A Painted House - Page 24

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Chapter 24

The heat broke in the first few days of October. The nights became cool, and the rides to the fields in the early morning were chilly. The stifling humidity was gone, and the sun lost its glare. By midday it was hot again, but not August-hot, and by dark the air was light. We waited, but the heat did not return. The seasons were changing; the days grew shorter.


Since the sun didn't sap our strength as much, we worked harder and picked more. And, of course, the change in weather was all Pappy needed to embrace yet another level of concern. With winter just around the corner, he now remembered tales of staring at rows and rows of muddy, rotting, and unpicked cotton on Christmas Day.


After a month in the fields, I missed school. Classes would resume at the end of October, and I began thinking of how nice it would be to sit at a desk all day, surrounded by friends instead of cotton stalks, and with no Spruills to worry about. Now that baseball was over, I had to dream about something. It was a tribute to my desperation to be left with only school to long for.


My return to school would be glorious because I would be wearing my shiny new Cardinals baseball jacket. Hidden inside my cigar box in the top drawer of my bureau was the grand sum of $14.50, the result of hard work and frugal spending. I was reluctantly tithing money to the church and investing wisely in Saturday movies and popcorn, but for the most part my wages were being tucked safely away next to my Stan Musial baseball card and the pearl-handled pocketknife that Ricky gave me the day he left for Korea.


I wanted to order the jacket from Sears, Roebuck, but my mother insisted I wait until the harvest was over. We were still negotiating this. Shipping took two weeks, and I was determined to return to class decked out in Cardinal red.


Stick Powers was waiting for us late one afternoon. I was with Gran and my mother, and we had left the fields a few minutes ahead of the others. As always, Stick was sitting under a tree, the one next to Pappy's truck, and his sleepy eyes betrayed the fact that he'd been napping.


He tipped his hat to my mother and Gran and said, "Afternoon, Ruth, Kathleen."


"Hello, Stick," Gran said. "What can we do for you?"


"Lookin' for Eli or Jesse."


"They'll be along shortly. Somethin' the matter?"


Stick chewed on the blade of grass protruding from his lips and took a long look at the fields as if he were burdened with heavy news that might or might not be suitable for women.


"What is it, Stick?" Gran asked. With a boy off in the war, every visit by a man in a uniform was frightening. In 1944 one of Stick's predecessors had delivered the news that my father had been wounded at Anzio.


Stick looked at the women and decided they could be trusted. He said, "That eldest Sisco boy, Grady, the one in prison for killin' a man over in Jonesboro, well, he escaped last week. They say he's back in these parts."


For a moment the women said nothing. Gran was relieved that the news wasn't about Ricky. My mother was bored with the whole Sisco mess.


"You'd better tell Eli," Gran said. "We need to fix supper."


They excused themselves and went into the house. Stick watched them, no doubt thinking about supper.


"Who'd he kill?" I asked Stick as soon as the women were inside.


"I don't know."


"How'd he kill him?"


"Beat 'im with a shovel's what I heard."


"Wow, must've been some fight."


"I guess."


"You think he's comin' after Hank?"


"Look, I'd better go see Eli. Where exactly is he?"


I pointed to a spot deep in the fields. The cotton trailer was barely visible.


"That's a far piece," Stick mumbled. "Reckon I can drive down there?";


"Sure," I said, already heading for the patrol car. We got in.


"Don't touch anything," Stick said when we were settled into the front seat. I gawked at the switches and radio, and of course Stick had to make the most of the moment. "This here's the radio," he said, picking up the mike. "This here flips on the siren, this the lights." He grabbed a handle on the dash and said, "This here's the spotlight."


"Who do you talk to on the radio?" I asked.


"HQ mainly. That's headquarters."


"Where's headquarters?"


"Over in Jonesboro."


"Can you call 'em right now?"


Stick reluctantly grabbed the mike, stuck it to his mouth, cocked his head sideways, and, with a frown, said, "Unit four to base. Come in." His voice was lower, and his words were faster, with much more importance.


We waited. When HQ didn't respond, he cocked his head to the other side, pressed the button on the mike, and repeated, "Unit four to base. Come in."


"You're unit four?" I asked.


"That's me."


"How many units are there?"


"Depends."


I stared at the radio and waited for HQ to acknowledge Stick. It seemed impossible to me that a person sitting in Jonesboro could talk directly to him, and that Stick could talk back.


