No one moved. The only sound was heavy breathing. Hank was staring at the blade, which seemed to grow. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Cowboy had used it before, knew how to use it well, and would happily behead Hank if he took another step closer.

Then my father, holding the bat, stepped between the two, and Miguel appeared beside Cowboy.

"Put it down," Hank said again. "Fight like a man."

"Shut up!" my father said, waving the bat around at both of them. "Ain't nobody fightin'."

Mr. Spruill grabbed Hank's arm and said, "Let's go, Hank."

My father looked at Miguel and said, "Get him back to the barn."

Slowly, the other Mexicans grouped around Cowboy and sort of shoved him away. He finally turned and began walking, the switchblade still very much in view. Hank, of course, wouldn't budge. He stood and watched the Mexicans leave, as if by doing so he was claiming victory.

"I'm gonna kill that boy," he said.

"You've killed enough," my father said. "Now leave. And stay away from the barn."

"Let's go," Mr. Spruill said again, and the others-Trot, Tally, Bo, and Dale-began to drift toward the front yard. When the Mexicans were out of sight, Hank stomped away. "I'm gonna kill him," he mumbled, just loud enough for my father to hear.

I collected the baseballs, the gloves, and the bat, and hurried after my parents and Gran.


Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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