A Painted House - Page 17

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Chapter 17


I don't know how long I slept, but it felt like only minutes. Pappy was kneeling over me, asking me why I was on the floor. I tried to answer, but nothing worked. I was paralyzed from fatigue.


"It's just me and you," he said. "The rest of 'em's sleepin' in." His voice was dripping with contempt.


Still unable to think or speak, I followed him to the kitchen, where the coffee was ready. We ate cold biscuits and sorghum in silence. Pappy, of course, was irritated because he expected a full breakfast. And he was furious because Gran and my parents were sleeping instead of preparing for the fields.


"That Latcher girl had a baby last night," he said, wiping his mouth. That Latcher girl and her new baby were interfering with our cotton, and our breakfast, and Pappy could barely control his temper.


"She did?" I said, trying to appear surprised.


"Yeah, but they still ain't found the daddy."


"They haven't?"


"No. They wanna keep it quiet, okay, so don't say anything about it."


"Yes sir."


"Hurry up. We gotta go."


"What time did they get in?"


"Around three."


He left and started the tractor. I placed the dishes in the sink and looked in on my parents. They were deathly still; the only sounds were of deep breathing. I wanted to shake off my boots, crawl into bed with them, and sleep for a week. Instead, I dragged myself outside. The sun was just breaking over the trees to the east. In the distance, I could see the silhouettes of the Mexicans walking into the fields.


The Spruills were trudging over from the front yard. Tally was nowhere to be seen. I asked Bo, and he said she was feeling bad. Maybe an upset stomach. Pappy heard this, and his frustration jumped up another notch. Another picker in bed instead of in the fields.


All I could think was: Why hadn't I thought of an upset stomach?


We rode a quarter of a mile to a spot where the half-full cotton trailer was parked, rising like a monument amid the flat fields and calling us back for another day of misery. We slowly took our sacks and began picking. I waited for Pappy to move down his row, then I moved far away from him, and far away from the Spruills.


I worked hard for an hour or so. The cotton was wet and soft to the touch, and the sun was not yet overhead. I was not motivated by money or fear; rather, I wanted a soft place to sleep. When I was so deep in the fields no one could find me, and there was enough cotton in my sack to make a nice little mattress, I hit the ground.


My father arrived mid-morning, and out of eighty acres of cotton, just happened to select the row next to mine. "Luke!" he said angrily as he stumbled upon me. He was too startled to scold me, and by the time I came to my senses, I was complaining of an upset stomach, a headache, and for good measure I threw in the fact that I had not slept much the night before.


"Why not?" he asked, hovering over me.


"I was waitin' on y'all to get home." There was an element of truth in this.


"And why were you waitin' on us?"


"I wanted to know about Libby."


"Well, she had a baby. What else do you wanna know?"


"Pappy told me." I slowly got to my feet and tried to appear as sick as possible.


"Go to the house," he said, and I left without a word.


Chinese and North Korean troops ambushed an American convoy near Pyongyang, killing at least eighty and taking many prisoners. Mr. Edward R. Murrow opened his nightly news with the story, and Gran started praying. As always, she was seated across the kitchen table from me. My mother was leaning on the kitchen sink, and she, too, stopped everything and closed her eyes. I heard Pappy cough on the back porch. He was also listening.


Peace talks had been abandoned again, and the Chinese were moving more troops into Korea. Mr. Murrow said that a truce, once so close, now seemed impossible. His words were a little heavier that night, or maybe we were just more exhausted than usual. He broke for a commercial, then returned with a story about an earthquake.


Gran and my mother were moving slowly around the kitchen when Pappy entered. He tousled my hair as if things were just fine. "What's for supper?" he asked.


"Pork chops," my mother answered.


Then my father drifted in, and we took our places. After Pappy blessed the food, all of us prayed for Ricky. There was practically no conversation; everyone was thinking about Korea, but nobody wanted to mention it.


My mother was talking about a project her Sunday school class was pondering, when I heard the faint squeaking of the screen door out on the back porch. No one heard the noise but me. There was no wind, nothing to shove the door one way or the other. I stopped eating.


"What is it, Luke?" Gran asked.


"I thought I heard somethin'," I said.


Everyone looked at the door. Nothing. They resumed eating.