"A Painted House"


In theory that was how it was supposed to work, but evidently HQ wasn't too concerned with Stick's whereabouts. For the third time he said into the mike, "Unit four to base. Come in." His words had a little more bite to them now.


And for the third time HQ ignored him. After a few long seconds, he slapped the mike back onto the radio and said, "It's probably ol' Theodore, asleep again."


"Who's Theodore?" I asked.


"One of the dispatchers. He sleeps half the time."


So do you, I thought to myself. "Can you turn on the siren?" I asked.


"Nope. It might scare your momma."


"What about the lights?"


"Nope, they burn up the battery." He reached for the ignition; the engine grunted and strained but wouldn't turn over.


He tried again, and just before the engine quit completely, it turned over and started, sputtering and kicking. HQ had obviously given Stick the worst leftover of the fleet. Black Oak was not exactly a hotbed of criminal activity.


Before he could put it into gear, I saw the tractor moving slowly down the field road. "Here they come," I said. He squinted and strained, then turned off the engine. We got out of the car and walked back to the tree.


"You think you wanna be a deputy?" Stick asked.


And drive a ragged patrol car, nap half the day, and deal with the likes of Hank Spruill and the Siscos? "I'm gonna play baseball," I said.


"Where?"


"St. Louis."


"Oh, I see," he said with one of those funny smiles adults give to little kids who are dreaming. "Ever' little boy wants to be a Cardinal."


I had many more questions for him, most of which dealt with his gun and the bullets that went into it. And I had always wanted to inspect his handcuffs, to see how they locked and unlocked. As he watched the trailer draw nearer, I studied his revolver and holster, eager to grill him.


But Stick had spent enough time with me. He wanted me to leave. I held my barrage of questions.


When the tractor stopped, the Spruills and some of the Mexicans crawled off the trailer. Pappy and my father came straight for us, and by the time they stopped under the tree there was already tension.


"What do you want, Stick?" Pappy snarled.


Pappy in particular was irritated with Stick and his nagging presence in our lives. We had a crop to harvest; little else mattered. Stick was shadowing us, in town and on our own property.


"What is it, Stick?" Pappy said. Contempt was evident in his tone. He had just spent ten hours picking five hundred pounds of cotton, and he knew our deputy hadn't broken a sweat in years.


"That oldest Sisco boy, Grady, the one in prison for murder, he escaped last week sometime, and I think he's back home."


"Then go get him," Pappy said.


"I'm lookin' for him. I've heard they might start some trouble."


"Such as?"


"Who knows with the Siscos. But they might come after Hank."


"Let 'em come," Pappy said, anxious for a good fight.


"I've heard they've got guns."


"I got guns, Stick. You get word to the Siscos that if I see one of 'em anywhere near this place, I'll blow his stupid head off." Pappy was practically hissing at Stick by the time he finished. Even my father seemed to warm to the idea of protecting his property and family.


"It won't happen out here," Stick said. "Tell your boy to stay away from town."


"You tell him," Pappy shot back. "He ain't my boy. I don't care what happens to 'im."


Stick looked around at the front yard, where the Spruills were going about the business of preparing supper. He had no desire to venture over there.


He looked at Pappy and said, "Tell him, Eli." He turned and walked to his car.


It groaned and sputtered and finally started, and we watched him back into the road and drive away.


After supper I was watching my father patch an inner tube from our tractor when Tally appeared in the distance. It was late but not yet dark, and she seemed to cling to the long shadows as she moved toward the silo. I watched her carefully until she stopped and waved for me to follow. My father was mumbling, the patching was not going well, and I slipped away toward the house. Then I ran behind our truck, found the shadows, and within seconds we were walking along a field row in the general direction of Siler's Creek.


"Where you goin'?" I finally asked, after it became apparent she was not going to speak first.


"I don't know. Just walkin'."


"You goin' to the creek?"


She laughed softly and said, "You'd like that, wouldn't you, Luke? You wanna see me again, don't you?"


My cheeks burned, and I couldn't think of anything to say.


"Maybe later," she said.


I wanted to ask her about Cowboy, but that subject seemed so ugly and private that I didn't have the nerve to go near it. And I wanted to ask her how she knew that Libby Latcher was telling that Ricky was the father of her baby, but again, it was something else I just couldn't bring up. Tally was always mysterious, always moody, and I adored her completely. Walking with her along the narrow path made me feel twenty years old.


"A Painted House"


"What did that deputy want?" she asked.


I told her everything. Stick had delivered no forbidden secrets. The Siscos were talking big, and they were crazy enough to try something. I relayed it all to Tally.


She thought about it as we walked, then asked, "Is Stick gonna arrest Hank for killin' that boy?"


I had to be careful here. The Spruills were at war with each other, but any hint of an outside threat and they'd close ranks. "Pappy's worried about y'all leavin'," I said.


"What's that gotta do with Hank?"


"If he gets arrested, then y'all might leave."


"We ain't leavin', Luke. We need the money."


We had stopped walking. She was looking at me, and I was studying my bare feet. "I think Stick wants to wait till the cotton's in," I said.


She absorbed this without a word, then turned and started back toward the house. I tagged along, certain I'd said too much. She said good night at the silo and disappeared into the darkness.


Hours later, when I was supposed to be asleep, I listened through the open window as the Spruills growled and snapped at each other. Hank was in the middle of every fight. I could not always hear what they were saying or bickering about, but it seemed as though each new skirmish was caused by something Hank had said or done. They were tired; he was not. They woke before sunrise and spent at least ten hours in the fields; he slept as late as he wanted, then picked cotton at a languid pace.


And evidently he was roaming at night again. Miguel was waiting by the back steps when my father and I opened the kitchen door on our way to gather eggs and milk for breakfast. He pleaded for help. The shelling had resumed; someone had bombed the barn with heavy clods of dirt until after midnight. The Mexicans were exhausted and angry, and there was about to be a fight of some variety.


This was our sole topic of conversation over breakfast, and Pappy was so angry he could barely eat. It was decided that Hank had to go, and if the rest of the Spruills left with him, then we'd somehow manage. Ten well-rested and hardworking Mexicans were far more valuable than the Spruills.


Pappy started to leave the table and go straight to the front yard with his ultimatum, but my father calmed him. They decided that we would wait until quitting time, thereby getting a full day of labor out of the Spruills. Plus they'd be less likely to break camp with darkness upon them.


I just listened. I wanted to jump in and describe my conversation with Tally, especially the part about her family needing the money. In my opinion, they wouldn't leave at all, but would be delighted to get rid of Hank. My opinions, however, were never welcome during these tense family discussions. I chewed my biscuit and hung on every word.


"What about Stick?" Gran asked.


"What about him?" Pappy fired in her direction.


"You were gonna tell Stick when you were finished with Hank."


Pappy took a bite of ham and thought about this.


Gran was a step ahead, but then she had the advantage of thinking without being angry. She sipped her coffee and said, "Seems to me the thing to do is tell Mr. Spruill that Stick is comin' after Hank. Let the boy sneak away at night. He'll be gone, that's all that matters, and the Spruills'll be thankful you kept him from gettin' arrested."


Gran's plan made perfect sense. My mother managed a slight grin. Once again the women had analyzed a situation more quickly than the men.


Pappy didn't say another word. My father quickly finished eating and went outside. The sun was barely above the distant trees, yet the day was already eventful.


After lunch Pappy said abruptly, "Luke, we're goin' to town. The trailer's full."


The trailer wasn't completely full, and we never took it to the gin in the middle of the day. But I wasn't about to object. Something was up.


There were only four trailers ahead of us when we arrived at the gin. Usually, at this time of the harvest, there would be at least ten, but then we always came after supper, when the place was crawling with farmhands. "Noon's a good time to gin," Pappy said.


He left the keys in the truck, and as we were walking away he said, "I need to go to the Co-op. Let's head to Main Street." Sounded good to me.


The town of Black Oak had three hundred people, and virtually all of them lived within five minutes of Main Street. I often thought how wonderful it would be to have a neat little house on a shady street, just a stone's throw from Pop and Pearl's and the Dixie theater, with no cotton anywhere in sight.


Halfway to Main, we took an abrupt turn. "Pearl wants to see you," he said, pointing at the Watsons' house just to our right. I'd never been in Pop and Pearl's house, never had any reason to enter, but I'd seen it from the outside. It was one of the few houses in town with some bricks on it.


"What?" I asked, completely bewildered.