Then Percy Latcher stepped into the kitchen, and we froze. He took two steps through the door and stopped, as if he were lost. He was barefoot, covered with dirt from head to foot, and his eyes were red, as if he'd been crying for hours. He looked at us; we looked at him. Pappy started to stand up and deal with the situation. I said, "It's Percy Latcher."


"A Painted House"


Pappy remained in his seat, holding a knife in his right hand. Percy's eyes were glazed, and when he breathed, a low moaning sound came forth as if he were trying to suppress a rage. Or maybe he was wounded, or somebody across the river was hurt and he'd raced to our house for help.


"What is it, boy?" Pappy barked at him. "It's common courtesy to knock before you come in."


Percy fixed his unflinching eyes upon Pappy and said, "Ricky done it."


"Ricky done what?" Pappy asked, his voice suddenly softer, already in retreat.


"Ricky done it."


"Ricky done what?" Pappy repeated.


"That baby's his," Percy said. "It's Ricky's."


"Shut up, boy!" Pappy snapped at him and clutched the edge of the table as if he might bolt for the door to whip the poor kid.


"She didn't wanna do it, but he talked her into it," Percy said, staring at me instead of Pappy. "Then he went off to the war."


"Is that what she's tellin'?" Pappy asked angrily.


"Don't yell, Eli," Gran said. "He's just a boy." Gran took a deep breath, and seemed to be the first to at least consider the possibility that she had delivered her own grandchild.


"That's what she's tellin'," Percy said. "And it's true."


"Luke, go to your room and shut the door," my father said, jolting me out of a trance.


"No," my mother said before I could move. "This affects all of us. He can stay."


"He shouldn't hear this."


"He's already heard it."


"He should stay," Gran said, siding with my mother and settling the matter. They were assuming I wanted to stay. What I really wanted to do at that moment was to run outside, find Tally, and go for a long walk-away from her crazy family, away from Ricky and Korea, away from Percy Latcher. But I didn't move.


"Did your parents send you over here?" my mother asked.


"No ma'am. They don't know where I am. The baby cried all day. Libby's gone crazy, talkin' 'bout jumpin' off the bridge, killin' herself, stuff like that, and she told me what Ricky done to her."


"Did she tell your parents?"


"Yes ma'am. Everybody knows now."


"You mean everybody in your family knows."


"Yes ma'am. We ain't told nobody else."


"Don't," Pappy grunted. He was settling back into his chair, his shoulders beginning to sag, defeat sinking in rapidly. If Libby Latcher claimed Ricky was the father, then everyone would believe her. He wasn't home to defend himself. And in a swearing contest, Libby would likely have more supporters than Ricky, given his reputation as a hell-raiser.


"Have you had supper, son?" Gran asked.


"No ma'am."


"Are you hungry?"


"Yes ma'am."


The table was covered with food that would not be touched. We Chandlers certainly had just lost our appetites. Pappy shoved back from the table and said, "He can have mine." He bounced to his feet, left the kitchen, and went to the front porch. My father followed him without a word.


"Sit here, son," Gran said, indicating Pappy's chair.


They fixed him a plate of food and a glass of sweet tea. He sat down and ate slowly. Gran drifted to the front porch, leaving me and my mother to sit with Percy. He did not speak unless he was spoken to.


After a lengthy discussion on the front porch, a meeting Percy and I missed because we were banished to the back porch, Pappy and my father loaded the boy up and took him home. I sat in the swing with Gran as they drove away, just as it was getting dark. My mother was shelling butter beans.


"Will Pappy talk to Mr. Latcher?" I asked.


"I'm sure he will," my mother said.


"What will they talk about?" I was full of questions because I assumed I now had the right to know everything.


"Oh, I'm sure they'll talk about the baby," Gran said. "And Ricky and Libby."


"Will they fight?"


"No. They'll reach an agreement."


"What kind of agreement?"


"Everybody'll agree not to talk about the baby, and to keep Ricky's name out of it."


"That includes you, Luke," my mother said. "This is a dark secret."


"I ain't tellin' nobody," I said, with conviction. The thought of folks knowing that the Chandlers and the Latchers were somehow related horrified me.


"Did Ricky really do that?" I asked.