He said nothing, and I just followed.


"A Painted House"


Pearl was waiting at the door. When we entered I could smell the rich, sweet aroma of something baking, though I was too confused to realize she was preparing a treat for me. She gave me a pat on the head and winked at Pappy. In one corner of the room, Pop was bent at the waist, his back to us, fiddling with something. "Come here, Luke," he said, without turning around.


I'd heard that they owned a television. The first one in our county had been purchased a year earlier by Mr. Harvey Gleeson, the owner of the bank, but he was a recluse, and no one had yet seen his television, as far as we knew. Several church members had kinfolks in Jonesboro who owned televisions, and whenever they went there to visit they came back and talked nonstop about this wonderful new invention. Dewayne had seen one inside a store window in Blytheville, and he'd strutted around school for an insufferable period of time.


"Sit here," Pop said, pointing to a spot on the floor, right in front of the set. He was still adjusting knobs. "It's the World Series," he said. "Game three, Dodgers at Yankee Stadium."


My heart froze; my mouth dropped open. I was too stunned to move. Three feet away was a small screen with lines dancing across it. It was in the center of a dark, wooden cabinet with the word Motorola scripted in chrome just under a row of knobs. Pop turned one of the knobs, and suddenly we heard the scratchy voice of an announcer describing a ground ball to the shortstop. Then Pop turned two knobs at once, and the picture became clear.


It was a baseball game. Live from Yankee Stadium, and we were watching it in Black Oak, Arkansas!


Chairs moved behind me, and I could feel Pappy inching closer. Pearl wasn't much of a fan. She busied herself in the kitchen for a few minutes, then emerged with a plate of chocolate cookies and a glass of milk. I took them and thanked her. They were fresh from the oven and smelled delicious. But I couldn't eat, not right then.


Ed Lopat was pitching for the Yankees, Preacher Roe for the Dodgers. Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin with the Yankees, and Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges with the Dodgers. They were all there in Pop and Pearl's living room, playing before sixty thousand fans in Yankee Stadium. I was mesmerized to the point of being mute. I simply stared at the television, watching but not believing.


"Eat the cookies, Luke," Pearl said as she passed through the room. It was more of a command than an invitation, and I took a bite of one.


"Who are you pullin' for?" asked Pop.


"I don't know," I mumbled, and I really didn't. I had been taught to hate both teams. And it had been easy hating them when they were away in New York, in another world. But now they were in Black Oak, playing the game I loved, live from Yankee Stadium. My hatred vanished. "Dodgers, I guess," I said.


"Always pull for the National League," Pappy said behind me.


"I suppose," Pop said reluctantly. "But it's mighty hard to pull for the Dodgers."


The game was broadcast into our world by Channel 5 out of Memphis, an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company, whatever that meant. There were commercials for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Cadillac, Coca-Cola, and Texaco. Between innings the game would vanish and there would be a commercial, and when it was over, the screen would change again, and we'd be back inside Yankee Stadium. It was a dizzying experience, one that captivated me completely. For an hour I was transported to another world.


Pappy had business and at some point left the house and walked to Main Street. I did not hear him leave, but during a commercial I realized he was gone.


Yogi Berra hit a home run, and as I watched him circle the bases in front of sixty thousand fanatics, I knew I would never again be able to properly hate the Yankees. They were legends, the greatest players on the greatest team the game had known. I softened up considerably but vowed to keep my new feelings to myself. Pappy would not allow Yankee sympathizers in his house.


In the top of the ninth, Berra let a pitch get past him. The Dodgers scored two runs and won the game. Pearl wrapped the cookies in foil and sent them with me. I thanked Pop for allowing me to share this unbelievable adventure, and I asked him if I could come back when the Cardinals were playing.


"Sure," he said, "but it might be a long time."


Walking back to the gin, I asked Pappy a few questions about the basics of television broadcasting. He talked about the signals and towers in very vague and confusing terms and finally admitted that he knew little about it, being as how it was such a new invention. I asked when we might get one. "One of these days," he said, as if it would never happen. I felt ashamed for asking.


We pulled our empty trailer back to the farm, and I picked cotton until quitting time. During supper the adults gave me the floor. I talked nonstop about the game and the commercials and everything I'd seen on Pop and Pearl's television.


"A Painted House"


Modern America was slowly invading rural Arkansas.

***



Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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