"Of course not," Gran said. "The Latchers are not trustworthy people. They're not good Christians; that's how the girl got pregnant. They'll probably want some money out of the deal."


"Money?"


"We don't know what they want," my mother said.


"Do you think he did it, Mom?"


She hesitated for a second before saying, softly, "No."


"I don't think he did, either," I said, making it unanimous. I would defend Ricky forever, and if anybody mentioned the Latcher baby, then I'd be ready to fight.


But Ricky was the likeliest suspect, and we all knew it. The Latchers rarely left their farm. There was a Jeter boy about two miles away, but I'd never seen him anywhere near the river. Nobody lived close to the Latchers but us. Ricky had been the nearest tomcat.


"A Painted House"


Church business suddenly became important, and the women talked about it nonstop. I had many more questions about the Latcher baby, but I couldn't sneak in a word. I finally gave up and went to the kitchen to listen to the Cardinals game.


I sorely wanted to be in the back of our pickup over at the Latchers', eavesdropping on the men as they handled the situation.


Long after I'd been sent to bed, I lay awake, fighting sleep because the air was alive with voices. When my grandparents talked in bed, I could hear their soft, low sounds creeping down the narrow hallway. I couldn't understand a word, and they tried their best to make sure no one heard them. But at times, when they were worried or when they were thinking about Ricky, they were forced to talk late at night. Lying in his bed, listening to their muted utterances, I knew things were serious.


My parents retreated to the front porch, where they sat on the steps, waiting for a breeze and a break from the relentless heat. At first they whispered, but their burdens were too heavy, and their words could not be suppressed. Certain that I was asleep, they talked louder than they normally would have.


I slipped out of bed and slid across the floor like a snake. At the window, I glanced out and saw them in their familiar spot, backs to me, a few feet away.


I absorbed every sound. Things had not gone well at the Latchers'. Libby had been somewhere in the back of the house with the baby, who cried nonstop. All the Latchers seemed frayed and worn out by the crying. Mr. Latcher was angry with Percy for coming to our house, but he was even angrier when he talked about Libby. She was telling that she didn't want to fool around with Ricky, but he made her anyway. Pappy denied this was the case, but he had nothing to stand on. He denied everything, and said he doubted if Ricky had ever met Libby.


But they had witnesses. Mr. Latcher himself said that on two occasions, just after Christmas, Ricky pulled up in their front yard in Pappy's pickup and took Libby for a ride. They drove to Monette, where Ricky bought her a soda.


My father speculated that if that really did happen, then Ricky chose Monette because fewer people would know him there. He'd never be seen in Black Oak with the daughter of a sharecropper.


"She's a beautiful girl," my mother said.


The next witness was a boy of no more than ten. Mr. Latcher summoned him from the pack huddled around the front steps. His testimony was that he'd seen Pappy's truck parked at the end of a field row, next to a thicket. He sneaked up on the truck, and got close enough to see Ricky and Libby kissing. He kept it quiet because he was scared, and had come forth with the story only a few hours earlier.


The Chandlers, of course, had no witnesses. On our side of the river, there'd been no hint of a budding romance. Ricky certainly would not have told anyone. Pappy would've hit him.


Mr. Latcher said he suspected all along that Ricky was the father, but Libby had denied it. And in truth, there were a couple of other boys who'd shown an interest in her. But now she was telling everything-that Ricky had forced himself on her, that she didn't want the baby.


"Do they want us to take it?" my mother asked.


I almost groaned in pain.


"No, I don't think so," my father said. "What's another baby around their house?"


My mother thought the baby deserved a good home. My father said it was out of the question until Ricky said it was his child. Not likely, knowing Ricky.


"Did you see the baby?" my mother asked.


"No."


"He's the spittin' image of Ricky," she said.


My one recollection of the newest Latcher was that of a small object that reminded me, at the time, of my baseball glove. He barely looked human. But my mother and Gran spent hours analyzing the faces of people to determine who favored whom, and where the eyes came from, and the nose and hair. They'd look at babies at church and say, "Oh, he's definitely a Chisenhall." Or, "Look at those eyes, got 'em from his grandmother."


They all looked like little dolls to me.


"So you think he's a Chandler?" my father said.


"No doubt about it."

***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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